Fight Or Flight

First and foremost, I need to apologize for our negligence regarding lack of recent Gravity Chronicles (GC) blog posts. Maggie and I have been busy climbing the steep stone in Maple Canyon, specifically the Pipedream. We’ve been entrenched here since late May. It can be a time consuming process for folks in the geriatric class (me considerably more), requiring infinite patience and persistence. A certain amount of luck combined with a high level of mulishness can work wonders, we’ve found. We have had to fight for every inch of our progress this season and it’s been well worth the mêlée.

We arrived in Maple Canyon near the end of May and were, without doubt, the weakest we’ve been since starting our GC journey. We’d just survived a severely precipitous spring in the Red River Gorge. It would be a rough road ahead regarding acquisition of fitness required for the long and enduringly powerful Pipedream routes. Our goals were lofty, but we had time on our side; we had committed to stay here all summer and well into fall. Still, it was difficult not to harbor uncertainties upon arrival in the land of infinite cobbles.

Rather than attempting a success methodology blog (to document my methodology), this time I would prefer to share my personal emotional experience leading up to my most recent hard redpoint success. It was a true period of positive transcendence. My goal was to do confirmed 5.14a at age 62. Maggie’s goal was to do Millennium (14a) and if time would allow, the extension of Millennium called Eulogy (14a+ ish).

For me personally, there were serious doubts about whether or not I still possess the mental fortitude to push my aging muscles to meet the demands necessary to climb this grade, again. I was apprehensive about dealing with the normal age enhanced pain of arthritis, chiefly prevalent during mornings after a hard day of pushing limits. Moreover, I faced my greatest trepidation, dealing with large doses of repeated failure. The thought of being left wanting after giving my full commitment to this arbitrary personal goal frightened me more than the thought of swimming in shark infested waters with open wounds covering my body. Serious shit which required repeated affirmation of the simple truth: climbing is a meaningless pursuit. Tibetan Sand Mandala ranks higher. All life is transient.

I’m constantly surrounded by reminders of aging. My subconscious psyche harbors the anxiety of losing the ability to climb harder routes with each passing year. I’m haunted by thoughts like, maybe, with little or no warning, the downward slide will become irreversible. I remember training in a gym a couple of decades ago, while in my early forties, with a young climber in his early thirties who complained often about being on the “downward slide” of physical performance due to his advanced age. I vowed never to be like that person and although I’m aware that the descending spiral of physical well-being will manifest eventually, I’m not yet readily susceptible.

I set Eulogy in my sights. It’s an amazingly long rock climb that splits the middle of the Pipedream cave. It starts on Millennium, bypassing the final La Confianza crux where it takes on the Don’t Mess with Texas (V6) crux instead, while continuing on to finish on The Great Feast (13c) upper section. This includes the iconic inverted double kneebar rest. It’s basically Millennium on steroids with approximately 110-120’ of mostly horizontal terrain compared to Millennium’s mere 75-80’ of action packed horizontal simian fun.

I began the deliberate process of attaining Pipedream fitness, by first and foremost, “redpointing” the approach trail. Our lot in Kentucky sits at 866’ of elevation, the Pipedream 7250’. It would take a couple of weeks to acclimate. La Confianza (13a) and Diggler (13a) were repeated quickly for training. Soon after, a repeat of Don’t Mess with Texas (13c) gave me confidence for the Eulogy finish. During this time I gradually began working on a repeat of Millennium (14a) which took almost two months during what ended up being a very hot and extremely dry summer. Once this part of the process was complete, I was ready to give Eulogy my full attention. Confidence was high, made higher by pushing my high point and low point consistently while accepting occasional setbacks as being part of the process.

One major obstacle involved a near season ending injury suffered while running a redpoint strategy clinic at the Lander, WY International Climber’s Fest in early July. I was belaying one of our awesome students who was going hard for a redpoint on a difficult face route. She had worked out the moves bolt-to-bolt previously, but had to rush her redpoint attempt due to a rapidly approaching sun creating warm conditions on slippery west facing limestone.  Setting up for the crux 3rd bolt clip her hand popped from a hold. I gave her a dynamic belay and her heel collided with my left knee, creating an audible popping sound combined with excruciating pain. At first I thought I had fractured my tib fib when I looked down and saw my knee cap an inch left of where it should have been. With closer examination I realized it was just a dislocated patella. With some effort, I relocated my patella to it’s proper location and hobbled around on it for a few days afterward. I maintained a modified yoga practice throughout the injury and continued climbing once we were back in Maple a couple of days later. I avoided left drop knee movements for a couple of weeks and within a month was at about a 95% recovery level. It seems crazy looking back now that I was able to convalesce so quickly considering the original trauma. I guess that being older then dirt doesn’t mean your capacity for rapid healing is totally compromised.

The redpoint day came unexpectedly and more swiftly than I had envisioned. I had become adept at “letting go” of the outcome, which was a major component toward eventual success. This allowed me to relax and focus on enjoyment of movement due to quiet cognizance. It happened on a Monday (9/10). My warm-up process was painstakingly lethargic and not confidence inspiring. I recognized it as typical for the beginning of the week after a double day weekend rest and moved on. Maggie responded with her typical, “Hmmmmm… feels like Monday.” The first attempt that day on Eulogy was also lethargic, but it woke me up. I fell at the end of the crux of Millennium when a key foot placement popped without warning. My first attempt on any given day was usually my best, but I’d give it a second effort and top out no matter what.

