The Myth of Mental Fitness

When I started climbing, I had a paralyzing fear of heights and had trouble getting up the sort of routesI see folks send on their first day at the climbing gym. Nowadays it’s quite a different scenario! I’ve made huge gains in my mental fitness and learned to conquer my own fears. Through that process, I’ve learned to help others to do the same, too. Lucky for me, my mind is nothing unique so the methods I’ve used and the way I look at mental fitness can work for anyone! The reason I’ve been able to help people isn’t that I have a unique ability, It’s because I started off completely ordinary. My first time driving on the freeway was terrifying. My first ride on an auto belay scared the poop out of me! Lead climbing took me months to get familiar with! The obstacles for your mental fitness are the same that I’ve dealt with on my path.

The great news is that you don’t have to solo or partake in dangerous climbing to become mentally fit. In fact, most of my practice happens in complete safety! That’s the beauty of climbing, it can be as safe or dangerous as you want it to be, and you can still become as mentally strong as you want! Before we get started on this article I’d like to stress two points: Nobody has to climb the way that I do, and I started in the same place that you did.

There is a great myth among climbers regarding mental training. They seem to think that being afraid is normal and that getting over those fears is a difficult feat reserved for the elite few with superior knowledge. That last part is what I’d like to object to. You don’t need a tremendous amount of knowledge to get more mental fitness for climbing. The problem is that “mental fitness” is ill-defined, so most don’t quite know what it is or why they should even care! Climbing is already fun, right? Isn’t mental training just for people who want to push their limits and climb the hardest routes? Not exactly. Climbing is fun, but it’s a lot less fun if you’re terrified. Mental training is less important to the community at large as a path to climbing hard, and much more potent as a vehicle toward climbing happy and having more fun. Once you’ve maximized the fun, then we can worry about crap like grades!

When folks hear of my soloing, folks tend to ask me about mental training for climbing. As if soloing has given me some advanced perspective that is unattainable for everyone else. I don’t think it has; however, it has caused a lot of people to ask me awkward questions, and those questions caused me to think harder about mental training. Just what is it that’s going on differently in my head from yours? It seems obvious that something is different about the way I climb compared to everyone else, or they’d find soloing just as ordinary as I do. Nothing better, nothing enlightened, just slightly different.

What a Dirtbag Hair-Do Looks Like
Only *slightly* different. Photo: Jacob Bodkin

I don’t know everything, not nearly. Or at least I sure as hell hope not, because I don’t know terribly much, and it would be pretty sad for us all if the contents of my head made up “everything.” Furthermore, if I knew everything about climbing, I think I’d have to retire, and that would be doubly sad!

*cough* Excuse me, I digress, but that’s what I do. I do love a good rant… Anyhow, enough about how unqualified I am, let’s get back to the point!

Mental fitness only seems daunting because we view it through a lens of gurus and mythical figures, but in reality, it’s just as trainable as physical fitness. But it’s hard to train well if you don’t know what you are training. If you don’t have a proper target, you’ll never be able to hit it! Today’s article grew more wordy than anticipated, so I don’t have space to include training tactics today, but I hope that I’ll be able to describe the target well enough to get you started in the right direction!

One Mind:
Friends have told me at points that they feel a need to work on their “lead head” or that “I don’t have a head for bouldering.” Another favorite is “I just don’t have the mind for trad.”

Listen, folks, you only have one head. Only one mind. The mind that’s sketched on the hard mantle at the top of a tall boulder is the same mind that is afraid to take practice falls on safe terrain at the gym. We only have one mind, but the mental confidence required for falling on bolts in the gym is different from what’s needed as a trad climber locking horns with a long runout over questionable gear. We all know we only have one brain, but clearly, there is something different happening in each discipline. So the first question I have is “what’s the similarity across these disciplines?” The second question is “what’s different?” It turns out those answers are more related than I’d have thought.

 

13015272_10103070436373066_8185895488184631794_n
Some pro is questionable for unconventional reasons

 

In a sense, I’m peddling semantics. But the point I want to make isn’t one of arbitrary distinctions and terminology rather one that’s simpler and more useful: You only have one mind, so if you have strength in any one aspect of that mind then you have the potential to become strong in every other aspect of that mind. And you all have the ability to strengthen some aspect of your brain. I mean, for most of us, our first time driving a car on the freeway was absolutely terrifying, and now it’s just another Tuesday because you have learned to handle that stress. The same can happen in your climbing just as quickly, but you have to make a conscious effort to practice since nobody is forcing you to climb a rock on your commute to work!

So to me, that’s the biggest myth of mental fitness. Sometimes I hear folks who state “I’ve got my mental game on lockdown for sport, but trad is just too scary. I can’t do that.” To me, that statement is as absurd as hearing someone state that he has massive finger strength, and therefore obviously can’t gain endurance. That’s just plain false. These things don’t exclude one another, rather they work together! They’re all part of a well-rounded climber. Similarly, as building strength has payoffs in your power and endurance, so can strengthening one facet of your mental abilities pay off in other ways that you didn’t at first anticipate.

We all know that physical fitness is a multi-faceted subject and that we can simply improve in the areas we are lacking. Why shouldn’t mental fitness be the same? Just as we have one body with many abilities at different levels, we have one mind and it is powerful in many ways! All we have to do is pay attention to its multiple aspects, and we can learn to bridge the gap between ourselves and our dreams!

untitled

What’s the difference?
When you first start climbing, you have no good gauge of how well you can hold on, and no ability to know when you’re likely to fall. And that’s scary because you haven’t learned to trust this whole “top rope” thing. You don’t have that gut-level instinct that tells you the rope is going to catch and you’ll be okay. You haven’t learned to trust the system, and that’s a problem. When you’re new, you can’t trust your abilities, so to prevent being terrified all the time, it’s imperative that you learn to trust the system to catch you. It’s hard to climb well and have fun if your instincts are screaming that you’re about to die!

Another example, when someone like Chris Sharma or Adam Ondra ties into a rope to head up their new project, they aren’t trusting in their ability to send. They know that there’s a chance they could send, but they are well aware that it’s okay if they don’t, so they charge up the wall to find out! When you know you’re safe intellectually, and you feel it instinctively, it’s okay to push your limits. That’s the first part of mental fitness for climbing: Trust in the system. Since each discipline has a slightly different safety system, you will find yourself re-discovering this aspect of fitness multiple times during your climbing career. It’s important for your instincts to be in line with your intellect. The goal is to feel safe everywhere that you know you are safe. That’s the first facet of mental fitness. It’s not a pass/fail sort of thing, but a spectrum. It’s not a matter of fit vs. unfit, but a question of degree. How fit is your mind?

710fc94dd621da1b8f62e71a23411b8c

If you are afraid of the consequences of a fall, it means that you do not accept the consequences of falling. We already have a discipline of climbing where the consequences of falling are unacceptable; it’s called free-soloing. Soloists are incredibly limited in what they can climb because of this. If you can’t control your mind, you will be just as limited. What use are strong fingers if the brain can’t use them? Furthermore, whenever you experience fear your body releases adrenaline. In extreme cases, adrenaline is known for giving mothers the ability to lift cars off of babies. Its purpose is to prepare the body for intense bursts of strength and power, but there’s no such thing as a free lunch. This power comes at a cost: Your endurance. Adrenaline changes the metabolic state of your body to prepare for feats of strength, but doing so shuts down the metabolic pathway which clears lactic acid from your system. Once you’re pumped on adrenaline, you stay pumped, and you can’t recover. That is why the fear of falling makes you so much more likely to fall.

