Posts by Brittany Goris

Short shorts, long pitches, and the pursuit of self improvement. Climber for La Sportiva, Forsake, Deuter, and Darn Tough. Welcome to the toroidal.

On The Run

“We’re on the run!” Wild eyed and grinning with adrenaline, N called to me out the window of his red Sienna minivan as we merged onto highway 211 leaving Creek Pasture. Snow flurries fell around our small caravan as we fled from the place all of us considered to be where we felt most at home. We were hoping to find somewhere safer to hide, not from the impending storm, but from the pandemic that had been sweeping the nation.

The Sheriff allowed us to camp one last night in Indian Creek before San Juan County was closed to non-residents. The setting felt apocalyptic as the snow flurries turned into a full-on blizzard outside J’s van where we had congregated. We passed around a bottle of whiskey, the burn of the alcohol helping to dull the anxiety that was reflected on every face. We had no idea where to go, but we took solace knowing at least we were in it together.

[Both the Literal and Metaphorical Storm Building in the Creek [Photo by Q.R.]

We were a misfit crew of crack loving van-dwellers, each of us with a different colored license plate and a different story to tell but one thing in common: none of us had anywhere better to go when we were told to “go home,” so we had come here. Home. Now we had just been told that we needed to leave. None of us begrudged the county for kicking us out; they were just doing their best to take care of themselves in hard times, same as us.

The next day we headed for the small and somewhat forgotten area of Dove Creek, just across the border in Colorado. We thought we would be the only people there and could isolate ourselves in peace, but that proved to be far from the case; everything went wrong immediately. Within twenty-four hours, first we got a van hopelessly stuck in the mud, and then we found ourselves at the wrath of a local who screamed at us for being where we didn’t belong. Wounded by the hostility and lack of compassion from a fellow climber, most of us including myself hung back and avoided the confrontation. A few well-spoken pacifists from the group rose to the occasion and managed to convince them that we weren’t a threat.

[Hopelessly stuck in the mud [Photo by J.S.]

Discouraged by the incident, the next day the group split as our opinions differed on what the responsible thing to do was. For half the group it made more sense to stay, since travelling increased the risks both to us and those we came in contact with. For the other half including myself, we felt there wasn’t enough climbing potential in the area to justify our presence, and so we decided to try again somewhere else. Watching the group break apart so soon planted a small seed of a different type of anxiety that would grow over time: that we would all inevitably disband and I would be left to face this now seemingly hostile world alone.

Four of us left the next day for North Wash, a place deep in the canyon country of Utah that is home to vast amounts of undeveloped or forgotten wingate splitters (aka Indian Creek style crack climbs) and two infrequently climbed yet mega classic hard lines: No Way José, and the Trail of Tears. If Butch Cassidy and the other outlaws from back in the days of the Wild Wild West could hide out there in the Robber’s Roost, surely we could find our own sort of refuge to live out our days in peace without being criticized nor posing a threat to anyone.

As I started driving towards the desert and re-entered cell phone service, I was upset to find the local from before had tracked down my email address and had contacted me. They had once again had a change of heart and insisted I leave, claiming that as a traveler I did not contribute to the local community and thus had no place there. It broke my heart to read those words, because giving back to the climbing community is the very thing I care about the most. First the Sheriff (who was only doing his job of course), and now this. For the second time in less than a week I was being told that I didn’t belong in a climbing area, the only place I’ve ever felt like I belonged. Not only that, but I apparently did not contribute to the community, despite it being a pursuit I have dedicated a tremendous amount of effort and passion towards for my entire adult life.

It wasn’t the first time I had received criticism for climbing recently. Just a few weeks prior I had visited a local crag in Sacramento while my van was being repaired, and logged an ascent on 8a.nu. The next day I received a mysterious text message from an unknown number discouraging me from recreating. Shortly after that I wrote an article for Climbing Magazine about the dirtbag’s dilemma living a transient lifestyle during these unprecedented times, hoping to garner some understanding and helpful solutions from the community. A fellow Washington climber replied to it with a comment that stuck with me in the months that would follow, saying that “Empathy is still relevant.” In times when the world needed it most, I was starting to experience less and less of it.

I began to think a lot about the way the climbing culture was changing amidst the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis. So much of my relationship with the sport is built around my interactions with the community, as an athlete, a traveler, and just a person who has never really felt like I fit in anywhere else. Now I felt completely alienated from it. Were I to mention climbing on social media I knew that everyone with a less mobile ‘home’ would be quick to criticize and wouldn’t understand my choices, or far worse, would think I was setting an example they should follow and would go out climbing in an irresponsible way that might get someone sick.

My thoughts wandered to the early days in Yosemite, as they often do when I’m looking for inspiration from the people I consider my greatest heroes. I frequently reflected on Dean Potter’s voiceover in the documentary Valley Uprising, when he claims he “Just wants to practice his art,” after clashing with hostile rangers. Climbing had been a counterculture pursuit back then. So many of the climbers I idolize from previous generations had to choose to be outcasts and even outlaws in order to follow their passions for climbing. In my generation however, it’s become the complete opposite. Climbing is so mainstream these days that I even got a role in a Facebook commercial this winter for being a climber. Now it felt like climbing itself was becoming counterculture once more, but this time it was not from the world at large, but from the climbing community itself. Apparently empathy wasn’t still relevant from all those who found it easier to criticize than try and understand, as I watched toxic fights break out on Mountain Project and in local climbing forums. I even heard rumors of vigilantes patrolling crags to shame anyone they saw out recreating.

Well over an hour from any services, and affording us the ability to avoid any and all human interaction, North Wash did provide the refuge we had been seeking, for a little while at least. The adventure was high in the wild Utah desert, with no trails or beta for almost everything we climbed. We quested up many a sandy splitter, never knowing if there would be an ancient tat (old webbing) anchor at the top or if we’d have to haul up the bolt kit and put in our own. If it didn’t have one already, we would give them names and carve plaques for future adventurers, the first of which I aptly called, “On the Run.” I learned how to hand drill, and perfected my cairn building skills. I also scrapped my way up first No Way José, my hardest sandstone crack to date at 5.13c, and later celebrated a team send with N on the two pitch Trail of Tears, a 5.13b. Aside from one other pair, our small group were the only climbers for likely hundreds of miles.

[Scrap doggin’ up No Way José in high winds [Photo by N.M.]

Before long however, the outside world started to catch up with us. The RVs camped at the official campgrounds began to decrease in number until they were eventually all gone. Signs started to appear that more and more areas around us were closed. One day a small aircraft flew over our camp with the word “Patrol” written on the underside of each wing, and then it circled back and flew over again. Someone knew we were here. It began to get hotter and hotter, and the long and steep approaches in full sun made even the walls with shade difficult to climb at. We all knew our time was up.

For the next few weeks we struggled to find where to go next. The cool spring temperatures had given way to scorching heat in the desert, yet the mountains remained too snowy for troublesome vans to tackle rough roads. We tested the waters in a number of places, but there was no shortage of trials wherever we went. Crowds, hostility, lack of psyche, conditions… wherever the next escape might be, it remained elusive. At the same time, life inevitably began pulling some of the last remaining members of our crew in different directions as we each looked for answers to the challenges of the troubled world in our own ways.

For several months, we had found a sense of security and a feeling of home in each other as a little dirtbag family, forming connections stronger than even the most bomber hand jam. Eventually though, as unavoidable as the changing of seasons, one by one we disbanded until I was finally and inevitably forced to face the thing I had been most afraid of: I was alone.

Spring had come to an end, but with it so had the worst of the hostile attitude towards climbing and thus my time feeling like I was on the run. I had been running not just from the pandemic and my own fears of facing it by myself, but also from my identity within the sport of climbing itself. As the taboo on climbing finally eased, instead of driving west towards Washington, where I had originally planned on spending my summer working and climbing, I pointed my van in the opposite direction towards Wyoming.

Over time, all the moving and hiding had taken its toll on my psyche, since every time I began to get excited about a climb or a place, I would end up leaving. I hadn’t felt like my climbing had had a purpose in too long, but I had high hopes that I would find it once more on the dolomite pockets of Lander or Tensleep, the alpine spires of the Winds, or the granite cracks of Vedauwoo. One of my biggest idols Todd Skinner had declared Wild Iris the place he had traveled the world searching for, after all. I was looking for my own set of answers to life’s greater questions, and knew it was time to find myself again through climbing. The world was and continues to be changing, but I have to believe there will always be a place for climbing in it.

The Desert Has Made Me: Stingray

Stingray and a season in Joshua Tree. Because the climb was more than just the climb, it was everything that happened in between burns.

“Index isn’t known for splitters (perfect cracks). That’s okay, because I’m not much known for climbing splitters in the first place.” Almost two years ago I wrote these words in a blog post describing my ascent of City Park in Index, Washington, the iconic 5.13+ crack climb first redpointed by Todd Skinner in 1986. At the time I was a lost sport climber who decided to dive headfirst into the world of hard trad, in an attempt to solve a lack of direction that had been plaguing me for months. It caught most who knew me and my climbing by surprise because I’d barely climbed a handful of 5.12s on gear, and then all of a sudden I had redpointed the hardest trad line in the state.

The months that followed City Park changed my life completely. That climb showed me how much potential there was for me in the world of trad, but in order to see how far I could go I knew I would have to leave Washington, my home for the past decade. I moved into my car and hit the road that fall, touring North America in search of inspiration, adventure, and growth. I balanced my destinations and agendas evenly between sport climbing and trad at first, but as time went on I found myself gravitating more and more towards gear climbs as I fell in love with Indian Creek, Squamish, and of course Index. My love of finger cracks quickly grew as well to soon be a love of cracks of all sizes, from tiny pin-scarred seams to gruelingly wide offwidths and everything in between. By the end of 2019 it was hard to imagine a time when I ever would have said “I’m not much known for climbing splitters,” because now it was the thing I did best of all. 

