(You’re like, “Nooooooooooo!!” But, this is why we have blogs.)
This route was a tremendous journey—honestly one I hope to never experience again. You can’t be out at sea for that long without gaining some kind of unique insight … or going crazy from scurvy. Perhaps those are the same.
My introduction to Living in Fear was as a belayer. A few years ago, I was climbing a lot with Dan Mirsky. He’s a good friend and has always been a huge inspiration to me because, despite being a natural, Dan works for his achievements. Dan taught me everything about how to redpoint—a subtle, yet very complex discipline.
I watched as Dan forged ahead into the isolated terrain of hard 5.13 and 5.14 climbing, and as an unplanned byproduct, he showed me the path to go there myself.
Lesson: If you want to get better, climb with people who are better than you.
Living in Fear was one of the first routes I saw that gave Dan real trouble. I believe it was the first route that took him more than one season to send. Toward November, Dan was living out of his truck in Rifle canyon, alone, desperate for belayers and obsessed with Living. Nothing else in life mattered. It was all about doing this one route. However, Dan continued to fall at the infamous 5.8 Dyno, as many do, unable to get past this point, yet coming so close to sticking it on each attempt. It was exasperating for him, and equally hard for me as a vicarious participant. “This climb is ruining my life,” he said. I could see that.
I wanted to know what the route was like. Dan described how sustained it was: no rests, no kneebars, and no holds on which to match—these descriptions struck like arrows the bulls’ eyes of each of my biggest weaknesses as a climber. I still didn’t know how to shake out, often fell above cruxes when the route was supposedly “over,” and routinely got pumped on the warm-ups. Without a hint of irony, I told Dan, “Don’t feel bad, there’s no way I will ever climb Living in Fear.” I said it to make him feel better, but I also truly believed it. Dan’s struggle magnified this route’s fearsome reputation. Years before I was even in the ballpark of being good enough to try Living in Fear, I was already afraid of it.
Every route I’ve ever projected has been a battle. I was introduced to climbing in high school, but didn’t really get into the sport till the summer after my first year of college, when I climbed as much as possible at the Gunks, one hour from my parents’ house in New York. Here, you’ll find the most stout and engaging easy routes in the world, a place where 5.5 is challenging and 5.9+ is elite. I started on 5.5, worked my way up to 5.5+, and then eventually tackled 5.6-. I can honestly say that I’ve had to fight for each next grade on the YDS scale.
For my first six years as a climber, I never sport climbed; in fact, I talked shit about sport climbing because that’s what you do when you’re a trad climber (strangely, that type of misplaced slander never seems to go the other way; you never hear sport climbers ripping on trad climbers for what they do, something I’ve never quite understood).
I was completely dedicated to the righteous art of trad, also doing alpine routes, ice and mixed climbs and El Cap big walls. This was a great foundation, and all are things I still love, but the more I climbed, the more I found myself enraptured by the act of pushing myself physically on rock. It soon became all about free climbing.
We tend to think about something like just getting stronger as a brute and thuggish pursuit—somehow less profound than reaching summits and other rarified places, or getting scared on run-out climbs. But in fact disciplined athleticism is a type of intelligence; it can be penetrating and moral, and a commitment to its pursuit is as revealing and powerful as anything in our soul sport.
Lesson: Find out what you like in life. Don’t be afraid to listen to what is inside.
Dan eventually sent Living in Fear, but he had to wait till the following season to do it. Over the next few years, I made slow progress through the 5.13 grade, eventually sending my first 5.13d, Simply Read. By this point, Dan was running laps on Living in Fear, literally using it as a warm-up. One day, Dan lapped bothLiving in Fear and Simply Read before I could even hangdog up another climb. Seeing this type of progression in my friend was eye opening.
Being faced with the clear disparity between your level and someone else’s is one of the most common experiences that people have at sport-climbing areas, and it’s often depressing. But, this harks back to messages repeated in kindergarten—there’s always someone better than you. It’s your choice how this affects you.
