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Anniversary Trip to Hidden Valley

Although there have been a handful of daytrips scattered here and there along the way, the last time the CragDaddy and I were able to get away together for an entire kid-free weekend was almost 5 years ago, back when Big C was 2 and a half, and Little Zu was just a twinkle in our eyes.  Considering that the latter turned 3 a month ago on the same day we celebrated 15 years of marriage, we were overdue for an escape!  Our original plan was to stroll down memory lane at the New River Gorge, a place that we have been adventuring in for over a decade.  But with snow and all day rain in the forecast for most of the days leading up to the trip, we knew that our only chance for finding dry rock would be to change our destination.  

Cheesy love selfies totally allowed on anniversary trips.

So we opted for what has suddenly (and randomly) become our 2017 stomping grounds – Hidden Valley, VA.  We decided that in honor of the occasion we would step up our accommodations from our usual norm – no tents, and no $50 motels!  Instead, we spent two relaxing evenings and two delicious mornings at White Birches Inn, a bed and breakfast run by a delightful couple that made us feel right at home.  If there are any other climbers out there looking to splurge, please give them a call!  (FYI they are very reasonably priced…I’m just using the word “splurge” because most climbers tend to be dirtbag cheapskates…it takes one to know one!)  

Anyway, we took our time hiking in to the Falcon Wall Saturday morning.  For starters, it was pretty cold, and we also wanted to take full advantage of our opportunity to explore a still relatively new-to-us place at our leisure.  It was refreshing to be able to comb over the guidebook together and stop whenever we wanted to take a closer look, without worrying about distracting the troops and losing our “kid-hiking momentum.”  We found ourselves at the base of the Falcon Wall by late morning, however, where I warmed up on Thin Shells 10d (because it looked fun) and CragDaddy warmed up on Playing With the Crow 10d  (because he could swing over and hang draws on his project as he was being lowered.)  His plan worked out perfectly, as he sent DDT 12b in fine style on his first attempt of the day!  

A rare day that we BOTH get to carry in our Trango packs!

Our next move was a change of pace from our usual – we hopped on a 5.13!  For a while now CragDaddy has been saying he thinks we might be ready, if we found the right one that suited our climbing styles.  I didn’t necessarily disagree, but have been a little less psyched about the idea. To be honest, I remember all the “route shopping” I had to do when I was first breaking into 5.12 land to find lines that maximized my strengths and minimized my weaknesses, and the thought of going through all of that again with TWO kids in tow seems more exhausting and perhaps not worth the effort.  But what better time to test the “hardman” waters than on a kid-free trip, when both parties are willing to take long, patient turns at the belay.  

Rodent’s Lament 13b Photo: Nick Hitchcock

Though we’d checked out a few along the way, we settled on Rodent’s Lament 13b, which although harder on paper than some of the other choices, seemed like a good fit because we have done really well on the neighboring routes.  Not to mention it just looked more doable than some of the other options!  We both took FOREVER on it, far more time than we would have been afforded with the kids around.  Final assessment was as follows – V4/5 sequence down low to a no hands rest, with a really hard V7? crimpy crux, followed by some 5.11+ climbing to the top.  Neither of us could really touch the crux – I came close one time, but that was it.  I initially thought I’d be able to pull the moves, since the holds didn’t seem “that bad”, but I just didn’t have the finger strength needed to get my feet high enough to make the next moves.  Perhaps that’s motivation to get on a hangboard this summer and come back next fall with fingers of steel?  Maybe, maybe not.  The jury is still out for me on whether or not a load of extra training is worth earning an extra number grade, so we’ll see!  

The only other routes of note on the day were two 5.11c’s that I was really psyched to onsight – Kestrel, because it was so good, and Last Episode, because it was such a fight to hang on!  The former is on the Falcon Wall, and is definitely worth the hike even if that’s all you do there.  The latter is on the SNL Wall, and is relatively chill until the last couple of bolts…when the intensity turns way up and the holds disappear! 

Sorry for all the selfies…it was just so rare to be just the two of us!!!

It’s also worth noting that we didn’t stop climbing until 6:30!!!!!!  Unheard of with the kiddos, as we usually aim to be hiking out no later than 5!  

Our next day was more of the same – a little bit of sending, and a lot of flailing around on stuff that was too hard for us.  Routes worth mentioning are Spurs 10c, and Rainy Saturday 12a.  The former features steep jug hauling ending at a spectacular view (so if you get on it, don’t forget to turn around and look!)   The latter is basically a powerful boulder problem right off the deck to a juggy roof and laidback slabby finish.  CragDaddy scored the onsight, while my flash attempt was thwarted by the first long move (second go send though!) 

Even though we ended up having to go with our “Plan B” destination, we still had a marvelous time…and it looks as if we’ll be back this weekend, this time with kiddos in tow!  Though we’re dying to get back to the New, we just haven’t been able to get all of our stars in proper alignment – weather, schedules, partners, etc.  With that said, however, we are thankful for this new option that is both closer to us AND wet weather friendly!  Big props to the Carolina Climbers Coalition for making this access happen!

 

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2016: Tis the Season for a Year in Review

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Mirage 12c

In my tick list for 2016 I stated that one of my main goals was to “focus more on the process than crossing something off the list.”  And by that I meant that I wanted to be more picky in the routes that I invest extra time on, choosing quality over quantity.  At the end of 2015 I found myself easily frustrated at the amount of routes I had “unfinished business” on.  Our family’s climb time is at a premium, and the logistics of getting back to certain climbs with an extra partner often ends up being a crux.  So this year I made a point of giving myself a free pass to walk away from routes I didn’t necessarily feel called back to – just because I believe I CAN send it doesn’t mean I HAVE to.  In other words, if it’s fun and feels worth my while, give it another go, train for it, etc.  If not, leave it undone for now…or forever!

