The Season Begins


Fall is here.  It arrives a bit later in San Diego than other places, and the tell-tale signs aren’t quite as obvious.  No spectacular fall color or early morning frosts, but I’m able to leave the windows open, and I no longer need a fan while I sleep.  The first northwest swells are starting to filter in along the coast, whetting the appetite for the fun, consistent surf that San Diego is known for.  In past years, I would head off to Colorado or Washington for a week of photography around this time.  Those places are beautiful, and serve as a subtle reminder that we live in a desert.


The Dallas Divide, CO in October

Fall is climbing season, and in this case, the start of my first serious season of climbing.  Even though I’ve been at it for years, I never really trained or cared (too much) about advancing through the grades.  At best, I was a social climber who had fun in the gym and would occasionally get outside.  The typical weekend warrior.  Nothing wrong with that, but I am a competitive person and I also enjoy training for and achieving goals.  I shouldn’t say that I never cared about advancing through the grades – I did – but after many years of casual climbing, I had reached a plateau that I knew would require dedicated training to overcome.  In other words, I would have to work at it to get better, and climbing was all about having fun.

Would I still have fun and enjoy climbing, if I was spending most of my time training?  So far, the answer has been yes!

Some people get a little too hung up on the grades.  I’ve definitely been guilty of this.  Let’s be honest, though.  It doesn’t really matter how hard you climb, unless you’re a professional in search of a sponsorship deal.  The temporary sense of satisfaction or pride I feel after completing a “hard” climb can be a misguided sense of achievement.  Drawing motivation or satisfaction from grades alone is drawing from a shallow well, to paraphrase the book The Rock Warrior’s Way.

I’ve been reading this book over the last few months, and it has helped me identify my goals, and more importantly, the reasons why I climb.  I do have an intense internal motivation to become stronger, and I’m making an effort to remind myself that advancing through the grades is nothing more than a personal journey.  The foremost practical reason to become strong is so that I can climb harder trad lines, which really do inspire me.  I may be a wuss, but I’m not comfortable jumping on 5.10+ trad routes, knowing that they are so close to my limit.  If I can train and become comfortable on 5.12 sport, I just might have the wherewithal to try something like the 3rd Pillar of Dana.

Back in March-2014, I noticed that Joey was making some real progress in the gym.  He was spending a lot of time bouldering and doing some casual training on the hangboard.  As I came to the realization that he was climbing harder stuff than I was capable of, it both inspired me and worried me; I would have to work harder or fall behind.  The Rock Warrior would call this a false or shallow motivation, but it was motivation, nonetheless.  Hey, I’m still working at becoming a Rock Warrior.  I never claimed to be one (yet).

We started working some 4×4’s together, a training method where you climb four boulder problems back-to-back with no rests in between.  I saw immediate results.  I had never done anything like this, and the V1’s and V2’s we trained on suddenly felt easy, especially when I was fresh.  At this time, I was bouldering V2’s and V3’s in the gym, and I had never come close to completing a V4.  That’s after 10 years of casual, on and off climbing.  I had most certainly plateaued and it was clear that I hadn’t won the genetic lottery, because I’ve read about people hitting V8’s and 5.12 within the first year.  This used to make me upset or jealous, but I’m learning to thrive off the challenge as a source of motivation.  If I work hard and get better, I will have truly earned it.

And for those of you who scoff at my reference to gym grades, I’m well aware that the gym and real rock are worlds apart.  I’ve bouldered at a variety of locales, including Joshua Tree, Yosemite, Red Rocks, and Mt. Woodson, and those trips always serve as a humbling reminder that real bouldering is a lot more difficult than playing around on fluorescent pink holds in the gym.  Tracking grades in the gym allows me to gauge my progress, though.

So, my training unofficially began about 8 months ago, and almost immediately, I tweaked a tendon in my hand.  I never got it diagnosed, but online research convinces me that I strained one of the flexor tendons in my right hand.  “Buddy taping” my ring and pinky fingers together helped limit the pain and allowed me to continue to push myself, even though I wasn’t able to use certain grips.  Pockets or overhanging, dynamic moves involving my right hand were mostly off limits.