Lesson: You tend to compare yourself to others in the fleeting, present moment—a waste of time. The only thing that ultimately matters is how You compare to Yourself in the past. These bearings—not those marked by others—should guide you.
I had begun climbing more with my girlfriend, Jen, who I had met one day in the Arsenal when she randomly came up to me and put an orange TicTac in my mouth. (This intrigued me.) Jen had come to Rifle on a road trip, but after that summer decided not to go home.
For her first two summers in Rifle, she put her draws up on Living in Fear, only to take them down, deciding the route was too hard. Jen has a pretty good sense of what she can and can’t do. She’s an amazing climber with as much natural talent as the best in the world. When she says she’s about to send something, she usually does. She often tells herself things like, “If I stick that hold, I will go to the top.” And sure enough, those audacious premonitions become reality.
For me, however, that kind of certainty was always absent, as if my brain was operating on software that never had been upgraded. I found her approach to redpointing both bold and baffling.
Last summer, Jen put her draws back on Living in Fear for the third summer in a row. That spring she’d vowed to send it, making it a priority. I had no intentions of getting onLiving because I am careful to avoid working on the same projects as my climbing partners. I will do whatever it takes to evade situations where I am thrust onto a stage of comparison with other people, friends and especially climbing partners.
Deep down, I am an extremely competitive person, and these situations often disinter a fierce atavism I hold to crush anything that I regard as a rival or threat—something I do not like about myself. It makes things not fun—but climbing is meant to be everything butnot fun. Fortunately, I am able to outwardly suppress these rotten, insecure compulsions about as well as any other decent, nice-enough person out there. Yet that doesn’t automatically preempt the possibility of inner turmoil, which is why I choose to chop the monster’s head off before it can grow three. (What the fuck does that mean?)
Yet that summer, I was drawn to Living in Fear. I suppose I was tired of hearing about it, and just wanted to see what it was all about for myself. Plus, having completed Simply Read the prior fall, I decided Living would be a good next step. If nothing else, it would help me get some endurance.
Even with Jen’s great beta, it took me a few tries to do all the moves. I was surprised by how hard they were, having been told that every move is “only V4.” I guess V4 is hard when you can only climb V8. Still, I kept working on it and rapidly began making links. After three or so weekends of work, I had achieved a one hang—the official herald of imminent success in sport climbing.
Lesson: Never let a route’s grade or reputation deter you from trying it.
These initial gains instilled me with unbridled gusto. It was thrilling to be making such quick progress on a route I had always regarded with such acute apprehension. Soon, I was reaching higher points than even Jen, and she was graciously telling me that I’d probably do it before her, an ironic idea.
Despite doing my best to remain cool, this thought ignited my competitive instincts and suddenly Living in Fear morphed from being a route I was merely using to gain fitness into my most coveted redpoint.
I had a sense that if I could ever climb as well as someone like Jen, then I finally might be able to think of myself as a “good climber.” For all the affirmations I’ve received in life, gaining my own has always been the hardest.
Despite reaching the Bevel (about 5.13b in and of itself) from the ground, and then being able to go from the Bevel to the top, I was having a hard time getting up to the 5.8 Dyno from the ground. My original beta wasn’t working on redpoint due to the immense cumulative fatigue. This was an unexpected complication.
I’m a tall, powerful climber with a positive wingspan, and in the past I have often squeaked by cruxes by doing fewer and bigger moves. After hanging, I could easily climb from the Bevel through the 5.8 Dyno with just a few lunges. Doing it this way didn’t even feel hard, and I didn’t think this section would be problematic. But the harsh reality was my big-move beta wasn’t working on redpoint. It took me a few days just to realize this.
It took many more days, however, to figure out new beta. Before going up on the route, I would envision different possibilities for what might work while tired (more, smaller moves), and then commit myself to trying that speculative sequence. To do this, I had to actually make it past the Bevel on go. Even reaching the Bevel wasn’t always guaranteed, not to mention executing the core-sapping sequence above it.
