Category Archives: Training

Rock Climber’s Training Manual: Performance Phase (aka RESULTS!)

I’m writing this climbing-related post from just about as far away from the mountains as I can possibly get.  Hubby’s out of town on business, so me and the kiddos are taking the opportunity to hang out at my in-laws beach house in Sunset Beach, NC.  It’s the perfect way to enjoy my week of rest after wrapping up my very first Rock Prodigy training cycle. To catch up any new readers, since January I’ve been using the program outlined in the Rock Climber’s Training Manual, written by my fellow Trango athletes Mark and Mike Anderson.  This periodized program took me through 4…Read the rest of this entry →

Rock Climber’s Training Manual Part 2 – Power/Power Endurance

A few weeks ago I posted about how things were going for me in first two phases (Base Fitness and Strength) of the Rock Prodigy Training Program.  Now that I’ve completed the latter two training phases (Power and Power Endurance), it seems appropriate to share another progress report. Power has never been my strong suit.  When I get shut down on a route/problem, it’s generally because I just cannot execute a particular move.  On the flip side, however, if I CAN do all the moves on a route, linking them together *usually* comes fairly quickly.  Bouldering at the gym has helped, as well…Read the rest of this entry →

Delivered From Purgatory

I’m a big fan of puzzles. Crossword puzzles, brainteasers, jigsaw puzzles. Without a doubt, my favorite part of project climbing is solving the sequence puzzle. The more baffling the sequence, the more rewarding it is to solve. This challenge is magnified on first ascents, which typically lack obvious clues like chalk and rubber marks. Furthermore, there’s no guarantee a new line will provide a free solution.  For me, there’s nothing quite like the Eureka Moment when I finally convince myself the route will indeed go free. It could be the first time I execute a particularly cruxy move, the first time I complete a certain link through the crux, or even the first one-hang. In any case, that realization is followed by a renewed belief that the project is viable.

But there’s a downside to the Eureka Moment. It’s only a small leap from there to assuming the redpoint is all but assured—a mere formality. That assumption is often wrong, and the mindset it yields is counter-productive at best. If the send doesn’t follow promptly, each ensuing attempt is weighed down by a few more ounces of anxiety. Thoughts about the next objective creep in, I wonder how many more times I will need to line up a partner, and if the days turn into weeks, concerns about when to start my next training cycle add a bit more weight. This ballast is indiscernible at first, but over time, it adds up. This is purgatory—the prime malady of the projecting process.

To be in sport climbing purgatory is to know unlimited misery. It’s like being locked in a cage, with everything you desire just out of reach of your extended arm. Each morning you walk to the crag, passing other routes you might climb, if only you could send your project. Each afternoon, you walk back, trying to reason your way into believing you’ll send it the next day, but knowing deep down that you probably won’t.

Purgatory looks something like this. Bystanders will say it looks beautiful. From the inside looking out, all you see is pain.

Purgatory looks something like this. Bystanders will say it looks beautiful. From the inside looking out, all you see is pain.

The past 40 days have been the longest continuous purgatory of my career. After finishing Double Stout, I was eager to try another long-standing open project in Clear Creek Canyon. This one was prepped by my friend Scott Hahn around 2008, and opened to all comers in the spring of 2009. It’s located at The Armory, a small crag with an unusual concentration of great routes, including Ken T’ank, The Gauntlet, and Beretta. The Gauntlet was established in 2006 by Darren Mabe at 5.12+. It starts up a leaning dihedral, and then moves left onto a steep face of impeccable orange stone to climb a splitter finger crack capped off by a challenging roof encounter. Scott’s line was essentially a direct start to The Gauntlet, avoiding the dihedral by climbing straight up to the finger crack.

The Gauntlet follows the red line, Scott’s direct start follows the icy blue line.

The Gauntlet follows the red line, Scott’s direct start follows the icy blue line.

The direct start is all business from the moment you step off the ground until you reach a pair of bomber fingerlocks at mid-height. Scott described the difficulties reaching the crack as “roughly V10 into V12”, with the caveat that “a good wingspan is a must or you won’t be able to reach the holds”.

My first day on the route I was completely perplexed. There were many holds, but I couldn’t surmise how to use them. It’s one of those routes with such non-positive holds that just pulling onto the rock, while hanging from the rope, is quite difficult. There are many sidepulls, underclings, and slopers, and I could see the key was going to be figuring out the right combination of opposing holds and body position to stay on the rock. It would take time to learn how to move between those positions, and momentum to execute those moves.

One of many big spans, this one near the start of the upper boulder problem.

One of many big spans, this one near the start of the upper boulder problem.

For two more days I attempted to solve the puzzle, but there were still moves I couldn’t do, particularly in the reachy “V10” entry problem. There was an obvious “tall guy” sequence for this lower section, but I needed to come up with an alternative. I had done all the moves in the upper “V12” section, but it was much longer, very sustained, and I was far from linking the entire sequence. On the fourth day I finally uncovered a Napoleonic path through the first problem, and I managed to do the V12 bit in two sections with a hang. Now I knew the route would go. Great news, right?

Precarious crimping near the end of the direct start.

Precarious crimping near the end of the direct start.

The month of February is a blur of steady progress, devolving into near misses, clouded by a haze of fickle weather forecasts. The route started to come together in mid-February. I got my first one-hang, and then it seemed I was climbing up to the last one or two hard moves on redpoint more often than not.

Then the entire country was engulfed in historically heinous winter weather caused by an extremely cold air mass referred to by meteorologists as the “Siberian Express”. Record cold temps infiltrated the Eastern Seaboard—typically mild places like Tennessee and Kentucky were ice-bound, and Niagara Falls froze long enough to enable Will Gadd’s stunning ascent.   In Colorado, the phenomenon manifested itself as massive amounts of snow. During the last two weeks of February alone Denver received enough snowfall to shatter the record for the entire month.

This graphic is from February 27th. It snowed more that night, and again on the 28th.

This graphic is from February 27th. It snowed more that night, and again on the 28th.

Through the bars of purgatory, it seemed like it snowed every day. I like cold weather for hard climbing, and normally I can operate in the 20’s if it’s calm, but in late February The Armory rarely experienced temps above the teens. I managed to find one day each week in which the weather was barely tolerable for climbing. It wasn’t warm enough to send, but it allowed me to keep the moves fresh in my mind, and keep the candle of hope flickering ever so dimly.

Typically when a project gets out of hand I retreat, re-train, and return in a following season, usually completing the project with relative ease the next time around. I didn’t want to do that this time. For one reason, I felt extremely close to sending—much closer than I normally am when I bail. For another, I was concerned that the unpredictable Front Range weather would not provide another window of solid redpoint conditions until next winter. This is the sort of route you want to climb when it’s cold (well, to a point), and it would be difficult to get back to the route with good fitness before excessively warm weather arrived in Clear Creek. Finally, I had started to worry that my “retreat, re-train and return” strategy was becoming a crutch. I wanted to know if I had the mental fortitude to see this one through in a single campaign.

Fitness-wise, I was in danger of falling badly out of shape. I completed my last hangboard workout of the season on December 31st. With climbing in the V12-range, this project was right at my power limit, so I needed to maintain a power peak for as long as possible. Normally a nice long power peak lasts 3-4 weeks. To make it to the far end of the Siberian Express I would need to sustain my power for at least 8 weeks. Fortunately I could see early in the process that this project would take some time, so starting in late January I made a point to dedicate at least one session each week (and two per week during the worst weather) to sustaining my power and building power endurance through the use of Non Linear Periodization (NLP). As detailed in the RCTM, these sessions consisted of:

  • Warmup Boulder Ladder (20 minutes)
  • Limit Bouldering (25 minutes)
  • [5-10 minute break]
  • Campusing (Basic Ladders for warmup, then Max Ladders, 20-30 min total)
  • [5-10 minute break]
  • 4 sets of 34-move Linked Bouldering Circuit (Duty Cycle progressing from 1:1 to 2:1)
  • [10 minute break]
  • Supplemental Exercises (2 sets each of shoulder & core exercises)

This strategy worked astonishingly well. On February 15, I did 1-4.5-8 on the Campus Board for the first time (which seems to be slightly harder for me than 1-5-8, which I had done once before). On February 27th, the first day of my 9th week of power training, I did 1-5-8 and touched 1-5-8.5. I also completed my LBC with a duty cycle of 2.3 to 1 (1:45 set length with 45 seconds of rest between sets). I was strong and fit. I just needed some decent weather.

March arrived towing with it the first hint that snowpocalypse was waning. The first full weekend would bring highs in the 40’s and 50’s. By now I had everything dialed. The sub-optimal weather had forced me to fine tune every move, so I could stay on the sloping holds even when friction was poor. My warmup felt klunky and strenuous—usually a good sign. Once prepared for my first attempt of the day, I wandered down the hill to look at the river. The Armory is one of my favorite Clear Creek crags. It’s located across the river from a tunnel that mercifully muffles most of the road noise. There are a handful of massive pine trees that provide a beautiful backdrop, and the crag is sparse enough to escape the crowds of the nearby Primo Wall.

Midway through the second boulder problem.

Midway through the second boulder problem.

