S1 E5 - Return To Balance

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After Banana Hammock, I kinda felt like I was finished with The Red, for now at least. I’d had my fill of that geology and needed a change of scenery; plus, I’d done everything I’d set out to do by achieving the dozen dozen. All this sport soloing was good mental and technical training, but I sure was looking forward to getting some circuits in before the onset of training season where I hunker down and gnar up in the gym to prepare for more. Generally, Thanksgiving break offers an opportunity to strike out towards parts unknown and take down some fun times though. Usually, this involves a plane flight, which I hadn't quite planned for in the budget. So I wasn’t really planning on going anywhere, but a spur of the moment realization led me down to Chattanooga.

As it turns out, Chatty is “only” 9hrs from Chicago, which is only two hours longer than the drive to The Red, which meant it wouldn’t feel unreasonably heinous after all that long-drive desensitization from this past season plus, I had a backlog of podcasts lingering that I could use to get me through the round trip! The weather looked awesome, with the only chance of rain occurring during a nighttime period.

 Hm. I’ve got unfinished business down yonder. Maybe I could finish it up, and perform a check in with some old favorites as a “how’s my driving” test to see how much fitter or better I’ve become.

 So I packed in a hurry and spun tires down the road towards my destination: The Chattanooga Crash Pad.

I didn’t have the fortitude to make it all the way to chatty in this push as I was running a bit behind schedule on the drive. Furthermore, I couldn’t find a suitable place to boondock it in the back of my car, so I caved and got a room at a hotel that was en route to Little River Canyon since I intended to spend my first day at the steep cave climbing crag known as The Concave. Luckily I had enough reward points that this night was free! That’s basically boondocking, right? I guess I’m more of a “corporate dirtbag.”

Just past the crux of “Satisfaction (5.12a),” which I’ve now soloed nine times

Just past the crux of “Satisfaction (5.12a),” which I’ve now soloed nine times

Pulling into the parking pull-off for The Concave I felt lucky. The temperature was delightful, and I was the first car there! So I dove right in and tried to rope solo bolt-to-bolt on Silverback (5.13a) to warm up. The easiest thing in the cave is 13a, so I took the easiest thing I could find. Everything felt hard though, and I couldn’t even do the crux move by itself. Not sure if it was idiot beta or the fact that I’ve been careless about completion on my core and pulling exercises of late. Sometimes even the most dedicated run low on mojo and don’t complete what they’d set out to do. Climbs in the concave require tension, power, and raw strength. Due to my failure to follow my programming strictly enough, my core and power had gone. While I was stronger and better generally, I’d lost the specificity necessary for this place. I had similarly poor performance on “The Word” 5.13a. I took whips on both of them with my GriGri rope soloing kit.

Gotta admit, I felt pretty sad about this, so with only about two hours left in daylight, I went to Sandrock for a consolation prize. There I soloed eleven laps up to 5.11- in the space of about ninety minutes. Freedom. That’s what I was looking for. I ran ‘round that place like a squirrel on cocaine in a state of bliss with my shoelaces flying in the wind without a care in my mind, chatting with friendly climbers and tossing snickers from my puppy dog chalk bag which actually didn’t have any chalk atal! It made for a fun time!

True story by the way. I’ve got this cute little chalkbag shaped like a Corgi, and it’s full of snickers instead of chalk. Whenever someone seems super nervous, I just toss a Snickers at them, and then they’re confused instead of anxious, which fixes EVERYTHING! This is also useful on taller climbs when stumbling upon a party at a belay station and need to pass. “Woah! What are you doing here?” Oh.. uh… I’m climbing… hey? Y’all hungry? Wanna snickers? “Oh.. uh. Wait.. .what? Yeah.. sure?” Hey, Y'all mind if I pass? Everybody needs that story of the time they met some crazy fucker, and I’m PROUD to be of service!

