Learning to Fly, one of Indian Creek’s short, shocking testpieces, was stuck in my craw for seven years. My venerable Grandpa Joe used to use that phrase—“stuck in my craw”—all the time to describe anything currently annoying the shit out of him. So now I say it, too, because I’ve spent my life trying to live up to the likes of Grandpa Joe.
I found this sweet little overhanging splitter over a decade ago and put in the anchor. It took only a few minutes to aid up the crack on the same-sized cams. Thwap, thwap—two bolts were in. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. We had an instant classic at a relatively new wall confusingly named The Wall (after the mind-erasing Pink Floyd double album).
While I was the first human to climb on this splitter, I was not the first to redpoint it. Or the second … or even the third.
After a quick scrub, I tried my baby on toprope.
O, the pain.
O, the flappers.
O, the blood.
No feet resulted in overhanging, angling “pegboarding”—the technique in which you race gravity by stabbing jams into the crack as quickly as you can before you peel off. With paper-thin skin, I flung myself at the crux section until the pain blurred my vision, the blood oozed down my arms, and I felt sick to my stomach from the effort.
At the time, I fancied myself a pretty serious Indian Creek climber (still do). I’d tasted the sweet, salty victory of entry-level 5.13—a grade firmly established there 20 years earlier, but still pretty legit in the Creek. I’d found success here by mastering technique and cultivating control: precisely twisting my feet in the crack just so; sagging, breathing, and finding my next jam during that fine equilibrium between falling and floating.
Crack climbing perfection, in my mind, was a matter of ultimate control.
Learning to Fly, though, had a very different personality than its hundreds of brothers and sisters here at the Creek. Short, edgy and pissed off, Learning to Fly was the dumb jock. The mindless brute thug. One-arm lock-offs. Pasting and kicking feet for momentum. You know, sport-climbing stuff. A path for idiots, as I thought at the time.
At that point in my climbing career, I had yet to really embrace such ideas as having “projects,” “training” or even “trying hard.” In other words, I was a trad climber: happy to just climb in my comfort zone until, like magic, I got imperceptibly stronger and better as the years went by. It didn’t really matter whether the route was one pitch or 25; I always had 8 pounds of cordelette and a menagerie of other flotsam hanging off my Carhartt-clad ass. In trad-land, scary often substituted for hard, and I rarely tried routes more than once or twice.
It didn’t help that the few times I’d been around hardcore sport climbers, I invariably found myself turning away in embarrassment as I watched some grown man in tights hang on a rope and throw a hissy-fit like a baby who just shit his bouncy chair. Neither Grandpa Joe nor anyone else I looked up to would ever cotton to an approach like this.
Hence, I never let it bother me too badly that Learning to Fly was spanking me so hard that even your momma felt sorry for me. I was getting out-gunned and out-thugged by a short little bully—but so what? I was a trad climber. One route could never make or break me—or reduce me to a fit-throwing shit-stain in tights. I would never trade in my Carhartts!
But then I met Didier Berthod. He was standing like a wan mirage on the dirt road into the Bridger Jacks, waiting on the Austrian White Wizard, Beat Kammerlander, to come pick him up. (Beat was late.)
For those who don’t recall Didier’s brief moment in the limelight in the early 2000s, he was a Swiss crack ace who had already put up the hardest crack routes in all of Europe and the Creek. He retired from climbing a couple of years later to join a Christian commune and live out the rest of his days as a simple farmer. When I met him, though, he was still “l’homme”.
“Yes. Uh, do you know of more hard cracks?” Didier asked me in his supremely mockable accent.
“Can we can go there now?”
“Nope. I’m on a rest day, mon ami. Half drunk already.”
“Maybe you go belay me?”
“Maybe you go blow me?”
No, I didn’t say that. But I thought it. Belay some stranger on my route? On my rest day, no less? Punk-ass Swiss midget. Then, like Gandalf astride an eagle, Beat Kammerlander came tearing up in his rented Maxima and carried Didier away.
Over the next couple of days, Didier charmed me into submission (no doubt with the help of the White Wizard’s spell). He gave Learning to Fly a few goes, ticked the living shit out of it, and said it was harder than his other routes in the Creek. I felt proud of my little crack baby (the climb, not Didier). I got excited to see it climbed, even though it wouldn’t be by my hands. In a moment of supreme altruism, I relented and told Didier he should climb it first.
But! … I said he had to keep the name, because my friend Jim Nigro had already made a sweet-ass plaque.
I held the rope when Didier sent Learning to Fly a couple of days later. Beat’s hot Italian wife or girlfriend (I could barely understand either) got subbed in on belay for the photo shoot, and a few months later, Didier appeared in Climbing Magazine and received a Golden Piton award for baddest crack climb of the year.
