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Blinded by Science

Ten feet off the ground, I knew that everything had already gone sideways on me. It felt far, far more difficult than I had expected. Suckered in by the oversimplification of climbing’s grading system, I fell into the familiar folly: Since I had onsight soloed 5.12a this summer, 5.12a should feel easy right?

Wrong. The pump was building, my forearms felt like they were about to burst, only 20ft off the ground, and the anxiety was rapidly building…. I had never actually been belayed by my climbing partner before now… can he catch a fall this close to the deck? After my summer soloing, and Horseshoe Hell, I was hardwired into the no-fall-mode, and just wasn’t comfortable falling that close to the deck with a new partner. “TAAAAAKE!”

At “only” 5.12a “Kick me in the Jimmie” in the Red River Gorge left me feeling like someone had kicked me in the Jimmie!!! How can 5.12a have felt so easy on the day that I onsight soloed “Tangerine,” but feel so hard now? That thought frightened me and made me think long and hard about my life choices. Had I made poor decisions and gotten lucky? Or is there some logical explanation for extreme success on some routes, coupled with extreme failure on other routes of the same grade?

This summer I fell off the wagon with my training program. You guys know how I am, training is my religion. I can’t get enough of it, and spend my rest days mostly thinking about how I can train better…. but it just felt like something was off. I felt stuck, and I just wasn’t progressing. I lost the stoke and quit training altogether only halfway through a four-month training cycle.

That’s a *lot* of missed training sessions!
To a certain extent, I’d say that my life depends on proper training, so I research training methodology with keen interest. I’ve come to consider myself knowledgeable on the subject, but I could tell that something was very wrong. This left me with a difficult question: if I couldn’t get my own training right, then who could I trust?

Enter Tom Randall and Lattice Training.

For years I’ve been searching for the latest science in training methodology, these folks are the latest science in training. Some of you might remember that I tried to make an assessment protocol to put numbers on climbing fitness for data-driven training… well… these guys have already done it, and they’ve done it far better than I ever could have! When it came time for me to find a coach, there’s nobody else on earth that I would rather trust.

The results are in: Not only were they able to pin numbers on my fitness, compare those numbers to a database of my peers who climb the same grades, and with folks who climb the grades that I dream of… but they also put many years of training and coaching experience in the database, and that enables them to describe a “reasonable” timeframe for hitting my targets, whether they are possible, and how long I should expect it to take. They did all of this without ever seeing me in person. No matter where you live, all you need to get started is a 19mm (3/4″) edge, a pulley, and some weights.

Lattice’s full response was an incredibly thorough 6 page PDF report, but I’m going to skip straight to the exciting part: The data! Any coach can talk long and hard about your climbing, but these folks have data! Why on earth did “Tangerine” feel so relaxed when my experience at The Red felt like a complete shut-down? The data makes it clear!

My report was the best news I could have hoped for: I am weak, terribly weak, in multiple ways! I’m taking that to mean we have numerous avenues which can yield progress sooner than later. During the assessment, all of the tests felt alarmingly difficult, much in the same way that Red River Gorge climbing felt alarmingly difficult. As I performed the tests, I could feel intuitively how off-target my training had been over the summer.

Scientific proof that I’m weak!
Finger Strength:
It’s lagging by a bit. By the numbers, my finger strength is on-par with sending 5.12c in about ten sessions, which is low considering that I’ve sent 5.13a second-go on two separate occasions. But… it’s also something I’d expected to see after failing even to hangdog my way to the top of 5.13a’s on a few other occasions.

Anaerobic Capacity:
Alarmingly poor. My measurement of only 8% explains why my bouldering has always lagged so far behind my roped climbing: Boulderers should score over 30%. Meanwhile, I’m even underperforming the 20-30% mark expected for sport climbing.

Aerobic Power and Lactate Curve:
“Currently a clear weakness.” My score on Aero Power was half as long a duration of hangs compared to the expectation for climbers at the 5.13a grade. The Lactate Curve measures how rapidly your energy stores diminish, and a low score is more desirable as it shows a slower rate of fatigue. My score was almost three times higher than it should be for a 5.13a climber. That explains why I’ve always felt that I get pumped more rapidly than others climbing on the same routes! It’s as if the clock ticks faster for me on hard sections than most folks.

Aerobic Contribution:
Boulderers typically score around 10%, “the fittest of sport climbers” will score above 25%, and I scored a whopping 36%. This is the only score where I outperformed expectations, and I outperformed them greatly! It took a minute, but we found something I’m good at!

This makes sense given the routes that I’m able to send my hardest on, like Tangerine. Tangerine had no sustained hard sections. The individual boulder problems were never longer than four to six moves and were separated by incut resting jugs. Since the hardest move was V4, my fingers still had plenty of excess strength, and the individual boulder problems were too short for me to get pumped before arriving at the next jug. At that point, my Aerobic Contribution kicked into full-gear. Aerobic Contribution is related to the capillarisation in the forearm, and that increased blood flow means all of the pump would disappear at any resting jug, and leave me fresh again for the next four move section.

But the routes I tried at The Red had nowhere to rest. They were long sustained sections of hard moves with no stopping point for recovery. So my forearms turned to concrete within seconds, and my body failed rapidly. It’s quite reasonable to say that I’ve progressed as far as I can with clever route-selection and by exploiting my strengths.

If I want to improve, I have a lot of work to do to become a balanced climber. If all goes well, and I follow instructions, the database at Lattice says it is possible to make a 5% finger strength gain over the next year, which puts me on target for a 12-month goal of sending 5.13b with some reliability. Afterward, the data shows that gains should slow down, but it is conceivable that I could hit the benchmark fitness levels of an “average” 5.14a climber in 5 year’s time. They say that 5-year benchmark is at the limit of what’s reasonable, but…. it is possible.

Needless to say, I signed up for a customized training plan immediately! One week in and I’ve noticed something: it’s fun, every day is something different, and their methods are simple yet effective!

All the gear I need to perform Lattice’s conditioning circuits in the comfort of my own home!
But it’s worth mentioning now that data doesn’t tell us everything. I’m currently sending 5.13a, despite the fact that four out of five measures of fitness were greatly under-performing compared to the average fitness required by that grade. Tom says this could indicate a level of mental game, willingness to fight, and economy of motion that is quite above what they expected from someone “so new to the sport.” Yes, folks, you heard it right: at eleven years of climbing, I am new to the sport. This is a very long game we are playing, and you never stop learning! Fitness is hugely important, but climbing is a skill sport! 

Three times I’ve had ot re-start my climbing career. Twice from catastrophic injuries due to the perils of roped climbing, and once due to burnout from competition. Each time I’ve returned to climbing to find myself weaker than ever before, and it forced me to learn movement and perfect motion for maximum economy. If it wasn’t for that relative weakness, perhaps I would never have developed into the climber that I am today.

Thanks to that proces of re-learning how to climb while weak, I’m sending quite a bit harder than the data would suggest, and so I can’t help but wonder how that will affect my progress? Will those x-factors allow me to hit my performance targets sooner than the database anticipates? I don’t know, but I intend to find out!

For the first time in my life, thanks to Lattice, I feel confident that I will achieve my goals in climbing and in soloing. Not only has this positively affected my psyche for training, but it even feels like I’m sending harder thanks to the newfound confidence! During my first strength session with Lattice, I accidentally set a personal record for “hardest boulder onsight in a gym.”

My training was such a mess this summer that I don’t have any goals, so I have no idea what the future holds, but I know that I’m psyched beyond belief over the possibilities! I can’t wait to take my new fingers for a test-drive this spring!

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What was That Guy thinking?

Some of y’all may have heard that I onsight soloed a 5.12a recently. Not gonna lie, I’m pretty stoked, and I’ve never been this satisfied with anything in my climbing career. Understandably though, this left a lot of you thinking “What. The. FUCK. Was that guy thinking!?” So I’m here to shed a little light on how I got to do something like this, even though it was never a goal of mine. It couldn’t be a goal of mine, actually. Onsight soloing is a formidable thing, if you want it, it’ll kill you. That’s how emotions work for me in soloing, I have to let them go, become a creature of pure logic, and trust in the process that I’ve crafted. Otherwise, things could get scary.

