The Salathé

The faint taste of peanut butter, the warmth of the early morning sun, the feeling of callused hands against my back as my partner Harrison kissed me goodbye on the 3rd of April, 2021. I had only been in Las Vegas for three weeks, a short stay by my usual travel patterns, but after six months in the desert I had reached my limit. My heart had been jammed in some desperate granite crack hundreds of miles away for a while now, and we both knew it. As we embraced, I couldn’t stop grinning with excitement that it was finally time to head back west.

How long had it been since I had felt a calling? That all consuming passion of chasing an impossible dream? I had just watched Harrison send Dreefee, an incredibly stacked 5.13+ multipitch and a multi-year dream of his, and couldn’t help but envy the passion with which he had climbed. When it came to climbing it felt like my heart had been hibernating, blocked off and dormant for the past six months as I had half-heartedly tried to convince myself that it was okay to fall into this ebb. That it was natural, and that the flow would come again.

The passion had been trickling back though, like a melting winter snow turning dry creek beds back to babbling spring brooks. My soul ached for a new challenge, maybe even bigger than I’d ever tackled before. I yearned to be entrenched in a project, to be inspired by history and beauty and movement, while pushed to my limit and able to be my best self. I knew there was only one place I was going to find it: The Proving Grounds. The Center of the Universe. Yosemite Valley.

A scene from Valley Uprising had been playing in my head on repeat those last few weeks in Red Rocks: Lynn Hill reciting inspiring lines with palpable affection: “People come [to Yosemite] to make a statement about what’s possible with passion, and vision, and heart,” followed by John Long: “Yosemite will always be there for people that have a free spirit and plenty of raw energy. For the ones amongst us who want an adventure on a huge scale.” I wanted to see if I could embody all of these things; to see if not only my body was strong enough, but my mind and spirit. I then thought about Lynn again, saying “You had to climb like it was your last day on Earth,” as a rite of passage to enter the ranks of the esteemed Stone Masters, some of my greatest idols. In another life maybe I could have been one of them. Could I possibly stand in the shoes of so many legends that had come before me, those that had crafted the sport of climbing into what I have dedicated my life to? I knew exactly where to find the answer.

There was one pair of footprints I cared about standing in more than any of the rest, and they could only belong to one person: Todd Skinner. Ever since City Park I’d had a strong interest in his role in climbing history, and it was only a few months later that I first read the story of his and Paul Piana’s first free ascent of the Salathé Wall on El Capitan in the book Hangdog Days, by Jeff Smoot. Upon hearing the tale, I immediately knew if I was ever going to climb a big wall, that would be the one (though at the time it was a pretty big and hypothetical IF). Not only was the Salathé the first route up El Cap to ever go free in 1988, it was done in a death-defying adventure of passion, effort, and pure survival when rockfall nearly ended the lives of both climbers. As if that alone weren’t enough, Royal Robbins himself called the route the best rock climb in the world when he established it as the second free route up the mountain in 1961 with Tom Frost and Chuck Pratt as yet another grand move on the Yosemite chessboard battle between Robbins and Warren Harding.

I had been to Yosemite once before the previous year, but only for a few days before the explosion of the COVID-19 pandemic had chased me away. Before then, navigating the logistics of the Valley had always intimidated me enough that I had yet to make my pilgrimage. It had always remained one of those things that seemed too unknown; too big, and so I kept it on the back burner for some unknown time in the future when I might eventually be more ready somehow.

Over the winter however things had been changing. After I accomplished one of my lifelong dreams of climbing 5.14 on gear with my early January ascent of East Coast Fist Bump in Sedona, AZ, I was faced with the same question that appears after the completion of any major milestone in one’s life: what’s next? When you somehow manage to accomplish the things you barely even dared to dream, how do you go even bigger? What is the next step to continue to grow and level up? Right as I was asking myself these questions, my path serendipitously crossed with Harrison’s.

[Harrison and I on Dickel’s Delight, photo by Dan Petty]

I had been climbing with my friend Dirtbag Kevin, as he is known in the vagabond travelling climbing community. One day in Sedona, Harrison had recruited Kevin to assist in an adventurous mission to fix ropes on a wild 5.13 multipitch called Dickel’s Delight in the remote reaches of Mormon Canyon, so for lack of another partner I invited myself along. This world of hard multipitch climbing was entirely foreign to me, and I watched in amazement over the next few weeks as Harrison projected and eventually dispatched the route, becoming the first person to redpoint all the pitches in a single push. I had tried it with him a few times along the way, but quickly became overwhelmed with the magnitude of trying to redpoint so many pitches of 5.13 in a single day. The idea of going to Yosemite had crept into my mind at that point already and was part of why I was there, but my poor performance on Dickel’s made the dream feel impossibly far away. On one particularly rough day, the locking carabiner on my microtraxion jammed, and as I struggled to detach myself from the rope I felt my eyes brim with tears of frustration at having to be such a beginner again despite my nearly two decades of climbing experience. As Harrison helped me rescue it, I confided my doubts that I would even be capable of hiking a haul bag to the base of El Cap, let alone everything else it was going to take. He reassured me that I was doing my best to prepare just by being there, but I wasn’t totally convinced; a doubt that would remain in the back of my mind all the way up until the morning of my second-to-last day on the wall as I was sending the Salathé.

I charged forward nonetheless, telling myself over and over again that if I wanted something I’d never had before, I’d have to be willing to do things I’d never done. There were a hell of a lot of them. I’d never redpointed a 5.13 more than one pitch off the ground (until late February). I’d never hauled. I’d never slept on a wall. I had only even backpacked twice in my life, both of which were miserable experiences. I rarely hiked more than thirty minutes to go climbing, and even on short Creek approaches I always made sure I didn’t carry both a rope and a rack because my pack would be too heavy. I barely knew how to jumar, I didn’t know how to tie a munter knot, and I almost always got the rope tangled no matter how nicely I stacked it at multipitch belays. Despite a relatively impressive climbing resume, I was about as technically unprepared for Yosemite as could be really be possible. Still, I kept working at it, following Harrison around for the next few months as he rampaged through one hard multipitch after another, patiently helping me learn from him along the way. We started dating, and made official plans to go to the Valley together. I was in it now.

I arrived in El Portal just outside of Yosemite on a Saturday, rendezvousing with my friend Scott from Washington who had recently retired and started his own van life tour. Harrison was going to meet me in a few weeks but had some things to take care of first, so for now I was on my own. I hadn’t been planning to do anything too big right away, but when Scott told me he was planning on hiking up the East Ledges descent the following day to check on the condition of the fixed lines and see how much snow was on top of El Cap, I agreed to go along with the intention of carrying 600 ft of rope to the summit; the amount needed to rappel in to the Salathé Headwall.

Driving into the Valley the next day felt like seeing El Capitan for the very first time, because this time I was hell bent on climbing it. I had spent so many weeks and months building the anticipation, letting my longing for rivers, trees, and granite consume my imagination until it all came bursting out of me upon laying eyes on the mountain, Dawn Wall illuminated in the early morning sun. I burst into tears, though which emotion they were connected to would be hard to say. Above all else it was the joy of knowing that my passion for climbing was back, and that perhaps it was about to grow in new ways to possibly become greater than it ever had before.

Scott and I started casually late in the morning, and immediately took the wrong trail. After hiking straight uphill with backpacks full of ropes for half an hour, we realized our mistake when we were separated from where we were supposed to be by an impassible sea of Manzanita bushes. By the time we descended all the way to the parking lot and started over, it was mid-day and the heat of the direct sun beat down us with all of the intensity of California spring day. Scott and I got separated on the fixed lines as I jumared ahead and started charging up the slabs. Despite my legs shaking under the weight of my pack, I was propelled forward with the psyche of finally having a purpose; a goal I was actively working towards, that thing that had been missing for so long. I made it to about 1000 ft of the summit when my phone rang: an incoming call from Scott. He had stalled out back at the top of the rappels, beat down by the heat of the day and not feeling well. He had helped me so much by getting one of my ropes this far that I quickly volunteered to run back to his position and take the load. We parted ways there, and I carried on alone. By the time I got back to where I had ditched my pack, I had probably added an extra hour of hiking with the second detour. I strapped the third rope on, but the added weight turned what had been a manageable burden into a soul crushing load. It took me ages to summit the final push, and it was all I could do to stash the ropes and descend back to the valley floor. Fixing them would have to happen later.

I had casually mentioned my arrival in Yosemite on social media that first day, and not long after was contacted by my friend SJ about partnering up. We had met several years ago in Washington when she sent City Park around the same time as me, and had crossed paths various times in the years that had followed. Her goal was to send the Freerider, and she was hoping to team up to rappel down and try some of the crux pitches soon. I had always admired SJ after she climbed City Park. That route had been so important to me and shaped my life in such a big way, that I knew it took a special kind of person to climb it. I eagerly agreed, and a week later we made plans to meet up on top of the mountain.

I hiked up the East Ledges for the second time alone, intent on trying the Salathé Headwall before SJ arrived that evening. The hike had taken me six hours before with all my detours and the intense weight of my pack, so the intimidation of such as monstrous approach made my heart race almost as much as my heavy dose of early morning caffeine. As I stopped for a breather a few minutes in, I received a message from the late Todd Skinner’s wife, Amy. She knew about my climbing and was glad to hear I was on my own “Stay Hungry Tour” (what Todd would call his travels and subsequent slideshows about them). She shared with me how special their time in Yosemite had been when Todd was working on the Salathé, and that maybe I could pay them a visit in Wyoming sometime. I was unbelievably touched, and the hike never felt quite so bad after that, because I knew it was what had been done by all my predecessors in order to make this dream a reality.

I located the anchors of the route with some helpful beta from SJ, and tied my first rope to the chains. As I neared the edge of the cliff my mind spun with fear and doubt. It felt like I was rappelling off the edge of the world, and despite knowing I was completely safe a small voice in the back of my head still said I should at least wait until SJ was there, if not abandon this foolish idea entirely. Once over the edge however, there was only one direction to move, and that was down. Rappel after rappel, until I was anchored at the base of the massive headwall splitter crack, the most exposed position I’d possibly ever been in before. After triple checking my rope soloing setup, I started up the wall.

