Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Warrior's Quest

True mountain warrior

We weren’t technically running, but I was moving as fast as my legs would carry me up the switchbacks. Leaving the main trail and starting up the steep climbers trail, sweat soaks my shirt and drips from my brow.

“How you guys doing? Not moving too slow for you, am I?” I call back to Zachary and Joe. They are sucking wind, but matching my quick low strides. Zachary chatting about big days fighting wild fires; Joe right on his heels bouncing up the scree slope in flip flops.

Zachary planted the idea of spending the night on top of a mountain, where we could bath in the monochrome fireworks of the Perseid meteor shower. Eyes shining behind rectangular wire-frame glasses, he enlisted me as the rope gun. To keep it sporting, I had upped the ante with a bigger, harder route. In his happy-go-lucky way, Joe joined the team a half hour before the end of the workday.

As the three of us not-quite-run toward the South Early Winters Spire, my mind wanders through the what-ifs and strategies to pull this mission off. I mention the need to get above the crux of the climb before the sun completely disappears. They only have a vague idea of what they signed up for.

We reach the base of the Southwest Rib at 7pm. I chew on a bar, and assemble my climbing equipment. Shouldering my overnight pack and looking up at the first pitch, the thrill of adventure adds a renewed spring to my step. I tie into the rope and take off.

“Put me on belay eventually.”

They are still sorting gear, eating, and swatting mosquitoes. It may appear reckless, but alpinism is not folly. My movement is sure and intentional; climbing fast pulls you close to the margins, where confidence is safety. It’s 40 feet before I can stop and get some decent protection. Before that, the boys can hydrate and repack their bags. No need for a belay. Warm golden light paints the 900 ft granite stump above as the sun settles between distant mountaintops.

We shared the route with a few other climbers
My thoughts have been occupied with the concept of being a warrior. I have been reflecting on how to be more intentional. Being a warrior against the challenges of love, work, friends and family is more complicated than climbing, but there are some common truths. We celebrate instant gratification in our culture, and are led to believe that there is an easier path. Divorce, desk jobs, and social media allow us to lower our guard. When I look closely at why my life gets complicated, I find places I am leaking energy and recoiling from the hard parts. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be worthwhile. Instability, change, and suffering are unavoidable. Rather than looking forward to peace and quiet, I must lean against the jagged edge and fight with the expectation that it will only get harder.

On the side of the South Early Winters Spire, in the fading alpenglow, Zachary is holding onto a different kind of jagged edge, 300 feet above the ground. “I think this is above my pay grade, Calvin!” He grunts and puffs like a bear, as he wrestles the “zig zag crack” and his backpack. He is having type 2 fun, he just doesn’t realize it, yet.

This is our first time roping up together, and I enjoy his careful and stubborn nature. He’s built for these mountains, and continues upwards even as he mutters about the “plus rating”.

30 feet below, Joe climbs with effortless grace. He has the long legged spider style that I will never have. My style is closer to that of an orangutan, swinging and dancing up the cracks and ledges. As I start up the “Bear Hug Pitch” the sun has dipped below the horizon.

Nobody does this.

Halfway up the pitch I have a moment. I am overcome with gratitude and love. It is a superlative moment. The best way I could possibly spend my night. I reach a ledge and build an anchor as the light finally gives out. The moment is perfect because I had to be uncomfortable to get here. I have trained myself to associate the suffering on climbs with fun. Embracing the warrior’s quest means welcoming each test, and pushing myself further than I thought possible. In climbing the struggle is something I have learned to welcome. The climbs that push me are the most satisfying. How can I shift my thinking in the rest of my life?

Anyone watching our headlamps on the side of the mountain would have thought we were having an epic, but the adventure continued on into the night as planned. We reach the summit at 11pm. Traversing across the summit ridge, we are like astronauts walking through space.  After locating a few bivy spots scattered near the summit, we wolf down a dinner of left over French toast and cheese. The darkness belies our precarious position on the spire, and before long we settle into the comfort of our sleeping bags to watch for shooting stars.
My bivy on the ridge atop the South Early Winters Spire

A blazing streak across the night sky, reminds me to make a wish. I consider love, review my dreams, and think about what I want to be better.

