Stepping Back from the Edge

Rock Bottom:
The view was certainly good from up here, even though it’s not the type of high-angle view I’m accustomed to, I had to give it that. You could see all three hallmarks of Houston from these parapets, and I took a minute to survey them all. The downtown, medical district, and even the stacks of the refineries were visible, lit up by the midnight hour in their productive glow. I was a long way up. Looking down from the walkway at the concrete, I knew this place would do the job. But then I’d thought that out long before I ever got in the car and drove out here. Ten floors plus a little extra to land in the concrete pit just below the base of the building. I had come here to die.

The calculation was brutal. Midnight, so there would be fewer witnesses troubled. I didn’t want to make a scene, but this was the only place I could be certain. Ten stories, because I’d already survived a fall from 3 stories up (in a thoroughly un-desired climbing accident). Tripling that with a hard landing zone would make the end quick, relatively painless. Once I tipped over the edge, there was no chance of survival. None.

I stayed up there for perhaps an hour, trying to feel it out. Sometimes I sat on the ledge, looking down, sometimes I stared at those familiar horizons gleaming in the dark. I’m still not 100% sure what tipped the balance in my mind back towards the elevator. Some part of me, deep down was fighting to stay alive even though the parasitic thought patterns in my head were pushing hard to storm the castle and achieve their insidious victory over life. I don’t know why I walked away from the precipice while so many others committed. Perhaps it was luck?

“Can’t see the sky, nothing’s on the horizon
Can’t feel my hands and the water keeps risin’
Can’t fall asleep ’cause I wake up dead
I just keep rowing, I just keep rowing

Don’t know where I’m going I just keep on rowing
I just keep on rowing, gotta row”

I guess you do just have to keep on rowing, even when you don’t know the outcome. That track (Rowing, by Soundgarden) got me through a lot of tough times.

That was my only serious attempt at suicide, the only time I came close to letting the darkness win and actually ending it. I do remember a long, long history of wanting to die and pushing through anyway. In one of my youngest memories I sat on the couch in my family house and tried to choke myself to death with my bare hands while no one was around. I don’t know how old I was, but I was too young to realize I would eventually lose my grip. I recounted that story in a counselor’s office not too long after my rooftop ordeal, and he asked why I felt so strongly that I wanted to die…. I’d thought about it a great deal, why did I want to die? The events in my life were not particularly rough, I didn’t have a horrible past, the obstacles before me were possible to overcome, and I knew all of this. I didn’t think I had any good reason whatsoever. I didn’t even have a bad reason.

The greatest moment of terror in my life was realizing that there was no reason for my suicidal tendencies. If there was no reason, how could I fix it? At that point, I estimated my odds of surviving another year at 50%.

Falling

I’ve been around these United States of ours in a wild way this past year, and I’ve seen that we humans are all frighteningly similar. No matter where I go I find amazing people, people who have survived great hardships of mind, body, or circumstance and, frankly, they all kick ass. Learning to overcome these sufferings makes you a powerful survivor. Even if you’re not out of the woods yet, you’re still surviving. I’m going to say right now that I love you all, more than you’ll ever know. The more people I meet, the more convinced I am that these internal struggles are just a part of the human condition, and the most interesting and beautiful humans I’ve ever met seem to have the most vicious fights for survival. I think it’s part of what’s made them so strong. Those with the demons inside have to be or become strong. The alternative is to perish. These people are beautiful in their awareness of others and the world, but perhaps being aware comes with a cost. Not only are you attuned to the good in the world, but also the frightening bits within you. And biology has us hard-wired so that fear makes a loud noise. I think most folks have wished at some point that they didn’t have to deal with life, wished they were never born, or wished that something would end it for them. These are just steps along a continuum, and it’s a small slide on the scale to think “I wish I could kill myself” or “I’m GOING to kill myself.” And then it’s only one small step for a man to actually do it.

For me, the desire to die was nothing new, it was old-hat and had been around my consciousness as long as I could remember. I don’t know a single moment in my life where the ghost of suicidal thinking was completely gone. I had come to think of it as part of me, it didn’t scare me anymore. What scared me was the day that I stopped enjoying climbing.

Turning Around:
I went to four different counselors in total over the years. It’s not that any of them were inadequate, but imagine learning a complex subject from one single teacher. They have a great depth of knowledge, but perhaps they don’t know how to phrase it in just the right way to make it “click” for your learning style. Seeing multiple therapists helped me find the one that clicked. Today, I don’t even remember his name, but he gave me the single most crucial insight of the whole journey. I am not depression, I am not depressed, the depression is OF me, but it is not me. It’s more like a cancer.

Most of you are familiar with the idea of a computer virus. Depression is like a mind-virus, a series of repeating processes that disturb the normal operation of an otherwise healthy system. The mechanism of depression is to shrink your world. Depression shrinks your world by eliminating the things that make you happy. Depression wants to eliminate your friends. Depression wants to eliminate your daily functioning. Ultimately, after your world is gone, depression wants to eliminate you. Depression is the mechanism of suicide. Lucky for me, my counselor caught on that I was a somewhat self-aware individual, and accustomed to following my thoughts. I suppose it’s hard to be frightened by your mind if you never notice it. Perhaps if I wasn’t self aware, I wouldn’t have entered this state to begin with. But then I wouldn’t be writing this article either. The key is to simply notice passing thoughts, and to notice when a thought was coming from my desires, and when the thought was coming from my depression. Did I want to sit around the house all night, or was that the depression trying to eliminate more of my world?

Fuck you depression, I’m going climbing.

And so I went back to climbing, and I began training hard. I threw myself back into climbing like my life depended on it, because it did. I knew 100% that I was doing it for me, and not for the depression. All through this time I maintained my penchant for runout climbing, and for soloing as well. The depression wants to eliminate the things that make me happy, I wasn’t about to let it take that away from me. When you’re 30’ above your bolt and a foot slips, in that moment of surging adrenaline you truly come to know how strong your will to survive is.

For me, climbing is the one time where my mind shuts down. There is no me, no depression, no elation, just the next move, the hold I’m on, the feet I’m using for balance, and the core tension keeping it all together. Soloing has taught me to look inward and observe my thoughts to see when a climb feels right, and when I should back off. For me, soloing furthers that sense of still calmness for me in a way that nothing else can, and I can tell you I’ve never once considered letting go on a route. I would be far to pissed off if my epitaph reads “I told you so” to ever consider that.

You are not alone:
Soloing, saved my life. It gave me the power to fight back against my depression and take back what’s rightfully mine, and it gave me the mental tools to look inward and inspect my own mind. But that’s nothing unique to me or soloing, I’m not particularly special, and I’m NOT advocating soloing as a way to overcome depression. But everybody who’s dealt with this has that one thing they gave up to the depressive state that shrunk their world… I know friends who were similarly saved by triathlons, painting, cycling, writing, climbing, swimming, playing guitar, and a myriad of other pursuits. Many of them had far worse trouble to overcome than I did. Shit, even Tommy Caldwell contemplated suicide.

“Free soloing El Cap” is sometimes used as a euphemism for suicide in certain circles because it would mean certain death to attempt. “Hanging out on the summit in a thunderstorm? You might as well free-solo el cap!” In the aftermath of divorce Tommy considered attempting the feat. Granted, he’s one of the few humans physically capable of such a thing, but even for him it could easily have resulted in a swan-dive. Either he’d succeed and become the first human to free-solo El Capitan, or the emotional pain would end… He sat above the rostrum (a site famous for Peter Croft’s solos) contemplating the idea… And that’s when the Dawn Wall was born. Instead of choosing to be consumed with something that would destroy him, he chose the project that would save him. The Dawn Wall saved Tommy’s life. That’s resilience.

Steph Davis, a high level soloist and BASE jumper, went through similar bouts with depression and suicide. After the death of her husband in a BASE accident in Italy, she considered jumping without the parachute… but in the end she too saw herself separate from the darkness and BASE brought her back to life. She deliberately chose resilience.

Robin Williams fought with it too. It’s not always obvious who is suffering.