On the other hand, sometimes you really can’t afford to fall, and in those scenarios fear can have lethal consequences. Fear is more than just the mind-killer. As you succumb to fear your body releases adrenaline and your heart rate goes up. We outlined the problems with adrenaline earlier, but it has been shown in numerous studies that we lose proper decision-making ability when our heart-rates is red-line. Fear puts us in a state where we are more likely to make poor decisions. Meanwhile, our endurance has been ruined by adrenaline so we can’t just hold on longer to make up for our mistakes. It’s absolutely natural and reasonable to be afraid when your life is on the line, and that’s the problem because fear makes you much more likely to die in situations where it’s reasonable to be afraid. When climbing goes wrong we need our decision-making abilities intact, and we need all the endurance we can muster. While panic may be reasonable, it’s certainly not productive.

Controlling that fear so you can get down to business, make competent decisions, and get to safety is another important facet of mental fitness. It’s also one that will come with you off the wall into your daily life. Climbing is not the only place where it is unproductive to panic in the face of adversity, but climbing does provide a controlled place to practice preserving your equanimity and learn to be the stone resting at peace within the rapids.

828a37ceb3fc65df087bd901379cce9e

In these cases of moderate to extreme danger, you have to trust in your abilities. Being comfortable with falling is often heralded as the prime example of mental fitness for climbers, but this is a terrible oversimplification. Clearly, there is no benefit to being comfortable with falling when it could result in a broken leg. Others consider soloing, bold trad and highball bouldering to be examples of mental fitness, despite the fact that these disciplines require avoiding falls. When Alex Honnold soloed El Sendero Luminoso, I don’t believe he was comfortable with the idea of falling. When Michael Reardon onsight-soloed “Romantic Warrior” (700’ 5.12b), I don’t think he relied on any trust in his system or gear; There was no gear. Soloing is a simple system. Had they fallen they would have perished. But then, I guess that’s the point. It’s an entirely different form of mental fitness. When you can’t trust the system to save you, you’d better be able to trust yourself. Otherwise, you’re going to have a very bad time.

And finally, there is a sport-psychology aspect to climbing. Even for those who feel safe when they truly are safe and who trust their abilities to send the climb when things get scary, they may be reluctant to give it their all when the moves get hard. They might simply not want to, there might be a lack of motivation to push limits. Or perhaps you’re like I was a couple years ago… I wanted to get stronger, I was training and thought I was doing everything right, but I wasn’t progressing an inch. I had plateaued. Nearby I spied a guy I’d only seen in the gym a couple of times crushing boulders I could only dream of. Bouldering strength; THAT is what I was lacking! So I asked him “How do I get stronger?” After a short couple of questions back and forth about my training and goals, Andrew Perry looks straight at me and says “huh, yeah, that all sounds about right, I think you just might need to try harder.”

 

patxi_4
This is the face of try-hard!

 

And the worst part? It turns out he was right! I held my training grip on the fingerboard twice as long on my next attempt. Clearly, I hadn’t been trying hard enough, but I had been suckered into my own myth and believed I was trying as hard as I could. I needed an outside perspective to shake my thought pattern up. And that’s the trick with sports psychology: Learn to try harder and believe you can do it. You don’t have to believe that you can do it now, just that you can get there someday if you try hard. If you can’t believe it, how can you achieve it?

Three aspects of Mental Fitness:
I break climbing down into three categories of mental fitness:

  1. Trust
  2. Confidence
  3. Willingness

Those subjects are the unifying thread across all disciplines of climbing, what makes each type of climbing feel different in the mind is how much you need each of those types of mental strength. Just as bouldering and big-wall have different demands on Strength, Power, and Endurance, they also require different amounts of trust in the system, trust in your abilities, and letting go of preconceived notions to see success.

The first step towards mental fitness is trust. You have to learn to trust your safety system and your partner. Otherwise, you’ll be as terrified as if you were soloing every single time you climb. Trust is why folks consider the ability to fall as a sign of mental fitness. Trust gives you the ability to feel comfortable in a place which once was scary. The second step, which is especially important when you climb outside, or if you climb trad, is confidence. This is the reason some folks think of soloists as mentally strong. However, the soloist’s greatest gift can quickly become a crutch that holds you back.

By learning to trust their abilities to a greater extent, many climbers fail to gain confidence in the system. After all, nobody is afraid when they don’t believe they will fall! These folks are often seen calling “TAKE!” as soon as they encounter moves that they’re not sure they can complete. Meanwhile, there are those who trust the system very well but have no confidence in their own abilities. Whenever you see someone fail to try a move with full effort, or you see them jump off the wall and “take the whip” instead of trying a hard move, this is because their trust in the system has become a crutch and a hindrance. Falling has become their new comfort zone, and their confidence in falling has surpassed confidence in their own abilities, so they are more willing to fall than try a move that feels uncertain.

The good news is that you don’t always need to trust your own abilities.

Falling

I love watching video clips from Chris Sharma’s process while he was projecting “Jumbo Love.” The climb was so hard that he truly felt each attempt was in vain and was sure to end with a 60ft fall through free space before the rope came tight. Knowing the fall path was clean, he trusted his belay system entirely, and he let go of weighing his own abilities. Instead of passing judgment on his fingers and wasting time and energy on deciding if the move was possible, he just tried it. If you want to truly climb your hardest, you have to let go of the outcome and just try the move. It’s a scientific experiment. We need the willingness to try uncertain and challenging moves by letting go of your judgments of what is possible or impossible. How many times have you achieved moves you thought were impossible? If it’s happened before, it can certainly happen again, but if you decide the move is impossible and jump off without fully trying… You’ll never actually know if it was impossible or not.

And if you fall?

It was a successful experiment! Use this moment to think and ask yourself “why?” Why did you fall? Was it an error down low? Could you have used better technique? Are your fingers simply too weak? In answering this question, you learn how to become a better climber. Ask it as often as you can, after you’ve asked it many times on many efforts you’ll see patterns arise, and only then can you know what the weakest links are in your climbing. Only then will you see the easiest path to gains in your abilities.

Remember folks, sending is only a demonstration of strength and skills that you already possess! It is only through repeated and calculated failure that we can improve, so get out there and try the moves!

There really are only two possible outcomes: If you stick it, then you’ve succeeded in sending the impossible! If you fall, then you’ve succeeded in learning about your climbing! In a very literal sense, failure simply isn’t an option.

Overcoming the “itis”

Epicondylitis, Tendinitis, Teno-Synovitis, Plantar-Fascitis….. We’ve all felt it at some point. That nagging burning tweak in your connective tissue that just won’t go away. Nothing went “pop,” you didn’t fall wrong, it just hurts, and you can’t figure out why. Fundamentally these conditions are all one of inflammation, and “inflammation” is the literal meaning of the “itis” suffix. Once you’ve developed the “itis” it is vital that you get on top of your recovery fast. If it lasts beyond 4-6 weeks, it will become an “osis.”

The good news is that inflammation is relatively easy to control, the bad news is that inflammation causes abnormal re-structuring of the tendon mass if it persists for too long. That’s the “osis,” it’s an ‘abnormal or diseased condition or state’, In this case, it’s one of the tendons, hence the term “Tendinosis” that some of you may have heard during your recovery and research. The “osis” is still treatable, but it takes longer to fix due to the need for rehabilitative exercises.

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, I’ve just seen and helped a few folks recover from injuries. If you see a way to improve this article, please contact me and I’ll happily update with new information. The primary purpose of this article is to have a quick summary of this subject to deliver for folks who want more information. I’ve been answering the same question for a number of people and this article should save me a lot of time and enable a faster response for those who have an injury!

I mean, it should be obvious that I’m not a doctor… at the end of this article I suggest using a horse product to increase blood flow to your tendons. If that doesn’t discredit my information in your eyes, keep on reading!

 

slide_15
There are quite a few muscles that attach to the medial epicondyle, so in some cases, climbing didn’t cause the problem, but some other activity like gardening. I don’t say this for humor, landscaping/gardening work was the culprit for the worst case of tendinitis I’ve ever seen. Working those shears is stressful business for your wrist!