My identity as a denizen of the deep forests, granite mountains, and endless rain of the Pacific Northwest changed over time as well, as I began to consider the desert as much my home as the northern swamps. When I say desert however, I mostly just mean the sandstone of the southwest. I had yet to put in my time anywhere else.

Thanksgiving of last year found me in Indian Creek, bringing with it an early end to the season as multiple snow storms soaked the fragile sandstone and dropped temperatures below what even the most insulated van-dweller would want to endure. More psyched on crack climbing than ever before, I made a last minute decision to head west to California instead of south to Mexico, where I had found refuge from the winter months for the previous two years. Lured by the promise of better weather, wild New Years parties, and a five star hang, I plotted a course for Joshua Tree.

I had visited Joshua Tree once before in April of 2015, just a few months before City Park. I was only passing through for a few days, during which the only thing I sent was the 5.5 free solo, the Aiguille de Joshua Tree (aka the Finger of Hercules), and I might have followed a 5.10 or two. I got completely shut down by every single other thing I tried. From 5.11 hand cracks to 5.12- sport climbs, it all seemed ludicrously sandbagged, sharp, crumby, and absolutely butt puckering. I had a hard time imagining that anyone actually climbed hard here other than Bachar himself.

After that experience, the prospect of returning to Joshua Tree was a daunting one, but I had done a lot of growing since then and was less afraid of having my ego checked as I had once been. It wasn’t the only thing that had changed in my mindset about climbing. Another gift that City Park had given me was a deep obsession with climbing’s history during the era of Todd Skinner, Alan Watts, and the other stone masters that were responsible for transforming trad climbing into what it is today. During their dirtbag days, Joshua Tree was where everyone on the OG circuit went for the winter. Now that I was living in my car and climbing full time like they did, I wanted to follow their footsteps into a new type of desert and work on my own “razor hone,” as Skinner called it.

Todd Skinner and Beth Wald in Joshua Tree in ’85 [Photo by Jeff Smoot]

I arrived in Joshua Tree alone, having failed to coordinate with any of my friends who were headed that way. I also had no guidebook, there was no cell phone service, and for some reason Mountain Project had deleted the state of California from my phone, so as the sun rose on my first day in the park I was pretty directionless. I knew the climbing rangers put out free coffee in the campground on weekends, so I figured it was as good a place as any to try and get my bearings. As I started talking to people, I overheard two guys, Prith and Greg, discussing plans to go to the classic 5.12+ finger crack called Equinox that day. My winter ticklist for J Tree contained exactly four climbs: the four most splitter and/or classic hard cracks in the park. That just so happened to be the easiest one on it. For lack of a better plan, I invited myself along. Might as well dive in headfirst.   

Now that I had become a pretty decent crack climber, I figured even sandbagged at 5.12c it couldn’t be that bad, could it? Yes, turns out it could, as I got a healthy spanking that day. Despite having climbed on granite for the better part of the year, it felt like my first time all over again because the grain was so vastly different then that of the northwest. I couldn’t read the rock at all, and even the most straightforward jams felt counter intuitive and off balance. It didn’t help that the winds were blowing so fiercely I could barely keep my balance on the small crystal feet. Perhaps my goals for the season here were a bit ambitious, I couldn’t help but speculate. I’d wanted to tick off first Equinox, then Acid Crack and Asteroid Crack, and then maybe, just maybe take a crack at The Stingray.

While the climbing didn’t play out how I’d hoped, the hang seemed to hold potential; my new crew was strong, psyched, and most importantly: hilarious, bizarre, and incredibly fun. We quickly went from strangers to friends and regular partners, as Season One of “The Greg and Prith Show Featuring Brittany” began. I met more of the locals early on, with new friends Josh, Ezra, Eric, and others introducing me to the unique flavor of weird that is the SoCal climbing scene.

We returned to Equinox, and I managed to fall from the top a few times before finishing it at the end of the second day. Greg, Eric, and Josh were trying it too, but Prith had already climbed it along with most of the other things I was interested in doing. He had even given Stingray an attempt the year before. Regardless, he never complained about waiting for the rest of us to catch up or spending his rest days in full support mode. This detail was not lost on me, but I had no idea just how critical of a role it would play in my season to come.

Equinox [Photo by Tyler Meester]

Asteroid Crack came next, and Acid Crack went down shortly after, as I started to get the hang of the peculiar style that is Joshua Tree climbing. With three of the four done, that just left Stingray. I hiked out to look at it by myself, overflowing with anticipation as I wandered the washes and rock piles of the Wonderland with a singular thought in my mind: Could this be the next project like City Park?

I wanted a real project. I wanted a climb so special it felt like I was in a relationship with it. A climb so beautiful I fell in love. A climb so challenging I would willingly make sacrifices for progress. A climb so inspiring that I would be willing to do whatever it took, for as long as it took, to break through and send. A climb so proud it would teach me new things and show me how to grow as a person. The kind of climb that takes you on a journey. The kind of climb that changes your life.

There haven’t been many. Fight Club was my first. It lit a fire in me for projecting that I hadn’t known existed. City Park had been the most powerful, because it so daringly toed the line between a realistic goal and simply a fantasy. That had been almost two years ago; a fact that had been nagging at me more and more recently as my 27th birthday crept up at the end of the month. Was that the peak? My quarter life crisis voice likes to whisper when my guard is down. It had been too long, and I wanted to ride the roller coaster again. I was hungry for something big.

Stingray from a distance

When I first saw it my jaw fell open. Perched high atop a slab and arcing to the very top of the Iguana Dome, the incredibly thin and wildly steep Stingray towered over the boulder strewn wash below. A singular weakness in the otherwise unclimbable overhanging face, it was the second most impressive crack I’d ever laid eyes upon, after the Cobra itself. “I think you can do it!” a recent message from my friend Jared, who had tried it the previous season, flashed in my mind. What if I could? I knew I absolutely had to try.

Prith, my friend Charlie, and I quested out to Stingray for the first time on December 21st, just a few days before Christmas. We knew true project mode wouldn’t begin until the new year, but we had to start somewhere. With a goal so close to my limit, I broke it down in my mind into realistic goals that I would tackle one at a time. Prith and Charlie chatted about the idea of placing gear on lead, but I tuned them out and focused on the moves. The only gear that mattered right now were our directionals for top roping. Everything else would come much, much later. I did all the moves on the first day and managed to avoid ripping any terrible gobis. It was a very promising start, and Prith was committed to projecting it with me.

Around that time the scene began to shift into holiday mode, and I decided to give my agenda some room to breathe as I celebrated Christmas in the Park in the strangest possible way: as part of what we called “The Bunny Cult.” The day after that brought with it over a foot of snow, no thanks to a spell allegedly cast by Eric. The road became crusted in ice, trapping everyone’s vans in Hidden Valley. There was too much snow to scale the formations that provided a weak cell phone signal, absolutely everything was too wet to climb, and with sundown at 4pm, the days were too short to provide enough sun to really melt any of it. Thus, damp became the new dry as we sat in Josh’s and my vans for three days straight.

The Bunny Cult in the Space Station on Christmas Day. From L to R: Sarah, me, Tony, Pim, and Cedar [Photo by Tony Archie Kim]

New Years brought with it debauchery on levels I never could have imagined, but by the time it wrapped up I was ready to take myself seriously again. I was ready for the deep dive into Stingray’s world. The mental transition was easy, but physically it was apparent in my climbing that I had not been in performance mode in quite some time.

After only climbing outside for the past year and a half, I’ve learned that training on the road is a lonely pursuit, especially in the middle of winter. At the end of a gym session it’s easy, but by the time the outdoor climbing day is over it’s dark, you’ve already cooled down, and no one wants to put off dinner or leave the fire to go punish themselves on a hangboard or the rings. No one, that is, except for Prith and Greg.  

On only our second day climbing together back in December I watched the pair of them assemble a homemade metal tripod they had built for holding a hangboard, and proceed to work out until long after the sun had set. They would train before every rest day, and motivated by their contagious drive, so would I.

Prith and Greg hitting the hangboard

As January progressed, Prith and I trained and chipped away at Stingray together, lost in our masochistic pursuit as the rest of the Joshua Tree scene moved around us. We were sometimes joined by Josh, Charlie, or local crusher Fan, but most of the time we were alone. On our walks to and from the climb, Prith filled my head with stories and dreams of Yosemite, and I in turn spun tales of Index and Squamish.

Josh and Prith on one of countless walks to Stingray

We came from very different backgrounds. He was 23, and I had just turned 27. He is 5’5”, to my 5’11”. His index fingers are the length and width of my pinkies. He had never projected anything seriously before, while I was on a quest to lose myself in a process I knew intimately. Where he needed to discover new ways to approach climbing, I had to unlearn old ones to quiet my ego and allow the learning process to unfold. We brought completely different sets of strengths and weaknesses to the project in every way, which gave us both an incredible opportunity to learn from each other.

We top roped the climb for four and a half days, at which point my best go was a two-hang, and he had done it clean. At first we’d thought we had to just quickly power through the moves in the steep crux, but it later became apparent that each hold needed an intimate knowledge of where each finger would settle to ensure we got the following jam right. Any mistake would disrupt the sequence and result in a fall.  

We worked out the gear, which was a Frankenstein mix of Prith’s cams, Josh’s, and my own, since most of the pieces needed were the same size (yellow alien/Metolius) to fit in the small pin scars. There is only one cam placed for the entire crux, a 0.3 that we would put in our mouth while resting on a ledge 15 feet off the ground, do four or five jams, place it, and then gun it another fifteen feet to the next lock decent enough to pause for even a second to place again. Seven cams in total, with only four left after the crux. After all the wear and tear, not to mention multiple upside-down whippers that both of us took, several of the cams barely worked by the end.  