This post is for the nerds, it’s long, and it’s detailed. If you want a quick article on death-defying recklessness, you’re in the wrong spot. If you want detailed logical processes about what actually goes into the making of this sort of thing, then pour a scotch, sit down, and enjoy the read!

Some have pointed out the obviously reckless nature and idiocy of this feat, and that makes me wonder: would they have said the same if it was 5.2? What about 5.3? 5.4? How about you? What’s your threshold? 5.9? What about your belayer? When do they decide it is foolish? 5.11? 5.7? We all like to say that “grades don’t matter,” but something about it leaves folks triggered in this instance.

There is nothing inherently safe about any climb, and the danger has nothing to do with a grade. If you make a mistake and get killed on a 5.2 or a 5.15, that’s not the climb’s fault. The wisdom or folly of an achievement is not derived from the grade of a chosen objective, especially since grades don’t matter. Right? The safety comes from your code of conduct and how you choose a goal that’s “safe enough.” After all, at the end of the day, climbing is inherently dangerous. All any of us can achieve is “safe enough.” To deny that is to embrace folly with wholehearted idiocy.

50ft of V0+, am I soloing now? Climbers routinely “highball” onsight through so called “moderate” terrain well past the no-fall zone, and we accept it as a community. Why is it that one triggers and the other does not?
The only safety that any of us has lies within our ability to make competent decisions. That’s what makes a climb safe. As the grade of a solo rises higher, it does not grow more dangerous, but rather it becomes more rare. As the grade of the climb increases, it requires more effort, so it’s much more difficult to find a route which passes the smell test and fits within the soloist’s code of conduct.

In soloing, if a move is sketchy, the solution is to apply more force to make it stable so that you won’t slip. The climb is easy, so you should have plenty of energy to spare for making safety. Even so, on some climbs, that just doesn’t work, so you have to skip them. There are 5.8’s that my girlfriend could climb in high-heels, that I wouldn’t dare to solo! You have to know when to back off. So as the grade gets higher and the climbing gets harder, you have less excess energy to devote to stabilizing moves. This means the percentage of routes which can be soloed decreases. So that’s the rarity of hard soloing, and of hard onsight soloing. You have to find a route that just really wants to be soloed. It has to be as close to perfect for the style as can be imagined, and that is rare.

So I could never have set this as a goal, to do so would have given my ego a foothold where it might kick me to my death. Wanting something in the soloing world introduces the possibility of overreaching. If you want something badly enough, you might be willing to try anything to achieve it, and that just isn’t acceptable.

I never let myself want this, I just realized one day that it was possible, and began the process.

My first 5.11 onsight solo
Finding The Moment
Eyeballing the 50ft horizontal roof left me with a feeling that I’d never quite had before while staring at this type of terrain: it looked moderate. The crux was at the end, a couple positive but angled edges provided the set up for a big move, and then turning the lip was a simple matter of endurance.

I flowed up the route. Half-way through was a move which required cutting both feet loose and Tarzan-swinging from a single hand to catch the next jug. I took the opportunity to rest here and recovered most of my energy. At the end of the roof was an insecure stance which pumped me out again, but as I set up on those two crimps I just barely had enough ability remaining for the move, but I did have enough strength remaining. I knew latching that jug was a matter of sheer determination, and I’d need every ounce of focus and willpower to snatch that hold. Without a moment of hesitation, I dynoed all-out and latched the jug. Again I sat and recovered, alternating hands for a shake off while I contemplated life, then ambled out the roof, onto the face, clipped the chains, screamed TAKE and lowered back to the padded gym floor.

This story starts in the climbing gym because that’s when it hit me: I had recovered energy in a roof for the first time in my life! I’m not sure what grade the route was, ratings are always a bit odd in the gym, but if you climb in a gym long enough, you start to get familiar with the holds. I was resting on holds which before would have pumped me out. Woah. This whole training thing is paying off!

Now my fingers were ready for something next-level. I had no in-progress projects to try, but that kind of recovery ability meant my onsight game would be on-point. Being able to stop and get energy back in difficult places is the most important physical attribute for onsight soloing. Maybe I could use this ability for something special, and deeply personal.

The crux of that style of climbing is fear of the unknown which lies above you. The higher you climb, the more tired you get, and retreat becomes more complicated with each passing move. It is possible for the psyche to get locked, afraid of the unknown above, but also afraid of the retreat. Knowing that I had the ability to recover in these roofs meant I could keep my calm better than ever so that neither the unknown nor the retreat would be as scary. I could just stop and rest for as long as I needed to at any point in the steeps to think calmly and make a competent decision.

5.11c, onsight solo. In my past, I’ve onsight soloed up to 5.11d. “Tangerine” only marked a small step forward physically, but a large leap mentally
With a rope, I had onsighted both “pumpy” and “bouldery” 5.12c and sent 5.13a second-go. This all suggested that the 5.12d onsight is near. Therefore, 5.12a was a decent bit below my maximum onsight ability. This spring I soloed my hardest at 5.12c with “Dalai Lama,” which has a V5 crux at 70ft and a V4 pump-crux body-length roof at 90ft.  Later I re-soloed some “Satisfaction (5.12b)” and “First Offense (5.12a)” a few times each for practice. Both felt even more mellow than I remembered. My soloing game had reached next level status as well. Since everything else in my climbing had reached “next level” status, maybe my onsight soloing would too? Previously, I had onsight soloed up to 5.11d, so perhaps it was time for 5.12a?

It just felt like the logical next step, so logical that I at least had to give it a proper try.

“Satisfaction” 5.12b
Finding The Line:
Unfortunately, I was leaving in only two weeks, so I didn’t think it would happen. That’s just too short a time frame. I needed dry rock, moderate temps, and time to scout, but I was stuck in the middle of moving houses! Luck was on my side, however. With one week left, the weather report turned perfect for a full five-day period! That gave me time to prepare for my move out of town, and invest time into asking friends for route suggestions. I didn’t want to leak my plans and feel any sort of pressure, so I started asking around carefully on the back-channels, but even beating around the bush was risky… “Heyyyyyyy…. do you know of any routes that fit this list:”

  • 5.12a
  • Fairly static
  • Mostly incut holds
  • Very solid rock
  • Feels “secure”
  • Has a “topout” after the chains

Such an inquiry would definitely give my intentions away so I couldn’t ask just anybody. Luckily, I know Lohan. Lohan has known me for a good while, and he’s seen my climbing. He trusts me to make proper judgment calls, and he knows that I won’t blindly trust any of his route suggestions. He and I met on a day that I was soloing, and it was a full year before he ever saw me tie in on a rope! As a result, he and I have a funny relationship where each of us insists the other is “actually the strong one.” For the record, Lohan is definitely the strong one. I’m writing that down for everyone to know. And now, since it’s in writing, he can legally no longer dispute the fact. I called up the strongest guy I knew, who’s sent loads of 5.12a, and just laid it out there. “Do you know of any good 12a’s to onsight solo? I’m thinking about Toomsuba, but I’m not sure if it’s a good idea or not. You’ve been on the route, you know how I climb, what do you think?”

The more we talked about Toomsuba, the less confident I became. Finally, I asked him for all the beta. I was sad to miss the onsight, but flashing 12a would still be amazing. Unfortunately, as we talked about the specifics of beta, we both became less sure that it was a good idea. Actually, we became quite convinced it was a bad idea. One day later Lohan breaks the news “I’ve got it! The route is called ‘Tangerine.’ The climbing is secure, and I’m pretty sure it tops out, but I’ll have to ask around first.” I couldn’t find any info online about the route as to whether it was soft or sandbagged, but it was the most positive lead that I had so I decided to head out to the canyon and give it a go. Nevertheless, I searched around and found a few alternates, just in case.

