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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
L’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.
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.
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.
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.