About to place the 0.3 [Photo by Hobo Greg]

We started leading it early on, because once we had sorted out the beta we theorized that we would only have to make it through the low crux once without falling, and would be so psyched we would refuse to fail on the pumpy yet delicate laybacking at the top. With a fixed line on the anchors, if a fall down low were to happen, we would transfer over, clean the gear, and lower to the ground for another attempt. Most of the time we wouldn’t even finish the crux, in favor of saving skin and energy for another actual redpoint go.

Prith climbed with his fingers mostly bare, whereas I adhered to a strict regimen of superglue and EuroTape that I would often redo between every other attempt.  Even a single go without it, and I would open the sides of my fingers into gobies. Sometimes I still would, even through the dressings. Prith mostly managed to avoid the carnage somehow. The difference possibly came from how we held the holds—with our dramatically different finger sizes, most of Prith’s locks were weighting the index fingers, with the pinky on top. For me, I only went thumb down on six jams on the entire route, three on each hand. The rest were all just cranking off my pinkies. Where the crack size may have been better suited for Prith’s small fingers than my own, I held the advantage when it came to the footwork. The crux is characterized by a short section with absolutely no footholds, with only the overhanging crack to attempt to toe in on. While I had to campus one move in that section, Prith had to essentially do several back to back one-armed campus moves to get through it. He would have to leave the last decent foot much sooner than me, as I stretched my 6’2” wingspan to its max to milk the ledge for all it was worth. To make matters worse, his shoes were desperately blown out.

Beginning my glue/tape routine… [Photo by Hobo Greg]
…so this won’t happen

Once we started to feel closer to sending, another one of the differences we experienced were the conditions. Over several weeks of trying it, I began to notice a direct correlation between the temperature and wind speeds, and my performance. The climb is in the shade the entire day, and while it may be calm on the ground, by the time you ascend the slab to the base even the lightest wind would feel bone-chilling, numbing my fingers before I could even start climbing. By the top of the route where it is most exposed the gusts would sometimes feel apocalyptic. My catch phrase of “I’m numbing out” went from a joke, to a nuisance, to my biggest limiting factor. On the cold days, which were most of the days, I just couldn’t relax enough to bring my full strength, and I couldn’t feel my hands well enough to get the locks correctly. It didn’t seem to limit Prith as much, aside from a bit less friction on the warmer days.

For weeks Prith and I traded leaps in our progress, taking turns feeling like we would be the one who would get it first. We had many long talks about our shared competitiveness, and how we were both at least partially ego-driven, and what that meant when we were sharing a project. We bonded over our shared fear of being left behind: if one were to send and move on while the other got stuck and still needed support. We agreed that the only option was to send on the same day.

Towards the end of January however, Prith pulled ahead. He unlocked something important; some sort of acceptance of how bad the feet were that he had to use in the crux. As soon as he committed to simply campusing and scrapping his way through it, suddenly he was gunning for the summit one day. Seeing as how it was the first time either of us had broken through that barrier, in that moment I was sure he was about to send. I was equally sure that I was nowhere close to it being my day too. You have to be peace with this, I told my competitive self as he neared the chains, and somehow I actually was. I was, up until the moment that his feet skated off the microscopic crystals at the top and I found my grigri arresting his fall.

The moment of glory suddenly turned to one of distress, as Prith announced that he had felt a pop in his ankle doing one of the jams. He was in too much pain to even get to the summit. There would be no more attempts by him that day. He commented that it hadn’t been meant to be, because we had to send on the same day.

Back at camp Prith trained like a fiend, resting his ankle and hangboarding, sitting in complete silence around the fire because his mind was consumed with rehearsing the moves over and over again to give himself every possible chance of success. It was harder for me to lose myself in the obsession to the same extent, because I still didn’t feel close at all.

With the ankle on the mend, we returned after a handful of rest days to give it another go. He appeared to be done falling at the crux, making it closer and closer to the chains on two impressive attempts that day. Meanwhile I was still stuck at the bottom, falling lower and lower as the cold temperatures shut me down. It was clearly only a matter of time for Prith, but his feet continued to slip as his toes all but poked through the ends of his thrice-resoled, blown out shoes. I had been urging him to invest in a new pair, and was sure he would send with ease the moment he did. After falling at the top three times, he decided it would be worth it.

On Saturday, January 25th, we returned to The Stingray with fresh skin and fresher rubber. Prith was brimming with excitement to see how well his feet would stick. Instead he suddenly was stuck at the low crux again, as I found myself getting higher than ever before. It was only the second day we had been on the climb where the daytime high was over sixty degrees, and I felt amazing. In the end I still wasn’t there, and Prith was, and on the third try of the day he finally clipped the chains. He sat in silence on the top for several minutes, before finally descending.

Our hike back to camp was quiet. I grappled with mixed emotions. My partner had just sent the hardest route of his life, and I was ecstatic for his accomplishment. At the same time, I was crushed that we had not done it together. So far this whole journey had been one we went through together, and now I was on it alone. I said as much out loud, and Prith replied that he would keep coming back with me. I told him how badly I wanted him to be there when it happened, how I still wanted it to be our journey together, and he affirmed that he felt the same way. Neither of us dared to put a time constraint on it, probably because he believed I only needed another day or two, and because I was too afraid of the opposite: that I was nowhere close.

Two days of attempts after that it was finally warm again, and I at last found a way to stop falling off the move to what we called “the crux lock”. We had assigned a name to each of the jams after the 0.3 for reference. First was “the rattly lock,” where the right hand had to twist painfully to gain purchase. Next came “the tooth hold,” a left hand named after a small tooth-looking feature that formed the base of the constriction. After that was “the bloody hold,” because of an identifying blood smear from the very first day. Then came “the scar hold,” a jam next to a small rock scar, followed by “the crux lock,” which signified the hardest move in the crux. “The pinch lock” was last, requiring a desperate bump to get to, and signaling the end of the crux because after that you grab the pinch, get your feet onto something real, and finally relax just a little.

The beta

By the end of that day I was now falling off the bump to the pinch lock; as close as I could get to finishing the crux and still fail. I lowered down from my fourth try, and recklessly decided to give a last hail Mary “anger burn,” which meant pulling the rope and going again immediately without resting. Somehow I finally got through the crux for the first time. Too tired from the day’s efforts, I fell pulling out of the rest at the top. For the first time, I actually felt that I was close.

For Prith, endurance had been an issue on The Stingray, a challenge he tackled with relentless laps on the Gunsmoke Traverse until it no longer held him back. Endurance wasn’t my crux, and I was filled with fear that I wouldn’t be able to get through the hard moves down low again far more than I worried about coming off the top. Rest days were stress days, especially when I saw that the weather was about to take a dramatic turn for the worse. It looked like Eric might have cast another spell, because temperatures went from 67 and calm one day, to 40 with 30mph winds the next. If I didn’t get it in my next session, it would be at least a week until I could try again.

The next day on Stingray was the hottest day yet, and I felt amazing as I top roped the upper half of the climb as a warm-up. Everything felt like it had lined up perfectly. On my second go of the day, I found myself smoothly repeating the crux, not even pumped as I slotted my fingers into the jams leading up to the final rest. I floated higher than my previous high point, placing each hand and foot with perfect precision until I was in the final left hand fingerlock; a jam so good you could cut all three other limbs and still probably not fall. I fell.

The week of rest after that was good, because at this point I had started to notice a concerning swelling in my right index finger. It had ballooned to larger than my thumb, after repeated falls out of the “crux lock,” where almost my entire body weight hangs off that finger alone.

“El Gigante,” aka my swollen finger

It was February now. We had been in Joshua Tree for a long time. It had started to feel like too long. Eric had left to find a job and some stoke, Ezra had gone back to school, Josh was about to spend a few weeks in Bishop, Greg had bought a ticket to Europe, and no matter how much he loved the park, even Prith was clearly ready to move on. I was too, but after how close I had gotten, I couldn’t leave without finishing Stingray. Not after how many tries it had taken me to learn exactly how to do each move perfectly enough to have a real shot, which was in the dozens.

All the pressure and nerves I had successfully quelled before had crept back in en masse, as I worried about partners, my still swollen finger, and another impending week of bad weather. I was faced with a potential reality where I ended my Joshua Tree season having fallen off the very last move and never sending. I had been reading my friend Steven’s blog, The Daily Nugget, for wisdom and perspective that week, and ruminated on one of the articles as I attempted to calm my frantic mind during a light jog. It was titled, “What Will You Regret?

Will you regret not taking a risk to pursue your dream?

Will you regret having tried if it doesn’t work out?

I thought and thought and thought about my experience in Joshua Tree. I knew without a doubt that whatever happened, sink or swim, I would leave with no regrets. I had done my absolute best on and for this route, of that I was certain. I had given myself every possible chance at success. The time I put into it was not wasted if I didn’t send. I had made it possible for Prith, by supporting him through the process. We had both learned so much from the route and from each other. We had even started talking about doing a wall together this spring, because we worked so well as climbing partners. I found acceptance in that the entire experience did not derive its meaning solely from the outcome.

Regardless of my mental peace, fucking hell, I really wanted to send that friggin’ rock climb.

Completely aside from the climb, I had made such deep connections in J Tree, both with the park and with the people I had befriended here. As I ran through the yuccas, piles, and namesake flora of the park, I reflected on how much this place had given me, always in ways I would have never expected. My time here had been a profound chapter in my life, and I was filled with gratitude. I thought about how many times Prith had taken rest days to go back to Stingray with me after having sent, never once with anything less than the upmost enthusiasm. No one else ever gave me a lead belay on the route. I thought about how many times Josh had jugged the static line, dedicated to capturing aerial send footage. He only had a few days off from work each week, and had given so many of them away to be behind the lens rather than doing his own climbing. I thought of how much everyone I had met here taught me about what it meant to be a partner or a friend, a good person, and even sometimes a trash person (we had some very high quality dumpster dives, and had been otherwise mostly living off expired protein cookies that had been on sale at 8 for $1 at Grocery Outlet). I wanted to send this route for them, as my own way of attempting to return the favor.

