Evening Sends » The Day I Sent http://eveningsends.com inspired climbing stories Mon, 13 Nov 2017 15:28:07 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.2.3 http://eveningsends.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/ES1-58b0d451v1_site_icon-32x32.png » The Day I Sent http://eveningsends.com 32 32 The Day We Sent Logical Progression http://eveningsends.com/the-day-we-sent-logical-progression/ http://eveningsends.com/the-day-we-sent-logical-progression/#comments Tue, 26 Sep 2017 12:46:48 +0000 http://eveningsends.com/?p=8544

I’ve never been a goal-oriented climber so I don’t really see the point in recording my climbs or hyping them up. I don’t really care that much about “sending” routes and I definitely don’t give a fuck if anyone knows when I do send something. I don’t have an 8a.nu scorecard. I don’t hashtag on […]

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I’ve never been a goal-oriented climber so I don’t really see the point in recording my climbs or hyping them up. I don’t really care that much about “sending” routes and I definitely don’t give a fuck if anyone knows when I do send something. I don’t have an 8a.nu scorecard. I don’t hashtag on Instagram. And I’m not on Facebook. I guess that makes me a shitty Millennial …

I do, however, enjoy reading the “Day I Sent” series on Evening Sends. I’ve noticed many of these stories follow a similar storyline. It’s the classic “Hero’s Journey,” only with bolts and kneepads. The main climber finds the perfect project, battles both physical and psychological hurdles, comes to some kind of internal peace with the whole process, and eventually sends the motherfucker. End of story.

Part of what makes these stories enjoyable to read is that hard routes can bring out some really important, but not always obvious lessons. Routes ticked, cruxes overcome, and summits achieved can be super meaningful, but they’re also not the most important things in life.

The true, lasting meaning, we like to say, is found in the friendships and partnerships that we build while pursuing our climbing goals.

Over the last few years, however, as I’ve watched too many friends go to the mountains only to never return, I’ve realized something painful. It’s not just the memorable summits and crux moves that are fleeting. Friends and climbing partners are fleeting, too. This is the painful reality of our sport, and I’m unsure what to make of it. Climbing is either a beautiful gift or a curse.

Team Gigante

Hayden Kennedy, Chris Kalous, Kyle Dempster, Justin Griffin.

This is a story about the day we sent Logical Progression, a big-wall route in Mexico. The route was amazing, but it wasn’t all that hard. The experience was incredible because I was with three good friends: Chris Kalous, Kyle Dempster, and Justin Griffin.

There’s no easy way to say this, but half that team is now dead.

Justin died in Nepal in 2015. And Kyle, along with his partner, Scott Adamson, vanished while climbing on a remote peak in north Pakistan a year later.

I think about Kyle and Justin all the time. Their absence from this world is felt by so many who are left in a wake of confusion, anger, and frustration.

In many ways, I am still processing what has happened to my dear friends. Waves of sadness overwhelm me at times, making it hard to stand up or focus. At other times I am able to think only of the enchanting adventures, contemplative conversations, and the simple yet enriching moments we shared as friends. These pendulum shifts between various emotions will never go away, as I am starting to learn.

I see both light and dark in climbing. Through this recognition, true learning begins and a full awareness of the brevity of our time becomes clearer. It’s difficult to accept the fact that we cannot control everything in life, yet we still try, and maybe our path changes to something totally unexpected.

I am still in the process of finding my own path, and I’d be lying if I said these deaths haven’t affected its direction. How does climbing fit into “real life”? If we only take the surface level experience—endlessly chasing the next hardest project, the next most futuristic alpine objective—then, in my opinion, climbing becomes too much of a selfish pursuit.

Maybe the most genuine aspects of any tale are the sputterings and the silences, the acknowledgments of failure, the glimmerings in the dark. And maybe one genuine reason to try to share our stories about days we actually send something, when we are alive and at the height of our powers, is to try to bring back what’s past, lost, or gone.

Perhaps by doing so, we might find some light illuminating a new way forward.

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It’s night, and Kalous and I are driving somewhere in the foothills of the Sierra Madre mountains of Sonora, Mexico. Maps, candy wrappers, and rollies are scattershot across the dashboard. We have been pushing the pedal with relentless enthusiasm since the Nogales border crossing just south of Tucson.

“Melissa,” my van, has already suffered some road injuries with several cracks to the front windshield and a dented rear bumper. The road is so dark that even the yellow median lines seem to fade in and out of the headlights. Massive potholes devastate my shocks and jostle my entire body, adding to the paranoia I feel about driving at night through narco country. After 17 hours on the road, I am starting to feel like I’m on drugs, and not the good kind. My head buzzes, and my eyes are having a hard time distinguishing between the shadow-life and reality.

Looping around a large switchback, we are suddenly confronted with the blinding floodlights of a military roadblock dead ahead.

“This is so fucked, this is deeply fucked,” Kalous whispers as I slow down and start to pull over.

Just behind us are Kyle and Justin, who are in Kyle’s van, “Pegasus.” I hear them hit the brakes, and their headlights disappear as they pull right up behind me.

A wooden officer’s shack is illuminated by candlelight. Bottles of tequila and Carta Blanca lay on the ground around the entrance. Five armed police pour out of the shack, and quickly approach our vans, rifles in hand. The men circle our caravan, establishing a perimeter of space. One comes over to my window.

“Gringos!” he says, seeming surprised. There is a strong scent of tequila on his breath. “A donde vas, gringos?”

Just as I was about to offer up an answer in my own piss-poor Spanish, I see that Kyle and Justin are already out of their van. They are walking among the guards, calm as cucumbers, handing out packs of Marlboro Reds and porno magazines.

The guards look pleased with the offering.

I follow suit and step out of the van. Kalous, perhaps being a couple decades wiser than the rest of us, seems hesitant. He lingers for a few moments then joins the party.

Kyle lights a cigarette. He takes a long drag, then blows a set of impressive smoke rings that get the policemen to loosen up.

“We are from Utah and Colorado and have come a long ways to see your beautiful country,” Kyle casually says in Spanglish.

“And for the cheap beer!” Justin adds.

We see a few smiles crack across the hardened faces of the policemen. Some of the men are wearing black ski masks because they don’t want potential enemies who are driving through to see their faces. Some of the masks come off and Kyle continues to converse with the policemen as if they were long-lost friends. He gives a few of the most curious policemen a tour of his built-out Sprinter. Meanwhile, Kalous, Justin, and I explain our reasons for traveling to this remote part of Mexico to several of the clearly inebriated guards, who are swaying drunkenly while cradling their guns in their arms.

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Jewell Lund and Kyle Dempster. Photo Forest Woodward.

Thanks to Kyle’s gifts and his smooth confidence, we reach a surface level understanding with the police that we are good people. The police are actually quite impressed that a group of Americans was driving at night through one of Mexico’s most notorious drug-trafficking regions. They are also concerned about our safety and recommend that we stay in the next town, ten miles down the twisty mountain road.

“Vaya con dios,” the head policeman says, and shoos us away with a rolled up porno mag.

Engulfed in darkness once again, we drive toward the small town of Tecorpia, unaware of what lay ahead.

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Three months prior, I was in the middle of my annual Christmas light-installation grind in the suburban hell-scape called the Front Range of Colorado. Every November my friend and climbing/business partner Jesse Huey and I would drop everything to “cash in on the joy” by adorning suburban mansions with Christmas lights. It was the exact kind of brutal, dangerous work that would suit an alpine climber, so long as we could ignore the fact that we were contributing to one of the most obscene spectacles of American consumerism ever invented.

From 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., Jesse and I dangled off roofs and tresses with a clusterfuck of C9-LED light stringers hanging from every part of our bodies. One time, when I couldn’t find a solid roofing anchor, I filled my Grade VI haul-bag with bottles of water to create a counterweight on the opposite side of the house while I traversed a 40-degree slope of glaciated shingles. We worked 12-hour days nonstop, ate like shit, and drank most nights. Occasionally, we’d find time to flail in one of the many Front Range climbing gyms.

I once spent eight hours in a cherry picker with a homeowner named Rocky Bliss. We strung lights all over his 45-foot cottonwood trees, a spectacle that was sure to put all of his neighbors’ Christmas lights to shame. Mr. Bliss could hardly contain himself.

“It’s you and me up here, Hayden, getting closer to God!” he said without a hint of irony.

Jesus Christ, get me out of here! I was so ready for a climbing trip when all this “joy-spreading” was done.

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HK swinging leads with Kalous on Logical Progression (5.13a), Mexico.

Tough as it was, I knew this work would soon be rewarded with the ultimate amount of freedom. I could grind hard for three months and make enough cash to fund my climbing “fix” for the rest of the year. I used Christmas light money to get me abroad, from Patagonia to the Himalayas to the Canadian Rockies, as well as the interim road-trips all over Europe and North America.

Over the actual holidays—a reprieve for us Christmas-light elves, meaning, the time between the actual light installation and the subsequent retrieval of those lights—we hatched a plan for a Mexican adventure.

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I was visiting my family and friends in my hometown of Carbondale, Colorado, and linked up with Chris Kalous. You may know Kalous as the voice of the Enormocast, but to me, he was actually first my high-school English teacher. He subsequently became one of my closest friends and climbing partners.

Earlier that week, I’d received an email from my best friend and longtime alpine climbing partner, Kyle Dempster. The email was characteristically sparse; it simply said, “Mexican road trip … you in?”

Over some beers, I casually mentioned the idea to Kalous.

“Where would you wanna go?” he asked. Well, I hadn’t actually thought much about that part. After a season of Christmas lights anywhere sounded good.

With Kyle and Kalous both on board, we just needed a fourth climber, so Kyle invited our mutual friend from Bozeman, Justin Griffin. This was a sweet crew!

Now, all we needed was an actual climbing objective, which was in some ways the least important part of the equation.

Ultimately, we decided on a 1,000-meter rhyolite big-wall known as El Gigante, located in the heart of the Copper Canyon in northern Mexico. Certainly, El Gigante’s best-known route is Logical Progression (VI 5.13a), which Peter Baumeister, Luke Laeser, and Bert van Lint established in February 2002.

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Kalous following a lead on Logical Progression.

At the time, the American/German team received a rash of criticism for the style in which they opened their route. They rap bolted all 3,000 feet of the limestone wall using power drills. Never before had such a prominent feature been subjected to such egregious sport-climbing tactics. Alex Huber vowed to chop the route, and a “debate-piece” was published in the American Alpine Journal in 2003 shortly after the first ascent.

In 2007, the wildly talented French team of Arnaud Petit, Stéphanie Bodet, Titi Gentet, and Sylvain Millet made a near onsight of the route. They called it, ”Chef d’oeuvre.” A masterpiece.

Alex Honnold and Sonnie Trotter made an impressive one-day free ascent of the route in 2010 and raved about the route. With such high praise and even a healthy bit of ethical controversy—a part of this sport with which I am all too familiar—Logical Progression became our main objective.

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Jason Kruk coming up on his and Hayden Kennedy’s “fair means” ascent of Cerro Torre’s “Compressor Route” in 2012.

Many climbers associate my name with the clouded controversy that surrounds Cerro Torre. In 2012, Jason Kruk and I climbed the Southeast Ridge of Cerro Torre without using any of Cesare Maestre’s infamous, ladder-like bolts, which he installed in 1970 using a 500-pound gas-powered compressor. Maestri drilled his way to the top, without any regard to the natural features of the mountain. Climbers have debated Maestri’s bolts for decades. Over the years, as alpine climbers’ skills, vision, and talent increased, so did the call to restore the natural challenges of this special mountain. After climbing Cerro Torre without the bolts, and seeing firsthand the outrageous nature of their placements—and understanding the history of the debate—Jason and I decided to remove a majority of the bolts on our way down.

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Maestri’s Compressor remains a controversial alpine monument.

You might think a guy like me is some kind of crazy anti-bolt zealot. If so, you might also think that I’m a hypocrite for choosing an objective like Logical Progression, which sports nearly 1,000 bolts that were placed on rappel.

I don’t think bolts are inherently evil; they’re just little pieces of metal. More specifically, Cerro Torre, an ice-covered alpine climb, is very different than El Gigante, a jungle big-wall. The bolts that were installed on Cerro Torre were completely unnecessary, while the bolts on El Gigante are appropriate.

I spent my entire youth reading everything about our sport’s history that I could get my hands on, not to mention discussing the nuances of climbing’s ethics with my dad, a former world-class alpinist, and all of his fellow world-class alpinist buddies when they’d come through town.

More importantly, I’ve tried to make opinions about climbing ethics based on first-hand experiences—not through Internet forums. That seems to be a rare thing these days. Most climbers my age seem to care more about checking their 8a scorecards and being addicted to social media than they do about learning our sport’s history. Many climbers my age couldn’t tell you who Walter Bonatti, Joe Tasker, Jerzy Kukuczka, and Bernd Arnold are, but they do know the latest hashtag marketing campaign.

Mostly, I was interested in checking out Logical Progression to see if it lived up to the hype, or if it was another “murder of the impossible” type of situation. I think it’s important to keep an open mind, get off the internet, and just go climbing.

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We arrive in the dusty main drag of Tecorpia at 2 a.m. and, of course, as gringos, we thought it would be a great idea to stop for some tacos and cervezas. As we creep down the main street looking for some kind of late night snack, an armored truck full of masked policemen passes and stops at a nearby house. All of the police jump out from the cab of the truck, guns pointed at the house as they approach. I immediately flip Melissa around and speed out of town. Tacos at 2 a.m.? Tremendous fucking idea!

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We bivy in the parking lot of a well-lit gas station in Tecorpia. By morning, we are rolling cigarettes and sipping coffee, debating the night’s close calls. Between the police-checkpoint fiasco and our encounter with the masked gunman later the night, we all needed to blow off some steam.

“I honestly can’t believe we were driving that late at night!” Kalous says sternly, looking at the rest of us. “Pure ignorance and stupidity!”

Kyle starts to laugh while Justin and I gaze into the morning light pretending we didn’t hear Kalous.

“You’re right,” I finally say quietly. “At least we off-loaded those packs of Reds and porno-magazines. I was starting to feel uncomfortable with all that in the van!” Justin smirked. We laughed. Back to the basics.

We start driving and soon reach the signs for Basaseachi National Park and Copper Canyon. Thank god, we made it. We pull into a deserted parking lot with a single taco stand. From the parking lot, we can only see into one aspect of the canyon but the relief of the walls is obvious and impressive. Quickly we gather our bearings and locate the Rancho San Lorenzo, which we heard was the best spot to camp.

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As our caravan enters the ranch, we see an older Mexican leaning against a fence. His name is Fernando, and he is wearing a cowboy hat and a tucked-in, baby-blue button-snap shirt that reveals his beer belly quite well, which protrudes over an enormous belt buckle.

“Que pasa, gringos,” he says, lighting a cigarette and adjusting himself in his well-worn blue jeans.

In painful, broken Spanish, Chris attempts to describe our goals, wants, and needs as plumes of smoke are billowing out from under the brim of Fernando’s cowboy hat.

“Ha-ha! No problem, gringos!” says Fernando, laughing. “I speak English and of course you can stay at my ranchero. Your vans will not make the road to El Gigante so I can arrange a driver for you, if you would like?”

Perfecto! That evening we sit around a campfire and share stories of our travels with our new friend over tequila.

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“In Mexico, you must take responsibility for yourself and your family because the law doesn’t exist,” Fernando says, lifting his shirt, revealing a pistol.

“We live in completely different worlds,” Justin remarks and sips a beer.

We fall into silence and just enjoy each other’s company and the remoteness of our position.

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Four days later, we have adjusted to the tropical climate, acquired a week’s worth of supplies, and are now bouncing in the back of a ruby-red 1987 Chevrolet pickup truck into the jungle. After nearly two hours the road finally ends in a densely forested pullout, with not a wall or canyon in sight.

Our friend Andrew Burr had drawn us a map on a napkin of the complex approach, which is actually a descent from the canyon’s rim down jungle-choked gullies to the base of the wall. Kyle turns the map several times in an effort to orient our location.

“We don’t need this stupid thing,” he says, crimping the napkin and throwing it into the woods. “It’s more confusing than it is helpful.”

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I first met Kyle on top of El Cap in Yosemite in the spring of 2009. Kyle had just topped out some massive aid solo and resembled a dried-up sponge. Wolfmother blared out of his speakers and his energy was pulsing. Kyle’s pronounced chest made him seem almost un-human-like, or at least un-climber-like. I started to call him the Silverback not only for his strength but also for his attitude. The silverback gorilla walks independent and silent.

Kyle often spoke about the power of solitude, the importance of self-reliance, the impact of third-world travel, and the significance of Black Sabbath. He told hair-raising tales from a trip to Pakistan, where he nearly completed an audacious solo of the West Face of Tahu Rutum. He had spent over 20 days on the wall, alone, before retreating in a storm.

Kyle and I climbed a bit in Yosemite as well as in his home mountains, the Wasatch, just outside of Salt Lake City. Our first international trip was to Pakistan’s Charakusa Valley in 2011, where we attempted the unclimbed East Face of K7. We returned the following year with the Slovenian power-house, Urban Novak, to finish what we had started. Our line up the East Face of K7 offered everything you would ever want or expect on a big, alpine climb, from waist-deep snowing slogging, to scrappy granite mixed climbing with poor protection, ice funnels that dripped like candle wax down the mountain, spindrift avalanches, belly aches from dehydration, extremely long periods of movement without sleep or pause, and a bond that only comes from traveling through this terrain with your partners. All three of us connected in a big way on K7. In retrospect, this climb represents everything that I love and aspire to within climbing. It was a success beyond our new route and summit, and Kyle was a major reason why.

Urban Novak, Hayden Kennedy and Kyle Dempster on K7.

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I roll off my thin foam pad into the dirt and pine needles. My head throbs with a Tecate hangover. Justin is already awake, making coffee and scrambling eggs.

“This will make you feel better,” he says, handing me a cup of coffee. “If you are gonna be dumb, you better be tough.”

We pump ourselves with enough caffeine to trounce our hangovers or at least keep them at bay. Our plan was fairly straightforward; Kyle and Justin would climb together as a team one full day ahead of Kalous and me.

Kyle and Justin are packing “disaster-style,” which basically means they are blindly throwing stuff into a haul-bag with no concept of what they actually have for the climb. Justin is a master of the “No Plan” plan.

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Kyle introduced me to Justin on a bitterly cold day while ice climbing in Hyalite Canyon just outside of Bozeman, Montana, in 2011. Justin’s lanky frame even gave my awkward stature a run for my money.

As the day grew colder, our laughter got stronger. That evening, Justin’s southern-drawl crept out as the beers went down. Justin had lightness to his step, a calm demeanor and a jovial smile that pierced the room.

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In 2013, Kyle, Justin, and I established a new free variation to an old Jeff Lowe aid line on Haystack Peak in the Deep Lake area of the Wind Rivers. We spent ten days living in the mountains, eating bacon straight off the cast iron and shooting whisky over truths and lies. We climbed our brains out. Our route that we later dubbed, Lowe-Spark, had several very techy 5.13 pitches and a stack of 5.12. More importantly, we felt a certain spirit, a palatable connection that transcended the climbing.

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A day after Kyle and Justin left, Chris and I are stumbling down the convoluted, loose gully, with sketchy down climbing and heavy bushwhacking. We discover that there is a small-scale marijuana grow-op at the base of the wall. As we cautiously approach the grow-op I happen to notice that Kalous—dressed in army-green pants, a black long-sleeve shirt, and a dirty trucker’s hat—looks like a DEA agent.

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“Fuck man! You are going to get us shot looking like that!” I say, joking as we thrash our way to the base of the wall. We had planned for two nights on the wall. Kalous had packed our bags like a mother sending her firstborn off to grade school. Everything was in order. Even the crusts had been cut off our sandwiches.

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Kalous is a modern renaissance man. His repertoire of skills, passions, and jobs include podcasting, rebuilding car engines, playing music, teaching high school, guiding in Estes Park, painting houses, and climbing every kind of stone, in all styles. He’s one of the best crack climbers I’ve ever seen.

I really got to know Kalous through listening to Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, the Temptations, Herbie Hancock, Soulive and Miles Davis. I was probably thirteen when I joined his after-school Blues/R&B band. I played the saxophone and was obsessed. Our little group would get together two days a week for rehearsals and we even won the annual battle of the bands several years in a row.

