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.
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.
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!
I FINALLY DID IT!!!!! 5,700ft of free-soloing, just over a vertical mile racked up in one day by climbing fifteen different routes on the multipitch walls of Shortoff Mountain, NC.
Every single one of you are capable of so much more than you know. It took me five years to understand that soloing the mile was possible, and three years of hard training in preparation. In short, this weekend was the culmination of eight long years of dreaming, and even as little as a year ago it would have seemed impossible.
I’ve been climbing for ten years now, but when I first started, I was falling on 5.8s and had to project them at the university gym. The hardest climb on the wall was 5.12, and we heard that folks existed who not only could send the grade, but could onsight it. It sounded like an internet hoax. To us, 5.13 was an unthinkable difficulty for superhumans, trad climbing was obviously wizardry, and anybody who said they had done more than 300ft of climbing in a day was obviously full of malarkey. Clearly your arms would fall off before you got that far! These things were so obviously impossible as to be laughable! I told myself back then that the ultimate lifetime achievements were to send 5.13 and onsight 5.12. It seemed reasonable at the time to assume that it would take me an entire lifetime to achieve. Those things would be enough for me in climbing, I thought. Back then free-soloing 5.11 wasn’t even on the table. Hell, free-soloing of any kind wasn’t on my mind! That was obviously for people far more awesome than me! But myyy how the times change… As it turns out, with dedication and proper training, you can do far more than you know. The crux is just dreaming big enough.
Three years ago I updated my goal list:
-Send 5.13a Sport
-Send 5.12a Trad
-Onsight 5.12 Sport
-Free solo 5.12
-Onsight solo 5.11 multiptich
-Free solo one vertical mile of climbing in a single day, without repeating any routes
But I ran into a major problem: Eighteen months ago I fell on El Cap and wound up in a California ICU. I was so terribly injured that I couldn’t focus my eyes more than six inches in front of my face, and I couldn’t sense which way was up or down. The only way I could cope with it was to tell myself that the guy I was beforehand had died. In essence, I was giving myself permission to start over from scratch as a new man without any attachment to past achievements… but that list of goals was always in my head… I was a bit sad that I’d never do any of those things when I had come so close to each.
This year I saw climbers at 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell who had only been climbing for six months. THAT is dreaming big, and I can’t wait to see what they achieve in their future! They sent triple the number of routes that they had hoped for! It turns out that they were capable of far more than they could have possibly known beforehand!
Those guys believed the impossible better than anyone I’ve ever seen. Nevertheless, despite my constand self-doubts, I’ve found my way to some wild achievements, the type of things that kid at the university absolutely knew were impossible ten years ago! Things that guy in the ICU knew had been taken away forever. My achievements might not be huge in the grand scheme of things, but they’re definitely huge for me. Despite catastrophic injuries, and doctors telling me I’d never climb again, I’ve achieved my own impossible and as of this weekend…. I’ve done everything I had ever hoped to do in a lifetime of climbing. That list is completely finished, and I’m left utterly dumbfounded in ways I can’t explain. The weight of my experience in Yosemite and the injuries which put me ICU has finally been lifted from my shoulders. The guy that went to Yosemite full of hope and excitement… That Guy died in yosemite, but he’s back now, and he’s ready to kick some ass.
As a kid, when I first learned of climbing…. I heard of two large rocks: Half-Dome and El Capitan. Pretty soon everything I did was done with the notion of those two stones in the back of my head. They were the benchmarks against which I measured my progress as a climber.
Eight years ago I started soloing with a weekend that earned milage equal to Half-Dome over the course of two days
Four years ago I saw shortoff mountain and realized the location was prime for some serious shenanigans
Three years ago I decided to do an “El Cap Day” of 3,000ft. However, while I was scouting the location, I managed to do 2,500ft by accident…. after waking up late with a hangover. Apparently 3,000ft wasn’t ambitious enough, and the next notable distance was a vertical mile. So I began training.
Two years ago I tried the mile for the first time and came up short at 4500ft.
18 months ago I almost died in Yosemite, and the doctors told me I’d never climb again.
17 months ago I resumed climbing on 5.6 topropes in the gym.
12 months ago I sent V6 indoors, and could onsight 5.12a in the gym.
6 months ago, after training all winter in my basement, I onsighted a few 12’s, sent 5.13- and then soloed 5.12 for the first time in my life. And I did it nine times spread over four different routes.
1 month ago I completed 36 Hours of Horseshoe Hell. Mark and I each did a vertical mile in the 12 hour competition, and another in the 24. At this point I knew I absolutely had to return to Shortoff Mountain. I was certain that I would succeed, the only unknown was how hard I would have to fight
November 5th, 2016: I completed my mission without feeling rushed. I didn’t even break a sweat until the wall was bathed in direct afternoon sun.
John and I woke up at 6:00 AM, cooked breakfast and hucked it up the trail to Shortoff just before sunrise. When we crested the ridge, first light had broken, but the sun wasn’t quite up yet. At the top of Shortoff John shook my hand and continued on his way, he had his own Mojo Mission this weekend. As I unpacked my food, water, and shoes, my entire body started shaking. I couldn’t tell if it was from the cold, nerves, or excitement, but it was quite a thing to suddenly be left alone at the top of a four hundred foot wall knowing that I had a mile of vertical climbing ahead of me. It was quite a thing to know that eight years of dreaming had condensed to this one single moment. Every adventure has a moment where you take the first step, a moment when you commit fully to the doing of it. That moment is the crux.
I began the pre-flight ritual of unpacking my headphones and slipping the cord inside my shirt so it wouldn’t tangle on anything while I was climbing. Lightning struck as soon as I pressed play, and my soul came crashing back into my body for the first time since Yosemite. I landed back in my body with a force that staggered me. I drew in a deep breath as “Medicine Man” by Dorothy pumped through my brain, and my body reconnected with its mountain…. This is what I am made for. It was good to be home again! Taking my first step towards the bottom of the cliff felt like peace. The shaking stopped immediately, and any jitters or nerves were replaced with rock-hard resolve. In that precise moment, I finally shook off the psychological shackles of my past injuries.
Toxic Shock (5.9) 350ft The previous day, I had planned to warm-up with “Full Tilt Boogie”, but I scratched that plan in the morning chill because my head wasn’t quite on fully. The descent got my heart-rate up, thesmall holds on the first pitch readied my fingers to pull hard, and the easy finish pitches helped me stretch the muscles out. I have never climbed this with a rope. Crux at 80ft 1 route – 350ft – Completed 8:37AM
Onsight(ish) – Supercrack (5.11d) 400ft John tells me that I have to report this as an onsight. I’d rather call it free-solo redpoint, or perhaps “Onsightish.” I’ve never tried it with a rope, but I attempted the onsight solo two years ago and backed off at the crux 40ft up. The mile day was the second time I tried the route, but this was the first time I tried the crux, and the upper pitches were all onsight. 2 routes – 750ft – 9:33AM
Full-Tilt Boogie (5.11+) 300ft I onsighted this with a rope one day before, and I clipped the bolt from the crux holds like an idiot while hauling a double-rack up to #3’s…. once I ditched the gear it felt 5.7! And that’s how it should be if you’re soloing. If it feels harder once you drop the rope, you’ve made a terrible mistake and you need to rethink you the decisions which got you up into this situation. Ten out of ten, absolutely would repeat! Crux at 250ft 3 routes – 1050ft – 10:16AM
Pinball Wizard (5.11) 300ft I love this climb, but I climbed the wrong damned route while looking for it a few years back. I found the correct route with John the day before. Super classic climbing, once again, it felt much easier once I ditched the rope! This lap was aboslute peace for me. Crux at 250ft 4 routes – 1350ft – 10:44AM
Julia (5.10b) 500 Another great one, I onsight-soloed this one years ago, and it went well enough, but I could really feel my progression as a soloist on this route. All of the footholds felt so much larger this time! I still have not climed Julia with a rope. Crux at 100ft 5 routes – 1850ft – 11:20AM
Help Mr.Wizard (5.11a) 400ft Once upon a time I toprope-soloed this one to rehearse it, and have been soloing it ever since. Super classic climbing, crux is about 30ft off the ground. I have never led this route 6 routes – 2250ft – 11:55AM
Onsight – Golden Rule (5.11b) 400ft My target was “Straight and Narrow,” but there was a party mid-lead when I arrived and passing them would have been utterly rude, plus… I didn’t want to risk anyone falling on me!
