Beware of Bad-Mojo

In the beginning, there was one rule: Don’t let anyone know. Keep it hidden, and stay in the shadows. Who really cares that you’re climbing 5.9? Well, apparently a growing number care that I’m doing it without a rope, and they won’t hesitate to share their opinions and lambast me across any corner of the internet they can find.

Have you ever taken a photo or video of yourself while climbing? Most of you would answer yes, even if it’s a simple cell-phone selfie. I have to ask… What were your motivations behind that action? Almost sounds like a silly question, doesn’t it? There are some folks who see that I publish my exploits on this blog, or in video form on vimeo, and attempt to ascribe traits of narcissism, vanity, and fame chasing to my personality, because I do exactly the same things that most other humans of the digital age would do over the course of a vacation or climbing trip. What makes them assume that I am any different from the rest of humanity? I document these events for myself and my friends, because I enjoy it. I am not extremely prideful of my ascents, but neither am I ashamed of them. Why would I hold back from sharing something that brings me joy if I am not ashamed? Don’t we all enjoy documenting the process of achieving our goals?

I get this crap all the time.
I get this crap all the time…..

They say that we dislike traits in others that most exemplify that which we hate within ourselves. The biggest irony for me is that most of the criticisms I’ve seen come from Facebook posts. Facebook’s entire purpose is essentially to allow all of us to spray about our lives, and this is the platform where the negative crowd chooses to attack me for sharing mine. The next time someone tries to judge me, perhaps they should look inside and consider their own motivations… I solo because it makes me happy. I mean really, if you look at it, every post on facebook could be viewed as some attempt to get a pat on the back from your peers, so it’s an odd choice of platform to criticize someone you accuse over-sharing.

I understand that some are worried that seeing images of soloing will encourage others to do the same, but really any image of rock climbing can have that same impact. There are far too few folks who actually know how to climb outside safely, and anyone foolish enough to be inspired to solo by an image or video on the internet is unlikely to be wise enough to take the time to figure out how to use their gear properly. They’ll likely wind up in the same spot regardless of whether they take their inspiration from you, or me.

I know a few folks who have soloed, one mentioned that he was inspired by images of John Bachar, and wanted to be just like him. Looking back decades later, he realizes that John probably saved his life. Without that guiding inspiration, he would have soloed anyway, only with no guidance on the “proper” way to avoid getting in over your head. I know that Michael Reardon probably saved my life. If I hadn’t watched all those videos of him soloing, I know for a FACT that I would have done it anyway. It takes a long time to develop that “pre-flight” checklist, and understand the “eight foot eggshell” that keeps a soloist safe. Without those guiding concepts that I picked up from watching others, I am certain I would have wound up in some very deep shit.

I do not advocate soloing. In fact, over the years, several climbers have reached out to me and asked me what I thought of their plans to solo. None of them had decided it to do it because of me, but they reached out because I was the only person they knew who engaged in the activity, and (ironically) they did not want to expose themselves to un-necessary risk, so they asked my opinion. Thus far I’ve managed to convince every single one of them not to go through with it. Ultimately, if anyone can dissuade you from going up there, you didn’t have any place being up there to begin with, and if you have to ask, it’s probably because you want to be talked out of it. Likewise, anyone who is going to solo will do it regardless of what you think. It takes a powerful intrinsic motivation to overcome the mind’s natural fear response and become comfortable at height. Without that sense of peace, one simply cannot sustain the activity. For that reason, I believe soloing for external reward is rare, for there are no rewards outside one’s own internal desires and motivations that can outweigh the negativity that will be incurred from soloing. Nevertheless, since it has become the personal mission of an outspoken few to question my motivations behind publishing/sharing my exploits, I will do my best to provide you a description of how I came to my current stance on the subject.

Michael Reardon reminding us all to "Stay Calm and Climb On!" now THAT'S good mojo. it's all about attitude
Michael Reardon reminding us all to “Stay Calm and Climb On!” now THAT’S good mojo. it’s all about attitude

In The Beginning:
I started soloing at Enchanted Rock in Texas as a simple call to simplicity. I wanted to travel fast and light, and get a lot of climbing in with minimal hassle without lugging a gigantic pack all across the park. It wasn’t a big deal, no one knew. And I really preferred to keep it that way. But, a few of my buddies were curious about it, and I soloed a famous route in the area called “Fear of Flying.” So I decided to document the route and one of my circuits. The notion was “don’t EVER do anything stupid for a camera, but if you’re going to do it anyway, why not pack it?” I didn’t publicize the video, I didn’t even share it on facebook. In the intervening years it perhaps received 100 hits.

I tried my best not to spray about my climbs to folks, but I get excited about the things I enjoy. If anybody has heard me after something as simple as buying a new $30 pack from REI, they know I simply can’t shut the fuck up about something when I’m excited about it. Perhaps it’s a character flaw, but it’s a part of who I am and I prefer to simply accept it as it is. Years of beating myself up over that tendency never changed a damn thing. So, occasionally I’d spill the beans and let someone know that I soloed. I didn’t (and still don’t) think it was a big deal, but people tend to give me hell about it so I figured it was only fair to warn them if we were going to climb together. I had plenty of climbing partners at this time, but I still preferred to solo on occasion. It just appeals to me. We all engage risk and consequence in our own unique ways, and that’s a beautiful thing!

Back in the old days at enchanted rock, the climbs were spread out, and there was a fair amount of hiking to get from one to another. If there was a party on or near the route I wanted to solo, I would almost always move on and find something out of view. I rarely broke this rule unless there were simply too many people to avoid. I was only observed rarely, and no one ever recognized me. So I didn’t catch hell very often, but it was never enjoyable when folks did find out. If you solo, people want to judge you in a very negative light. So I kept it down, and kept it quiet. Fast forward a few years, I’ve still been soloing but I haven’t made any videos after those first two. The idea seemed stupid, superfluous, and vain. “Ooooh look at that guy! He’s so cool climbing a 5.9” fuckoff, that’s not how things work, and it shouldn’t be either. This is when I moved to Atlanta. That’s when everything changed.

C'mon guys, why so serious?
C’mon guys, why so serious?

New Crags:
New territory, a new home and new crags surrounded me and I was eager to explore. So explore I did, I toured the local crags scanning for anything that looked cool. Now I was in a new town, and didn’t know a soul. The only folks I knew were from work, and they couldn’t be less interested in climbing. So I went out alone to onsight solo whatever felt comfortable at Sandrock Alabama. The temps were a bit cold and that might have kept everyone away for my first couple trips, but there were a few folks climbing, and I tried my best to make sure I was soloing on the other side of the rock where they couldn’t see me.

On probably my third or fourth solo trip to sandrock, it was perfect spring-time climbing weather! I was warmed up and climbed three quarters a 5.10 named “Gravy Train,” when I stopped to hang out, shake out, and enjoy the view. “SHIT!” I thought as I looked below to a crowd of perhaps 15 folks from Stone Summit who were now staring up at me in expressions from disbelief to horror to excitement. Unbeknownst to me, they had driven up from Atlanta to climb at Sandrock for the weekend. Apparently I had terribly underestimated how popular this crag was. At this point, I’ve met some climbers at the gym and had a fair amount of friends up there, and I dreaded returning. I recognized several faces in the crowd, and returned to the gym on the following week with considerable reluctance. I simply didn’t want to deal with any social-circle shit-storm that would evolve from getting caught ropeless.

