Rock climbing is for the obsessed, the problem solvers, the patient and the persistent. I often lack the patience and persistence, and this has held me back. I would rather try a wide variety of different disciplines to keep things interesting and to stay in the most rewarding part of the learning curve. Committing to a project with the real possibility of failure is always hard.
|Nate 'stoked nate' Mankovitch cuts loose on Full Circle, .13a at wild iris. He's not dabbing in that aspen tree, that's a mistake of visual superposition.|
Its been 3 or 4 years since I put real work into rock climbing. I've been in a cycle of ice and mixed climbing through the winter, until recently studying physics, chasing ski descents all spring, working, alpine climbing, and running in the summer, leaving just a few months in the fall to really focus on rock climbing. As a result I've found a huge plateau: at the age of 23 I haven't really bouldered appreciably harder than when I was 18. Rock climbing has become my clear weakness, and despite years of intermittent training, I have seen very little improvement.
Strangely, I think I owe my plateau-breaking improvements to an Injury. This season, like so many before it, my decisions were made for me, by fate and by an unforeseen injury. This is a common narrative, that the renewed motivation and re-alignment of perspective that follows injury and inactivity can lead to new personal bests in sport.
I found manual labor to be totally incompatible with high-level technical climbing. Despite being in such a great rock climbing destination as Lander, I had completely sidelined climbing. During the summer I started a new job installing solar, and was doing quite a bit of running with not enough gradual development of a mileage base to support it. As manual labor goes, solar is pretty soft, but I still found myself getting sore every day. I believed the light wear and tear at work wouldn’t adversely affect my ability to build a long-distance trail-running base. I was wrong. I overdid it somewhere between kicking shovels into rocky dirt trying to dig up electrical conduit at work and going suicide pace at a 36 mile trail race on the weekend, giving myself a stress fracture in the cuboid bone of my right foot.
I asked Steve House about this apparent conflict between systematic training for alpine climbing, technical climbing and projecting, and manual labor. I'm thankful to have his advice, but the answer surprised me. He said that I should all but drop systematic training, and when I had the time off work I should use it in the practice of climbing, and if I must train strength and aerobic fitness, the focus should be on maintenance. I should only add real volume or intensity when I have the time to recover properly. This is the guy who wrote Training for the New Alpinism, and he was advising me not to train. The rationale is that I have more to gain now by maintaining and building skills rather than cranking away at aerobic fitness or physical strength. And I have more to lose if I carry fatigue from manual labor at work into training, and vice versa. In hindsight, this is the best advice I could have gotten.
|Biting the Curb on Death of a Cowboy, 5.13-. Trying really fucking hard, still not sending. Photo Jack Schrott.|
Rock climbing is more like a dance than it is like powerlifting. I have come to realize that the practice of these technical skills is more valuable than building strength, which enables poor technique and wasted energy, which only begets negative progress and the potential for injury, and guarding injury leads to more poor technique, and so on.
The apparent importance of hard technical ability in the alpine world is only increasing. Young climbers like Hayden Kennedy or David Lama are spending much of the year working 5.14s and still cleaning up in the big mountains.
Colin Haley became a prominent alpinist while disregarding the importance of hard rock-climbing. I talked to him about his changed approach: he recently sent his first 5.13b and his first V10, and this increase in technical ability preceded some huge accomplishments in Patagonia.
Steve House has sent several 5.13s, and now believes that these skills are of value in the mountains (maybe more-so than hard dry-tooling skills). These guys were, until recently, known for their support of the mileage-over-difficulty approach, and doubted the applicability of hard sport climbing in the alpine.
For pretty much the whole summer, I was laid up in a boot, and mobile only via crutches. I couldn't climb around on roofs to install solar, so I couldn't work. I couldn't run, obviously, and I couldn't climb. What I could do, however, is hangboard and train my core. So that's what I did. I worked on my coding skills in the hopes of someday getting a job that qualifies (physically) as a real rest day, stayed up till 4am each night (This is my natural state, when uninfluenced by obligations or societal norms.), woke up at noon, and trained in my parents' basement. It was an unglamerous few months. I finished the sprawling and confusing postmodern novel, Gravity's Rainbow. While I wouldn't recommend it to most people, it was a mind bending and consciousness expanding experience, and I will not be reading it again soon.
I painfully and slowly crutched my way to the OK corral at Wild Iris with my brother. It's the easiest approach to any cliff in Lander. I was able to toprope with a climbing shoe on one foot, and the huge foam and plastic boot on the other, smearing and campusing uselessly, effectively climbing 5.10s one-leggedly.