I remember a scene in the movie “A Beautiful Mind,” where John Nash was accosted by a hallucination, a symptom of his schizophrenia. He turns to the imagined person and says “I’m sorry, but I can’t talk to you anymore.” The delusion wasn’t gone, but he was much more able to function by simply choosing not to interact with it. And so it is with me and my depression, that mental cancer is still there. I haven’t exorcised the demon, and judging from my childhood memories, it may always be within me. But now I can recognize those thoughts, I can see when the depression is attempting to influence my behavior, and I don’t talk to it anymore. I just recognize it as an old friend that I can’t engage.

The worst battles I have currently are with anxiety. Coming that close to death leaves an imprint upon you, and now that imprint is mixed with any feelings of sadness that come across my mind so that they trigger a wave of fear and terror. Sadness? Oh shit, depression is coming back! But now I’m learning to recognize that as just another trigger, just as I would recognize a wave of fear mid-solo as irrelevant to finishing the route, I am beginning to recognize these irrational waves of anxiety as separate from me. I box them up and file them in that same corner with my old friend, and we don’t dance in circles so much. Soon, I won’t talk to them either. Sadness, I know, is part of the human condition. It comes and goes, but sometimes it takes longer to depart and we wonder how long this winter has to last! But spring will come, it always does.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that nothing lasts forever, eventually spring will come. Depression, suicidal thinking, eating disorders, anxiety, substance addiction… almost everyone I know has had something to deal with because we’re all human. The more I travel around the country, and the more amazing people I’ve met, the more convinced I am that this is a universal battle that we all face to some degree or another. We all lie somewhere on the continuum. Reach out to those around you, you’d be amazed how many can understand what you’re going through. For those of us who battle our own minds: You are beautiful! How amazing is it that you’ve been able to survive something this long that has taken so many wonderful people from us?

You are amazing. You have a beautiful mind. You are not your demons any more than I am. And you are not alone. We are not alone. We are many, and we will be okay. Spring will come, because the only thing constant in this world is change. Tune into that change, and ride the wave. This is life and death. This is war. Don’t let the mind virus win. Give it hell.

But if you can’t do it alone, that’s okay too. In fact, it’s normal.

In “Deep Survival,” Laurence Gonzales notice a tendency among those who survive life and death wilderness situations: They are able to see the world around them as it changes, they are not caught up in preconceived notions of how things *should* be, they simply see them as they are and move forward with a plan that fits the new reality. There is no particular way that humans should be, we are so beautifully diverse that practically anything could be considered “normal.” and as the Buddha said: “Suffering is.” Don’t be afraid of sadness, or a certain amount of despair, for those are normal human conditions to have from time to time.

Gonzales estimates the percentage of the population that have this natural born ability to ignore what they think “should” be and survive is only about 20%, but there are countless anecdotes of group survival. All it takes is one member of the group standing up and taking the initiative to inspire the others and buoy them up as well. That’s 80% of people who need a little help to see that they can make it out of the woods, but the point is that they DO make it out!! So for the sake of 80% of those still stuck in the woods, if you’re surviving…. Don’t hide it. Let everyone know, and be that beacon in the night. You might even help me some day.

Saying these things publicly is a bit scary for me, and this is the first time I’ve done so. It’s amazing what people are capable of if they only know that it’s possible, and so I feel I have a duty to display my struggles as an example. If it helps even one person, that’s well worth making my story public. For that reason you have my permission and encouragement to share this article anywhere you can. Those of us still in the woods need to know they are not alone.

The mind is a powerful thing, it can help you or hurt you. The mind can be controlled, or controlling, and like any complex system… it can be hijacked and derailed. Here are a few links, consider them my starter survivor’s tool kit:

When it’s right

Looking up at the wall, it was hard not to feel small. It’s one of those boogeymen around the corner, and legends still persist from the race for the first ascent. Rope gouges a quarter inch deep burned into a belayer’s palms and dashing backwards hard to pull in rope were the only thing that de-escalated the situation to a simple broken back. It could’ve been a broken family instead. It’s a good thing that legendary belayer didn’t care much for his palms, and it’s a good thing he wore his running shoes to the crag. Two hexes and a pair of balls were all that protected the lead during that prehistoric bid for the first ascent. A snapped spine was the consequence. Modern gear brings the route down to a modest “PG-13” rating, though some insist on the “R.” At the time of the FA, before the widespread use of cams, it was a full-blown X-rated horror show.

Fear of Flying is burned into the psyche of central Texas climbing. I swear sometimes it seems folks are afraid even to toprope the line because of its reputation. The higher you climb, the wider it gets. The crux is at the top of the route in the last body-length where the crisp laser-cut corner becomes rounded and sloping from wind erosion. That means the hardest individual moves are at the precise point where you are most exhausted and the farthest run-out from your gear. That’s enough to entice a fear of flying even in the most committed climber. Reports on rockclimbing.com once listed the route as 80ft tall, and I’d often hear climbers swear till they were blue in the face that it clocked in at 100. I took a 200’ rope and measured one day…. The line is only 53ft tall, but the impact in your head is much bigger than that. When your back is turned it tends to grow a little, only to grow a lot more when you come back to face it. Turning to face it with only a pair of shoes, a chalkbag, and cajones for fall-protection it suddenly seemed much, much taller even than the internet reports. Back to that X-rating again. I swear it’s at least 120’ tall.

FOF_FA
James Crump on the first ascent of “Fear of Flying”

It’s a hell of a thing to stand at the base of a climb and look up knowing my life will soon hang by my fingertips on that stone which towers overhead. My heart was thumping in time with some 1980’s Metallica just from letting the thought skate around the edge of my consciousness. I’m tying my shoes, I’m adjusting my chalkbag, I’m shaking out and getting warmed up, I’m adjusting my chalk, I’m scratching itches, I’m smelling the rock, I’m ready to solo Fear of Flying. Fuck! There it is, no denying it, I am about to solo Fear. I’m here to go one on one with the bogeyman. No running belayer, and no rope-gouged hands will save me from my folly if I’m wrong.

It’s not something I set out to do, but I’m always training and always re-visiting old lines that have provided inspiration. One day I can toprope it, the next season I can lead it, a year later I can lead it on command, finally one day I can just feel it click. I’m one with the line, I can smell the scent in the air. Electric life fills me to the brim and I realize that I’m primed for the solo, but not today. All at once I realized I could do it, but too much electric life makes one edgy, and edgy is bad mojo.

When the time was right, I returned for the solo. I am afraid, but I know there is no reason to be so after all the practice and training I’ve invested towards this unintentional goal. And besides, I had a secret weapon. Using my entire REI Dividend, a seasonal 20% off coupon and a couple Christmas gift certificates I’d managed to score a pair of TC Pros. After taking one of those silly quizzes on Facebook (I blame the Tequila Monster for that) I learned that Tommy Caldwell is my spirit animal, with his specially designed shoe I knew I could climb more impeccably than ever. At that point, I’d soloed 5.9+ slabs and almost every 5.10 crack in the park. Physically, I was beyond prepared. Psychologically, however, I couldn’t just walk up to the boogeyman and expect passage on my own merit. What I needed was a magic weapon pulled from the stone. When I pulled Excalibur those shoes on, I knew the time was right.

Fuck. Turns out the camera was turned off. I should probably do it again for posterity…. It’s all about safety through control, and that control means being able to do it on command. Right? After all, any asshole can get lucky once. Second time’s the solo.

No Fear of Flying from Austin Howell on Vimeo.

I’ve never paraded this video around, because I shied away from the negativity one incurs through soloing. Only reason I took the video at all is because I believe this was only the second (and third) time the route had ever been soloed. But the video is goofy, and it’s my record of a moment that just felt right. Any negativity can stuff it for all I care.

So There We Were (A Climbing Farce)

Note: embedded links will forward you to various other bits of humor that have added to this story.

So there we were, stranded! Thirty feet from the summit, two thousand feet from the base of the route, six thousand feet from the valley floor, and 40 feet away from our car parked at the top of the cliff. We were a lot of feet from a lot of different thing. We had no food, no water, no headlamps, no bivvy gear nor supplies of any kind. It was certifiably bad. “Damn you Jimmy! How the hell did I let you con me into this!” The Austrian legend Fitzhermannmensch Von Uberfingerkraft was a world renown alpinist, big wall climber, sport climber, race-car driver, theoretical physicist and the proud owner of a small bakery whose claim to fame was a loaf of bread so delicious it caused the third world war, ended the fourth before it even began, and led to humanity’s first contact with extraterrestrial life. Given that Fitzhermannmench Von Uberfingerkraft was too long to utilize while shouting mid-pitch obscenities, most of his friends called him Jimmy. I mean really, how did I get myself into this situation?