Training laps on “First Offense (5.12a)”
Finding the Mojo
At the base of the wall, I flipped through the guidebook and found a positive ID on the route. I counted bolts, looked for the top. The line passed a bulge and went out of view. Lohan had heard back from three people that it “probably” had a topout, but “probably” isn’t good enough when your life is on the line. I scrambled back out, hiked to the top of the cliff, and peered over the edge: BOLTS! Anchor-bolts galore! There was a ledge only 6ft below the lip which ran the length of the wall, and there was a good crisp edge for the whole length that could be mantled! And if the top of my route was overly gnarly, I could just traverse that ledge to find a better spot. Gorgeous!

Once back at the base, I could see a “make or break” point halfway up, where the route suddenly got harder. 50ft of jugs was followed by a major decision point which looked to have a good resting stance. I knew the top out was good, I knew that I could bail from half-height, so I decided to swing up the route and see what happened. Thanks to my experience in the gym, I knew I could sit at that resting stance for ages, contemplate life, scout for beta, and make a decision that felt right in my own sweet time. Reversing from that point would’ve been no big deal.

After about one minute of climbing, I reached the mid route jug, and I was fresh, so I swung into the next moves. Right-hand slot, left hand on a poor crimp, right hand on an okay side-pull, and holy shite that’s a big move! I released my left hand and hovered to decide how easy bailing would be after this move, and then reversed to the jug. I rested there for a few minutes, then tried to see if I could climb the section without the poor crimp. It was too awkward. I thought that using the crimp wouldn’t be awesome for down-climbing, but now I could feel that skipping it to go straight to the next big hold wouldn’t be awesome either. Sure, I’ve downclimbed stranger things during training sessions in the gym, but it wasn’t pleasant, so I wanted to avoid that eventuality if at all possible.

I sat at that resting stance for nine minutes eyeballing the route above and thinking carefully. I spotted a line of jugs that followed the bolts. Since Lohan tipped me off that the holds were all positive and the climbing secure, I had enough information to know that I could onsight. The logic was thus:

I could see that the meat of the climb was 30+ft of 30-degree overhanging sandstone. I also saw that there were jugs about every body-length. This meant that there was no jug haul, so there was no sustained easy section. That meant it would be sustained instead of cruxy. “Pumpy” 5.12a doesn’t usually get above V3 for single moves, but I kept in my mind that I could find V4 if I were super unlucky.

Endless incut V3, it’s a familiar place
Some folks will hear “sustained,” but what I hear is “easy.” The grade of a climb is composed of its total difficulty. Therefore, all other things being equal, if a route’s difficulties last for a long time, then the hardest moves have to get easier to compensate. Otherwise, the grade would be higher.

I knew from the gym that I could recover anywhere I had a good hold, so that meant I would be climbing V3 boulder problems separated by complete rest. Given that Lohan reported the climbing on the route to be “secure,” the calculation became simple:

How likely am I to fail on a section of “secure” and solid V3 in the rock of Little River Canyon? That probability is zero. I knew I could maintain peace of mind even on edges down to a quarter inch on this terrain.

I had a plan, I knew what needed to be done for success. One of my prerequisites for soloing is a belief that soloing done right is dominated by the feeling that there is nowhere else I’d rather be, so I made a plan. I would move from the block into the side pull to setup for the long move, just as I had nine minutes before. But this time, I made a pact with myself: I had to commit. To the top or the ground didn’t matter, both options were valid, but I had to commit fully to one course of action. The choice revolved around where my heart would rather be: in the crux, or on the ground.

That feeling was important. With an onsight solo, if you want it, it will kill you. Hubris will tell you to keep going “you’ve got this” until you hit that awful moment of paralysis where you can’t go down or up. Instead, you have to love it. If I didn’t feel the love of climbing deep down in my heart as I left the block, set-up for the crux, and looked at the steep climbing above… I would bail, immediately and without hesitation. Climbing without love is fear, and fear is fatal.

Breathe.

Move!

I pulled out of the resting block, my mind immediately cleared, and I was not even aware of the ground. All that existed was myself, the rock I was holding, and an eight-foot-eggshell of pure focus. Anything outside of that ceased to exist. The way to the top was clear. My body could have been four-feet off the ground, or four-hundred, and it wouldn’t have mattered inside my mind. It all would have felt the same in that moment.

With each passing yard of stone, I was surprised at how easy the climbing felt. Since the climbing felt easy, the shadow of doubt crept in my brain. The route felt too easy, maybe that meant something very hard was lurking ahead which I hadn’t thought of? I paused and rested at every block on the route, at every hold I shook off my other hand to rest as much as possible and make sure that I conserved my energy, just in case… But the dreaded crux never came. I did find a few quarter-inch holds, but I had planned for that. I pulled on a jug, mantled onto a ledge, and the anchor bolts stared back into my eyes and said: “you’ve done it.” Playfully, I poked the carabiner which someone had left in the anchor, then mantled over the cliff to find myself back at ground level.

The entire climb played out just as I had anticipated, and my plan left some room to be wrong. The hard V4 crux never came, so I had plenty of leftover endurance. There was one moment where my leg had the jitters. It was because I could see the end of the difficulties and thought “holy shit, I’m totally going to do this, how fuckin’ cool is that!?” Then there was one moment where I sat on a resting jug and thought “who the fuck do you think you are?” In both instances I simply remembered that the process is sound, let go of my emotions, turned my mind back to the business at hand, and then continued forward with relaxation.


I walked over to my truck, slipped off my shoes, and waited for the wave of emotion to hit me, but it didn’t. Instead, I was simply at peace, and completely relaxed. This was no act of daring, it was one of pure calm calculation, and it played out precisely according to the calculation. Instead of a wave of emotion, I achieved a rare state of extreme satisfaction. As I sit here typing, about a week later, that satisfaction and a new clarity of mind are still with me.

As I often do, I climbed with my headphones in to listen to music, but this time I didn’t hear it. On the way up this climb, I was so focused that I did not hear any sound. When I flipped the switch and committed to the top, nothing else mattered. I became nothing more than the execution of movement. I have no idea what songs were playing on my headphones during the ascent. For 14 minutes of climbing, my mind went to a new sort of heightened awareness that I didn’t even know existed.

Ordinarily, I downplay the spiritual significance of soloing as a truckload of hogwash, but this time was different. It was Transcendent. I feel calmer, more relaxed, and more at peace than I ever have. I don’t exactly understand why, but this solo was different than any I’ve ever done before.

While the Mile of Mojo was the end result of meticulous planning and training, onsight free-soloing “Tangerine” was just an expression of abilities already within me. This was never a goal of mine, I just realized that it was a possibility due to the way I’ve lived my life. It’s quite a thing to think you are capable, but it’s something quite a bit more to see the proof.

More than some fleeting tick mark on an 8a scorecard, more than another notch for the ego, more than the end result of meticulous planning, this is different. This marks the sound knowledge that I can walk up to a crag and just climb. All the training and practice, learning my gear and systems, all of it just led me to the ultimate simplicity:

No 50lb pack, no wiring my movement, no rehearsal runs, no begging for beta, I know that I can just walk up to a crag and go climbing. I’ll carry that satisfaction with me for the rest of my life. If I continue to follow the process, it will be a long life.

That feeling I get when folks say I “must not value my life” because I solo
Finding My Way
This wasn’t the only climb I tried that day. In the morning I stomped around lost for an hour before finding that the route I was searching for was a chosspile. “Wave of Mutilation (5.12a)” at the Wrong Turn Wall, was a definite no-go, so I hiked uphill to the truck in the Alabama heat. For whatever reason, I send my hardest in The Canyon at 85 degrees with humidity, but the same can’t be said of my hiking ability! As soon as I reached the truck, I emptied a 320z Gatorade in a single push to quench my sweat soaked thirst. Needless to say, I felt super productive at this point.

After “Tangerine,” I was feeling pretty good, so I moved over to “Toomsuba.” Maybe it would go after all? I saw a jug-rail at mid-height that I could use to bail out to easier terrain halfway up, and by the crux holds there was a chain-draw that I could use to jug past the hardest climbing. In the end, that’s what I did. I just couldn’t recover well on Toomsuba, so I yarded past the crux with the chain draw, then scrambled up to the top of the cliff. Perhaps that counts as 5.11d A0?

