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Category Archives: rock climbing

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:

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.

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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.

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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.

Send Footage: Ethan Pringle on La Reina Mora (14d)

After a month-long battle of hope, frustration, failure, emotion, and eventual success, Ethan Pringle sent the Spanish test-piece, La Reina Mora (14d).

Ethan Pringle Spain from Facebook

 

“Well, I really couldn’t have imagined a better last day in Siurana. For the first time in over a week I felt only love instead of frustration and anger. With a wide open heart full of excitement and happiness, though not really caring how I did, I finally climbed to the top of La Reina Mora and clipped the anchor in a swell of emotion. It’s been a wild ride, and the process of projecting this climb and putting everything I had into it taught me more about life and compassion (especially for myself) than I could have thought possible…” – Ethan Pringle post-send

Ethan Pringle and La Reina Mora (5.14d) from The RV Project on Vimeo.

After sending La Reina Mora, Ethan went on to polish off his long-standing project and North America’s hardest sport route, Jumbo Love (15b).

Spain Part 2: Cobblestones & Milestones at Montserrat

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Montserrat climbing

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Barcelona! What an incredible city full of life, people, culture, food, history and so much more. It has to be one of my new favorite cities of all time and we just scratched the surface. We will get into Barcelona highlights in a future post, right now I want to focus on climbing.

First, I want to tell you about a real gem, Montserrat. From a distance, Montserrat looks like a multi-peaked jagged saw tooth mountain, which lends to its intricate rocky maze.  As you approach and drive up the windy road, you can see that hundreds of rounded, cobblestone towers, domes and cliffs create this beauty of a climbing destination. Besides the climbing, Montserrat is also a very popular tourist stop and once you reach the parking lot at the end of the road, you’re ripped from your dream-like state of amazement. The touristy stuff is pretty obnoxious and it seems to go on for a mile full of cars, huge buses, people and souvenir stands. Don’t let this deter you. Press on past the tourist stops, and you will be rewarded just as we were!

We were aiming for the sunny tower in the middle of this photo.

We were aiming for the sunny tower in the middle of this photo.

The reason for the tourists; nestled on the hillside about 1000 feet up from the base but beneath the towers is an old Benedictine Abbey, Santa Maria de Montserrat. Our goal, however, was to sample some of the moderate multi-pitch climbing that it is world-renowned for. We only had a few hours of day light so we had to move quickly, hiking up the narrow valley past the abbey. The hike to the base of the route was literally one stair case after another winding up between these towers. It was absolutely beautiful and provided wonderful views of the surrounding area. We were aiming for one of the more prominent summits, Gorro Frigi, and the Stromberg route seemed like a good choice. At the base of the route, we quickly geared up while admiring the colorful cobbles we were about to climb. The rock was gorgeous, and we were eager to test out these cobbles. Mike took the lead while I took out the camera.

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Stairs…

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lots of stairs!

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The stairs eventually turned to trail as we neared the base

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Pitch one up the sea of cobbles

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Trango was representing in Spain!

 

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Mike starting the second pitch. The Monastery is in view nestled in the rocky canyon below.

Sport climbers remembering their rope management at the belay

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Pretty amazing view of the abbey

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Final pitch

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Janelle taking in the summit views.

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Mike next to the summit cross

The climb was very casual, super fun and the views were tremendous. I loved the Catalonian conglomerate cobbles and definitely want to go back! Doing a mutli-pitch climb as a couple is very rare these days, and not something we do with kids in tow (well, not yet anyways).

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Hazy air on the way down made for a cool photo highlighting the pillar we had climbed

We finished before dark and headed straight into Barcelona during rush hour. This was a completely fun and terrifying experience on it’s own. However, with Mike’s defensive, confident driving and maneuvering, we made it to the hotel in one piece. It was time to  head to the Sports Engineering conference in Barcelona, but I don’t want to waste any time getting to the most exciting climbing day of our entire trip! Therefore, we’ll describe Barcelona and the conference in more detail in our next post.  Instead, here’s the exciting conclusion to our Montserrat climbing….

After our first taste of Montserrat, we knew we would need to go back during this trip. The relatively easy one hour drive was perfect for an early morning out on the rock. We left Barcelona before dawn one morning and were rewarded with an incredible sunrise on tall towers above us. Mike had a spring in his step while I hobbled along on my bum ankle. I could tell he was psyched! Today was going to be a great day!!

 

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Gorgeous view in the first morning light

I want you to hear it straight from Mike…this not only was a great day, it was one for the Anderson history books!! Here’s Mike to tell about his incredible experience, and reaching a goal he has had for years and years!

I came to sector Guilleumes at the recommendation of Jonathan Siegrist aka JStar. It wasn’t covered in our guidebook, so we got some sketchy beta at a local shop in Barcelona and hoped we’d be able to find it. On the way to the crag, I had a wave of psych come over me as I watched alpine glow on the cliffs above and just thought about how awesome it was to be here in Spain.

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More morning light making the cliffs glow. Check out that cool thumb rock too…the Caval Bernat. There’s a long multi-pitch climb on that tower we wanted to do, but the hike was too much for Janelle’s hurt ankle. Next time!

When I reached the cliff, I was instantly impressed because it reminded me of my favorite home crag, Smith Rock, but with slightly steeper walls full of pockets and edges. It was extremely inspiring. I did a warm-up (Catximba – “Bong”, 11c) and got on what I thought was another 12a (Diedru – “pipe”). After a little climbing, it was clearly a little more than I bargained for. I realized I was on an 8a (Bolita Moruna), not a 12a (7a+) so I decided I would save it for an onsight. I kept going until the climb got a little too hard then I climbed down.

