It was the best of seasons, it was the worst of seasons. A bittersweet series of near misses and consolation prizes, in the end all pointing us toward what we always need after a full season of sport climbing: getting back to training.
On our drive to the crag one morning a few months ago, we hit a deer. It was a glancing blow, and the animal bolted away up the slope from the highway, but it was sad and disconcerting. Abut 15 miles later, we helped drive a herd of sheep down the two-lane between Moroni and Wales. We had moved out of the Camp Host site in the Maple Canyon campground on July 31st and had been commuting across the Sanpete Valley on climbing days. We originally made reservations for the higher elevation, quieter campground on the eastern border of the valley for all of hot July and August, but the accidental Camp Host stint brought about by another climber’s failure to show up delayed our stay in the western hills. Our favorite campsite on the other side sits in an aspen glen dotted with little butter yellow snapdragons and cobalt penstemon, overlooking a sweet little reservoir.
It was a kind of relief to be away from the action and, quite honestly, the climbing community. While we truly enjoy the reunions and conversations with like-minded friends, we’re not very accustomed to it in our day-to-day. We can easily become socially overwhelmed. Not that changing campgrounds offers a total respite from human interaction, welcome or not. Our neighbors in the group campsite just below us reliably circled their wagons, er…RV’s, a la Mormon pioneer, with screaming children, ATV’s, and a dog that barked even more than Lola, which is a lot. But we did have an engaging conversation one night with a camper who asked Charlie if he was the camp host (in a campground that doesn’t have one)…the irony. It turns out the gentleman retired from the Forest Service in 2013 and worked under Bill, the ranger who was our supervisor’s boss until he himself retired last year. He must just recognize when a person knows their way around a pit toilet.
Charlie’s early season was fantastic. He had decided to re-enter battle with his old nemesis, Wyoming Sheep Shagger. Although he’s done most of the routes in the cave with harder grades, Shagger, at 13d, has put up the biggest fight, with past sessions on it resulting in injury and/or dejection (or other physical breakdowns). This time around, he showed up ready with a boosted power base from a full winter season of bouldering in Hueco Tanks and was one-hanging it by the end of April.
Then summer hit: an arid, dusty summer punctuated only by monsoon-like rains that deluged and then disappeared. Any moisture that reached the ground was immediately sucked up or evaporated. Humidity would spike for a day or two, then plummet right back to its standard 25-35 percent. To the average climber- one who has hands that sweat- this probably sounds heavenly. To us, it’s hellish. We both have extremely dry skin, me being born with it and Charlie aging into it, and dry conditions generally amount to lots of dry firing. Squeezing hard and holding on for dear life a few days of the season can make the good days feel even better, but doing that every day, for the duration, isn’t a recipe for success.
After tearing the A4 pulley in my right ring finger in Hueco over the winter, I had set aside the route I’d aimed my training toward and decided to revisit The Whole Shot (13d), which I started trying at the end of our 2020 season. At that time it was a bonus route, something to climb on after sending the last 14a I had left to do in the cave, and not as daunting as my dream route, Divine Fury (14b). Back then my fitness was leveled up, but I was powered down from repetitive movement; becoming more and more efficient, but less and less strong. Whole Shot is a power endurance extravaganza. It starts on The Great Feast (13c), which has a low crux followed by pumpy moves to a tricky rest, and then splits from the Feast into a 3-bolt boulder problem that’s probably V5/6, but you’ve climbed about 80 feet to get there. I’d watched numerous capable friends (including Margarita Martinez, who sent it as her first of the grade at 58!) climbing the route, and had observed the dynamics at work. I’d seen lots of falling in that upper boulder.
Coming back to the route I found that, like those others, I could enter the boulder twice a day feeling anywhere from good to great. And then there I was, falling on the first big move, or pulling up short, intimidated by those experiences of falling, falling, always falling. The most difficult moves on the route are distilled into those last few bolts of climbing, and it was hard to leave the rest ledge thinking positive thoughts. Some tries, I would clip the first bolt off the rest and then insta-melt setting up for the precision deadpoint that says, “welcome to the hard part”. Other tries, I’d do the move, but catch the incut left hand crimp by just the tips of my fingers, not enough to hold it with my feet cutting (which they usually did).