At day’s end, I wandered over to Sandrock, AL and tried to solo “Vicious (5.12c).” I had onsighted the route months ago with a rope, dialed in the moves, and then just never gotten around to the solo. I knew I could bail before the upper crux by diving right into “The Price Is Right,” and I could also bail lower by doing the same and down climbing. Four moves in I wasn’t feeling it and bailed down and right on easier terrain.

The Mile of Mojo required months of preparation and years of training for one single day of perfect climbing. It’s easy to see the work that went into that one, for the onsight solo the work might not be as obvious were it not for these other little misadventures on the same day. That’s the moment of perspective that I want to take from this: On the day that I onsight-soloed my first 5.12a, I had one send and three failures for a success rate of only 25%. Nevertheless, I had one single transcendent moment that made it all worthwhile. It’s that pursuit which unifies climbers.

We might not always succeed, and we might spend a lot of time beating our heads against the wall, but when we find that one single moment, it’s all worth it. The more of those moments you have, the more you carry them with you to find peace in your daily life.

The Hypocrisy of Risk

I am not here to convince you that soloing is a good idea. I wouldn’t try to convince anyone of that. Regardless of whether you approve of soloing or not, we can’t ignore that it is happening, and it will continue to happen. I believe we all have a common interest that is served by seeing that it is not performed for foolish motivations. To that end, I would like to explore attitudes of risk with you before proposing a solution. We climbers have been struggling with how to treat risk in the media in recent years, and we have arrived at a point where there are interesting contradictions within our collective attitudes which I believe are holding us back from finding a workable solution.

This morning a few local Boulderite average joes soloed one of the flatirons, and nobody batted an eyelash. I can feel fairly confident of this statement no matter when you read this article. Unless it was raining in Boulder this morning. Almost every single day the Flatirons are soloed multiple times by ordinary folks like us, and nobody writes scathing comments on Facebook to decry their insanity. Nobody drops the heartfelt line: “I’m so glad you survived.” Every morning they wake up, drink coffee, solo, head to work, and relax through a proper morning post-coffee bowel movement. Despite the coffee, soloing didn’t make our morning joggers shit themselves. Average joe, average solo, nobody gets in a fluff.

This weekend Alex Honnold soloed Freerider and caused an internet shitstorm for the ages. World’s most accomplished soloist, world’s most incredible solo…. you’d think the two would go hand-in-hand and everybody would think “yeah, that’s fair.” Apparently, that’s not the case, and he’s a glory-hounding psychopath. What gives? We’re all okay with the Morning Joes, but not with Honnold? That seems logically inconsistent. I could understand if there was an internet shitstorm against all of them, it’s that breakout point where it suddenly isn’t okay that I find interesting.


High altitude mountaineering has got to be one of the most lethal sports out there, right alongside wingsuit BASE jumping. Not that long ago, we as a community held a collective celebration for the ascent of the “Shark’s Fin” on Meru. The ascent was amazing, and I genuinely tip my hat to those guys. I’m not about to criticize them or denigrate their achievement, but I feel our communal attitudes here are interesting and worthy of inspection.

During the film, I watched as Jimmy, Renan, and Conrad each acknowledge that this ascent could get out of hand and kill them, then state that it was absolutely worthwhile to attempt. Never once has heard Alex indicated that he would be willing to die for free soloing, and yet he has been put on blast by a portion of our community. They say he is the model of unacceptable risk. Meanwhile, alpinists refer to death almost as the cost of doing business in the mountains. We can’t go a single season without hearing of multiple deaths via avalanche and other catastrophes in the alpine world. How can we celebrate this, then turn around and skewer Honnold for “pushing it?” Is it purely because they had a rope and he didn’t? We can hardly argue that the ascent of Meru wasn’t “pushing it,” and we’d be fools to say it was safe just because they had ropes. At this instance, we celebrate unashamedly the ones who openly greeted death as a possible outcome in the mountains, and lump hatred on the guy who chose to climb on a sunny day without inclement weather or conditions of any kind. That too is logically inconsistent.

Angry at Alex, but not the Morning Joes. Ire towards Honnold for supposedly inspiring others to follow him, when generations of mountaineers have died pursuing the unfinished projects of their fallen mentors, who literally led them into the mountains and taught them how to think. And then they died because of it. Where are the fervent cries that we mustn’t risk inspiring more climbers to venture into that world?

Even if someone solved these inconsistencies by behaving equally incensed towards the average Joe, Alex Honnold, and the entirety of high altitude alpinism, they’d still have one more problem: Their Uncle Larry.

You know who I’m talking about, we all have one. That one relative who thinks that you are utterly insane for freehanding them thar cliffs. “But I prepared myself!” Doesn’t matter. “I trained endlessly for this!” Doesn’t matter. Uncle Larry still thinks you’re insane and can’t fathom how you would risk your life for something so utterly pointless. “But it’s the most fulfilling part of my life!” Uncle Larry looks deep into your eyes with a genuine and righteous sense of overwhelming pity. “Oh honey, we just love you so much, and I’m glad you survived.”

For climbers to hold this enmity for Alex, ultimately, is to be devoid of empathy. The only safety that any of us have is our ability to make competent decisions. The types of decisions we make vary based on the risks that we choose to take, but ultimately every single rock climber on earth is an unnecessary risk-taker. Don’t believe me? Just ask Uncle Larry. How can you justify putting him through so much stress over all of these years? It’s not like you have to climb up there to get food. Why can’t you take up something safer, like football?

An article on Fringes Folly recently suggested that we should all stick our heads in the sand and pretend this isn’t happening. The logic being that if we ignore soloing and stop reporting it, then maybe it will go away? I say that is folly. Soloing started long before anyone ever reported on it. And if you haven’t noticed, despite the glory espoused by certain articles, the internet comment machine is pretty damned negative. If you’re soloing for attention, you won’t be doing it for long because the attention from your peers is fucking harsh. Especially when you first start doing it and don’t have a Honnold sized fan-club to back you up. At that point, everyone tells you how stupid you are and why you shouldn’t be doing this. Ignoring it won’t make anyone safer because soloists are already told to quit incessantly, and they still go out to find peace on the wall. Just like you do after each conversation with Uncle Larry.

“And I’m not talking about shaming, or guilting that climber friend in your life. I’m just talking about reminding them how loved they are […]

Just maybe, we can help Honnold and some of our other brightest stars to finally rest in peace… Without having to die, first.”

Fringes Folly, not using guilt tactics, and not at all sounding like Uncle Larry.

There is one big problem with the Fringes Folly article: Those same lines of logic have been used for decades by Uncle Larry and still haven’t stopped you from climbing, so why would they stop anyone from soloing? Furthermore, if we don’t comment on the subject thoughtfully, and if we do stick our collective heads in the sand while whispering “this isn’t happening,” then the tabloids will spray word vomit across the universe with click bait titles unabated due to the lack of reasoned and well-thought counterpoint. Granted, there are some sorts of risk taking that are utterly foolish, and those should be condemned. You know what type I mean. It’s the kind of thing that starts with “hold my beer and watch this,” then finishes on “Unbelayvable.” But what of Calculated Risk™? Isn’t Calculated Risk one of the most important fundamentals of climbing? Isn’t the sensible calculation of risk one of the most valuable lessons gained from climbing?

Our society and our community has been exhibiting a truly bizarre relationship to the idea of risk in the last several years, and it’s cool to watch people grappling to come to terms with the the fact that calculated and deep risk is not the same thing as rushed, seat-of-the-pants risk. Risk is complicated, and risk is inspiring.

Steph Davis

If we want to change our reporting, we can start by reporting the calculation instead of just the risk. Yes, I’m looking at you, National Geographic, for breaking the story with a headline that reads like something from a trashy tabloid. “Exclusive: Climber Completes the Most Dangerous Rope-Free Ascent Ever.” I liked my title a little better: “Climber Sends El Cap After Reasonable Preparation.” In all seriousness, while I may quibble with the title, It’s just because they’re the big dog and the easy target. I do applaud Nat Geo’s coverage of Honnold’s process. If we want to keep impressionable youngsters from soloing in a “hold my beer” moment, then it is vital that we mention process so that it becomes understood that we shan’t take these things lightly.

