Tag Archives: Mojo

Mega Mile Mojo Mission: Success!

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.

Looking up in the valley, contemplating the words of a doctor who stated I would never climb again

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.

*Cue bitchin soundtrack*

Special message to the folks who said I’d never climb again. The smile is because I’m grateful they kept me alive, everything else is because I’m grateful to be living. Photo: Cynthia Gannon

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.


“Dopey Duck” (5.9) in afternoon sun – Photo: Andy Toms (he has a beautiful Instagram feed)

The Approach
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.


My notebook with a rough diagram of the routes and cliff layout. It seems somehow wrong that 400ft of climbing can be abbreviated with a number and a hash-mark


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

An inspection run on “Pinball Wizard” (5.11) -Fall 2014 – Photo: Andy Toms

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

Hangin out on “Built To Tilt” (5.10b) – Photo: Andy Toms

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

Onsight and at peace in the steeps of “Tommy Gun” (5.10) – Note: I actually don’t know how to tie my shoes – Photo: Andy Toms

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


“Dopey Duck” (5.9) – Fall 2014 – Photo: Lynn Willis



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

Soloing “Julia” (5.10b) next to Scott Cox and Michael Stichter, Fall 2014

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.

Onsight solo of “Ascension” (5.11b/c) – Sandrock, AL – Photo: Jake Lehner

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

Michael Reardon

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.

“The Lion” (5.12c) – Spring 2016 – Photo: Bartram Nason

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!

The Last Hold of Seperate Reality
Dreaming big while attempting to flash “Separate Reality” (5.11d), I’ll be back for this someday – Photo: Jacob Bodkin

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!


Free-Mojo Rock Climbing

If we’re lucky, we all have that one thing that makes the world disappear and you with it. Seconds fade into minutes, hours, and the days are gone in a blur. Where was I for the past few hours? Dancing, skydiving, mountain biking, skiing, free-soloing, bouldering, top rope, riding a motorcycle, calculus, gymnastics, working high on a steel tower in a beautiful day, could have been anything, really. Have you ever lost yourself in an activity so fully that you lost track of time? How about losing yourself in the moment so fully that you forget to eat?

Did you know that you practice meditation? That’s all it is: Single point focus and awareness of one thing. You don’t need to sit on a mat humming “Ommmmm” to achieve a meditative state, just look at the example of Yoga. Put simply, Yoga is a moving meditation that centers focus on the breath. As the body moves through the different asanas (poses), your mind becomes distracted and you gently guide it back to the simple act of breathing. With practice the strain fades away and only peace remains. Much like a dancer feels the music while flowing through the movements of choreography. As the awareness deepens, your attention to the body disappears and it appears effortless. You stop thinking, you feel and react on instinct as you flow through the next body position, grab the next hold, feel the stone on your skin, solid. The body flows into the next asana, the dance continues, as the music cranks loud and I’ve lost myself entirely. Trees rush by on the slopes, no time to think, only to react to the ground beneath your tires. Information flows in rapidly, and the body immediately converts it to movement. Man has become one with the machine and they flow together weaving a path through rocks, roots and obstacles. Twisting, turning, grasping are you breathing? Are you there? There is only music, there is only movement. Fingers move across the fret-board of a guitar turning the body itself into music. There is neither “I” nor fear, only peace, and the moving bodymind.


We all meditate, whether we realize it or not, every time we lose ourselves in the moment. We all have the stereotypical image of the meditator losing herself sitting with legs crossed in a serene retreat. But the fact is that everybody has something that can take hold of them that makes the world disappear. There is no action and there is no actor, they become the same. When you find your flow and become lost in motion or thought, the separation between body and mind blurs. That is meditation in a nutshell. Some folks haven’t found their Mojo yet, but it’s out there somewhere waiting for them.