To be honest, Didier turned out to be a sweet guy, and I reckoned that since he had the talent, he deserved the gift. I didn’t really mind being left out of the limelight. Nobody from Carhartt was ever going to sponsor me, anyway.
But as Learning to Fly grew in notoriety and more people easily dispatched the route and added it to their ticklists for their own sponsors, I grew slightly incensed that whatever small place I had in this climb’s history was being erased—mostly because I couldn’t seem to clip the chains.
This is when the craw-sticking really began.
I figured I needed more control, more mastery, more skill, and then one day it would just come together. Turns out my little baby favored the strong and bold, not the sneaky and old, and I was decidedly becoming the latter. Word was out that Learning to Fly was like a sport crack climb, with its short, steep crux and relatively secure, if painful, locks. Several of climbing’s young poster boys waltzed up and sent it, often onsight. Then some nobodies did it. Then? Well, just get in line for my sweet, sweet climb and have a go. She’s just another trade route. She’s anybody’s freak.
Steph Davis interrupted my sulking to assure me Learning to Fly was hard. But Steph sure made it look easy in her video.
Bad photos were posted online of so-and-so sending my project. Now my capricious little climb was just internet climbing porn.
O, the humanity.
Meanwhile, back in Colorado, the siren song of sport climbing had begun to call my name. I started bashing my bad trad attitude on the rocks of Rifle. While the conversion to sporto could never quite eradicate my trad tendencies, such as being terrified of falling or not trying things that are “too hard,” I had traded my Friends for friends most weekends, and I was gaily socializing at the sport cliff rather than bitching about the crowds ruining my wilderness experience in the Creek.
While I never used more than two wraps of athletic tape around my hands for climbing in the Creek, the situation in Rifle was remarkably different: double kneepads dripping with stickum, lotions and potions and spray on this-and-that, multiple pre-clipped bolts ready for the “lead.” All the type of shit that would have caused Grandpa Joe, had he been a climber, to shake his head.
Regardless, I put in my dues, punching the clock on project after project in Rifle. But since I was still a pretty shitty sport climber, I never passed up a chance to remind everyone in earshot that I was really a tradster at heart. Like the old joke: How do you know somebody’s a trad climber? Oh, he’ll fucking tell you (and he’ll be hanging on the warm-ups).
But then something strange happened … when I did go to the Creek, shit started to feel easy. Laybacking felt like grabbing the biggest jugs in the world. Everything is vertical and you don’t even have to make the moves to get the next bolt. Have cams, will travel. Ha, what a joke!
Yet Learning to Fly continued to spank me just the same. One a muerte, do-or-die effort would tear my cuticles off at the quick and send me back to home to lick my wounds until next season.
During this period I turned 40. I celebrated by climbing 40 pitches in a day at Indian Creek. My hero Randy Leavitt told me that it’s impossible to get any stronger after 35, yet I knew that I could rely on technique and control, more so than strength, to see me up any crack climb at the Creek.
In my 42nd year on the planet, I finally found myself sport climbing with some efficacy, despite Randy’s dire warnings of desiccation. I wasn’t really getting any stronger, just like Leavitt might have predicted. But I was progressing in another way: I was learning to overcome these old-school inhibitions against projecting, trying hard and training. Most of all, I was learning how to not run from failure.
In fall of 2012, I freed a new route on Castleton Tower with my friend Sam Lightner. I had been training and felt like I was getting into shape. Multiple marches up and down the Castleton talus cone didn’t hurt, either.
It suddenly dawned on me in November of that year: “Maybe I can finally do that stupid fucking crack route.”
Right away, as if on cue, another Smeagol-sounding voice instantly growled, “I doubt it!”
“Whatever. It’s only, like, 20 feet long anyway,” I retorted to Smeagol. But I knew deep down in my heart of hearts that that was the issue! I had tried in vain with my suave crack technique and it wasn’t working.
It was during this schizophrenic internal argument that I was having with myself that something clicked. “It is short and powerful. You need to sport climb it, you dummy!” Made sense, and Smeagol shut up.
I knew I could crack climb, and over the last seven years I’d also learned how to sport climb. My bag of climbing tricks was as formidable as it ever was going to get (let’s not talk about bouldering, OK?). I’d bring all of these guns to bear on Learning to Fly: my 50-foot nemesis on a 400-foot wall.
Although I had learned how to project sport climbs, how to train and how to be willing to fail, there was still one last part of the equation that was missing. One last golden fleece that I would need to be given by some wise old sage before I could fully vanquish the minotaur at the end of the maze.
Who would that sage be? Jim Bridwell? Nope. Grandpa Joe? (I wish).
