Proper Nowhere

El Salto was the place where everything changed for me on my first trip south of the American border. One year ago I traveled here expecting the unexpected, but I never could have guessed how much it would change my life. Before that trip, I had been living my life in a very predictable way: work during the week, climb during the weekends, and plan semi-annual trips with a few close friends. After a particularly successful vacation to the Red River Gorge in November of 2016, I came back to Seattle knowing I needed to get away again as soon as possible. Somehow that led to me planning a trip to Mexico with two people I barely knew that December.

That trip changed me forever. Even a year later it’s no exaggeration to say I fell in love. Every day, in every moment, I was consciously aware that I had somehow unlocked a level of happiness I had never felt before. It lit a fire inside me for not just climbing itself, but travelling, meeting new people, experiencing new things, and all that the dirtbag lifestyle encompasses. I could feel that my life was about to change, as long as I was willing to let it; something that doesn’t come easy to me, yet I felt like I’d subconsciously been waiting for it for a long time. I eased into it over some long and influential spring travels until I was ready to fully move into my car and let the road lead wherever it did at the end of summer.

Deciding where to go on my travels came easy for a while, until suddenly it wasn’t. Cold weather and the winter holidays loomed on the horizon, and I was faced with a decision: to return to Mexico, or to attempt to find psyche in places where I either had no partners, or no desire to climb in the States. All along I knew there was only one answer, but I felt a strange reluctance to return to the place where it all started. I was afraid of what I would find upon returning to a place that had changed my life in such a big way—what if it wasn’t the same? What if it was? Christmas came and went and I still couldn’t commit to going farther south than Arizona, until finally one day I learned all my partners had cleaned out the gear we had stashed at the crag and were leaving within 48 hours to a place I knew I didn’t belong. It was time to face the music.

On December 26th as I walked out the door of the Chipotle in Sedona to knock a few hours off the drive, I got a message from a friend overseas asking if I would be in El Paso the next day and if I could help out his stranded friend. I had my doubts about picking up a hitchhiker, especially when I learned it was actually two of them plus a dog. Nonetheless I discarded my inhibitions and allowed the pair to curl up on my bed as I ferried them across the entire state of Texas. I got them through two border patrol checkpoints and a whole lot of what we called “Proper Nowhere” until we parted ways in Laredo. I thought it fitting, that my return to Mexico would start with an experience so far outside my usual status quo. I took it as a good omen of things to come, because Mexico was always about learning how much better life can be outside my comfort zone.

Waiting for me in Mexico was a diverse blend of the usual suspects from last year, plus many of the people with whom I’d been climbing over the last few months. Both groups were people who had gone from complete strangers to like family in just the few weeks I’d known them. I guess that’s what happens when you spend almost all of your time with people, camping, eating, climbing, relaxing, even working—friendships get fast tracked. I had come to El Salto for two main reasons: to party with these friends, and to try and send a specific route: El Infierno de Dante.

I had tried the route before and walked away uninspired: long runouts at the cruxes make it hard to work the moves when you are just beginning the process and the route is at your (my) limit, plus something about it just didn’t light that fire in me to make me want to really sink my teeth in. At the same time it’s hard for me to ever really let a route go, and it had been sitting in the back of my mind for the last twelve months as reminder of a time that I had given up. Unlike other climbs of the upper 5.13/lower 5.14 range I’d done, this one I knew was within my ability if I embraced the projecting process and approached it with commitment and patience.

I find in my climbing that I go back and forth between two different phases—mainly what I consider to be project mode and vacation mode. In vacation mode I am out climbing purely for the love of the sport and all it entails. Failure or success, at the end of the day I’m still having a big dinner with my friends, drinking beer, and focusing on enjoying every moment of this beautiful life. In project mode I am an athlete, disciplined and focused, willingly sacrificing all indulgences in pursuit of whatever climb has become my latest obsession. The tricky thing about these two modes is that they both make me feel really good in very different ways, and I often wonder if I’m focusing on the right thing. When I’m relaxing, I miss feeling strong and in shape, having big successes in my climbing and feeling confident about myself. When I’m dedicated and honed in on an objective, I wonder if my sacrifices are worth missing the fun nights of drinking, staying up late, and eating excessive amounts of chocolate.

Perhaps the fiddliest part of the split-climbing-personality conundrum is that I can’t just choose to flip the switch between the two modes on a whim. Vacation mode is easy, but entering project mode requires a goal, and it has to be one that really inspires me. There’s a certain feeling I’ve found about my proudest sends during the process that made me really truly care, and it doesn’t come around all that often. I may decide to work a certain route, but at the end of the day if I don’t want it bad enough that I fall asleep thinking about it, doodle its name in the margins of a notebook, and feel my face light up whenever someone asks how it’s going, the relationship is doomed to fail.