On a personal note, I took to soloing nine years ago because it felt like the most obvious thing in the world to do. But I think initially I was on a crash course for something unfortunate, and I had a few scary moments. Luckily, I found the videos and blogs of Michael Reardon. I never met the guy, but I think he may very well have saved my life. Through seeing his videos and reading his words I realized there was a process that had to be respected if I wanted to live a long and happy life, and that preparation became my religion. Without that, I don’t know if I’d have made it. That is why I write this blog. From my own experience as a soloist and from watching others, I see that those who solo are drawn to it magnetically from something deep within their being, not because they want to endure the inevitable hate-storm of backlash from their peers. If one person saves himself from doing something foolish by reading my words, then it’s all worth it, including the backlash I’ve received myself, and the backlash that I know I’ll receive for writing this article.

Some would say that publicizing his solos or mentioning them in any way means that he is doing it for the wrong reasons. Does that mean Chris Sharma has been climbing for the wrong reason all of these years? Is Sharma a narcissist and attention seeker for publicizing his send? Is your friend a narcissist for being happy about his first 5.10 toprope and posting it on facebook? Despite the nomenclature, soloing is n’t about being alone. Most soloists I know practice their craft as a path to freedom. Do you expect Honnold to solo only when he’s verified that nobody is looking? The cycle is the same for all climbers: We go climbing, we have a fun time, and when we see our friends afterward they ask “how was your weekend?” For Honnold to avoid telling anybody about Freerider and his other solos, it would require a massive and sustained effort of outright boldfaced lies.

“Hey man, how’d it go today?”

-Oh you know, sat around, ate cheetoes and shot whiskey.

“But we all saw some guy alone on Freerider. That wasn’t you?”

-Oh glory me! I wouldn’t do anything so reckless and crazy!

“But the guy we saw was wearing the exact same clothes as you”

-Nope, not me.

“That chalkbag you just stuffed full of cheetos and whiskey is the same one that I saw soloing El Cap.”

-Still not me.

“We had a telephoto lens, this picture shows your face”

-What if it just looks like my face due to quantum micro lending? Einstein predicted things like this could happen.

Even if Honnold had no film crew, and went out totally by himself, hiding his sends would be completely devoid of integrity. If we don’t believe it is appropriate to lie about our sends, why would we pressure someone into lying to cover up his sends? For my part, if you ask me a direct question like “what did you climb this weekend,” I’m going to give you a straight and truthful answer. I absolutely refuse to look you in the face and lie. That sort of disingenuous behavior is the exact opposite of the “Brave and Humble” attitude we claim to idolize.

Like the rest of you, I don’t want to encourage anyone to solo, but I can’t ignore the fact that people are going to solo in good conscience. There have been soloists since the beginning of climbing, and there always will be. That is a reality that we cannot escape.

Given that, the most important story here becomes Honnold’s extensive preparation, rather than the risk he worked so hard to mitigate. Freerider goes at 12d/13a, but Honnold can onsight 5.13+. Alex has climbed El Cap seven times in a seven-day span and holds the current speed record on The Nose. The scoop here isn’t that a brash youngster survived a brush with death. The strongest headline is the notion that Honnold prepared himself so thoroughly that Freerider felt like little more than a morning jog. He was so fresh after his ascent that he went back to his van for an afternoon fingerboarding session.

The way we deal with risk as a community is positively absurd. We laud mountaineers who court death as an old friend but lambast Honnold for the best prepared and most controlled ascent of his life. I’ve always felt as long as the risks you take are commensurate with the preparation you make, then everything is copacetic. Even if Uncle Larry will never admit it. Actually, hold on… Even Alex’s mom is supportive of his climbing. How many of you can say that for yourself? If Alex’s mom is okay with his soloing, then who are we to judge?

Breaking News: Climber Sends El Cap After Reasonable Preparation

Alex Honnold and I have the same initials, and we both free-solo… but that’s essentially where the similarities end. Nevertheless, I get asked about this Alex Honnold guy a lot. I usually dodge the subject and try to avoid speculation… but… I feel like I finally have something useful to add. This whole El Cap thing has got me thinking. I start thinking the most whenever I realize there is a disconnect between my thought process, and everyone else’s. That’s what led to my fall practice guide, and all of the articles that left me most satisfied.

Everything is like something else. If you can draw parallels, then you can deepen your understanding of even the most unfathomable things. It works for quantum physics, so why not for climbing? I feel like this ascent was part of a natural, logical progression, and I feel that it shows a lot of restraint on Honnold’s part, but you wouldn’t think that from the internet comment machine. I’m not here to persuade anyone that soloing in general is more or less sane, but I think a little bit of perspective is useful when thinking about these things. Since I think about soloing way more than most people, I thought it might be helpful to offer up my view on this monumental achievement since I see things from a different perspective than most. The more you know, the better you can form your own opinion. 

Disclaimer: I don’t know Honnold, or really anybody in the climbing world. The first-hand gossip from the pro climbing scene never lands in my ear. I live deep down in the dirty south, about as far removed from Yosemite as one can get without landing in Florida. But I do spend a lot of time thinking, and I’ve been waiting for this to happen.

 

Alex Honnold solos “The Phoenix (5.13a)” – Photo Big Up Productions
Setting the stage:
Freerider, as a free solo, poses three problems: It’s big, it’s hard, and it has insecurities. Each poses its own dilemma, but luckily the insecurities are not the technical crux itself, unlike his ascent of Half Dome.

Speaking of which, Half Dome was six years ago! The Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome goes at 5.12a, and 2200ft tall. The crux move was wildly insecure. In his memoirs, Honnold referred to it as a “very private hell.” He seemed to acknowledge that he over-reached on that one. In fact, he had only freed Half Dome a handful of times before he soloed it. With Freerider he invested a full year to training with that goal in mind. Furthermore, he made an attempt on “Freerider” back in November and backed off after an hour of climbing because it didn’t feel right.

Around the time of Half Dome, he soloed “Cosmic Debris” and “The Phoenix” at 5.13b and 5.13a, respectively. In other words, he could solo big walls, and he could solo 5.13. So why didn’t he solo the 5.13 big wall? I think that scare on Half-Dome made him wiser. He waited six years. He had the “high” and the “hard” in ample supplies to solo el camp, but he spent six years developing the precision necessary to handle the insecurity. I think that shows wisdom and restraint.

Alex Honnold soloing the 2200ft face of Half Dome – Nat Geo

What does it take?

The “Boulder Problem” pitch on Freerider is a V7/5.13a sequence that many ascensionists choose to avoid the insecure 5.12d “Teflon Corner.” In essence, they make a choice to accept greater difficulties because they are easier to control. It might be more physically demanding, but the odds of success are greater. This is what soloists pursue. But finding a secure path through the crux, and mastering it wasn’t enough. He needed the ability to control insecure sections of 5.11 elsewhere on the route, and that’s a different sort of challenge.

To understand this, I draw parallels from my own experience. At Sandrock, AL, when I soloed “Dreamscape” at 5.11+ folks immediately asked why I hadn’t soloed “Misty,” a “mere” 5.10+ nearby. The reason was that I felt it was too insecure. I didn’t solo “Misty” until after my first solo of the 5.12 grade.  Though Misty was “only” 5.10, I had to develop 5.13a climbing ability and 5.12- soloing ability before it felt secure enough to solo.

Honnold had soloed 5.13 before, that means he probably had the physical and mental abilities needed for the 5.13a crux pitch of Freerider. But that is only one piece of the puzzle. He had 3,000ft of rock to link securely. Mastering the crux means nothing if you risk punting on an insecure moderate pitch down low. For Honnold to solo Freerider, he needed the mastery to control insecure pitches of 5.11 elsewhere on the route. For that, he needed time. Six years of time, apparently.

I feel that he learned a valuable lesson on Half Dome. I believe that acting on the wisdom gained in that moment is the most remarkable part of this ascent. Many see a brush with death and a roll of the dice. Perhaps that was the case at moments in his past, but I don’t know the guy, and I can’t say for sure. Regardless, I see that Honnold has matured now. I feel this ascent is a display of wisdom, restraint, and patience. I feel that Alex Honnold will live a proper length of life.