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La Catximba (“bong”), 6c+ (11c – though the polish made it feel WAY harder 🙂 ). A nice warmup, covered with cool flowstone.

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Higher on Catximba.

After belaying Janelle, I got on the 8a (Bolita Moruna) again, gunning for the on-sight. I felt very smooth and strong, the climbing came naturally to me as I cruised from pocket to pocket. I had trained for this a long time. I reached the crux section, shook out and thought about the moves. I figured out a sequence and went for it. I had to trust some pretty polished feet but I did it and stuck the moves. From there, it was just  managing the pump through some small but positive pockets. A short tufa took me to the chains and I was very psyched to get another 8a onsight!

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At the chains of Bolita Moruna, 8a (13b) after nabbing my second 8a onsight of the trip!

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Mike celebrating his on-sight of a “Grade 8” route at Montserrat.

Now, I had to decide go for another 8a or push myself and try for an 8a+ (one was located just to the right.) Though I have come close a couple times, I have never on-sighted an 8a+ (13c) before, and it has been a goal of mine for years. It was one of my goals for this trip, but there is always the risk that you blow it and wreck the remainder of your climbing day. I took a moment and decided that “I would only live once” and this was my opportunity, so I went for the 8a+. The route looked really cool, following a solitary gray streak from top to bottom with small pockets reminiscent of France. This was what we came to Europe for!

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Rastafari, 8a+ (13c) follows the prominent gray streak up the center of the photo, then up over the roofs to the left.

The route had no draws, and little chalk, so this would be the real deal…no crutches…I didn’t even have a guidebook description (not that Spanish guidebooks have descriptions anyway 🙂 ). What I would have given for a Smith Rock/Alan Watts-esque  play-by-play run-down with accompanying crux-by-crux topo map? In retrospect, this was the perfect situation. No info, and no preconceptions!

The pocket sequence at the start was much harder than I anticipated, and I had to really go for it on some small but positive pockets, making long reaches . I also thought I would be able to get many rests in the opening sections but I was wrong. I had to manage the pump, stay relaxed and pace myself. At the end of the long grey streak, I reached a roof at about  the 2/3 height and was able to shake. To my horror, this is where the real business began! Over the roof I was instantly slapped in the face with hard moves. Long lockoffs to small pockets with bad feet and over-hanging. I had to do a hard mono move with my right hand to reach a good pocket. I stuck it though (yeah hangboard training!), then I got a horizontal crack that I thought would be a great rest, but it turned out to be very slopey. I milked it as best I could for a long time. This climb was taking forever! (maybe an hour to send it?) I was starting to worry I would flame out, but I tried to remain calm and optimistic.

I climbed above the poor ledge and was instantly in panic mode. The holds were too small and I could not see them because there was no chalk. I climbed into a sequence that I was certain I would not be able to do, and thought I would certainly fall . However, I was able to down climb enough to get a good heel/toe cam in the horizontal crack that allowed me to shake enough to recover. I had been here in Spain long enough that I was FINALLY able to recover at rests.  I shook again for probably ANOTHER 10 minutes. I had enough back and had stared at the wall long enough that I had an idea of what to do.  I pulled up on some good pockets with bad feet.  Above me, but a long way away, was a tufa under cling. I reached far, as far as my tired little toes would let me, and I was able to grab it! I was thrilled! I pulled up my feet and locked into the under cling.  I clipped, and was able to shake a little. I moved on, did a couple slopey crimps and slabby moves with decent feet. I was able to reach a sinker pocket…finally something GOOD to hang on to! The angle was rolling back now, so I knew I had it in the bag at this point, but I kept my wits about me. I climbed deliberately to the next bolt where the angle eased significantly. From there it was cruising to the chains. I let out a whoop, clipped the anchors and was totally stoked! My first 8a+ onsight while hanging the draws and with no chalk to boot!

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Whoot! He did it!!! He really did it!

Two climbers from Spain showed up right after Mike topped out. We needed photos of this climb and luckily, they agreed to belay so I could take a few photos.

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Mike “re-enacting” the final moments of his on-sight of “Rastafari” 8a+ (13c). A new milestone for him.

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Another action shot of Mike “re-enacting” his on-sight of “Rastafari” 8a+ (13c).

This day was one for the record books! After Mike’s onsight of the 8a+, he went on to onsight another 8a, “Xilum” making the grand total 3 – 8a’s in one day!!!!!!! Probably his best sport climbing day yet. There was something in that Spanish air of Montserrat…maybe a little magic? It was very magical it was the years of dedication to training, focusing on his weaknesses and setting goals that sealed this deal!

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A local climber, Guilleme, trying “Xilum” 8a (13b). This is the third 8a Mike did that day. Doesn’t this remind you of Moonshine Dihedral at Smith Rock?

 

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Super psyched…what a day!

Coming soon…details of our travels in Barcelona, and the Sports Engineering Conference, complete with VIDEO of Mike’s presentation on hangboard training with the Rock Prodigy Method and RP Training Center. For now, enjoy these teaser photos….

 

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Scooters and motorcycles dominate downtown and seem to be the preferred mode of transportation. Watch out pedestrians!

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Local school

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Downtown soccer field

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Mediterranean Sea with beautiful toasty brown beaches

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Tight streets

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Incredible buildings like the Cathedral of Barcelona

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Mercat La Boqueria

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So, Spanish eggs don’t need refrigeration 😉

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The not so “secret” secret Iberico jamon was EVERYWHERE!