Fuck it. Cat’s out of the bag, and there is no way to stuff it back in, particularly not at a social hub like stone-summit, but fortunately it wasn’t a big deal. I thought it was awesome, nobody seemed to care! And so I continued training at the gym to grow stronger. That’s what I do. For whatever reason, I actually enjoy training hard. As I grew stronger, I could climb harder. As I climbed harder, I could solo more difficult routes. Soon I found myself soloing in the 5.11 range, and that’s when folks started to take notice. Slowly at first, then more fiercely, rumors began to circle. Everything from folks speculating that I had no will to live to rumors that I had been chased out of Texas by the local climbing community due to my penchant for soloing. I tried my best to ignore it and just continue climbing my way, unaffected by anything around me. But lets face it, I’m human. It doesn’t feel good to be attacked.

Peter Croft, always inspiring
Peter Croft, always inspiring!! I’m not the greatest climber out there, but none of us have to be. Just enjoy it like it is!!!

Accomplishing Goals:
For a year, the climb “Dreamscape” (5.11c/d) had held my fascination. It was the king-line at sandrock, beautiful, fun, and hard enough to be interesting, but not hard enough to be terrifying. I remember climbing it at the end of a climbing trip and realizing “oh my god, everything feels right! Someday, I’m going to solo dreamscape.” Unexpectedly, I realized that It had passed every metric on my pre-flight checklist. I led the route at the end of the day, when I was already tired. It was my 12th climb, I didn’t use chalk, I used my worst pair of shoes that were worn-out and I left the laces untied. Despite these handicaps, the whole way up the climb, I was relaxed enough to hold a conversation with my belayer through hanging each draw, clipping the rope, and pulling the crux throws.

The route breaks down into two distinct sections, with a No-Hands rest in-between. There’s an easy slab, followed by 5.11 thuggish throws. I had those crux throws DIALED, but I’ve never done the bottom section the same way twice in a row, there are so many holds that I always seem to find a new way each time. The lower portion is only about 5.10a slab climbing and I still enjoy the benefits of my slab skills gathered from days at Enchanted Rock where I had redpointed notorious slabs such as “Gravitron” (5.11d X), “Real Gravy” (5.11c R), and “Clockwerk Orange” (5.11a X). I repeated them all on my second or third go, and I had them nowhere near dialed. I just understood the style of climbing very well. So 5.10- didn’t even register on my radar as difficult, that was well within my onsight-solo range. Given that I had led it with that level of comfort while climbing chalk-less in a worn out pair of un-tied Mythos, I knew it would be a simple order once I slapped on my brand new TC Pros and a bag of chalk. Sure, it wasn’t dialed. But I know slab. Slab is a chess game, you think 6 moves ahead and take your time. You aren’t going anywhere immediately because every stance is nearly a no-hands rest. You simply have to take your time and plot your move to the next stance. There is no pump. There is time to think, and be careful, there is no need for rush. Figuring out the moves was no big deal, I had onsighted slabs like “The French Route” (5.11a R) back in Texas. I knew I could figure the moves out on the fly at that grade, and this solo wasn’t onsight. I knew well enough how to do the moves several different ways; I just had to figure out how I wanted to do them this time. So I soloed the route, and we didn’t video it.

Six months and a lot of training later, I decided to go back and solo the route again. Some friends of mine wanted to watch, and offered to shoot film since they happened to be at the crag anyway. Why not? I had already planned to climb it. I posted my video on that same old vimeo account with a hundred hits thinking nothing of it. Whatever, plenty of people climb 5.11, it’s no big deal, but at least we got to document the second solo of this locally famous route. My friends were stoked, because it was a rock they were familiar with. At the urging of a friend, I decided to post the video on DPM’s video section. What the hell, why not? And I think that’s when EpicTV caught it, but I don’t know for sure. I’ve never talked to them. They created a Bio for me, and uploaded their own description for the video without any input from me, and titled the video something along the lines of “No hands free-soloist” to hype it because I used the no-hands-rest at mid height. That title and the bio have nothing to do with my words and motivations. It went semi-viral, and I long ago stopped watching the hit count. Watching the hits climb just weirded me out too much. It made me sick, and so did the commentary attached to it.

So that’s why I write now, and that’s why I continue to make videos. This is MY story, and I want to tell it. No more slander being spread behind my back, no more stories of being run out of my home (they were actually quite neutral, I moved away to take a job climbing towers… that rent won’t pay itself!), no hyped titles and bios. Just me. The cat is out of the bag, I can’t put it back in, and I refuse to let you or anyone else tell me how to live. I started doing this for me, if that wasn’t the case I’d have stopped a long time ago in the face of the backlash.

Life and climbing.... they ain't always pretty, but it's always a beautiful thing!
Life and climbing…. they ain’t always pretty, but it’s always a beautiful thing!

On Inspiration:
Perhaps the strangest part to me, and most unsettling, is that another subset of people find my acts inspiring. Not in the sense that I inspire them to solo (that’s the last thing I want), but rather that I inspire them to chase their own goals by achieving mine. It seems that documenting my goals and training can inspire others to achieve their own goals which have nothing to do with how I climb. That’s an incredibly powerful and positive thing. I remember a time when I was broken beyond what my imagination could handle, and it was hard for me to see the way out. My belayer had dropped me 35ft at an indoor climbing gym. I suffered two fractured vertebrae and a compressed spine, and in those times I knew two things: when I healed, I needed to be able to walk, and I needed to be able to climb. But recovery is a long thing and it’s hard to stay stoked.

About this time I started watching videos of Tommy Caldwell and his rad-sending on El Cap. That was the definition of climbing to me, and it blew my mind. I started walking laps around the house while squeezing a pair of “Grip-Masters” every time I saw that video. Tommy is truly inspiring. Me? I don’t know why anyone is inspired by me, I don’t feel like I’ve done anything inspiring. But if there’s one thing that I’d like to see folks take away from my climbing it’s this: I don’t believe at all that I am a truly gifted climber. It took me six months to tick my first 5.10a, in a gym, on top-rope. I wasn’t instantly talented, but I train like a masochist all week long to be able to climb like I do. It’s the result of dedication, and that dedication is hard to maintain in life’s toughest patches, but with the help of watching some very talented climbers on the internet, I’ve managed to keep the mojo rising for a good while now.

woold-1-of-1-189x300Ultimately, that’s the biggest reason why I’ve continued to produce blog posts, videos, and photos on my various pages. Not because I think I’m impressive, but because I feel fortunate to have received amazing inspiration in my climbing career. I still don’t even consider myself a “hard-climber” (Whatever THAT means), but if I have the ability to give that back to even a small few, then it’s all worth it.

Could you imagine having the ability to inspire someone through the tough times just by documenting a bunch of crap you were going to do anyway? I still can’t imagine it, but do I know rejecting that possibility would feel incredibly selfish.

Final Notes:
I don’t handle the negativity well. It eats at me, I’m only human. Never for a minute have I considered quitting soloing because of a few assholes on the internet, but it has often made me re-consider posting and sharing. I don’t think I’m in the moral wrong, or right, just neutral. But the fact is that every facet of my climbing is governed by what I consider to be fun, and the fact is that making the media isn’t fun for ME. Its fun for others, and I just catch hell.

The biggest benefit is that possibility to inspire a would-be soloist to approach the cliff in the right mindset, just like those videos of Bachar did for my friend. Just like those videos of Reardon did for me. The thing is, I don’t see that message in my own videos. I’m not a good videographer, and I’m no good at telling my story that way. So I won’t. I’m done making my own videos. I just want to climb.

I’ll continue to write, as always, because it brings me joy just to put my words in writing. Plus, it really helps me keep my motivations in check to write it out. As far as my other media sources? I really think I’m going to pull back a bit. It’s too complicated right now and It’s dragging me down, so I need to simplify.

