The Impossible Dream

Every fall I’ve developed something of an annual bad habit. I bee-line for the Creek with no plan for the Creek with no plan other than to stay there until winter manages to creep its icy tendrils so deep into the sandstone that I have no choice but to leave at the last possible moment. Sometimes it happens early, like last year when heavy snow evicted me on Thanksgiving, but some years the cold sets in more slowly. Day by day nothing seems to change and endless sun makes it feel like a dedicated enough climber could stay all winter. Every night is just a little longer than the last however, and sooner or later even the most bluebird sunny day isn’t enough to cast off the chill.

I ran my desert season especially long this year, loitering in Moab for half of December. By the end I was hardly climbing; it was snowing, I had developed toe-hole on my feet and deep cracks on my hands from the skin getting just a little too weathered, and more than anything else my psyche was completely depleted from three months in Utah. I had arrived while it was summer, and now fall had come and gone, and I was still there, because I just didn’t know where else to go.

All year I had been planning a glorious return to Joshua Tree to be reunited with all my weird and dearly missed California friends, where we would party into the new year in style; one of my absolutely favorite traditions. It was with a very heavy and conflicted heart that I abandoned that plan once COVID shut down much of California, including much of J Tree. I entertained the idea of heading East instead, to branch out of my comfort zone and try something totally different, but one too many cautionary tales about winters of endless rain prevented me from ever committing.

I knew I needed to leave. I could feel the lazy indoor life I had been living at a friend’s house luring me into a melancholic complacency. Too much time in a city, even a small outdoorsy one like Moab, has a way of making me forget how much happier I truly am when I’m outside all the time. The safety and stability of an indoor life is a dark temptress that tries to trick me into thinking that I should settle for good enough. They say that a ship that stays in its harbor it safe, but that’s not what ships are for. My ship would spring a leak and slowly start sinking if I didn’t set sail soon.

Opportunity found me when I was contacted by one of my oldest (and simultaneously youngest) dirtbag friends Fiona. She had a few weeks off from nursing school for winter break and was looking for partners. It just so happened I was too.

One of the biggest challenges when it comes to hard trad, the kind of climbing I want to do, is often finding partners that either share your objectives or are willing to support you on them when they aren’t at a convenient crag. Cracks form in some pretty random places sometimes. With all of my partners from the fall either working for the winter, or home for the holidays, I didn’t know where to turn to find the right crew to start a new and hopefully productive season with. When Fiona messaged me I was directionless, partnerless, and feeling more than a little lost.

Fiona suggested Flagstaff, due to a potential housesitting gig, and for lack of a better idea I jumped on board. That, and for one other reason: East Coast Fist Bump.

I first visited the Sedona area in the winter of 2018 in something of a similar post-Creek season directionless wandering. I was only there for two weeks, but it was enough time to bag a few sandy towers, score big from a few local dumpsters, climb a few of my earliest trad 5.13s, and to watch my friend Reed send East Coast Fist Bump, a route he had been projecting since long before I showed up.

The route had been on my mind ever since, not because I had tried it and thought I could do it, nor because I thought it looked particularly cool. It didn’t even have a compelling history the way many of my dream routes usually do. This one stuck with me for a different reason: watching Reed work on Fist Bump until he eventually sent it was one of the greater displays of climbing passion I had witnessed. I saw glimpses of my own projecting process in it, and from all my experiences I knew that it takes a special kind of route to bring that out of someone. I couldn’t help but think that maybe it could bring it out of me too; that discipline, dedication, commitment, and above all else passion that comes from chasing a big dream.

Fist Bump appealed to me as a route in itself for that reason, but it also had the additional allure of one of my other dreams: to climb a 5.14 on traditional gear. Only a few women in the world have ever done it, and for as long as I had started pushing myself as a trad climber I fantasized of having my name on that list. I had publicly admitted as much on my Enormocast interview over a year ago (listen here), preaching about the romantic concept of “dreaming the impossible dream” and how doing that was mine. After all this time I had yet to really try to make it more than just spray; a fact that perpetually nagged in the back of my brain. Was it going to be one of those things I just kept putting off until I thought I’d have more psyche, time, strength, etc. until one day I realized my chance had long since come and gone?

