I have often wondered what has drawn me into the web of climbing and entangled me into a life of being on the rock four days a week. I remember getting started. The first day I stumbled and crawled my way up on a 5.6 crack climb on the domes (a generous description) overlooking Pace’s Lake. The sweat that poured over me in the summer heat and the refreshing chill afterwards as the breeze swept over the top of the 250-foot granite bulge. I followed the lead of many, then tried my hand at placing the gear and setting the anchors.
But I still can not distinguish that first moment when I redpoint climbing. At some point, I became more enthralled with being able to climb the route without falling than with just getting to the top. It doesn’t sound very exciting and there are numerous things you can send within a relatively few tries. So what is the big deal?
The deal is the experience of trying repeatedly. The deal is the very real problem solving and then creating the perfect conditions to be successful because it takes more than what you have when you start trying that particular route. The deal is moving into potential and possibility.
More than a few years ago, I went to Hueco Tanks, near El Paso, Texas. I was a newlywed, but my husband had been planning a trip to Europe before we had planned our wedding. He was overseas and I was trying this style of climbing called bouldering with some friends. Despite not being completely alone, I was feeling lonely, missing my partner and his support and encouragement.
Many would wonder at this concept of loneliness for I had with me my own two dogs, a gentle golden retriever who would get inside you if possible and a sprightly Border collie mix. In addition, I was minding the pooch of our friend travelling with my husband around France. Harvest, this little mongrel from Kentucky added a new level of entertainment to our entourage. She was very creative in finding ways to get into trouble and to generally be a pain in my a$$.
I can not lay the blame solely at the feet of our friend’s mutt. My own two beasts were very disturbed at the missing pack leader. The golden was on edge around anyone coming into a twenty-foot radius of my being or our home, an ’84 Toyota van. Sebring, the spry jumper who loves to run was very disturbed with our decision to stay in this God-forsaken place that makes pet owners keep their beasts on leashes.
So each day I would get up at my early hour, eat my breakfast, appreciate my excellent Peet’s coffee and head off to this ten-foot short boulder problem I liked trying. I knew I could do all the moves up to the crux, (or at least my crux), but the top seemed the problem and without a spotter seemed difficult to figure out. Nevertheless, I would commit to giving this thing at least twenty tries and then I could go off and find something easier. Twenty tries may not sound like much, but if you had to move off that razor-sharp edge that was tearing my tips, you may think differently.
It didn’t seem like I was really getting in a lot of climbing. A few warm-ups, twenty tries on a short boulder problem and then usually just a series of failed attempts on a couple of V0’s. I would cycle from the focus and interest on the problem to missing my partner and a sense of loneliness. He had always been there for me. I guess part of me was with him in France.
So here I am thirty tries and three climbing days later. This problem gave me something to focus on. I wanted this boulder problem. I had two, maybe three climbing days left before I was to leave the Park and return to Colorado. I had done a few V4’s onsight, but had not redpointed any hard problems. I have been climbing on the same problem for three days and I have invested time and skin into this one hope. And I want to accomplish something in my own climbing. I felt like I had been climbing the same grade forever. Here was the chance.
Day four, I approach the problem, I’ve had a day off. I feel fresh. I follow my regular warm-up ritual. I have had my Peet’s coffee, I’m wearing my lucky climbing shorts and sports bra, and I am ready to send this thing. Besides, I’m getting really tired of that sharp sidepull edge. I carefully weigh the pros and cons of wearing my Muiras over my Ghibilis. I decided that I will stick with the shoes I know, the Ghibilis. I place my lucky chalk bag on the ground, out of the landing zone. The dogs are parked in the shade and there are no toys to fight over. The crash pad has been carefully placed to protect me from a fall at the upper crux.
It is not too warm yet; the sun is rising still and has not reached its peak of radiating heat into the small cubby of boulders I am climbing in. The problem is still in the shade and I have a few hours before the rock greases in the full sunlight.
I lace up my shoes, layer the chalk on my fingers. As I approach the problem, I rehearse the moves in my head. I get into the starting position, with my left foot out in front of me and my right underneath me in an almost sit down start. I breathe deeply a few times and the gun goes off. I move quickly, reaching for the sharp edge, adjusting my feet, moving the left hand up. I set up for the big move out left to the slopey gaston. I shift the hips, through over with the hands… I’m on the crash pad. I hit it too low, again.
No matter, I can try again. That was just my warm-up. I will rest a few minutes and then give it another shot. I repeat the above performance. This lower section is beginning to feel so easy. Why am I getting stopped on that one move? I’ll rest a little longer. It is no use! Aghh! I thought for sure today I would do this thing!
I know, I’ll have a little something to eat, wander around a bit. Play with the hounds. Then after fifteen minutes, I’ll give it a try. The sun is moving around rather rapidly now. The heat feeling good on my skin. My tips are just beginning to feel a little raw. Do not think about that. Focus on the sequence. Plan how you will conquer this piece of rock. I laced up the shoes again, chalked the hands, looked at the sequence. Closed my eyes and imagined myself on the problem in my mind. I send. I know I can do this thing.
