Talking about how you enjoy slab climbing is like talking about your middle school spelling bee victory. Those aren’t things you want the “cool kids” to hear. It stings a little, but I must confess to both.
Since graduating from university in December of 2012, I’ve spent my time traveling around the world to climb and learn as much as I can about different cultures. In each place I visit, someone inevitably suggests I try the local blank piece of rock, the neglected slab shunned by the world. I find it comical that my slab-loving reputation precedes me. In reality, I haven’t really climbed that many slabs. To Bolt or Not to Be, disparaged by most sport climbers today as just a slab from 1980s, is actually vertical.
The truth is I would rather smear my way up a face than climb on the trendy tufa routes topping today’s ticklists. Blasphemy? Perhaps, but I wouldn’t shed a tear if you told me I’d never have to throw in another kneebar, climb feet first out a roof, or victory whip off the chains. Those things aren’t fun; they make your biceps sore and your knees bruised. And they will never happen on a slab.
The only true slab I’ve climbed is Art Attack, a nice hunk of granite in the Italian Alps, established by Simone Pedeferri in 2004 at 8c (5.14b). I spent a month working this gem while visiting Val Masino in the fall of 2013, but not before cleaning a nice six-foot stripe of thick, stubborn lichen off the 30-meter face. Nine years later, the route still hadn’t seen a second ascent, let alone any apparent efforts to try. Working Art Attack was one of the more miserable climbing experiences I’ve encountered in my 14 years. For 30 days, an unusual autumn heat, thick layer of moisture clouds and consistent 80% humidity levels plagued the Alps and dampened my spirits.
Historically, when I decide I want to do something, I don’t give up in the middle. I’m also unwilling to stray from the goal to try other things. Some may call it a sin to travel to new climbing destinations only to try one route. I call it projecting. We all enjoy overcoming defeat. The longer that defeat lasts, the more attached we become to the goal. On Art Attack, the defeat was long and painful and I was deeply entrenched.
I also had no hope of finishing the route.
After a few weeks of effort, I still fell below the crux on each attempt. I hadn’t one hung the route. And I’d only done the crux move once. In poor slab form, my hips frequently found themselves too far from the wall, my feet trembled on the insecure smears, and I tried to take all my body weight on my fingers. My time in Italy was coming to a close, and the weather forecast looked the same as every other day: 70 degrees, 80% chance of rain, no wind.
A forecast of 80% chance of rain and no wind meant for me a 100% of not doing the route, yet my stubbornness kept me returning for more beatings. I knew that if conditions were different, this route would fall within my realm of ability. But conditions weren’t different, and I was determined to board that plane in a few days with no regrets. I was going to give it all I had, even if that meant leaving empty-handed.
On the second to last day of my trip, I sat below Art Attack after yet another failed attempt. A serene moment of reflection sounds like the lead-in to a nice story, except my chosen project sat 3 meters from the road. I looked across the asphalt and saw a young tourist couple in sweatpants sitting on the guardrail, camera in position, waiting to see if this mopey girl would provide any entertainment scrambling this rock.
I looked up valley and saw the angry-looking front of dark clouds, laughing as they blew mist in my eyes. I hated those clouds. I hated this road. I hated driving up it every day just to fall on my project. I hated the fake, packaged cookies I had survived on for a month, the ones that made my mouth dry when I was trying to be slabtastic. I hated myself for never even making it to the crux, let alone through it. But I did not hate this route. I felt discouraged, unmotivated, and unconfident, but I didn’t hate this slab. I had given up. There was no hope. The only thing left to do was try once more and then go on my merry way.
The day I sent Art Attack, some sort of miracle occurred. The clouds didn’t part, nor did a beam of light shine down upon me. The mist falling from the sky didn’t mysteriously pause for the 20 minutes I spent star-fishing up the wall. Maybe God just finally gave in and said, “Enough, this is getting boring, you can have it”.
I’ve always thought that experience, strength, and technique made up the base of a climber’s ability, and motivation took them to that next level. I wouldn’t throw that theory to the dogs, but it didn’t apply on that dreary day in Italy. I had no motivation. I had no confidence. I did not believe in myself. My mind didn’t line up with my muscles that day, but somehow my body knew what to do. It didn’t need moral support. It just needed to climb. Raw effort saw me to the top of Art Attack, and a flood of relief followed as I sat on the top, stunned.
In climbing, as in other areas of my life, I put immense pressure on myself to perform. As a result, I’m often disappointed in my efforts when they take longer than I expect. But on this day, I wasn’t disappointed. Determination and persistence won, even without the support of enthusiasm and confidence. Our best results as climbers often occur when body and mind align perfectly. I just needed to isolate the two.
I didn’t enjoy the experience of projecting Art Attack. I’m not currently seeking the one project that will make me miserable, even when there are plenty of other fun things to climb. Even still, I’d choose the intricacies and frustration of slab climbing over steep, powerful prows any day. Standing on something that barely exists and making upward movement through a sea of microscopic imperfections in the rock gives a sort of heroic sensation. When the fear of that slab fall creeps into my mind, I just repeat “I am Tommy Caldwell, I am Tommy Caldwell”, and I find myself floating through the sea with a little more faith and feeling a little more like I deserve the honor of climbing that slab.
I’m not Tommy Caldwell. But I am a spelling bee champion. I do love slabs. And I think all the blank rocks around the world deserve a little more love. Look closely, they aren’t really all that blank.
About the Author
Paige Claassen, 23, is from Boulder, Colorado, and has been climbing for 15 years—a majority of which has been dedicated to competition on the National and World Cup circuits. She is revered among her peers for possessing impeccable technique. She seems to have a rare preternatural confidence in herself that comes across as poise and grace. Her impressive sport-climbing resume spans such routes as Grand Ole Opry (5.14c), To Bolt or Not to Be (5.14a), and Zulu (5.14a).
Paige is the face and star of Marmot’s Lead Now Tour—a year-long global adventure to inspire people through rock climbing, and give back in the form of fund-raising for various women- and children-specific charities and causes. Through the CrowdRise website, Lead Now has raised thousands of dollars for such charities as Room to Read—Supporting Children’s Literacy in South Africa, and APNE AAP—Combating Sexual Exploitation in India.