Some folks cite this as proof that he’s insane, but insanity would have been going for it in a blaze of glory as a follow up to Half Dome. Allowing six years for personal development when he clearly had the basic physical abilities… That is a very good sign.

Six years ago Honnold had the abilities to solo 5.13 and to solo big. wall. But he waited six years to solo the 5.13 big-wall. That’s wisdom.

Some will say “This was crazy” but what they really mean is “I think he is crazy and nothing will change my opinion.” At the end of the day, this was the most well thought out and best-prepared action of Honnold’s life, precisely because it had to be. This doesn’t change Honnold as a person, and it doesn’t change Honnold in your eye. It’s simply the inevitable consequence of Alex being himself.

Post Script: I’ve always said if you solo something and say “I’ll never do that again,” that means you got away with it, and it was a terrible roll of the dice. If you are soloing right, you could do it on command, any day of the week. I just read a post from Jimmy Chin, when Honnold topped out he said “I’m pretty sure I could go back to the bottom and do it again, right now.” Congratulations Alex, you absolutely nailed it!

The Power of Disbelief

This weekend I sent my third 5.13a, and I sent it on my second go. I understand that this isn’t how climbing is supposed to work.

Remember folks: don’t believe everything that you think.

Russ Worley messaged me somewhat out of the blue, all stoked about a trip to Lower Leda. “This place has tons of 5.7 to 5.10, and there’s this 5.13 roof that YOU’RE GONNA LOVE!” There’s a common misconception here where folks think I enjoy climbing hard when really I obstinately try to avoid it. I mean, I like being able to climb hard, I’m just not stoked on actually doing it. I like it when climbing feels easy, and I save my try-hard for the fingerboard. Regardless, Russ has this outrageously infectious stoke level that reminds me of myself at age 19, so I grinned and shook my head, already knowing that I was going to get on that damn thing simply because he was so excited.

All week long I had been in a funk, low on mojo, disinterested even in my own training sessions, and then Russ messages me out of the blue and gets me stoked on the one thing that I actively try to avoid: hard climbing. I couldn’t help but feel uplifted by the good mojo vibes he was sending my way!

That’s one hell of a guy, ya know?

16729423_10101202553849952_1584108585422486898_n
Even when it’s 30 degrees and wet, this guy is still stoked!

After flailing on a 12b, and then on a 12a, I was fairly discouraged, and kinda just wanted to quit and go home. So when Russ popped around the corner to ask what I thought, I think my response was “That route is a chosspile from Mt. Bullshit!”

“Oh no, the 13 was no good?”

I felt bad, realizing I had just spoken very poorly of the adventure he had inspired. Oh yeah! The 13! “Uh, Idunno man, when I looked from the side I couldn’t see anything that even vaguely reminded me of a hold, so I haven’t even tried.”

“I know, those moves look CRAZY! IT’S GONNA BE AWESOME!”

Fuck. What could I do? So with an unexpected sense of optimism, I tied in at the base of the route “Alright man, I’ll go ahead and hop on it because I’m quite sure that I won’t get far enough to get in trouble.”

The route is an extension to a 5.10a which ends at the base of a large roof and has a double-bolted ring-anchor there. The next bolt is in the middle of the roof and can be clipped easily from the end stance of the 5.10. The next bolt was just barely over the lip, and I knew I could yank on the roof-draw to retrieve my gear and retreat from the anchors of the 5.10 once my attempt failed. There was little investment due to ease of bailing.

So I tied in and racked up. I clipped both the anchor and the roof bolt with short quickdraws. I was so convinced of my imminent failure that I didn’t bother to plan for rope-drag. Over the lip, I couldn’t find any holds… so I yanked on the roof-draw to clip the bolt over the lip, and retreated to the stance at the end of the 5.10. Great. Now I’ve got a toprope!

I paused here, contemplated life, and recovered my forearms, then launched out into the roof. Reaching over the lip, I found a rounded quarter-inch crimp and  ran out of belief, “TAKE!” Almost immediately, I saw a terrible divot that could work as a heel-hook. “CLIMBING!” In desperation, I pawed the wall with my right hand, and it sticks on something. The hold is so bad that I don’t even other looking at it. I hit a juggy undercling, clip. “TAKE!!!” What the hell. I was not supposed to get this far. I looked down and couldn’t figure out what my right hand was holding on to…  Rather than think about it for too long, I rally and climb like a trash can to the anchor while fighting a sumo-wrestler worth of rope drag tied to my harness.

 

Looking back, this certainly was not the best way to manage rope drag
As I lower off, victory music starts playing through my head. This thing is about to go down. Holy crap. Click here for a short explanation of what was going through my head, the guitar riff when Bonamassa throws the hammer down and starts playing hard says everything you need to know.

Oh but that rope drag… it was the only thing that could sink my ship… Well, that and the fact that I had no idea how to clip the bolt after the lip. Luckily, I had brought a rack of alpine runners with me. New plan. Four-foot runner at the base of the roof, two-foot draw in the middle of the roof, skip the bolt on the lip. Running a body-length runout 45ft off the ground is hardly risky. Game on.

I tried to rest up properly, but after belaying Maria on one of her leads, I was too antsy to sit still, so I tied in to fire it off. In the roof, I replaced the draws from my resting stance and clipped them. Now the lead-line flossed the sky and would run right past the lip of the roof without contacting rock anywhere on its path. I paused, contemplated the 2ft extension of my draw, contemplated the clip I was about to skip, contemplated those poor crimps, contemplated life, turned off my brain, and fired out to the lip. Immediately my foot popped off the divot, but I cored up and stuck it back on. Whelp, that’s it, I’m screwed. There’s no way I have the strength left after that mistake to hang this crimp with one hand and make a move.

I fixed my eyes on that jug only 48″ away, to avoid thinking about the holds I was on, let go to move my right hand up and pawed it blindly onto that invisible two-finger crimp. It’s like that moment where a cartoon character runs off the edge of a cliff, but they’re able to stand there until they look down and suddenly gravity remembers that it’s a thing. I knew I couldn’t hold those crimps, but I figured as long as I didn’t look at them, then maybe gravity wouldn’t remember to pull me off.

It worked.

Folks say this isn’t how climbing is supposed to work, they say that you have to believe in yourself to try entirely, and you have to believe that you can do it to find success. I didn’t believe in myself for a single move on this entire route. Even after I fired the crux, I felt sure that I would adrenalize myself off of the finish with the “I can’t believe I just did that” jitters. Luckily for me, my fingers don’t care what I think.

I think that’s true for most people.

I have a chronic inability to believe in myself, especially in the face of hard climbing. If I’m honest, that’s the real reason that I avoid it. Somewhat ironically that’s the reason that I solo so often. My lack of belief sends me in search of “easy” moves, and I can believe in myself while climbing easy things, no problem, so I just do that all of the time.

This focus on positive thinking is a heavy burden. We are told that we have to believe to achieve, and we believe in that axiom as if it is a law of physics. Given that, it’s only natural that failing to believe leads to a failure to even try. Every now and then I’ll have folks like Russ who believe for me and enable magic to happen, and for that, I am ever grateful. I know with full certainty that I wouldn’t have tried that route if I hadn’t been so intent on showing him that I couldn’t do it!

I get by with a little help from my friends ❤
The takeaway from all this is that we don’t have to believe to achieve. I don’t care if you believe in yourself. If you want to succeed, you need the ability to try your hardest not only at times when you are not sure that you can do it but even when you are completely sure that you can’t.

If you need a new axiom of the universe to replace “believe to succeed,” I’ve got one for you:

Gravity seems to have a funny property: if you don’t look at it, then gravity has no power over you. It doesn’t matter whether you believe in yourself or not if you can get gravity to forget about you for the one moment where you really need it, and just try your damnedest anyway. After all, your fingers don’t care what you think, they’ll still do what you tell them.

