Climbing in 2019: A (late) Personal Review
Warning: Lots of self indulgent, climbing specific, spray ahead. But it's (still) mid Covid, so being stoked about anything is a good thing, right? Bueller?
I won't judge you for skipping this one; I'm just basking in my own greatness for 2000 words. With a little bit of self reflection mixed in. But just a little.
Don't say you weren't warned.
- 218 Sport climbing pitches total (including onsights, flashes, redpoints)
- 14 Boulder problems
- 1 Mixed line
- 98 days outside (including short, hour long sessions)
- 58 Climbs 5.12a and harder
2019 was a good year. I climbed a lot, and I like climbing. Most importantly, at the beginning of 2020, I still liked climbing.
98 days of outdoor climbing feels like an insane amount. This number includes just an hour of traversing at Morrison, getting benighted because a rattlesnake blocked the quick way back to the car after a post-work climbing session on North Table Mountain, bouldering until our floodlights died on a frigid winter evening at the Black Hole (several times!), feeling a swollen Clear Creek's spray on a sagging tyrolean on the way to Primo Wall, thigh-deep wading through that same snowmelt to climb at New Economy Cliff, biking and hiking two+ miles at 9,000' to punt off the same climb sixteen times in Staunton State Park, limestone pocket pulling and water sliding for five days in the Lander summer heat, and reuniting with distant friends in the first world refugee camp that is Miguel's at the Red River Gorge. This is fun, and it's not getting old.
I climbed with lots of people. A good chunk of that climbing was sport climbing. And that requires a partner in crime.
I don't know if I expressed this to Lisa/my climbing partners/others often or frequently enough: but I am so thankful for every one of those days outside. A bad afternoon climbing outside is still better than a good day stuck indoors. I'm super thankful I was able to climb with so many stoked (and sometimes not stoked) partners too (in the order of who I think I climbed with the most): Lisa, Eddie, Jason, Leon, Will and Mackenzie, Chris, Duane, Dustin, Isaac, David, Dave-O, Greg, Doug, Albert, Zach.... and everybody else who I met but didn't include on this list.
I also progressed an insane amount. In 2019, I somewhat accidentally climbed my first 5.12c*, first 5.12d, and my first 5.13a. As--I didn't train. I didn't follow 12-week Rock Climber's Training Manual (RCTM), like I did for three+ cycles back in DC. (Side note: I think the RCTM is an awesome program: I made the most progress I had ever made climbing (until 2019) following that plan. But I did all that training solo, and training by yourself for that long is hard. Full stop.). I did it by trying to get out climbing as much as possible. By finding (generally) stoked partners, and getting after it. I say "accidentally" because I did not set out to climb 5.13a or 5.12d at the beginning of the year; I set out to climb a lot. I did, I got lucky, and I crushed.
It's left me feeling like somewhat of a fraud. I feel like I should have written goals, I should have had a process, I should have followed that process, I should have had failures, I should have had successes, and that should have all been a part of my plan. I feel guilty that I didn't put in the training mileage that I feel like I should have. Climbing Psycho Wrangler (probably the 5.12a I'm most proud of) in 2016 epitomized that process. Back when I couldn't send 5.11s in the gym, I tried it only because Joe's was stoked, and, to quote Joe, "it's got permadraws, why not?" Scared out of my mind (six feet above my last bolt) and pumped out of my mind trying to reach the second to last clip, I took the
massive whipper, and bailed two bolts from the top. I had bolt-bolted the route, but safety (the next bolt) was ten feet of committing moves too far away. Months--really, years--later, if I wanted to get my heart racing, I'd think about that moment on that climb. Like a siren, it beckoned me back, and two years later, I was in that same position. This time I made it to the third bolt... and then rested/hung at every remaining draw. But this time I made it all the way to the top. This was doable. Inspired by David's goal setting philosophy, I set Dave-O's photo of the climb as my work computer's desktop wallpaper. I followed the beginner's RCTM plan to the best of my abilities for three three+ month cycles (although I only made it though a couple of linked bouldering circuits each time). I said no to outdoor climbing so I didn't skip a session, I avoided friends at the gym to punish myself with hang board repeaters, and I ARCed when the gym opened at 6:00 AM because that was the only time the gym was empty enough to traverse the leads walls. In September 2016, I sent. First go. It wasn't easy, but it wasn't impossible... and I felt strong. I felt confident. I felt like I deserved that climb.
On Happy Endings, my first 5.13a, I did none of that. I picked it because it was the only 13a without a line on it every weekend at the Dungeon. I worked it for a couple weekends, burnt out, didn't go back for a month (just climbed hard in the gym, went hiking, and went biking), went back twice in one weekend (a Friday and a Sunday), and sent on my third go that Sunday. I did none of the homework, but aced the exam.... on my seventeenth try.