February 7th marked my next day on The Stingray after the week off. Greg joined Prith, Josh, and I as we trekked into the desert; an entourage ready for the next and hopefully last battle. I scrambled to the summit of the Iguana Dome to set up my usual top rope warm-up, and felt the chill of winds much higher than predicted on top. My fingers felt strangely slippery in the locks, and when Prith asked me how I felt afterward, the honest truth was ‘not my best.’

Nonetheless, I powered through the crux on the first try shortly after. I slipped off one of the last truly difficult moves at the top when flash pump set in, having apparently not warmed up quite enough. Things were looking promising. After losing badly to Greg at a game of Cribbage, I gave two more attempts and didn’t get through the low crux again on either one. Things were no longer looking promising. As I rested another hour for one last round of attempts, Josh and I took turns failing at juggling in the shade at the base of the route. “Juggling is harder than Stingray,” he declared, and I couldn’t help but agree, but Stingray was still feeling pretty damn hard too. It kept me warm, without draining my energy the way our long rests in the sun often did.

Prith and I playing one of many Cribbage games in the sun between burns on Stingray [Photo by Hobo Greg]

It’s hard to imagine a crack climb being low percentage, but Stingray always felt like it to me. Despite my best efforts, every attempt felt at least a little like a roll of the dice. Even after almost fifty attempts and weeks of getting to know each granite crystal in every lock, I still needed a bit of luck to get everything just right. As I stood on the ground preparing for my fourth attempt of the day, I tried to tell myself I would not fall during the low crux the way I’ve been able to in decisive moments on hard climbs in the past. My swollen index finger ached despite the higher-than-recommended dose of Ibuprofin I had taken, but I knew I couldn’t hold back to try and protect it, which had caused my mistakes on the previous two burns. Through the crux and back at the final rest, and again I tried to tell myself, I’m done falling on the next move. I had done these moves dozens of times, there should be no reason to fall anymore.

I had pictured what it would be like to clip those chains so many times that I was crying before I even grabbed the final jug.

“I’m free!” I yelled over and over again. I could finally let my mind and body rest. My finger desperately needed it.

I could finally celebrate Prith’s send. I could finally celebrate my own. It was a team effort until the very end.

I could finally work on other climbs or go to other places.

Finally. [Photo by Josh Holt]

The next day was my last in J Tree. What was once a wild and rowdy five star hang in Hidden Valley had dwindled down to a bare bones (or friggin’ bonies) crew of a few close friends camping in the lakebed. Just a small cluster of vans huddled together in the desert that had made us. Made us students, made us mentors, made us dreamers, and made us friends. Still a five star hang, but we all knew our time here was up. We packed up our belongings and said our goodbyes to the park and to each other. With an “I have to poop tremendously,” Josh drove in one direction to LA, and Prith, Greg and I the other. The next day Greg left for Sacramento. I now write this from Prith’s parent’s house, where we are attempting to rest, because the next big thing is just around the corner waiting for us in Yosemite.  

Was it the next City Park? No. It was the first Stingray.

Team Send. [Photo by Josh Holt]

Closer to the Skin

The Life of a Hand Jammie

“Closer to the skin is better,” my friend Nick teased on more than one occasion as I strapped on my rubber Ocun hand jammies (protective and grip enhancing crack climbing gloves) for another perfect Indian Creek splitter. Each time I would laugh, roll my eyes, and insist that I agreed, but needed to protect the healing gobis on the backs of my hands from earlier that season. I would stop wearing them soon, just not today.

Hand jammies have always been on the casual end of controversy in the crack climbing world, and even my own have been the source of personal drama from the moment I bought them. It was in Squamish in the spring of 2018, a year and a half ago, and I was still relatively new to both the area and to trad climbing itself. I bought myself a pair of jammies, planning to climb the ultra classic 5.11- #2 splitter on High Plains Drifter the following day. I whipped all over that pitch, partially because I didn’t know how to hand jam, but in my mind at the time it was mostly because the jammies were too small and they made me pumped out of my mind. I tried to take them back to Climb On! (the local gear store) only to be told that they had a no-returns policy on climbing gear. In frustration, I rudely snapped at the sales associate and stormed out of the shop. I regretted my childish behavior immediately and almost turned around and apologized, but I was still too worked up, or maybe just too proud, and so I drove away instead.

That fall I found myself not only back in Squamish, but frequently in the company of a large number of the staff from Climb On! The more we became friends, the more I couldn’t stop wondering if any of them remembered me from my shameful visit in the spring. I brought it up one night to my friend Cody, only to have my worst fears confirmed– it had been him, and my actions had not been forgotten, although until that moment my identity had. Now the cards were all on the table as I revealed myself to be the kind of person who is rude to people working in customer service. We laughed it off in the end, and have since traveled the world together as the closest of friends.

I returned to Squamish this past spring, a year after my jammies first found their way onto my trad rack. I had improved a lot since the previous season, and decided it was time for a rematch with High Plains Drifter. The first time I approached it via Borderline, a classic multipitch established by one of my closest friends from Seattle, Eric. It had been a bit of a micro epic, as we ran out of food and water halfway through the day, and took ages to find the manky fixed line hidden in the trees that leads to the base of the crack. This time I rappelled into High Plains instead, because I was already on top of the chief having sent North Star earlier that day (an experience chronicled in another post here). This time the 5.11- hand crack didn’t feel all that hard compared to my first attempt the previous spring, but I still wore those jammies.

The “drifter” move on the second pitch of High Plains Drifter (not the splitter)
[Photo by Tara Kerzhner]

As I got better at trad climbing over the summer and into the fall, I started using my jammies while crack climbing less and less. They seemed necessary in fewer and fewer situations, though still useful from time to time. Instead, somehow, I started using them more and more whilst sport climbing, because I started finding hand jams on routes that I would have missed back when I only clipped bolts. During my fall season in the limestone caves of Horne Lake, I found a crucial hand jam on every sport route I climbed. The rock was so sharp it would have been an exercise in masochism not to wear some kind of protection, but even using a properly fitting pair of jammies (that ironically belonged to Cody, the friend I had first tried to return my pair to) added enough extra pump that I mastered the art of putting them on right before the crux mid climb.

Putting on a jammie with my teeth at Horne Lake this October
[Photo by Cody Abercrombie]

My Horne Lake season ended abruptly with a knee injury that caused me to shift my focus back to trad, since I thought it would be less strenuous on my meniscus as it healed. I headed to Indian Creek, not knowing what I would want to climb, how long I would stay, or if I would even be psyched. I had been pretty burned out on plugging gear by the end of the summer, and truth be told I had been struggling to really feel much of anything about anything at all since the distressing events surrounding my car getting stolen in August (separate post about it here).

Luckily the desert medicine kicked in almost immediately, and within the first 24 hours my grey world was finally on fire again with the bright red sand of desert crack climbing. It took a few weeks to feel strong again, as I transitioned from limestone cave climbing and taking time off for my knee (neither of which really prepare you for Creek season), but I was so psyched on every moment nonetheless, from group stretching and erotic planking in the morning, to easy warm up pitches, mileage pitches and project pitches, to wax box burning and naked dancing the long nights away.

Justin planking to erotica read by Jeff
[Photo by Shawn Cope]

The day after Halloween I stumbled my way up to Broken Tooth with friends Matt and Justin, so hungover that it wasn’t until I was at the crag before I realized I still had my sleep mask around my neck. With every pitch I felt a bit better, eventually feeling well enough to rack up for a 5.12- called Unbelievable. I put my jammies on, despite the teasing of the seasoned Creek vets that I was climbing with, and started up the pitch. I climbed about 15 feet up, placed a #2 and attempted to continue up, only to discover that my jammie had somehow become clipped to the cam, trapping me in place. The more I struggled to free myself the more comically fucked the situation became, as I got the rope wrapped around my wrist and started to laugh so hard I could barely hold on (not wanting to take and blow my onsight). That was what I got for wearing jammies.

I can never keep myself away from wanting to try hard for long, and soon after that I was throwing myself at projects left and right. Most hard cracks in the Creek are fingers or off fingers, so hand jammies are rarely necessary by the time you hit the 5.13 range, but I continued to don them whenever I ventured up a crack that looked like my hand might fit inside, and I continued to get teased for wearing them by more experienced climbers.

After watching two friends send the Optimator, the overhanging .75 and .5s crack namesake of its crag, I felt inspired to give it a try despite knowing it would be a very challenging size in which I had little previous experience. After a tradition of body shots following sends of the difficult climb, my friends hedged bets about what they would do if I flashed it, including promises of several handles of liquor of my choice. The one condition was that it didn’t count if I wore hand jammies. Also if I wore them I could only take 12d for it, they joked.

I definitely did not flash the Optimator, not even close though I sure gave ‘er the beans. I returned several days later, and after a bit of deliberation, decided I cared more about sending than what anyone thought. Jammies don’t make the cruxy bits any easier, in fact they probably make it slightly harder because the restriction of circulation increases pump, but they would enable me to rest much longer in several places where otherwise sharp rock would limit the amount of time I could tolerate the hand jam rests. I like to think that the better I get at crack climbing the less I wear my good old jammies, but they were sure nice that day.