I asked around to find the start of “Construction Job (5.9)” and started up the wall. For whatever reason, I’ve never been a huge fan of CJ, so I stopped on a rock mid-way up the wall and checked Mountain Project. I remembered there was an alternate finish at 5.11b, and the MP notes said “Big moves on big holds!” Well, that sounded like a good time to me, so I detoured up the seam of Golden Rule and got rowdy! Two 5.11- cruxes 250ft off the ground! Onsighting this might be the coolest achievement of my climbing career so far 7 routes – 2650ft – 12:43PM
Built To Tilt (5.10b) 300ft By this point, Andy Toms had arrived with his camera. Last time I happened to bump into him and he got some great shots, so I saved most of the routes that are visible to hikers until he arrived. BTT felt the easiest it ever had, by this point I’d become absolutely comfortable soloing in the steeps. I’ve climbed this once with a rope. Crux at 250ft 8 routes – 2750ft – 1:13PM
Onsight – Tommy Gun (5.10) 300ft After traveling through the other three routes in the Tilted World, I had looked over at “Tommy Gun” enough to know it would be casual, especially without the weight of a rack and rope. And besideds, if it turned out awful, I could always bail on one of the other variations to the top. This route felt absolutely peaceful and relaxed, all the roof jugs of Full Tilt Boogie with none of the cruxing! If I didn’t know any better, I’d have said it was 5.7! Crux at 250ft 9 routes – 3250ft – 1:44PM
Dopey Duck (5.9) 350ft At this point, all of the 10’s are behind me except for “Straight and Narrow,” I was a bit tired, but I was cruising on momentum knowing that anything difficult was already completed. I onsight soloed this route a few years ago, and have climbed it once with a rope since 10 routes – 3600ft – 2:16PM
Early Times (5.9) 350ft The climbing went slow on this one, I had to dust lichen off of every single hold. I onsight soloed it two years ago and have never roped up on this route. 11 routes – 3950ft – 2:58PM
LUNCH BREAK DANCE PARTY!
Straight and Narrow (5.10a) 400ft This was the big moment, the last hard climb was done! Now I just had to stay motivated and keep moving! With 3 hours left till sunset, and 3 routes remaining, I knew the day was won. I onsight soloed it two years ago and have never roped up on this route. 12 routes – 4350ft – 4:07PM
Maginot Line (5.7+) 400ft: 13 routes – 4750ft – 4:43PM Little Corner (5.6) 500ft: 14 routes – 5250ft – 5:25PM
Paradise Alley (5.8+) 450ft Given the burly liebacking, this was not the smartest finish, but it was the most poetic! Paradise Alley was the first thing I ever climbed in Linville, the first thing I climbed at Shortoff, it was my first solo at shortoff, and my first multipitch solo on the east coast. Paradise Alley was the first time I shared a rope with Lohan… In other words, I’ve made a lot of personal firsts and personal friends on this route, so I saved it for the last route of the day! I crossed the mile marker on the way up this one, it continues to hold a special place in my heart.
The first time I climbed this route, I surveyed the world around me, and I just knew that fun times would be had here… Little did I know just how much fun was in store for my future… Shortoff Mountain is pure magic, and this route was my entry ❤ 15 routes – 5700ft – 6:12PM
Given that route-lengths aren’t ever measured accurately if you ever ask me…. I’ll tell you that I did “a bit more than a mile,” perhaps we’ll call it the “Mile Plus.” All I know is that I certainly covered enough rock to secure the full vertical mile, even if some of the routes were shorter than advertised. After eight years of dreaming, I didn’t want to be robbed of my goal through a damned accounting error. For those of you who like to talk in “pitches per day,” I’m afraid I don’t have a number for you as I still haven’t roped up on most of these routes.
A note on onsight soloing:
I onsight-soloed a few things on this trip, and in particular, I onsighted a “legitimate” 5.11 multipitch climb (“Golden Rule” 5.11a) This achievement is special to me. If you climb 5.11 in your favorite style, you can walk up to almost any crag and expect to find lines to climb and have fun. If you can onsight 5.11, you can expect to have a good time at any new crag you visit. My preferred style is free solo multipitch, so being able to onsight-solo a 5.11 multipitch route is a wonderful thing because it means that I can have fun at any new crag I visit. It’s not that I expect to be able to onsight-solo any 5.11, that’s sheer hubris! There are still 5.8’s I wouldn’t solo at all, let alone onsight. That’s what makes it special; it must be practiced much more carefully, so it’s a rare achievement. I don’t expect to onsight 5.11 multipitch climbs with any regularity (yet), but the fact that I can do it on rare occasions means I’m able to have more fun on my own terms.
It’s particularly special because onsight-soloing is much less likely to succeed compared to a regular solo. With most solos, I have a pre-flight checklist of sorts. It has to feel just right, and there are numerous preconditions required so that I know I can climb the move no matter what happens on the way up. For onsight solos, I have more of an in-fight checklist. When onsight soloing I have to go forward with the assumption that there will be a fucked up move high on the wall, so the calculation changes drastically. When onsight soloing, I’m not asking if I can climb the moves effortlessly, I’m asking if I can down-climb the moves effortlessly. That way, if I find the fucked-up move high on the wall, I can still get back down to the ground safety. Since down-climbing is harder than up-climbing, it’s much more likely that I’ll veto an onsight solo part-way up and reverse to the ground.
After all, the purpose of any solo is to get bak down to the ground safely. Sometimes that means sending, topping out, and walking back down… Sometimes that means reversing your moves.
Sport climbing is a different discipline from gym climbing, and it requires a different evaluation of risk. Trad is different from sport, and Multiptich is different from both of those, and bouldering is yet another discipline with its own unique risk assessment. Free-soloing is another discipline, it has its own evaluation of risk, and onsight free-soloing is a separate discipline from the usual soloing of rehearsed routes. It has its own separate rules for evaluation of risk. In other words, if you practice it right, it’s not any more risky than rehearsed soloing. It’s just different.
Final Notes: Eight years spent dreaming of gnar, logging onto the internet and checking every news source for the latest and greatest in climbing…. I never had to set my home page to the Climbing Narc, because I’d go to the website five times a day anyhow! Every time I go into REI, my mind starts to wander, and as I’d start to dream of the gnar again, I’d pick up another copy of “Climbing Magazine” and “Rock and Ice” (I’d always buy both at the same time). Always I’d be hoping to hear of the next, newest, gnarliest solos.
It seems that I’m not just dreaming of gnar these days, I’m living it. I’m currently doing the things I’ve been reading climbing magazines to hear about. I’m doing all of the things that I once labeled as “impossible”… it makes me dizzy if I think about it too hard!
If you don’t solo, you’ll never get it. But once you have soloed, you get a piece of it. Once you’ve soloed a lot, you’ve really got a piece of it. Once you solo every day…. NOW you understand
There is a continuum…. Climbers who’ve done a solo, those who solo, and then there are the soloists.The soloist progresses in climbing with a focus on mastery, we don’t just want to get by on the moves we make, we want to own them. Three years ago I admitted that I was a soloist, not simply one who solos. I’m not redpointing harder things and getting stronger to redpoint hard things. I want to feel more and more relaxed on a wider variety of more difficult terrain. That is the end goal. Because of that, and the past three years of practice, I think I’m starting to finally “get” this whole soloing thing.