OH DANG!!!!
OH DANG!!!!

Thirty days earlier:
So there we were, stranded! Thirty feet off the ground, a mile from where the car was parked, no food, no water, no headlamps, no bivvy gear nor supplies of any kind. We were benighted upon the summit of “The Frog” because Jeremy couldn’t throw a rope properly. The tangle was an incredible solid mass about the size of a basketball, we didn’t know how to get down. “Having some trouble!?” The voice sounded familiar. “Oh my god! You’re Fitzhermannmensch Von Uberfingerkraft!” I exclaimed. “Call me Jimmy,” he said. Jeremy couldn’t take it anymore and had to say something “what was it like,” he said. Perplexed, Jimmy asked what he was referring to. “The first free ascent of Mt Sauron!” He zoned out for a moment and he instantly recited “It was probably the most physically and mentally demanding thing I’ve ever done.” It was obvious that he answered this question on a daily basis. Given that the entirety of Mordor had been evacuated on account of the ongoing eruption of Mt Sauron at the time of his ascent, It was amazing that anyone could climb it at all, let alone free. Of course the media didn’t understand it, and simply tagged the affair with the headline “MAN FREE SOLOS VOLCANO.” He finally drifted back to consciousness 15 minutes later, “Sorry, I zoned out, I get that question all the time. Where were we? RIGHT! Rescue!”

Dramatic recreation of Jeremy's signature "Basketball Knot"
Dramatic recreation of Jeremy’s signature “Basketball Knot”

Four hours later:
So there he was, stranded. Thirty feet from his car, Fitzhermannmench Von Uberfingerkraft Jimmy had no idea where he’d put his keys. To this day I’m still not sure how he managed a three man rappel using only his moustache. He had consumed too many celebratory margaritas during our rescue and couldn’t properly explain the technique, or find the keys to his vehicle. Thanks to the wonders of Tequila it was now our turn to save the day! After we drove him home he gave us a coupon for “one free adventure.” And we happily cashed it in one month later. I gotta hand it to ya, Tequlia Monster, sometimes you do get things right!

We just wished we’d appreciated his definition of “adventure” before we made the decision to accept that I.O.U.

Getting margaritas with "Fitzherrmannmensch von Uberfingerkraft"
Getting margaritas with “Fitzherrmannmensch von Uberfingerkraft” Photo courtesy of Nathan Burns

29 days, 19 hours later:
Pop.
THUD. “Shit, Here’s your corpse. Now we have the world’s first confirmed A5!” Jimmy almost seemed excited about it. Three hours earlier El Spaniard had set off on the lead for the crux aid pitch. We’d laughed good-naturedly at his predisposition for hard-aid joking “What’s hard about aid!?” Well, now that we had the world’s first confirmed A5, we finally had our answer. Given that El Spaniard had been sent to his death by an untimely fart, we all decided to concede that perhaps aid climbing was hard. The vectored thrust from his Chipotle burrito had been just enough to un-seat his hook from the dime-edge that supported his weight. We were stranded with no food, no water, no headlamps, no bivvy gear nor supplies of any kind so we couldn’t afford to waste a single minute. Jimmy untied the rope and pushed “El Spaniard” off the ledge, there was no time for niceties. “Who’s next?” We all agreed that Jeremy likely had the best sphincter control. Judging by his latest triathlon times we figured he was adept at utilizing just the right amount of vectored thrust for a particular situation. In fact, they say that Jeremy won’t drink Red Bull because he doesn’t need wings to fly. Finally, we all agreed that Chipotle had to be nixed from the breakfast menu going forward, and then Jeremy set forth on the lead. Thirty seconds later he reached the end of the pitch, and we all breathed a sigh of relief. I immediately regretted the intake of breath required to breathe that sigh of relief, but Fitzhermannmensch Von Uberfingerkraft wasn’t phased. Apparently that moustache doubles as a gas-mask as well.

"Jimmy" in the midst of another moustache-fueled rescue. Photo courtesy of Nathan Burns
“Jimmy” in the midst of another moustache-fueled rescue. Photo courtesy of Nathan Burns, the only known person to get a photo of Fitzherrmannmensch von Uberfingerkraft

We were so close to the top, when the worst happened. The top of the cliff was suddenly inundated by a flood of Boy Scouts, and it began raining boulders! I had feared all along that it was too dangerous to pioneer a new route on such a popular scenic overlook, but Jimmy had lobbied hard to assuage my fears. And he bribed me with Tequlia. Damn you Tequlia Monster!

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“I don’t always drink beer, but when I do… I prefer Tequlia” – Fitzherrmannmensch von Uberfingerkraft: The first climber ever to be sponsored by Dos Equis

One of the boulders from the top smashed into our rope pile, severing the cord instantly, and Fitzhermannmensch Von Uberfingerkraft dropped our only hammer. “Damn you Fitzhermannmensch Von Uberfingerkraft! You’ve doomed us all on this godforsaken cliff!” I didn’t feel much like calling him Jimmy at this point, not after all we’d been through that morning.

So there we were, stranded! Thirty feet from the summit, two thousand feet from the base of the route, six thousand feet from the valley floor, and 40 feet away from our car parked at the top of the cliff. We were a lot of feet from a lot of different things, it was certifiably bad. “Alright Fitzhermannmensch, what do you expect us to do now!?” I was practically screaming at him, and I was mad enough to fight if I’d had the energy leftover for it. Dazed, he says “Rapell? Ve cannot Rappel… Ve only have thirty foot rope!” as if that explains everything, and without another word he began up the final 30 feet to the summit.

Now our rope resembled a falling spaghetti monster
Now our rope resembled a falling spaghetti monster

There were no holds, just a thin crack that would fit only the smallest pitons, and Fitzhermannmensch Von Uberfingerkraft was attacking it like a mad-man. With a bottle of wine in one hand and the rope in his other he hammered the pitons in with his teeth, a technique he had learned from Warren Harding. That final pitch consumed our last three hundred and seventeen pitons, and he ran out of gear four feet from the summit. We sat there stunned at our misfortune to be utterly benighted so close to the summit, I closed my eyes for a moment to think if there was any way out and I heard him scream “YEEEEAAAAAAHHHHHHHH WE MADE IT!” Unbelievably, when I opened my eyes he was standing triumphant at the top of the cliff! “Just had to pull a Donkey-Lock into a Figure-Pi, works every time!”

We’d done it! We’d made the first ascent of all 32 pitches in only 4 hours. Our speed we largely owed to Jeremy’s chipotle power, while our lives were owed to Fitzherrmannmensch von Uberfingerkraft’s signature Donkey-Lock maneuver, which still hasn’t actually been witnessed by any living human. We only know it exists because the maneuver earned him a sponsorship from “ShenaniGrams: The Breakfast of Champions,” which is guaranteed to supply 100% of your daily recommended value of Shenanigans in only one bowl. After jumarring the tattered rope to the top of the cliff, I saw Fitzhermannmensch Von Uberfingerkraft standing triumphantly near the car, holding something in his hand. “Hey guys, look what I found!!” At long last, Fitzhermannmensch Von Uberfingerkraft was reunited with his car keys. And that is the story of how I took the most terrifying car-ride of my life. In true keeping with the lineage of Warren Harding, Fitzhermannmensch Von Uberfingerkraft had consumed a bottle of wine after every pitch on our ascent, and something about hearing the proclamation of “PITCH 47, SOOOO DURNK!” at 137 miles an hour in a Volkswagen Beetle just doesn’t inspire a feeling of confidence in one’s life choices.

Dramatic recreation of the ride home
Dramatic recreation of the ride home

Post-Script: Months later we questioned Jimmy about the car keys. Tempers had cooled and I no longer felt the need to beat him over the head with his full name. As it turns out, he had already onsight-free-soloed the route buck-naked wearing only a hat at the grade of 5.15d-and-a-half after drinking an entire crate of tequila and named it “Hufflepuffy Jacket.” He’d lost his car keys at the top, along with his memory of the ascent. That damn Tequlia Monster just won’t give up…

The Only Blasphemy

Below I will share with you a deeply compelling story from one of climbing’s central figures, and one of our best writers. Hearing the tale in John’s own voice imparts a depth and gravity to the story that will stay with you long after the audio cuts off. One thing to keep in mind is that this is not the story of the day John Long quit free-soloing, but rather it is the story of a day where he gained a deep and powerful insight into the nature of climbing, life, the universe, and everything.

