The Crystal Dawn Wall

Greetings loved ones, let’s take a journey. The story I am about to tell began a long time ago in a faraway land… except it was just one year ago, and exactly where I am now: Las Vegas, Nevada.

I didn’t want to be here. I hated Vegas; the approaches were too long, the style was too foreign, and the big city made me feel small and alone. In other words, my ego was not up to the task of tackling the level of challenge it would take to appreciate just how incredible the climbing in Red Rocks actually is. I was only here to support my partner, Harrison, on his project, and even with that I’m not proud to admit that I struggled greatly. Luckily, he’s not the type to let a selfish and only semi-enthusiastic belayer hold him back, and in spectacular style he managed to send one of Red Rocks’ hardest multipitches: Dreefee. 

Even after following him up the route multiple times, I couldn’t pull the moves on some of the crux pitches, and the idea of climbing all five of them in a row in a single day seemed unfathomable to me. It was superhero stuff; watching him send was one of the most impressive things I’ve ever witnessed in my twenty years of climbing. At the time, my only thought was “I could never do something like that.”

Nonetheless, a seed was planted in my imagination; an impossible dream that one day maybe I could become the kind of person who could do something like that. The more multipitches and big walls we climbed together and the more I learned from Harrison, the more my thoughts about it began to change. I started to begin to wonder, “what would it take to do something like that?” with the ‘that’ being not necessarily Dreefee, but simply a big wall, in a day, with multiple cruxes that approached the upper end of what I was capable of redpointing on the ground.

I cautiously began to entertain the possibility as I followed Harrison up 5.13 walls all over the country, yet it never stopped feeling wildly outside my ability. The best I could ever seem to do was sending pitches from stances, or following cruxes on microtraxion. Clean ascents on the sharp end always seemed to remain out of reach. Even when team freeing a route I struggled, so the idea of leading every pitch on something even harder continued to feel lightyears away, no matter how hard I worked.

[note: I’ve kept this background uncharacteristically brief because I have already told many of these stories in previous posts. For more about my attempts at other walls in a day click here.]

As winter arrived, bad weather chased Harrison and I back to Red Rocks; the only place that wasn’t predicted to receive a huge dumping of snow. I wasn’t thrilled about returning to Vegas, but I wanted to be in Joshua Tree for New Years so I agreed to give it another shot. We weren’t intending on staying long anyway, with visions of winter El Cap ascents or vacations to Mexico remaining at the forefront of our plans. Besides, Harrison had already wintered in Vegas enough times in his decade on the road to want a change of pace. This would surely be a quick visit.

All of the most impressive walls in Red Rocks are better suited for the spring or the fall, receiving little sun to dry wet rock or warm the frigid air. All of them, that is, except for one: The Buffalo Wall. Rising high above the deepest reaches of Icebox Canyon, it receives just enough sun in the morning for winter climbing to be possible for those with enough determination; aka us.

[The Mighty Buffalo Wall]

Despite the impressive magnitude of the Buffalo Wall, it is host to only four routes, two of which remain purely aid climbs. The other two are Buffalo Soldiers, and Crystal Dawn. With temperatures in the mid-forties when we arrived, the much sunnier and easier Buffalo Soldiers seemed like a good place to start.

The Buffalo Wall can be accessed by one of two ways: from below via a long slog up Icebox Canyon involving fixed lines and technical scrambling, or from the top via an aggressive four-wheel drive road to a long and steep but non-technical trail. We opted for the latter at first, because little information was available about the seldom climbed Buffalo Soldiers, aside from the knowledge that when it was originally freed there were long unprotectable sections of difficult climbing, and a rumor that it had since been retro-bolted, but may or may not still be rated R. Best to play it safe and rap in.

It turned out that Buffalo Soldiers is now completely safe, and would be completely reasonable to approach ground-up, but not knowing that ahead of time made it worth the extra effort spent scoping. We spent two days climbing the route, basking in the warm winter sun while occasionally glancing over towards the much shadier Crystal Dawn. From our vantage point we could just make out what appeared to be someone else’s ropes already fixed up the entire route.

[Harrison following a pitch on Buffalo Soldiers]

I was enjoying the minimal investment required to quickly redpoint a route well below my limit on Buffalo Soldiers, so every time I looked over at Crystal Dawn I felt a foreboding sense of dread. It looked cold, and it looked hard. It was wildly intimidating, with unrelenting overhangs and roofs carving up the first half of the wall, where the angle eases to a beautifully varnished slab, that eventually kicks back into more overhang up the rest of the pitches. More than anything, it looked like it would take a tremendous amount of work.

I knew Harrison wanted to climb it; he had told me as much the last time we were here, and we had discussed checking it out as part of our short-term Vegas plan. The holidays were quickly approaching, and we only had a week before we needed to head towards Wyoming to visit Harrison’s family. Just enough time to see what Crystal Dawn was all about.

We didn’t want to blindly trust the fixed ropes we had seen on Crystal Dawn; who knew how long they had been there, but if they were good, we would certainly put them to use. For that reason, and because all of the hardest climbing is towards the bottom of the route, the next time we approached the Buffalo Wall it was from below.