Practically speaking, this meant spending MORE time on LESS routes, often choosing to try something harder that I knew I probably wouldn’t send rather than logging more mileage at a more comfortable grade/style.  The result was that I wound up with far fewer ticks on my sending belt than the previous year…but the ones I did get are a lot more meaningful.

It’s also no surprise that many of my year end highlights did not result in an updated 8a card.  But the following are my top ten climbing moments of 2016.

10. “TRY HARD” BOULDERING:  This summer the CragDaddy challenged me to step up my bouldering game at the gym.  Power tends to always crop up as a weakness of mine, and I’ve decided that it’s actually just as much a movement/coordination issue as it is strength/power; ie, I default to static movement that often times doesn’t allow me to “tap in” to any power that I might already have.  Anyway, I surprised myself and actually had a LOT of fun throwing myself around the boulder problems at the gym, and I’ve seen some really good gains.  Who knows, maybe next year’s tick list will include some boulder problems?

9.  LEGALIZE IT 12a and WAKE AND BAKE 11d (Red River Gorge) – After blowing the flash right at the end of the 12, I redeemed myself with a pretty casual second go send, and an onsight of it’s slightly easier next door neighbor.  Not my hardest onsight ever, but hardest one in at least a year, probably since Ten Sleep last summer.

8.  GALUNLATI 12b (Red River Gorge):  This is the route that made me fall in love with the Solarium, which is now my favorite crag at the Red.  Not only is it awesome, but it was my first (and so far only) 12b at the Red.

Enjoying the view from the Tree Ledge

Stone Mountain multi-pitch with the CragKiddo

7.  BLACKHAPPY 12b (New River Gorge) – I knew I wasn’t going to send this one on my 2nd go.  But it went a lot better than I expected, and I was happy that I gave it another effort rather than  finding something easier to end the day on.  It’s a long hike in for the kids, but I’m optimistic that I’ll be able to work on this one some more next spring.

Line of Fire 12c Photo creds: Justin Hedrick

Line of Fire 12c Photo creds: Justin Hedrick

6.  ORANGE JUICE 12c (Red River Gorge) – I’ve been dying to touch this route ever since I first laid eyes on it in 2012.  I knew I didn’t have the guns for it then (and I’m not sure I do now…).  But I sure was psyched to give it a couple of tries this past November, and after feeling how hard those upper cruxes were, I’m even more psyched I was able to execute all the moves on point.  No send, and no plans to come back any time soon, as neither the hike nor the cliff base are great for the kids.  But experiencing this 5 star classic that I’d wondered about for so many years was amazing!

5.  CRAGKIDDO’s 1st MULTI-PITCH – I wasn’t the only one that came to terms with walking away with unfinished business this year.  Big C experienced this when we had to bail just one pitch below the summit on his very first multi-pitch endeavor at Stone Mountain back in February.  Despite not making it to the top, I was so proud of how brave he was (and he was too, once he got down and saw where our high point was on the mountain!)

4.  MIRAGE 12c (Red River Gorge):  Did I mention that I love the Solarium?  This one was a completely unexpected send at the end of a fabulous spring weekend at the RRG.

3.  TIPS AHOY 12d (Hawksbill Mountain):  First ever 12d!  Sharp microcrimps on an ever so slightly overhanging face…if only I could find a zillion more like this.

Tips Ahoy 12dPhoto: Joe Virtanen

Tips Ahoy 12dPhoto: Joe Virtanen

2.  LINE OF FIRE 12c (Hawksbill Mountain):  Even though grade-wise this one is easier than the previous one, I think I’m more proud of this send.  In the same breath everyone told me I’d like Tips, they also told me that I probably wouldn’t like Line of Fire, due to the dynamic, bouldery moves.  My first time up, I agreed with everyone else, and I only got on it again because the CragDaddy was still working Tips.  It took a while to find beta that worked for me, but the 7th try was the charm, and when it went I had it so dialed in it almost felt easy.

1. JESUS AND TEQUILA 12b (New River Gorge) – Last year I said that if I sent only one route the entire year, I wanted this one to be it, and if that truly was the only one, I’d count the year as a success. I’ve got a lot of emotion wrapped up in this one, and I know that it’s one of those that I’ll still remember vividly when I’m old, gray, and can’t even toprope my kids’ warm-ups.  After multiple heartbreaker attempts, crushing this one in unexpectedly fine style this past November was by far the highlight of the year!

And that’s that!  Please don’t let me spray by myself…I’d love to hear about your favorite achievements this past year (climbing related or not!)  So comment below so we can cyber clink our glasses to 2016.

 

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Jesus and Tequila = SENT!!!

“…I’m not sure when, but one of these days I will pull the crux on Jesus and Tequila and not take the swinging whipper.  I’ll stay clean through the dihedral and nail the deadpoint move.  I’ll teeter out across the roof and plant my foot exactly where it needs to be, and execute the final sequence.  I’ll stand at the top and savor the magnificent view of the river below…”

Iphone sending shot, courtesy of Rebekah MacNair

Iphone sending shot, courtesy of Rebekah MacNair

I wrote that exactly 6 months ago in a blog post…And guess what you guys – Saturday was the day!!!  I am absolutely giddy with excitement!!!  Back in January I’d told the CragDaddy that I’d count the entire year as a success if I could just send Jesus and Tequila.  Why?

First off, it’s on the short list of best 5.12’s at the New River Gorge.  And considering the world class quality climbing at the New, that’s saying A LOT.  The guidebook sums it up rather nicely – “...getting pummeled on Jesus and Tequila is a rite of passage for every New River climber…

But for me it’s more personal than just that. It started when I took a casual toprope burn on it at the tail end of the fall season last year.  I instantly fell in love with the unique movement and fantastic position this route offers.   So much so that we completely rearranged our schedule the following week so that I could go back and try to send it.  After botching multiple sequences but somehow still hanging on for ALMOST the entire climb, my luck ran out at the final roof sequence just 10 feet below the chains.  I tried a couple more times that day, but could never make it past the crux on point again, and I was haunted by my almost-send the rest of the winter.