On my second go I mentally dedicated myself to fight hard until gravity took over, or I clipped the top anchors. I was prepared to fight or yield to flight. I concealed my extreme doubts through practiced compartmentalization. Deep inside I knew that my second attempts were always tougher on these long hard routes indigenous to the Pipedream. Just in case, I decided to carry my Petzl Tibloc (mini ascender), assuming that gravity would win this battle as well.

The horizontal double kneebar. 📸: Zoltan Papp, No Rest Days Productions

Pulling onto the opening moves, I made it quickly through the start of Millennium and soon found reprieve in a horizontal double knee bar less than a quarter of the way up the route. The next section consists of fun horizontal jug hauling to a well-trained deep left kneebar just before the main V7-8 crux of Millennium. I remember thinking the pump was manageable and the crux doable despite the fact it was my second attempt on a Monday. I had been here many times before with greater amounts of lactic acid coursing through my body and still able to pull through the crux. Proceeding, I barely made it to the La Confianza cobble jug where another trained kneebar rest awaited. The hardest moves were now behind me.

At this point, I was able to gather my wits enough to inch my way through the next few bolts of easier terrain, reaching another trained horizontal left knee-bar before the Don’t Mess with Texas V5-6 crux. I focused on reducing my heart rate to a slightly more manageable level using the ujjayi breathing learned from my consistent yoga practice. With a fair amount of persistent lactic acid in my forearms, I entered the bouldery crux, totally focused on gaining a potential high point for the day. Determined focus soon gave way to reckless abandon with each progressive move. Pumped forearms, filleted fingers and loss of core began to take their toll as my cognizance overrode my physical forcing hands to latch holds. My autonomic nervous system took hold and hyperarousal kicked in. Subconsciously my body vowed not to give in to gravity. I came up short on the final big move at the end of the crux and hit a precise right hand finger slot, normally big enough for four digits, with only my ring and pinky fingers. I dabbed a left toe on a hold I’d never used in prior ascents and shifted my left hand to a better part of the bad pinch under-cling from which it was beginning to release. I quickly inserted my index and middle fingers in the right hand slot, losing the poor pinky in the process. Still, I wasn’t ready to give in to the earth’s pull. I quickly reactivated my core while swinging my feet somewhat wildly and fought hard to attain the double kneebar rest before The Great Feast finish. I made it. Highpoint! Anything else beyond this would be well earned icing on the cake.

The famous upside-down double kneebar. 📸: Zoltan Papp, No Rest Days Productions

I stayed in the rest for roughly 10 minutes, alternating between the kneebars and a lower body circulation regaining heel hook. Excess blood accumulation in the head was not an issue, thanks to the training provided by yoga inversion postures. I committed to skipping the next clip above the rest in order to maintain momentum and made the next big dead-point move barely sticking the flat cobble which signaled the end of what is the final crux section for me. All that was left now was to hang on to the anchors. I turned to well-rehearsed autopilot mode while focusing on keeping my heart rate down and suppressing thoughts of success. Clipping the top anchors was anticlimactic and welcome relief. Yet again, the lengthy process toward redpoint successes worked, even for someone of my advanced age.

Charlie’s synopsis, id est, the moral of the story…
As humans we are all 99.9% DNA compatible. In fact, our next closest relative, which are Chimpanzees, are 99% DNA compatible, which bodes well for us as climbers. All of us, humans and chimps alike, respond to severe stress with a sudden release of hormones via the body’s sympathetic nervous system, stimulating the adrenal glands. As luck would have it, mega-doses of adrenaline course through our body within milliseconds when a stress induced situation occurs. We are then given the choice of whether or not we want to stay and fight or take flight from the source of acute stress. On this particular day, I was prepared to fight and my personal version of Tibetan Sand Mandala was realized. And now, much like Buddhist sand art, which becomes one with the universe after the next strong breeze, I’m left to joyfully ponder my next transitory climbing life creation.

PS: Maggie’s impressive tick list of sends this summer have included the powerfully tricky route, Millennium (14a) and enduringly long Pipedream saga, The Great Feast (13c). Watching her skillfully put both these rigs together gives me far greater pleasure then all my successes combined. We have another month to spend here in Maple Canyon pursuing our passion to climb on steep cobbles so please stay tuned…


Featured header 📸: Jeff Hansen

Hi-tech shoe donning seat rest day project. 📸: Maggie
Maggie navigating the “shark’s nose.” 📸: Zoltan Papp, No Rest Days Productions
Fighting to get to the first decent rest. 📸: Zoltan Papp, No Rest Days Productions
Ahhh… 📸: Zoltan Papp, No Rest Days Productions
Jug thuggin’. 📸: Zoltan Papp, No Rest Days Productions
Hello, body tension! 📸: Zoltan Papp, No Rest Days Productions
The crux clip. 📸: Zoltan Papp, No Rest Days Productions


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