Kalous spoke to us like we were adults, which ultimately bridged the gap between the student and the teacher. We started hanging outside of the band and with my fresh interest in climbing, Kalous became one of my first climbing partners. Our early trips to Indian Creek were mind-blowing for me as I watched him dispatch pitch after pitch like a knife cutting through butter.

He has most recently added a new skill to his repertoire: parenting. He’s a proud father of his son, Miles.

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The first few pitches of the Logical Progression feel awkward. We need to adjust to the rhythm of the wall. We swap leads and gradually fall into an enjoyable pace. One of the most attractive attributes of Logical Progression is the fact you don’t need a single piece of traditional gear for the entire 1,000 meters; a 60-meter rope, 20 draws and a few slings will do. The first nine pitches are relatively easy. There are a few 5.11+ sections, but mostly it’s consistent 5.10 terrain to gain the “Tower of Power” bivy on top of pitch nine.

I cast off on pitch ten, the first hard pitch of the route. A steep corner and thin flakes add pump-value as I gain the crimpy 5.12+ cruxes. My fingers feel strong, my mind is at ease, and I climb with a looseness that allows me to relax on the small holds. El Gigante casts an impressive shadow as the afternoon light fades into dusk. Kalous follows the pitch clean.

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Below pitch eleven, I take a few deep breaths before attempting the first 5.13 pitch of the route. My arms feel slightly more tired than I would like so I climb faster and faster. The blocky rhyolite has the shape and texture of a Rubik’s Cube, yet the movement is perfect. I let out a scream as I pull the steep crux, skipping the clip. I look down and see the rope snaking into the void. I clip the anchor and fall into my harness. We fixed our ropes and rappelled back to the Tower of Power bivy for the night.

Morning comes all too soon and a cold wind shakes us awake. Back at it! I love wall climbing! Swinging leads and with a dialed-in system, we can just relax and enjoy the climbing exposure. Each pitch is more stunning than the last.

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Every so often we come across Kyle and Justin’s chalk. I wonder what kind of experience are they having? We reach a short band of rotten rock with a supposed 5.12 pitch. I leave the belay with a hint of a too-cool-for-school attitude. I am promptly put into my place as I whip all over the pitch.

“You’re no Sharma, buddy!” Kalous ribs. Finally, I manage to send the pitch in one clean go. Here’s what I know: you can’t sell sand to Arabs and you can’t tell me that that pitch is only 5.12! Nails!

We reach the top of pitch eighteen as the sun sets. We crawl into the infamous “Critter Bivy” for the night. Cracking beers hurt my fingertips but the luxury of a few coldish beers in the vertical word is unmatched. We jam out to a new Daft Punk album under a clear night. Our conversation drifts in and out but the tunes stay constant until we lay our heads down.

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I wake up at 6 a.m. to find a spider the size of child’s hand crawling on my sleeping bag. I have a mild case of arachnophobia, by the way. I try to stay calm as I flick the eight-legged devil off my sleeping bag. Perhaps it is an ominous sign sent from the Tarahumara—the indigenous people of this region, whose legendary reputation as endurance runners has been recently romanticized in a number of books and articles.

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Rock-paper-scissors determines that I will lead the first pitch of the day, which is a stunning 5.12 on immaculate stone. Each pitch on this route would be a 5-star classic were they at any other crag. We start motoring through pitches, and Kalous is climbing better than the day before. As we reach the last pitch of the route, I’m somewhat sad that the experience is almost over. There is a sense of invincibility on these kinds of climbs, the feeling that you could do this for the rest of your life without any question.

Above us, we hear the laughter of our friends whispering in the late afternoon breeze.

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Justin had to get back to work and his family in Bozeman. Kalous also had “real-life” obligations back in Colorado. Kyle was busy planning for a summer full of mountain adventures while also running his coffee shop, Higher Ground, in Salt Lake City.

As for me, I kept driving north, grasping for the next climb, the next adventure, the next mission and purpose. Pushing harder and harder, with only the bleak reprieve of hanging Christmas lights to refill the bank account.

I have watched too many friends head into hills without thought or reason just because that’s what they have always known. I have been guilty of this approach, too. Why do some of us survive and others don’t?

I look back at this trip and find memories, feelings, and moments that seem obscured deep within the Copper Canyon below the walls and far away from my life now. Kyle and Justin are gone, Kalous is a full-time father and I am still trying to find my path with purpose and balance. I am a little closer than I was then, but in many ways only because of the pain and loss of my dear friends.

So much of Kyle and Justin remain alive within me, in these thoughts and memories that return as I write this story. I think about Kyle’s ability to connect with so many people and to find peace while in such intense situations. I think about Justin’s discreet yet very obvious sense of humor; his one-liners that still make my sides ache with laughter; his simple way of enjoying life.

Kalous was in danger of becoming a grumpy, bitter-old climber until he became a father. Now he is sweet and salty. And he’s renewed with this newfound passion.

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I resent that my friends are gone, and I also hate that I have those feelings. I don’t want to be the guy who judges or resents my friends for their choices in the mountains because I know how it feels to be judged for decisions I’ve made in the mountains. Somehow death makes these feelings inescapable.

Clichés like “they were just following their passion” are what we all say in moments of loss and tragedy. Of course, that is just bullshit.

There is this dual nature of sublime meaning and utter absurdity in climbing mountains. Sending harder, bigger, more badass routes won’t make you a better, more humble, more gracious or happier human—yet we often approach those mountains like they can. There is no glory, no real answers, in sending and summits, yet we organize our entire lives around the myth that there are.

On the other hand, I’ve also experienced how mountains strip us down to our true selves. We see who we are, and we see who are partners really are, and they see us back. Kyle was one of those people who I got to see. This is the stuff that could never be conveyed on Instagram. It’s one reason why alpinism yields such complexity beyond summits.

Climbing can be an incredible catalyst for our growth. But I am beginning to realize that there’s a certain danger in making climbing the singular focus of your life because it can actually limit the opportunity for growth and reflection if you don’t stop, pause, breathe, and reflect.

El Gigante remains an important part of my life, not because of the climbing or the send, but because of the connection the four of us made on that wall. What I struggle with most is that I didn’t see the importance of this route till now.

 

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Hayden KennedyHayden Kennedy is one of the foremost climbers of his generation. His resume belies his 27 years, and he has established some of the more significant alpine climbs of the decade, including a new route on the south face of the Ogre in Pakistan (and third ascent total of the infamous peak) with Kyle Dempster and Josh Wharton; a new route on the east face of K7 (with Urban Novak and Kyle Dempster); the first “fair means” ascent of Cerro Torre’s Southeast Ridge with Jason Kruk; and the first ascent of “Light Before Wisdom” on the east face of Cerro Kishtwar (6,173m) in northern India with Urban Novak, Manu Pellessier, and Marko Prezelj. He’s also climbed 5.14 trad and 5.14c sport. He grew up in Carbondale, Colorado, and currently lives in Bozeman, Montana. You can’t find him on Instagram or Facebook.

update:

It’s with great sadness that we must report that Hayden Kennedy and his incredible girlfriend Inge Perkins died on October 7.

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The Day I Sent Blue Jeans http://eveningsends.com/the-day-i-sent-blue-jeans-3/ http://eveningsends.com/the-day-i-sent-blue-jeans-3/#comments Tue, 23 Aug 2016 23:51:36 +0000 http://eveningsends.com/?p=7939

My forearms were quite pumped after a solid effort on the first of two crux pitches on my new multi-pitch project here in the Canadian Rockies. Fortunately, the chains were just a few easy moves away. My mind drifted away to thoughts of how well I did on the attempt as I stepped carelessly onto […]

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My forearms were quite pumped after a solid effort on the first of two crux pitches on my new multi-pitch project here in the Canadian Rockies. Fortunately, the chains were just a few easy moves away. My mind drifted away to thoughts of how well I did on the attempt as I stepped carelessly onto the band of rock leading to the anchor. The next second, I was literally shrieking down the wall, grasping in disbelief at the seemingly endless loop of rope flapping through the air in front of me. My heart nearly burst through my throat by the time I came screaming (again, quite literally) into the rock.

I crashed hard, with my hip bearing the brunt of impact.

After a quick assessment, I was rather surprised, if pleased, to discover that I was largely unharmed. The relief turned to fear, shock and frustration as I kicked my feet against the rock, releasing a loud and unabashed “FUCK!”

The band had crumbled beneath my feet. The Yamnuska gods had just put me in my place. Pride and carelessness do not belong on this mountain. I’d just been warned.

Of Rock Gods & Gumbies

The gods of Yam seem to have a particular disdain for the egos of climbers aspiring to quickly ascend their flanks, and they dish out those lessons with swift smackdowns. Yamnuska—officially named Mt. John Laurie, though its Nakoda name, meaning “Wall of Stone,” is preferred—is a 350-meter (1,200-foot) trad/sport/mixed cliff in the Bow Valley of Alberta, Canada, just outside Calgary and near Banff. The rock of the Canadian Rockies is limestone of generally solid quality, but the rock of Yamnuska can often bring a new meaning to the word ‘choss’.

My project here at Yam is a seven-pitch, 200-meter 5.13b called Blue Jeans. Nick Rochacewich had attempted, ground-up, to bolt this plumb line, which follows a pair of blue limestone streaks running like denim-clad legs down Yamnuska’s craggy face. After aiding approximately 10-15 feet up the first pitch, a piece ripped out of the wall and Nick fell, ripping out every piece of pro before taking a stunner of a ground fall. Luckily, Nick escaped serious injury, though the gods of Yam had succeeded in macerating his ego.

Nick Rochacewich at the Red River Gorge. Photo: Vikki Weldon.

Post digger, Nick humbly hiked to the top of the mountain to begin bolting on rappel. After a few years of effort, Nick had created one of the hardest sport multi-pitches on Yamnuska. Although the dueling blue streaks help make Blue Jeans an already appropriate name, in reality Nick had named his route in an homage to Andrew Gallant, a local character and Canmore climber who is known for climbing everything, even alpine routes, in jeans. The neighboring routes Red Shirt and Brown Trousers only make the name more fitting.

While Nick had done the hard work of preparing the line, it still awaited a free ascent. In 2011, Derek Galloway swooped in to claim the FFA honors, unlocking the pitches at 5.12b, 5.12d, 5.12d, 5.13a, 5.13b, 5.12a, 5.10d.

Derek Galloway: the visionary route developer.

Josh Wharton (climbing) and Hayden Kennedy on what would eventually become the third ascent of Blue Jeans, in 2015.

At the time, it was Yamnuska’s hardest route, and when I first stood beneath it in 2012, I was hoping to make the second free ascent. It takes a certain amount of ego to bring yourself to believe that you might be capable of actually doing something like this. Unfortunately, as I’ve already stated, having an ego doesn’t get you far on Yam.

Pitch two of Blue Jeans. Photo: Lev Pinter

Beginning

Growing up in Calgary, despite being a mere 45 minutes away from the Bow Valley and its wealth of climbing adventures, I began climbing as a full-blown gym rat. Along with my three siblings, Chris, Stacey, and Mike, I learned to climb on the walls of the Calgary Climbing Centre. I had no idea what real rock was until a coach took me to Grassi Lakes near Canmore. This cliff may as well be an outdoor gym, with the only real objective hazard being getting the pesky mountain goats that stand atop the wall and kick rocks off onto the climbers below. (Helmet is required).

After that first experience at Grassi, I embarrassingly remember thinking to myself afterwards, I think I’ll just stick with the gym …

Thankfully it wasn’t long before I smartened up and began frequenting the local Bow Valley crags with enthusiasm. My first real haunt became Acephale, a burly sport crag where I learned how to project, eventually ticking off my first 5.13a, b, c, and d. I was entirely focused on sport climbing, and continued to be for years. Back then, to me, an “adventure” was discovering new beta on the project.

Vikki on Endless Summer (5.13d) at Acephale. Photo: Wiktor Skupinski

Yamnuska is the first mountain you see when coming from Calgary, but in all those early trips past it, never once did I consider climbing it. Yam was for trad climbers, and a trad climber I was not.

Eventually, though, I bucked up and climbed Yam for the first time with visiting Squamish superstar, Will Stanhope. I was 18 and I’d never been up a multipitch before. We chose a route named The Bowl (5.10c). Will led every pitch and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Only when we got to the top did Will admit that he had been put off by the chossy rock and wacky route finding. This was no Squamish granite.

Climbing The Bowl at Yam with Willy Stanhope, who took this shot.

 

Years passed by. I moved to the coast. I tried to figure out what I was going to do with my life, other than sport climbing and bouldering. In 2009 I was accepted into nursing school, with an option to defer my acceptance until 2010. That left the fall wide open for a road trip. I wrangled my friends Zak and Regan into my sturdy ’89 Nissan Sentra and we drove clean across America to visit the fabled Red River Gorge.

Ironically, it was in Kentucky that I first met Nick Rochacewich. One morning on a lazy rest day, as the sun shone across the field at Lago Linda’s, Nick started telling me about his route Blue Jeans.

“It’s unbelievable!” he raved. “Perfect blue streaks, with these amazing pockets on clean rock. And it’s steep as shit! No choss at all, I swear!”

I was captivated by his excitement and passion for his creation, and even though I’d only ever climbed a handful of multi-pitches since that day on The Bowl with Will, it was right then and there that I vowed to try Nick’s route.

Blue Jean Baby

In 2012, I started working as a student nurse at the Canmore hospital, but I spent every spare second climbing, and dreaming about Blue Jeans, with Nick’s captivating description still fresh in my mind. I finally worked up the gumption to have a go at the route, and I convinced my good friend Jamie Chong to try with me.

The first three pitches—5.12b, 5.12d, and 5.12d—had us flailing.

“This is hard!” I whimpered after every little crux.

“This is sooo hard!” Jamie said.

Jamie Chong

By the time we reached the first crux pitch (5.13a), we were exhausted. The tricky moves on tiny holds completely shut us down. Jamie and I tucked our tails and rappelled.

It was a discouraging start.

Even though he had sent the route the year before, I convinced Derek to return to Blue Jeans with me. I needed beta, not to mention the fact that I needed someone to, quite literally, show me the ropes. Having virtually no multi-pitch experience before, my rope-management skills were atrocious!

I wrangled four more days out of Derek that summer, and he helped me decipher the beta on two of the most technical crux pitches. I made good progress, but the cruxes eluded me.

Pitch 2 of Blue Jeans. Photo: Lev Pinter.

I had a good background in projecting single-pitch sport routes, but trying to bring that mentality up on a big, multi-pitch wall felt like a whole new game. I could normally send 5.13 within a few tries, but after four or five pitches, I quickly realized how much harder that would be.

Nick summed it up nicely one evening, saying, “You need to be a lot stronger than the route.”

I realized that I had to be climbing a lot harder than 5.13 if I was ever going to send this route.

New Level

By the summer of 2013, I’d completed nursing school, yet the climbing bug was something I just couldn’t shake. Instead of diving head first into my career as a registered nurse, I chose to buy a truck and camper with my boyfriend, Tom, and head out on the open road. We spent the next six months on the road, beginning in the Red River Gorge and finishing up in the Canadian Rockies. My main goals of the trip were to send a 5.14 and, with that newly acquired strength and fitness, come back to Blue Jeans and hopefully find myself “stronger than the route.”

After all that time spent in the Red and at other crags, I was in the best shape of my life. Then, just days before I was planning to return home to the Rockies, I managed to achieve my first goal, climbing Eulogy (5.14a) in Maple Canyon, Utah.

Eulogy (5.14a), Pipe Dream, Maple Canyon. Photo: Tom Wright

Climbing a 5.14 was extremely satisfying, but to be honest, it was no sooner than I clipped the chains that I was already dreaming and scheming about Blue Jeans.

Highs & Lows

Tom and I returned to Canmore at the beginning of August 2013, and I promptly hopped back on Blue Jeans. I spent a total of seven days working on the route before I felt ready to start making redpoint attempts. The crossly limestone was merciless, and I needed multiple days of rest between attempts, mainly to regrow skin.

My progress with this route felt so slow, and it was frustrating at times. Why couldn’t I just quickly swoop in and climb this route? It was only a 5.13, after all! I mean, I’d just done a 5.14!

I had to suppress my frustration at times, but there are those little breakthroughs in climbing that encourage you just enough to keep going.

Blue Jeans (5.13b). Photo: Wiktor Skupinski

On my first redpoint attempt, I finally sent the first crux pitch (5.13a), and made major progress on the second (5.13b). It was the first time I believed I could actually do this route. The second crux pitch was my last barrier, and a solid one at that. It had everything; compression, heinous crimps, a perfect dead point, a corner press, a bulge mantel, and exposure. It was sequential, complex and cruel. My skin took an intense beating with each attempt, until I eventually tore a hole in my left ring finger that never quite healed for the rest of the summer.

Partner Parade

Getting someone, anyone to trudge uphill for over an hour to belay me as I thrashed around all day on a south-facing multi-pitch route blasting in the sun proved not to be all that easy. Obviously, there’s a lot more involved than simply heading out to some roadside single-pitch crag and getting a belay.

Vikki Weldon at a Blue Jeans (5.13b) hanging belay. Photo: Wiktor Skupinski

Originally Tom had been keen to be my main partner for the route after I had built it up during our trip as this incredible route with amazing rock. Unfortunately, I may have over exaggerated the rock quality and Tom was none too impressed during our first foray up the wall together. Although Tom did head up to belay me on the route on a few more days, he was psyched on other projects in the Bow Valley. I would have to find some other partners.

A few days after my mini breakthrough, I woke up to a blasting 30-degree day (that’s about 90 degrees, for you American folk). Yamnuska was probably going to be hotter than an iron skillet. Still, I was going climbing, and I convinced my good friend Lev Pinter to head up with me.

Vikki and Lev

Lev is well known for his impressive sport climbing ticklist and he is a respected route developer. I also lovingly know him to be a complete gong show. I had learned from earlier days to always plan to meet an hour earlier than was needed so that Lev had time to arrive, pack his bag, forget if he packed his shoes, empty his bag, find his shoes at the bottom, and repack.

Once we were on the wall, though, Lev was the best partner I could ask for. Mellow, easy going, and supportive, he made it so that I could focus completely on my goal. After climbing the first three pitches in full sun, I was ready for a nap. Somehow, I rallied and made it once again to the Pitch 5, the 5.13b.

Despite the heat, I was climbing well, and actually made it through the deadpoint. I was in shock. With sewing-machine legs, and a racing heart, I thought to myself, “It’s in the bag. I’m going to do this!”

First mistake. These are thoughts the gods of Yam do not like.

Moving towards the last hard moves, I felt lactic acid surge through my forearms. I stepped on a rotten foothold. My second mistake. The foot crumbled and I rushed the next move. Off I sailed, kicking and screaming before I even regained contact with the rock. So much effort, so much climbing, to make such stupid mistakes. Back at the belay, I mutter about, debating whether I have the energy or the skin to try again.

“If I go again, I’ll have to tape,” I mumble, glaring at my wimpy skin, “But I hate tape.”

“Well, it’s like, it sucks to use condoms, but it’s better than not at all,” came Lev’s reply.

True. I couldn’t help but smile at that.

In the end, I noticed some lovely white core exposed on my rope, and was saved from the dreaded tape. Time to head down.

Rest. Regrow skin. Try again a few days later.

Blue Jeans (5.13b). Photo: Wiktor Skupinski

My friend Josh Muller, a local crusher I’ve known forever, once made the mistake of saying that he wanted to check out Blue Jeans. That off-hand comment came back into my head when I was scrolling through my phone, trying to find a keen belayer. I called Josh up, and lined him up for the next day.

We headed up in glorious, cool, bluebird weather. Yet as we got to the base, it began to rain. Classic Rockies with its bipolar weather patterns! We headed up anyways. The weather promptly cleared, showing that the weather’s bipolar tendencies swing both ways.

Blue Jeans (5.13b). Photo: Wiktor Skupinski

The final crux pitch loomed ahead. I started climbing, reaching a rest before the final hard moves. My ring finger was gushing buckets of blood from the sharp stone. I felt rattled looking west to a patch of dark, forbidding clouds. It started to rain again. Mother Nature went off her meds today. I tried to salvage the day by leaving the rest before I was fully recovered, as I didn’t want the sloper guarding the mantel move to be wet.