I wish I were braver. I wish I were more durable. I wish I were more intentional. I wish for more superlative moments.
I wish for love.

I’m not superstitious, and the exercise reminds me that my wishes can come true, but only if I put in the work to make them come true. It can’t all be easy. When I accept that I will always suffer, and lean into the jagged edge, my wishes might come true; they might not.

Tonight happened because Zachary dreamed of doing something special to see the Perseid Meteor Shower. I refused him at first, thinking I couldn’t pull it off on a “school night”, but back at home, I kept thinking about not limiting myself and making the most of each day.

While I drank coffee the next morning, I pulled out all my climbing and overnight gear, and threw it in the car. Once I made the decision to go for it, there was no stopping me.

Being a climbing warrior, gives me the inspiration to patch leaky energy in other parts of life. I set the intention again and again to confront addictive behavior, comfort, sloth, self-pity, jealousy, greed, and fear. Forgive each failure, and love courageously. I’d like to say, “I’ll figure it all out one day,” but what fun would that be.

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Big One

I notice that my knuckles are raw and chaffed from stuffing my fists into the wide crack leading up into an endless wall of granite. I pause to note how vibrant my blood looks against the rock. I’m hyper aware of this moment, but am quickly snapped back to my precarious position on the side of El Capitan. Glancing at my last piece of protection, a stuck cam 20 feet below me, and I feel completely overwhelmed…

“Jonathan!” I yell into the wind. “I’m scared!”
There is a pregnant pause, before he hollers back, “Me too!”

That was 5 years ago. Jonathan and I decided to retreat after another night halfway up the Nose. With that experience seared in my memory, I have spent countless hours dreaming of a return, trying to identify and improve on my weaknesses, wrestling with the feeling that I was not ready. Fear can be incredibly motivating. Whether in climbing, in work, or in love, facing fear is an experience that all people can relate to.

This year has given me ample opportunity to try hard at facing fears. Returning to climb “The Nose” on El Capitan, is a way to measure my progress. My last blog was a reflection on being at a personal low point. Now, more than a year after breaking my leg, I have changed in many ways, but I still struggle the same challenges. No matter how much I overcome, life will continue to test me. I hope that being vulnerable, and opening up in this blog will remind me to be humble and express gratitude for the chances to try hard, and to celebrate both successes and failures.

With 30 pitches of climbing, The Nose is twice the size of anything I have climbed in a single day. Retreating from The Nose revealed a huge potential to grow. It has been in the back of my mind year after year as I sought out new climbing goals. This winter, I managed to arrange time off from work, and started talking with my friend Andy about a spring climbing trip. A year and a half ago, we had climbed El Cap together on the Salathe Wall over the course of 6 days. This challenge had been a profound test for me then, and we have been talking about climbing The Nose ever since.  Adding to the drama, it would be the first big climbing trip since I broke my ankle last winter. I felt like my physical therapy was complete, but this would be a major test.  The miles I ran in the rain this winter, the pitches of climbing I managed to squeeze in after work, helped me reach a high level of physical fitness, but my mental preparation was hard to gauge. Andy and I expected to have time to build up to the main event with some time in the Utah desert. The day before my flight, however, we decided to go straight to Yosemite in hopes of capitalizing on a clear weather window.

After a long day of travel, we drove into Yosemite Valley passing below the vast white rock face of El Capitan. I felt nauseous with a mix of fear and excitement. It is a familiar feeling; anticipating a challenge that will push me to grow. There will be blood, sweat, and tears. There will be fear, and the chance to redefine my limits. After, a half-day test run of the lower part of the climb, Andy and I took a day of rest and made final preparations for our “Nose In A Day” attempt.

