Back in the Saddle

Recently, I sent my hardest climb ever outdoors at 5.12b. This might sound surprising since I’ve also recently soloed 5.11c/d, and those numbers are really close together!

I have a very odd relationship with hard climbing, and we truly haven’t always gotten along. I once was completely obsessed with hard routes, chasing the next number and progressively seeking out harder and harder climbs to test myself and project them into submission. Unlike most sport-climbers, I never was stoked on bouldering, which always served my quirky side (which is pretty large side of my personality). Years ago, I was determined to skip from 5.11 to 5.13. I had trained hard with campus boards and finger boarding and was sending hard enough climbs in the gym that this didn’t seem utterly preposterous. The guys who were my peers on a rope would regularly boast about sending a V8 outside, or doing several v7’s in a training session, and even crushing V10 at Hueco. Me? I did a V5…. this one time.. I think… it was pretty much a fluke… A good bean burrito may have helped with the rocket-power I needed to “float” the crux…

Rocket powered crux mojop! Photo Credit: Daria Lumina

But I was definitely climbing hard grades on a rope.

This eventually led me to climbing in comps and generally performing absolutely, incredibly, poorly. Despite demonstrating dogged delusions of grandeur, I never made the podium at a single event, and rarely even managed to turn in a full score-card! It was bloody demoralizing. This awful bitter taste of raw competitiveness and the stress of being required to send things wasn’t enjoyable to me, and this led me to complete burnout for a while.

Some gals (and guys) are strong, and they generally run around the boulder pit crushing my projects as warmups. While I might not be as strong as some, I hold on like a complete bastard! Endurance is my thing, and it works out great because that just allows me to do my favorite thing: More climbing. But that doesn’t work out so well in a comp setting when many of the routes have cruxes that specifically test inhuman crush-power. Having my weakness so thoroughly exploited made me decide that I hated hard climbing, and I almost resigned myself to climbing easy for eternity.

Contemplating life before attempting an onsight Photo: Julia Watson
Contemplating life before attempting an onsight Photo: Julia Watson

At that point, I stopped redpointing outdoors, and got bored with climbs I couldn’t onsight. Somehow, that didn’t stop me from accidentally sending two 12a’s a few years back. Failing to onsight them had me far more bummed out than I had any right to be. I mean, those are the hardest climbs I had redpointed until this past 4th of July weekend and that’s kinda crazy! My hardest redpoint was a climb that I had intended to onsight. I went on to fall off the onsight attempt on a few more 12a’s at the Red a year ago, one-falling them and such, and haven’t ventured much out of 5.11 since then, because I’ve been living in a blur of onsight climbing, visiting different crags each weekend. There’s just too much rock to enjoy!

I LOVE the onsight, in part because it’s so unrelentingly difficult and absolutely intolerant of mistakes. It’s high stakes because you drive miles and hours on end, pumping and thumping the engine, swerving corners at relativistic velocity as you pilot your vehicle through mountain roads and dirt tracks (or maybe that’s just me?). Then you stride through a gentle approach… or don’t.. You trudge grudgingly up some forlorn pile of scree dropped straight from Warren Harding’s worst nightmares, get lost, wander around, mistakenly find the summit of your cliff, cuss yourself, cuss the rock, almost cuss your adventure partners, ACTUALLY cuss your adventure partners, then finally you make it to the rock intact and rested… or not. And then it’s go-time, and you don’t want to disappoint the climbing partner that you dragged along for the ride. You go through those little familiar rituals like tying the rope, smelling the rock, checking the belay devices, doing the hokey-pokey football home-run dance, and you’re off.

And that’s it. It’s full on now, you haven’t but the vaguest notion of what is ahead of you, there’s a crimp! it sucks, check the side-pull, that’s worse, pocket undercling? RUN WITH IT! Bam you’re at the jug, way above your last gear, or maybe there’s a bolt at face-height. Regardless, things look grim, you contemplate life… and you’re off again.