The world’s most adorable chalkbag

The world’s most adorable chalkbag

Surveying the scene from the top of The Pinnacle after soloing a lap up comfortably numb in my approach shoes… I felt free. The same kind of freedom that I felt in Devil’s Lake, but with a million times more security and friction.

I hate the S-words. Should, supposed to be… the only thing climbing is supposed to be fun, and the only thing you should do is follow what stokes your mojo. And my mojo gets stoked by precisely this sort of day. Just easy scrambling with nothing more than shoes and a bit of water. I know this place so well that I didn’t even bring a guidebook, so there was no pause from the flow.

Soloing requires a very particular type of headspace. I’m fortunate that I’ve developed the sort of mind where I can sustain that headspace all day long, at a moments notice, whenever I want to. A ten hour day on the rock is like a ten-hour meditation session. Or maybe more of a ten-hour yoga session. Thoughts drift in and drift out, but I’m busy. All that matters is this hand-hold, this foothold, the twist of my body, and a million sources of input. Body awareness. That’s my single point of focus.

Folks get caught up in the view of some wise man sitting on a mountaintop chanting “om.” While that certainly IS meditation, at its heart, mediation is just single-pointed focus on something. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we all meditate sometimes. When you’re sitting in the middle of a stretch, focusing your mind inward on releasing that muscle and causing it to relax… that’s sixty seconds of meditation. If you perform ten stretches, that’s ten minutes of meditation, whether you intended it to be or not. That’s why yoga is so mentally clearing for so many. It’s not the asanas, it’s the mindset. Your mind is calm because you had to calm it to follow the instructions during class and to pay attention to all the subtle details that can make or break your alignment.

Each move up the wall is just another asana. The goal of yoga is not severity, but rather to find peace within the severity. It’s to put yourself in this strenuous position, but find a way to move your body so you may relax as much as possible there to deepen your sense of equanimity despite discomfort so that this discomfort dissolves away. In doing so, you build a skill that comes with you everywhere. I used to feel a lot of pain owing to the fact that my carcass has been beaten up rather a bit over the years. To keep doing what I do, I had to allow that pain a space of its own where it could just do its thing and leave me alone.

Through neuroscience, we know that pain has a physical component and an emotional one. Learning to control that emotional component so that stubbing my toe doesn’t result in a tantrum full of Ondra screams and enough swearing to make a tower-hand blush… that came in bit by bit. Sixty seconds at a time. Peace within the severity.

Climbing to me is likewise a path to peace. What is bodily economy on the wall other than finding peace within the severity? You can't find peace if you're not being economic. What is mastering the fears involved with heights and falling other than learning to sit with discomfort and learn to let it go, so it does not control you? Yeah. That’s right. You’re a fuckin meditator! Own it!

A moment of meditation at Sandrock Alabama. Fun story: this is the photo which branded me with The Hat! folks appreciated that it looked like I’d just stepped off of my newspaper route and begun climbing

A moment of meditation at Sandrock Alabama. Fun story: this is the photo which branded me with The Hat! folks appreciated that it looked like I’d just stepped off of my newspaper route and begun climbing

The following morning, I got up suitably early to hop over to Tennessee Wall and meet Lohan at 8:30 in the morning. The kid seriously smoked my ass up the trail. We ran over to warm up on “Cakewalk” a 5.10- that was an old favorite, and.. something else. I don’t remember what the other warmup was. It all happened fast. 

We walked down to Ms. Socrates, a 5.12a that I was hoping to onsight, on gear. The first 20ft went with no protection on moderate blocks, then the crux was a vicious boulder problem. I built a nest of gear for safety's sake. A #1 Camelot extended from deep in a recess, a #1 C3, which felt minuscule, and the smallest offset DMM nut in a pod. I’d never fallen on a three cam unit, only the much larger C4’s, and I hadn’t fallen at all since my near-death in Yosemite. That’s three and a half years.