Looking at it from above, the Icebox approach looked like an utter nightmare of relentless scrambling and bushwhacking. Laden down with ropes and gear, we began the slog. A gentle trail quickly gave way to the loose cobbles and uneven footing of a wash. The canyon narrowed quickly, leading to moderate boulder hopping as the terrain began to grow steeper. Suddenly we were surrounded by walls on all sides, gazing up at a crusty hand-line dangling down towards us. From then on, the approach became intensely physical.

More fixed lines and sections of exposed fourth class led us ever higher, as the canyon opened up and then closed around us, giant icicles glittering from every surface except for the sections of rock we must ascend. My legs screamed with the weight of my pack and the constant steepness of the hiking. We reached the final fixed line, only to find it frozen inside an icefall, forcing us to tiptoe our way up an exposed slab instead, from which a fall would have been very consequential.

After one last maze of bushwhacking through the razor-sharp leaves of scrub oak bushes, cacti, and yucca plants, we were finally there. It had taken just under two hours, and all I could think was, ‘it’s only for a couple of days, then we get to leave for the holidays.’ I couldn’t imagine doing this more than a few times.  

Harrison and I were shocked at what we found at the base of the route. I’m no stranger to committing fixed rope faux pas myself, but what lay waiting for us was absolute anathema to proper ethics. Trash was littered across the ground: an empty tube of glue, a broken stick clip, rags, a rope bag, even an entire rope lay strewn in the bushes and frozen in place by ice, uncoiled, as though someone had dropped it from above and decided it was no longer their problem. All of it held the crust of having weathered more than a few storms, or even seasons, since it had been abandoned. As we moved up the wall, we found even more trash; a dry bag, water caches that had rotted open and were full of dead insects, and lots and lots of sun-bleached ropes. Many of them weren’t even fixed on pitches, just coiled at various anchors in the most illogical places.

[Abandoned ropes on the Buffalo Wall]

Harrison cautiously jumared up the fixed lines while I belayed him on a backup rope. Sometimes he would find a cord to be in usable condition, while others would reveal horrifying core shots that couldn’t be seen until he had reached them. We were able to use a lot of the ropes, but we still had to hike out hundreds of feet of line that had become nothing but garbage.

I struggled to jumar behind him, as the cold air drained feeling from my fingers even through my gloves. I kept having to stop and warm them, all the while thinking that there was no way I would be able to climb in these conditions. What sane person would try and climb a multipitch in the shade when it’s forty degrees out? I felt wildly out of my element.

Once the route was fixed, we got to work. The pitch breakdown is as follows: 12a, 13a, 13c, 12c, 12d, 10d, 11b, 5.9, with all of the hard climbing protected by bolts.

As Harrison rested on his mini-portaledge at the base of the crux pitch, I dangled in space on a microtraxion, hundreds of feet of air beneath my feet. Microscopic crimps zig-zagged across the overhanging wall, a single path of weakness that allowed the otherwise blank face to be climbable. I tried to dissect the moves, but I could barely hold on to the tiny edges. Demoralized and frozen by the cold rock, I lowered back to our little mid-wall base camp.

“It feels impossible,” I griped.

A veteran of big wall free climbing at this level, Harrison had a far more positive outlook. He reassured me that, yes, of course it was going to feel hard; it was a hard route. That was the whole point. “Many of the people that have done this climb put multiple seasons into it,” he said.

“I would have to hangboard all winter,” I complained, as if such a thing were completely unrealistic.

“Then do it,” was his simple, yet profound response.

His words continued to echo in my head long after their sound had blown away on the gentle desert breeze. I had wanted to know what it took to climb a big hard route like this, hadn’t I? There it was. I was going to have to work my ass off. I was going to have to work my ass off just to get up this approach day after day. I was going to have to work my ass off to get my fingers back into sport climbing shape after many years of crack climbing. Above all, I was going to have to work my ass off to have the right attitude about just how much fucking effort this was all going to be.

The problem was, I didn’t know if I wanted to put in that much work.

The next day I resolved to have a better attitude, for Harrison’s sake if not my own. My good intentions were quickly derailed however, when a foot slip on the approach had me bashing my shin into a sharp rock, sending shockwaves of pain up my leg. Fuck this, I couldn’t help but think. I hate this. As soon as the thought crept in, I became unable to get it to leave.

“Are you having fun yet?” Harrison later asked me.

“I’m trying,” was the best I could muster. “I am trying so hard,” I told him, and I was, because I had to. Just getting up the trail took a huge effort, and then I had to find the strength to try this ridiculously hard route that felt impossible, all while somehow maintaining the belief that it was possible if I just worked hard enough. Normally believing in the impossible dream is one of my strengths, but this far outside my comfort zone my faith seemed locked away somehow.

Harrison went on to tell me that he wouldn’t blame me if I didn’t want to work on Crystal Dawn. I didn’t have to come up here with him but he was going to keep trying it, at least until we left for the holidays. Unlike me, who had an endless amount of options, he had already climbed just about everything else in Red Rocks except for this route.

Being given permission to take the easy way out was a temptation that almost won me over, but in the end my own stubbornness prevailed, at least for now. It was only two more days anyway. 