It was time to start. By now the entry problem, which took four days to unlock, was trivial. I flowed effortlessly up to the direct start’s one pseudo-jug. I quickly clipped the second bolt, chalked my right hand, and continued. From this point each of the next 12 or so hand moves is a dyno. I had fallen on redpoint on virtually all of these moves at one point or another, and not necessarily in progressive fashion. The climbing is so insecure and complex that the actions of each limb must be carefully coordinated. If your attention wanders for even a split second you can pop off at literally any point.

The last hard move, a big slap to a rounded edge.

The last hard move, a big slap to a rounded edge.

This time I made no mistakes. I performed each move in exacting fashion, and I flowed from one into the next. Breathing heavily, I lined up for the final slap, this one to a sharp horizontal water groove on the edge of a protruding horn—the last hard move. I had fallen on this move on redpoint seven times, but I had never arrived at this move feeling as strong and confident as I did then. I lined up the hold, colied and slapped. By the time I realized what I had done I was sinking my second hand into the bomber finger crack. I clipped and exhaled. The final 30 feet were a sweet victory lap, and I was released from my self-made prison.

Almost to the finger crack!

Almost to the finger crack!

The effort was a revelation for me. I’ve never maintained peak fitness for so long. All my knowledge of training, strategy and tactics contributed. I’ve never stubbornly persisted on a route for so long in a single season. I doubted the virtue of that persistence each day, and even knowing the outcome I’m not entirely convinced it was prudent, but it’s empowering to know I can fall back on that option in the future.

Finishing up The Gauntlet, just above the merge point.

Finishing up The Gauntlet, just above the merge point.

I’m calling the route Siberian Express.  Based on my maintenance training I can confidently say that I was in top shape when I did it.  The weather likely extended the outcome somewhat, but considering my fitness and the twelve days required, I suspect it’s the hardest route I’ve climbed and warrants a 5.14c rating.  More importantly, it’s a great route.  It doesn’t have the towering height of the lines on the Wall of the 90’s, but where it’s hard, it is incredibly sustained.  It certainly doesn’t climb like a short route or a roped boulder problem.  With few exceptions the rock is impeccable–truly some of the best in Clear Creek.  The setting is serene, and the movement is fantastic, once you figure it out.

Rock Climber’s Training Manual Part 1 (Base Fitness and Strength)

When I first started climbing, I didn’t bother with any sport-specific training of any sort. My formula for improving was to just climb.  However, once Cragbaby #1 came into the picture, our midweek climb time was greatly decreased, which meant the time we did have needed to be a little more efficient.  I started keying in on my weaknesses and choosing routes/problems/techniques that focused on those (for example, adding some off-set pull-ups and movement drills to increase lock-off strength.) Then I broke my ankle in February of 2012.  I knew I’d go nuts if I didn’t do SOMETHING, but I couldn’t…Read the rest of this entry →

The Original Campus Board

As soon as Kate and I committed to a trip to Germany, I started looking for information on “The Campus Center”, the birthplace (and namesake) of the Campus Board. Legend has it that Wolfgang Gullich was looking for a new way to train explosive power for a new cutting-edge route he was trying in the Frankenjura. He developed a ground-breaking new training tool that would allow him to apply the concepts of plyometric training to climbing. The “Campus training” worked, Wallstreet was born (the first 5.14b or 8c in the world) and the rest is history. [read more on this here]

My obsession with campus training, and in particular, campus board specifications, is well-documented. I absolutely had to get a look at the original campus board, if it was still in existence. At the very least, I wanted to take a few measurements, especially rung-spacing, rung depth, and the angle of the board (steepness). It was a long shot, but it was worth looking into.

Unworthy author about to be chewed up and spit out by Wallstreet.

Unworthy author about to be chewed up and spit out by Wallstreet.

The Campus Center was an upscale fitness center for regular people (not a climbing gym), located in Nuremberg, Germany. We just so happened to be flying in and out of Nuremberg, so if it was still standing, I was going to find it. One of my early climbing partners Bobby Gomez once called me a “climbing detective” for my persistence in uncovering all manner of random historical trivia and beta about various climbing objectives. I put all my powers to the test and (after a few missteps) entered “The Campus Center Nuremberg Germany Wolfgang Gullich” into my Google Machine. This is what I found.

Not only did the Campus Center still exist, they have a website, including a page dedicated to the Campus Board, with pics of Wolfgang Gullich and Action Directe! This was going to be easy. They had a picture of the board in 2010, still intact, so there was a great chance the board would still be there when I arrived. Still, I was nervous. How long could a regular fitness studio possibly keep an old relic like this hanging around before someone decided to remodel?

Nuremberg is a town of roughly 500,000, located in the heart of Bavaria and roughly an hour from the heart of the Frankenjura. The Campus Center is located on the east side of town, in a commercial district with a variety of storefronts. After our flight landed on the morning of September 18th, we picked up our rental car and headed straight there. My quite-rusty German was going to get tested almost immediately.

The Campus Center, Nuremberg, Germany

The Campus Center, Nuremberg, Germany

While I was still in Denver I scripted a few lines using my phrasebook in the hope that I could explain my intentions to the Campus Center personnel. Things like “I would like to see the Campus Board” (“Ich mochte das Campusboard gesehen”) and whatnot. I walked bravely through the automatic door, looked the gentleman at the desk square in the eyes, chickened out and mumbled “Sprechen sie English?” Yes, a little. I explained why I was there. He was not surprised. I was lead upstairs and introduced to another gentleman who spoke fluent English. Clearly I was not the first foreigner to make this pilgrimage. Still, it was also not an everyday event, and he was quite curious to know where I was from and why I was so interested. He led me down the hall and into a large room filled with modern-day Nautilus workout equipment. There, at the far end of the room, suspended from the ceiling, was the original Campus Board. I asked if it was still original, if it had been moved or altered in any way. He confirmed that it was all original. It certainly looked original, and comparing the video of Gullich using the board (above) to my photos further confirms that it hasn’t been moved.

The Campus Board

The Campus Board

The wood was glassy and polished. It had clearly been here for quite a long time. On the front side were rungs of three different depths running from bottom to top, and the four lowest of the largest rungs had pairs of two-finger pockets roughly carved into them. All three sets of rungs were spaced at the same interval. The medium-depth rungs had a big, slopey radius on them, and the shallowest rungs were slightly incut with a moderate radius. They looked very similar in shape to the Metolius small campus rungs. The rungs were much wider than Metolius rungs, and vertical lines had been drawn on the rungs in black marker, presumably to measure horizontal or diagonal (typewriter-style) moves.

Thre front or business side of the Campus Board.

Thre front or business side of the Campus Board.

On the back side was an old hangboard, and an even older set of hand-made wood holds cobbled together in the shape of a pseudo-hangboard. Was this the world’s first hangboard? It wouldn’t surprise me. There were also some sloping, quarter-cylinder rungs on both the front and back of the board that looked like they’d been added more recently.

The back of the Campus Board.

The back of the Campus Board.

Once we got talking my escort shared all kinds of interesting details. The board was still used by climbers in the area. He showed me a sequence between a set of pockets and said that was the first move of Action Directe, and so on.

Two-finger pockets carved into the largest rungs.

Two-finger pockets carved into the largest rungs.

I took a bunch of pictures, posed for a pic in front of the board, and then I think I set myself apart from the other pilgrims when I pulled out my tape measure and inclinometer :)  I explained how much things like steepness and rung-spacing make a difference, and the value of comparing the configurations of different campus boards with the original. He understood but I suspect he thought I was taking things a bit too far :)

Measuring the spacing from the top of the fourth rung to the top of the first rung (63.5 cm).

Measuring the spacing from the top of the fourth rung to the top of the first rung (63.5 cm).

My first measurement was puzzling: 63.5 centimeters from the top of the first rung to the top of the fourth. I also measured the distance from the top of the second rung to the top of the first: 23.5 cm. That doesn’t make sense. I stood back and noticed the spacing between the first and second rungs was larger than the rest of the spacing. This is partially because the first row of rungs was aligned (“justified”, if you will) along the bottom edge of the rung, and the rest were aligned along the top edge. Upon further inspection I realized the spacing between rungs 2 thru 10 was 20cm per rung (on center, or from top edge to top edge), with the spacing between the first two 23.5cm.  According to Jerry Moffatt’s book, Wolfgang Gullich was able to do 1-5-8 using only his two middle fingers.  Presumably that was done on this board, so his 1-5 was 84cm and his 5-8 was 60cm (and his 1-8 has 144cm).  That is insane!  I can’t even deadhang a small Metolius rung with my two middle fingers.

The distance from the top of the fourth rung to the top of the second rung: 40 cm.

The distance from the top of the fourth rung to the top of the second rung: 40 cm.

I measured the rung depth: 2cm, which confirms Jerry Moffat’s recollection from his autobiography Revelations. That’s within a millimeter of .75 inches (the depth of a Metolius small rung). The depth of the carved pockets was also 2cm. The angle of steepness appeared to be about 12 degrees. It was hard to be certain since I didn’t have a level with me, but I think it’s in the ballpark. I had previously guessed the angle was 11 degrees from analyzing old photos of the board, so I think that’s pretty close.

Original Campus rung on the left, Metolius small rung on the right.

Original Campus rung on the left, Metolius small rung on the right.

Campus Board steepness: approximately 12 degreees overhanging.

Campus Board steepness: approximately 12 degreees overhanging.

