Ending the Boltless Year (Part 1)

Since the first day that I tied into some jug-filled toprope at Kendall Cliffs after a draining high school track practice, I became deeply and constantly curious about how other people got “stronger” and what I could learn to benefit myself.  By “stronger” I mean “better at climbing”, and this is a somewhat normal phenomenon in an activity in which an individual’s mental, technical, and physical abilities are tested on common ground with other participants.  Most of my climbing life has revolved around progressing on single-pitch routes.  For five years, I had great access and supportive partners to explore the endless cragging of the Red and New River Gorge.  But, I learned quickly that there were more efficient ways to get better at climbing than simply climbing all the time.

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Peace Frog 5.12d at the Sanctuary.  An interesting double heel-toe cam move out the roof at the start leads to a characteristic overhang of iron oxide jug slots at the Red River Gorge.  Photo by Paris Achenbach.

As was my tradition of spending the week-long, mid-semester breaks in college at a climbing destination, I clearly remember the last week of March 2012 at the Red.  The weather was surprisingly good, and though I had ventured down to Miguel’s by myself, I had quickly found great friends and reliable climbing partners.  Besides having a good time climbing and experiencing some personal best performances, I also remember a specific day at the Undertow Wall.

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My friend Andrew cruising up the Bob Marley crag classic, Dogleg 5.12a

As I lay on a comfy slab of Corbin sandstone waiting for another burn on the Kentucky classic, Ale-8-One 5.12b, and weighing the benefits of certain rests between sections of the route, another climber rolled up to the Undertow Wall and asked if he could take a lap up the route on my draws.  It wasn’t a problem at all as I was still pumped from getting spit off 2/3 of the way up the route on my previous attempt, and I gladly shared the route.  As he started to tie in, I recognized that he was Brad Weaver and was one of the elite climbers in the Southeast.  I began to analyze everything a little more carefully and started to remember reading about him taking years completely off of sport climbing to…boulder.  Sport climbing at the Red is about endurance; why would anyone do that? I was still pumped in that moment; how could someone think that it would be a good idea to avoid endurance training to progress at an area known for its unrelenting style.  Five minutes passed as I watched Brad Weaver warm up on my project without bulging a forearm vein.  At the end of my spring break, I did manage to redpoint Ale-8-One, my first 5.12b, and it felt hard as I could barely clip the chains.  More importantly, I began to realize that there might be something to be gained from investing some time strictly devoted to bouldering.

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I miss my mohawk and rest days at the Wild Turkey Distillery.  Photo by Andrew Freeman

Last summer, I had one of the best times of my life which was filled with exclusively sport climbing from finishing a good spring season at the Red, followed by the continuous and beautiful beat-down of Ceuse, and ending with the American glory of Ten Sleep.  I have always been attracted to more sectional or bouldery routes, and I had decided that I would move to Bishop and immerse myself in its bouldering mecca greatness.  My initial plan was to spend fall through winter bouldering while figuring out some organized training plan that would cater to the progress I wanted and what I could tolerate mentally.  Often, the balance of training and the daily fun (stress relief from life) is something that is overlooked when you first are really psyched making your plan.  During my first months, I learned that I needed to be doing more actual climbing, and that the typical linear training plan that was easy and effective for sport climbing in an area with very specific climbing seasons was not as effective for bouldering in which a high level of technical skills, POWER, and weird (often hard to train in an exercise)  body strengths are necessary all the time.  Winter slowly melted in spring, and I had become so clearly identifying as a boulderer that I didn’t feel like dealing with the logistics of cragging or big days out climbing in the mountains.  Bouldering is so freaking simple, very high quality, and easily accessible in the Eastern Sierra, and I saw no reason nor had any motivation to do anything else.  My plan of bouldering through winter turned into a year hiatus from clipping bolts.  Many of my new friends didn’t believe that I had ever climbed on a rope in my life.  I only used a rope to climb two times in the last year, and they were both 5.7 traditional climbs in Tuolumne Meadows involving a significant amount of simul-climbing:  Matthes Crest and Euphoria on Pennyroyal Arches.

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Some of the best bouldering on the Eastside.  Mantling out the slopey topout of Soul Severity V6 at the Smolko Boulder under the Wheeler Crest.  It felt amazing to climb these beautiful lines put up years ago by fellow Ohioan and motivating climbing partner Damon Smolko.  Photo by Kyle Queener.

Currently, I am sitting in the typical climber Internet spot/shelter from the elements:  the Ten Sleep Public Library.  When my best friend Charlie suggested at the beginning of summer that we take a trip back to Ten Sleep, it seemed so natural and like a great way to see how I have changed in the past year.  Ten Sleep has become this consistent feature of my life, and it feels so good to be here.  Though, getting here was borderline painful.  After Charlie made espresso drinks all afternoon and I grinded through another 9 hour shift at the Gear Exchange, we quickly loaded up his van and drove 16 hours through the night.  Stopping only to switch drivers and get some tasty coffee and pastries at Lander Bake Shop, the psyche-fueled drive left us drained.  Yet, nothing could stop us, and we drove straight to the French Cattle Ranch parking lot and loaded up our packs for an evening of sport climbing.  I felt vey confused while I placed my rope and shiny new sport draws in my pack; it seemed like I was forgetting some integral piece of climbing equipment.  Regardless, we crushed the approach up to the Grasshopper Wall.  We both decided that it was quite fitting and somewhat comical that we climb the short, three bolts in length, and four-move crux right off the ground “route”, Lil’ Smokie 5.11.  (Volcanic Tableland V2) I love this mini-route, and I find the other Lil’ Smokie routes a worthwhile and quirky experience of the climbing in Ten Sleep.  After I ran several laps on the classic Lil’ Smokie, I was so psyched to be sport climbing again, though with only maybe 2 hours of sleep while getting tossed around in the back of the speeding van, I was falling asleep sitting on the nicely arranged rocks at the base of the cliff.  Esplanada 5.12d, a hard for the grade and continuous face climb, seemed like a good idea?  I had never sent the route before; I had always overlooked this area classic in favor of harder routes.  I didn’t remember the route having any hard moves, and I proceeded to hang the draws.  As expected, the moves felt too easy.  I usually warmup on problems with moves that are significantly harder, and the footholds on the route felt huge.  Despite this impression of the route, I managed to punt off the upper slab crux twice.  Still about to fall asleep between my pathetic burns on Esplanada, I gave up for the day in favor of eating and sleeping.

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This route has been on my mind for a year, and I cannot wait to see how it feels.

Waiting out the heavy rainstorms seems quite foreign after having lived in the Eastern Sierra for a year, but I remind myself that the beautiful blue streaks of Bighorn dolomite will be prime in cooler conditions tomorrow.  My body will also probably be better suited for physical activity too.  I know I am stronger in many ways, but in order to realize this improvement, I need to refresh those rusty route climbing skills and more importantly, enjoy being back in one of my favorite places in the world.

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