The Only Blasphemy from Duane Raleigh and Rock and Ice on Vimeo.

To read in text: The Only Blasphemy (Rock and Ice)

Cave Crack (Summer 2007)
The cops in Georgia will throw you in jail and give you a comic book hero name at a measly 85 miles per hour. This is widely regarded as obscene since dropping below 80 runs the risk that you’ll be run-over by someone in a Lexus. “Super Speeder” you become, forever marked as a degenerate in the states files. In Texas we didn’t have such absurd punishments for simply getting where you’re going. Hell, we even have spots on the interstate where the speed limit itself is 85 miles per hour, so cruising over 100 to the crag was a routine maneuver, regardless of the local limits.

“HOLY SHIT WHAT WAS THAT!” we agreed that we couldn’t be sure given how late at night it was, but it looked disturbingly like a chupacabra, and was alarmingly close to the road. Suddenly we decided to take the speed limit, and those “Loose livestock” signs a lot more seriously. It might have just been a trick of the light and the fact that we were traveling at relativistic velocities, but that was the ugliest cow I’d ever seen. We kept it in the 30’s for the last leg of our journey.

There's no way they can just let cows wander around the highway.... Right?
There’s no way they can just let cows wander around the highway…. Right?

Later that day:
With a sickening sensation in my stomach I realized the wall behind me arched overhead to cutoff passage along the crack. From the ground I had hoped that there was sufficient space between the two bits of wall to squeeze through, but the gap was far too small. Can’t go down, I didn’t trust myself to downclimb the 50’ crack back to the floor. Can’t go up, the wall cuts off passage that way. Can’t go right, the wall is blank and offers no escape. Logically, the only escape is out left, across a blank slab. My mind cracked in two, each half attempting to console the other, neither half attempted to come up with a solution. I’d only been climbing for something like 8 months at this point in time, I wasn’t savvy enough to realize the wall behind me offered easy chimney climbing.

As my brain began to pour out my ears (it had melted from the heat of my stupidity), I formulated a “plan,” if you’re feeling gracious. If you’re not, you’d call it a half-crazed desperate attempt to avoid accidental self-destruction. I’m feeling gracious, so I believe we’ll call it a plan.

“it’s only 5.6,” I’d said. “I’ve done crack in the gym,” I’d said. “I bet I can squeeze through that gap,” I’d said. “How hard can it be,” I’d said. In all honesty it would’ve been better had I said “I’m a bloody idiot, lets go back to the car.” But then we wouldn’t have this story.

I swirled the sling like a lasso and tossed it deep in the crack. I missed. Toss, miss, toss, miss, toss…. STUCK! Shit. It’s stuck. How the hell am I supposed to get it back to try again? There was a carabiner on the end of my sling acting as a counterweight, the idea was to toss it beyond a small chockstone, lasso the little bugger, and girth hitch my sling to it as a direct point of aid. The carabiner hadn’t gone far enough for any of that, and now it was stuck.

Stuck! Aha! If it’s stuck, it’s not going anywhere! If it’s not going anywhere, I can pull on it to yank myself to safety! I sunk one hand in a bomber jam, and yanked on it with all my might on the other hand. Seemed solid, so I yarded my way out left around the corner and onto the ledge. It was good to be alive! Just to see how solid my lifeline had been, I gave it a tug.

It practically jumped out of the crack with a light flick of the wrist. Must’ve been about A3.

“Well,” I decided, “I’m never doing that again.”

We're gonna climb that mountain!
We’re gonna climb that mountain!

Alpspitze (August 2008)
First, If I’ve never told this story to my dad…. I’m really going to owe him an apology for sneaking about like this! (erm… sorry dad!)

We had approached the “Adamplatte” of the Alpspitze in Garmisch-Partenkirchen by the via-ferrata route, having already gained a thousand feet of elevation. Dad looked at the route and said “nope.” “Why nope,” I asked? “Because I’m an old man, and I’m tired.” Okay, can’t argue with that logic, but what does he want to do now? “I want to take a nap, head down to the cable car station, and have a beer.” Well, I reckoned I could make it to the top and back down in time for him to finish his beer, and I made a statement to that affect. He tucked into a corner to sleep, and I scooted off towards the base of the route.

The climbing was mind-numbingly easy for the first couple hundred feet and I rapidly escaped the ledge upon which the route began. Four hundred feet later that ledge was but a vague memory. Most of the climbing was along a slab with water grooves ranging from 5.0-5.5, though I knew there was a 5.8 crux pitch up high. The view of the village below was astounding, the houses even looked like ants, and then the world shifted. I clenched tightly with my right hand to counteract the sudden movement as my left pulled off a block the size of my head. I watched in horror as it tumbled down the slabs, and I couldn’t help but imagine a rag doll with my face taking the same tumble. Down, down, down it goes, bouncing off the wall, into the slab, five hundred feet back to the ledge. Maybe it stops there, or maybe it keeps falling another thousand feet to the base of the wall, which itself is a few thousand feet above the valley. I was losing it. That was too much exposure to take in. I reached up and slapped myself in the face, since no one was around to do it for me. It worked in the cartoons, so it seemed like a reasonable enough idea.

You know, this is very, very high up...
You know, this is very, very high up…

I wondered how the cliff had become so wonderfully grooved for climbing, some of the channels cut were deep enough for hand-jams. Quickly enough the reason became apparent…. The grooves were carved by water runoff, and not just any water but snowmelt. The moisture sapped heat from my fingers and they became numb to pain. Meanwhile my feet had mostly lost any semblance of friction on the slick rock, but I was too committed to downclimb and the only way off was up.

After 750 feet of climbing, approximately 1700ft above the base of the wall, I realized I was lost. I know, I know, I’m on the north face of the Alpspitze, but I didn’t know how to continue forward and get the hell off the wall, which is a surprisingly easy situation to get into it seems. I was onsighting the route, trusting in intuition, voodoo magic, and a palm-reading to get me through the proper sequences to the top, the climb mostly followed a massive slabbed dihedral up the wall. I was faced with a decision, up ahead I could see that the low angled half of my corner disappeared into the vertical segment of wall that it intersected. The only other option was up and left through a very burly looking bulge in the rock. Minutes crept past as I deliberated, finally I sunk one finger in a bolt and leaned backward as far as I could stomache. With this vantage point I was able to catch a glimpse of metal about a hundred feet further up the wall. The anchors for the next pitch glinted in the sun like that light at the end of the tunnel. Looks like I wasn’t headed for hell today.

The crux 5.8 traverse on vertical rock climbed 50ft sideways like a ballet number. Toes pointed onto pebbles and edges, arms held at just the right angle to the rock. I flowed through the moves like the water running across the cliff and I disappeared completely. There was no rock, there was no me, only the pure execution and complete focus. I never could remember the moves from that sequence, but I remember a profound sense of peace that never quite left me.

AlpspitzeTrail

As I topped out on the wall, a couple guys were walking along the via-ferrata in the home stretch to the summit, and they looked at me very hard. Then they glanced down, and then back to me. Down and back, they grabbed the cable of the via-ferrata to look further down in confusion and I explained (in german) “I’m from Texas, there is no other guy.”

“Oh.” They said, and walked off like that explained everything. I’d really like to know how that explains anything.

After tagging the summit, I sprinted down the via-ferrata with one hand hovering over the safety cable “just in case,” swaying side to side in a headlong purposeful crash like Jack Sparrow fleeing the British in the Caribbean. Just as I came within sight of the cable car station I slowed to a walk, when I arrived at the table dad was enjoying the last sip of beer in his mug. Sometimes, things just work out.

