S1 E2 - Results May Vary

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Sitting there with my hands and heels wrapped around the resting rail, I entered the crux over and over, only to bail back down to shake out my progressively pumping forearms. I wanted this badly but felt that I was face first against a complete beat down. There looked to be dozens of holds, but I couldn’t figure out which ones were necessary to create the sending sequence.     When onsighting, the most efficient beta often isn’t as valuable as the first beta that works. Just get the hell outta there, so you don’t pump out.

After spending precious minutes of progressive fatigue faffing about, I chose my sequence and committed to the moves. Screaming, flailing, failing, I fell.

After a reasonably sized fall, the rope came tight. Fucking hell, back in the southeast I could onsight up to 12c, now 12a’s were giving me difficulty. I just couldn’t read the rock in this Dr. Seuss wonderland filled with the strangest holds I could imagine. It was frustrating because I knew I was fitter, stronger, and better at climbing movement than any period in my life, and yet… success felt far from my grasp.

Soloing “Beta-Vul Pipeline (5.12a)”

Soloing “Beta-Vul Pipeline (5.12a)”

I spent a week in The Red at the end of September, not too long before Twinkie. I started off Strong and Stupid. Pulling hard but with no idea of how to pull. As the week progressed, my fatigue built but my repertoire of movement lessons grew. I began frustrated and fresh, as the week progressed I grew smarter and weaker with each progressive day, so the frustration level remained constant. I was projecting routes at my former onsight grade due to the time needed to faff about and find the right holds, and then to figure out how to hold them best. By the end of the week, I’d learned that the rules were simple: Thumb catches, heel hook everything, and stem in the steeps. These walls weren’t set by a 16-year-old boulderer, so you had plenty of options for feet!

Beta-Vul Pipeline was a particular frustration, at “only” 5.12a I felt that I “should” be able to send it easily, second go if not onsight. It took me five tries to finally send the route. I did it with the most wrong-ass beta humanly possible, and only put together the right sequence as I was lowering off after the send

On my second to last day at The Red I walked around the corner to cry. I was still 2-hanging a 12c called “Diminished Gluteal Syndrome.” It was demoralizing, previous to this point I’d completed three 12c’s, two were onsight. A week of failure was just too much for my psyche to handle and I felt myself slipping into a depression. I’m not made for projecting.

I’ve got an unfortunate condition of the brain known as Bipolar II. At first, for the longest time, we “just” thought it was depression, and I’d come to terms with that. It seems depression is almost mainstream these days, and much better understood. It was easy to be “out” with that condition. But Bipolar? That’s still a slang term for “crazy,” and I’ve got enough damn people calling me crazy as it is.

Photo by Polina Shuvaeva/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by Polina Shuvaeva/iStock / Getty Images

Unlike your classic Bipolar that everyone is familiar with, the manic symptoms are quite mild, but the depressive symptoms can be harsh as hell. At times, it felt like my brain was trying to kill me, but that’s only because it was. It would demand things of me like jumping from a cell tower, or diving into a freezing lake… I deferred those urges and released the pressure by cutting myself where no-one could see it.

Thanks to my employer providing good insurance, I’ve got a good team helping me climb my way out of it, and my brain doesn’t tell me that I’m trash as often as it used to. I feel like me again, and the mojo is starting to build just like it always did in the past!

Climbing and especially soloing are where I come to feel at peace. It’s the only place in life where I feel masterful, competent, powerful, or in control of my domain. It’s the best form of self-care that I have, but the repeated failures at the start of my season had stripped me of all that.

Some people call soloing a death wish. Excuse me, but… fuck you. I actually know what a death wish feels like, and soloing saved me from it. Soloing is my ultimate life wish, and it’s given me everything back that my brain tried so hard to take from me. The thought “I hate myself” still drifts through my mind occasionally, but it’s less and less frequent, and it’s lost its bite. Learning to handle my emotions while soloing has helped me disengage from those destructive thought patterns.

 I realize all of this might feel quite alarming to some of you, but trust me… the last thing I want is for my epitaph to read “I told you so,” and besides… there’s this thing called “Free-soloing,” and I really like it. If I died, I wouldn’t get to do that anymore, so falling off just doesn’t make a damned bit of sense if you think about it logically!

En route to the crag on my last day, I fell into a creek crossing and destroyed my phone. As I stumbled downward, I yelled: “FUCK THIS ENTIRE PLACE!!!” A fitting end to a sad week. It’s not often that I can scrabble a week off from work, and this one left me feeling more tired and sad than when I had started. Probably the happiest I’d been all week was when I led a 5.8 as slowly as I could while wearing my approach shoes. Mellow, masterful, relaxed. That’s what I love. I like being able to climb hard, but I hate actually trying to do it.

