Origins: Anatomy of a Soloist (Part 1)

This year has been huge for my free solo experience. I’ve soloed more, more often, and harder than I ever have before in my life. It was like my abilities had undergone a quantum leap. After a day spent primarily onsight-soloing multi-pitch routes at Linville Gorge it hit me: During my outdoor trips over the past 9 months I’ve climbed more pitches without a rope than I have on belay.

That’s huge, and if I didn’t know me, I’d likely think that guy is crazy if all I had to judge was his haircut and  scorecard.

Classic sending hair. Photo: Julia Watson

Looking at these simple written reports of my climbing it feels like I’m reading about someone far more talented than myself. Now, I don’t mean to belittle my experience, it’s just very surreal. I’m finally living up to my own dreams, and I can’t help but wonder what a younger me would have thought if he only knew what was in store? All those hours spent at the dorm reading stories about the stone masters and all of their exploits, watching videos of Dan Osman and Michael Reardon while recovering from a broken back (it’s not what you think! I was dropped by an inattentive belayer!), and learning to climb in the backdrop of the extremely trad-oriented atmosphere of Enchanted Rock certainly helped form my idea of what climbing should be. Looking back, I find it telling that soloists never struck me as being extreme. Amazing, yes, but not any more than guys who just plain climb hard. Maybe it was all that time I spent in the “way too high to make mom comfortable” zone in trees playing hide and go seek as a kid. I never had a rope then, so why should these guys need one monkeying around on a cliff?

What can I say? Some guys are talented, and they walk up to the wall dazzling everyone with instantaneous prowess and success. We have examples like Chris Sharma waltzing in to hike 5.10 in sneakers on his first day of climbing, Michael Reardon soloing most of his formative climbs without access to partners, Jan Hojer going from zero to hero after two years in the sport and winding up at the World Cup.

I wasn’t one of those guys.

The University of Houston’s climbing wall, where I learned to love the vertical.

My first day of climbing was humbling in a way I couldn’t understand at the time. Like many misguided high school athletes, I walked into the University of Houston’s climbing wall expecting to “win” climbing, and was fairly certain I had done so after cruising up an auto-belay in “only” 45 seconds. But then Tetyana Antonyuk stepped over and informed me that was (essentially) a waste of my time. “Here, try this,” she says tying a rope to my harness, and explaining the concept of a “Route.” I had no idea what was going on, but I’d be damned if I wasn’t going to win this route thing too!

I didn’t.

I flailed and popped off at a mighty height of 15 ft, the route was graded at 5.8, which would put it in the upper echelon of the beginner bracket at the university’s annual climbing competition. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do it, but simply that I couldn’t figure out how. Now THAT was interesting. Much more than a simple brute activity measured in pounds, inches, seconds and trophies won in competition, this was something that required thought, and I was immediately hooked. This climbing thing is truly a game of the mind, and that makes it the most rewarding physical pursuit I’ve found yet. I didn’t know that day, but something had been set in motion that would shape every day of my life going forward, it was like something clicked into place that I didn’t even know was missing.

The next big thing

Getting gritty on my first trip to Shortoff (Photo Credit: Julia Watson)
Getting gritty on my first trip to Shortoff (Photo Credit: Julia Watson)

I always have to have it it seems, some next big thing. Once upon a time it was just climbing. We were new and had no idea what we were doing, but we knew it was awesome, and we just plain couldn’t get enough. Summer heat, frigid wet winters it was all worthwhile! It was obvious to us that climbing was the most fun thing in the world. Then at some point it turned into projecting, perhaps because the old adventures weren’t adventurous enough, or because I wanted to test my mettle and get the absolute crap scared out of me from time to time. Who knows? One hard send after the next, over and over and over again, pushing the grades and chasing numbers for self-satisfaction and vainglory. Apparently climbing wasn’t enough, because I soon found myself chasing the accolades garnered by climbing harder than my peers. It made me sick, and I almost quit climbing. It was too easy to get caught in numbers, angry about failure and dive into a spiral of negativity when progress slowed and routes failed to bow to my desires for conquest. Then it just got worse when I started climbing in competitions where I could easily see in a regimented setting just how I stacked up, and I never felt I had done “good enough”. It just wasn’t me, I didn’t like playing everyone else’s game. It wasn’t really a conscious decision, but I burned out and hardly climbed for a year after that. The mojo just wasn’t there and climbing didn’t feel fun anymore.

Projecting "Block Party" (5.13a)
Projecting “Block Party” (5.13a)

Naturally, end of that year found me much, much weaker than I had been on the end of that competitive projecting and training kick, but I had a serious windfall that stoked the fire: A new climbing area had opened near my home. In Houston, your nearest destinations to rope up were essentially Reimer’s Ranch (3hrs), Enchanted rock (4hrs), and Hueco Tanks (12hrs). Well, as starving college students who had a hard decision to make every time we filled up the tank on whoever’s poor vehicle became commandeered for the mad dash out to the crag,  we weren’t launching out on a 12 hour drive for a weekend trip, which left us with 2 crags within range. The prospect of a brand new bolted wall with 250 routes was akin to discovering real live unicorns in my backyard, and I started training in ancipation of the new adventures. Climbing was exciting again After months spent hanging on every word and report on the Facebook group setup by the area’s developers it was time to rediscover adventure. I didn’t understand it at the time, but suddenly climbing was fun again, just like it was when I first started.

