Below I will share with you a deeply compelling story from one of climbing’s central figures, and one of our best writers. Hearing the tale in John’s own voice imparts a depth and gravity to the story that will stay with you long after the audio cuts off. One thing to keep in mind is that this is not the story of the day John Long quit free-soloing, but rather it is the story of a day where he gained a deep and powerful insight into the nature of climbing, life, the universe, and everything.
To read in text: The Only Blasphemy (Rock and Ice)
Cave Crack (Summer 2007)
The cops in Georgia will throw you in jail and give you a comic book hero name at a measly 85 miles per hour. This is widely regarded as obscene since dropping below 80 runs the risk that you’ll be run-over by someone in a Lexus. “Super Speeder” you become, forever marked as a degenerate in the states files. In Texas we didn’t have such absurd punishments for simply getting where you’re going. Hell, we even have spots on the interstate where the speed limit itself is 85 miles per hour, so cruising over 100 to the crag was a routine maneuver, regardless of the local limits.
“HOLY SHIT WHAT WAS THAT!” we agreed that we couldn’t be sure given how late at night it was, but it looked disturbingly like a chupacabra, and was alarmingly close to the road. Suddenly we decided to take the speed limit, and those “Loose livestock” signs a lot more seriously. It might have just been a trick of the light and the fact that we were traveling at relativistic velocities, but that was the ugliest cow I’d ever seen. We kept it in the 30’s for the last leg of our journey.
Later that day:
With a sickening sensation in my stomach I realized the wall behind me arched overhead to cutoff passage along the crack. From the ground I had hoped that there was sufficient space between the two bits of wall to squeeze through, but the gap was far too small. Can’t go down, I didn’t trust myself to downclimb the 50’ crack back to the floor. Can’t go up, the wall cuts off passage that way. Can’t go right, the wall is blank and offers no escape. Logically, the only escape is out left, across a blank slab. My mind cracked in two, each half attempting to console the other, neither half attempted to come up with a solution. I’d only been climbing for something like 8 months at this point in time, I wasn’t savvy enough to realize the wall behind me offered easy chimney climbing.
As my brain began to pour out my ears (it had melted from the heat of my stupidity), I formulated a “plan,” if you’re feeling gracious. If you’re not, you’d call it a half-crazed desperate attempt to avoid accidental self-destruction. I’m feeling gracious, so I believe we’ll call it a plan.
“it’s only 5.6,” I’d said. “I’ve done crack in the gym,” I’d said. “I bet I can squeeze through that gap,” I’d said. “How hard can it be,” I’d said. In all honesty it would’ve been better had I said “I’m a bloody idiot, lets go back to the car.” But then we wouldn’t have this story.
I swirled the sling like a lasso and tossed it deep in the crack. I missed. Toss, miss, toss, miss, toss…. STUCK! Shit. It’s stuck. How the hell am I supposed to get it back to try again? There was a carabiner on the end of my sling acting as a counterweight, the idea was to toss it beyond a small chockstone, lasso the little bugger, and girth hitch my sling to it as a direct point of aid. The carabiner hadn’t gone far enough for any of that, and now it was stuck.
Stuck! Aha! If it’s stuck, it’s not going anywhere! If it’s not going anywhere, I can pull on it to yank myself to safety! I sunk one hand in a bomber jam, and yanked on it with all my might on the other hand. Seemed solid, so I yarded my way out left around the corner and onto the ledge. It was good to be alive! Just to see how solid my lifeline had been, I gave it a tug.
It practically jumped out of the crack with a light flick of the wrist. Must’ve been about A3.
“Well,” I decided, “I’m never doing that again.”
Alpspitze (August 2008)
First, If I’ve never told this story to my dad…. I’m really going to owe him an apology for sneaking about like this! (erm… sorry dad!)
We had approached the “Adamplatte” of the Alpspitze in Garmisch-Partenkirchen by the via-ferrata route, having already gained a thousand feet of elevation. Dad looked at the route and said “nope.” “Why nope,” I asked? “Because I’m an old man, and I’m tired.” Okay, can’t argue with that logic, but what does he want to do now? “I want to take a nap, head down to the cable car station, and have a beer.” Well, I reckoned I could make it to the top and back down in time for him to finish his beer, and I made a statement to that affect. He tucked into a corner to sleep, and I scooted off towards the base of the route.
The climbing was mind-numbingly easy for the first couple hundred feet and I rapidly escaped the ledge upon which the route began. Four hundred feet later that ledge was but a vague memory. Most of the climbing was along a slab with water grooves ranging from 5.0-5.5, though I knew there was a 5.8 crux pitch up high. The view of the village below was astounding, the houses even looked like ants, and then the world shifted. I clenched tightly with my right hand to counteract the sudden movement as my left pulled off a block the size of my head. I watched in horror as it tumbled down the slabs, and I couldn’t help but imagine a rag doll with my face taking the same tumble. Down, down, down it goes, bouncing off the wall, into the slab, five hundred feet back to the ledge. Maybe it stops there, or maybe it keeps falling another thousand feet to the base of the wall, which itself is a few thousand feet above the valley. I was losing it. That was too much exposure to take in. I reached up and slapped myself in the face, since no one was around to do it for me. It worked in the cartoons, so it seemed like a reasonable enough idea.
