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Rock Climbing: The Question

“Man, that rock climbing route looks so good”. I find myself staring at pictures of a classic rock climbing route on mountainproject, hands starting to sweat, heart beat starting to raise, with a nervous twinge creeping up my spine and a few butterflies trying to find a place to rest in my upper back. I take a deep breath, pound a bottle of water and start to read comments, beta, and gear information on the route.

What am I doing? I am assessing the rock climbing route and trying to decide if my rock climbing skills measure up to the task. I am trying to decide the answer to The Question.

Many times during our rock climbing careers, we find ourselves pursuing or contemplating a particular rock climbing route or grade. These moments are the first step in an all too familiar process. Some people compare rock climbing to an addiction. Certainly the rock climbing process demonstrates a significant number of similarities to addiction – anxious feelings, a growing sensation of desperation, a victim mentality, adrenaline rushes, or as one of my friends describes it, “a feeling of being firmly gripped by the balls”. In these initial questioning moments, we struggle. We are simply not sure if we are really  ready for such a rock climbing feat. We begin asking ourselves if we are ready to throw ourselves at this idea of impending success or failure. How then do we determine our worthiness of such goals in rock climbing? Should we contemplate making an attempt on the route? Are we ready? It really comes down to one simple question (credit to Polly Dacus for figuring this out): “what makes me think I can do it?”.

Some people are very systematic in their climbing pursuits. The idea is to rock climb every route graded 5.5 in an area before moving to 5.6, then rock climb every 5.6 before proceeding to 5.7, and so on and so forth. While this is a worthy idea that does seem to work, it often does not prove to be practical from a perspective of human lifespan and time availability. Not everyone can go climbing every day of their life, and as such, we tend to focus on and pursue climbs that are of interest to us or speak to us.

Rock climbing cragging could be defined as anything you can walk up to, flail on for a few hours, possibly send, and go home no worse than physically and mentally beat up at the end of the day (although gear loss could happen if you are forced to bail mid-route). Basically cragging is anything single pitch with very low consequence in the event of failure. Granted, cragging is still quite dangerous. Ground fall potential is always in the forefront of my mind while cragging.

Multi-pitch rock climbing represents the next level of seriousness in the rock climbing hierarchy. The ante has been upped. Now if you fail or flail, you could end up walking out from a rock climb in the dark. You could end up spending the night up on a ledge cuddling with your buddy. Or you could end up leaving a worrisome amount of gear when you are forced to bail due to being shut down by the route (yes, endurance is a big issue). It is definitely more serious.

The highest level of seriousness in rock climbing is alpine rock climbing. This environment has all the dangers of a multi-pitch climb with the added complication of weather, less oxygen, and remote location. It is also my favorite rock climbing environment. The entire process is like a meditation. A month of planning in advance and partner communications, packing all of my high tech gear up before the trip, the back packing trip back country, fighting off marmots amd mosquitoes, carrying around a huge heavy bear canister (for good reason), pristine alpine lakes, beautiful clean air and an atmosphere of solitude – all of it leads to one thing: being far away from society and the ordinary. While the atmosphere and position is simply intoxicating, the gravity of the situation is quite sobering. Less oxygen. How does my brain react? Will I get altitude sickness? Can I physically and mentally perform in the thin air? Can I finish the route before 2:00 in the afternoon? Weather often appears out of nowhere, and can become desperate within a matter of 20 minutes, typically in the afternoon.

Since I am motivated by alpine ascents and multi-pitch climbing, and since this type of climbing represents the highest level of risk and complications in the event of failure, for me to contemplate a climb in an alpine environment, I need to be successful on similar routes before jumping into a more complicated version of the same type of climb. First, I need to gather some experience on routes that are of the same grade in a cragging environment. I should start to onsight climbs of that grade. That is my goal while cragging. After I begin onsighting routes at the grade while cragging, I test my metal on multi-pitch routes of the same grade. Only after I have begun to do well on a multi-pitch climb at the grade will I begin considering an alpine climb. The Question: why do I think I can? has been addressed. The answer: experience. I have climbed (hopefully onsight) the grade while cragging. I have built up the required endurance to climb the grade successfully in a multi-pitch environment. I have tested my ability to function at altitude (my first trip to 14,000 feet elevation was on a hike). Why do I think I can do this? Because I have approached the climb from a distance, I have been successful in increasingly difficult environments, and now I am ready to pursue my goals in the most extreme of environments.

If alpine is not your end game, this process can still work. If your goal is to climb coarse and buggy (5.11a/b in Joshua Tree National Park), you may start by leading a variety of Joshua Tree 5.10’s. Once you begin lead climbing onsight the 5.10 grade, leading 5.11 is not unreasonable. While you may not onsight the grade, you will be gathering experience at the grade that will eventually lead to onsight climbs at the grade. The process may take a while and may seem tedious, but it is quite necessary from a risk management point of view. The first time I climbed 5.11 trad, I followed a few strong climbers on 5.11 routes for a week. I learned from them. I observed their gear placements and tactics, I watched how they moved, and I asked questions about technique. I approached the grade incrementally and deliberately.

Risk management and successful climbing pursuits are not a matter of luck. Being proud of being lucky is insanity. If we ask ourselves The Question and don’t have The Answer, we are putting ourselves in a situation where we are depending on luck for success. If we ask ourselves The Question, ignore the fact that we don’t have the answer and still pursue our goal, there is another question we should ask while on route: “Are you feeling lucky, punk? Well… Are ya?”

Since rock climbing is a quite unforgiving sport, rock climbing careers based on luck are often quite short lived. Literally.


March 19, 2014. Posted by: nelsonday