In April, we spent a weekend at Holcomb Valley and I attempted to lead Arrogant Bastard (5.11a).  I wasn’t able to get it clean, but I came very close.  I also re-injured my finger, tweaking the A3 pulley on the middle finger of my right hand.  The crux on this route requires a very strenuous lock-off on a crimpy right side-pull, and I suspect that I strained the pulley since my other two fingers were buddy-taped, placing extra strain on my middle finger.  Ugh, pulleys are slow to heal and this would really put a damper on my training plans.  I gave up any hope of hangboard training, which was working well for Joey.

By June, the flexor tendon was almost 100%, and I stopped buddy taping with good results.  I had onsighted a couple of 11a’s on top-rope (in the gym) and I had sent a few V4’s. My pulley was still very sore and the knuckle swollen, but it wasn’t getting any worse and I was definitely making progress, just by climbing consistently and pushing myself with Joey.  I knew that if I wanted to get serious, I would have to lose some weight.  At 5’10 and 185 lbs., I was carrying a lot of unneeded fat.  I began to diet, using the same intermittent fasting (IF) techniques that I have employed in the past with good results.  Jasmine will confirm that my mood worsened, for lack of food.  Starving yourself sucks, no way around it.

Joey and I started ARC training sometime in July, and that’s when we really noticed some tangible gains.  Using the recommendations set forth in the book The Rock Climber’s Training Manual, we began treating gym days as training sessions.  Instead of skipping around from one aimless project to the next, we devoted time to a proper warm-up and one or two ARC sessions.  Of course, we’ve both been guilty of getting side-tracked on something fun and hard, but overall we’ve been pretty good about utilizing our gym sessions in a more efficient manner than before.

Six months in, and my finger was feeling much better (no doubt the weight loss helped).  I shed almost 15 pounds.  I sent my first V5, followed by my first clean .12a (top-rope).  I was ARC training at least twice a week, and up to 60-70 minutes per session (split between two sets).  By the end of September, I had several .11a onsights on lead (in the gym) and 11’s, in general, were feeling very doable.

So, that’s a brief rundown of the last half-year of training and goal-oriented climbing.  Joey and I wanted to test ourselves and our progress at Holcomb (sport) and Joshua Tree (trad).  At a relatively svelte 169 lbs. and coming off hours and hours of repetitive ARC training, I was anxious to find out if all the hard work had paid off.


The coin flip.  Heads for Holcomb.

It’s Friday afternoon.  Would the climbing gods send us to Holcomb Valley to test our bolt-clipping prowess, or to the warm environs of Joshua Tree, and up flared, scary cracks?  Joey flipped the coin, and it landed heads.  I was pleased.


Loading up

I felt completely dialed in and ready for either location, but I wanted Holcomb for a number of reasons.  First, I had spent the last few weeks in the gym practicing hard bolted climbs, right at my limit on lead.  My finger was feeling great, and I wanted to get the redpoint on Arrogant Bastard.  Feeling confident and prepared to test myself, I also had my eyes on a mixed route called Brewed Awakening (5.11b).  It seemed perfectly suited to my strengths and the types of climbing that I enjoy.  A thin, crimpy crux down low on bolts that opens up to a thin-hands crack up high on gear.  I almost dared not think it, let alone say it, but I wanted to throw myself into the route 100% and go for the onsight.  So, that is exactly what I did.


Racking up for Brewed Awakening (5.11b)

It was a brisk morning and we warmed up on Bye Crackie at Coyote Crag, a route that we’ve both lead before.  Next, we hiked up to Claim Jumper wall and Joey ticked the onsight on Coyotes in the Henhouse (5.10d), a route that he has been eying for over a year  He got it easily, and I followed for my second warmup.  Brewed Awakening, just off to the left, began calling my name.  The crack was a lot thinner that I expected and the start looked strenuous, but doable.  Screw it, this is going down!  I began to rack up, taking a set of nuts and doubles through a red Camalot.  I hate the thought of running out of pro, so I always take too much.  While I sorted through my gear, I engaged in an internal dialogue about acceptance and commitment.  I drew from the tips and suggestions I have been reading in The Rock Warrior’s Way.  I knew that the route would challenge my limits both physically and mentally, and remarkably, I felt ready for it.

