Next Big Thing: The Mile of Mojo

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As a 20-year-old kid discovering climbing for the first time, I knew in my heart that soloing was something I'd never be able to do. It just seemed like the kind of thing reserved for superhuman entities who's abilities were far beyond anything to which I could possibly aspire. It would've been like watching a cartoon about Superman and thinking I'd grow up to fly and bullets would bounce off of my chest.

Perhaps that's why it was so captivating. Who doesn't like watching Superman defeat the forces of evil? I lack the required narcissism to believe that I'm special, but rather I think this is living proof that we all have more in us than we're capable of believing unless you're a narcissist at least. It turns out grit and stick-to-it-ness are more important than natural talent. If you dig in 4% deeper, try 4% harder, think 4% more, and dedicate 4% more of your faculties every day towards the activities which inspire you than the next guy... Compound interest over decades is a helluva thing.

Don't believe me? Go max out your credit cards and stop paying for a year. You'll learn that lesson pretty fast. I'd like to thank RadioShack for that one. A $200 balance ballooned up to almost $400. Turns out that debt was capable of more than I'd ever believed!

 El Cap. The Big Stone. The Chief. It was the benchmark against which my every effort was measured back then. Three-thousand vertical feet of stone. What could be more rad than that? Doing it in a single day.

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And that's precisely what Jim Bridwell did with the John's Bachar and Long. Immediately this became the benchmark against which their efforts were measured. If you couldn't cram out three-thousand feet in a day, then you were falling behind. With the big stone too cold in the wintertime, how could you benchmark fitness once everyone had fled to Joshua Tree to warm up?

 John Long was one of the first to solo at Joshua Tree, and he quickly convinced John Bachar to give it a try. He took it and ran with it, in an almost literal fashion. First taking the notion to "Half-Dome Days" consisting of running laps on different climbs to equate 2200ft of vertical to simulate the effort of a single-day ascent of Half Dome. Just like the actual route, you weren't allowed to repeat any pitches twice. Next, he took to climbing "El Cap Days," then Mike Reardon expanded to Mile and Two-Mile days. Ten thousand vertical feet in a single day. All completed free and solo. What a ride!

Sounds superhuman, doesn't it? Mike Reardon's mile-days included routes up to 13a, including a slew of 5.12's. Back then, I didn't think I had a fart's chance in a windstorm of climbing 5.13.

Still, we'd try to climb Half Dome and El Cap day at the gym to emulate this notion.

But you never know what's around the future. "Texas Crude (5.10b)" was my first deliberate free-solo, though I reckon I did a few by accident while learning to place gear in the years prior. It felt ten times more casual than expected, so the next weekend I returned and did 32 of my favorite routes at Enchanted Rock over the space of two days. The total footage was about 2200ft. That's par-for-the-course for the average two-day ascent time for most parties on Half-Dome.

I had a craving for milage straight out of the gate, and it took me to a lot of places. My first Half-Dome day was at Hueco Tanks where I'd onsight-soloed "Sea of Holes (5.10a)" to honor the style of the first ascent. I like climbing crags like a history book and paying homage to the moments of inspirational boldness which came before us. A failed attempt at glory would scar me much less than never having tried. Looking back, it's usually the things we didn't do that bring the most regret, rather than the mistakes born from what we did do.

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My first time visiting Shortoff Mountain was inspirational and eye-opening. My first thought upon entering Linville Gorge was "dear god. I'm going to do baaaad things here! The place is an absolute playground of almost entirely incut and secure climbing! With walls ranging from three to five-hundred-feet, there was plenty of room for mega mojo milage days! One of my first soloing excursions ran up to a leisurely 1200ft, with onsights up to 5.10 sprinkled throughout.

I set my sights on doing an "El Cap Day" given that it was enough for John Bachar in the '70s, I figured that'd be enough for me too. That was hard enough for me to believe, given that I'm certainly no John Bachar, but it was the next logical step after having performed a Half Dome Day at Hueco.

I prepared properly for a regularly scheduled inspection run by making sure I'd drank entirely too much beforehand. Waking up three hours later than intended, with a pounding headache and sluggish body, I didn't help my chances by arriving in the parking lot at noon, and the crag by 1 pm.

Still, I ran around like a squirrel until the afternoon rains came in. After 2000ft of soloing I saw the clouds and heard the thunder, but I was jonesing for my fix. I went for another lap to secure the Half-Dome distance. Luckily, I had a 500ft 5.6 left in the bag that I hadn't touched yet. I sprinted down the descent gulley and arrived at the base of the climb breathing hard.

