Team Free: A Fool’s Errand on El Corazón

I can’t do this anymore. the thought played over and over in my head as my knees wobbled with every step, struggling not to cave under the heavy load. My pack was full of hundreds of feet of crusty old abandoned static ropes that I had just spent hours cleaning off the upper pitches of Crystal Dawn, my winter project (more on CD here). The climb had pushed me to my mental limit, and I was completely drained from how deep I had had to dig to see it through. I was so tired of it feeling like a mission every time I went climbing; I needed a little less type 2 fun.

Harrison and I still didn’t know where we were headed next, but we knew that after three long months we were leaving Vegas the next day; we’d figure it out as soon as we put a few miles between us and the scorching heatwave that had suddenly descended upon the city. To stall committing to a spring destination, we drove towards Mount Charleston to go sport climbing for a few days. Every evening I would ask Harrison where he wanted to go, hoping he would sway my own indecision, but I always got the same non-committal response. In both of our hearts we wanted to go to Yosemite; Harrison wanted to climb walls, I longed for cracks and community, and we both wanted to get the hell out of the desert. Still, it was far, and gas prices had been skyrocketing. Harrison was also cautious about the impact that big walling would put on his shoulder, and I feared I might lack the psyche to dig in to something big when just the other day I swore to myself I was done with missions for a while.

We quickly realized that it had been perhaps a touch too ambitious to try and climb at Charleston’s high elevation in early April, as huge snow banks guarded most of the approaches. As we sat in my van in the parking lot for the only accessible crag, neither of us could muster up the motivation to go sport climbing. It had only taken one day of clipping bolts for us both to realize that mission or not, we still wanted something more.

It had been a hard winter, with too much time in the city giving me strange anxieties that had created a tension between us. As we sat in that parking lot, finally talking about it, I had my answer: we had to go back to Yosemite. The side of El Capitan had been one of the places that I had fallen so deeply in love with him, as we quested into the unknown on the Muir Wall on an unforgettable adventure last May. After our climbing had been so individual for the past few months, I longed for us to be a team again, like were in Yosemite.
Since I started climbing with Harrison, all I have ever wanted was for us to be a team; putting down big routes with each other’s support. At first I lacked the skills for it really to be possible, but after a year of his patient mentorship and especially after Crystal Dawn, we finally stood on the cusp of being able to make it a reality. With that in mind, suddenly a big project no longer seemed like a nightmare, it sounded like exactly what we needed.
Yosemite it was then. We quickly realized that if we didn’t go climbing today (which neither of us wanted) and started driving instead, we could be on El Cap by the following evening. We would arrive just in time to catch the evening shade on the North America Wall where our objective, El Niño, lies. El Niño seemed like the next logical step in our El Cap resume; it was either that or El Corazón, but too many people we knew had their eyes on the latter this season. It made more sense to seek out the path less travelled.

After only a few days fixing and climbing on the first crux pitches of El Niño, we began to have second thoughts. I longed for crack climbing after so many months of hangboarding and crimping, and the slabs of El Niño left me underwhelmed. More than that though, the NA Wall sun/shade schedule did not work well for either of us. For two morning people, having to wait until 5pm for shade to be able to climb is pretty unmotivating. As we sat in the meadow waiting, our eyes were pulled toward the southwest face, still cloaked in glorious shade late into the morning, and different objectives crept into the discussion.

I had been wanting to climb El Corazón for two years now. It had been my original El Cap objective the first time I had tried to come to Yosemite in 2020, but COVID had had other plans. I’d kept a laminated copy of the topo in my van ever since, because I knew that one day I would be back. We also knew that there was already a significant amount of water up for grabs at various bivvies on the route; an opportunity we would be foolish not to seize. With the knowledge that several other parties would be attempting El Corazón mid-April and early May, if we wanted to claim the water and avoid the crowds we needed to get going as soon as possible. Just like our impulsive decision to come to Yosemite, we went from waiting for shade on El Niño one afternoon, to deciding to check out the Beak Flake (El Corazón’s first crux) the next day instead. 
We had only been in the Valley for about a week, but an entire winter in Red Rocks had prepared us well for long days on El Cap. We felt no need to acclimatize to the area; we had business to take care of. Another day later, we were hiking a haulbag with eighteen gallons of water to the base of the heart lines. With ropes fixed all the way to Grey Ledges, essentially halfway up El Cap, our plan was to spend two days pre-hauling enough supplies for twelve days, rest a few more, and blastoff for a ground up attempt.

We had gone back and forth over different tactics countless times in just those few days, changing our minds over and over again about which style we wanted to pursue. One idea was to hike to the top and rappel in, rehearsing the four upper crux pitches and stashing supplies to enable a fast and light ascent that would have a lower impact on Harrison’s shoulder, and ensure a higher chance of success. The other tactic was to go ground up, and account for much more time on the wall to work out all of the difficult pitches with no prior knowledge. We would be slow and heavy, but the amount of work wouldn’t be much different, since accessing the upper pitches would involve hiking huge amounts of rope up the technical East Ledges instead of just hauling more supplies from the bottom. In the end we decided that it would take the same amount of time for either, so why not have a proper adventure and try for the better style. There are only so many routes on El Cap that are within our ability to try ground up anyway, why waste one of the few remaining?

We decided twelve days ought to be enough time, accounting for a few days of rain that were predicted about halfway through our trip. The conditions looked favorable enough; four hot and sunny days should get us through the Beak Flake and all the way to Tower to the People (a huge bivvy ledge where El Corazón joins the route Golden Gate) just ahead of the storm, and by the time it had passed we would be well rested to climb during the next seven days of perfect seeming weather on the four upper cruxes that are all conveniently located above and below the Tower. We should have plenty of time to send each pitch, since after the squall it was supposed to be in the sixties and sunny every day.

During those two storm days however, it was supposed to be cold. On the Valley floor the highs were predicted to be in the low forties, so two thousand feet higher on the side of an exposed big wall that is constantly blasted by wind, who knew what it would be like. There was only one way to find out.

Our pre-hauling went as well as could be expected of transporting hundreds of pounds of food, water, climbing gear, and winter clothes halfway up a 3000’ cliff. Harrison creatively devised a strategy where we both attached ourselves to the opposite end of the haul line from our bags, so that by simply rappelling another fixed rope our weight would send the pigs skyward without having to use a 2-to-1 pulley system or do any standard hauling at all. The downside was that both of us had to jumar each pitch twice, so by the time we were done with the two days of hauling we had essentially jugged the entire height of El Cap, twice. While the jugging was far easier than regular hauling, it still left me so exhausted we had to take two rest days before we could leave the ground, and even then, I still felt a nagging pain in my right foot; one that would gradually worsen for the rest of the trip.

As we prepared to embark on our mission, the familiar pre-El Cap stress began to settle in, but I had a different relationship with El Corazón than I had with either the Salathé or the Muir. On the Salathé I was on a deeply personal journey through history, and on the Muir it had been a mysterious adventure about simply embarking into the unknown with no expectations. This time the intentions were far different; we were climbing El Corazón as a team. That meant we would swap leads and we would not move on until both of us were through each crux. While the difficulties are lessened by sharing the work, there are twice as many crux pitches because both people have to send each of them. Whether we sank or swam, we would do it together. While we were trying to do the route in good style by going ground up, we were less concerned with both leading each pitch; this was an experience meant to be shared, not driven by whoever was climbing better.

Having climbed the freeblast several times already, I led us up the first block of slippery granite slabs early on the morning of the first day. It was supposed to be nearly eighty degrees, so we raced to stay ahead of the sun. While the crux of the freeblast is only mid-5.11, I had never actually done it first try on any of the three times I’d climbed it. As I quested up polished granite pin scars on the crux pitch, I watched the sun creep alarmingly fast up the wall below me. It was already hot, but the moment it touched these holds these moves would become a full grade harder, screwing over not only me if I had to repeat the pitch, but especially Harrison who would be trying it for the first time.

I managed to pull it off just in time for myself at least, arriving at the belay right as the sun hit the slab. Had I been the one following in the heat it would have meant trouble, but since Harrison is an absolute wizard on slab he was able to follow the pitch with barely a hesitation on the delicate balance moves. We climbed the rest of the freeblast in scorching heat, the day already nuclear at 9am. Two pitches from Gray, Harrison took the lead on our final block for the day. As he hauled up our day bag, I began up the second-to-last pitch, a 5.10 that I had climbed just a few days ago. Suddenly I found myself taking the whip, having dry-fired unexpectedly off a very good hold and landing conveniently back at the belay. I must be tired.

By early afternoon we had arrived at Gray Ledges, dehydrated, sunburned, and feet aching from the twelve long pitches. We assembled our portaledge just below the Beak Flake and tetrised ourselves into a tiny cave that offered a shady reprieve from the blazing sun. Eventually we laid down to try and sleep for the night, only to realize our ledge was under some kind of drip that started once the sun went down. We forced the ledge into the rain fly by headlamp, but even then neither of us could get comfortable. Harrison kept lowering straps that I thought needed to be raised and vice versa, as we struggled to make the contraption lie flat. Had it always been this difficult? Neither of us could remember ever having this much trouble setting it up in the past, but eventually we settled for ‘good enough’ and said goodnight.

The straps pressed into my shoulder, sore from the long day as I constantly rolled off my pad. Sleep remained elusive, as I spent the night just waiting for morning instead of getting any real rest. It came as a relief when our alarms finally rang at dawn; and I immediately crawled out of bed. It was obvious from outside the ledge that something was wrong, the whole thing was at a severe angle; no wonder I hadn’t been able to sleep. As we checked in, Harrison revealed that he had slept poorly as well, and both of our hands and feet ached from the previous day.

[Something is wrong here…]

We reflected on our previous wall, during which we had exhausted ourselves with high volume and intensity early on in the trip and later struggled to recover when we needed to perform higher on the wall. In an effort to not repeat our past mistakes, we decided to take the day off. We had plenty of supplies, and the more we used up down low on the wall, the less we would have to haul later.

The day was long and hot, as we crawled in and out of the cave in between movies and podcasts, able to either be cool or comfortable, but never both. At least we had been able to figure out what was wrong with the portaledge. Things never cooled down, even after the sun set that night, but by morning we felt at least rested enough to give the Beak Flake a try. I took the lead, falling once at the opening boulder problem before starting over and managing to hang on until the end. Harrison made quick work of the pitch as well, joining me at the belay shortly after. We climbed one more pitch, the Beam Flake, before realizing that we did not have enough rope with us to continue any higher that day.

[cave life]

Our plan had been to base camp at Grey and fix as high as we could before hauling, continuing to use up our heavy supplies and take advantage of the only shade (the cave) that we were likely to find until we reached the chimneys much farther up. Our friend Elliott, who had climbed the route a few months prior, had insisted the next few pitches traversed too much for this to be a good strategy, but with Harrison’s expertise in rigging and my… lack of expertise to say otherwise, we had brought an extra static line and decided to try it anyway. In theory we had enough rope to reach the chimneys, or at least get within a pitch or two.
With the fourth day promising slightly cooler temperatures, we planned to fix the next three pitches past the Beam Flake using the rest of our rope while the rock was still in the shade, then return to base camp to pack everything up and spend the rest of the day hauling to our new high point when it was too hot to climb.

[Harrison cruising The Beak Flake]

Harrison took the lead for the day, questing horizontally on the “loose, scary” 5.11 traverse pitch. First he went up, then he went left, then down, left, back up, wandering all over the place across flakes that seemed to be attached to the wall by nothing more than guano and some kind of voodoo magic. Eventually he arrived at an anchor: two new bolts with a sling that looked to be where the topo said to go. I followed behind and he racked up for what, in theory, was the 12d pitch. We had been told this pitch was a sleeper crux, full value for the grade and hard to figure out. It was supposed to be a technical face climb up past beaks and heads before a cryptic traverse, yet what loomed before us did not match that description at all. We were under a roof that turned into an overhanging offwidth that was too narrow to chimney and too flared to jam. For well over an hour, Harrison struggled up the pitch as I offered useless tips about arm bars and foot cams that were impossible with how much gear was on his harness. Eventually he disappeared out of sight, and a few minutes later I heard his faint voice call down the last thing anyone wants to hear after watching their partner climb such a pitch. “We’re off route!”

From his vantage point at whatever anchor he had found up there, Harrison had been able to see where we were supposed to be: another few rope lengths down and to the left. He wasted no time in lowering down to the proper anchor, clipping his rope to a sling where I was at under the roof. What I needed to do to reach him should have been obvious, but after losing so much time on the ‘bonus pitch,’ I didn’t stop to think things through.
Getting him the supplies as fast as possible was my primary concern, so I clipped my own rope through the anchor to clean the sling and rappelled down. I tensioned myself around the corner until I could see him again, immediately becoming flustered when what I had planned for lowering out the bags did not work at all.

Also stressed by the errors, Harrison took one look at whatever junk show I was trying to correct and lost his patience. “What’s your plan, and why are you wearing socks!?” he shouted.

It had made sense to me in theory: get him the stuff as quick as possible, then return to where we had gotten off route on the traverse to put on my climbing shoes and finish the pitch. My approach shoes were down at base camp. From his perspective however, I was making one bad decision after another as my sock-clad feet slid around on the granite footholds I needed to be standing on to pendulum myself sideways. I arrived at the belay and unclipped my grigri from the rope so we could pull it through the anchor at the end of the bonus pitch, only to find that it wouldn’t budge. Since I had clipped it through the previous anchor as well, it was now running over too many edges, forcing me to lower back over around the corner to pull it from there.
By the time I corrected all of my mistakes and had re-joined Harrison at the correct anchor, we had wasted most of the morning and we were both deeply frustrated with ourselves and with each other. We snapped at each other tensely, turning the moment into a fight as we tried to vent.

“Maybe we should just go down. I’m completely drained” Harrison said.

I was crushed. The wall that was supposed to bring us together had just turned into the biggest argument we had ever had. I blinked at him through teary eyes and shook my head. “You got this,” I said, not doubting for a second that he still had the energy to climb the correct 5.12d.

“I mean mentally,” he said, to which I had no response other than to give him a hug and try to change my attitude from frustration and defensiveness back to support.

After holding each other for a few minutes, we both managed to calm down enough to get up the pitch before it went into the sun, getting us to a decent ledge and the end of our ropes. Believing that the worst was behind us, our attitudes improved as we reversed our path back to camp. We devised a complicated plan to get both our bags and ourselves across the 50m traverse pitch. It has been kind of my idea for once, so hopefully that meant I would be less likely to mess it up through misunderstanding what was happening with the ropes.

As I half-aided, half-got lowered out across the traverse, things seemed to be going smoothly. Our communication was clear and we both knew what needed to be done. Soon enough I was at the anchor, rigging up the ropes to haul the bags and get Harrison across. The only problem was that we were now out of earshot of each other, and I had just crossed into the no-cell-service dead zone of El Cap. By lowering myself a dozen feet down from the anchor however, I was able to see around the corner and communicate successfully.
Harrison lowered the bags as I tried to keep the ropes from getting tangled. The last thing we needed was for Harrison to have any problems lowering himself out after the bags were released. They were still soul-crushingly heavy, and would not be easily manhandled if he were to get tangled in them somehow.

Everything seemed to be going according to plan as he released the bags, and it became my turn to start hauling them up using the slow 2-to-1 pulley system. I yanked on the ropes a few times before I realized they were not moving; something else had gone wrong already. A quick look around the corner revealed that the haul line had gotten hooked over the tiniest flake imaginable, but it was somehow enough to create too much friction to haul. Furthermore, I feared that the sharp edge might damage the rope, or that the flake might suddenly break and send the bags flying into Harrison while he was jumaring up to me. Above all, I feared that we would get into another argument for some reason.