After months of Physical Therapy, 18 hang-board sessions later I had the strongest fingers of my life, and I was ready to put TWO climbing shoes on, and even walk normally. Through the early part of fall I focused on mileage, trying to do as many pitches of 5.11 as I could in a day, often down-climbing them without rest to dial in my footwork and get some extra pump going. I sent a few 5.12s, but my focus was primarily on turning my training into real, applicable fitness on rock with lots of moderate climbing.
I spent a week with Erik, Nik, Kurt, and Steve in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison where we officially started our two years in the Alpine Mentors program. It was a good trip and a good way to put my head back on straight after living the couch life hardcore. It still hurt quite a bit to cram my feet in shoes for 12 pitch routes, but I managed to have fun and built trust and rapport with Steve and my fellow mentees.
|Nik Mirhashemi eyes the starting runout (.10- R) on Journey Home in the Black Canyon. I psyched myself out on this stormy afternoon and declined the honor of leading it. He stepped up to the plate.|
|Erik and Nik keep morale high during a rain soaked and benighted ascent on Journey Home.|
|Steve on Last Payment, 5.11.|
The Black canyon has become my favorite place to rock climb, especially when I'm not actively climbing there...
|Steve leads a great pitch on Cloak and Dagger.|
The next two years are going to be more about teamwork and collective development than personal goals and selfish achievement. But in my own climbing it is difficult to let go of the need to test oneself. Mara told me that rock climbers need to be good "self-advocates", you need to convince others that repeated failures in far off places are worth the support, time and effort, and that you really are "good enough" to have a chance at success. As a side effect, rock climbing is a community (or anti-community) that self-selects for the narcissistic and goal-obsessed.
Projecting is a shitty trap to get into. If you’re climbing the same routes more than once a week, you start to lose all other abilities, and even general fitness. I decided I needed to mix up my climbing, and focus on getting better rather than throwing myself at one route repeatedly.
In the past, I made mistakes by choosing the wrong kind of projects. The hardest rockclimbs I had done all involved some pumpy 5.11 or 5.12 climbing to a low-percentage move. Usually this is the type of power climbing that people do in a gym, athletic and engaging for the muscles, but not particularly engaging for the mind.
These are the kind of rockclimbs that, while fun and requiring some amount of fitness and effort to send, won’t teach you anything of real value. These are the types of moves people like to do in a gym. Things like balance, finesse, unusual footwork or body positioning, friction, and most types of relevant rock trickery for actual mountain terrain aren’t really required. Instead, it becomes a numbers game. None of the moves, save maybe your low-percentage crux, require any real creativity to unlock. Put the moves together enough times, arrive at the crux repeatedly, each time a little less pumped, and finally stick the move and hold on, not really knowing why you’ve succeeded that time, only relieved to be done and tick your little box.
I sent a few of these types of routes, and wasted a lot of other people’s and my own time not following through with a send on others. I even projected some of them with declining fitness, experiencing negative progress that led to contempt for rockclimbing and myself. I was taking it way too seriously: a pointless activity with arbitrary rules that’s supposed to be fun. I regret working on some of these routes. Best case scenario is I walk away with a send, having learned nothing that I can apply anywhere else, but being able to claim that I’ve climbed at X level of difficulty. Worst case scenario: I waste 8 days at a chossy crag I don’t actually like, I don’t send, I lose skill and fitness in other types of climbing and aerobic strengths alike, and I don't learn anything of value. It’s a black hole for time and effort, where the neuroses of projecting and failure are your only companions.
I realized that I needed to change my approach completely. I spent a lot of my time training my muscles and trying to get stronger. Without doubt this is important, but in a very skill dependent sport like rock climbing where technical perfection and finesse is even more important than strength, I was digging myself a hole by training at the cost of neglecting the development of technique. When I trained I never confronted my weaknesses. Instead I lifted weights, did bouldering circuits on soft routes of monotonous style set in commercial gyms, and tried to make slightly longer moves on the campus board. I should have been climbing scary slabs, leading old school trad routes, and cleaning the holds on forgotten boulders in the deep woods.
|Endless corridors of good sandstone and quartzite await those willing to explore Browns Park. Could become the Rocklands of North America.|
|Tony Stark on a Tommy Caldwell route: Viva Hate .13d at Baldwin.|
I needed a project that could teach me something. If I was going to try a route 15 times, for practical purposes it should be lower angle, like within 15 degrees of vertical. This makes it easier to TR solo on a fixed rope with a micro traxion to work the moves. I find that if I’m alone outside, wasting only my own time, I’m willing to try each move every possible way and I can find the most creative and efficient solutions to complex problems. I would quickly grow self conscious and reluctant to test the patience of my belayer sussing beta for 2 hours with a human belay.
I also wanted to try a route that would be my anti-style. A year ago I would have said my style was secure power routes, steep clean-cut finger-cracks, positive, overhanging pocket routes, or steep caves of featured drytooling. I would have said my weaknesses were hard bouldering, slopers, crimps, thin footwork, and technical climbing on insecure holds.