But not this attempt or the next fourteen tries that day. I switched shoes, I talked to some other people who came to test their talent on the same problem. I watched a fox as it watched me. The sun was setting now and I had spent the entire day at this one spot, trying this one problem and I had been defeated for another day.
I was down to three climbing days at the most if I climbed every day until I left. I was planning to leave around five in the morning so I could do the drive in one day and not have to camp anywhere along the way by myself. Should I climb tomorrow or rest? I decided to see how my skin was in the morning.
Another day dawns in the Park. I am up with the first inkling of light. I sneak out into the desert area with my three companions and let them off the leash. Well, actually just two of them got to be off-leash. They are gone, running madly through the cactus. Sebring bounds off to hit her stride. Autumn follows. Another morning with Peet’s coffee and my lucky shorts and sports bra. We make the required stop at the registration and pay station and we are off to my nemesis. The clouds are intermittent today and the temps seem a little cooler, but I think it must have been the breeze. I give myself time to warm up. I don’t feel so bad. Determination to get back to the problem begins to bubble to the surface.
I move into the sheltered spot beside the boulder and once again begin the ritual of getting ready. I gnaw on my Clif Bar as I rehearse the sequence. I carefully wipe my soles of my Ghibilis. I lace up. Chalk up. I begin. I miss the sharp edge. Ow!! The sting of my tips. Okay. I just need to warm up a little more. This excuse works a second time. By the fourth failed attempt at getting to the sharp sidepull, I decide I will just work on the crux move. A few feeble tries later, I come to the conclusion that today should have been a rest day. We pack up the homemade crash pad, the dogs pick up their toys and we return to the van. It will be a rest day. And, if I rest tomorrow too, it will be like two days off.
Later that evening, under the starry sky and light breeze, I think about Nick again. I wonder what he would be doing at that time, probably asleep. I think more and more about trying to go to France earlier than planned. What had we been thinking to plan such a long separation? I felt miserable. I eventually meet up with my friends at the campsite and discuss my day. I am quickly reminded of my own words. A climbing day is a climbing day and a rest day is a rest day. Today was a climbing day. I think about these pearls of wisdom that I was assuming did not apply to me. It had been a long time since I had taken two days off.
I did decide to take two days off. That allowed my skin to heal and my muscles to relax. But it left me with one last day in the park. If I did not send that day, I would just have to leave. The thoughts of self doom crashed around me throughout the night. I awoke feeling sore and tired. Why did I believe I could do such a difficult problem? I had never done moves this hard before, why did I think I could do them now, without Nick’s support and encouragement? Would it really matter to him if I did this thing or not? How much did it matter to me?
This is not exactly the best approach to take to trying to redpoint your project, but there I was feeling anxious. Sorry for myself. I really was ambivalent about what I wanted. I decided I would climb that day and I would try my problem. But more importantly, I was going to leave Hueco the next day and I was going to try to go to France earlier than planned.
I walked onto the top of the boulder. I looked at the holds I had to go to from there. I think I can do it. I tried again. I was on the same holds, same body position. Onto the crash pads, I fell. That boulder behind me seemed suddenly so much closer. I felt that if I blew the next move, I may fall against it. I was alone.
I repeated this progress for two more tries. On the second try I actually moved my feet back onto the wall and slapped my right hand up to the sloper above my left hand. I heard people approaching. I could recognize only one person in the bunch. But all were friendly. We talked about the temperatures, mutual friends. I asked for a spot.
I wanted to do this thing, but now I was feeling a little embarrassed. I was a nobody, pitting myself against this boulder problem that was way too hard. They probably think I’m chasing grades. I told them of my limited chance for success. Of my reasons for selecting this boulder and this line. I got into position. There was another couple of Cordless pads now. Not just my nylon rope bag tarps filled with foam and held together with snaps, (the heavy-duty kind). I get into position, my heart is racing. I decide to remember that it really doesn’t matter. I’m going to France.
I move from the start. I get out to the sharp edge that feels like it is ripping my tips. I shift the feet. Left hand to the pocket. Right foot up to the hole. I shift my hips, reach with the hand. I can feel the fatigue. I grasp the slopey gaston, and readjust. Catch the swing as my feet release from the rock. I get my left foot on and slap the right hand up. I know I would be a loser to jump off now. I slap with the left hand. I can’t see my feet, but I paste them up on the smooth surface. My edge catches on something. It's enough. I move my right hand further over the top. I throw my right leg over the top and roll onto the top of the boulder on my belly. I am gasping for air and shaking widely. I felt uncertain about the descent. I might topple at any moment. The spectators mildly congratulate me as I babble in my adrenaline high and pack up my crash pad. My work in Hueco is done. I’m going to France.
The beauty of climbing is the story it creates for us. Some routes create a drama, some a comedy and others a frightful horror. In these stories, we are the star and we go through an experience that profoundly changes how we see ourselves and our potential.