It wouldn’t matter if I could fix it before he got here, I thought, as I desperately tried to free the line from the flake. I tried everything, but nothing would work. I even tried yelling desperately to Harrison for ideas, but he was still too far away to even really hear what I was trying to say, other than suggesting that I try to pull it off the flake by hand, which I had already tried many times. Eventually I began to panic. I had to figure this out before he caught up; I had to be able to do something for myself up here.

I stared at the flake, forming a battle plan. The bags couldn’t weight more than a few hundred pounds. People lift that much weight all the time in moments of extreme adrenaline. If moms can lift cars off babies, surely I, a professional athlete, could somehow lift these bags with just the strength of my arms if I could bypass the limits of what my brain thought was possible. I heaved the rope with every ounce of gusto I could muster, and just like that, the bags were free, as they and I went careening sideways until we both stopped swinging directly below the anchor and allowing the haul to be finished uneventfully.

As we lay in our sleeping bags that night, we silently stared at each other. I was completely lost at how to debrief such a disastrous day. What could I possibly say? I felt so pathetic, so unqualified to be his partner, so unworthy of being up here at all. Before I could figure anything out, to my surprise he started laughing.

“What the fuck,” he said when he finally stopped. “That was the worst day of climbing I’ve ever had,” he said, then I started laughing too.

“At least we are finally done traversing,” I eventually said, and we agreed that surely the worst must be behind us.

While that had indeed been the low point of the trip, little did we know how many other, almost equally difficult challenges still lay ahead.

The next day we hustled to break down cap and get moving up the long series of chimneys and offwidths that lay between us and TTTP. We were on a deadline to get there by the end of the day, since by this time tomorrow El Cap was supposed to be buried under snow and ice. Temperatures were already dropping into the low fifties as the cold front moved in, and the large corner system we were following would prevent the sun we had so adamantly been avoiding from ever reaching us now that it was actually cold.

After Harrison’s ordeal on the bonus pitch the previous day, I volunteered to lead all the pitches that were even remotely offwidth. We reached a section where the hauling one again becomes less than straightforward, with the route weaving in and back out of an alcove with a gear belay. Since we had two static ropes, we devised a plan to just use one of them as a 30m docking cord at the gear belay, and then wait to haul with the other until I had reached the bolted anchor at the end of the next pitch. As Harrison pulled the docking rope tight at the gear belay, I released the bags, watching with apprehension as they swung out into space and out of reach. At least it should be a clean haul, though I was concerned that the ropes would get tangled as the wind had just started to pick up.

I followed the 5.10, managing to fall off for my second botched 5.10 in less than a week. Spectacular. After starting over, I raced quickly numbing hands to the belay, struggling through a final boulder problem that would have been easy had I been able to feel anything. Soon I was at the base of a massive cave. Twenty meters of wildly overhanging bombay chimney opened up above me: The Kirkegard, a 5.12 offwidth that was today’s crux.

[cold temps on the first of the chimney pitches]

I struggled and grunted my way through the steep terrain until finally pulling into a hand crack, totally exhausted from the physical climbing. To my dismay, the anchor had only one bolt and a dismally sloping ledge. There was no time to rest however, as it was now my job to begin the sixty meter haul from the last two pitches combined.

In the time it had taken us to climb those two pitches, the wind had spun the bags in dozens of circles, hopelessly twisting the haul line. As I yarded up the 2-to-1, the twists would slide through the pulley and block my microtraxion from capturing much of my progress. As I struggled to manage the twists, yet another problem arose as I heard Harrison’s worried voice call up from below that something was wrong. Looking down at the bags, I could see it too. Our top bag seemed to be sideways, despite everything else being attached to the bottom of it and the rope pulling from above.
My heart sank. I had been so sure I had rigged it perfectly, yet still something had gone wrong. Again. There was nothing I could do but keep slowly hauling, though by the time Harrison finished following the Kirkegard I had barely gotten the bags a third of the way up. He graciously took over as I descended the haul line to offer assistance as a counter weight. Eventually I was level with the bags and could see that the rope had somehow wrapped around the portaledge, pulling everything askew. Not ever a real problem in the end, but a serious source of stress until we knew the cause.

After that were two more 5.10s: the Splitter and the Nietzche. We agreed that we would just climb the pitches first, and then worry about hauling later when we could have both people work on it, instead of the normal system of the leader hauling while the other person follows. With the promise of no 2-to-1 solo hauling, I agreed to take the lead once more. It was called “the splitter” after all. There was an anchor just ahead, but it was far from the crack and there was no stance to speak of, so we wrote it off as some old aid anchor as I blasted past it, bumping the few hand sized cams I had for what felt like an eternity. An obvious ledge loomed just ahead, promising a reprieve from the runout, but once I arrived I was dismayed to find no bolts and the Nietzche chimney looming above me, for which I had not brought the gear.
Harrison tied our two half lengths of tagline (cut because of a coreshot) together, and I pulled the wide cams up from a comfortable stance, and rallied myself for the gaping maw that loomed above me. One more, I promised myself. One last chimney, supposedly easier than the others, and the climbing would be done for the day; just a little more hauling and a bit of aiding, and we would be at the Tower.
Now equipped with the wide gear, I burrowed deep into the chasm, wincing as sharp calcite crystals dug into my back through my thin shirt. Soon the wide chimney narrowed into a tight, flared squeeze. For what felt like an eternity, I squirmed and screamed up the 5.10 chimney, repeating over and over to myself that this wasn’t the type of pitch you fell on, it was the kind you only failed when you gave up.

Finally I grabbed the first hold I’d been able to wrap my fingers around in an hour of full body groveling, and was free from the chimney. After that it seemed like our day was finally coming to a close, as Harrison set out to quickly aid the next two pitches, the Coffee Corner and the Roof, cruxes to be climbed later, and we’d be done.

[The Nietzsche Chimney]

Harrison reached the tower and I lowered out the bags, fixing our second rope in a big loop so I could lower myself down and then jumar up to the Tower. Harrison had told me what to do to rig this, but in my delirious exhaustion I could no longer think things through, and hastily tied the rope as short as I could; less rope equals less jugging, right?

Wrong. As soon as I started trying to lower myself out across the 40m traverse, I realized my mistake. The gri gri lacked the slack to lower me, as I tried to pull myself sideways with a jumar and release tiny amounts of slack at the same time. I thought if I could just get a little farther it would get easier, since I would be going upwards eventually instead of just sideways.

It was fully dark by now, as I continued to try to extract myself from the grigri and switch to a microtraxion to allow for upward mobility. Harrison had long since finished hauling the bags, and I called to him for help. He essentially told me that I needed to go back, re-rig the rope, and start over. I was crushed with the idea of so much extra work, even though it would be less than continuing along my current path. Eventually I managed to make it back to my starting point and correctly rappel out on the line to begin the true final jug of the day.

Inch by inch I pulled myself up the free hanging rope, tears fully flowing down my face with frustration and exhaustion. I had been going for nearly seventeen hours now, far more than my typical limit, and had no strength left. Finally I pulled myself onto the ledge, hoping Harrison would have already set up the ledge and have dinner waiting… but in big walling the work is never done, and he was still busy docking the bags.

After taking a few minutes to get my emotions under control, I rallied myself to begin helping set up camp. It was 11pm before we were finally able to eat dinner. As I attempted to boil water on the sloping ledge, my tired and clumsy hand knocked over the stove. I caught it just in time, but I watched in dismay as the lid went flying over the edge into the darkness. My heart sank even more when I realized the lit stove had landed on an end of one of the ropes and melted it. Of course I would manage to end the day like this. With our last reserves of energy, I asked if today had at least been an improvement from yesterday’s ‘worst day of climbing ever,’ status, and Harrison laughed, and said that indeed it was.

The next morning we awoke in a cloud. Peeking my head outside the portaledge, I could see neither up nor down El Cap, as snow flurries swirled around us. It was an otherworldly sight.

How many people in the world have ever experienced something like this? I thought. Of the fraction of climbers who ever venture deep enough into the vertical realm to climb El Cap, even fewer would dare face weather like this. I felt both very lucky, and somewhat foolish. Was this greatness? Or was it madness? Only time would tell.

[the Roof in a cloud]

As the day went on, the snow began to clump on the outside of the portaledge, and as the wind picked up, flurries began to blow up the flaps over the doors, until it was snowing both inside the ledge and out. There was no escape. Condensation formed on the walls, so it became a game to keep them as far away from our sleeping bags and down jackets as possible; an impossible task when two six-foot-tall adults are sharing such a tiny space.

We burned through an arsenal of movies, taking advantage of the much-needed forced rest day. Early on we discovered that one of our two fuel canisters had somehow leaked, leaving us in concerningly short supply, especially considering how cold it was, and it was cold.

That night it was even colder, as soggy sleeping bags failed to do their job at keeping us warm. Harrison’s was far wetter, and he spent as much of the night shivering as sleeping. When we awoke the next morning, our spirits were low.

[trying to stay psyched]

“Tonight is supposed to be almost ten degrees colder,” Harrison mentioned on more than one occasion. Despite being a generally much colder person, I was less concerned, since it was supposed to get a lot warmer after that, but for the first time we began to wonder if we really should be up here. I cautiously asked if he wasn’t psyched enough to stay, but he quickly denied any thoughts of bailing, just concern over the upcoming night.

“Maybe the storm came early, and it’s already warming back up,” I kept trying to suggest, as the sun teased us from the valley below. Yeah, right. We had been expecting sun early, being at the top of the wall where it hits first, but as the morning dragged on the only patch of sun we could see on a far away panel of rock barely seemed to be moving towards us. “It’ll be here in like ten minutes, just wait,” I optimistically promised at around 10am.

At almost noon, the sun finally arrived. Our spirits were instantly lifted, as we began dragging all our wet gear out of the tent to dry in the sun. The game was back on.

We had barely been able to leave the tent for a day and a half, as ice coating the ledge made all forays out a risky game. At last we could stretch our legs just a little, as long as we dodged the constantly falling ice from above.

[melting ice on the Tower]

To our surprise, down below us we could see another party on the wall, hauling up what we could only assume to be Golden Gate. It was a shock to realize we weren’t the only ones on El Cap in such a storm. They made quick progress throughout the day, raging up water streaks until eventually stopping at a pitch that seemed more difficult than the others. That must be where “The Move” pitch is, we thought.

While the other party showed impressive resolve in climbing that day, it was still well below fifty degrees and everything was more than a little damp. The thought of roping up didn’t even cross our minds. We made a battle plan for the next day, to clean our gear from the roof and try the much drier Golden Desert instead, while the seepier pitches below us dried out in the sunny days we were expecting to come.

The following day we set to work, as I aided through the roof to remove the cams Harrison had used to get us to Tower three days ago. While I did so, he called down to the team below us, asking if they knew anything about the weather since we hadn’t had cell service since leaving Gray Ledges. We were expecting maybe a little more rain the following day, but what they told us turned out to be significantly worse.

“It’s not looking good actually,” came a man’s faint voice in a Belgian accent. What had originally been predicted to be just a little rain on Thursday, was now a little rain on Thursday, then a little more on Friday, and then a lot on Saturday. “Sunday looks good though!” he called out optimistically. Sunday. That was four days from now. Four days of bad weather would be nothing on the ground, but time has a different meaning on the wall. Most people climb all of El Cap in less than four days.

Back on Tower, we started to reevaluate. Worst case scenario, we were able to climb today and then would sit in the rain for another three days. Best case scenario, it only rained on Saturday. We had the supplies to last that long and then some, but would there be enough dry rock to still send all four of the crux pitches, get to the top, and then rappel all the way down? There was certainly a chance, but it was hard to say if it was much more than a fool’s chance.

The Belgians seemed to think it was worth a try. Harrison seemed to think it was worth a try. I wasn’t so sure. Were we going to end up sitting here for three, or even four days, only to end up bailing? That sounded bleak. The alternative didn’t seem any better though; how could we bail when it could just as likely go the other way? Maybe it wouldn’t be that bad and we could find enough windows in the weather to still piece this thing together. More than ever, it felt like we were walking a fine line between a miraculous, odds-defying success, and a soul-crushing nightmare.

My conscience was heavy. How could I justify so many days up here, just sitting around when I had a job that might need me? I had told my boss I would be gone, but what if something came up and I was unreachable? I definitely hadn’t told my parents out really anyone else what I was doing, and it weighed on my mind. Was this irresponsible, or was I just looking for excuses to take the easy way out?

Any time I voiced my doubts to Harrison he reminded me that this was what we had signed up for. We knew it was going to be cold, and we knew that we were going to be dealing with bad weather. We knew we were going to be on the wall for a long time, and we had the supplies for it. We had the rack back, and the Golden Desert was dry. There was no real reason we shouldn’t at least climb it. Maybe it would influence our debate about how worth it these weather risks were to take.

Finally half-convinced, I belayed Harrison up the Golden Desert. It took us both two tries, but just like that, we had one less crux pitch between us and pulling this thing off. The beauty of the pitch worked wonders at restoring my psyche, as we finally agreed not to bail, at least for now.

Still not knowing the chances of rain over the next few days, we got an early start to check out the A5 traverse the next day. It could be climbable all day, or the weather could turn to shit at a moment’s notice. We regretted not taking advantage of all the climbable hours we had wasted early on in the trip, and it was time to make up for it.

It didn’t take long to realize that we were perhaps being a bit too ambitious however, as our numb feet skated off small footholds and an icy cold pump filled our hands and forearms, making the pitch feel grades harder than it should have. Little progress was made, but the sun seemed to be almost on the wall. Things were about to be perfect… except the sun never arrived. In the time it took Harrison to give the short pitch his second try, clouds filled the sky and they looked ominous.

We quickly bailed back to camp, hunkering down for the second storm. Once again clouds surrounded us and snow began to fall, but we theorized that it was at least better than rain. Snow might not get the rock as wet. With the disappearance of the sun, our moods once again plummeted. While Harrison is an incredibly patient person, I’m not very good at sitting still. We were quickly burning through our movies, and my phone had died entirely, charger broken in the haul bag. I tried to relax, but the endless hours sitting around were starting to really wear me down. Harrison couldn’t understand why I was so concerned with always having something to do; to him it was just part of the adventure. While I’d like to be able to think that way, my mind would not stay calm. Entertain me! It screamed, and I was powerless not to comply.

Luckily, by the next day the storm had passed, at least for now. The roof hadn’t seemed too wet when I’d cleaned it the previous day, but it also hadn’t been totally dry. If it wasn’t climbable, or if the Coffee Corner was as wet as it also looked, there might not be a chance for us after all. We decided we should spend the morning at least checking them out, especially if Saturday’s storm was as bad as predicted.
I lowered to the belay of the Coffee Corner, intending to tag up a heavy load of our supplies that Harrison was rappelling with. In yet another moment of poor judgement however, I lost access to the rope he was on, and suddenly had no way to slide him the tag line. Now he had to jug up to me with a huge amount of extra weight hanging off his harness, a daunting prospect.

By the time I could get him the tag line and he got to me, I felt completely defeated. Why couldn’t I stop making this kind of mistake? Every day it seemed like something went wrong, and it was always something that should be obvious, and it was always my fault. I felt totally unqualified to be up here. Surely I was ruining this experience for Harrison. He would probably never want to climb another wall with me. These were the sorts of thoughts that consumed my psyche, just a few of which I tentatively voiced out loud when he asked what was wrong.

The psyche was so low between us that we once again began to wonder if we should bail. It didn’t help that the Coffee Corner looked completely soaked. Water was actively running down the crack. What hope was there anyway?
At this point we figured we would just scout it out for a future attempt. There was little hope at this point.