At 5:30am the next morning, I start climbing up the first pitch by headlamp.
A friend’s simple words of encouragement rang in my head, “You’re ready, Calvin”. With no time to spare, Andy and I hardly see each other as we race up the wall, trying to move smoothly and efficiently. In between long blocks of lead climbing, I have brief moments for self care. Wolfing down food and water, it seems impossible to keep up with the calories I am burning. At the halfway point, by body begins to rebel. With my forearms cramping, and fatigue setting in, each move feels more taxing than the last. I have to peel my hand open and shake out the cramp, reach, and pull up, only to have my forearms seize up again. This unfortunate consequence of dehydration is referred to as “wall claw”. As doubt creeps into my psyche, I continue to sweat, curse and bleed my way up the Nose. I remind myself that if I can just keep moving, we will get to the top.

There are so many memories I want to share from that day. Leaping and running across the rock face on the King Swing where the route moves from one crack system to another 60 feet away. Getting smeared with green slime as I navigated my way under the great roof. Singing the “Reading Rainbow” song with another pair of Nose In A Day climbers. Handing the rack over to Andy after dark, and watching his headlamp disappearing above me into the inky darkness. After 15 hours of continuous climbing, we were out of water, were both mentally and physically exhausted, but we were having fun.

The possibility that we may succeed propelled us on into the night. Just after midnight, 18.5 hours after we had started, Andy and I topped out on El Cap. We hugged and howled out into the moonlit valley. Our celebration was brief, as we still had a few hours of descending, before we could relax our focus. Our descent was long but uneventful. When we got to the Valley floor, we grabbed the bikes we had stashed the day before and rode the empty street back to the van. Electrified by our success, and awakened by the cold air, the reality of what we had just done began to settle in.

At surface level, what we had done was fairly simple. We had climbed up a really big piece of rock. I would love to say that in climbing The Nose I had become a better person, or somehow sorted my life out. The reality is, I returned to the ground with my problems, fears, and doubts intact. This climb reminds me that my shortcomings are opportunities to improve. I aim to apply the same tenacity towards being a better friend, an outstanding colleague, and a man of integrity. The value I draw from this climb is to not stop dreaming, and to trust in myself. I’m grateful to Jonathan, Andy, and all the people that supported me in this process. I’m grateful for failure, success, suffering, and elation. I still fear the unknown, but climbing 3,000 feet of granite in under 24 hours feels like good training for the big obstacles in life.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Stronger Than Ever

Before and after my ankle enhancement surgery.
Someone I have never met before, told me he heard about me breaking my leg on Moonlight Buttress through the "blogosphere". This moment of celebrity caught me by surprise and I nearly went along with it. In the Bellingham climbing community I had reached the equivalent of one of the lesser Kardashians. I realized that this blog, which I started as a reflective writing exercise to share my stories with friends and family, had inflated me into an internet persona and had obscured my real life.

I did break my leg. Though, not while performing an epic ascent of a stunning climbing test-piece. Nope, I was in my friend's garage, climbing three feet off the ground, and fell wrong. It is a pretty uninspiring story. The realization of how fragile I am is sobering, to say the least. I have always fantasized about being a martial arts master kicking my way through walls, and shattering bricks with my head. In real life, I didn't stand a chance against 3/4 inch OSB sub-flooring.

The moment is still so sharp in my memory. My foot slipped and I snapped my leg. Social media and some creative thinking allowed people to rewrite this story and perpetuate an internet identity that was much cooler and interesting than me.

I have written a number of blogs since then, but have not published anything. I wanted to continue the momentum, but didn't have a story that had the same heroic or inspiring plotline. I had a broken leg, a broken heart, was unemployed, and was sleeping/living on my friend's living room floor. I was not feeling like a winner. I was, and am just Calvin...

Climbing had risk and fear and unknown, but it was emotionally safe. I knew what I could do, and had a history of success. Life without climbing left me completely vulnerable.