I rushed, forgetting to match feet. I was so ruthlessly pumped that I had no blood left in my brain. And … I’m off.

Blood curdling, animal-esque screams erupted from a place within me that I never knew existed. I have the wobbler of all wobblers. It’s so bad that the storm clouds that were approached turned the other way and ran.

Meanwhile, Josh is laughing. It’s so heartbreaking, it’s comical. I pulled on a draw to get back on, but the entire draw and hanger exploded off the wall.

Great, I’m so angry that I actually just pulled a bolt out of the wall!

I should’ve started laughing, but instead I start sobbing. Josh lowers me, gives me a hug, and we head down. I felt dejected and completely empty.

Mastering the Mistress

Blue Jeans had become more than just a project. It had consumed my life. It was my cruel mistress. Hanging on the rope after my latest failed redpoint attempt, staring in despair at the last few moves that guarded the mantel and marked the end of the battle, I had felt a real sense of desperation. I couldn’t just leave that up on the wall, either. I carried it down with me.

I wasn’t sleeping well. I’d wake up in the middle of the night to thoughts of sequences, specific holds, resting positions. My anxiety turned ridiculous as these horrific worst-case scenarios kept playing out: ropes snapping, gear ripping, anchors popping. Come to think of it, though, having ripped a hanger off the wall and having core shot my rope, maybe those anxieties weren’t so far-fetched.

Any day that I went to battle with Blue Jeans was a day that I returned completely and utterly spent, both physically and emotionally.

At this point, those hints of crisp fall weather were appearing all around me. On the one hand, I was encouraged by the emergence of good conditions, but on the other hand, I was nervous that the number of times that I would get to try Blue Jeans before the season ended was quickly dwindling. I’d just spent six months training for Blue Jeans, reaching the level of 5.14, all in preparation to that I could be “stronger than the route.” My job as a nurse would be beginning soon. And as ridiculous as it sounds, I felt as though if I didn’t do it soon, then I might not do it ever.

My rest days were wracked by this tornado of emotions and anxieties. Ironically, this mental turmoil isn’t very restful! To make matters worse, the forecast was less than ideal.

I readied myself for the possibility that I might have to walk away. Giving up isn’t something that comes easy to us climbers, and that prospect of throwing in the towel truly felt like a stab in the heart.

It’s not that big of a deal, I tried telling myself, while at the same time my mind was shouting, Yes it is! Yes it is!

September 19th. Josh texted me to tell me that he was sick with food poisoning and now has to bail. My boyfriend, Tom, noted the despair in my voice when I hung up the phone, bailed on his plans for a pleasant day at the crag to belay and jug for me.

Tom Wright to the rescue with the support and the belay.

I snapped up his offer before he could change his mind.

It was a perfect day. Blue skies, cool breeze, and the first hints of autumn revealing itself on the changing leaves in the white birch forest on the approach trail.

I felt full of nerves and stomach jitters, and babbled nonsense in Tom’s ear on the way up the trail. I switched into autopilot for the first three pitches, and all those nerves and anxieties quieted down to just a whisper in the back of my mind. Pitch 4 felt as easy as it was ever going to feel, and soon those nerves just disappeared.

With Tom jugging and hauling for me, all I had to do at each anchor was keep warm and rest. By mid-day, we arrived at Pitch 5. The sun was still high in the sky. I felt surprisingly fresh, happy, and most of all, calm. Waiting for Tom to jug, I remember sitting in my harness with the sun on my face. All of a sudden, like a breeze passing though, a small, confident thought entered my mind:

I am going to send today.

It wasn’t a conscious thought, nor was it full of the ego that I had been carrying during my past attempts. It wasn’t “I should send today,” or “I should’ve sent this last year.” It was just a simple, unadorned thought that visited me at that hanging belay. And as soon as it entered my mind, it was gone, as was my awareness of it.

Tom arrived. We had a snack, drank some water, and joked around. The wind picked up, and it was getting chilly. I geared up, while Tom gave me a solid pep-talk.

“You can do this, Vikki,” he said softly. “Just try hard and have fun.”

Blue Jeans (5.13b). Photo: Wiktor Skupinski

I felt happy, up high on a mountain with the love of my life, getting ready to try a really hard, really cool pitch.

I started to climb.

Solid and smooth.

First crux down.

Rest.

Corner press.

Rest. Rest. Rest.

I launched into the final crux that had spit me off dozens of times before. With precision, I executed each move exactly as I had rehearsed over and over in my mind during those restless nights.

The last move. Don’t rush. Rock over a high left foot, and reach blind for a jug over a bulge. I stretched. Where is it? A moment of panic was followed by complete euphoria as my hand clasped over that wonderful piece of rock. A whoop exploded from my chest, followed by a whoop from Tom below.

The send.

I scrambled up to the anchor, quickly clipped in secure before allowing myself to bask in the ecstatic realization that I’d just completed the hardest, most daunting, most challenging project of my life. Tom quickly joined me at the belay, and we celebrated, smiles pasted to our faces. Only two more pitches to go: 5.12a and 5.10.

We topped out at 6:05 p.m., and the Yamnuska gods gifted me with a warm sunset that I’ll never forget. The day I sent Blue Jeans remains one of my proudest, but also one of my most humbling. Never have I worked so hard to reach a singular goal. It opened my eyes to what is possible when the ego is left behind, doubt is overcome, and simple passion is left to lead the way.

About the Author

Vikki Weldon (born October 24, 1988) was born into a family of climbers in Calgary. Her sister and brothers are all climbers, as well as her parents. She can also count herself among a contingent of really humble, badass, and well-rounded Canadian climbers. Her former youth career as a comp climber saw her to the podium as a seven-time Canadian Youth National Champion, and as a three-time Canadian Youth Bouldering Champion. In 2013, she became the second Canadian woman (after Ellen Powick) to send a 5.14 with her ascent of Eulogy, at Maple Canyon. Now she spends her time pursuing adventures outdoors on rocks both small and tall, when she’s not working as a pediatric nurse. Follow her adventures on Instagram.

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The Day I Sent Thanatopsis http://eveningsends.com/the-day-i-sent-thanatopsis/ http://eveningsends.com/the-day-i-sent-thanatopsis/#comments Thu, 05 May 2016 19:28:08 +0000 http://eveningsends.com/?p=7698

The moment when everything clicks and I trust my body to take over, the boundary between what I can and cannot do becomes blurred. During fall and spring breaks from Columbia University, I went to the Red River Gorge to work on a route “Thanatopsis.” This climb is located at the “Motherlode,” which, as you probably […]

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The moment when everything clicks and I trust my body to take over, the boundary between what I can and cannot do becomes blurred.

During fall and spring breaks from Columbia University, I went to the Red River Gorge to work on a route “Thanatopsis.” This climb is located at the “Motherlode,” which, as you probably know, contains the highest concentration of steep, hard climbs at the Red.

I have been going to the Red since I was nine years old, and I distinctly remember my first day at this crag. When I first hiked up through the forest path to the area I knew that I had never seen anything quite so steep, nor quite so tall before. There are virtually no easy climbs at the Motherlode—the area is dense, with climbs fit for elite climbers to work on. The climbs on the far right side and far left side of the cliff are less steep than the ones in the dead center of the cave. I tiptoed around the inner perimeter of the cave, acclimating to the steep climbing terrain and genuinely intimidated by how the climbs were almost horizontal.

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Each year I have gone to the Red at some point. Fall is the season when the temperatures are best due to the crisp, forty- to sixty-degree temperatures and moderate rain. Spring is a good season to go as well, but there can be more humidity in the air and splitter days are generally more rare. During the winter months it is usually too cold to climb there unless you have really great circulation, unlike me. And forget about the summer months for sending anything hard unless you’re a good swimmer or don’t sweat.

My first trip to the Red River Gorge was in June. When you’re a 9-year-old climber, as I was then, you usually have no clue what “good conditions” are, and you don’t care. You’re just young and psyched, and back then there were just so many potential lines to try that less-than-perfect temperatures did not bother me in the least.

SashaDiGiulianProfile

Each year I have visited the Motherlode. In a way, it’s where I grew up as a climber. When I hike up to the Motherlode I can relate a distinctive memory to each of the climbs. The lines resemble different periods of my progression. The first time I ever went to the Red was a Memorial Day weekend. I drove there from Virginia with my mom and my dad in a 40-foot RV that my dad had acquired, despite it being the very manifestation of my mom’s worst nightmare.

After dealing with a fiasco involving the RV being stuck in the Nada Tunnel, my parents dropped me off at Miguel’s and I went to the Motherlode with Dario Ventura, Grady Bagwell, and Ana Hayes. That day, onsighting “Tuna Town” was my first little trophy. At the Motherlode I also onsighted my first 5.13. Years later, it is where I also onsighted my first 5.14: Omaha Beach.

These achievements, separated by years, feel like close, interrelated moments. Now, when I hike in to the Motherlode, the cliff doesn’t look as big as it once did, yet I feel a strong sense of nostalgia for those earlier days. With each climb that I’ve done there, I always recall a distinct, positive memory. The struggles that I may have had, the frustration from falling, and the joy of reaching the top. Somehow, each send contains those three elements, yet each time, it’s a totally unique experience.

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Thanatopsis

In the Spring of 2014 I set my sights on Thanatopsis (5.14b), first climbed by Dave Hume in 1996, when I was 4 years old.

This climb had a reputation that frightened me—and I hadn’t even tried it! I had never seen anyone on it, and without any chalk, it just looks like a steep, blank rock face devoid of any perceptible handholds. It seemed as though it would be easier to climb a sheet of glass. Instead of checking out the moves, each trip I chose a different climb to try to complete. Finally in March, I decided that I needed to just put on my climbing gear and try it.

Thanatopsis

Thanatopsis. Photo: Matt Looby

Sasha Thanatopsis 1

Thanatopsis. Photo: Matt Looby

After graduating from high school in 2011 I chose to defer my acceptance to Columbia University and to focus on professional climbing. During the span of fourteen months in between graduation and returning to school I lived and breathed climbing. I traveled to 28 different countries competing in World Cups and climbing outside.  During this phase of my career I felt a significant progression in my ability as a climber. When there is nothing else on your plate but climbing, surprise, surprise, your climbing will almost certainly improve!

This was a motivating experience for me – approaching peaks in my climbing level and having the time and energy to dedicate to what I consider my greatest passion. Though, towards the end of this year I knew that school was pending. I did entertain the idea of continuing to just climb and to defer school longer. Though, academics have always been a significant part of my upbringing. While I recognize that college is certainly not for everyone, my heart was set on continuing my education.

While I have a professional career and was making a living from climbing already before returning to school I have never wanted to be limited.  To me, not building my foundation of knowledge beyond traveling and climbing was limiting myself from a unique opportunity that I had worked hard growing up to achieve: going to an Ivy League University and learning about other facets of the world beyond what I was familiar with.

mountain-climber-sasha-digiulian-in-brooklyn-new-york-in-2013

Now, outdoor climbing trips are limited by a rigorous school schedule. Shifting back into academic gears while maintaining my career as a professional climber was not easy for me. Admittedly, my inability to go on climbing trips whenever I wanted to is something that just about every person except for professional climbers may have to deal with, though, nonetheless the transition was a wake up call for me.

Columbia’s academics are rigorous and time consuming and so climbing trips take the backseat during the school year. Except for during school breaks – that’s when I make up for being locked down in the city during the semester. So for Spring Break 2014, I chose to return to the Red River Gorge.

Sasha Pure Imagination

Though I just had one week at the Red and, it being March, the weather was inconsistent. While I managed to have some days with good weather, I consistently fell on Thanatopsis. I felt like I had found my beta (solution) to the different moves, but I could not piece them together from the bottom to the top without falling. Climbing and failure happen to go together quite seamlessly: I fall way more often than I succeed. This trip, I had to leave without having succeeded.

Now, fast forward to Fall Semester 2014 … Having Thursday through the following Tuesday off from school, I chose to spend this time trying Thanatopsis again. I drove from New York with my mom to Kentucky. Growing up, my mom was always my number-one belayer. She likes to refer to herself as “mombelay.” Truly, without her dedication to belaying me during climbing practice and driving me anywhere that I needed to go, I do not think that I would have become a professional climber.

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While driving to Kentucky, I was a little pessimistic about the weather forecast because a cold front was coming through and there was an 80% rain prediction for Friday and Saturday. According to my weather app, Friday was really cold and raining. However, with my mom being an optimistic trooper, we still hiked up to the Motherlode with our down jackets and hats on, through the mud, and to the cave.

Due to the rock’s steep angle over the ground, the climbs were actually protected from the pouring sky. I warmed up and then went straight on to Thanatopsis to refresh the moves in my mind.

At first, the climbing felt unfamiliar and strenuous on my tendons. The holds were all so much smaller than I remembered and I couldn’t recall on which little pebbles I had placed my feet in order to be in the right body positioning to do each individual move. Thanatopsis is challenging because the “holds” for your finger tips and feet are barely bigger than the protrusion of two credit cards against a flat wall. For some of the harder moves, only with precise body positioning could I stay on the wall. Having to do powerful sections on the climb consecutively wears me down and my precision for the latter moves lessens. As I worked out the sections of the climb, though, I started reconnecting with the movement.

I tried the route again and again afterwards, falling at different points on the wall, and lowering down to the ground to rest and recuperate my muscles and tendons to try again.

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By the end of the day, I was substantially more tired but convincingly more determined. I did some jumping jacks to warm up from the near freezing temperature and put back on my harness, chalk bag, and shoes, tied in to my rope, and, feeling quite secure with a trusty MomBelay, I started the climb.

I feel the connection with the natural elements. I feel the texture of the rock. The rock face is my opponent, yet I am working with it at the same time.  I am just moving. I am just moving through the sequences and visualizing myself succeeding. My mind is free from everything else. My thoughts are in a zone of their own. This zone is full of thought yet simultaneously blank. My motions execute the thoughts that I have. I think about the piece of rock that I am on, I fixate on the feel of it underneath my chalked hands.

Soon, all the struggles I have felt are beneath me. The frustration from falling is in the past. And now, there is only joy at the top of the route.

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The Day I Sent Golden (5.14b) http://eveningsends.com/the-day-i-sent-golden-5-14b/ http://eveningsends.com/the-day-i-sent-golden-5-14b/#comments Tue, 14 Apr 2015 20:26:21 +0000 http://eveningsends.com/?p=5473

Age brings wisdom, insight and mastery. That’s a pleasing fairy tale used to sell Viagra, luxury cars and Dos Equis. Age may bring some benefits, but it also brings weakness, pain, injuries, distractions—a general diminishment of all things associated with athletic performance. All semi-serious amateur climbers wonder why he or she should try hard at […]

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Age brings wisdom, insight and mastery. That’s a pleasing fairy tale used to sell Viagra, luxury cars and Dos Equis.

Age may bring some benefits, but it also brings weakness, pain, injuries, distractions—a general diminishment of all things associated with athletic performance. All semi-serious amateur climbers wonder why he or she should try hard at something so silly—to suffer and sacrifice and take risks when there is no monetary compensation, virtually no notoriety and certainly no guarantee of any real success. But when you reach that so-called certain age, this question becomes even more pressing as the point of it all becomes yet harder to see, even with the now-required reading glasses. For the growing population of child climbers, the word for the day seems to be “PSYCHED!”

For me, at age 54, the words that come to mind are more like “Ouch!” “Damn!” and “Take!”

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Sure, even as one ages there remain many great things to love about climbing. There’s the excitement and wonder of visiting the many awe-inspiring climbing venues around the world. There’s the sharing of fears, successes, and jokes with some of the best people in the world. Those certainly have high value. But they don’t require trying really hard. They don’t require day-long training sessions and a seemingly endless series of attempts that result in failure and frustration. They don’t require pushing to find your absolute limit.

And yet, here I am again, desperately trying to recover at a terrible rest, on a climb that has consumed me for the past two years, at what I am pretty sure qualifies as my absolute limit. As I try to dial back my breathing and heart rate to something below red-lining, I ask myself how this happened. How did I return to this place, a place I know all too well—a place furnished with frustration, disappointment and repeated failure?

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Photo: Chris Bailey Speed

 

About three years ago I told myself I was going to stop doing this sort of thing. By “this sort of thing,” I mean trying to climb something that is too hard for me. And by “too hard for me” I mean something that if I dug deep enough I might be able to do, but only with enormous expenditures of time and effort. I had completed a climb (Reverse Polarity) that had turned into an extended siege lasting over a year. It had beaten me down both physically and mentally. The only real advantage I have in climbing—a tenacity that, in truth, is just the manifestation of an obsessive-compulsive pathology—was largely depleted. Success was sweet but the price was high. I strongly suspected my efforts were really just a delusional attempt to deny the fact I am getting O-L-D.

Okay, I thought, enough of that. Hard climbing comes with an expiration date, and mine had come and gone. I shifted to routes I could climb fairly quickly—mid- and low-range 5.13s and fun boulder problems. It was time to enjoy climbing the way most people do. Success was never really in doubt, and perhaps I was a little bored … but I did not miss the drudgery.

Climbing was fun again. Predictable, but also enjoyable. Mostly.

 

———
 

“You really should check it out, Bill. It’s more your style, much more endurance-oriented.”

“Just get on it and just see what you think. It has to be one of the best 14bs in the country.”

“DUDE, CHECK IT OUT!!!”

I’d been hearing these words over the last few years about Golden For A Moment, an increasingly famous climb at the Cathedral, a large limestone cave just northwest of Mesquite. The climb, it seemed, had hired a marketing firm to promote its wonderfulness. I remember when the route (bolted and prepared by southern Utah hardman Todd Perkins) was a long-standing project that various friends were trying. But now it had become a must-do route for every top climber in the country. Thankfully, having never been a top climber, I had no problem ignoring the marketing campaign.

In the spring of 2013, however, I found myself gaping up at the headwall of Golden, watching a friend, Dan Mirsky, work a harder variation. It really did look incredible.

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“C’mon, man, GET ON IT!!”

What the hell, why not? I told myself that I’ll just come down after a few perfunctory moves. …

Wow! Cool holds …

Feet right where you need them … 

Could see getting into a rhythm through this section … And, holy shit, does rock gets any better than the sculptured limestone pockets on this top crux?

Lowering down from the top, I had to admit the quality impressed me. But at the same time, there were the powerful sequences, the horrendous so-called rest near the top, and an upper crux where I would undoubtedly fall forever. Nope. Not for me. The climbing terrain was beautiful, but it was no country for old men.

Still, certain climbs can act like psychological viruses, infecting your brain with obsessive thoughts despite our best efforts to stay sanitized. As I hiked down from the cliff through a river wash scarred by years of hydraulic violence, my brain started playing with conjectures.

“Well, if I were to try it, what would need to happen?”

Ideas started taking shape—initially in the form of very crude plans that soon became something more like strategies. I could feel the old engines of motivation coming to life; the psychological gears and cogs that make up the drive shaft of my climbing career slowly started turning over, picking up speed. Ducking under a massive cottonwood tree, I grinned into the fading sunlight:

Fuck yeah, this thing might be worth a go.

Broken down, Golden starts with a 5.13a to the best rest in the world, to something like a .13d, to the worst rest in the world, to a V8 crux, to an easier boulder problem to the anchors. To succeed on the route, I knew that three things would need to happen:

1) I would need to get to the upper (bad) rest relatively fresh

2) I would need that rest to feel like an actual rest, not an enhanced interrogation technique, and

3) I would need to wire (as much as possible) the crux boulder problem. All of this would take a lot of work, and I contrived a scheme that involved spending the next fall learning the climb, the winter bouldering to get my power up while also working simulations of the crux, then trying to climb it for real in the spring. I would need to concentrate my training on power endurance, flexibility, and recovering from horrible rests. I hoped that by April I would be prepared to, as they say here in Vegas, “go all in.”

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Photo: Chris Bailey Speed

 

All of this became reality. I worked out a lot of beta, had a good winter bouldering, and then, in February of 2014, went up to see how things felt. The good news: things now seemed significantly easier than they had in the fall. The bad news: easier was still a long, long way from doable. Back to the training drawing board.