I’m from the Pacific Northwest, so what the hell. I’ve climbed on lots of wet granite. Time to do my home proud.
Wet hand jams turned to wet fingerlocks, before the crack eventually sealed shut and I entered a wide stem under a looming roof. I knew the beta here, I had watched the Huberbaum video of it countless times. That was, except I couldn’t seem to reach the holds he had used. I twisted this way and that, trying to find a way to escape the elevator shaft until something clicked. A strange understanding of body geometry and the faint memory of a passing comment from Elliot: backwards. I delicately spun myself around until I was facing away from the wall and out towards Yosemite Valley, two thousand feet below. From that position I was able to reach a thankfully dry hand jam, cut feet, and spin around once more into a more normal climbing position to finish the pitch. Just like that, hope was once again restored.
Since neither one of us was willing to lead the soaking wet crack, we both accepted a top rope send of that pitch. Given the circumstances, we were perfectly happy with the slight compromise in style.

If the Coffee Corner was climbable, surely the much drier looking roof would be too, so we decided to give it a try. We had discussed different strategies for working this pitch, and concluded that the best and safest way to do it would be alternating lead attempts on pre-placed gear, since all of the crux placements are completely blind, and cleaning the pitch is a nightmare.

I led across the roof, working out moves and getting the gear into place. About halfway through, I entered a section where the placement is completely blind. A few tugs of my trusty green Totem seemed good, but I figured I should double check it by hanging on a second piece that I could see just a little farther out. Reaching behind me, I placed a smaller finger sized cam in the roof over my head; a placement I had used to clean the route already. Even if the totem ripped, this one I could see was secure. I shifted my weight onto it, and suddenly felt the world drop out from under me, as the cam ripped a flat-screen TV sized piece of rock out from directly over my head.

The green Totem caught, pulling me out from under the rock just in time. The boulder, weighing probably twice as much as me, barely grazed my shoulder. I watched it disappear down the face of El Cap in horror, screaming “ROCK!” at the top of my lungs. Thank God the bad weather meant there were no climbers on the normally extremely busy Heart Ledges directly below us.

Shaken to my core, I abandoned all attempts at free climbing and slowly aided the rest of the pitch. I was barely keeping it together, as I jugged back to the belay to face my partner. Harrison was always cautioning me about placing gear in bad rock, but this time I had really thought I was making the right decision. I was being careful. I was doing my absolute best, and I had still just come as close to death as I ever had in my life, let along while climbing. He said nothing about any misjudgment however, just holding me tight as I started crying a little, and then a lot.

[don’t say it]

After a long time recovering, we managed to get back on the horse. Harrison tried the pitch, and then I tried it again, and then he gave one last go, finishing just before dark. We had the beta pretty well figured out, though there was a concerningly wet section of rock at the very end of the traverse. There was definitely a chance, if it didn’t rain too much tomorrow.

[Harrison in the roof]

The Belgians had reached our camp by now, setting up their portaledge on the other end of the narrow ledge. Seb and Soline had been on the wall almost as long as we had, through the first storm as well. They were on a much smaller portaledge, with a much less waterproof rain fly, had lost one of their sleeping pads, and yet despite their hardships they were in high spirits and fully believed they would complete the route. Their psyche made us believe in the impossible as well, because they were so unphased by the elements. Just this one more storm and the next two or three days promised to be not only sunny, but the warmest it had been in a week.

As night fell it began to snow. Snow was good. Snow meant the roof might stay dry. By morning it was still snowing, but before long the snow turned to rain. Then the rain turned into a downpour. Rivers ran down the side of El Capitan, obscuring the Roof behind an impromptu waterfall. For what felt like the millionth time, our faith in the mission came into doubt.

We hunkered down in the tent for yet another cold, wet day of watching movies and twiddling our thumbs. We were watching one of my favorites, 22 Jump Street, when Jonah Hill’s character, Schmidt, spoke an iconic line:
“You know what? I may drag you down sometimes, but every possible time you can do something dumb, you do the dumbest possible thing!”

We both began laughing and couldn’t seem to stop. Without saying it out loud, we knew we were both thinking the same thing: the line perfectly described what I seemed to be doing time and time again with all the rope mistakes I was constantly making.

By early afternoon the rain calmed down enough to venture outside the portaledge, where we were met with even more problems. While the first two storms had not managed to penetrate the haul bags, this one was another story. Our climbing shoes were filled with water, and chalk supply all turned to a muddy paste. We concluded that surely this must finally be the end of the road. Now that we would have to wait for our gear to dry, there simply wasn’t enough time in two days to still both send two crux pitches, climb six more pitches to the top, pack everything up, and still have enough time to rappel. After that, a game ending storm would arrive, promising over an inch of rain. There was no way we could still be on the wall when it hit. I almost felt relieved. Finally we could stop fighting so hard for this and just go down. I could finally stop shitting in bags, pre-soaking my oatmeal to save fuel, and re-inflating my leaking sleeping pad four times a night. I could finally stop trying to force psyche on wet rock and freezing temperatures. I could finally drink a beer. I could finally lie next to Harrison without a web of portaledge straps separating us.

I went to sleep that night at peace with surrender. The battle was lost, but at least there was to be no more fighting. I was so tired. By this time tomorrow I’d be back in my van, surrounded by friends in El Cap meadow. It sure sounded nice.

The next day we awoke to two psyched Belgians, and a whole lot of blue sky. Somehow the wall seemed remarkable dry compared to last night. The moment I stepped outside for my tenth wag bag shit that morning, I knew exactly what was going to happen. We would find a way to still keep trying, whether I liked it or not.

“What are you thinking?” I asked Harrison.

“You’re probably not going to like the answer.” He responded mysteriously.

“What does that mean?” I asked, even though I already knew. We had to stay, we had to try. We could still scrap this together somehow. Seb had given us some dry chalk, and we pretty much had nothing left to lose if we gave it even one more day. It was Sunday, and it wasn’t supposed to rain again until Tuesday. Even if we bailed tomorrow instead, we could still get down before the storm. How good would that beer really taste anyway, knowing we hadn’t actually done our very best? Knowing we had given up when there was still a chance? Knowing we had been through so much, and not stuck it out through just a little more that just might be all we needed to send?

Since Seb and Soline were climbing the A5 that day and then pushing for the summit, we decided to climb on the Roof. If it didn’t go, tomorrow we could still bail. Even knowing this was the right call, I struggled for psyche. After the toll of ten days on the wall, I couldn’t get myself to feel much of anything at all. I just felt depleted. Empty. Completely emotionally spent. I didn’t want to do anything. I didn’t want to go up, I didn’t want to go down, and I didn’t want to stay here. I wanted to put on my climbing shoes least of all.

By the time our shoes were dry it was already the afternoon, but it just meant more time for the rock to dry as well. I volunteered to take the first lead. It seemed like the best way to get the nerves that I was now feeling out of my system. I was finally feeling like going rock climbing at least.

To my surprise, we both fired the roof, and in just a few hours we were congratulating each other on Tower to the People. What had seemed impossible just yesterday, suddenly felt inevitable.

[the end of the roof traverse]

Our thirteenth day on the wall was the first day in a week that we did not discuss bailing. Today, we were sending. Our plan to rappel morphed into a new plan to haul to the top, though we would have to come back for our bags after the storm since we’d left the straps down on the ground.

Worried that the sun would warm the rock, we started early. I tried the A5 traverse first, once again itching to get the morning nerves out of my system. With no warmup, a crippling flash pump filled my forearms, and I fell in the middle, and again at the end. Harrison didn’t fare much better. With the sun moving towards us at an alarming rate, I decided not to rest longer and tried again. The pump settled deeper into my forearms, shooting tendon pain up my elbows and causing me to fall at the same spot. Fear crept in; perhaps this was not as inevitable as I had thought. Perhaps this was to be the ultimate heartbreak, rather than the ultimate odds-defying success I had envisioned. Harrison fired the pitch second try, to both of our relief.

Because we were sending this route as a team, there were really ten cruxes: five for each of us. Now nine of the ten were complete, but now the weight of the mountain now rested entirely on my shoulders. Now attempting the pitch on top rope, I fell yet again on my third try at the very end of the pitch. I had no energy left. This was it. El Cap had taken everything I had to give.

[sending the A5]

“I think you’ve got one more try in you,” Harrison said, though I knew at this point a fourth go was unlikely to be any better than the previous three. Still, there was no reason not to try again. There was just as much of a chance as there had been on any of this ridiculous adventure: just a fool’s chance. If that’s what it was, call me a fool, because somehow it was just barely enough. On my fourth try, after twelve days on the wall, I managed to reach the end of the final pitch of 5.13 without falling. I released a gutteral scream of relief. The tenth, and final crux was now behind us. For all of my many, many, mistakes, I had not failed in this final moment of truth.

We returned to camp to pack up our bags, and began hauling our exhausted bodies up to the top of the mountain. The hour was late and storm clouds brewed on the horizon yet again. Time to get the heck out of here. If you rush, you’ll make mistakes, I told myself. We made it through the last 5.12a, which felt like 13a in our exhaustion, and all of the spectacular overhanging hand jams of the razorblade pitches.

[the last pitch of 5.12]

I pulled myself over the ledge of the second to last pitch, to find that Harrison had untied from the sharp end and racked the gear for me. We had never discussed who would lead these pitches, but I had secretly hoped I wouldn’t have to. I was so tired of route finding, and hauling, and climbing in general… but so was he, and someone had to do it. Resigned to my fate, I racked up for the final pitch.

I power screamed my way up a 5.10 fist crack, fighting for every move. It eventually gave way to wet face climbing, which eventually zig zagged back and forth over a series of easy but wet roofs. I begged each one to be the last. The faintest hint of chalk from the Belgians remained on wet rock, guiding me in the right direction.

Finally the summit was in sight, but as I tried to move up, I found I could not. The rope was anchoring me in place, no matter how hard I pulled. Short on slings, I had not extended a piece that was now causing too much rope drag for me to continue.

I was twenty feet from the anchor, glorious chains that promised the end of this saga, but instead I had to build a gear anchor and rappel the haul line down to the piece that needed to be extended. Back on lead a few minutes later, I pulled over the final edge, to find myself once again stymied by rope drag.

Are you fucking kidding me? I wanted to scream.

I downclimbed this time, back to where I had built my gear anchor just took out the piece and ran it out. I didn’t care anymore. Then, at last, I stood on the summit.

The thing about summiting a big wall, is that even when you top out, you aren’t even close to being done. The final haul is always the worst, and this one was no exception. Rounded summit slabs and the myriad of roofs that had given me so much rope drag caused the bags to move mere inches at a time, as I threw my entire weight against the pulleys again and again. I grunted with exertion, salty sweat and tears running in streams down my dirty face as my foot throbbed in pain. Finally Harrison topped out too, and together we managed to manhandle the bags over the last few obstacles (and by together I mean Harrison pretty much carried up the bags that he insisted ‘weren’t that heavy,’ even though I couldn’t pick up them up anymore).

The sun set as we stowed our haul bags in a cave and began the weary trek down the mountain. Just a few days ago we had been almost excited for this descent, since it was the first time we had been able to walk more than a few steps in just under two weeks.

“I don’t know why I was looking forward to this,” Harrison said, as our knees ached from the steep downhill and hunger gnawed at our stomachs from our unwillingness to eat even a single more protein bar.

By 10pm, we were back in El Cap meadow where it all began, thirteen long days ago. In spite of every obstacle that stood in our way, we had persevered. Through three storms, soaked gear, falling ice, endless mistakes, epic rock fall, pre-soaked pasta, getting off route, many forced rest days, wet cruxes, a soggy portaledge, and constant doubt, we had not given up. We had stayed the course, hanging on by just a hope and a prayer that with our strength and willpower combined, it would somehow be enough.

I’d say it took everything I had, but when you succeed that’s never really true. I thought I had nothing left to give after three tries on the A5 traverse, or after the second storm, or in countless other moments, yet every time I faltered, Harrison had believed in my ability to dig just a little deeper and in turn made me believe it myself.

So many times it felt like we were on a fool’s errand, but I’ve also heard it said that ‘only fools fall in love.’ If that’s the case, there’s nothing I’d rather be than a fool for believing in crazy dreams, a fool for taking bold chances, and above all, a fool for falling in love with the greatest climber, partner, and person I’ve ever met.

They say she who goes fastest, goes it alone, but she who goes farthest, goes it with others. I would amend that saying to say that she who goes fastest, farthest, and with the most passion, vision, heart, and style, goes it with Harrison Teuber. There’s free, and then there’s team free, and when climbing El Cap, I always know which one I’d rather be.

The Crystal Dawn Wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[The Mighty Buffalo Wall]

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

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

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

[Harrison following a pitch on Buffalo Soldiers]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Abandoned ropes on the Buffalo Wall]

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

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

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

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

“It feels impossible,” I griped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Looking up at Crystal Dawn]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[The last hard move on the slab]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[The Roof!]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons from the Dark Side

What follows is a few short (by my standard) stories detailing personally significant experiences from my fall season in Yosemite. While this spring I was a student of El Capitan and the sunnier east side of the Valley, this time consistently warm weather kept my partner Harrison and I exclusively on the opposite side, which sees almost no sun this time of year. The dark side of the Valley is home to the Sentinel, the Cathedrals, Fifi Buttress, the Leaning Tower, and others; big routes that can be completed without sleeping on the wall for those driven enough to endure long days. For me it was yet another series of lessons on how to redefine myself, embrace failure and struggle, and toe the line of the seemingly impossible in pursuit of the kind of person I hope to one day become. Buckle up, buckaroos.

[Harrison leading the crux pitch on Border Country]

1. The Edge

“The Edge… There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others-the living-are those who pushed their control as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later. But the edge is still out there.” -Hunger S. Thompson

This is the place where they died.

The thought ran through my head as I sat alone, feet dangling off the side of Dano Ledge at the summit of the Leaning Tower. On October 23, 2006, one of my biggest heroes, Todd Skinner, fell from this wall to his death. Eight years earlier on November 23, 1998, so did climbing legend Dan Osman. Perhaps this was why the Leaning Tower had so strongly called to me. This wall had inspired them to push the limits so close to the Edge that they went over, and I needed to know why.

I had been searching for something within myself for quite some time, without even fully knowing what the question was that I was trying to answer. Something about how deep I could truly dig, how close to my physical and mental limit I could truly push myself, how close I could get to the Edge, though not exactly in the sense of Thompson’s quote. I wanted to find a way to tap into some deep reserve of willpower that I know exists within me; to find the strength to continue when I think I’ve reached my absolute limit. In those moments where I feel like I have nothing left, I wanted to find a way to keep going.

The Westie Face seemed like the perfect place to look. With one pitch of 5.13, five pitches of 5.12, only one pitch of 5.11, and 200 feet of free hanging jumaring up the only stretch of the wall that doesn’t go free, it seemed like something I could definitely do, but that would require me to really push past that point where I thought I would have to quit. It was something where my desire to succeed could maybe overcome every muscle in my body telling me I was going to fail.

[3rd pitch of the Westie Face]

At the beginning of the day I had told Harrison that I was stressed about the climb, because I knew I needed to at least try to lead every pitch in order to find what I was looking for. I couldn’t just ask him to take over and give me a free ride to the top, or I wouldn’t learn anything. Sitting on a comfortable ledge below the final pitch of 5.12-, in a moment of weakness I asked if he felt like leading it.

“Is that really what you want?” he asked knowingly.

Yes. Guarantee my success, let me take the easy way out, said my ego. I stood close to the Edge, and I was beginning to pull back.

Instead I started racking up. I didn’t really think the odds were much in my favor, but he was right, I had to try. This was why I came here.

“Atta girl,” he said. Pride washed over me, giving me a small but much needed boost of energy.

“I hope it’s soft,” I said, only half joking as I laced up my shoes.

As I laybacked up the final stretch of hard climbing, I could feel myself about to fail. After a thousand feet of climbing, the daylight was fading and I had so very little hope of climbing this pitch again, even on top rope, if I were to fall now. In that moment it was either sink or swim. Each move felt like it would surely be my last, but a voice from my partner, normally so quiet, yelled at me to fight. I held no faith that I would succeed, but I was damn sure not going to give up until I felt air rushing past my feet… except it never happened. Just as I could hold on no longer, a better hold appeared, and then a shaky stance, and a hand jam, and suddenly I did believe.