Once spring rolled around we had a hard time finding partners to go back out there with us (probably the hardest part about climbing with kiddos in tow!), but I did manage to spend another day on it back in April.  I felt a lot stronger and more confident on the route, and even figured out much better beta for the roof move I’d previously fallen on.  However, I was ironically unable to get back up there on point.  I made it past the crux once, only to fall on a random move that I’d never had trouble with before.

These two ragamuffins had a great day!

These two ragamuffins had a great day!

One of the things that makes Jesus and Tequila unique is that it’s so “involved.”  There are a LOT of hard moves, and the beta is intricate, so it’s a lot to put together all at once.  It’s tall, and each attempt takes a lot out of the tank – not the kind of route you can try over and over again in the same day. My previous “best go’s” had all come on my 2nd attempt of the day…with subsequent attempts getting progressively worse, until I eventually had all I could do to get to the top of it to get my draws back.

All that said, I knew my window of opportunity this fall might be small, so when I got the chance to go down there on Saturday I jumped at it.  Better yet, a friend of mine wanted to try for the onsight, which meant I didn’t even have to rap in and hang my own draws.

I stepped off the starting boulder and onto the route, and was pleasantly surprised at how well the opening moves went.  Soon enough I found myself shaking out at the 4th bolt, and preparing to head into the crux.  I felt good, but wasn’t sure about my odds at the crux. I’ve fallen on that move more times than I’ve actually made it, but it still feels scary to me, and I usually hem and haw for several seconds before committing to it.  But this time I just powered right through without hesitation.

At this point I panicked a little on the inside.  All of a sudden realized that this was the “time to send.”  I wasn’t ready for this to be “the time.”  I’d assumed that my first go of the day would be more of a beta-confirming mission than an actual redpoint attempt!  I’d wanted to rehearse that move at the roof like 5 times in a row first before it was “time to send.”  But this was only the third time I’d ever made it through the crux without falling, and there was no guarantee it would happen again later that day, so like it or not, this was it.

Little Z and her new friend R.

Little Z and her new friend R.

The next move has a reputation for a redpoint spoiler… it’s not THAT hard, but it’s a big ask when your post-crux forearms are still tingling.  But I got through it as well as the deadpoint move, which was my high point this past spring.  (Thanks to the CragDaddy for shouting out the move for move beta I’d written down for that section!)

All that was left was redemption at the roof.  I executed the new beta I’d figured out in the spring, and it worked like a charm.  I had ZERO trouble getting my foot up (why was it so hard before?!?!?), and before I knew it I was clipping the chains and taking in the view of the river down below with a perma-grin on my face.

Sending smiles...one of us may be more excited than the other.

Sending smiles…one of us may be more excited than the other.

Sure, it would have been pretty sweet to send it by the skin of my teeth last fall.  Had my story with Jesus and Tequila ended then, my memories of it would have been those of fighting hard and desperation, which is not at all a bad thing.  A send is a send, right?  But, after having been given the opportunity to invest more into this route, I can definitely say that the delayed send is a prouder one for me.  The best routes are the ones that push you to train harder.  There is no comparison to the way I climbed this route a year ago and the way I climbed it this past weekend. It was still hard.  Really hard.  And it wasn’t a sure thing until I clipped the anchors.  But I climbed it really, really well.  The way a classic route deserves to be climbed.  Jesus and Tequila has always been a worthy opponent.  But it wasn’t until this past weekend that I was able to step up and prove that I was too.

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Video: Drew Ruana Establishes 14d at Smith Rock

On February 13, 2016, Drew Ruana made the first ascent of “Assassin” (14d). “Assassin” toppled the classic “Just Do It” (14c) and the unrepeated “Shock and Awe” (14c) as the toughest route at Smith Rock. The first ascent of the Aggro Gully linkup pushed Smith Rock’s highest grade upward for the first time in 13 years (the FA of “Shock and Awe” – still unrepeated).

Drew Ruana on the First Ascent of Assassin

Drew Ruana on the first ascent of Assassin (14d), Smith Rock’s hardest route.

Here’s a quick route synopsis and send footage from Drew:

Hawksbill Round 2: A New Personal Best!

Though my spring climbing season got off to a slow-ish start, these last few weeks have been unseasonably cool, and have allowed me to string together some hard (for me!) sends.  Since the CragDaddy had spent most of the previous week in NY on business, our family opted for the day trip this past weekend.  After accumulating some sending momentum at the Red the week before,I was psyched and ready to try hard on my project at Hawksbill Mountain.

Eyeing down the mail slot to clip the next bolt from. Photo: Joe Virtanen

Eyeing down the mail slot to clip the next bolt from. Photo: Joe Virtanen

I wrote about Tips Ahoy 12d a couple of weeks ago , when I hopped on it while a friend of mine was working it.  I’d given it 3 burns, and was pleasantly surprised at how doable it seemed.  It plays to my strengths (technical climbing on tiny holds), without featuring any of my glaring weaknesses (of which there are many, but the usual culprits involve slopers and big moves on steep rock!)  Anyway, going in I was cautiously optimistic about my chances.   In contrast to the 100 foot monsters I’d been battling at the Red, this line was only about 60 feet tall, which (hopefully) would mean that endurance wouldn’t be a problem.  Additionally, the weather could not have been any more perfect – temps were in the upper 40’s/low 50’s most of the day (yes 40’s at the end of May!), and the wall wouldn’t even see the sun until some time after lunch.

Crimping hard on one of the few holds big enough to match on the entire route.

Crimping hard on one of the few holds big enough to match on the entire route.

