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”.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.