One of my favorite mantras from Todd Skinner perpetually echoed in my head when I thought about my dream to climb a trad 5.14 route, because that number had been a dream to him too. “Everything you ever wanted to do is still possible. It’s only you who says it can’t be done. If there is something you want to do in life you’d better get on it; time waits for no one.” As my twenty-eighth birthday rapidly approached I knew I was no exception; time certainly wasn’t waiting for me. So as I agreed to go to Arizona with Fiona, I thought perhaps it was time to at least try.

As soon as I arrived at the Waterfall I fixed a top rope on Fist Bump and started swinging aimlessly around at the crux. Day after day went by and I couldn’t make heads nor tails of the sea of holds in the crux, each option worse than the last. The route mostly boils down to a long, difficult, low-percentage boulder problem that has been done differently by every ascensionist. It felt like a puzzle that I needed not to be stronger for, but that I needed to be smarter for. That, or just stubborn enough to keep beating my head against the wall until eventually I figured it out.

I struggled for psyche in the beginning, and not just from the lack of progress. Despite having a goal to focus on that logically checked all the boxes, I still felt lost. I had burned myself out on climbing by doing the same thing for too long, and my heart longed for the wild holiday parties from J Tree and the reprieve from trying hard that they provided. Normally this was my time to recharge, celebrate, and be with friends, so as my New Year’s Eve birthday drew closer I couldn’t focus on much other than my own loneliness. I often irrationally wondered if I should just scrap this impossible project and go west anyway, Stay at Home orders be damned.

Instead I forced myself to do what I always do when dealing with hardship: look for the opportunity. It was a strategy that had gotten me through plenty of heartbreak before at least. I was here. The weather was ridiculously perfect. I had an amazing partner in Fiona, and I had even been making enough connections with the locals to make it work after she had to leave. I even had someone to project with when the local crusher Lor joined my efforts. If there was ever a time to achieve this goal, the stars were aligning for it to be right now.

I used these logical tricks to build momentum and, and drew additional motivation from Lor’s contagious psyche and enthusiasm. I also used the lack of holiday parties to fuel the first serious training I had done in months. If I couldn’t be getting shit faced on NYE, I might as well be hangboarding.

I made it through a tragically uneventful end to 2020 with a sense of relief. I was finally able to discard the heavy combined weight of FOMO and nostalgia regarding the holidays and start looking forward. By that point I had started to piece things together on Fist Bump. I still changed my beta daily, but I could at least do all the moves now (I just couldn’t string them together into any kind of a sequence). It was a theoretical sort of possible.

With the new year however also came time for Fiona to return to St. George. As luck would have it, just as she left I connected with two other friends from the circuit: Erik and Kevin. They were psyched on the Waterfall’s unique blend of thin cracks, technical stemming and face climbing, and marginal yet bomber micro-cams and ball-nuts. Both of them brought new psyche for training and goals, as together we committed to dry January and regular bonus fitness.

I was starting to feel stronger already, and a week into January I finally committed to a sequence on Fist Bump that I thought would actually be doable on lead. I could stick the crux deadpoint about a quarter of the time when trying the move in isolation, and I could keep climbing past it about half the time from there.

I had frequent flashbacks to a day when Reed had been rope soloing it and I had been doing the same on a neighboring route called the Trident. We would both climb through our respective cruxes on the microtraxion, look at each other, and then with a grin he would yell “Again!” and we would lower back down for another rehearsal. He must have done the crux a half a dozen times in a row that day, and in my mind it always seemed like the most efficient way to work a route like this: top rope it until the body memorizes exactly how to do the moves every time so that it doesn’t feel low percentage anymore. If you can be one thing, you should be efficient.

For the first time the way forward seemed crystal clear and finally I was psyched. I lowered to the ground gushing to Erik, Lor, anyone who would .isten about how I had finally felt that magical transition from logically knowing I could do it to actually feeling in my heart like I was going to do the route; to actually believe, instead of just telling myself to have faith.