I had brought two liters of water down with me for the day, and left one of them at the anchors at the base of the splitter. As I rappelled back down for a second attempt, I discovered that my water bottle had broken and fallen off the mountain, hopefully landing clear of any tourists wherever it was thousands of feet below. My first of many, many lessons about big walling. Without the water I was not only exhausted, but extremely dehydrated by the time I jumared the remaining 400 feet to return to the summit. SJ was waiting for me on top as I stumbled over the edge, offering much needed sustenance and beta on where to harvest more from a nearby spring. After a quick dinner I set off with all the empty jugs to replenish the water supply, but in my fatigued state I didn’t get too far before becoming frustrated and overwhelmed. It had already been a 12-hour day, and I had hardly enough energy left to even walk back to camp. I never located the spring, giving up as the sun started to set and instead scraping a meagre amount of stale snow into the jug with the widest mouth before stumbling back towards where I thought the bivvy cave was, though I had to yell for SJ to come help me find it. I barely had the energy to inflate my sleeping pad, as I laid down for what was only the fourth night of what could be considered backpacking that I’d ever done.

The following day, SJ and I rappelled down the entirety of El Cap, working first the Enduro Corners, then the Boulder Problem, and finally the downclimb traverse into the Monster Offwidth. The Enduro Corners felt surprisingly easy, catering to many of my greatest strengths by combining crack climbing with laybacking and knee barring. The Boulder Problem went less well, with neither of us succeeding that day.

[ SJ and I on the Enduro]

That day was also Harrison’s first day in Yosemite, and he had hiked to the top of the wall as well to check out the Headwall. We could see him on the ropes far above us, but we were too far apart to communicate. In hindsight it almost foreshadowed how my obsession with the project would come to limit our ability to climb together, because the route didn’t end up inspiring him the same way it did for me. After climbing together all winter, it was a big change to suddenly be limited to hanging out on the ground on our rest days, as he started projecting Father Time on the shadier side of the Valley. SJ and I would team up when she was in town, but her career as a high-level orthopedic surgeon in Reno kept her busy most of the time. Thus, almost immediately the route became entirely my own journey. 

I spent many a day by myself on Long Ledge, the natural boardwalk that marks the end of the headwall crux pitches. The occasional party on Freerider would provide brief company as they passed through the Enduro Corners below, but most of my time on the Salathé headwall was spent alone. I would solve crossword puzzles, write, and watch the cars far below on the valley floor, but mostly I would just let the sun warm my face as I ran through beta in my mind over and over and over again. The ledge is somehow protected from El Cap’s relentless barrage of wind, and the contours of the rock seemed to fit my body perfectly for relaxing between attempts. It felt like this place belonged just to me sometimes, and in others I imagined sharing my airy perch with the party of Robbins, Tom Frost, and Chuck Pratt, or Skinner and Piana, or any of the other legendary climbing pioneers that had come before me, such as Alex Huber, the first person to free every pitch, Steph Davis, the first female ascent, Hidetaka Suzuki, the first person to link the headwall into one 5.13d megapitch, Mark Hudon and Max Jones, who advanced Valley free climbing with their “as free as can be” ascent, or even that I could hear the ring of John Salathé’s hammer echoing across the valley from the Sentinel, as he nailed his way up some heinous ten hour lead with Allen Steck on belay. I often felt like my heroes were watching over me up there, three thousand feet off the ground, and in those moments I didn’t feel alone at all.

[at home on Long Ledge (photo by Max Buschini)]

On my first completely solo trip to the top, my second day on the headwall, I was able to climb the entirety of the main splitter without falling, though the awkwardly flaring and micro pin-scarred initial boulder problem still remained a mystery. It was still early April, and as such the route remained quite cold until mid-day when the sun finally graces the headwall, so the following day I had a good chunk of the morning to kill. I stood at the top of the route for quite some time, completely lost in awe at the beauty of watching Yosemite Valley come alive as the day broke. I stretched my sore limbs, the rush of endorphins flooding through my body almost making me dizzy. In that moment I was consciously aware that I was experiencing something truly special. I started crying from the simple joy of how vividly alive I felt. It had been a long time. That day I climbed the second crux pitch clean, a feat I would not actually repeat until the day I sent.

My next trip to the headwall would not go quite as well, having not rested sufficiently beforehand. I blew out my shoes and fell off the last move of the splitter twice, unable to stand on the small edges needed to navigate the final moves. Such a performance was unacceptable to me. I needed those moves to be dialed to the point that I could climb them with complete confidence, because otherwise I didn’t know if I could handle the pressure of a crux at the very end of such a long and physical pitch. I lay awake for some time that night, ruminating over how I could rework the sequence to feel less insecure. My original beta involved a complicated sequence of footwork, but I thought maybe I could just tackle the crack straight on, perhaps facing the other way and relying more on jamming than face climbing. It paid off, because my idea panned out remarkably well the next day as I worked out a sequence that no longer felt low percentage at all. I was able to climb it every time, even though my shoes now had holes the size of pencil erasers in the toes.

I made a total of five two-night trips to the top to work the headwall (plus the initial rope haul). After reworking the final sequence I was able to complete the splitter every time, though getting through the beginning still remained a challenge. By that point I had been in Yosemite long enough to have wormed my way into the scene of Valley climbers, and everyone knew what I was up to. It was exciting to share my progress and feed off the psyche of others, but it also increased the pressure to know that everyone was paying attention. One day the route was being discussed by a group and someone mentioned that when Steph Davis had climbed it, she had been shocked at how different the route felt on lead than toprope because of the added weight of the cord. While I hadn’t fallen off the crack in a while, the comment got in my head and suddenly I felt a lot less ready. On my next trip up I brought some extra rope down to check out the roof pitch, and in order to get it back up the wall I decided to trail the entire 60m 10.5mm rope up the headwall. It probably added 10-15lbs, but despite how much it triggered my tendonitis I was still able to climb the pitch. With my confidence back from that, I gave the route a lead go the next day, supported by my friend Amity who had come up to check out the headwall for fun with another friend Will. I couldn’t climb the first part with the shoes I had on at the time, but I was able to send the entire pitch from a few moves in on my first lead attempt. All of a sudden what had once seemed like yet another impossible dream felt like an inevitability. I was as ready as I was ever going to be.

I rehearsed the headwall many times, but many of the other cruxes of the route got a lot less of my attention. I climbed the Freeblast twice, failing to send the hardest slab pitch either time, and I rehearsed the Monster Offwidth only once. I went down to the Boulder Problem with SJ a second time towards the end of April. We had stayed in touch about the route after our first mission together, and somewhere along the way decided to climb the whole wall together. Technically we were doing separate routes, but most of their terrain was shared up until the end of the Enduro Corners. That’s where the Freerider ventures left onto the Round Table, and the Salathé continues upwards through the roof. We would have separate partners rappel in and meet us at that point, her friend Steph for her and Harrison for me.

SJ had asked for two blocks of time off from work, one at the beginning of May and one at the end as a backup, but I didn’t know if I would have it in me to try a second time if I failed. So it was that we set the dates for the push: May 1st-10th. Once it was official, it became hard to keep the intimidation away. I had gotten by thus far by focusing on smaller things I could do to get ready, rather than thinking about the magnitude of the objective as a whole. I wrote down a list of things I needed to so, such as working certain pitches, collecting water, buying food, etc. but eventually there weren’t very many things left to do except try to keep the panic at bay.

One week before we were scheduled to leave the ground SJ and I returned to the boulder problem, stashing water along the route on our way down. Having not sent that pitch, it remained the final piece of the puzzle I needed to solve and there wasn’t much time left in which to do so. Her partner Mikey came with us, fixing a separate rope on the Teflon Corner for fun while we worked the boulder. I had always heard that the Teflon required some kind of black magic to climb, and had written it off as a possibility without ever even trying it. That was, up until a fated conversation not long before, in which I had run into my friend Alix on my way down from the summit one day. She had climbed the Teflon, and suggested I give it a try. It held the advantage of not costing skin nor power like the boulder did, so with a fixed rope on it and no success on the alternative, I lowered down the blank open book dihedral to check it out. To my surprise, in the span of about fifteen minutes I was at the top of it, having climbed it clean on top rope in just a few quick rapid-fire tries. I tried the boulder one more time after that and succeeded on it too, now finding myself uncertain about which I should plan to climb. The Teflon seemed like a more certain bet, but the boulder was just too cool not to also try. I would have to decide on the fly.

With the final piece in place, there was nothing left to do but stew in anticipation. Part of me still thought this whole thing was ludicrous. Who was I kidding to think I could climb a big wall? So many stars would have to align—weather, logistics, navigating other parties, not to mention I still didn’t have the replacements for my blown-out shoes, a critical element to success. I wouldn’t even be able to send the Freeblast on day 1 without them, but despite everyone at La Sportiva’s best efforts, mysterious shipping roadblocks had held things up. I would end up getting my shoes a mere 11 hours before departing on the morning of May 3rd in a complicated scheme involving overnight shipping, many handoffs, middlemen, wrong phone numbers, and extreme stress.

We planned to prehaul our big wall gear to the first bivvy on Hollow Flake ledge on May 1st, so all we would need on the first day would be our climbing shoes and a bit of water. After that we would rest for a day, and then it would finally be time for the adventure to start. The last day of April brought with it an endlessly restless mind, as I bounced from one activity to the next in feeble attempts to distract myself. The day seemed to crawl by agonizingly slow, yet simultaneously I felt like there wasn’t nearly enough time; though for what I didn’t know. I continually reminded myself of a quote I like that says, “if you wait until you’re ready, you’ll be waiting the rest of your life.” It was time to take the leap and embrace that falling, failing, and learning was half the fun.

We arrived at the base of the Heart Lines to haul our gear to find another party already there, Tate and Evan, slowly getting their stuff together. Not wanting to get stuck behind them in the large cloud of mosquitos at the base of the wall, SJ quickly jumped on the rope and started jumaring. The hauling went painfully slow at first, as she was using a 2-to-1 system to counter the heavy weight of the bag. I took over after another pitch, discovering that my larger frame enabled me to use a much quicker 1-to-1 haul off just my body weight. It was my first time hauling, and as I pulled up the bag I simultaneously tried to load a Google search on how to tie a munter-mule, the knot most commonly used to dock the bags. The spotty cell reception on El Cap failed me however, and I had to ask SJ for help when she caught up to find me struggling. I don’t think I succeeded in tying a munter on the first try until the last day on the wall, with my usual attempt count involving around 3-6 tries.