If someone else takes video of me, and does something cool with it… that’s fine. but I’m not going to push for it in any way. It’s time to get back to something simpler, more organic. Just climbing, Just fun. No internet circus. I will climb, I will write, and I will update my friends on what I’m doing and where I’m going (we don’t want any 128 hours kind of crap). Whatever happens from there, happens. Que Sera, Sera.

Cheers, and Happy climbing!

Free-Mojo Rock Climbing

If we’re lucky, we all have that one thing that makes the world disappear and you with it. Seconds fade into minutes, hours, and the days are gone in a blur. Where was I for the past few hours? Dancing, skydiving, mountain biking, skiing, free-soloing, bouldering, top rope, riding a motorcycle, calculus, gymnastics, working high on a steel tower in a beautiful day, could have been anything, really. Have you ever lost yourself in an activity so fully that you lost track of time? How about losing yourself in the moment so fully that you forget to eat?

Did you know that you practice meditation? That’s all it is: Single point focus and awareness of one thing. You don’t need to sit on a mat humming “Ommmmm” to achieve a meditative state, just look at the example of Yoga. Put simply, Yoga is a moving meditation that centers focus on the breath. As the body moves through the different asanas (poses), your mind becomes distracted and you gently guide it back to the simple act of breathing. With practice the strain fades away and only peace remains. Much like a dancer feels the music while flowing through the movements of choreography. As the awareness deepens, your attention to the body disappears and it appears effortless. You stop thinking, you feel and react on instinct as you flow through the next body position, grab the next hold, feel the stone on your skin, solid. The body flows into the next asana, the dance continues, as the music cranks loud and I’ve lost myself entirely. Trees rush by on the slopes, no time to think, only to react to the ground beneath your tires. Information flows in rapidly, and the body immediately converts it to movement. Man has become one with the machine and they flow together weaving a path through rocks, roots and obstacles. Twisting, turning, grasping are you breathing? Are you there? There is only music, there is only movement. Fingers move across the fret-board of a guitar turning the body itself into music. There is neither “I” nor fear, only peace, and the moving bodymind.

MTB Zen

We all meditate, whether we realize it or not, every time we lose ourselves in the moment. We all have the stereotypical image of the meditator losing herself sitting with legs crossed in a serene retreat. But the fact is that everybody has something that can take hold of them that makes the world disappear. There is no action and there is no actor, they become the same. When you find your flow and become lost in motion or thought, the separation between body and mind blurs. That is meditation in a nutshell. Some folks haven’t found their Mojo yet, but it’s out there somewhere waiting for them.

Why do I solo? Probably the same reasons that you dance, ride a bike, go rock climbing, ride a motorcycle, or perform the activities you love. We really aren’t all that different, the only difference is where we’ve found our mojo. It’s just the one thing that I’ve found where my mind becomes still, and the world is at peace. There is no adrenaline rush, I hate feeling afraid. It’s simple meditation. Seeking Zen with a smirk. Perhaps a better question is this: How did I get into soloing to begin with?

How I found my Mojo
Climbing was fascinating to me. I think it’s summed up by one of the most common bits of vernacular that we never think of… Nobody calls it a bouldering “route” or a bouldering “climb”. It’s a boulder-problem. On my first time at a climbing gym, I got stuck fifteen feet off the ground on a 5.8. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the moves; it was simply that I couldn’t figure it out. And that was the epiphany, suddenly it wasn’t a simple brute exercise and it had become a problem that I needed to solve. I can’t stand an unsolved problem!

The obsession was fairly immediate. I wanted to climb as hard as humanly possible, whatever that meant. Something like 5.12, right? So I started climbing regularly, seeking challenges to improve. I wanted to climb harder, and harder, while constantly seeking the next big thing. But there was one small problem. Top roping wasn’t real climbing. I wanted to climb outside, and you have to get the rope up there somehow; therefore, lead climbing is real climbing!

"What do I do with all these clippy things?" Photo Credit: Julia Watson
“What do I do with all these clippy things?”
Photo Credit: Julia Watson

Again, I was obsessed like it was a whole new sport that I’d never even heard of. I had to start all over again, working up the grades slowly. As it turns out, leading is HARD! And so I started all over again, back at the bottom of the grade scale. I sought out new challenges, attempting progressively harder and harder routes, constantly trying to improve. But then I discovered another small problem. I was only sport climbing. I didn’t just want to climb outside; I wanted to climb BIG things outside. If you want to climb BIG, you need to climb trad. There typically aren’t bolts in the wall stitching the high climbs together. On the high crag you have to make your own safety; therefore, trad is real climbing!

Again I found the obsession, the regimented training, the challenges, and the striving and straining for gains and improvement. At this point, those of you who know me well can probably guess what comes next, it seems obvious in retrospect. Sometimes I REALLY just don’t want to climb hard. Actually, I usually don’t want to climb hard. In a way you could say I’m lazy as hell, but I still want to get stronger so that my definition of “easy” becomes “harder” over time to give me access to more “easy” climbing. Everyone seems to forget the fact that no one solos on climbs they consider difficult, that would be insanity! Easy climbing… It’s peaceful, it’s meditative, you lose the struggle, and the fight. Whether it be on top rope looking at a wide swing into the trees, on sport lead feeling afraid of falling, or running it out through easy terrain on a trad-lead, we’ve all had this thought “meh, it’s fine; I’m not going to fall here.” It’s easy, why would you worry? When we climb on easy terrain, folks are generally more willing to forgo their normal level of safety. They skip clips, run it out longer before placing gear, and become less worried about the possibility of large swings on wandering routes.

One of my favorite climbs at my home crag is “Texas Crude” (5.10b) at Enchanted Rock. It’s one of my favorite climbs, I led it every chance I got, and was very familiar with the moves. It had become “easy,” and I was placing fewer and fewer pieces of gear with each repeated ascent. “Meh, it’s fine, I’m not going to fall on this one.” Eventually I was down to placing two pieces of gear on the 80 ft climb, and I couldn’t even pretend I was being “safe” anymore. At that point, the gear was too sparse to prevent a ground-fall on the majority of the route. The strain of stopping and hanging one-handed to place the gear, and consequent rope drag were the only factors that caused me to feel taxed and tired. Given that the effort of making “safety” was making me more likely to fall than the actual climbing, I decided to ditch the gear and take a solo lap. The gear made me feel like I was going to fall, if I removed that obstacle… Well, what could be safer than simply not falling?

"Meh, It'll be aw'right, just don't fall!" Photo Credit: Bibiana Diehl
“Meh, It’ll be aw’right, just don’t fall!”
Photo Credit: Bibiana Garcia Diehl

I tried the route on top rope, and it was casual. When climbing it on lead, I could carry on a conversation the whole time. I knew I was ready, and I went for it with full commitment. No harness, no gear, just a pair of shoes and a chalk bag. Bringing a harness, pro, crashpad, or helmet makes you think you’re allowed to fall, and that’s completely unacceptable. It doesn’t matter if you’re 10ft off the ground or 300; the calculus must be the same. I don’t use a harness when I solo, or any other gear because the presence of a safety valve allows one to think it’s okay to be less than 100% solid. It implies that there is a way out, and that is incredibly dangerous. The mind must be fully committed, and having the fallacy of an escape could get me into a scary situation. Don’t get me wrong, I always have a contingency plan, but it relies on good judgment and strong training. Full commitment demands full preparation and that is the ONLY way to stay safe, for any form of climbing.

And that’s basically why I solo. I love the simplicity, and the state of mind that it brings for me. I’m lazy, and I love easy climbing. When the climbing is easy I can drop the complications and just do more climbing! A few weekends later I came out to the park and soloed 16 of my favorite routes before lunchtime, and that was the point where I decided to commit to becoming a free-soloist.