In the end I hadn’t done it in perfect style, sending the crux pitch from a stance and having to repeat the 5.12c roof pitch on toprope after a heartbreaking fall on my onsight attempt, but I had done it to the absolute best of my ability. Exhaustion racked my body. My eyes watered and a single tear rolled down my cheek as I watched the sun setting over the southern reaches of Yosemite Valley, knowing this breathtaking view was the last sight that the Tower’s victims had ever seen. I couldn’t help but think that they would have been proud, and at least for a moment, I felt like I understood. The lure of the Leaning Tower was the same thing that calls to any of us in climbing, myself included; a beautiful place to explore, an adventure to share with someone special, and above all, the desire to see what we are truly made of.

2. Imagination

This soul search I had been on had been largely inspired by my partner Harrison, and my constant awe at the things he is capable of. It’s not that he’s the kind of climber that is so strong that he never falls, gets tired, or makes mistakes; it’s that he is the kind of climber that does fall, but when it comes time to really turn it on, he always somehow finds the strength to succeed, no matter the obstacle in his path. It’s a trait I greatly admire because he’s not the kind of person that gets by on natural talent, but rather passion and determination; the things I value most in myself as well. Even when totally exhausted, he can still somehow perform at his best.

It was our second day on a route called The Nexus. On paper it’s only 5.13a, but in reality, it’s between 5.12+ and 5.13- for nearly 900 feet (the pitch breakdown is 5.10, 5.12b, 5.11c, 5.13a, 5.12d, 5.13a, 5.11c, 5.12c, 5.12d). We had only been on it once together, and hadn’t climbed past the last pitch of 5.13 due to my own fatigue. I lead us up the first few warm-up pitches, but when we arrived at the first crux pitch, Harrison took over. He looked shaky, like he was about to fall, as he climbed through the first hard sequence. Yet he didn’t fall. He didn’t fall there, or when he completely forgot his beta in the crux that followed. He didn’t fall on the 5.12d pitch, and despite a terminal pump on the third crux, he didn’t fall there either. It had taken everything I had just to follow his leads, barely keeping my own feet on the wall with a non-insignificant amount of assistance from keeping my microtraxions nice and tight. Even though I was just top roping everything, I had been trying to climb as if I were sending too, just to know what it would take to do something like this.

[Second pitch of the Nexus]

After a long day, we arrived at the final pitch of 5.12+ and I saw him try harder than I have in a long time, onsighting an incredibly cryptic crux and completing the climb having not fallen a single time that day. As for myself, I had nothing left when I started up the last pitch, eventually having to pull through a move after falling many times. Up until now I had managed to stay on my feet through sheer determination, but at last the magnitude of the objective finally brought me to my knees. I had come so far, and tried so hard, just to fail here at the very end.

At last I arrived at the summit, congratulating Harrison on his spectacular performance on an amazing route. With plenty of daylight left, he asked if I wanted to rehearse anything to try the route again. Still hyperventilating and as close to puking as I have ever been in this sport, I told him I couldn’t imagine myself sending this climb. He insisted I was closer than I might think. I knew he meant it, but I felt so utterly defeated that for once, I didn’t believe him.

As we rappelled, I couldn’t stop fixating on those thoughts. How was it that I couldn’t picture myself doing something? My climbing has always been fueled by seemingly impossible dreams; it’s been the foundation of everything I’ve ever accomplished. Not only that, but I am an artist by trade; creativity is one of my greatest strengths, so why was my imagination now failing me? I didn’t understand. I felt like I was hopelessly far away; so much so that I didn’t even know exactly what I was far away from, other than that it was some kind of person that I wanted to become.

I couldn’t exactly see it: what it was, or how to get there, but I knew an intangible something was dangling just out of my reach. It was some way to transcend mental barriers when it came to these hard multipitches. Some way to continue to perform and persevere when you reach what feels like your physical and mental limit. A way to have done that last fucking move on the Nexus. A way to have done that last move, and then climbed another pitch, if the route had had one.

I’ve been pushing my limits in climbing for nearly twenty years; clawing my way up one desperate project after another, yet despite everything I’ve learned, I felt like I might as well be starting over from scratch. It felt like I had an entirely new world to learn when it comes to performance. It is both frustrating and inspiring, because it’s why I know I’ll continue climbing for the next twenty years. It’s because no matter how far I’ve come, there’s still farther to go.

3. Wanting It

There’s fourth class scrambling, and then there is vertical crawling. Harrison had vanished from my line of sight the moment the trail steepened, but I was grateful for the distance between us; it spared me a small amount of dignity as sweat and the occasional burst of tears poured down my face as I fought for each step. Our packs were of similar weight, yet for him this approach was a casual scramble; for me it was an ugly and pitiful crawl.

We were navigating up the steep gully between Middle and Lower Cathedral in an attempt to reach the top of the Leaning Tower, packs laden with hundreds of feet of rope for scoping a route for project potential. At the top of the gunsight I found Harrison waiting for me, bundled in a down jacket whilst I wore nothing but a sports bra and shorts; he had clearly been there for a while. He offered to lighten my load. The weight was crippling to me, yet for him it was nothing out of the ordinary as he strapped one of my ropes onto the outside of his pack. He now carried three times what I did, and I could still barely keep up with his pace.

I felt guilty that I couldn’t pull my weight, but Harrison was unphased.

“You just gotta want it,” he said, and scampered off into the dense maze of manzanita bushes that presented our next trial.

I felt so beat down that all I could think was, how can it be that simple?


Hours later, we had reached the summit, and then navigated a complicated series of roofs and steep terrain to finally reach Ahwahnee Ledge where we were supposed to finally do some climbing. Completely drained, I collapsed on the ledge, climbing shoes remaining comfortably nestled at the bottom of my backpack. As Harrison booted up to rope solo a wild roof pitch that loomed above us, I asked him if it was always this much work to fix a long route. He confirmed as much, but to him it was hardly much work at all, seeing as it had only taken us half the day to complete our task. To him it was an entry fee that was easily worth paying.

As he climbed, I stared at tiny words on my phone screen, pages of a book I had just downloaded. It was Beyond the Summit: Setting and Surpassing Extraordinary Business Goals, by Todd Skinner. Give me answers, I silently implored. Skinner had pioneered the route we were trying, and I was hoping to find some way to change my attitude about how overwhelmed I felt about its seeming impossibility. I was so daunted that I didn’t even want to climb. It didn’t seem worth the effort, when the project seemed so massive. How had Skinner felt while sitting on this ledge, I wondered.

The book is meant to adapt lessons that Skinner learned in the mountains into metaphors for professionals in the business world, but it was hardly a stretch to just use the analogies for more mountains instead. Early in the book he describes the differing definitions of success through the story of his sixty-day ascent of the first grade seven route in the world in Pakistan’s Trango Towers. Skinner talks of how the allure of the challenge was its impossibility, because it offered the most possible opportunity to grow towards becoming the absolute best climber he could be. He wrote, “Remember that success doesn’t come from standing on the summit, but in rising to meet the summit, and if you choose an unchallenging summit, you will not rise far to reach it.”

It was exactly what I needed to hear, as I pulled my climbing shoes out of my backpack.


The next day Harrison returned to the route alone; I was simply too exhausted, and instead found myself wandering the Camp 4 boulders with a few friends. I had been falling off these small rocks for hours, and didn’t see much point in continuing to do so as the sun dipped behind the hills, yet my group saw it differently.

“You gotta want it!” my friend Jordan, another master of big days and long routes, called out as he strapped his shoes on for another attempt.

It was the second time in two days that someone from this world I sought to enter had said those words to me. Maybe it was that simple.

4. Second Wind

After a sudden change in the weather forecast caused the Leaning Tower route to no longer seem like a good project, Harrison and I returned to Fifi Buttress for redemption on a climb we had tried in the spring: the Final Frontier. After a day of recon and a day of rest, we started up the route on what looked to be one of the last days of good weather for climbing on the dark side of the Valley.

Things were going smoothly, as we blasted through the opening pitches with ease, arriving at the first crux pitch, a strenuous 5.12d stemming corner, early in the morning feeling fresh and psyched. Having taken a painful fall on it before, I was a mess of nerves and performance anxiety.

“You need to learn to chill the fuck out,” Harrison joked, but it was true. I was always such a basket case before leading anything hard on long routes. After he gave me a more genuine pep talk, I was able to find a bit more peace with my nerves and climb the pitch without much strife, Harrison easily following as if it were another warmup.

[The stemming pitch on Final Frontier]

We swapped leads and the next 5.13a crux offered little resistance, putting us at the base of the hardest 5.13b pitch with most of the day left. After moving so swiftly all morning, suddenly our pace ground to a halt as several hours later our position hadn’t changed. Harrison had led up to the slippery boulder problem and fallen off, lowered down, and then I went and did the exact same thing. He tried again; same result. We were running out of energy; he was unlikely to try again, but I still had one more shot.

It was all on me now to save the mission. It was my chance to lift the team up for once. Harrison was always picking up my slack, carrying more than his share of the weight, but maybe just this one time it could be me. So often it felt like we were a leader and a follower with me struggling just to keep up, but if I could pull this off then we would actually be a team. I wanted that so much more than I wanted to redpoint this climb.

Time to rise up, I thought; rise up to meet the summit, just like Skinner said. Sink or swim. I laybacked up the thin crack and cranked into the boulder problem crux, only to slip off yet again. With a curse, I returned to the belay. So much for my moment.

“Son of a bitch,” I said with a laugh. To my own surprise, I was not all that disappointed.

I had not sent the climb, but that lead still felt more like a success than a failure, because for that one pitch I had finally been able to get into the mindset that I had been striving for all this time. I had wanted it. I had wanted it enough to shut out all the weird mental blocks that had been nagging at me. I had wanted it enough to climb like I can on the ground. I hadn’t summited the mountain, but I still had risen up to meet it.

The weather was good enough for another attempt the following day, but forecasted rain made it our last real shot. Without taking a rest day it was pretty much a Hail Mary, but we had to try.

Even on the easy first pitches I could tell I was exhausted. I hadn’t slept well, and I felt much slower than the day before. Even hauling our small day pack and mini ledge felt more tiring than it should, leaving me slumped in my harness by the time the small task was completed.

I would do my best, but I couldn’t help but wonder if today my best would simply be to support Harrison. At least that was what I thought, until he told me hadn’t slept well either, and was experiencing a lot of fatigue and pain in his bad shoulder. Right after that, I fell on the 12d pitch. We agreed that maybe we should just clean all our gear off the upper cruxes and turn this Hail Mary into a Bail Mary. I fell on the next crux too, leaving me 0 for 2 going into the third. Harrison was still on point however, and I thought he still had a good shot to scrap together a send. I felt mixed emotions at the idea. I wanted at least one of us to do the climb if we couldn’t do it together, but I was disappointed that we wouldn’t be able to do it as a team like we’d hoped.

Harrison fired the final crux first try. I’d say it was against the odds, but it wasn’t; such a feat came as no surprise to me. What did however, was when I managed to climb it as well.

[The final crux on Final Frontier]

“That’s what I’m talking about!” he cheered as I panted up to the belay.

Just like that, the mission was back on. It was only 1pm, so plenty of time left for us to both climb the final 12c pitch, and then rap back down for me to somehow send the other two pitches. A tall order, but there was no other way this story ended in my mind. There was a lot still to do, but I had done the hardest pitch. Nothing would stop me from finishing this climb now. I wanted it. My fatigue from that morning was nothing but a distant memory, as I felt some kind of miraculous second wind wash over me. The mindset from the end of the day before was back, and it was here to stay.

Harrison worked out the beta for the 12c and then handed me the sharp end. I couldn’t afford to waste too much energy on this pitch and still hope to return to the lower cruxes. I stabbed to a gaston at the full extent of my wingspan, feeling my shoulder wrench backwards as only two of my fingers latched the hold. I screamed, as nothing but stubborn willpower kept me from falling. I pulled my foot up to match my other hand, and then it was over. How Harrison could do these moves without completely destroying his bad shoulder was unfathomable to me.

“That was an extreme effort. I can’t believe I pulled that off!” I called down with a shaky laugh, before finishing the pitch through easier terrain. Harrison sent it on his second try and we rapped back down to my remaining pitches.

“Game seven, pressure’s on!” Harrison joked.

I’ve climbed some of my hardest routes when it came down to the last possible chance, managing miracles when the pressure was at its maximum, yet have often struggled when the stakes were more medium. I climbed the remaining pitches both in quick succession, floating through moves that before had felt desperate. “Conditions got a lot better when this second wind kicked up,” I joked, because it had been surprisingly humid and warm that day. I felt like a different climber from just a few hours ago. I felt like myself. For once I didn’t feel like I was drowning in this land of the unknown, so far out of my element and league. For once on a hard multipitch I felt like I knew exactly how to do what I needed to do, and capable of reasonably doing it. For once I felt like part of a team; two partners rather than just a junkshow student and her ever patient teacher.

My experience on Final Frontier felt like a culmination of all the things I had been trying so hard to learn from all the other routes in Yosemite. It was a small step forward on a long road to destination unknown, with the only map written in a language the free trial version of duolingo doesn’t include. Perhaps this road leads to the Edge, or perhaps it leads nowhere at all. More likely, it just leads to another road. I don’t know much, but the entire reason I live on the road at all is to find out where and just how far it goes.

All That Glitters

“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the darkness shall spring,
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.”

A lot has changed in my climbing over the past eight months, as I’ve gotten swept away by a desire to push my comfort zone in new ways and truly test my limits. I dove headfirst into the pursuit of bigger and bigger walls, culminating in ten days spent questing in “ground up” (the most adventurous style of big wall climbing) on the Muir Wall on El Capitan just before a harsh temperature spike brought an abrupt end to the spring season in Yosemite. The more I embraced the unknown of these new challenges, the more I realized that they weren’t nearly as out of reach as I had once thought, simply because I learned I was capable of adapting and enduring far more than I could have ever imagined.

Climbing on El Cap was the highest high I could ever imagine; there’s just nothing else like it. The light of that sun baked monolith shone so brightly that once I left the Valley, I found myself rather lost in the shadow that it cast. Everything else just felt so small, both physically and metaphorically.

As record breaking heat consumed the Western United States at the beginning of summer I felt drained of energy, strength, and psyche, with no idea how to recharge. Climbing back home in Index tugged at my sentimental heartstrings, but offered no answers. My eyes and ears were open as I searched for a new calling, but how can you top the experience of spending ten days climbing 5.13 on the most historic wall in the world with a partner you love? How do you dream bigger than that? Even now I’m not convinced it can be done.

[Dreaming big on top of the world. Photo by Garet Bleir]

With no clue what to do about my climbing path, I decided to let life take the wheel for a while instead. I finished my summer work and left Washington in a hurry and headed for South Dakota; I hardly knew anything about the place, but it was where my heart was telling me to go. My boyfriend Harrison was living there for the summer, and after a month apart I was so lonely that leaving the Pacific Northwest was all I could think about. Plus, a brand-new place promised mystery and adventure that I hoped might shake things up as I waited impatiently for fall, when we could return to the Promised Land (aka Yosemite).

My first weekend in South Dakota coincided with Pumpfest, the annual climbing festival in Custer State Park. As I stood in a crowded bar at kickoff night, Harrison walked up to me with an older man in tow.

“This is Paul,” he said.

“I hear you’ve been doing some climbing,” Paul Piana said to me as I tried to keep my jaw from hitting the floor. Our conversation was brief before he vanished back into the crowd, but how much it meant to me was enormous. What better sign that I was where I was supposed to be than to meet one of my biggest heroes on pretty much day one?

The next day we helped the guides, all friends of Harrison’s, set up top ropes for the event before heading off to do some climbing of our own. I was shocked at how foreign the rock and climbing style felt. After almost two decades of climbing I hadn’t thought there were still so many places out there that could make me feel like a beginner again, but I should know better than to assume I’ve seen it all.