Why do I solo? Probably the same reasons that you dance, ride a bike, go rock climbing, ride a motorcycle, or perform the activities you love. We really aren’t all that different, the only difference is where we’ve found our mojo. It’s just the one thing that I’ve found where my mind becomes still, and the world is at peace. There is no adrenaline rush, I hate feeling afraid. It’s simple meditation. Seeking Zen with a smirk. Perhaps a better question is this: How did I get into soloing to begin with?

How I found my Mojo
Climbing was fascinating to me. I think it’s summed up by one of the most common bits of vernacular that we never think of… Nobody calls it a bouldering “route” or a bouldering “climb”. It’s a boulder-problem. On my first time at a climbing gym, I got stuck fifteen feet off the ground on a 5.8. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the moves; it was simply that I couldn’t figure it out. And that was the epiphany, suddenly it wasn’t a simple brute exercise and it had become a problem that I needed to solve. I can’t stand an unsolved problem!

The obsession was fairly immediate. I wanted to climb as hard as humanly possible, whatever that meant. Something like 5.12, right? So I started climbing regularly, seeking challenges to improve. I wanted to climb harder, and harder, while constantly seeking the next big thing. But there was one small problem. Top roping wasn’t real climbing. I wanted to climb outside, and you have to get the rope up there somehow; therefore, lead climbing is real climbing!

"What do I do with all these clippy things?" Photo Credit: Julia Watson
“What do I do with all these clippy things?”
Photo Credit: Julia Watson
Again, I was obsessed like it was a whole new sport that I’d never even heard of. I had to start all over again, working up the grades slowly. As it turns out, leading is HARD! And so I started all over again, back at the bottom of the grade scale. I sought out new challenges, attempting progressively harder and harder routes, constantly trying to improve. But then I discovered another small problem. I was only sport climbing. I didn’t just want to climb outside; I wanted to climb BIG things outside. If you want to climb BIG, you need to climb trad. There typically aren’t bolts in the wall stitching the high climbs together. On the high crag you have to make your own safety; therefore, trad is real climbing!

Again I found the obsession, the regimented training, the challenges, and the striving and straining for gains and improvement. At this point, those of you who know me well can probably guess what comes next, it seems obvious in retrospect. Sometimes I REALLY just don’t want to climb hard. Actually, I usually don’t want to climb hard. In a way you could say I’m lazy as hell, but I still want to get stronger so that my definition of “easy” becomes “harder” over time to give me access to more “easy” climbing. Everyone seems to forget the fact that no one solos on climbs they consider difficult, that would be insanity! Easy climbing… It’s peaceful, it’s meditative, you lose the struggle, and the fight. Whether it be on top rope looking at a wide swing into the trees, on sport lead feeling afraid of falling, or running it out through easy terrain on a trad-lead, we’ve all had this thought “meh, it’s fine; I’m not going to fall here.” It’s easy, why would you worry? When we climb on easy terrain, folks are generally more willing to forgo their normal level of safety. They skip clips, run it out longer before placing gear, and become less worried about the possibility of large swings on wandering routes.

One of my favorite climbs at my home crag is “Texas Crude” (5.10b) at Enchanted Rock. It’s one of my favorite climbs, I led it every chance I got, and was very familiar with the moves. It had become “easy,” and I was placing fewer and fewer pieces of gear with each repeated ascent. “Meh, it’s fine, I’m not going to fall on this one.” Eventually I was down to placing two pieces of gear on the 80 ft climb, and I couldn’t even pretend I was being “safe” anymore. At that point, the gear was too sparse to prevent a ground-fall on the majority of the route. The strain of stopping and hanging one-handed to place the gear, and consequent rope drag were the only factors that caused me to feel taxed and tired. Given that the effort of making “safety” was making me more likely to fall than the actual climbing, I decided to ditch the gear and take a solo lap. The gear made me feel like I was going to fall, if I removed that obstacle… Well, what could be safer than simply not falling?