This was an incredibly frustrating process. Imagine building an airplane with trial and error guiding you. You start from scratch, then fly it off a cliff each time you complete a design only to have the plane crash because the shape of the wing wasn’t quite right. Then, you start over, changing one small thing with the desperate hope that this time it’ll soar.
To carry the metaphor over, I crashed many times on this section of Living.
Eventually, I had come up with a sequence that could get me up to the 5.8 Dyno more reliably than any other, and I committed to it. My fitness had reached a new level. After climbing through the bottom part so many times, I wasn’t getting pumped on other climbs. This was a small reward in an otherwise bleak and frustrating experience.
Lesson: Find ways to stay encouraged or else you won’t make it.
The 5.8 Dyno is a strange spot with uncanny ramifications. Reaching the holds penultimate to the 5.8 Dyno move is like entering a momentous and gravitational plane where you are measured with the brutal, discriminatory finality of your unjust Maker.
Here are two chiseled slots—a “jug”-type thing, and a thin vertical slot. If your right hand—particularly the pinky finger—is shaped just so, you can finagle a jam that allows you to hang from your bone, shake out both hands and also make a clip. Being able to shake this high on the route, just before the last large (5.8 Dyno) move—standing disconsolate, an irrevocable passage to less steep terrain—is a massive advantage that I was not given.
I was one of the damned. It’s not that my pinky finger was too big or fat to fit into the chiseled slot; it was that it was too short compared to my other fingers. With my other fingers in the shallow slot, the first joint of my pinky came up shy of the slot’s crucial pinched irregularity. The seemingly innocuous architecture of my hand elevated the challenge of Living in Fear in ways I still didn’t appreciate then.
Lesson: We don’t rate routes—they rate us.
That fall, Jen sent Living in Fear. It was the route’s third female ascent, a huge accomplishment for her. I think she might have had the slowest ascent to date, not in that it took her so many tries, but rather in terms of the time she spent on the wall. She shook out everywhere, including at the pinky-jam rest before the Dyno. Hers was an absolutely crazy display of climbing technique and endurance. Along with Dave Graham, she is perhaps the only other person I know who can claim to have never fallen at the 5.8 Dyno. She had told herself that if she could stick that move to the slot, she was going to the top. Sure enough, she did.
Despite being genuinely psyched for her, I won’t lie that my motivation eventually suffered in the ensuing weeks. This is a rather shameful thing to admit. There’s not much to say about it other than it was the first of many moments during this redpoint process where my enthusiasm to continue trying the route, and my belief that I could actually do it, had peaked and begun its roller-coaster descent toward a harrowing trough.
Lesson: Motivation that stems from your ego is fragile and short lived. Lasting motivation comes from within.
I had been regularly reaching the 5.8 Dyno from the ground, but here I was faced with a conundrum: whether to clip or skip. If you can’t do the pinky-jam rest, clipping is quite hard. You’re already hanging from your right hand for a really long time, and clipping adds another few seconds, sapping you for the Dyno.
Do I clip and reduce my chances of sticking the Dyno; or do I not clip and risk upwards of a 40-footer, which could become a ground fall if, for some rare (but not unheard of) reason, the lower draw unclipped itself or failed?
Each time I got up there, my mind wrestled with this dilemma. Maybe I could clip AND do the Dyno, I’d often think. But inevitably this would turn to doubt and/or hesitation, and I’d always fall or grab the draw.
Recognizing that my indecision was causing me to fail before I had even given the move an honest chance, I committed to skipping the clip. For the next few weeks, I took many 35-foot falls, which at first were exciting and fun and then got old quickly. It was hard to summon the concentration to climb well when in the back of my mind I knew the penalty; it was even harder to get motivated to go up the route. If I felt even a little bit weak, I knew that I’d either be grabbing a draw or whipping.
By the end of the season, I had actually stuck the 5.8 Dyno twice. Both times, I managed to climb to the next clipping stance above the next draw, where I lived out my worst nightmare by fumbling the clip. I was penalized with a 45-foot screamer. I began to realize that simply sticking the 5.8 Dyno, despite what some say, did not guarantee success. I realized I would’ve likely fallen on the next sequence, which remains hard, crimpy and thrutchy.