Despite my inexperience, the hauling went as flawlessly as could be hoped for, with an onsight of the notorious Hollow Flake haul. After hearing numerous horror stories of bags stuck in the Flake for hours, I was filled with pride at our ability to get the bag through the pitch without issue. That simple fact, more than anything else, made me feel like I was finally ready.

On our way down we encountered another party prehauling: Dean and Greg who were scheduled to start climbing the same day as us, though they were only planning to get to Heart Ledge slightly lower on the wall that evening. We knew we would want to get ahead of them in the climbing, since they would have to navigate the Hollow Flake on their first day climbing whereas we had already passed that obstacle. We were less concerned about Tate and Evan, since in theory they should be out of our way by starting a day earlier.

Aiming to get ahead of Dean and Greg and also hoping to move through the Freeblast before the sun hit, SJ and I met in El Cap meadow at 5:45am on the morning of Monday, May 3rd. Max, one of the two friends filming us, joined for the dawn patrol departure. Standing at the base of the wall, it was hard to believe it was finally about to begin, and that I wouldn’t stand on solid ground again or be inside for an unknown number of days. The plan was for SJ and I to climb together for the first four days, and then diverge on the fifth. After that I was prepared to spend as long as it took to redpoint the headwall, up to nine days in the worst-case scenario involving multiple rest days and entire days devoted to sending each pitch. In the end it only took five, a situation I couldn’t have predicted in even my best-case scenario despite the numerous half-baked schemes on how to get ahead of schedule I was constantly concocting.

I lead the first block of the Freeblast, taking us through the first five pitches (with the first four linked into two). By the time we approached the slab crux we saw Greg and Dean below us, and they were moving fast. We needed not only to stay ahead of them for our sake, but also for theirs. On my final lead, the one pitch I had yet to redpoint, I cruised up through easy 5.10 pin-scarred crack terrain to the beginning of the bolted slab. I hung a draw on the bolt, before taking a moment to make the decision that I was not clipping from a very secure stance. Not wanting to take a fall with an armload of slack out while trying to clip the draw, I decided to readjust my stance. In doing so, I slipped off unexpectedly and found myself suddenly plunging downward, ripping out a poorly placed offset cam and smashing into the low angled terrain below. My wrists both suffered abrasions and my knee hit the wall pretty hard, minor bang-ups that would present mild aches and pains for the rest of the wall. I started the pitch over, and managed not to fall this time. SJ and I traded leads after that, as she gunned us up the rest of the Freeblast. As SJ lead up easy terrain, Max jugged off on his fixed rope, and I waited for the rope to run out so I could start simulclimbing, I looked down at my harness to realize that one of my gear loops had become frayed in the chimney of the Half Dollar. Not good. While it didn’t threaten the safety of the equipment itself, if it failed completely whatever gear was clipped to it would fall off, a potentially game ending scenario were I to drop all our cams. I knew I could fix it with a bit of duct tape later, but in my frazzled state I accidentally left behind a quickdraw on the block where I had been sitting once it came time for me to climb. Once twenty feet up the pitch I realized my mistake, but at that point there was no way to go back for it. I would have to hope that Greg and Dean would grab it and give it back when they eventually caught up. Fortunately, I knew SJ would understand.

The sun was fully on us by the time we reached Mammoth Terraces, and it felt like ten million degrees. The rock was hot and slippery, but the climbing for the day was far from over. We were almost level with Hollow Flake ledge, but the path to get there was anything but short, since the route involves multiple long pitches of downclimbing to get around blank sections of the wall. Over on Hollow Flake we could see Evan and Tate still on the ledge. They had been there for hours, and we were starting to grow concerned about their lack of upward progress. A traffic jam could prove problematic for everyone, especially as Greg and Dean continued to nip at our heels. If all six of us ended up sleeping on the same ledge, none of us were likely to get much rest at all, and we would inevitably have a nightmare on the Monster Offwidth the following day.

Dean and Greg finally caught us on the Heart Ledges, but that was when they had to start hauling so their speed slowed down as we charged on ahead. The 5.11c slab pitch off Heart gave me some trouble, as the hot rock offered zero friction. After sliding down the crux move many times, I finally latched the jug with a mighty power scream. SJ coasted through it first try. The Hollow Flake was our last pitch for the day, though by that point we had been climbing for at least ten hours. SJ had agreed to take the lead, which is disadvantageous on that pitch because you have to stay inside the chimney to bump a large cam up a long stretch of offwidth. When following I had the option to quickly layback sections, saving some much-needed energy. I had led the pitch when we went to try the Monster before, so this time we were switching roles. The Monster Offwidth was all mine, as long as SJ would get us up the Hollow Flake. The Flake had felt easy before, but in our state of fatigue it required a surprising amount of oomph at the end of the day. SJ crawled up it as I hung in my harness at a painfully poor belay stance for what felt like ages. I offered what words of encouragement I could, as we both did our best to keep spirits high. Following the pitch involved complicated rope logistics that had to be communicated on the fly due to my misunderstanding of what needed to happen to protect the downclimb and traverse, and prevent a dangerous pendulum were I to fall (which I definitely almost did).

On Hollow Flake Ledge we were psyched to find that Tate and Evan had finally continued moving upwards, though they ended up bivving only two pitches above us; still below the Monster. Greg and Dean stayed on Lung Ledge before the Hollow Flake, so SJ and I were granted the camp to ourselves. We knew we had to move fast the next day in order to hopefully pass Tate and Evan if they didn’t wake up early. It was supposed to be nearly eighty degrees that day, and the Monster would prove exponentially more difficult if we were forced to climb it in the sun. With alarms set for 4:45am, we collapsed onto our portaledges, chatting for a brief moment before letting the night take over our tired minds and bodies.

I slept surprisingly well for my first night on a wall, which came as a great relief. I’ve been something of an insomniac since I was a child, and sleeping in new places often proves especially challenging and can often be a source of great anxiety to me. It was one of the things I worried about the most in the weeks leading up to the climb, because not recovering at night would greatly hinder my ability to climb hard, especially if it was compounded over several days of tossing and turning. My only complaint was the constant chittering of bats, which I solved by playing a white noise track on my ipod to silence the critters.

I woke shortly before my alarm as did SJ, and we quietly broke camp in the dark. There was no sign of movement from the party up above just yet, but in the end they started moving not long after us. We were climbing shortly after six, successfully avoiding the hidden roofs we knew to hinder hauling in that section of the wall and quickly blasting up easy 5.10 terrain. Soon we were within earshot of Tate and Evan, and I called out a cheerful good morning as SJ followed the pitch I had just led. I asked if they were planning on climbing the Monster, to which they replied that they were instead going to aid the crack to its right and graciously let us pass. When SJ arrived at the belay she commented that my decreased stress was obvious.

The original Salathé route follows the crack that Tate and Evan aided, a 5.13 pitch instead of climbing the Monster Offwidth. When Skinner and Piana freed the route they opted for this path because gear did not exist that could protect a crack of that size back then, and the pair had gotten so spooked on the Hollow Flake below (nowadays protectable by a #7 or equivalent) that they did not want to climb another runout wide crack so soon after. Most people that free the Salathé these days climb the Monster, and while the historic route was important to me I chose that path as well. There were various reasons, but the main one was that I simply wanted to climb the Monster. It’s one of the most badass features on El Cap, a gaping chasm visible from the ground that looks like it just goes on forever. I couldn’t justify having a stick and poke ass tattoo from Vedauwoo, land of the wide and flared, without feeling compelled to climb such a crack.

We had done our best, but by the time we got the belay for the Monster it was already creeping into the sun. We had told Max and Garrett that we aimed to be climbing the offwidth at 10, yet it was already 11am and the filmmakers were nowhere to be seen. They were late, and we were late, and there was no time to wait. I needed to get up the crack quickly not just for myself, but so as not to hose SJ since she would have worse conditions the longer it took me to climb. The downclimb traverse into the crack in particular was a concern, for while my long arms could easily reach through the crux move, her wingspan was probably about a foot less than mine and the move proved a much greater challenge.

I was surprised at how difficult the downclimb felt that day. When I had climbed it once before it had felt casual, but just like the Hollow Flake, everything felt harder when you were linking it into an entire big wall. Who could have guessed? I moved up the Monster as fast as I could, following beta my friend Prith had sent me from his impressive ground up Freerider attempt, in which only the Monster shut him down. “Three no hands rests, sprint to them,” it said. I remembered there being a number of small crimps inside the crack that had proved useful in my practice run, but in the heat they proved all but useless, and after dry firing off one of them I committed to just embracing the pure grovel. As I was about halfway up, a rope came snaking down the face to my right. Max and Garret had arrived just in time, having rappelled all the way from the summit that morning.

[The Monster (photo by Max Buschini)]

“You guys better hustle!” I yelled, “I’m going for it!” upon hearing my voice they were called to action, and a moment later Max appeared over the edge, camera already rolling. I shuffled higher in the crack, joking with him about how a good friend had recently said I never looked like I was having any fun while climbing, but I definitely was right now. Before long however, fatigue from the long and strenuous pitch started to set in, and there was no more energy for playing around. My chatter turned to grunts and screams as I struggled up the last section of sustained offwidth. I no longer had the strength to grab holds, small muscles now completely useless. The only option was to rely on the large muscle groups and embrace a full physical battle as I forced the final section. Then it was over, as I joined Tate at the belay above, completely spent. He was in high spirits, having not just climbed an offwidth marathon, and helped me navigate his well-organized maze of ropes and haul bags.

In my state of fatigue, it took me about as long to haul the pitch as it took SJ to climb it, as she crushed the traverse and then the Monster with apparent ease. On top we shared a moment of great relief that the second crux was over. That pitch was really the only one you don’t get a second try on if you mess up, because there’s no way we would have been able to do it another time if the first was a failure.

I complained my way up the next super short pitch of more offwidth and we were finally at the Alcove, our home for the next two nights. One of our commonly used strategies was that we would get to our bivvy and then go ahead and climb the next pitch that night, fixing the rope to it so that in the morning we could move quicker towards that day’s objective by simply jumaring up. It took hours to muster the energy to keep going after the Monster, but eventually the next section of the wall went into the shade and we drug ourselves up two more pitches of blue collar 5.10 crack climbing. That distance got us nearly to the base of the Boulder Problem, our next big crux. When we arrived at the end of the day’s climbing, we encountered Tate and Evan, who had continued upwards whilst we rested through the sun. They planned to continue, so it was the last we would see of the friendly duo.