It’s this constant push and pull where you’re uncertain about moving

Soloing barefoot, with a hat, because... why not? Photo: Bibi Garcia Diehl
Soloing barefoot, with a hat, because… why not? Photo: Bibi Garcia Diehl

forward and afraid to go back in defeat. Moving forward and getting every bit as tested as a red point because you’re taking in information about all these holds and the geometry of the rock, thinking about fall potential, considering body positions and rapidly spinning it into an action plan on the fly, it feel’s like doing calculus during a gymnastics routine and you have to go with it. If you say “take” it’s over, you’ve lost the onsight. You make a plan and you’re stuck, committed, backing out takes too much effort so you push on even if it’s the dumbest move you’ve ever made, and you come out the other side triumphant. Or don’t. And then you’re on to the next one. In some ways the onsight attempt is a neat little metaphor for life. You don’t know what’s around the corner, you have to take it all in a rush, push on when you’re not sure, commit to a course of action and be ready to accept the outcome of your efforts no matter how the cookie crumbles.

And that’s the thing, lately, when I “fail” on an onsight, oftentimes I’d fall laughing. And that probably should have been my first sign that my psyche was ready to climb hard again, but I kept shirking away from difficulty until I was at Foster Falls and we’d committed a day at the end of the trip to projects, which meant I had to find one…

So, naturally, I tried to escape by finding another potential onsight, and took a glorious 20’ whipper near the last bolt for “Bottled Up Warrior” (5.12a/b). Now I was out of options and it all finally clicked. You’ve all heard it before (#lastdaybestday), third day of climbing in a row, last day of the trip, hot and humid weather, third hard route of the day, tired as hell with raw fingers, I’m not feeling this so… HOLY CRAP I SENT IT!!!! Wait, if I just sent that on a day like this…. I wonder how hard I could send if I really tried?

My hardest redpoint is 5.12b, my hardest free solo was 5.11d, my hardest onsight was 5.11c, and my hardest multi-pitch is a climb that I onsight soloed on a day that I felt like crap. A few months ago, I asked someone stronger than me for training advice, and after a quick verbal assessment of my training he said “it sounds like you’re not trying hard enough,” which shook me up a bit because I thought I was trying hard already. Little did I know how right he was. Now free-soloing has almost caught up to my maximum roped grade, it’s time to warrior up and start trying hard!

I still don’t intend to spend multiple trips projecting anything over weeks and months, but I’m definitely on the lookout for difficult climbing. As my solo grades inch higher and higher, I’ll increasingly need the experience of hard climbs to expand my comfort zone enough to keep it sane on my mojo-missions.

Looks like I’m back in the saddle again, and it’s time to climb hard! (now I just need some time off from work!)

Champagne Jam at Sandrock, AL
Champagne Jam at Sandrock, AL

Origins: Anatomy of a Soloist (Part 2)

I did it! I finally did it! I climbed 5.10! (wondering what 5.10 is? here’s a guide for the un-initiated) After six months of throwing myself against the wall desperate for forward progress against the merciless clutches of gravity, I was sweating, I was tired, I was completely and utterly spent, and I fought like I’d never fought before in my life.

I DID IT!!!! now put me down before I bass out....
I DID IT!!!! now put me down before I pass out….

I remember that feeling; “This means I’m a REAL climber!” It was pure elation, the culmination of work and training, and it was a sentiment that I would echo over and over again throughout my climbing career, and will continue to echo in my future. “This is it, I’m FINALLY a real climber!” To me, 5.10 was the entry point, It’s where things get real, where most folks can’t get away with luck anymore and they have to try for the first time. This is probably why it’s the standard requirement for lead-climbing tests at most gyms, they want to make sure your mettle has been properly tested before you take to the sharp end.

Lunch atop the backside of Enchanted Rock, this place is good mojo!
Lunch atop the backside of Enchanted Rock, this place is good mojo!

But I’d top roped the climb, I hadn’t led it, and that left me wanting more. A month or two later, everyone laughed with me when I won the rope bag at the climbing competition. I didn’t know how to lead, or build anchors, or even own a rope, at least not until the pulled my name out of the hat and I won that too! That moment set the course of my entire climbing career, I had the bag, the rope, the 5.10 skills and no knowledge. $40 and a 4 hour course later, I was lead certified, I was finally legit. It felt like I’d been given my “Certified Badass” card, and I felt eight feet tall as I set myself to leading all the 5.6’s, 5.7’s, 5.8’s, 5.9’s…. I had to scale the grades and test my mettle, and then I had to lead 5.10. That mythical grade would truly be mine now. That felt good. I thought to myself again, “THIS means i’m a REAL climber!” It was summer in Texas and it was HOT outside but that lead certification was good for one thing; once I’d won that rope, we immediately planned our first trip outside, but I didn’t have a clue what to do, none of us did. Between the gracious council of my instructor and many tips gathered from google, our first trip to Enchanted Rock was a success. We didn’t climb anything hard, mostly lots of sketchy scrambling to reach toprope anchors so we could drop into something, but I felt that feeling again. For the third time in a month this meant I’d finally made it. At last, I was a real climber!