I wondered how the cliff had become so wonderfully grooved for climbing, some of the channels cut were deep enough for hand-jams. Quickly enough the reason became apparent…. The grooves were carved by water runoff, and not just any water but snowmelt. The moisture sapped heat from my fingers and they became numb to pain. Meanwhile my feet had mostly lost any semblance of friction on the slick rock, but I was too committed to downclimb and the only way off was up.
After 750 feet of climbing, approximately 1700ft above the base of the wall, I realized I was lost. I know, I know, I’m on the north face of the Alpspitze, but I didn’t know how to continue forward and get the hell off the wall, which is a surprisingly easy situation to get into it seems. I was onsighting the route, trusting in intuition, voodoo magic, and a palm-reading to get me through the proper sequences to the top, the climb mostly followed a massive slabbed dihedral up the wall. I was faced with a decision, up ahead I could see that the low angled half of my corner disappeared into the vertical segment of wall that it intersected. The only other option was up and left through a very burly looking bulge in the rock. Minutes crept past as I deliberated, finally I sunk one finger in a bolt and leaned backward as far as I could stomache. With this vantage point I was able to catch a glimpse of metal about a hundred feet further up the wall. The anchors for the next pitch glinted in the sun like that light at the end of the tunnel. Looks like I wasn’t headed for hell today.
The crux 5.8 traverse on vertical rock climbed 50ft sideways like a ballet number. Toes pointed onto pebbles and edges, arms held at just the right angle to the rock. I flowed through the moves like the water running across the cliff and I disappeared completely. There was no rock, there was no me, only the pure execution and complete focus. I never could remember the moves from that sequence, but I remember a profound sense of peace that never quite left me.
As I topped out on the wall, a couple guys were walking along the via-ferrata in the home stretch to the summit, and they looked at me very hard. Then they glanced down, and then back to me. Down and back, they grabbed the cable of the via-ferrata to look further down in confusion and I explained (in german) “I’m from Texas, there is no other guy.”
“Oh.” They said, and walked off like that explained everything. I’d really like to know how that explains anything.
After tagging the summit, I sprinted down the via-ferrata with one hand hovering over the safety cable “just in case,” swaying side to side in a headlong purposeful crash like Jack Sparrow fleeing the British in the Caribbean. Just as I came within sight of the cable car station I slowed to a walk, when I arrived at the table dad was enjoying the last sip of beer in his mug. Sometimes, things just work out.
Fly on a Windshield (Spring Break 2011)
I was full of myself, and it was a glorious weekend. I had finished my 15th solo of the day on “Pro Sweat: (5.9+). It was a slab, and slabs are supposed to be sketchy, but I had felt incredibly solid and decided to up the ante to “Fly on a Windshield” (5.10a). I sauntered over to the base, and pulled through the initial flakes rapidly to gain a precarious mantle, and then I just sat there. The holds I upon which I perched did not inspire confidence. The next sequence didn’t appear much better, worse, in fact. I had led the climb onsight only a week or two earlier and I remembered how easy it had felt, but at that moment I couldn’t put my finger on what was different other than the fact that my foot seemed to be slipping very, very slowly.
That’s when I noticed the bolt above my head. Apparently when I led the route, those crux moves were accomplished with all the boldness of toprope. Splendid.
Look. You have two choices, sit and think and splatter, or fucking go for it. Maybe, just maybe you’ll make it. I grabbed those awful crimps for dear life, re-situated my deteriorating foothold and flung myself up at the next good hold, a muffin-sloper. Time dilated and slowed to a standstill, what looked to the outside world to take only an instant took an eternity as my entire being became consumed with the effort required to make that one single move and pull back away from the event horizon. One move, that’s the difference between life and death. SMACK! My hand connected as my feet blew out on me, and I mantled up onto a good ledge. Adrenaline surged through my body as I greeted life with a fresh outlook. But it wasn’t quite over yet, I had to climb another 100’ to the summit, mostly about 5.7, so I got back into the zone and continued trembling all the way to the top.
Someone on the rock nearby hollered for some casual conversation, “AHOY! I used to solo a bit too back in my day! Just never on slabs though. I always found them way too sketchy.” I thought to myself: Yeah, me too! Instead I said “well, everybody has their own style, ya know?”
It’s a known fact that Ego is the most difficult terrain to protect in all of climbing.
The Nose (December 2013)
“Its no big deal,” I said. “It’s only 5.8,” I said. “It’s slab, that’s what you’re good at,” I said. “You’re well acclimated to Granite,” I said. And so I pointed my faithful Frontier into the Pisgah wilderness aiming for “The Nose” at Looking Glass Rock.