SJ and I returned to camp, last reserves of energy totally spent. Greg and Dean had arrived at the alcove, and another climber Kevin had rappelled down from a projecting day on the Boulder as well. With the filmmakers joining us, we had a total of seven people in the alcove that night. It would have been a nightmare at any other bivvy ledge, but there was plenty of space to be shared amongst friends new and old, and we enjoyed the company as we shared stories of our adventures.

[slumber party in the alcove!]

Greg and Dean voyaged towards the sky the following morning, as SJ, Garret, Max and I hunkered down for a rest day that was only true to name in a physical sense. That day was probably the most difficult one I spent on the route, for while my tired body appreciated the chance to recover, my anxious mind would not stay silent.

I have always held a sort of reverence for filling my time with meaningful moments, loathe to ever feel like I’m “killing time,” because I think life is far too short for such a mentality. That day however, it would have been hard to claim that I was doing anything else. Time slowed to a crawl. I would look at my phone expecting an hour to have passed, only to find that it had barely been twenty minutes. I played cards with Max, ate food, stretched, wrote, ate food, made some art, ate food, and then cycled through all the activities again. No matter what I did however, I could not stop thinking about the Boulder Problem. It loomed over me like a shadow even greater than the one cast by El Cap Spire, which kept us in the shade for most of the eighty-degree day.

The Boulder Problem was what it all came down to. I knew if I got through that I could do the headwall, but if I couldn’t, all of my hard work over the past month, plus all of the passion and labor from the photographers documenting my adventure, would be… not for nothing, but certainly not for what I wanted. SJ had told me once that she had been given the advice that it wasn’t worth going for the route unless you were sure you would send. It was just too much work otherwise. I was sure I could send everything else, even if it took a few tries, or even a few days. I just needed to get there. I must have run through the sequence fifty times in my head that afternoon, missing obvious plays in our card game in my distraction. Unable to shake my nerves, I grew careless and let first a page of crossword puzzles, then my bowl, and then my jumaring ladders all blow away in the wind. Up until that day I had been able to stay present in the moment, avoiding this fear and overwhelming intimidation by simply focusing on whatever was my current objective, but with nothing important to do now I was completely falling apart.

At long last, night fell. We caught a glimpse of Starlink passing overhead, a train of endless blinking satellites marching across the sky. We talked in hushed voices about how it might mean a future where cell service doesn’t suck in Yosemite, and when the conversation reached its natural end a new one was not started. I was left alone with my restless mind.

I must have been more tired than my hatred of resting had been willing to admit, because sleep came surprisingly fast, even for me. Kevin had reported poor conditions the previous day on the boulder, so we had another 5am start to try and beat the heat. With the overnight lows barely dipping below fifty however, all it really did was buy us extra time in the shade to grease off the holds that had never gotten a chance to actually cool down.

Getting to the boulder was quick, because we decided to leave our bags in the Alcove and haul that afternoon to give us the maximum amount of time and energy for the upcoming crux. It was hardly worth it though, because when we arrived at the Boulder Problem the air felt heavy with humidity and heat. My skin had never really recovered from trying it a week before, so I knew I only had a few tries at best. SJ and I each gave it one go, slipping and sliding off the small crimps and rounded foot smears. It felt impossible, and I lost half my skin on the warmup attempt. We bemoaned to each other that this was no good, that it just wouldn’t go in these conditions for either of us. There needed to be some wind at the very least to clear the mugginess out of the air, a condition that rarely seems in short supply on El Cap.

My nerves were out of control, as I panicked about how to best overcome this obstacle that threatened to end our dreams here and now. I decided to try the Teflon Corner instead, an option that I knew had a higher chance of success because I could try it endlessly without destroying my delicate fingertips. SJ belayed me on a slimy traverse across the face and then pendulumed over for a patient belay. I didn’t remember any of my beta from before, only that I needed to get through about ten feet of pure granite wizardry before the first real hold would appear and theoretically mark the end of the difficulties.

I climbed up, clipped the two permadraws, and fell off, landing right back at the beginning. Without resting for more than a few seconds I pulled back on, stemmed up, and fell off again. And again. And again, and again, and again. Each time I remembered a bit more of what had gotten me through it the previous week, until finally I pulled through to the good hold where it should have been over… and then fell off yet again. Several more tries had me falling down low some more, never with more than a minute of rest before I was pressing my feet against the blank walls once more. My legs were starting to get tired from the stemming, as I had been rapid-firing for probably almost half an hour now, but I was so close I just needed one more try, one more, just one more and it would surely go. I needed to just do it, so that I could support SJ back on the Boulder Problem. It would be a huge pain to keep switching between the two.

Things were getting simultaneously more dialed and more sloppy, as SJ encouraged me to rest. “After this go,” I assured her, not knowing if I really meant it or not. It was probably my tenth try, as I danced back up the corner. This time I finally remembered what to do, when to stem and when to bridge, until I was back at my high point. I felt my right foot slip, the same mistake that had cost me the send before.

“No!” SJ growled in denial, almost a command, and I couldn’t help but agree. Not again. This time I kept it together, and a few more moves and I was finally standing on real footholds. I went to clip a piton, only to discover I had no draws on my harness. No matter, I would just use the carabiner off a cam. Whoops, dropped the cam. I didn’t even care; I charged to the top of the pitch with relief. A grin split my face as I clipped the chains, knowing that I now held the key to actually getting a shot at redpointing the Headwall. Getting through this crux had been my moment of sink or swim, and after feeling like I was drowning for the past 24 hours, I finally remembered how to doggie paddle (and now God damnit I was going to doggie paddle with all my heart up the rest of this route).

[the Teflon corner (photo by Garret Bleir)]

We returned to the Boulder Problem for SJ to give it some more effort, but my nerves must have been contagious. High levels of stress and continuing bad conditions (although the wind eventually picked up) held her back. By 11am the sun hit, but I reassured her I would belay her all night if that was what it took to get her up the pitch. We returned to the alcove to begin the arduous hauls, and I took the lead on the Sewer pitch, a perpetually wet 5.10 chimney/roof that guards the third bivvy on the Block.

Once at camp, we discussed how best to proceed. I still felt good and was optimistic that I could fire the Enduro Corners that evening, but SJ still needed to return to the boulder problem. We had plenty of time for both, but not enough rope to fix both up and down. Pushing the high point had the potential to dramatically accelerate my timeline on the route. It would mean I would have only the short roof pitch to climb the following day before tackling the Headwall, instead of having to also climb two pumpy and difficult pitches beforehand. Still, there was no way I would ever want to proceed if it meant sacrificing SJ’s chance at success.

In the end we decided that we would proceed, climbing the 5.10 flake pitch and then I would get my shot at the Enduro. We would then fix the lead line back to the Block, and SJ would fix the haul line back down to the Boulder, where she would micro traxion it once it cooled down in the evening. I waited until the evening, hoping for cooler temperatures, but there was no way around the fact that the rock had been baking in the sun for most of the day. There was little friction to speak of, but I didn’t care. After sending the Teflon Corner I felt unstoppable. I felt a confidence come over me that afternoon that couldn’t have been a starker contrast to my mindset just a few hours earlier.  I quickly dispatched both pitches, celebrating the fact that I was now done with the climbing shared by Freerider. I was finally ready to begin climbing on the Salathé itself.

We rappelled back to the Block where I stopped for dinner and SJ returned to the Boulder Problem. Not long after, I heard a commotion from below. Peering over the edge, I saw SJ perched at the anchors.

“How’s it going?” I called down.

“I did it!” she replied, her voice audibly choked by tears.

A few minutes later she returned to the Block and we embraced, my own eyes watering as she cried in relief and excitement. We were both taking this thing to the top now, whatever it took.

It was a beautiful evening as we set up camp, yet it was tinged with bittersweetness as we lamented that our shared portion of the journey was at its end. Tomorrow we would go our separate ways, but at least we could enjoy each other’s company for one last night. The Valley could not have been more spectacular from our vantage point, a mere eleven pitches from the summit of El Cap. I had only to climb eight of them still. I never would have guessed it at the time, but that night would be my last on El Capitan.

[SJ setting up for the night]

Steph joined us on the Block on the morning of our fifth day, but SJ decided that it would be best if she took another rest day. Feeling good myself, I packed my bags and said goodbye. I met Harrison at the base of the Roof a few hours later, well behind schedule thanks to a stuck bag and the hassle of having to fix a rope for him to get down to my position under the steep overhang. Max dangled on a fixed line out in space, ready for me to begin. This remained the only hard pitch that I had never sent. I had only ever tried it once, so it remained something of a question mark, but I knew it would go.

[the roof (photo by Max Buschini)]

Go it did, first try despite the chill of a day that was finally not a scorching hot sufferfest. I now dangled at the base of the headwall, plenty of time left in the day for a few tries and with energy to spare having only climbed one pitch so far. How long had I been waiting for this moment? How many times had I been here by myself, alone yet surrounded by the ghosts of my heroes, dreaming of even simply having the opportunity to try to send? It was hard to believe it was finally time.

I racked up, mostly remembering my gear beta but knowing I would have to at least partially rely on the colored tick marks I had used to mark where certain cams went. Sun crept onto the wall, as it was around noon by now. Perfect, for the wind had picked up and there was a distinct chill in the air. I laced up my Miuras, rubber still fresh from only a few pitches’ wear. They felt unbelievably sticky, gluing my feet to the tiny edges I had slipped off so many times in rehearsal in more weathered kicks. I did the initial boulder problem first try, a feat I would not have expected in my wildest dreams. There was nothing for it now but to climb as hard as I could, for as long as I could, and hope that it was enough to get me to the anchors.

[the first boulder problem on the headwall (photo by Garret Bleir)]

I was overly cautious at first, gripping holds too tightly and letting pump build in terrain that should have been easy, but I could not afford to slip off from a careless mistake; not when I knew this might be the best chance I was ever going to get at accomplishing my dream. Soon enough though I found some semblance of flow, as I entered the body of the main splitter. I knew how to climb this crack.

It felt like I was on that pitch for hours, but those spectating said that I climbed it relatively fast. In the moment it was impossible to tell when the entirety of my focus was dialed on each foot placement, each jam, making sure everything was perfect.