The moment of truth, gearing up for the day's climbs
The moment of truth, gearing up for the day’s climbs

Later in that same summer, I knew I was onto it. I had the scent and the game was afoot. Climbing was about going big, and if you want to go big you have to go multi-pitch. The only hitch was the fact that we couldn’t afford a guide, so we booted up the laptop and googled the practices of building anchors from natural features and bolts. After roughly 30 minutes of perusing articles we figured we understood the gist of it, and were underway on another grand adventure to become “real climbers.” We were engineering students, how hard could it be to figure out how to tie a few pieces of rope together and flop our way up a 5.7? Well, I nearly browned my pants. Turns out nobody has any semblance of a realistic slab within the walls and confines of a climbing gym, especially not anything like the friction slabs at Enchanted Rock where the difference between success and failure is often just finding a piece of rock that appears a bit rougher than that around it. I was completely unprepared for the type of climbing before me. It was the most terrifying 5.5 I’d ever climbed, only my second outdoor lead, I knew in my head that there was no possible way my feet could stick, and I nearly broke down on the final pitch. Staring at that anchor-to-anchor runout for nearly 100ft of 5.3 terrain left me feeling almost limp with mortal fear. There’s no way I’m a real climber, not if it means dealing with this! As it turns out, nobody really prepares you for the mental game in a climbing gym. Move after move I painstakingly inched my way forward, hoping for an anchor with none in sight, legs shaking, breathing hard, sweating like a dog, fearing the long drop that I knew was inevitable. Eventually I spied an anchor station 50ft to the right and traversed over to join it. My first multi-pitch climb was completed, and now I was a real climber.

the long stretch of rope separating triumph and terror
the long stretch of rope separating triumph and terror

I don’t know if we ever make it there, honestly. It seems that the more I know about climbing, the more I want to know and realize there is to learn. As to what is a “Real Climber,” who cares? Alex Lowe nailed it on the head: “The best climber in the world is the one who’s having the most fun.”

"Am I doing it right!? I don't know, but it feels awesome!!!"
“Am I doing it right!? I don’t know, but it feels awesome!!!”

That’s all we’re here for. It’s not to be impressive, boost your ego at the expense of others, competition, or to achieve some arbitrary ever-changing definition of “real” or “authentic.” It’s not about climbing hard, trad, sport, boulder, multi-pitch, big wall, this grade, or that. It’s about having the absolute most fun you can have, that’s how you know you’re doing it right. Climbing should feel good. It makes me feel better about myself, it makes me happy with things that genuinely suck, it boosts my self-esteem and after a good trip out balances the world leaving me ready to return to work and the weekly grind. If it happens to be impressive, or competitive, or hard, sport, trad, boulder, pebble, or whatever, as long as it’s rad and it’s enjoyable I know I’m doing it right.

where. are. the. holds???

There is no definition of “real” climber, the important thing is to climb what feels real to you. Everyone has their own flavor on the vertical and nobody can dictate that to you. Don’t climb like you do just because you “should.” If we all ascribed to imitation of others’ games,  the notion of sport climbing would never have evolved at all, for at one time bolting on rappel was considered to be the most utter blasphemy. Someone had to go against the grain. If some style of climbing inspires you and resonates with your idea of a good time, try it and create your own brand of climbing! In the end, you could argue that we are conquistadors of the useless. Sending a hard climb won’t get us ahead, it won’t improve the world, and it doesn’t pay the rent. But maybe, hopefully, if we do it right, we can transcend ourselves for just that one moment it takes to clip the chains and inspire someone.

This past weekend, over July 4th, I got to experience it in an all new way. I took my friend “Opie” out to Foster Falls for his first real outdoor climbing trip, and he onsighted his first lead. That’s good mojo, and now…. well, he’s a real climber too!