Mica from the long, adventurous pitches glittered in the sun, making it look as though the rocks were covered in bolts, when in reality the strict ground-up, hand drill only ethic usually meant there were often far fewer than one might desire. Before long all my belongings glittered too, like they were coated in some kind of fairy dust; much the same way desert sand dyes everything red when I’m in the Creek. I was reminded of the poem by J.R.R. Tolkien about ‘All that is gold does not glitter,’ and soon found it stuck in my head every time I came to the Needles and saw the glimmer of the almost magical-looking rocks. It started with just the first stanza, but the more I climbed there, the more I found each verse representing an important part of the journey I had unknowingly already begun.

[Mica from the Needles]

At the end of the day, Harrison took our posse to look at one last climb, the Phoenix. It was one he had told me about before while trying to get me excited about coming to South Dakota, but the pictures I’d been sent could not begin to do it justice. According to Mountain Project, Paul Piana had once called this crack more beautiful than the Salathe Headwall, and while I don’t think that’s really possible, to say so wasn’t actually too much of an exaggeration. An intimidating flared seam snaked its way up a 35-meter overhanging blue and orange streaked wall; the only remotely climbable feature on the entire face. It wasn’t really a crack climb per se, but after seeking mostly splitters for the past few years I had been trying to regain my long-lost affinity for face climbing anyway. Another part of my endless pursuit to be as well rounded as possible.  

When I asked Harrison if he was going to lead it, he was quick to respond with a “Hell, no!” After getting the second ascent a few years ago, he claimed he never needed to lead it again. To hear that from such a brave and bold climber was my first clue into just what kind of a challenge this climb was going to be.

The Phoenix did not disappoint, as technical liebacking, stemming, kneebarring, and occasional jamming left me so sickeningly pumped I could barely keep down the last discount protein bar I’d eaten. Here was a challenge that I could really sink my teeth into, yet I resisted the urge to commit to projecting when I’d only just gotten here and still had so much to explore. Still, despite enjoying many other interesting and challenging climbs over the next few weeks, the Phoenix remained ever-present in my mind.

Aside from my constant desire for the next life-changing odyssey, it was also one of my short-term goals to tackle a project at the upper end of my limit. I needed to remind myself that I could still send the gnar, not just to feed my hungry ego by bagging big numbers, but mainly to give myself a bigger reserve of confidence and experience from which to draw from when faced with harder pitches on the big walls. 5.13 on a topo as part of a much larger route still felt like a very different thing than seeing the same grade in a guidebook for a crag, and in order to eventually climb the bigger, harder, and longer routes I had recently become interested in, that needed to change.

I got on the Phoenix occasionally, making steady progress each time until I managed to get the “elusive top rope one-hang” towards the end of July. That meant it was time to get on the sharp end, because as I’ve always said about hard trad climbs: you don’t want the one time you do it clean to be on top rope. I also wanted to impress Harrison, who had boldly gotten the second ascent without much top rope rehearsal and had a tendency to just go for things if there was even a small chance of success. I propped up my phone on a log to record my attempt (and any potential mega-whippers), and racked up with all the gear I thought I might need. What little protection the climb offers is so few and far between that the first ascensionist, local legend Chris Hirsch, had resorted to headpoint tactics. Harrison told me he had ripped gear on at least one of his lead attempts as well. Suddenly I had to poop tremendously out of nervousness.

As I launched into my first lead attempt, I was consumed by fear. I was only confident that about a third of my gear placements were guaranteed to hold a fall, and the stances I had planned to place from were far more strenuous than I had predicted, adding to the terror. My climbing was sloppy and inefficient, as I squeezed the grips too hard and missed key feet in my lactic-acid induced tunnel vision. Still, I managed to only fall twice before shakily pulling onto the formation’s summit after being on lead for nearly fourty-five minutes.

Now that I had stopped top roping, it was officially a project because now each attempt was an attempt to send. The more I tried the climb, the more I felt something stirring inside me that had been long dormant, like the legend of the Phoenix itself: a bird made of fire that is reborn from its ashes when it dies. A new inspiration was finally calling me out of the darkness of El Cap’s mighty shadow.

From the ashes a fire shall be woken.
 A light from the darkness shall spring.

After my big wall adventures, a part of me had been worried that I would not be able to find the same passion for hard single pitch climbing anymore. I feared that this thing that I had once considered such a defining and core part of my climbing and myself would no longer hold the meaning it once had. I have worked so hard to become the climber I am, and draw so much pride from all that I have become, that I was terrified to lose my connection to those roots. As always, I feared change, even if that change means evolution. Still, my path as a wandering dirtbag had led me here, to this glittering place, and the more I tried this climb, the less I felt lost. I should have known that my love for hard projecting went too deep and was too strong to be uprooted so easily.

Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

As July turned to August, the heat reached a crescendo of consistent ninety-degree days where Harrison and I were based in Spearfish. Still, time waits for no one, and I certainly didn’t want to wait for cooler weather to get back on the Phoenix. I convinced Harrison we should return to Custer even though the highs were in the mid-eighties, but by mid-day when we arrived it was so hot we struggled to even conceive of going climbing. I had come here for a reason though, and I wasn’t about to let a little lethargy shut me down.

My first attempt was around 4pm, two hours after the Phoenix goes into the shade. I had hoped that the first lead would be the scariest, and that I would become more comfortable with a bit of practice, enabling me to climb better. It proved not to be the case however, as my bowels gurgled with the familiar fear-shits.

The rock was still very warm, and moves that had felt simple before suddenly felt like new cruxes. I fell off the first sequence of hard moves, a new low point. Even on my very first TR attempt I’d gotten higher. One of the cams that I thought only had a marginal chance of holding arrested my fall, the trusty .4/.5 offset remaining steadfast despite its very shallow placement in questionable quartz. A silver lining at least, to know that I could trust at least one piece of pro. The rest of the climb didn’t go much better, as I chuffed my way to the top in another nearly hour-long lead.

It was taking me too long, I decided. I studied my phone videos countless times as I rested, trying to find inefficiencies, strategize where I should be climbing faster, and eliminate certain rests that I was lingering at out of fear, rather than because it actually offered much recovery.

As I got ready for another try, I looked to Harrison for support, vocalizing my fears and asking how he had dealt with them on the route. All he offered was that it never really got less scary. Great.

Frustrated by the lack of encouragement, I momentarily brooded as I laced up my shoes. I was angry that hadn’t he been able to offer me some magic cure for my nerves. As I squirted liquid chalk onto my hands and glared at the Phoenix, determination settled over me. Harrison hadn’t given me the secret answer because there wasn’t one. I realized that I had to find how to overcome this challenge with what was inside myself. No shortcuts.

I thought about one of my favorite lines from The Rock Warrior’s Way, which says, “Look the Ego dragon in the eye and draw your sword. Then pay attention, give your best, and enjoy the ride.”

‘Draw your sword, Brittany,’ I thought to myself. No more looking for an easy way out. If I wanted to climb a hard and scary rock climb, I should stop wishing it weren’t so hard and scary.

Renewed shall be blade that was broken

My grit overpowered the fear, and for the first time I felt as though I was able to climb well while on lead. I moved fast, shaving nearly twenty minutes off my time, and managed to only fall once. From my terrible previous go to this one I felt like a completely different climber. I now knew what it was going to take.

No matter how psyched I was, there was no denying that it was still way too hot to be climbing in the Needles however, as granite is a horribly condition-dependent rock. I complained to Harrison about how my usual process didn’t involve going weeks between getting on the project, but the conditions were beyond our control. We confined ourselves to the sport climbing paradise of Spearfish Canyon to make our fingers strong as we sweated out the apex of summer. I consoled myself by obsessively rehearsing the entire route in my mind each night as I fell asleep in the hopes that when I got my chance, I would make no more dumb mistakes.

It was late August before the weather began to cool off again. I hadn’t been on the Phoenix in nearly two weeks, but a small rain squall promised a slight reprieve from the heat down in Custer. I recruited my dear friend Eric, who was on a brief vacation in Spearfish, to drive down for a day while Harrison was at work. We were also joined by Sarah, whom I had met just a few days before. Unlike all the local climbers I’d met in Spearfish or the Needles, Sarah was not restricted by a work schedule nor family obligations, so we had been climbing together ever since being introduced. Also unlike almost all the locals I’d met, Sarah was a woman.

The climbing community in South Dakota is amazing– full of kind, humble, genuine people, and I felt immediately welcomed into it upon my arrival. Still, almost all of those people are men, a fact that I had noticed immediately. In Spearfish I had only met one woman who climbed hard or with any regularity. Even in the little history lessons Harrison gave me while walking around Custer, I never heard any female names as he listed the first ascensionist of this climb or that. When I asked about it, my concerns were confirmed. Maybe there had been a few women who climbed some of the harder sport climbs in the Needles once, but life had taken them all in different directions.

As a woman seeking hard trad climbs in a sandbagged, adventurous climbing area, as usual, I was alone.

As Sarah and I showed Eric and his friends around the Needles, we relished how cool the breeze felt. Intermittent clouds made me optimistic that the Phoenix wouldn’t even need that much time to cool down, and I felt mentally strong in the long runouts of a 5.11 warmup. As we arrived at the Phoenix, I pressed my palm against the wall, measuring its temperature. It was far warmer than I’d expected, but that was okay, it was still early.

I tried climbing it, only to grab a cam when the carabiner flipped upside down and caused me to fear taking a dreaded ‘clipping fall’ (aka falling with a very large amount of slack out while trying to clip) onto the less-than-bomber piece far below. Only a few feet higher I fell, ripping out my next cam and taking a huge whipper. A few feet higher than that, I realized I had forgotten one of the cams I needed, and had to improvise, pumping out while fiddling around with the wrong gear that didn’t fit. I junk-showed the rest of the way up, logging my longest (and worst) lead yet. I felt miles away from ever sending this climb.

It’ll cool off, it’ll feel better in a few hours, I tried to tell myself. It did not cool off, and it felt worse than ever after that. I barely made it a quarter of the way up before realizing it was going to be an epic just getting to the chains. I bailed off a few good cams, and took the walk of shame up the backside of the mountain to clean my gear on rappel, trying not to cry. The devil on my shoulder whispered that I should give up, that I did not have what it took. I knew I was physically strong enough to do it eventually, but how many times could I put myself through the mental battle of leading this climb? How many times could I justify leading this climb when there were so many parts of it that felt dangerous?

The angel on my other shoulder fought back. If you quit after the bad days, the good days never happen, she said. In the end I did love this climb. It inspired me, and when I could silence the fear, I felt joy while climbing it. It was beautiful, and was going to make me a better climber. The more I calmed myself down, the more I was able to view the situation rationally. As much as I hated to limit myself by blaming conditions, they did matter. The rock had felt awful, having retained all the heat from the hot days before today, with nighttime lows barely dipping down enough for it to ever get the chance to cool. Things would be different next time.

Sarah and I returned a few days later, joined by another woman, Kelsey. As we rambled around in the morning, waiting for the Phoenix to go in the shade, we began talking about how we had all experienced frustration at the lack of a female presence in the area. Apparently I was not the only one who had noticed.

I thought about the Phoenix. It had only been climbed by two people, both men, just like all the hard routes here. I doubt any women had ever even tried, but I could change that. I could open the door for others, because so often in climbing that’s all it takes: someone willing to go first. Someone who can prove that we are all capable of more than we could ever imagine.

On many of my previous attempts on the Phoenix I had not felt properly warmed up, and had gotten a crippling flash pump on my first try as a result. I had formed a strategy to combat this, drawing from my tactics on Stingray where I would always rappel in and top rope the top of the pitch as a warmup (and to make sure I had the beta for the finish moves super dialed, so I wouldn’t blow it after the crux). I lowered into the top of the Phoenix, brushing holds and rehearsing a few moves on the way down before starting my warmup in earnest. I immediately broke off the only foot on the right side of the crack in the middle of the crux. It had been crumbling away for some time, but now it was pretty much gone except for a few crystals. They would have to be enough, but my foot picked off each time; it felt like the rubber was folding as it slipped. I examined my shoe, only to discover that it had developed a hole in the bottom. Good thing I had a spare pair back in my van. I climbed to the top, cold rock and even colder air making the climb feel completely different than just a few days ago.

After snagging a new pair of shoes, I met Sarah at the base of the climb. Kelsey was nowhere to be found. My new shoes felt like I could stand on anything. The rock was so sticky from the cold that I felt like I could hold on to anything. After having a few more days climbing with Sarah, I trusted her completely at the belay. Yes, I had been scared enough to have to take my usual pre-Phoenix poop, but once I started climbing the fear seemed to finally melt away.

I wasted no time resting pointlessly, but made sure not to rush through delicate sequences that could so easily be fumbled. When I got to the kneebar before the redpoint crux, it felt more secure than it ever had, allowing the lactic acid to drain from my forearms as I calmed my racing heartbeat. I climbed up and placed a cam before returning to the rest, determined to stay there until my calf was so pumped I could bear it no longer.

I passed my high point, finding a new place to rest right in the middle of the crux. Both my arms and my legs ached with pump, but a slip would only happen if I allowed it to at this point; I was completely in control as I cruised up the final twenty feet of 5.11 terrain before I was sitting on top, screaming so loud they could probably have heard me back in Spearfish if it hadn’t been such a windy day.  

“What an incredible feeling!” I gushed to Sarah, back on the ground. Having felt like such a mess on most of my other attempts, to have just performed some of my best climbing on the same climb was a dramatic contrast. There had been almost no fear, no self-doubt, no elements out of my control, just me going rock climbing and finally rising to the challenge.

I stared up at the Phoenix, filled with gratitude. It had given me exactly what I had been looking for, and now I had given it something in return. I had written my chapter into the history of this place, so lacking in female voices. As much as I value climbing for my own selfish reasons and the intrinsic rewards it brings me, if my climbing can make even one person out there believe that more is possible for themselves, it makes all the hard work worth it.

The crownless again shall be king queen.

So this one is for all the women out there pushing themselves on gear, no matter if it’s 5.4 or 5.14.

The Index T-Shirt

In a cabinet next to the bed in my van lives a very small collection of books. The collection includes a rotating cast of crossword puzzles and journals, but for lack of space few have made the cut as long-term residents. Hangdog Days by Jeff Smoot, Climbing Free by Lynn Hill, Advanced Rockcract by Royal Robbins, and The Rock Warrior’s Way by Arno Ilgner will always have their place, but in the age of Mountain Project I don’t really have enough space for any guidebooks. That is, with one exception: Index, Washington.

On the inside flap of the front cover of my Index guidebook is a handwritten note that says, “Don’t be afraid to redefine yourself.” Guidebook author Chris Kalman’s words. At the time that I wrote it, I was young, proud, and stubborn, but above all afraid of change. Thus, it had been advice that I had needed to hear in my early days at Washington’s finest crag, as I first began cautiously dipping my toes into the world of trad climbing. I had long been searching for something, what I thought was simply a new climbing project, and it had led me to Index. What I found instead was so much more than I could have ever imagined– an experience that would completely and profoundly change my life. There in Index, alongside the salmon in the river and the slugs in the forest I found myself, and who I was meant to become.

On the inside flap of the back cover of my Index guidebook is a handwritten list of climbs that is completely arbitrary in many ways, yet for the sake of this story is anything but. It’s a copy of the list of climbs found on the back of “the Index T-shirt,” an iconic symbol that has come to represent the almost cult-like reverence held for the Index Town Walls by all who have spent time in its ethereal forests and on its proud granite walls.

The roots of climbing have always been steeped in an anti-establishment mindset, allowing the sport to collect misfits who simply seek the freedom to be themselves and be accepted for it. More than anywhere else I’ve ever been, Index epitomizes this vibration in a way that makes it so much more than just a climbing area. It’s a place where even the weirdest amongst us can feel at home and find their tribe, because in Index, everyone belongs. That is what the T-shirt represents, because to wear it means to be a part of our community, to belong to it and to this place. Even in my far-reaching travels across the country, I’ve come across complete strangers wearing these shirts and felt an instant connection over our unspoken common ground. We are both a part of something.

