S1 E1 - So It Begins

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As a stranger in a strange place, it’s often hard to get your start. Having lived in the southeast, I knew the local lore and the reputations of various climbs in the region, so it wasn’t too terribly hard to cook up ideas for my next solo.

The summer heat put The Red off-limits all summer, but Devil’s Lake in Wisconsin was easy mode as far as logistics and scouting. Everything tops out, and the rock is solid enough to survive a nuclear apocalypse. So the only question is up or down? That’s pretty easy to solve after a decade of experience in the high lonesome. The Red on the other hand… was a whole ‘nother monster. Routes often end arbitrarily at an anchor marooned in space where the wall turns to either a smooth, unbroken bulge or a mess of mud and moss. There are slopers, funk, weirdness and brittle holds too. Definitely not guaranteed bomb-proof!

Once upon a time, back when I lived in Atlanta, a friend asked me to suggest the best 11’s in the region. I had a good notion, but I decided to check mountain project for “most popular” to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. Much to my surprise, this search returned a list of my favorite solos! Curious now, I searched the same on Joshua Tree. This returned the ticklists from such names as John Bachar and Mike Reardon. Red Rocks was peppered with Honnold and Bachar’s highlights, while Yosemite, the granddaddy of them all, when filtered for “most popular” was filled with iconic solos of John Bachar, Henry Barber, Dean Potter, Alex Honnold, and Peter Croft.

 Apparently, *nobody* likes feeling insecure, not just soloists.

 In Chicago, pondering my next adventure, I knew the logistics could be a nightmare if I just struck crags at random based on intuition and guidebook photos. Finding 5.12’s to solo in the southeast was a matter of weeks and months. But now I had a new trick, and so I searched The Red River Gorge for 5.12a’s and b’s, then sorted by “most popular.”

 One route stood firmly at the top of the list: “Twinkie (5.12a)”

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In the early spring, a bit too early judging by the temps, I went to check out the route. Lacking a partner, I opted to rope-solo the climb. My systems were definitely not dialed, so I had to go in direct at every single bolt to manage slack. Yes, it was just as much of a pain in the ass as it sounds! Still, I was able to repeatedly rehearse that damn slab move without committing wanton acts of belayer abuse, so that was definitely a plus!

 As I reached the anchor, a confused climber came around the corner so I shouted out hoping for assistance: “Hey man, if I drop off this thing, would you mind giving me a catch?”

 “What? Uh.. oh! Yeah, um, sure!”

 At this point I sent with relative ease, muuuch less faffing about! There was a slab move down low that had me worried. Your right-hand gets a mono that’s only a pad deep. And worse, it was a sidepull! Your left-hand gets a credit card crimp that’s optimistic when described at 4mm. The kind of holds where you just *know* you’re screwed if you pull on them. So the real trick was to trust your entire bodyweight to a smear. A smear that’s roughly like cutting a golf ball in half and pressing it into the rock to create a divot.

 It wasn’t much, but it was there. Stand up on that right foot, and a pair of three quarter inch crimps allow you to sink your fingers in the stone and pull through.

 Still, though, every bad experience I’ve ever had while soloing was on a slab. You feel like a hero with a rope on, but when reality strikes home, and you know you’ve got to trust your entire being to a single smear? Suddenly it’s off. In his book “Alone on the wall” Alex Honnold recounts a moment on his solo of Half Dome where he encountered a particularly frightening smear.

 That chapter was entitled “A very private hell.”

The smear of fear

The smear of fear

 Due to life circumstances and whatnot, I made only one revisit to Twinkie and certified that it could go, but just didn’t have the time available to pull the trigger and send.

 This summer, as per normal, I trained like a masochist. I knew Twinkie wasn’t the only item waiting for me at The Red, and I wanted to be ready.

 During the summer, that smear of a foothold lingered in my brain. It left me frightened, but there was something far more frightening in my sights: Devil’s Lake.

 The rock is as solid as anybody could ever want, but this comes at a price. The price is friction, which is only just barely there. Sometimes it feels like climbing on Teflon, and the wall is so naturally slick that it shines in the afternoon sun like a freshly stamped bolt-hanger, of which you’ll find none in the entire park.

 The first climb I tried at Devil’s Lake was “Brinton’s Crack” at only 5.6 and 60ft, I slammed ten pieces in this thing during the lead because I was so wigged out. This place stole a friend of mine from this world, and it weighed as heavily on my mind as the gravity on my hands and feet with each movement up the wall.

 It was so sudden, so unexpected, so… wrong. I couldn’t shake it in my mind.

 Brandon and I rallied though. And by the end of the day, I’d climbed 14 pitches. The 13th lap of the day was a 5.6 named  “Push Mi Pull Yu” where I only placed four or five pieces in a hundred feet. I was in a groove now, so I turned around and soloed the line to make my 14th lap. Finally, I had found some peace

 Throughout the summer, I ticked lap after lap, finishing somewhere around the 80 pitch mark if you include gratuitous repeats of my favorites. After some practice, I ramped my way up to an onsight of “Callipigeanous Crack (5.10a)” then returned to solo it barefoot.