In its current state, the Campus Board is really slick and polished. I’ve heard people say that wood becomes more textured over time, as the soft pulp wood wears away and the tougher grain becomes exposed. That may be true to a point, but there’s also a point where it just gets so polished it’s almost like glass. I’m really glad this board hasn’t been altered for the purpose of preserving its historical value, but I wouldn’t want to train on it!

The Campus Board in profile.

The Campus Board in profile.

In conclusion, the key specs of the Original Campus Board are 20-cm rung spacing, and 12-degrees overhanging. If you use small Metolius rungs you’ll be close-enough in terms of rung size and shape (the Metolius small rungs are slightly shallower). I’m really glad to have this data point, however, I would still recommend using “Moon-spacing” (22cm on center). I think at this point Moon Spacing is much more established and universal, at least in the English-speaking world, even if it’s not original. Using Moon Spacing doesn’t change the fact the Wolfgang Gullich was insanely strong, which I was able to confirm every time I tried one of his routes! I’m really happy I took the time to track down the Campus Center. Seeing the original Campus Board in all its glory was well worth the effort and one of the highlights of my trip.

Thank you Campus Center!

Thank you Campus Center!

Adjustable Mount 2.0 for the Rock Prodigy Training Center

The finished adjustable mount. Keep reading to learn how to make your own.

The finished adjustable mount. Keep reading to learn how to make your own.

In a previous article, we showed you how to build an Adjustable Mount for your Rock Prodigy Training Center so that you can take maximum advantage of the built in ergonomics of the most innovative fingerboard on the market. While it gets the job done, the French Cleat technique described in that article is difficult to execute, and the result is bulky. We’ll show you an alternate method here that can be built for about $20 in parts and an hour of work.

The finished product is shown above, and the backside view is shown below. It uses “Door Stop” hardware I found at Home Depot to drape accross a 2×10 (or 2 x whatever you like..) Besides being much lighter and lower profile than the French Cleat, this design is also extremely portable. this mounting system could be hung from any 2×8, if you were on the road and needed to get your training in…think of the possibilities…

Rear view of the finished adjustable mount.

Rear view of the finished adjustable mount.

The base board is 3/4″ plywood, which the RPTC and Door Stop hardware mount to (with T-Nuts). I had some nice scrap plywood laying around that I used, but you could use a lower grade to save some money. I used my RPTC to trace out the shape for the base boards, and cut it with a jig saw, which is ideal for cutting curves. Before you cut, plan out where the screws for the RPTC are going to be, and where the bolts for the door stops will go so that they don’t interfere. It’s a good idea to drill the holes for the Door Stop hardware before you cut, but it isn’t necessary.

Cutting the 3/4" plywood base board with a jig saw. Use safety glasses!!!

Cutting the 3/4″ plywood base board with a jig saw. Use safety glasses!!!

I left about a 1″ margin at the top of the board, as shown in the next photo.

Note the ~1" overlap at the top of the RPTC.

Note the ~1″ overlap at the top of the RPTC.

Here is how I laid out the bolt holes for the door stops:

Laying out the holes for the Door Stop. You'll want to mount this as close to the top of the baseboard as possible.

Laying out the holes for the Door Stop. You’ll want to mount this as close to the top of the baseboard as possible.

Every climber should have a bucket of 5/16″ T-Nuts laying around, but you may need to pickup some 3/4″ x 5/16″ bolts and washers. You’ll want to torque these pretty tight so that the T-Nuts suck in to the plywood and are flush with the plywood. This will ensure the RPTC can be mounted to the base board without interference from the T-Nuts.

Torquing the bolts into the T-Nuts.

Torquing the bolts into the T-Nuts.

Here is the finished backplate with Door Stops, bolts, and washers:

The finished backplate.

The finished backplate.

And this is the front view, showing the T-Nuts flush with the plywood for easy mounting of the RPTC:

The front side of the backplate. Note the T-nuts are flush with the plywood to allow you to mount the RPTC flush.

The front side of the backplate. Note the T-nuts are flush with the plywood to allow you to mount the RPTC flush.

The next step is to mount your RPTC on the base boards. Carefully select your screws (length in particular) so that they DO NOT protrude out the back of the plywood. If they do, you’ll need to cut them off with a cutoff wheel or grinder, and that’s a pain you should try to avoid.

Selecting the right length screws from my collection to mount the RPTC with.

Selecting the right length screws from my collection to mount the RPTC with.

Here are the finished adjustable mounts with RPTC halves mounted:

The RPTC mounted on the base plates.

The RPTC mounted on the base plates.

At this point, if you throw your RPTC up on a 2×10, you’ll notice some slop in the mounting. The Door Stops are not 1.5″ deep like a 2×4, they are deeper, which leaves a gap. You may be able to live with this gap (and in my experience, it isn’t a problem). If not, you’ll need to mount shims on the backside of the 2×10 to “widen” the 2×10 and eliminate that gap. Something in the range of 3/8″ to 1/2″ shim will work. I used 3/8″, and this works well for me.

Shim material mounted to the back of the 2×10 that I use for my cross beam:

Shims added to the back of my 2x10 cross beam. And a poop tube (for some reason?)

Shims added to the back of my 2×10 cross beam. And a poop tube (for some reason?)

Cutting out the shim material with my Jig saw:

Cutting the shims.

Cutting the shims.

Finally, if you are accustomed to your hangboard residing at a particular height, you will want to relocate your cross beam. As I described in this article on how to mount a hangboard, I like the bottom of my board 81″ off the floor. The adjustable mount will raise the level of your board a few inches, so you may need to lower your crossbeam by a corresponding amount. If you have other boards or holds mounted on your crossbeam, you might want to just live with it, and build yourself a platform as described in the aforementioned article.

Lowering my cross beam to account for the increase in height provided by the door stops.

Lowering my cross beam to account for the increase in height provided by the door stops.

Here is the finished product, and the happy new owner of an adjustable hangboard:

The finished product.

The finished product.

Flashback Series Ep 3: The First Free Ascent of the Lowe Route in Zion, UT

In December 2004, I (Mike) made the First Free Ascent (FFA) of the historic North Face of Angels Landing (aka Lowe Route). This amazing feature (the N Face of Angel’s Landing) was the premier climbing feature in one of America’s most beautiful National Parks, and yet it had never been free climbed. The route went free at 5.13, Grade V. Here is the story I wrote shortly after the ascent. It first appeared in a forum thread on on Zion Climbing History in April 2005. The photos are all courtesy of Mr. Andrew Burr who worked very hard to take these amazing shots!

The dramatic North Face of Angel's Landing

The dramatic North Face of Angel’s Landing

LoweRTopoClick here to view larger topo.

“How is it going up there?” Is the rhetorical question I get from Ben, my skeptical belayer. His precise inflection indicates that he knows the answer. A long pause results as I face facts: This pitch, these 10 measly feet, simply will not go.

“Uh, it’s not looking good. It’s too steep, and the holds are just too far apart.” I’m severely disappointed, but I don’t have time to dwell on it now. We’re about 1000’ off the deck with another 500’ to go to top out on the Lowe Route, on the N Face of Angel’s Landing, and the hour is getting late. We punch it for the top, freeing what we can, and aiding the rest, and top out just as it’s getting dark. On the summit, Ben consoles me:

“You know, Mike, I wasn’t too psyched for more belay duty on this thing anyway…so to be honest, I’m not too disappointed that it won’t go”.

“Thanks…thanks a lot.” It’s just the tact-less type of consolation that I would expect from my longtime friend. Ben and I have known each other since we were about 12 years old. We learned to climb together, so we’re past the point of polite conversation. Nevertheless, his assessment is too frank for me right now, as I try to hang on to a sliver of hope that I will find a way to make it go. My years of reading mountaineering literature have turned me into a hopeless optimist. In all the classic tales, the brave protagonists always find a way to make it go. Of course, the unsuccessful protagonists don’t get their stories published, so we rarely read about failures.

As we scurry down the trail in the dark I propose possible solutions while Ben kindly shoots them down.

121204.02Hauling gear up “Walter’s Wiggles” – the trail to the summit of Angel’s Landing

“The Hubers used a man-powered rappel, how about a man-powered pendulum?”
“Pendulum to where? There’s nowhere to go.”
“OK, how about a shoulder stand?”
“That would be aid climbing, and besides, who are you going to get to dangle 1000’ off the deck off of those crappy holds belayed by those rusty quarter-inchers? You can count me out.” I decided it would be better to keep my ideas to myself.

My goal, or should I say, my pipe-dream is to free the North Face of Angels Landing in Zion, UT. Despite being the most obvious climbing feature in the Canyon, it had so far remained as the exclusive territory of the aid climber. This was my third recon trip, and it was going well until I hit the bolt ladder on pitch 8. A few weeks before I had rapped down to inspect the upper half of the route, and although I knew the bolt ladder would be hard, I thought it would go, at least there were holds. I was wrong. I was certain that I could free everything but the 10 feet of that bolt ladder; I was instantly enlightened about the frustration of big wall free climbing. You can free 1490’, but if you don’t get those last 10’, you have failed.

I first started thinking about this project last spring. I was driving home solo to Utah after a long trip to the Valley which allowed a lot of time for personal reflection. I had a great trip, met some cool people and reunited with old friends. My twin brother, Mark, and I had just made an all free ascent of El Cap and I had managed to avoid falling on any of the pitches. I didn’t think of myself as an elite climber, but after my unexpected success on Freerider, I decided that maybe I do have an aptitude for this type of climbing. For some reason, the further I am from the ground, the more easily the moves seem to come to me…at least that explains my complete ineptitude at bouldering.