 

A note on Tendinitis
What to call it depends on where you feel the pain. There are two places you can feel it, and each has three names which all identify the same condition:

  • Inside Elbow Pain: Golfer’s Elbow, Medial Tendinitis, Medial Epicondylitis
  • Outside Elbow Pain: Tennis Elbow, Lateral Tendinitis, Lateral Epicondylitis

Medial refers to a position near the body’s centerline. Lateral refers to a position far away. Your elbow has two attachment points called Epicondyles for the muscles of your wrist and fingers. If you have an “itis” affecting the tendon mass in these areas, the strictest definition is Epicondylitis: an inflammation of the epicondyle. Medial and Lateral just states which side it’s on. To keep things simple, I’ll call it inner or outer elbow pain to simplify when directing you to particular exercises or treatments.

How to contract the “itis:”
If you don’t know how you got into this pickle, it will be devilishly hard to figure out how to get out of it and stay healthy.

The itis is caused by a sudden increase or change in your activity level. Here are a few examples:

  • Suddenly increasing the length of your hikes far beyond the norm can lead to Plantar Fascitis
  • Getting too Gung-Ho over Campus Boarding can lead to Medial Tendinitis
  • Suddenly developing a fascination for crimping can lead to Lateral Epicondylitis
  • Hiking in new, more rugged/rocky terrain with flimsy footwear can lead to Plantar Fascitis
  • Projecting a fun boulder with a gnarsty open-handed crux and trying it too many times a day can lead to Teno-Synovitis (aka “Trigger Finger”)
  • A spur of the moment windsurfing trip on vacation can lead to Medial Epicondylitis
  • Taking on a massive landscaping project involving shears and loads of small hand movements lead one friend of mine to develop both Medial and Lateral Epicondylitis. The case was so extreme that the inflammation impinged her Ulnar Nerve and caused swelling of the hands and a loss of mobility in her fingers. My friend couldn’t fully close her hand! After about two weeks of following my rehab suggestions, she regained full use of her hands. Since she caught it fast after only two weeks, she was able to fully recover after two weeks of treatment without quitting her landscaping job.

The key is to look back and figure out what changed in your life. If it’s elbow pain, look for anything where you used your hand, particularly if there was flexing or twisting at the wrist. If the pain is elsewhere, look for the motion that would cause stress in that area.

Now that you know what you did, it’s time to begin the healing.

  1. Cease or reduce the offending motion
  2. Stop the inflammation
  3. Stretch to limit the re-structuring of your tendons
  4. Exercise to rehabilitate your tendons
  5. Encourage blood flow  to the affected area

    images
    “Cowboy Medicine” 100% guaranteed to fix nothing

1: Stop making it angry!

Whatever motion got you in this predicament, it’s time to stop. Or at least significantly reduce the offending behavior. The first rule of self-rehabilitation is “No Pain MUCH Gain!” Tendons and connective tissue are notoriously slow to heal, so moving the joint keeps blood flowing to the area and promotes healing. How much, and how intense? As much volume and as intensity as you can without causing pain or soreness. 

2: Stop the inflammation
Now that you’ve finished making it angry, we aren’t generating any new stimulus for inflammation, but we still have to bring down the existing inflammation, and there are a few ways to do that without resorting to NSAIDs and pharmaceuticals.

  • Fish Oil: Studies have shown that doses of Fish Oil from 2-4,000mg can be helpful as an anti-inflammatory. Look for a Fish Oil that’s high in DHA and EPA (as those are the two most beneficial components) which is also low in contaminants. Labdoor.com is a 3rd party tester of supplements, and they have some great recommendations for what to use! If you want to walk into a store and grab one off the shelf, Vitamin Shoppe has the best-rated product of anything I’ve found in-stock at a local store. Read more about Fish Oil here
  • Turmeric and Black Pepper: In studies, curcumin (a naturally occurring component of Tumeric) has been shown as such a strong anti-inflammatory that it rivals pharmaceuticals. Black pepper contains piperine, which increases its absorption by 2,000%
  • Tart Cherry Juice: This has been used by marathon runners since the 1940’s to combat Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) after intense training sessions, and it’s just as effective today. It tends to be a bit expensive to drink the juice itself, but it’s quite easy to get the extract in any supplement store
  • Acai Green Tea: Acai berries have the same cytokines as Tart Cherries, and work as an excellent anti-inflammatory. The largest benefit of the Acai Tea from the Republic of Tea is that it runs significantly cheaper than Tart Cherry Extract. I order it in loose-leaf by the pound and drink it every day because it’s delicious and I’m an unrepentant hot-tea addict!

3: Stretch it out
Part of the worry is that long-term inflammation can lead to restructuring of the tendon mass. Stretching the affected tissue can help to slow or stop this process giving you more time to recover, and shortening the recovery process.

4: Rehab the tendons
The next step is to use eccentric motions to rehabilitate the tendons as these have been shown most effective in studies for rehabilitation of connective tissues. Eccentric motions are those where the muscle is working through its extension. Think about controlling a dumbell with your bicep, and you resist the weight as it lowers then have help lifting the weight back up. That’s what we’re talking about. All of the work should be done as the muscle extends and it is un-weighted for the contraction.

5: Keep it flowing
Exercise, but carefully! We want to increase blood flow to the affected area, without making it angry! Remember, No pain, best gains. Cardio gets your blood moving, as can light exercise of the problematic tissue.

In extreme cases, it could be useful to use a liniment or topical rub to help with the healing. Icy Hot works fairly well, but many horse-liniments use the same active ingredient (Menthol), but at a higher concentration. Chapman’s Horse liniment has a whole page on their website to stating that their product is safe for human use, I’ll let you decide if this course is acceptable or not. I do know from experience that Absorbine Horse liniment has been immensely helpful to a few folks whom I’ve seen self-treat their tendinitis issues. But for goodness sake, read the ingredients label and do your research. Steer well clear of anything that has DMSO in it.

Mega Mile Mojo Mission: Success!

I FINALLY DID IT!!!!! 5,700ft of free-soloing, just over a vertical mile racked up in one day by climbing fifteen different routes on the multipitch walls of Shortoff Mountain, NC.

Every single one of you are capable of so much more than you know. It took me five years to understand that soloing the mile was possible, and three years of hard training in preparation. In short, this weekend was the culmination of eight long years of dreaming, and even as little as a year ago it would have seemed impossible.

I’ve been climbing for ten years now, but when I first started, I was falling on 5.8s and had to project them at the university gym. The hardest climb on the wall was 5.12, and we  heard that folks existed who not only could send the grade, but could onsight it. It sounded like an internet hoax. To us, 5.13 was an unthinkable difficulty for superhumans, trad climbing was obviously wizardry, and anybody who said they had done more than 300ft of climbing in a day was obviously full of malarkey. Clearly your arms would fall off before you got that far! These things were so obviously impossible as to be laughable! I told myself back then that the ultimate lifetime achievements were to send 5.13 and onsight 5.12.  It seemed reasonable at the time to assume that it would take me an entire lifetime to achieve. Those things would be enough for me in climbing, I thought. Back then free-soloing 5.11 wasn’t even on the table. Hell, free-soloing of any kind wasn’t on my mind! That was obviously for people far more awesome than me! But myyy how the times change… As it turns out, with dedication and proper training, you can do far more than you know. The crux is just dreaming big enough.

Three years ago I updated my goal list:
-Send 5.13a Sport
-Send 5.12a Trad
-Onsight 5.12 Sport
-Free solo 5.12
-Onsight solo 5.11 multiptich
-Free solo one vertical mile of climbing in a single day, without repeating any routes

But I ran into a major problem: Eighteen months ago I fell on El Cap and wound up in a California ICU. I was so terribly injured that I couldn’t focus my eyes more than six inches in front of my face, and I couldn’t sense which way was up or down. The only way I could cope with it was to tell myself that the guy I was beforehand had died. In essence, I was giving myself permission to start over from scratch as a new man without any attachment to past achievements… but that list of goals was always in my head… I was a bit sad that I’d never do any of those things when I had come so close to each.