When I clipped into the anchors it felt like I was dreaming. I had to wait there for quite some time for Garret to get me an end of the rope so I could jug up to Long Ledge where I would rest before trying the second pitch. While I was waiting I caressed the crack repeatedly, whispering a quiet ‘Thank you,’ to it for everything it had given. My eyes watered each time that I looked at the crack up close, one of the most beautiful pitches I will probably ever climb. They would dry as I broadened my focus to the goings on around me, as Max jumared through space and Harrison packed up the belay, and then water again the moment I returned my gaze to the rock.

Arriving at Long Ledge felt surreal. I still had one more hard pitch, but it felt inevitable despite my increasing fatigue. I had been here so many times, had so many special moments in this place, yet never one like this. Having just sent surrounded by people who wanted to support me and believed in me, the sun warm but not hot, and a large cache of food and water waiting for me… it was nothing short of magical.

After an hour or two of rest, I could wait no longer. I had never expected I would be this close to completing the climb so soon, but I had long since decided that I was just going to keep climbing and see how far I got that day. I hung draws on the fixed nuts in the thin boulder problem crux, and lowered down with Harrison to the anchor for the final crux. The pitch is short, with two cruxes separated by a no hands rest, but the incredible movement and wild exposure make it my favorite part of the entire route.

With photographers in position, I launched off. I only got a few moves up before realizing I had mixed up my sequence, thanks to a tick mark that had been added by someone else since last I had climbed this section almost two weeks ago. I jumped off and immediately started over, this time making no mistakes until I was screaming as my fingers closed over the juggy left side of Long Ledge.

[the final crux (photo by Garret Bleir)]

Adrenaline coursed through my veins as I celebrated. It only took a few minutes before the three others joined me on the ledge, filming my reaction as I tried to wrap my head around what I had just done. I had just sent the Salathé Headwall. There were only four pitches between me and the summit: one 5.11+ I had never tried, two 5.10s, and a final 5.6.

I could never really explain in words nor writing the true scale of how much the route meant to me. As I embraced Harrison I tried to vocalize to my team how deep the passion ran in that moment. I had poured all of my heart into this, chasing that special feeling of inspiration that captures my imagination so rarely, yet changes my life so grandly when it does. I knew it would probably be a long time before I found it on this scale again, so I tried to soak up every second of the immense and vivid joy I felt.

It was only 4:00pm, so I made the easy decision to continue climbing to the summit. As much as I loved this place, I had spent plenty of time here already and I simply wanted to fit a bit more climbing into my day. I was having too much fun to call it a day.

I had told Harrison to bring enough supplies for four days, but he would later tell me he only brought enough for one. Even at the beginning of the day, somehow he knew it was all I would need. Meanwhile I had been prepared to try this 100 foot section of the wall forever if I had to.

I had been eager to try the 5.11+ pitch for ages, after staring at those golden knobs traversing into the unknown so many times. It did not disappoint, though exhaustion had started to set in and the many sidepulls and underclings brought with them a quick build of lactic acid. At the belay, Garret and Max played a comical tug-of-war with their fixed lines as they tried to haul them out.

[The second to last pitch of 5.10. doesn’t get much better than this. (Photo by Garret Bleir)

Three pitches left. A glorious 5.10 hand crack. Two pitches left. The final 5.10, and I spectacularly fell off it. I tried again, this time succeeding and squeezing into the last 5.9 squeeze chimney. The Salathé is notorious for its high volume of wide climbing, so of course it had to end this way. I made a calculated decision to enter the slot left side in, which proved to be a mistake. I had to reverse the entire thing, slithering down the short chasm, flipping around, and worming back up. I almost fell trying to escape the squeeze, heel hooking desperately until I could somehow navigate into a layback. It turned to a hand crack after that, and finally I was only one 5.6 scramble from the top.

The ultimate summit joy was overshadowed by a weary final haul, where the friction from twisted ropes running over low angle slab required all four of us to get the bags over the lip. Then it was done.

My first time on top with SJ, I had told her that one day we would stand on top having climbed there instead of hiking. Back then they were just words, barely connected to a reality I thought I would ever experience. I set out to climb the Salathé Wall not knowing if I had any real chance of success, or if it was just a pipe dream. I had no idea what it would take, but I knew I would never find out unless I tried.

Currently I am twenty-eight years old. In the beginning I thought perhaps if I started now, I could aim to accomplish this goal by the time I was thirty. It seemed reasonable enough, considering how ridiculously much I had to learn. Two years turned into one month, and then my nine-day ascent plan turned into five. My timelines were conservative because I was pretty intimidated every step of the way, and wanted to be realistic. The dream seemed so overwhelmingly massive that it was all I could do to focus on each baby step to get me there. SJ and I would often discuss how the mountain seemed so huge when we first started climbing on it, but that over time it started to feel slightly smaller as we got to know each pitch, ledge, and occasional clump of grass.

In the end though, everything really is bigger in Yosemite. Big days on big walls requiring big imaginations, big characters with big stories, and most importantly bigger dreams than just about anywhere else I could ever imagine. Having spent a bit of time here this spring trying my absolute best to grow, I’m proud to say my comfort zone is a bit bigger now too.

Epilogue: A Heinous Descent

After a quick repacking of bags and sorting of gear, the team decided to descend the mountain the night I topped out. Sleeping in my own bed sounded nice, and drinking a cold beer even moreso. I had cut out the alcohol a few weeks before, since it was having a pretty negative effect on my ability to recover on rest days. I gingerly tested the weight of my haul bag with each new item, feeling it get heavier and heavier as it filled. My legs were the strongest they’ve probably ever been, after hoofing myself up the East Ledges so many times recently, but unless I take up crossfit again I don’t think they’ll ever actually be all that good at the walking stuff.

The bag seemed manageable at first, though only because we were walking downhill. I slowly picked my way down the slabs, surviving through the distraction of the majestic sight of Half Dome in the glow of the setting sun.  By the time slab turned to trail however, it was quickly becoming a sufferfest. As we neared the top of the rappels, I lost my footing on a steep piece of slickrock. I immediately sat down to prevent myself from tumbling down the hillside, but upon doing so found that I was somewhat stuck in that position. The angle was too steep for me to lean backwards, and too slippery for me to stand back up.

Harrison held my feet in place as I tried to stand, but the weight of the bag was too much for my tired muscles, so instead I tipped over sideways, the bag pulling me onto my back like a turtle. It was all I could do to laugh at the situation, as I helplessly let Harrison hoist the haul bag off the ground for long enough that I could regain my footing.

Before long however I lost my ability to see the humor in my tiredness. By the time we reached the rappels darkness had fallen and I was running on empty.

“Have you ever rapped with a heavy load before?” Harrison asked me, and I assured him that I had. I thought I knew how to ‘ride the pig,’ but as he disappeared into the darkness I quickly realized I was in over my head. I wrestled the bag onto the grigri and started down, but I had wildly underestimated its weight and my own exhaustion. Every minor ledge it caught on required me to manhandle the bag, and after just one rope length I had sunk into a state of delirious despair. Halfway down the second rap, I abandoned my pride and just started crying. I couldn’t pick up the bag anymore at all, even though it couldn’t have weighed more than a few dozen pounds.

“Are you doing okay?” I heard a voice from the darkness below.

“No, not really,” I choked out, as I struggled to pass a knot around a core shot section of the rope.

Harrison had waited for me at the next anchor, and offered to trade bags. I stared at the wall in silence, warring with my own stubbornness. Of course I wanted help. I needed help. I also took a lot of pride in how little help I had had this entire time, when so often I really could have used it. I had hiked these ropes up myself. I had hauled the route. I had rigged the fixed lines, I had collected the water, I had done it all without ever asking for more than was absolutely necessary. A part of me wanted to see this final task through on my own too, as if it were a rite of passage to be able to truly call myself a big wall climber. Another part of me knew that it was time to check my ego and just get off the damn mountain.

“Are you sure?” I asked in a shaky voice, hating the bitter taste of the words as they came out of my mouth.

We swapped packs, and while Harrison’s bag was probably a third of the weight of mine, it still contained two ropes and plenty of other gear. I could barely carry even that, as I continued to struggle my way down the fixed lines. Harrison easily kept pace with me the rest of the way down, carrying the haul bag as if it were a light day pack while I fought to keep putting one foot in front of the other every step of the way.

A kind stranger picked us up as we hitch hiked the last mile back to El Cap Meadow. It was the first time I’d ever done so; yet another new thing the wall was teaching me to do. The driver offered us some whiskey, and what’s normally my least favorite drink never tasted so good.

Looking up at El Capitan from the meadow a few minutes later felt surreal. Had I really just been up there a few hours ago? I’d spent so much time staring at it from down here that it almost felt like any ordinary night, just gazing up at the monolith with stars in my eyes and fantasizing about one day climbing the thing. It almost felt like I’d dreamt the whole crazy adventure, and a part of me couldn’t help but wish I was still on the mountain. At least then I’d be sure it was really real. As soon as I crawled into my ultra-comfortable bed however, I was more than glad that I was back on the ground. I knew I’d be on the wall again soon enough anyway.

The Impossible Dream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Indian Creek, With Love

Climbing highlights from a long and fruitful season in Indian Creek

I often tend to wax poetic when I talk about Indian Creek, telling romantic tales of this place’s immeasurable beauty, unmatched and endless crack climbing, unshakable community, or the way all these things make me feel like I’m living out the part of my life that I’ll look back on as the time I truly felt the most alive. I came here as a novice trad climber for the first time two years ago, and instantly fell so in love that I’ve been hard pressed to go anywhere else in the springs and falls that have since followed.

A classic Creek scene: Matt and Nat holding a Mountain Dew with endless Wingate in the background

When I first started coming here I sought out mostly finger cracks, but over time my love grew to include even more difficult sizes like that of off-fingers and offwidth. I started wanting to climb not just the things that suited me, but the things that would really challenge me and mold me into the best crack climber I could be. I’ve poured my heart into the striking red sandstone of the Utah desert these past few years. It’s changed both the shape of my body, and that of my soul. Toughened skin, swollen knuckles, sandy.. everything; it’s a small price to pay for the fullness in my heart that comes from battling a hard splitter crack and coming out victorious, then getting to share the evening with all of my friends around a burning wax box in Creek Pasture.

