S1 E4 -The Dozenth Dozen

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Sending Beta-Vul Pipeline was a huge mental boost for the season. Burly moves and a bouldery style which needed excess finger strength for security and most importantly, it required my greatest weakness: Anaerobic Capacity  

Or at least it *was* my greatest weakness before Tom Randall and Lattice Training got ahold of me. In the six-page report which detailed all the fine failings of my physical attributes, Tom’s verbiage seemed almost alarmed for my safety in the paragraphs related to AnCap.  

I’ll lead with the good. The polar opposite to AnCap is Aerobic Capacity which is the attribute most needed for recovering on mid-route jugs and during long mileage days. According to the team: the fittest of sports climbers are expected to score 25%. Somehow I scored 36%. Must’ve been something in the water, might’ve been an excess of Turkish Coffee, or maybe just luck, or perhaps it was all those years of long milage soloing days spent entirely cordless with nothing other than Gatorade and a pair of worn out shoes. Whatever it was, this seemed to be the only thing that I got right in my self-training.  

Circuits for days at Sandrock Alabama - “Comfortably Numb (5.9+)”

Circuits for days at Sandrock Alabama - “Comfortably Numb (5.9+)”

For Aerobic Power, we’d expected that I’d be able to complete 150 seconds of the grueling endurance style fingerboard session that was to assess my ability, but I only held on for half of that. 75 seconds. Correspondingly, the exponent associated with the graph of my rate of fatigue was -0.3 rather than the expected -0.1, according to voodoo science magic and data analysis, roughly this means I fatigued 3 times as fast as other climbers who perform at the same level on the wall. 

For Finger Strength… the results were quite poor. My finger strength score was on par with the average climber who *sends* 5.12c in an average of about ten tries. Makes me wonder how in the foggiest hell I’d managed to solo that grade. I could onsight 12c, but my score said it was a wonder that this is’t my maximum 

Finally, Anaerobic Capacity. The worst statistic in a lot of poor statistics… while boulders are expected to score beyond 30%, and sport climbers greater than 20%, I scored a measly 8%. Well under half. 

I wrote a blog post about this intake process. In that document, I made a claim that with such numerous and pronounced weaknesses I was *clearly* the weakest person to do any of the things on my resume. Tom read this post, and he didn’t bother to correct me on the statement! So take that as you will. 

Upon a pre-season re-assessment this summer, my anaerobic capacity had bumped up to 21%. Spot on the target, no longer a weakness. But as they say: The proof is in the pudding. If you can’t demonstrate it, what good does it even give you? So managing a route which relies so heavily on that attribute really emphasized how much fitter I’d become. If ever there was a route custom 12a designed to test your AnCap, this is the one. It started with easy rambling through buckets to a crux sequence that’s high off the deck in a position which juts out past the end of the ledge where you belay. I'd solved that final passage with a sequence of 12 moves, all of them relatively close to the same difficulty, causing a bit of fatigue but without much pump.  

Mid boulder on “Beta-Vul Pipeline (5.12a)”

Mid boulder on “Beta-Vul Pipeline (5.12a)”

Given that I’d soloed Beta Vul on the first day of this particular weekend, that left me with Sunday off! No religious day of rest for me though, my only religion is training. If you've ever met me, you’ll likely note that I’m somewhat of an evangelist. 

On a whim, I went down to Fruit Wall at MFRP. I knew that there were a couple of routes there that I’d had on my mind after surveying the area in my earlier week of defeat. Most notably: Banana Hammock. At 100ft long, it should play well to my strength of Aerobic Capacity and recovery climbing. 

ONCE AGAIN, this just keeps happening, and I don’t know how it's this often, but I ran into fellow Chicago dwellers at the wall! We synced our plans and I warmed up with a casual meander up “Witness The Citrus” which I imagine will also be a good solo at some point in the future, and after a short rest cycle I turned around and fired off a flash ascent of “Banana Hammock.” The route is burly straight off the ground until you reach a no-handed rest straddling a saddle, and the crux sequence is down low shortly thereafter, at about 40ft. I realize that’s taller than the lead climbing walls at my local facility, but that’s “down low” compared to a hundred feet of climbing.  

