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.

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