Made by Richard Ellison, a Seattleite and old school local climber, the front bears a colorfully screen-printed silhouette of the striking yet seldom summited Mount Index, and the back has a checklist of what at first glance appears to be the crag’s most classic climbs. Upon closer inspection however, a disconnect becomes apparent: even by Index standards the grades are way off, with almost everything from 5.10 to 5.12 simply listed as “5.11-B,” and while most routes are classics, a few made the cut that rarely get done, had never been repeated, or straight up don’t even exist anymore (if they ever did). The shirts are sold at the Index General Store and have been around as long as anyone who still climbs there today, yet in decades of their existence the list had never been completed by a single person. At least, until now. 

The List [Photo by Eric Hirst]

The idea to complete the T-shirt list came from one of my best friends and long-time climbing partner Eric Hirst. He had been climbing at Index for decades and had established many routes there some time ago, but had fallen out of the scene in recent years as he instead explored Washington’s many small sport crags like where we first met in a place called Newhalem.

Eric and I became fast friends, bonding over nerdy books, board games, marvel movies, and of course, rock climbing. Along with a crew that consisted of a handful of other climbers such as Doug and Allison Reimer, Pat Sullivan, Benjit Hull, Julie Busby, Nic Thune, Jeff Schmitt, Blue Hargreaves, Leah Seaver, Jimmy Chulich, Stefan Baatz, and many others, we soon began camping and climbing together every weekend. “These are the good old days,” Doug would often say, as we sat around a campfire under yet another night of brilliant stars. He was right. Climbing had never been more fun.

While life would eventually take us all in different directions, as it tends to do to even the tightest of crews, my friendship with Eric was only just beginning. Over the years he would go on to mentor me in route development, be the person I called in tears after heartbreaks, give me a key to his house for when I needed a place to store my stuff and crash when back in town, and forever be a big part of the reason why I’ll always consider the Pacific Northwest my home.

Eric and I sharing a beer in the Red River Gorge [Photo by Jeff Schmitt]

Eric had been my partner for much of my defining early days at Index, supporting me as I projected the legendary finger crack City Park. After I eventually sent it, Eric mentioned that since it’s on the T-shirt, I had now become one of the few people out there who could actually complete the list. We already knew it had never been done, because there had only been five people before me to climb City Park, and none of them would have gone out of their way to climb such obscurities as The Antidote, rumored to have never seen a second ascent, or Spaced Man Spliff, which may or may not actually even exist.

Not knowing much about many of the actual climbs on it other than the handful I’d already done, I liked the idea simply because it was something I could offer to Index in exchange for all it had given me. I could share with this special place my own vision of what’s possible with enough passion and heart. Who knows, maybe it would open the door for someone to do something even bigger one day, or maybe it would just be a fun way to pay homage to the place that had changed my life.

I didn’t commit to the pursuit right away, but I began exploring it with ever increasing curiosity. The more I thought about it and tried a few of its climbs, the more I became obsessed. It was such an arbitrary list, made by a single person whom I barely knew, yet to me it represented so much. Even being relatively new to Index, I had unintentionally already ticked off a good chunk of the list, especially the Lower Town Wall classics. What remained was a combination of moderates and testpieces, some classic and others long lost to the moss and slugs. Each with their own story to tell.

What follows is a collection of short stories, one for each climb on the list. They chronicle not just the process of completing a unique sort of goal, but the journey of falling in love with a place, growing lifelong friendships, making mistakes, learning, and evolving as a person. If you are looking for the highlights, read City Park and then skip to Spaced Man Spliff and Davis-Holland at the end, though hopefully it’s worth reading about everything in between. It was certainly worth experiencing.

1: City Park
Location: Lower Town Wall
Style: Finger crack
T-Shirt Grade: 5.13-C
Real (Index) Grade: 5.13d

City Park [Photo by Truc Ngyuen Allen]

I’ve already written pages and pages about City Park over the years, but in my life, it just seems to be the gift that keeps on giving, so here we are again.

At the time that I first started pursuing the first female ascent of Washington’s hardest trad climb, I could never have imagined nor understood just how much it would impact my life in the years that would follow. Back then, deep down I was simply seeking an outlet. I was desperately lonely, lost, and didn’t have a clue where my life was headed. I was dissatisfied with the status quo trajectory I was on, yet I couldn’t envision being brave nor bold nor talented enough for anything else. When I’m hitting dead ends and don’t know which way to go in life, I usually just let rock climbing take the wheel, so that’s exactly what I did. I needed something into which I could pour that overwhelming amount of passion that I had been bottling up inside me, and City Park fit the bill perfectly.

As I started to work the route, I found what I had been missing in my life: a direction. I didn’t know where it would take me, but if it was into a world that was full of the kind of purpose I felt whilst climbing that crack, I knew that it was where I needed to go. The more I followed my heart in pursuit of City Park, the more my mind began to open to just what it was that I was experiencing, because it was something profoundly new.

Over time I started to see a bigger picture that my imagination hadn’t held the capacity for until now. I began to understand how a climb could be so much more than just an egotistical battle with some godforsaken piece of rock; how superficial my mindset of ‘conquer and move on to the next,’ truly was. I started to realize that I had barely scratched the surface of the potential to have truly meaningful experiences through climbing.

Projecting City Park not only showed me climbing at its best, but along the way my time in Index also showed me some of life itself at its best. Long days outside in a beautiful place with dear friends spent pouring my heart into a passion; what more could you ask for? It was more than just cragging. It was climbing as a lifestyle, climbing as a place to belong, climbing as a purpose, climbing as an identity. It was almost all of the answers I had been looking for.

As I fell in love with Index, I became increasingly interested in getting to know the place better to truly understand where I fit in to the picture. I studied its culture by night, befriending the regulars and camping in the Wagon Wheel (Index’s colorful campground for dirtbags, families, evangelicals, and non-climbing rainbow folks alike), and I studied its stories and lore by day. Never before had I seen projecting a route as stepping into history and learning how to write your own chapter; drawing inspiration from those that have come before and hopefully giving back to all that will come after. I realized not only that City Park was so much more than just a route, but that there must be others out there with just as rich of stories to experience and add on to.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that City Park changed everything about how I understood rock climbing.

I started to see the places climbing might be able to take me if I dared to dream big enough. Once you get a taste of that, there’s no going back. I had to find what else was out there.

It was largely thanks to City Park that I finally worked up the courage to leave Washington and the status quo in the rear view. I bought a van and hit the road, now a semi-professional climber and mostly unprofessional dirtbag, always in pursuit of the kinds of experiences I now know are such a critical element to a meaningful life. It has been an experience that has been richer and more rewarding than anything I could have imagined in my wildest dreams. Like I said, who I was meant to become.

2: Godzilla
Location: Lower Town Wall
Style: Hand crack
T-Shirt Grade: 5.10-A
Real (Index) Grade: 5.9

To this day I consider Godzilla one of my favorite climbs anywhere. I believe it was one of my first real trad leads, though all I really remember about when I climbed it was that it was the dead of winter. It was one of those rare Washington days when it stops raining for long enough that desperately hungry climbers can find dry rock in the midst of monsoon season. The Lower Town Wall gets full sun that time of year, with no leaves on the trees to stop the granite from quickly drying. The days are very short however, so casual cragging is the best that can really be hoped for.
It was on a day like that that I rambled out to Index for what was probably only my second time ever (the first being during an internship with KAF Adventures, in which I climbed the Great Northern Slab, a 5.7). I don’t remember who I was with unfortunately, but as we arrived at the base of Godzilla, I eagerly volunteered to take the lead despite not knowing much about trad climbing. I was already a solid 5.13 sport climber, so the route presented no challenge even without knowing how to hand jam (it’s a crack climb). While the consensus of the grade is 5.9, the Index T-shirt has it listed as 5.10a so I considered it my first 5.10 on gear, holding the shirt in reverence even back then.

After clipping the anchors for Godzilla, my belayer lowered me slowly to the ground. As I descended, I passed a striking pencil thin crack that ran the entire way from the shared anchors to the forest floor.

“That’s City Park,” I was told. The hardest trad climb in the state. “Do you want to try it?”

It was soaking wet, but here was already a top rope up, so what the hell, why not? It was way above my paygrade at the time, but it captured my imagination nonetheless; a dream for another life.

As I was working City Park, I climbed Godzilla countless times; the perfect warm up that coincidentally shared an anchor with my project. I don’t think I ever had anything less than pure type 1 fun, sinking those perfect hand jams with such ease that my rack eventually whittled down to just a few cams. I knew the route so well that I felt completely safe with just my ability as protection.

Rarely do I seek out 5.9s, but Godzilla is one of those climbs that I could climb every day for the rest of my life and never tire of it, and there aren’t a lot of those out there.

3: Princely Ambitions
Location: Lower Town Wall
Style: Varied cracks and face climbing
T-Shirt Grade: 5.8
Real (Index) Grade: 5.9

I’ve warmed up on Princely Ambitions a few times, as it is one of the only easy routes at the Lower Town Wall. I have no real recollection of the first time I climbed it, but I have a vivid memory of a different day when Princely nearly got me into some real trouble.

It was the Fourth of July, 2018 or at least sometime around then, because I know I had tried City Park earlier that day and had some extra energy to burn off afterward. I was with Pat, and he suggested we climb Princely to access a few pitches above it. It connects into Dr. Sniff and the Tunaboaters, a variation to the second pitch that gets you to a ledge system that eventually leads up to the Mid Walls.

Pat and I goofing around on the 4th of July

Pat and I cruised up Princely and Dr. Sniff, enjoying the easy climbing as we topped out in the small forest on the ledge above. We scrambled up loose dirt and pine needles until we were stopped by another wall. A few scattered grassy cracks led to an anchor, though there was no evidence that it had been climbed in years. A long time Index veteran, Pat insisted that it was a good climb, a nice 5.11 that wasn’t too sandbagged, and said that I should give it a go while we were here. He had always been a trustworthy tour guide out here so I agreed.

Pat anchored himself to a tree at the base, because the ledge sloped down pretty aggressively to where it dropped off at the edge of the cliff, several pitches above the forest floor. I started up, trying to fiddle small gear around the vegetation that had made its home in the crack. It certainly wasn’t clean, and it might not have even been totally dry. Whatever the cause, I slipped off after only a few feet of climbing. Whatever desperate protection I had tried to fiddle in ripped immediately and I found myself tumbling to the ground in a ball of long limbs. I landed on my ass and then fell backwards, sliding down the dirty slope headfirst towards the precipice until the rope arrested my momentum as I finally came to a stop.

Pat’s decision to build a belay anchor had saved me a much worse fate. Nicknamed “The Walking Legend,” after surviving a severe ground fall on Thin Fingers that should have been fatal, he knows a thing or two about hitting the deck in Index. If you’re going to rip gear and deck, this was a far better place than in the sharp talus below the Lower Town Wall, as the soft peat of the forest had cushioned my fall and allowed me to walk away a little shaken but otherwise unscathed. I have never returned to that pitch for redemption; I’d far rather just take another lap on Princely Ambitions.

4: Thin Fingers
Location: Lower Town Wall
Style: Finger crack
T-Shirt Grade: 5.11-B
Real (Index) Grade: 5.11a

Thin Fingers was another one of the first things I ever climbed at Index, but what I remember most about it was that it was the first time I ever shared a rope with Pat. We had been facebook friends for a while, each knowing of each other yet never having met in person until finally crossing paths at Vertical World one day. I knew that Pat was a talented and dedicated Index climber, to the point that his name was almost synonymous with the place. He offered to show me around his stomping grounds, and the next thing I knew we were at Thin Fingers, one of Index’s most classic moderate challenges.

While we had just met, I already knew about Pat’s fall, because it was impossible not to. The Washington climbing community isn’t that big. What I didn’t know was that this was the climb it had happened on, yet for some reason this was the first place he had taken me. I guess it’s just a testament to Pat’s unflappable love for Index and truly genuine character, that even something so traumatic couldn’t shake his desire to be here and to share one of his favorite climbs with me, a total stranger. It was the first of many beautiful days that we have shared in Index, as Pat instantly became one of my favorite people to climb with, and has remained so to this day.

5: Slow Children
Location: Lower Town Wall
Style: Finger crack
T-Shirt Grade: 5.11-B
Real (Index) Grade: 5.10d

Long before most of these stories took place, when I knew little about Index and the nature of its specific style (both of climbing and of sandbagging routes), I received a message one day from renowned local photographer Truc Ngyuen Allen. He had a photoshoot that needed to happen within the next few days and his climber had bailed, so he was on the hunt for a last-minute stand-in. Somehow my name had come up and he reached out, though we had never worked together before. I don’t think I’d ever even been shot by a professional before. I was eager to participate, casually brushing off Truc’s caution whether or not I was prepared to lead such a route. Yes, it was harder than anything I had ever led on gear before, but I had climbed a few 5.13 sport routes already and couldn’t imagine a 5.10 ever giving me trouble.

Truc had wrangled up a belayer for me, but he was only available for a few hours in the morning, most of which we took up just getting to the base of the pitch (it starts after the second pitch of City Park, accessed via Godzilla). I still had to get the fixed line up for Truc, and climb the route again for the photos. We sat around on the ledge, wondering what to do as our belayer lowered back to the ground. He promised to ask around at the base of the Lower Town Wall for someone who could take his place, but the crag was almost completely deserted that day. Almost.

On any given day if there is only one person at the Lower Town Wall, odds are that that person is Randy Ladowski. Diehard Index fanatic, Randy has since become one of a very small number of climbers passionate enough about the crag to actually brave the bleak monsoon season and take up permanent residence in town. He agreed to come up and belay me, in exchange for the promise of $20. We had seen each other around before, and have since become very good friends, but that was my first memory of ever climbing together.

I tiptoed up the diving board that grants access to what in the opinion of many is Index’s finest rock climb. The first crux comes almost immediately, and off I came. Perhaps Truc had been right to question my ability to climb this. I knew I could get to the chains, even if I didn’t send it, so I continued upwards in a not-so-proud style of hangdogging and eventually taking a few falls. They were the first ones I had ever taken on gear, though I kept that information to myself at the time. No need to stress out my team any more than they already were.

After many falls, I eventually got to the chains and we bailed back to the ground. It would be several years before I returned and sent Slow Children, this time accompanied by Pat who gave me a move-by-move spraydown on how to climb it better than my previous attempt. The images Truc captured would be the first time I ever had my photo printed in a climbing magazine. Sadly, Randy was never given his due for making it possible; a fact he has still not forgotten.

If you didn’t know better, I almost look like I know what I’m doing [Photo by Truc Nguyen Allen]

6: Model Worker
Location: Lower Town Wall
Style: Face climbing
T-Shirt Grade: 5.11-B
Real (Index) Grade: 5.11c

Model Worker is one of the strangest climbs to be found both on the list and anywhere, and as such it epitomizes the character of Index. The climb is best known for two things: a perplexing party trick move at the crux, and a unique piece of essential protection. Standing at the base of the climb there is an obvious hueco, atypical in the land of knobs and chickenheads to instead find the inverse. There is no bolt but it is protected with just a quickdraw nonetheless, carabiner shoved into the thin hole.

The day I climbed Model Worker it must have been early spring because I remember it not being totally dry. Eric and I were cragging at the LTW and he mentioned that it would be an extremely difficult onsight because of the party trick move. He hadn’t climbed it in many years, but still remembered how to do the boulder problem. Never one to turn down a challenge, I refused beta and racked up.