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Cool exotic fruits

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Seafood and sea-critters I didn’t know one could eat

 

 

Getting the Most Out of the Least: Pareto’s Principle in Rock Climbing

It’s a tough case to make that rock climbing isn’t merging into the mainstream. What with the Dawn Wall on every major news outlet and an estimated 4000 new waivers signed at gyms each day, climbing is on the verge of blowing up. This growth has a lot of side effects: even more gyms to get even more crowded, the correspondent if diffused crowding at most major climbing areas (at least ones with “gorge” in the name, or various other references to major drainage systems: creek, valley, canyon, etc), climbing companies becoming publicly traded and in general starting to act like big businesses, and climbing superstars acting more like superstars than climbers. Another result is that there’s actually a population of climbers worth marketing to, and one of the most powerful ways to capture the market’s attention is through self-improvement. Just look at the most recent cover of Climbing.

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Thus, just as we can learn 37 revolutionary ways to lose 10 lbs. as we stand in line at the grocery store, a given perusal of any climbing media reveals just as many ways to be a better rock climber. Eventually, at least to me, it starts becoming noise, and the result is often that one simply dabbles through lots of different strategies for improvement or just ignores them all together.

But I think, at some level, we all want to get better. It just feels good to do something well, so doing it better will, logically, feel better. It many ways, it comes down to focus and commitment. Which makes the noise of self-improvement even more challenging.

Enter Vilfredo Pareto, a late 19th Century economist, who noticed that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by only 20% of the population. As it turns out, this ratio, now known as Pareto’s Principle or the 80-20 Rule, plays out in all kinds of ways: in economics, math, ecology, cellular metabolism, criminology, and other arenas. It can be (over) simplified by saying that, generally speaking, 80% of the results of any given endeavor are created by 20% of the effort. The trick is to know what 20% is doing the work.

Tim Ferris applies this concept in his books The Four Hour Work Week and The Four Hour Body. While I’m not advocating for reading these books (I haven’t done more than flip through them), the idea is intriguing. How do we get the most out of our efforts in life? As a climber, I’m constantly trying to maximize the effort I put into climbing. Over my career, and especially recently, I’ve pondered what those things are; what is the 20% of efforts in climbing that yield the greatest results?

Below I’ve listed my (completely anecdotal, unscientific, 100% subjective) big-bang-for-your-buck efforts. For me, these are that 20%, the low-hanging fruit. Before I get into them, however, I want to say one thing: This is the least to improve performance. This is not how to maximize performance, to become the best climber possible. For true maximization, the devil is in the next 80% of effort, using all of it as effectively as possible. The complement of the 80-20 Rule is the Law of Diminishing Returns, yet we can only know the asymptote of our climbing potential by obsessively trying to bump into it.

But that’s not for everyone, which is great because it means most folks are well balanced and not obsessed. And for most folks, here’s where I think you should put your effort:

This is fairly obvious but worth mentioning first, but don’t die. Double check the basics and generally be somewhat conservative. If you die, you will not improve.

Likewise, don’t get injured. What this really means is that you should put effort into injury prevention. Get strong shoulders, work on your antagonist muscles, avoid climbing more than two, maybe three days in a row but also climb consistently (as in, don’t climb as hard as you can one day a month and then eat Cheetos and play video games the rest of the time), and when you do tweak or blow something up, actually put serious, disciplined effort into healing.

Hangboard. Physiologically, your fingers are almost always the weakest link and are almost certainly your limiting variable. Get them stronger, and the rest of climbing becomes easier. It is actually that simple. There are plenty of ideas for how to hangboard out there. It’s not rocket science, but it does take know-how and skill. I use the Rock Climber’s Training Manual protocol because it’s simple to do and reliably effective. The RCTM, as well as lots of other training sources, gets into much detail about long-term periodization training. This stuff is great, but it requires a lot more commitment of focus and time, and it varies significantly depending on what kind of climbing you want to do. But, as long as you want to climb things that involve grabbing holds, improved finger strength will be an asset. A commitment to each year doing two to three hangboard “seasons” (i.e. 6-10 workouts every three days with minimal actual climbing in that time) will produce results.

It’s important to explore a diversity of climbing, but having projects that are challenging and require long-term effort is important to improve. There are many dimension of what make hard climbing hard, and so the process of exploration, learning, rehearsal, and performance is very effective to break into a new level. These don’t need to be mega projects, but routes or problems that take more than a few tries, more than a few days, to send are great learning experiences.

Way over my head attempting Swing Line (13d).

Way over my head attempting Swing Line (13d).

Be honest with yourself about your psychological weakness. The first step is admitting you have a problem. And yes, you have a problem. These usually involve some combination of:

fear of falling, fear of failure, tunnel vision, attachment to a specific outcome, impatience, lack of focus or awareness, poor breathing or eye control, poor technique, being unable to shift your climbing “gears,” “thinking down,” and problematic motivations to climb

There are lots of ways to work on these things, but no matter how strong your fingers are, you can’t out-climb your brain.

And finally, choose depth over breadth. I don’t mean to say that you shouldn’t be a well rounded climber. Often one discipline can support learning in another (like bouldering to trad climbing). But the idea here is to dedicate yourself to a goal. Don’t just take one afternoon in the gym to practice falling; make a campaign over weeks, months, even years to get comfortable falling. One hangboard workout won’t do anything but make your fingers sore, but seven workouts will make them feel like steel hooks. The idea is to commit to a direction, a process, and stick with it for long enough that the novelty wears off, you experience frustration, and then persevere into a new level of opportunity.