Once again, that’s the toughest part: Admitting you have a goal, and committing to that goal. Once you do that, the rest falls into place because your choices become clear. Because of that, those six-month climbers finished Horseshoe Hell with triple the score they’d hoped for… and me? I’m finally doing the things that I read magazines to hear about. I believe only a dozen people on earth have had pure free-solo days as large as the one I just pulled off.
(A Note on semantics: I’m not counting things like Honnold and Potter on big-wall solo linkups because they had gear and harnesses. Big wall daisy-solos are a slightly different genre; however, I am counting Honnold for his birthday challenge where he soloed 290 pitches even though the crux was 5.10c because it was all free-solo with no gear)
And It all started ten years ago, falling and failing on 5.8’s at the climbing gym. Because of that, I’ve often said that I have no natural talent. Nothing in climbing ever came easy to me, everything I gained has been hard won through blood, sweat, and tears…. but I put in the work, and I earned every last bit of it. Then in Yosemite, it was all taken from me in an instant. But it turns out, if you’re determined enough, and dedicated enough, all you have to do is put in the work, and you can get a lot back. It might not be the same as it was before, but that’s just because you have a new starting point. I still have no sense of equilibrium, and I’m deaf in m left ear, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to let those things stop me!
You know… it’s taken me a long time to admit it…but… Maybe I’m talented after all. My talent is drive and determination, which is fortunate because that’s a talent that can be shared and given freely. My main hope is that I can use this Mojo to help others… That’s why I’ve started coaching and training climbers. I firmly believe that if I can achieve my goals, you can too. The only thing unique about myself is my drive and determination, and I’ll give away every ounce of it that I can! I could never have imagined making a living off of doing the things I love, but I have to remember that I’ve done a lot of things that once felt impossible, so maybe this one will work out too!
Once again, it seems that dreaming big enough was the hardest step.
So if you’re local to Atlanta, come on down to Atlanta Rocks and sample my route setting, or train with me at Mojo Personal Training! If that doesn’t suit your mojo, just stay tuned here at Dreaming of Gnar! One way or another I want to share what I’ve learned with you so that you can dream big and achieve your impossible! I might be living the dream, but that doesn’t mean I’m done dreaming! There’s more in store this spring, and I have a whole winter of training ahead of me to prepare, backed by the latest science in climbing research!
I still vividly remember when I started climbing, struggling on 5.8’s, and looking at folks on 5.12’s in amazement. How could anyone possibly climb that? In those days, the ultimate goal in our community’s eyes was to send 5.13a and onsight 5.12a… But that kind of ability just seemed so inhuman to me, how could anyone even climb 5.12, let alone onsight it!?
One year ago, eight years later, I climbed my first 5.13a, and onsighted my first 5.12’s. I still can’t entirely believe I did it. It seems too surreal, too superhuman for someone like me to achieve. That’s the kind of stuff reserved for strong climbers, not me… No matter how strong I get, it seems that kid struggling on 5.8’s will still be looking outward with a sense of awe and wonder: “How is that physically possible?!” I’m always surprised when one day, after a lot of training… It is! And then, a few months later, it becomes easy.
I felt dizzy just typing that last sentence. I’ve never felt like I’m special, especially not in climbing, so I’m always surprised whenever I achieve something. Climbing is maddeningly difficult, and yet… I’ve trained hard enough to develop these magic moments where it all comes together and just feels like the most natural thing in the world. Then once I realized that was possible, I trained specifically to lengthen those moments and live in them. When I was injured in Yosemite last spring, I thought I had lost that irretrievably. How could someone climb peacefully with no sense of equilibrium?
I hid in the basement and trained all winter once I realized my injuries were healed, and at the beginning of March, I returned to my old favorite haunts to take the fingers for a test-drive. Not only were they doing better than expected, but I was stronger than I’d dared even to hope. I managed to onsight “Thieves” (5.12a), and snake the redpoint on “Gas Chamber” (5.13a). I’ve never screamed with excitement after a send, but… Well… Fortunately, it was a weekday at the crag, so nobody had to hear me!
Much to my surprise, It felt like my fingers were just getting started.
I had a notion that some old favorites might go as solos with my newfound security on the wall from this winter’s training, so I returned to Foster Falls and rehearsed “Bottom Feeder,” “First Offense” and “Satisfaction” about a half-dozen times each to prepare, and then it was just a matter of waiting for the right day. To train my mind, during the waiting period, I made a “dry run” at Sandrock by repeating every 5.11 I’ve ever soloed in a single afternoon and was surprised to feel solid enough on all of them that I could repeat the lines on command, even “Dreamscape”… Which held the title of my hardest solo at the time
Then, the day after, Lohan invited me out to Little River Canyon to run laps on local testpieces. I hopped on “Boy” and “The Lion” and they felt casual. The lines are crazy steep, but the great thing about steep climbing is this: As long as you hold the grade constant: the steeper it gets, the bigger the holds are! These routes were so steep that the holds were large enough to make the climbing felt even more secure than my Foster Falls circuit. Game on!
I couldn’t decide which set of climbs I wanted to go for… Boy and Lion? Or the Foster Falls Circuit? When the weather finally cleared enough, I realized I could have both and planned to do it all in a single weekend, starting in Little River Canyon.
I started with “Boy”, and it went smoothly. To me, it was slightly nerve wracking because I knew the crux was a boulder problem at the very top, and the last move of that bouldery crux was the hardest. I had that in my head the whole way up, but once I laid my hands on the holds, I felt completely calm and restful. In retrospect, I think that contemplating life at the base of the climb was the real crux! Next, I went for “The Lion”, which had a lower and more secure crux. I wasn’t as anxious, but I got excited once I fired the crux and had to collect my head to fire the finish smoothly. The routes don’t top out on the wall, so I traversed right and climbed down to the ground via a wandering path across the opening moves of a few 5.11’s. I managed to dodge any of the cruxy bits by traversing from route-to-route and the downclimb felt about 5.10.
After pulling off the solo of a 5.12c, I knew my lines at Foster Falls would go well, but the weather soured. Rain was now forecasted for 3 pm instead of the 5 pm I had planned. I was worried I wouldn’t have time to warm up, but then I thought back to the day I sent “Gas Chamber” and remembered that I had warmed up on “Satisfaction”, and it felt good… So I figured that would be a good way to start the day. My primary anxiety was about the possibility of having an audience; that’s just weird when I’m near the upper limit of my comfort zone… I just don’t want to have the distraction… I saw some other climbers walking towards the wall and glanced at my heart rate monitor. I spiked at about 150bpm because I was anxious about their affect on my performance and almost called the whole thing off… But they kept walking, my heart rate dropped, and now at least my body felt warmed up!
Satisfaction starts off with some moderate 5.10 into a stout 5.11 section, and then you’re in the crux. For me, the crux beta requires a lie back off a right hand-jam, to stretch left to a quarter inch crimp. Hike the feet, reach up right to another quarter inch crimp, then flow left hand into a BOMBER finger-lock. When leading the route, cross-clipping off of that finger-jam always felt like the crux. Soloing the climb felt like cheating since I was able to skip that stressful clip without worries. As soon as my left hand sunk into the finger lock, all the morning jitters disappeared, and I relaxed my way to the finishing ledge where “Satisfaction” ends and “First Offense” begins.
After sitting on that ledge for a while to contemplate life, I just trusted my abilities and executed the moves through the roof. “First Offense” is 70ft exposed from the first move off the ledge, which really got into my head while I was sitting there thinking about it, but once I pulled onto the massive jugs my entire face split into a giant grin: This is what climbing is all about! I topped out, slipped off my climbing shoes and walked the long way back down barefoot, stubbing my toe HARD in the process. I figure one day I’ll learn to walk straight, but it’s really not a high priority at the moment!
When I glanced at the readout of my heart rate monitor, the lowest intensity periods were while I was climbing, and the highest were while I was walking back down. Apparently I feel more secure on the wall than on foot!