The last spark I’d chased before Mexico was Rude Boys (which was perhaps a bit forced), and before that City Park. I’d done a few low 5.13s here and there, but nothing had really struck me on that level in many months. I did want to go out there and see just what I was made of, test my limits and try and be my best self as a climber, but I had to wait for the calling. Finally it came, and I was ready and eager to answer when it did. Day two in Mexico I quested up Dante’s Inferno and felt the stirrings of that feeling I had been so long without. I was inspired.

Dante’s Inferno is perhaps the most well-known hard climb in El Salto, which adds a certain aura of history that always draws me to a climb. It consists of 40 meters of resistance climbing, passing through two very sustained cruxes to the mid-way anchor, and then one last sting in the tail a few bolts from the top. The moves are hard, not getting too pumped is even harder, but simply keeping your mind engaged for that much climbing is perhaps the hardest part.

After a week or so of effort I slowly built up enough endurance to know I had a shot, yet I battled with bad skin that didn’t seem to recover on my rest days. After a long mid-day nap one day, I tied in with fingertips so raw it hurt to take my jacket off for one last fitness burn (aka an attempt with low hopes of success but done anyway for the training benefit). My friend Tanager had just told me that all of her best sends had been after a nap, and another friend who had just sent the route said he had done it with terrible skin as well, so I decided to go ‘a muerte’ even though it was my fifth attempt in two days and I was exhausted.

Screaming on every move, I managed to battle to the first anchors for the first time and partway to the second. By the time that I fell, I was so exhausted that I couldn’t even get through the final crux to work out beta for any redpoint attempts on the extension. It was success nevertheless, resulting in much celebration after a local adventure movie led to a wild dance party lasting late into the night.

One extremely hungover rest day and a mini break climbing on other routes later, I knew it was time to go back for the extension. The weather had gotten hot, and many people were losing psyche for Las Animas, the wall on which Dante’s is located. I had a few partners still interested, but as the morning stretched on they remained at camp, going about their day in leisurely style while I paced around in agitation. I watched minutes tick by as calculations ran through my mind—if we leave right now, there will still be time to warm up and have an attempt before the wall goes into the sun.

When it became clear that things were not happening, I left for the crag by myself, hoping to beg a belay off someone already there. Up until then it had been so crowded that you could barely weasel your way in line for a warmup, but suddenly there was no one at the wall when I arrived. I sat around for a while before deciding I was wasting my time, letting toxic thoughts flood my brain as I began hiking out in defeat.

Just then, two friends rounded the corner and called out a greeting and that they were there to belay and support. Having stopped by our camp that morning and heard of my tragic plight, they were happy to help. The sun was already creeping across the wall towards Dante’s, so I decided to forego a warmup and just go for it. I needed to work out that upper crux, so it wasn’t a send go anyway. It wasn’t a send go, except the higher I got the more it felt like maybe it could be. The rock was cool but not cold, I was fresh but not shaky, and moves that had felt desperate felt completely controlled. Before I knew it, I was staring down the upper crux with no choice but to wing it—no real beta, but I wasn’t that pumped and the sun still hadn’t made the route too hot to climb.

I pulled into the final hard moves of the boulder problem, toeing down on glassy pebbles so carefully that I knew I’d never let a fall happen because of slipping. Suddenly it was all over and I called out to my friends in excitement that “It’s going down right now!” even though I still had a few bolts of easy climbing to the top. I knew wouldn’t fall there.

Afterwards as I traded my climbing shoes for a belay device to support another no-warmup send by a friend, I couldn’t help but stare at Dante’s and feel a strange sense of melancholy. I felt like I had only just started to get to know the climb and it was already over. I was beyond proud of how quickly I’d done it; five or six days of work to clip the chains on my second 5.14 is pretty exciting, but I wasn’t ready to let go of that powerful inspiration I had finally managed to track down. I had been mentally prepared for a brutal battle, in which I fell at the upper crux dozens of times, went home in tears day after day, and questioned the meaning of life as I fought highs and lows of self-doubt. You know, the usual projecting M.O.

Ever since last year, a part of me knew that Dante’s was one of those routes that I just had to come back for. Who can say why, but there are certain climbs that sit at the back of my mind, waiting for the day when I’m ready to lay it all on the line and go to war. Luckily I still have a few weeks here to see if the next inspiration lies somewhere between these limestone tufas and calcified stalactites, and if not, to simply bask in the warm Mexican sun eating Elotes and being grateful to not be freezing in the Seattle winter rain. I had my doubts about returning to Mexico, but in the end and as always, the Wash provides.

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