Bringing it Full-Circle
I saw Cirque Du Soleil this weekend and the show absolutely blew my mind. Perhaps the thing that blew my mind the most was watching the aerial stunts performed by actors utilizing the theatrical fly system in the roof. The dismount platform was about 50 feet in the air, and they were performing stunts hanging from wires, poles, or rings and the only “safety” was a strap to wrap around the wrist for better grip. The audience hardly bats an eyelash, it was all choreographed so perfectly to the music that it was easy to miss how difficult and dangerous these stunts were. No one really stopped to think that there was a human hanging from a ring pointing face first at a 30ft drop.

When I solo, I have all day to make the movements, and I only climb when it feels right in the moment for me. Seeing folks performing on stage facing the same sort of consequences, in front of an audience, performing every move to the beat of the music in crisp choreography, and doing it every night for their profession was utterly mind blowing from my vantage point. There they were, soloing in front of an audience of hundreds, and nobody was up in arms. But if you strip away the music and add a cliff face, suddenly people get scared, and they lash out at the climber. Many will say that guy “obviously” doesn’t care about life. Many folks go out of their way to condemn me for my actions and make attempts at convincing me to stop, but here at Cirque Du Soleil those same people were forking over cash for tickets not only to see it themselves but also to ensure the show continues.

Photo: Cirque Du Soleil
Photo: Cirque Du Soleil

At the crescendo of the performance, there were as many a half dozen acrobats in the air and another twenty on the floor. The energy in the air was so powerful I could feel it resonating in my core. Every one of those people on stage were deeply synched in flow, it was their moving meditation. It was like watching an orchestra constructed of human movement instead of music, and the connection I felt was unmistakable. Everybody has Mojo. It’s that place inside where simply being clears your mind, and you lose all sense of time and the world around you.

Folks ask how to get better at climbing, and really it’s the same way you get better at anything; Find your Mojo. Let’s leave the fear based thinking behind and instead focus on finding how to bring ourselves peace. Fighting fear can help you to a degree, but it can only get you so far. That same fear you fight can come to define your climbing, and its caustic presence encourages some to interfere with the peace of others. Instead, if you take time to recognize those moments of peace in life and make an effort to seek them out, that’s something you can take with you away from the rock to enrich your life, and that’s some good Mojo.

Soloing is meditation, and everyone does it, it’s almost ordinary and that’s the trick. It happens so often that we don’t realize how profoundly common it is and this makes us think that this peace is some impossibly unattainable state for the enlightened. I’m no Zen master, but I find my peace, my mojo, while soloing because the climbing is easy and it frees my mind to simply rest in the moment. Those actors were doing it in front of me on stage. And you? You’re doing it right now, because you have no idea how long it took to read this article.

Sandrock

Trip Report: Shortoff Mountain Mega Milage

1 chalk bag, 2 guide books, 3 pairs of shoes, 6 liters of water, 8 hours, 10 energy gels, 11 routes, 40 full-length pitches, 4500 feet of vertical, and one hell of a kick-ass iPod playlist. It’s definitely not your normal 9-5 sort of day, but it was one hell of a way to polish off my weekend!

The Approach:
I’m a wuss. It was a bit cold, so I slept in through my alarm and didn’t get up till 7:30 AM, but that was better for keeping the fingers warm anyway! I still was at the cliff-top by 8:30 to setup my stash of water, food, and shoes. I clipped my shoes onto my chalk bag with a biner and headed down the descent for my first route at 9AM

Little Corner (5.6) 500’
I slipped my climbing shoes on and clipped my boots onto my chalk-bag belt, game on! This was the perfect little warm-up jog, cardiovascular and sheltered from the wind! I’ve still never roped up on this route, so my gear beta might not be entirely accurate. Sorry Scott! After this climb, it was still a bit chillier than I’d have liked, so I opted to VETO my hardest onsight “Paradise Lost” (5.11d) and move straight to the next climb.

Onsight Attempt – Supercrack (5.11d) and White Russians Gone Bananas (5.11a) 100ft
I didn’t climb either of these in their entirety, I started off with my attempt to onsight Supercrack, and the climbing was astoundingly good quality. Solid, incut holds with intricate = technical sequences greeted my fingers up about 30ft of solid, locker maneuvering. I knew from talking to locals that the crux was a boulder problem low to the ground, and that the climbing above was far far easier in the upper reaches. As soon as you reached the hand-crack, it would be over. I pulled through some tough boulder moves and reached up into a finger crack. With only one move separating me from the locker hand-jamming above, I thought to myself “I’ve probably got this!”

And that’s when I down-climbed back to earth. Probably isn’t good enough, 90% isn’t good enough, 99% certainty is a failure rating. I will not solo anything if I am anything less than 100% certain that I can solo the route on-command when the feeling is right. I don’t like folks who say “I’ll just solo it this one time”, that’s sketchy. Only committing to the one act sounds a lot like you’re getting away with something, like you’re relying on luck to carry the day and that WILL catch up to you. More than likely it’ll catch up to you sooner than later. Climbing like that you’d be lucky to survive even a mere handful of solos, and that sort of risk is utterly unacceptable. Sure, there are climbs I’ve soloed only once, and there are climbs that I probably won’t solo again. By and large it’s because I’m satisfied with them. Each solo is a unique experience, so there is no need to constantly grasp for more. Even though I know I could solo certain climbs again…. I just don’t feel any strong desire to, I have my memory of peace and I’m happy with my relationship with that route as it stands. Why go for more? I always have the option to change my mind, but it’s all about whatever seems fun in the moment. If it doesn’t seem fun, that’s not what rock climbing is about and I’ll have no part in it!

So, I backed off of both White Russians Gone Bananas, and Supercrack, but I still clocked about 100ft of total climbing between the two of them.
–Running total: 600 feet–

Onsight – Early Times (5.9) 350’
Well, after backing off of two routes and finding my feet planted on the floor again, I needed a way up to the top and opted to romp my way up an easy onsight of “Early Times.” A wonky first section gave way to easier climbing and a sea of lichen all the way to the top. Chill, locker, fun swimming through massive jugs! Highly recommended! Recon: I was familiar with this section of the wall through climbing neighboring routes, so at least I had an idea of what sort of climbing to expect.
–11:10 AM – Running total: 950 feet – 2 complete routes–

Full-Tilt Wizard (5.11b) 300’
Turns out I’ve never actually climbed “Pinball Wizard” in its entirety. A stop by Unique Outfitters allowed me to flip through Fernando’s copy of the old guidebook for the area and snap some photos of critical pages… The beta for this route in the latest book is confusing (to say the least), but in the old book it’s plain to see. What I’ve actually climbed was a link-up of the first crux on “Full-Tilt Boogie” into the pump-finish on “Pinball Wizard”. The route is still quite 5.11, and still fun as hell! Recon: I’ve climbed this once on a rope, and soloed it twice.
–Running total: 1250 feet – 3 complete routes–

Soloing through the horizontals on the finish of "Pinball Wizard" (5.11)
Soloing through the horizontals on the finish of “Pinball Wizard” (5.11) Photo Credit: Andy Toms – Tom Tom Photography

 

Help Mr. Wizard (5.11a) 450’
The crux is mellow, but it just doesn’t let off the pump! An invisible thank-god jug leads to balancey technical pinches and awkward hand-jams for a 40 foot pump fest, and a mellow lichen infested romp to the summit, eventually joining the end of Maginot Line’s final pitch. At this point, I was finally starting to feel a little bit of fatigue, and opted to skip out of another onsight “Stopperhead Arête” (5.10+) to save my efforts on climbs that were a sure thing. Recon: I top-roped the first pitch a month ago, and soloed the entire line on the day before my mojo-mission
–12:46 PM – Running total: 1700 feet – 4 complete routes–