My internet reputation had inflated my ego, and the subsequent fall from grace was bigger than any climbing fall. I was lower than I had ever been. I was reminded by a dear friend, that "the upside to being at your personal worst, is that things can only get better." In the short term, carpentry and guiding were out of the question, and it was torture to think about the climbing I wasn't doing. I needed something that I could pursue with all that built up energy, but did not require walking. In between watching kung fu movies, and trying to shower without breaking my other leg, I worked on job applications and did lots of push ups. For all the things I couldn't do, I learned to appreciate what I could do. A month after "the fall", I experienced a wave of joy more powerful than the celebration of onsighting 5.12. I was offered a desk job at an environmental education facility in one of my favorite places in the world. This was an opportunity to push myself, to learn and grow, and begin something that was more intimidating than any big wall... a career. Two months after the metal plate, screws and wire ligament were installed in my right ankle, I celebrated my 30th birthday, and made my first steps without crutches. My life was changing at breakneck speed as I hobbled to my office every morning, and learned to move my right foot again.

My world had been turned upside down. As the dust settled, I found that life as just Calvin, may be as good or better than my internet identity. My ankle hurt (and continues to hurt) everyday, but by leaning into the pain and approaching my physical therapy with the same determination I had to climb the Moonlight Buttress, I have made remarkable gains. My strength and range of motion slowly returned. After 3 months, I was almost normal looking when I walked across campus and was elated to start climbing again. Learning to walk and climb again was just a small part of how I was changing.
First day back on the rock. my new backyard crag in Newhalem

I always admired those who are passionate about their pursuits, but struggled to see how they could maintain the enthusiasm. Climbing is such an emotionally and physically stimulating activity that it seems obvious that it can take over someone's life. People getting fired up about poetry or gardening, didn't make sense to me. The combination of a deep dark depression, and new job, helped me to know why my friends light up when they talk about parenting or photography. Getting back up out of my hole meant learning and growing.

Now, six months later, people around me have all but forgotten about my special ankle. It was a major benchmark to climb the “Grand Wall” last month. It is flattering for my buddy to egg me on during a hard lead climb yelling, “Yeah right! You were never injured!" It has been a long road. It feels so good to be moving across rock again, in control and smooth. The inspiration to write still springs from climbing, but climbing feels different. I had to be completely broken, before I could understand that there is more to life than climbing. I am learning the joy of working with a team to serve, and improve the lives of others. Long free climbs are exciting, but there is nothing like teaching kids science in the middle of the national park, and pushing myself as a professional.

Back in the mountains with my new improved ankle.
Those who find and embrace their passion, in whatever form, hold something that inspires people. It is a reason, to improve, to overcome, and to live. Is it too presumptuous to suggest that it has driven our success as a human race?

The metaphors in my work life coordinating weaving or yoga retreats may be slightly less thrilling than big wall climbing, but I love it. I look forward to gleaning new life lessons from my experience and writing from this new perspective.

… and climbing alpine routes again.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Try Hard

Lunch break part way up Moonlight Buttress

Working as a carpenter I swing a hammer all day, move lumber, run heavy equipment, and generally abuse my body. On a big wall climb, I mangle my hands and feet, get roasted by the sun, and generally work real hard against gravity. My body gets wrecked in either scenario. At the end of the day, however, the way I feel about myself is very different. After a long day building a roof, I can barely bring myself to take a shower, eat dinner, and watch an episode of Parks and Recreation before going to bed. After a full day of climbing at my limit, I feel energized, and can't wait to plan my next trip. The source of my energy is not a sum of calories consumed and level of fitness. The ability to keep going has more to do with an energy that is outside the physical body. Tapping into this wellspring allows us to push beyond fatigue and redefine our limits. There is an emotional vessel that holds more power than we can understand. When I am engaged in the things I love, my physical energy expands to meet new demands.