For the last lap of the day, I swung into the layback at the start of “Bottom Feeder”, but in my head, I was scared by the crux deadpoint. It’s SUPER committing. When I got to the crimps at the setup of the move, I wasn’t feeling it at all. “Dreamscape” had a deadpoint, but you’re launching from good holds, so if you screw it up, you can just hold on with that hand and try again. “Bottom Feeder” doesn’t have this luxury, you’re launching from a really bad pocket, so you’ve gotta stick it. I don’t like to roll the dice on something like that, so I reversed the crux and climbed back down to the base. I was a little bit bummed about the climbing but happy that I made a good decision. There’s no room for ego up there.
As a consolation prize, I took a second lap on Satisfaction and First Offense… But this time, I clipped my cruzers onto my belt-loop for the hike down. Among certain crews in the stone master era, it was once said that “Any asshole can get lucky once, the second time is the solo.” And I have to say that the second time felt way better than the first! Once I knew how good the solo felt, all the anxiety disappeared and the only thing left was good climbing. In this case, the second time really was the solo, because that’s when I finally relaxed enough to enjoy it.
Looking back, I realize that I’ll be back to solo “Boy” and “The Lion” again someday, because it was just a super fun experience. If you like numbers and grades, it’s notable that on paper it looks like I jumped from soloing 5.11c to 5.12c in the space of a weekend… But the real quantum leap that I’ve experienced is one of feeling solid and secure. Now, when I solo my hardest climbs, there is no feeling at all of doing something special. Everything was locker; everything was secure to the extreme degree where I would gladly repeat it again, and don’t feel the need to wait for the mythical “special moment.” I’m one with those climbs now, and I can enjoy them on my terms.
Ten months ago I was supposed to be dead, and now I’m more alive than I could have possibly dreamed
Looking up at the wall, it was hard not to feel small. It’s one of those boogeymen around the corner, and legends still persist from the race for the first ascent. Rope gouges a quarter inch deep burned into a belayer’s palms and dashing backwards hard to pull in rope were the only thing that de-escalated the situation to a simple broken back. It could’ve been a broken family instead. It’s a good thing that legendary belayer didn’t care much for his palms, and it’s a good thing he wore his running shoes to the crag. Two hexes and a pair of balls were all that protected the lead during that prehistoric bid for the first ascent. A snapped spine was the consequence. Modern gear brings the route down to a modest “PG-13” rating, though some insist on the “R.” At the time of the FA, before the widespread use of cams, it was a full-blown X-rated horror show.
Fear of Flying is burned into the psyche of central Texas climbing. I swear sometimes it seems folks are afraid even to toprope the line because of its reputation. The higher you climb, the wider it gets. The crux is at the top of the route in the last body-length where the crisp laser-cut corner becomes rounded and sloping from wind erosion. That means the hardest individual moves are at the precise point where you are most exhausted and the farthest run-out from your gear. That’s enough to entice a fear of flying even in the most committed climber. Reports on rockclimbing.com once listed the route as 80ft tall, and I’d often hear climbers swear till they were blue in the face that it clocked in at 100. I took a 200’ rope and measured one day…. The line is only 53ft tall, but the impact in your head is much bigger than that. When your back is turned it tends to grow a little, only to grow a lot more when you come back to face it. Turning to face it with only a pair of shoes, a chalkbag, and cajones for fall-protection it suddenly seemed much, much taller even than the internet reports. Back to that X-rating again. I swear it’s at least 120’ tall.
It’s a hell of a thing to stand at the base of the local boogeyman and look up knowing my life will soon hang by my fingertips on that stone which has been burned into our collective psyche. My heart was thumping in time with some 1980’s Metallica just from letting the thought skate around the edge of my consciousness. I’m tying my shoes, I’m adjusting my chalkbag, I’m shaking out and getting warmed up, I’m adjusting my chalk, I’m scratching itches, I’m smelling the rock, I’m ready to solo Fear of Flying. Fuck! There it is, no denying it, I am about to solo Fear. I’m here to go one on one with the bogeyman. No running belayer, and no rope-gouged hands will save me from my folly if I’m wrong.
It’s not something I set out to do, but I’m always training and always re-visiting old lines that have provided inspiration. One day I can toprope it, the next season I can lead it, a year later I can lead it on command, finally one day I can just feel it click. I’m one with the line, I can smell the scent in the air. Electric life fills me to the brim and I realize that I’m primed for the solo, but not today. All at once I realized I could do it, but too much electric life makes one edgy, and edgy is bad mojo.
When the time was right, I returned for the solo. I am afraid, but I know there is no reason for the fear after all the practice and training I’ve invested towards this unintentional goal. And besides, I had a secret weapon. Using my entire REI Dividend, a seasonal 20% off coupon and a couple Christmas gift certificates I’d managed to score a pair of TC Pros. After taking one of those silly quizzes on Facebook (I blame the Tequila Monster for that) I learned that Tommy Caldwell is my spirit animal, with his specially designed shoe I knew I could climb more impeccably than ever. At that point, I’d soloed 5.9+ slabs and almost every 5.10 crack in the park. Physically, I was beyond prepared. Psychologically, however, I couldn’t just walk up to the boogeyman and expect passage on my own merit. What I needed was a magic weapon pulled from the stone. When I pulled Excalibur those shoes on, I knew the time was right. So I put fear in a little box and told it to be quiet.
Fuck. Turns out the camera was turned off. I should probably do it again for posterity…. It’s all about safety through control, and that control means being able to do it on command. Right? After all, any asshole can get lucky once. Second time’s the solo.
I’ve didn’t promote this video back in the day, because I shied away from the negativity one incurs through soloing. Only reason I took the video at all is because I believe this was only the second (and third) time the route had ever been soloed. But the video is goofy, and it’s my record of a moment that just felt right. Any negativity can stuff it for all I care. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and I refuse to lie through omission by ignoring my past to dodge a little heat.
Below I will share with you a deeply compelling story from one of climbing’s central figures, and one of our best writers. Hearing the tale in John’s own voice imparts a depth and gravity to the story that will stay with you long after the audio cuts off. One thing to keep in mind is that this is not the story of the day John Long quit free-soloing, but rather it is the story of a day where he gained a deep and powerful insight into the nature of climbing, life, the universe, and everything.
Cave Crack (Summer 2007) The cops in Georgia will throw you in jail and give you a comic book hero name at a measly 85 miles per hour. This is widely regarded as obscene since dropping below 80 runs the risk that you’ll be run-over by someone in a Lexus. “Super Speeder” you become, forever marked as a degenerate in the states files. In Texas we didn’t have such absurd punishments for simply getting where you’re going. Hell, we even have spots on the interstate where the speed limit itself is 85 miles per hour, so cruising over 100 to the crag was a routine maneuver, regardless of the local limits.
“HOLY SHIT WHAT WAS THAT!” we agreed that we couldn’t be sure given how late at night it was, but it looked disturbingly like a chupacabra, and was alarmingly close to the road. Suddenly we decided to take the speed limit, and those “Loose livestock” signs a lot more seriously. It might have just been a trick of the light and the fact that we were traveling at relativistic velocities, but that was the ugliest cow I’d ever seen. We kept it in the 30’s for the last leg of our journey.
Later that day:
With a sickening sensation in my stomach I realized the wall behind me arched overhead to cutoff passage along the crack. From the ground I had hoped that there was sufficient space between the two bits of wall to squeeze through, but the gap was far too small. Can’t go down, I didn’t trust myself to downclimb the 50’ crack back to the floor. Can’t go up, the wall cuts off passage that way. Can’t go right, the wall is blank and offers no escape. Logically, the only escape is out left, across a blank slab. My mind cracked in two, each half attempting to console the other, neither half attempted to come up with a solution. I’d only been climbing for something like 8 months at this point in time, I wasn’t savvy enough to realize the wall behind me offered easy chimney climbing.
As my brain began to pour out my ears (it had melted from the heat of my stupidity), I formulated a “plan,” if you’re feeling gracious. If you’re not, you’d call it a half-crazed desperate attempt to avoid accidental self-destruction. I’m feeling gracious, so I believe we’ll call it a plan.