Two familiar yet opposing forces warred within me. On the one hand I was tired. It had been a very successful year, and all I wanted to do was taking a break and eat Christmas cookies in front of a fireplace with Harrison’s family, or get white-girl-wasted in Joshua Tree for my birthday on New Year’s Eve. On the other hand, wasn’t this exactly what I had been working towards for the entire past year? Hadn’t I been pushing myself to gain experience in multipitch climbing so that one day I could do something exactly like this route? Was I trying to ignore an opportunity that was practically breaking down my door?

Luckily, we hadn’t committed to the route just yet; it was still only mid-December. I had time to feel it out before the holidays, and maybe the determination and ambition that always finds me at the start of a new year would awaken.

When it came time to leave for Jackson where we were to spend Christmas, I was more than ready for a little time off from climbing. Still, I wouldn’t be me if climbing wasn’t still in the back of my mind, and at the last minute I threw my hangboard in the car.

It’s extremely rare that I take even a week off from climbing, and after just a few days I grew restless and put my hangboard to use. Thoughts of Crystal Dawn drifted through my mind as the lactic acid built in my forearms. A new question began to ask itself: I no longer wondered what it would take to climb a route like that, but if I had what it would take. And if I didn’t have it yet, could I obtain it?

The rest of the holidays passed by in a beautiful celebration of family, friends, love, and matching pajamas. On January 1st, we high-tailed it back to Vegas where I had left my van. In one of my most time-honored traditions I pulled out my journal and began a list of New Year’s Resolutions. The first thing I wrote down was ‘Crystal Dawn.’

Yet now Crystal Dawn had become off limits; a large snowstorm had rolled through in our absence, and then melted and refrozen, turning Icebox canyon into a literal icebox. Even after many days of sun, there was still too much ice for the fourth-class sections of the approach to be passable. After building a little hangboarding momentum over winter break, we decided to get a gym membership and knuckle down when things got too wintery. That meant we were committed to being here for at least a month; to devoting at least a month of my life to that approach, and that route that felt like it would take more like hundred months to put together.

[Impassable sections of ice on the approach, with fixed lines visible in the background]

Training in the gym provided a welcome source of motivation, because it felt like even if Crystal Dawn were to mentally break me before I had a breakthrough, at least I’d have stronger fingers at the end of it all. The more we trained, the more excited we became about training, and the less we started to care about what we were supposed to be training for, aside from the fact that in between reps on the hangboard I was doing leg workouts for the first time since college to reduce the drain from Crystal Dawn’s approach.

Soon, it was mid-January and we had been up to Crystal Dawn only a few times. It seemed like we always found some reason not to go, which often brought me a secret sense of relief. I got to stay within my comfort zone for one more day and not face my demons in that icy canyon.

Towards the end of the month the temperatures were on the rise, with highs in the upper forties and even lower fifties, and we were faced with the realization that our one-month contract with Las Vegas was almost up. There were two weeks until our gym memberships expired, yet we had hardly gotten any closer on Crystal Dawn. We began to double down, training in the gym and climbing on the route as much as we could, and never quite taking enough rest in between.

I felt as though I was getting stronger, but Harrison was beginning to feel more and more pain in the shoulder that had already been hurting for the past year. He made occasional mention of going to the doctor to get it looked at, but his ambition and psyche to climb and train drove him onward instead.

One day Harrison decided to go up to the Buffalo Wall by himself, since I needed to take a day off. When he returned that evening he was quiet, despite a seemingly positive report about his progress on the crux. Neither of us knew it then, but it would be the last time either of us climbed on Crystal Dawn for quite some time. He made an appointment to get his shoulder looked at a few days later.

Suddenly the project didn’t seem so important, as reality came crashing through our doors. Harrison was tired of the injury holding him back, in too much pain, and in need of some answers. There were discussions of potential surgery or some extended time off if it were some sort of SLAP tear. I would never want the climb to get in the way of his long-term health, but there was still a part of me that I had left up at the Buffalo Wall with all my stashed shoes and ropes. It had been a hard piece to give away too. It was the one that gives myself permission to become emotionally invested in something, despite (and partially because of) knowing the amount of work it could take. 

As we waited in limbo for the day of the appointment to arrive, the weather finally hit what seemed to be the sweet spot for the Buffalo Wall; fifty degrees with minimal wind. I wanted desperately to go, but  going without Harrison when he was facing such painful uncertainty about his health and future just didn’t feel right.

Harrison knew an MRI would be needed to really know what was going on with his shoulder, but they’re hard to come by without either a doctor’s order, or a shit load of money, so 8am on a Monday morning found us in the office of a sports orthopedic doctor, awaiting the results of a preliminary x-ray. The doctor came in with a grim look on his face. He pointed out a few things on the image and insisted they indicated not a tendon tear, but advanced arthritis. “The shoulder of a sixty-year-old,” he said, and there was nothing that could be done about it. By the end of the next day, three other doctors Harrison knew from his hometown confirmed the diagnosis after looking at the x-ray. One of them gave him the devastating opinion that he should “do some soul searching about what would replace rock climbing in his life.”

