Monthly Archives: September 2015

Return to the Buttery Sickness

For the past three summers, I have raced out west to Ten Sleep, Wyoming to savor the most “American” sport routes located in the magnificent and isolated canyon with its endless vertical walls of pocketed and chert-infested Bighorn dolomite.  During my first trip out West in which I had originally planned to go to Rifle, my friend, Lena, convinced me that I should stop by Ten Sleep.  I was a little skeptical since I had never heard of the place before, but after my first day climbing at French Cattle Ranch, I was completely psyched.  There was a slow start to each summer day as we waited for the shade and crisp air.  The routine was just like Ceuse except mornings were usually spent hanging out in town at a cafe or the amazing Ten Sleep Public Library.  Once everyone had finished their Internet binge, we returned to the canyon (where there is no distracting Internet or cell phone service) to grab our climbing packs, endure the hot hike to the cliff, and experience the “real dope Shinto”.

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Welcome to Ten Sleep Canyon via U.S. Route 16 Cloud Peak Skyway Scenic Byway.

Though, this trip was a little different than what I had experienced the previous years.  Instead of driving with my girlfriend across the desolate wasteland of GMO corn that is the central United States, I was by myself and going to meet one of my best friends from college who had just started climbing.  On top of that, I was not returning back East after Ten Sleep; I was moving to Bishop, California.  My Honda Civic was packed to the brim, and my life felt different in so many subtle ways.  I had just graduated college, and I did not know what to do with my new freedom/responsibilities just like my first days of college.  I had just returned from an amazing European climbing trip, and I felt fired up to get back to a familiar and sentimental place.  Over the past year, I implemented a new approach to my personal training, and this was the perfect time to measure my improvement over the past year on routes that I struggled with before.

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A picturesque Wyoming summer sky.

First on my agenda for my two week trip was to redpoint 5.13c (8a+).  I was still slightly bitter about leaving Ceuse, but now it was time to go all in on Hellion 5.13c.  The route is absolutely awesome and has so many things about climbing that I love: slightly overhanging terrain, a great mono pocket crux, pumpy pocket pulling, and some victory climbing thrown in on your way to the top of the Supererratic Pillar.  (Note: I saw some people climbing all the way on to Great White Behemoth in the opening sequence of Hellion so they could take a much better rest before the crux.  This is significantly easier…)  During my first day, I managed to do the crux sequence twice and figure out the rest of the route.  I felt confident though I was a little surprised that the meat of the route was quite sustained.  Regardless, if Sasha could send this route, so could I…right?

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My new friend, Sam, onsighting the Shinto wall classic Wyoming Flower Child 5.11d. Right after this ascent with barely any rest, Sam went over to the left side of the wall for some more magical Ten Sleep Shinto sickness to onsight her first 5.12a, Dope Shinto.

I had been making consistent progress on Hellion over a few days, but I was repeatedly falling on the last move of the sustained two finger pocket sequence.  A double rest day was in demand, and they involved belaying my friend, Charlie, and going to the crag as the designated photographer.  With fresh skin, rejuvenated muscles, and overwhelming psyche, Charlie and I once again returned to the Superratic Pillar.  I warmed up and felt great.  On my first burn, I fell AGAIN at the same spot; though this time, I realized my own stupidity with this accuracy move to a sinker two finger pocket.  I quickly re-worked my beta, and a simple drop-knee made the move much more consistent.  I lowered down and rested.  As I rested, the winds started to pick up and the sky turned gray.  Initially, I was excited for the cooler than usual conditions, but then, a thunderstorm began roaring through the canyon and droplets of friction-death fell out of the sky like bombs sent to destroy my possibilities of sending.  I knew most of Hellion would initially stay dry, so I quickly tied back in and fully committed to each move.  I cruised through the mono crux which ended up feeling like V2 and rapidly pulled through the following pockets to reach the dreaded pocket stab.  I stuck that damn right hand MR pocket jug, and I was going to the top.   I stopped at the huge double jug rest (all I could think about was the guidebook photo of the mythical Dave Hume staring down this amazing position), and despite my heavy breathing, I didn’t feel pumped.  I relaxed and gave myself time to calm my nerves as I only had one more tricky 5.11 move to do in a sea of jugs.  Then, I felt it.  The rain had reached me, and I started to get wet.  The whole time I was on the route, bolts of lightening were shooting across the dark sky, but I did not feel threatened until the moisture started to coat my skin and drops splashed into my eyes.  Sometimes, people talk about having a hard time determining how long to rest at a certain point on routes.  I wondered about this often on other rests, but clearly, right now was the time to go.  I climbed as quickly as I could and shouldered out the last relatively hard gaston move.  Finally, I was at the top of Hellion getting rained on in a thunderstorm and smiling as I clipped the chains.