Lowe_routelineThe North Face (Lowe) Route on Angel’s Landging

While in the Valley, I was impressed by the amount of energy there is for free climbing. Prior to this trip I had formed the opinion that the Valley scene stifles progress by ostracizing people with a different vision of the future. This latest trip really opened my eyes to the feverish pace of progress in the Valley. There are a lot of very strong climbers, locals and visitors pushing the limits on climbs all over the valley. Nearly every day I could walk through El Cap meadow and hear about people making progress on various projects throughout the park. I wanted to be a part of that. Because I couldn’t bring myself to the Valley every weekend, I decided to try to bring that atmosphere to Zion.

Zion is ripe for a free climbing revolution. Guys like Doug Heinrich have been trying to motivate people towards that end for some time now, but it’s just now starting to catch on. When my brother Mark and I freed Moonlight a few years ago, there wasn’t a lick of chalk on it, now the crux pitch is perma-chalked. Nevertheless, the route still gets more aid traffic than anything.

Immediately upon my return from Yosemite, I started researching possible routes in Zion. I contacted Brian Smoot, whom I had previously sparred with on the internet. I knew he was a long-time Zion climber and he would have some great ideas. He sent me a great list of potential routes, but I was instantly drawn to the Lowe Route on Angel’s Landing, and have been obsessed with the line ever since….

They say “time heals all wounds”…I don’t have much experience with that, but one thing I do know is that time downrates all cruxes. The further you are from your project, the easier you remember those moves being, and it didn’t take long after that initial recon before I had convinced myself the Lowe Route was worth another shot. Convincing a belayer?…now that’s another thing.

Within two weeks I was back in the Park, hoping to give it another try. I had made plans to meet up with Brian Smoot, and hopefully meet the prolific Dave Jones, but it didn’t come to pass. The first day we were there it was raining. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was heavey-handed foreshadowing of things to come. We were unable to get on the wall, but that wasn’t the point, I just needed to have a look. From the covered bus stop at Big Bend, I scoured the face with my high powered spotting scope and identified enough features to motivate me to rap in from the summit a second time.

121404.28Scouring the face for options…this is how I discovered my 3-pitch variation around the bolt ladder.

The rest of the weekend was spent enjoying the solitude of Zion in the rain. At one point we decided it would be fun to try to hike to the south side of the Great White Thrown cross-country from the Mt. Carmel highway. We got cliffed out and didn’t make it to the Thrown, but we did stumble upon a group of desert bighorn sheep that made the weekend worthwhile. Spotting these creatures in the wild is a rare treat because of their keen eye sight. They usually see you well before you see them. In this case, I think they did see us first, but when they continued up the ridge to evade us, they got cliffed out before we did and were forced to face their pursuers.

The next weekend I was back, and forced to sit out yet another day in the rain. Fortunately the excellent sports climbing in nearby St. George had been spared the moisture, and I was able to climb something. That Sunday, my wife, Janelle, and I hiked up Angel’s Landing with several hundred feet of rope. We rapped down about 700 feet to the ledge at the base of the bolt ladder. I had conceived of some other options for climbing the bolted arête, and I wanted to try them with a belayer, if it didn’t work out, I would check out those features I had spotted through my scope. Once again, the arête didn’t work out. It was steeper than I had remembered, and the nearby pinscars were unusable. I gave up on the original route, and decided to focus on those features that dotted the smooth face left of the aid route.

Inspecting a face on rappel for free climbing is a risky proposition. I had done it countless times for the sport routes I had put up, and I knew that there was a very fine line between climbable and impossible. Nevertheless, I thought I saw enough there to warrant putting in the bolts to protect the moves. I put in 9 bolts that day to protect the first pitch of the variation. After two more separate trips spread out over 3 weeks due to the non-stop rain, I finally had all 15 protection bolts in, and 5 belay bolts. The route was finally ready for an attempt….

On the 21st of November, Janelle and I crossed the frigid Virgin River and approached Angel’s Landing. OK, I have to be honest…it wasn’t that frigid. The day before, while killing time in Hurricane (pronounced “herkin” by the local intelligentsia) I stumbled upon some cheap hip waders in the Ace Hardware store. For under $30 you too can cross the Virgin in winter in total comfort! We were at the base of the wall by about 8:00am, and started climbing despite the frigid temps. The predicted high for that day was in the low 50’s – barely warm enough for the hard climbing that lay ahead on this north facing wall. At this hour, however, the mercury was hovering in the low 30’s, and the grass on the approach was still frosty. Fortunately the first four pitches are mellow, and climbing them in this cold weather was manageable.

121404.20Crossing the Virgin River

The first pitch (5.9) climbs a low-angle groove formed by terrible rock and covered in moss…pretty much par for the course in Zion. The protection is seldom and sandy, but I had climbed it twice before and knew what to expect. Pitch two, also 5.9, starts off in an intimidating flaring groove reminiscent of the Poseidon adventure on the Lighthouse tower in Moab. Fortunately, the walls are more featured and the pitch can be climbed with no groveling whatsoever by stemming against the walls of the tight corner. If it is done this way, it is actually quite enjoyable climbing. The next real challenge is pitch 4 which wanders in and out of corners and arêtes to gain the bivy ledge. At one point, a horrible looking off-width is encountered, but it too can be bypassed by face climbing and stemming over it.

Pitch 5, 5.12-

Pitch 5, 5.12-

Once on the bivy ledge, the business begins. Pitch 5 is the first 5.12 pitch, and I had hoped to reach it right about the time the temperature was rising. No dice. When we arrived there at about 10:00, my thermometer showed 40 degrees. We hung out for about 45 minutes and then I started up the steep corner. Pitch 5 is a spectacular pitch. It starts out with delicate stemming up a loose chimney feature. Your left leg is stemming against a huge detached flake, while your right leg and hands are carefully picking their way through an overhanging jungle of loose blocks. Fortunately the climbing in this section is only about 5.10+, but the blocky ledge below you keeps your attention. This section is probably the most dangerous portion of the route to aid, where a serious ledge fall is quite possible

121104.17Hauling gear on Pitch 5

121104.40Pitch 6, fun 5.10 Chimneying

About 30’ up, the rock improves dramatically at a good rest. Just above is the crux move which involves entering a steep, right facing corner. An old knifeblade piton is wedged in the crack at the start of the corner. It sticks out 2 inches, and is bent over 90 degrees such that the eye, which should be level with the horizon, is pointing straight down. I clipped this piece for effect, and backed it up with a tcu lower down. I hadn’t redpointed this pitch before, so I was nervous about it, but on my recon almost two months before, I had worked out the moves. Entering the corner is the crux of the pitch, and it is made possible by some “thank god” edges on the face. I cranked out the bouldery moves, paused to place a tcu in the crack and pressed on to a good rest. The rest of the pitch involves enjoyable stemming and crack climbing up an Indian Creek-esque corner. I arrived at the belay well pumped and happy to make the redpoint. The temperature turned out to not be a factor.

The 5.10c climbing on pitch 6 went by quickly. It climbs an enormous dihedral through the best rock on the route and the climbing is varied enough that you don’t get bored. For free climbers, this pitch ends at the “Flake Belay”. It’s a detached pancake flake, about a foot wide and 10 feet long that hovers about a foot out from the right side of the dihedral. It’s quite a comfortable belay if you straddle the flake, cowboy–style. Above the flake, the crack is very narrow. Still in the aforementioned massive dihedral, now the crack has pinched to about the size of a #0 Tcu, or about 3/8”. There are a few pin scar pods that will accept more of my fingertips, but the laybacking is still very strenuous. This section is only about 35’ long but it packs a punch.

121104.51The first crux…finger-tip liebacking on Pitch 7, 5.12+

121104.68The crux of Pitch 7

I stood high off the flake and placed a ratty old 0 tcu with a period-piece bit of spectra cord tied in for a sling. I had borrowed this piece from my friend Brian Cabe, and was glad to get it off of my rack as soon as possible. I don’t know when he acquired it, but by the looks of the thing, it must have been a prototype at one time. A few stem moves are possible right off the belay which gave me a chance to place another piece before launching into the do-or-fly lieback. About 10’ above the belay is the crux where the crack pinches down and the smearing wall is as unblemished as a Boulder Trustafarian’s # 4 Camalot. I powered through this section and reached a good tips finger lock right at the point where my foot reached a small divot. The hardest moves were done, but the corner stays steep and strenuous, so I took a deep breath and continued on. At this point, the left wall of the dihedral bulges out creating another crux, amazingly, this bulge happens right at the point where the crack widens enough to stuff all of your fingers in and a bomber # 0.5 camalot. Another rest was had above the bulge, then the last hard moves, protected by a # 00 tcu allow access to the sloping ledge that marks the standard end of pitch 6. I made the memorable 5.7 traverse along the ledge out to the left edge of the dihedral at the base of the “triple roofs” pitch. The first hard pitch was in the bag!

121104.78Getting ready for the crux Pitch 8

The next pitch, the standard “pitch 7” (Pitch 8 on my topo), is the physical and psychological crux of the route. The pitch starts under an inverted staircase feature known as the “triple overhangs”. The pitch was originally climbed via a knifeblade crack where the roofs meet the main wall. These scars have since grown to wide pods from the relentless piton-ing and the extremely soft rock. Above the roof, the crack widens to a seam large enough to accept tiny nuts. This pitch, with its marginal protection, is the aid crux of the route.