We had gone to the office that morning thinking he would have to take a few months off at most, and gone out wondering if the foundation of his entire existence was going to have to change. Right in front of my eyes I watched one of the strongest people I have ever met face down an absolute worst-case scenario, and it was much like an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object; the ground shook underneath me.

Just when it seemed like life was being sufficiently cruel, another curveball came flying our way. The next night Harrison and I lay in my van, attempting to sleep in yet another random parking lot, when I awoke with a cough, and then another cough, and suddenly I couldn’t stop coughing. I coughed all night and into the next day, until there was no more hiding from the fact that I needed to get tested for COVID.

In the desert when it rains, it really pours, because the result was positive. At least Harrison didn’t have it.

So many negative emotions collided within me that I could hardly separate one from the next. There was heartbreak for what Harrison was going through, fear over what it meant for both of our futures and even our relationship, and now guilt over bringing another problem to the table, disappointment that after running from it for so long, I was not able to escape the coronavirus, and the general loss of purpose or direction that comes from not being able to climb. Despite it being his time of need far more than my own, it was just too much, too fast, and I clung to Harrison like a drowning woman to a life raft.

Thus far none of the doom and gloom doctors that Harrison had consulted about his shoulder knew anything about rock climbers, so we got in touch with two we knew who actually did. They had a pretty different outlook, saying the symptoms he was experiencing didn’t match up with arthritis. It seemed far more likely to have something to do with his biceps tendon, especially since he had ruptured the one in his other arm a few years ago after experiencing similar shoulder pain. We shouldn’t lose hope yet; an MRI was definitely needed to truly know.

Getting an MRI was proving far more difficult than anticipated however. For the next two weeks, Harrison would then wade through a nightmare of insurance issues, made all the worse by the fact that the doctor who had taken the x-ray ordered the wrong kind of MRI on the wrong shoulder at first. Just when he finally thought he would be able to get it done, he had to start the entire scheduling process over again, with endless phone calls back and forth between the imaging center and his insurance. He constantly debated just making the two-day drive back to South Dakota, where he would have been able to get it within a day.

To escape the madness we tried to get in some lower-impact sport climbing, but it did not offer the reprieve either of us were hoping for. Instead, it just made it all the more obvious that Harrison couldn’t climb and I was an emotional wreck. One day we went out to try an obscure and difficult slab route, one of the few things left that Harrison hadn’t already sent over his many seasons in Red Rocks. I tip-toed up the face, following technical beta he had worked out, but try after try my feet would slip off microscopic nubs or my fingers would slide off sloping edges.

I quickly grew frustrated and demoralized. While training and working on Crystal Dawn, I had been beginning to feel that gnawing hunger for a big challenge that has been the driving force behind so many of my biggest adventures and proudest accomplishments. I thirsted for the purpose it had brought me, and when that sport climb left me feeling weak and uninspired, my self-esteem shattered.

Imposter syndrome, always hiding in the shadows, waiting for a moment of weakness to strike, saw its opportunity and seized control. It attacked me from every direction: it told me I had put on too much weight over the holidays, and that it made me weak and unattractive. It told me I had peaked because I had just turned 29, and it told me I didn’t belong in the world of professional climbers because one of my sponsors had recently dropped me. Above all it told me that I was an unworthy partner because while Harrison faced Goliath with sword drawn, I was cowering in the shadows stabbing rats with butter knives.

A few days later we hiked up to the Buffalo Wall to retrieve some of our cached gear, since it was obvious that Crystal Dawn was on an indefinite hiatus. I had always vehemently hated that hike, to the point that it often brought me to tears in the early days when I would bash a shin or fall down and twist a knee. This time however, it felt different. Instead of the usual death march, we took it slow so as not to exacerbate my COVID. Instead of both plugging in headphones and charging forward, we filled the silent canyon with heartfelt conversation about our hopes and dreams for the future.

In spite of everything that had been going on, Crystal Dawn had always remained on my mind. To stand beneath it yet not be able to climb on it brought a wave of emotions over me. Harrison collected all of his things from the cache, as though he were beginning the process of de-rigging the route and moving on. I could not bring myself to do the same, and grabbed nothing more than the essential shoes and harness. I was not ready to let go of this, even if my path forward on it became one that I walked alone.  

[Looking up at Crystal Dawn]

“The mighty Buffalo,” I murmured, almost in reverence. “I want it,” I said aloud, and it was true. I had been so hesitant to commit to this project in the beginning, but its roots were in me now. The more obstacles that stood in my way, the deeper those roots seemed to grow. I didn’t know when, or how, but I knew then and there that I would be back for this route.

The strange thing was that my commitment to it wasn’t even about Crystal Dawn itself. The route was just a route. It could have been any route of that caliber. I chose it nor for its story nor its beauty, but for its challenge. It was about who I would become if I followed through, versus who I would be if I walked away. I feared that if I admitted defeat, the part of me that hungered for a challenge this big would be lost forever. I worried that the answer to my question of What would this sort of thing take, would be that it took something that I did not have. On this other hand, if I refused to give up, it would mean that I had evolved as a person; that I would have taken a step forward towards my Ultimate Potential in some way. My inspiration for it came entirely from who I wanted to become, rather than what I wanted to do.