So there you are, some 100% money-back guaranteed (since reading this is free) advice on improving climbing performance. I spent years just trying to rock climb as best I could, dedicated to the old adage that the best training for rock climbing is rock climbing. I can’t help but wonder at the potential I simply missed out on in all those years of just climbing. Sure, I was doing some things right, but what would my learning curve look like if I’d just been a bit more effective in where I put my effort ten years ago? The reality is that all of the strategies I’ve outlined above are pretty easy to do, and most are totally free. So, few costs but plenty of benefit: Now you’ve got no excuse. Which reminds me of my last kernel of advice: Stop making excuses. Yes, climbing is hard. Enumerating why it’s harder for you is wasted effort. If you want to climb it, figure out how to climb it.

Trad Climbing: The Finer Points

Mountain Project just released its “School of Rock” pages, an entire section of the website dedicated to instructional content to learn to climb. It’s hard to make an argument that this is any different than Freedom of the Hills and Learning to Rock Climb, only in an electronic form. Maybe that’s better, as it is more accessible to more folks, especially ambitious but moronic teenagers (i.e. ones like me at fourteen). As tempting as it is to use my time to critique, on both technical and philosophical levels, the problems with this pseudo-democratic, erroneously constructivist attempt at distributing discrete knowledge, I’m not going to. I’ll just say, buyer beware (it’s free).

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There’s a section on traditional climbing, which is, disappointingly, not very funny, even in an ironic way. Admittedly, I haven’t scoured the whole section, so maybe there are some gems in there somewhere. I also can’t vouch for accuracy and exact content, but I would bet my #7 stopper (which is my lucky one, for reference) that it isn’t a whole lot different than the other tomes of climbing’s technical skills. I’ve come to believe that all of these instructional manuals are missing some important aspects of being a successful traditional rock climber, and I’m here today to give them to you: the finer points of traditional rock climbing.

Note: Some of these may not be specific to trad climbing and could be applied to various other forms of our sport.

  • Use your partner’s name with commands, like “Belay off, Hans.” Unless you’re alone on a wall in an unexplored region of Baffin Island, there’s a very good chance someone else will be climbing nearby. Hearing their name also helps wake up your partner as they nod off from low blood sugar.
  • Don’t say “I’m off” when you fall. Say “falling” or nothing at all. Usually, your belay knows what’s happening. 150 feet up a windy, hard-to-see pitch, “I’m off” could get confusing and even catastrophic.
  • Place bomber gear, and as best you can, place gear that your partner can get out, you tiny-handed people.
  • Everyone hears about extending slings on pieces to minimize rope drag, which is a good idea, but the seasoned trad climber eyes a pitch from the belay and plans ahead for the parts that will need slings. Generally, it’s mentally easier to sling pro long at the bottom of a pitch (hard moves above ledges aside), when we’re fresh and confident, than at the top. A rope that innocently runs over a small rooflet down low can become a Titanic of drag at the top.
  • Always place the best piece you can at the moment. Not placing a bomber piece here just in case you might need that piece there is a risky gamble at best. When in doubt, place the bigger piece.*
  • * This is, of course, assuming you don’t certainly know you need that given piece up higher. In that case, place the best you can get otherwise, then keep your wits about you until you get the good one in.
  • Almost all the time, do the shorter rappel. Also, knots in the end are a great idea, but it can be even better to clip the ends of the rope(s) to your harness rather than throw them down to get them stuck in a crack.
  • If the route is long enough, you’re going to have to pee. The best time to do so is when your partner is off belay after leading the next pitch. If you can, pee down the wall, preferably not on the power pitches, where the sun will dry it off quickly. Peeing on people below you is sometimes unavoidable, which leads me to –
  • Get over yourself and let faster parties pass. Sure, it’s cold and you’re already on track to get benighted; these are minor penalties for being slow. It’s unlikely that those will change much if you let the party blasting up the route behind you go by. Just humbly smile, and let their prowess be an inspiration to not get benighted the next time. If you’re going to bail and there’s a party close behind, let them climb through, then bail. Just like on trails, uphill travel gets the right-of-way.
  • Things like puffy jackets, extra water, real food (instead of bars and gels), a lightweight tarp big enough to wrap around your legs, and gloves can make a long day up a hard route way more fun. And if the route is steep and clean enough, hauling the bag instead of climbing with it can further increase the fun quotient.
  • Climbing in a team three on big routes can also be super fun. There are several strategies to minimize the extra time involved with three climbers, making the added social atmosphere totally worth it.
  • Get good at placing passive pro. When placed well, they’re stronger than cams, but they are a little more nuanced. Placing them efficiently will help you send.
  • Put yourself in situations in which you can practice falling on gear. Climbing manufacturing isn’t a multi-billion dollar industry to make shiny training weight. Those widgets work! Start small and conservatively, but place good gear (back it up if you must) and fall on it. At some point, trying to redpoint challenging trad climbs will probably be part of the progression.
  • There’s a fine line between running it out to move quickly and placing enough gear to climb confidently. If you’re gripped, you won’t climb well.
  • And finally, for God’s sake, double check the basics – harness, knot, and belay – before you leave the ground. I’ve seen too many folks get fixated on making sure they have 17 hand-sized cams organized perfectly on their gear loops but neglect to check the buckle. Don’t lose sight of the most important parts of the system.

The Hail Mary

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZW4w1uLLPY8

The Hail Mary play is nearly mythical in the football world. It is an act of heroism: glory or failure, all or nothing. I mean, just imagine if Florida State’s receiver had actually caught the ball. The Hail Mary isn’t about optimizing, hedging bets, or playing it safe. It’s about putting all the chips on the table and seeing what we’re made of in one singular effort, even if the outcome is as much dependent on luck as it is on prowess. In climbing, I think we also have Hail Mary plays, and I think they deserve a similar mythical status – for better and worse – as they do in football.