FSW3
Looking up in the valley, contemplating the words of a doctor who stated I would never climb again

This year I saw climbers at 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell who had only been climbing for six months. THAT is dreaming big, and I can’t wait to see what they achieve in their future! They sent triple the number of routes that they had hoped for! It turns out that they were capable of far more than they could have possibly known beforehand!

Those guys believed the impossible better than anyone I’ve ever seen. Nevertheless, despite my constand self-doubts, I’ve found my way to some wild achievements, the type of things that kid at the university absolutely knew were impossible ten years ago! Things that guy in the ICU knew had been taken away forever. My achievements might not be huge in the grand scheme of things, but they’re definitely huge for me. Despite catastrophic injuries, and doctors telling me I’d never climb again, I’ve achieved my own impossible and as of this weekend…. I’ve done everything I had ever hoped to do in a lifetime of climbing. That list is completely finished, and I’m left utterly dumbfounded in ways I can’t explain. The weight of my experience in Yosemite and the injuries which put me ICU has finally been lifted from my shoulders. The guy that went to Yosemite full of hope and excitement… That Guy died in yosemite, but he’s back now, and he’s ready to kick some ass.

*Cue bitchin soundtrack*

bird-flip
Special message to the folks who said I’d never climb again. The smile is because I’m grateful they kept me alive, everything else is because I’m grateful to be living. Photo: Cynthia Gannon

As a kid, when I first learned of climbing…. I heard of two large rocks: Half-Dome and El Capitan. Pretty soon everything I did was done with the notion of those two stones in the back of my head. They were the benchmarks against which I measured my progress as a climber.

  • Eight years ago I started soloing with a weekend that earned milage equal to Half-Dome over the course of two days
  • Four years ago I saw shortoff mountain and realized the location was prime for some serious shenanigans
  • Three years ago I decided to do an “El Cap Day” of 3,000ft. However, while I was scouting the location, I managed to do 2,500ft by accident…. after waking up late with a hangover. Apparently 3,000ft wasn’t ambitious enough, and the next notable distance was a vertical mile. So I began training.
  • Two years ago I tried the mile for the first time and came up short at 4500ft.
  • 18 months ago I almost died in Yosemite, and the doctors told me I’d never climb again.
  • 17 months ago I resumed climbing on 5.6 topropes in the gym.
  • 12 months ago I sent V6 indoors, and could onsight 5.12a in the gym.
  • 6 months ago, after training all winter in my basement, I onsighted a few 12’s, sent 5.13- and then soloed 5.12 for the first time in my life. And I did it nine times spread over four different routes.
  • 1 month ago I completed 36 Hours of Horseshoe Hell. Mark and I each did a vertical mile in the 12 hour competition, and another in the 24. At this point I knew I absolutely had to return to Shortoff Mountain. I was certain that I would succeed, the only unknown was how hard I would have to fight
  • November 5th, 2016: I completed my mission without feeling rushed. I didn’t even break a sweat until the wall was bathed in direct afternoon sun.

 

dsc_0168
“Dopey Duck” (5.9) in afternoon sun – Photo: Andy Toms (he has a beautiful Instagram feed)

The Approach
John and I woke up at 6:00 AM, cooked breakfast and hucked it up the trail to Shortoff just before sunrise. When we crested the ridge, first light had broken, but the sun wasn’t quite up yet. At the top of Shortoff John shook my hand and continued on his way, he had his own Mojo Mission this weekend. As I  unpacked my food, water, and shoes, my entire body started shaking. I couldn’t tell if it was from the cold, nerves, or excitement, but it was quite a thing to suddenly be left alone at the top of a four hundred foot wall knowing that I had a mile of vertical climbing ahead of me. It was quite a thing to know that eight years of dreaming had condensed to this one single moment. Every adventure has a moment where you take the first step, a moment when you commit fully to the doing of it. That moment is the crux.

I began the pre-flight ritual of unpacking my headphones and slipping the cord inside my shirt so it wouldn’t tangle on anything while I was climbing. Lightning struck as soon as I pressed play, and my soul came crashing back into my body for the first time since Yosemite. I landed back in my body with a force that staggered me. I drew in a deep breath as “Medicine Man” by Dorothy pumped through my brain, and my body reconnected with its mountain…. This is what I am made for. It was good to be home again! Taking my first step towards the bottom of the cliff felt like peace. The shaking stopped immediately, and any jitters or nerves were replaced with rock-hard resolve. In that precise moment, I finally shook off the psychological shackles of my past injuries.

 

notebooks
My notebook with a rough diagram of the routes and cliff layout. It seems somehow wrong that 400ft of climbing can be abbreviated with a number and a hash-mark

 

Toxic Shock (5.9) 350ft
The previous day, I had planned to warm-up with “Full Tilt Boogie”, but I scratched that plan in the morning chill because my head wasn’t quite on fully. The descent got my heart-rate up, thesmall holds on the first pitch readied my fingers to pull hard, and the easy finish pitches helped me stretch the muscles out. I have never climbed this with a rope. Crux at 80ft
1 route – 350ft – Completed 8:37AM

Onsight(ish) – Supercrack (5.11d) 400ft
John tells me that I have to report this as an onsight. I’d rather call it free-solo redpoint, or perhaps “Onsightish.” I’ve never tried it with a rope, but I attempted the onsight solo two years ago and backed off at the crux 40ft up. The mile day was the second time I tried the route, but this was the first time I tried the crux, and the upper pitches were all onsight.
2 routes – 750ft – 9:33AM

Full-Tilt Boogie (5.11+) 300ft
I onsighted this with a rope one day before, and I clipped the bolt from the crux holds like an idiot while hauling a double-rack up to #3’s…. once I ditched the gear it felt 5.7! And that’s how it should be if you’re soloing. If it feels harder once you drop the rope, you’ve made a terrible mistake and you need to rethink you the decisions which got you up into this situation. Ten out of ten, absolutely would repeat! Crux at 250ft
3 routes – 1050ft – 10:16AM

Pinball Wizard (5.11) 300ft
I love this climb, but I climbed the wrong damned route while looking for it a few years back. I found the correct route with John the day before. Super classic climbing, once again, it felt much easier once I ditched the rope! This lap was aboslute peace for me. Crux at 250ft
4 routes – 1350ft – 10:44AM

img_0011
An inspection run on “Pinball Wizard” (5.11) -Fall 2014 – Photo: Andy Toms

Julia (5.10b) 500
Another great one, I onsight-soloed this one years ago, and it went well enough, but I could really feel my progression as a soloist on this route. All of the footholds felt so much larger this time! I still have not climed Julia with a rope. Crux at 100ft
5 routes – 1850ft – 11:20AM

Help Mr.Wizard (5.11a) 400ft
Once upon a time I toprope-soloed this one to rehearse it, and have been soloing it ever since. Super classic climbing, crux is about 30ft off the ground. I have never led this route
6 routes – 2250ft – 11:55AM

Onsight – Golden Rule (5.11b) 400ft
My target was “Straight and Narrow,” but there was a party mid-lead when I arrived and passing them would have been utterly rude, plus… I didn’t want to risk anyone falling on me!

