Mental Gymnastics

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

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

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

Trying hard to believe
Trying hard to believe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highballing at the Hueco Tanks
Highballing at the Hueco Tanks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Notes:

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

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

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

Enjoying the exposure
Enjoying the exposure

Anatomy of a Soloist (Part 3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life is an Inherently Dangerous Sport

Once again I find myself out visiting my favorite routes, enjoying the day, cranking the tunes through my earbuds, occasionally singing along out of tune to the amusement or dismay of those nearby, when someone suddenly yells at me “Get down from there! You have so much to live for!”

Yes, I know. I’m doing it right now.
I am a free soloist, and I’m not the only one.

"dude you forgot your rope!"
“dude you forgot your rope!”

Climbing is inherently dangerous. We mentally hit “I accept” every time we see the big red warning in a guidebook or climbing gym, but it never feels real to most. At least it doesn’t seem real until you read a news story of a soloist perishing on a climb, or you meet me at the crag on one of my mojo missions. Now it becomes real. I frequently draw a mixed bag of reactions, from genuine concern to horror, rage, elation, contempt and simple confusion. Well intentioned folks try to point out all the possibilities that could lead to an accident: there could be loose rock, there could be bugs, there could be wet rock. These all have happened to me, and I expect them to happen again. But somehow these things never come up when a roped climber dies. Everyone stares at their feet muttering “how sad, what a tragedy,” but they never seem to get angry at the victim for climbing. What about all those times you’ve said “It’s okay, I’m not going to fall” in a sketchy situation, is that not the same thought for which many criticize soloists so angrily? You solo every time you get into a car and drive down the road with much more than your own life is at risk, you could kill someone else as well. Then that’s it, it’s over, and it had nothing to do with that person or their abilities. Life is inherently dangerous, and climbing is just a part of that.

Somehow the death of a soloist heightens climbers’ awareness of danger in ways that the death of a roped climber seemingly never will. When a soloist perishes I see an outpouring of rage and confusion. “why couldn’t he just be safe,” they say, “then he would still be here.” Unfortunately, it seems that we are not the ones you have to worry about the most at the crag. We assess and calculate risks frankly and coldly, for it is impossible not to see the potential consequences of mistakes without a rope, falling is death. Then, often, we walk away. No climb is worth my life, this is why I don’t climb for adrenaline, and stay off the rock if I ever feel adrenalized. The only one who feels a rush is one who truly feels life in peril and believes the situation has become dangerous. I don’t like danger, danger gets people killed, I like calm days of relaxed climbing.

yup, definitely better than soloing
yup, definitely better than soloing

How about you? How often have you contemplated the risks and consequences of your actions at the crag or gym? How often have you roped up with a complete stranger without a second thought (he has a belay cert, that means I’m “safe”)? What about the guy at the crag that loads his gri-gri backwards, another who isn’t practiced in lowering and thumbs the lever fully open, the fools guiding trips for their friends without proper understanding of anchor building, the unfortunate ones who think everything will be okay because the Cinch is an “auto-locking” belay device, the ones who climb for adrenaline ever seeking more and more thrill, and the ones who confidently spout unsafe information with an air of authority? And what about you for believing them without questioning, doing your own research, or testing the theory? Safety is no substitute for competency, all the gear in the world is useless if you don’t understand it’s uses and limitations
(no, the cinch  is NOT an “auto-locking” belay device, particularly not on modern skinny ropes.) Do your self a favor, read John Long’s “Climbing Anchors” and extend your life expectancy. Oh, and just for the record, the man that wrote the bible on climbing safety? He was a soloist too.

What scares me is that there are folks who don’t know they’re soloing, because there was an idiot on the other end of their rope, their leader had built an incompetent anchor system, or they simply don’t have a full understanding of their equipment. Now that, this inherent trust we grant to each other, and this sense of entitlement to safety which makes us feel everything will be okay, is terrifying. Gravity is heartless. Gravity does not care if you wore a rope. Existing at height is dangerous, and can only be made safer through applying a certain skillset. Thinking otherwise is foolhardy at best, deadly at the worst.

To me, this is the biggest threat to our lives as climbers. The gym culture we live in has almost completely removed any understanding of calculated risk from an inherently risky activity. How hard do we think before trusting a new partner, their draws, their rope, and their competency? If the climbers yelling at soloists from the ground and the safety of the internet offered each other as much skepticism as they offer me, I think we would have remarkably fewer accidents and close calls. Perhaps Tito Traversa would still be alive.