Basically, I’d only been trad climbing routes that I could probably solo. This was not such a route. The crux is extremely odd.

I pulled on and completely freaked out. “Just say take, and figure it out, man!” Fuck. No. I downclimbed back to the ledge rest. Tried the crux three more times, and then finally caved to saying take. To my surprise, that cam held. Not that there was any reason it wouldn’t, but I was freaking out. My mental game for traditional climbing was shattered in Yosemite, and I’d been so focused on soloing that I hadn’t bothered to work on it.

Soloing requires trusting yourself. Trad requires trusting your gear. Those train completely separately. After that take, I felt like actually trying the crux. I launched into it with ferocity and terror. I pushed myself straight into a place where I could not downclimb. My knot was a whole 2ft above the cam, nearly nothing. My brain melted out of my body and terror overcame me as my fingers rapidly fatigued. I knew I was going to fall, and when I did, I made inhuman noises.

After the safest, no-consequence 5-ft fall, I sat there crying for about 60 seconds. The release of that extreme mortal terror when my rope came taut, and I realized that this voodoo magic cam actually held…. I actually shed tears of joy. That’s how afraid of the gear I had become. So afraid that I shed tears of joy because I was so surprised it held. Not from an intellectual standpoint, mind you. I knew intellectually that it was bomber. But the animal instinct was a whole nother issue, and that has to be mastered through practice. You can’t logic your way out of it.

I tried and flailed one more time, taking the whipper without a complete breakdown. I didn’t climb the route, but that was a huge success. I downclimbed to the floor while removing my gear from the wall.

On to the next one!

Now I followed Lohan over to “Riddle On The Roof” which apparently contains “the world’s most painful fingerlock.” After a decent amount of trying, he solved the riddle! No send today, but he did figure all the moves.

After this, we moved down to “Twistin’ In The Wind” a 5.12c that I reckon will make a good solo someday. Today wasn’t that day. The first sequences off the deck are as hard as I can crimp, and just too much in a row. By the time I reached the crux move, I was far far faaar too fatigued to control it properly. I could make the move every time I tried, but that’s not a good enough metric for the solo. I needed to know I WOULD do it every time, before I tried, not after.

Lohan spent some more time on the Riddle, I took my fatigued fingers for one more burn on Twistin’, just for practice. And just like that, we were done, with plenty of time for him to get back home for Thanksgiving dinner!

Back at the crash pad, worry began to slip into my mind. My fingers had picked up a lot of fatigue, and my skin was starting to feel shot. This was only day 2 of my trip. Tomorrow would necessitate rest.

The crux of “Blinded by Science (5.12a)” at Sandrock, AL. Part of my “active recovery” circuit

The crux of “Blinded by Science (5.12a)” at Sandrock, AL. Part of my “active recovery” circuit

Awaking on day 3, with my shot skin and shot fingers… only one destination would do. Sandrock. Light moderates and aerobic fitness, plus… one item of unfinished business: a 12a called “Blinded By Science.”

I came in and strolled around on moderate climbs including the 11- Never Believe, and the 10+’s Misty, Cinco De Mayo, and Pigs in Zen.

Feeling warmed up but not fatigued, I returned to the car, grabbed my kit, and rock-hopped to the top of Sun Wall. I found a spot to pop some gear in and lowered myself out over Blinded By Science and hitched a knob to make sure my rope stayed centered over the line. A couple hours later when I was de-rigging, I discovered a pair of bolts at the top, centered right over the line. Can’t be smart all the time I guess

I top rope soloed the route twice, then rested up, and TR soloed it a third time. All this took about maybe 90 minutes. The holds were good, and I felt ready. Setting a timer for 20 minutes, I passed my camera to a pair of new friends from earlier in the day so they could point it at me for decent ground footage! They were newer climbers, and incredibly psyched to watch something so uncommon. Pulling onto the route, I felt light and free. It sure was nice to be without all the hassle of gear. The crux is four moves on incut crimps, with shitty feet. Climbing it on toprope, I felt like I could damn near campus the moves, so I knew I was sufficiently stable to solo even if I cocked up. Which was convenient. As I made the light deadpoint to the third crimp, my driving foot popped. Bodily instinct took over, I back-flagged hard, and still connected with my target with smooth economy.