“it’s only 5.6,” I’d said. “I’ve done crack in the gym,” I’d said. “I bet I can squeeze through that gap,” I’d said. “How hard can it be,” I’d said. In all honesty it would’ve been better had I said “I’m a bloody idiot, lets go back to the car.” But then we wouldn’t have this story.
I swirled the sling like a lasso and tossed it deep in the crack. I missed. Toss, miss, toss, miss, toss…. STUCK! Shit. It’s stuck. How the hell am I supposed to get it back to try again? There was a carabiner on the end of my sling acting as a counterweight, the idea was to toss it beyond a small chockstone, lasso the little bugger, and girth hitch my sling to it as a direct point of aid. The carabiner hadn’t gone far enough for any of that, and now it was stuck.
Stuck! Aha! If it’s stuck, it’s not going anywhere! If it’s not going anywhere, I can pull on it to yank myself to safety! I sunk one hand in a bomber jam, and yanked on it with all my might on the other hand. Seemed solid, so I yarded my way out left around the corner and onto the ledge. It was good to be alive! Just to see how solid my lifeline had been, I gave it a tug.
It practically jumped out of the crack with a light flick of the wrist. Must’ve been about A3.
“Well,” I decided, “I’m never doing that again.”
Alpspitze (August 2008) First, If I’ve never told this story to my dad…. I’m really going to owe him an apology for sneaking about like this! (erm… sorry dad!)
We had approached the “Adamplatte” of the Alpspitze in Garmisch-Partenkirchen by the via-ferrata route, having already gained a thousand feet of elevation. Dad looked at the route and said “nope.” “Why nope,” I asked? “Because I’m an old man, and I’m tired.” Okay, can’t argue with that logic, but what does he want to do now? “I want to take a nap, head down to the cable car station, and have a beer.” Well, I reckoned I could make it to the top and back down in time for him to finish his beer, and I made a statement to that affect. He tucked into a corner to sleep, and I scooted off towards the base of the route.
The climbing was mind-numbingly easy for the first couple hundred feet and I rapidly escaped the ledge upon which the route began. Four hundred feet later that ledge was but a vague memory. Most of the climbing was along a slab with water grooves ranging from 5.0-5.5, though I knew there was a 5.8 crux pitch up high. The view of the village below was astounding, the houses even looked like ants, and then the world shifted. I clenched tightly with my right hand to counteract the sudden movement as my left pulled off a block the size of my head. I watched in horror as it tumbled down the slabs, and I couldn’t help but imagine a rag doll with my face taking the same tumble. Down, down, down it goes, bouncing off the wall, into the slab, five hundred feet back to the ledge. Maybe it stops there, or maybe it keeps falling another thousand feet to the base of the wall, which itself is a few thousand feet above the valley. I was losing it. That was too much exposure to take in. I reached up and slapped myself in the face, since no one was around to do it for me. It worked in the cartoons, so it seemed like a reasonable enough idea.
I wondered how the cliff had become so wonderfully grooved for climbing, some of the channels cut were deep enough for hand-jams. Quickly enough the reason became apparent…. The grooves were carved by water runoff, and not just any water but snowmelt. The moisture sapped heat from my fingers and they became numb to pain. Meanwhile my feet had mostly lost any semblance of friction on the slick rock, but I was too committed to downclimb and the only way off was up.
After 750 feet of climbing, approximately 1700ft above the base of the wall, I realized I was lost. I know, I know, I’m on the north face of the Alpspitze, but I didn’t know how to continue forward and get the hell off the wall, which is a surprisingly easy situation to get into it seems. I was onsighting the route, trusting in intuition, voodoo magic, and a palm-reading to get me through the proper sequences to the top, the climb mostly followed a massive slabbed dihedral up the wall. I was faced with a decision, up ahead I could see that the low angled half of my corner disappeared into the vertical segment of wall that it intersected. The only other option was up and left through a very burly looking bulge in the rock. Minutes crept past as I deliberated, finally I sunk one finger in a bolt and leaned backward as far as I could stomache. With this vantage point I was able to catch a glimpse of metal about a hundred feet further up the wall. The anchors for the next pitch glinted in the sun like that light at the end of the tunnel. Looks like I wasn’t headed for hell today.
The crux 5.8 traverse on vertical rock climbed 50ft sideways like a ballet number. Toes pointed onto pebbles and edges, arms held at just the right angle to the rock. I flowed through the moves like the water running across the cliff and I disappeared completely. There was no rock, there was no me, only the pure execution and complete focus. I never could remember the moves from that sequence, but I remember a profound sense of peace that never quite left me.
As I topped out on the wall, a couple guys were walking along the via-ferrata in the home stretch to the summit, and they looked at me very hard. Then they glanced down, and then back to me. Down and back, they grabbed the cable of the via-ferrata to look further down in confusion and I explained (in german) “I’m from Texas, there is no other guy.”
“Oh.” They said, and walked off like that explained everything. I’d really like to know how that explains anything.
After tagging the summit, I sprinted down the via-ferrata with one hand hovering over the safety cable “just in case,” swaying side to side in a headlong purposeful crash like Jack Sparrow fleeing the British in the Caribbean. Just as I came within sight of the cable car station I slowed to a walk, when I arrived at the table dad was enjoying the last sip of beer in his mug. Sometimes, things just work out.
Fly on a Windshield (Spring Break 2011)
I was full of myself, and it was a glorious weekend. I had finished my 15th solo of the day on “Pro Sweat: (5.9+). It was a slab, and slabs are supposed to be sketchy, but I had felt incredibly solid and decided to up the ante to “Fly on a Windshield” (5.10a). I sauntered over to the base, and pulled through the initial flakes rapidly to gain a precarious mantle, and then I just sat there. The holds I upon which I perched did not inspire confidence. The next sequence didn’t appear much better, worse, in fact. I had led the climb onsight only a week or two earlier and I remembered how easy it had felt, but at that moment I couldn’t put my finger on what was different other than the fact that my foot seemed to be slipping very, very slowly.
That’s when I noticed the bolt above my head. Apparently when I led the route, those crux moves were accomplished with all the boldness of toprope. Splendid.
Look. You have two choices, sit and think and splatter, or fucking go for it. Maybe, just maybe you’ll make it. I grabbed those awful crimps for dear life, re-situated my deteriorating foothold and flung myself up at the next good hold, a muffin-sloper. Time dilated and slowed to a standstill, what looked to the outside world to take only an instant took an eternity as my entire being became consumed with the effort required to make that one single move and pull back away from the event horizon. One move, that’s the difference between life and death. SMACK! My hand connected as my feet blew out on me, and I mantled up onto a good ledge. Adrenaline surged through my body as I greeted life with a fresh outlook. But it wasn’t quite over yet, I had to climb another 100’ to the summit, mostly about 5.7, so I got back into the zone and continued trembling all the way to the top.
Someone on the rock nearby hollered for some casual conversation, “AHOY! I used to solo a bit too back in my day! Just never on slabs though. I always found them way too sketchy.” I thought to myself: Yeah, me too! Instead I said “well, everybody has their own style, ya know?”
It’s a known fact that Ego is the most difficult terrain to protect in all of climbing.
The Nose (December 2013) “Its no big deal,” I said. “It’s only 5.8,” I said. “It’s slab, that’s what you’re good at,” I said. “You’re well acclimated to Granite,” I said. And so I pointed my faithful Frontier into the Pisgah wilderness aiming for “The Nose” at Looking Glass Rock.
Staring up at the route, it was far from intimidating. Sure, it’s a hold-less sea of polished granite, but those weird eyebrow features seemed inviting. We didn’t have features at Enchanted Rock, we just had a bunch of nickel and dime-edges. Features were good, features inspired confidence. I began the process of making mantels up the wall, this rock was certifiably weird. You call this 5.6!? I thought, and perhaps that should’ve been my first warning.