I slipped on my climbing shoes in record time, not bothering with chalk or tying my laces, and sprinted up the wall. One pitch. Two pitches... Midway through the third pitch is when it hit me — not inspiration or an epiphany mind you, but rather the rain.

At first, I didn't think much of it. A few sprinkles wouldn't impede my motion, but as I realized that half the climbing, 250ft, was still ahead of me, I began to panic mildly. Holy shit. This could be really bad. The drops started coming down harder than expected, and my raggedy little iPhone wasn't waterproof! Adrenaline momentarily surged as I remembered that I certainly did not have the funds to replace the bastard. Well, I thought, there's not much I can do about it now. Might as well calm down and enjoy the moisture which was cooling me from the summer sweat.

I threw the hammer down and sped to the top with haste.

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Arriving at the bivi cave where my stash was hidden, I whipped my phone out to separate it from the soaked sponge of my jeans. Crisis averted. It still worked!

I'd racked up 2500ft during a single afternoon, during an inspection mission, not even aiming for a goal, while hungover like Keith Richards after 1969's Altamont Anarchy.

An El Cap day wasn't ambitious enough. But what was the next milestone? There isn't much in the way of more massive walls against which to measure oneself, so my mind harkened back to the legends of Mike Reardon: The Mile Day. That was the prize in mind.

But how on earth would I prepare my merely-human self for such a task? Luckily, I have a masochistic streak and penchant for hard training on par with a training montage from Rocky!

I ran myself ruthlessly through lead laps in the gym during three-hour sessions in which I'd run three laps to my partner's one. For three hours straight I'd be slicked with sweat. Folks didn't know my name; they just called me "Crazy Endurance Guy."

At Sandrock, Alabama I lived up to that name by soloing 50 pitches in only 5 hours, using a stopwatch to make sure I was on target for ten pitches per hour. Given an average height of 50ft, that's 2500. I used this time to practice my hydration and nutrition game downing Gatorade and Cliff Blocks. This was all before Cliff Bar took a stance against my religion, mind you.

The day came and the day went. At 4500ft I stalled, ran out of mojo, and ran into muscle cramps in my lats. I slowly inched my way to the top of the three-hundred-foot "Dopey Duck (5.9)" and threw in the towel 700 feet short of my goal.

Still, I was stoked. There's no shame in walking away. When the mojo ain't flowin', you've gotta pull the plug, or you're gonna die. It's a damn fool who ignores his instincts when the chips are on the table, and the stakes are high 

I practically floated the whole way back to my truck, still riding the high energy wave of the day.  Life was good. I didn't hit my target... but hey, who could possibly complain after throwing down four-thousand and five-hundred feet of climbing in about ten hours? Surely not me!

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I drove hard on the way home so I could sleep in my own bed. Two hours out from the crag I made my first pit stop. Swinging my legs out of the truck I almost fell over as they dissolved like jello underneath me. I wasn't riding the wave anymore, and it all hit me at once

My ass was sore for a week afterward from repeating that descent hike so many times! I'm tellin you right now; I felt about as tired as somethin tired and redneck soundin' 

I didn't have it in me to try again.

October 9th, 2014

On November 5th of 2016, my feet were stomping up the approach to Shortoff Mountain once again. Only eighteen months prior I'd died in Yosemite, and they threw my carcass in a California ICU. Aid climbing isn't for me it seems. Too much gear doesn't go well with my delicate constitution. I'd fractured five vertebrae, my right shoulder, and my skull. I'd been rendered permanently deaf in my left ear, and lost my sense of equilibrium. The doc's said I'd never climb again, and that I'd have trouble walking. I hadn't climbed here in at least a year, maybe two, save for a couple of practice laps the previous day to try a pair of 5.11's that I'd like to throw on my circuit. This time, however, success was a foregone conclusion.

I'm not exactly known for doing what I'm told. I've got a rebel streak through and through. I make my own way. So I fell back to my old familiar vice: Training like a masochist. I poured my all into working hard, and about six weeks prior I'd competed in 36 Hours of Horseshoe Hell with Mark Vabulas. The event is officially known as 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell, and that's what most folks aspire to complete. They have a sort of warmup event that's only 12 hours. Our dumb asses signed up for both.

Why? Well, we've committed a lot of sins in our lives, so we reckoned the only way to atone for them was either to flog ourselves against the walls of the church of rock until our brains and bodies turned to mush or to slam our dicks in a car-door wedged between two bibles.

We chose the church of rock!

That was Mark's eighth year at hell, and it was my first. Together we took "most pitches" in both the 12 hour and the 24-hour competitions, becoming the first team ever to secure a double-win in one single year!