Watching Carlos pull the crux move gave me some much-needed beta. I’m pretty sure I’d have flubbed that section without watching him, as the sequence I’d thought up from the ground proved to be about as wrong-headed as political discourse on Facebook. The route actually uses a smudge of a crimp that I’d completely dismissed as “Obviously impossible.”  

Obviously impossible. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said those words. In one instance, I tried a 5.13a just to prove to a friend I couldn’t do it. Turns out that he was right and I was wrong. Much to my astonishment, I sent it on my second go. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, over!  Another time I was cajoled into trying an obviously impossible problem at Vertical Endeavors, and I flashed it. During that same session, another obviously impossible problem went down on my fifth attempt.  

Pulling through the obviously impossible moves on “Hematoma (5.13a)” at Lower Leda, TN. This was during my first attempt while working moves. Turns out I’m too weak to stop and clip at the lip of the roof. On the send attempt I activated menal control and skipped that bolt

Pulling through the obviously impossible moves on “Hematoma (5.13a)” at Lower Leda, TN. This was during my first attempt while working moves. Turns out I’m too weak to stop and clip at the lip of the roof. On the send attempt I activated menal control and skipped that bolt

Perhaps it's a safety valve. if I can convince myself that it's possible over all of these mounting dobuts... then there's plenty of extra margin in case I screw up on account of my natural inclination towards idiocy of the highest order. 

Paradoxically, I have issues with self-esteem and particularly with believing in myself. It’s hard to notice though given how excited I am about soloing. Luckily, my fingers don’t seem to care one whit about what I think and perform their job well just to spite me.  

And possibly to spite the statistics as well. Tom and company noted that the fact my scores were so low compared to my redpoint grade indicated a level of “bodily economy, willingness to fight, and mental fitness that is unexpected from someone so new to the sport.”  

New to the sport? Guys c’mon I’ve been soloing for a decade and climbing two years longer than that! Tom responded that he’d been *coaching* for over a decade, and I had to concede the point. Relatively speaking, I’m a complete neophyte. Some folks have been at this for thirty or forty years 

So it was quite surprising to me when that when I first felt that crimp, it felt just good enough to be sure of the move… I let out a power scream, latched the next bucket hold and and clipped. But with 60ft of climbing above me, it’s not over until it’s over. As a hold type, my greatest weakness would be handling slopers, and there were a few sprinkled up high, but I found the smallest divots in the back of them to dig my fingers in, then activated that aerobic fitness to recover after each wave of difficulties, until I came to the last section from the top, where my red river nemesis awaited me.  

Pockets.  is room to get.    

Slapping slopers right before pulling the pockets high off the deck on “Banana Hammock (5.12a)” This one really isn’t over until it’s over!

Slapping slopers right before pulling the pockets high off the deck on “Banana Hammock (5.12a)” This one really isn’t over until it’s over!

Now, I’m not terribly weak at pockets, mind you, but the problem is that there’s just so damned MANY of them. 17 potential holds and you only need three. I was well out from my resting jug, no time for hesitation now, so I pulled through, crossed over, and found three-finger undercling from which to clip.  


The weekend after my back to back solos of Knuckle Sauce and Check Your Grip, I returned to fruit wall. I think it may have been this weekend, or perhaps another… but stopping at my usual Flying J gas station in Indiana, a pair of climbers recognized me. The hat and the bumper stickers are a dead giveaway! This doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it feels quite weird being me. I still remember being the dumbfounded 19-year-old flailing on a 5.8 his first day in the climbing gym… I don’t mind it though, it’s beneficial from a utilitarian perspective. If folks recognize me, then they’re less likely to freak out if they catch me soloing somewhere. Instead of thinking “holy shit, it’s some random idiot!” They’ll be more like “holy shit it’s this specific idiot! I’ve heard he does this.” 