On my recon, I had toproped this pitch, and done all the moves, but I hadn’t yet attempted to place the gear on the lead which is an entirely different prospect. Two days before, when I rapped in to place the last few bolts, I had scrutinized the crack and worked out an intricate system of protection. This pitch would make or break the climb, and I feared it would make or break me. I started up the overhang, and encountered the first placement, a #00 tcu in a flaring pod of white, sandy rock. Soon after, I reached a thin vertical crack that accepted a small offset nut. From this shoddy protection, I had to power out some desperate moves to reach the first of 3 fixed bugaboo pitons I had placed previously. As I moved above the offset, it popped out, and fell back down the rope. I immediately lost my nerve and down-climbed to the belay. I made a few more half-hearted attempts, but I was completely psyched out. I decided that the first 7 pitches I had climbed would be adequate for today. We would rap down to the ground, spend the night in the comfort of the motel, and come back tomorrow to finish the route.

121104.83Pitch 8, the technical crux of the route…5.13- liebacking in rounded pin scars over a roof. Oh yeah, the gear sucks too!

The slightly overhanging rappels to the bivy ledge atop pitch 4 went smoothly. From here, it is possible to diverge from the route and rappel straight down the face. Dusk was upon as we cast off down the blank face at about 5:00pm. The second rappel off the ledge is a 50m straight shot down a smooth wall. I was rapping on a 100m static line that I had stashed on the bivy ledge for just such an occasion. I had done this rappel before, so I knew when to expect the next anchor, but I hadn’t used this rope. As I approached the end of the rope, I still couldn’t see the anchor. By now, it was completely dark. By the time I realized my rope was short, I was dangling below a roof. The next anchor was 10 feet below on a sloping ledge. Apparently the 50m rap included the stretch from a dynamic rope.

I dangled in space for a while, completely exhausted and at the end of my rope – literally and figuratively. I thought about trying to prusik back up to the anchor 50m above, and thinking of nothing better to do, I started the process. I had done this a few times before to retrieve stuck ropes, so I knew what to do. Take a shoulder sling, wrap it around the rope a few times and try to keep it from sliding down the slippery sheath. Eventually, I was able to get above the overhang which greatly improved my predicament. About that point, I spotted a tiny ledge about 20’ to my right, and just above me, and I made a beeline for that.

Once established on the ledge, I was able to calm down enough to think of a solution. I tried to yell to my wife up above to reposition the rope so that I could rappel down to the belay on a single line, but she couldn’t hear me. I realized I had a 30’ piece of webbing in my pack, and I figured I could use the webbing to extend the rope. I tied the webbing to each end of the 100m rope, then pulled the rope through so that the webbing section would be above me. At this point, Janelle really started freaking out, as she saw our only rope being pulled through the anchor she was hanging at. Fortunately for her, I knew what I was doing. With the extra 30’ in the rope, I was barely able to reach the lower anchor, and proceeded down to the ground without a hitch.

We just about missed dinner in springdale, but fortunately there was a small Chinese restaurant still open. We gorged ourselves on orange chicken and white rice, then settled into the Bumbleberry Motel anticipating the rest of the climb the next day. We woke up early on the 22nd, and found six inches of new snow….

Things were getting desperate. I had family commitments for the Thanksgiving weekend, and I knew that the next opportunity I would have to try the route would be in December. I was losing hope. With each week, the temperatures lowered as the days got shorter. I couldn’t find partners, and at one point I even resorted to posting an ad on the internet. That resulted in one person who was willing to belay me for one day. We rapped in from the top so that I could work on the crux sections, but the temps were in the 40’s so I wasn’t able to even attempt a redpoint. In between every trip, the constant storms would leave moss and sand on all of the holds, and the hard pitches needed to be re-cleaned. I seriously considered abandoning the project, and waiting until spring, but I was moving to Colorado at the end of December, and I didn’t know if my new job would afford me enough time to complete the route. Word of my attempts was starting to spread, and I worried that another climber might be able to sneak and climb the route before me.

Just as I was about to give up, a high pressure system appeared on the forecast. It coincided with finals week for my graduate program at the U of Utah, but I worked it out so that I could finish my work early, then escape to southern Utah. This was it, my last chance to climb the route this year.

Janelle and I started at 8:30am on December 11th, highs were expected to be in the upper 50’s. For this last-ditch effort, I recruited my friend, and renowned photographer Andrew Burr to join us to photograph the attempt. His presence added some much needed levity to the serious mood of the climb, and gave Janelle someone to talk to. I moved quickly up through the first 6 pitches. The hard pitches of my previous attempt went down with ease, and I felt a surge of confidence as I arrived below the crux triple roof pitch.

I wasted no time in getting started on the menacing pitch. I wanted to keep the momentum going and be well committed on the pitch before I had time to think about it. I skipped the poor nut placement that had popped out and rattled my nerves on the previous attempt. I pulled around the first roof and clipped a #1 bugaboo piton placed in a vertical crack. Hopefully it would hold a fall, if needed. The crux soon followed which requires throwing a foot high onto a slopey foot bump in the midst of a powerful lieback, then trusting your weight to the smear and reaching up for a good pinscar. I clipped another pin, this placed horizontally, which inspired more confidence. The next few moves put me out on the face. The last fixed pin was at eye level, but I had to execute another crux move before I could clip it. With only two fingers crammed in a shallow pin scar, a powerful lieback move is required to reach a square-cut edge that marks the end of the crux section.

121104.88Clearing the roof on Pitch 8

I clipped the last pin, then tried to shakeout on the vertical wall. The hardest moves were below, but I still had 50 feet of runout climbing above me. I paused for about five minutes at the awkward stance. The handholds are good enough to allow alternating shakes, but the footholds are not. I decided to move on when my calves began to pump out. The next 30’ entails delicate face climbing on either side of the thin seam. The seam is typically in one hand or another, but I never have the benefit of seeing straight in to place the gear. The serious nature of this pitch could be easily reduced by pre-placing the gear. I’m sure many future suitors will take this option, but for me it was out of the question, as a matter of principle. I gingerly stuff a nut into a flaring pin scar, then give it a gentle tug to test its worth. My only choice is to clip in, keep moving, and don’t fall.

121104.97Climbing the splitter on Pitch 8, protected by small wires…always exciting in Zion’s Navajo Sandstone. I rated this section 5.12- “R”.

About 15 feet above the last pin, the crack narrows down and gear becomes more difficult to place. At the last opportunity, I placed a blind #3 “Peenut.” With the holds above well etched in my mind, I made the decision to trust my strength and balance, rather than these dubious nuts. I commit to climbing the last hard sequences with the protection that is already in place. Near the top of the seam, 15 feet above the peanut, I am poised to make the last move. My right hand is in an incut finger-tip bucket, and my left foot on a low edge. The object of my desire is a handjam a few feet above, and just out of reach. On my previous attempts, I did this move many different ways, and was unsure of how to proceed. I could high-step my right foot on a sandy, fragile flake and execute the move statically…assuming the sandy foothold remained in place. On the other hand, my right hand was solid, and I was going to a good hold, so why not just…dyno!

121104.109More of the Pitch 8 finger crack.

I latched the hand jam, and let out a scream of relief. In the excitement, I struggled to place a cam in the widening crack, but eventually got it in there. I quickly scampered up the remaining 20 or so feet to the ledge, relieved to finally slay this pitch. It was the most challenging lead of my life.

By this time, it was getting late. Per our plan, we rapped to the ground, and left the remainder of the route to the next day. This time the rappelling went smoothly, even with three of us. We reached the ground at 5pm, just enough time to cross the river in the dusk light, and get some grub.

Having crossed the Virgin several times by now, I had developed an effective procedure. Andy, who has a rebellious disposition in the first place, was new to the operation, and didn’t take kindly to me barking out orders. He decided to cross the river his way, which I must admit, was much more entertaining. My procedure consisted of a few simple steps which should be carried out in a certain order, at certain locations on the river. The issue was that we only had one pair of wading boots, and three people. The first person (me) would wade across, carrying his shoes. The wading location was carefully selected on a previous trip to ensure that water didn’t overtake the boots. Once across the river, I would hike down to another carefully selected location to toss the boots (one at a time) back across the river to the next person.

Andy didn’t like any of this. Just as I was starting into the river I heard the sound of a flying shoe. Andy had decided that he didn’t want to carry his shoes, so he took them off and tried to throw them across, right where I was wading. The problem with this, is that the “wading spot” is shallow, and therefore, wide. The shoe missed the bank by about 5 feet, and began to float down the river, at which point, Andy panicked and chucked his other shoe. This shoe did better, still getting wet, but I was able to grab it before it floated down river to the “throwing spot”. By this time, Andy’s first shoe had floated down to the aforementioned “throwing spot”. Now a good “throwing spot” should be narrow, so that your shoes, or boots make it across the river. The problem with narrow, is that it is also deep. So when Andy jumped into the river, right about where the “throwing spot” is, he was up to his chest in the Virgin. At this point, he was already halfway across, so he continued to ford the river at the “throwing spot”. As I said earlier, his way was much more entertaining….