Staring up at the route, it was far from intimidating. Sure, it’s a hold-less sea of polished granite, but those weird eyebrow features seemed inviting. We didn’t have features at Enchanted Rock, we just had a bunch of nickel and dime-edges. Features were good, features inspired confidence. I began the process of making mantels up the wall, this rock was certifiably weird. You call this 5.6!? I thought, and perhaps that should’ve been my first warning.
At the bolted belay for the first pitch I stopped and contemplated life. The next section looked steeper, but after checking mountainproject on my phone, I could tell I was on-route and this gave me hope. I considered down-climbing, and decided it would be too awkward to be worth the trouble, that should’ve been my final warning. I pushed onward, deeper into abysmal folly.
The wall wasn’t exactly blank, but everything was terribly rounded. No crisp edges on the slab to be found, the next move would require me to commit myself entirely to a tiny greasy pimple on the rock. There were no hand-holds to use if I slipped, there were no additional footholds to shore up my balance, I had to trust that foot.
I couldn’t trust my life to that foot.
I tried to ease in, too sketchy. I tried to downclimb, and found that my stupid self had performed a rather irreversible mantle maneuver to get into my current predicament. I was stuck, but it hadn’t sunk in yet. I climbed up, then down, oscillating in a 15×15 box in the rock. I couldn’t find any way to escape intact, every possible way out appeared to have odds below 50%. Up, Down, Left, Right, there was no direction that looked acceptable. Finally, even though I had a half decent no-hands rest, I broke down.
I thought about my friends, my family, everyone that had ever loved me or cared for me. I thought of all the things I had wanted to see in the world. I thought of the goals I once had in a previous life that had apparently ended 30 minutes earlier, when I was too stupid to notice that it had passed, when I was to hell-bent on climbing upward to recognize that I was inexcusably committed to going forward. Once again my thoughts drifted back to my friends, and the folly of my situation hit me like a ton of bricks for the first time. Could there possibly be any greater sin than willfully jeopardizing one’s own life for no discernible purpose? Standing there, perched on one foot 150 feet off the ground, uncontrollably sobbing softly to myself, I finally understood The Only Blasphemy. There may be greater sins, but at that moment I couldn’t think of any.
I spotted some climbers at the base of the route, and they began moving painstakingly upward. I stood on that small sloping ledge for what seemed like an eternity before the leader caught up to me and passed me a sling to use as a makeshift harness. I couldn’t look him in the eye.
The next weekend I went to onsight-solo at Tennessee Wall and didn’t top out on a single route. I kept climbing half-way up and realizing it would be an awkward spot to reverse. That meant it was time to back-off. Still, half of eight 100’ routes still equates 400’ of climbing at a beautiful place, not a bad day at all.
In the intervening years between these instances and current thinking I’ve come up with a bit of a “pre-flight calculus” that keeps me from doing anything monumentally stupid. Not that any of it can be argued as particularly smart, but it’s my idea of a good time and it keeps me laughing, if I do it right. And that’s the key thing: climbing should be fun, and it has to be done right. Gravity is unforgiving in that respect. I figure if I ever stop laughing, it’s probably time for me to quit the whole thing outright.
That encounter with “The Nose” was approximately my 75th pitch soloed, and I’ve done another 300 since without any incidents. It seems I’ve learned my lesson well, and I can only hope that it sticks. Nowadays, as soon as a route stops being incredibly fun, I’m out long before it reaches the threshold of “dangerous”.
Every now and again someone will ask me if I feel fear, and I think the above should make it very clear that I do. I’ve been asked if I value my life and understand what I’m doing, and I think I do more than most people. You doing have the option to remain ignorant in such positions as these. I’m no different from most, and I’ve done some very stupid things in my time, but the key thing is that I learned deeply from my mistakes. I had a short conversation with a crane operator one day that sums it up:
“holy SHIT! So you do it for the rush!?”
-No, can’t say I do
“Well why not? I mean, the adrenaline has got to be intense!”
-No, I can’t say it is
“Well why not?”
-Because there is no adrenaline, there is no rush.
“How does that work out? Don’t you get scared?”
-Oh yeah, loads of times, usually when I have a rope and I’m pushing it. See, the thing is, a person only feels adrenalized or gets a rush when they truly, deeply believe they are in danger. And I don’t like to do the dangerous thing.
I’ve done the dangerous thing already. It wasn’t intentional, and it wasn’t pleasant. If you climb for the rush, or for adrenaline, then you’re an idiot and you’re going to die. It’s that simple.
If I feel that rush or adrenaline, I know I need to sit down and have a long talk with myself.
Some folks get all excited about the things I’ve soloed, but these days I think you’d be more amazed at all the things that I haven’t.
I can think of a few folks straight off the top of my head who were my peers in college that have died young in the intervening years between then and now. It’s no secret that fate has had plenty of chance to call my number instead of theirs, but I’m still here. Not even the ones who’ve played it safe are immune to the ravages of time and chance. It seems we’re all just living off borrowed time, as they say. You’ve only got one shot on this dustball. Make it a good one.