Climbing on a knob encrusted spire in the Needles of South Dakota, I draped a sling over a chickenhead. “Hmn, no good,” I figured a decent gust of wind might blow the sling off the wall, so I hung my #5 Cam upside down from the sling to keep it stuck to it’s perch. “Hmmmmmm, still crap,” rope drag would definitely pull that off the knob, so I extended the piece with a 4′ runner. Well, I guess staring at it longer isn’t really going to make me safe, so I started climbing. Seventy five feet off the ground, and ten feet above a sling draped on a knob that could be knocked off by a good fart, my next piece of bomber pro was a nut at 20.’ Clipping a rusted piton never felt so good!
Back at the capground we started swapping stories with a guide named Cheyenne. The climbing at this place is old-school and bold, so naturally we circled around to every trad-climber’s favorite topic: “What’s the wildest thing you’ve ever seen someone do out there?”
I’ve got some pretty good stories, but his took the cake!
Pile Ze Bags:
Some russian free-soloist and his crew had bowled into town and made some waves by running around and (obviously) soloing anything he felt sassy enough to sack up for. One particular climb followed a 100′ crack up a 110′ pillar that started as a 10b offwidth and slowly narrowed until it no longer existed, just 10′ from the top. He grunted, scraped, thrutched and groveled in the offwidth, but it’s offwidth and that’s generally the accepted technique. As it narrowed to fists he sped up a little, but looked thoughtful as he placed rattly jams in the crack, but it’s fist-crack and the jams are rattly, so that’s okay. BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM! He tommahawked rapidly up the crack as it narrowed to hands, then slowed again as it became off fingers.
The crack ends, he’s got good finger-locks with good feet on typical Needles knobs, but he’s stumped 100′ off the ground with no rope. Left hand up… doesn’t like it. back into the crack. Right hand up… still doesn’t like it! chalk… chalk… think, head scratch.. AHA! SHIFT THE FEET! right foot, left foot… okay, again with the hands. Right hand up… still garbage. Left hand up, not promising. If only he could reach that knob that is just slightly.. well… out of reach!
He sits and thinks a moment more before looking over his shoulder and shouting at his friends “PILE ZE BAGS!!!!”
INSTANTLY, they start throwing all their bags at the base of the crack. As soon as the operation has finished, he nods contently as though all is arranged to satisfaction… and dynos up for the knob, sticks it, and nonchalantly continues his day as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
Here’s the reasons that’s sketchy:
What the FUCK!?
Did he really think he’d even land on the bags from that height?
Even if he did land on them, I don’t know about you… but my pack isn’t exactly full of stuffed animals and anti-gravity.
Everyone reacted instantaneously, as if this was a routine maneuver.
Fast forward through some years from that trip, and I’m on a cell tower east of Atlanta. Storms are building fast in the summer heat, but it looks like it’s going to just barely miss us. We’ve got a load on the line coming up to finish the job. KABOOM! Less than a mile away. I stare at Mike, on the ground and he yells back at me “PILE ZE BAGS!” and begins lowering the load fast, as we climb down 200 feet to the ground. We touched dirt just as the first raindrops began to pour on the tower.
Fast forward a little further, and Spencer is about 2ft above his bolt bemoaning the fact that “This is a sketchy 5.9!” Since I wasn’t belaying, I couldn’t help myself. I grabbed my empty pack and tossed it at the base of the climb, poor guy laughed so hard he fell off.
Next time you’re feeling sketched, just remember to PILE ZE BAGS! Next time you’re at the crag, give it a shout! You’re just might hear a shout back from some cool folks!
There are those climbs, hidden around the corner, lurking under the bed, creeping in the night to haunt your dreams. They are hard, they are scary, they are beautiful and they keep us all fascinated. Or nauseated. The boogeymonster around the corner is an important part of the climbing scene, and must be respected.