The only thing better than climbing, is more climbing
-Hans Florine

I think Hans hit the nail on the head with that quote. I was in love with climbing all over again, trying different routes as fast as I could get my hands on them, just living in the flow of exploration climbing around like a chipmunk on cocaine. I know now that it’s never the climbing you remember, but rather the people you share it with and the sense of adventure, and in those times we all had .  Sometimes though, I still wanted more climbing. I had an aversion to hard climbing as it slowed my pace and flailing on the same moves fails to evoke the sense of novelty and adventure. Remembering how much redpointing sucked the fun out of my adventures had set me on a new path towards endurance and high-milage climbing, but the training continued. Climb easy, train hard, and make “easy” become harder. And that was my new big thing, how hard was “easy?”

Bridwell, Long and Westbay after the first ascent of "The Nose" in a day
Bridwell, Long and Westbay after the first ascent of “The Nose” in a day

Months of training later found me on my first big solo circuit since I’d taken my break from climbing, with 12 climbs in a day at Sandrock, AL. Climbing mostly onsight, nothing harder than 5.10b, It brought fresh life into my climbing. Later, after more training, I started feeling comfortable in the low 11’s and my lap count upped to 21 in a day and around then is when I first soloed “Dreamscape” (5.11c/d). “Easy” had progressed from 5.10 to 5.11, “Easy” had become harder.

That was big, but it was just a practice run for what was to come. While Dreamscape felt incredibly comfortable, it made me uneasy because it felt audacious to call 5.11+ easy. In the end, I fell back to looking for more climbing, and I’d been in love with Shortoff Mountain ever since flipping pages in the guidebook. This place was more in every way, and very few climbs were harder than 5.11

I love the history of climbing with all of its colorful characters and audacious achievements, and few were more audacious or colorful than the stonemasters. Those guys were the epitome climbing in my mind, and they didn’t seem to slow down for anything. When it got too cold for Yosemite and the stonemasters landed in Joshua Tree, they always had the main goal in mind: El Cap. El Capitan is a 3,000ft tall granite monolith in Yosemite Valley which was, and still is, the biggest prize in many climber’s career. Some insightful madman had an idea: Since speed climbing El Cap in a day is a huge goal, and El Cap is 3,000ft tall, why not just climb 3,000ft in a day at Joshua Tree, by linking up a ton of climbs? Now it was game on to climb enough stone in a day to equal The Capitan. For logistical reasons, the name of the game was free-solo. And so the “El Cap Day” was born by the desire to free-solo 3,000 vertical feet in a day ranging up to 5.10 (because, you know, you don’t want to do anything “hard”). As far as I know, it’s something that has never been done on the East Coast.

The walls of shortoff mountain
The walls of shortoff mountain

This surprises me,  as Shortoff Mountain is practically begging for an El Cap Day. 3-500ft walls with about two dozen routes to choose 5.11 and under. After a few exploratory runs I felt like a solo mission was in order, I knew I was solid and I just couldn’t hold it in any longer. I decided to just go and run a pre-flight check on the wall, to see what the climbing was like, and perhaps swing around on a rope to suss out some of the harder pitches to see if they would go. I didn’t have a chance to do very much… It was sunday, I was still dehydrated from a Friday night out on the town with my tower crew, the weather looked poor, my body was a little tired, I woke up late and didn’t arrive at the wall until noon so I wasn’t expecting very much. Just a short exploratory mission to see what was possible.

6 routes, 25 pitches, and 2,200ft of vertical gain later, I stumbled back to the truck. I hadn’t made El Cap, but I had completed my first Half-Dome Day in the space of a single afternoon.

BuiltToTiltI ran out of familiar terrain and began climbing onsight, reading the Mountain Project app off my phone as I climbed, much to the alarm of neighboring parties. Apparently a lost hiker is much more alarming at 300ft! The dehydration cramped my muscles from the first few pitches and I had to scale back my ambition and spared attention to be more careful, the lack of sleep made me slow, and I topped the last 200ft of “Little Corner” (5.6) in a gentle rain having run out of water two routes prior. It was only 5.6 but my heart was redlining, in my head I knew I was safe, that’s why I’d risked going up to begin with but no matter how sure you are about yourself, you can’t help but fear nature’s wrath as it falls around you. Despite my fears, the rain didn’t fall hard, just a stout sprinkle, as if the gorge was just gently telling me that I’d had enough for the day. The next morning I could hardly move, and there was no doubt in my mind that I found my way back to to center right as I’d discovered my new Next Big Thing. I know what’s next, good rest, better training, proper hydration and a well-timed start. With the application of a little good fitness sense and determination, the El Cap day is sure to come.

It still feels audacious, almost blasphemous to try for these things. Re-reading my reports to my friends about what I climbed, it seems like I’m reading someone else’s accomplishments, but at the end of the day it still feels “easy” and that’s the whole point of my Next Big Thing these days. Easy is fun, easy leads to more climbing, more climbing is good mojo, and following that good mojo up the wall is the best path to center that I can imagine. And isn’t that what it’s all about? At the end of the day, it’s just climbing. If you’re not having fun, something needs to change.

My Half-Dome Day:
300ft – “Built to Tilt” (5.10b)
450ft – “Paradise Alley” (5.8+)
450ft – “Julia” (5.10b) – onsight
350ft – “Dopey Duck” (5.9) – onsight
400ft – “Maginot Line” (5.7+) – onsight
500ft – “Little Corner” (5.6) – onsight

Getting gritty on my first trip to Shortoff
Getting gritty on my first trip to Shortoff