The next day, we all hiked up to the top of Angel’s Landing. The hike was enjoyable because I was sure this was my last day on the route. The remaining hard pitches were mostly bolted, and although I hadn’t redpointed any of them yet, I felt confident that I could do them. We started later than usual because rapping off the 1500’ high summit onto the shady North Face, is quite a bit colder than starting from the ground.

121204.10Pitch 9, the first of 3 short variation pitches to avoid the bolt ladder. This pitch is awesove 5.12 face and slab climbing.

121204.20Climbing really cool features on Pitch 9.

When we reached the ledge, I started up the 9th pitch, which was the first pitch of the bolted variation. I hadn’t redpointed this pitch before either, but I had a chance to climb it bolt-to-bolt the previous week when my friend Josh rapped in with me. It starts off of the left end of the ledge, about 30 feet to the left of the original bolt ladder. The climbing is absolutely amazing, and improbable. Subtle features, which do not at all seem climbable can be linked together with a serpentine series of moves. Right at the beginning, the pitch is most devious, requiring probably more than 30 moves to gain 10 feet, as I climbed back and forth across the bolt line.

The wall eventually rears back to just past vertical, but amazingly the holds improve as well. Above this section, a steep slab with miniscule patina holds allows passage to a small left-facing dihedral, 20 feet to the right. The dihedral contains the crux moves of the pitch. The moves are awkward including a high hand foot match, an arête move or two, and finally a long rock-over to get established in the dihedral. Once in the dihedral, the climbing is straight forward, but sandy, and I was soon perched on a 2’x2’ ledge with a new bolted anchor.

121204.47Slabbing up the top of Pitch 9 – spectacular!!!

121204.62Pertched at the belay below Pitch 10, this is the only photo I have of Andy Burr from this climb.

Pitch 10 is the sports climbing pitch. I had taken to referring to it as the “TA” or “Tom Adams” pitch when I was talking to myself about it. For example, I might say: “Self, what do you think about the TA pitch?” and I would reply: “oh yeah, the TA pitch, that’s pretty sick, Tom would love it, I hope you can do it, self.” I called it the TA pitch for a number of reasons, but mostly because Tom is the best sports climber I know, and he is known for his ability to climb desperately steep routes in places like ‘mercan Fork and Maple.

The TA pitch is unlike anything I have ever seen in Zion, and seems more suited to the steep walls of Red Rocks. From the tiny ledge that forms the belay, the left-facing dihedral continues straight up for about 10’ before rearing back to the left, eventually becoming horizontal about 30’ above the belay. The corner juts out about 2’ feet so that when it becomes horizontal it forms a 2’ roof. The lip of the roof, and the arête formed by the dihedral are studded with incut patina jugs while the main wall of the undercut face is as blank as a Camp 4 denizens’ employment record. This geometry forces the climber onto the overhanging arête for some exciting moves.

This pitch also hadn’t been redpointed, but I had worked out the moves a little bit with Josh. I started up the arête, tried to milk a rest at the second bolt, then clipped the third and committed to the crux. At this point, I was at the roof, and the holds dictated traversing the lip until some holds formed by a vertical crack could be reached. The hardest move requires grabbing a tiny right-hand crimp at just the right angle, placing my right foot high and pressing off in order to reach out to a finger jug at the crack. I made the reach on my first try, and was excited to complete the pitch. I placed my left foot on a block that protrudes out at the lip of the overhang, and pressed my weight onto it. Just as I began the rock-over, I heard a crack, and I was airborne.

121204.77Clearing the steep roof on Pitch 10

During the fall, I didn’t have time to think about my rope sliding across the jagged patina that forms the lip of the overhang, or whether I would be able to get back to the belay. I saw some debris out of the corner of my eye while I made an arcing trajectory under the lip of the roof. When I hit the end of the rope, I pieced together what had happened. That protruding block that my left foot was on had been replaced by a fresh scar, and my optimistic confidence had been replaced by the fear of another wild pendulum-ing fall over the jagged-edged roof. It took me two more tries to redpoint the pitch. Another 13a, I had guessed, but who really knows up here, with nobody to offer a second opinion, and so many other factors to throw you off your game.

Above the lip of the roof, the route follows an intermittent seam that provides just enough clean gear while climbing mostly patina face holds. About 30’ over the roof a small sandy ledge is reached which is about 30’ to the left, and 10’ below the original belay at the end of the original pitch 9, above the large dihedral overhang.

From this stance, we were in no-mans land: A small ledge on a big face, a stone’s throw from the original route, but no obvious means of getting there. This is where the madness of Mike Anderson comes in. This 30’ stretch would make or break the climb, I had known it from the first bolt I placed in this crazy 3 pitch variation. To pioneer crack-less face climbing on the steep walls of Zion is a bit daft in its own right, but to push it for three pitches and hope to regain the original route? Well, that bordered on insanity. The previous two pitches formed a relatively straightforward passage compared to this stretch. The problem is it dead-ends at a stance with seemingly nowhere to go. From this position, it was easy to see why nobody else had made any concerted attempts to free this wall.

But I’m crazy, remember? About 10’ below the stance, a finger tip sized (is that a 0.4 Friend?) horizontal crack shoots out to the right. It reaches for 20’ or so, where it disappears into a series of loose blocks and flakes that are strangely plastered to the wall. Anticipating this escape route, I had placed one bolt along this seam to protect the moves I hoped I could do. When I reached that sandy belay ledge that Sunday afternoon in December I had never even tried this pitch. I thought it would be easier than the previous pitches, so I wasn’t so worried about it, until that day. With the long pitch 9 and 3 tries to redpoint pitch 10 under my belt, I was tired. As Andy said later that day…I had been crimping like a mutha fucka all day long.

121204.126The spectacular Pitch 11, a 5.12 traverse that got me back to the original route.

I left the belay optimistic. If I could send this pitch, I would be done with the hard climbing and the wall would be in the bag. From the belay, I placed a tcu in a flake as far to the right as possible to provide a good toprope for the traversing moves below me. I began by down climbing the last 10’ of pitch 10, to reach the horizontal seam. The seam is decent, providing half-pad crimps on a varying quality of holds. Some are positive some are not. The footholds are virtually non existent. There are a few bumps here and there, but half of them turn out to be just clumps of lichen, and the other half provide only psychological benefit. My first try, I traversed out the seam, practically campussing between moves, not caring to place my feet on the terrible holds. I reached the bolt, about 15’ out, clipped it, and reached over for one of the aforementioned loose blocks when the pump hit me hard and I peeled off, pendulum-ing back onto the bolt.

121204.133Pitch 11 would not go down easy. I took multiple falls and had to dig deep to send.

I worked out some moves and tried again, and again, and again. One other time I made it to the bolt, but the cumulative fatigue of the past few days was piling up, and I couldn’t progress much beyond it. Andy had stopped shooting a while ago as it was getting late and the light had disappeared. I lost track of how many tries I gave that short little section, but eventually I reached a point where I was making less progress with each try and Andy convinced me to pack it in.

121204.134Contemplating my motivations and getting psyched for “one more try”.

I decided to let it go for the night. Andy helped us get back over to the main route and we jugged to the summit, disappointed to have to come back for yet another day.

Monday, December 13th: The third day on the route, and certainly the last. Either I would finish the route today, or give it up. Again we, hiked up Angel’s Landing. This would be the 9th time I had hiked to the summit of Angel’s Landing since I started working on the project in September. By this time I knew there were 29 switchbacks up Walter’s Wiggles and 27 lengths of chain railing on the final stretch above Scout lookout. This would also be my 12th day working on the route, which really under-represents the time I had spent on it. I had come down to Zion on 10 separate weekends, at one point, I came down from Salt Lake 3 weekends in a row and was rained out on every one. I had spent a lot of time in Zion Canyon, and not enough time on the route. This day, the 13th of December, would determine whether or not it had all been worth it.

So far the weather had been amazing. The high pressure system that seemed to be severely lacking in the previous 3 months was hanging around with a vengeance. Andy decided not to come down the fixed ropes with us this time, but to stay on the approach trail and shoot photos from there. He stopped at Scout Lookout, and it was just Janelle and I. We moved quickly down the ropes, hoping to “get it over with”. I was tired from the two long days in a row. My fingers were stiff, and my legs were racked. The steep slab pitches and two treks up the trail had destroyed my calves and jellified my quads. As luck would have it, the last hard pitch didn’t have any footholds, so my tired calves wouldn’t be tested.

We soon gained our perch from the previous night, on top of the new pitch 10, the second of the variation pitches. We were on a small ledge, just a short 40’ pitch away from the original aid route. I desperately wanted to avoid the futile repeated efforts of the night before. My first try would be my best hope for redpointing the pitch. On this, my third day of hard climbing, I knew that each subsequent attempt would be more difficult as fatique set in. I still wasn’t certain how hard this pitch was, as I had never redpointed it, but I felt like it was probably 12c. It was hard to judge from the previous day’s efforts because I was so exhausted. Was I just tired, or was the pitch really hard?

Those thoughts played in my mind as I set off from the belay. I placed the tcu out right under the flake, then began the down climbing…this was my warmup. The moves felt good, and I held deep breaths to relax my mind and body. When I reached the horizontal seam 10’ below the belay, I didn’t hesitate. I set out across the rail deliberately, with urgency, but not panic. This time I placed my feet carefully, but avoided weighting them to the point that they would pop off the shy holds. I could feel the pump building, but as I reached the bolt at 15’ out along the rail I still felt strong. A couple more desperate moves on half-pad crimps, and I reached a loose block with a good incut edge on it.

