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?
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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!”
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Paul 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.”