POP! Thump. “DIRT ME!” My feet rested on the ground in agony, my ass hovered about 12” off the ground. “DIRT ME!” “FUCKIN DIRT ME DAMNIT!!!” I get cranky when I’m in pain… Once he realized I wasn’t dead, my stunned belayer lowered me to the floor, thus removing weight from my feet. “I just need to sit” Dylan had passed his WFR only a week ago, all the field triage techniques were fresh in his brain, and it showed in his immediate action in assessing my injuries.
An hour later I hobbled out of the park on Dylan’s trekking poles. The next morning I couldn’t walk because of the pain. All in all, I’m amazed he kept my ass off the deck. If you had pointed where I fell, and asked me “what do you think will happen if you pop from there?”… I wouldn’t have described a happy ending.
“Shocker” (5.12 R) is a cute little monster, only 35’ tall. Delicate slab moves to a juggy undercling, a powerful boulder crux, technical laybacking on a fingertip splitter with dime-edges for feet, and a desperate last move to a muffin sloper up high. This baby has everything you could ask for! Except for easy gear placements.
I had just had a productive trip to Tennessee Wall near Chattanooga, where I had gotten in the groove of falling on gear. I was ready to push it. I had fallen on a good number of placements, and that southern sandstone is so good, so parallel, you barely need to inspect your gear to know it’s good. Plug and chug baby! My mental game was in top form, ready to accept the risk of falling.
Shocker is one of those lines I had drooled over for eons; I was saving it for “someday,” when I was stronger. I was stronger, it’s here and I’m here, so I guess that means today is “someday.” Now, You can’t just charge at this thing like a psychopath and hope for the best. The boogeymonster has to be given respect, remember? First, I had to toprope the line and see if it would even go. Then, I toproped it once more, with gear racked on my harness to practice making placements on the lead with full-pump.
The only gear I had with me was a set of four Omega Pacific Link Cams. I had limited room for gear in my luggage since I had flown in, and wasn’t 100% sure I would get to climb. My partners had gear, but I insisted on using my own. I found a sweet spot in the crack, called for a take (on TR), and dialed in just the right piece to plug in. My 0.5 would go in perfectly just above a small nubbin on the crack. It was like a natural tick-mark to help me hone in on my target. The ideal placement was just above this nubbin, deep inside the crack where it was more parallel and did not flare.
Going for the lead, I fell three times off the lower boulder problem, but I had bomber gear in the lower flake, which boosted my confidence. After each attempt I left the gear in and pulled the rope, which I felt was a decent compromise between efficiency and style. Finally, I pulled through the desperate boulder problem. Underclinging the flake, I stretched high with my right hand to a poor fingerlock with a thumb catch… very very delicate… I made what felt like a hundred different foot movements to twist my body around into the layback, pulled a few more moves to a stance…. Breathe. Be calm. Fear is dangerous. I estimated that I had a 60-75% chance of sending. Getting good gear was essential. I eyed the nubbin, slammed in that cam, clipped it, and eyeballed it as I was pulling the next move upward.
I wanted that send. I was fairly certain my gear was in the correct spot; however, I should have stayed longer to inspect my gear. But… I. Wanted. That. Send. I felt it… I was off balance. My feet were out of sequence, but if I could lift and stab my right foot on a small crystal… Well, it would have worked if I had hit the crystal. Instead my foot skittered uselessly, causing me to pop out of the layback like a loaded spring and twisting 180 degrees to face away from the wall. POP! Thump. “DIRT ME!” My feet rested on the ground in agony, my ass hovered about 12” off the ground. “DIRT ME!” “FUCKIN DIRT ME DAMNIT!!!”
At least my lower piece held.
I had grown too accustomed to southern sandstone, and easy gear placements. Had I paused to ponder the local geology, I’d have realized that the large crystals of this coarse granite demanded special attention to small gear placements. However, I wasn’t worried about that since Link Cams are known for having a large expansion range. They are touted as a “panic piece” that you can place quickly in a crux with little worry, so I felt sure that my gear gear would hold a fall.
What Went Wrong:
The cam was 75-90% contracted. On a “normal” cam, this would have meant security. On a link cam this places your contact on the inner links, which are made of steel instead of aluminum. The steel links can bite well in softer rock like sandstone, but are known to have less friction and less holding-power. I didn’t know that before the accident.