Running

Fly on a Windshield (Spring Break 2011)

I was full of myself, and it was a glorious weekend. I had finished my 15th solo of the day on “Pro Sweat: (5.9+). It was a slab, and slabs are supposed to be sketchy, but I had felt incredibly solid and decided to up the ante to “Fly on a Windshield” (5.10a). I sauntered over to the base, and pulled through the initial flakes rapidly to gain a precarious mantle, and then I just sat there. The holds I upon which I perched did not inspire confidence. The next sequence didn’t appear much better, worse, in fact. I had led the climb onsight only a week or two earlier and I remembered how easy it had felt, but at that moment I couldn’t put my finger on what was different other than the fact that my foot seemed to be slipping very, very slowly.

That’s when I noticed the bolt above my head. Apparently when I led the route, those crux moves were accomplished with all the boldness of toprope. Splendid.

Slipping…

Look. You have two choices, sit and think and splatter, or fucking go for it. Maybe, just maybe you’ll make it. I grabbed those awful crimps for dear life, re-situated my deteriorating foothold and flung myself up at the next good hold, a muffin-sloper. Time dilated and slowed to a standstill, what looked to the outside world to take only an instant took an eternity as my entire being became consumed with the effort required to make that one single move and pull back away from the event horizon. One move, that’s the difference between life and death. SMACK! My hand connected as my feet blew out on me, and I mantled up onto a good ledge. Adrenaline surged through my body as I greeted life with a fresh outlook. But it wasn’t quite over yet, I had to climb another 100’ to the summit, mostly about 5.7, so I got back into the zone and continued trembling all the way to the top.

Fly On A Windshield

Someone on the rock nearby hollered for some casual conversation, “AHOY! I used to solo a bit too back in my day! Just never on slabs though. I always found them way too sketchy.” I thought to myself: Yeah, me too! Instead I said “well, everybody has their own style, ya know?”

It’s a known fact that Ego is the most difficult terrain to protect in all of climbing.

The Nose (December 2013)
“Its no big deal,” I said. “It’s only 5.8,” I said. “It’s slab, that’s what you’re good at,” I said. “You’re well acclimated to Granite,” I said. And so I pointed my faithful Frontier into the Pisgah wilderness aiming for “The Nose” at Looking Glass Rock.

Staring up at the route, it was far from intimidating. Sure, it’s a hold-less sea of polished granite, but those weird eyebrow features seemed inviting. We didn’t have features at Enchanted Rock, we just had a bunch of nickel and dime-edges. Features were good, features inspired confidence. I began the process of making mantels up the wall, this rock was certifiably weird. You call this 5.6!? I thought, and perhaps that should’ve been my first warning.

At the bolted belay for the first pitch I stopped and contemplated life. The next section looked steeper, but after checking mountainproject on my phone, I could tell I was on-route and this gave me hope. I considered down-climbing, and decided it would be too awkward to be worth the trouble, that should’ve been my final warning. I pushed onward, deeper into abysmal folly.

The wall wasn’t exactly blank, but everything was terribly rounded. No crisp edges on the slab to be found, the next move would require me to commit myself entirely to a tiny greasy pimple on the rock. There were no hand-holds to use if I slipped, there were no additional footholds to shore up my balance, I had to trust that foot.

I couldn’t trust my life to that foot.

As good a place as any to stand and contemplate life
As good a place as any to stand and contemplate life

I tried to ease in, too sketchy. I tried to downclimb, and found that my stupid self had performed a rather irreversible mantle maneuver to get into my current predicament. I was stuck, but it hadn’t sunk in yet. I climbed up, then down, oscillating in a 15×15 box in the rock. I couldn’t find any way to escape intact, every possible way out appeared to have odds below 50%. Up, Down, Left, Right, there was no direction that looked acceptable. Finally, even though I had a half decent no-hands rest, I broke down.

I thought about my friends, my family, everyone that had ever loved me or cared for me. I thought of all the things I had wanted to see in the world. I thought of the goals I once had in a previous life that had apparently ended 30 minutes earlier, when I was too stupid to notice that it had passed, when I was to hell-bent on climbing upward to recognize that I was inexcusably committed to going forward. Once again my thoughts drifted back to my friends, and the folly of my situation hit me like a ton of bricks for the first time. Could there possibly be any greater sin than willfully jeopardizing one’s own life for no discernible purpose? Standing there, perched on one foot 150 feet off the ground, uncontrollably sobbing softly to myself, I finally understood The Only Blasphemy. There may be greater sins, but at that moment I couldn’t think of any.

I spotted some climbers at the base of the route, and they began moving painstakingly upward. I stood on that small sloping ledge for what seemed like an eternity before the leader caught up to me and passed me a sling to use as a makeshift harness. I couldn’t look him in the eye.

The Eyebrows of Looking Glass. Embrace the funk
The Eyebrows of Looking Glass. Embrace the funk

The next weekend I went to onsight-solo at Tennessee Wall and didn’t top out on a single route. I kept climbing half-way up and realizing it would be an awkward spot to reverse. That meant it was time to back-off. Still, half of eight 100’ routes still equates 400’ of climbing at a beautiful place, not a bad day at all.

Final Notes:
In the intervening years between these instances and current thinking I’ve come up with a bit of a “pre-flight calculus” that keeps me from doing anything monumentally stupid. Not that any of it can be argued as particularly smart, but it’s my idea of a good time and it keeps me laughing, if I do it right. And that’s the key thing: climbing should be fun, and it has to be done right. Gravity is unforgiving in that respect. I figure if I ever stop laughing, it’s probably time for me to quit the whole thing outright.

That encounter with “The Nose” was approximately my 75th pitch soloed, and I’ve done another 300 since without any incidents. It seems I’ve learned my lesson well, and I can only hope that it sticks. Nowadays, as soon as a route stops being incredibly fun, I’m out long before it reaches the threshold of “dangerous”.

DopeyDuck

Every now and again someone will ask me if I feel fear, and I think the above should make it very clear that I do. I’ve been asked if I value my life and understand what I’m doing, and I think I do more than most people. You doing have the option to remain ignorant in such positions as these. I’m no different from most, and I’ve done some very stupid things in my time, but the key thing is that I learned deeply from my mistakes. I had a short conversation with a crane operator one day that sums it up:

holy SHIT! So you do it for the rush!?”
-No, can’t say I do
“Well why not? I mean, the adrenaline has got to be intense!”
-No, I can’t say it is
“Well why not?”
-Because there is no adrenaline, there is no rush.
“How does that work out? Don’t you get scared?”
-Oh yeah, loads of times, usually when I have a rope and I’m pushing it. See, the thing is, a person only feels adrenalized or gets a rush when they truly, deeply believe they are in danger. And I don’t like to do the dangerous thing.

I’ve done the dangerous thing already. It wasn’t intentional, and it wasn’t pleasant. If you climb for the rush, or for adrenaline, then you’re an idiot and you’re going to die. It’s that simple.

If I feel that rush or adrenaline, I know I need to sit down and have a long talk with myself.

Some folks get all excited about the things I’ve soloed, but these days I think you’d be more amazed at all the things that I haven’t.

I can think of a few folks straight off the top of my head who were my peers in college that have died young in the intervening years between then and now. It’s no secret that fate has had plenty of chance to call my number instead of theirs, but I’m still here. Not even the ones who’ve played it safe are immune to the ravages of time and chance. It seems we’re all just living off borrowed time, as they say. You’ve only got one shot on this dustball. Make it a good one.

120 Second Anchor Building (The magic of the 3-piece quad)

There are a few governing principles to adhere to while building a good climbing anchor, and these have been outlined in John Long’s “Climbing Anchors” for decades now as the informal acronym SRENE:

S – Solid
R – Redundant
E – Equalized
NE – No Extension

I like to emphasize one more point that often gets ignored: Simple. The more simple the anchor the better, as long as it gets the job done well. If there’s one thing I’ve noticed in an industrial setting on cell tower sites it’s this: People most often ignore safety when it’s a pain in the ass to achieve. If you insist that folks utilize a safety system with 27 knots for 10 points of protection it may be solid enough to lift your house, but we’re not in the business of lifting houses. They’ll most likely say to hell with your safety and go back to doing it the old way, or invent something of their own. Sometimes, it seems folks would rather risk an un-planned swan-dive (minus the water) than deal with the slightest inconvenience. Because of this, I try to make things easy enough that they don’t have even the lamest excuse to skimp. And yet some idiot out there still refuses to wear a seat-belt… We’re not here to come up with a good “in the lab” description of anchors, but to meet reality head on in the face of Old Man Gravity.