I should start by distinguishing a Hail Mary attempt from other climbing tactics. In my definition, one could throw a Hail Mary on any route for which the stakes (whether physical or emotional) are high. Sure, it could be trying to onsight a hard route, but it could also be an end-of-the-trip, go-for-broke attempt on a project. Or maybe it’s a place-a-good-cam-and-climb-like-a-badger-to-the-jug or hike-up-your-feet-and-dyno-and-hope-it’s-a-good-hold. What these all have in common is that in each situation (and other variations), we balance the pendulum of success against a universe of unlikely odds, then put every shred of our being into trying to get it to swing our way.

There are some other criteria for a Hail Mary attempt. First, the game has to be close. If my team is, say, on track to set a record for one of the greatest point spreads in Super Bowl history, a Hail Mary would seem absurd at best. Likewise, I won’t be making a Hail Mary attempt on the Dawn Wall or La Dura Dura. Telling my belayer I’m going for it and then skittering off just above the first bolt demands criticism for grandiosity.

Second, the stakes have to be greater than in the individual act. For example, if I am hangdogging up a route and decide to try a huge dyno rather than crimp through a sequence, I’m just dynoing. But if I try to redpoint the same route, and because I’m so pumped I can’t grab the crimpers and desperately leap for the finishing jug, that’s a Hail Mary.

I go into all this because I’ve recently had some experience with the Hail Mary play. My wife and I drove west in early March for a grand desert adventure – nearly four weeks on the road, a good, old fashioned American road trip which took us back to our younger days as dedicated dirt bags. How the various vectors of our professional lives had crossed (or diverged?) to allow for this month of few enough responsibilities for this trip is a whole different discussion.

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We first headed to the center of dirtbag gravitational pull, Indian Creek. The Creek was once the place my wife and I went to feel good about ourselves. The cracks once felt friendly, straightforward, and satisfyingly positive. Now, because we’re older and softer, the Creek just hurts. We spent several days wincing, taping, retaping, gluing the tape to our fingers, changing shoes, avoiding gobies from certain size cracks, and complaining. Basically, we got totally shut down.

My Creek experience over that last eight years or so has been tethered to one particular line: Air Swedin. At 5.13 R with unavoidable forty-plus-foot falls off the crux, it is a definitive Creek testpiece. The splitter crack and arête that make up the route loom over the approach trail to the Battle of the Bulge Buttress – one of the Creek’s most popular cliffs. In 2006, I got the wacky idea in my head that I could climb this thing. It suffices to say that at that time, it was well above my pay grade. But because of its position, basically the gatekeeper into Indian Creek, it captured me. Over the years I’ve put in several attempts, often trying it multiple times over a season, getting close to sending it, only to have uncontrollables get in the way and having to leave it behind. The last time I tried it, in the fall of 2011, I climbed all the way through the crux, only to have a foot slip higher, and fell. What should have been a mild 15-footer turned into a nearly 50-foot fall when the small cams, blindly placed in a pod, ripped. I badly bruised my foot in the fall and hobbled away discouraged and shaken.

Fast forward to this March, and our return to the Creek. I decided – after much fretting – to try Air Swedin again. After a few attempts on top-rope, which only served to make me feel more doubtful, I decided to lead it. This was no Hail Mary; it was arm-wrestling a demon, not trying to win but hoping to make a good showing. I managed to climb further than I expected, but slipped off the last hard move of the crux. The fall, while big, was fine. As I hung on the rope, I told Becca, “I think I’m done with this route. I just needed to take that fall one more time.”

The day after, as we took stock of our wounded hands and feet, we decided to leave the Creek. It was all for the better, as I already felt the lingering call back to Air Swedin, but I knew that asking Becca to go up there again would tax our partnership (and maybe our marriage) too much. So we headed to Red Rocks, NV, and enjoyed much more forgiving cracks and plenty of sport climbing. We even rented a house through AirBnb for part of the time. It was luxurious and reminded us that we are not the dirtbags we used to be.

We took a guide course in Red Rocks and had a few days off before our next engagement. We decided to go to Zion to try Moonlight Buttress. Becca and I have wanted to try Moonlight for years. It’s unparalleled for its aesthetics (one crack for 600 feet!) and quality. More importantly, it’s a big, hard route that we could do together as the nature of the climbing plays to both of our strengths.

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Our initial plan was to work the route over a few days. We’d start to climb from the bottom, redpointing each pitch as we could. If we needed, we could then rappel in from the top to focus on climbing the upper pitches on a second or third day. Then we checked the weather forecast. We had one day before the rain set in. We opted for the Hail Mary and set our alarm for 6:30am.

After the exhilarating foot-soak crossing the Virgin River, we scrambled to the base and started climbing. The first several pitches, a range of cracks and face climbing from 5.10 to 5.12, all went easily. Even though we still had many hard pitches to go, our confidence increased and the gitters subsided. I started up the crux pitch, and the next forty feet of power laybacking sucked away all the confidence that the prior five hundred had provided. The crack, banged out from years of nailing pins and prying on stuck cams, offered great fingerlocks, but I struggled to blindly place good cams in the smaller crack between the scars. Midway through the crux, I tried to stuff a small cam, and the crack refused it. Desperately, I tried a smaller one, only to have this one rip out of the crack when I tugged on it. Pumped and discouraged, I sagged onto a lower piece.

I managed to find better gear and climb through the crux with a few hangs and then climbed the rest of the pitch without any falls. I knew that I could send the pitch if I tried it again, but there were four more 5.12 pitches above, and so we decided to continue up rather than burning up energy and our one good day of weather on one pitch. Becca followed the crux pitch cleanly and with confidence. I managed to onsight the rest of the pitches of the route, which felt like a huge accomplishment on its own. We topped out in the late afternoon and sauntered down the Angel’s Landing trail, deeply tired and satisfied with one of the best and most challenging days we’ve had together.