Do you know how to inspect your anchors?
Do you know how to inspect your anchors?

It’s not a matter of me holding my life in my hands on the wall, but about every climber taking responsibility for their own and often someone else’s life, many without a second thought to the consequences of a mistake. We so rarely stop to contemplate the gravity of our situation on the wall that it has become routine for someone to hit the deck at the gym without anyone batting an eyelash. This is why I’m thankful when someone double-checks my equipment, and this is why I have an informal “pre-flight checklist” before leaving the ground with or without the rope.

There are people out there behaving dangerously on the wall. But anyone who is going to solo knows what they’re up against, and they will not be dissuaded through your attacks. If it were that easy to deflect my course, I wouldn’t be in that position of high-consequence to begin with. Accidents will continue to happen in climbing, but attacking the soloist is a poor way to prevent them. Save your anger and use it somewhere it can be helpful.

Life is an onsight, and there are no second chances. In the end, you’re not so different from me; It only takes one mistake, one false step and you’re gone. Calculated risk can never be eliminated from climbing, it is all part of the game of defying gravity. Nothing will prolong your life more than simply acknowledging and understanding the risks you take on a daily basis, whatever they may be. Life truly is inherently dangerous, and I think John Bachar nailed it when he said “You’re soloing right now.”




Thanks to Julia Watson and Philip Hutcheson for help editing, and to Jeremy Carson for allowing his face to show up at the top of the page!

PS: Though Jeremy looks confused on the Featured Image, he’s the most solid climbing partner I’ve ever had!

Back in the Saddle

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

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

Rocket powered crux mojop! Photo Credit: Daria Lumina

But I was definitely climbing hard grades on a rope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Origins: Anatomy of a Soloist (Part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

where. are. the. holds???

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

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

Origins: Anatomy of a Soloist (Part 1)

This year has been huge for my free solo experience. I’ve soloed more, more often, and harder than I ever have before in my life. It was like my abilities had undergone a quantum leap. After a day spent primarily onsight-soloing multi-pitch routes at Linville Gorge it hit me: During my outdoor trips over the past 9 months I’ve climbed more pitches without a rope than I have on belay.

That’s huge, and if I didn’t know me, I’d likely think that guy is crazy if all I had to judge was his haircut and  scorecard.

Classic sending hair. Photo: Julia Watson

Looking at these simple written reports of my climbing it feels like I’m reading about someone far more talented than myself. Now, I don’t mean to belittle my experience, it’s just very surreal. I’m finally living up to my own dreams, and I can’t help but wonder what a younger me would have thought if he only knew what was in store? All those hours spent at the dorm reading stories about the stone masters and all of their exploits, watching videos of Dan Osman and Michael Reardon while recovering from a broken back (it’s not what you think! I was dropped by an inattentive belayer!), and learning to climb in the backdrop of the extremely trad-oriented atmosphere of Enchanted Rock certainly helped form my idea of what climbing should be. Looking back, I find it telling that soloists never struck me as being extreme. Amazing, yes, but not any more than guys who just plain climb hard. Maybe it was all that time I spent in the “way too high to make mom comfortable” zone in trees playing hide and go seek as a kid. I never had a rope then, so why should these guys need one monkeying around on a cliff?

What can I say? Some guys are talented, and they walk up to the wall dazzling everyone with instantaneous prowess and success. We have examples like Chris Sharma waltzing in to hike 5.10 in sneakers on his first day of climbing, Michael Reardon soloing most of his formative climbs without access to partners, Jan Hojer going from zero to hero after two years in the sport and winding up at the World Cup.

I wasn’t one of those guys.

The University of Houston’s climbing wall, where I learned to love the vertical.

My first day of climbing was humbling in a way I couldn’t understand at the time. Like many misguided high school athletes, I walked into the University of Houston’s climbing wall expecting to “win” climbing, and was fairly certain I had done so after cruising up an auto-belay in “only” 45 seconds. But then Tetyana Antonyuk stepped over and informed me that was (essentially) a waste of my time. “Here, try this,” she says tying a rope to my harness, and explaining the concept of a “Route.” I had no idea what was going on, but I’d be damned if I wasn’t going to win this route thing too!