I asked around to find the start of “Construction Job (5.9)” and started up the wall. For whatever reason, I’ve never been a huge fan of CJ, so I stopped on a rock mid-way up the wall and checked Mountain Project. I remembered there was an alternate finish at 5.11b, and the MP notes said “Big moves on big holds!” Well, that sounded like a good time to me, so I detoured up the seam of Golden Rule and got rowdy! Two 5.11- cruxes 250ft off the ground! Onsighting this might be the coolest achievement of my climbing career so far
7 routes – 2650ft – 12:43PM

Built To Tilt (5.10b) 300ft
By this point, Andy Toms had arrived with his camera. Last time I happened to bump into him and he got some great shots, so I saved most of the routes that are visible to hikers until he arrived. BTT felt the easiest it ever had, by this point I’d become absolutely comfortable soloing in the steeps. I’ve climbed this once with a rope. Crux at 250ft
8 routes – 2750ft – 1:13PM

dsc_0060
Hangin out on “Built To Tilt” (5.10b) – Photo: Andy Toms

Onsight – Tommy Gun (5.10) 300ft
After traveling through the other three routes in the Tilted World, I had looked over at “Tommy Gun” enough to know it would be casual, especially without the weight of a rack and rope. And besideds, if it turned out awful, I could always bail on one of the other variations to the top. This route felt absolutely peaceful and relaxed, all the roof jugs of Full Tilt Boogie with none of the cruxing! If I didn’t know any better, I’d have said it was 5.7! Crux at 250ft
9 routes – 3250ft – 1:44PM

dsc_0125-2
Onsight and at peace in the steeps of “Tommy Gun” (5.10) – Note: I actually don’t know how to tie my shoes – Photo: Andy Toms

Dopey Duck (5.9) 350ft
At this point, all of the 10’s are behind me except for “Straight and Narrow,” I was a bit tired, but I was cruising on momentum knowing that anything difficult was already completed. I onsight soloed this route a few years ago, and have climbed it once with a rope since
10 routes – 3600ft – 2:16PM

Early Times (5.9) 350ft
The climbing went slow on this one, I had to dust lichen off of every single hold. I onsight soloed it two years ago and have never roped up on this route.
11 routes – 3950ft – 2:58PM

 

DopeyDuck
“Dopey Duck” (5.9) – Fall 2014 – Photo: Lynn Willis

 

LUNCH BREAK DANCE PARTY!

Straight and Narrow (5.10a) 400ft
This was the big moment, the last hard climb was done! Now I just had to stay motivated and keep moving! With 3 hours left till sunset, and 3 routes remaining, I knew the day was won. I onsight soloed it two years ago and have never roped up on this route.
12 routes – 4350ft – 4:07PM

Maginot Line (5.7+) 400ft: 13 routes – 4750ft – 4:43PM
Little Corner (5.6) 500ft: 14 routes – 5250ft – 5:25PM

Paradise Alley (5.8+) 450ft
Given the burly liebacking, this was not the smartest finish, but it was the most poetic! Paradise Alley was the first thing I ever climbed in Linville, the first thing I climbed at Shortoff, it was my first solo at shortoff, and my first multipitch solo on the east coast. Paradise Alley was the first time I shared a rope with Lohan… In other words, I’ve made a lot of personal firsts and personal friends on this route, so I saved it for the last route of the day! I crossed the mile marker on the way up this one, it continues to hold a special place in my heart.

The first time I climbed this route, I surveyed the world around me, and I just knew that fun times would be had here… Little did I know just how much fun was in store for my future… Shortoff Mountain is pure magic, and this route was my entry ❤
15 routes – 5700ft – 6:12PM

Julia
Soloing “Julia” (5.10b) next to Scott Cox and Michael Stichter, Fall 2014

Given that route-lengths aren’t ever measured accurately if you ever ask me…. I’ll tell you that I did “a bit more than a mile,” perhaps we’ll call it the “Mile Plus.” All I know is that I certainly covered enough rock to secure the full vertical mile, even if some of the routes were shorter than advertised. After eight years of dreaming, I didn’t want to be robbed of my goal through a damned accounting error. For those of you who like to talk in “pitches per day,” I’m afraid I don’t have a number for you as I still haven’t roped up on most of these routes.

A note on onsight soloing:
I onsight-soloed a few things on this trip, and in particular, I onsighted a “legitimate” 5.11 multipitch climb (“Golden Rule” 5.11a) This achievement is special to me. If you climb 5.11 in your favorite style, you can walk up to almost any crag and expect to find lines to climb and have fun. If you can onsight 5.11, you can expect to have a good time at any new crag you visit. My preferred style is free solo multipitch, so being able to onsight-solo a 5.11 multipitch route is a wonderful thing because it means that I can have fun at any new crag I visit. It’s not that I expect to be able to onsight-solo any 5.11, that’s sheer hubris! There are still 5.8’s I wouldn’t solo at all, let alone onsight. That’s what makes it special; it must be practiced much more carefully, so it’s a rare achievement. I don’t expect to onsight 5.11 multipitch climbs with any regularity (yet), but the fact that I can do it on rare occasions means I’m able to have more fun on my own terms.

It’s particularly special because onsight-soloing is much less likely to succeed compared to a regular solo. With most solos, I have a pre-flight checklist of sorts. It has to feel just right, and there are numerous preconditions required so that I know I can climb the move no matter what happens on the way up. For onsight solos, I have more of an in-fight checklist. When onsight soloing I have to go forward with the assumption that there will be a fucked up move high on the wall, so the calculation changes drastically. When onsight soloing, I’m not asking if I can climb the moves effortlessly, I’m asking if I can down-climb the moves effortlessly. That way, if I find the fucked-up move high on the wall, I can still get back down to the ground safety. Since down-climbing is harder than up-climbing, it’s much more likely that I’ll veto an onsight solo part-way up and reverse to the ground.

ascension
Onsight solo of “Ascension” (5.11b/c) – Sandrock, AL – Photo: Jake Lehner

After all, the purpose of any solo is to get bak down to the ground safely. Sometimes that means sending, topping out, and walking back down… Sometimes that means reversing your moves.

Sport climbing is a different discipline from gym climbing, and it requires a different evaluation of risk. Trad is different from sport, and Multiptich is different from both of those, and bouldering is yet another discipline with its own unique risk assessment. Free-soloing is another discipline, it has its own evaluation of risk, and onsight free-soloing is a separate discipline from the usual soloing of rehearsed routes. It has its own separate rules for evaluation of risk. In other words, if you practice it right, it’s not any more risky than rehearsed soloing. It’s just different.

Final Notes:
Eight years spent dreaming of gnar, logging onto the internet and checking every news source for the latest and greatest in climbing…. I never had to set my home page to the Climbing Narc, because I’d go to the website five times a day anyhow! Every time I go into REI, my mind starts to wander, and as I’d start to dream of the gnar again, I’d pick up another copy of “Climbing Magazine” and “Rock and Ice” (I’d always buy both at the same time). Always I’d be hoping to hear of the next, newest, gnarliest solos.

It seems that I’m not just dreaming of gnar these days, I’m living it. I’m currently doing the things I’ve been reading climbing magazines to hear about. I’m doing all of the things that I once labeled as “impossible”… it makes me dizzy if I think about it too hard!

If you don’t solo, you’ll never get it. But once you have soloed, you get a piece of it. Once you’ve soloed a lot, you’ve really got a piece of it. Once you solo every day…. NOW you understand

Michael Reardon

There is a continuum…. Climbers who’ve done a solo, those who solo, and then there are the soloists.The soloist progresses in climbing with a focus on mastery, we don’t just want to get by on the moves we make, we want to own them. Three years ago I admitted that I was a soloist, not simply one who solos. I’m not redpointing harder things and getting stronger to redpoint hard things. I want to feel more and more relaxed on a wider variety of more difficult terrain. That is the end goal. Because of that, and the past three years of practice, I think I’m starting to finally “get” this whole soloing thing.

img_2232
“The Lion” (5.12c) – Spring 2016 – Photo: Bartram Nason

Once again, that’s the toughest part: Admitting you have a goal, and committing to that goal. Once you do that, the rest falls into place because your choices become clear. Because of that, those six-month climbers finished Horseshoe Hell with triple the score they’d hoped for… and me? I’m finally doing the things that I read magazines to hear about. I believe only a dozen people on earth have had pure free-solo days as large as the one I just pulled off.