Sending the Optimator wearing my trusty jammies
[Photo by Shawn Cope]

Creek season ended abruptly, and together my jammies and I raced bad weather all the way to Red Rocks. I hadn’t been ready to leave Bear’s Ears for the winter yet and continued to pine after the Utah desert, so I made a Vegas tick list of the most splitter cracks, or single crack that would be in season after so much rain and cold. I set my sights on Desert Gold, hoping to tick it off as my 100th route of 5.13 or harder, and ventured out with my good friend Drew.

After aiding up the crack to figure out the sequence at first, I launched up it for a redpoint attempt. I successfully scrapped my way through the crux, and went to throw for a tight hand jam just below the roof, only to discover that my jammie had torn, and now hung loosely from my hand like a flag blowing in the wind. Every time I tried to shove my hand into the crack, the fabric caught and prevented me from sticking the move. I quickly pumped out and fell, cursing my luck. I taped it back together and fired the route next go for a proud number 100, only to have my jammie rip again when I degloved back on the ground. After so many adventures together, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was a sign that I should finally retire them.

Posing at the lip of Desert Gold
[Photo by Drew Marshall]

Psyche! Time to go buy a pair that fits properly! 😉

Loss, Recovery, and Doritos

“I try really hard to realize it when it’s amazing, and even when it’s not.” Driving south from Squamish I listened to those words from my favorite climbing video, ’35,’ as I had many, many times before. It was Thursday, July 25th 2019. I needed to be in Seattle, but I didn’t want to be; the frequent status quo of my summer. I’d been able to get away with limiting my time in the city for the most part over the course of the previous three months, but this and that obligation called me back week after week. Sometimes I would stay for a few days, sometimes just a night, occasionally not even that. Always the bare minimum so I could get back to Squamish as quickly as possible. Those long hours in the car gave me a lot of time to reflect and be grateful for all the memorable moments I’d had lately, and that day I was feeling particularly sentimental for my beautiful life of climbing and CR-V living. It had been a lot of amazing lately, and I was sure realizing it.   

All of my previous city missions had been work related, but this one was different. I had promised a friend I would give a presentation at one of the local gyms several months before, not realizing how much I would come to regret that decision. I genuinely like public speaking, but in the days leading up to the event I held doubts that anyone would really care what I had to say. The gym had promised me that all I had to worry about was the slideshow; they would handle the attendance and marketing. Thus, I showed up expecting at least enough numbers to justify having driven all the way from Squamish. Blame the sunny weather, or the topic I had chosen, or the advertising, or that people would just rather be climbing, but next to no one came.

Naturally I was upset, frustrated, and more than a little embarrassed. Not only had I physically and financially gone pretty far out of my way for this, I had put myself out there, let myself be publicly vulnerable, and it had not paid off. Sometimes it’s amazing, and sometimes it’s not. I was ready to write it off as a loss and move on, but in order to at least justify the cost of the drive I returned to work for a few hours that night at my company’s nearby office in the International District.

It was around 8:20pm, so street parking was free for the night which allowed me to park about a block from my work. I stayed there for about an hour and a half, taking advantage of having the office to myself and having found a bit of leftover wine in the fridge to wash away the lingering negativity I felt about the night. As the hour grew late I started to feel more and more uncomfortable about being parked in that part of town, so I decided to call it a night before too long. I almost never drive to work for fear of something happening to my car or my belongings, but I had come straight from Squamish that day, so it seemed like it made sense.

I left the office close to 10:00pm with the remains of the bottle of wine in one hand and a tub of hummus I had also claimed from the fridge in the other. I thought I knew where I had parked. In fact I was almost certain, but my car was not where I had left it. I began to panic almost immediately, but I tried to reassure myself by remembering other times that I had feared the worst and just been mistaken about my car’s location. I circled the block, and then a different one, and then the first one two or three more times, feeling the world begin to spin around me.

I threw the wine into a bush, but clutched the hummus even tighter. I stumbled into the middle of the street to see better, walking right into traffic and not caring. I asked a janitor if he had seen anything. I called Eric and he said he would come get me, but I felt disconnected. There was no way this was real. I called the police; they were coming too. I circled the block again, and then one more time, not knowing what else to do with myself. Fear consumed me.

Eric arrived and tried to offer comfort as I finally accepted the truth: it was gone. My car, containing everything important that I owned, where I live full time, had been stolen. I was in real trouble this time. One of my worst nightmares was a reality. My world came crashing down around me.

Back at his house, Eric and I stayed up late drinking and talking in low voices. I told him I had only cried myself to sleep thrice in my life, expecting that night to be the fourth. The third had been the first few nights after I left Mexico the first time. He had been there for the second, when I had been uninvited from a climbing trip by someone I had considered a close friend. The first had been after watching a sad anime as a teenager.

That night as I lay awake, I couldn’t stop my anxious mind from playing out every worst case scenario I could imagine. I could be losing not only everything I owned, but my entire identity. In my car was not only my wallet and laptop, but my birth certificate, social security card, passport, title and registration for my car, the same plus license plates for my van, even my college diploma. Everything. The greatest sense of loss I felt however, was for the time it would take to come back from this. After all, time is one of the only things money can’t replace. That summer in Squamish had been some of the happiest times of my life and I had worked so hard for it. Now I didn’t even know if I would be able to get across the border again. In losing my car, my freedom was also stolen. The ability to choose how to live my life was no longer mine. I felt helpless. With a heavy heart I texted my friends in Canada that they might not see me for a while.

The next day I decided to go into work instead of simply staring at my phone, waiting for a call from the police that might never come. My bike had also been stolen earlier this year, but Eric had a spare that I took downtown with the intention of riding around searching for my car, just in case. My credit card had been used that morning at a 7-11 nearby, so I knew the thieves hadn’t gone too far.

There had been a day a few months ago when a cop had talked to me on the street where I was parked that came to mind. He had asked me if I worked in the area, to which I replied yes, though only as of recently. My company’s office had just moved. He usually recognized all the cars he saw parked on that block, and mine was an outsider. The ones that weren’t familiar were usually stolen vehicles, since it was one of the only places you could park for free downtown. Not long after that I saw someone walking the area looking in car windows with a golf club in one hand and a 6” knife in the other. I drove away and called the police. I thought if it was going to be anywhere, that would be the place to start looking.

The night before, Eric had mentioned how in times of loss the human brain can play a trick where you expect to find who or whatever thing is missing everywhere, in all the familiar places, even though logically and in your heart you know it won’t be there. A part of me was sure I would find my car upside down and burned out in a ditch somewhere, so when I saw it just sitting there, undamaged, on a street where I had parked so many times, I was half convinced I was dreaming.

My whole body started shaking as I almost fell off my bike in my haste to touch it, to prove it was really there. The police had told me not to drive away since it was still registered as stolen, but in that moment I wanted nothing more than to grab it and get as far away as possible. As I stood outside my car, overwhelmed with emotion, a stranger drove by and asked if I was okay. “My car was stolen last night and I just found it, so yes, I’m okay” I managed to choke out, half crying.

A quick inventory confirmed what I had been expecting: wallet and laptop gone. Also taken was my Goal Zero battery, food bin, and my bed platform was gone along with everything that had been on top of it (they most likely removed it to make use of the passenger seat). It was a mess, but I was quickly able to identify that not a single piece of my climbing gear had been stolen. More importantly, while they had found where I had hidden all my personal information (passport, birth certificate, car paperwork, etc.), it had not been taken. All things considered I had gotten very lucky. They even left me a bag of Doritos and some crack pipes, so something lost, something gained.

Putting things back together in a physical sense was easy. It only took me a day to clean the car out and make a passable new bed platform. Emotionally however, it’s taken a little longer.

I’ve always made the claim that I like just about everyone; I find it hard to genuinely dislike people. Working downtown, I’ve walked past the local flavor of tent-dwellers countless times before. If they would talk to me I would reply with a smile or at least an acknowledgement, holding compassion for my fellow humans. I never felt threatened nor unsafe by them. The day after recovering my car I was back near the scene of the crime and all I felt was fear and anger. Everyone I looked at seemed like a potential criminal. All I could think was, ‘was it you? Are you capable of something like that? Could you so heartlessly take everything from someone you don’t even know?‘ I felt a complete loss of my faith in humanity at that moment.

I hadn’t found enjoyment being in the city for some time now, but this was different. Everywhere I went I felt harsh anxiety. I would rush errands to avoid being parked anywhere too long, even in broad daylight. I would move from one parking spot to another, just because someone glanced my way. Things like that. I had to get away. I had to regain control. I headed for Squamish the moment I got a new driver’s license and enough cash to put some gas in my empty tank.

On all of my previous trips to Seattle I had been able to return to Squamish, what I considered to be my real life, and pick up right where I left off. This time was different. Everything felt different. I felt different. Emotionally drained from the ordeal, I didn’t feel the joy that had been ever present in so many of my Squamish moments before. I just felt empty. I wondered if that joy was lost for good.

I felt constantly torn between the need to surround myself with friends to try and get that feeling back, to distract myself, and the need to be alone to continue to process everything. It almost felt like I was running away from what had happened instead of facing it, and in a sense I definitely was by leaving Seattle having only taken care of the bare minimum. At the same time I also knew I was dealing with the trauma in the only real way I knew how: by going climbing.

The moment my feet left the ground for the first time (and then hit the ground again as I fell trying to get to the first bolt on Local Boys Do Good), I started to feel like myself again. Still, there were little things everywhere that reminded me of all that I’d lost. Being cold at a windy crag without my favorite jacket because it had been stolen. Being out at night without my headlamp, also stolen. Eating my dinner without any salt, because my food bin had been stolen and I forgot to buy more. I was (and still feel) hypersensitive to anything remotely emotional. When I didn’t send a route I burst into tears because I just wanted a win so badly. Something, anything, which would make me truly feel like I was back on track.