For me, the crux boils down to two moves – a precision stab to a pointy crimp off of two tiny razor blades, then a foot shuffle and long lock off to another pointy crimp.  There’s also a clip that needs to happen at some point from either one of the pointy crimps.  In isolation, the first move is substantially harder than the second move.  But for whatever reason, going into the second move directly after completing the first move feels darn near impossible.  In fact, I don’t think I’d ever successfully made both moves without falling between.  Such. A. Long. Lockoff.  Control is the key here, as moving dynamically to either hold will result in shredded fingertips pretty quickly…but practicing the moves over and over and over and over again to gain the muscle memory is a gamble with the skin as well.

After a quick warm-up a little further down the wall, I took a lap to get the draws hung on Tips Ahoy.  When I touched the two razor blades, I knew it was going to be a good day.  Not only did the holds feel crisp, but my fingers felt a lot stronger!  (thanks, 4×4’s!)  My confidence grew, and I finished the route bolt-to-bolt without much issue.

Funny how the whole wall looks completely devoid of holds...but theyre there! They arent big, but theyre there!

Funny how the whole wall looks completely devoid of holds…but theyre there! They arent big, but theyre there!

My next go was a send that happened so fast it was almost a blur!  The first few bolts went off without a hitch.  I made the first move of the crux, shuffled my feet around, and made the next move for the first time ever in succession.  I almost punted off initiating the traverse, but managed to stay on, then almost biffed AGAIN a few moves later, but once again, still on.  At this point my fingers were so cold that they were completely numb, but there are exactly zero holds big enough for anything to stop and shake out on, so all I could do was keep climbing, and trust my muscle memory on the last 5.11 crimp ladder.  Before I knew it I had clipped the chains and was back on the ground.  Tips Ahoy = DONE!  Woo-hoo!!!

And with that, it looks like spring climbing season has drawn to a close.  This weekend’s forecast is definitely of the summer variety, which means a lot more sweat and a lot less sending!  (But hopefully just as much fun!)

 

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A Red River Gorge Sending Spree!!!

“Some weekends everything falls together and you send.  Other times you work your ass off and walk away empty-handed.  But those “work” weekends are what make the “sending” weekends so magical.”

Those were my words exactly one month ago, after a hard-fought battle with Jesus and Tequila 12b, one of my (many) unsent projects from the New River Gorge last fall.  The “moral” of that post was that investing hard work into a project will EVENTUALLY reap successful dividends, even if you currently have nothing “on paper” to show for it.  That particular weekend was a “work” weekend.  So was the next one, this time on a new project at Hawksbill Mountain.  Both trips sparked a flurry of training in the gym – 4X4’s, roped intervals, core workouts, etc.  All in preparation for one of those “sending” weekends at some point down the road…

Creeping out of the hueco on Mirage 12c

Creeping out of the hueco on Mirage 12c

…which apparently was this past weekend at the Red!  I’m not sure whether it was the training, the SPECTACULAR spring weather conditions, or just a little bit of luck falling in my favor (probably a combination of the 3), but I just enjoyed what was probably one of my strongest climbing weekends ever…and days later I’m still finding my lips poised in a perma-grin.

 Trying to deflate my forearms in the upper hueco on Mirage.

70 feet down, 30 to go! Trying to deflate my forearms in the upper hueco on Mirage.

I drove up to Kentucky with one goal in mind: Galunlati 12b, a route I’d gotten on at the very end of our trip there this past April.  I drove home on Sunday with THREE 5.12 ticks, one of which very well might be the hardest route I’ve ever sent.  Here’s how it all went down:

It's red eft season in the Southeast!

It’s red eft season in the Southeast!

Galunlati 12b:  95 feet of awesomeness.  Tricky, technical crux down low, with a pumpy traverse on crimps halfway up.  No huecos to hop in, but I did find a decent kneebar to rest up before the last 30 feet of 5.10 jugs.  To save time, (at a premium with 4 climbers and two kids), I warmed up by going bolt to bolt…and it did NOT go well, probably because I should NOT be warming up on 5.12.  But I got the draws in and got to rehearse my beta.  Second go the crux felt way easier, but I botched the end of the traverse and fell.  I figured out a better sequence, and my third go was the charm (and send.)

Mirage 12c: 95 feet of even more awesomeness.  I’d wrapped up Galunlati with enough time to do one more route on Day 1, and my friend Bennett had suggested this one.  He’d just sent, and I figured I had nothing to lose since the draws were still up.  The climbing turns on at the 2nd bolt while exiting a big hueco, and does not relent until the 5th bolt.  The moves out of the hueco are precarious and balancy, and the bolt is a lot lower than you’d like it to be, which makes for an exciting combo rather low to the ground.  In fact, my first time up, I actually climbed with the 3rd bolt already clipped so I could work out the moves fear-free.  The next moves are equally tenuous, as well as the next clip.  The crux comes next, between bolts 4 and 5, a deadpoint move to the first decent-sized hold in about 20 feet.  After that, a few more pulls on small, but positive holds leads into a hueco you can lay down in.  The climbing post-hueco is a lot easier – probably no harder than 10a/b, but the angle is still pretty darn steep, and the route keeps going for another 30-40 feet or so.  I was super stoked to get to the top, and very excited to add this one to my tick list for the fall season.

The CragDaddy getting oh-so-close on Abiyoyo 12b

The CragDaddy getting oh-so-close on Abiyoyo 12b

But as luck would have it, our crew ended up back at the Solarium again on Day 2.  Since my “warm up on the project” strategy had been successful the day before, I decided to stick with that.  I struggled on the deadpoint move.  There are a lot of ways to do it, but each seemed ridiculously hard to do when I was pumped, as I most certainly would be on a redpoint run.  I worked the moves for a while until I had to come down out of sheer exhaustion.

A post-dinner hike to the Natural Arch

A post-dinner hike to the Natural Arch

I wasn’t feeling that optimistic for a send on my 2nd go of the day…I knew I could do the moves, but stringing them all together seemed like an impossible feat.  Not to mention that scary clip at bolt 3.  But I tried hard, and actually didn’t fall until the deadpoint move.  I hung, tweaked the beta, and took it to the top.