Again I was recognized at the parking lot stepping out of my car, thanks to my tie-dye climbing uniform, and when I arrived at Fruit Wall… AGAIN I met with friendly climbers from the Chicago town crew! There is a LOT of fucking mojo in this town, like how in the hell are y’all are EVERYWHERE down in The Red every time I go down there, even though it’s a bob damned SEVEN HOUR DRIVE *each way* to come climb?! I see your cars covered in bumper stickers every Friday driving down, and every Sunday driving up. It never ceases to amaze.  

Again with the crag diplomacy. I queued in line to warm up on the usual “Witness The Citrus (5.11c),” but afterward everyone was busy belaying each other, so I rope soloed Banana Hammock to practice the moves. Pulling that crux on its quarter-inch three-finger crimp was intimidating while rope soloing as this means trusting an unattended gri-gri clipped into my belay loop to catch me if I fell. But this time, instead of the raw power that I used during my flash attempt, I felt the balance, and it was good. I ran out of my 60-meter rope one bolt from the top, so I was unable to practice those pockets up high, but shortly after this I was able to score another belay, and the climb went smoothly. I was able to chill my way through those pockets this time. 

Roped Solo Shenanigans on “Banana Hammock”

Roped Solo Shenanigans on “Banana Hammock”

After a decent rest, and cheering the others on, I went for a jog to warm up, and then went for a double lap. Draws were hung on both “Witness The Citrus” and “Banana Hammock” so I fired them back to back. First ambling through the hundred-foot jug infested twenty-degree overhang of Witness the Citrus, then lowering off and pulling my cord to immediately fire off the equally steep “Banana Hammock” without even pausing to untie my rope. Even though this was my third lap of 5.12a for the day, and even though I was fatigued from having climbed Citrus, I sent with ease. Oh my, this was going to be FUN! With my work concluded, I was finished climbing for the day and ambled back a bit earlier than the rest so I could get an early sleep and recover well to perform the solo that following morning. 

All this rehearsal, mind you, was performed chalkless with my feet clad in my favorite pair of un-tied Mythos. Those shoes have seen miles upon miles of climbing. It gives me pause to wonder what stories they’d tell if they could speak! “Listen y’all, you’re not gonna BELIEVE what this motherfucker did to us!” As of this moment, my toe was *just* starting to become visible through a hole in the front of my right shoe. Perfect conditions for practice!  

The next morning was chilled, so I woke up deliberately late to pull a “California Alpine Start,” if you catch my drift. By the time I arrived at the wall, it had already warmed to about 40 degrees. The first order of business was stomping around to the top and hanging my ropes. Both the knotted hand rope and my climbing rope. The scramble up was straightforward to identify through a gully halfway between Fruit Wall and Portal. There was even a knotted rope pre-hung in place to assist passage, probably left behind by the bolters to ease further development.   

I managed to onsight the approach to the top of Banana Hammock even though I’d never been up there by divining the location of Hourglass Crack and estimating from there. So I lassoed a tree with my rope and rapped backward toward the edge. On the nearest solid tree to the precipice, I fixed my hand-rope in place and draped it towards the anchors. As I lowered off, I discovered bomber jugs at the anchor. My daft three finger undercling beta turned out to be unnecessary and wasteful of energy. These jugs looked as if they would allow a traditional topout; however, the reason I hadn’t identified them previously is that they are among the few holds on the wall to soak after a spot of rain. Currently, they were a mix of frozen and wet, neither condition is particularly conducive to my mission. So I let my hand-rope remain in place and wrote that topout off as yet another project left for another day! 

Crossing over near the route’s topout. Myhand-rope dangles into frame

Crossing over near the route’s topout. Myhand-rope dangles into frame

I rapped down the wall, clipping my rope with a carabiner to each bolt to minimize swing potential, and to allow hangdogging if I wanted to refine beta. I rested briefly, then toprope solo sent the route while removing the carabiners. In the midst of the crux move down low, I spontaneously discovered a new way to shift my weight on a heel hook and was able to relax and shake off. Suddenly this three move crux became a one-move wonder as I found I could shake off and relax on on the two immediately before that quarter inch crimp, and so it came to feel casual. As did the slopers, and the pockets up high. Subtle shifts of my own gravity, finding new sequences that balance better, discovering new holds that have just enough of a positive lip... all these things add up to the preflight checklist. 