Julia (5.10b) 500’
Only 30 feet from Little Corner on average, but follows an independent line with an absolutely wild feel! Looking at the feet leaves one in a state of utter disbelief, but the secret is pasting your feet and remembering that you know how to rock climb. Once those toes are in place, you’re on! Now just perform a few barrel rolls while weaving in and out of the flakes and you’ll find yourself high and exposed with your ass to the wind! I’ve now climbed enough rock to equate Half-Dome. Recon: I’ve never roped up on “Julia”, and onsight-soloed the route back in the spring. Knowing that it was so close to “Little Corner” was helpful, because I didn’t have to worry about down-climbing the entire route since I could escape on the easier 5.6 corner system if I got pissed off.
– Running total: 2200 feet – 5 complete routes–

Soloing "Julia" (5.10b) next to Scott Cox and Michael Stichter
Soloing “Julia” (5.10b) next to Scott Cox and Michael Stichter. Photo Credit: Michael Stichter

Built To Tilt (5.10b) 300’
What a ride! You know that boulder problem they have in every gym? The one where you climb out a dead-on horizontal roof with the biggest jugs in the world and turn the lip on even bigger jugs? And it’s only V1? Copy and paste that 300 feet off the ground and that’s what it’s like climbing “Built to Tilt”

This was the scariest moment of the whole day. As soon as I was fully established in the roof, I felt something shift. I looked around and my fears were confirmed, my phone had slipped out of my pocket, and was currently hanging from its headphone jack! Calmly, slowly, I reached down with a spare hand, and reeled it back in gently before sneaking it into a butt-pocket and continuing on to the top. Gotta love them butt-pockets! Recon: I onsighted the route on lead, and came back to solo it later. Knowing how solid the climbing felt made it a clear addition to my list.
–2:01 PM – Running total: 2500 feet – 6 complete routes–

Onsight – Straight and Narrow (5.10a) 350’
With “Built to Tilt” out of the way, I was finished with the most intimidating climbing and opted to slip out of my TC Pros and into my Mythos for comfort. Romping up blocky 5.5 terrain for a hundred feet brings you to the business. The last 200 feet of climbing are fairly sustained very steep technical climbing consisting of thin edges and awkward jams with off-balance foot positions that invite one to dance up the wall in a ballet like flow. It’s beautiful, and engaging. Recon: I’ve asked a lot of folks how fun this route was, and stared at it from stances on “Help Mr. Wizard” there were no tales of weird or hard moves, so onsighting felt like a reasonable choice given my current level of climbing.
–Running total: 2850 feet – 7 complete routes–

Dopey Duck (5.9) 350’
This is one of the most fun climbs on earth, if I ever get bored of it I should probably just stop climbing altogether! This is where the bicep cramps set in, and I slammed back an extra gel-shot and a liter of water to combat the fatigue as soon as I got back to my stash. At this point I’ve climbed enough vertical to equal The Nose on El Capitan. Recon: Dopey duck is another route that I’ve never roped up on, having onsight-soloed the route in the spring I knew that it would only feel easier now that I knew where the line goes!
–3:29 PM – Running total: 3200 feet – 8 complete routes–

Getting funky on "Dopey Duck" (5.9)
Getting funky on “Dopey Duck” (5.9) Photo Credit: Lohan Lizin

Paradise Alley (5.8+) 450’
I ran down the descent gulley looking to onsight a 5.9 called “Lost and Found”, but in a moment of delicious irony I was unable to find the start of the route! Rather than let this slow me down, I continued down the cliff to “Paradise Alley” intent on finishing the last route on my list which actually required biceps to climb. According to plan, the extra energy and electrolytes had hit my system and the climbing went smoothly without any cramps. Recon: This was the first route I ever climbed at Shortoff, or indeed in Linville Gorge. As I followed behind Julia Watson up the route the whole time I was thinking of how fun it would be to solo!
–Running total: 3650 feet – 9 complete routes–

Toxic Shock (5.9) 350’
Conscious of the toll on my body from the days efforts, I decided to aim for the corner system of “Cascading Colluvial Kaleidoscope” (5.8), and after 50 feet of climbing I caught a serious case of the fuckits and climbed back down to the ground. I just didn’t feel like onsighting a damn thing at this point, so I walked over to “Toxic Shock.” But heck, at least it was another 100 feet climbed! 50 up, and 50 down. One pitch of technical balencey 5.9 led to a 5.6 romp to the top in a secure corner. This one was good for the body, as it required mostly technique instead of muscle. Climbing was almost starting to suck, and even though I was far from my goal I could feel it was nearly time to end the day. Recon: I onsight-soloed the route on a trip to Shortoff, having discovered that “Dopey Duck” was occupied by another party I opted for this alternate finish to the top.
–5:00PM – Running total: 4100 feet – 10 complete routes–

Maginot Line (5.7+) 400’
Despite the increasing fatigue, and a growing case of “The Fuckits” I felt like one more climb would be just right. Lucky for me, I had saved one of the most spectacular and least physical routes for last. “Maginot Line” works up an utterly MASSIVE and steep corner system for 400 feet leading to a dramatically exposed finish. This might be the slowest I’ve ever climbed, and I hit the top just as climbing stopped sounding like a fun idea. The Fuckits had finally caught up with me, and it was time for that beer I’d been thinking about all day! Recon: I onsight soloed the line back in the spring, and had played on it a few times since, the climbing was always secure with good no-hands rests sprinkled on the way up so I knew it was a good way to finish the day as I grew tired.
–5:51 PM – Final Total: 4500 feet – 11 complete routes–

Final Thoughts:
First: “dude, cardio is HARD!!!” Mad props to anyone who does that whole “running” thing on a regular basis, especially Jeremy “motherfuckin” Carson. Without his advice on nutrition and how to keep myself energized, this day would have been significantly less epic.

Second: Okay, so I didn’t make the mile. I came up about 780 feet short. I’m not really planning to come back and try again. At this point I’ve got a big grin plastered all over my face and had one of the most fun days of climbing of my life. Who can complain about that? Sure, part of it was Type 2 fun, but overall I am completely satisfied with the experience. This won’t be my last mega mileage day, but for now it’s enough for me!

Full exposure on the mega-classic "Dopey Duck" (5.9)
Full exposure on the mega-classic “Dopey Duck” (5.9) Photo Credit: Lohan Lizin

Discomfort Zone

Where are you in your climbing career?  Where were you a year ago? Two? Five? Stop, put this article away for five minutes or so and think about it.

Thinking hard about it - Photo: Julia Watson
Thinking hard about it – Photo: Julia Watson

Have you achieved the goals you set for yourself, or made progress towards them? If you have, I commend you! And even if you haven’t, it’s never too late!

Some would wonder what the point is of having goals. To me, it is a simple matter, because goals keep me from wondering “why the hell am I even doing this?” Climbing is supposed to be fun, and only you can define what “fun” means for your climbing career. It’s amazing how we can get used to even the most extreme situations. Just think back to the first time you sat behind the wheel of a car and had to drive on the freeway. For most, that was a fairly frightening experience; I know it was for me. It seems we humans can get used to anything. If we just stick with it long enough, even the most extreme situations can become mundane.

Seriously, you can get comfortable ANYWHERE
Seriously, you can get comfortable ANYWHERE

Climbing, in other words, can get boring, or if not exactly boring, we tend to fall into routine where we lose sight of that sense of wonder and amazement that brought us out onto the rocks to begin with. We grow complacent, we get comfortable and well-oriented at our home crags and gyms, it becomes familiar and routine. If you’re like many climbers, breaking routine is part of what brought you out to the wall to begin with. We lose focus and wonder “what does it matter? I could skip this session.” And then one session becomes two, and three, and one day someone asks why you quit climbing.  Remember your first trip outside or your first time at a climbing gym? How new and exciting everything was! Back then it was the definition of adventure, and now its just another day at the office.