Soloing isn’t a statement that I can do this perfectly, but rather that I can fuck up and it shouldn’t matter. That’s an entirely different headspace. Nobody’s perfect, and I may be crazy, but I’m not delusional.

This was a light day. Maybe about ten pitches, taking care not to shift my fingers too much on any of the holds to save skin, and none of the moves I did were hard. There was no pump all day long. While soloing 5.12 sounds hard, the truth is that soloing should feel easy. This isn’t hardcore or whatever, I’m just the laziest fuckin climber in town. The only thing special about my genre is that I spend my entire life trying to avoid carrying a heavy pack or performing any move that seems remotely difficult. So though it may sound like a tough day, for me it was more like “active recovery.”

One down, two to go. I slept satisfied on this night.

From ground level, the holds look terrible, but in reality: its all there!

From ground level, the holds look terrible, but in reality: its all there!

 Day four was to be my last day, and this day was all about Foster Falls. Home to an old favorite that I’d soloed eight times already: “Satisfaction (5.12a)” probably the most well known of the grade in the whole region. Aside from that, I had some unfinished business in the right bunker. I’d always wanted to solo “Bottled Up Warrior” but never did put effort into it because I just wasn’t sure if there was a topout. Now with this whole practice of sport soloing, I didn’t have to worry about that. The route goes at 5.12b, and if you perform an arbitrary eliminate, that ups to 12c, but it just seems silly, so I had no interest in that. Side note: there does seem to be a topout leading up and left to the thin and tweaky finish of Dummkopf. Supposedly it ups the grade, maybe to a legitimate 5.12c at that point rather than claiming the grade because you used bad beta. Anyhow, I didn't have time to invest in all that and wanted to go for the sure thing. So I’d stop at the anchor and sport solo the route, leaving another potential project for the future if I get around to it.

I warmed up by rope soloing Satisfaction to re-rememberize the moves, then toprope soling satisfaction, and then I actually soloed Satisfaction. The thin holds in the crux somehow felt larger, my balance on the lower sequences felt more secure, I found more logical beta at the start of the difficulties, and the sloper which once caused me anxiety almost felt like a jug. Meanwhile, the finger jam in the vertical crack above the crux felt so secure that I could’ve pulled on it instead of just using it for balance. Progress indeed. I’m feeling fit and competent!

While all this went on, I chatted with a couple who’d been hiking by and felt quite amused with my shenanigans. “You’re gonna what? Oh. Do you mind if we watch?” Nah, not atall! “Could we like, film it for you or something?” Sure! Here’s my camera! As I was rope soloing the route we’d been having a conversation the whole time, and by the time I soloed the line they had all the right lingo. “Dayum man, you made that hand-jam look solid as hell, and you floated straight through that crux!” I’m so proud of those two! 

Just past the short crux, enjoying my favorite left-foot smear on earth

Just past the short crux, enjoying my favorite left-foot smear on earth

Next, I rope soloed the route to get my camera back and walked over to Bottle Up Warrior. That’s four laps of 5.12 already today.

I rope soloed the line, then toprope soloed it, and then to make sure everything felt grand… I managed to get a belay from a friendly climber. While I climbed securely and solid, I hit about 90% pump on the way up. All with my damn raggedy shoes untied as per normal practice protocol. There’s no way I could solo this climb as my eighth lap of 5.12 for the day. Disappointed, I left the crag. Even though there was a small tug at my heart because I didn’t want to leave the region without such an easy and ready-to-go tick... I had to admit that I was in no condition to solo the line. Back to the crash pad to pack my things.