I set my usual timer for twenty minutes rest and contemplated life. It’s a damn tall route to stare up at, and that overhang is unrelenting.  

Pulling onto the route, I didn’t feel any of the usual anxieties from earlier in the season. I had this wall all to myself today, with not another soul to be found, and the systems that I used for practicing and warming up were starting to feel old hat. Plus I’d had the opportunity to practice flipping the switch from zero to solo several times in the past few weeks, and I was in the flow of the season at this point. My solo space was developed and feeling prime. 

The initial section off the deck was a rude awakening as always. The first move was a bicep intensive deadpoint which led into bouldery moves, but I felt secure, solid, and competent. I only needed moments of rest at the no-hand no foot rest before the crux. I pulled through the jug rail without even cutting my feet by tapdancing them across hidden holds where my eyesight couldn’t reach, then made long pulls to half inch crimps and set up for that crux move. If I felt any anxieties, there wasn’t much time to dwell on them, so I reached up, snatched that suddenly beefy feeling quarter incher, pulled through to the jug and lost control of my composure as I yelled out “Holy FUCK! That was CASUAL!”  

Not that I was expecting it to be heinous in any way, but I sure wasn’t expecting it to feel quite this trivial. That was quite a welcome surprise. Immediately I knew that I’d have a good relationship with this route and that it would be a favorite to return for future enjoyment and practice. 

I conserved energy continuing through some moderate 5.10 terrain, briefly shaking on any jug I found, before reaching a solid knee bar. As I rested there, “Wolves” from Down Like Silver came up in my playlist and started playing through my earbuds.  

I paused here and marinated in the moment. It offered a rare opportunity for a somber contemplation of death, life, the universe, and everything. Friends gained, and friends lost… Life is as long as it is short, minutes past slow and the years go fast. Fairly quickly you start to realize the impermanence of everything around you, including that brief spark in time we call life.  

Where’s Waldo? Pausing to contemplate life partway up the route

Where’s Waldo? Pausing to contemplate life partway up the route

Reviewing the footage later, I realized that this ascent took eighteen minutes. There was plenty of time to stop and think. That bears out in the timing of the tracks I played and the thoughts in which I marinated. It is absolutely imperative to think when you do these things. Gravity is heavy, and so is the responsibility we have to make sure that we come home, time and time again. Folks are alarmed when they see soloing because they think I could die. And the fact is that I could. But life is an inherently dangerous sport, the only safety any of us have lies within our ability to make competent decisions, but even so… sometimes your number comes up and there’s nothing you can do about it. The fact of the matter is that there’s nothing particularly safe about a human hanging from a rope 50ft off the ground. No matter your style of climbing, if you fuck up badly enough… You will die. 

While it’s obviously imperative that I think while practicing my lonesome dance with gravity, that doesn’t make me unique in any way. We all have to think. It’s our best form of life insurance. 

Rather than shirk the discomfort of these thoughts mid-route, I instead stayed with them and used them as a focus for meditation while exploring the inner recesses of my mind, and managing my heart rate. I allowed irrational anxieties to float across the sky of my mind like clouds drifting across the sun in an otherwise empty firmament. They did not carry my attention away, but rather they simply “were,” and I allowed them their own space to be, beside my attention rather than competing for it.  

So take a moment, and hold your attention to the music. When your attention inevitably strays, just bring it back to the music. In that way, you’ll have a small piece of what I felt on this ascent.  

Or if you really want to imitate my level of zen master skills, make sure to refresh your Facebook feed no less than 500 times tomorrow while forgetting just what in the hell you just walked into this room to do

Austin HowellComment