I waited a good long time before trying it again, cheering on the CragDaddy as he worked Abiyoyo 12b, and sprayed (solicited) beta at our newfound friends from Colorado as they took their turns on Mirage.  When I tied in again, I wasn’t at all confident that I’d even have enough gas to make it to my previous high point.  But before I knew it, I was there…and this time I executed my beta correctly and latched the deadpoint!  I came really close to punting off in the next section, but somehow managed to slide into the hueco with forearms flaming.

I stayed in the hueco until my neck just couldn’t take it anymore…then I moved up into the kneebar to shake out a little more.  The finish was not desperate, but it certainly wasn’t a sure thing.  The pump clock was ticking faster and faster but I just kept moving as fast as I could until both chains were clipped.  YAY!!!!!!!!!!!  An unbelievably amazing (and unexpected!) send for me!

Crossing the creek at Miller Fork.

Crossing the creek at Miller Fork.

On our last day, we decided to check out Miller Fork, a new-ish area that has recently come out with a new guidebook.  It was fun to try a new place, and the routes we got on were good…but the rock quality seemed inconsistent.  The routes we did were all great, but will probably be even better in a few years after more traffic cleans them up a bit.

Weird Science 12a:  This vertical climb was perfect for Day 3 – thin boulder problem down low to moderate climbing.  Very un-Red like (ie, no guns required, just technique), but the neon orange lichen only visible from the top made it worth the effort.

Witness the Citrus 11c:  Also worth mentioning was this monster of a climb.  100+ feet of pure jug haulin’ fun!  Definitely 5 stars!

Climbing can be a very fickle sport.  I’ve learned that having the physical and mental fitness for a certain route is really only a small piece of the puzzle to success.  Sometimes the real crux is having that perfect weather window occur on the days you are actually free to climb, rather than days you are stuck in the office/house/etc.  (And finding someone else that wants to climb at the same area you want to climb at!)  Fortunately for me, all the stars aligned and everything worked in my favor this time.  And with imminent summer heat and humidity on the way, I’m going to savor every minute of this “sending feast” while I still can, knowing the famine is just around the corner!  (And, right on cue, the forecast for THIS Saturday looks pretty dismal…)  😉

Crux moves on Witness the Citrus 11c

Crux moves on Witness the Citrus 11c

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New Project at Hawksbill Mountain

For our family, the month of May marks perfect sending conditions at one of our favorite crags – Hawksbill Mountain in the Linville Gorge. The sending season here is short – if you come in April your hands will for sure numb out due to a frigid combination of chilly temps, shady rock, and brutal wind gusts. But if you wait much past early June, the humidity makes for pretty manky crux holds, especially by late afternoon once the sun comes around.

Although we can be at the crag parking lot in 2 hours flat, the hike is pretty intense, especially with the kiddos…a relentless uphill slog for 30-40 minutes, followed by a rocky scramble down a rhododendron-laden gully for another 20 minutes or so. Once your down there, the cliff base is rocky, with very few flat areas, which makes chasing after a climbing toddler even more stressful (and tiresome) than usual. All that said, despite the fact that we love the climbing here, we tend to only hit this area a time or two each year.

The New Proj: Tips Ahoy 12d

The New Proj: Tips Ahoy 12d

But after this past weekend’s excursion, I’m hoping that we can start to change that.  As opposed to previous years where the approach took over an hour (and about a pound of hiking bears), Big C dominated the hike on Saturday.  He even said his favorite part was scrambling up and down the gully.  Apparently 6 year old legs ARE stronger and longer than 5 year old ones!

Blooming rhodos made for a beautiful approach!

Blooming rhodos made for a beautiful approach!

The great part about Hawksbill is that there are a whole hosts of routes that are in a good project range for the CragDaddy and I.  On the 5.12 wall, the only route either of us has sent has been Hard Rock Cafe 12c (and congratulations to the CragDaddy on the send this past weekend!)  As for me, I am now completely invested in a new route obsession – Tips Ahoy 12d.  Grade-wise it’s a little harder than some of the other lines on the wall, but I’d been told by more than one person that this one would be a good one for me to try.  Apparently, it’s more sustained than the other lines, but the moves are not quite as big.  Add that to the fact that my friend Drew already had the draws up, and hopping on it was a no-brainer!

My first attempt I opted to toprope it.  I’d never led 12d before, and that pre-hung rope was just too tempting to pass up!  The initial moves were hard but I actually made it through clean – long NRG-style lock0ffs to small but positive edges.  Then came the crux – getting paired up on two tiny razor blades to make a toss to a sharp, pointy crimp, followed by another deep lockoff to another sharp crimp (as the name suggests, this route is not exactly easy on the finger tips.) I flailed around a LOT  before finally settling on some beta that worked for me, but i got it figured out eventually.   After the crux comes a traverse that is more technical than it is hard, followed by a ladder of crimps that, while significantly easier than the rest of the route, is still way to hard to be considered a “victory lap.”

Next I tackled the route on the sharp end – a big step for me, as I’d never led anything this difficult before.  I was surprised at how good I felt.  Everything was going great until I reached up to clip the 3rd bolt and realized that no matter how hard I tugged, no more rope was coming.  I heard a bunch of commotion below me (which included a few choice words that I generally don’t like my children to hear), and saw my belayer desperately trying to pull my rope out from under a big rock.  I managed to hang on long enough for things to get sorted, but sat on the rope immediately after getting the bolt clipped.  I would LOVE to say that my first 12d would have gone down 2nd go had it not been for that incident…but I am 99.9% sure that I would have fallen at the crux.  Stuff like that happens and is all part of the game – my belayer obviously felt really bad about it and apologized profusely…but if you are local, feel free to give Kurt Fischer hell next time you see him 😉

CragDaddy in sending mode on Hard Rock Cafe 12c

CragDaddy in sending mode on Hard Rock Cafe 12c

After the hang, I actually shocked myself by making the crux move 1st go, although I immediately rested before the traverse (the fall is clean, but I always have a hard time committing to traverses!)  Once I started the traverse, I took it all the way to the top.  Despite all the shenanigans I felt awesome about a two-hang, and was confident that while it might not be in the same day, a send was definitely attainable!