In November 2009, I stopped trying Living in Fear, though not by choice. It was finally too cold. The season had ended, despite my vehement protestations. Over the winter, I reflected on my efforts and realized that I wasn’t going to send this route if I was redlining. If I needed to skip clips because I was already so maxed out, I probably wasn’t going to make it much further. I’d need to climb with control and confidence. In other words, I’d need to get better.
“Spring” conditions didn’t actually come till summer this year, and by the time it was nice enough to start climbing at Rifle, I felt like I was in pretty good shape despite having torn my hamstring in February, heel-hooking in Hueco. I was hesitant to get back on Living, reasoning it was still wet. Really I was just avoiding facing my Fear, so to speak. One day Chuck Fryberger was out, and he ventured up it, brushing away the winter grime. Surprisingly, he said the route was dry. I couldn’t help myself and I hopped on it that afternoon.
One aspect about Living in Fearthat I have undoubtedly failed to convey is just how much I enjoy climbing it.
I think it’s nearly a perfect line. All of the moves are engaging, fun and powerful. But the reasonLiving in Fear is so good is not because of some rad move or sequence.
Its sustained nature, the feeling of climbing at your limit, of riding that sharp edge where you are so barely attached to the rock for so long, is what makes it so special.
For an afternoon project, I decided to put my draws up on Roadside Prophet, a route that has recently been upgraded to 5.14a. I had never climb a 5.14a before, and ticking that elusive grade was obviously a goal of mine. Of course, as soon as my draws went up onRoadside, there was a line for it. This always seems to happen to me, and I joke it’s because when other people see a gumby like me climbing on a route, they reason that if I can do it, they can probably do it, too.
In June, I’d spend my mornings re-working Living, trying to build up the fitness needed to make ever-larger links; then in the afternoon, I’d work on Roadside. Eventually, my warm-up routine was a 5.11, a 5.12d, and a 5.13b (Apocalypse)—then Living in Fear, then Roadside Prophet, then one or two warm-downs in the Arsenal.
This huge volume of climbing was getting me in the best shape of my life, and soon I was close to one-hanging Roadside Prophet. Despite being graded harder at 5.14a, I felt as though the 5.13d Living in Fear was actually way more difficult for the simple reason that you can shake out on Roadside. Still, Roadside is a hard climb, and I wasn’t expecting to do it anytime soon. But on the Fourth of July weekend, on my third day on, after my third beer, I sent Roadside Prophet on my 15th or so attempt. It was an awesome experience because it was so unexpected—I felt so fluid and light—and mostly because all of my friends were there to see it. That day remains the best climbing experience of my life.
Lesson: My feeling on “slash grades,” or climbs considered “easy” for the grade: Do you need the number? Most of the time, I think it’s better to give yourself less credit than you deserve. But every now and then, if you need it, it’s ok to take it. Why not?
Regardless of what number you want to assign Roadside Prophet, I had done it quickly, in good style. My confidence was high, and I had the sense that perhaps I’d be able to doLiving in Fear soon.
Still, it took me another month of work just to get back to a point where I was consistently falling at the 5.8 Dyno. I was getting really frustrated. At one point, I yelled, “What the fuck do I need to do to send this?!?!?!?”
My friend Sam Elias (who warms up on Living) was especially encouraging. He forced me to do the move over and over, and just continue figuring it out. I was initially stubborn, feeling as though I’d figured it out already! What else could there possibly be left to figure out?
Yet, I succumbed and was humbled, and in that space, I learned some subtleties that made small but significant differences. First a body position that allowed me better make the cruxy clip. Second, I learned how to hit the “jug” as a sidepull, and how to hang from a straight arm.
Lesson: There’s always something new to learn, whether on your second or 70th time up a route.