While these things are a good test of certain athletic qualities, they are a complete rarity in real mountain terrain, and the world of climbing serves up far more tricky low angle slabs. If holds appear and are solid, they are bound to face the wrong way. I would ideally learn the most from a route that felt impossible at first, where I could fall from any one of many insecure moves. As an alpine climber it’s sometimes hard to justify projecting sport climbs. For some it becomes little more than a diversion, fun but un-applicable. If I were unable to send, I wanted to walk away having learned some new tricks, and become a better climber.
|Full tilt in evening light. Follows the black streaks through overlaps.|
Full tilt was a great route to work. It follows a slightly overhanging seam in polished granite. It took 3 hours of microtraxing to do all the moves (poorly), but in learning to do them smoothly I read volumes in marginal granite movement. The first part of the route was around 15 moves at 5.12-, with straightforward power and reaches, compression on sidepulls, slopers, tiny fingerlocks, and a few difficult highsteps. You then arrive at a bad rest switching hands on a flat jug out left. At first I thought I could really get it back there, but after the suggestions of others, including BJ, I would have to chalk each hand two or three times and move on, carrying the slight pump with me. It was better for the retention of power-endurance to lower my heart rate slightly, get my composure, and move on than to try to eliminate all the pump with prolonged resting.
The upper section involves a strange switching lieback. Most 5.13 routes in Lander involve some very sharp and painful holds (monos, sharp pockets, polished razorcrimps), resulting in abuse to the tendons. This route had some seriously friendly holds, mostly open handed 1-pad slopers that face in strange directions. They seem friendly until you slip off. This happens as soon as the temperature gets above 42 degrees or you have the slightest amount of sweat on your skin. There is a sequence of 8 such moves where clipping or chalking was very difficult for me. Perfect body position, foot placement, and core tension is required to stay on the sloping Gastones and liebacks in the flaring seam. I used some novel techniques, backstepping, drop knees, flag-throughs, and anything else that would keep my hips locked into the wall on these tiny holds.
I spent more time bouldering outside than ever. I almost completely abandoned systematic, indoor training. Instead I decided that doing bouldering circuits outside would help my footwork and subtle technical skills more than the mindless and monotonous power moves set in most gyms. I spent 6 days this fall bouldering outside, mostly cleaning and sending new blocs. For me, this is a lot, and I felt really good on rock. On a bad weather day, when I did circuits in the gym, I was frequently able to finish a 4 by 4 with a send of a V6 as my last route. I can only very rarely climb V7, having no fast twitch muscle, but my power-endurance was at its best. In the future I will try to eschew indoor training for outdoor bouldering. At this point, I think only a few types of indoor training are actually valuable: general strength and injury prevention/PT exercise. Even some alpinists, like Josh Wharton, have taken this approach, bouldering outside through much of the year.
|I put up a 14 move roof problem (V7 ish) on this beautiful wall at Browns park in the UT/WY/CO zone. I'd call it Hyperion, after a sweet scify book I read recently, but no-one is actually going to find or repeat this shit.|
|at The Wall in the Creek.|
My other projects for the year were both trad routes right at my limit. The Cranner roof crack, 12+/13- out in the undiscovered, underrated, and unreal Sweetwater rocks, and Death of a Cowboy, a beautiful .13- tips crack through a changing corners roof in Indian Creek. I did all the moves on Cranner, and led it several times, but didnt feel close to linking the cryptic and insecure crux above the steep moves. At the creek, I felt like I could make real headway on Death of a Cowboy. I even built a crack machine, emphasizing only sizes that suck: .3s (tips), tight .75s (thumbstacks), wide .75s (ringlocks), and 1s (thin hands.). I would bleed for my weaknesses.
|The Cranner Rock Roof Crack. 180lb dog and much smaller humans in foreground for scale.|
|Brett Baekey leads a sweet fingercrack in Wyoming's granite desert.|
One of the high points of the last creek trip was establishing an adventurous multipitch route at the Cave Wall with my friend John Collis. He envisioned the line as a continuation of a Jonathan Schaefer pitch. Unprotectable choss quickly gave way to perfect, black varnished, overhanging cracks. We trundled huge blocks from above the hard ringlocks crux at 300 feet. They vaporized into white dust and fragments, revealing the un-patina’ed color of windgate below. We hit our packs, and one of the Beers that John had laboriously hauled up the massive approach was annihilated. We named our route “Tecate Supercollider”.
My focus is most often on trad climbing. Part of my attraction to Full Tilt was that it goes on gear. Being an incipient seam, it just barely goes. Lander local Chris Marley sent the 45 foot route placing three cams, after sending it with bolts. I think there is more gear available, but in any case the .12- section would carry serious groundfall potential.