I chewed on our Hail Mary on Moonlight for a while afterwards. We hucked the ball down the field, dove into the end zone, and watched the ball bounce off our fingertips. While it was a truly incredible experience to climb the route onsight in a day, technical speaking we didn’t get the touchdown. I hung at the crux, and Becca hung on a higher pitch. It was a mythical attempt, the stakes were high, but we came up just slightly short.

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But, it rained, and so we didn’t try it again. We went back to Red Rocks to meet friends and climb smaller rocks. A week later, it was time to drive home. Some other friends were in Indian Creek, and we decided to break up the drive by stopping there. It wasn’t totally on the way, and we were road weary, but I couldn’t help but want another go, a Hail Mary attempt, on Air Swedin.

We arrived in the evening, and it was easy to persuade our crew to climb at Battle of the Bulge the next day. I knew I had one good attempt, so I spent most of that day relaxing, only climbing enough to stay warm and fresh, and encouraging others to try hard. Around 5pm, the crux arête of Air Swedin went into the shade, and I tied in. This was a familiar ritual: wait for the shade, tie in, climb the crack, pull out to the arête, fall, untie, walk down, drive home. 

But this time was different. I pulled on the arête. I didn’t feel confident. My feet slipped a few times, but I stayed on the slopey sidepulls. I paused just before making the final throw to a jug. I reached for it, years of failure weighing me down, but I grabbed the hold. I desperately tossed my other hand onto the hold and pulled my feet up and stood into the rest. I’d made it through. The rest of the route, maybe fifty feet of odd 5.11 climbing, was surreal. Untying was surreal. Driving home was surreal. Most of the time, the Hail Mary play is one that makes people smile and shake their heads: “That would have been cool.” And sometimes, every once in a while, it makes you feel like a champion.

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Part way up the arete. Photo by Craig Muderlak

In Case You Needed More Reasons to Train

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It’s February 26, about 73.33% through winter. Not that I’m counting. It’s partly the snow, the cold, the hurricane-force winds that blow out of every gap in the ridges of Colorado’s Front Range that have limited my days climbing out of doors to 4 since early January. It’s also my ever decreasing tolerance for adverse conditions while climbing. I rationalize that I’m saving up my suffer tickets for when it really counts, like coming down a mountain at 3am, but the reality is more that I’m just getting old and suffering doesn’t thrill me like it used to.

Like many climbers, I wile away the “dark age” (i.e. winter) by training. My goal in the last few weeks has been strength training, so actual climbing has taken a back seat to hangboarding and lifting weights. Recently, I did a hangboard workout when my parents were visiting. They are already hyper-aware of my obsessive behaviors about climbing, and their reaction to seeing me strap 25 lbs. around my waist and repeatedly hang from half-pad edges fixed to the main brace of my house revealed the depth of the absurdity that training for climbing really is. Climbing, to the vast majority of the human population, is already ridiculous. Training, especially on hangboards, is everything hard and stupid about climbing without any of the thrill or fun.

So why do we do it? Why do we punish ourselves, endure hours of mundane repetition, and risk injury just to make our fingers just a bit stronger? The short answer is that it’s just that: a really effective way of making our fingers – and the rest of our bodies – stronger. And, while strength isn’t the only factor in climbing well, it certainly is a big part of becoming a better climber. But the drive to be a better climber is broadly even more questionable.

In the last few weeks, a thread emerged on Mountain Project entitled “Why climb harder?” Punctuating the typical profane witticism that only Internet forums can conjure were a variety of responses and reflections about the value of climbing harder. Several zeroed in on why one would endure discomfort (i.e. training, suffering, risk to life and limb) for the sake of performing at a higher level an activity that under the most gratuitous constructions only provides a highly subjective satisfaction. In other words, if I’m the only one who gets anything out of my climbing better, why should I bother doing anything other than maximize my fun?

So then, on a philosophical level, why hangboard (or, simply substitute any other activity that aims to improve climbing – or any other performance for that matter – that is likewise not fun and/or comfortable, which, for lack of a better term, I’ll refer to as “training” from here on out)?

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My friend Steve, climbing harder than most folks.

An easy answer is to say that if I hangboard and you don’t (or if I just hangboard more than you) I am more likely to climb better than you. Performing at a higher level leads me to believe I am in some way better than you, thus stimulating an anachronistic conclusion that I’m more likely to survive an attack/get laid and pass on my genes to future generations. I think we can all agree that in civil society climbing supports neither and probably works in the other direction. Thus, in our more rationale moments, we can (hopefully) see that climbing cannot be strictly ego driven.

There are a lot of other reasons to train, to be uncomfortable, to get better. Most of these are mentioned in the thread. Just go read it, if you’re, say, stuck in an airport terminal as I currently am. To summarize, folks argue for gymnastic growth, surpassing of limits, developing a warrior mentality, greater access to more classics, and the safety of climbing on steeper routes.

I think there’s more to it, and I’d rather explicate my obtuse philosophy on “training” here, lest my wisdom be trumped by the next poster, probably along the lines of someone named BetterThan YoMama writing “^^^^^^ -10×4.058 Your just climing harder cuz youve got to make up for not being able to satisfy woman..”

Which at some point may have been true.

My lady loves tips playbacks!

My lady loves tips laybacks!