 

———
 

Every beer must be earnedAh, training. People have asked me how I’ve avoided injury while climbing as long as I have, and when I tell them what I do, they look deeply disappointed, like they just found out I use MySpace. Their disappointment is driven by just how misguided my approach is widely known to be, both in terms of quality and quantity. As for quality, much of what I do (like weighted fingertip pull-ups, and using grip devices) is often characterized as a silly waste of time by the experts. And the total amount of stuff I do in a given session is equally derided as excessive and counter-productive. Insofar as the current meme is “train smart, not more,” my training must be remarkably stupid.

Having been around for the rollouts of most major training innovations, including fingerboards, climbing gyms, campusing, system training, interval training, periodization, 4 x 4s, and so on, I have become something of a hoarder of routines. If something sounds worthy, I simply add it as part of the regimen. Some days I go big, and the overall training (including warm up and rests between sessions) can last as long as 14 hours. Is this wrong-headed? Perhaps, but I would recommend taking everything currently “known” with a grain of salt.

As someone who has witnessed many cycles of “we now know X is essential” being replaced 10 years later with “we now know X is a bad idea,” I can assure you that we still have a lot to learn. I also recommend occasionally thinking outside the remarkably trend-driven training box.

In the last century, my training contemporaries were people like Yaniro, Leavitt, Hill, Gullich, Bachar, Watts, and Speed. Before there were climbing gyms and coaches and training manuals, these people were very good at discerning why they were failing on their projects and then contriving a device or system that targeted those weaknesses.

Tony Yaniro, the original training guru

Tony Yaniro, the original training guru

As a teenager, I nailed wooden blocks to the rafters in my home to develop my own regimen. Ever since, that is what I do; that is how I train. I do understand why so many climbers are now turning to professional coaches and trainers for advice, and I’m confident that if I did the same it would help me improve.

But I am also confident that if I started relying on others, it would make me miserable, not simply because I hate to be told what to do—though I do—but primarily because it would rob me of a dimension of climbing and training that I find tremendously gratifying. Coaching is not so different from teaching, and my passion for the latter in philosophy is matched by my passion for the former in climbing—even if the only person I’m coaching is myself.

Going through the process of discerning exactly what physiological, psychological, and skill transformations need to occur for success on a particular climb, and then contriving and implementing a strategy that will create those transformations—that process for me has always been one of the most fulfilling aspects of sport.

A younger Ramsey, system board training in his old home

A younger Ramsey, system board training in his old home

Or so I thought. Doubts come easily when failure looms large. The spring of 2014 came and passed. Fellow climbers sent Golden in good style. And despite getting very close, as the thermometer at the crag started reading 80 degrees, I started to regress. As hard as it was to admit, my program had gotten me close, but not close enough. Beaten down, I fell into a dour mood as I walked down the canyon for the last time in late May. Everything I believed about training and strategy was moved to the mental category labeled “Uncertain.” And that wasn’t the worst of it. Another part of my brain—the harsh and nasty and unforgiving part—was telling me that “Uncertain” was being charitable.

10492424_10151864565709364_5010412619376447946_nThe gloom lasted until June, when I arrived in Rifle for the summer season. New editions of the Rifle guidebook are notorious for dropping letters on grades, reducing your proud 5.13c send to a mere 5.13b with a couple of key strokes. But for me, the letter that got dropped in Rifle last summer was the “k” in “funk.” Rifle in the summertime is all about hanging with good friends, cook-outs, drinking beer, sharing stories and climbing routes of all different grades and styles. It was rejuvenating to reconnect with the culture of climbing at a major area. It was also good to enjoy a series of successes on routes that weren’t especially hard but were nevertheless interesting and challenging.

Yet I kept thinking about Golden. How to train for it, how to modify my beta, what my approach in the fall should be. It was always there in the back of my mind.

———
 

Returning to Nevada in the fall, some of us from Vegas decided to get an apartment in Mesquite to make projecting in the area a little easier. The “Villa” was sparsely equipped, but included a hangboard and rowing machine for warming up. My roommates—Mike Doyle, Rob Jensen, and Lisa Davidson—all had long-standing projects at the VRG and as autumn progressed, all of them were going through their own trials and let-downs and frustrations.

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Photo by Chris Bailey Speed

 

Up at Cathedral, I also climbed with Anne Struble, who was trying to become the first woman to climb Golden. Doing a climb at your limit is certainly a physical trial, but the real suffering is between your ears. It is all too easy to deceive yourself into thinking you are much closer than you are, setting yourself up for disappointment and frustration. While I tried to make my own incremental progress on Golden, I watched my cohorts repeatedly fall, shake it off, and get right back up. These folks, and various others I climbed with, were doing something that I deeply admired and respected. Like me, they had committed themselves to an endeavor they knew would really test them, and that might prove to be a tremendous waste of time and energy. And yet they kept picking themselves up off that mat, dusting themselves off, and getting ready for the next round. This tiny community and their relentless tenacity with their projects, even while juggling stressful work schedules, became my main source of inspiration, optimism, and invigoration.

DSCF8991Regrouping at the Villa after a hard day, between jokes and beers, we would share what went right, what went wrong, and mostly what needed to be fixed. I felt honored to be striving among them. It might seem odd to be grateful for membership in a club whose members are failing most of the time. But it was through the process of failing their way to success that the members distinguished themselves as strong and really great individuals. When we heard news of the success of Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgenson on the Dawn Wall, a project that had taken them seven years to complete, we all felt energized. When people eventually succeed after trying something for an extended period of time, something that involves repeated disappointments, then, no matter how objectively hard it is, they have accomplished something beyond an athletic achievement. They have made a statement about what they are made of—about a type of strength that has nothing to do with forearms. Watching my friends achieve that success on their own projects was encouraging and motivating. Of course, at the same time, it threw into sharp relief my own continued lack of success.

 

———
 

 

To any young crusher who is all about sending things fast, this homage to projecting might seem like a feeble attempt to put a positive spin on floundering. Fair enough. Because there is also a lot to celebrate in the raw strength and eagerness that many of the top young climbers exhibit. To them, projecting means trying something twice, maybe three times. Although I am often exasperated by their naïvete, I also admire their cockiness, their aggressive energy and impatience that drives everything forward.

Ramsey hanging around J-Tree, circa 1980.

Ramsey hanging around J-Tree, circa 1980.

In fact, I can remember that sort of cockiness on a sunny day in the fall of 1979. I was an overconfident teenager who thought he needed to check out the new grade of 5.12. I had seen a picture on the cover of Mountain magazine—Ray Jardine on Separate Reality—and the climb looked incredible. Getting on it was foolish, given my lack of experience, but my chutzpah trumped what little sensibility I had. I tried the route once, did not succeed, but saw that it was conceivable. As I lowered off, another rappel line appeared and rockstar Tony Yaniro poked his head under the ceiling, soon to be joined by Colorado hotshot Jim Collins. My cockiness morphed into self-consciousness, anxiety, embarrassment. I promised them that after a brief rest, I would go up and clean it when I fell so they could properly have the route to themselves.

All extended athletic careers are punctuated by moments that Kant, and later Gumbrecht, characterized as instances of the “sublime.” They are the rarest of times when luck, skill, and some degree of gumption combine to create what is best described as a fleeting but undeniable moment of grace. Some professional athletes can conjure several of these in their career, and that’s why they are superstars. But even for us rank amateurs, there are the rare instances when it all clicks and body and mind enter a state of communion that transcends our normal mediocrity.

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As I moved across the roof of Separate Reality that day, I experienced such a moment. The jams felt solid, my arms felt strong, and everything that is great about being a 19-year-old kid in love with life and adventure and the thrill of going for it culminated in one of those rare moments. I pulled over the lip and sat there breathing hard, not really believing what had just happened. Bill Price walked over, reached out a hand and congratulated me.

Looking back, memories like those still make me smile.

Of course, memories, great as they are, are representations of the past. They are not representations of the present, and they are certainly not representations of the future. Still, memories can motivate.

Thinking about that kid made me feel a little less tired at the horrendous excuse for a rest on Golden. It made me relax and recognize that whatever happened, even on my umpteenth attempt, I have been incredibly lucky to have spent my life in a sport with, quite frankly, some of the very best people, at some of the very best venues, having many of the very, very best times. Yeah, it’s all good. I shooed away the doubts and distractions and insecurities of age and focused on the task at hand.

Right hand into gaston, now press up on bad left foot and flag. Left hand grabs the wide pinch. Bam. As I executed the all-too-familiar routine, the half-century-old neurophysiological shell I inhabit reached some sort of agreement with the 260-million-year-old remains of micro-plankton. Everything clicked. Although my right foot popped off a key foothold, that same cocky kid somehow reappeared and a feeling of self-assured disregard took over. Screw it, I don’t need the foot, I’ll just power through to the rest hold that has eluded me for two years. And so I did.

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Predictably, my conjured youthful confidence was short-lived. The rest holds that normally seemed big and positive now felt slopey and greasy. My core was drained and my leg started trembling as a sense of panic swelled up. I realized I probably didn’t have the strength for the final boulder problem to the anchors. Shit.

And then, while desperately trying to recover, 40 years of climbing experience kicked in and the inner monologue shifted to my not-so-alter ego, the coach. His commentary was well-practiced and no-nonsense: You’re not a goddamn rookie and you have been here before. Just calm the fuck down, pull your shit together, and do what you know how to do.

As I launched into the final sequence, it became easier to grasp why I love climbing, why I love pushing myself, and why I am still trying hard, even at this old age. Despite the often extended series of failures and frustrations, it is a process that also includes a distinctly high quality of happiness and kinship with people I love. As Aristotle insisted long ago, striving is an essential element of what the Greeks called “eudemonia”—a life lived well. I am indeed in denial about my age. But as I clipped the chains on Golden, I couldn’t think of a better sort of denial.

 

About the Author

10989101_10206740144886411_4607392805871937911_nBill Ramsey is a second generation climber who started climbing at Smith Rock in 1976 under the mentorship of his dad and alongside his group of high school friends, which included the legendary Alan Watts. Ramsey can be counted among the early sport-climbing pioneers in America. In 1979, he teamed up with Chris Jones and nabbed the first free ascent of the Monkey Face of Smith Rock, which was significant in that it became a sort of preface for the sport-climbing revolution that would descend upon Smith in the 1980s. During the latter half of that decade, however, Ramsey took a step back from climbing to focus on academia. He returned to climbing in the 1990s and was instrumental in developing the Madness Cave at the Red River Gorge, with such contributions as Omaha Beach and Transworld Depravity.

Today Bill works as a philosophy professor at the University of Las Vegas. Before that he taught at the Catholic school of Notre Dame, where one of his favorite traditions became telling the incoming freshman class that there is no such thing as god.

Bill is a notorious training fiend who has been known to hit the climbing gym both before and after a full day of cragging outdoors, often ending his long days back in his home garage by doing pull-ups with over 70 pounds of additional weight and enjoying a tall (and I mean very tall) glass of vodka. His genuine enthusiasm and support for his fellow climbers is without compare, as is his self-depracating humor and wit. There are hundreds of climbers out there who count themselves extremely lucky to continue to share both riveting philosophical conversations, and rock solid belays, with Bill Ramsey.

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The Day I Sent the Salathe Wall in a Day http://eveningsends.com/the-day-i-sent-the-salathe-wall-in-a-day/ http://eveningsends.com/the-day-i-sent-the-salathe-wall-in-a-day/#comments Wed, 30 Apr 2014 17:29:43 +0000 http://eveningsends.com/?p=3303

The table saw snatched the piece of wood I was cutting and chucked it like a spear into the hillside behind my house. I turned off the saw before noticing the strange numb tingle. I looked down. My finger, severed at the first joint, was now lying, quite surreally, on the ground. Over the next […]

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The table saw snatched the piece of wood I was cutting and chucked it like a spear into the hillside behind my house. I turned off the saw before noticing the strange numb tingle. I looked down. My finger, severed at the first joint, was now lying, quite surreally, on the ground.

Over the next few hours, I lost about a third of my body’s blood. Soon I found myself confined to a bed in a sterile, white hospital room where I would spend the next two weeks in a drug-induced haze.  Stitches and metal pins protruded menacingly from my grotesque, black knuckle, which had swollen to the size of a golf ball. The doctors had re-attached the finger … sort of.

Three surgeries, two blood transfusions. The doctor removed the fingernail and periodically attached leaches. I drifted in and out, numb on the outside. Deep down, I was freaking out.

Climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson attempt one of the hardest routes in the world on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

Tommy Caldwell at home on El Cap. All photos by Corey Rich

Everything in my life was just coming together when this random accident happened. I had dropped out of college to follow my passion for rock climbing. I was certain that this was who I wanted to be, and what I wanted to do. I spent the next three years living out of my car, living a life of travel and freedom. On a whim I could pack everything I owned into a few duffle bags, hit the road or board a plane, and be off on some new vertical adventure. I was just beginning to scrap together a meager existence as a professional climber, too. I’d even won a bit of prize money in national competitions. All together, it was just enough to make a down payment on a run-down 600-square-foot cabin in Estes Park. Beyond all expectations, I was beginning believe that this pro climber life might actually be sustainable.

Tommy Caldwell tapes his fingers in preperation for a climb in Rocky Mountain National Park.But in the blink of an eye, it had all been snatched away from me.

A pale, sad-looking doctor came into my hospital room. He was a hand surgeon; he was also a climber who had been keeping tabs on my progress.

“Tommy, things aren’t look good,” he said. “You’re going to lose your finger. You better start thinking about what else you want to do with your life.”

“OK,” I said numbly. It was all I could think to say. He quietly exited the room and I was now alone. I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. I yelled. I cried. Tears ran down my cheeks. I had big goals. Flashes of open roads and Western landscapes played through my head. I saw the polished, gleaming granite of Yosemite. I recalled the smell of Fontainebleau’s dank, pungent forest. Would these once inspiring memories now only provide me with grief and pain?

In my life at that point, I’d climbed some scary pitches in the mountains. But this fear that I was now experiencing was nothing like that. I was about to lose not just what I loved, but what had defined and sustained me since I first started climbing at 3 years old. My whole life. I’d scarified everything for climbing, all for what?

At that moment, I’d never been more afraid.

 

For me El Cap represents the ultimate in climbing. Incomprehensibly tall. As steep as it is blank. Ask any average visitor to Yosemite, wandering around El Cap meadow, what they think about climbing that big 3,000-foot-tall, mile-wide mountain of granite sitting in front of them, and that person will tell you that it’s the most ludicrous thing they’ve ever heard. And you know what? I get that. I’ve climbed El Cap more than 50 times, and even today when I look up at it and become entranced by its steepness and size, there is some rational part of me that still believes climbing El Cap should be totally impossible.

Climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson attempt one of the hardest routes in the world on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

But that’s one of the things I love most about climbing. It has a way of bringing the seemingly impossible into the realm of possibility, therefore making me believe that anything is possible.

In 2001, the Salathé Wall was the easiest free climb on El Cap as well as one of the best big-wall routes in the world. I had first tried to free climb the Salathé when I was just 17 years old. I spent four days hauling heavy bags, climbing with giant racks of gear and getting charred to ash by the sun.

When I topped out unsuccessfully, I felt like I had just gone 15 rounds with Mike Tyson. But that initial ass-whooping gave me glimpse into myself. There were sublime moments such as stepping off a portaledge with 2,500 feet in the air beneath me and sinking my fingers into the most exposed, perfect pitch of crack climbing on the planet. There were moments excitement battling the unknown, such as when we climbed the last few pitches in a rainstorm. After it was over, I felt a deep ache and tiredness in my bones, but I had forced myself to summon more energy. Being in the presence of something so grand and mighty scared the hell out of me. But it also fascinated me. This was my white whale. I knew I was obsessed, yet back as a teenager, I had no idea how deep that obsession would run or how greatly it would steer the direction of my life over the next 20 years. All I knew back then was, somewhere deep inside me were vast amounts of hidden energy. And the only way to access that energy was through climbing the biggest, hardest, most impossible looking thing I could.

At 18, I returned with more experience, a better plan and cooler conditions and managed to free climb the Salathé over three days. I kept going: Lurking Fear. Muir Wall. Suddenly, El Cap didn’t feel quite so impossible.

But therein lied a problem. I was achieving success through improving efficiency, not through pushing my own preconceived limitations. I was curious to explore that edge of human capability. I knew I could do more. The next step in progression was obvious. I wanted to see if I could free climb El Cap in a day.

To do that, I would need to learn how to become a speed climber first. In the fall of 2001, I asked Hans Florine if he would teach me his secrets. He agreed. We ran up the Nose in 4 hours and 22 minutes. When we got to the top, Hans asked if I wanted to now throw a quick lap on Half Dome, too. I declined, not believing that I had it in me. I was still wrapping my head around the idea that El Cap might be just a crag, not a monster whale. The whole experience blew my mind.

Hans offered to belay me on my first attempt at free climbing the Salathé in a day. We started at dawn. I would lead every pitch and Hans would Jumar behind. I climbed as fast as I knew how. The pitches flew by. We reached the Headwall, 28 pitches up, in just 9 hours. By now, the sun was blasting this iconic shield of granite. I sorted gear, racked up, and started climbing the 5.13b endurance pitch. As I climbed, my forearms swelled and my head starting pounding from dehydration. I had a hard time focusing. Just five feet from the end, I pumped out and fell. I lowered down and joined Hans back at the belay. I pulled the rope.

man rock climbs a crack on the headwall of The Salathe Wall on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, California.

“Oh, you were so close!” Hans said, trying to be as encouraging as possible. “You can do this next try!”

His words struck dumb ears. I felt brain dead. Nevertheless, I tied back in, racked back up, and started climbing. This time I fell at a boulder problem just 30 feet up. I lowered back down.

“Alright, body,” I said to myself. “Here it is. Time for some of that reserve energy to kick in.” I tried two more times. My forearms gave out completely. I could barely operate a Camalot much less free climb the crux pitch on the Salathé. I threw in the towel. Hans took over the lead, and we French-freed our way to the top. I would be lying if I didn’t say that I was very disappointed.

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They say you learn more from failure than success, and any climber who has ever tried his or her best in this sport will know that that’s so true. That day with Hans I learned that, more than speed, free climbing El Cap in a day is about conserving energy. I’d been so focused on climbing fast that I hadn’t focused enough on climbing efficiently or well. Not to mention all the little important logistics, like bringing enough water and timing your day so that you’re not trying the hardest pitches in the blazing hot afternoon sun. In my head, I had figured that sheer will power and a big old dose of try-hard at the right moment would be all I’d need to get to the top successfully. But the reality was much more complex. I left Yosemite that season feeling defeated, but I also knew what I would do differently the next time.

Before I even got another shot at the Salathé, I cut off my finger in November.

Lying in that hospital bed, those fateful words spoken by my doctor echoed in my head. “You better start thinking about what else you want to do with your life.” The tears stopped and soon conviction overcame me. I got pissed. How could that doctor have so little faith in me? I was strong. I loved life. I loved living. I decided I wasn’t ever going to give up without a fight.

Climber's bloody and beat up/taped hands missing one finger.

Two days later, I was released from the hospital. My left pointer finger had been diminished to a short, throbbing stump. The skin was overlapping the bony nub and folded together like the edges of a calzone. Looking at it made me utterly nauseous.

I figured that I probably couldn’t do any more damage to it. Right? I wrapped it up in tape and went straight to the climbing gym.

The physical therapist gave me a set of nerve-retraining and desensitizing exercises and told me to do them for one hour each day. I did three. My dad built me a finger-strengthening machine and I used it tirelessly. I went on runs in the snow figuring increased blood flow would help things heal faster. My strength returned. My energy soared. I felt like Rocky Balboa training in my parent’s dingy garage while the Estes Park winter winds raged outside. I made schedules, charted my training and put everything else in my life aside. Rest when you’re dead was my motto.

Three weeks after amputation, I entered a local bouldering comp. My hand was still pretty weak and I still didn’t know how to climb without my first digit. I grabbed all the holds as if that finger were still there. But I climbed with passion and surprised myself by placing third.

In early spring, I decided I would repeat some of the old sport climbs I had developed to measure my progress. Just five weeks after the amputation I re-climbed Grand Old Opry, a crimpy 5.14b at the Monestary.

