Mile of Mojo: The Next Big Thing

Back in the days of the Stonemasters, the NIAD (Nose in a day) was the benchmark by which the most competent climbers measured themselves, and it’s still a huge accomplishment today. Climbing “The Nose” on El Capitan in one day requires covering 3000ft (33 pitches) of dead-vertical granite with an incredible combination of efficiency and fitness. To train for this goal, one tactic of the more audacious stonemasters was to practice at Joshua Tree by free-soloing enough laps on various climbs to total 3000ft of vertical in one day, and just like an actual climb on a big wall, you weren’t allowed to cover the same pitch twice in the day. They referred to it simply as an “El Cap Day.”

Westbay, Briwell and Long after the first one-day ascent of the Nose, El Cap, Yosemite, CA
Westbay, Briwell and Long after the first one-day ascent of the Nose, El Cap, Yosemite, CA

I’ve always loved big climbs, personal challenges, and free-soloing, so when I realized that I had the potential to pull off an El Cap day myself, the attraction became rather irresistible. After all, the opportunity to cover a large amount of rock with minimal hassle is one of the main reasons I choose to solo so regularly. “The only thing better than climbing, is more climbing”, and this is the exact definition of “more climbing” distilled into a single day challenge. But how do you even begin prepare for something that massive?

The first problem was to find a cliff. Somewhere with 30+ pitches of terrain where I feel solid enough to leave the rope at home. Most crags were too short (for example: Sandrock, AL), or too sketchy (Looking Glass, NC). One year ago, when I first came to Shortoff Mountain and climbed “Paradise Alley” (5.8+), somewhere mid-way through the second pitch I knew I’d found the right wall for my shenanigans. Dead-vertical and slightly overhung walls with solid holds and good features for confident and controlled climbing. With wall height ranging from 300-500 feet and over a dozen routes on the “classics” list, I knew there was massive potential for soloing at this crag. This place felt like it was custom-made for soloists, but despite searching on the internet and submitting personal queries through the word-of-mouth grapevine, I was unable to get any info beyond a few rumors that a handful of routes might have been soloed at some point in the past. Nothing definitive, and certainly nothing expansive. Whatever soloing had happened here, it never became big news.

Michael Reardon's solos "Romantic Warrior" (5.12b)
Michael Reardon’s solos “Romantic Warrior” (5.12b)

After a few exploratory trips with partners, gear and ropes (you know, “normal” climbing) I decided to come in for a solo-inspection day by myself. The goal was to solo one particular climb that I thought would be the crux of my day, “Built to Tilt” (5.10b). Well, I’m not the smartest person in the world (obviously), and planned terribly for the event. We got positively HAMMERED in Greenville, SC on a Friday night, and when Sunday morning rolled around I was still feeling the effects. Un-deterred I made the 4 hour drive to the Wolf-Pit and was at the top of the Shortoff Mountain by about 1pm. The weather looked awful but I just happy to be climbing at all, and figured I’d keep going as long as the rain would hold off. I wound up soloing 2200ft, in an afternoon, mostly onsight, while sleep-deprived and slightly hungover. The rain caught me half-way up the final climb of the day: “Little Corner” (5.6 ~500ft). Apparently 3,000ft wasn’t as ambitious as I had thought. It was so outrageous, that I still read my own words about that day, and it’s like I’m reading about someone else. The guy that did that would’ve had to be crazy strong, and I didn’t feel like that guy. I mean, 2200 feet of free-soloing in one day. Who the hell does that?

But this had me thinking, what’s the next step up from an El Cap Day? And almost immediately I remembered reading about Michael Reardon’s Mile-Days and Two-Mile days out at Joshua Tree. I started flipping through the guidebook and mountain project to expand my list of potential routes. The goal is to solo one vertical mile (5,280 feet) between sunrise and sunset at Shortoff Mountain, without climbing any routes in the circuit more than once during the challenge. Extra laps on easy climbs seems like cheating, so repeats had to be nixed from the program, and since there are a finite number of climbs at a cliff, this drives the grades up. Looking at harder climbs, this was becoming less of a sure thing. Hard soloing is a scary notion, what does it take to be prepared?