When I placed the bolt almost a month earlier, I had noticed this block was loose, and marked it with a chalk “X”, that I now ignored. I grabbed the block, and felt it flex, but it held. A couple easier moves and I was perched in an awkward rest, able to alternate handholds to shakeout. I was about 25’ across “no-man’s-land” with 15’ more to go to reach the wide crack of the main aid route, just a few feet over the lip of the large overhanging dihedral. In my intense efforts to free climb the thin horizontal crack, I had been too focused to notice the exposure which now overwhelmed me. I was clinging to a flake that is plastered to a perfectly smooth wall. The smooth wall extends about 15 feet below me, before it falls away into the massive overhang that forms the large cleft in Angel’s Landing.

121304.31Climbing the upper pitches ~ Pitch 12. Andy shot this from the lookout at the top of “Walter’s Wiggles”. The top of the “Large Overhang” is visible near the bottom of the photo.

After a good rest, I continued on. The climbing was much easier, but more delicate, as I navigated through a series of stacked blocks and hollow flakes. A few small tcu’s are available for gear, and at one point I pulled off a brick-sized rock which fell straight down to the ground without touching the wall. Shortly, I gained the main aid line at a hand sized crack, and cruised the 20’ or so, to the belay ledge at the top of the original pitch 9 (my Pitch 11). I let out a modern day yodel (“woohoo!”) and soon heard a response from Andy who had been watching through his telephoto lense from Scout Lookout. Janelle skillfully executed the lower-out from the small ledge, and soon joined me at the original belay.

121304.55Reuniting with Andy near the summit.

I had climbed pitch 10 (my pitch 12) before, way back in October when I first tried the route. I had used a few points of aid that time to speed things up, but wasn’t too worried. The first few moves off the ledge are exciting as a smorgasbord of loose blocks and incipient cracks must be overcome. The best gear is an old bugaboo that sticks out about 2”. I climbed through the blocks carefully, and soon was on better rock about 20’ up. I felt these exciting moves warranted a 5.10+,R rating. The remainder of the pitch is really beautiful. A thin crack that wavers in and out of finger-size splits a smooth wall peppered with incut patina edges. The crux comes at a small roof, just before the anchor. I was surprised by the accumulated fatigue of the last few days, and the 11a pitch felt harder than expected.

121304.46Easier climbing near the top.

The next pitch is an airy 5.8 traverse left, past some fixed mank and a rusty ¼” star-drive bolt from the FA. After 30’ or so, a horizontal crack grows to a sizable ledge that leads into the summit gully. The next two pitches climb un-inspiring rock up the sandy gully where the cruxes seem to be avoiding or surmounting hostile foliage. To make matters worse, Andy had come down the fixed ropes to rejoin us by this time and was nocking down rocks while insisting we slow down so he can snap photos…what are friends for?

121304.68The gorgeous Zion Canyon from near the summit of AL. Little did I know, I would spend a LOT of time here over the next several years!

Before long we were on the summit. For the first time since October, I had topped out before the sun was down, and I was able to soak up some rays for a few minutes before it fell behind the Watchman and the other formations of the East Temple. We had a jovial hike down, the last time I would get to count the chains, and then the switchbacks this year. Arriving at the car earlier than usual, we had our pick of dining establishments, and chose to sample the lifestyle of the “other-half” by treating ourselves to the Zion Lodge Restaurant. This turned out to be a bad idea. They were remodeling the kitchen, and being a weekday during the off-season, they had a buffet going. Cold tuna steak that’s been sitting under a heat lamp for several hours does not make for a good celebratory feast.

121304.79Taking it all in on the summit.

121304.82Celebratign at the Zion Lodge…the first and only time I’ve ever eaten there.

The next day we returned to the Big Bend parking lot, where this journey had started 6 months before when I first scoped the line during a busy Memorial Day weekend in May. We took some documentary photos to help with drawing a topo, and basically stared in awe at the massive wall, genuinely feeling fortunate to live near such a spectacular and fulfilling landscape. Andy headed south, on his way to his next photography job in Hueco Tanks, Texas. I lingered a few more hours, enjoying the freedom of having completed my journey by looking here and there throughout the canyon for that next great challenge. I found myself in the Court of the Patriarchs, in a beautiful meadow that is thankfully off the beaten path. As I gazed up on the three giant walls surrounding me, I couldn’t help but wonder if there wasn’t a free route or two up there…somewhere.


The Bubble

Hello, this is Janelle…Mike’s wife. Since someone is off to Germany enjoying his 12 hour long flight, I thought I would seize the moment and post on his beloved blog without permission. HA!


You know your husband is a little INSANE when he turns the basement into a movie set straight out of the ET!


Keep in mind; the word “insane” is used quite loosely by one very understanding, supportive, kick ass wife! Many things over the past 15 years have been labeled “ insane” a little prematurely and this is no exception.

I digress…

After moving from high, humidity Florida to dry, arid Colorado; we thought we were in the clear for hangboard workouts. We were going to have crisp, dry mountain air and every workout would be just perfect, right?! Well, our basement proved to be a wonderful little humidity hoarder during the monsoon summer experienced here in Colorado Springs. After our first hangboard workouts, it was quickly apparent that we needed to do something about it. It was at this point that Mike revealed to me one of his long-held fantasies (ooh, still some excitement after almost 12 years of marriage)! Apparently, ever since we moved to Dayton, OH back in 2008, Mike has suppressed urges to create a hermetically sealed hangboarding bubble in which climate could be easily and precisely controlled. Well, apparently, Colorado’s humid air was the “last straw,” and Mike had snapped. Clearly he had put some thought into this, because once the decision was made, there was no pause for planning or analysis, just a fury of activity.

Had the man lost his mind???


A view of the The Bubble

Mike stopped in at Home Depot and picked up six 8-foot 1×2’s, plastic sheeting, and one heck of a cool zipper kit (both available in the paint department).  You will also need duct tape and a staple gun with staples (if you’re following along at home).


These are awesome and very easy to install. We may use the other one to make a two zipper door.


Lots of plastic!

The general plan was to block off a section of the basement and fully encase it in plastic. Here are a few things required for this whole operation to work: The bubble needs to include a window so you can run A/C.
– Needs electricity
– Large enough for the HB equipment
– Needs to be more-or less sealed
Had the man lost his mind???
I reluctantly offered up some assistance which was not turned down. We lined the ceiling with plastic first because of the open floor joists (which would have let air in) then draped walls of plastic to corner off the new hangboard bubble.


We used plastic to cover these ceiling joists to prevent air from escaping.

With an unfinished basement, the bubble went up quickly. We used staples to tack up the plastic and then reinforced and locked the seams with duct tape. We did have to use some 2X4’s/2×6’s on the ground to tuck and hold the plastic on the floor, some 1×2’s to reinforce the ceiling connections (duct tape helped but was not cutting it) and the zipper door was an added bonus.
About half way into this project, I began to realize that this just might work. Maybe my “insane” husband isn’t so crazy and I should help out with a little more enthusiasm. If it did work, my hangboard workouts would definitely benefit too!
Soon, we had the air conditioner blasting to test the bubble theory out. Besides some strong suction everything held into place except for the temperature and humidly which kept dropping — RAPIDLY. We were amazed at how quickly we were able to regulate temperature compared to our old HB room in Florida which was a bedroom approximately 11’ x 11’. Cracking the window eliminated the suction (which Mike surmises comes from a leaky A/C unit) and ta da! We had ourselves a climate controlled hangboarding bubble room! I was pretty impressed.


Looking up at this corner, you can see where we stated hanging the plastic wall after covering the ceiling joists. We used staples, then white duct tape followed by the 1″x2″ wood trim.


Sticker zipper.


Looking down at the floor, these are the 2×4’s used to tuck the bottom of the plastic.


A/C next to window and up on a stand so the cold air blows directly on the hangboard.


Another view from inside The Bubble


Looking out from inside The Bubble. This is where we might add another zipper.

Yes, Team Anderson came together despite the skeptical wife! I would now like to take this opportunity to introduce myself again as the very understanding, supportive, kick ass wife who recently had the best hangboard phase to date!
The Bubble is awesome.

Not only does it capture that cool dry air, it keeps all the chalk from decorating the rest of the basement/house. I’m a huge fan and would recommend something similar to anyone out there struggling to get good conditions while training. We really should have tried out this insane bubble idea in Ohio and Florida where the humidity really is ridiculous. After reaching new personal bests during my latest hangboard training phase, I’m a believer in The Bubble.

In case you find yourself going a little insane, here is a material list to get you started:
– HDX Clear Plastic Sheeting 10ft X 100ft (1000Sq Ft…way too much for our project so we have plenty for other fun bubble projects)
– Duct Tape
– Staple Gun
– Staples
– One box of Heavy Duty Zipwall Zippers (2 pack)
– 2X4 boards or 2X6, whatever you have lying around
– 1X1/2 boards
– Measuring tape 
– Saw?.


Already to go!!!

Happy Hangboarding!