Five weeks after amputation, TC returned to repeat Grand Ol' Opry (5.14b), a route he established prior to cutting off his finger. All photos: Corey Rich

Five weeks after amputation, TC returned to repeat Grand Ol’ Opry (5.14b), a route he established prior to cutting off his finger. All photos: Corey Rich

I was gaining confidence that I could climb at my old level before the accident. But that wasn’t good enough. I didn’t want to just return to my old level. I wanted to surpass it. I wanted to improve. I wanted what all climbers—and perhaps all of us in general—want out of life: a sense that we are making progress in the thing we love to do. And there was only way to prove to myself that I had beaten this injury. I would return to Yosemite and free climb the Salathé Wall in a day.

man rock climbing Grand Ol' Opry 5.14b at the Monastery near Estes Park, Colorado.

 

Six months after amputation, in the spring of 2002, I found myself standing beneath the big white whale, ready for another shot. I wasn’t there to put my name in history books, or get a mention in the magazines, or stick it to the doctor who had told me I would never climb again. This was all about proving to myself that losing a finger would not stop me from becoming the climber I wanted to be.

man rock climbs a crack on the headwall of The Salathe Wall on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, California.

The day I sent the Salathé Wall in a day, we started climbing at 1 a.m. as opposed to dawn, which would get me to the crux Headwall before the afternoon heat set in. Also unlike last fall, I climbed each pitch more slowly. I focused on climbing as relaxed as possible. As we started up the wall, my focus was narrowed to the small ambient circle of light created by my headlamp. My entire world was concentrated with thoughts of making just one move at a time. Never mind the 3,000 feet above me. My breathing was in sync with my pace, too. The first 18 pitches seemed to float by without any distinction, the way trees might pass a trail runner on his morning jog. Now already 1,500 feet up El Cap, I felt like I was just warming up.

The sun was rising when I reached the infamous Monster off-width. I grunted up this pitch, because it’s impossible for anyone to climb this pitch gracefully. But after that, I returned to relaxed, methodical climbing.

Pitch 24, aka “The Sewer,” was dripping wet and covered in green slime after an especially wet winter. I shoved my body into the crack and wiggled my way through the sludge. When I reached the anchor, my clothes were soaked and stained bright green. A couple pitches higher, I reached the ledge called Sous Le Toit, the last place to catch your breath before the Salathé Headwall juts out and shows its teeth. The mid-morning sun was now here, and I rested and dried out in its warming comfort. I took a nap for a couple hours, trying not to get anxious about what was lurking above.

El Cap’s architecture is immaculate in this section, with golden cracks and soaring dihedrals that form aesthetic vertical lead-lines that draw your eyes and heart upward to the summit. The crux Headwall overhangs and sits atop a 30-foot roof. With a position of 2,500 off the ground, the Salathé Headwall is a contender for the most exposed position in the world of climbing. A rounded, flawless crack bisects the pretty orange and white Headwall, becoming progressively thinner the higher it goes.

The experience of climbing this pitch is quite exciting. The climbing begins easily enough, but gets harder and more exposed the higher you go. It gets steeper. More strenuous. More exposed to the whipping wind, and more prone to the forces of gravity. With each move, you feel as if you’re becoming less and less attached to the wall, until you’re just barely holding on. Yet, you’re still fighting to climb. The pitch crescendoes with a few bouldery moves that climax with a dynamic lunge to a perfect pinch. Then, it’s over. Victory is in the bag.

I awoke from my nap to a cool breeze. The Headwall loomed 100 feet above me. I could see a sling flapping in the wind. I was excited. I felt rested and well hydrated. The conditions were perfect. This was my chance.

I reminded myself that I still needed to actually climb the crux before I could get too excited. I knew I could do it, but I still needed to prove it to myself. Knowing is not the same as doing. I suppressed my emotion, knowing that I needed to relax and climb cooly and only let the passion and desire at the very end, when I was desperate and needed to dig deep for that extra bit of energy.

I climbed patiently up the endurance corner and out the Headwall roof to the belay. Here, the wind was cranking. Loops of rope blew over my head and became tangled in knots. I re-stacked the rope in short coils, and tried to calm my nerves. I racked my gear in the order I would need it on my harness. I rehearsed the moves in my head. I started climbing.

Beth Rodden belaying Tommy Caldwell Yosemite National Park.

I took long, deep breaths and thought about being precise. My focus was so intense that I didn’t even notice the exposure or the whipping wind. The only thing that mattered was making that next move—one at a time. I wiggled my fingers deep in the crack, but tried to stay relaxed. Fifteen feet from the end of the pitch, I rested on two flaring hand jams. At this point last fall, I had reached this spot on my best go but was unable to recover. This time I felt fresh.

Above me the crack pinched down to thin, flaring fingers. I took all the remaining gear on my harness and clipped it to a cam to drop weight. I thought about my previous year, my time in the hospital. I had been so weak but my strength had returned. Now here I was, 15 feet from reaching a goal I had once thought impossible. A goal that I had worked so hard for. A goal that I wanted more than anything else.

We try so hard to avoid fear in our lives. Whether that’s taking the easy way out or just giving up when someone tells you that what you want to do is impossible. But for me, it was the fear of losing what I loved that lit the fire inside me. Maybe a little fear is what we all need.

Shaking out in those hand jams, I allowed all the emotion that I’d been suppressing over the past 28 pitches to come flooding back in. To hell with climbing slowly and steadily. These next 15 feet were all that mattered. I needed raw power to get through. I needed to want it.

I exploded into the finger-locks. I placed no gear and sprinted through the boulder problem, sticking the pinch with a huge scream.

I did it. I couldn’t believe it. As is so often the case, when it all came together, it felt almost easy.

 

About the Author

1008607Tommy Caldwell needs no introduction. This 35 year-old has been climbing for 33 years, and he is one of the all-time greatest rock climbers and first ascentionists in the sport’s history. More than any place else, Caldwell has indelibly left his signature on El Cap, having authored such 5.14 first free ascents Magic Mushroom, Muir Wall and Dihedral Wall, not to mention repeating nearly all of El Cap’s free climbs. Caldwell cites his “love of suffering” as his greatest asset, yet he consistently performs at a world-class level in every discipline: sport, bouldering, alpine, trad. He recently enchained the entire Fitz Roy skyline in a single push with Alex Honnold, and he continues to work on his all-time mega project on El Cap: a free Dawn Wall, which, when completed, will be the hardest big-wall free route in the world by a long shot.

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The Day I Sent Freerider in a Day http://eveningsends.com/the-day-i-sent-freerider-in-a-day/ http://eveningsends.com/the-day-i-sent-freerider-in-a-day/#comments Tue, 07 Jul 2015 13:31:22 +0000 http://eveningsends.com/?p=5902

At 1 a.m., I scrubbed three inches of ketchup slime from the inside of a trash can in Yosemite Village. I’d told my boss that I received a degree from UCSC. “Well,” he said. “You can be in charge of everything that’s not important.” It was June 2014. I was 32 years old and inside […]

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At 1 a.m., I scrubbed three inches of ketchup slime from the inside of a trash can in Yosemite Village. I’d told my boss that I received a degree from UCSC.

“Well,” he said. “You can be in charge of everything that’s not important.”

It was June 2014. I was 32 years old and inside of a trash can. Over the past 13 years, I’d given everything to climbing. I’d climbed Moonlight Buttress (5.12d) in Zion, the Westie Face (5.13a) on Leaning Tower, Quantum Man (5.13a) on Washington’s Column and Final Frontier (5.13b) on Fifi Buttress.

This is a route called "Border Country" on Middle Cathedral.  On this day in 2009 I met my wife, Katie Lambert.  Unfortunately, the best shot I got that day was of James Lucas, high on the route.

Border Country, Middle Cathedral. Photo: Ben Ditto

I had also fallen 100 feet while free-soloing North Overhang (5.9) in Joshua Tree. Miraculously, I survived—barely. I wondered if my possible immortality might impress my boss more than my college degree.

On a trip to in Indian Creek, a friend made a video of me, titled, “The Last Dirtbag.” Currently, I was climbing harder than I ever. Not hard enough to be sponsored, though. I still lived in my Saturn station wagon, traveling the U.S. and climbing.

Then my station wagon died. While driving into the Valley, my car sputtered to a complete halt. I had no money, no car and no home.

I needed to be something more. I picked an audacious goal for myself. I would free climb El Capitan in a day.

El Cap

I continued to live the true dirtbag lifestyle, which lacks the glory that Instagram makes it seem, with the goal of becoming strong enough to send the Freerider in a day. I tried the route four times from the ground and put in countless days working on it from the top down.

After my car shit the bed, I slept with the mice in a friend’s garage in Yosemite Village. I went for broke on El Cap, trying the Freerider again. I could barely afford the food I needed for an attempt. I failed anyway, one hanging the Boulder Problem pitch, a 5.13a that had never been onsighted.

Girls weren’t a part of the picture. The only thing that fucked me all spring was El Cap.

When I wasn’t dicking around on the big walls, I worked the graveyard shift. Sitting in trash cans, scrubbing ketchup slime.

This was the glamorous life of the so-called Last Dirtbag. In reality, I was a college graduate cleaning garbage, a man who let his dreams replace reality. A fallen soloist.

At least I wasn’t in a hospital bed.

Killer Pillar, Yosemite. Photo: Ben Ditto

 

———
 

December 28th, 2004. Desert Springs Memorial Hospital.

His sequin jumpsuit reflected the flickering casino lights. The ice skates cut smooth lines in the ice, sounding like helicopter blades. With beauty and grace, he delivered my dinner of crackers.

It took two weeks after the fall before I realized the ice skater wasn’t real. I woke from my coma dreams to a numbing morphine drip, prone in the ICU at Desert Springs Memorial Hospital near Joshua Tree. I wanted to return to the coma. My dreams were better than the reality of the pain and failure.

-1-1

The doctors spoke stoically when they discussed the eight hours of operations thus far—the damage to my occipital lobe, the spinal fusion, the compound fracture of my ulna. I couldn’t quite understand what they had done.

As Arthur C. Clarke wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

I was Frankenstein’s monster, confused, angry, and sewn back together wrong. I tore the IV out of my arms. I wanted to pull on my jeans and crawl to El Cap.

My identical twin, Matt, held me down while a nurse sedated me.

———
 

In 2001, the year after I finished high school, I was 19, riding a bus into Yosemite Valley. I left my rural upbringing in upstate New York and Vermont to travel to California.

“Yosemite is the mecca,” John Long wrote in How To Rock Climb. I believed Long’s fairy-tale stories of Yosemite rock jocks and wall rats having amazing adventures as renegade outlaws, duping rangers while landing gigs as Hollywood stunt doubles, finding plane loads of marijuana and making personal fortunes.

_MG_4693I filled one duffel bag with clothes and filled another bag with webbing. I had big plans to tear up the Valley, despite the fact that the extent of my climbing skills amounted to being able to rig a proper top-rope. No matter. I was going to set up top ropes on the big rocks.

I saw the Rostrum and thought I might have enough webbing. The bus passed Middle Cathedral and I thought I might need more webbing. I looked up at El Capitan and started cleaning rooms in the Yosemite Lodge two days later, to save money for all that webbing.

Within a year of shaking up my first trad lead, After Six, a 5.6 on Manure Pile, I climbed the Zodiac on the right side of El Capitan in 21.5 hours. Putting in all that time in Yosemite taught me how to climb to the top of anything. Free climbing would be a bigger challenge, though.

I spent a summer in Tuolumne. I met friends in Joshua Tree; we traveled to Indian Creek, Vegas, Squamish.

index-6

By 2004, I still hadn’t found a random cargo of drugs to make me rich, Hollywood hadn’t called, and I hadn’t gone big. I started school in Santa Cruz, to have a fall back in case the plane of marijuana never crashed nearby. I ran 15 miles a week, bouldered at Castle Rock two days a week and climbed on the weekends in the Valley on the weekends. I was fit and focused.

 

———
 

I spent my first quarter at UCSC living in a tent in the woods behind campus. I wanted to save money and to focus on climbing.

For winter break, I traveled to Joshua Tree to climb somewhere warm. I ran through the campground soloing the easier routes. I pretended to be a Stonemaster, one of the Hendrix-era rock jocks who transformed rock climbing in Yosemite and Southern California.

IMG_5795

I moved fluidly up North Overhang (5.9) on Intersection Rock, climbing through a hand crack to a four-foot roof, the crux. I reached out cautiously, felt the jams, sunk my hand around the roof’s lip, and pulled over. I neared the summit. I felt secure knowing I’d sent the crux, 100 feet of space swimming below me.

Soloing North Overhang.

Soloing North Overhang.

I repositioned my feet, moving them underneath my body—a slight miscalculation. I started to barn door, my balance suddenly gone.

I didn’t want to scream. I had too much pride. Death, however, was imminent, and there would never be a more appropriate time to cry for help. So I yelled.

Seventy feet of air rushed by. A second later, I hit a ledge. I was ecstatic and felt invincible. I started to sit up and promptly rolled off, striking the ground 30 feet below.

Trying to walk it off, I stumbled to my feet. But then a seizure jolted through me and I convulsed, crumpling to the ground. Nearby climbers ran to help. The crater I’d made began to fill with blood.

My insecurities crushed me. I heard the faint thud of helicopter blades as I blacked out.

———
 

January 9, 2005. Desert Springs Memorial Hospital. 

Reporting from the hospital, John Long sent out this update to my friends:

In short, James is expected to fully recover but with some disabilities, the extent of which cannot be determined till he starts serious rehab once his spine heals enough for him so start the grueling exercises. 

His concussion has passed and his mind seems clear. But given the various meds and the fact that he had the living daylights knocked out of him, his affect is quiet. 

Compounding this are breathing problems (he cannot yet fully inflate his lungs), so he can’t get enough wind to talk with gusto. 

He’s got some mobility in his powdered left elbow, which seems to be healing nicely. 

His ankle was pretty worked, and he’ll being hiking a long trail to get good mobility back in both elbow and ankle. 

He broke several vertebra (C3 and C4, and others down lower I believe) and those have been stabilized with titanium rods–his main source of pain. 

His spine was bruised so sensation is only slowly returning to his feet, a condition that could come into play once he relearns how to walk.

 

———
 

Six months later, my orthopedic surgeon removed pins from my arm.

“Perhaps you should take up a safer sport, like bowling or cycling,” he said.

I ignored the nerve damage—the loss of movement in my foot, the stunted left arm—and the trepidation. I obsessed over climbing and convinced myself I’d been rebuilt harder, better, faster, stronger.

“You’ve been given a second chance at life,” my speech therapist told me. “What are you going to do with it?”

I decided that the fall would not be a learning point, merely a speed bump. I hated the idea that I was given a second chance, the implication that I fucked up the first time.

217188_874705700668_3401476_n

A year after my accident, I returned to my tent in the woods behind UC Santa Cruz, putting my rent money from student loans toward climbing trips. I spent more time at the crag than in the classroom. During breaks, I went to Smith Rock, Indian Creek, Zion, Squamish Tuolumne, Red Rock, and Hueco Tanks. I stacked my classes two consecutive days a week, enduring marathon days of economics and accounting principles that then left me four uninterrupted days in the Valley.

_MG_5284 copyyyIn June, I packed my tent into my Saturn station wagon, my new home. I graduated with a degree in Economics and Business management. I had wanted to write, but failed at getting into the creative-writing program. But I had a car, a place to live and a way to travel to the crags.

I skipped graduation and headed to Joshua Tree, for redemption. I would free solo North Overhang again.

I was a better climber than when I fell. I had the physical ability, but wondered about the emotional control.

I finished chalking my hands, inhaled once, and then swung out above the void. At the crux, I rocked onto my foot, jammed my hand, and pulled through. The climbing was over quickly. I wondered how the hell I ever fell.

Joshua Tree Solo fall

Standing on the summit, I imagined I had undone my failure—that I never took that fall. For a moment, I forgot about the haunting dreams, the lingering pain, and the scars. I felt normal again. This is what I worked so hard for. The desert wind blew, chilling the titanium rods in my back and the metal plate in my ankle. My fingers traced the foot-long scar that ran down my spine. I realized the scars would never fade. The reality of the lifestyle set in. It wasn’t worth it.

Then the moment was gone.

 

———
 

In 1993, Lynn Hill made the first free ascent of El Capitan via the Nose. A year later, she returned to free climb the route in a single day, setting the standard of big-wall free climbing. In the past 20 years, only 19 people have been able to combine bouldering, offwidth, slab climbing, sport climbing and the logistics of big-wall climbing to free climb El Capitan in a day. The feat sits as the pinnacle of free climbing because it requires a mastery of all the disciplines. I hoped that by joining this upper echelon of El Cap free climbers, that my dedication and all the sacrifices would somehow be validated, that I would finally feel at peace in my choice to lead a life of chasing rocks.

mange_5886_printOn my fourth attempt, I climbed the 15th pitch, the chimney above Hollow Flake ledge, opting to climb deep inside, where the climbing is harder, but more secure.

“If you want to free climb El Cap in a day, you can’t worry about dying,” my friend Nik Berry had told me. His words echoed in the back of my mind. I’d fallen enough in my life. I wanted the security.

Ironically, I climbed 40 feet unprotected, then fell. My feet skidded down the granite. I slammed against the wall. Blood oozed down my back. I kept going.

I reached the infamous Boulder Problem pitch—the difficulty crux of Freerider at 5.13a. A decade ago, this pitch had been easier but a pair of Australian climbers caught their haul line behind a juggy flake in the middle of the wall. The rope pried the flake off and increased the difficulty greatly.

The other option, the 5.12d Teflon Corner, paralleled the Boulder Problem but stood as a near impossibility for me. The metal in my back and my abysmal flexibility killed my ability to stem well. I couldn’t contort my body and press my palms next to my hand in the manner that this flexibility-dependent pitch demanded.

Downclimbthemonster

If I wanted to free climb El Capitan, I’d need to send the Boulder Problem, a stout V7 and at my limit.

All my prior attempts at redpointing this pitch had been failures. I’d spent countless hours working on these moves, hiking to the top of El Capitan, rappelling and bouldering on a Mini Traxion with over a thousand feet of air beneath me. I’d done the boulder problem nine times on toprope but had never been able to lead it from the belay.

This time, however, I screamed my way through the moves, only to punt off at the very end.

Alex Honnold, my partner for this attempt, led the rappels to the ground. I felt terrified as we rapped to the ground. I was tired. I was a failure.

 

———
 

Each and every time that I hiked to the top of El Capitan, to rap down Freerider and work the top 1,300 feet of the route, I snapped a photo of the sun rising over Half Dome. By April 2015, I had taken 39 of these pictures.

Blog Grid

I put in a minimum of two hours of hiking up and down, longer when I carried loads. It’s in these moments, when you have hours upon hours of being alone with your thoughts, that all your insecurities percolate to the forefront. I was 33 years old. I’d been living out of a car for over a decade, chasing a dream that may never come true.

 

———
 

I began another ground-up attempt on May 6, 2015, with Austin Siadack. We started climbing the first 10 pitches of the route known as the Freeblast slabs a few minutes past 3 a.m. The full moon light reflected off the tiny green-and-white frogs hunkered into the cracks. They seemed more awake than me.

_MG_5768 copy 2I pulled up rope and short-fixed Austin. I continued climbing with a huge loop of slack, the Pakistani Death Loop. I was scared, soloing with a rope on, but less afraid of dying. A storm was rolling into the Valley the next day and the temperatures had already started to drop. We climbed through the first 10 pitches in 3 hours.

That familiar light came over Half Dome.

Soon we were at the Boulder Problem pitch.

“How bad do you want it?” Austin asked me. I assumed it was a rhetorical question. I stared at the Boulder Problem. I felt good, better than last fall with Honnold, better than a year ago with Ben, better than a year and a half ago with Hazel, better than two years previous with Aaron.

Eight hours of climbing and 23 pitches were below me. I grabbed the holds and moved my feet. I moved to the third bolt. I had fallen here with Aaron. I clipped the third bolt and reached to the “loaf” hold. I had fallen here with Hazel and Ben. I still felt strong. I flipped my hand, sucked my hips in and kicked the wall. I had fallen here with Honnold. This time, my foot stuck. I manteled to the crack.

Keep it together, I told myself. I choked inside. I clipped the anchor and let out a guttural scream. I had done it. I fixed the rope and Austin jugged up. I tried to look at the next pitch but water clouded my eyes.