Needless to say, success on Twinkie was a much needed restorative process.

In the weeks to come, I pondered my next move. While the RRG FGI and some of the locals decided to stir up dust over my so-called “non accomplishment,” while they were busy howling at the moon… I was already on to the next thing.

I love onsight soloing. I knew of two routes that might go in the style. “Starry Night (5.12a)” and “Swamp Gator (5.12b).” Of the two, Starry Night was more “pure” as there’s no option to duck out once you’ve committed to the crux other than reversing. It exists in isolation with no easier exit to an adjacent route, unlike Swamp Gator which had a chain draw to pull through the crux if I had to “bail upward” as well as rail traverses before the crux to avoid the difficulties and downclimb to safety. The downclimb was also obvious.

In the morning I woke up a bit slower than I’d like and struck out towards Miller Fork to stare at Swamp Gator and contemplate life. There was a crew of “learn to climb” students there, and I didn’t like the vibe. So I stared long and hard at the route, pondered options for the future, and chalked it up to a good scouting mission. It looked optimistic, but you never quite know till you touch it. Everything looks easier from the ground, and you can’t see how solid the holds are from fourth feet below them.

I returned to the parking lot, and drove out towards PMRP. I took my raggedy 14 year old Honda CRV right down to the bottom of Sore Heel Hollow despite the steep muddy rain-slicked pot-holed high angle descent and walked over to Starry Night to contemplate life for the second time today.

Warmups are necessary, so I meandered over to a neighboring 10 that didn’t have a viable downclimb on anything easier, so I climbed 8 moves up, reversed. 10 moves, down to the ground. 12 moves, back to the floor. Up and down, higher and higher, until I felt like my fingers were happy. It was a rainy day. While Swamp Gator’s top out was sheltered by a roof and easily visible from the ground, Starry Night wasn’t so fortunate. The top out went straight over the top of the crag and was rain-slicked. There was an adjacent route, but I didn’t know if the two could be linked together. There appeared to be a ledge at the top, but I couldn’t see if it was possible to mantle up, whether it was dry, whether it was truly a walk-off, or if it would just leave me marooned somewhere new and exciting, with no way back down. Topping out truly is only half the battle.

Another day, another time. Downclimbing an adjacent route after soloing “The Lion (5.12b)”

Another day, another time. Downclimbing an adjacent route after soloing “The Lion (5.12b)”

I moved to the first line out of the cave, rated something like 10d. I soled up, and down, and higher, and down, and more, and down until I found a move I didn’t like. I climbed down, fetched a draw, and hung it on the bolt. Pulling on the draw, I still didn’t like the idea of reversing that move. The hold was funky and far too brittle to trust. So I bailed all the way back down to the ground, and rope soloed the route instead.

I found some slab ledges that would allow me to traverse around the top, and I could see a viable topout from my location, as well as passages linking to the anchors of Starry Night, but it was all just too damn wet. I lowered down and cleaned my gear from the route. I looked up, and still, I felt a tug in my heart pulling me towards the roof of Starry Night. Woah, fuck that. This route is tainted by temptation! That’s a definite no-go for today!

After much fuckery and a helpful push from some other climbers, I drove my CRV out of the hole and my thoughts took me to the Bob Marley cave. While my initial failures on the route weren’t encouraging, I did Beta-Vul Pipeline while making a complete shit-show out of the route and completely screwing up the sequence, all with a high fatigue level due to the send being my 5th burn on the route of the day. If I found more efficient beta, that line would go easily, with plenty of margin.

I arrived at Bob Marley to find a crew of friendly climbers already working on the route, and they allowed me to slide into the queue. I worked the moves over the course of two laps and had it dialed. The bouldery nature of the route didn’t fit with my usual style, but once I soloed the route… it actually felt more casual than anticipated

I had pre-rigged a rope at the top of the wall to lower myself with. While I believe it’s possible to traverse the entire Bob Marley cave to downclimb out to the left… but there was a crowd, and it didn’t seem feasible to do so politely. A project for another day…

All in all, though the season started rough, and so did this particular weekend… things seemed to be shaping up in my favor. I had soloed two new 12’s this season for a career total of nine, and there were still two routes I’d roped up on that I had in the back of my mind as future potential! Maybe I could hit my arbitrary benchmark of having soloed a dozen different 12’s this season?

Austin HowellComment