I didn’t.

I flailed and popped off at a mighty height of 15 ft, the route was graded at 5.8, which would put it in the upper echelon of the beginner bracket at the university’s annual climbing competition. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do it, but simply that I couldn’t figure out how. Now THAT was interesting. Much more than a simple brute activity measured in pounds, inches, seconds and trophies won in competition, this was something that required thought, and I was immediately hooked. This climbing thing is truly a game of the mind, and that makes it the most rewarding physical pursuit I’ve found yet. I didn’t know that day, but something had been set in motion that would shape every day of my life going forward, it was like something clicked into place that I didn’t even know was missing.

The next big thing

Getting gritty on my first trip to Shortoff (Photo Credit: Julia Watson)
Getting gritty on my first trip to Shortoff (Photo Credit: Julia Watson)

I always have to have it it seems, some next big thing. Once upon a time it was just climbing. We were new and had no idea what we were doing, but we knew it was awesome, and we just plain couldn’t get enough. Summer heat, frigid wet winters it was all worthwhile! It was obvious to us that climbing was the most fun thing in the world. Then at some point it turned into projecting, perhaps because the old adventures weren’t adventurous enough, or because I wanted to test my mettle and get the absolute crap scared out of me from time to time. Who knows? One hard send after the next, over and over and over again, pushing the grades and chasing numbers for self-satisfaction and vainglory. Apparently climbing wasn’t enough, because I soon found myself chasing the accolades garnered by climbing harder than my peers. It made me sick, and I almost quit climbing. It was too easy to get caught in numbers, angry about failure and dive into a spiral of negativity when progress slowed and routes failed to bow to my desires for conquest. Then it just got worse when I started climbing in competitions where I could easily see in a regimented setting just how I stacked up, and I never felt I had done “good enough”. It just wasn’t me, I didn’t like playing everyone else’s game. It wasn’t really a conscious decision, but I burned out and hardly climbed for a year after that. The mojo just wasn’t there and climbing didn’t feel fun anymore.

Projecting "Block Party" (5.13a)
Projecting “Block Party” (5.13a)

Naturally, end of that year found me much, much weaker than I had been on the end of that competitive projecting and training kick, but I had a serious windfall that stoked the fire: A new climbing area had opened near my home. In Houston, your nearest destinations to rope up were essentially Reimer’s Ranch (3hrs), Enchanted rock (4hrs), and Hueco Tanks (12hrs). Well, as starving college students who had a hard decision to make every time we filled up the tank on whoever’s poor vehicle became commandeered for the mad dash out to the crag,  we weren’t launching out on a 12 hour drive for a weekend trip, which left us with 2 crags within range. The prospect of a brand new bolted wall with 250 routes was akin to discovering real live unicorns in my backyard, and I started training in ancipation of the new adventures. Climbing was exciting again After months spent hanging on every word and report on the Facebook group setup by the area’s developers it was time to rediscover adventure. I didn’t understand it at the time, but suddenly climbing was fun again, just like it was when I first started.

The only thing better than climbing, is more climbing
-Hans Florine

I think Hans hit the nail on the head with that quote. I was in love with climbing all over again, trying different routes as fast as I could get my hands on them, just living in the flow of exploration climbing around like a chipmunk on cocaine. I know now that it’s never the climbing you remember, but rather the people you share it with and the sense of adventure, and in those times we all had .  Sometimes though, I still wanted more climbing. I had an aversion to hard climbing as it slowed my pace and flailing on the same moves fails to evoke the sense of novelty and adventure. Remembering how much redpointing sucked the fun out of my adventures had set me on a new path towards endurance and high-milage climbing, but the training continued. Climb easy, train hard, and make “easy” become harder. And that was my new big thing, how hard was “easy?”

Bridwell, Long and Westbay after the first ascent of "The Nose" in a day
Bridwell, Long and Westbay after the first ascent of “The Nose” in a day

Months of training later found me on my first big solo circuit since I’d taken my break from climbing, with 12 climbs in a day at Sandrock, AL. Climbing mostly onsight, nothing harder than 5.10b, It brought fresh life into my climbing. Later, after more training, I started feeling comfortable in the low 11’s and my lap count upped to 21 in a day and around then is when I first soloed “Dreamscape” (5.11c/d). “Easy” had progressed from 5.10 to 5.11, “Easy” had become harder.