At 6:10 p.m. on May 6, I stood on top of Freerider (VI 5.13a), having free climbed my first El Cap route in a day—just under 15 hours, to be exact. I was really tired but really stoked.

Freerider Night1

My stomach hurt from all the climbing. I stared across the Valley. I never wanted to do that again: the dedication to the lifestyle, the heinous climbing, the commitment. I wondered if I should toss my rack off the cliff. That’s what a character in John Long story would do. Instead, I felt happy. I felt as if I had finally made up for the fall in Joshua Tree. I’d spent over a decade in Yosemite, I’d made friends, had adventures and learned. I failed and I got back up. I accomplished something monumental. This was my glorious moment.

I walked to the bushes and dry heaved.

———
 

The next day, I walked to the base to retrieve my shoes. Rain fell down the cliff. My friends and climbing partners sent me notes of congratulations. They were inspired. I’d put in 52 days of work over 4 years to achieve this dream. I had committed to the lifestyle. I had pushed myself. And I had succeeded.

I’d started climbing on El Cap with the goal of wanting to become “something more.” I wondered if I had achieved it. The process of setting and achieving such a lofty personal goal taught me about myself, about what I wanted in life and personal dedication. The metal rods would always remain in my back. I would never get rich from the ascent. What I did was far from ground breaking. It took me just over 4 years to free climb El Cap in a day. I am the weakest climber to ever do it.

Still, I felt a great sense of personal pride. Water poured down the wall. I shouldered my wet pack. Clouds shrouded El Cap. I walked towards the meadow to my car, and wondered where I’d be going to next.

 

About the Author

IMG_4070James Lucas, fondly called Peaches, is a staple of the climbing circuit—known by many and loved by all. His dedication to the art of simple living and scrounging around campgrounds as frugally as possible has helped him amass a number of impressive ascents over the years, including Moonlight Buttress (5.12d) in Zion, the Westie Face (5.13a) on Leaning Tower, Quantum Man (5.13a) on Washington’s Column and Final Frontier (5.13b) on Fifi Buttress. He also knows how to make pies from scratch. They’re just OK.

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The Day I Sent Waka Flocka http://eveningsends.com/day-sent-waka-flocka/ http://eveningsends.com/day-sent-waka-flocka/#comments Mon, 30 Dec 2013 13:57:36 +0000 http://eveningsends.com/?p=2755

I learned how to rock climb in Rifle Mountain Park, Colorado, when I was 12 years old.  On my first outdoor lead—Cold Cuts (5.11a), for those who are interested—I completely melted down just five feet from the anchors. I was frozen with fear, and my coach from the gym back in Boulder, my hometown, had […]

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Emily-Wacka-Flacka

Emily latching the edge just below the mid-point jug (out of frame) on Waka Flocka (5.14b), her hardest redpoint to date. Photo: Andy Mann/3 Strings Productions

I learned how to rock climb in Rifle Mountain Park, Colorado, when I was 12 years old.  On my first outdoor lead—Cold Cuts (5.11a), for those who are interested—I completely melted down just five feet from the anchors. I was frozen with fear, and my coach from the gym back in Boulder, my hometown, had to coax me into actually completing the route and climbing the last five feet to the anchors.

emilyHarrington_zulu14a_5

Zulu (5.14a), Emily’s first 5.14. Photo: Keith Ladzinski.

Yet … Rifle is also the place where I experienced all those other firsts that go hand in hand with the sport climbing life. Rifle is where I had my first wobbler. It’s where I first learned humility. It’s where I learned to be patient and not rush moves. And it’s where I climbed my first 5.14—Zulu.

Above all, Rifle was the place that shaped me as a youth climber—a period when climbing was all I was and climbing was all that mattered. And to be honest, I struggle, even today, with knowing if anything has changed …

Back as a youth I placed so much importance on my climbing accomplishments. Therefore, my early memories of Rifle are somewhat tumultuous: filled with tears and crushing disappointment along with spikes of joy and relief.  Perhaps we all have those special places where we put in a lot of time, battled a lot of adolescent insecurities, and ultimately learned a little bit more about who we are.

For me, Rifle is that place.

Having survived my adolescent years as a climber, I found myself post-college and somewhat jaded and unsatisfied with competition climbing, which had been my main focus in my late teens and early 20s. I was looking for a new challenge, and went back to, where else, Rifle.

20100827-IMG_2334

Joe Kinder in the upper crux of Waka Flocka (5.14b), which he established in the summer of 2010.

Joe Kinder had just bolted and sent a new 5.14b the previous year called Waka Flocka, and it looked interesting. I started working on it in the summer of 2011.  Waka Flocka takes a natural line just left of the infamous Living in Fear (5.13d) on the Project Wall, which is my favorite wall.  I love the steep, lengthy oddness of all the routes here. Each one is a puzzle, there are no straight-forward sequences, and there are countless hidden knee-bars where you least expect them. This wall is the epitome of Rifle’s distinctive climbing character.

The first one-third of Waka Flocka contains the hardest moves—including one big, hard crux move in particular. When I first tried the route, I could barely do the bouldery crux sequence as individual moves. It’s all about getting into powerful underclings with very poor feet. The crux involved grabbing a side pull as thin as a credit card and tossing for a flat edge at full wing-span’s distance. But it wasn’t over after that, nor was it easy to get there. There was another hard sequence that involved sticking a tiny edge just a few heartbreaking inches below an enormous jug, which marks the route’s mid-point.

I knew if I could get to that jug from the ground, I could do the route.

[ba-pullquote align=”right”]It took me a while to adopt the mentality of the boulderer, in which you have to give every move 100% effort.[/ba-pullquote]As I am a sport climber by nature—a discipline in which finesse and striving for minimal effort often takes you furthest—it took me a while to adopt the mentality of the boulderer, in which you have to give every move 100% effort.

I finally had to accept that the moves on Waka Flocka weren’t ever going to feel easy.  There was no trick. I just had to try harder.

After a few weeks of work, I had entered the dreaded phase of “one-hang purgatory.”  I could almost climb through the crux, fall at the last move before the rest, lower a few bolts, and climb to the top. Progress wasn’t halted, but it had slowed. I’d feel incrementally stronger every time I tried, but never strong enough to complete the whole boulder problem from the ground. It became a mental game. I could hear the clock ticking. The canyon was getting colder, the season would be over soon. I began to feel pressure, wanting so badly to experience the satisfaction of sending.

Then the crux holds of the route began to seep.  The wetness was inconveniently occurring on the two flat underclings where the hardest climbing began. There was no way to stop and chalk, so my hands remained wet throughout the most difficult climbing.  A couple times during working burns my hands would just ping off the small crimps without warning. It frustrated me immensely, and I found myself laying awake at night, anxious over whether a few inches of rock would be wet, and just how wet.

Emily

On the upper crux above the mid-point jug.

After nearly 40 days of trying Waka Flocka, I was getting tired of doing the same moves. I felt disappointed and angry at myself. It’s absurd, of course, I know. All that emotional turmoil and stress over a stupid piece of rock. But I cared. It was important to me, and I couldn’t help that. I felt as though I’d reverted to that adolescent phase again, in which I was letting 100 feet of limestone—named after some silly hip-hop sensation, nonetheless—define my self-worth and happiness.

Toward the end of October, after a season of one-hangs and failures, I drove into the canyon one more time. The temperature was frigid and the season felt over at that point, but I wanted to try again. I wanted to succeed so badly and be … free.

I warmed up on the route by pulling on the quickdraws, and getting up to the wet crux holds.  Using a dishwashing rag, I padded the holds, drying them as best I could. They seemed damper than ever.

The day I sent Waka Flocka, I climbed nervous and stiff. I slipped and fell lower than normal, and proceeded to have a complete freak-out.

“I’m sick of this!” I screamed. I thought I should just give up. I told myself I can’t do it. I told myself I hated this. I promised I wouldn’t do it.  I said every negative thing I could think of.  Anger and frustration poured out of me.

Then I felt embarrassed, immature, and emotionally drained. Why did I get so angry over something so trivial?  I had placed so much significance on this one route, and couldn’t let it go.  After I’d calmed down a bit, I felt relieved.  My little temper tantrum seemed to help.  I’d finally surrendered to the idea of failure.  I had nothing left to give, and that was ok.

I decided to give it one more shot, for no other reason than to simply try.

I now felt more relaxed and level-headed. I put my kneepads on, cleaned my shoes, and tied in. I climbed up to the crux. I felt a bit fatigued, but didn’t care. I just let my body take over, trusting it to execute moves it had practiced nearly 100 times at that point.

When I reached the move I’d been falling on repeatedly, somehow, I don’t know how, but I stuck it. I had felt weaker than before, but  somehow I just grabbed it … and I found myself at the midpoint rest. My nerves returned in a flash flood. I couldn’t blow it now, I’d be crushed. I finally summoned the courage to leave the rest, and climbed swiftly and without hesitation. I had to fight hard to get a kneebar, then stay composed and keep it together through the vertical section leading to the chains.  But … I did it.  I lowered down from sending my hardest route to date.

[ba-pullquote align=”right”]Normally, a big redpoint like Waka Flocka often leads to a big realization or lesson. But this time, it wasn’t till over a year later that I think I learned something from my experience with Waka Flocka.[/ba-pullquote]I didn’t know it at the time, but that would be my last climb in Rifle for a very long time. I didn’t return the following season. Instead, a twist of fate and luck gave me the opportunity to climb Mt. Everest. Life changed after that trip. I moved to California and sought out a different sort of satisfaction from climbing.  I swapped limestone for granite, bolts for cams, and 5.14 for 5.10.  I went from elite-level sport climbing to gumby trad climbing and learning the basics.  Even with trad climbing, I found myself getting upset for failing, for being afraid to fall again. The feelings I had on Cold Cuts at age 11 returned at age 26 on One Hand Clapping (5.9) at Donner Summit, and countless others.

I began to wonder if maybe that’s just the way climbing is, no matter what the grade or discipline. And maybe that’s the way climbing ought to be, too.

Normally, a big redpoint like Waka Flocka often leads to a big realization or lesson. But this time, it wasn’t till over a year later that I think I learned something from my experience with Waka Flocka.

What I’ve realized is that there are no answers on summits—whether that’s the top of Mt. Everest, or at the chains of a redpoint of a 5.14b like Waka Flocka. Climbing isn’t about the success, or even the failure.  But rather all the in-betweens.  It’s about the process of facing yourself and seeing a beginner who’s willing and psyched to keep learning. What I’ve realized is that climbing, like life, never comes easy. And deep down, I think that’s why I keep trying.

About The Author

Emily HarringtonEmily Harrington, 27, can count herself as one of a very elite group of people that has climbed an 8,000-meter peak and dozens of 5.14s. Born and raised in Boulder, Colorado, Emily has been climbing most of her life. Her early years were defined by her successes on the USA Climbing Team on the National and world competition circuit. She won the very competitive Serre Chevalier Masters in 2006.  She’s a six-time Sport Climbing National Champion, and a two-time Sport Climbing North American Champion, and has placed podium in World Cups. She was the first female to break the 5.14 barrier in Rifle with her ascent of Zulu, and later the 7 P.M. Show.

In 2012 she joined The North Face expedition to Everest, and summitted the world’s tallest peak on May 25. Having apparently caught the 8,000-meter bug, Harrington returned to the Himalaya this fall, and reached the summit of Ama Dablam (6,800 meters) in November 2013 with Alpenglow Expeditions. Harrington is sponsored by The North Face, Petzl, Nature’s Bakery and La Sportiva. She currently lives in Squaw Valley, California.

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The Day I Sent Color Blind (5.13a R) http://eveningsends.com/day-sent-color-blind/ http://eveningsends.com/day-sent-color-blind/#comments Thu, 05 Feb 2015 15:47:04 +0000 http://eveningsends.com/?p=5303

In the wake of a divorce, an increasingly unsuccessful attempt at an academic career and a not-quite healed foot fracture, I moved to the New River Gorge in West Virginia around 2013.  I’m originally from Utah, and none of my western friends could understand why on earth I would willingly move East. But after five […]

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In the wake of a divorce, an increasingly unsuccessful attempt at an academic career and a not-quite healed foot fracture, I moved to the New River Gorge in West Virginia around 2013.  I’m originally from Utah, and none of my western friends could understand why on earth I would willingly move East. But after five seasons of commuting to the NRG from Ohio, where I was living and teaching college history, I’d fallen in love with the NRG’s Nuttal Sandstone and the Appalachian community that surrounded it.

I landed a sweet gig with the American Alpine Club as manager of their new campground at the NRG. I pictured myself being able to climb every day, and getting better and better.

By the end of the summer I was climbing as well as ever.  Then my fitness started diminishing.  Whereas in a city, regular training routines were easy to stick to, climbing outside all the time was turning out to be frustratingly inconsistent, especially with the NRG’s unreliable weather.  By early winter there was only one crag that was still good. I had fallen off my sport project one too many times, and felt like I was getting weaker.  My sport-climbing psych was at an all-time low.

So I started dabbling in headpointing.  This means toproping a sketchy gear-protected route before leading it. It goes against the classic definition of traditional climbing, which often means climbing ground-up onsight. Over the years, headpointing tactics have sometimes reached absurd levels in which all risk has seemingly been engineered out of the equation thanks to dozens of toprope rehearsals, pre-placed gear and the use of many crashpads at the base.

It begs the question: Why not just bolt the route?

The first route that I seriously tried headpointing was a contrived but unclimbed arete just left of an existing 5.12c trad route named Are You Experienced?  I was pretty sure that if you fell at the crux, you’d just miss the ground, but if you fell off the final 5.11 moves after it, you would definitely crater.  We called the route Are You an Idiot?

The author on the FA of "Are You an Idiot?" (5.12 R).  Photo: Dan Brayak

The author on the FA of “Are You an Idiot?” (5.12 R). Photo: Dan Brayak

During this process, I stumbled upon a realization regarding headpointing—a sort of answer to that critique of “why not just bolt the route?”  For me, doing moves or links on a sport route right at my limit never really engaged my headspace to the max. Conversely, in true, ground up trad climbing, your mind is fully engaged but rarely are you ever climbing at your physical limit.

Headpointing, whether justified or not, seemed to me to be the best way to approach both my physical and mental limits on one route.

As spring 2014 rolled around, I committed myself to devoting the whole season to climbing the old-school trad face climbs of the NRG.  (I’d already done most of the well-protected cracks in my range.) In March and April, I slowly worked my through the obscure 1980s trad face routes that had been established either as onsights, or as onsight attempts, by badasses such as Mike Artz, Andrew Barry, and Eddie Begoon. The gear was weird, I’d often be clipping rusty bolts or pins, and move for move, the climbs were usually not that classic. I missed doing those hard, elegant, big-flowing moves that you find on the four- and five-star classic sport routes of the NRG.

The author on the Red River Gorge's classic hard splitter, Welcome to Ol' Kentucky (5.13a). Photo: Tristan Croll

The author on the Red River Gorge’s classic hard splitter, Welcome to Ol’ Kentucky (5.13a). Photo: Tristan Croll

Enter Color Blind (5.13a R), a newly established headpoint that follows a beautiful orange face at the opposite end of an amphitheater from the famous sport climb called The Racist (5.13b). Located right at the base of the access ladders for the Central Endless Wall crags, Color Blind was not obscure by any means.  Thousands of climbers had walked under this beautiful face, marveling at it and wondering why it was not a route.  Yet it wasn’t until 2013 that Color Blind got climbed.

The story behind Color Blind’s development is the story of the bureaucratic process that developers go through to bolt new routes in the New River Gorge, which is on National Park Service land.  Both Mikey Williams, local guidebook author and first ascentionist of many local hard sport climbs, and Pat Goodman, the guy responsible for many local hard and scary trad climbs, had first inspected the face on rappel. They started calling it it “the Ball Nut project.”  For some reason, Pat decided that he was not psyched on the route, and moved his attention to another headpoint just 50 feet to the left.

Meanwhile, Mikey continued to obsess with the Ball Nut Proj. He weighed out two very different options: the route could go bolt-free at 5.13- by trending to the right.  Or it could go as much harder 5.13+ if bolts went in and directed movement to the left.  Difficulty won out, and Mikey submitted an application, with a nonrefundable $50 fee, to the NPS to bolt the 5.13+ left-hand route.

The NPS, however, denied his request on account of some lichen on the top third of the face. Color Blind, it seemed, was not destined to become a sport route. In retrospect, I will say that I’m glad for this as there are at least half a dozen incredible 5.13a sport climbs nearby.

Mikey was bummed that his bolting application was denied, but he took it in stride. To his credit, he didn’t give up and he continued to work the Ball Nut proj—scrubbing dirt, refining the moves on top-rope and working out the finicky gear placements.

In October 2013, Mikey brought a visiting Jonathan Siegrist to Color Blind.  That day Mikey finally freed the route on top-rope for the first time. Jonathan cruised it easily on toprope, and expressed interest in giving it a lead attempt. That lit a fire under Mikey’s ass. According to Mikey:

“I could sack up and lead it, or be a bitch and tell Jonathan to not do it because I wanted to do it first.”

So sack up and send it he did, as did Jonathan immediately afterwards.

Mike Williams at the midway rest during the first ascent of Color Blind, probably wondering why there are no bolts anywhere.  Photo credit: Blake Cash

Mike Williams at the midway rest during the first ascent of Color Blind, probably wondering why there are no bolts anywhere. Photo credit: Blake Cash

When I heard Color Blind went down, I thought it was pretty cool, but didn’t think much more of it. I certainly didn’t immediately consider jumping on the line. I had done sport and trad lines of its difficulty before, but never ones with this level of commitment or scary gear.  On hard cracks you usually can put gear in and yell “take” wherever you want. But that’s not the case with cryptic, scary faces.

Besides, Mikey climbs solid 5.14. Siegrist has climbed 5.15. To guys of that caliber, Color Blind must have felt casual.

Then, one spring day last year, I found myself partnerless and wandering Endless Wall with a rope, Grigri, and Shostakovich’s 8th Symphony blaring in my headphones. For whatever reason I decided to thrash through the rhododendrons, drop a rope on Color Blind, and see what the moves and gear were like.

 

———

The Endless Wall, New River Gorge

The Endless Wall, New River Gorge

Rapping down, I inspected the holds and scrubbed off dirt that had accrued since its last and only two ascents. The crux involved a high right foot on a cool ear feature; matching a tiny horizontal crack barely ¼” wide; then deadpointing to a slightly in-cut horizontal with the right hand. At first,  I couldn’t do the move, even with a bit of help in the form of rope tension from my Grigri.

Finally, after probably six attempts, I latched the crimp and held it for a split second before ripping a gash in my right middle fingertip. This gash would remain with me for the next month. The next time I rapped the route I fussed with the gear, including the brand-new Ball Nuts I’d bought—up until this point I’d climbed for 16 years without needing these things.  The upper part was fine, though sparsely protected with 5.12 moves 20 feet above a bomber #.5 Camalot.

The crux was a different story.  Here I needed to learn how to slot a red Ball Nut, the second smallest size.  It was not easy to find the sweet spot for this placement. Further, it completely covered the most positive part of the horizontal, meaning you could either hold on, or place gear, but not both.  Bummer!

The author at the crux, where it's your choice of getting either a well-placed Ball Nut or enjoying a better grip.

The author at the crux, where it’s your choice of getting either a well-placed Ball Nut or enjoying a better grip.

The scariest placement, however, was twelve feet below the crux, where I had to wiggle in the smallest-sized blue Ball Nut into a 1/6”-wide slot. It was even harder to get this piece seated properly. To make matters worse, rotten rock surrounds the placement on both sides. This could be a really easy piece to fuck up.

The first Ball Nut placement, a tricky little bastard.

The first Ball Nut placement, a tricky little bastard.

Over the next week, I put in a few solo TR laps on the route.  Very quickly, I realized that I simply did not have the strength or endurance to protect that crux as Mikey or Jonathan had.  They had equalized the Red Ball Nut with a .000 C3 Camalot, a feat that demanded being able to hang onto one tiny crimper forever. This was the difference between being a 5.14 climber and a 5.13 climber—there was just no way I’d be able to hang on that long.

Despite having never actually sent the entire line on top-rope,  I decided to give Color Blind a lead attempt right as May rolled around. I had the crux deadpoint down to a solid 50 % success rate. I felt strong mentally. And I wanted to get this thing done before summer rolled in with its hot humidity.