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Post-send joy.  Photo by Charlie Marks.

I felt so relieved and amazed that I was able to send Hellion, and like most climbers, my mind started to race about what to climb next.  Two beautiful gold streaks clouded my thoughts as I enjoyed some celebration chocolate in the pouring rain: Sky Pilot 5.13d, one of the king lines of the canyon, and Super Mama 5.13b, an old nemesis from the previous summer.  I had just completed my “big hairy goal” for the summer, and I made the more prudent decision to clean up some routes in my final week.  So after a solid rest day, it was back to Super Mama, and I remembered the beta like it was yesterday as I easily went from bolt to bolt.  I struggled to link key parts of the route the first day, though I got a little closer on the second day.  But, my skin was trashed; Super Mama’s pleasantly abrasive crimps and pockets ate away at me as I flailed.  The smooth and somewhat glassy white face of Hellion was pretty nice because it barely wore away my skin.  Knowing the Super Mama was quite attainable, I once again took the double rest day, and the results were amazing.

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One of my favorite parts of Super Mama: THE “Peanut” hold. This crux involves a left hand bump to a split two finger pocket. I found it easiest to hit it IM, and then twist it to a mono as I gaston to grab a right two finger crimp. Photo by Alan Moles.

I ran up my favorite Lil’ Smokie 5.11 a few times as a nice warm up, and I then took a nice little hike into the woods further down the cliff.  I returned after a few minutes and as I approached Super Mama, I smiled and could not have felt more relaxed as I tied in.  I embraced the starting jug, and my body easily and automatically flowed up the route like an extension of my tranquil hike.  I had no thoughts and each move was perfect.  I felt like I was watching a video of myself climbing until I reached the rest ledge under the final crux when my conscience mind returned to the experience.  After some positive self-talk and an excessive amount of shaking out, auto-pilot was off, and I purposefully grabbed each hold as I set up for the blind deadpoint.  I dug into the razor edges and sprung to stick the jug.

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Carefully balancing myself on a crimp undercling in the final crux. Photo by Alan Moles.

I hopped through some final easy slab moves and let out a euphoric scream while dropping my rope into the open hook and clipping the fixed biner.  After so much thrashing on Super Mama during the previous summer and some bad attempts in the previous days, I was so happy to experienced one of those rare moments where you effortlessly redpoint a route on your first go of the day.  With so much sunlight left in the day, it would be a waste to leave the crag when the conditions were so good.  I tried Pussytoes 5.12d a little and only managed to loose some skin.  Because the next day was my last day climbing in the canyon, I made another prudent choice and pulled off a quick ascent of Kielbasa 5.12c, which was a fun route but not nearly as high quality as Super Mama or Hellion.  Leaving the crag that day was a little sad because I realized I wouldn’t return to French Cattle Ranch until maybe next summer, but overall, I could not have felt better hiking back to camp as I watched the smoky sky glow in the sunset.

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Sticking the final deadpoint on Super Mama 5.13b. Photo by Alan Moles.

On our final day, Charlie and I cooked in the sun while hiking up to the iconic Cigar.  Once again, I had my sights set on two routes that had given me some trouble the previous summer:  Sleep Reaction 5.13a, a roped boulder problem, and The Name of the Game 5.13a, consistent pumpy pocket climbing.  These routes are complete opposites, and last summer while working the routes with my friend, Dan, I couldn’t even do all the moves of Sleep Reaction.  After another great lil’ smokie warmup, I quickly started figuring out the beta, and I became so frustrated until Charlie surprisingly pointed out a possible glassy foot smear near the arête.  It worked perfectly, and I lowered quickly to hastily shake out and re-chalk my hands.  I pulled on and crushed it;  it felt like a V7? boulder problem to 5.9 vert climbing.  I was not done, and I began to feel somewhat cocky.  Like most climbing trips in my experience, you leave with a feeling of incompleteness, and this trip was no different.  I was racing against the approaching darkness to send The Name of the Game on the inside of the Cigar, but I just didn’t have it in me.  I was tired, and I wasn’t climbing as efficiently as I needed to send the route.  Recently, I have developed a preference for bouldery or more sectional routes, yet this sustained face undoubtedly exposed my weakness.  Three desperate efforts filled with aggression did not work, and I accepted defeat.

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Charlie onsighting the classic and over-bolted Euro-trash Girl 5.10b.

