I still remember the first time I climbed. Geared up with my purple rental harness that had the look and feel of a repurposed seat belt, marshmallow rental shoes, and naive overconfidence, I rainbowed up plastic jugs. The route itself wasn’t too physically difficult, but as I got higher off the basketball court at the University of Nebraska, I could feel the exposure. Ten feet from the top I decided I had enough and stammered a request to come down. Jason laughed, insulted my balls, and told me to get to the top. From that point on I was hooked. How could I not be? The 20 routes set in our little corner of the gym provided endless challenge, puzzles and above all, fun. The friends I met waiting around for a rope to open up are still some of my closest today. But the movement and the feeling of improvement are what got me addicted and kept me coming back. Ten years on and well over 100 vertical miles later, here I am, helpless to resist such a compelling sport. I followed my heart and career from the endless Nebraska flatlands, through Moab, to Boulder and now to Yosemite’s shadow in the Bay Area. I’m just as motivated as my younger self and still in awe of the endless riddles nature poses on the rock.
Every year marks a transition in climbing, both personally and communally. Sometimes change comes in an instant. Every time I’ve moved, overnight I’m forced to adapt to a new scene with new climbers and the unique demands of different rock that can make a 5.13 climber feel insecure on 5.9. Other times, the changes are subtle, more internal and imperceptible on a daily basis. During five years in Boulder, I got stronger and gained a hard fought skill set transitioning from the world of single pitch sport lines to the cryptic Eldo gear circuit that still defines my strengths and style as a climber.
Though I didn’t move across the country, last year marked a new kind of sudden change: Injury. In all those years, all those falls and all those vertical miles, I’ve been scared, runout and at the mercy of all the elements beyond my control countless times pushing my mental and physical limits. And I escaped unharmed.
We had just made the 3.5 hour trek from Oakland to the Valley. The weekend sat out in front of us like rolling hills, each one an hour of fun before striking midnight back in the city. I was in the mood for mileage, having not been in Yosemite for months, and after beginning the day swimming up the classic Reed’s Direct splitter, we ventured east to the equally perfect Lunatic Fringe. Our solitary luck ran out with another party occupying the pitch. Not in the mood to wait, but not willing to give up our silver position in the que, I noticed an unloved bolted line immediately west. Sure, it was silly runout between the first and second draws, but how many times had I experienced that and still pulled through?
The blank section guarding the second clip was preceded by a huge knob and an obvious mantle. The only trick would be finding some razor blade to provide balance during the transition. I arrived at the mantel and perched up, the rope dangling freely to the first draw, which now hung uselessly below. Pressing off the left hand, I reached with the right in search of anything, but found only a wildcard. The tiny edge, only a remnant of a hollow flake, had probably broken and crumbled in climber erosion many times. After testing the wafer, I settled on the minuscule right edge, sacrificing stability for durability and let the left hand go in search of more inspiration to send me on the way. Despite the tenuous spot, the thought of backtracking hadn’t really occurred to me. After all, being daring had gotten me up many memorable lines and this was certainly hair raising, but not too far out of the ordinary.
Until my foot skidded off.
If it really is a battle of odds, maybe it was odd that I hadn’t yet taken a fall that kept me down. Maybe this was payment for pushing my boundaries one time too many. Regardless of the cosmic reason behind the ground winning this battle, win it did. My left foot came down with a thud. I knew immediately I’d be out for months, but my biggest disappointment in the moment was the weekend ahead playing on Valley granite slipping away.
Grace carried the gear as I performed a one-legged crabwalk down the trail, finally caught by luck.
Ice, hospital, x-rays, splint, crutches, burritos.
That was six months ago and my ankle is still swollen. My range of motion is still not back to normal. It was a sudden change, and one completely unanticipated. In a moment all my excitement about the fall Valley season dissolved. Astroman, Thriller, Midnight Lightning and so many more classic testpieces that had been close enough to reach evaporated into dreams.
I do have to admit that crutches were fun. The doctor was a touch surprised when I asked for a new pair after a week. Mileage.
After a month, I started to work my way back in the gym but there was no denying progress would be slow. Fortunately, I found two sources of motivation. First, I had left Alcatraz, the classic Jailhouse 5.13b, one move from the send last year. I was not about to let this year pass without clipping the chains. The second was the desire to run the Lincoln half marathon this year with my Dad who just turned 70 and is gunning for the 2-hour mark. So I kept plugging away through the high gravity days.
The first trip back to Jailhouse went as expected. I struggled, feeling like a bloated manatee with a bum flipper. But then something magical happened, a montage compressed two months of hard work into a minute and change.
Part of the montage included a November stop in Boulder where a couple days back in Eldo reconnected me with gear and that sandstone love.
After the epic montage, I arrived back at the base of Alcatraz, still flummoxed by that last powerful move that had kept me from the anchor. Sick of getting tossed off the top, I decided to skip the last draw and risk the 60 footer. And just like that, send. It was my only highlight from the shortened Jailhouse season, but to me it marked passing the point that had proved definitive before blowing up my foot.
Since then, I’ve shifted my focus back to the amazing gear lines California has to offer. Last weekend it felt incredible to send the 5.12a variation of Space Walk at Eagle Lake, one of the most stunning lines in one of the most stunning settings I’ve climbed. The weekend before, I returned to Lunatic Fringe at Reed’s Pinnacle with one of those long-time Nebraska climber friends, Joe Irwin. With some rappelling shenanigans I was able to throw a toprope down on the neighboring bolted line that spit me to the ground in October. It felt surreal arriving back at the mantle move, but my top rope hero status allowed me to yard on the friable granite and I stood right up. Being able to take the repeated punishment of bouldering falls is the last step to all systems go. Some of those dreams are beginning to condense back out to reality.
In ten days I’ll run the half marathon with my old man. Training has gotten me back into great shape and I can’t wait to hit that finish line and grab a beer before heading back to Boulder to celebrate with friends and family and climbing! It’s ten years in and I’m still just as excited as that first day at the university wall. Who wants to go climbing?