(A Note on semantics: I’m not counting things like Honnold and Potter on big-wall solo linkups because they had gear and harnesses. Big wall daisy-solos are a slightly different genre; however, I am counting Honnold for his birthday challenge where he soloed 290 pitches even though the crux was 5.10c because it was all free-solo with no gear)

And It all started ten years ago, falling and failing on 5.8’s at the climbing gym.  Because of that, I’ve often said that I have no natural talent. Nothing in climbing ever came easy to me, everything I gained has been hard won through blood, sweat, and tears…. but I put in the work, and I earned every last bit of it. Then in Yosemite, it was all taken from me in an instant. But it turns out, if you’re determined enough, and dedicated enough, all you have to do is put in the work, and you can get a lot back. It might not be the same as it was before, but that’s just because you have a new starting point. I still have no sense of equilibrium, and I’m deaf in m left ear, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to let those things stop me!

The Last Hold of Seperate Reality
Dreaming big while attempting to flash “Separate Reality” (5.11d), I’ll be back for this someday – Photo: Jacob Bodkin

You know… it’s taken me a long time to admit it…but… Maybe I’m talented after all. My talent is drive and determination, which is fortunate because that’s a talent that can be shared and given freely. My main hope is that I can use this Mojo to help others… That’s why I’ve started coaching and training climbers. I firmly believe that if I can achieve my goals, you can too. The only thing unique about myself is my drive and determination, and I’ll give away every ounce of it that I can! I could never have imagined making a living off of doing the things I love, but I have to remember that I’ve done a lot of things that once felt impossible, so maybe this one will work out too!

Once again, it seems that dreaming big enough was the hardest step.

So if you’re local to Atlanta, come on down to Atlanta Rocks and sample my route setting, or train with me at Mojo Personal Training! If that doesn’t suit your mojo, just stay tuned here at Dreaming of Gnar! One way or another I want to share what I’ve learned with you so that you can dream big and achieve your impossible! I might be living the dream, but that doesn’t mean I’m done dreaming! There’s more in store this spring, and I have a whole winter of training ahead of me to prepare, backed by the latest science in climbing research!

Glory of the Onsight

I’m at a good place in my climbing career, I’ve accomplished most every goal I’d ever set for myself and dreamed about, but still I’ve always maintained that the actual gnar is for people way cooler than me, and I’m simply dreaming of gnar… until now. Now I realize I’m about to be flung face-first straight into the gnar, and I have absolutely no idea if I’m ready. A good many people have told me to “go to hell” in my life, but this is the first time I actually listened to one of them.

A few years back, at 24 Hours of Horshoe Hell, Mark Vabulas’ team set the all-time pitch record at 470, which means 235 pitches per person. This year Mark has big plans. Not only does he want to win this year, not only does he want to beat his own record, but Mark wants to smash his old record into oblivion. Complicating his plan is the fact that his partner split ways and pushed the record up to 520 without him last year. This spring, Mark messaged me with an invite to join his team at the competition. His reason for calling me in on this shenanigans was simple: “Listen man, you’re literally the only person I know who’s strong enough and dumb enough to pull this off with me.” I really wanted to argue with him, but I had to admit… He had a point. I’m definitely dumb enough!

Let the record show, I am definitely dumb enough
Let the record show, I am definitely dumb enough
But strong enough? That remains to be seen. I’ve been training hard for 3.5 months now, and the final push is over. Last night was my final training session and I have begun to taper in preparation for the competition. When he first invited me, I felt confident, but the more I thought about it, the more intimidated I became. Mark’s goal is a team-total of 720 pitches, that means 360 pitches per person, and if you do the math it means someone has to topout every two minutes for 24 hours straight. Holy shit. I actually started doing cardio. I mean… For the first time in my life, I voluntarily went running for fitness

(from what I understand, the above video is played at 1/3rd of the speed we’ll need in Arkansas.)

Part of the strategy is to employ “big wall speed tactics” during the comp, that’s why Mark called me up rather than any of his usual partners or acquaintances. He knew he wouldn’t be able to get a partner who had competed in the event before, and likely couldn’t even find someone who had visited the crag, so he needed a partner who could lock horns with onsight 5.11 run-outs at 4AM after 18 hours of climbing. With solos up to 5.12c under my belt, and onsight solos up to 5.11c, Mark decided I was the guy for the job. I’m sure Mark knew guys physically strong enough for it, but I had trouble arguing with his assessment that I’m dumb enough. I mean… There’s video proof of the fact that I’m dumb enough floating around the Internet. Not only that, but I also had the grit to commit to training for the event and sacrificing any goals I had for the summer.

I’ve been training a TON

Am I ready now? I don’t know. I have literally no idea how well or poorly prepared I am, because I have no benchmark for comparison. When training for soloing, I know things are going well because all the holds begin to feel larger as I gain strength, but I have no idea what this kind of fitness should feel like! I simply have never done anything like this before, and the sheer audacity of it is embarrassing: I’m attempting to win 24HHH, and I’m attempting to do it onsight against guys like Alex Honnold. Who the fuck does Mark think I am!? But… that’s the point of the onsight isn’t it? You never know if you’re ready until it’s over. In the end, it doesn’t matter. I’ve trained the best I know how, and in less than a week I’ll be driving to Arkansas to dig deep and give it hell. Now that the training is over, the only thing left for me to hold onto is curiosity.

While I don’t have any reason to think I’m ready for a goal so audacious that it flirts with outright hubris, I also have no reason to think it’s impossible, because I have no idea what I’m getting into. That’s the glory of the onsight, you don’t know if you’re prepared. But that’s the beauty of the onsight, you don’t know what you’re getting into, so there’s no reason to think you can’t succeed! You just have to saddle up and find out

 

Reflections Revised

This spring has been a huge breakthrough for me, but last spring was quite another story. This spring, I climbed the hardest that I ever have, and through the past month of training I’ve gained more strength and power than I’d ever dared to hope. I sent my first V8 on plastic, that’s something I was never sure I’d do in this lifetime, let alone after so many injuries and accidents… Sure it was plastic, and it’s probably soft, but that still makes it my first V7+ ever on plastic, so I’m still stoked!

And to think back to last year, I was just surprised to be walking then. Sometimes I wonder how I’ve come so far, but when I think about it the secret to my success is obvious: I’m not actually talented. That’s why I’ve adapted and overcome so well.

Dead Man Sending
What i’m thinking: “hold on, you mean to tell me I fell of the second pitch?”
I remember watching the film “Progression” seven years ago, right after the first time I broke my back. I obsessed over videos of Tommy Caldwell on El Cap preparing his project which would become the dawn wall, and watching him climb inspired me to walk around the house squeezing “Grip-Masters” to maintain what little finger strength I could, and keep my legs functional by moving as much as my back-brace would allow. In the middle of the film, World Cup Champion Paxti Usobiaga dropped a line that I’ll never forget:

“I see kids competing these days who are really talented, so they don’t need to train as hard as I do. But I have to work fucking hard. My talent is being a masochist.”

Paxti Usobiaga training for the World Cup
Paxti Usobiaga training for the World Cup

That line has burned into the back of my brain, and it drives me to succeed. It doesn’t matter if you’re talented or not, what matters is your drive! I’ve watched people walk into the gym and immediately send V4 and 5.10 in their first month of climbing. For me, I failed on 5.8’s for my first month of climbing before I could figure it out. It was two years before I ever sent a V4. I am not naturally talented at climbing, every last bit of success I have achieved has been through hard work. Like Paxti, my talent is not climbing, my talent is training. But my love is climbing, and my talent for training empowers that love of vertical movement.