At the bolted belay for the first pitch I stopped and contemplated life. The next section looked steeper, but after checking mountainproject on my phone, I could tell I was on-route and this gave me hope. I considered down-climbing, and decided it would be too awkward to be worth the trouble, that should’ve been my final warning. I pushed onward, deeper into abysmal folly.
The wall wasn’t exactly blank, but everything was terribly rounded. No crisp edges on the slab to be found, the next move would require me to commit myself entirely to a tiny greasy pimple on the rock. There were no hand-holds to use if I slipped, there were no additional footholds to shore up my balance, I had to trust that foot.
I couldn’t trust my life to that foot.
I tried to ease in, too sketchy. I tried to downclimb, and found that my stupid self had performed a rather irreversible mantle maneuver to get into my current predicament. I was stuck, but it hadn’t sunk in yet. I climbed up, then down, oscillating in a 15×15 box in the rock. I couldn’t find any way to escape intact, every possible way out appeared to have odds below 50%. Up, Down, Left, Right, there was no direction that looked acceptable. Finally, even though I had a half decent no-hands rest, I broke down.
I thought about my friends, my family, everyone that had ever loved me or cared for me. I thought of all the things I had wanted to see in the world. I thought of the goals I once had in a previous life that had apparently ended 30 minutes earlier, when I was too stupid to notice that it had passed, when I was to hell-bent on climbing upward to recognize that I was inexcusably committed to going forward. Once again my thoughts drifted back to my friends, and the folly of my situation hit me like a ton of bricks for the first time. Could there possibly be any greater sin than willfully jeopardizing one’s own life for no discernible purpose? Standing there, perched on one foot 150 feet off the ground, uncontrollably sobbing softly to myself, I finally understood The Only Blasphemy. There may be greater sins, but at that moment I couldn’t think of any.
I spotted some climbers at the base of the route, and they began moving painstakingly upward. I stood on that small sloping ledge for what seemed like an eternity before the leader caught up to me and passed me a sling to use as a makeshift harness. I couldn’t look him in the eye.
The next weekend I went to onsight-solo at Tennessee Wall and didn’t top out on a single route. I kept climbing half-way up and realizing it would be an awkward spot to reverse. That meant it was time to back-off. Still, half of eight 100’ routes still equates 400’ of climbing at a beautiful place, not a bad day at all.
In the intervening years between these instances and current thinking I’ve come up with a bit of a “pre-flight calculus” that keeps me from doing anything monumentally stupid. Not that any of it can be argued as particularly smart, but it’s my idea of a good time and it keeps me laughing, if I do it right. And that’s the key thing: climbing should be fun, and it has to be done right. Gravity is unforgiving in that respect. I figure if I ever stop laughing, it’s probably time for me to quit the whole thing outright.
That encounter with “The Nose” was approximately my 75th pitch soloed, and I’ve done another 300 since without any incidents. It seems I’ve learned my lesson well, and I can only hope that it sticks. Nowadays, as soon as a route stops being incredibly fun, I’m out long before it reaches the threshold of “dangerous”.
Every now and again someone will ask me if I feel fear, and I think the above should make it very clear that I do. I’ve been asked if I value my life and understand what I’m doing, and I think I do more than most people. You doing have the option to remain ignorant in such positions as these. I’m no different from most, and I’ve done some very stupid things in my time, but the key thing is that I learned deeply from my mistakes. I had a short conversation with a crane operator one day that sums it up:
“holy SHIT! So you do it for the rush!?”
-No, can’t say I do
“Well why not? I mean, the adrenaline has got to be intense!”
-No, I can’t say it is
“Well why not?”
-Because there is no adrenaline, there is no rush.
“How does that work out? Don’t you get scared?”
-Oh yeah, loads of times, usually when I have a rope and I’m pushing it. See, the thing is, a person only feels adrenalized or gets a rush when they truly, deeply believe they are in danger. And I don’t like to do the dangerous thing.
I’ve done the dangerous thing already. It wasn’t intentional, and it wasn’t pleasant. If you climb for the rush, or for adrenaline, then you’re an idiot and you’re going to die. It’s that simple.
If I feel that rush or adrenaline, I know I need to sit down and have a long talk with myself.
Some folks get all excited about the things I’ve soloed, but these days I think you’d be more amazed at all the things that I haven’t.
I can think of a few folks straight off the top of my head who were my peers in college that have died young in the intervening years between then and now. It’s no secret that fate has had plenty of chance to call my number instead of theirs, but I’m still here. Not even the ones who’ve played it safe are immune to the ravages of time and chance. It seems we’re all just living off borrowed time, as they say. You’ve only got one shot on this dustball. Make it a good one.
We had planned this for months, or rather un-planned it. From the moment of this trip’s conception, it lacked any form of plan whatsoever. We were going to Hueco with no plan, and no reservations. On my end, I had just come out of a peak phase and a bonanza of soloing that basically included all of my heart’s desires within a 200 mile range from home and was finally stoked for hard training and hard climbing again. I was at peak fitness. Jeremy had been training for triathlons, and I think he runs at a pace of 5.17x or something like that. Whatever, I don’t understand running and cardeeyo, but I do understand that he lost enough weight to equal a small human over the past year. Dude. This was going to be much better than our last trip 4 years ago! We knew that we could climb our hardest, and we knew that a newfound focus on mental strength would largely be the key to that performance.
After a season of training for peak fitness, in the few taper weeks before the main event of the year, my swim coach in high-school had only one remaining piece of wisdom to impart. Whatever you do, don’t do anything stupid. It only takes one injury to pull you out of the race. Ordinarily, I’d say that Coach Little gave me tons of wisdom and good character that carried through my life so far, but on this one point I have only two words: “Sorry Coach!”
Exactly 7 days before we were supposed to leave for Hueco, I went for a trip to Enchanted Rock. The goal was to swing through saturday and take out some of my old projects that I had saved for “when I’m stronger,” and then solo my brains out on Sunday to revisit all my old favorites. I was in rare form, hiking climbs that once were hard, but it all turned sour on a trad line called “Shocker” (5.12a R). I mis-stepped a tricky sequence after the crux and swung off onto what I thought was bomber gear. I thought wrong, and my 0.5 Link Cam ripped out of the wall like I had clipped into a loop of duct-tape. The rope came tight hard on my lower piece ( a #2 Link Cam) with my ass about 12” off the deck. The rope saved me from a lot of injury, but it was still too late for my ankles. I barely walked out of the park with the aid of trekking poles, and was bound to crutches for the next week.
For the first time, I managed to walk around my hotel room without crutches, so I declared the trip to be “Go” for launch. Can’t stop the Mojo, Welcome to Hueco Tanks!!!
Saturday: I went to South Austin Rock Gym to test my fingers and ankles, and figured out that I was mostly okay as long as I crumpled ass-first onto the pads as soon as my feet touched the matt. In other words, as long as I didn’t weight them in a fall. Still, I couldn’t use small foot-holds or under-clings in vertical terrain.
Sunday: Driving, driving, driving…. Fun fact, a Hyundai Accent loaded with two climbers and a ton of gear can still do 120!
Monday: Game on! I hobbled along behind Jeremy to make it up the chains on North Mountain. I was struggling on “Nobody Here Gets out Alive” (V2) and eventually sent after a few tries….. The ankles were in my head, and I couldn’t give my all to ANYTHING. It was infuriating to feel that I was at peak fitness and just couldn’t use it. I eventually sent, then followed with “100 Proof Roof” and practiced dropping off the lip to the pads.
We spent the rest of the day getting lost, and occasionally flailing on hard things. My head was in my feet, and it wasn’t coming out. Bouldering basically had me feeling terrified. I knew this wouldn’t be a sending trip. At this point, I had to admit I had an unspoken goal for the trip of sending V7. This made me depressed.