My favorite cartoon is a Japanese series called Dragon Ball Z. The story line deals with the idea of finding hidden energy as the heroes fight to save Planet Earth from evil forces. Now this analogy may seem like a stretch, but bear with me. The main character Goku, is a pure hearted warrior who always manages to overcome impossible odds to defeat aliens, cyborgs, and magic creatures for the sake of the people he loves. What makes Goku special (besides having a tail and being able to transform into a giant ape) is that every time he is beaten to within an inch of his life, he thinks of his wife, child, friends, and family and his power grows. Obviously, this is a cartoon, and not a source of great spiritual insight. However, the message of personal growth, plays off an archetype that resonates with any quest to overcome impossible odds. When we are emotionally engaged in a challenge and go beyond what we thought was possible, our power grows to meet the demands.

150ft finger crack on Moonlight Buttress
The true power of ultra-marathon runners, explorers, climbers, and cartoon warriors is rooted in the belief that their goal is worth fighting for. It is the motivation to try hard, to train, to take risk, and to accept the possibility of failure. On my 29th birthday I was asked what my goals for the year were. Without hesitation, I said "I want to climb El Capitan, free climb Moonlight Buttress, and send a 5.13." These are all climbing goals. Saving for a home, having kids, or traveling to Mongolia didn't make the list this year. It is not that I don't want other things, but it is not where my heart is. If I try to pursue goals that I am not passionate about, it will simply drain my energy. I thought long and hard about enrolling in a graduate school program, but if it kept me from climbing 1,000 foot sandstone walls, I would not have the drive to be successful right now.

Last fall, I completed the first item on my list, and overcame significant challenges to climb El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. This winter, I left Bellingham and moved back to Utah to live and work near Zion National Park, where I am setting my sights on the second goal. To free climb (climbing with a rope to arrest a fall, using only my hands and feet to move up) the Moonlight Buttress would be the most difficult climb I have ever done. It is a special climb, because when I first moved to Zion it was the route that inspired me to begin big wall climbing. That year, Alex Honnold free-soloed Moonlight buttress in 1 hour and 23 minutes (climbing without a rope, using only his hands and feet to move up). In comparison, I aid climbed the route during my second season in about 15 hours (using equipment and rope ladders to move up the route). Now, 6 years later Moonlight Buttress is a benchmark to measure my progress. This climb pushes me to be stronger and more fearless than I ever thought possible.

High point on day 3, 2/3 of the way to the top
This project has consumed a great deal of my thought time, and excites me in a way that borders on obsessive. I have spent three days in the past two weeks on Moonlight Buttress trying to unlock the sequences and progressing slowly up the wall. On each attempt I reach a high point, fatigued, bloodied, and outclassed, and decide to go back down to the ground. On the one hand it feels like a defeat, but on the other it is exciting to see an opportunity to grow stronger. It wouldn't be nearly as gratifying if I simply went up, sent the route, and ticked it off my list. The way climbing El Capitan expanded my limits of durability, this climb is training my endurance and ability to overcome fear. There is a very real possibility that I may not complete this climb in good style. I willingly take that risk, because regardless of the outcome, my vessel of energy is growing, it is overflowing, and fueling me to try harder.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

My Leap into Fame

Why not stop for a selfie?
I became famous in Yosemite Valley during my last climbing trip. Not for climbing 5.15, freeing an old aid route, or performing some epic solo. I did something unbelievable, but not quite impressive or inspiring.