I continued to fall at the Dyno, however. The route had become extremely emotional for me, and each failure brought me closer to despair. Sam, Emily Harrington and Jen were all so encouraging, though. They provided rare buoyancy that you often don’t find in other climbing partners. I got the sense that they wanted me to succeed even more than I did. They continued to believe in me, even when I had abandoned all belief in myself. I can honestly say that I would’ve given up had they not been there.
Some other interesting things happened with Living in Fear this summer. Sam bolted an extension that adds another 70 feet of climbing, taking the route all the way to theSometimes Always anchors. He called his route Living the Dream, and rated it 5.14a/b. Joe Kinder put up a new route left of Living called Wacka Flocka (5.14b). Then, he saw the opportunity for a mega link-up that goes from Wacka Flocka into Living the Dream. He added one bolt, and sent Wacka Flocka Flame (5.14c), the hardest route on the Project Wall.
There was a period when all the best climbers in Rifle—Emily, Sam, Joe, Ryan Palo and Jonathan Siegrist—were basically running laps on Living in Fear working out these various extensions and link-ups. This ignited some truly ignoble feelings within me, basically because I felt as if they were unintentionally making a mockery of a route that I couldn’t do. I felt small and insignificant, as if I’d been trivialized somehow.
These types of feelings are funny because I’m self-aware enough to know how ridiculous they are; yet that didn’t prevent me from being above having them.
Ultimately I embarrassed myself: When Joe asked my opinion for where to add another bolt to link Wacka Flocka into Living in Fear, I tried to deter him by making it seem like adding a bolt was a bad idea. I cited ethics about “pure, independent lines,” and “minimizing the amount of hardware” on the wall. I had become the very type of climber I hate: the one who prevents there being more climbing, who stymies the sport’s progression, by standing on some flimsy moral high ground that is all just a bunch of bullshit to cover up one hard-to-swallow reality: I was really insecure about not being as good as them.
Upon realizing what I had become, and feeling disgusted and embarrassed about it, some cold truths were illuminated for me. At this point, I decided Living in Fear was no longer about anyone or anything else. I stopped caring that other people could shake out where I couldn’t. I stopped being affected by seeing others warm up on it. I stopped caring about who was watching me when I climbed on it, or how I looked on it. I dropped all ego, all pretensions. I allowed my ambition, my pride and my failures to be vulnerable and naked before everyone else. I didn’t care anymore because now it was only aboutLiving in Fear and me. No one and nothing else mattered.
I renewed my sinking motivation by convincing myself that I would never face another challenge, in climbing or otherwise, as great as this one. That’s a pretty extreme thing to believe, and while it renewed some much-needed motivation, it also instilled me, once again, with more fear because of how much gravity that idea held. Think about it. What if you never succeeded at something that you tried with such naked ambition?
Most of the time in our daily lives, if we put our minds to do something, we do it. But facing a challenge where this might not be the case was something I’d personally never experienced before, and it truly frightened me. If I can’t do this one stupid climb, how many other things are there in this world that can stop me?
In the last month, before stepping on the route, I’d have this panicky moment where I felt as though I was about to do battle with some type of very imposing monster. Despite Living being “just a sport route,” it took all of my courage to even go up it.
Toward the beginning of November, I had come to terms with the fact that I probably wasn’t going to send Living in Fear this year, and that it would become a three-season project. The route hadn’t seen sun in almost 60 days, and as it’s situated in the most blustery, dark corridor of canyon, climbing on it is difficult if not impossible at this time of year.
My fingers have gone numb on Living even on warm, summer days because you climb so fast, without a chance to shake, which can squeeze all of the blood from your tips. To combat numb, frozen fingers, I had adopted a new warm-up routine involving two routes in the sun, and then hangdogging up Living in Fear to allow my fingers to become cold. I brushed holds on the way down, rested for two minutes, and then gave it a redpoint burn before I grew too chilled.
On the first weekend in November, it was beautiful and I took a day off of work on Friday to go climbing with Lee Sheftel. I did a B.S. burn on Living, just going half way up. For whatever reason, I felt strong that day, but my fingers were frozen by the fourth draw. I came down, pulled the rope, re-tied in and started climbing. On that second time, I was more noticeably more tired. My fingers still went numb, and I still fell at the 5.8 Dyno.