I surprised myself in making it up to the crux. I perched my right foot on top of the ear, tried not to over-grip, and took a deep breath. In the words of Jean Luc Picard, “Engage!”

Image4

I threw but missed. As I dropped onto that Ball Nut, I had a brief moment of thinking, “Whoa, I hope that thing holds.” And … It did!

I felt a mix of emotions: frustration that I had not sent, but it was also nice to see that the pro was not just psychological.  I pulled back on and climbed to the top with ease—the final runout 5.12 section didn’t feel bad at all.

I took one more lead burn and fell at the crux once again. One of my friends promptly texted Mikey to let him know that I had fallen twice on Color Blind’s crux, to which he replied, “Oh, the Ball Nut held?  Maybe I should give it a Disney (G) rating!”

Dicks.

The first attempt on Color Blind. Photo: Jimmy Thigpen

The first attempt on Color Blind. Photo: Jimmy Thigpen

———
 

For the next few days, I fell asleep each night while thinking about Color Blind. My internal dialogue would shift between “See, the pro’s great!” to “If that Ball Nut pulls the next one will, too, and you’ll crater from 45 feet.”

The day I sent Color Blind was Sunday, May 4.  It was sunny and in the 60s.  The ghostly morning mist that settles overnight in the New River Gorge was guaranteed to burn off shortly.  My girlfriend, Karen, was out to visit. We enjoyed a leisurely morning with coffee in the cabin as I explained to her the “5.14 belay” she would be giving me that day.

“If the red Ball Nut pulls, which it won’t, but if it does, count on the blue one failing, too.  If that happens, you should be able to run and jump backwards as I fall onto a bomber cam. Maybe that could keep me off the ground …  At the very least, you have to try to slow me down right before I hit the ground.”

The mortified look on her face made me think that there was some part of her that was dreading going climbing that day.

“OK, you ready? Let’s go!” I said as cheerfully as possible.

Before we left I did my regular weekend rounds through the campground, collecting fees from dirtbags who are always irate that they actually have to pay for something.  By 10:30, Karen and I were hiking out to Endless Wall, knowing that Color Blind would be in the shade shortly.

New_River_Gorge_National_River

Once we were at the crag, I saw my friend Nic Spruil, a master of hard highball bouldering. As I knew Karen was slightly uncomfortable with the worst-case belay scenario that I had vividly instilled in her mind, I asked Nic if he’d mind belaying instead. Although I had never roped up with him before, I trusted him.

“Yeah, I got this,” Nic said in his usual laid-back yet intense demeanor.

I was so focused on my climbing that when I began I didn’t even notice that Mikey had arrived to film from a distance.

The first Ball Nut placement, the blue one, refused to properly set.  It slid in just as I had always placed it, but when I gave it a pull test, it popped right back out.  Dammit. I placed it once more, and once more it pulled out.  Shit! Part of my brain started questioning myself.

You’re getting pumped and you’re not even at the crux! Climb down to the bomber cam and take, now!

But the third time was the charm and the piece seated perfectly.

Later, while watching the video that Mikey shot, I think I look much calmer than I really was.  I was rattled, yet somehow I managed to stick the crux deadpoint.  I was much more pumped than I should be. My feet skated and my core spasmed as I placed another tiny piece by my knees. Finally I reached a rest jug and managed to bring down my pulse and adrenaline level. The remainder of the route was a joy.

Sticking the crux

Sticking the crux

The psychology of sending is interesting.  For me, if a climb feels too easy on the send, you wind up wondering why the hell you hadn’t sent the route sooner.  If it feels too hard, sketchy, or ugly, you feel as though you really haven’t mastered the route, that you just rolled the dice and succeeded by chance.  Neither scenario feels quite perfect.

I’m still trying to figure out where my send of Color Blind fell into this spectrum.  I like to think that it was a perfect combination of fear and mastery, sketchy and smooth, but this may just be selective historical memory.

Yet even though I had sent Color Blind, my relationship with this rock climb was, in some ways, just beginning.

———
 

Mike Williams or Perez Hilton? You decide ...

Mike Williams or Perez Hilton? You decide …

Mikey, who reigns as the climbing world’s version of Perez Hilton, posted his video of me skating my way up Color Blind on Deadpoint magazine’s website.  At first the video didn’t get much attention outside of the NRG’s little bubble. Occasionally someone at the campground would say, “Hey, aren’t you the guy in that scary trad video?  Learn to place gear!”  But that was about it.

Then the internet message boards, those great bastions of pure democracy where everyone’s voices are equal no matter how moronic, discovered the clip.  Because I’d confessed to using headpoint tactics to send this route—tactics that have a strong precedent in the establishment of many if not most gear-protected routes harder than 5.12d—I was criticized. That sequence of me fumbling the blue Ball Nut placement had convinced the online hordes that I was nothing more than a trad-climbing noob.

Someone on mountainreject.com essentially said, “Yeah, that’s cool, but it’s not like you were actually falling on the gear, like Sonnie Trotter does!”  Another discussion popped up on ontarioclimbing.com (really?), deeming the video as “What’s wrong with modern trad (tard) climbing.”

As a true internet activist—I’ll just out myself right now as “Camhead”—I tried to respond to some of these points (as did Mikey, much more eloquently) but eventually gave up.

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More importantly, the video convinced some folks in real life to step up and try Color Blind.  I’m not sure why.  Maybe it was because it got afternoon shade, or maybe because it was so damned easy to access from the top. My theory, however, is that people saw a video that showed that even a sub-5.14 weakling like me could scrape his way up it.

One day in October, some friends and I were climbing in the area when we heard a yell and the unmistakable sound of a body hitting the ground.  I ran around the corner, and there, at the base of Color Blind, was a climber, in his early 20s, who had a “What the hell just happened?” look on his face.

What happened, I soon learned, was that worst-case fall scenario—the scenario that I had once described to my mortified girlfriend, Karen. First the red Ball Nut pulled out at the crux. Then the blue one. Then even the “bomber” #.3 Camalot, which I had always thought might just barely keep a climber off the deck.  He cratered from probably 45 feet, yet was completely okay. A small miracle, really.

In later correspondence with the climber, I discovered that he had opted for a slightly worse Ball Nut placement at the crux, since the “good” placement was interfered with grabbing the best part of the climbing hold.

At first, my impression was, “What a gumby mistake!” But, thinking about it more, I realized that I was not much different than this guy, and that really it came down to chance. As mentioned earlier, Mikey and Jonathan—both stronger and perhaps a bit more cautious that me—had opted to build a two-piece nest at the crux, which I was simply not capable of doing.  If the Ball Nut had popped out on me during one of my falls, those guys could have easily branded me a weakass noob.

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There’s a slippery slope of arguments you could make, that go from “If you’re not strong enough to build an equalized nest of two pieces of gear at the crux, then you have no business on the route,” to “If you can’t opt for the better Ball Nut placement, you have no business on the route,” to “If you’re not good enough to onsight free solo this route, then you have no business climbing it.”

What has been so rewarding about Color Blind is how it has continued to open my eyes—even post send—and make me appreciate what a full spectrum of experience we can find in rock climbing. This sport is cool because it can be as safe or as dangerous as you’d like.

ColorBlind Opener

Color Blind embodies what I love most about the NRG—respect for the style of the FA trumps rigid rules about “sport” versus “trad.” We have G-rated cracks that are completely bolted as well as bold faces lacking a single bolt. In the historical research and writing that I’ve done, I often return to the same theme: people approach situations (such as settling Southwestern deserts) with rigid ideologies of how things should be, and the ideologies crumble.  The same thing happens when you try to establish black and white definitions of “sport” or “trad.”

Color Blind is neither sport nor trad. It’s really just an awesome and beautiful route, no more, no less.

I think that’s what brought me out to this quirky little pocket of Appalachia at the NRG, and what has kept me here. There are no rigid ideologies. I can easily jump from sport to trad to bouldering, and often find myself on routes that seem to be combinations of all these disciplines. With Endless Walls, and nearly endless opportunities for new routes, it’s easy to find new ways to keep the psych high. Well, if you can tolerate the erratic weather, but that’s another story.

 

About the Author

NelsonBioPicPaul Nelson began climbing in 1998 in Logan Canyon, Utah, before quickly moving into crack climbing.  He recently realized that he is becoming an old has-been/never-was, and remembers when Indian Creek was not crowded and sport climbers were still scared of jamming.

After going to grad school in Dallas, TX, spending two years in Castle Valley, UT for “dissertation research,” and living in the flatlands of Central Ohio, he’s relocated to Fayetteville, West Virginia, where he lives in a micro-cabin on the rim of the New River Gorge.  He continues to avoid academia while climbing, rafting, playing music, managing the AAC campground, substitute teaching redneck kids, and writing.

Check out his non-climbing blog River and Stone, his climbing writing at rockclimbing.com, or if you are truly masochistic, his environmental history of Southern Utah’s Canyon Country, “Wrecks of Human Ambition.”

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The Day I Sent Skinny Love http://eveningsends.com/day-sent-skinny-love/ http://eveningsends.com/day-sent-skinny-love/#comments Wed, 03 Dec 2014 06:03:22 +0000 http://eveningsends.com/?p=4991

“I want to lead The Evictor,” I told Nick, arriving home after a spectacular, sun-drenched winter day at the Rincon Wall in Eldorado Canyon. I had successfully—and quite easily I might add—top-roped The Evictor (5.12+ R), perhaps the canyon’s most famous single-pitch test piece. I am fairly sure that Nick, my now husband, mumbled some […]

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“I want to lead The Evictor,” I told Nick, arriving home after a spectacular, sun-drenched winter day at the Rincon Wall in Eldorado Canyon.

Jenn3

I had successfully—and quite easily I might add—top-roped The Evictor (5.12+ R), perhaps the canyon’s most famous single-pitch test piece. I am fairly sure that Nick, my now husband, mumbled some scaled-back version of encouragement. He was well aware that I had not yet led the warm-ups at the Rincon Wall, and that I was often paralyzed with debilitating fear while top-roping. But my enthusiasm would not be tempered; if learning to place gear and run it out were the requisite skills I needed to succeed on this route, then I set myself to their acquisition.

———
 

I started climbing in the gym during my final year of college as a means of facing my debilitating fear of heights. Yes, I know that virtually every one is afraid of heights; it is evolutionary and instinctual. You should be afraid of heights.

meetjennflemming

Jenn. Photo by Aly Nicklas

My fear of heights, however, was much more extreme than your average cookie-cutter brand of acrophobia. Over the years I’ve been hospitalized from vertigo-induced panic attacks and once had to be “rescued” from the center of a suspension bridge when I passed out while walking across. My fear of heights is not hyperbole and I feel confident surmising that it is likely worse than yours.

Ironically, I loved climbing immediately. The movement, the grace, the combination of the delicate and the gymnastic. But what affected me most was the intentional experience of exposing myself to fear. The first time I climbed a route, I was paralyzed halfway up and had to retreat to recover. The next time, perhaps emboldened by the realization that neither my partner nor the anchor was assuredly going to kill me, I climbed to the top. I still experienced the fear, but in climbing I had found a medium that allowed me to systematically and methodically face it. The ability to quickly whittle down a problem and perform despite a pronounced inclination to do the opposite was revelatory.

———
 

When I decided upon The Evictor, I had only been climbing a few years, and the majority of this time had been spent sport climbing. I had been working my way through the grades, alternately navigating the challenges of projecting 5.12 and dealing with the waves of fear-induced vertigo that often obscured success on these routes. Some days I had to relegate myself to top-rope only. But I was determined to be a rock climber, dammit! And despite frequent experiences of discomfort, I had fallen devastatingly in love with the sport.

Head Shot

To climb The Evictor, I needed to learn to place gear, and so I practiced the intricate placements on top-rope; Nick followed to assure that I understood the basic mechanics. I climbed the insecure and poorly-protected start dozens of times; I even pink-pointed the route to get the feel for the run-outs without the stress of placing gear.

Eventually the day came when I took the rack and headed up on lead. I climbed the final pumpy moves, fifteen feet above a #5 Stopper. When I grabbed the summit jug, Nick whooped loudly from the ground. I lowered off, psyched, overwhelmed, and, above all, bewildered by the complete absence of fear I had experienced.

Jenn2

The Evictor taught me a lot about my personal relationship with climbing; about how to embrace fear by seeking out the experiences, people and places that make me uncomfortable. To make the process of challenging myself a constant in my life, and to let myself be drawn into that which inspires me regardless of how ambitious or outlandish it might initially seem.

———
 

In years after The Evictor, climbing became central to my world—and seeking out routes that challenged me in similar ways became a driving force in my life.

I found myself drawn to scary routes, to instances requiring bold decisions with major consequences. At first I was essentially recreating my experience with The Evictor. In time I found myself venturing out into unknown territory. Routes in the mountains, routes with ground-fall potential. The problem with intrinsic, natural fear, however, is that it is nearly impossible to rid yourself of it entirely. Was I seeking routes that offered ample opportunity to overcome fear because it was how I learned to climb, or was it a continuation of some deeply masochistic effort to push myself toward a breaking point?

Jenn1

As I systematically worked my way through other Eldo scare-fests, I was reminded repeatedly that I had not, in fact, turned into a bold climber. I had simply taught myself to manage the stressors and outside factors that might affect my ability to perform.

My fear of death-by-way-of-falling was as much a part of me as my right-handedness. And no matter how much time I spent trying to learn to write with the left, when handed a pencil I am always going to instinctually take it with my right.

These realizations offered me numerous lessons in humility and an ever-evolving appreciation for the personal significance (and obscurity) of climbing.

———
 

corbin sleeping platte hike

Jason Haas, all-around badass climber and guidebook publisher. Photo: Ben Schneider / Fixed Pin.

The first day that I climbed on Skinny Love (5.13c)—sometime in the Fall of 2011, I believe—was particularly uninspiring. I was not looking for a project, but had seen photos of my friend Jason Haas—the prolific first ascentionist, and guidebook author—on the route. Immediately I was drawn to the crack’s aesthetics: a distinctive line bisecting a singular block of golden granite deep in the maze of South Platte’s iconic outcroppings. A solitary route in a not-often-traveled part of the canyon.

 

 

Day one: I doubt I linked more than two moves in a row.

 

 

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Jason Haas on the first ascent of Skinny Love (5.13c). Jason has established some of the most desperate trad/crack climbs in the country. Photo: Ben Schneider / Fixed Pin.

The route begins as a faint seam (just within reach as you stand on the ground), then gives way to barely-there edges, then tips, then finally opens just enough to allow your fingers to almost lock in. Here you must pause to place a #00 Master Cam, the only thing keeping you off the ground, while your feet skate and your bicep trembles, engaging in what I came to refer to as the “death-lock-off.”

Just to reach this point involves a difficult, subtle and finicky boulder problem. While I am a particularly unimpressive boulderer—due to my aversion for both hitting the ground and being dynamic—being a trad climber trained on Eldorado stone has taught me to feel comfortable with subtle, finicky moves. I am drawn to climbing that is more psychological and technical than gymnastic, and this boulder problem was just that.

Still, it took me nearly three days of work just to figure out how to pull myself off the ground. In an outrageously frustrating manner, Skinny Love shut me down before my second foot ever connected with the stone.

Once established on the wall, I faced a series of precise, long moves with feet pasted on subtle undulations in the slabby granite.

Following the boulder problem is what I consider to be the crux of the route: a handful of moves of 5.12+ finger crack. Despite being a self-proclaimed trad-climber, I am not very good at pure crack climbing. This was bound to become the crux for me.

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Jenn Flemming on Skinny Love (5.13c). Photo (C) Fred Marmsater Follow Fred on Instagram

I was intrigued from day one, though it took a number of subsequent seasons, each with a handful of days effort, before I even believed the route was within my ability. Skinny Love was not only at my limits of my physical performance but it was simultaneously testing my climbing weaknesses.

In addition, with a short season, all-day sun and winter road closures, there were a multitude of sheer logistical factors working against me ever sending the route. But I had fallen in love with the climb. Like The Evictor, Skinny Love was inspiring me to become better. To work diligently on my weaknesses, to dedicate myself to something that I might fail on, to challenge myself because I was inspired to do so.

———
 

During this time, however, I found myself climbing less. I had spent nearly a decade with climbing the epicenter of my life, my identity, and my time. I was growing out of the fear of getting weak if I lost a week to another pursuit, and in its place I was finding value in challenging myself in new ways and doing new things.

At this point, Boulder had become home and its community of once-road-bound climbers, my family. I was enjoying long days on the moderates of Eldo with friends, learning and becoming competent with new skills (such as an ill-advised fall season spent off-width climbing), relishing the lack of hard projects and the requisite obsession that goes with them. I was having fun and climbing regularly, but had likely not sent 5.13 in a year or so.

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Photo by Aly Nicklas

An amazing attribute of climbing as a lifestyle is that it is adaptive and responsive. Climbing becomes what you need it to be. As Nick and I began to make tentative plans to move on from Boulder, I wondered if my love for climbing was vacillating, if the fire was slowly extinguishing itself. I wondered if I needed a new type of challenge.

When I was accepted to graduate school in Boston, that potential change suddenly became very real. And suddenly I realized how much I wanted to climb Skinny Love.

I had worked on Skinny Love for three seasons, typically getting shut down by the road-closures and weather just as I was confident that I was near sending. The fact that I was about to move far away set in, almost as a type of panic that I might find myself three weeks into school and regretting that I hadn’t given Skinny Love my all.

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Jenn and her husband Nick Martino in Boulder. Photo by Aly Nicklas

As I was picking out classes and packing boxes, I also began to drive at sunrise from Boulder down to the South Platte to Mini Traxion Skinny Love.

After a month spent climbing long moderates in Yosemite, the once-doable boulder problem now felt impossible to me. Ironically, I was climbing the section of 5.12+ finger crack with relative ease. Go figure. I was simultaneously re-inspired and fearful of my time constraint due to our move. Part of the reason that I loved this route so much was its lack of urgency; how it had always just been there; how I knew I would do it when I was ready.

Now, there was fear. I was scared that I would fail and would have to leave Boulder defeated by a multi-year project. Scared that my love for climbing had changed and was, in some way, less valuable in its new form. Scared to leave Boulder, our family, and our lifestyle behind.

Somehow all of these fears had become wrapped up in this one rock climb. This objectively insignificant piece of granite had become this monumental personal symbol of so much more.

Last June, I decided that I absolutely needed to send Skinny Love before we moved. I committed myself to this goal, likely a coping mechanism for huge life changes closing in on me and a reflexive need for a familiar experience. I was focused and intent, Mini Traxioning on the route in the morning and training in the gym in the afternoon.

Before long I could do the boulder problem again.

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Jenn Flemming on Skinny Love (5.13c). Photo (C) Fred Marmsater Follow Fred on Instagram

I convinced my friend Mike O’Connell that he needed to do this rock climb, too. The oldest trick in the book, but at least I had a partner willing to drive from Boulder to the South Platte at dawn, and be ready to give Skinny Love an effort by 8 AM, the beginning of a four-hour summer temperature window.

Mike and I were committed. We drove four hours each day for less than that amount of time spent of rock climbing.

As moving day quickly approached, I found myself one or two moves away from success.

 

The most fundamental reason that I love climbing lies in the lessons it has taught me; to love and respect our natural places, to live wildly, sometimes unconventionally, and with abandon, and to constantly seek ways to challenge myself and what I am capable of. As trite as it may sound, it is these lessons that have given me the gumption to make bold decisions outside of my climbing life.

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Jenn Flemming on Skinny Love (5.13c). Photo (C) Fred Marmsater Follow Fred on Instagram

I have experienced paralyzing fear in the face of uncertainty, and I have learned that a methodical confidence and sense of purpose define what one is capable of. I spent nearly a decade of my life letting climbing teach me about the person that I wanted to be and the life I wanted to live. And part of the appeal of climbing is its objective insignificance; its value derives wholly from the experience of the individual. Climbing is literally what you make of it.

The day I sent Skinny Love was the last day before I moved away from Boulder. When we arrived at the route that morning—having driven through beautiful summer sunrise to a temperature below 60 degrees—I was immediately crippled with fear. I had packed so much meaning into a single 60-foot pitch and I was suddenly very aware of the immediacy of my predicament. The difficult-to-place gear and crumbling rock posed such a mild threat compared to the debilitating fear of failure that was pumping through my veins.