The best thing about setting goals, is that it breaks the monotony and keeps things fresh. New climbs, more climbs, harder climbs, different areas, different types of climbing, all of these things spice up your climbing and as they say: “Variety is the spice of life.” In the end, isn’t that the purpose of climbing: To enhance life? You may risk venturing out your comfort zone, but I don’t think it’s truly an adventure until you get at least a little uncomfortable. You could be comfortable on the couch with a bowl of ice-cream streaming Netflix. (Nothing wrong with that, but it’s a lot easier than climbing if all you want is comfort!)

If climbing looses that luster, its much easier to burn out without even realizing it, only to look back at the past year, or two, or five and realize you haven’t done any of the things you set out to when you first flipped through a climbing magazine, browsed internet videos, and swore “I’ll be up there someday!” I hear it sometimes, this paradoxical lament from frustrated climbers who aren’t progressing: “I just don’t get it, I’m coming into the climbing gym and I’m sending everything I try, but I’m not getting any better”

Just go for it!
Just go for it!

Of course not. Sending will never make you a better climber, because sending is simply a demonstration of the skills and strength you already possess. It’s an acceptable way to benchmark progress and keep track of your progress, but at the end of the day sending does not force you to learn anything or even help you grow stronger. Edison did not create the lightbulb in a single try. He famously said that the lightbulb wasn’t the single success after a thousand failures, but rather a process that simply took 1,001 steps to complete. Sending is our lightbulb, a great achievement and the arrival at our destination. If we stay there then we’ll never progress any further. To advance we must fail, and acknowledge that there are no real failures, only a process with 1,000 more steps than we had expected.

There are different levels of fear and of consequence. The important thing is to be conscious of your surroundings, and never deliberately push it to the point of danger or terror. Fear and terror will only threaten the mental gains you’ve already made, and set you back. The key is to push it only just a bit farther than what’s perceived as your norm. Make it your goal to find the most extreme situation in which you can feel only a little uncomfortable, in relative safely. Reach just slightly outside your comfort zone and explore that space until you own it! Once you push to the point of terror, it can be very difficult to control your mind if you are unprepared, and then your mind may develop a new fear of terror that can hold you back in the future. Instead of planting a flag and claiming new land, that place will be labeled with a sign that reads “Here be monsters.”

We humans are hard wired to fear faiure, it’s natural. Putting yourself in a position to get lost at a new crag, fall off of an onsight attempt, wander off-route and pull off a micro-epic or give it your all and try your hardest can be uncomfortable. Discomfort, I think, is where we grow as climbers and as human beings. When we confront the unknown and unknowable, the outcomes are uncertain, and that’s enough to induce a certain amount of discomfort in anyone. The thing to remember is that we humans can get used to anything if we stick with it long enough, and it won’t be uncomfortable for long. That’s really all it takes to get better at climbing, and even to progress in life. Refuse to stagnate, embrace those moments of mental discomfort and stick with it until they become routine, for that is one of many markers of mastery.

Monsters are out there, gotta stay calm
Monsters are out there, gotta stay calm

Falling is not failing, it’s just another step towards sending your lightbulb and getting the idea for your next real adventure. Take pride in the process of trying, and shake things up. You can’t push your limit forward until you find it, and you won’t find it if you never fall. Climbing can enhance your life so much more than just a simple in-the-moment distraction from daily routine. All you have to do is embrace your discomfort zone!

Mile of Mojo: The Next Big Thing

Back in the days of the Stonemasters, the NIAD (Nose in a day) was the benchmark by which the most competent climbers measured themselves, and it’s still a huge accomplishment today. Climbing “The Nose” on El Capitan in one day requires covering 3000ft (33 pitches) of dead-vertical granite with an incredible combination of efficiency and fitness. To train for this goal, one tactic of the more audacious stonemasters was to practice at Joshua Tree by free-soloing enough laps on various climbs to total 3000ft of vertical in one day, and just like an actual climb on a big wall, you weren’t allowed to cover the same pitch twice in the day. They referred to it simply as an “El Cap Day.”

Westbay, Briwell and Long after the first one-day ascent of the Nose, El Cap, Yosemite, CA
Westbay, Briwell and Long after the first one-day ascent of the Nose, El Cap, Yosemite, CA

I’ve always loved big climbs, personal challenges, and free-soloing, so when I realized that I had the potential to pull off an El Cap day myself, the attraction became rather irresistible. After all, the opportunity to cover a large amount of rock with minimal hassle is one of the main reasons I choose to solo so regularly. “The only thing better than climbing, is more climbing”, and this is the exact definition of “more climbing” distilled into a single day challenge. But how do you even begin prepare for something that massive?

The first problem was to find a cliff. Somewhere with 30+ pitches of terrain where I feel solid enough to leave the rope at home. Most crags were too short (for example: Sandrock, AL), or too sketchy (Looking Glass, NC). One year ago, when I first came to Shortoff Mountain and climbed “Paradise Alley” (5.8+), somewhere mid-way through the second pitch I knew I’d found the right wall for my shenanigans. Dead-vertical and slightly overhung walls with solid holds and good features for confident and controlled climbing. With wall height ranging from 300-500 feet and over a dozen routes on the “classics” list, I knew there was massive potential for soloing at this crag. This place felt like it was custom-made for soloists, but despite searching on the internet and submitting personal queries through the word-of-mouth grapevine, I was unable to get any info beyond a few rumors that a handful of routes might have been soloed at some point in the past. Nothing definitive, and certainly nothing expansive. Whatever soloing had happened here, it never became big news.

Michael Reardon's solos "Romantic Warrior" (5.12b)
Michael Reardon’s solos “Romantic Warrior” (5.12b)

After a few exploratory trips with partners, gear and ropes (you know, “normal” climbing) I decided to come in for a solo-inspection day by myself. The goal was to solo one particular climb that I thought would be the crux of my day, “Built to Tilt” (5.10b). Well, I’m not the smartest person in the world (obviously), and planned terribly for the event. We got positively HAMMERED in Greenville, SC on a Friday night, and when Sunday morning rolled around I was still feeling the effects. Un-deterred I made the 4 hour drive to the Wolf-Pit and was at the top of the Shortoff Mountain by about 1pm. The weather looked awful but I just happy to be climbing at all, and figured I’d keep going as long as the rain would hold off. I wound up soloing 2200ft, in an afternoon, mostly onsight, while sleep-deprived and slightly hungover. The rain caught me half-way up the final climb of the day: “Little Corner” (5.6 ~500ft). Apparently 3,000ft wasn’t as ambitious as I had thought. It was so outrageous, that I still read my own words about that day, and it’s like I’m reading about someone else. The guy that did that would’ve had to be crazy strong, and I didn’t feel like that guy. I mean, 2200 feet of free-soloing in one day. Who the hell does that?

But this had me thinking, what’s the next step up from an El Cap Day? And almost immediately I remembered reading about Michael Reardon’s Mile-Days and Two-Mile days out at Joshua Tree. I started flipping through the guidebook and mountain project to expand my list of potential routes. The goal is to solo one vertical mile (5,280 feet) between sunrise and sunset at Shortoff Mountain, without climbing any routes in the circuit more than once during the challenge. Extra laps on easy climbs seems like cheating, so repeats had to be nixed from the program, and since there are a finite number of climbs at a cliff, this drives the grades up. Looking at harder climbs, this was becoming less of a sure thing. Hard soloing is a scary notion, what does it take to be prepared?