At that point, I was convinced that I definitely wouldn’t be doing Living this season.
I rested on Saturday, and then went out on Sunday with Jen. Because of how poor the conditions were two days earlier, I wasn’t even psyched to get on Living. After warming up, however, I was feeling anxious about not giving it at least one last try. The weather forecast was for the temperature to drop 30 degrees and snow next week. The season was going to end. We drove over to the Project Wall, just so I could look at the climb.
Lesson: Always try.
I decided to go up it. Why not? Instead of going halfway up Living to get my fingers cold, I tried something new: I put my hands in the river till they went completely numb. I figured this might save me the exhaustion of climbing half my project before giving it a proper redpoint attempt. I had no idea whether or not the river trick would work.
After my hands went numb, I re-warmed them in my armpits, put my shoes on and tied in. I figured that I’d probably just go numb and have to take somewhere, making for a rather unexciting end to the season.
Sure enough, my fingers went numb at the fourth bolt. However, I was still able to use them. I couldn’t feel what I was grabbing, but I was still able to curl my fingers around crimps. I think this was because of the river trick.
I kept saying to myself, It doesn’t matter anymore. It doesn’t matter if your fingers are numb, or if you feel tired, or if you get pumped. It just doesn’t matter. All you have to do is keep climbing. Just keep climbing.
I reached the cruxy clip before the 5.8 Dyno and knew that I had enough juice to stick the move. I knew I’d stick it, but I didn’t know what was going to happen afterward.
It doesn’t matter. Just keep climbing. It doesn’t matter. Just keep climbing.
I stuck the Dyno, and continued through the next crimpy sequence. Upon getting to a former highpoint this season, I reeled in the left hand and just barely stuck the high right-hand crimper. My fingers were so numb I couldn’t tell what I was grabbing; but I hadn’t fallen, so I knew I was on something. Just as I reeled in the right hand, James Litz style, my right foot blew off the wall and I screamed.
But I stayed on. At this point, it was all about precision footwork. There was one final move that loomed uncertainly in my mind. But I told myself to just stay focused and place my feet well.
I reached the last bolt, where there is a shake. I screamed. People have fallen above here before, and there still remained a small doubt that I’d get to the anchors. I shook, and shook and soon my fingers thawed out. There was now a near-psychotic amount of adrenaline running through my body, but I stayed focused, used my feet and propelled myself to the top. I clipped the chains.
After throwing a huge posi-wobbler, which included giving Living in Fear the middle finger and dropping enough F-bombs to make George Carlin turn in his grave, I experienced a deep satisfaction that I couldn’t quell.
Soon I came down from my high. I couldn’t help but wonder if all the effort was worth it. It was a strange thought to have had in such an exalted moment. I compared my experience with Living in Fear to that of Roadside Prophet, and decided that the aphorism of the more you put into something, the greater the rewards, is true … but perhaps only up to a certain point.
Completing Living in Fear didn’t result in some exponentially greater satisfaction. Perhaps because I had felt as though I’d already done the route so many times. All of the times I spent visualizing each and every move, all of the times that I’d made huge links and one-hangs … in some ways, I felt as though I had sent Living in Fear a hundred times already.
Lesson: 10 to 20: that’s the ideal number of attempts in redpointing, the target zone for reaching the pinnacle of satisfaction sport climbing can offer.
Like I said, Living in Fear was a tremendous journey, and I don’t think it’s too hyperbolic to call it life altering.
One interesting issue that today’s new age climber must face is deciding how to spray about yourself on the Internet. On the drive home, I began composing Facebook status updates to let my friends know I had slain the dragon. I could’ve written something obviously like, “Andrew Bisharat is no longer Living in Fear.”
What I wrote instead was actually way worse: “Andrew Bisharat OMG! OMG! I finally did Living in Fear! First Gumby Ascent!”
But after constructing this blog post, however, I now realize what I should’ve written:
Andrew Bisharat lived.