First, I’ve been soloing a lot over this summer to keep my head in the game, and redefining what I consider “easy” climbing. Practicing onsight solos up to 5.11b/c and soloing rehearsed climbs up to 5.11d, then taking those same talents onto multi pitch routes, culminating in a solo of “Pinball Wizard” (5.11 ~300ft) at Shortoff Mountain. Now that I’m looking at 12-15 routes, instead of the 8-10 that would have been required for an El Cap day, I came up with a spreadsheet to keep track of the routes and what order to climb them. That’s when it hit me: This is going to be huge. Six of the fourteen climbs on my list are 5.11 and harder.

John Bachar soloing in Yosemite
John Bachar soloing in Yosemite

A couple climbs need pre-flight inspections, the cruxes are too hard and too high for me to onsight-solo comfortably. A few climbs I’m going to onsight during the challenge, and only a few climbs will be something I’ve soloed beforehand. In the end only half of the day will be spent on “familiar” terrain. Soloing in unfamiliar terrain like that begs one important question: How can you stay safe in the face of the unknown? Getting in over my head is not an option.

My evaluation comes back to the most important aspects of anchor building: Redundancy and solid placements. I have to be 100% sure of two things: First, that my hand and foot placements are solid enough that there is no risk of a fall, and second, that I have an escape option. There are four options in soloing: Climb Up, Climb Down, Climb Left, Climb Right. As long as I have at least two of those options remaining, then I have a way out if the climbing gets to be more than I bargained for. As a rule, I MUST back-off or utilize one of my escape options if I don’t think I have two of those options available in un-familiar terrain. That’s the only way to stay alive in this game, and I make sure to take more pride in the times I choose to retreat than when I send.

Beyond that, It’s just a matter of spreadsheeting to find out what questions are un-answered. What routes are ready to go? How hard are the pitches? Where is the crux? Does it need a preflight-inspection? Research beta on the internet; can it be onsighted comfortably? For the next month I’m focused on taking trips out to check up on the crux pitches and making the go/no-go decision for each one in turn. If I can’t send a route on a rope while maintaining my composure enough to carry on a conversation, it’s probably a route I’m not ready to solo. That’s really what it’s about, being calm and confident, and carrying an extra reserve of strength far beyond what is necessary to simply send the route. Because, sometimes things do go wrong, but that’s just part of the game. I have trained and prepared for those problems, and I will never solo a route unless I can send it comfortably even if many of those things go wrong on the same pitch. I have to train extra strength to maintain that physical/fitness safety net.

John Sherman solos "Lord of the Flies"
John Sherman solos “Lord of the Flies”

And so I train, and train and train like a masochist. The dates are set, and I’ve scheduled my push for the end of October. With only a month and a half until showtime, I’ve never been more stoked! The list of routes for this day, the Mile of Mojo Mega Marathon, is going to be STACKED. I still don’t know if I’m going to be able to make the full mile, but even if I don’t hit my target distance, this is going to be the single most fun day of climbing I’ve ever had in my life!

Mental Gymnastics

Climbing is supposed to be fun, never lose sight of that! However, climbing can be scary too. Sometimes that fear is justified; for truly there can be severe consequences for anyone throwing their body around in high places with less-than-fluffy landings. In places we know are safe enough, that fear isn’t serving it’s purpose. It’s keeping us from performing at our highest levels and enjoying the rock to the fullest.

Risk assessment is the most important skill you can develop as a climber, and it’s far too much material to cover here, but I think we can all identify with times that we logically knew falling was safe… and yet we were too afraid to make another move, and became overcome with hesitation.

That’s the sort of fear I’d like to address. This deep animal-fear of high places and falling, even when we know in our heads that everything is safe. It’s frustrating knowing you held back from giving your best because of fear, especially when you suspect that you could’ve made the move otherwise.