On our third day of climbing the Salathe Wall on El Capitan things were going quite well. Andy and I were in good form for climbing, had our hauling system down, and had the right amount of food, water, and gear to make an honest bid for the summit. Andy had volunteered me to lead the notorious Hollow Flake pitch, and I was happy to punch the hero card and act as rope gun. After climbing to a fixed piton, I lowered and swung into the flake. Over a thousand feet off the ground, I did my best to wedge myself into the crack and begin working my way up. The term I would use to describe my movement is "udging", very physical, awkward, and slow. To minimize rope drag and make it easier to clean, this entire pitch is done without leaving any protection behind. This means a fall would by very big. I carried a #6 cam with me and pushed it up the crack as I progressed, which provided something to pull on as I "udged" my way up the flake. I battled my way inch-by-inch, up the crack until the tipped out #6 Cam no longer fit in the widening crack, and I would have to run out the last 25 feet to the anchor. Frustrated by the mass of cams getting in my way, I decided to reorganize for the last push to the anchor. I pulled the gear sling off my shoulder, clipped it to a sling on my belay loop and let go. The gear went taught on the sling for a fraction of a second, and then it continued to fall. The sound of over 20 cams dropping into the hollow flake was the realization of one of my greatest fears. I yelled, "ROCK" followed with, "that was the rack." I had just thrown a couple thousand dollars worth of equipment, and my chances of accomplishing a major life goal into the belly of El Capitan. Not only that, I was still unprotected for an entire rope length and 25 feet from an anchor. I wanted to throw up, I wanted to cry, I wanted the gear back, but I needed to finish the pitch before I could do any of those things. I fought back the feeling of devastation, and tried to focus on climbing. Beaten, sweaty, and afraid, I "udged" up the chimney, pulled myself over the top and clipped into the anchor. At that moment, the weight of what had just happened, settled on me like an elephant sitting on my chest. I fixed the rope so that Andy could ascend the line to me, and began pulling up the haul bag. I went through these motions, but my mind was a million miles away. All I could think about was the sound of equipment disappearing into the crack, and how I could have let this happen.

Even as I write this, three weeks later, I am sick with grief. I spent hours fishing with ropes and hooks trying to recover the equipment, but the chasm seemed to extend to the center of the earth. Andy, waited on the ledge, certain that our trip was over, dreams smashed, and defeated by El Cap (again). As I lowered and pulled up hundreds of feet of rope, I knew the equipment was gone but a glimmer of hope began to form. Maybe, between the two of us, we could scrape together enough gear back at camp to finish the route. I gave up fishing, got back to the ledge, and told Andy my plan. We would leave our equipment, fix ropes down to heart ledges, and rappel fixed lines to the ground. Without any of the specialty offset cams, and micro stoppers, it would be hard to climb the route, but not impossible. We agreed to not give up just yet. We spent the afternoon descending, and after returning to the car, we immediately took stock of what we had. What we lacked in micro stoppers, and offset cams we would make up for with aid climbing shenanigans and stubbornness.

A quick stop at Sentinel Beach to jump in the Merced River provided some relief from the stress of the day, and allowed us to wash the aluminum oxide off our raw and swollen hands. A massive pizza in Curry Village helped to fill the hollow feeling in my gut, and then we prepared to get back on the Salathe early the next morning. By the time we were finished packing, it seemed like everyone knew what had happened, and thus began my rise to fame as "that guy who dropped the entire rack into the Hollow Flake". I was not ready to laugh about it, yet, so it was mostly embarrassing. Going back up there, with a minimal rack, helped me keep a shred of dignity, but the days ahead would prove a hard row to hoe.

View from above El Cap Spire
Day 4 was a big day. We ascended back to our high point (over 1,000) feet in about 2 hrs. Then we had 7 pitches of free climbing to reach a bivy at El Cap Spire. Besides the 90+ degree weather, everything went really smoothly, and by the early evening, we were cooking up dinner on a spacious ledge and watching the sunset on Yosemite Valley. We did not wake up before dawn, and did not beat the British team to start climbing, so we ended up waiting till 9:00 before we could start climbing. This wasn't a big deal except that we had 10 pitches and a lot of aid climbing to reach the next decent bivy ledge. The free climbing right off the ledge was amazing, and we moved quickly all morning. Then, we got to Andy's lead on some tricky aid climbing, and things slowed down a bit. At one point on pitch 26, Andy reached a spot where it was not clear how to traverse over to another crack system, and the topo recommended cam hooks or micro nuts (two things we didn't have). After taking a fall on a bashie (literally a piece of metal hammered onto the rock that looks like chewing gum), he asked me to give it a try and returned to the belay. I found a very sketchy nut placement, and mustered the courage to make some free moves over a ledge and finish the pitch. Andy managed to salvage his block by leading the next aid pitch, but we were starting to run out of daylight. Now, reaching the headwall, I needed to navigate the hardest pitches, with marginal gear, and waning light. I made many moves off gear that did not match the manufacturers recommendations. Very rarely did I have all cam lobes in contact with the rock, and the need for efficiency demanded some extreme run outs. Just before midnight I pulled a few free moves and arrived at Long Ledge, where we would spend our last night on the wall. I fixed the rope for Andy to ascend, hauled up the bag, and collapsed on the 2'x10' ledge that would be home for the night.