More spectacular wildflowers along the approach!

More spectacular wildflowers along the approach!

By the time my turn in the rotation came up again, my spirit was willing…but my flesh was obviously weak.  I took a rather awkward but safe fall trying to hit the clipping hold for the 2nd bolt.  On the crux holds my fingertips felt so raw that I imagined only a microscopically thin layer of skin was keeping them from becoming completely shredded.  I limped my way through the crux, linking only a couple of moves at a time, and hobbled my way to the finish, after resting on the rope several more times along the way.

Part of me wishes I would have stopped while I was ahead at attempt #2, because I left the crag feeling more destroyed than confident.  But I know the more mileage I get in on it, the better I’ll have it dialed.  And I will not be able to send it unless I have the moves COMPLETELY dialed in, since there are pretty much zero rests on the entire route, save a stray shake here and there.

It feels great to be able to focus on something new.  I realized I’ve spent most of the spring focused on unfinished business from the year before (ie Jesus and Tequila 12b.)  Since I probably won’t be able to touch that one again til the fall, it is really nice to have something else on the horizon that could go soon.

I’m hoping to get another crack at it in a couple of weeks.  In the meantime, it’s 4x4s in the gym, followed by a long weekend at the Red.  Hopefully the weather will be more spring and less winter this time around!

Related Images:

[See image gallery at cragmama.com]

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Dirtbagging, Deserts, and Disaster: The Perfect Climbing Road Trip

I stood by the side of U.S. 191 waving my arms. Another car slid past. Then another. And another.

“Damn it!” I shouted after the fifth went by without slowing. “Stupid!”

Rain was beginning to fall, and the wind had picked up. The clouds hung low over the mesa. The La Sals were covered in snow.

I was 25 miles from Indian Creek, 40 from Moab, and the battery in my Honda Element was down to Empty.

I’m such an idiot sometimes.

The plan was for a rest day. After three days of sandstone splitters my fingers were shot, my hands were raw and my arms were spent. I needed a shower, a refill on water, some internet and a grocery store. But instead I was on the side of the road miles from anywhere hoping against reason to flag down a pair of jumper cables.

Sometimes the adventure on climbing trips has nothing to do with the climbing.

Everything began in April. First stop: Washington D.C., the climbing Mecca. Andre, my scheduled Red Rocks and Yosemite partner, offered a session at Earth Treks and to let me crash in his spare room. After a New England winter of ice and snow it felt great to pull plastic. Humbling, but fun.

From there I drove on to Wilmington, North Carolina, for a weekend of freediving, descending like a SCUBA diver but without a tank, holding my breath as the light faded through the meters of oceanwater. Stealth-camping in my Element, eating meals out of Wholefoods, it felt like any climbing weekend, except that the worst advice you can give is “BREATHE!”

From there I drove west, the favored direction for the next six weeks. The first real climbing stop was Eastern Tennessee and two days at a secret cliff a friend was developing. “It’s a mix of the Red and the New,” he told me, “more technical than the Red but fewer stopper cruxes than the New.” An oath of secrecy later I found myself below a 40-meter high cliffband stretching from hollow to hollow, perfect orange rock towering above.

“This route is five stars,” my friend told me again and again. He was right. Beautiful sandstone, and to ourselves. We put up a new 5.12 with a fun bouldery crux near the ground and bolt after bolt of devious climbing above, 16 bolts of perfection. The Southeast is still full of hidden gems.

East coast sending on the first leg of my cross country  road trip

East coast sending on the first leg of my cross country road trip

But I had friends to meet in the Red, as well as a project to attend to.

For Northeasterners the RRG is a transition ground, the place to switch from pulling on ice tools to grabbing rock holds. It’s a spring pilgrimage, one seldom observed fit for rock climbing.

A few years ago I caught a glimpse of Cell Block Six, a soaring line on the Midnight Surf wall. It called to me, a perfect transition route—big holds, big moves, lots of airtime—it seemed to shout “Welcome to sport climbing season!” I wanted on.

So day one: Warm up slow on 5.10, then head to where the cliff arches at angles that block the sun. Get on the project. Fall all over the project.

Day two: Recover from Day one.

It took two days of gravity testing, pizza dinners and sandstone buckets to clip the chains, but a pair of handjams after the crux unlocked the route. Desperate through the crux, I recovered enough in those jams to feel like the chains came too soon. The transition to rock season was on!

With the project in my pocket I turned west again, to Indian Creek. It’d been 13 years since I’d climbed in the Creek, I was due a visit. And after a few years mostly sport climbing the idea of splitters beckoned. Last fall I was part of an AAC exchange to the Caucus Mountains, climbing rock routes and alpine peaks in Armenia and Georgia. Our host was a strong and energetic Armenian named Mkhitar, and after the trip our group wanted to return the hosting favor. Mkhitar accepted an invitation from exchange member and famous alpinist Jim Donini to take a month-long tour of American rock, from the Creek to Red Rocks to Yosemite to the Black Canyon. Anyone who wanted to join was welcome to tag along.

Retreating after pitches upon pitches of Indian Creek handjamming

Retreating after pitches upon pitches of Indian Creek handjamming

That’s how I landed on the side of the U.S. 191 waving in vain at passing cars.

The Creek is buried in technological darkness. Indeed, that is part of its appeal—no services, no cell coverage, just coyotes and varnished sandstone. The camping is primitive, the climbing superb. After the noise of Miguel’s and 1,000 miles of highway I sunk into that darkness with relish.