Trying hard to believe
Trying hard to believe

I’m far from the reigning authority on mental training for climbers, but it seems I’ve got something going for me in that department. Whether I’m runout on poor gear, pushing for the desperate crux move on a safe sport route, or high off the deck on a multi-pitch bouldering run, I’ve come up with a few tactics to keep my head together, I hope they can help!

Discomfort Zone:
I was leading in a gym, took the fall, and my belayer dropped the rope. I fell 35ft to the ground fracturing two vertebrae. Needless to say, when I came back to climbing I was a bit skeptical that this whole “belay” thing would actually keep me from becoming dead. The key to recovery was simple, but subtle. I had to find the edge of my comfort zone, and slowly push it outward.

The first step is to find the most extreme, but safe, situation in which you are simply uncomfortable with the idea of falling. Somewhere you are not afraid, not terrified, but simply uncomfortable, even though you know in your head it’s going to be OK. For me, I didn’t even trust a top-rope, but I was comfortable taking bouldering falls, so for me the ideal zone was to stack a crash pad at the base of the wall, clip the first bolt and take repeated falls below the bolt until I felt comfortable falling on command.

No problems falling, push it to the max!
The falls are clean, push it to the max!

Next I pushed it to falling with the second bolt pre-clipped, then the third. Once I’d established comfort falling below these bolts, I started pushing it a little more. I fell as my knot was even with the third bolt. Next I climbed until my knot was even with the fourth, I noted the discomfort, and performed controlled falls until I was comfortable. Then I pushed slightly above it. And so on, up the wall, higher and higher, lengthening the falls only once I became truly comfortable with the current step. It took about 4 months for me to regain my confidence in the ropes, but it worked! Now I can confidently take a fall anywhere, anytime, as long as I know in my head I am safe.

It was spooky, it made me uncomfortable, but I wasn’t terrified. Discomfort is where we, as humans, grow and progress forward. We have a natural tendency to shirk away from the unknown and stay in a place we know we have mastered. This is useful, it keeps us from doing crazy things that could get us hurt, but the key is to perform a risk assessment whenever you experience fear. Afterwards you should stop, think back, and decide whether the fear was a response to actual danger, or hesitation from pushing outside your own realm of mastery. If it was the latter, then perhaps you’ve found a good spot to grow as a climber! Just remember, it takes time, progress is slow. After all, you are re-writing your instincts, and your mind doesn’t give those up easily. But be warned, if you push yourself to the point of terror and fear, then you will only re-enforce those fear-based instincts causing a feedback loop which further entrenches your hesitation and limits your enjoyment of climbing.

Dreadfully runout on "Gravitron (5.11d X)"
Dreadfully runout on “Gravitron (5.11d X)”

Chicken Laps:
I sometimes would notice that I had a tendency to “chicken-clip” and “chicken-whip.” By “chicken-clip,”  I mean I would get anxious, thinking I couldn’t clip from the necessary holds, grab the nearest off-route hold, and clip the next draw for a temporary top-rope. TAKE! “Chicken-whip” means coming into a move I thought I could not do, and taking a whipper (a.k.a. lead-fall) rather than try to make the uncertain moves.

The problem wasn’t that I feared the fall, I had already overcome that. The main problem was that I was too lazy to re-climb, boink, or do whatever was required to get back up to that spot and “wasting” that effort made me uncomfortable. Think about where you climb the most. There are probably a good many routes that you KNOW you could send on-command, right now. Pick the hardest one of those routes, and get on it.

Highballing at the Hueco Tanks
Highballing at the Hueco Tanks

Great send! Now climb it again. and again. and again. Pick your most trusted belayer and, climb laps on it until you fall off. Here’s the catch: You’re not allowed to chicken-whip, or chicken-clip under any circumstances. Choose the hardest route that you know you can send on-command, with safe falls on the whole route. Even if you absolutely KNOW that you can’t make the move, or can’t make the clip try with everything you have. PUNCH IT IRMA! You just might discover that you had a lot more in the tank than you anticipated. I’ve seen people climb for 50’ straight thinking “there’s no way I can make another move!!!” But somehow they completed the whole route! You get stronger without having to wait for the results of finger-boarding to kick-in!