Being able to return to Ten Sleep each summer has been so much fun and a great way to measure my improvement in climbing.  Though for many climbers, it seems crazy and/or too difficult to accurately see if they are improving for a few different reasons.  Either they are constantly trying to climb routes that are new to them or their testpiece problems in the gym get stripped every few weeks.  Also, sending a harder grade doesn’t necessarily mean one is improving, and more often, it just means a certain route better suited their strengths.  Following an actual training plan in which I meticulously record what I am doing makes it easy for me to see if I am improving in my day to day workouts.  I am not saying that all climbers should do these things if they want to improve, but doing these things makes the answer to the question “Am I getting better?” painfully clear.  I have derived much satisfaction from addressing my weaknesses through training and then revisiting rock climbs that were difficult for me.  I already know that Sky Pilot is next on my list when I return to Ten Sleep, but for now, I will be spending a lot of time here in Bishop, bouldering mecca.

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The Anti-Victory

Since I started rock climbing five years ago, I have learned an immeasurable amount of truths about life. I am not saying that I am some enlightened soul that discovered the meaning of life by staring at sun-sparkling quartz crystals with chalky fingers. Though through all my experiences, I have been given obvious opportunities to analyze and understand myself while observing how other people deal with similar situations. Over this past July in Ceuse, rock climbing was a mental war for many of us who consistently trudged up to the blue-streaked battlefield, and consequently, dealing with failure became a focus of my attention.

Just another evening looking out at Petite Ceuse from Demi Lune.

Just another evening looking out at Petite Ceuse from Demi Lune.

Even though I sound somewhat over-dramatic about going to climb some cliff in southern France, rock climbing at Ceuse was one of the most mentally taxing and rewarding experiences that I have ever had.  I loved every second of it, and most would agree that it is one of best places in the world to rock climb.  Yet surprisingly, some people could not take it and became so disgusted with climbing for many reasons.

“Gypsy Camp” My home for most of the month. This was a lonely moment when many of the other “gypsies” had left and hitch-hiked to other places in Europe.

Simply getting to the cliff was a struggle.  On the first day while carrying all my climbing gear and stopping too many times due to the heat and not being acclimated to the slight altitude, what is supposed to be a one-hour slog consistently uphill with a net elevation change of around 500m took almost two hours.  Reaching the oasis of shade beneath Sector Biographie each afternoon was a euphoric experience.  One moment you are dripping sweat, breathing heavily, being cooked by the summer sun, and pushing through the steep home-stretch; then you are laying on a comfortable boulder, freezing from the strong wind turning your disgustingly wet body to a chilled salty desert, and watching a handful of people easily warmup onsight 5.13s.

Sector Biographie. Halfway into the approach a storm seemed like it was rolling through and I rushed to the cliff in hope of reaching some sort of shelter. Thankfully, the storm never really hit the cliff that day, but it was quite humid.

Sector Biographie. Halfway into the approach a storm seemed like it was rolling through and I rushed to the cliff in hope of reaching some sort of shelter. Thankfully, the storm never really hit the cliff that day, but it was quite humid.

After taking a short nap, nourishing your body in preparation of further abuse, and realizing that you aren’t a “strong” climber, you are ready to grope, dance, and flail up the unbelievably high-quality carbonate cliff.  I was surprised that there was such variety in climbing styles, and that literally every route was fun and would have an “American flag” at a place like Ten Sleep.  Also, the notorious bolt spacing that many describe as run-out  really allowed me to appreciate the amazing movement.  Though this might be my inner-boulderer showing, I hate it when clipping interferes with the flow of climbing routes.  There was a perfect balance between safety from hitting the ground and being able to fall almost the whole length of the route if you blew the final moves to the anchor.  The reason people sport climb is that they want to safely climb many moves up a cliff, and I find it is so annoying when a large percentage of those moves are related to clipping.

Beautiful Ammonite fossil at Sector Biographie.

Beautiful Ammonite fossil at Sector Biographie.

Like many other climbers who enjoy difficult routes and have the desire to improve their skills, I wanted to find a beautiful route that was hard for me to send.  (Whenever someone mentions projecting, there is always some grumpy climber who starts shaming them for “grade-chasing”.  YEAH, it is “grade-chasing”, but belittling the process of self-improvement in a pointless activity for the purpose of having fun in a weird way is just mean and immature.  Everyone should be free to enjoy climbing in their own way.  If you are one of those people who doesn’t want to improve, that’s fine with me, and you definitely won’t see me publicly embarrassing you.  From what I have seen in my life so far, the best looking routes with the coolest moves are usually harder than 5.11, and if I am spending my time climbing, I might as well climb quality routes.  For those who simply just want to spray about the grade that they say they climb, their sends are probably as soft as stinky French brie.) Finding a good project is not always the easiest thing to do, but within my first week at the cliff, I knew exactly what route I wanted to invest my time, energy, and skin.