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We climbed one-hundred and twenty-four pitches in the twelve for a total of 5400ft, then fourteen hours later we turned around and crammed out two hundred and two pitches in the twenty-four for a sum total of 8000ft. We'd each done a vertical mile two days in a row. And for me, it was mostly onsight. I'd never climbed at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch before.

Early on in the day, we developed muscle cramps, but Mark wasn't hearing it. "CLIMB YOU FUCK! DEAL WITH IT!" So I dealt with it. It turns out they'll go away after a while, and it's possible to alter your technique to mitigate their effects. Who knew?

So despite not having climbed much at shortoff, despite having been broken into a carcass, and despite the specter of muscle cramps hanging over my head from last time: I knew I had this in the bag. In the intervening time, I'd climbed through cramps, done two separate miles in two days, and demonstrated that my body was fit for the form. To achieve our speed, we only clipped one bolt per route. That meant sustaining the soloing mindset for a total of 36 hours, and for a full unbroken 24-hour span.

Mind, body, and spirit, I was ready. I couldn't not return.

This time, I wasn't alone. John Cabrera joined me in the mojo wagon for the ride up to Shortoff. He had his own mojo mission this weekend; we'd execute concurrently and meet up at the truck upon day's end.

We rose at 6 AM, cooked breakfast, and jammed up the trail to Shortoff just before sunrise each of us burdened with nothing more than a pair of shoes and an 18L backpack full of snacks. Being an outlaw is fun, but it's more fun if you've got a band of outlaws.

At the top of Shortoff Mountain, John shook my hand and kept walking. His goal was to ride the ridgeline to The Amphitheater, where he had his own mojo mission to deal with.

As I unpacked my food, water, and shoes, my entire body started to quiver. The hike up was warming, but now that I'd stopped it felt cold. Or was it nerves? Perhaps a bit of excitement?

It was quite a thing to suddenly be left alone at the top of a four hundred foot wall knowing that I had a mile of vertical climbing ahead of me, all solo. Especially now that I knew what it felt like to be ground down through a mile of climbing 

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Eight years of dreaming had condensed into this one single moment. Every adventure has a moment where you take the first step, a moment when you commit fully to the doing of it. That moment is the crux.

I began the pre-flight ritual of unpacking my headphones and slipping the cord inside my shirt to prevent mid-flight tangles. Lightning struck as my body electrified from head to toe as soon as I hit "play" and my soul came crashing back into my body for the first time since dying in Yosemite. It landed back in my body with a force that staggered me, and I drew a deep breath of fresh mountain air through my lungs as "Medicine Man" by Dorothy pumped through my brain, and my body reconnected with its mountain...

This is what I am made for. It was good to be home again!

Taking my first step towards the bottom of the cliff felt like peace. The shaking stopped immediately, and any jitters or nerves were replaced with rock hard resolve. In that precise moment, I finally shook off the psychological shackles of my past injuries and broke free.

That first step is one helluva thing. Sometimes your mind and body fight your inner nature. Injuries, setbacks, doubt, they can all conspire to hold us back. Wolfgang Gullich once said that "the hardest part of training is deciding to begin." The adage goes that an adventure of a thousand miles starts with a single step 

What if I hadn't shaken off those jitters at the top of the mountain? What if I'd given up before that crucial moment where the music started and all my broken bits snapped back into alignment?

An object in motion tends to stay in motion, while an object at rest tends to remain at rest. Inertia. Starting indeed is the crux. Andy Samberg put out this hilariously stupid movie called "Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping." Sometimes folks will ask how I got here, but that's it. Just put one foot forward and never stop never stopping. That first step is the crux, and from there all it takes is time. Even if you can't do all the things today, do the things you can. Any small piece of momentum is still motion.

In crises when anxiety rises, like when climbers practice taking falls on the wall... sometimes you get in over your head. When I take someone new to practice falls, I make sure that they know they don't have to do any of this, really. If they get into position and realize that taking a fall is too damn much... Rather than lose it and sprint towards the next anchor point, or scream TAAAKE instantly, I tell them to pause for one moment, breathe, think about it, and then act.

Act, rather than react. Maybe today you can't do any of the things. So I'll pause, breathe, think about it, and then make the decision that today is a re-charge day, acting instead of reacting. I can feel good about deliberately choosing a re-charge day. Once I've decided to relax, everything changes, and I don't feel guilty like I'm backsliding or what have you.

So I felt those anxieties at the top of Shortoff Mountain, and I took a step forward. Because the truth was that I didn't have to do any of this, and furthermore... I could back out and stop at any point. Pulling the plug, giving up, or otherwise having a failed attempt at glory would scar me far less than never having tried. So I took that first step!

Austin HowellComment