Two days later I was back and the move felt dramatically easier. Instead of a wild deadpoint to an openhanded two-finger crimp, I knew exactly how to move my body so that I stuck the hold in a much stronger closed-handed position at least half the time. It also eliminated the jarring wrist pain that hitting the hold open-handed had been causing. It was starting to feel close, but I wasn’t worried about time. I had accepted that it might take a while, and that this point I was willing to do the work.

Over the next 48 hours of resting I rehearsed the crux over and over in my mind, speculating what the gear might look like and how it would feel to climb above it. The crux would be well protected by a 00TCU and a nest of blue aliens, but once you were through all you get is the (very) occasional ball-nut or 00 for the rest of the more moderate climbing to the top. I felt like I had reached the point where I had a chance at doing the route clean on any lucky go, and I didn’t want that one send to be on top rope. At the same time, if I took too many falls on lead I risked damaging my gear; although it would hold, small cams take wear and tear easily. With both these things in mind, I decided the next would be my last day of top roping.

On Friday, January 7th, Erik and I hiked up to an almost totally empty crag. The usually perfectly clear sky was blocked by clouds, chilling the crag but making an undeniable improvement to the friction on the slippery basalt. With a handwarmer in my chalk bag I set up the fixed line on Fist Bump and rope soloed up to the crux. My numb fingers bobbled the crux hold and I fell in my usual spot, but once I pulled back on I stuck the move once, twice… six times in a row.

Sitting on the ground after, I lined up the gear I had sorted out on top rope. Hardly anything bigger than a blue alien, especially where it mattered, and a yellow ball-nut being the only protection for the last move I could conceive of slipping off of before jugs and ledges take you to the top. I was either about to just go for it right now, or I was going to spend the next however many days in agonizing anxiety about leading the route for the first time. I’d been in this position before and I decided it was better to just get it out of the way now.

Expecting little, I left the fixed line running through a directional in the easy headwall, laced up my beta specific mismatched shoes (one TC Pro and one lace Miura), squeezed my handwarmer one last time, and went for it. I seem to have developed a reputation over the years for having a good lead head over small gear or being fearless in general, but I felt anything but. As I started up the climb I was jittery, cold and full of fear. By the time I reached the crux however, a calm settled over me. I was probably going to fall onto the 00TCU, and that was okay because becoming comfortable falling at the crux was the next step I needed to take in order to one day send the route. Only…I didn’t fall.

With half numb fingers I latched the crux hold, exactly like I had so many times on top rope, just never from the ground before, and definitely never on lead. In a rare moment of perfect flow, I grabbed the next hold, and then the next, and then it was as good as over.

The rest of the climb felt surreal. I removed the directional blocking the semifinal gear placement, letting it slide down the fixed line and revealing the tiny pocket where a 0.1 was blindly placed. It didn’t matter, I wouldn’t fall. I warred between standing at stances to enjoy the feeling of knowing I was about to send and wanting to enjoy it, versus feeling the need to reach the chains and make it real. I sat on the final ledge crying for several minutes as the sun finally emerged to warm my perch. A neighboring climber congratulated me from a few routes over, and I choked out, “this has been my dream for so long.” Finally I was ready to clip the chains, still not totally convinced this was real.

I had emotionally prepared myself to spend the next month falling off this climb and instead I had just done it on a day that I hadn’t even planed to lead it. It felt anticlimactic in a way, because I had been so ready to deal with a dramatic Stingray-style epic involving dozens of one-hangs, a desperate search for partners, gobis and split tips, bad weather, and all the emotional self-doubt that comes with a hard project. I had done my time already though, pushing through the mental hurdles at the beginning of the journey for once instead of the end. Instead I was rewarded with a rare gift of climbing in perfect control.

The clouds that had created such amazing conditions that day melted into a rare and beautiful sunset as Kevin, Erik, and I stood atop a hill near our camp to watch. As reds and oranges slowly faded to purples and blues, the two of them returned to camp while I stayed behind to try and process what had happened. After all this time my crazy dream to climb a 5.14 all on gear was that no longer. It turned out Skinner was right all along: it was only ever me that thought it couldn’t be done.

3 Comments

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s