“On an ultimate mountain, there is no failure unless you turn away from the challenge when you can still continue climbing. You have chosen the mountain for maximum gain, and even if you fail to reach the summit, you achieve significantly more than you would by reaching the summit of a moderate mountain, and infinitely more than if you never left the ground.” – Todd Skinner, ‘Beyond the Summit

It was the beginning of February now, and the weather was getting steadily warmer. Aside from being perfect for the Buffalo Wall, many other parts of Red Rocks became options as well. Harrison and I made two trips up to the beautiful and remote Blood Wall, where I climbed Main Vein and Hemodynamics, the first hard trad routes I’d done in quite some time, yet the small success was undermined by yet another troubling truth. I had officially recovered from COVID both in terms of CDC guidelines and any cold symptoms, yet I felt off in a way I hadn’t while I’d still been sick.

Hiking up to the Blood Wall was another Red Rocks Mega Slog, so in typical fashion it was soul crushingly hard for me. My heart raced and I gasped for breath, and by the time I finally caught up to Harrison at the base of the wall it was all I could do to collapse in exhaustion. Even after stashing all our gear and returning with empty packs the second day I still felt lightheaded and unable to catch my breath. Since struggling with big hikes is nothing new to me, I fought hard not to make excuses and blame the symptoms on any lingering COVID. Instead I blamed myself for being weak and/or lazy.

As time went on, my problems didn’t seem to be going away. Hikes continued to leave me disproportionately out of breath, sustained amounts of climbing would leave me hyperventilating, and even a few powerful moves would put my heart rate into overdrive, thundering so loudly in my ears that it felt like it was trying to beat its way right out of my body.

A week or two into February, Harrison was finally able to schedule his MRI. The initial stress of the uncertain future had long since given way to a general frustration at being stuck in limbo for so long. If we just had an answer, even a bad one, at least we could begin to move forward in some way.

He didn’t bother to send the results to the local orthopedist; after how badly his office had screwed up the MRI orders multiple times, his opinion no longer meant anything. Instead Harrison consulted the ones who knew climbers, the only ones who had given him any hope for a future that still had climbing in it. The images showed a bit of arthritis, but hardly more than would be expected in any avid rock climber. More importantly, it showed exactly what they had thought it was: a fraying of the biceps tendon. Relief washed over the both of us like a tsunami. At this point it seemed like the best-case scenario. No complete life change, not even surgery, just some physical therapy and he could keep climbing. It would likely eventually rupture like his other one had and need a little time to heal when it did, but for now it meant we could finally get back to some semblance of what we had come to regard as ‘normal life.’

We briefly discussed the idea of leaving Las Vegas now that we were no longer tied down by doctors’ appointments, but in my heart, I longed for Crystal Dawn and Harrison knew it. He had his own ambitions here too: a route called Synthetic Happiness on the Rainbow Wall which was just now coming into season (the Rainbow Wall is much colder and shadier than the Buffalo, and can’t as easily be climbed in the dead of winter). Synthetic Happiness makes Crystal Dawn look like child’s play, with seven pitches of 5.13 instead of two; an adversary truly worthy of Harrison’s big wall talents that he had described to me as the single thing he wanted to do most in the United States. After such a dark winter, it finally seemed like the dawning of a better chapter. We were both free at last to follow our calling.

Little did I know, the next month would have an entirely new set of challenges in store for me, as I sunk my teeth back into Crystal Dawn.

By now we had been in Vegas for over two months, and the city was starting to wear us down; it’s a hard place to be a dirtbag. There’s nowhere to camp but parking lots and city streets, and security inevitably shows up if you stay in any place too long. We even got hassled for loitering in the same city parks too many times, even though we weren’t even trying to sleep there. To access most of the climbing you have to get a reservation and drive the 13 mile loop every day, and there’s not much nature to be found anywhere else. The community is scattered and disconnected, with fellow travelers never congregating in one central place or sticking around very long.

I had had to work hard to appreciate being in Vegas; like I said, I hated it at first. The silver lining that had made it tolerable was that it made Harrison and I inseparable, as we leaned on each other to get through hard times. The city didn’t feel so lonely and oppressing when you have someone to suffer through it with you, but I had come to rely too much on his company for my own happiness. Once we started working on separate projects, the sudden distance between us hit me hard.

In the span of a very short period of time, it felt like everything changed.

Harrison started bivvying up at the Rainbow Wall whenever he could, spending days at a time working on Synthetic Happiness. Getting out of the city brought him peace, but it left me to circuit all our usual parking lots alone. My own project did not offer such a good option for escape, because I couldn’t climb on Crystal Dawn multiple days in a row. Even a few tries on the razor-sharp crimps of crux pitch would often split my fingertips open, requiring multiple rest days to let my skin heal.

Instead I was left to stew in my sudden loneliness. My self-esteem had not recovered from its recent trials, and my insecurity made me start to create the dark fantasy that Harrison was not trying to get away from Las Vegas, but from me. I began to equate being left alone with being left behind. I finally had my project back, yet now it felt like I was losing my partner. As soon as those thoughts crept into my mind, I couldn’t seem to get them to leave.