Indian Creek has come to define a part of me. So much so that over time I found myself maybe wanting to define a part of it too. One way or another, I wanted to write my own little chapter here that would add to the greater story of this place I care so much about.

With that goal in mind, the siren song of the Wingate Splitter called me back to the Creek towards the end of September after a long summer in Wyoming. My heart had been longing for the desert for some time, and I was willing to put up with a bit of pre-season heat to finally scratch the itch.

I rolled into Utah positively chomping at the bit as usual, with a tick list longer and more ambitious than I could ever hope to accomplish in a single season. It was a mix of unfinished business from the past as well as goals and dreams for the future. After a frustrating defeat on my summer project, I found myself called more to splitters than ever. I was tired of the finesse and crystal wizardry of granite, tired of falling not because my strength failed, but because I didn’t position my foot just right. I just wanted to physically try really freaking hard.

I found the first answer to my quest on the relatively under the radar mega-splitter Tricks are for Kids. Established by Steve Hong for the first 45m at 5.13b-ish and later extended by Didier Berthoud to nearly 70m and maybe a letter grade harder, it is what I consider to be one of the most impressive cracks in the American Southwest.  

An early spring attempt on Tricks [Photo by Nick Malik]

Little information is publicized about this climb (and that which is on Mountain Project is far from accurate), partially because of its proximity to the rancher’s land on the valley floor, partially because it is one of only two climbs really worth doing at its wall (the other being Silly Rabbit, an awesome 5.12+), and partially because it isn’t in the shade long enough to handle a crowd if multiple parties were to try and climb it on the same day. It also requires a rack so heavy on certain sizes that all but the true Creek die-hards or gear junkies could even supply the 11 or so .75s needed just to get to the first anchors.

I was lucky that two of my best friends and regular climbing partners Matt and Nick were already psyched for the project and had fixed a line on the extension before I even got there. If it weren’t for them I probably would never have even tried it. We spent many a memorable day hiking out together and taking turns rope-soloing whilst the others listened to 80s disco music, solved crosswords, and waited for their turn. A Tricks lap even on top rope usually took upwards of an hour, so we built endurance fast through these workouts.

I sent Tricks to the first anchor on one of my first lead attempts that season (I had tried it once before in the spring), but fell in the extension. Matt was the first to clip the upper anchors, in what may have been only the second or third ascent. He sent in epic style, committing to a burly runout that became even more mega when he fumbled and somehow dropped his final cam still some 15’ from the chains. I bagged it a week later for what was probably the first female ascent, and Nick too finished it later in the season.

Just how long is Tricks? I’m not even to the first anchor [Photo by Nick Malik]

It’s hard to truly describe what it felt like to send that climb. After nearly an hour on lead and a full 70m rope length off the deck, the true redpoint crux arrives just before the anchors when the crack pinches down to fingers then tips with sparse to no feet until the final mediocre hand pods that signal that the end of the battle has finally arrived. You’ve already climbed a full 5.13 pitch of ring locking to the first anchor that would give even the best Creek climber a run for their money, and you still have to keep it together for the extension to claim true mastery over Tricks are for Kids.

When I clipped the chains on this incredible climb, one of the best I’ve ever had the honor of doing, what I felt most was gratitude. Gratitude for the privilege for every part of the journey, both on the send go, and over the past few weeks of projecting. Failure had never tasted so sweet as it did on Tricks, because it meant I got to climb that amazing pitch one more time.

When I sent the Tricks extension I was momentarily brought back to Stingray, my winter project. When my partner Prith had sent, he quietly thanked the climb for all of the lessons it had taught him; a stark contrast to my screams of relief upon my own send two weeks later. I understood now what I didn’t back then, as I thanked Tricks aloud for everything it had given me.

[For a video about Tricks, look at the end of this post or click here]

Living our silly creek catch phrase of “drink green, climb green” by drinking the remainder of my Mountain Dew (fuel for before the send) and a watermelon Four Loco (celebration for after the send because I told Matt I’d never hand one before) and also eating a Hostess cupcake, because sending… [Photo by Nick Malik]

By the time we finished Tricks the weather was ever so slowly starting to cool down, as we were forced to chase shade less and less. Endurance had also been built during all those days of rope soloing, and the season was in full swing. Next on my agenda was one I had been saving for some time: Winner Takes All.

Winner had been on my radar since the previous fall when I had been entranced by tales of perfect fingerlocks and the solitude of the Disappointment Cliffs (aptly names for how few actual cracks fracture the Creek’s largest wall). I also knew this climb to be relatively straight forward, and thus a contender for a chance at onsighting. To do a 5.13 first try on gear had been a big goal of mine that had barely eluded me for quite some time, and I thought Winner Takes All might just be the perfect climb to finally break that grade barrier on.

The climb conveniently bakes in the sun for the entire day, thus I was forced to wait until I had put in my time reacquainting myself with sandstone as we waited for temperatures to eventually feel like fall. The leaves on the cottonwood trees began to change from green to vibrant hues of orange and gold, and then brittle and brown as October passed, yet by the end of the month we were still chasing shady walls (and quickly getting tired of them; most of the Creek has a better aspect for climbing in the sun).

Finally the forecast offered some reprieve from the heat as a surprise snowstorm crept onto the radar. It was supposed to hit by early afternoon, but before it did the day promised to be the first good sunny climbing conditions all season. As I walked to the bathroom that morning Nick came sprinting down from where he was camped in the upper loop of Creek Pasture to intercept me. Thinking he was trying to race me to the toilet (and knowing I couldn’t afford to wait), I took off running too.

“Want to go to Winner today?” he asked instead.

A perfect splitter [Photo by Nick Malik]

We were joined by Matt and Eric, neither of whom had been up there either. I won the Rock, Paper, Scissors over who got to go first, and nervously strapped on my climbing shoes. Having blown out one of my Cobra Ecos but not the other (my preferred shoes for thin cracks), I wore a strange combo of one slipper and one stiff TC Pro. They’re about as opposite of trad shoes as you can get.

The thing about onsighting is that you only get one shot. Ever. It’s always been a strength of mine, but still I was incredibly nervous as I stepped into the sandy dihedral at the beginning of the climb. The first few pieces are small C3s that have to be back-cleaned (removed) for rope drag, followed by a cruxy roof-pull that guards the main splitter. After that it’s just cranking out long moves between small pods and trying not to stop to place too much gear lest you let the pump get the better of you.

As I stared down the crack from a precarious stance after the roof, the nerves slowly drained away. There were no more tricks on this climb, just a pure test of what I consider to be my strongest style. Jitters turned to flow as I let go of the pressure, determined to do my best and not worry about the outcome; that was all I had control over. Any further fears were just distractions from climbing strategically. One move at a time after another and I soon found myself clipping the anchors, onsight and long time goal successfully complete.

Matt and Eric both sent the climb on their second attempts, climbing with fluidity and skill while Nick took pictures (having already sent it the previous year). We watched the storm brewing over Canyonlands as the day progressed, but it kept its distance for long enough to get a full session in and even walk over to scope the legendary Hong Kong Phooey. A project for another season perhaps.

Celebrating a team send with Matt [Photo by Nick Malik]

Due to the seldom visited nature of the Disappointment Cliffs there is no trail, so we began our descent down a random patch of talus that looked as friendly as any right as the wind started to pick up. Threatening clouds had quickly gone from far away to right above us, the smell of rain was in the air, and we felt the pressure drop dramatically from one minute to the next. As we started glissading down the scree, half running back to the car I was reminded of earlier in the season when my backpack had decided to trundle itself from the base of the Optimator. Whilst I was packing up it had randomly tipped over and started rolling down the talus cone, spilling all of my belongings across the hill, breaking my phone and losing my keys in the process. Such experiences just go to show how valuable the trails are around here, and how important the work of building them done by the Access Fund and other volunteers is.

The snowstorm ended up being mild, and by Halloween it was warm and back to shady climbing again. Being my favorite holiday and having had a successful season thus far, I took a hiatus from projecting for a while after that, focusing instead on climbing as many 5.12s as possible until I started to run out of classics at most of the walls I was frequenting.

One of many fun 5.12s I climbed this season whilst chasing shade: Stage Fright at the Trick or Treat Wall [Photo by Nick Malik]

By mid-November I was looking for something hard to capture my imagination once more. I had a few things on my mind, but just like Tricks and Winner, they were mostly at obscure crags that became hard to rally partners for. It was around that time that I received an unexpected message from Karl Kelley, a long time Creek fanatic and the author of the widely used Creek Freak guidebook.

“Hello. We don’t know each other but, Karl here,” it began. He wanted to tell me about a route that might interest me that matched what I had been psyched on that season: off fingers of the .5 and .75 size. So much time in the desert this year had caused my fingers to swell significantly, making the tips cracks I used to prefer more of a challenge and causing me to diversify into this new realm that I have since grown to love.

“When I first visited this wall looong ago, there was just one route,” Karl went on to say. “We immediately started putting up routes.. back in those days it was fully TABOO to use fixed gear (besides anchors) on a route, so we chose not to do one obvious line that looked as though it would need a few protection bolts..” his message said. As the ethics changed over time he had gone back to put up the route, a 5.11 overhanging hand crack called Circus Tricks. It had an extension that increased dramatically in difficulty that his friend Steven had tried, but the first ascent remained yet unclaimed so now he wanted to gift it to me.

By that point another more intense storm had chased away most of the inhabitants of the Creek. In the campground our numbers could be counted on two hands; the dozens of vans bivvying down every dirt road or camped at the parking for every crag long gone. I had been trying to get people to go to this mysterious climb that I had been calling the “Karl Kelley Project” for some time, but when there’s a lot of people trying to make plans together it’s hard to convince them all to quest off to an obscure crag with you. The emptiness may have been my saving grace in that regard, because as I got down to just a few partners suddenly one day everyone was finally down to check out the Circus Wall (where the project was supposed to be).

I dragged my friends Katie, Matt B (there are many Matts in the Creek), and Alan up the 45 minute non-trail, hoping against hope that this would be worth what felt like the longest approach in Indian Creek.

Tucked away behind two equally obscure crags called the Prow and the Crypto Wall, the Circus Wall felt like something of an anomaly. Striking white calcite bands streaked across the walls, and rainbow colored hoodoos were sculped in the sand all across the hillside. At the base of the crag I immediately dropped my pack and took off towards where this climb was supposed to be while my friends went the other direction to scope some climbs from the guidebook.