Incredibly, in Skinny Love I had found a fear greater than my fear of heights: a fear of failure and regret.

Visibly shaken, I turned to my climbing partners for reassurance. Thirty minutes of climbing pep talk and familiar motions. Mindless chatter and the repetitive practice of taping, stretching, and racking up.

Meditative moments in which I executed, as I had so many times over the years, the practice of subduing my own fear.

Rehearse beta, tie in, tell myself that I am, in fact, bold and strong and not the least bit scared.

And then … climb.

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Jenn Flemming on Skinny Love (5.13c). Photo (C) Fred Marmsater Follow Fred on Instagram

The day I sent Skinny Love was three years after I first set eyes on the route. It was exactly one month before I would begin an intensive graduate program that would render climbing a cherished outlet necessary to maintain perspective but no longer the sole reason for being.

Again, climbing becomes what you need it to be. You can abandon it from time to time, but it will never abandon you.

Skinny Love remains a faint, rarely seen crack in an obscure granite block lost in the South Platte of Colorado. But to me it is a symbol of change and a reminder to remember why we do the things we do. It reminds me to appreciate the simplified process of interacting with the world around me, to embrace change and to honor humility. Above all, Skinny Love affirms the potential in myself to face fear and uncertainty, and to remember that that process is something to be grateful for.

 

 

About the Author

Jennifer_Flemming_PictureJenn Flemming started climbing in the gym while attending undergrad at Tufts University in Boston. She quickly traded her dreams of med school for a decade of adventure, moving out West to Boulder and pursuing climbing around the world in such countries as China, Bolivia, South Africa, Iran and Tajikistan.

In Eldorado Canyon, she has amassed a handful of first female ascents, including Freeline (5.13b R), Fraid Line (5.13- R), and Paris Girl (5.13- R). She has also climbed 5.13c sport routes and flashed 5.13a. Skinny Love is her hardest route to date, fulfilling her offhand desire to climb the same grade in sport and trad routes.

Today, Jenn is a student in the International Education Policy program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, with a focus on women’s access to leadership, civic engagement and entrepreneurial education opportunity, particularly for disempowered communities and populations.

In the rare moments of respite from her coursework at Harvard, Jenn finds herself stealing breaks to get back to the climbing gym in Boston, where it all began for her nearly a decade ago.

 

Watch this video of Jenn

Platte cover finalThanks to Fixed Pin Publishing for their photo contributions.

Please check out their excellent guidebook to the South Platte of Colorado.

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The Day I Sent Golden Gate http://eveningsends.com/day-sent-golden-gate/ http://eveningsends.com/day-sent-golden-gate/#comments Wed, 17 Sep 2014 07:00:23 +0000 http://eveningsends.com/?p=4525

It’s been about six years since I sent Flight of the Challenger—a 5.12 (12b? 12c?) trad climb at Squamish. It says a lot that I don’t remember the things you’re supposed to remember—like the route’s grade. I vaguely recall an uninspiring peg at the start, and a crazy, technical groove at the top. What I […]

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It’s been about six years since I sent Flight of the Challenger—a 5.12 (12b? 12c?) trad climb at Squamish. It says a lot that I don’t remember the things you’re supposed to remember—like the route’s grade. I vaguely recall an uninspiring peg at the start, and a crazy, technical groove at the top. What I remember most about this trad climb was what it taught me about my ego, my gender and my confidence.

I remember Flight of the Challenger as a route that taught me some important things about what it means to be a female climber.

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I was 19 and on my “gap year.” If you’re not familiar with the term, enlighten yourself by searching “gap yah” on YouTube. It’s a year taken out of education between school and University where young British teenagers go traveling to discover things about the world and themselves. If you watch the video, you’ll see that many Brits have taken the idea too far—or not far enough, depending on how you look at it.

1531706_833326470016469_395766895_nI had taken it pretty far. I’d been to India, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, China, Australia, New Zealand, and the USA, where I had my first taste of granite crack climbing in Yosemite during the heat of August.

I started climbing when I was 7 and had amassed the requisite face-climbing skills to avoid most cracks in the U.K. Any cracks I’d previously encountered I’d been careful to navigate my way around them.

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At home, on the trad routes of the U.K.

But here in Yosemite, I couldn’t climb 5.8 cracks without shouting, swearing, sweating and generally having a terrible time. Climbing was something that I was always naturally good at. It was a horrible feeling; to have that thing that you’ve always been so naturally good at, become a thing that is not natural, and not something you’re good at.

I remember looking up at El Cap and decided that only a miracle would ever get me up that thing.

We hitched to Squamish the next day, and I spent the remainder of the summer gaining an education in granite climbing, becoming better at it each day. Soon, I had bouldered my hardest problem (a V6 whose name I can’t remember), onsighted a 5.12a (Sentry Box), and then onsighted a 5.12b trad route at Murin Park.

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At night, I camped under the Chief. What route I was going to climb the next day was my only concern in life. I was learning a lot about myself, as I imagined I would on my gap year. Yet part of me recognized that soon I would have to go home and take my place at Bristol University. I intended to get a degree in Philosophy and then do a conversion course into Law. I thought I wanted to be a career women like my mum. But I’m the spawn of my Mum and my Dad and here in Squamish, I tasted what it would be like to lead the life of a full-time climber. And I liked it.

Sean Villanueva O'Driscoll

Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll

As I was traveling alone, I was always looking for partners and jumped at every opportunity to climb with newfound friends. I met Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll in the boulders playing a flute. I liked him immediately despite his terrible flute playing (I think he may have improved since). I met Nelly Milfield in the Chief campsite and I liked her immediately, too, despite the fact that she was a lawyer and had an outrageous laugh. One day Nelly, Sean and I decided to spend the day cragging at Murrin Park, an excellent collection of granite cliffs south of Squamish.

Sean casually onsighted Flight of the Challenger and I let him know that I wanted to try it, too. Being a British trad climber raised by my trad-climbing dad, I had only ever climbed trad routes onsight—meaning, ground-up. No top-roping. I had never even considered top-roping a route first.

Although Sean had made Flight of the Challenger look easy, the route also looked a little scary so I expressed a few concerns.

“Is that peg any good?” I asked Sean. “If I fall just above it, do you think I would hit the ground?”

Sean looked shocked and said, “No of course not, I’ll keep the rope tight. … Don’t worry! You’ll just swing out a bit. The ground drops away.”

At first I thought he was a bit dumb—or I was just confused.

Then it dawned on me that Sean was assuming I was going to top-rope the route, not lead it.

I told him that it hadn’t occurred to me to top-rope the route and that actually I wanted to lead it. “No I meant, if I was leading it… Do you think that’s a bad idea?” He seemed very surprised.

I knew he was a good climber and I started to second-guess my chances on the route. Maybe this route was a death route. Either way, the look of concern on his face was enough to put me off leading it, and I tied into the blunt end.

I climbed the route on toprope with no falls. Two days later I came back with Nelly and led the route clean first try.

Although I was psyched to send my hardest route, I was annoyed that I had been discouraged from trying to flash it. Of course, it wasn’t Sean’s fault; it was my fault.

The reason this send was so important to me wasn’t because I don’t believe in rehearsing routes first. It isn’t even to do with what male climbers expect from the average girl at the crag.

It has to do with self-belief. I know how well I can climb a lot better than a random guy I met two days ago. So why did I trust his judgment and not my own?

———
 

Fast forward three years. I finished my degree in Philosophy and started my life as a full-time climber sponsored by The North Face. Upon graduating, I spent the first two months of summer sport climbing in Ceuse, then alpine climbing in Chamonix. By September, the names Kant, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche had all but faded from my mind and were replaced with an all-consuming dream of returning to Yosemite and free climbing El Capitan: the very thing that, years earlier, I told myself I would need a miracle to ever do.

El Cap

Hanjoerg Auer

Hanjoerg Auer

By October 2011, I was standing beneath the 1,000-meter walls of El Cap next to my friend Hansjorg Auer. We had spent some time climbing together in Rodellar earlier in the year, and had made plans to meet in the Valley in October to team up and give El Cap a shot.

Freeing El Cap is something most climbers want to do when they get to a certain level. The beauty, history, height and hard nature of the climbing make freeing El Cap an ultimate climbing goal. There’s nothing else like it.

Lynn Hill’s groundbreaking first free ascent of the Nose adds another special and important layer for female climbers—or at least it did for me. Hill’s accomplishment not only changed the perceptions of what women were capable of achieving in the climbing world, but she actually pushed the sport of climbing forward by leaps and bounds.

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Lynn Hill on the crux Changing Corners (5.14a) pitch of the Nose of El Cap.

Ever since my first trip to Yosemite, when I found myself screaming up 5.8 hand cracks, I knew I wanted to return. And I knew I wanted to climb a free route on El Cap.

For a long time I didn’t have a partner or a route in mind. I wasn’t particularly drawn to Free Rider, the usual goal for most aspiring El Cap free climbers. I had seen pictures of Golden Gate, originally freed by the Huber brothers in 2000 at 5.13b and 41 pitches long. Seeing photos of those beautiful golden walls with perfect granite edges cemented in my mind that Golden Gate was the route I wanted to try.

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I spent some time wandering around Camp 4 asking for beta for Golden Gate. It was a very discouraging afternoon.

“Don’t you know Golden Gate is supposed to be very reachy? The 5.13 ‘Move Pitch’ will shut you down if you can’t reach the holds!”

“Martina Cufar flashed the ‘A5 Traverse,’ but couldn’t do the ‘Move Pitch,’ or the ‘Down Climb.’ Too reachy!”

“I heard small people have to enter the Monster offwidth in a different way!”

“What’s that? You’ve never even climbed an offwidth!”

“Wait, you’ve never even climbed EL CAP!?!?!”

I was all but laughed at just for mentioning Golden Gate. I felt ridiculous. I couldn’t blame them, either. Who was I to try and free climb El Cap? I hadn’t even aid climbed a big wall before! Staring up at the Big Stone I felt unable to even aid up the thing let alone free climb it. I’d never hauled, never slept on a portaledge, never known how much water you need for 4 days of climbing. So I knew that free climbing Golden Gate on my first attempt at big walling might be too much to ask. I wondered if I should shift my focus to Free Rider, a route other women had done and was considered easier. Why had I chosen the route that women had failed on?

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Mayan Smith-Gobat

My friend Mayan Smith-Gobat said something to me that really stuck.

“There are tons of question marks for you on this route. You just have to go and try. It will be a great experience whatever happens.”

I remembered the day at Murrin Park, when I had trusted the judgement of others before my own. I didn’t want to let that happen again. Mayan was right. Why not just try?

 

———
 

Trad climbing is intimidating in general—but it gets much worse when you let the monster grow inside your head, and become super scary way before you even tie in.

A wise boy I used to spend a lot of time with would often say, “We’ll just take the gear for a walk.” To imagine free climbing El Cap, with all those hard pitches and all those question marks stacked on top of one another, is just too much.

But to pack the bags and drag them to the bottom of the cliff … well, I can do that.

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As soon as Hansjorg arrived in the Valley, we were off. On that first day, I grew worried that I was too incompetent for a route like this. I managed to haul the first pitch, but only just. It had taken everything for me to get the bag up one pitch. I looked up: 38 pitches of steep granite loomed above me. Maybe I should just concentrate on getting to the top in one piece! We stashed our haul bags on Heart Ledge, and came down.

The morning we set off for our push, we climbed the Freeblast just as light was hitting the wall and reached our haul bags in not much time at all. I felt a little bit of confidence creep in. We climbed and hauled to beneath the Ear and set up the portaledge. The day was hot, long and hard, but we had already climbed 19 pitches. However, I knew that next morning Hans and I would be facing what we both feared most: the Monster Offwidth.

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Hans insisted he lead it. I didn’t really care—I knew I would be fighting either way. That morning, Hans set off and climbed really well, making a lot of progress, and clearly giving it his all. Then a few meters from the top, he slipped out. Exhausted, he got back on and went to the top. Now it was my turn and I was shocked at how nervous I was. I did the big move into the crack, which was something I was worried I couldn’t do. The first half went well, and I began to feel increasingly cocky about doing the pitch.

Then for some reason it became harder and harder. Scraping my feet around to find a good heel toe and jamming my head against my hand in the crack, I found myself doing everything I could to stay in. Fortunately, I didn’t fall, and arrived at the belay to find Hans equally exhausted. I asked if he wanted to go again, and he shook his head. With barely any skin left on his ankles, knees and elbows I knew that he had given everything. He took this with great acceptance, which, looking back, is something I really admire. I turned my attention to the next set of pitches leading to the next big question mark: the infamously reachy Down Climb.

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Hans went first and to my disappointment agreed that it was reachy. My first try was in the hot sun and just by looking at how far apart the holds were, I decided that Hans’ beta would not work for me. But later in the evening when things had cooled off, I tried the move again and surprised myself by how close I got to doing it. This could actually be possible for us and hope started to creep in.

Working out these technical slab moves was so much fun in comparison to all the burlier pitches below. Over 20 pitches up the side of El Cap, there I was, attempting a wild foot-hand match to a downwards mantel. This was so cool!

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We called it a day and spent the night in the portaledge. In the cool shade of the next morning, we felt even more hopeful that we would do it. We both got it really quickly. Weirdly enough, our beta had been almost identical—despite the fact that I’m only 5’2” and Hans is more like 6’2”! Although we cheered at our success, just as quickly my thoughts turned to the next big question mark: the dreaded ‘Move’ pitch a couple of hundred feet up.

Half of me was full of hope: if the Down Climb is possible, maybe the Move is, too. We kept climbing toward this big unknown. We arrived to find Luca, our Slovenian friend, trying the Move Pitch.

“I’m too short to do this Move!” he shouted down to us. “Unfuckingbelievable!”

He had freed everything so far and was clearly pissed off about having to jump to a two-finger pocket instead of simply reaching. Being quite a bit shorter and most probably weaker than Luca, I quietly scolded myself for being so naive as to think that I could do it.

Hans led up and impressively got the Move second try. But Hansjorg is quite tall and very strong, so this did not inspire me in the slightest.

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My turn. I climbed the lower section of 5.12a and reached the undercut from which you do the Move. I looked up. The next hold was farther away than the entire length of my body! But in the flow of the climbing I saw a faint sloper in between the two holds. I could only hold it with my right and if I got my left foot really high. But I could not match the sloper. This meant that instead of reaching the next hold as a sidepull, I was forced to do a huge cross over with my left hand and take the side pull as a gaston. But this beta kinda fucked me because the next hold was up and left and I was wrong-handed. I fell off exasperated and disappointed. I played on the move for a while, trying all sorts of different things. Jumping didn’t work because the hold was side pull. I pawed around on all the other features in the rock, willing myself to be able to hold them, but couldn’t.

I strained my brain trying to think of how I could do this section … There must be a way. After trying everything I could think of, I knew that the closest I had come was on my first attempt with the crazy cross-over. All I had to do was work out how to get my right hand on the hold instead of my left.

It sort of dawned on me that I would have to match this horrible gaston and make it a side pull. But with no feet out right I wondered whether I would be strong enough. After a few attempts I had reached a point where, I could kick my right foot up on a smear and, in a back-contorting position, ultimately match the hold. Then the next move—reaching the pocket—involved being completely stretched out in a totally off-balance position with foot movements that felt crazy hard.

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As I swung around with a thousand feet of air beneath me, I thought to myself that if this were a boulder problem on the ground I would be really pleased to do it. But I had done the move so, theoretically, I could do the pitch. By this time the sun had arrived. My skin was shedding by the second. I came down and asked Hansjorg if he wouldn’t mind waiting for the morning shade.

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The next day I woke up, really nervous. I knew I could do it, but I felt tired, achey and my back was stiff. Just before I started climbing, I heard a succession of congratulatory cheering coming from around the corner to the left. Clearly some other climbers were dispatching the crux pitch of Free Rider. After four cheers, I thought, “Come on, Hazel. They are sending, now you have to, too.”

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With no warm up, I felt really shaky on the start. I also felt the momentousness of the pitch. I realized that if I didn’t get it this morning, with only a certain amount of food and water, we would be forced to move on. I had to do it now.

“Come on Hazel, you can do it” Hansjorg shouted. I pulled into the move, crossed over, and tenuously hopped my right foot up a succession of miserable smears into a position that allowed me to match. Trying my best to trust my right foot, I came in to the match and reached across. I was into the pocket! With a few more hard, pumpy moves to go I prayed that I could compose myself enough to do them. With Hansjorg, Luca, his partner, Nastia, and another French team all cheering, I reached the finishing jugs, really relieved.

I know I have described this Move—or, four moves, in my case—in a lot of detail. But this was a crux unlike I have ever done. In all those hundreds of feet of climb, this 10 foot piece of golden, pocketed rock, had forced me find a self-belief and creativity of movement that I would not have thought possible for me.

This is the beauty of facing question marks—like Mayan had said. Sometimes you might get shut down. But you never know what you’re going to find until you try.

A few more pitches took us to the Tower of the People, where Luca, Nastia and the French team were all resting in their ledges. In the evening light, Hansjorg and I both flashed the Desert Gold, a beautiful golden 13a pitch. After which, we had an unsettling moment where Hansjorg took me off belay and it took us 15 minutes to realize I was sitting on the portaledge, not clipped in to anything (!). Obviously we were getting too comfortable on the wall. I was really just pleased to have knocked off two question marks in a day, and to see some friendly faces. I enjoyed an evening sharing our experiences of the route so far.

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The next morning Hans impressively onsighted the 5.13a “A5 Traverse” with no warm up. Although he proclaimed it easy I was feeling pretty doubtful. Four days on the wall had caught up with me and a pumpy traverse on slopers with no feet was not my style. I gave it a bash and fell pretty early on. Panic crept in. I knew Hans wanted to finish the route today and I knew that I had only an hour or so before the sun came on to the wall. I had a hurried rest and tried again. The next time I gave it my all but my foot popped off a heel hook a few feet from the belay. A little heartbroken I almost lost my composure. I had been so excited to do the Move Pitch and now it seemed like a free ascent of El Cap was slipping away. Hansjorg remained super chill and encouraged me

“Hazel, this is just a short traverse,” he said. “Just rest and try again. No big deal, come on!”

On my last go, knowing the moves better I climbed quickly to make up for my fatigue and arrived at the belay very relieved. With only four more easier pitches to go, I knew I would free climb El Cap.

Despite all the question marks, I managed to free Golden Gate. Yes it was by the skin of my teeth. Yes I needed to be babied up the wall by Hansjorg. But I did it.

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On the way down to Camp 4 from the top of El Cap, I thought back to that day at Murin Park, after sending Flight of the Challenger. In the three years that had passed since that day with Sean and Nelly, I had learned a lot—but here in Yosemite, I had still doubted myself. I still almost didn’t try Golden Gate.

I’m still learning the mental games of climbing and what I’m slowly beginning to realize is that it’s better not to think about whether you’re a good climber or a bad one, or whether you’re better or worse, or stronger than the next person. It’s just about trying—and trusting yourself.

If being a full-time climber was what I wanted to do, I had to try. If freeing El Cap was what I wanted to do, I had to try.

If you forget about the question marks and just take the gear for a walk, you’ll have an experience, some kind of experience, and that’s what climbing is all about.

 

About the Author

IMG_2627 Hazel Findlay is one of the best trad climbers in the world—male or female. This pint-size technical powerhouse from the U.K. has amassed an impressive resume of tough, scary, hard routes in recent years, including Once Upon a Time in the Southwest (E9 6c — 5.13c R/X), in Devon, England, for its first female ascent and the first female to climb an E9. She has also climbed Pyromania (5.13a/b R) in the Needles on her first lead attempt; Air Sweden (5.13a R) in Indian Creek, another FFA; the 12-pitch Free Grand (5.13b), on the Grand Wall, Squamish Chief; and at least a dozen other stout, scary 5.13 trad climbs. “Hammy,” as she’s affectionately known to her friends and family in the U.K., learned to climb at age 7 from her dad, and continues to pay homage to the ground-up onsight style he taught her, while also remaining open to all types of climbing experiences around the world. She is sponsored by The North Face, Black Diamond, La Sportiva, Sterling Rope, Mule Bar, Ellis Brigham, and Yes Nurse Hand Moisturizer.  Check her website out.

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