What to do? How to address this point of failure? Problem-solving 101 says the first step is to identify the cause, right? When I really paid attention, I discovered that my tendency was to hesitate in the setup and then overdo, winding up too hard and undermining my accuracy. I’d done it so many times that falling had become my beta, and I needed to re-wire my brain and body to override that. I needed to start low-pointing, stopping below my fall point, resting on the rope, and climbing into it much fresher than on the go. Low-pointing feels counter-intuitive- downright wrong, really. To just stop and take when you feel like you can keep going seems silly. Knowing- feeling- this, I gave myself one redpoint try and one low-point burn each climbing day. I chose my first stopping point based on my best links, which meant only one move before “the” move. Once I was able to link that move to the chains, I added the next move below. And then the move below that. It felt like it would take forever to get all the way down to that rest ledge. But it was better than falling in the same spot over and over again. It was slow progress, but at least it was progress at all. As it happened, I didn’t need to backtrack all the way to that ledge. I sent the route on a rare 60% humidity day, with my best low-point being the second move off the rest. Low-pointing is clutch.
With a chunk of the season still left, I now had to decide between the two remaining routes in the cave that I would someday like to climb: Divine Fury (no chance) and Toxic Turkey (small chance in the available time frame). Divine Fury is just hard. Toxic Turkey is different from most of the other routes in the cave. After 35 feet of techy vertical terrain, a bomber kneebar takes you into unique, pumpy moves at the same time the rests run out and the only option is to sprint to a redpoint crux that guards the easier head wall. Resting is my strength, so….? But, knowing I wasn’t in any kind of shape to take on the hardest route of my life, I chose to climb on Toxic.
This is the kind of crag where people give you beta. You’re invariably bound to be the recipient of advice on where hands and feet go, what position your body needs to be in, where and how to rest on route, which draws to skip, etc. There’s “standard” beta and there’s somebody’s beta. OG beta and modern beta. If you don’t want beta, you’d better make an announcement before you even leave the ground, and even with that, someone’s likely to begin auto-spewing before catching themselves with a hand (hopefully their own) over their mouth before giving the secret away. (As a side note, there’s also another kind of beta at a crag like this, specific to crowded areas with extensions and link-ups: right-of-way laws and queue navigation. But that’s a whole separate blog post waiting to happen.)
The sharing of beta can play a few different roles, sometimes simultaneously. Sure, it can be a mechanism of pride and crag ownership, but it can also foster bonding with other members of the community. To paraphrase Beratunde Thurston: Being outdoors forces us to operate on a frequency that’s conducive to conversation. Mostly, it can help to move the queue along a little more quickly on high-traffic days.
Personally, I always welcome having the benefit of beta, but climbing on Toxic Turkey, the unheard of happened. Everyone was climbing on other things. The only other traffic on the route was earlier in the season, either from climbers so powerful it didn’t even make sense for me to watch them, or on a schedule opposite ours. Others who were there had done the route so long ago that they didn’t remember specifics. It’s one of those routes that people seem to recall the “feel” of more than the details. I was able to experience the rare (for the Pipedream) pleasure of allowing my creative body to teach me how to climb it. Every move unlocked, every sneaky little kneebar and toe hook felt like a tiny victory and, although there was no send to celebrate, I still felt a kind of success. I was solving problems almost every time I pulled on, and I was also living well outside my comfort zone both on the vertical beginning and the big-move sprint. It probably didn’t look like it to anyone other than myself and Charlie but in my way, I was being brave and bold. On one of my first good highpoint burns I even skipped a clip, unplanned, and took a pretty exhilarating fall. Alas, after a few one-hangs, my progress began to backslide. I was tired, and because I was tired, my motivation started to wane.
Current climbing wisdom (is that even a thing?) seems to say that there’s a time/try limit for redpoints. While our past sends tend to fly in the face of this concept, there may be some new reality in it for us. It feels like the window has been narrowing, like our peak periods are becoming shorter and the need for intermittent training more frequent. And for now, beyond powered down, we’re powered out. Time to go. So long, farewell, aufwiedesein, goodbye for now, Maple. Hueco is waiting.
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