As I rounded the corner alone, suddenly Circus Tricks came into view. There was no mistaking it, as my jaw dropped open in awe. There is a lot of variety in the sandstone in the Creek, from bullet hard black varnish to the soft chossy sand of recent rockfall, and everything in between. The wall was the lighter hue of softer rock, yet it was streaked by other colors and through it ran a singular crack that split the wall all the way to the rim (normally the rim requires multiple pitches to reach, but the walls are much shorter at this particular crag).

The line traverses in from the left side, chains from the first anchor are where the angle changes, also seen in next photo

It was a perfect #2s hand crack to the first anchor just as Karl had said, but without the greasy rounded edges of the overclimbed and polished classics at Supercrack Buttress or Donnelly Canyon. It also was wildly overhung; the only way a hand crack would ever be as difficult as 5.11. Above that the crack narrowed down to what looked like .75s and got even steeper, almost so much so that it could be called a roof.

I was impressed to say the least. More than that however, I felt deeply honored. The climb looked like it should be a mega-classic; perhaps at a more popular wall it would have been, yet somehow after all these years it still remained unclimbed. I simply couldn’t believe that something like this had been given to me by a stranger and a local. I simply had to climb it.

By the time I got to the roof on lead I discovered it was both shorter and even steeper than I had initially thought from the ground. Ring locking through a roof doesn’t leave much room to stop and place gear, so it was a good thing the crux actually only ended up being about ten moves long (with my 6’2” wingspan at least). I managed to squeak it out on my second attempt, after a very lengthy session swinging around on my first try trying only semi-successfully to find places I could squish my hands into the crack instead of having to ring lock.

The crux of the extension, note where the rope hangs for perspective on how steep it is

Karl had asked me to keep the name the same for the first pitch although there was no plaque nor was it listed in the book or on the internet. I was happy to do so as I liked to think the name Circus Tricks could be an homage to Tricks itself, the climb that had so inspired me earlier in the season. I called it 5.13-, though any confirmation or dispute as to the grade would be very welcome since it’s a style that can’t really be compared to anything else in the Creek.

The day I sent Circus Tricks was finally the last real day of climbing in the shade, and by that point it was the middle of November. It had been an unusually warm season, waiting for colder weather to start new projects at the sunny walls only to have it elude us up until it was almost Thanksgiving.

By then people had started to roll in for Creeksgiving, putting an end to the loneliness of an empty campground. We were back to party-cragging, aka rolling out to the crag with as many people as can cram into the van of whoever’s driving that day. It meant a return to the less obscure walls, where there are enough climbs to entertain a larger group of more diverse abilities.

Thus we ended up at the Reservoir Wall one day; a crag stacked with some of the best 5.12 finger cracks in the Creek: Left Crack, Middle Crack, Right Crack, and Cyborg. I had already done all of them, so I decided to check out a less classic 5.12 called Act Your Age. I navigated some bolted face climbing, only to take a surprise fall trying to transition to the crack higher up. I had ripped off a large handhold, sending it hurtling towards my belayer. It luckily just missed him, but I ripped out a blindly placed cam and hit an arete pretty hard in the fall. The rest of the climb was a shooshy (aka climbing poorly because of fear) endeavor. Breaking holds and ripping gear has a way of getting in your head and making it hard to trust the rock sometimes.

I lowered off the route with a bit of an acid-flashback look in my eyes and declared that I needed to go take a walk to clear my head, stripping off my harness and dumping it on the ground without even unracking all the cams I had just used. I wandered around the cliff hoping to scope From Switzerland With Love. It was a climb I had been interested in for as long as I’d been climbing at the Creek, thanks to footage of the first ascent by Didier in one of my favorite climbing movies Return2Sender. The idea of trying it had been my motivation for coming up to Res Wall in the first place, but I didn’t know how stoked I was after how poorly my day had gotten started.

It didn’t take me long to find the climb, and it took even less time for it to shake me out of the pity party mindset that I had adopted; it just looked too damn cool. I soloed up the 5.7 choss (arguably not a good idea) to get a closer look, and then climbed back down to the ground to return to my friends and see if I could convince someone to give me a belay. I recruited Nick and we each gave it a few tries, camping out on the blocky ledge at the base of the pitch until the sun had all but set.

After over two months in the Creek, my psyche had started to wane at that point in the season. I was feeling burned out, and my body felt like it was breaking down from being in the desert so long (or maybe I was just eating too many brownies and drinking too much alcohol to ever really recover on my rest days). I hadn’t cared about projecting anything in a while, but that night I felt the stirrings of motivation for the first time in weeks. I couldn’t stop thinking about the moves, from the savagely overhung finger crack, to the crazy sideways heel hook, to the dicey mantles protected by micro cams guarding the anchor. I was inspired.

The iconic high heel hook move [Photo by Kai Czarnowski]

As Nick, Matt, and I drove into town a day or two later, we first heard the news that felt more like serendipity than coincidence: Didier Berthod, the legendary Swiss trad climber who had put up From Switzerland with Love and the Tricks extention (not to mention many other legendary Creek test pieces), had just returned to climbing after a many year break during which he had suffered a crippling injury, became a monk, and much more. Maybe I was putting the climb on a pedestal, but who cares. You have to embrace inspiration when it strikes, and by now I really wanted to do this climb. In fact it was now the only thing I really cared about doing, especially since the Reservoir Wall is closed in the spring for raptor nesting making fall the only time to get on it.

We returned to the route shortly after, half to climb and half to replace the anchors and add another bolt to the belay. We made progress, but for something initially graded 5.13+ it definitely still felt like it. By the end of the second day I had unlocked a sequence that felt much easier than Didier’s original beta, skipping many of the face holds in favor of staying in the crack for a few moves longer.

I knew my Creek season was almost over as Thanksgiving came and went. The weather was still good, but pretty much everyone was set to leave in the days that followed. I wanted to leave too, but hopes still remained to give Switzerland one last effort. I had long since made peace with the fact that there wasn’t enough time nor psyche to finish everything I wanted to do this season, but with the spring falcon closures on my mind I knew if there was one thing left to keep trying, this was it.

I finally committed to loose plans to leave the Creek a few days into December. I had seen through my plan to stay in the desert from the beginning of the season until the very end, and at last the end had arrived. With one day left to climb, I returned to From Switzerland with Love.  

On my first go I made it through all of the crack climbing, only to fall on what I consider to be the last hard move. I tried the move several more times, never feeling like I had beta that would work when I was pumped and tired. I experimented with a number of different things I had seen people do in videos, eventually settling on something I hadn’t seen nor tried before but that catered to one of my greatest strengths: heinous finger-locks using only my two smallest fingers.

Second attempt had me falling at the same spot even with the new beta. It felt so close, but making a third attempt was hopeful at best with how physical the climb is. I had accepted that this would likely be my last day on it this season, so I decided to try again anyway after some rest and ibuprofen for my tender tendons and skin.

This past spring I had earned myself the nickname “Third Go Goris” amongst my friends after a string of back-to-back incidents in which I punted (i.e. fell in terrain that should be easy for me) on my second goes and then sent on my third. The most notable were Ultimate Crack at the Power Wall, where I fell in 5.10 territory long before any hard climbing actually starts, and Death of a Cowboy, where I fell moving off the jug that very distinctively marks the end of any hard climbing whatsoever. I don’t just have a history of third-go sends because of punting though, some of the most personally meaningful sends of my career have happened on a hail Mary attempt, whether it was the last go of a trip, a weather window, the season, etc. Maybe it’s the lack of pressure from having no expectations, or maybe it’s the increased pressure from feeling the final countdown. Maybe it’s a bit of both.

Death of a Cowboy pre-megapunt [Photo by Nick Malik]

My third attempt on From Switzerland With Love was something of a last-ditch effort for the season. I had no expectations, so the nerves from my previous tries finally turned in for the night. For once I didn’t start climbing with my heart rate already doubled before even exerting myself. At the same time, I knew that it was pointless to even try unless I gave one hundred percent, so I committed to doing my best regardless of the outcome. Everything flowed perfectly through the crux and to the top, and it was with great honor that I clipped the newly replaced chains on what had just become one of my favorite and proudest desert climbs.

It wasn’t until a week or two after sending From Switzerland with Love that I remembered that my journey with the climb had actually begun not when I first laid eyes on it this November, but actually the year before during an unlikely conversation around a campfire. I had been climbing at the Creek long enough at that point to have sent just enough of the easier 5.13s to whet my appetite and make me start to wonder what I might be capable of out here. Talk had been going around camp that someone named Nick had just sent Fairy Tales, a 5.13 I had tried unsuccessfully a few times myself. I didn’t know him yet, but I was on the hunt for partners that wanted to try some of these harder climbs and rumor had it that Switzerland was on his radar too.

I brazenly strolled up to his fire that night, introduced myself, and immediately started pestering him about not just From Switzerland with Love, but every other hard climb I could think to name drop that he might be interested in. He later told me that at first he thought I was just some bleach blonde valley girl (maybe a climber, but probably not) that had come down to the desert to party and somehow forgot to leave. The first time we climbed together shortly after he belayed me on my send of Fairy Tales. A year later, he also belayed me on Switzerland. Serendipity once again, or maybe it’s just more desert magic; it’s just about everywhere if you stop to look.

To so many that came before me, to myself, and hopefully to just as many that will come after, Indian Creek has always been a place of adventure. Endless walls offer endless possibilities, and the longer I climb here the more I want to see them all. When I first started climbing at the Creek I knew so very little about many of the climbs that would one day mark these short chapters in the longer story that is my little part of Creek history. Some of them I didn’t know I would ever be capable of climbing and others I didn’t even know existed.

I remember walking under test pieces of every shape and size, from the Big Baby to the Optimator, barely daring to dream that one day not only would they be within my reach, but that I would be out there putting up some of my own. I looked at the Creek regulars and regular crushers with stars in my eyes, never expecting that they would become my best friends. I had heard tales of how the Creek changed people, but I never knew just how much it would happen to me. Thus it is with satisfaction, gratitude, and peace that my fall season ends, and with passion and hunger that I look forward to returning for everything left unfinished, untried, or yet undiscovered, because despite how every season the ranger tells me “you can’t live here,” the Creek will always be my home.  