Trump avoided, the first reason I think we ought to be willing to be uncomfortable to climb more difficult routes is for the sake of novelty. Let’s say you start running three miles, three times a week. At first, if you’re never run before, you’ll be tired and bit sore and probably lose some weight. After a few weeks, those runs will start feeling easy. Your legs will be a bit stronger, and you’ll compensate for the added activity by eating a hair more. Eventually, your body will stabilize and return right back where you started. Our psyches work the same way. What we perceive as difficult at first will at some point become normal. Invariably, without new stimulus, we find routine and comfort. We stagnate, gain weight, become complacent. Novelty is, by definition, the only way to short circuit the homeostatic matrix of the mundane. By actively seeking novelty in our climbing, our bodies and minds learn to adapt, to continually grow. We force our muscle fibers, neurons, and paradigms to be as dynamic as the universe is in which we exist.

The pursuit of an aesthetic is another reason to be uncomfortable. I think if each of us ponders it enough, we all have some kind of ideal rock climb, an imaginary line that embodies the qualities we love about climbing. Mine is a long route, requiring a full day at least, in the mountains, that is mostly steep, clean, and hard crack climbing but with a few face sections (and, since we’re working in ideals, has comfortable ledges, bomber anchors – bolts are welcome – and a casual walk off). Part of my aesthetic is a route that is challenging enough that I might fall off it, which is clearly a bias toward difficulty. Nevertheless, to climb another route that more closely resembles an ideal, any climber will have to be open to a novel experience, one that has a higher likelihood of discomfort and challenge. Therefore, at some point, we’ll all have to do something that isn’t fun, whether it’s for strength for smaller holds or endurance for greater fatigue or risk, to be able to climb a route that’s closer to perfection.

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The East Face of Snowpatch Spire, holding several lines that approach my ideal.

There is one last reason to train to climb better. I’ve been writing this piece over a few days, and in that time I’ve done the last hangboard workout in this phase of my training. Not only am I obsessive enough to do these silly things, but I’m also obsessive enough to record each workout. As I look back through my record, it’s clear that my fingers have in fact gotten stronger. I’ve been focused on working toward this goal – finger strength, and now my mind wanders to the next step, which will be a road trip around the desert of Utah and Nevada in March, and I can’t help but feel excited at the possibilities. Working on specific things to improve our performance promises new opportunity. Climbing, regardless of how difficult, will feel different now. This is the last and best reason to “train”: the promise. Whether we actually send isn’t the point, but just feeling the excitement of the opportunity, the newest in our once familiar minds and bodies, is worth effort and discomfort.

That’s my pitch for training. It offers novelty and the pursuit of some kind of ideal, but really, working to get better promises a new opportunity. So figure out what you want to work on: finger strength, fear of falling, all-day endurance, footwork on slabs, whatever, just work on it. Get better at it, then dream about what’s next. The dark age will end; the snow will melt, and the wind will cease (at least for a few minutes, hopefully). When it does, we’ll all be just a bit more motivated, which is pretty fun.

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Fitz Roy in early morning from Niponino camp. 
Sunny.  Warm.  Breezy.

Chalten, Argentina.

Still coughing, been a week.  It is not awful but it is not desirable.

Jon Schaffer, Clay Kennedy and I hiked up to Niponino Thursday amidst hanging clouds and snow.  The mountains looked wintery–and they were.  We made pretty good time on the hike with our more than 40 pound packs, dodging the obscene amount of trekkers and only a minor route finding snafu or two along the way (5 and 1/2 hours).

The homestretch across the last rock strewn glacier, I took a digger in a slushy pot hole.  Minor wetness that dropped me onto my knees.  Five minutes later I took another digger, this one almost thigh deep.  Soaking.  I hurried over the last few boulders and plopped down at a sandy bench to change my socks and into my boots.  The boys scouted for a prime campsite.

We found a place to nestle the tent between to boulders and the three of us packed in.  It was warm enough, the winds subsided and the peaks finally revealed themselves.  Cerro Torre staring at us–caked in snow and ice.  Full winter conditions.  El Mocho was our plan, Todo y Nada was the route.  Sounded so good in theory.   Upon approaching the following morning the rock sandwiching the steep snow gully was a blanket of white.  The top of the gully was teased with spindrift.  The 300 feet or so of rounded granite was dripping with ice and water.  Dampening my soul.  We needed to surmount this ‘easy when dry’ obstacle to gain access to the gully.  My eyes widened as I looked up 1000 feet.  My knowledge about climbing drifted into the thin blue air.  Clay and I both hesitated.  Jon remained cool and composed as we discussed ‘bailing.’
Which we did.
The winter conditions had me doubting that I should even be in Patagonia.  I don’t want to be guided up El Mocho, or any other route.  My fears before coming here seem to be true.  Last season and the season prior were a little friendlier, warmer, and drier.
Perhaps this is not my place.  Perhaps just not yet.

Approaching, the Torre Valley.  Cerro Torre strutting her stuff.  

The Anti-List: The Top Ten Things I Didn’t Do in 2013

End-of-year lists are so clichéd that making fun of end-of-year lists is, at this point, equally so. I suppose there is something reassuring to us about distilling an entire year of ephemeral experiences, however unrelated, remote, and insignificant they may or may not be, into a succinct and far less complicated list of items, preferably that fit onto a single typed page (or a computer screen so folks don’t have to scroll down). It’s even better when, like those on the tablet God gave to Moses, they happen to fall into an erosion-resistant number, like three, ten, or one hundred.

The climbing world is inundated with similar distillations, from personal posts of “What I Did This Year” to the headline piece on the January 1 Rock and Ice email blast. In the non-climbing media, end-of-year lists contain a variety of significant events, from things people did (say, an NSA contractor leaking a bunch of secret files) to things that just happened (like a 1000-year rain storm). Climbing’s lists, on the other hand, almost entirely focus on accomplishment. They’re all about what someone did. Sure, many of these successes are worth celebrating, but for every success, there are many more failures. For every dream climb or trip we do, there are many more that we don’t. So that’s what my list is about, a celebration of failures, of the things that didn’t happen in 2013.