Give it a shot and see if you stick, impossible things happen every day!

punting
Photo: @rawk_tawk
Post Script:
The day after writing this post, Maria and I went into Stone Summit for climbing. I’m working on building my Anaerobic Capacity, and my general psychological ability to “try hard” so my intention was to “flail” on a bunch of 5.13’s in the gym, but it didn’t quite work out that way. My goal was simply to “go out trying” somewhere past the half-way point. I’ll usually allow myself two takes, then punch it till I pop off mid-move.

The first route I had done take-take-fall on before, but this time I immediately sent it. WTF. I acknowledge that it was soft, but it was remarkable how much better this attempt went only a week after my first try! 2nd go. sent.

The second route was one where I had previously topped out with two takes. This time, in a single push I climbed within a body length of the anchor before failing due to pump. After climbing the crimps on “Hematoma” over the weekend, all the holds on this overhanging monster just felt bigger than the last time. At a certain point, my mind gave up and I knew it was impossible to make even one more move. I fell off four moves later.

Finally, there was a Green 5.13- that a friend had suggested to me. Per my expectations,  I told Maria the plan was take-take-fall, but this route has a resting stance mid-way up the wall where sometimes the route-setters program in a no-hands rest. That gave me hope, and I managed to onsight to the resting position and regain almost full strength for the next section. It was very tenuous, but it was an actual no-hands rest.

Launching into the upper section, I was filled with the thought that “oh my god, I can TOTALLY DO THIS!” and my adrenaline rose. “No man, it’s not over till it’s over! See!? This hold sucks!” My adrenaline surged a bit more, and suddenly I felt the pump clock ticking faster. But the next hold was good, “I’m definitely going to do this! Holy Hell!!!” The adrenaline and the pump rose again.

Now a little voice of reason spoke up from the back of my head “Dude, WHAT are you doing!? Listen to your own damn advice! STOP evaluating whether it’s good or not, and just get to work!”

The adrenaline lowered, and I recovered subtly. My mind reached clarity, and the climb turned into an experiment. Instead of thinking I can vs. I can’t, or wondering if it was possible, my brain switched off, and Joe Bonamassa started playing in the back of my head again. “I wonder if I can do it?” Now there were no longer positive or negative connotations, just curiosity. What’s going to happen? Let’s find out!

I fell one move away from the top, narrowly avoiding my first onsight of an indoor 5.13-. I couldn’t possibly be more stoked. Only one year ago this was my project level, requiring many many attempts, and now…. It was one move away from being my onsight grade.

At the start of the session, I knew that I was going to flail and take all over these routes. I suppose that bumper sticker was right… I really shouldn’t believe everything that I think!

Free-soloing isn’t cool, and neither am I

I’m worried this might come off as elitist, but my intent is quite the opposite. This post is born out of the fact that I have one single belief at the base of everything I do: There is only one thing which is more awesome than climbing, and that’s “More Climbing.” Climbing is supposed to be the most awesome and fun thing in the universe, as long as you hold on to that you’re doing it right!

In other words, the purpose of this article is not religious indoctrination, but rather a message that gravity is the great unifier, and we are all equals on the walls, boulders, and cliffs.

Despite that, those of you who know me well have probably heard me riffing on bouldering and boulderers to make fun of them. It’s not because I have some deep-seated hatred of bouldering. Actually, I consider myself to be a “multipitch boulderer.” We’re basically the same! It’s just that bouldering is an easy target for humor, and boulderers are usually good natured about it. I don’t make fun of trad climbers very often because getting hit in the face by a #6 Camalot really hurts.

You show me a climber who knows the “one true way” to life on the rock, and I’ll show you a climber who has missed the point. The point of climbing is to put a gigantic grin on your face, and the perfect route is one that makes you feel more awesome than you are. Just temper that with the fact that nobody feels awesome in the hospital, and you’ll have a great life!

I don't want anyone to slap me in the face with these items, that's why I avoid giving hell to trad-climbers. It's much safer to get hit by a crash pad!
I don’t want anyone to slap me in the face with these items, that’s why I avoid giving hell to trad-climbers. It’s much safer to get hit in the face by a crash pad!

Folks want to act like they know the “proper” way to rock climb and lambast folks for taking “unnecessary risk.” Every single rock climber is an unnecessary risk taker. The thing that matters is that the preparations you make are commensurate with the risk which you take. It’s not like you have to rock climb to catch food.

On the polar opposite side, once I was climbing along on another bout of multipitch-bouldering, and I heard this:

“DUDE! That is hard core! You’re so brave man! How do I get into that!?”
-Random Kid at the crag

Every word of that is terrifying. Not many things induce fear within me, but that scares the shit out of me. It’s precisely the kind of thing that I’m afraid of every time I go out soloing. I don’t want to inspire some kid to kill himself.

There are so many scary sentiments in that statement, and it really freaks me out.

On the point of cool-factor: It’s fundamentally impossible for anything to be cooler than rock climbing (except for MORE rock climbing), seeing as soloing is just a subset of climbing…. It is no more awesome than Top-Roping or Trad Climbing, it’s just significantly lazier. That’s the thing, well thought-out laziness is the driving force behind the majority of my climbing decisions. I like being able to climb hard, but I’m not the biggest fan of actually doing it. It’s just too damn hard, and I’m quite lazy. Most of the time, I just want to ramble around and climb loads of easy stuff. In reality, all of the crazy training that I do is designed to make my definition of “easy” into something quite ridiculous. I train like a masochist so that I can climb easy things, all the time.

Because of that, I don’t see myself as hardcore because there’s nothing hardcore about being lazy and sticking to easy stuff when you are capable of more. Maybe my training is hardcore, but by definition, I’m not allowed to solo anything hardcore because that would be suicidal. If you solo things to feel hardcore, you’re an idiot, and you are going to die. When you’re soloing, everything should feel absolutely chill.

I mean…. I don’t want to come across like I know the “one true way” on this, but there is some logic behind that statement: Human brains are amazingly adaptable. In much the same way that driving a car on the freeway once felt frightening to the student driver, and years later it comes to feel normal, if something feels hardcore now, someday it will feel like any other Tuesday if you do it enough. So if that “hardcore” feeling is what you were after, you’ll have to work progressively harder every day to find it, and someday it will bite back.

Art in Motion. That's climbing! Photo: Andy Toms, a true artist
Art in Motion. That’s climbing! Photo: Andy Toms, a true artist

Chill climbing isn’t scary. It’s just plain fun. So that makes me question the label of “brave.”

brave (brāv/ )
adjective
  1. ready to face and endure danger or pain; showing courage.
    “a brave soldier”

I’m deliberately avoiding anything painful, and courage can be defined as “the ability to do something that frightens,” but I’m not doing anything that feels hardcore, so I don’t feel frightened. We humans feel afraid and adrenalized when we sense that our life or wellbeing is in peril. Even though I frequently eschew the use of safety gear, I do everything I can to make sure my life is not in danger during those times. That goes back to ensuring  “preparation commensurate with the risk you take.” I’m not into that whole danger/adrenaline thing, so I’m never facing down something that I find frightening. Soloing is objectively dangerous, but so is the rest of climbing. So is driving your car, but we don’t call the other drivers on the freeway “brave.” Usually, we call them “idiots,” at least during rush hour. I suppose that’s something which drivers and soloists have in common: we’re both idiots! So it seems there’s more to “brave” than just the danger aspect.

To me, bravery is the ability to do what must be done, even if you’re terrified of it. It’s not fun. It’s scary. So I can’t see myself as brave because I’m out there soloing to have fun and avoid any sort of fear. When I see a climber out on their first trip, and they’re not 100% sure how all this stuff works, but they’re eager to face fears and learn, that’s brave. Coming out to your parents when you’re uncertain how they’ll respond, that’s brave. Leaving the house to relax on easy climbs without any sense of fear, I don’t think that’s brave at all. Maybe I am brave, but it’s not for soloing. It’s for coming back to climbing after my accident, it’s for climbing 5.6’s on toprope in the gym while I was utterly terrified. Overcoming obstacles to live the life you’ve dreamed, that’s brave.