It’s All Semantics

How often have you visited a climbing forum and stumbled upon an endless debate over some trivial matter like the definition of “is”?  It seems that many of us would rather argue about training terminology than actually train.  This pre-occupation with semantics can be a real distraction from the truly important matters (like the phone number for Rock and Resole), and yet, some questions come up again and again:

  • What is the real definition of “power”?  The physics definition doesn’t seem to fit the physiology definition–which is correct?
  • Are isometric contractions really isometric?
  • Is campus training “truly plyometric”?  

Many of us (myself included) have fallen victim to this mentality in the past.  Maybe the problem is that proper climbing training requires so much recovery and down-time that all us training fiends have nothing better to do than argue about this nonsense :)

Castle Valley, Utah

This photo won’t make you a better climber, but it sure is nice to look at.  Castle Valley, Utah, Photo Mike Anderson.

Regardless, the answer to all these questions and many others is a resounding: WHO CARES!?  None of these things have any bearing on the practical matter of how you should train!  When consider such questions, only one thing matters:  will doing [suggested training activity] make me a better climber?  No amount of arguing grammar, spelling, syntax or word use will make you one bit better as a climber.  To improve, you need to do some work.  And no, I don’t mean the Physics definition of work (= Force x Distance).  I mean the good ol’ fashioned kind that predates even Sir Isaac Newton.

We all know what we mean when we talk about climbing power.  We all know that relative to a bicep curl, a dead hang is isometric, and it’s pretty darn close–definitely close enough–to what we do over and over again on the rock.  It doesn’t matter if campusing is “plyometric” or “gullichometric”.  “Plyometric” is a made up word used to describe an arbitrary category of exercise.  All that matters is that it works for climbers, and so you should do it! 

I like to say that sports physiology is a lot like religion.  We all agree on 98% of the dogma, but we fight endless crusades over the 2% we disagree on.  That is silly.  If you’re following any kind of training program, documenting your results, and making adjustments, you’re head and shoulders above the vast majority.  Don’t waste so much energy obsessing over which program is the best.  There is no single approach that is optimal for everybody.  Find something that works for you and tweak it as you learn more about how your body responds to training.  If you sit around waiting for armies of scientists to definitively prove which training method is ideal, you will never get anything done.  Your great-great-grandkids will be long dead before that happens.

The work being done by Sports Physiologists is certainly important, and it is certainly worth some attention.  New theories need to be tested, but there are just too many variables in climbing to expect exact transference of studies being done on athletes in the big money sports.  Anyway, it’s highly doubtful some Silver Bullet set/rep/rest protocol is going to turn you into Adam Ondra overnight.  Even if a study “proves” this or that (which never happens anyway), the “proven” method may still not work for you.  You will still need to try it out for yourself to see if it works for your body.  The vast majority of the time, things that really work have been used for decades by athletes in many sports.  These methods were discovered and refined by athletes themselves, through trial and error, not by a scientist toiling away in a lab.  If you want to find the secret to optimizing your training, get out to your gym and try something new!  Document your results and let us know how it goes.  That is the best way to discover new information, not reading Physiology Journals or arguing on internet forums.

Three cheers for Eva Lopez, Dave Mcleod, Doug Hunter, Eric Horst, Udo Neumann, Wolfgang Gullich, and Tony Yaniro!  Hooray for anybody who is out there trying new things and sharing their findings.  I like the Rock Prodigy program because it works for me.  I know that it works for many other people too, and it might work for you.  But there are other programs out there that work too.  That’s great!  Shop around if you like, try a few different things, and find something that works for you.  If you’re satisfied with the results, then stick with it, that’s awesome!  As long as you’re doing something pre-meditated and you’re tracking your efforts, you’re way ahead of the curve.

Optimizing Post Exercise Recovery

The following is a guest-post from Seiji Ishii, well known to readers of the RCTM forum as “Coach Seiji”.  Coach Seiji has an extensive background in Exercise Physiology, has coached world-class athletes in various sports, including stints working for Carmichael Training Systems and Ultrafit.  He currently trains professional supercross/motocross athletes and operates a CrossFit gym in Austin, TX. During his free time he’s working to revive his dormant rock climbing career.


Coach Seiji

It is a well-known and researched practice by even recreational athletes to ingest protein directly after both endurance and strength training as it has repeatedly shown to aid in positive protein balance and thus stimulate protein synthesis.  This increases recovery rates and muscle adaptive response to each subsequent training bout, making training more efficient. Several research groups have and are still studying the optimal amount and type of protein. Reading studies related to this up to 2013 have shown that increasing the amount of protein ingested in a single dose post-exercise increases the amount of protein synthesis (up to 20g, at which point the rate of protein synthesis is maximized). Several types of protein have been studied, including dairy-based proteins like whey, casein and casein protein hydrolysate, as well as whole milk, fat free milk, and yes, even chocolate milk. Soy and egg protein have also been studied. I haven’t found that many studies comparing protein synthesis rates of the various kinds of proteins, but what has been shown is that milk protein and its isolates, whey and casein, perform better than soy.  Furthermore, whey seems to stimulate a larger protein synthesis response than casein. These differences arise from the differences in amino acid profile and digestion and absorption kinetics.

The timing of protein ingestion has also been studied; it has been shown that consuming protein right after training produces a better protein balance than waiting a few hours. It has also been shown that consuming carbohydrates with the protein further enhances muscle protein building due to the quicker delivery of amino acids to the muscle cells. Ingesting protein both before and during exercise has to stimulate muscle protein synthesis during the exercise bout.

Coach Seiji crushing at Sitting Bull Falls, NM.

Coach Seiji crushing at Sitting Bull Falls, NM.

All of this is good of course, but the surprising thing is that studies have shown that overnight muscle synthesis rates are not positively affected by post exercise protein intake, even when the training and subsequent protein supplementation ocurred in the evening. Muscle protein synthesis rates were even lower in the morning than with an overnight fast! Bummer!

I located a study that specifically addressed if protein administered during sleep affected protein synthesis rates compared to fasting overnight, then the same with ingesting protein just prior to sleeping.


Luc J.C. van Loon, researcher, and recreational athletes that performed a resistance training bout at 8pm.


Protein supplementation both directly before sleep, and during sleep, and its effects on overnight muscle protein synthesis.


Athletes have ingested 20-25g of protein directly after training bouts as it has shown to increase muscle protein building in the crucial recovery period.  However, even if this happens in the evening, no positive effects have been shown on overnight muscle protein synthesis. This could be due to the slowing of digestion and other related processes that would reduce the amount of amino acids available in the plasma during sleep. Regardless of cause, this seemingly doesn’t take advantage of the most restorative time in the athlete’s 24-hour period. The purpose of this analysis is to find a way to take advantage of this time to optimize recovery and make training more efficient in the long term.


Department of Movement Sciences of Maastricht University of the Netherlands


First published by the American College of Sports Medicine in 2012


The first method studied was to supplement protein through a nasogastric tube (tube going in through the nose into the stomach) during sleep. The casein protein had a tracer on it both prior to ingestion, then again with a different tracer administered via IV drip throughout the night to track the protein once it entered the plasma.

The second method involved recreational athletes, who all ate nutritionally equally during the day, performed their strength training bout at 8 pm, and then ingested 20g protein/60g carbohydrate at 9 pm.  These subjects then ingested a recovery drink 30 minutes prior to sleep that contained either  40g of casein protein with tracer, or a placebo. Sleep time was standardized to 7.5 hours.


The protein delivered via feeding tube did increase muscle protein syntheisis rates overnight compared to no feeding overnight. The tracer proved that the casein protein was indeed digested, caused an increase in the concentration of amino acids in the plasma, and wound up in new muscle proteins by morning. The 40g protein drink given 30 min prior to sleep also increased amino acid concentration in plasma, increased protein synthesis rates compared to the drink that didn’t contain protein, and the tracer was found in the newly assembled muscle proteins in the morning.

The subjects that received the 40g protein recovery drink showed both reduced protein breakdown during the night, an average increase of 22% of protein synthesis for a much improved overall overnight protein balance during the 7.5 hours of sleep.

My take:

This is all good! Much better overnight muscle recovery with the ingestion of the 40g protein 30 min before sleep. This, to me, is an awesome benefit to daily recovery and long term effectiveness and efficiency of training, for very little effort.

My suggestion would be to do this after any strength training day and any heavy day of training. I would find the type or mixtures of proteins that work the best for you, both in terms of digestion and effects on your sleep. I do think that this varies depending on the person and I do think that what you eat before you sleep can affect your sleep (I am researching what types of proteins affect sleep in what way after reading this study), so you need to experiment to find what works best. I do think finding easily digestible protein matters, as digestion rates do slow during sleep. Easily digestible protein sources will create less work for your body during sleep, freeing up more energy to devote to other recovery tasks.  Also, the amount of work your body has to do to digest the protein can negatively affect sleep from what I have observed.

Bottom Line:

  • 20-25 g Protein with each meal
  • 20-25g Protein right after exercise
  • Can consider some Protein with Carbohydrate during exercise, but in most people I know and myself, protein during exercise can cause GI stress/GI slowdown thus negatively effecting hydration and carbohydrate fueling. This also seems worse as exercise intensity increases. In these cases, to me, it’s not worth the downsides at all for the upside of increased protein synthesis during the exercise bout.
  • 20-40g Protein right before bed, not to exceed 30 min prior to sleeping

Heck ya! Enjoy the benefits of increased muscle recovery while you sleep! It doesn’t get much easier than that.

If you are interested in  contributing to the RCTM Blog as a guest author, please contact us here!

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