Jim, Mkhitar and a small crew had already staked out a camp and were on the rocks when I arrived. I spilled out of my Element and roped up, barely 7 hours out of Denver. Mkhitar’s face was stretched thin in a smile as he looked at the walls surrounding him. It was going to be a good trip.

But two days later after pitch after pitch of steep sandstone I needed a break. I tumbled back into my car and headed north. Rain spat as I climbed out of the canyon to the plateau, occasionally unleashing in waves, then quiet. I turned on my wipers, then my headlights. Red mud rinsed the land around me.

The first cell signal popped up a short distance from where the road to Indian Creek intersects the highway. My phone buzzed to life; emails downloading, text messages vibrating. I pulled over and switched off the car, leaving the key turned one click to listen to the radio. Three days away and a lot had happened; I started sorting through the layers.

Half-an-hour later, still sitting by the side of the road replying to a Facebook messages, the radio went silent. My phone battery indicator went from green to white.

“NO!” I shouted, suddenly realizing I’d left my headlights on. “NO! You idiot! What are you doing?!”

Half-an-hour—roughly the time it would have taken to get to Moab, where I could have done all of this internetting in the library, surrounded by central air, electric outlets and comfy seats. Instead I was now the proud owner of a dead Honda, parked in a patch of mud along the highway, rain moving in.

I tried the key: Nothing but clicks. I tried waiting a few minutes, hoping maybe the battery would recover enough residual charge, but I was too panicked to let it sit more than 90 seconds. More clicks. Finally I accepted what I had done, what I would have to do. I pulled on a fleece and stepped out into the spitting drops.

The first dozen cars didn’t even slow. Then came the fleet of rentals. “No,” the driver’s would say, one after another, “I don’t have cables. This is a rental car.” One guy offered to send help when he got to Monticello, but that sounded complex and expensive. “At least let me call you when I get there,” he said. “If you are still here I can send someone.”

I relented and gave him my phone number.

Drivers would see other cars pulled over and would pull over themselves, but they too had nothing to jump a battery with. (I, of course, was in no position to throw stones—where were my jumper cables?) I started to grow worried this could get expensive. I had cell coverage. I could call a towing service for a jump. But that felt like expedition tactics, resorting to aid climbing when I had set out for a free ascent.

I have learned that sometimes you can tell a car that has jumper cables. Sometimes the giveaway is the vehicle, other times it’s the driver. This time it was both. Truck. White. Extracab. With a diamond plate toolbox in the bed. A Utahn in his 40s with sandy hair, a mustache and well-worn Levi’s.

He was coming from the other direction. He slowed down and made a u-turn, pulled over all the way to the dirt embankment, letting his truck handle the terrain. He drove towards me, standing small against the desert, but stopped a few yards away. He was on his phone, and he just kept talking. He held up a finger. “One minute,” he seemed to be saying, “I’ll take care of this in one minute.”

Other cars were streaming past. I could be out there flagging them down, I thought. But I had a feeling.

He hung up the phone and rolled down his window.

“Do you have jumper cables?” I asked. The feeling was growing.

He paused, answered slow.

“Yep.”

The feeling was hope. “Can you give me a jump?”

Another pause.

“Yep.”

Another handjam rest. Maybe this crux would go too.

 

New River Gorge: The (Almost) Day of Reckoning

I'd love to know how many Friday nights our family has spent picnicking at this VA rest area off Hwy 77!

I’d love to know how many Friday nights our family has spent picnicking at this VA rest area off Hwy 77!

If you follow our family on instagram (@cragmama1), you may have noticed a family photo taken along the Endless Wall Trail on Saturday morning, with a caption entitled -“Today is a day of reckoning out the NRG…let’s do this!”  It was my first (and potentially only) chance this spring to send Jesus and Tequila 12b, the mega classic sandbag that I’d came heartbreakingly close to ticking off last November as the fall season closed out.  After some annihilating circuit work in the gym, along with recent success at both the New and the Red in recent weeks, I was feeling reasonably strong and my mental game was in a great space.  I was ready to tackle this monster again.

The first crux of the weekend was finding willing partners to drag down to Endless Wall with me, with a forecast of 70 and sunny.  With no leaves on the trees yet and a wall that bakes in the sun, it was a hard sell.  The CragDaddy was more than willing, but unless I wanted to find Baby Zu rafting down the river after looking away for 10 minutes, we needed someone else as well.  Fortunately for me though, I have some pretty awesome friends who were willing to suffer in the sun with me.  (And actually, they had sunny projects in mind as well, and their alpine start + twilight climbing schedule meshed reasonably well with my midday brawl.)

Trying hard on the J n T crux...

Trying hard on the J n T crux…

UNfortunately for myself and everyone else, however, no one’s efforts on Saturday resulted in a send.  I guess it just wasn’t meant to be…yet.  Except for the obvious fact that I didn’t send it, I feel really good about how the day went.  I gave it 4 tries – one was a bolt to bolt warm-up to re-familiarize myself with the moves.  I was really psyched to figure out a completely different sequence of moves for the upper roof crux…the same move that spit me off last fall on my epic un-send.  The new beta is MUCH more secure and higher percentage, and I am certain that when the time comes to do that move on point, I won’t be falling there again.

...aaaand I'm off.

…aaaand I’m off.

My second go of the day was a one-hang – I fell at the crux after fiddling with my foot placement too much (the rope management is a little weird there.)  I pulled right back up and finished the route strong, and felt really good about my next attempt.  My third go I made it through the crux!  I was pleased at how much I was able to get back at the rest stances, and was thinking it was my time…then I fell at the big deadpoint move.  Ugh.  That move has always been hard for me, but I had never struggled on it until that day.

Big C's super cool nature find along the trail.

Big C’s super cool nature find along the trail.