Thus, in the great tradition of end-of-year lists, I would like to submit mine:

The Top Ten Things I Didn’t Do in 2013

10. The Arete Project at Nathaniel’ Boulders. Little rocks don’t compel me that much. I’m not slamming bouldering here, but it’s hard for me to care enough to try as hard as many of these little gymnastic challenges require. Still, falling off the last enormous dyno at the top of this arête over a dozen times turned this little chunk of rock into a big obsession. I never stuck it from the sit start, and there it remains, in obsession.

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Coming up short, again.

9. Onsight Burden of Immortality at Tensleep. I’ll preface this one with noting that making excuses about failed onsights invites scoff. Still, I’m going with it. This failed attempt represented the culmination of a string of failed onsight attempts over four days up there this past August. It happened the same way each time: climb up into what I thought was the crux, confidently stuff two of my fat fingers irreversibly into a pocket, pull up, then quickly realize I had exactly the wrong hand in the pocket. Here’s to second try.

8. Ice climbing. I got a pair of ice tools last winter, just before I hurt by arm, so they hung in my garage unused. While I don’t have some grand idea of even becoming slightly good at ice climbing, it seemed like a good way to give my tendons a break from grabbing tiny holds. Still, I never made it out. It’s so easy to find other things to do than go into the cold, slam your fingers against an even colder surface, hang off a face that could collapse at any moment, all while doing something you are certifiably incompetent at. I guess winter has just begun, so maybe I’ll get a chance.

7. Climb in Turkey, China, southern France, Italy, Australia. Sure there are tons of places around the world that have spectacular climbing, but these are the ones, potentially for very arbitrary reasons (like particularly pretty pictures in a magazine article years ago or something), that are on my list. And I didn’t go to any of these this year.

6. Redpoint a certain somewhat secret project at a not-so secret area in the South. Yes, I’m being vague, but years ago I tried an unclimbed line that was everything I love about climbing: hard, scary, and beautiful. It is a plum line up the biggest, proudest section of the wall. And there it waits. Living out West, it’s hard to justify such a long commute for one pitch. Trust me, this one is worth at least one more visit.

5. Surfing. Though I did manage to ride one proper wave this year, I’m still about a 5.5 surfer. I say surfing is at least as cool as rock climbing and probably much more so, especially to the rest of the world (the movie Blue Crush being strong evidence; imagine the same premise but with climbers – not that cool). At this point, I’m not about to move to the beach nor trade a trip to Yosemite for one to Baja. Still, surfing gets at something transcendent in the same way that climbing does. You try hard, deal with fatigue and fear, and every once in a while, your brain shuts up, your body and soul work together, and you get a breath of perfection.

Waiting for the perfect wave, or getting attacked by Flipper.

Waiting for the perfect wave, or getting attacked by Flipper.

4. Climb Fitzroy. I didn’t even make it to Patagonia, which would have been the whole point of ice climbing in the first place. I’d written this place off years ago, saying, “I can’t travel that far to sit in a tent and watch it rain.” For several reasons (a new, beautiful guidebook, primarily), I’ve changed my tune. Fitzroy is a massive chunk of some of the most aesthetic rock in the universe. Added to the bucket list.

3. Climb for the first eleven weeks of the year. I got biceps surgery on January 4. By April, I was back to climbing and even able to climb kind of hard, too. But there was a big chunk of time that I didn’t climb at all. There were also a few weeks over the summer when I was backpacking and didn’t climb. Then there was the week at the beach (see #5). Oh yeah, and there were the two weeks in November when I got pneumonia. In total, I spent about fifteen weeks away from climbing this year. Without climbing, I had a lot more free time, which (once I exhausted my Netflix “Watch Instantly” allowance) gave me the opportunity to explore some other really great ways to spend a day. I also learned a bit about how not to be a climber, how to find satisfaction, physical challenge, adventure, among other things, without climbing.

2. Free climb the West Face of the Leaning Tower. But man, was I close. I freed the hardest pitches, but a fall on each of the last two pitches (trying to onsight them) cost the true send. After pulling on about eighty bolts up a blank wall just to get to the free climbing, it became a bit easier to excuse myself from a “perfect” ascent. Quibbles aside, the West Face was a big deal for me; it was on my list (my lifetime list, not my end-of-year list). Having to reckon with the fact that perfection was more work than I was willing to give wasn’t easy, but the experience eventually settled into something I could stomach. Now, it is an accomplishment, with an asterisk.

1. Try Realization. Nor will I probably ever. I’m not ashamed to freely admit that it’s out of my league. Anyone who watched climbing videos in the early 2000s can remember the original Dosage. The indelible footage of Sharma’s attempts and eventual redpoint of the climb came closer to true climbing porn that anything before, with visceral details of the difficulty of the climb and a candid look at what it took for him to climb it.

So why would a climb that I’ll never even try be on my list (and why, of all the climbs that I’ll never try, this one)? There are climbs that capture climbers’ imaginations, and Realization was the one that captured mine. Realization is a gift because it stands as evidence that there is no ceiling to the challenge that climbing can offer.

That’s what this list is about. Of course, we should celebrate our accomplishments. I certainly do, usually with chocolate chip cookies. But what if I didn’t have a list of failures? What if I earned myself a Golden Piton for being awesome and managed to do it all. I often philosophize about the lessons climbing teaches us about life, usually with a bit of an eye roll from my wife. But I think this one is useful. We get more out of our struggles, our bumps into weakness and limitation – our failures – than we do from our successes. Besides, if climbing were easy, we’d call it “golf.”

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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