I’m typically a pretty positive person. I look for the best in all people and the beauty in the world. I see obstacles as detours, not dead ends, and I rise to meet challenges rather than evade them. I knew this wasn’t me, yet I couldn’t seem to change my internal dialogue. When you go looking for darkness, it’s amazing how quickly it becomes all you can see.

My insecurities turned to anxiety and my confidence in myself as a climber plummeted. Unproductive and illogical thoughts became my constant companions. I couldn’t stop thinking about the recent loss of one of my sponsors, and fretting that the others would follow suit if I didn’t do something groundbreaking soon. I judged myself against the me of the past two years, who had managed to finish her winter projects in a much timelier matter despite them being completely incomparable (since they were single pitch routes). I began to wonder if my entire year was just bound to be a bust.

One day I wrote in my journal, ‘Why do I still find no peace? Why do I still feel so lost? I have all the things I have needed in the past, yet my mind will not stop spiraling. It takes absolutely nothing for me to feel sad, or like something is wrong, or missing, and I don’t understand why. Why do I feel this way, as though I have already failed at everything I am working towards, despite all evidence to the contrary?’

The only time I felt like myself was when I was up on the Buffalo Wall. Up there, out of the city and hundreds of feet off the ground, the darkness could not reach me. Ironically the farther off the ground I got, the less I felt like I was at the end of my rope. Up there, I was driven by a calling.

Still, the size of the mountain I aimed to climb remained an almost overwhelming challenge. I started calling it the Crystal Dawn Wall, only semi-jokingly because of its magnitude. I made steady progress, but it took a conscious effort to maintain faith that my hard work would eventually pay off when I had never done something like this before that I could use to ground my belief. I often struggled with the burden of my past experiences, for while they showed me what was possible, it made taking a step beyond towards where I now tried to go seem almost impossible.

As I rested between attempts on the crux pitch, I would read chapters from Beyond the Summit, Todd Skinner’s book on achieving extraordinary goals, to try and evolve my mindset into what would be needed for this climb. The things I read in that book reflected the exact reasons I was trying Crystal Dawn. I saw myself in such passages as, “Who you are is not nearly as important as who you aspire to become. It is critical for the dream to come first, before you are daunted by the analysis of what it will take to achieve your end, before you decide whether it can be done, because the dream itself has so much power to pull you beyond where you think you can go. Do not limit your future by basing it on the past, projecting what you can do based on what you have done. Your goal is to be not just better than you were, but as good as you can ultimately become.”

This was why I was here. I was not here to climb a mountain I knew I could climb. I was here to climb a mountain that at first I could not climb, but that, through the process of climbing it, made me into someone who could climb it. It was then that I finally accepted that while I may not know the answer to my question that had started it all, the ‘What would it take,’ what mattered far more was the decision that I was willing to do whatever it took, even without knowing what that might be.  

Some days these small improvements in my mindset were a bigger gain than the actual progress I made on the route.

Things were moving along, albeit slowly. There were only two of the six hardest pitches that I could send consistently; the 12a (pitch 1), and the 12c (pitch 4), both of which had cruxes defined by a single move. Pitch 2, the 13a, was hit or miss. Its crux was a complicated sequence of heel hooks and kneebars out a small roof which I could fire every time, yet I often fell on a much easier slab move farther down. The sixth pitch, the 12d, was a far bigger problem. In an article written for Alpinist about the first ascent, Tom Moulin described that pitch as the inspiration for the entire route. It’s a beautifully varnished slab, so impressive it can be seen all the way from Las Vegas, and what makes the wall look like a buffalo when the early light of the morning casts shadows in just the right way.

The slab pitch had given me problems since the beginning. I had spent hours swinging around its crux, trying one thing after another yet never feeling like I could nail down a sequence that would work consistently. I was haunted by the idea of getting through all of the hardest climbing, sending the 5.13+ crux pitch, only to fail on this slab. Even worse, I feared having to send the pitch from a stance and walking away with a send that didn’t really feel like a send; a scenario just as likely to derail my confidence and psyche to break into the world of hard multipitch climbing as if I’d simply given up back in January.

Eventually I devised an extremely complicated sequence involving a dozen moves with no vertical (or even horizontal) gain, just to get into the right body position to get my foot onto a key hold. Even after I figured out the beta, I still often fell at the crux before I could climb it from the stance.

[The last hard move on the slab]

It was the beginning of March, two and a half months in, before I finally stopped falling on the slab pitch. Every day that I went out to Crystal Dawn I would climb the entire route (minus the final three 5.11, 5.10, and 5.9 pitches), to make sure I was ready to not fall on the slab. All of the strategy I had for climbing walls had come from Harrison, who told me he had never sent an entire route on microtraxion before beginning redpoint goes. I lacked the confidence to ask someone to endure that hike and a lot of jugging to belay me if I didn’t think I had a real shot however, so I opted for the less adventurous tactic of top-roping things into submission.

As spring approached, temperatures at the Buffalo Wall were reaching into the mid-sixties and the sun was starting to stay on the route much later into the morning. It couldn’t have felt more different than our early days of scrambling around frozen fixed lines and putting multiple hand-warmers in our chalkbags only to still numb out after fifteen feet of climbing. Some days if there wasn’t a breeze, it almost felt too hot, so on top of all my other mental struggles, I started to worry about running out of time in the season.