Yes, there's an actual boat anchor in there (Photo from "Top Rope Tough Guys" featured on Reel Rock Tour)
Yes, there’s an actual boat anchor in there (Photo from “Top Rope Tough Guys” featured on Reel Rock Tour)

I’ve been constantly frustrated with anchor systems. Ever since my first multi-pitch trip I’ve always had this feeling that they were missing a certain “I don’t know what” and for about six years now I’ve been reading anything I could get my hands on to understand how to prevent accidents and understand the precise mechanics of keeping oneself safe and efficient on the vertical. The more you know, the more you can improvise and experiment. The more you know, the more likely it is you can come up with a good tool for the job. The more you know, the more likely it is you’ll find that certain “I don’t know what.” The more you know, the better you’ll understand the fine art of not killing yourself.

Now, for the first time in my climbing career I have an anchor system that I truly love building, and it’s made multi-pitch anchoring so straightforward that it feels like I’m cheating! But first a little about the anchors I disliked along the way, and the benchmarks we use to assess them.

Solid – For years climbers would simply slug a few pitons in the rock, clip them with plain oval biners, clove hitch the rope into them, and call it good. The system lacks complicated rigging, but anchor failure was still incredibly rare. Fresh pitons that have just been hammered in by your own hands are solid and multi-directional. Each piece of protection was utterly bomber, and that was the driving force behind safety in these simplistic anchors. One thing cannot be overstated: Without solid pro, no amount of rigging can save you. If every anchor point in your matrix can withstand a leader-fall on its own then the rigging is an afterthought. The main concern of rigging is that it is impossible to know all the variables. Someday, somewhere, you will get it wrong, and you’d better be prepared. Old Man Gravity is intolerant of incompetence, and remains ever vigilant in waiting us to make a mistake.

Fresh, solid pitons. As long as the gear is utterly bomber, rigging is secondary. There may have been "better" options, but the climbers determined this was "good enough"
Fresh, solid pitons. As long as the gear is utterly bomber, rigging is secondary. There may have been “better” options, but the climbers determined this was “good enough”

Redundant – For bolted belays, with absolutely bomber anchors that show no signs of corrosion or weakness, two points of protection are fine, otherwise three should be considered the benchmark. Occasionally I’ll place a fourth piece when the gear is small, though I suspect this is mental duct-tape. That fourth piece is mostly for psychological comfort.

Never trust a single piece of gear unless it’s the rope or your belay, those two items are so over-built that if they fail… well, we’ve got bigger problems than your anchor building skills. Everything else should be eyed with suspicion lest we wind up heading face first for a six-foot dirt-nap.

Keep in mind, since we’re relying on inviolate belays and ropes, they MUST be well cared for. Slings and soft-goods are to be hitched through your hardpoints, not your belay loop. This is how your harness is designed to be used. Using slings on your belay loop can cause it to wear prematurely. It is not designed for the wear and tear from your soft-goods and should only be used for connections with hardware, such as carabiners. If you don’t believe me, look up you manufacturer’s specifications and put a little research into the untimely demise of Todd Skinner. If you have to ask, replace it.

Equalized – Sure, your individual pieces are solid. Solid enough to hold a fall on their own, but just in case you had a judgement in error, and because sometimes placements can be compromised by shifting loads (for instance pivoting back and forth at a scant belay stance to avoid feeling your butt cheeks going numb), we want to help them out as much as we can. To this purpose we attempt to equalize our anchors, in other words we attempt to share the load as evenly as possible between the multiple points of protection in our anchor. For this to work well, the entire anchor must be aligned with the most likely direction of force. If it is possible for the impact on the anchor to come from varying angles (say there is a traverse for the follower after the last point of protection in the pitch), then we must have an auto-equalizing system, or employ extra pieces of gear for an omni-directional anchor.

On Belay? - "No" - Climbing! - "whatever, dude screw this anchor, and screw you"
On Belay? – “No” – Climbing! – “whatever, dude screw this anchor, and screw you”

No Extension – It should be noted that this has been revised by John Long and others to become “Low Extension.” There is no such thing as a “perfect” anchor, in large part because it is simply impossible to have a well equalized anchor with no risk of extension should a piece fail. The rigging which allows for self-equalizing must be able to self-adjust, and this naturally introduces some possibility that your rigging will extend in the event that a piece should fail. That extension will cause a shock load on the system.

Anchors are an exercise in Risk Assessment, and here we have two risks: The risk of a piece failing, and the risk that extension will cause a shock-load causing additional failures. To mitigate these risks we first try to avoid failing placements altogether with our first point “Solid.” Second we make sure to “Equalize” so that a potential shock-load will be shared between pieces, giving them a better chance to survive. Finally, we make sure that our anchor is “low extension,” as lower falls generate lower impact forces. That way, even if a piece does fail, we will minimize the shock load delivered to our anchor.

What is “low” extension? Everybody has their own answer to this, and it’s a very personal choice, but we want it to be as low as possible. One of the industrial guidelines followed by tower climbers asserts that a method of fall protection can be deemed acceptable if falls are reduced to less than two feet. In other words, the industrial definition of “low extension” is two feet. A two foot fall is fairly short and you won’t build up much momentum, and so I use this as my own personal guideline of the MAXIMUM allowable extension in a worst-case scenario, though less is always better.

Now for the anchors themselves!

The basic sliding-x setup for multipitch. Not the best anchor out there.
The basic sliding-x setup for multipitch. Not the best anchor out there.

Sliding X:
Okay, this one looks cool, slick and simple, but let’s see how it would pass John Long’s SRENE test.

Redundant – The biggest failure of the Sliding X is the fact that the entire anchoring system consists of a single sling, and if that piece of software fails you’re hosed. ­It immediately missses the whole point of multi-point anchor building. Using a Sliding-X is little better than trusting life to a single nut or cam as it still has a single piece of gear that can lead to a total failure!

Boom. Dead. Not redundant.
Boom. Dead. Not redundant.

Equalized – On the face of it, this system seems to be a perfect auto-equalizing system that will adjust to any direction of pull; however lab tests indicate that the “X” tends to cinch up on itself in about 1 of 10 falls. This causes 90% of the load to land on a single piece, and that’s no good. Even if this only happens rarely, I don’t like a system that “usually” works. The soloist in me won’t allow a gamble like that, it has to be a system that ALWAYS works as advertised, or it’s not worth the trouble.

Low Extension – By its very nature, the Sliding X is prone to large extension. In the event of a failure, it will shock-load the single sling and only remaining piece of gear. The extension can be reduced with the use of “limiter knots,” but these introduce complexity into the system and can be difficult to un-tie and deconstruct the anchor if they’ve been weighted, which makes it less likely that they will actually be used by climbers in the wild, even though they are a very good idea.

W-Cordolette in the field
W-Cordolette in the field

W-Cordolette:
This is fairly simple to create, it’s only drawback in the fact that it can sometimes be difficult to line up the legs appropriately and still be able to tie the master point. Overall, it’s good enough to pass the “Simple” test.

Redundant – This is a perfect example of redundancy! Three independent legs, one for each piece, with a master point that has three loops. If any part of the Cordolette was cut, there would be backup bits of string lashing you to the wall.

Equalized – At first glance this looks like a very well equalized system; however, a little bit of logic and results from drop-tests dispel this illusion rapidly. If the fall comes PERFECTLY aligned with the direction the anchor is constructed, it will equalize okay, but if the fall comes even slightly off course, you can see that slack will be introduced into one or more of the legs, placing the entire load on a single piece. Additionally, since all rigging materials have some amount of stretch, the shortest leg always absorbs the brunt of the impact force since it’s rigging won’t stretch as far as the other legs.

The basic W-Cordollette used for multi-pitch
The basic W-Cordollette used for multi-pitch

Low Extension – This anchor should have no extension whatsoever if the fall comes in the intended direction, and minimal extension when directed off course, but it’s poorly equalized because of this. Still, if your placements are solid, and there is no swing in the fall, you should be fine. This anchor was considered the standard for a long time, and the scenarios that can lead to an anchor failure are few, and usually involve a long swinging fall from the follower, which torques the anchor out of alignment since it cannot auto-equalize, and leads to failure as the pieces of gear swivel in place to follow the arcing fall trajectory.