IMG_1421L’ami Caouette 8a+ is a blueish gray streak of pockets, crimps, and sloping hueco rests up the left side of Sector Demi Lune.  After sending a few 8a routes earlier this year, I wanted to seriously work an 8a+, and this one suited me well.  The route begins with a V6/7? height and finger-size dependent boulder problem.  There are three contrasting ways to attack this start : “Tiny Girl” beta involved being able lock-off a “mono” pocket with two fingers, “Lanky Dude” beta involved accurate compression moves between sloping sidepulls and crimpy underclings, and my personal favorite “Just Crimp Harder” beta was straight down pullin’ on crimps and one mono (or in my case a funky index/middle tip jam stack). After getting through the first two bolts, it felt like a sustained 5.12+ route that wasn’t over until you clipped the chains.

How can you be frustrated while projecting when you stare out into this all day?

How can you be frustrated while projecting when you stare out into this all day?

After the first day on L’ami Caouette, I knew that it was a achievable goal.  During the second day with good conditions, I had sent the opening boulder problem.  Shortly after, I “low-pointed” the route from the second bolt.  Then…conditions sucked.  Not only were the temps soaring, but the pleasant and greatly appreciated evening breeze was nonexistent.  Torrential rainstorms blew through the area towards the end of the month and swept climbers away from the cliff like wicked evil-doers in the watery hell of Noah’s Flood.  While trying to be tough, I learned that I was only able to do the boulder problem if the conditions were somewhat good, otherwise I would just shred all the skin off my tips.  This frustrated me, but I was on a month-long trip in Ceuse and was going to make the most of it.  Since conditions didn’t seem make a difference on steep juggy routes, I switched gears, which was fun but in the end not a great tactical decision.  During my last week when good conditions were back, I had lost so much power, and crimping on vertical terrain felt desperate.  Though surprisingly after one humbling session on the opening crux, I was back and ready to send before having to fly back to the USA.

I can still hear the goats' bells jingling.

I can still hear the goats’ bells jingling.

Despite my best efforts over my last few days in Ceuse, I failed to send the route.  I was powering through the boulder problem and falling successively higher up on the rest of the route.  One evening in perfect conditions, I fell because I missed key feet in the fading light (darkness with a headlamp), and on the last day in quite humid conditions in which each rest was a toothpasty mess, I fell basically climbing 5.10 slab about 3 meters under the anchor.  It didn’t happen, and I accepted defeat.

Constructively dealing with failure is one of the most important parts of improving one’s climbing ability.  I enjoy putting myself in a situation where I know I will experience failure.  To push through our obstacles, it is necessary to learn why we are failing and then diligently work hard to improve.  I believe that having a healthy amount of emotional investment in a project is great, but at the time, it is easy to become so psychotic that you cannot relax or clear your mind enough to be able to climb.  Another common tendency when climbing at your limit or on a project is not caring at all.  This is often manifested in countless excuses that allow the climber to write off the problem or route as something that is easy or that they pretty much sent while their ego walks away unscathed.  “It’s just really pumpy”, “The conditions suck today”, “It’s not my style”, “I am too hungover”…If you are making these comments and still care enough to want to send the project, just try to discover the hidden truths and actively embrace the possible ways to improve.  If it is pumpy, you probably need to climb faster, find a better rest, rest in less places, train the specific endurance you need for the route, or God forbid accept that you will be tired/pumped going into that section which means you will have to try HARD.  I feel like 75% of the time that I have spent climbing has been in far from ideal conditions.  I still complain about conditions and do everything in my power to hit the crag when I can maximize my performance and minimize skin damage.  I also understand that someone like Adam Ondra could onsight any route or problem that I am complaining about when it is actively raining or covered in birthday-party pizza grease.  If it’s not your style, learn that style.  It will probably benefit you.  But maybe I am wrong, and you only want to be able to do what you are good at.  Being hungover is the worst excuse…you have complete control over this; figure out your priorities.

So many flights... thanks TSA for poorly repacking my Thermarest and breaking it.  Also, thanks French airport security for confiscating my sardines and not giving me a chance to rapidly consume them.  I love airports.

So many flights… thanks TSA for poorly repacking my Thermarest and breaking it. Also, thanks French airport security for confiscating my sardines and not giving me a chance to rapidly consume them. I love airports.

It was therapeutic for me to have a ton of time traveling by myself on my way back to Ohio to analyze and brood over my failure.  I remembered how myself and others had negatively reacted to instances like this, but this time, I realized that I had worked hard and had taken a risk.  Some people avoid big projects because they fear that they “won’t have anything to show” for the time they invested if they don’t send.  I learned that I was capable of climbing an 8a+, and coincidentally, I probably made some physical gains.  In the process of projecting L’ami Caouette, I also knew that I was going to be climbing in Ten Sleep, Wyoming at the end of August, so putting some time in on tweaky pockets and sharp crimps on vertical/barely overhanging/”RRG slab” terrain would feel familiar and be beneficial “training”.  This unfinished business is just another reason for me to become a better climber and return to one of the most amazing places in the world.