By this point I was running out of time, but I owed it to myself to give it one more go.  The days will only be getting hotter from here on out, so it was probably my last shot before fall.  Predictably, however, I was pretty gassed, and fell at the crux, again.  Ironically, the deadpoint move felt the most solid as it had all day, and of course, with the new beta, I cruised right through the roof.

I’d be lying if I didn’t feel just a little disappointed, but like my friend Caleb said, “It’s all part of the process.”  The real story here is about an amazing piece of rock that so many people have on their bucket list.  I would consider myself blessed to be able to experience it even once, let alone have a chance to invest so much of myself in it.  This all probably sounds a little silly to a non-climber, but there is a very personal, almost relational, connection, between a climber and a project.  Whether the route is personified as a nemesis that you want to exact revenge upon, or an old friend that you keep coming back to for a friendly duel, the emotional investment can be pretty intense.  For me, I think finding the right balance is key – training hard for a goal and leaving everything out there on the rock is good, and necessary for the send.  But at the end of the day, I hike out with my family with a smile on my face, knowing deep down it’s really just a hunk of rock.

Can you guess which kid is a morning person?!?

Can you guess which kid is a morning person?!?

Sure I wish I would have sent, but this trip was by far not a waste.  The next day I tried hard for a 2nd go send of All the Right Moves 11d, a 100 foot journey with a funky roof crux that had previously seemed really intimidating.  I also came super close on Control 12a, and am confident that those power moves will go down fairly easily when I’m fresh. Not to mention the new roof beta I have for Jesus and Tequila.

CragDaddy cruxin' on Control 12a

CragDaddy cruxin’ on Control 12a

Some weekends everything falls together and you send.  Other times you work your ass off and walk away empty-handed.  But those “work” weekends are what makes the “sending” weekends so magical.  I’m not sure when, but one of these days I will pull the crux on Jesus and Tequila and not take the swinging whipper.  I’ll stay clean through the dihedral and nail the deadpoint move.  I’ll teeter out across the roof and plant my foot exactly where it needs to be, and execute the final sequence.  I’ll stand at the top and savor the magnificent view of the river below, feeling that mix of pure exhilaration and exhaustion that I so wish I could bottle up and sell.  We’ll go out for dinner and I’ll celebrate with a round of margaritas for anyone that wants to join me.  Then I’ll walk the cliff again and wait for inspiration to strike, and the cycle will start all over again.  Ah, thank you God for creating rocks to climb on.  :)

The magnificent view atop J n T.

The magnificent view atop J n T.

Related Images:

[See image gallery at cragmama.com]

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Alex Johnson on Projecting, Sending, and Lessons Learned

So much of climbing, especially projecting, is puzzle piecing. It isn’t whether or not you’re strong enough to do the climb, or do each individual move on the climb, but figuring out how to do each move, and configuring the most efficient way to combine multiple moves in a row while expending the least amount of energy. I think “projecting” is “perfecting.” Working something so much you get it so dialed that it almost produces imminent, consistent success.

Alex Johnson Red Rock

Alex Johnson Sending Monster Skank. Photo: Ray Davalos

That’s how it was for me working Wet Dream Right (V11/8A Red Rock, NV). When I first started trying, I could do a couple moves, but some were so inconsistent, I couldn’t link sections of the boulder in a row. By the time I wrapped it up, I had perfected the climb’s movements. I was able to do every move on its own 100% of the time, and so efficiently, that I even when I linked them, I expended very little energy by the time I got to the final hard move.

Sometimes after I send things, I feel weird. Like I don’t know why they take so long to finish… During the process, you forget where you started. By the time you send something you’ve been working for a long period of time, it’s hard to recall how difficult the climb in its entirety felt at the beginning. This is how I felt about Monster Skank.

Alex Johnson Projecting

Alex on Day 1 of the Monster Skank Project. Photo: Kati Hetrick

You spend a few days, weeks, months on something, and then when you finally do it, you could feel so inexpressibly victorious you almost cry… or you might feel unsatisfied. Like, “Hm. I wasn’t fighting tooth and nail for every move of this climb. Maybe it really isn’t that hard. Why couldn’t I just do this last season?” When in fact, it could be that you’ve so perfected each sequence, that when you eventually finish the climb, all you really had to do was execute, in exactly the way you know how—because you’ve been doing the same moves for months.

There’s also the typical cliched opinion that the more time you spend on something, the sweeter it feels to finish, and of course that’s true. But often for me, it’s the opposite, the previously stated lack of satisfaction, almost disappointment in myself for not completing the climb faster, sooner.

Alex Johnson Day 1 Monster Skank

Day 1 Try-Hard Face

And then all these other questions race through your mind (or mine, at least) like, are the temps better today? Am I stronger? Fitter? Climbing better? Is my breathing more controlled? Am I less afraid of falling?

What was it? What was the determining factor in today’s success, versus all the other days of failure?

I heard on a (non-climbing related) podcast recently, that there’s no such thing as a failed relationship, no matter the result, how shitty it may have been, or how epic it seemed in the end. The entire time you were in that relationship you were learning; about yourself, about how you deal with conflict, emotions, etc. You were growing.

I think I want to start applying that to working projects more. I mean, I know every time I try something I learn something new, even if I don’t send it… But I get pretty in my head about things sometimes, especially when I “can’t” do something. I hate not being able to do something. It’s probably the most frustrating personal issue in my climbing life; being shut down. I’m sure I’m not alone in this.

Alex Johnson Monster Skank send

Controlled Movement on the Send. Photo: Ray Davalos

And I’m not saying that by needing to project something I’m “being shut down” on it. I’m just saying that sometimes I lose track of the amazing process in my race to success with myself. Being able to climb awesome things is a gift, and if they’re difficult they require more time and commitment. Sometimes I need a little reminder that the process can be just as fun and exciting, if not more, as the end result.

The vision for the Trango athlete team is to find climbers who embody our brand’s values and support them in their climbing endeavors. We focus on the character of the climber, their passion for the sport, and their desire to contribute to the community.

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