Cell towers, that’s what brought me to Atlanta. I found myself down on my luck, and in need of a way to make money to support myself right at the time when I realized that climbing wasn’t just fun, it was profitable too!
The high steel is interesting, and its certainly hard, but it’s boring for the fingertips, I needed climbing. Real climbing. Rock climbing. My first task in this strange land was obvious, I needed a new home crag and I started googling rabidly to find one. Right from the start, there was one obvious crag and one obvious line that had to be tried. Dreamscape at Sandrock Alabama. So, I rounded up a guy from work, tossed him a harness and a gri-gri then taught him the rudiments of belay techniques at the crag on our one weekly day off. It’s not quite as sketchy as it sounds, we used gri-gri’s on the tower-top so at least he understood how not to drop me, and proper lowering technique.
Wet, soaking, soupy holds greeted me for my onsight attempt, each juggy rail holding enough water for a mid-sized aquarium… I was completely gassed and, thinking back to my rudimentary belay lesson, sketched. With the exception of my first whipper onto a cam, that was the loudest scream I’ve ever let loose in my life! But he held the fall, and I was completely captivated by the climb. While I had carelessly blown the onsight, I now had all the motivation in the world to return for another trip. With daylight and mojo fading, we packed our things and headed back for the work-week, but I knew I would be back to send Dreamscape eventually.
Fast forward 10 months, I was slipping into the most worn-out floppy pair of un-tied climbing shoes I own, and tying in for another round on this fantastic route. Toes poking out from holes in the rubber, edges worn down to nothing, already tired from a fun day spent guiding a friend on her first time outdoors, I went for another round on dreamscape…. and floated it! I was absolutely dumbfounded. With all the odds stacked against me, I climbed that fearsome stretch of rock so casually that I was able to maintain a conversation through the whole ascent, and that’s when it dawned on me…
“oh my god, i’m gonna solo dreamscape.” obviously not today, but I knew it was going to happen soon and in my dumbfounded disbelieving state, I told EVERYONE who would listen to me.
Two weeks later, I was at war with myself. Why did I say that? Who tells people these things? Who do you think you are, Alex Honnold? Nobody cares what you climb! But, that’s just the way that I am. When I get excited about something that makes me happy it’s just hard to keep it inside. I was leaving my friends’ Halloween Party early to make sure I was rested, and everyone knew where I was destined next. The silence, the awkward goodbyes, like some of them didn’t think they would ever see me again. Why on EARTH had I told everyone my plans? Now, seeing their faces and considering the next day, I was intimidated, ashamed, and perhaps even just a little bit scared from picking up on their vibes.
But, I told myself, you don’t have to climb it…. There’s something to be said for having the wisdom to back out of a solo when you don’t feel comfortable, and demonstrating that kind of wisdom is something to take pride in. Sometimes, I’m much more proud of the lines I haven’t soloed. So we made the drive up to Sandrock, all the while I was contemplating what life choices had brought me to this point. Am I doing this because I really want to? Because it feels right? or am I doing this because, like some narcissistic fool, I told everyone that I was going to do it? The latter of those options truly had me scared, you can’t pursue risk for fame. You can’t do these things because of what anyone will think, because eventually gravity will catch up to you.
Warming up felt good, I was strong on my usual circuit and wound up through soloing a 5.11b called “Never Believe” just to see if I was really feeling it today…. And I wasn’t sure, I was still afraid that I had let others influence my decisions. But, we had ropes, and we had gear, and I had willing belay partners, so I thought I could take a burn on Dreamscape on rope just to see how it really felt, and finally make the Go/No-Go decision.
Staring up from the base of that route to the summit, it all hit me. In that moment, looking at the holds, the exposed aerete, the rails for the dynamic throws, and the whole world as I could see it, I knew my mind beyond any shadow of a doubt, at least on this matter. We rigged the rope for Bibi to rappel in to get photographs, and I laced up my shoes. Today, my harness was staying in the pack!
I have a “pre-flight checklist” that I assess before committing to any climb, especially solos. It’s not a very formal thing and it’s requirements change from moment to moment, climb to climb so in the end it’s only part list and partly just voodoo and hand-waving, but the fact is every climb I solo is based on a very personal and honest risk assessment. I had told people my plans because I was so completely sure it was a good climb for me to solo. This climb had occupied my imagination ever since I arrived in the region, and the notion that I could be so sure it would go was astonishing to me, because I’m not used to thinking of myself as someone who climbs hard. And sometimes when I feel astonished, I get excited and start talking too much. After all the months of hard training, I could see direct results that all the laps on endurance routes, all the time spent on campus rung dynos and fingerboarding was all worth it, and I just couldn’t keep it inside, but ultimately I was here on my own terms.
I spilled the beans on my plans, and consequently let others get into my head. But if I could send the route while holding a conversation, with the weight of the rope, and the drag of the draws in my floppy, hole-in-the-toe, raggedy shoes after a 10 pitch day of climbing, then I had more than the required strength to solo the route. The start is a slab, slabs are spooky and I didn’t have any beta dialed. But I knew this was OK, because I had my best shoes on, and they stick when they have no right to. I knew I could take the time to figure out my beta as long as I wanted, because I’m pretty good at slabs, and almost every move could yield a no-hands rest to sit and think, and I knew I had that bomber no-hands rest before the overhang to recoup my mental armor after the initial spooky slab.
In the overhang, I knew where the sweet spot was for the crux throw, right next to a little crack in the rail, the aerate had a big pinch that would feel exposed and spooky, but only because I’m bad at pinches and the move was off-balance, but It wasn’t a real issue… It just made me uncomfortable by hi-lighting my weak points. I knew that the final throw was something I didn’t have dialed in, but I also knew I had enough strength to botch the move, hold the lock off and fumble for the sweet spot as long as I needed.
And that’s exactly how the route went down, and I knew that I hadn’t let anything influence my pre-flight checklist. Driving home, it truly felt as though I was remembering someone else’s accomplishment, a dream from someone else’s life had drifted into my head… It was hard to believe, but I had soloed Dreamscape, and it was only the beginning.