On one of those particularly hot days, I found I couldn’t even hold on to the crux crimp without sweat from my fingertips making me slide off immediately. In desperation, I decided I needed to find a better sequence. After almost three months, I abandoned my beta and started over. Miraculously, by the end of my first attempt that day I had found a new way to climb through the crux that felt more consistent than anything I had tried all this time. It almost felt easy in comparison. On my next try I got a new high point, one move from a hand jam rest that marked the end of the hardest climbing.

There were a lot of other things I had to learn at the same time in order to put the crux together. I still struggled with the lingering effects of COVID, combined with the anxiety from my days off the wall that I had yet to conquer. The moment I would step off my portaledge and pull onto the wall, my heart would still start to race out of control every time. Cutting my caffeine down to the bare minimum helped a little, but not enough. Sometimes my heart would race even just thinking about the moves. Practicing Wim Hof breathing techniques, and then applying them to my climbing became the thing that made the biggest difference. In through the nose, out through the mouth, I would tell myself, focusing as much on my breath as on the climbing. I would intentionally exhale with each move, a practice I have never done consciously before. When resting on the route, I would stretch my arms out as wide as I could, opening my chest to allow my lungs to fill to their full capacity, a trick I learned from Skinner’s book from talks of climbing at high altitude on the Great Trango Tower.

Two sessions after changing my beta, I sent the crux pitch, and then the entire route after also reworking the 13a pitch move I had been falling on. Suddenly it no longer felt impossible, or even improbably, it felt inevitable. I even had friends coming in a few days who were also psyched on Crystal Dawn who could belay me, since Harrison was busy with his own project.

I was elated when I returned to town that evening, but somehow the moment I was back in the city, I felt the familiar riptide of my stress about life pull me under once more. I just wanted to feel like myself again, but I had no control over my irrational emotions, which made me pathetically needy. On a whim, I downloaded a self-help book. If ‘Beyond the Summit,’ had helped me so greatly find peace about rock climbing, perhaps another book could help me with myself.

I dove into it with fervor, and just like Skinner’s book it felt as though it were written about me. After weeks of struggling, in the span of twenty-four hours of reading every chance I got, I felt transformed. After being both literally and figuratively winded for so long, it felt as though I could finally breathe again. I was finally at peace, just in time for my first redpoint attempt on Crystal Dawn.

[Note: I have intentionally kept this vague for personal reasons]

On Saturday, March 13th, I met Zack and Max, the friends who had just arrived, for breakfast at 8am. They were mega psyched on Crystal Dawn, and had agreed to support me while they worked the route. Despite my eagerness to get going, we took our time getting out to the wall since it doesn’t go fully into the shade until 11am. While working it, I would often climb through the 13a pitch in the sun just to give myself more time up higher, but today that tactic seemed inadvisable.  

As we queued up at the base, we debated the best strategy for moving up the wall as a trio, since someone would have to be belaying me and the other would need to either be ahead or behind. We decided that Max should go first, then Zack would belay me on the first two pitches, but before Max had managed to leave the ground, I watched shade blanket the route and I started racking up anyway.

I had told them that I was going to try my best, but didn’t have any expectations for the first day on lead. Who knew how different it would feel, clipping draws and placing gear instead of just microtraxioning. It was an excuse to take the pressure off myself, but as I stood at the bottom of the first pitch, I felt something I hadn’t expected to feel: I was psyched.

My time on Crystal Dawn thus far had been driven and inspiring, but rarely would I ever say that I was truly having fun. For me, true joy in climbing comes from sharing my experiences with others, not rope soloing alone, no matter how special the climb is. Now that I was here with friends, I was not nervous nor intimidated like I had expected to feel, but simply excited to go rock climbing and try my best.

Max could tell that I wanted to get going, and graciously offered me the right-of-way. “I can tell you’ve got the fuego,” he said, and I did.

The first pitch is mostly easy climbing with very sparse gear, and a few hard 5.12 moves protected by three bolts. In 215 feet of climbing I placed six cams. I had rehearsed that pitch enough times that the extremely runout 5.10 climbing did not feel dangerous, and aside from horrible rope drag that I had forgotten to account for, it felt no different than being on top rope; a good sign. The 13a second pitch also has one gear placement in between bolts, but once I started climbing, I immediately realized I had miscalculated what I would need to protect it. Surprisingly, I felt unphased and simply climbed past it, running it out to the next bolt.

So easily conquering the only heady part of the lower five pitches boosted my confidence. I arrived at a no-hands rest below the crux of the second pitch, and mentally prepared myself to talk down my nerves. To my surprise, they never came.

It had been a long time since I’d climbed that pitch in the shade, and I was astonished at how much better the holds felt. I felt weightless as I cruised through the crux and arrived at my portaledge below the true crux pitch. I hadn’t wasted any energy, and felt completely fresh as I stared up at the holds that would make or break my attempt.