In Tennessee I had worked hard to override fear instincts, and reinforce the feeling that good gear will hold a fall. That’s ordinarily a good thing, but unfortunately this made me less vigilant about inspecting gear, since placements are generally more straightforward in Tennessee.
I had trained two instincts. One deliberate, one by accident. One was good, the other dangerous.
I wanted the send, so I trusted the gear too much. This wasn’t a huge deal, I accepted the risk of falling, but it was part in a chain of errors that tossed me to the deck.
Pride goeth before the fall….
I didn’t know at the time that Link Cam placements can easily be compromised by funky crystals, especially if it torques.
When placed in the smaller portion of the expansion range, the outer links obscure view of the inner lobes, making inspection difficult
The mechanics of Failure: When I fell, we are fairly sure that the cam must have been perched on a crystal. When I fell, the slight torquing of the unit knocked it off the crystal, and the steel lobes were not sticky enough to reestablish contact and hold the fall so it skittered straight out of the crack. It slowed me down less than clipping into a loop of duct tape.
I’ll be back…. When you have an accident, you don’t give up driving for the rest of your life. This incident has known factors that led to a problem, and knowing these factors I can come back with a safer plan of action.
Double ropes: When I return, I’ll be able to attack the route with more confidence. If I fall while clipping my second piece, I will still be protected by the lower piece.
Should I fall while inspecting my second piece, I will be protected by my first piece on the first rope, in case the second piece fails. No extra slack will be introduced.
I will return with X4’s, C3’s and Offset Nuts. I now have regular and offset X4’s to make extra sure I’ll have the perfect piece.
In the layback seam, I will place two pieces of gear for security, instead of trusting to one.
My first piece will be in the undercling flake, clipped with Rope #1
Second piece in the seam, clipped with Rope #2. I will be protected with Rope #1 and my first piece in case I miss the clip.
Then, I’ll place a third piece of gear, also in the seam, clipped with Rope #1.
If I fall off the upper section, I will have two pieces of gear, each clipped with a different rope, which will cause them to auto-equalize and limit the impact force on the small funky gear needed to protect this route.
Link Cams still have a place on my rack as a specialty piece, but I’ll never again risk placing one when I’m less than calm, and probably only rarely on the lead.
“The Definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” – Unknown
Shit happens, and sometimes it isn’t pretty. We have to be vigilant whenever we climb, because without good safety practice, we’re all just accidental soloists. The important thing is that we learn from any un-desired outcome. Whether it be working out the beta for a particular move, or the gear for a particular route… It’s important to stop and understand WHY things didn’t turn out the way we had expected. If we don’t understand why, then we can’t change anything for the better and learn for next time. If we don’t understand WHY, we’d all just be acting off insanity. And that’s saying a lot for a group of folks that hurl themselves at vertical rocks on the regular, for fun.
We had planned this for months, or rather un-planned it. From the moment of this trip’s conception, it lacked any form of plan whatsoever. We were going to Hueco with no plan, and no reservations. On my end, I had just come out of a peak phase and a bonanza of soloing that basically included all of my heart’s desires within a 200 mile range from home and was finally stoked for hard training and hard climbing again. I was at peak fitness. Jeremy had been training for triathlons, and I think he runs at a pace of 5.17x or something like that. Whatever, I don’t understand running and cardeeyo, but I do understand that he lost enough weight to equal a small human over the past year. Dude. This was going to be much better than our last trip 4 years ago! We knew that we could climb our hardest, and we knew that a newfound focus on mental strength would largely be the key to that performance.
After a season of training for peak fitness, in the few taper weeks before the main event of the year, my swim coach in high-school had only one remaining piece of wisdom to impart. Whatever you do, don’t do anything stupid. It only takes one injury to pull you out of the race. Ordinarily, I’d say that Coach Little gave me tons of wisdom and good character that carried through my life so far, but on this one point I have only two words: “Sorry Coach!”