Tuesday: Enter Carlos Flores, and Alex Lin. These guys were ROCK STARS! Raggedy vans that required beta just to open the door handle. They lived on the road, sustaining themselves off a diet consisting of Tecate, Tortillas, sand, and freedom. The four of us loaded up and headed back to Martini Roof where Alex taught me the magic of heel hooking and toe-hooks. I learned something today. I was happy!
Carlos mostly ran around glued to a GoPro, making better progress on all the things that had pissed me off on Monday.
With Carlos’ help, we actually found “Ghetto Simulator” instead of just getting lost. Jeremy began his mental battle of the trip. Gripped with fear, he grabbed the rock so hard that I’m pretty sure there are now finger-imprints in the rock. Concrete forearms. Pumped. Done. His fears overwhelmed him so that he couldn’t relax, he fought the rock for every inch of progress, and the rock fought back. He was too burned out to finish the 35’ problem, so I shoed up. I was nervous, but despite this, I was able to focus on the climbing, and moved hesitantly, powering through my ankle anxiety. Send, the route goes. I went for a second lap, and sailed smoother now that I knew the heel hooks and toe positions wouldn’t shred my ankles. Briefly, I was able to forget my injuries, and then I had to scramble off…
Wednesday: We milled about warming up on 0’s and 1’s, and eventually someone started trying the classic sandbag “El Burro” V3 (V3myass). Using some unconventional deadpointy foot-cutting beta that involved a barrel roll, I managed to send! Everyone else just scratched their heads…. And moved on to “Left Donkey Show”, “El Burro” wasn’t worth it. Meanwhile, I became fascinated with a crimpy set of deadpoints on the far left of the boulder. Still terrified for my feet, I tentatively began working the moves, coring out and dropping off if it seemed too severe. I started realizing that I could take small falls, as long as I made sure to collapse butt-first onto the pad, and so the process became thus:
-Limp up to the pad
-Wince as the shoe goes on
-Borrow some chalk (pleeeease?)
-Vaguely attempt trying hard
-Assrocket back to the pad
-Wince the shoe back off
I’m sure it looked daft, but I tried that same one move about a half- dozen times, constantly making little micro-adjustments to my throw to generate less swing and hold my momentum. It’s one of those things, nobody could see a difference, but I could feel closer every time. “YOU ALMOST HAD IT!” they screamed, but I knew I was far away on that last burn. All the micro-tweaks were out of sync. “Sit” they said “try once more when we’re packing up.”
Whatever, I’m not going to send this damned thing anyway. So I rested, and decided I needed a new goal since I wasn’t going to send. Numerous flops on the pad had given me the courage to gun for it, so I wanted to fix the trip and get my head right. I wanted to be one with the rock, instead of shrinking in fear from my feet. I decided to focus on climbing peacefully, with tranquility. I might as well do something productive since sending isn’t possible.
BAM! SENT!!! “Nuns and Donkeys” – V6
Well that was unexpected! For the first time in the trip, I truly managed to get my head out of my feet and onto the rock. That’s all it took. You can’t force a send at your limit; you have to align all the proper conditions to simply let it happen, and then get out of your way. A great quote I read on this trip from Adam Ondra: “Mental strength is the key, and luck might just be the consequence.” So it was for me, that focusing on developing my mental strength allowed me to get out of my own injuries just long enough to let some magic happen on the rock. But it was short lived, and I couldn’t get stoked on anything for the rest of the day. Now that I knew I could perform, it had become almost impossible for me to do so! Though I did send a cool problem later that someone said was a V3. While perusing my guidebook post send I read that it was actually a V5. No pressure, yes sendage! And by post-send, I mean about five days later.
After saving himself all day for his revenge-send on “The Vulgarian” V2, Jeremy couldn’t quite string it together. He was so completely hell-bent on sending this problem that he forgot the method! Try after try, after attempt, after burn, randomly trying one piece of beta and then another. When it was all said and done I had to ask him, “why do you think you were falling off?” He didn’t know, which is probably what sunk his attempt.
We had a long talk about tactics that night. If you’re not inspecting each attempt, wondering what caused your failure…. How can you overcome it? Being so completely focused on the send, he tried to power his way through, knowing that his weight-loss had improved his strength-to-weight ratio he relied on this to improve his performance. Unfortunately this turned on the blinders to all the minute performance tweaks that would have allowed the send to happen. He was obviously MASSIVELY stronger than his last meeting with this problem four years ago. Strength isn’t always enough. Since our last trip, he had amassed a broad depth of crack and slab technique. Knowing that he had “good technique” in these areas had turned him off to the learning that needed to take place at Hueco. His slab and crack technique had left him under-prepared for a technical, core-intensive overhang where your feet don’t want to stay on the wall.
Thursday: Sucked. We needed a rest day, so Jeremy went on a 10 mile run and I went soloing, figuring that the easy moves would help me de-stress since I didn’t have to worry about falling on injured ankles. I never red-lined, there was no danger of falling, but it just wasn’t fun. “Cakewalk” (5.6), was a slab so my head was constantly in my feet, then on “Sea of Holes” (5.10a) I was oscillating back and forth between peaceful enjoyment, and stressing over my feet. I called it a day and went back to The Ranch early. What’s the point in soloing, or any climbing, if it isn’t fun?
Speaking of fun, it appears we have invented a Hueco tradition. First, you get drunk enough to start jumping over the fire. THEN you keep drinking. FINALLY, the game becomes jumping IN the fire, and seeing how long you can stay in there. I heard some idiot won by doing a pushup, you know… won. Since there are points and scoring involved? Anyhow, good job on the pushup, Jeremy!
Friday: I met up with Stephen Crye, whom I’d been talking with for months about possibly getting some footage on “Sea of Holes.” Since we had been in contact for so long over the endeavor and I was looking forward to one last romp on my favorite climb, I decided to give it a run for the cameras. I really learned how much disdain I have for soloing on film that day. It’s one thing if I’m walking along and manage to set up a couple tripods with minimal effort… but lugging gear to the top of North Mountain was killing my mojo. I enjoyed the movement and the mental practice of performing the climb, but the overall tone of the day was soured by the effort put into filming. I limped back to the ranch somewhat dissatisfied and in a funk.
Jeremy, on the other hand, KILLED IT. He went to warm up on a V0-, given his hungover state (it was the morning after TanksGiving, after all) he had to fight INCREDIBLY hard to gain the topout, but he sent. As he came back to the pads, another crew had arrived and pointed towards the line he had just climbed “yeah, that’s a bit too hard… that’s a V3… “ Wait. WHAT?
As it turns out, Jeremy had just sent his hardest problem. He sent it onsight, and hungover, for his bloody warm-up. Like. A. BOSS!!!
Saturday: We were both rather burned out, and called it a rest day. Jeremy was sore from being awesome, and my feet hated me for walking around with tripods.
Sunday: Our last day at hueco, we have to leave by mid-afternoon. It’s reckoning day. We warmed up on “Warm Up Bolder,” appropriately enough. I tried some V7 over there that seemed impossible and couldn’t get off the ground. It scared my feet. Meanwhile Jeremy worked on “Warm Up Roof” V4. Lots of flailing, and a little sending later, we attacked the Blender Boulder.
I started off flashing “Hobbit in a Blender” V5, and then came back for a second lap. It’s just an awesome line! After a lap on “The Ostracizer” V2, and flopping off the second move of a gnarly gaston, I made a flash on “Brutus” V5. This boulder was perfectly fitting my style, the incut crimps felt ergonomic to me and the slightly desperate deadpoints were everything I look for! Satisfied, and figuring we’d be ending soon, I wandered off to eat and basically just lounged on the pads. I realized this was the first time that I wound down enough to truly appreciate the landscape around me. Despite the fact that my mind was so turned off, the magic of Hueco was seeping into my pores at last!