And I suppose those points bring us back to the question at the end: Getting into soloing isn’t a goal that anyone should have. Especially if they think it’s cool, hardcore, or brave. It’s so utterly dangerous that there is no real concrete reason to say “hey, soloing, that’s something you should totally do!” But some folks have this moment where they wake up one morning and think “oh yeah, soloing! That’s the most obvious thing in the universe, why haven’t I been doing this all along?” That’s how you get into it. If you think soloing is hardcore, brave, or scary, then you’re inviting adrenaline. Adrenaline is the mind-killer. As soon as it enters your psyche, you lose the ability to make well-thought decisions, and worse… Adrenaline changes the chemistry of your body. It gives mothers the strength to lift cars off of their babies, but it comes at a perilous cost: Adrenaline removes your ability to process lactic acid and recover. This means you’re more likely to pump out and fall off. That’s why soloing can’t be hardcore, the moment it is…. you’re hosed.

Feeling hardcore, swimming through a sea of lichen, on toprope
Feeling hardcore, swimming through a sea of lichen, on toprope

Finally, this brings me to a critique of my own words; The title of this article is misleading. Soloing isn’t the most awesome part of climbing, but it is a part of climbing, and that makes it cool by association. What dictates whether soloing is cool to you or not is whether it puts a huge smile on your face and makes you feel at peace. If it does, then it’s cool. If it doesn’t, it’s not, and that’s okay too! It’s rather the same as any other type of climbing in that sense. And me? I don’t think I’m cool, but if I am, I don’t think it’s because of my soloing. Not for one minute. I’m just like every other climber out there. I have my preferred style, and when I set a new personal best I’m excited to share the psyche with others! Progress is cool! And progress can be found on any type of climbing! So get out there, enjoy your toprope, sport, trad, bouldering, multiptich, big wall, ice, and aid climbing! Climbing is the coolest thing in the known universe, that’s what makes it so awesome for all of us! As long as you hold onto that, you’re doing it right!


Post Script: Often I draft posts, decide they’re awful, and then let the idea marinate for a few months before I can figure out exactly what it was that I wanted to say. Such is the case with this article. So while the timing may make this seem like a commentary on the Katie Lambert article for Climbing Magazine, my initial draft was on Dec 19th, three weeks before the Jan 9th run of her article on Climbing.com. So these thoughts were not intended as a commentary on her article; however, The timing is awkward. It seems we have similar thoughts on our minds, but the timing is only a curious coincidence. I’ve had the idea to write this article for about a year now, but never could quite find the words to make my thoughts clear until recently.

This was not posted in response to any criticisms, either directed at myself or directed generally, rather it was written in response to my own fears that I could inspire someone to do something really unfortunate. To that end, I make sure leave poorly-executed moves in the final edit of any videos that I make, and I try to post about any mishaps that happen. I don’t censor any small part of the process, no matter how ugly. Even if that makes feel people uncomfortable. Especially if that makes people feel uncomfortable. I feel that’s important. Climbing isn’t always beautiful, and I won’t pretend that it is for a single minute.

It’s a conundrum. If I get back from a weekend out and someone asks me “how was your climbing?” It would be inauthentic, disingenuous and an outright lie to omit that I went soloing. When I was a kid learning to climb, I was always excited to share my adventures with friends. Nothing has changed in that regard except for the fact that it now is called “spray,” and some folks call me “inspiring” for whatever reason, which makes me fear that I’ll inspire something unfortunate.

Thanks for listening to today’s rambling, feel free to leave any questions/comments/hate-mail in the comment section and I’ll try to leave a thought out response! #DiaryOfAMadman

“Whipper Therapy” is not mental training.

At least not for most people.

(Note: if you want to skip the theory and start practicing immediately, click here for a short guide to fall practice!)

Over the years I’ve seen a lot of climbers who were permanently terrified of lead climbing because of the potential for falling. Now, in some cases, that’s perfectly reasonable. If your belayer lacks full competence, or you are climbing close to the ground, that is a logical time to be afraid. There are times when you are not safe, that’s just a natural condition of life on earth; however, we humans have a skill known as engineering which allows us to make safety in very surprising places.

I mean, we put a man on the moon. If we humans can manage to make that safe enough, then, of course, we can do the same to certain situations on the rock.

We have two kinds of fears: Those which are the natural response to finding yourself in an unsafe situation, and those born of illogical gut-instinct that that overrides your wisdom. We actually want to keep *one* of those, but the other….. well, I’d really like it if you felt safe everywhere that you actually are safe. Climbing is more fun when you are not terrified, and there is no benefit to you of being afraid during times of safety.

So why is it so hard to overcome?

A climber grabs on the last hold to complete the hard moves of Seperate Reailty (5.12a)
Photo by Jacob Bodkin
Part of the problem is the prevailing wisdom of “whipper therapy” whereby climbers tell each other to “get over it” and “just take the fall.” So you do it, and it’s terrifying, and it doesn’t help, and that’s to be entirely expected. If you put your brain in a situation where it feels terrified, and then do something which feels terrifying, then your brain receives a very clear message that “Yup! The scary thing was definitely scary! I should definitely continue being afraid in those places!”

Think of it this way: If you had a friend who was afraid of spiders, would you fill a bathtub with tarantulas and ask him to hop in and “get over it?” Doubtful. It’s very obvious that this won’t work, so why do we do it with climbing?

Well, sometimes it *does* work. This method of overcoming your fear of falling is very similar to the “flooding” method used to move folks past phobias in therapy. This approach does work for some individuals; however, it does not always work, and it is very traumatic for the people for whom it does not succeed. Flooding has largely been abandoned for that reason with most folks preferring a more gradual exposure to the phobia. A more manageable “exposure therapy” can be scaled appropriately to any individual and has been widely successful for many millions of people around the world.

The idea is to expose oneself to a very manageable level of anxiety where you can control it and develop the skill of centering your mind and bringing yourself to a state of increased peace. For details on that, read my latest article “Learning to Relax”

Trust the safety system!
Trust the safety system!
Why bother?
Why should you even bother with controlling your fear?

The first rule of my entire life is this: Rock climbing is supposed to be the most awesome thing in the universe, second only to “more climbing.” Nevermind grades and sending the sick gnar, the whole point of climbing is that it’s supposed to be immensely fun, and you aren’t having fun when you are terrified.

When you become anxious, your body releases adrenaline. Adrenaline is best known for famously giving mothers the spontaneous ability to lift cars off of babies; however, there is no such thing as a free lunch. The price for enabling this reserve of strength is that you completely sacrifice your endurance. Adrenaline actually shuts off the pathway which metabolizes lactic acid and allows you to endure long crux sequences.

It’s easy to imagine a scenario where you find yourself climbing, and you start getting pumped, so you become afraid of the upcoming fall, and that fall fills your mind while leaving no room for your brain to coordinate your movement. Adrenaline floods your system, you lose the ability to de-pump, and you rapidly hit the point of failure and fall off of the route. Without fear, you could have relaxed and recovered. Perhaps you could even have sent!

Without fear, you would not have given the fear a reason to exist, because you would not have fallen. When pump induces anxiety, it causes you to fail and reinforces that negative feedback loop that tells your brain that pump leads to falling, and falling is terrifying. Now, not only are you afraid of falling, but also afraid of simply being pumped! To succeed and be truly happy as climbers, to maximize our fun, we must break this cycle and free our minds to find peace within severity. It’s a skill that you can take with you everywhere, not just on the wall.

It’s not that the strong climbers are calm, but rather that the calm climbers can become strong .

 

If you know the way, climbing can become a path to peace. It doesn't have to be frightening
If you know the way, climbing can become a path to peace. It doesn’t have to be frightening. Photo by Andy Toms

If you struggle with these fears, feel free to visit me at Atlanta Rocks, or sign up with me at Mojo Personal Training! Or if neither of those stoke your mojo, read my follow up article on “A short guide to fall practice.” 

Happy Climbing my friends

PS: I think I’m a bad businessman… I keep giving all my secrets away for free! #SorryNotSorry #SpreadGoodMojo

PPS: Is there a topic you would like to hear about on the blog? Give me a shout out, I’ll give it some thought and post it back up as a detailed article!