Equalette setup for multipitch
Equalette setup for multipitch

Equalette:
This was John Long’s answer to the problems of the W-Cordollette, it introduces much better performance, and a bit more complexity. With each 3-piece anchor you must (at the minimum) tie a figure-8 knot and two clove hitches. Unfortunately I have found that the clove hitches tend to bind awkwardly on most carabiners (except ovals). Additionally the master point is formed by two carabieners, and requires a third to hang your belay device, and the clove hitches have a slip-strength of only 1,000lbs (4.45 kN).

Equalette in the wild, a bit of an awkward setup.
Equalette in the wild, a bit of an awkward setup.

Redundant – Each piece has its own independent leg, and the master point has redundancy as well. Even if your clove-hitches slipped, they’re tied on different legs of a loop which is closed so they won’t slip off the anchor entirely.

Equalized – This system is always well equalized between two points (Our best so far), as the load swings through an arc it will swap between which of the clove-hitched pieces is sharing the load with your primary placement.

Low Extension – With pre-tied limiter knots this is a fairly low extension anchor, no worries here!

Three-piece "Quad" setup. My personal favorite
Three-piece “Quad” setup. My personal favorite

Quad:
This one is so simple that I’ve actually built it in about 120 seconds in the field, onsight.

Originally introduced in the third edition of “Climbing Anchors” as a solution for setting up toprope anchors on routes with double-bolt anchors, I’ve found it can be adapted very well to three piece anchors on multi-pitch. This is my preferred setup, and I can typically build a bomber 3-piece anchor in 120 seconds, onsight, without tying a single knot. Once I tie the masterpoint, I leave it pre-rigged permanently.

Redundant – Three pieces, each connected to its own leg of the anchor. Three strands in the master-point, and a fourth strand closing the loop around your masterpoint just in case one side of the quad fails.

Equalized – At the worst case this will equalize two points, and if you add a Sliding-X to rig your second and third pieces to the quad your anchor will perform a decent job of 3-point equalization.

Low Extension – Just like the Sliding-X and Equalette, limiter knots prevent any excess extension in the system, and these stay tied permanently adding to simplicity of construction.

Why it’s fast - Basically you slug in two bomber pieces to do most of the work, and the third is clipped in to cover your tail if something fails. If I get the length going towards that third piece within 3″ of being snug on the anchor I’ll consider it “Low Extension.” This means the first two pieces go in very quickly, and the third one is a secondary concern, it’s just there as a failsafe measure.

Three-Piece Quad in the field (rigged on a ledge where force will be directly to the right)
Three-Piece Quad in the field (rigged on a ledge where force will be directly to the right)

Building the 3-point quad:
Essentially it’s the same as any other anchor, plug three pieces in the wall, imagine a 2’x2’ box, extend your pieces so they fit inside the box and clip it up! All you need is an 8’ sling (to tie the quad initially), and one locking biner, though I tend to carry a pair of ovals for clipping into nuts or bolts as they make it easier to handle the gear cluster at the anchor with their wide openings for organization.

TL; DR:
When I climbed my first multi-pitch, we used a “Sliding X” made from a piece of cordolette doubled over itself twice so that each leg had 4 strands. It was beefy, overbuilt, silly, and not very well thought out, but it worked. That was the dumb system we used when google was the only climbing instructor we could afford. It wasn’t the best or the safest, but nobody died.

After that I graduated to the W-Cordollette as was the wisdom of the times, and was annoyed at how a slight shift would un-load some of my pieces, reducing the equalization to nothing. John Long’s third edition of “Climbing Anchors” confirmed my gut-feeling and provided a solution. (Yes, I’ve actually read all three aditions of “Climbing Anchors,” and actually have read the third edition twice… I might be a bit of a gear nerd… and I might have experimented these setups on numerous banisters and chairs in climbing gyms that I frequent.. Unconfirmed reports claim that I’ve read the third edition a third time to round off the numbers, but we’ll go ahead and leave those reports unconfirmed for now)

Ridiculous multi-Quad setup for a 7-piece zip-line anchor.
Ridiculous multi-Quad setup for a 7-piece zip-line anchor.

I thought the Equalette was cumbersome at first, and quickly became reasonably proficient with the setup, but it still seemed a tad cumbersome when compared to the W-Cordollete. After two years of climbing exclusively on the Equallete, I’d had it! It violated my personal first rule of safety: Keep It Simple Stupid. Simple systems introduce less possibility for mistakes, and fewer unintended consequences, and so I started looking for alternate solutions.

After tinkering with the quad for some time, I finally decided I’d made the anchor system I’ve been looking for all these years, and haven’t looked back. Performance in the field has been fantastic, and it has yielded the fastest and most comfortable solid belay setups I’ve ever been able to make. If you can find a flaw in my design, please tell me. I’d love to hear your input, but after scratching heads with several of my past climbing partners, I feel pretty well sold on this option.

Questions? Comments? Hatemail? Feel free to add to the conversation in the comment section below!

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Pile Ze Bags

Climbing on a knob encrusted spire in the Needles of South Dakota, I draped a sling over a chickenhead. “Hmn, no good,” I figured a decent gust of wind might blow the sling off the wall, so I hung my #5 Cam upside down from the sling to keep it stuck to it’s perch. “Hmmmmmm, still crap,” rope drag would definitely pull that off the knob, so I extended the piece with a 4′ runner. Well, I guess staring at it longer isn’t really going to make me safe, so I started climbing. Seventy five feet off the ground, and ten feet above a sling draped on a knob that could be knocked off by a good fart, my next piece of bomber pro was a nut at 20.’ Clipping a rusted piton never felt so good!

Back at the capground we started swapping stories with a guide named Cheyenne. The climbing at this place is old-school and bold, so naturally we circled around to every trad-climber’s favorite topic: “What’s the wildest thing you’ve ever seen someone do out there?”

I’ve got some pretty good stories, but his took the cake!

Pile Ze Bags:
Some russian free-soloist and his crew had bowled into town and made some waves by running around and (obviously) soloing anything he felt sassy enough to sack up for. One particular climb followed a 100′ crack up a 110′ pillar that started as a 10b offwidth and slowly narrowed until it no longer existed, just 10′ from the top. He grunted, scraped, thrutched and groveled in the offwidth, but it’s offwidth and that’s generally the accepted technique. As it narrowed to fists he sped up a little, but looked thoughtful as he placed rattly jams in the crack, but it’s fist-crack and the jams are rattly, so that’s okay. BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! He tommahawked rapidly up the crack as it narrowed to hands, then slowed again as it became off fingers.

If you drive through the mountains, they have my Native American name on street signs.
The crack ends, he’s got good finger-locks with good feet on typical Needles knobs, but he’s stumped 100′ off the ground with no rope. Left hand up… doesn’t like it. back into the crack. Right hand up… still doesn’t like it! chalk… chalk… think, head scratch.. AHA! SHIFT THE FEET! right foot, left foot… okay, again with the hands. Right hand up… still garbage. Left hand up, not promising. If only he could reach that knob that is just slightly.. well… out of reach!

He sits and thinks a moment more before looking over his shoulder and shouting at his friends “PILE ZE BAGS!!!!”

INSTANTLY, they start throwing all their bags at the base of the crack. As soon as the operation has finished, he nods contently as though all is arranged to satisfaction… and dynos up for the knob, sticks it, and nonchalantly continues his day as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

Here’s the reasons that’s sketchy:

  1. What the FUCK!?
  2. Did he really think he’d even land on the bags from that height?
  3. Even if he did land on them, I don’t know about you… but my pack isn’t exactly full of stuffed animals and anti-gravity.
  4. Everyone reacted instantaneously, as if this was a routine maneuver.
Boom goes the dynamite
Boom goes the dynamite

Fast forward through some years from that trip, and I’m on a cell tower east of Atlanta. Storms are building fast in the summer heat, but it looks like it’s going to just barely miss us. We’ve got a load on the line coming up to finish the job. KABOOM! Less than a mile away. I stare at Mike, on the ground and he yells back at me “PILE ZE BAGS!” and begins lowering the load fast, as we climb down 200 feet to the ground. We touched dirt just as the first raindrops began to pour on the tower.