Just Wait:
Sometimes it’s not safe. Sometimes there is actually some good reason to be afraid of falling, and you’re stuck, committed, and you can’t back off. Sometimes you have fears on a route that no amount of falling or trickery will save you from. When I started climbing I was terribly afraid of heights. I was terrified, and that was the entire reality of my situation. Every move trickled more dread, adrenaline and fear into my system, threatening to overload my senses, but it wasn’t over yet.

Just wait. Don’t make another move. Stop. Pause, breathe. Think. This hand-hold is good enough, this foothold is sticking. I’m not going anywhere right now, I’ve got time. Use that time. Breathe, let your heart rate come down, and stop thinking about the fear. Think about what you have going for you, because you’re not falling yet, but if you keep hurtling towards overload you definitely will. Pause, create some space in your head where you can think again, focus on that breath. Pause, look at the fear and just inspect it in your mind. Realize that the fear is just a sensation like heat, cold, nervousness, or wind on your skin. Once the waters of your mind have stilled enough to think again, perform a risk-assessment and come up with a plan to climb on or back-off.

The important thing is to think and act, rather than marinate in the

Fully committed on the slabs of "Dreamscape (5.11c/d)"
Fully committed on the slabs of “Dreamscape (5.11c/d)”

terror and react desperately without control. Building this habit of control in stressful situations will serve you well both on, and off the rock!

Lazy Projecting:Some folks like to take on the “Never say take!” method of climbing, which can is great for performance, when you’re trying to climb your hardest, but greatly limits your ability to project routes and discover beta. Instead I prefer to take on gym projects with a Take-Take-Fall approach. Climb until very hear your limit, TAKE! Shake off, rest, recover, climb to another “take” position. Shake off, rest, recover, climb straight until failure. This way you can figure out moves and beta, and still maintain your mental training all in the same run!

After a practicing you might find yourself climbing through your two “takes” then reaching the anchors without falling. Now cut it down to Take-Fall, when you reach the top this way you know the send is imminent, and you can begin climbing straight until you fall. Then the key is simply to push your high point farther and farther up each day.

Final Notes:

It’s important to set goals whenever you climb, and even more so when training. If you don’t have any goal, how do you know if the training is working? How can you select methods to train with no target in mind? Having fun in the climbing gym is a worth goal, but I see many climbers frustrated with their current levels of performance wanting more, but not knowing how.

The simplest shift you can make to get better is to designate a goal for your climbing day. Are you here to send, to train your body, or train your mind? Any of these are compatible with having fun, and showing up just to have fun is crucial for maintaining stoke and preventing burnout. But when you want to progress you have to decide: Do I want to send, or do I want to become a better climber?

Sending is just a demonstration of the ability you already have, if you really want to get better then you have to push yourself to the limit. If you’re truly at your limit, you’re bound to fall. And if you’re uncomfortable with falling, you’ll inevitably fall short of your limit and progress slower. Just don’t forget, no-one ever built strength in a gym, on the rock, or on a hangboard. They built their strength asleep in bed the during nights after a high-quality training session! So if your body is sore, sometimes sitting on the couch is the best training program you could hope for. Resting after a good session is like building strength without having to work!

Enjoying the exposure
Enjoying the exposure

Anatomy of a Soloist (Part 3)

Onsighting is rad, but man can it be scary. My second multi-pitch route ever wound up with becoming marooned off route on seemingly impossible terrain (my head couldn’t understand 5.9 slab at that point in time). After rigging some insane contraption with leftover cordolette to essentially create a via-ferratta back to the route, I was finally safe again… but I’d definitely used up all of my water and about 90 minutes of our limited daylight in the SNAFU.