I must have dozed there for at least 30 minutes, and thought: what the heck, why not give it a go? So I stumbled back over to the gnarly gaston problem…. And cruised through it, much to my own astonishment! At the top I thought the grade was about V5… but they were telling me it’s a 7!? I flipped through the guidebook, and sure enough: V7. I figured I must have missed the start holds or something like that, so later that day, I flipped through the internet and watched videos… Still V7, and I had found the correct start. I did V7 on my second go? That’s it. Grades don’t make any sense anymore…. If anyone wants me, I’ll be back under my campus board.
In true form, as we were walking out the park, I slipped off a 12” rock and banged my head on a nearby boulder. Yes. Twelve inches. I’m that bad at walking. In any case, I bled more than I’ve ever bled in my life! But the good news is, I think my Adventure Hat probably saved me from a concussion!
Well, despite making every attempt to foil ourselves, we managed to have a blast, get in the park every day that we wanted to and send the hardest problems of our careers. I think the key was just remembering why the hell we started climbing to begin with.
Numbers, mumblers, stumblers, bumblers, does anybody remember when it was exciting just to get to the top? Jeremy and I have this thing in common about our climbing: We climb in a search for peace. We’re not at war with the rock, we don’t want to conquer it. Even though our egos would like to take over and rule the day, we don’t actually care about numbers. We truly care about being somewhere beautiful and being at peace in our surroundings. Anything that detracts from that, risks the whole point.
On this trip, our mightiest highs and lowest lows were determined by how we approached the rock. Any time we set ourselves up with the goal of sending some arbitrary problem, we became too caught up in how things were supposed to go to actually allow ourselves to perform. Over-gripping, under-thinking and generally stressing ran our mojo down. Then, as soon as we were down and resigned ourselves to simply enjoying ourselves, we managed the strongest performances of our careers. “Mental Strength is the key, and perhaps luck is the consequence.” We weren’t looking for luck, but it found us. As soon as we stopped striving and grasping, and just let ourselves be fully in the moment…. That’s when inspiration struck.
Maybe, instead of trying so much to climb harder, perhaps we should try to climb calmer and more peacefully. That release from flight and fear might be all it takes to put luck on your side and clip the chains!
Cell towers, that’s what brought me to Atlanta. I found myself down on my luck, and in need of a way to make money to support myself right at the time when I realized that climbing wasn’t just fun, it was profitable too!
The high steel is interesting, and its certainly hard, but it’s boring for the fingertips, I needed climbing. Real climbing. Rock climbing. My first task in this strange land was obvious, I needed a new home crag and I started googling rabidly to find one. Right from the start, there was one obvious crag and one obvious line that had to be tried. Dreamscape at Sandrock Alabama. So, I rounded up a guy from work, tossed him a harness and a gri-gri then taught him the rudiments of belay techniques at the crag on our one weekly day off. It’s not quite as sketchy as it sounds, we used gri-gri’s on the tower-top so at least he understood how not to drop me, and proper lowering technique.
Wet, soaking, soupy holds greeted me for my onsight attempt, each juggy rail holding enough water for a mid-sized aquarium… I was completely gassed and, thinking back to my rudimentary belay lesson, sketched. With the exception of my first whipper onto a cam, that was the loudest scream I’ve ever let loose in my life! But he held the fall, and I was completely captivated by the climb. While I had carelessly blown the onsight, I now had all the motivation in the world to return for another trip. With daylight and mojo fading, we packed our things and headed back for the work-week, but I knew I would be back to send Dreamscape eventually.
Fast forward 10 months, I was slipping into the most worn-out floppy pair of un-tied climbing shoes I own, and tying in for another round on this fantastic route. Toes poking out from holes in the rubber, edges worn down to nothing, already tired from a fun day spent guiding a friend on her first time outdoors, I went for another round on dreamscape…. and floated it! I was absolutely dumbfounded. With all the odds stacked against me, I climbed that fearsome stretch of rock so casually that I was able to maintain a conversation through the whole ascent, and that’s when it dawned on me…
“oh my god, i’m gonna solo dreamscape.” obviously not today, but I knew it was going to happen soon and in my dumbfounded disbelieving state, I told EVERYONE who would listen to me.
Two weeks later, I was at war with myself. Why did I say that? Who tells people these things? Who do you think you are, Alex Honnold? Nobody cares what you climb! But, that’s just the way that I am. When I get excited about something that makes me happy it’s just hard to keep it inside. I was leaving my friends’ Halloween Party early to make sure I was rested, and everyone knew where I was destined next. The silence, the awkward goodbyes, like some of them didn’t think they would ever see me again. Why on EARTH had I told everyone my plans? Now, seeing their faces and considering the next day, I was intimidated, ashamed, and perhaps even just a little bit scared from picking up on their vibes.
But, I told myself, you don’t have to climb it…. There’s something to be said for having the wisdom to back out of a solo when you don’t feel comfortable, and demonstrating that kind of wisdom is something to take pride in. Sometimes, I’m much more proud of the lines I haven’t soloed. So we made the drive up to Sandrock, all the while I was contemplating what life choices had brought me to this point. Am I doing this because I really want to? Because it feels right? or am I doing this because, like some narcissistic fool, I told everyone that I was going to do it? The latter of those options truly had me scared, you can’t pursue risk for fame. You can’t do these things because of what anyone will think, because eventually gravity will catch up to you.
Warming up felt good, I was strong on my usual circuit and wound up through soloing a 5.11b called “Never Believe” just to see if I was really feeling it today…. And I wasn’t sure, I was still afraid that I had let others influence my decisions. But, we had ropes, and we had gear, and I had willing belay partners, so I thought I could take a burn on Dreamscape on rope just to see how it really felt, and finally make the Go/No-Go decision.
Staring up from the base of that route to the summit, it all hit me. In that moment, looking at the holds, the exposed aerete, the rails for the dynamic throws, and the whole world as I could see it, I knew my mind beyond any shadow of a doubt, at least on this matter. We rigged the rope for Bibi to rappel in to get photographs, and I laced up my shoes. Today, my harness was staying in the pack!
I have a “pre-flight checklist” that I assess before committing to any climb, especially solos. It’s not a very formal thing and it’s requirements change from moment to moment, climb to climb so in the end it’s only part list and partly just voodoo and hand-waving, but the fact is every climb I solo is based on a very personal and honest risk assessment. I had told people my plans because I was so completely sure it was a good climb for me to solo. This climb had occupied my imagination ever since I arrived in the region, and the notion that I could be so sure it would go was astonishing to me, because I’m not used to thinking of myself as someone who climbs hard. And sometimes when I feel astonished, I get excited and start talking too much. After all the months of hard training, I could see direct results that all the laps on endurance routes, all the time spent on campus rung dynos and fingerboarding was all worth it, and I just couldn’t keep it inside, but ultimately I was here on my own terms.
I spilled the beans on my plans, and consequently let others get into my head. But if I could send the route while holding a conversation, with the weight of the rope, and the drag of the draws in my floppy, hole-in-the-toe, raggedy shoes after a 10 pitch day of climbing, then I had more than the required strength to solo the route. The start is a slab, slabs are spooky and I didn’t have any beta dialed. But I knew this was OK, because I had my best shoes on, and they stick when they have no right to. I knew I could take the time to figure out my beta as long as I wanted, because I’m pretty good at slabs, and almost every move could yield a no-hands rest to sit and think, and I knew I had that bomber no-hands rest before the overhang to recoup my mental armor after the initial spooky slab.
In the overhang, I knew where the sweet spot was for the crux throw, right next to a little crack in the rail, the aerate had a big pinch that would feel exposed and spooky, but only because I’m bad at pinches and the move was off-balance, but It wasn’t a real issue… It just made me uncomfortable by hi-lighting my weak points. I knew that the final throw was something I didn’t have dialed in, but I also knew I had enough strength to botch the move, hold the lock off and fumble for the sweet spot as long as I needed.
And that’s exactly how the route went down, and I knew that I hadn’t let anything influence my pre-flight checklist. Driving home, it truly felt as though I was remembering someone else’s accomplishment, a dream from someone else’s life had drifted into my head… It was hard to believe, but I had soloed Dreamscape, and it was only the beginning.