And so I train, and I train, and I train. I have been learning how to train for 8 years now, and recently got my personal training certificate (CPT) through NASM to learn how to train in accordance with modern scientific research. And that’s what it took to drag my carcass out of a California ICU and build the strength needed to free-solo laps on 5.12’s in just 10 months. It turns out there’s a large body of research on how to get stronger, and if you apply that research with right mind, amazing things become possible! Applying these methods through this past winter is precisely the reason that I climbed my personal best in multiple disciplines this spring.

Soloing in the treetops on "First Offense" (5.12a)
Soloing in the treetops on “First Offense” (5.12a)
The secret to my recovery over the past year is that rehabilitation is just training from a lower starting point, and I use training for the purpose of getting better so that climbing is JUST for the enjoyment of climbing. After all, isn’t that the whole point of climbing? To have fun and plaster a huge grin on your face while you enjoy the moment? I don’t have to worry about my performance on the wall, because I know the training is working and the sends will come soon enough as long as I stick with proven methods. Training releases my mind so that I don’t have to think of anything while I’m actually climbing beyond how awesome climbing is! How to progress is a thought I’ll save for the fingerboard!

Training in Cruzers on 5.13's at Stone Summit Atlanta. 4% more try-hard, every single day. That's the goal.
Training in Cruzers on 5.13’s at Stone Summit Atlanta. 4% more try-hard, every single day. That’s the goal. It also helps that the gym sets large foot-holds on the steep stuff!
Dave McLeod says the difference between the pros and us is just 4%…. Just holding on four percent longer on this rep, four percent longer on that hold, giving four percent more effort on every thing that they try in every session for decades on end. Climbing has always been hard for me, and it’s never come easy, so that’s why it’s no shock when climbing gets harder after a recovery. But it’s already par for the course from where I’m sitting, so it’s a no-brainier for me to keep tossing in my 4% every single day until I’m stronger than ever.

How to solo 5.12

Step 1: Don’t.

Great, now that the disclaimer is out of the way, lets talk busines.

Soloing is dangerous; that’s evident as soon as you find yourself fifteen feet off the ground and look down, but many activities are dangerous, so what’s different about this one? To cite an overused comparison: Driving a car is dangerous. At freeway speeds, ramming a blunt object won’t end well for you or your passengers. Auto accidents are among the top ten leading causes of death in America almost every year. What if something unexpected happens, how will you manage to avoid a crash? You tell yourself that you’ll be okay, because you’ve practiced driving a lot, and know you can keep your car straight even if the unexpected occurs. Plus, you have the added knowledge that we’ve well-engineered cars to make them “safe enough.” Despite the engineering, I’d bet you were still terrified the first time you ever drove on the freeway. Despite that initial terror, I’d wager you feel incredibly comfortable behind the wheel on during that objectively dangerous activity.  It’s amazing what the human brain can get used to with a little practice, and practice is just training viewed through a different lens.

In the past two years, I’ve climbed more pitches outside without a rope than I have with one. That’s a lot of practice, and it’s just one year. I’ve been soloing for eight years now, the milage adds up fast.

Statistically speaking, BASE jumping is the most dangerous sport out there, with wingsuit proximity flying being the most dangerous sub-genre of BASE. In any sport, folks like to talk about “pushing the limits” of what’s possible, but that always entails something different. Sprinters must become faster, Olympic lifters must become stronger, Sport climbers need stronger fingers and more advanced technique. With proximity flying, the progression of the sport involves flying closer and closer to objects at high speed. Unfortunately, the only safety one has in BASE relies on having distance from objects so that you can maneuver away if the wind shifts. Because of this, progressing the pursuit of proximity wingsuit flying, by definition, is a practice of slowly eradicating one’s safety margin, a little at a time, until fate catches up with you, or you come to your senses and back off. It takes a lot of skill, but also a fair amount of luck. Pushing the “limits” of proximity BASE means inching closer to death in the most literal definition.

 

4598588937
Proximity Flying: Click the photo for more details

By contrast, soloists are all about solidity. I don’t “push my limits” in soloing the way that other climbers do. I push my limits safely in a controlled setting on the campus board and in the climbing gym. For soloing, I have to know that I have the ability to climb a route even should several things went wrong. Because it’s not a matter of if, but when. Because things do go wrong, but that’s not always a big deal. If it was a big deal, I wouldn’t be able to justify continuing. How many times have your feet slipped at the climbing gym, but you continued to climb to the top? How many times have drivers swerved in front of your car unexpectedly, but you didn’t crash? These are learned skills, and there are things you can do to stack the odds in your favor.

I’m talking about jugs! Let’s talk about 5.12 now. 5.12 is hard, and 5.12’s on slabs are utterly horrifying. If we keep the grade constant, steeper climbs yield bigger holds due to the endurance factor. Then it becomes less luck and more fitness. Steep climbs are the home of the biggest holds for any particular grade of climbing, and that’s why my hardest solos have been in the steeps of Little River Canyon. To contrast that point, there are 5.8’s on Looking Glass that you could send in high-heels whichI wouldn’t solo on this side of hell! In other words, my safety margin is a mix of fitness and route selection. The grade has surprisingly little to do with it beyond being a vague guide for which ones are “obviously impossible” because I can’t send them.

 

img_2232
Steep route, big comfortable holds! “The Lion” (5.12c)

Folks like to dramatize soloing with statements such as “Don’t you know that one mistake will get you killed!” Trust me, I think about the potential consequences of my mistakes far more than you do. If I was on a polished 5.8 slab devoid of holds, it really would only take a small mistake to send me pitching off the route. When the hands are so small and thin, the only thing pasting you on the wall is friction and a little shoe rubber. In the steeps, fingers have to be locked in hard to the rock to maintain connection. If I pick a route with solid in-cut holds, I don’t have to worry about my hands slipping by accident or without warning (or my feet, for that matter), because I have a reliable connection with the rock that I can feel and evaluate. Even so, things could go wrong in little ways, but if something does go wrong, I just grab harder and bear through it. Just like you do at the climbing gym. Foot slips? Grab harder. Hand slips? That’s why I have two, and I’ve made a deliberate point to train so I can do one-arm pullups on crimps. If one hand slips a little, I have trained to have the excess strength necessary to carry through.That need for excess strength is why my hardest solos are near to my onsight level, and not anywhere near my physical limits. 

Soloing done right isn’t a matter of “I can do this perfectly,” that would be hubris. Soloing done right means training well and selecting the right route so that one can say “I can send this with energy to spare, even if I make multiple mistakes.”

Speaking of mistakes, climbers love the onsight. Onsighting is impressive, because it means you can send the climb even while doing everything wrong and wasting energy while thinking. Often I’ll choose to solo routes I’ve onsighted, so once I’ve dialed in the beta and remove the effort of dragging a rope and draws… Well, at that point I usually have a built-in safety margin. Onsighting with a rope involves making mistakes on the route from guessing the wrong beta or burning excess injury while stalling and thinking about what to do next. After onsighting,  when I come back with the correct beta, I know I can climb it without falling, even if I make a few mistakes.

That’s the thing about soloing; it’s not a kamikaze mission where I’m willing to roll the dice and see if I can climb something perfectly without making mistakes. You can’t sustain soloing for adrenaline or cool-factor, that will catch up to you faster than wingsuit BASE. I solo because it’s the most relaxing activity on earth for me. Chosing to solo isn’t a statement of impulse or sensation-seeking. It’s a statement that I have prepared so well that I know I can control the climbing on a route, even when I screw up, and a dedication to training to make sure that rarely happens.

One great quote from the 80’s states: “Any asshole can get lucky once, second time’s the solo.” That quote really threw me off when I first heard it. It just rubbed me the wrong way, but I think I understand it now. If you come off a route thinking “wow, I’ll never solo that again,” then the preparation was incomplete, it was a risk. You were too close to the limit for comfort, and you simply got away with it. It was luck. On the other hand, If you come off thinking “okay, that was cool, I’d gladly go again!” That’s a much clearer sign that you’ve approached the wall with right mind and proper preparation. Soloing is about being ready to climb on command and having everything sufficiently in control to feel relaxed.