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 The frictionless smears of Devils Lake were starting to feel mighty fine, and that brought my attention back to Twinkie. That smear… how would it feel now? Devil’s Lake is so frictionless, sandbagged, technical, cryptic, and intimidating, that if you can do a move here, you can do that move anywhere.

 Holy shit. When I get back to sandstone, I’m going to feel like fucking SUPERMAN!

 When preparing for solos, I like to practice self-sabotage, or sandbagging as we call it. Devil’s Lake is a sandbag in its own right, but to top it off, I’d been practicing in August. Temps from 80 (mild) to 90 (moderate) with humidity to match certainly didn’t help the already poor friction.

 Being from Texas, a complete idiot, and having practiced at the most intimidating crag I’ve ever visited in the worst conditions I could’ve chosen short of freezing… the end of September at The Red looked mighty fine in my mind. Temps and humidity were something roughly analogous to Satan’s almighty asscrack, but that didn’t concern me much. Satan’s almighty asscrack is about twenty degrees cooler than the central Texas summer I grew up in, and The Red has *trees* to boot!

 So the stoke built, and Bones was free for the weekend to film. Time to get out and get it!

 The night before, relaxing over my favorite odd pizza creation from Miguel’s, we met up with fellow Chicago climbers from Vertical Endeavors and laid out the plan. This weekend is the one. Feeling the stoke, they spontaneously changed plans to meet up at Phantasia and witness the event.

 Waking in the morning under a heavy fog with moisture beading up on every surface left me feeling disconcerted. Most of the route is comprised of wraparound jugs, but that doesn’t do you any good if they’ve been slimed like a ghostbuster.

 My plan was to warmup by leading the route, follow to clean, and then solo. On the first lead lap, I just knew deep down inside I was screwed. I needed five takes to get up the route because the holds felt like dog snot and I’d forgotten all the moves since hopping on it last season. Morose, I moped around the crag and told everybody it was off. Still, I’m here, the route’s there… might as well dial it in for the next time. So I set a 20-minute timer and waited.

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 Pulling off the ground to lead the route again, I knew this time was different. The sun had broken through the heavy blanket of morning fog, and the holds felt notably drier. Perhaps only 50% of the route felt slimy now. The jugs actually felt like jugs rather than polished plastic gym slopers, and I sent the route while having a calm conversation with Bones. It felt like this might be game on, especially if this warming trend continued, so I set a 40-minute timer and waited again to toprope the line and pull my draws

 Standing on that right foot smudge that had vexed me so much and weighed heavily in my thoughts, I felt bomber. It was as if Devil’s Lake had turned my shoes into semi-automatic friction machines and I was able to weight it without worry!

 Bones and I got lost as all hell trying to hike around through muck and brush and brambles to the top of the wall. It took about a month for my shins to resemble something human again afterward, but at the end, an hour and a half spent whacking every single bush in Kentucky, we’d reached the top of the wall. So I hung a knotted rope over the edge of the route towards the anchors to replace the non-existent top out and threw down ropes to rap in and get the shot.

 As I lowered off, I realized our hike around had taken faaar too long as another pair of climbers had started up the wall to project the route! After a quick bit of negotiation, they graciously offered to clean the draws to prep the wall for my ascent and allow us to proceed.

 I tuned out the world beyond my eight-foot eggshell of focus, pulled on my shoes thinking “Odd, these toes are a bit more raggedy than I remember,” but it’s not like this route requires any toe precision, so I brushed that thought away, pulled on and executed the route in a single smooth flow with zero hesitation. Only about six or eight of the holds felt like toothpaste, but that was a known factor and didn’t concern me. I was locker solid anyhow and had planned for that during my practice laps.

 I pulled over the top on my knotted rope, bones lowered himself to the ground, then I tossed the ropes, rigging, my shoes and chalk all to the ground. Leave no trace Y'all. Satisfied, I wandered down to the road and moseyed back to the base of the route dirtied and barefoot like a vagabond.

 “Hey man, how’d your shoes feel?

My shoes? They felt fine. A bit more tore up than I remembered, but it wasn’t a big deal, why?

“Because those were MY shoe man!”

 You can’t make these things up, as it turns out, the climber projecting Twinkie when we rapped over the top had the exact same size of blue Butora Acros that I do! Since he’d left them right at the base of the route, I’d mistaken them for my own and climbed the entire route with a stranger's feet without even realizing it!

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 Perhaps a bit more literal than walking a mile in someone’s shoes, and it makes a good story. Everybody needs the story of that one time they met some crazy fucker, and I’m proud to be of service!

 Alright y’all, that wraps up the show for today, so do remember to be safe out there, but if for some reason you find yourself constitutionally incapable of being safe due to some temporary or permanent form of the best kind of madness: be careful

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Austin HowellComment