"Meh, It'll be aw'right, just don't fall!" Photo Credit: Bibiana Diehl
“Meh, It’ll be aw’right, just don’t fall!”
Photo Credit: Bibiana Garcia Diehl
I tried the route on top rope, and it was casual. When climbing it on lead, I could carry on a conversation the whole time. I knew I was ready, and I went for it with full commitment. No harness, no gear, just a pair of shoes and a chalk bag. Bringing a harness, pro, crashpad, or helmet makes you think you’re allowed to fall, and that’s completely unacceptable. It doesn’t matter if you’re 10ft off the ground or 300; the calculus must be the same. I don’t use a harness when I solo, or any other gear because the presence of a safety valve allows one to think it’s okay to be less than 100% solid. It implies that there is a way out, and that is incredibly dangerous. The mind must be fully committed, and having the fallacy of an escape could get me into a scary situation. Don’t get me wrong, I always have a contingency plan, but it relies on good judgment and strong training. Full commitment demands full preparation and that is the ONLY way to stay safe, for any form of climbing.

And that’s basically why I solo. I love the simplicity, and the state of mind that it brings for me. I’m lazy, and I love easy climbing. When the climbing is easy I can drop the complications and just do more climbing! A few weekends later I came out to the park and soloed 16 of my favorite routes before lunchtime, and that was the point where I decided to commit to becoming a free-soloist.

Bringing it Full-Circle
I saw Cirque Du Soleil this weekend and the show absolutely blew my mind. Perhaps the thing that blew my mind the most was watching the aerial stunts performed by actors utilizing the theatrical fly system in the roof. The dismount platform was about 50 feet in the air, and they were performing stunts hanging from wires, poles, or rings and the only “safety” was a strap to wrap around the wrist for better grip. The audience hardly bats an eyelash, it was all choreographed so perfectly to the music that it was easy to miss how difficult and dangerous these stunts were. No one really stopped to think that there was a human hanging from a ring pointing face first at a 30ft drop.

When I solo, I have all day to make the movements, and I only climb when it feels right in the moment for me. Seeing folks performing on stage facing the same sort of consequences, in front of an audience, performing every move to the beat of the music in crisp choreography, and doing it every night for their profession was utterly mind blowing from my vantage point. There they were, soloing in front of an audience of hundreds, and nobody was up in arms. But if you strip away the music and add a cliff face, suddenly people get scared, and they lash out at the climber. Many will say that guy “obviously” doesn’t care about life. Many folks go out of their way to condemn me for my actions and make attempts at convincing me to stop, but here at Cirque Du Soleil those same people were forking over cash for tickets not only to see it themselves but also to ensure the show continues.

Photo: Cirque Du Soleil
Photo: Cirque Du Soleil
At the crescendo of the performance, there were as many a half dozen acrobats in the air and another twenty on the floor. The energy in the air was so powerful I could feel it resonating in my core. Every one of those people on stage were deeply synched in flow, it was their moving meditation. It was like watching an orchestra constructed of human movement instead of music, and the connection I felt was unmistakable. Everybody has Mojo. It’s that place inside where simply being clears your mind, and you lose all sense of time and the world around you.

Folks ask how to get better at climbing, and really it’s the same way you get better at anything; Find your Mojo. Let’s leave the fear based thinking behind and instead focus on finding how to bring ourselves peace. Fighting fear can help you to a degree, but it can only get you so far. That same fear you fight can come to define your climbing, and its caustic presence encourages some to interfere with the peace of others. Instead, if you take time to recognize those moments of peace in life and make an effort to seek them out, that’s something you can take with you away from the rock to enrich your life, and that’s some good Mojo.

Soloing is meditation, and everyone does it, it’s almost ordinary and that’s the trick. It happens so often that we don’t realize how profoundly common it is and this makes us think that this peace is some impossibly unattainable state for the enlightened. I’m no Zen master, but I find my peace, my mojo, while soloing because the climbing is easy and it frees my mind to simply rest in the moment. Those actors were doing it in front of me on stage. And you? You’re doing it right now, because you have no idea how long it took to read this article.

Cheers, and Happy Climbing!

Austin Howell – Atlanta Climbing Coach

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