Exactly 7 days before we were supposed to leave for Hueco, I went for a trip to Enchanted Rock. The goal was to swing through saturday and take out some of my old projects that I had saved for “when I’m stronger,” and then solo my brains out on Sunday to revisit all my old favorites. I was in rare form, hiking climbs that once were hard, but it all turned sour on a trad line called “Shocker” (5.12a R). I mis-stepped a tricky sequence after the crux and swung off onto what I thought was bomber gear. I thought wrong, and my 0.5 Link Cam ripped out of the wall like I had clipped into a loop of duct-tape. The rope came tight hard on my lower piece ( a #2 Link Cam) with my ass about 12” off the deck. The rope saved me from a lot of injury, but it was still too late for my ankles. I barely walked out of the park with the aid of trekking poles, and was bound to crutches for the next week.
For the first time, I managed to walk around my hotel room without crutches, so I declared the trip to be “Go” for launch. Can’t stop the Mojo, Welcome to Hueco Tanks!!!
Saturday: I went to South Austin Rock Gym to test my fingers and ankles, and figured out that I was mostly okay as long as I crumpled ass-first onto the pads as soon as my feet touched the matt. In other words, as long as I didn’t weight them in a fall. Still, I couldn’t use small foot-holds or under-clings in vertical terrain.
Sunday: Driving, driving, driving…. Fun fact, a Hyundai Accent loaded with two climbers and a ton of gear can still do 120!
Monday: Game on! I hobbled along behind Jeremy to make it up the chains on North Mountain. I was struggling on “Nobody Here Gets out Alive” (V2) and eventually sent after a few tries….. The ankles were in my head, and I couldn’t give my all to ANYTHING. It was infuriating to feel that I was at peak fitness and just couldn’t use it. I eventually sent, then followed with “100 Proof Roof” and practiced dropping off the lip to the pads.
We spent the rest of the day getting lost, and occasionally flailing on hard things. My head was in my feet, and it wasn’t coming out. Bouldering basically had me feeling terrified. I knew this wouldn’t be a sending trip. At this point, I had to admit I had an unspoken goal for the trip of sending V7. This made me depressed.
Tuesday: Enter Carlos Flores, and Alex Lin. These guys were ROCK STARS! Raggedy vans that required beta just to open the door handle. They lived on the road, sustaining themselves off a diet consisting of Tecate, Tortillas, sand, and freedom. The four of us loaded up and headed back to Martini Roof where Alex taught me the magic of heel hooking and toe-hooks. I learned something today. I was happy!
Carlos mostly ran around glued to a GoPro, making better progress on all the things that had pissed me off on Monday.
With Carlos’ help, we actually found “Ghetto Simulator” instead of just getting lost. Jeremy began his mental battle of the trip. Gripped with fear, he grabbed the rock so hard that I’m pretty sure there are now finger-imprints in the rock. Concrete forearms. Pumped. Done. His fears overwhelmed him so that he couldn’t relax, he fought the rock for every inch of progress, and the rock fought back. He was too burned out to finish the 35’ problem, so I shoed up. I was nervous, but despite this, I was able to focus on the climbing, and moved hesitantly, powering through my ankle anxiety. Send, the route goes. I went for a second lap, and sailed smoother now that I knew the heel hooks and toe positions wouldn’t shred my ankles. Briefly, I was able to forget my injuries, and then I had to scramble off…
Wednesday: We milled about warming up on 0’s and 1’s, and eventually someone started trying the classic sandbag “El Burro” V3 (V3myass). Using some unconventional deadpointy foot-cutting beta that involved a barrel roll, I managed to send! Everyone else just scratched their heads…. And moved on to “Left Donkey Show”, “El Burro” wasn’t worth it. Meanwhile, I became fascinated with a crimpy set of deadpoints on the far left of the boulder. Still terrified for my feet, I tentatively began working the moves, coring out and dropping off if it seemed too severe. I started realizing that I could take small falls, as long as I made sure to collapse butt-first onto the pad, and so the process became thus:
-Limp up to the pad
-Wince as the shoe goes on
-Borrow some chalk (pleeeease?)