I can’t remember for the life of me whether that happened on the same trip as my first solo, or a different one. Either way you’d think it would’ve served as a distinct warning for someone wiser that diving in over my head was definitely a bad idea.

There was just no point in having him hold the rope anymore
There was just no point in having him hold the rope anymore

So there we were, staring up at “Cave Crack” in Enchanted Rock. We couldn’t figure out how to get to the top to setup a toprope anchor for belaying, so in an act of infinite wisdom I made a decision. Hey, it’s 5.6… how hard can it be? So I harnessed up, packed up the rope on my back in a backpacker’s coil, clipped on a couple wads of webbing for TR anchors and set off.

It was essentially a train-wreck from the onset. I had approximately 4 days of cumulative experience in learning to perform hand-jams and the hardest crack I’d ascended to that point was a 5.8, but the slabbed crack was just easy enough to lull me into a false sense of security, and I wasn’t stopping.

Higher and higher I climbed up into the chasm of cave crack, with webbing drooping off my harness snagging in my feet as I tried to move. I readjusted, tried to re-tie it one handed, and continued onward. Useless. It was still getting snagged. Move. Jam the hand, work the foot… stop, tease body parts out of the webbing, continue, repeat. Finally, I made it to the overlap where the wall behind cuts off the crack. From the ground I had assumed that the gap between the walls was enough to squeeze through, or that I’d at least be able to span out around the corner from where they met…

Leading Cave crack several months later after purchasing a dirtbag rack of gear
Leading Cave crack several months later after purchasing a dirtbag rack of gear

That wasn’t the case. The walls pinched far too close together to squeeze through, and as I reached blindly around the corner I found… nothing. There was nothing there! and that’s when the panic set in. I couldn’t climb up, the walls pinched together. I couldn’t climb out to the right, the walls formed a cave that cutoff movement. I couldn’t down climb, I was too inexperienced. and I couldn’t make my way out left through the opening because there were no holds. Actually, the holds were plentiful, but I was too inexperienced to understand the slab movement required to escape my predicament.

The guys on the ground were getting nervous, and I could hardly blame them. I was about to die. I was sure of it. I sat there, perched with my foot on a chock-stone in the crack, pondering my options and considering what life choices had led me to this awful end.

We didn't know what we were doing, I was basically a Junk-Show. But GOD did we have fun!
We didn’t know what we were doing, I was basically a Junk-Show. But GOD did we have fun!

And then it hit me. There was a chockstone deep in the crack. I had webbing! That same accursed web which had ensnared my feet through the entire ascent would be my savior! All I had to do was lasso that chockstone and I was home free. I loosened the wad of webbing into a single long loop, wound up my arm and threw….

Too short. Wind up, toss, WAY too short. So I started spinning the webbing for momentum using the carabiner as a counterweight to throw farther into the crack. Finally it shot past! but it didn’t come back close enough for me to catch it and hitch the chockstone. I pull it and try again. And again. And again… and again…. Oh HELL! I’m dead. There’s no way out of this. my last line of hope just failed, the carabiner was stuck in the chockstone and I couldn’t reel my line in to try again.

My first multi-pitch rack (sport-bolted)
My first multi-pitch rack (sport-bolted)

And that’s where I started laughing like a maniac. Ohhh no its stuck…. what am I going to do? Wait. It’s stuck. IT’S STUCK! Yes! Thank every diety imagined by man! It’s stuck. If it’s stuck, that means it’s not coming out, and I can pull on it to get myself to safety. I set a solid hand jam and test-tugged at my “lifeline” with all my might… seems solid enough. I leveraged myself out into the hold-less void and around the roof… JUGS! I’m free.

With minimal discussion I set the toprope so everyone else could climb, and made a vow to myself right then and there. WOW! That was stupid, and I’m NEVER doing that again!

Never again eh? "Never Believe (5.11b)"
Never again eh? “Never Believe (5.11b)”