Allow me to briefly describe my definitions and use of the terms onsight, redpoint, etc.  First and foremost, who really cares?  I use these terms more for myself than anything else.  I’ll admit that I get sucked into the competitive game of climbing terminology, and that it is mostly pretty silly.  However, when you’ve been working your ass off for over 6 months, starving yourself, soaking your aching fingers in ice water, and climbing up and down the same boring wall for hours on end in an effort to gain forearm endurance, I believe a distinction can and should be made!

For the purposes of this blog and my own brand of climbing, I define an onsight as any route that I am able to complete on my very first attempt, with no falls, takes, or helps from a rope.  This may come in the form of an onsight (lead) or an onsight (top-rope), with the lead being the harder, preferable style.  Any amount of “beta” (information) whether it be from the web, a friend, or even watching someone work the route beforehand, does not prevent me from calling such a climb an onsight.  So there!

A redpoint is any clean climb (no falls or hangs) that required more than one attempt.  Second attempt or the hundredth, it’s a redpoint.  And this brings us to the ethical dilemma I was faced with on Saturday.

I started up Brewed Awakening with the enthusiasm and resolve of a young Ron Kauk on the first ascent of Midnight Lightning, but I quickly realized that one of two facts had to be reconciled, and quickly, at that.  I either lacked the strength for .11b crimps, or I had started the route using the wrong holds.  I dropped off the face, a dramatic 4 feet off the ground, and shot a pained look towards the sky.  I re-examined the starting sequence from the ground and decided to try it again, using a completely different set of starting holds, a few feet to the right.

Success!  Very thin crimps, but this felt in line with the grade.  I made it past the first clip and on to the 2nd and then the 3rd, where the climbing began to ease off as I approached the finger crack above.  I knew I was past the crux and that I had a legit chance of sending this thing.  The intimidating challenge of those hard face moves behind me, I had to shift my concentration towards the crack and placing pro.  The battle that was taking place was about to shift from the physical realm to my ability to execute moves while remaining composed in the spite of fear.  I was loving it, because that is what climbing is all about!

Ten minutes later, I was at the top of the climb with a big grin on my face.  I had just finished my hardest lead ever, bolts or gear.  I’m calling it an onsight, and we’ll just pretend the botched start was a very short warmup on a different route.  Wink.


Incinerator (5.12a)

We moved on to Incinerator, a short, overhanging.12a that seems like it could be in the realm of possibility.  After working the bottom for a bit, Joey decided that it would be a challenge to tackle on a future day.  I wanted no part of it, and we moved on to Stone Wall, where my old nemesis awaited.


Joey working the base of the Incinerator

I was still feeling confident, maybe even giddy.  Even though I’ve tried redpointing this climb a few times (always falling at the crux) I knew I was bringing a stronger game to the table.  The crux on this route is extremely beta-intensive, and I reviewed a short audio recording I made for myself on our last visit, where I summarized the footwork needed to negotiate the technical parts of the climb.  If you botch just one move at the crux, you’re off and in the air.  I started up the climb and as I got higher on the route, I was just brimming with confidence.  It felt so much easier that before, my finger wasn’t an issue, and I knew that I should be able to finish it.  I shook out just below the crux, mugging for the camera like an arrogant bastard, and then headed into the crux moves.  Before I knew it, I was falling at the exact same spot as each time before, due to a footwork error.  I didn’t even care, though.  I was having a blast and just enjoying the day, and I lowered off for a quick rest.  Ten minutes later, I climbed back up to the crux and fired through it with a set of perfectly executed moves.  Ah, it felt so good as I grabbed the hidden jug that marks the end of the crux sequence, knowing that I had this one in the bag.


An arrogant bastard working up the start of Arrogant Bastard


The crux

As I lowered off, I felt such a sense of relief.  I had ticked off two of the hardest climbs of my life and no matter what else happened, the day would be a success.  It was a validation of all my hard work, and it gave me a glimpse of what could come, if I continue to train hard.

joey shoulder

Joey in bad shape on Arrogant Bastard

Joey redpointed this climb a few months ago, but it’s always a good challenge and he wanted it again.  Like me, he’s been ARC training in the gym and doing some hangboard workouts at home, and he’s been just as focused on elevating his game as I have been.  He cruised up the start of the route, but got stymied at the crux and took a fall.  After a short rest, he started up again, and that’s when things got a little weird.