After working this route off and on through the fall these moves started to feel easy, and I knew I was ready. Mara and my brother, Nick, both made it out on several occasions to support me with belays and good cold-weather attitudes. I made satisfying progress, seemingly always making it one move farther before winging off. For a few weeks in November a big snow and subsequent melt had saturated the ground, and the cliff dripped and seeped. I was done with my last week of work early in November, and my body had the rest it needed to actually climb well.
The few days I made it there were throwaways, with one or two of the crux holds wet. I stashed a towel on-top to prevent the seepage, and even hiked a jetboil up there one day to cook the water off the slopers up top. (not owning a blowtorch). I decided these desperate acts of control weren’t for me, and I climbed elsewhere. I tried to let go of the end result, practice non-attachment, and forget about my anticipated timeline. It had already taken longer than I wanted, but these things always seem to do that.
When it finally dried off, and was cold enough for good friction, I planned two consecutive days to go there. Lander local Steve Babits was planning to go there to check out the TS Arete, .13c, named for Todd Skinner, the legendary bigwall free climber and local legend who left it unfinished after his untimely and tragic death in Yosemite. Lander local BJ Tilden finished the route.
BJ and Griffin showed up that day. They recounted past Tool concerts for 15 minutes. While Steve and Griffin worked the arete, BJ and I warmed up, and he checked out the moves on a link up of Bad Brain (.13d) with the upper crux of Full Tilt (.13-), established as “Big Brain (.14a)” by Chris Marley. As I belayed, BJ’s problem solving skill and unreal finger-strength was obvious as he sent the route 2nd go, on his first day back to rockclimbing after three weeks of rest. And in keeping with the staunchly hardcore ethos of the area, he respectfully suggested a downgrade to 5.13d.
On my first try, I gave a “throwaway burn” while the route was still in the sun. BJ and I talked refined beta on the upper half of the route. After climbing V8 or 9 on Bad Brain and getting only a minor rest on the jug, BJ would need perfect beta for the 5.13 section of Full Tilt. I had worked the route for months, but in 25 minutes he had already arrived at better solutions. He suggested clipping from a hold earlier in the crux with a twisted cross-clip. I was uncertain about changing my beta this late in the process. While uncomfortable, this allowed me to move more quickly through the worst holds and avoid clipping at a core-tensed stance.
Everyone yelled the aggressive but positive kind of encouragement I’ve seen effective in the hard sport-climbing world here. I suddenly found myself disoriented at the top of the route. The clipping holds are two slopers above the chains, and when pumped it’s hard to let go to chalk, shake, or clip. I got my feet too high and botched the clip, falling off on the red-point with the anchors at my waist. I wasn’t even angry, it was more just disbelief. It would be impossible to get any closer and not send. I found out that the redpoint crux of the route, at least for my sweaty hands, was clipping the chains.
On the next go I waited for the route to go into the shade. With air temps around 30 degrees, things would get cold quickly. This time I made it to the top again, with a bit more pump and all the blood squeezed out of my cold, numb fingertips. At the top I kept my feet low and secure, and clipped one chain from the sloper, now with better, colder friction. I felt myself starting to slip on the right hand sloper, and instead of trusting it and clipping the other chain, I tried to switch hands and fell, squeaking weirdly with a combination of relief and surprise at having fallen again.
I’m going to count it, the only reason we clip both chains is to reduce wear and increase safety for top-roping. Having fallen from this spot several times in the projecting process, I decided beforehand that demonstrating control at the top of the cliff with two hands and clipping one chain would be enough for me. The point of hard rock-climbing is to physically challenge yourself by linking difficult moves. I did all the moves continuously in sequence, on lead, and got both hands on-top of the cliff, twice. Everyone seemed inclined to count it the second time. Whatever your ethic is, I’m done with this route for now.
Although, it does go on gear. Given a little more fitness, I may try it as a head-point in future seasons. Having one hung a bunch of other .13- routes but abandoned them in my impatience for projecting, I’m almost in denial that its taken me so long to improve my rock-climbing. I’m embarrassed and humbled that I had to try this route 12 times on lead and many more on micro-traxion. I'm even more embarrassed that I've tried some others more and come away without a send. I need to let that bullshit go. No-one simply deserves to send. I am confident that I can climb a lot harder. At the end I was making progress in increments of a move or two at each burn. The best climbers have to be content inching their foot a bit closer to the next foot smear, or holding onto the crux holds for another split second before falling off on the redpoint. Rock-climbing is hard work, that’s the point. I’m looking forward to years of repeated failures. For now it's cold as all hell and time to mixed climb.
|I'm hoping to go here with Kurt Ross and Jess Roskelley. next year.Where is this anyway? Hmmmm.|