Soon Max and Zack joined me, helping me haul our bags up a separate rap line that went from there to the ground. I had forgotten the second microtraxion that I would have needed to do it myself, and had been forced to wait patiently for help to arrive (and bring me more clothing, as I was only wearing shorts to improve the kneebar on pitch 2).

Zack then jumared up the third pitch to take photos, as I laced up my climbing shoes and Max put me on belay. Do your best, forget about the rest, I told myself once there was no more beta to mentally rehearse. Conditions were perfect; the rock was just warm enough that I could still feel my fingers without a handwarmer, yet cold enough that I didn’t sweat. At the third bolt where the crux traverse begins, I swung my heel onto a triangular arete that resembles a gym volume, only for it to immediately slip off. There goes that, I thought for a brief second, but then it was quickly replaced with determination as I replaced the foot and rocked up into a three-finger quarter-pad undercling. The intentional breathing that I had practiced kicked in, as though it were telling my body what to do as much as my brain was.

Heel hook, angle the foot just so. Cross to the tiny crimp and bump to the better one. Breathe. Grab the glued hold and feel the most textured part on your pinky. Breathe. Release the heel. Breathe. Walk the feet. Breathe. Grab the undercling and breathe fast; quickly bump to the jug with one last powerful exhale.

It flowed so perfectly I didn’t know whether or not to even feel surprised. It felt like I had climbed to that point successfully a hundred times, instead of only once. I was barely even pumped and my heart rate was almost completely under control. All that remained now was not to fall at the roof; or that other hard move, or any of the easier ones…

[One of the only easy moves on the crux pitch]

After regaining the feeling in my cold fingers at a mediocre rest, I powered up to the base of the roof where an awkward ramp allows for a nearly full recovery before the final boulder problem. I had unlocked the secrets of the roof early on in the projecting process, but it’s still a ten-foot horizontal roof at the end of an overhanging pitch of 5.13+. I knew the key was patience. I needed to rest as long as I could, despite how good I felt and how close I was to the chains. I climbed the roof as perfectly as I had the lower crux and then I was at the chains letting out a cheer. First try, who would have ever thought?

[The Roof!]

Zack and I lowered back to the portaledge to rest, despite how psyched I was to keep climbing. I was still afraid of the slab and wanted to maximize the amount of time I had, in case it took multiple tries, but I still had to climb the very pumpy 12c pitch to even get there. Best to rest.

Max climbed up the crux pitch while I tried to be patient, cold starting to seep into my fingers. He continued up the fixed lines to work the slab pitches and eventually take photos, while I led behind with Zack once more on belay. We jugged up the crux and I tied in to lead the next pitch. Its crux comes early, with a pumpy traverse leading to a powerful move that eventually yields to more moderate climbing up the beautifully varnished vertical face. I cruised across the perfect edges and through the short boulder problem, less pumped than I had ever been on that pitch. It felt as though I couldn’t fall. Up and up until I was at the base of the slab, yet once more the nerves I had expected to feel were not there. It was only 3pm, so there was plenty of time. The slab wasn’t taxing, and I could climb the upper pitches in the dark if need be.

I got a tiny bit of cell phone service and texted Harrison. “So far, so good,” I said mysteriously, not wanting to jinx myself by preemptively spraying. His encouraging reply sent additional psyche flowing through my veins. I was ready.

Climbing the slab pitch felt magical. It was as though each pitch put me deeper and deeper into the flow state, until I was finally at the last hard moves, only they didn’t even feel hard. Then I was at the anchor in disbelief. There were still a few easy pitches to go, but I had had a nearly perfect day of rock climbing. I had not hesitated nor made a single mistake aside from one brief foot slip on the crux and now here I was. Max congratulated me at the anchor while Zack followed up the pitch. I felt as though a great weight had been lifted off my shoulders; the burden of this glorious purpose finally relieved.

Zack was psyched to continue with me, while Max opted to head back down and possibly climb on the lower cruxes some more.

I flew up the final three pitches, feeling as though I could have kept climbing forever if only the Buffalo Wall were twice as tall. The last few pitches have sparse gear and/or ancient ladders of rivets that half my quickdraws didn’t even fit through and looked like they would pull out of the wall if I tried, yet I felt fearless. I would not fall.

As I stood on the summit, I watched the city come alive as darkness fell over Las Vegas. It was not a new sight, yet I had never seen it this way before; views look different when you’ve climbed a mountain rather than just walked up the back side. I felt as though I finally understood why Harrison was so in love with this type of climbing: it was both the challenge and the reward, but more than that, it was the adventure.

[Crystal Dawn turns to Crystal Dusk over the city of Las Vegas]

When I started trying to climb Crystal Dawn three long months ago, I knew I had chosen the right mountain because standing at the base I knew I was not a good enough climber to gain the summit. I was not good enough then, but I am now, because in climbing the mountain it made me good enough. I had fought with everything I had to grow to meet the challenge, and now I was its equal. I now ‘had what it took to climb something like that.’

I had, in one last quote from ‘Beyond the Summit,’ “[looked] beyond the foothills in the foreground [to] see shining peaks on the horizon, impossible today, improbable in the near future, and remarkable in the end.”

2 thoughts on “The Crystal Dawn Wall

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