Joey was 40 feet high and in the midst of the crux moves, when he started shouting, “Oh my God!  Oh!  Uhhhh! Ohhh!”  I couldn’t see what was going on, other than the fact that he was stemmed out really far with both arms and legs.  His reaction was something like I’ve never heard, so I knew something bad was happening.  I yelled up, “What!  Is it a snake??”  That’s the only thing I could think of, that would explain his yelling.

Turns out, Joey’s left shoulder dislocated and popped out of its socket in the middle of the crux!  He made a strenuous move to the hidden jug, which forced all his weight onto his outstretched arm while it was in an awkward position.  His arm went completely numb and he said that he could see a big bump on the top of his shoulder, where the bone or muscles were poking out.  Yack, that doesn’t sound good at all.

Now remember, he’s right in the middle of a very tough climb.  The good news is that he reached the jug, which is a pretty solid hold.  The bad news is that he was several feet above the last bolt, and he would either have to clip the next draw with his wonky arm, or take a solid whipper.  I told him that I had him, which basically meant, “Go ahead and jump off!”, but his shoulder popped back into the socket on its own, once he lowered his arm.  He clipped the next bolt and then hung for a bit, assessing the situation.  No real pain or discomfort, and the rest of the route would be much easier.  I told Joey that I would lower him and re-climb the route to get our gear, but he wouldn’t have it.  After resting for a minute or two, he pushed forward and finished it himself.  No kidding.  I don’t know if that was the smartest decision, but I will tell you that it speaks to his character and toughness.  That’s the kind of person you want to share a rope with.


Rattler at the base of Lost Orbit Rock

After our misadventures on Arrogant Bastard, we decided to take a much-needed break and relax in some shade.  We hiked back to the Lost Orbit area and ate some of the pizza I had made, while Joey tried to figure out if his arm was really injured.  No pain or swelling, just some subtle tightness in the joint.  He was worried about it, but I could tell that he was frustrated at the thought of shutting everything down.  We’ve been training for this trip for months, after all.  Climb or go home?


What should I do?

Climb, obviously.  I went first, roping up for a lead on the thin and delicate Lunar Eclipse (5.11a).  This is another fantastic route at Holcomb that starts out with lots of steep crimps and edges on patina, ending with an exciting set of balancey slab moves to reach the anchors. We had both tried this one before (and failed), and it was the final climb that I wanted to knock out.  I made it up to the last bolt, but took a fall on the slab.  Joey went next, and careful footwork and total trust in the rubber on his feet got him to the top of the climb.  Another .11a lead under his belt helped push some of his shoulder anxiety aside.

I gave it another try, and on my second attempt I reached the anchors successfully.  I nearly came off twice, and all I could do was trust my feet and slap at the gritty slab in front of my face.  What a great route.


The right way and the wrong way, when dealing with human waste

One thing we’ve noticed is that as Holcomb becomes more popular, there has been a disturbing increase of trash and filth.  I would never have called it pristine wilderness, but the area used to feel like such a clean and pretty escape from the metropolis that is Southern California, only a couple of hours away.  On this day, we passed a giant turd festooned with toilet paper and a package of baby wipes, with a big rock on top in the middle of the climber’s path.  I couldn’t believe my eyes.  It was as if someone purposefully left the biggest, most shameful dump possible in the highest-use area.  I’ve come to expect some signs of human activity anywhere I go, and I realize that not everyone practices the same level of LNT ethics, but c’mon.  That has to have been the most disgusting thing I’ve seen in the woods, ever.


Chimichurri steak, gallo pinto, grilled cebollitas, and Stone beer.

We each took a couple of victory swigs from Joey’s flask and proceeded back to camp, where some good food and beer were waiting for us.  I felt really bummed about Joey’s injury, but we both remained hopeful that it was a freak occurrence and wouldn’t turn into anything serious.  Only time will tell, on that front.

As the camp cook, I had prepared a variety of good eats in order to celebrate a fine day of climbing.  Joey brought three growlers filled with Stone’s finest beers, an appropriate choice.  We ate too many tacos to count and discussed past accomplishments and future attempts.  It was a fine night, ending with some camera fun and a restful evening under the stars.


Looking north


Campsite view





Leave a Comment


You must be logged in to post a comment.