You want to know how to solo 5.12? Create a set of skills where soloing 5.12 feels like the most relaxed and peaceful activity on earth. Otherwise, pack in a rope!

 

img_2216

 

Quantum Leap: A trip report

I still vividly remember when I started climbing, struggling on 5.8’s, and looking at folks on 5.12’s in amazement. How could anyone possibly climb that? In those days, the ultimate goal in our community’s eyes was to send 5.13a and onsight 5.12a… But that kind of ability just seemed so inhuman to me, how could anyone even climb 5.12, let alone onsight it!?

One year ago, eight years later, I climbed my first 5.13a, and onsighted my first 5.12’s. I still can’t entirely believe I did it. It seems too surreal, too superhuman for someone like me to achieve. That’s the kind of stuff reserved for strong climbers, not me… No matter how strong I get, it seems that kid struggling on 5.8’s will still be looking outward with a sense of awe and wonder: “How is that physically possible?!” I’m always surprised when one day, after a lot of training… It is! And then, a few months later, it becomes easy.

I felt dizzy just typing that last sentence. I’ve never felt like I’m special, especially not in climbing, so I’m always surprised whenever I achieve something. Climbing is maddeningly difficult, and yet… I’ve trained hard enough to develop these magic moments where it all comes together and just feels like the most natural thing in the world. Then once I realized that was possible, I trained specifically to lengthen those moments and live in them. When I was injured in Yosemite last spring, I thought I had lost that irretrievably. How could someone climb peacefully with no sense of equilibrium?

I hid in the basement and trained all winter once I realized my injuries were healed, and at the beginning of March, I returned to my old favorite haunts to take the fingers for a test-drive. Not only were they doing better than expected, but I was stronger than I’d dared even to hope. I managed to onsight “Thieves” (5.12a), and snake the redpoint on “Gas Chamber” (5.13a). I’ve never screamed with excitement after a send, but… Well…  Fortunately, it was a weekday at the crag, so nobody had to hear me!

Much to my surprise, It felt like my fingers were just getting started.


I had a notion that some old favorites might go as solos with my newfound security on the wall from this winter’s training, so I returned to Foster Falls and rehearsed “Bottom Feeder,” “First Offense” and “Satisfaction” about a half-dozen times each to prepare, and then it was just a matter of waiting for the right day. To train my mind, during the waiting period, I made a “dry run” at Sandrock by repeating every 5.11 I’ve ever soloed in a single afternoon and was surprised to feel solid enough on all of them that I could repeat the lines on command, even “Dreamscape”… Which held the title of my hardest solo at the time

Then, the day after, Lohan invited me out to Little River Canyon to run laps on local testpieces. I hopped on “Boy” and “The Lion” and they felt casual. The lines are crazy steep, but the great thing about steep climbing is this: As long as you hold the grade constant: the steeper it gets, the bigger the holds are! These routes were so steep that the holds were large enough to make the climbing felt even more secure than my Foster Falls circuit. Game on!


I couldn’t decide which set of climbs I wanted to go for… Boy and Lion? Or the Foster Falls Circuit? When the weather finally cleared enough, I realized I could have both and planned to do it all in a single weekend, starting in Little River Canyon.

I started with “Boy”, and it went smoothly. To me, it was slightly nerve wracking because I knew the crux was a boulder problem at the very top, and the last move of that bouldery crux was the hardest. I had that in my head the whole way up, but once I laid my hands on the holds, I felt completely calm and restful. In retrospect, I think that contemplating life at the base of the climb was the real crux! Next, I went for “The Lion”, which had a lower and more secure crux. I wasn’t as anxious, but I got excited once I fired the crux and had to collect my head to fire the finish smoothly. The routes don’t top out on the wall, so I traversed right and climbed down to the ground via a wandering path across the opening moves of a few 5.11’s. I managed to dodge any of the cruxy bits by traversing from route-to-route and the downclimb felt about 5.10.

After pulling off the solo of a 5.12c, I knew my lines at Foster Falls would go well, but the weather soured. Rain was now forecasted for 3 pm instead of the 5 pm I had planned. I was worried I wouldn’t have time to warm up, but then I thought back to the day I sent “Gas Chamber” and remembered that I had warmed up on “Satisfaction”, and it felt good… So I figured that would be a good way to start the day. My primary anxiety was about the possibility of having an audience; that’s just weird when I’m near the upper limit of my comfort zone… I just don’t want to have the distraction… I saw some other climbers walking towards the wall and glanced at my heart rate monitor. I spiked at about 150bpm because I was anxious about their affect on my performance and almost called the whole thing off… But they kept walking, my heart rate dropped, and now at least my body felt warmed up!


Satisfaction starts off with some moderate 5.10 into a stout 5.11 section, and then you’re in the crux. For me, the crux beta requires a lie back off a right hand-jam, to stretch left to a quarter inch crimp. Hike the feet, reach up right to another quarter inch crimp, then flow left hand into a BOMBER finger-lock. When leading the route, cross-clipping off of that finger-jam always felt like the crux. Soloing the climb felt like cheating since I was able to skip that stressful clip without worries. As soon as my left hand sunk into the finger lock, all the morning jitters disappeared, and I relaxed my way to the finishing ledge where “Satisfaction” ends and “First Offense” begins.

After sitting on that ledge for a while to contemplate life, I just trusted my abilities and executed the moves through the roof. “First Offense” is 70ft exposed from the first move off the ledge, which really got into my head while I was sitting there thinking about it, but once I pulled onto the massive jugs my entire face split into a giant grin: This is what climbing is all about! I topped out, slipped off my climbing shoes and walked the long way back down barefoot, stubbing my toe HARD in the process. I figure one day I’ll learn to walk straight, but it’s really not a high priority at the moment!

When I glanced at the readout of my heart rate monitor, the lowest intensity periods were while I was climbing, and the highest were while I was walking back down. Apparently I feel more secure on the wall than on foot!


For the last lap of the day, I swung into the layback at the start of “Bottom Feeder”, but in my head, I was scared by the crux deadpoint. It’s SUPER committing. When I got to the crimps at the setup of the move, I wasn’t feeling it at all. “Dreamscape” had a deadpoint, but you’re launching from good holds, so if you screw it up, you can just hold on with that hand and try again. “Bottom Feeder” doesn’t have this luxury, you’re launching from a really bad pocket, so you’ve gotta stick it. I don’t like to roll the dice on something like that, so I reversed the crux and climbed back down to the base. I was a little bit bummed about the climbing but happy that I made a good decision. There’s no room for ego up there.

As a consolation prize, I took a second lap on Satisfaction and First Offense… But this time, I clipped my cruzers onto my belt-loop for the hike down. Among certain crews in the stone master era, it was once said that “Any asshole can get lucky once, the second time is the solo.” And I have to say that the second time felt way better than the first! Once I knew how good the solo felt, all the anxiety disappeared and the only thing left was good climbing. In this case, the second time really was the solo, because that’s when I finally relaxed enough to enjoy it.

Looking back, I realize that I’ll be back to solo “Boy” and “The Lion” again someday, because it was just a super fun experience. If you like numbers and grades, it’s notable that on paper it looks like I jumped from soloing 5.11c to 5.12c in the space of a weekend… But the real quantum leap that I’ve experienced is one of feeling solid and secure. Now, when I solo my hardest climbs, there is no feeling at all of doing something special. Everything was locker; everything was secure to the extreme degree where I would gladly repeat it again, and don’t feel the need to wait for the mythical “special moment.” I’m one with those climbs now, and I can enjoy them on my terms.

Ten months ago I was supposed to be dead, and now I’m more alive than I could have possibly dreamed

Enjoy the video below!

QuantumLeap from Austin Howell on Vimeo.