You’ll Never Be a Wrestler

Around 10pm I slipped away from the campfire to go watch a few office re-runs for the billionth time before bed. When there’s no service, you have to make do with whatever you downloaded on your last rest day… a year ago. Laying in bed, I opened an app on my phone to jot down a few things I wanted to remember from the day. It had been an eventful one.

I had finally gotten on a new project I’d been saving for colder weather, and there had been more learning than success. On my first attempt as I neared the chains, no longer in the most difficult terrain, I pulled up an armload of slack to clip into a cam. Just before I could slide the rope through the carabiner however, my foot skated out of its seemingly secure placement in a sandy pod in the crack. It caught behind the rope, flipping me upside-down as I fell; the extra armload of rope from trying to clip sending me halfway down the climb and gouging a deep burn into the skin on my calf.

[Rope burn from my poor rope management skills]

A few hours later I racked up to try again, hoping to have learned from my first attempt. The temperature had skyrocketed, making the already difficult climbing significantly more strenuous. I slipped out of the first crux again, leaving an unfortunate amount of skin behind in the process. Determined to try and make the most of the attempt, I continued questing upward, only to fall again just a few moves higher. Somehow my foot got behind the rope again, and for the second time in a day I found myself in a position many climbers manage to avoid for their entire lives.

Once I righted myself once more I slithered my way past the second crux, only to slip once more in easy terrain. The ringlock I had been weighting with my left hand had been a little too good, and I carved the deepest gobi I’d had all season into the outside of my index finger. Five layers of tape and it was still leaking blood, so free climbing was no longer really an option. Every type of jam was so painful it brought me to tears. Even aiding up the climb was excruciating because the rope would run over my raw finger anytime I pulled it up to try and clip. I was being dramatic for sure, but I guess that’s what happens when you care too much about climbing.

[Ow gobie ow ow]

After all that, I had gotten a pretty good idea of what not to do on that climb. In between all the faff, I had also figured out all the gear and sorted out beta for the crux; things I should remember for next time. As I lay in bed making notes that night, instead of rack beta or information about the crux however, I wrote down the phrase “You’re never gonna be a wrestler!” It was in reference to a comical moment around the fire that evening in which my friend Chris had been trying to cure another friend Nick’s hiccups.

Nick and other friend Matt had apparently already drunken themselves silly with vodka shots chased with olive oil and had brought a manic energy to the campfire. Matt sat across from us animatedly telling a story to someone else, his greasy hair sticking straight from his head up in an overgrown mohawk. Nick was sitting next to me, doing everything in his power to be annoying (and in turn annoy the people around me). Subsequently through what I like to think was some kind of karmic retribution he had gotten the hiccups. Chris, sitting on my other side, had been offering for almost half an hour the service of his magic cure: to punch Nick in the stomach, until finally he conceded. Nick stood up and lifted his WWE sweatshirt as instructed as all eyes turned to the unfolding scene.

If you’ve ever tried to cure the hiccups, you might know that brute force is rarely enough; there has to also be some sort of element of surprise. As Nick steeled himself for the blow, Chris yelled “You’re never gonna be a wrestler!” in reference to the favorite WWE hoody Nick was wearing before delivering the punch full force. The small crowd around the fire erupted into laughter as the phrase was repeated by all our friends.

As much as I love climbing and have shaped my life around it, these are the real things I want to remember at the end of the day. The things that make laughter burst from deep inside me. The things that connect me to other people and build community in the unlikeliest of times and places.

I may or may not send that climb this season. After two months here already, my drive isn’t quite as strong as it was when I got here. I’ve already had a great season, and my focus has shifted into milking the “hang” for all it’s worth before I have to leave. Nowhere else have I ever found it to be this good, even when the half of the campground normally occupied by our much missed Canadian friends lies empty. Even when it rains for days on end and another half of our already small numbers bails to St. George or Red Rocks. There’s still something about Indian Creek that makes it so much more than just the climbing, and I think it has something to do with never being a wrestler.

Dirtbag Date Night

There aren’t a lot of places where it can be eighty degrees one day and below twenty and snowing the next, but the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains is one of them. In a divergence from my usual summer station in the Pacific Northwest, I found myself in Vedauwoo, Wyoming at the beginning of summer looking for answers amidst both global and personal hardships. The end of the spring (see previous post) had left me feeling lost in a lot of ways, and I decided to try and find myself in the same way I always do: by throwing myself at as many hard crack climbs as I could find. I hadn’t been planning on spending the entire season there, but the weeks turned into months. July thunderstorms producing hail so large it smashed roof vents on vans gave way to blistering August heat, and I still hadn’t left the Voo. September finally arrived, but it was still sunny, hot, and smoky as wildfires blazed just across the Colorado border.

I was indulging my frequent habit of refreshing the weather for the third time of the day when something unusual caught my eye. The ten-day forecast had shown ten identical sun icons for weeks on end, but now one of them had been replaced by not clouds nor rain, but snow. It was still summer so naturally I assumed there must be some mistake, but as the storm grew closer the predicted likelihood of this snow not only increased but worsened. Forty percent became one hundred percent, and soon they were predicting up to ten inches of snow and a quarter inch of ice. This was actually happening, and we needed to plan accordingly.

For several weeks, my friend Kaya and I had been tossing around the idea of throwing a party for our small Voo crew. It wasn’t a party in the sense of simple drunken debauchery, but one with a bit more elegance. The term ‘dirtbag’ with which we define ourselves paints an accurate picture of the level of class most climbers have on any given day. We stretch amidst clouds of dust kicked up by playful dogs in the morning, we climb rocks all day, and then we let sparks from the campfire burn holes in our clothes until its time to retire to our respective beds that probably still have sand in them from last Creek season. We shower twice a week at best, proceed to jump in dumpsters to look for food immediately after, and there are far more fun things to do on a rest day than hang out at a laundromat.

I love this lifestyle. I love seeing my friends at home in the natural world around them, uncaring about the way society says they should dress or act. I love having the privilege to choose to be dirty.

I also sometimes like to be clean.

It was thus that the idea for Dirtbag Date Night was born. Kaya and I had been scheming about how we wanted to see all of our dirty friends dressed up, if just for one night. The clothes could be from a thrift shop, the decorations from the dollar store, the food from Wal-Mart or a dumpster, but no one was allowed unless they played along with the theme and got fancy.

We clean up well [Photo by Felipe Tapia Nordenflycht]

With the now inevitable storm arriving sometime during the night on Labor Day, we planned the party accordingly. Knowing we wouldn’t be climbing for a few days while things melted gave us the perfect excuse to let loose, so we sent out the invitations.

Flyers on vans [Photo by Tony Archie Kim]

There’s not much to say about the night itself, other than it was a damn good time. Delicious food, music, dancing, and of course the kind of revelry that only dirtbags know how to create. If you know, you know.

Serving up some good food. [Photo by Felipe Tapia Nordenflycht]

The days that followed were bitterly cold, with high winds and thick ice closing half the highways in the state of Wyoming as we were trapped in our campsite melting snow for water (since apparently none of us thought to stock up).

Thick ice from the storm

Cramming as many smelly humans as possible into whoever’s van is largest to wait out bad weather is nothing new, though I don’t usually associate such things with summer. Eventually the storm passed, but for most of us the event had marked the end of the Vedauwoo season. The Voo is a hard place to stay psyched forever, with stiff grades, sharp rock, and flared cracks beating down even the humblest egos. For some the holes in their shoes were simply too large to keep climbing there. We had all been looking forward to saying goodbye to this place in style, and now we had.

When I came to Vedauwoo, I never would have guessed that the highlight of my season would have been something like this. I thought I was coming here to take some giant step in my climbing career: mastering the most difficult style of crack climbing and sending the hardest cracks in Wyoming. I thought that that was what I needed to reset my psyche, and so for the first two months in the Voo I raged. I didn’t drink, I trained, and I projected. I focused on the climbing, because I needed to connect with that side of me: the athlete. Through all my hard work, I learned and I grew tremendously as a climber, but I struggled with a part of me that was still missing: the dirtbag.

So much of my passion for climbing comes from the community, and these two defining aspects of my identity are the primary ways in which I relate to the greater climbing world. The dirtbag is how I feel a sense of place, and the athlete is how I feel a sense of purpose and keep my passion thriving. Finding the balance where they co-exist is the crux; even moreso in current times. While I was succeeding in reconnecting with some good old fashioned try-hard, at the same time I spent most of the summer battling a residual anxiety that my partners would all disperse as they had in the spring, and I wouldn’t be able to find new people to climb with.

When I first hit the road two years ago, I had no problem showing up to places by myself. I knew I would meet people wherever I went, and I relished in the process of watching strangers transform into close friends. Watching so much hostility, criticism, and shaming within the climbing community erupt over the spring filled me with a fear of travelling alone I had never dealt with before. I assumed other climbers would not want to welcome outsiders into their groups for fear of the Coronavirus, and I longed for the days where I could wing it and know that partners would just work out somehow.

Vedauwoo isn’t like Squamish, Indian Creek, or Joshua Tree where climbers from all walks of life comingle in the same centralized campground or hang. Both the camping and the climbing is dispersed along endless dirt roads, and more of the people sleeping under the stars are there to ride 4x4s or have a family barbecue than thrash in offwidths anyway. From the moment I got to the Voo, I stressed about how long I could sustain my existence there. Friends came and went and I played it day by day, always making backup plans for where else I knew people to be out climbing if I had to leave to find partners.

I felt it in my heart that something crucial was missing, but over time I slowly started to meet some of the first new friends I’d made in months. As I continued to worry endlessly about not having anyone to belay me on my projects, the incredible people around me continued to prove me wrong by showing up day after day. As I worried about who would group stretch with me, they would continue to lay their yoga mats next to mine each morning. As I worried about when I would feel like a part of something again, they helped me plan a fancy dinner party.

Dirtbag Date Night was attended by a medley of people I had known from my previous travels and those I had met over the course of the summer. That night everyone came together in a community I hadn’t felt since last winter. On the surface level it was a raucous night of fun, but to me it was so much more. It was not a return to normalcy amongst travelling climbers, but rather it was proof that we can adapt to the current state of the world and find ways to still live the lives that make us really feel connected, passionate, and free.

Friends new and old [Photo by Felipe Tapia Nordenflycht]

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.”