In the end, I don't think it matters. Sport climbing is a game. I wanted to play, and I wanted to improve. I did both. And it sure was fun.
Some parting thoughts/highlights of the season:
- Around May, I challenged myself to only drink alcohol when I earned it (for the record: I was not drinking that much before this). I would earn a beer, glass of wine, or cocktail for every successful 5.12a (or harder) sport climb or a V6 (or harder) boulder. Later I added an addendum: all debts would be forgiven, and the challenge would end, upon sending a 5.13a. I fell into quite a hole at one point: I think I owed my self eight sends shortly after my birthday in July. When I sent my first 5.13 at the end of September, I was only in debt three beers. This definitely made end of day send beers that much more rewarding. That being said, I'm not sure if I would do it again.
- Sometime around October I realized I had climbed 30ish 5.12s... and that I could potentially climb 50 5.12s in a year. So, my new goal was to do so. And I did! I think I ticked my 50th 5.12 sometime in November.
- One more challenge, this time, a failure. I got pretty cocky right before my October trip to the Red, and, on the light rail to the airport, I set a personal goal of doing all the 5.12bs at the Solarium (one of the prettiest walls at the Red). There are five. I wasn't remotely close--although I did get in five-ish good efforts. I climbed two. And if Super Best Friends is really only 5.12a, just one.
- I previously mostly sport climbed at the New River Gorge, which has a reputation for stout grades. Clear Creek Canyon has a reputation for soft grades. Is there some grade inflation going on here? Maybe. As I climb in more areas, I've started to realize that generally a 5.12a is a 5.12a is a 5.12a. You're going to find easy 5.12as and hard 5.12as at every climbing area; you'll find climbs that suite you and climbs that don't. In January, I went to Shelf Road (reputation: soft), expecting to cruise all the 5.11s and casually graduate to the 5.12s. Instead, I really had to fight on 5.11s, and never graduated to the 5.12s.
- There was a dark stretch in February/March where I couldn't run or climb. I went for too long a run in January and came back with an overuse knee injury. It hurt to walk up stairs for few days, and I noticed every time I went out running. Shortly after, I felt a sharp pain below my wrist on a sloper warm up in the gym. After taking a few weeks off (and not seeing progress), I started gym climbing and outdoor climbing again, noting what hurt and what didn't. Climbing outside generally didn't hurt, warming up in the gym did. Hanging/relaxing on slopers was painful, but actively engaging them was not. I slowly ramped up my climbing volume, focusing more on climbing outside, doing my best to re-aggravating anything, and I noticed a slow improvement. Today, I'm still a little hesitant on right handed gym slopers, but I think I'm essentially back at 100%. Those were dark times.
- During the year I constantly wondered if I was actually improving, or whether I was finally climbing to my "potential" now that I had access to climbing. Most easy 5.12s (5.12a & 5.12b), I sent within two tries; most 5.12cs took one or two sessions; and actually all of the 5.12ds I sent took two sessions or less. Gradewise, the numbers went up. But did I actually improve? My max bouldering grade at the beginning of the year was V7 and my max bouldering grade at the end of the year was V7 (note: I didn't send any V7s in 2019). If hand-wavy conversions to sport climbing grades match up, this means I should have already been able to climb about 5.13a... so maybe I didn't "improve" that much.
- I had a seismic shift in tactics. I bought a stick clip, and used it to hang as many draws as possible from the ground (note: I only clipped the rope through the first one). If I can hang the draws on a climb while lowering off the climb next to it, I will. If I'm projecting something and want to conserve energy, I'll stick clip my way up, or rappel from the top, hanging draws. After I fail on an onsight, I switch to figuring out sequences for the second go, instead of doing whatever possible to make it to the top. And if I get stuck, I might rehearse a sequence on top rope off the bolt above it, instead of just going for it again from the bottom. Sport climbing is a game. It's a hella fun, and I'm all for tilting in my favor.
- I had fun. It's cliche thing to say, but whenever I was working on breaking into a new grade, I climbed my best (and sent), when I switched to just enjoying it. On both my first 12c and 13a, I got super frustrated. Sometime around the fourth or fifth session, I realized I wasn't having fun, going to the same crag every weekend and falling at the same spot. In both cases, I stopped trying the climb every weekend. When I came back, I wasn't concerned about the outcome and tried to enjoy moving without thinking. And it worked.
- I do wonder whether this time and effort was worth it. On several levels: is it better to train efficiently at the expense of enjoyment, leaving more time to focus on other life tasks? Is progression really worth it? Is climbing really worth it? Diving deeper into the purpose/meaning of it all and some of the trade-offs I've made (unintentionally and intentionally), I get dangerously close to triggering an existential midlife crisis. I'm going to be glib and avoiding this discussion here... for now.
- Because I spent too much time working on this not to share it, here's my sport climbing history (since I consistently started logging climbs on Mountain Project):