I truly do try and realize it when it’s amazing, and when it’s not. I have an amazing life. I have friends who will come and get me in the middle of the night and stay up late on a weeknight getting drunk with me when shit hits the fan. Friends who told me I was missed in Squamish while I was gone. Friends who offered to help me however they could. I have a family who is helping replace what was lost. Family who understands and respects why I’ve chosen a non-traditional lifestyle that runs the risk of putting me in this position. Family who believes in me and wants me to follow my heart and my calling, whatever the cost. I have a boss who didn’t care how much work was lost on my laptop, only how she could help me move forward. A boss who has let me get away with that bare minimum of work all summer to chase my dreams. I was able to get back to my life quicker than I would have ever dared hope. Yes, there were some things that happened that weren’t amazing. My heart still aches over what happened, but mostly I do feel lucky and grateful.

The same night that I cried over not sending, over not getting that win that I thought I was owed by the universe, I shared the Doritos that were left in my car with my friends. They didn’t taste like the leftovers of a tweaker who had stolen from me. They tasted like the resourcefulness of a good dumpster dive score. They tasted like cheesy MSG, and calories I had earned from a full day’s exercise. They tasted amazing.

The Big Show

It’s called the Big Show for good reason. I so vividly remember the first time I laid eyes on it: a freshman in college visiting Canada for the first time and a gym climber who could count on one hand the number of times I’d touched real rock. It was the most impressive and intimidating natural wall I had ever seen; a perfectly flat piece of granite tilted at a fourty-five degree overhanging angle with a slab mirroring it below like a right angle tilted on its side. People must travel from all over the world to climb on this wall, I thought. When I looked in the guidebook and saw that the easiest route up it was 5.13c I was disappointed, but not surprised. Of course there was no way such a steep wall could boast routes within my ability. I was gym strong but lacked experience and more importantly perspective. Climbing any 5.13 route seemed like a pipe dream, let alone on something like this.

That summer I made my way to Tensleep, Wyoming where I crossed paths with a climber named Urs who was similar in age but about quadruple my ability. He was dispatching 5.14 left and right while I was barely breaking into the 12s, so naturally I was a little starstruck. Our interaction was brief, but I told him I lived in Washington, and he expressed an interest in visiting Squamish. Wanting to seem like a cultured local to this total crusher, I immediately told him he should get on the Big Show. It was far too hard for me, but this guy might stand a fighting chance.

Over time in the years that followed, my climbing ability slowly started catching up to my dreams. Once I had ticked off a few routes that were theoretically as difficult as the easier paths up the Big Show, I decided to take a crack at Freewill, the 5.13c that’s as close as it gets to an entry level route for the wall. Since the angle is so steep I just assumed it must always be in the shade, and thus a premium option for a hot summer day. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was thus that my first attempt at climbing on the Big Show was a sweaty disaster, in which I couldn’t keep my feet on anything, grabbed every single permadraw and freed none of the 5.13 moves. It was such a humbling struggle that after just one attempt I wrote off the dream of mine to climb on that wall as just too big.

In Mexico over the past winter I happened to reconnect with Urs, the kid I had met in Tensleep all those years ago. He wasn’t a kid anymore, but in all his travels he never had made it up to Squamish. Already making my own plans to return, I invited him to join me in the northern swamps of British Colombia I had grown so fond of. We had a different objective in mind for our partnership, but much like me he became enamored at first glance at the sea of chains, carabiners, and permadraws hanging from the Big Show. I had come a long way since we first met, no longer quite so dramatically outranked, but so had he. Luckily there’s enough hard routes there to keep anyone busy for at least a little while, so we started making regular pilgrimages to Cheakamus Canyon to feel the lactic acid exploding out of our forearms on the Show. He dispatched the easier routes up there quickly, and his psyche and incredible ability inspired me to step outside my comfort zone and try them myself. Even if I couldn’t do them, I was sure to get stronger trying. I had finally found the courage to give the dream a real try.

Not wanting to pay the skin toll of falling out of Freewill’s crux fingerlocks, I quested up a different route, Division Bell, with no small amount of trepidation. Had anything changed since the last time I’d thought this was a good idea? Apparently it had, because within the first two days I had done all the moves, broken a key foothold, and then done all the moves a different way. Not long after that I managed to one-hang it. Then one-hang it again. Then again, and again, and again… always in the same spot. No matter how perfectly I executed the moves, I would always leave the rest, do three moves, and then feel all the reserves of strength I had instantly evaporate from my body. What had initially seemed like quick progression turned to doubt. Did I still not have what it took? Would I ever? I had heard stories of friends one-hanging routes on the big show for years on end, or taking upwards of fifty tries to send their projects, and I feared the same fate for myself.

The more I climbed on the Big Show, the more my perspective of it began to change. Its sheer size and angle intimidated me less and less, and it began to inspire me more and more. Not only is the climbing gymnastic, dynamic, and straight up fun, but the wall holds a certain aura and history that has been a meaningful calling in the projects I choose lately. It’s home to Canada’s first 5.14, Pulse, and has served as a proving grounds where some of Squamish’s best climbers cut their teeth. There is another side to its reputation that isn’t as obvious that also added to my drive to climb there.

When it rains in Squamish (as it is known to do) there aren’t a whole lot of things that stay dry. The Big Show is certainly one of them until it starts seeping, but there are also a number of routes at the neighboring walls that are sheltered enough to provide options in more moderate terrain. That, plus the fact that the Circus boasts some of the higher quality sport climbs in the area, makes for a high flow of traffic through the canyon on the busier days. It makes for an interesting scene, with few people actually climbing on the Big Show, but many spectators excited to watch the sports action. Of the climbers actually working routes alongside me so many meters off the ground, none of them were women. When my good friend Tanager had been projecting Freewill last fall she also had been the only female up there with all the guys. I also received many comments from spectators that they had never seen a girl climbing up there before. Division Bell itself has only been sent by four or five women. Discussions with local friends further informed me of what was accepted as common truth: the Big Show was a boys club.

Knowing that others have or have not walked the path that lies before you can have an interesting effect on the psyche. For many it would cause intimidation, for others excitement at being a trailblazer, while for some there might be no effect at all. For me it added a fierce motivation. I had fought so hard to conquer my doubts and insecurities about being up there on the Big Show, that perhaps adding my story to its history might ease someone else’s battle, even if only just a little bit. The idea that the Big Show had a reputation of being a boy’s club didn’t sit very well with me, and I couldn’t help but hope that maybe I could help change that.

As the weeks went by climbing on the Big Show I felt not only myself getting stronger, but my friendship with Urs growing at the same time. The first time that I one-hung Division Bell was the same day that he did the same on Pulse, his project at the time. He sent many days before me, but when he clipped the chains he said it didn’t really count until it was a team send and I was able to celebrate my victory too. We had already shared many team sends such as Southern Lights and the Great Arch, but we had also shared plenty a beer, swim in the river, or lazy morning parking lot vortex over the course of our time climbing together. I had drawn drive and inspiration to climb on the Big Show from many places, but that random kid crusher I had sprayed about it to in Wyoming all those years ago was probably the most important piece of the puzzle. When I clipped the chains on Division Bell and then unclipped them for the most satisfying victory whipper of my life, Urs at the belay was yanked up to the first bolt with the force of the fall. It wasn’t me completing our story on that wall together, but the beginning of the next chapter because there’s a lot more routes up there, and in the words of Todd Skinner, we must always “Keep dreamin’, stay hungry, and remember that there is no finish line.”  

Stargazing

On the eve of the summer solstice I redpointed a climb called North Star that sits on the highest point of the Strawamus Chief in Squamish. While there were few actual stars to be seen with the moon almost full and the days so long, North Star itself couldn’t have been brighter that day and those that followed. It hadn’t been a particularly long term project for me, taking only three tries to send, but it was one of my proudest and favorite ticks in months for a very different reason.

              The way we approach climbing as a community puts a heavy focus on comparison. Grades are formed by consensus, which means not only comparing climbs to others of similar difficulty, but also constantly demands that we as people measure ourselves against others in order to describe the pitches we climb. It’s inherently there whether we like it or not, but I also consider it to be a personal weakness I’ve been working on for the better part of the last decade of my own climbing career.

              I have always found myself highly motivated and validated by the process of setting and accomplishing goals, but as a highly competitive person I often struggle when those goals are shared by my partners. Years ago, before I realized what it meant to use competitiveness for healthy growth, it nearly destroyed friendships and my own passion for climbing when I stagnated through a plateau while my friends went on a sending spree. The extent to which I was comparing myself to others reached a toxic level, and to this day remains the reason I lost psyche on bouldering. I reflect on that time in my life frequently, because it was not only a low point in my climbing, but in my ability to be a good partner and friend. It started me on a long journey of growth, as I’ve fought to learn from it ever since.

              Over the winter I found myself back in El Salto, one of my favorite places on planet earth. The limestone in Mexico is world class, yet I was there as much for the community as the projects I wanted to send. I’ve had more fun meeting and getting to know other climbers there than anywhere else I’ve been, and this year was no different. I was living in a house with a dozen people give or take a few, many friends I had both known for a while and some I had just met.

              The dynamic of that particular house was an environment of people psyched on projects, myself included. For all that we had in common as a bunch of climbers jazzed on working routes at their limits, I surprisingly found myself feeling somewhat isolated because while we all had aspirations, everyone had someone to share theirs with except me. The climbs I was trying I was trying alone, whereas everyone around me was working their projects with a partner. I felt a loneliness with which I had been previously unfamiliar, and I envied the shared experience I saw around me.

              It was for that reason that a few months later I found myself asking one of my best friends Tanager that if I came and met her in Smith Rock if she would want to project To Bolt or Not To Be with me. I wanted to seek out not only a hard project, but more importantly a person to work it with. Not just any person either, another woman, and someone who would push me outside my comfort zone in healthy ways.