Fast forward a little further, and Spencer is about 2ft above his bolt bemoaning the fact that “This is a sketchy 5.9!” Since I wasn’t belaying, I couldn’t help myself. I grabbed my empty pack and tossed it at the base of the climb, poor guy laughed so hard he fell off.

Next time you’re feeling sketched, just remember to PILE ZE BAGS! Next time you’re at the crag, give it a shout! You’re just might hear a shout back from some cool folks!

“Shocker” Analysis

There are those climbs, hidden around the corner, lurking under the bed, creeping in the night to haunt your dreams. They are hard, they are scary, they are beautiful and they keep us all fascinated. Or nauseated. The boogeymonster around the corner is an important part of the climbing scene, and must be respected.

POP! Thump. “DIRT ME!” My feet rested on the ground in agony, my ass hovered about 12” off the ground. “DIRT ME!” “FUCKIN DIRT ME DAMNIT!!!” I get cranky when I’m in pain… Once he realized I wasn’t dead, my stunned belayer lowered me to the floor, thus removing weight from my feet. “I just need to sit” Dylan had passed his WFR only a week ago, all the field triage techniques were fresh in his brain, and it showed in his immediate action in assessing my injuries.

Link Cams

An hour later I hobbled out of the park on Dylan’s trekking poles. The next morning I couldn’t walk because of the pain. All in all, I’m amazed he kept my ass off the deck. If you had pointed where I fell, and asked me “what do you think will happen if you pop from there?”… I wouldn’t have described a happy ending.

“Shocker” (5.12 R) is a cute little monster, only 35’ tall. Delicate slab moves to a juggy undercling, a powerful boulder crux, technical laybacking on a fingertip splitter with dime-edges for feet, and a desperate last move to a muffin sloper up high. This baby has everything you could ask for! Except for easy gear placements.

I had just had a productive trip to Tennessee Wall near Chattanooga, where I had gotten in the groove of falling on gear. I was ready to push it. I had fallen on a good number of placements, and that southern sandstone is so good, so parallel, you barely need to inspect your gear to know it’s good. Plug and chug baby! My mental game was in top form, ready to accept the risk of falling.

Shocker is one of those lines I had drooled over for eons; I was saving it for “someday,” when I was stronger. I was stronger, it’s here and I’m here, so I guess that means today is “someday.” Now, You can’t just charge at this thing like a psychopath and hope for the best. The boogeymonster has to be given respect, remember? First, I had to toprope the line and see if it would even go. Then, I toproped it once more, with gear racked on my harness to practice making placements on the lead with full-pump.

The only gear I had with me was a set of four Omega Pacific Link Cams. I had limited room for gear in my luggage since I had flown in, and wasn’t 100% sure I would get to climb. My partners had gear, but I insisted on using my own. I found a sweet spot in the crack, called for a take (on TR), and dialed in just the right piece to plug in. My 0.5 would go in perfectly just above a small nubbin on the crack. It was like a natural tick-mark to help me hone in on my target. The ideal placement was just above this nubbin, deep inside the crack where it was more parallel and did not flare.

Going for the lead, I fell three times off the lower boulder problem, but I had bomber gear in the lower flake, which boosted my confidence. After each attempt I left the gear in and pulled the rope, which I felt was a decent compromise between efficiency and style. Finally, I pulled through the desperate boulder problem. Underclinging the flake, I stretched high with my right hand to a poor fingerlock with a thumb catch… very very delicate… I made what felt like a hundred different foot movements to twist my body around into the layback, pulled a few more moves to a stance…. Breathe. Be calm. Fear is dangerous. I estimated that I had a 60-75% chance of sending. Getting good gear was essential. I eyed the nubbin, slammed in that cam, clipped it, and eyeballed it as I was pulling the next move upward.

Photo from MountainProject.com displaying a climber on the upper seam of "Shocker"
Photo from MountainProject.com displaying a climber on the upper seam of “Shocker”

I wanted that send. I was fairly certain my gear was in the correct spot; however, I should have stayed longer to inspect my gear. But… I. Wanted. That. Send. I felt it… I was off balance. My feet were out of sequence, but if I could lift and stab my right foot on a small crystal… Well, it would have worked if I had hit the crystal. Instead my foot skittered uselessly, causing me to pop out of the layback like a loaded spring and twisting 180 degrees to face away from the wall. POP! Thump. “DIRT ME!” My feet rested on the ground in agony, my ass hovered about 12” off the ground. “DIRT ME!” “FUCKIN DIRT ME DAMNIT!!!

At least my lower piece held.

Yeah, sure... that'll work... Photo Credit: ClimbingGifs.com
Yeah, sure… that’ll work… Photo Credit: ClimbingGifs.com

I had grown too accustomed to southern sandstone, and easy gear placements. Had I paused to ponder the local geology, I’d have realized that the large crystals of this coarse granite demanded special attention to small gear placements. However, I wasn’t worried about that since Link Cams are known for having a large expansion range. They are touted as a “panic piece” that you can place quickly in a crux with little worry, so I felt sure that my gear gear would hold a fall.

What Went Wrong:

  • The cam was 75-90% contracted. On a “normal” cam, this would have meant security. On a link cam this places your contact on the inner links, which are made of steel instead of aluminum. The steel links can bite well in softer rock like sandstone, but are known to have less friction and less holding-power. I didn’t know that before the accident.
  • In Tennessee I had worked hard to override fear instincts, and reinforce the feeling that good gear will hold a fall. That’s ordinarily a good thing, but unfortunately this made me less vigilant about inspecting gear, since placements are generally more straightforward in Tennessee.
    • I had trained two instincts. One deliberate, one by accident. One was good, the other dangerous.
  • I wanted the send, so I trusted the gear too much. This wasn’t a huge deal, I accepted the risk of falling, but it was part in a chain of errors that tossed me to the deck.
    • Pride goeth before the fall….
  • I didn’t know at the time that Link Cam placements can easily be compromised by funky crystals, especially if it torques.
  • When placed in the smaller portion of the expansion range, the outer links obscure view of the inner lobes, making inspection difficult

The mechanics of Failure:
When I fell, we are fairly sure that the cam must have been perched on a crystal. When I fell, the slight torquing of the unit knocked it off the crystal, and the steel lobes were not sticky enough to reestablish contact and hold the fall so it skittered straight out of the crack. It slowed me down less than clipping into a loop of duct tape.

I’ll be back….
When you have an accident, you don’t give up driving for the rest of your life. This incident has known factors that led to a problem, and knowing these factors I can come back with a safer plan of action.

  • Double ropes: When I return, I’ll be able to attack the route with more confidence. If I fall while clipping my second piece, I will still be protected by the lower piece.
  • Should I fall while inspecting my second piece, I will be protected by my first piece on the first rope, in case the second piece fails. No extra slack will be introduced.
  • I will return with X4’s, C3’s and Offset Nuts. I now have regular and offset X4’s to make extra sure I’ll have the perfect piece.
  • In the layback seam, I will place two pieces of gear for security, instead of trusting to one.
    • My first piece will be in the undercling flake, clipped with Rope #1
    • Second piece in the seam, clipped with Rope #2. I will be protected with Rope #1 and my first piece in case I miss the clip.
    • Then, I’ll place a third piece of gear, also in the seam, clipped with Rope #1.
    • If I fall off the upper section, I will have two pieces of gear, each clipped with a different rope, which will cause them to auto-equalize and limit the impact force on the small funky gear needed to protect this route.
  • Link Cams still have a place on my rack as a specialty piece, but I’ll never again risk placing one when I’m less than calm, and probably only rarely on the lead.
Racking up for the revenge-send!
Racking up for the revenge-send! Small, Funky gear is the crux on this route.

“The Definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” – Unknown

Shit happens, and sometimes it isn’t pretty. We have to be vigilant whenever we climb, because without good safety practice, we’re all just accidental soloists. The important thing is that we learn from any un-desired outcome. Whether it be working out the beta for a particular move, or the gear for a particular route… It’s important to stop and understand WHY things didn’t turn out the way we had expected. If we don’t understand why, then we can’t change anything for the better and learn for next time. If we don’t understand WHY, we’d all just be acting off insanity. And that’s saying a lot for a group of folks that hurl themselves at vertical rocks on the regular, for fun.

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