That sage appeared in the form of Peewee Ouellet, the Québécois crack maestro. Peewee, who I think sounds a bit like Ren from Ren and Stimpy, imparted this bit of wisdom to me: “Eeediot! You’ve got to superglue the tape on. GLUE it in place, mang! It will stick and save your fingers for another go! You hear me? GLUE it in place!”
So with this nefarious wisdom gifted to me by the Québécois, my girlfriend, Steph Bergner, and I casually headed up to climb at The Wall.
“Maybe I’ll give a go on the proj,” I said to Steph. “You know, if I feel like it. You know, um, if we have time or whatever.” (As if I would bother wasting my time on anything else.)
Then the voices returned: “You’re gonna get spanked!”
Then a horrible image of Didier riding a giant Golden Piton through the air with my girlfriend in tow flashed before my eyes. Agh! I shook my head, returned to reality and came to grips with the task at hand.
I carefully taped my skinny fingers as per Peewee’s instruction. I remembered how Didier spent his first few goes just testing jams and working out the sequence even though the crack seemed to be perfectly uniform. After the first decent burn, I cleaned the offending tick marks and scrubbed her clean as a whistle inside and out. On the second burn, I nearly punched through the crux, but fell. Progress, but success still eluded me.
Because I was now OK with failing, for the first time ever, I tried the route for a third time in a single day. On this go, I finally sorted out some type of beta—yes, this uniform crack required memorization of beta. Another breakthrough.
My fingers throbbed, stuck in a semi-bent position, but my skin was more or less intact! Peewee, you fucking mad genius!
The following weekend, I returned with a posse of friends, more superglue, and the mind of Buddha. I had meditated on the moves all week, and tried to be Zen and unperturbed, but the boys were all aware of why we had come to The Wall. Upon arrival, we found that Learning to Fly had attracted yet another strong young beau to her overhanging curves. Emerging crack-fiend Charlie Berrett was there to try his hand as well.
I put the miniature rack together: six Black Diamond .4s and one .3. My mind droned in a single voice, “Think like a sporto. Don’t worry about control. Let your feet skate if you must. Go, go, go through the crux. Collect your shit, breathe, place a piece, right, left, left, all thumbs-down, right edge, heel hook, mantel. Done.”
My longtime friend Michael Logan loaded the GriGri. “Alright then.” Here I go.
It went exceedingly well. Only a couple of yelps escaped my throat. I was fit and confident, had a great belay and great stoke from the ground, and I nailed my beta. With a fleeting instant of deep effort, I finally managed to swallow that lump of doubt in my throat, lock the last couple jams, and mantel onto the ledge below the chains. Like Arthur removing Excalibur, I had finally unsheathed Learning to Fly from the depths of my craw.
I lowered to the ground, and all the guys were stoked. Some folks who I’d never met before bumped my fist as well.
Charlie, too, congratulated me as he racked up for his own burn. Unfortunately, his effort ended with him hanging on the rope, staring at his shredded fingers in disgust. He’s certainly a stronger climber than me, and I would never have begrudged Charlie the send. However, I have to admit that part of my heart was glad that Learning to Fly only gave herself to me that day. After seven years of courtship, I think I deserved her sole affection for one afternoon.
Even though I had relied on tricky tape jobs, hang-dogging, projecting and years of sport climbing to get me to the top, it was what I had learned in the process that really made this send so sweet. I’d learned how to be dedicated, how to be smarter and how to let go of my need for control. How to just climb. And these are all things that I know would’ve made old Grandpa Joe proud.
About the Author
While most of you will recognize Chris Kalous as the sultry, sexy voice behind America’s favorite climbing podcast, the Enormocast, what you may not know about Kalous is that he is the best 5.12 climber you’ve never heard of.
Having spent the last 25 years cutting his teeth in such stout, unforgiving venues as Yosemite, Indian Creek and Rifle, this 42-year-old is truly consistent at the 5.12 grade, whether that’s sport, trad or big-wall. Climbing has taken him around the world, to such venues as Mt. Proboscis (Grendel; 5.10 A4), the Verdon Gorge, Sicily, Columbia and Jordan (Dar Al’Salaam, 5.13a, FA), to name a few.
Some of his climbing-career highlights include ascents of Reticent Wall (A5), Scorched Earth (A5), a solo winter ascent of Lost in America (A5) and a free ascent of Free Rider (5.12d/13a)—all on El Cap. His most recent first ascent is the stunning Ivory Tower (5.13b) arete on Castleton Tower.
Born in Green Bay, but raised in a Chicago suburb, Kalous recently traded in his dirtbag membership card for a mortgage by buying a home in the climbing-media capital of the world, Carbondale, Colorado.
Tune into the Enormocast each week by subscribing to it on iTunes. And stay tuned for future collaborations between Evening Sends and the Enormocast …