First, I’ve been soloing a lot over this summer to keep my head in the game, and redefining what I consider “easy” climbing. Practicing onsight solos up to 5.11b/c and soloing rehearsed climbs up to 5.11d, then taking those same talents onto multi pitch routes, culminating in a solo of “Pinball Wizard” (5.11 ~300ft) at Shortoff Mountain. Now that I’m looking at 12-15 routes, instead of the 8-10 that would have been required for an El Cap day, I came up with a spreadsheet to keep track of the routes and what order to climb them. That’s when it hit me: This is going to be huge. Six of the fourteen climbs on my list are 5.11 and harder.

John Bachar soloing in Yosemite
John Bachar soloing in Yosemite

A couple climbs need pre-flight inspections, the cruxes are too hard and too high for me to onsight-solo comfortably. A few climbs I’m going to onsight during the challenge, and only a few climbs will be something I’ve soloed beforehand. In the end only half of the day will be spent on “familiar” terrain. Soloing in unfamiliar terrain like that begs one important question: How can you stay safe in the face of the unknown? Getting in over my head is not an option.

My evaluation comes back to the most important aspects of anchor building: Redundancy and solid placements. I have to be 100% sure of two things: First, that my hand and foot placements are solid enough that there is no risk of a fall, and second, that I have an escape option. There are four options in soloing: Climb Up, Climb Down, Climb Left, Climb Right. As long as I have at least two of those options remaining, then I have a way out if the climbing gets to be more than I bargained for. As a rule, I MUST back-off or utilize one of my escape options if I don’t think I have two of those options available in un-familiar terrain. That’s the only way to stay alive in this game, and I make sure to take more pride in the times I choose to retreat than when I send.

Beyond that, It’s just a matter of spreadsheeting to find out what questions are un-answered. What routes are ready to go? How hard are the pitches? Where is the crux? Does it need a preflight-inspection? Research beta on the internet; can it be onsighted comfortably? For the next month I’m focused on taking trips out to check up on the crux pitches and making the go/no-go decision for each one in turn. If I can’t send a route on a rope while maintaining my composure enough to carry on a conversation, it’s probably a route I’m not ready to solo. That’s really what it’s about, being calm and confident, and carrying an extra reserve of strength far beyond what is necessary to simply send the route. Because, sometimes things do go wrong, but that’s just part of the game. I have trained and prepared for those problems, and I will never solo a route unless I can send it comfortably even if many of those things go wrong on the same pitch. I have to train extra strength to maintain that physical/fitness safety net.

John Sherman solos "Lord of the Flies"
John Sherman solos “Lord of the Flies”

And so I train, and train and train like a masochist. The dates are set, and I’ve scheduled my push for the end of October. With only a month and a half until showtime, I’ve never been more stoked! The list of routes for this day, the Mile of Mojo Mega Marathon, is going to be STACKED. I still don’t know if I’m going to be able to make the full mile, but even if I don’t hit my target distance, this is going to be the single most fun day of climbing I’ve ever had in my life!

Mental Gymnastics

Climbing is supposed to be fun, never lose sight of that! However, climbing can be scary too. Sometimes that fear is justified; for truly there can be severe consequences for anyone throwing their body around in high places with less-than-fluffy landings. In places we know are safe enough, that fear isn’t serving it’s purpose. It’s keeping us from performing at our highest levels and enjoying the rock to the fullest.

Risk assessment is the most important skill you can develop as a climber, and it’s far too much material to cover here, but I think we can all identify with times that we logically knew falling was safe… and yet we were too afraid to make another move, and became overcome with hesitation.

That’s the sort of fear I’d like to address. This deep animal-fear of high places and falling, even when we know in our heads that everything is safe. It’s frustrating knowing you held back from giving your best because of fear, especially when you suspect that you could’ve made the move otherwise.

Trying hard to believe
Trying hard to believe

I’m far from the reigning authority on mental training for climbers, but it seems I’ve got something going for me in that department. Whether I’m runout on poor gear, pushing for the desperate crux move on a safe sport route, or high off the deck on a multi-pitch bouldering run, I’ve come up with a few tactics to keep my head together, I hope they can help!

Discomfort Zone:
I was leading in a gym, took the fall, and my belayer dropped the rope. I fell 35ft to the ground fracturing two vertebrae. Needless to say, when I came back to climbing I was a bit skeptical that this whole “belay” thing would actually keep me from becoming dead. The key to recovery was simple, but subtle. I had to find the edge of my comfort zone, and slowly push it outward.

The first step is to find the most extreme, but safe, situation in which you are simply uncomfortable with the idea of falling. Somewhere you are not afraid, not terrified, but simply uncomfortable, even though you know in your head it’s going to be OK. For me, I didn’t even trust a top-rope, but I was comfortable taking bouldering falls, so for me the ideal zone was to stack a crash pad at the base of the wall, clip the first bolt and take repeated falls below the bolt until I felt comfortable falling on command.

No problems falling, push it to the max!
The falls are clean, push it to the max!

Next I pushed it to falling with the second bolt pre-clipped, then the third. Once I’d established comfort falling below these bolts, I started pushing it a little more. I fell as my knot was even with the third bolt. Next I climbed until my knot was even with the fourth, I noted the discomfort, and performed controlled falls until I was comfortable. Then I pushed slightly above it. And so on, up the wall, higher and higher, lengthening the falls only once I became truly comfortable with the current step. It took about 4 months for me to regain my confidence in the ropes, but it worked! Now I can confidently take a fall anywhere, anytime, as long as I know in my head I am safe.

It was spooky, it made me uncomfortable, but I wasn’t terrified. Discomfort is where we, as humans, grow and progress forward. We have a natural tendency to shirk away from the unknown and stay in a place we know we have mastered. This is useful, it keeps us from doing crazy things that could get us hurt, but the key is to perform a risk assessment whenever you experience fear. Afterwards you should stop, think back, and decide whether the fear was a response to actual danger, or hesitation from pushing outside your own realm of mastery. If it was the latter, then perhaps you’ve found a good spot to grow as a climber! Just remember, it takes time, progress is slow. After all, you are re-writing your instincts, and your mind doesn’t give those up easily. But be warned, if you push yourself to the point of terror and fear, then you will only re-enforce those fear-based instincts causing a feedback loop which further entrenches your hesitation and limits your enjoyment of climbing.

Dreadfully runout on "Gravitron (5.11d X)"
Dreadfully runout on “Gravitron (5.11d X)”

Chicken Laps:
I sometimes would notice that I had a tendency to “chicken-clip” and “chicken-whip.” By “chicken-clip,”  I mean I would get anxious, thinking I couldn’t clip from the necessary holds, grab the nearest off-route hold, and clip the next draw for a temporary top-rope. TAKE! “Chicken-whip” means coming into a move I thought I could not do, and taking a whipper (a.k.a. lead-fall) rather than try to make the uncertain moves.

The problem wasn’t that I feared the fall, I had already overcome that. The main problem was that I was too lazy to re-climb, boink, or do whatever was required to get back up to that spot and “wasting” that effort made me uncomfortable. Think about where you climb the most. There are probably a good many routes that you KNOW you could send on-command, right now. Pick the hardest one of those routes, and get on it.

Highballing at the Hueco Tanks
Highballing at the Hueco Tanks

Great send! Now climb it again. and again. and again. Pick your most trusted belayer and, climb laps on it until you fall off. Here’s the catch: You’re not allowed to chicken-whip, or chicken-clip under any circumstances. Choose the hardest route that you know you can send on-command, with safe falls on the whole route. Even if you absolutely KNOW that you can’t make the move, or can’t make the clip try with everything you have. PUNCH IT IRMA! You just might discover that you had a lot more in the tank than you anticipated. I’ve seen people climb for 50’ straight thinking “there’s no way I can make another move!!!” But somehow they completed the whole route! You get stronger without having to wait for the results of finger-boarding to kick-in!