              She eagerly agreed, and we dove into the process of breaking down the climb. She had climbed on the route a few times before, and while our height differences made some of our beta different, she walked me through the moves and I started piecing them together. As the days turned into weeks, Tanager pulled ahead of me, making longer links and falling on fewer moves than me. I immediately began to feel the familiar stirrings of competitiveness, wanting to stay on the same level or to be the one in the lead. As I struggled to work through those feelings I often entertained the idea that it would be so much easier to work the route by myself so I wouldn’t have to deal with this battle with competitiveness and the effect it had on my motivation. It was in those moments that I had to remind myself that I had chosen this path as an alternate to the loneliness of working a route solo; this was what I wanted, and I needed to tackle the challenge head on instead of shying away.

              I told Tanager that I was struggling with these feelings of comparing myself and my climbing to her, and that I was trying to work through them to be supportive of her climbing. She already knew of course; I wear that sort of emotion on my sleeve, but opening the discussion allowed us to work on it together. She was gracious and patient in dealing with my frequent grumpiness and struggles, and over the rest of the time we worked the route before it got too hot, it allowed us to dramatically deepen our friendship.

One of the thoughts that crossed my mind many times while working To Bolt with Tanager was wondering what it would feel like if only one of us were to finish the season successful. Could I be happy for her if she succeeded and I did not? Would the victory feel empty if it was only me clipping the chains? I made a goal to be at peace with whatever outcome the season brought. It was almost a secret relief when it got too hot to keep working the route, because I never had to face the music and deal with those inevitable emotions, but after I cleaned our draws off the route by myself in a post Cinco De Mayo hungover stupor on my last day in Oregon, I told Tanager that we would both be there to put them back up in the fall. We were in it together now.

The difficulty begins early on To Bolt

..

              After I left Smith the next stop was a brief stint in Index, some work in Seattle, and finally working my way north to Squamish. Along the way people would ask me about my recent exploits, and I was proud to be able to say that while my time in Smith this year was challenging, it was equal parts rewarding because of what Tanager and I had gone through together. With day after day after day of perfect weather back in the Northern Swamps of the Pacific Northwest my season in Squamish kicked off to a fine start. I bagged a few challenging multipitches, and saw success on Eurasian Eyes, the most beautiful climb I have climbed in months, or maybe ever.

I had wanted to try North Star since last fall just based on descriptions from those who had tried it, so when I was asked to join on the quest by my friend Jared I immediately agreed. He had tried it a number of times before, and together we worked through the beta and gave a few attempts. It suited my style well, with flexibility defining the technical crux where the climber must exit a dihedral while balanced precariously above small cams and bad foot smears. The true crux however, is perhaps overcoming the nerves and jitters that come with projecting something so far off the beaten path both physically and mentally. Not only is the exposure at the top of the chief dizzying, but it’s not the kind of climb you can just casually ask someone to belay you on. It’s a mission that must be shared.

Jared rope soloing the crux of North Star

After the first day I knew we were both capable of doing the climb as soon as the next attempt, but it would be just as easy for the stars not to align, with conditions changing or mental fortitude not withholding. We returned a week later after a heavy thunderstorm, not even knowing if the route would be dry but hoping for the best. It was more than a little alpine on top of the chief that day, with high winds making my fingers go numb as I warmed up by rope soloing the crux. We commiserated that it felt harder than before for both of us, but energy was high nonetheless as we rappelled in and pulled the rope. The only way out now was to climb the route.

On my first try of the day I found myself feeling significantly less pumped than before, reaching the final rest before the crux and barely needing it at all. The three inch long tick mark Jared had put on the finish jug stared me down as I felt a rare calm pass over me. In that moment I somehow knew that if ever there was a perfect chance, it was right here, right now. When I clipped the chains I was treated to an excitement that was more than just my own as we celebrated the success together.  

Watching Jared’s next attempt I could tell that he had found the same flow that I just had. On moves that before had looked desperate, now looked like dancing, and I was sure that this was his moment too. When he latched the final hold it was hard to say who was cheering louder. We sat together on top of the Chief, but I felt on top of the world. I asked Jared if he had felt any added pressure to send because I already had. He answered that it had not added any stress, only motivation. Motivation that had clearly driven him to succeed.

..

Polaris, the actual North Star, used to serve as a guiding light for travelers back in the days where people spent more time stargazing than looking at Google Maps for directions or worrying about the nuances involved in rock climbing. That day North Star felt like a guide for me too, as I looked at who I had been, who I was now, and who I want to become. It made me think back to my experience at Smith Rock and the shared projects I’d been exploring over the past several months. On To Bolt I had wanted success for Tanager, but if I’d had to choose only one of us to send I would have probably picked myself. That was who I had been, even very recently. This time however, it felt different. If I had to choose between just me sending that day, or both of us slogging over an hour straight uphill for the rest of summer, if it meant we could eventually grab that finish jug back to back on the same day like we did, I would have been willing to do that heinous hike as many times as it took. That is who I am now, which is a big step forward in my desire to better support others. Collective success on climbs of that difficulty is so rare in climbing, that when the stars do align is a powerful thing. Knowing that the drive to make it happen came from inspiration and not competitiveness in my partner showed me the kind of person I want to be as well.

In this life that I’ve dedicated to climbing, I mostly measure myself based on the things I accomplish. I send some hard routes that I’m proud of from time to time, but the most meaningful ones are always when I know I came out of the process a better person than who I was going in. That incredible day on North Star made me feel like the best version of myself that I had ever been before in my mental relationship with climbing and myself.

Tanager is here with me in Squamish too, and days before she made a passing comment that she only moves forward in life, never back. Now I can’t help but look forward in my own journey, to a time when we can return to To Bolt together and perhaps one day share our own magic double send day. At the very least I hope to be the one that belays her when she clips the chains, regardless of when I do it myself.  

These Are Your People

When I was in high school, my mom decided that my sister Lindsey and I might like to throw a pool party for our friends one weekend, so she reserved the neighborhood pool and told us to rally the troops. It was a great idea in theory, except for the fact that when it came time to actually invite people, neither Lindsey nor I had any luck whatsoever. The day of the party the only guest that showed up was one that Mom invited, and it was our grandmother. Don’t get me wrong, we had a great time swimming with Grandma, but it was still a sobering display of our lack of popularity.

I had a great childhood even in my most angsty and awkward of teenage years, but I was certainly never one of the cool kids; not even close. It wasn’t that I had a problem making friends, I was just surrounded by people with whom I had absolutely nothing in common for the first 17 years of my life.

Fast forward a decade or so to present day. After a few weeks in Indian Creek, I had settled into a comfortable groove. One evening I found myself milling around Creek Pasture, making dinner and waiting for the rest of my fellow dirtbags to return from their day of climbing. It had been a memorable one already, with a large group rallying to support a birthday challenge where my friend Andy wanted to rack up 30 pitches for his 30th at the Pistol Whipped crag. I had taken a terrifying fall on some small gear on the Montana Weed Connection which all ripped out, leaving me just a few feet off the ground when moments before I had been halfway up the short pitch (the video of the whip can be found here). I sent the thing two tries later, making it my second 5.13 on gear of the season/year.

Making cheesy faces on the Montana Weed Connection

A large sprinter belonging to my fellow Washingtonian Lucas that had been parked next to me for several weeks pulled up in camp, and the door slid open, but none of the crew inside seemed to be getting out. I asked what they were doing and they told me to get in the van; they were going to go climb the South Six Shooter, an iconic desert tower, by the light of the full moon.

My initial thought was that I’d already had a crazy day, it was a long approach, and it was pretty cold outside. No thanks. More people started getting into the van however, and pretty soon I was reconsidering. Maybe this was the kind of adventure I’d regret not participating in. My mind was finally made up when someone said to me to just get in, “these seem like your kind of people.” I probably got less than an hour of sleep that night, but it was one of the most unforgettable things I’ve done in a long time. That night we all laughed until tears streamed down our faces for hours on end, a happiness made real because it was shared with good friends.

When I was a kid throwing failed pool parties, climbing was like a secret identity that set me apart from everyone else, a private world in which I was my true self and my classmates did not exist. Out here in the desert, or at any climbing crag across the world, it is simply the air we breathe; the thing that makes me a part of something bigger and connects me to others.

A few nights later, two friends spent the day bolting a new climb at the Cliffs of Insanity. By 10:00 pm, they still had not returned to camp, and everyone was starting to worry. The cliffs have a pretty long approach, the night was cold, and my legs ached at the thought of going looking for them as we discussed all the things that could have gone wrong. By 10:30, a few people agreed to go check the parking lot for their car. When it was found to still be there, they returned and went campfire to campfire, gathering volunteers with EMT/WFR training and proper supplies to go find our friends. Just in time before leaving and much to our relief, the pair rolled back into camp with big grins and tales of their adventurous day.

While I was relieved my friends were okay, the more dominant emotion I felt that night was pride. So many people were willing to rally for the search party, many of whom barely knew the missing climbers. I think a big part of what makes Indian Creek so special is the community that forms there. It’s the single most important and meaningful thing about climbing in my opinion, far more than the accomplishments, sends, failures, etc. Whether rallying to spontaneously climb a tower by moonlight, or to organize a search party, the best thing about the desert is that it’s full of these kind of people. From those I’ve known for years, to those I traded belays with for the first time, these past few Creek weeks were made truly special mainly because of the people I am so proud to call my community.

What’s more, I bet if I threw a pool party, at least a few of these wonderful dirtbags might actually show up.

Quicksand

There’s a great line by comedian John Mulaney that goes: “Growing up, I always thought that quicksand was going to be a much bigger problem than it turned out to be.” It always makes me laugh because the statement is weirdly accurate; I did worry about quicksand as a kid. In fact, just the other day I read about someone having to get rescued from some quicksand in Zion National Park, and it freaked me the fuck out.