I cruised up the wall until the obvious features suddenly ran out, leaving me standing at a stance with no clue how to proceed across a featureless section. I tested as many options as I could think of, hesitating at the rest for ages, before finally figuring out some desperate bullshit that climbed up and around the blank section. I pulled it off somehow, though whatever beta I used was certainly not the party trick. I managed the onsight by the skin of my teeth, only to have Eric float through the crux after me like it was nothing using the normal beta. He teased about how much easier it was that way, if only I’d somehow been able to predict such nonsense. I’d describe the move, but I can’t remember neither what I did, nor what you’re supposed to do. Besides, I would hate to rob anyone the chance to try and figure it out on the fly!

7: Iron Horse
Location: Lower Town Wall
Style: Finger crack
T-Shirt Grade: 5.11-B
Real (Index) Grade: 5.11d

When I first started coming to Index, I didn’t know much about the T-shirt list, but instead operated off another unwritten tick list in my mind. I simply wanted to climb all the classic 5.11cs and ds at the Lower Town Wall, starting with TPMV and soon leading me to Iron Horse. I think it was the second thing I projected, spending two days whipping off the short but stout finger crack. I was very new to trad climbing still, and remember feeling grateful for the nest of tat connecting old pins and fixed gear halfway up, because to me it seemed more trustworthy than the cams I was trying to place myself. When I sent Iron Horse it felt pretty desperate. I haven’t climbed it since, but I imagine it would probably feel pretty different now that I know a bit more about crack climbing!

8: Japanese Gardens
Location: Lower Town Wall
Style: Layback and crack climbing
T-Shirt Grade: 5.11-B
Real (Index) Grade: 5.11c

Japanese Gardens is probably the most popular climb at the Lower Town Wall aside from Godzilla, so it was on my ‘must do’ list since long before the T-shirt quest began. Like many of my early attempts on routes at Index, I had first sandbagged myself by trying it in the sun, quickly becoming frustrated by the sloping holds at the finish. It seemed so far beyond my ability.

Perhaps a year later, I returned with my good friend Nic Thune to give it a more serious effort. We tired ourselves out by climbing the less frequently done upper pitches before returning to the ground to try and redpoint the classic first one. After a few big falls at the crux, I debated calling it a day. Nic, always psyched, decided to try one last time.

“How are you feeling?” I asked as he prepared.

“Fresh and strong!” he sarcastically replied with a grin. We both cracked up at how completely false the statement was.

Nic climbed well, but once again took the massive crux whipper before lowering back to the ground. My turn.

I repeated his mantra, ‘fresh and strong,’ as a joke, hoping to somehow trick my body into believing it somehow, even though I myself did not. By some miracle it worked, or at least something did, because on what must have been my fourth or fifth try of the day it finally came together.

Nic following the second pitch of Japanese Gardens

9: Sagittarius
Location: Lower Town Wall
Style: Chimney
T-Shirt Grade: 5.11-B
Real (Index) Grade: 5.11b

Sagittarius was another climb that I did before I could ever even pretend to be able to say I knew what I was doing climbing at Index. I remember looking at it in the guidebook and thinking it looked cool, only to be told that it might not be a good idea that day because I was wearing shorts, and it was something of a grovel. No problem, I thought, I was still mostly a sport climber, and just so happened to have my kneebar pads with me. They would protect my knees from the sharp granite chimneying, and make the route easier no less!

I have always had trouble with chimneys; I blame my extremely long legs and general lack of technique, but even so it’s not something I would ever wear rubber pads for nowadays. An extra offwidth sleeve maybe, but there is rarely a situation where you need to kneebar inside a squeeze chimney. Regardless, I still bring kneebar pads with me no matter where I go, because when you need them, you need them. I definitely did not need them on Sagittarius, and I’m glad that no one but me seems to remember that that was how I climbed it…

10: The Fifth Force
Location: The Country
Style: Wizardry
T-Shirt Grade: 5.11-B
Real (Index) Grade: 5.12b

In a crag notorious for a level of sandbaggery bordering on the ludicrous, perhaps no route fits the bill better than the Fifth Force. Rumor has it that Jonathan Siegrist, one of the top climbers in the country, once tried it without knowing the grade and thought it clocked in around 5.13c. For the taller folks it isn’t quite as heinously stout, but no matter who you are it won’t go down without a fight.

I first tried Fifth Force in the sun on a warm day, and as one might guess things didn’t go so well. I wrote the climb off as not worth my time after only giving it one try and failing to reach the top. When I was working City Park the Fifth Force was Eric’s project, so we would often commute between the Country and the Lower Town Wall while one of us rested. Watching Eric work the climb restored my hope that it was worthy of its other reputation: a classic must-do.

I briefly returned to Seattle from my life on the road for the month of February of 2019 for a stint of work. I had heard rumors from locals that it had been a great winter for climbing in Index, with lots of dry days and perfect conditions, contrary to what I remembered about being in the Pacific Northwest that time of year. Sure enough, the day my plane landed in Sea-Tac Airport it dumped a foot of snow, and I didn’t climb outside for the entire month I was there. The day before my flight back to where my car was stashed in Colorado however, the weather finally cleared enough to squeak out a single day at Index.

It felt like the entire Washington climbing community was there that glorious day, and the rock felt like Velcro in the chilly winter air. With the trails to higher walls all snowed in, it was the perfect day to crag at the Country. It might have been the friction of the cold, or maybe I had managed to harness the power of the Fifth Force itself, but it felt like a completely different climb than when I had first tried it, and I quickly sent.

So, what exactly is the Fifth Force? The answer to that is yet another chapter in the colorful history of Index itself.

In 1984 the Country crag was created by the Robbins Company, the leading source of granite quarrying in the Puget Sound at the time. While they had long since abandoned operations in Index, evidence of their influence remained in the form of a large tunnel, which would then become a source of experiments for the Physics Department at the University of Washington trying to prove the existence of the “Fifth Force.” In 2013 the tunnel was blocked with concrete, yet to this day it still seeps a mysterious liquid that many believe to be a remnant of the experiments; possible evidence of the existence of the Fifth Force, or perhaps some other scientific anomaly that was the real cause of the tunnel being sealed.

11: Big Science
Location: The Country
Style: Knob climbing
T-Shirt Grade: 5.11-B
Real (Index) Grade: 5.12b

Fresh off my send of the Fifth Force, I wanted to make the most out of such a perfect day and decided to also climb Big Science. A short little route between Little Jupiter and Indextacy, it follows a maze of knobs that vary wildly in both size and slopeyness. The crux is probably remembering which ones are good to grab, and which ones not even the power of the Fifth Force will allow you to hold on to.

12: Little Jupiter
Location: The Country
Style: Knob climbing
T-Shirt Grade: 5.11-B
Real (Index) Grade: 5.11d

I went out to Index with Pat one day to get away from a sport climbing project at Little Si that had been shutting me down with vehemence. It was the one that had eventually led to “don’t be afraid to redefine yourself,” and I had just fallen off the last move yet again. I thought a dose of trad would help switch things up, so Pat had been giving me a tour of some of his favorite climbs at the Lower Town Wall. It was there that I met Mike Massey, an eccentric character and Index legend known for having every route at the LTW and Country absolutely dialed to perfection. We rallied over to the country, where he was excited to show me his new route and Magnum Opus, Indextacy. Eager to earn the respect of the locals, I repeated it, not ignoring the irony that I still ended up sport climbing despite my attempt to plug gear that day. With some time left before sundown, I also climbed Little Jupiter, one of Massey’s all-time favorites. To this day he can be seen floating up either route with ease on any given dry weekend day.

Climbing on Indextacy [Photo by Per Nesselquist]

13: Racer X
Location: Lower Lump
Style: Knob climbing
T-Shirt Grade: 5.11-B
Real (Index) Grade: 5.10b

Racer X was once a classic, but as many routes in the Pacific Northwest do, at one point or another it fell out of favor and was quickly reclaimed by the jungle. Thanks to the passionate labor of a few dedicated locals however, right as I was starting to go all in on the T-shirt there was an update posted on the Climb Index! Facebook page. Racer X had been resurrected from its mossy grave; the time to climb it was now! It couldn’t have been more serendipitous.

Rarely do I go out of my way to climb 5.10s, and were it not for the T-shirt I surely never would have done this one. Located off the beaten path (yet not far from the actual train tracks), this three-pitch moderate lies nestled in the forest at the Beetle Bailey Slab, a crag best suited for those seeking to enjoy lower grades rather than humble their egos thrashing at their limit.

For a climb I otherwise never would have done, Racer X stands out in my memory as a surprisingly favorite experience that season. Eric and I swapped leads as we navigated a sea of some of Index’s finest knobs, some sloping but most being very positive on the low angle slab. The recent efforts had left the route impeccably clean, and we were grateful to be able to take advantage of their hard work to tick off such a classic. 

Eric pinching a knob on the second pitch of Racer X

14: Dana’s Arch
Location: Upper Town Wall
Style: Finger crack
T-Shirt Grade: 5.11-B
Real (Index) Grade: 5.11a

Sadly, this classic was the least memorable experience off the T-shirt. So much so that I had to double check with Eric when we actually went up there. If the faint memory serves, I climbed Dana’s Arch on a whim one day while exploring the Upper Town Wall. It was one of my seemingly endless trips to the highest wall in Index, Earwax, though it predated any of my projecting endeavors on the harder routes. We climbed a few easier lines that Eric had bolted years ago, such as Black Flag of the Schwarzer Kamin before calling it a day.

15: Biology of Small Appliances
Location: Earwax Wall
Style: Arete
T-Shirt Grade: 5.11-B
Real (Index) Grade: 5.12b

I had gone to the Upper Town Wall to climb a multipitch called Golden Road with my friend Ethan Fitzpatrick one day since it had been established by my friend Benjit and was rumored to be some kind of mega good. It certainly did not disappoint, though at 5.11c it did not hold true to the Index sandbag so we had some energy to spare afterwards. At that point I had begun attempting the T-shirt, though it was still a loose idea. I knew Biology, which is just past where Golden Road is, was on it, so we decided to scope it with the remaining daylight. The route was amazing, I eagerly messaged Eric on my way home to say as much. 5.12 in Index is pretty real but the route felt like I could do it in one or two more tries, much to my excitement.

In the end I didn’t make it back to Earwax wall until the following season, when I started working on The Antidote, quickly ticking off Biology of Small Appliances in the process.

Biology of Small Appliances [Photo by Matt Carroll]

16: Antidote
Location: Earwax Wall
Style: Face climbing
T-Shirt Grade: 5.11-B
Real (Index) Grade: 5.13a

There was a time, many years ago, when I thought the epitome of the climbing experience was to just go cragging with as many friends as one could rally. To just have a grand old time of type one fun. That specific kind of experience had been what had brought me back from a severe case of burnout when I gave up on bouldering, so any deference from said behavior I met with great resistance. As such, I believed wholeheartedly that I would never choose a project that would require me to travel off the beaten path to somewhere remote enough that I had to microtraxion it by myself in order to get it done. Too lonely; not worth it. Lo and behold, after a few years of dedicated focus to improving my attitude and stepping outside my comfort zone to grow as a person and climber, my mindset about solo projecting eventually changed.

It was the spring of 2019. I had recently left Seattle for a winter of adventure on the open road, but the heat of impending summer had chased me back North. I stopped off in Index for a few weeks to use the crimp strength I had built in Smith Rock to try and tick off a few T-Shirt climbs before spending the next few months in Squamish.

The Antidote was the second project in my life that I ever used rope solo tactics on; the first being a sport climb in El Salto, Mexico over the winter. I had to borrow Eric’s minitraxions (neither of us had the much smaller micros), an old 11mm static rope (why would I have owned any static at that point?), and a vintage grigri 1 that could handle such a thick cord. The climb had been recently cleaned by Index climber Matt Carrol, who had been singlehandedly resurrecting the entire Earwax Wall from obscurity with significant and dedicated scrubbing and rebolting. I took advantage of the newly de-lichened face, and set to work learning how to project via microtraxion. I did fairly well with only one dramatic mistake: on one attempt I reached the anchors only to realize that I had forgotten any sort of rappel device on the ground far below. On a weekday at the highest and most seldom visited wall in Index, there was zero chance of anyone being around that could help. Normally in such a situation one would simply tie a munter hitch and rappel using a carabiner, but that was not a thing I knew how to do, nor was the wall of the nature that could I simply top out and walk off. Instead what I did was the only thing I could think to do: I pulled up an armload of slack and tied a knot so I couldn’t fall to the ground. I locked the microtrax in an open position so it would slide down the rope but still stop me when it got to the knot, and hand-over-hand down-campused the rope. Once I got to the knot, I sagged onto the microtrax in exhaustion, only a fraction of the way down the wall. I clipped myself into a bolt on the wall, untied the knot, pulled up more slack, and repeated the process.

For a moment I found myself glad that no one was around to witness my pathetic shenanigans, but had there been even one other climber I could have just asked them to tag me up the grigri. Once back on the ground I dropped into my hammock in relief that I had survived. I had nearly put myself into a foolishly dangerous situation, one that I swore never to repeat. Unfortunately, I did just that only a few days later on Numbah 10, though that time someone was around to bail me out.

Despite my amateur mistakes, the rope soloing process is a highly efficient way to get things done, and soon after that I redpointed it on my first lead attempt. The Antidote had never been repeated since its first ascent; one of the most telling clues that the T-Shirt had yet to be completed by anyone, since the developers of Antidote certainly never climbed City Park. It’s a hard climb, the only other on the list to have earned a 5.13 grade (quite a rarity in Index), but nothing so futuristic that many of the strong locals couldn’t have ticked it over the years. Indeed, Matt succeeded in grabbing the third ascent shortly after my own send. It perhaps went unclimbed for so many years for the same reason many Index climbs fade to obscurity—there’s just too much good rock in Index with a much shorter approach to incentivize climbers to hoof it up the steep trail to something like the Earwax Wall. I myself would certainly not have bothered if it hadn’t been on the list. That, or maybe it’s just that the name ‘Earwax,’ doesn’t really inspire…

17: Numbah 10
Location: Lower Town Wall
Style: Face climbing
T-Shirt Grade: 5.11-B
Real (Index) Grade: 5.12b

After climbing the Antidote, I decided to take a break from hiking all the way up to the Earwax Wall and instead project something with a little shorter of an approach. I was also working my way through what I thought would probably be the hardest climbs remaining on the list, and Numbah 10 had something of a reputation for being one of Index’s most sandbagged 5.12s, maybe even on par with the likes of the Fifth Force.

There was already a fixed line on Amandala, which branches off the Numbah 10 start, so it was easy to just continue my microtraxion projecting. I lapped the pitch for a day or two, unlocking a wild sequence of technical kneebars to get through the opening boulder problem. Randy had given me a move-by-move breakdown of his beta already, but due to our difference in height his sequence felt impossible and I had to devise my own. It was some of the most insane granite wizardry I’ve done to this day, palming my hands off nothing and shuffling my body sideways up a vertical wall. After it felt thoroughly rehearsed, I got Randy to give me a catch and I floated the route on my first try with my friend Scott’s drone buzzing in the background taking pictures. It felt like my remaining T-shirt climbs were going down left and right, and that I would be done with this list in no time! Little did I know, Numbah 10 would be the last route I would climb at Index for two years.

Numbah 10 [Photo by Scott Welch]

18: Centerfold
Location: The Diamond
Style: Slab
T-Shirt Grade: 5.11-B
Real (Index) Grade: 5.11a

I returned to the Northwest about a month ago, June of 2021, hell bent on finally finishing what I started all those years ago: completing this list. I knew Eric would be psyched to help me, as I pulled my van into his driveway for the first time in almost two years. I had been gone a long time, and my life looked very different than when I had last left, but in terms of our friendship neither time nor distance had changed a thing and we were soon laughing and scheming about all our future climbing projects just like old times.

I had racked up a plethora of multipitch experience recently, adopting a series of tactics such as the “fix and follow technique,” that Eric was excited to learn about (fix and follow refers to the method of leading in blocks with the leader simply fixing the rope once they reach an anchor so the follower can microtraxion behind, instead of having to be belayed). It had been raining heavily all week, but granite dries fast so we charged out towards Index during a slight break in the storm. 