Just Wait:
Sometimes it’s not safe. Sometimes there is actually some good reason to be afraid of falling, and you’re stuck, committed, and you can’t back off. Sometimes you have fears on a route that no amount of falling or trickery will save you from. When I started climbing I was terribly afraid of heights. I was terrified, and that was the entire reality of my situation. Every move trickled more dread, adrenaline and fear into my system, threatening to overload my senses, but it wasn’t over yet.

Just wait. Don’t make another move. Stop. Pause, breathe. Think. This hand-hold is good enough, this foothold is sticking. I’m not going anywhere right now, I’ve got time. Use that time. Breathe, let your heart rate come down, and stop thinking about the fear. Think about what you have going for you, because you’re not falling yet, but if you keep hurtling towards overload you definitely will. Pause, create some space in your head where you can think again, focus on that breath. Pause, look at the fear and just inspect it in your mind. Realize that the fear is just a sensation like heat, cold, nervousness, or wind on your skin. Once the waters of your mind have stilled enough to think again, perform a risk-assessment and come up with a plan to climb on or back-off.

The important thing is to think and act, rather than marinate in the

Fully committed on the slabs of "Dreamscape (5.11c/d)"
Fully committed on the slabs of “Dreamscape (5.11c/d)”

terror and react desperately without control. Building this habit of control in stressful situations will serve you well both on, and off the rock!

Lazy Projecting:Some folks like to take on the “Never say take!” method of climbing, which can is great for performance, when you’re trying to climb your hardest, but greatly limits your ability to project routes and discover beta. Instead I prefer to take on gym projects with a Take-Take-Fall approach. Climb until very hear your limit, TAKE! Shake off, rest, recover, climb to another “take” position. Shake off, rest, recover, climb straight until failure. This way you can figure out moves and beta, and still maintain your mental training all in the same run!

After a practicing you might find yourself climbing through your two “takes” then reaching the anchors without falling. Now cut it down to Take-Fall, when you reach the top this way you know the send is imminent, and you can begin climbing straight until you fall. Then the key is simply to push your high point farther and farther up each day.

Final Notes:

It’s important to set goals whenever you climb, and even more so when training. If you don’t have any goal, how do you know if the training is working? How can you select methods to train with no target in mind? Having fun in the climbing gym is a worth goal, but I see many climbers frustrated with their current levels of performance wanting more, but not knowing how.

The simplest shift you can make to get better is to designate a goal for your climbing day. Are you here to send, to train your body, or train your mind? Any of these are compatible with having fun, and showing up just to have fun is crucial for maintaining stoke and preventing burnout. But when you want to progress you have to decide: Do I want to send, or do I want to become a better climber?

Sending is just a demonstration of the ability you already have, if you really want to get better then you have to push yourself to the limit. If you’re truly at your limit, you’re bound to fall. And if you’re uncomfortable with falling, you’ll inevitably fall short of your limit and progress slower. Just don’t forget, no-one ever built strength in a gym, on the rock, or on a hangboard. They built their strength asleep in bed the during nights after a high-quality training session! So if your body is sore, sometimes sitting on the couch is the best training program you could hope for. Resting after a good session is like building strength without having to work!

Enjoying the exposure
Enjoying the exposure

Anatomy of a Soloist (Part 3)

Onsighting is rad, but man can it be scary. My second multi-pitch route ever wound up with becoming marooned off route on seemingly impossible terrain (my head couldn’t understand 5.9 slab at that point in time). After rigging some insane contraption with leftover cordolette to essentially create a via-ferratta back to the route, I was finally safe again… but I’d definitely used up all of my water and about 90 minutes of our limited daylight in the SNAFU.

I can’t remember for the life of me whether that happened on the same trip as my first solo, or a different one. Either way you’d think it would’ve served as a distinct warning for someone wiser that diving in over my head was definitely a bad idea.

There was just no point in having him hold the rope anymore
There was just no point in having him hold the rope anymore

So there we were, staring up at “Cave Crack” in Enchanted Rock. We couldn’t figure out how to get to the top to setup a toprope anchor for belaying, so in an act of infinite wisdom I made a decision. Hey, it’s 5.6… how hard can it be? So I harnessed up, packed up the rope on my back in a backpacker’s coil, clipped on a couple wads of webbing for TR anchors and set off.

It was essentially a train-wreck from the onset. I had approximately 4 days of cumulative experience in learning to perform hand-jams and the hardest crack I’d ascended to that point was a 5.8, but the slabbed crack was just easy enough to lull me into a false sense of security, and I wasn’t stopping.

Higher and higher I climbed up into the chasm of cave crack, with webbing drooping off my harness snagging in my feet as I tried to move. I readjusted, tried to re-tie it one handed, and continued onward. Useless. It was still getting snagged. Move. Jam the hand, work the foot… stop, tease body parts out of the webbing, continue, repeat. Finally, I made it to the overlap where the wall behind cuts off the crack. From the ground I had assumed that the gap between the walls was enough to squeeze through, or that I’d at least be able to span out around the corner from where they met…

Leading Cave crack several months later after purchasing a dirtbag rack of gear
Leading Cave crack several months later after purchasing a dirtbag rack of gear

That wasn’t the case. The walls pinched far too close together to squeeze through, and as I reached blindly around the corner I found… nothing. There was nothing there! and that’s when the panic set in. I couldn’t climb up, the walls pinched together. I couldn’t climb out to the right, the walls formed a cave that cutoff movement. I couldn’t down climb, I was too inexperienced. and I couldn’t make my way out left through the opening because there were no holds. Actually, the holds were plentiful, but I was too inexperienced to understand the slab movement required to escape my predicament.

The guys on the ground were getting nervous, and I could hardly blame them. I was about to die. I was sure of it. I sat there, perched with my foot on a chock-stone in the crack, pondering my options and considering what life choices had led me to this awful end.

We didn't know what we were doing, I was basically a Junk-Show. But GOD did we have fun!
We didn’t know what we were doing, I was basically a Junk-Show. But GOD did we have fun!

And then it hit me. There was a chockstone deep in the crack. I had webbing! That same accursed web which had ensnared my feet through the entire ascent would be my savior! All I had to do was lasso that chockstone and I was home free. I loosened the wad of webbing into a single long loop, wound up my arm and threw….

Too short. Wind up, toss, WAY too short. So I started spinning the webbing for momentum using the carabiner as a counterweight to throw farther into the crack. Finally it shot past! but it didn’t come back close enough for me to catch it and hitch the chockstone. I pull it and try again. And again. And again… and again…. Oh HELL! I’m dead. There’s no way out of this. my last line of hope just failed, the carabiner was stuck in the chockstone and I couldn’t reel my line in to try again.

My first multi-pitch rack (sport-bolted)
My first multi-pitch rack (sport-bolted)

And that’s where I started laughing like a maniac. Ohhh no its stuck…. what am I going to do? Wait. It’s stuck. IT’S STUCK! Yes! Thank every diety imagined by man! It’s stuck. If it’s stuck, that means it’s not coming out, and I can pull on it to get myself to safety. I set a solid hand jam and test-tugged at my “lifeline” with all my might… seems solid enough. I leveraged myself out into the hold-less void and around the roof… JUGS! I’m free.

With minimal discussion I set the toprope so everyone else could climb, and made a vow to myself right then and there. WOW! That was stupid, and I’m NEVER doing that again!

Never again eh? "Never Believe (5.11b)"
Never again eh? “Never Believe (5.11b)”
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