 As I arose to go home, I had two realizations. Firstly, that Foster Falls is off of I-24 which means it's more or less in line with the way back. I could make a quick detour, swing into the crag, and solo bottled up warrior if all felt well.

Secondly, I realized that my hands were useless claws that couldn’t fully close. After four days of hard climbing, and seven laps of 5.12 on the previous day… They didn’t even want to grasp my car keys. It was as if I’d suddenly transformed into Zoidberg for the morning. Still. There’s no harm in taking the fingers for a walk to see how it felt. I could rope solo the route in sections from bolt-to-bolt and have the option to bail if it went to hell.

I rode over to the Mean Mug and snagged a large coffee and a blueberry muffin. Standard sending fuel. As I drove, my body began to wake up as if it had been in an offline stasis mode when I first awoke. My fingers felt crusty, but not useless.

I hiked into the route with speed to try and further warm up my body, threw down my pack, unfurled my kit, and immediately got to work. Holy shit. This thing actually feels good right now… I cleaned the route and pulled the rope to yank my harness up to the anchors. Game. The fuck. On.

Cutting feet above the void on “Bottled Up Warrior (5.12b)”

Cutting feet above the void on “Bottled Up Warrior (5.12b)”

Pulling on my good shoes, and pulling on the route the route, I reflected on how absolutely tanked my body was. This was my fifth day on. But I felt more than good enough for the task at hand. Brushing those thoughts away, I immediately flipped the switch and swung into the climb I rested before the roof, made the big blind stretch around the lip, cut my feet and launched into it. Big pulls from big holds, with specific body tension, led me around the lip. Hit the rounded side, then the incut side of the big hold, swap the feet out left, pop the right hand up to an even better hold, then cut both feet across the void beneath the roof to stick the next toes, and dance up to a good rest jug. With my good shoes on I felt like Superman. Butora’s Acros just fit my foot as if they were tailor-made for me. I sat on that hold, monitored fatigue, and my recharge rate. I wasn't really pumped, but there's no reason to skip a resting opportunity when you've got one. Once I hit the point of diminishing returns on recovery, I launched into the flake feature which defined the crux. I spragged two fingers and my thumb into the divot at the end of the flake, smeared a right toe, then cranked around to the hidden side wards bucket, then popped to the next horizontal break. Another brief shake, an odd Gaston, a moderate crimp, and then the anchors. It was done. I was back to my car before 11am, with plenty of time left to drive back to Chicago.

It’s wild to think, but Bottled Up Warrior was my hardest solo of this season at 5.12b, and I did it in the furthest most beat down state of fatigue that I’d experienced during the entirety of this fall. And yet… it still felt solid. I had that route on unholy lockdown and felt absolutely solid despite waking up with lobster claws instead of hands.

Ultimately this goes to prove to myself something which I’d suspected before the season began. 5.12a is not only sub-maximal for me as a route, but also as a solo. Essentially, all the solos from this season were moderates, easily repeatable. Whereas in the past, soloing 5.12 was the end result of months of scouting and weekends of practice, this season began with weekends of scouting, then a morning of practice, followed by sendage the next day. And in the end, I soloed three 12’s in the space of 3 days while utterly fatigued, and none of them took more than about 90 minutes to dial in well enough that they met the preflight checklist.

The end result is that this season has developed me as a soloist. Building a new layer of technique, tactics, and ability on top of the fitness that Lattice’s training protocols had given me I had become a whole new machine. In the three years before this season I had only soloed seven 5.12’s, and then I turned around and soloed eight 5.12’s in two months. Two months to match what had happened in the previous three years. It’s absolutely bonkers, and totally mind-blowing, at least to me personally. I doubled my repertoire in the space between the start of October and the end of November. 

Kinda makes me wonder what’s next? I’ve got all winter to train like a masochist and come out swinging in the springtime! This season of The Process might be over, but I’m just getting started.

Austin HowellComment