Water seeped around our shoes from the saturated peat as we slogged up the steep trail to the Diamond, but my heart was overflowing with excitement to be back in Index after all this time. I had been missing both this place and Eric’s companionship something fierce. The base of the wall was soaking wet when we got there, but once the four-pitch route broke above the shade of tree line the rock looked dry. I could see enough ledges and cracks that I knew I would be able to get through the swamp, even if I had to skip a few bolts of wet slab in order to do so. Sure enough, after wading through the wettest pitch I’ve ever climbed I burst out into glorious sunlight at the top of the first pitch. I had just been in Yosemite and my granite game was feeling strong, so the technical slab pitches went down without a fight. Eric styled everything too, a proud return to a route that had once shut him down. By the time we lowered off, the first pitch had dried completely.

We navigated a path over to the Upper Town Wall from there, tunneling through a cave on a hidden trail that I never knew existed. After climbing a bit more, we hiked down the main trail to find a nearly empty parking lot. We had Index almost entirely to ourselves; unheard of on a Saturday. I guess no one else was as willing to brave the wetness, but we were grateful that we had taken the chance, for it had wholly paid off.

Eric following the crux slab on Centerfold

19: Young Cynics
Location: Earwax Wall
Style: Face climbing
T-Shirt Grade: 5.11-B
Real (Index) Grade: 5.12d

After finishing Antidote, I swung over to the anchors of Young Cynics, just a few climbs to the left. I moved the fixed line and jumped on it, only to discover that it had yet to receive the passionate scrubbing of the other routes on the wall. Dirty and with a few holds still wet from the winter’s rain, I made little progress that day. I left the lineup, and my hammock strung between two trees at the base, figuring I would return in a few days.

Trying to clean Young Cynics with no gas left in the tank [Video by Eric Hirst]

Somehow those few days turned into two years before I would return, as I got sidetracked by life and other travels. Like most of my previous days at the Earwax Wall, yet another project began with a sweaty solo hike and some rope soloing. The moves came together fast, despite poor conditions and perma-wet holds. I thought that the later in the day I waited to climb the nicer the temperatures would be, but the opposite seemed to happen as 80% humidity and not even the faintest breeze made the air feel so thick you could almost chew on it. Mosquitoes swarmed the base, following me up the wall as I tried to escape upwards. Still, it was good to be back.

A few days later I took off from work and met a group of my college friends in the Wagon Wheel. They were psyched to belay me, but I wanted to wait until the evening to ensure I didn’t get caught in the sun, so we spent the day at the newly developed Rhythm cliff before finally ascending to Young Cynics in the late afternoon. As Jake, Devon, and Catherine dumped their sweaty packs and collapsed amongst the roots of a tree, I eagerly donned my harness, hoping one of them would get the message and come belay.

Just as before, high humidity from recent record rainfall made for an added challenge. I raced up the wall, hoping that if I climbed quickly, I could outrun my own sweat glands. Just get to the top before you get too sweaty, I thought. It worked surprisingly well, despite the deference from my usual slow pace, and I clipped the chains on my first attempt. Now only one 5.12+ remained.

20: Phone Calls from the Dead
Location: The Country
Style: Knob climbing
T-Shirt Grade: 5.11-B
Real (Index) Grade: 5.11a

I had returned to Washington with seven climbs remaining, and now I was down to five. The final countdown had begun. Reading Mountain Project comments about Phone Calls from the Dead promised moderate climbing to a tricky mantle, rumored to be “impossible for humans.” The route was only low 5.11 so the grade gave me confidence that it would be a quick tick, but mantling has never been my strong suit.

Eric and I were pleased to find the popular Heart of the Country area relatively quiet for a Saturday, barely having to wait for our turn to cruise the first pitch of GM to where Phone Calls begins. The wall was in the sun, but it was early and the friction felt okay so I coasted up knobs and flakes to a ledge just shy of the chains; the mantle. Back and forth I traversed, looking for any sort of hold that would ease the difficulty of the move, but soon it became apparent that I just had to ante up and commit. As I pistol squatted up, soon my hands were both forced to release their grip on the ledge, trusting my entire body weight to my right quadricep. I’ve never had very strong legs, but after hiking up and down El Capitan all spring I was more prepared than I’d probably ever been for a move like this and it went easily. Eric followed behind, imitating my beta successfully and soon we were back on the ground celebrating another team send on immaculate stone. On to the next, so long as it didn’t involve any more pistol squatting.

21: Steel Monkey
Location: The Country
Style: Finger crack
T-Shirt Grade: 5.11-B
Real (Index) Grade: 5.12a

Years ago, Pat had taken me over to look at Steel Monkey, a short and fierce tips crack just past the Country on the last good rock before reaching the choss of the Quarry. It had been too hot to climb back then, but he insisted that I had a good chance at onsighting it. Pat knows a thing or two about climbing at Index, so as I whittled down the list, I didn’t think it was one of the ones I should be too worried about.

After Eric and I climbed Phone Calls from the Dead, we were graced with a decent haze of cloud cover shading the otherwise solar oven that is the Country. It was the last day that was supposed to have any decent weather whatsoever, so we were trying to make the most of it by bagging as many of my remaining T-shirt climbs as possible.

Even on the lower end of the spectrum 5.12 is no joke in Index, so despite its short approach Steel Monkey never gets climbed. I had been told that my friend Lucas had recently climbed Steel Monkey, but the news had been given to me in a way that implied, ‘ask him if you get stuck and need beta.’ Maybe I was underestimating it.

The gear looked thin and the moves at the bottom challenging, so Eric and I decided to see if we couldn’t place a cam using his stick clip. It worked surprisingly well, and after only a few tries my fears of decking off the opening sequence were abated. It was a good thing we bothered with safety, because I ended up slipping off before reaching the placement. So much for Pat’s faith in my ability to onsight it. Lucas’ chalk was still on it despite recent rains, but the sequence baffled me at first, as I ended up aiding to the top to work it on top rope. The sun peeked intermittently through the clouds, blasting me with waves of heat when it did. I decided to take a break and let Eric try; maybe he could see something I couldn’t. Sure enough, Eric found a body position I had not tried that made the final crux not a crux at all.

As we napped on the ground and waited for the shade of the next batch of clouds, I started to think about how completing this list wasn’t all that different than trying to redpoint a very long multipitch or big wall. It’s one overall goal, but you cannot send unless you redpoint every single pitch. Even failing on a single one negates everything you put into all the other pitches. In the past such a realization would have intimidated me, but in that moment, it gave me a strange sense of comfort and almost confidence. I had just come from two months in Yosemite climbing big walls and two months of other multipitch routes in the desert before that, so in a strange sense it felt like familiar territory. Unphased by my new awareness of how much the stakes increased with each tick, I quickly added another. Then there were three.

22: All Dogs Go to Heaven
Location: Lower Cheeks/Clay Area
Style: Dihedral
T-Shirt Grade: 5.11-B
Real (Index) Grade: 5.12d

I had never sent more than two T-shirt climbs in a single day, since I climbed most of the easiest ones before I was actively pursuing this goal. After sending Steel Monkey however, I knew I had to try and go for “the triple” as we called it, because conditions were only going to get worse from here until I left Washington to return to the road. Time to sink or swim.

We had been climbing all day, but by early afternoon full shade had finally arrived. The hike up to the Upper Town Walls treks through dense forest the entire way, but enough sun still filters though to make a noticeable difference when timed poorly. The late day shadow cast by Mt. Index made the hike easier than it normally felt though, and I arrived at All Dogs Go to Heaven feeling fresher than normal. It was the last hard route remaining, and today might be my best day to do it.

I had tried it unsuccessfully after climbing Centerfold not long ago, so the beta was fresh in my mind as I strapped on my kneebar pad and doused my hands in liquid chalk to combat the ever-present humidity. Eric made me verbalize the tricky sequence just below the chains before he would put me on belay, just to make sure I remembered all the nuance. It involved nearly a dozen small moves just to gain a few vertical feet. Despite this I still managed to mess it up, falling within an arm’s length of the chains. I had missed a key foot move, so after striking a chalky tick mark so long it could probably be seen from space, I gave it a second go. The first crux roof almost spit me off as it had during my first few attempts, but I managed to keep it together. I knew I might not have another try after this. With a rather unnecessary power scream, I succeeded in the place I had fallen before and found myself clipping the chains with joy.

I had managed to pull off the triple, an arbitrary milestone towards achieving an even more arbitrary goal, but it felt pretty damn cool. Now only two climbs remained, both of which I knew I could accomplish in bad conditions as the temperatures started to rise over the next week. With the final crux passed, the list was as good as done in terms of any uncertainties, though a bit of significant work remained…

23: Spaced Man Spliff
Location: Wall of Voodoo
Style: Varied cracks and face climbing
T-Shirt Grade: 5.11-B
Real (Index) Grade: 5.11b

Spaced Man Spliff… where to even begin? While City Park might get the award for the most colorful history, Godzilla for most the often climbed, Davis-Holland for the most classic, and The Fifth Force for the most sandbagged, the only accolades Spaced Man Spliff will ever receive would be for the most mysterious, or perhaps the most obscure. So what is the deal with this climb?

Does the name Spaced Man Spliff sound familiar, yet you can’t quite place where you’ve seen it before? That is probably because at one point there may have been another route in Index by the same name, though if it ever really existed its location has long since been lost to time and the failings of human memory. The only evidence that it may or may not have ever existed lies on the Index T-Shirt. On my quest to complete the T-shirt list, I had looked in every guidebook that had ever been printed about Index yet found no record of a climb by that name. How strange, considering most everything else was a classic. I asked Rich (the maker of the shirts) about it, but he had no recollection of what this mysterious climb was (if it had ever even been). I posted on the very active Climb Index! Facebook group for leads and got a few rumors, but nothing concrete. I asked many of the OGs that had been climbing at Index for many years; still nothing. Either it had been renamed, chopped, or simply added to the shirt as a long-forgotten joke. Eventually I concluded that it was something I would have to create myself in order to complete the T-shirt list. It didn’t need to be a classic, not everything on the list is; it just needed to exist. 

While there is a very finite amount of real estate remaining in the state of Washington for new routing and a number of ambitious and very active developers making quick work of what’s left, with a little imagination it’s still possible to find new lines in Index. Rarely do folks walk to more remote crags when the Lower Town Wall, home to much of the best climbing in the state, is five minutes from the parking lot. Finally, I narrowed my remaining climbs on the list down until Spaced Man Spliff was one of two remaining. I had found a line while working Young Cynics at the Wall of Voodoo which lies just beyond. It had been skipped over thus far, perhaps for good reason. It was buried deep under a thick layer of typical Index vegetation, but a bit of scraping revealed a crack underneath. From the ground it looked quite promising. 

Cleaning new routes in the Pacific Northwest kind of feels like going to war with the jungle, as I scrubbed and bolted alone in miserable heat, blasting away mosquitoes with a battery powered leaf blower whenever the cloud around me got too thick. As the moss fell away, cracks and face holds were revealed underneath; just enough for the route to go at Index 5.11.

I sent the route the Thursday after cleaning it, on an after-work mission with Eric. A bit more cleaning, trail work, and the addition of two more bolts left us both dirty, sweaty, and rather underwhelmed by the finished product. Sadly, the climb didn’t end up being all that great– with a short boulder problem crux protected by bolts, and easy gear climbing above and below. Perhaps in the end it might be fitting that it was only a one star climb though, because it means that it’s likely destined to return to the obscurity from whence it came, staying true to the mythical circumstances under which it was created. The next person to try and complete the T-shirt list will probably have to discover it all over again, lost under the ferns and moss that will inevitably reclaim it just as I did. Better yet, perhaps they might never find it and have to put up another Spaced Man Spliff of their own. Maybe there will be a new one for each person that deigns to follow in my footsteps by seeking out the adventure of completing the world’s most arbitrary ticklist.  

24: Davis-Holland
Location: Upper Town Wall
Style: Varied cracks, mostly hand size
T-Shirt Grade: 5.10-C
Real (Index) Grade: 5.10c

I’ve had many different types of projects in the almost twenty years that I’ve been climbing. There are the desperate ones with a crux right at the end, where upon clipping the chains you feel an instant release of endorphins in one glorious “I did it!” moment. Then there are the ones with a crux at the bottom, where you simply get to revel in the success while still experiencing the route as you climb through easy terrain to the chains. Then there are the multipitches, where you have entire pitches after the crux that could be considered a victory lap; hundreds of feet of no-stress, type 1 fun. I’ve found that in the latter there are seldom the screams and tears of the conqueror upon completion, but a much slower release of euphoria; often with the summit feeling surprisingly anticlimactic when the success had been secured minutes or even hours before.

I had always known Davis-Holland would be how I finished the list. It might be the most classic multipitch in Index, so the fact that I had yet to climb it never ceased to surprise people when I would list what routes remained on the T-shirt. I figured since the project really started with the hardest one, I should end it with the easiest that remained; like eating your vegetables in order to earn dessert.

The sun was already setting as I started up Davis-Holland. We had just finished Spaced Man Spliff, and were looking forward to climbing something with a little more stars and a little fewer dirt. Eric and I both had to work the next day, but with temperatures forecasted to be in a shocking triple digit heat wave that weekend, we were more than willing to endure a late night to avoid it and get this done now.

The Lovin Arms pitches above Davis-Holland by the last light of day [Photo by Sara Michelle]

The climbing was every bit the dessert I had spent all these years working towards; pitch after pitch of easy yet perfect crack climbing as I raced upward, climbing fast so we could hopefully make it home before midnight. It was still warm enough not to need a jacket as the setting sun illuminated Mt. Index, Baring, and Persius in a soft pink glow. What a gift it was to be here right now, sharing yet another unforgettable moment in this spectacular place with one of my favorite people. Then it was over; not in a blaze of glory like redpointing at your limit, but more like the slow burn of topping out a long multipitch and finally collapsing on a craggy summit. Like one where the celebration lies far more in cherishing the experience than taking pride in the accomplishment.

I had finally completed the list; a celebration of not only my evolution in this place, but of that of everyone who has ever worn the T-shirt with pride or uttered the local motto “Index provides,” to describe their own profound experiences here.

In the intro to the Index guidebook, photographer Matty Van Biene puts it best:

 “The specific medicine that climbing at Index bestows for you will likely be different than it is for me. Index will certainly dish out whatever it is that you need if you can allow yourself to leave your ego at the tracks, approach these walls with an open heart, and fall in love with this sacred place.”

Index had changed my life. It took who I was: a stubborn and lost young girl who didn’t know much about the world and her place in it aside from an all-consuming love for rock climbing, and made me into who I am now: a not-so-young woman who knows her calling and is no longer afraid to grow and change in order to chase it. Index had written a defining moment in my story, and how I had done my best to do the same for it; to add a chapter that might inspire someone someday to dream bigger and follow their heart, or at the very least to cherish this land and share that love with all who come to climb here.

A giant full moon rose through the trees as we descended in the dark. As we lowered over the Sport Wall on our last rappel, we couldn’t help but admire the feat of restoration that had recently been done by local legend Ben Gilkison to restore this wall to a climbable state. All around us, shiny new bolts and permadraws gleamed in the light of our headlamps. The wall was immaculately clean and the climbing awe inspiring; if it weren’t about to be so hot, we agreed that this would be something worth climbing ASAP. It just goes to show that there will always be something to return to in this place.

I touched down amongst some bushes on a small ledge, calling up to Eric to watch the end of the rope as it didn’t quite make it to the proper ground. I ran off to grab our approach shoes and the drinks we had left at our packs before returning.

Without even removing his climbing shoes, Eric cracked his beer.

“To Index,” I said with a grin that was reflected on his face.

“To Index,” he echoed. 

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]