My cousin Emily and I pretending to be stuck in the sand in Port Lavaca, Texas as kids

Now, the odds of that happening to even the outdoorsiest of people are still negligible, but I think everyone who has ever watched Artax the horse traumatically die in The Neverending Story can relate to the fear of the futile struggle of being stuck in quicksand. I think it’s the idea that the harder you fight, the quicker you go down that makes it so scary. While I think I’m pretty safe from that reality in a physical sense, there is an emotional quicksand that poses a very real danger in my life, and that is the sinkhole that is falling too deep into My Comfort Zone.

I end up writing a lot about the path that has lead me to traveling and climbing as much as I do these days, because it has been one of the scariest and most challenging (and thus rewarding) things I’ve ever done. It’s a dream I’ve been working up the courage to follow for pretty much my entire life. I like being comfortable, as most people do. I like routines and fall into them easily, and they bring me comfort because when there are no new variables to add some spice to any given day, you know things are usually going to work out okay. Probably not great, but probably not terrible either. That security and predictability offer stability, and for those of us that are as terrified of the unknown as me, it’s easy to think that that’s good enough.

That was my life for a very long time; working full time and filling the non-working hours with gym climbing or movies, board games, video games, whatever. I had a good life, but if I look back on it, all of the days pretty much blur together. All of them that is, except for the ones that I spent outside on weekends. Those ones actually meant something, but if only two out of seven days a week were ones I cared about, that leaves the other five as simply filler. I don’t want 70% of my days to be spent pining after the other 30%; no matter what grading scale you use that’s a fail. I knew that finding a way to climb full time would bring me happiness, adventure, freedom, and life that I was otherwise missing out on, but it took me a very long time to work up to it. Doing so meant taking my comfort zone, that easy place full of familiar, safe things, and shoving it into a corner of Eric’s basement with the rest of my non-essential belongings where the sun never shines. After a lifetime of following the status quo, I did finally work up the courage to leave city life behind.

While I’m extremely privileged to be able to follow this path at all, I still do work part time to support myself. I’m employed at the amazing organization Girls Rock Math, which lets me work remote most of the time at a job that truly makes a difference in the lives of many, many young girls (check us out here). My job brought me back to Seattle for several weeks, and in that time I found myself repeating the same habits and patterns I used to when I lived in the city year round.

At first, when my most recent adventures were fresh in my mind, I was able to fight the quicksand and focus on my goals, plans, and dreams, and train hard for the moment I could pursue them once more. The more I fought it though, the more I seemed to slowly sink, until suddenly I hadn’t even been to the climbing gym in four days. Work made me tired, commuting was a hassle, and I just didn’t feel like doing anything. Now I can deal with a little apathy and loss of motivation, but there was another element that crept into my psyche unexpectedly that proved far more problematic.

The more time that passes since I last climbed outside, the more I can feel the fear of the unknown returning. I get anxious for no reason, I get angry or annoyed at everything, most of my days feel meaningless, I feel my self-confidence weaken, and I feel intimidated by and unworthy of my dreams. Yet the real kicker is that, despite being consciously aware of my own unhappiness in this lifestyle, I am afraid to leave once more. All the people around me working their 9-5 jobs seem to be fulfilled and content, so maybe I could just get used to it, a voice in my mind says. It’s a pretty stark contrast to the real happiness I get in the outdoors, when I can feel it deep in my bones that I am living my best life.

All of these feelings tell me the same thing: that the quicksand is sucking me back to The Comfort Zone, saying that fighting for the things that matter so much to me is not worth the risk. It wants me to settle for good enough, and the more separation time puts between me and outdoor climbing, the more I forget just how big the difference is between good enough and as absolutely fucking electrifying life can really be. The more I sink into the sand, the harder it is to remember why I should fight it at all.

Now, I really enjoy a good thought provoking ‘Would You Rather’ question. In Mexico a few weeks ago, someone came up with a great one: Would you rather be able to climb as much as you want for the next ten years, but get a letter grade weaker every year, or only be able to climb once a year, but get a letter grade stronger for ten years? I didn’t have a good answer at the time, because think of the possibilities! By the end of ten years I would be the strongest climber alive, putting up grades that currently don’t even exist. The caveat of only climbing once a year would be an extremely high price to pay however. The alternative seemed equally double-edged, since by the end of those ten years my climbing level would be so low I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d even still feel passionate about the sport at all.

I didn’t have an answer to the question at first, because I had forgotten how big of a difference there is for me between being able to climb as much as I want, and not being able to climb at all. It would be pretty great to progress dramatically for ten years, but if I were truly faced with that ultimatum, at the end of the day the choice would be easy. Nothing in this world makes me feel alive in the way that climbing outside does, and I would climb 5.7 every day for the rest of my life if the alternative was to never touch real rock again.

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.

1000 Words for Rain

I awoke this morning, as I do most days, with my body a ticking time bomb. I stalled as long as possible in bed, listening to the light pitter-patter of rain on the roof of my car until it was almost too late. Suddenly there was no time, not even to wipe the steam off the inside of my windows as I threw myself behind the wheel and made a mad dash for the McDonalds and it’s waiting bathroom.

With my windows a dripping mess, it was almost raining inside my car as much as out, where yet another new storm had rolled in the previous night. As I peered out the small patch of visibility in my windshield, I considered the words said by my friend Cody the night before: “If I can see the chief tomorrow, I’ll consider going climbing.” I couldn’t see the chief through the rain. There was a literal “rain warning” for the amount of precipitation we were supposed to receive today.

“Squamish sucks, don’t go,” says my car in the rain

It wasn’t the first time a thought crossed my mind– not “what am I doing?” but “what the fuck am I doing here?”

Of the near month I’ve spent in Squamish, it’s rained almost half the days, mostly consecutively. September is usually a pretty dry month in the Pacific Northwest, so when I arrived on the 1st it was swarming with climbers ready for perfect fall temperatures. It didn’t take long for the first storm to roll through, promising day after day of constant rain for as far ahead as modern meteorology could predict. Sitting at Zephyr, the cafe that provides a home base for many dirtbag climbers seeking internet, coffee, and shelter, plans were being thrown left and right.

Skaha? It’s only 5 hours. We’ll come back after the rain. Leave tonight, get out of here ASAP. Some people waited a day or two for the first scouts to test the waters, find camping, confirm bluer skies, but after a few days there were almost no climbers left in Squamish. I thought about it too, but I had just arrived and my business here was unfinished.

I came to Squamish with a fantasy ticklist of hard fingercracks, ambitious multipitches, and line after line that I knew would challenge me in new and different ways. Weather aside, I knew the answer to the question I asked myself on more than one rainy morning: what the fuck I was doing here was trying to work on every possible weakness I could find in my trad climbing: Hands, fists, chimneys, offwidths, slab, sustained cracks, roofs, long days, etc. Everything that defines Squamish hard climbing was everything I was bad at, so this was where I needed to be, rain or shine.

After living in the Pacific Northwet for the past 8 years, I knew that the rain did not mean the end of climbing, it just meant you had to be flexible with your objectives. Since stepping outside my comfort zone was already my goal, it was just a minor obstacle to overcome. As one of my regular partners and good friends Louis said in his French Canadian accent, “when it rains, we just go harder!”

We climbed at the monastery in a full on cloud, we climbed on the Zombie Roof in a downpour, we climbed slabs in the smoke bluffs when it stopped raining for brief chunks of the day when the wind would dry the rock quickly, we climbed on projects when they were completely wet except for the crux holds. One of my proudest rainy day climbs was My Little Pony, the 5.12+ inverted roof offwidth/fist crack that presented a style of climbing with which I had ZERO experience.

Entering the crux on My Little Pony

It was an adventure, trying to find what was dry and accepting that so long as we could climb something it was still fun, even if we had to let go of many aspirations. We were kept going by perfect weather promised at the end of the storm, yet every day it seemed to get pushed farther and farther back. The words of my friend Pat echoed in my head with dismay, “Sometimes when it starts raining it just never stops.” Soon even things like My Little Pony had started to seep, and bigger multipitches would take weeks to dry.

Friends in Skaha would text that the rock was dry, sun was shining, and that I should head for Valhalla immediately, yet in Squamish I remained. There were so few climbers left that we banded together, forming close friendships and enjoying many a board game, movie night, karaoke party, shared meal, or van circle to block the wind.

Tanager, Cody, Jared, and I sharing memes on our phones at Zephyr. Notice that the cafe is otherwise empty.

At times I would continue to ask myself that question, “seriously, what the hell am I doing here,” because objectively speaking, it was a ridiculous place to be. If you tried to describe this September as a Squamish selling point to someone who had never been, staying here as long as I have would sound insane. Subjectively speaking however, the strange opportunities presented by the bad weather have collectively made me the happiest I’ve been in a long time.

Despite the precipitation, there have been dry days, and I was able to send some projects that weren’t roof cracks as well. Favorites included an onsight of Polaris, P2 of the Calling, and Big Daddy Overhang, and redpoints of Flight of the Challenger, Hypertension, Sunny Days in December, and a few various sport climbs. I have accomplished everything I came here to do. I got on almost all the lines I wanted to try. I sent the ones that were within my current ability. I tried things that made me scared and slowly watched that fear turn to confidence as I learned the style. I watched strangers become close friends. I felt my fingers tingle with excitement and my heart race with adrenaline and my spirit overflow with passion for the life I have. Objectively many things I do may seem crazy, but nothing about a climber’s lifestyle has ever been status quo anyway. We follow the calling, rain or shine. Besides, you can never grow if you turn tail and run at the first sign of a storm.

Some tasteful outhouse graffiti at Cheakamus Canyon