-Vaguely attempt trying hard
-Assrocket back to the pad
-Wince the shoe back off
I’m sure it looked daft, but I tried that same one move about a half- dozen times, constantly making little micro-adjustments to my throw to generate less swing and hold my momentum. It’s one of those things, nobody could see a difference, but I could feel closer every time. “YOU ALMOST HAD IT!” they screamed, but I knew I was far away on that last burn. All the micro-tweaks were out of sync. “Sit” they said “try once more when we’re packing up.”
Whatever, I’m not going to send this damned thing anyway. So I rested, and decided I needed a new goal since I wasn’t going to send. Numerous flops on the pad had given me the courage to gun for it, so I wanted to fix the trip and get my head right. I wanted to be one with the rock, instead of shrinking in fear from my feet. I decided to focus on climbing peacefully, with tranquility. I might as well do something productive since sending isn’t possible.
BAM! SENT!!! “Nuns and Donkeys” – V6
Well that was unexpected! For the first time in the trip, I truly managed to get my head out of my feet and onto the rock. That’s all it took. You can’t force a send at your limit; you have to align all the proper conditions to simply let it happen, and then get out of your way. A great quote I read on this trip from Adam Ondra: “Mental strength is the key, and luck might just be the consequence.” So it was for me, that focusing on developing my mental strength allowed me to get out of my own injuries just long enough to let some magic happen on the rock. But it was short lived, and I couldn’t get stoked on anything for the rest of the day. Now that I knew I could perform, it had become almost impossible for me to do so! Though I did send a cool problem later that someone said was a V3. While perusing my guidebook post send I read that it was actually a V5. No pressure, yes sendage! And by post-send, I mean about five days later.
After saving himself all day for his revenge-send on “The Vulgarian” V2, Jeremy couldn’t quite string it together. He was so completely hell-bent on sending this problem that he forgot the method! Try after try, after attempt, after burn, randomly trying one piece of beta and then another. When it was all said and done I had to ask him, “why do you think you were falling off?” He didn’t know, which is probably what sunk his attempt.
We had a long talk about tactics that night. If you’re not inspecting each attempt, wondering what caused your failure…. How can you overcome it? Being so completely focused on the send, he tried to power his way through, knowing that his weight-loss had improved his strength-to-weight ratio he relied on this to improve his performance. Unfortunately this turned on the blinders to all the minute performance tweaks that would have allowed the send to happen. He was obviously MASSIVELY stronger than his last meeting with this problem four years ago. Strength isn’t always enough. Since our last trip, he had amassed a broad depth of crack and slab technique. Knowing that he had “good technique” in these areas had turned him off to the learning that needed to take place at Hueco. His slab and crack technique had left him under-prepared for a technical, core-intensive overhang where your feet don’t want to stay on the wall.
Thursday: Sucked. We needed a rest day, so Jeremy went on a 10 mile run and I went soloing, figuring that the easy moves would help me de-stress since I didn’t have to worry about falling on injured ankles. I never red-lined, there was no danger of falling, but it just wasn’t fun. “Cakewalk” (5.6), was a slab so my head was constantly in my feet, then on “Sea of Holes” (5.10a) I was oscillating back and forth between peaceful enjoyment, and stressing over my feet. I called it a day and went back to The Ranch early. What’s the point in soloing, or any climbing, if it isn’t fun?
Speaking of fun, it appears we have invented a Hueco tradition. First, you get drunk enough to start jumping over the fire. THEN you keep drinking. FINALLY, the game becomes jumping IN the fire, and seeing how long you can stay in there. I heard some idiot won by doing a pushup, you know… won. Since there are points and scoring involved? Anyhow, good job on the pushup, Jeremy!
Friday: I met up with Stephen Crye, whom I’d been talking with for months about possibly getting some footage on “Sea of Holes.” Since we had been in contact for so long over the endeavor and I was looking forward to one last romp on my favorite climb, I decided to give it a run for the cameras. I really learned how much disdain I have for soloing on film that day. It’s one thing if I’m walking along and manage to set up a couple tripods with minimal effort… but lugging gear to the top of North Mountain was killing my mojo. I enjoyed the movement and the mental practice of performing the climb, but the overall tone of the day was soured by the effort put into filming. I limped back to the ranch somewhat dissatisfied and in a funk.