That was big, but it was just a practice run for what was to come. While Dreamscape felt incredibly comfortable, it made me uneasy because it felt audacious to call 5.11+ easy. In the end, I fell back to looking for more climbing, and I’d been in love with Shortoff Mountain ever since flipping pages in the guidebook. This place was more in every way, and very few climbs were harder than 5.11

I love the history of climbing with all of its colorful characters and audacious achievements, and few were more audacious or colorful than the stonemasters. Those guys were the epitome climbing in my mind, and they didn’t seem to slow down for anything. When it got too cold for Yosemite and the stonemasters landed in Joshua Tree, they always had the main goal in mind: El Cap. El Capitan is a 3,000ft tall granite monolith in Yosemite Valley which was, and still is, the biggest prize in many climber’s career. Some insightful madman had an idea: Since speed climbing El Cap in a day is a huge goal, and El Cap is 3,000ft tall, why not just climb 3,000ft in a day at Joshua Tree, by linking up a ton of climbs? Now it was game on to climb enough stone in a day to equal The Capitan. For logistical reasons, the name of the game was free-solo. And so the “El Cap Day” was born by the desire to free-solo 3,000 vertical feet in a day ranging up to 5.10 (because, you know, you don’t want to do anything “hard”). As far as I know, it’s something that has never been done on the East Coast.

The walls of shortoff mountain
The walls of shortoff mountain

This surprises me,  as Shortoff Mountain is practically begging for an El Cap Day. 3-500ft walls with about two dozen routes to choose 5.11 and under. After a few exploratory runs I felt like a solo mission was in order, I knew I was solid and I just couldn’t hold it in any longer. I decided to just go and run a pre-flight check on the wall, to see what the climbing was like, and perhaps swing around on a rope to suss out some of the harder pitches to see if they would go. I didn’t have a chance to do very much… It was sunday, I was still dehydrated from a Friday night out on the town with my tower crew, the weather looked poor, my body was a little tired, I woke up late and didn’t arrive at the wall until noon so I wasn’t expecting very much. Just a short exploratory mission to see what was possible.

6 routes, 25 pitches, and 2,200ft of vertical gain later, I stumbled back to the truck. I hadn’t made El Cap, but I had completed my first Half-Dome Day in the space of a single afternoon.

BuiltToTiltI ran out of familiar terrain and began climbing onsight, reading the Mountain Project app off my phone as I climbed, much to the alarm of neighboring parties. Apparently a lost hiker is much more alarming at 300ft! The dehydration cramped my muscles from the first few pitches and I had to scale back my ambition and spared attention to be more careful, the lack of sleep made me slow, and I topped the last 200ft of “Little Corner” (5.6) in a gentle rain having run out of water two routes prior. It was only 5.6 but my heart was redlining, in my head I knew I was safe, that’s why I’d risked going up to begin with but no matter how sure you are about yourself, you can’t help but fear nature’s wrath as it falls around you. Despite my fears, the rain didn’t fall hard, just a stout sprinkle, as if the gorge was just gently telling me that I’d had enough for the day. The next morning I could hardly move, and there was no doubt in my mind that I found my way back to to center right as I’d discovered my new Next Big Thing. I know what’s next, good rest, better training, proper hydration and a well-timed start. With the application of a little good fitness sense and determination, the El Cap day is sure to come.

It still feels audacious, almost blasphemous to try for these things. Re-reading my reports to my friends about what I climbed, it seems like I’m reading someone else’s accomplishments, but at the end of the day it still feels “easy” and that’s the whole point of my Next Big Thing these days. Easy is fun, easy leads to more climbing, more climbing is good mojo, and following that good mojo up the wall is the best path to center that I can imagine. And isn’t that what it’s all about? At the end of the day, it’s just climbing. If you’re not having fun, something needs to change.

My Half-Dome Day:
300ft – “Built to Tilt” (5.10b)
450ft – “Paradise Alley” (5.8+)
450ft – “Julia” (5.10b) – onsight
350ft – “Dopey Duck” (5.9) – onsight
400ft – “Maginot Line” (5.7+) – onsight
500ft – “Little Corner” (5.6) – onsight

Getting gritty on my first trip to Shortoff
Getting gritty on my first trip to Shortoff