Jeremy, on the other hand, KILLED IT. He went to warm up on a V0-, given his hungover state (it was the morning after TanksGiving, after all) he had to fight INCREDIBLY hard to gain the topout, but he sent. As he came back to the pads, another crew had arrived and pointed towards the line he had just climbed “yeah, that’s a bit too hard… that’s a V3… “ Wait. WHAT?
As it turns out, Jeremy had just sent his hardest problem. He sent it onsight, and hungover, for his bloody warm-up. Like. A. BOSS!!!
Saturday: We were both rather burned out, and called it a rest day. Jeremy was sore from being awesome, and my feet hated me for walking around with tripods.
Sunday: Our last day at hueco, we have to leave by mid-afternoon. It’s reckoning day. We warmed up on “Warm Up Bolder,” appropriately enough. I tried some V7 over there that seemed impossible and couldn’t get off the ground. It scared my feet. Meanwhile Jeremy worked on “Warm Up Roof” V4. Lots of flailing, and a little sending later, we attacked the Blender Boulder.
I started off flashing “Hobbit in a Blender” V5, and then came back for a second lap. It’s just an awesome line! After a lap on “The Ostracizer” V2, and flopping off the second move of a gnarly gaston, I made a flash on “Brutus” V5. This boulder was perfectly fitting my style, the incut crimps felt ergonomic to me and the slightly desperate deadpoints were everything I look for! Satisfied, and figuring we’d be ending soon, I wandered off to eat and basically just lounged on the pads. I realized this was the first time that I wound down enough to truly appreciate the landscape around me. Despite the fact that my mind was so turned off, the magic of Hueco was seeping into my pores at last!
I must have dozed there for at least 30 minutes, and thought: what the heck, why not give it a go? So I stumbled back over to the gnarly gaston problem…. And cruised through it, much to my own astonishment! At the top I thought the grade was about V5… but they were telling me it’s a 7!? I flipped through the guidebook, and sure enough: V7. I figured I must have missed the start holds or something like that, so later that day, I flipped through the internet and watched videos… Still V7, and I had found the correct start. I did V7 on my second go? That’s it. Grades don’t make any sense anymore…. If anyone wants me, I’ll be back under my campus board.
In true form, as we were walking out the park, I slipped off a 12” rock and banged my head on a nearby boulder. Yes. Twelve inches. I’m that bad at walking. In any case, I bled more than I’ve ever bled in my life! But the good news is, I think my Adventure Hat probably saved me from a concussion!
Well, despite making every attempt to foil ourselves, we managed to have a blast, get in the park every day that we wanted to and send the hardest problems of our careers. I think the key was just remembering why the hell we started climbing to begin with.
Numbers, mumblers, stumblers, bumblers, does anybody remember when it was exciting just to get to the top? Jeremy and I have this thing in common about our climbing: We climb in a search for peace. We’re not at war with the rock, we don’t want to conquer it. Even though our egos would like to take over and rule the day, we don’t actually care about numbers. We truly care about being somewhere beautiful and being at peace in our surroundings. Anything that detracts from that, risks the whole point.
On this trip, our mightiest highs and lowest lows were determined by how we approached the rock. Any time we set ourselves up with the goal of sending some arbitrary problem, we became too caught up in how things were supposed to go to actually allow ourselves to perform. Over-gripping, under-thinking and generally stressing ran our mojo down. Then, as soon as we were down and resigned ourselves to simply enjoying ourselves, we managed the strongest performances of our careers. “Mental Strength is the key, and perhaps luck is the consequence.” We weren’t looking for luck, but it found us. As soon as we stopped striving and grasping, and just let ourselves be fully in the moment…. That’s when inspiration struck.
Maybe, instead of trying so much to climb harder, perhaps we should try to climb calmer and more peacefully. That release from flight and fear might be all it takes to put luck on your side and clip the chains!