Andy peering 3,000 ft down from Long Ledge
We were visited and photographed by climbers rappelling down from the top the next morning, and as much as we enjoyed our little home, we were ready to finish the climb. I took the lead for the last 4 pitches including a really hard aid crux (I used a couple fingers in a hole where a bat hook would have made life easy) and a phenomenal hand crack that I freed with some significant effort. In the early afternoon, we reached the top, ate the rest of our food, drank the rest of our water, and packed up for the descent. Being the one without chronic knee problems, I took the haul bag, a rope, and a surprising amount of trash, and began the journey down to the east ledges. The bag probably weighed less than 60 pounds, but it was still a challenge to negotiate the downclimbs. We made it to the rappels without incident, and continued down to the parking lot where we were greeted by our friend Leah, and some curious tourists. Leah managed to charm some Koreans into sharing Kim Chi with us, and we swapped stories about pooping, being angry at our partners, and how El Cap always humbles us. With hips raw and chaffed from hauling, kidneys aching from hanging belays, and the still sensitive subject of the lost gear, we took some hard earned rest, and spent the next couple days not climbing. The words of Warren Harding after his first ascent of El Cap are quite relevant to our experience. He said, "It was not at all clear to me who was conqueror and who was conquered. I do recall that El Cap seemed to be in much better condition than I was." This sums up the experience quite well, yet, for some reason I can't wait to go back for more. There was more climbing, more evidence of being conquered, and some pretty spectacular moments up on the granite faces of Yosemite Valley. For now, those stories will have to wait. Thank you for reading, and feel free to contact me to share stories, donate cams, or offer suggestions on how not to lose gear. Signing off as the now famous, Calvin "the guy who dropped the rack" Laatsch


On the top of El Capitan, with Half Dome beckoning to be climbed in the distance

Sunday, April 27, 2014

The Next Step

You know how you tell your girlfriend she is pretty every day. She is thankful for the complement, but it doesn't actually count, until she overhears your best friend say she is hot.

That is like onsighting 5.12.

To "onsight" is to walk up to the base of a climbing route with no information about how to climb it. Without anyone to yell where your next handhold is, or how to move past the hardest part, it is completely up to you.The climbing is steep, and demands precise movement. If you do not think quickly, you will fall. If you do not move quickly, you will fall. If you make a mistake, you will fall. If you fall, you have blown the onsight.

Falling my way up my first 5.12
My girlfriend like to tell me I'm the strongest climber in the world, but it is like telling her she is pretty. Sometimes, I feel strong and climb lots of hard routes. Yet, the grade 5.12 has always intimidated me. I completed my first 5.12 (with many falls) almost 7 years ago. The route is named "The Incredible Journey" and seems an appropriate title to begin what has been a tumultuous personal quest. In the past few years, I have done a handful of 5.12 climbs without falling, but never on my first try. I have always hung too long, made mistakes, or psyched myself out.

My greatest challenge has been my self doubt, but something changed this winter. I realized I was capable of more. Climbing a few weeks ago, I watched my friend working on a 5.12a. He struggled with a few sections, but it didn't look too difficult. When it was my turn to climb, I remembered a couple of the key sequences, and managed to hold on through the worst of it. Near the top, I was afraid my grip would fail, but I didn't give in. Focusing on moving efficiently and not letting my mind wander, I held it together all the way to the top. This was my first time "flashing" a 5.12. Having seen someone else do the climb, it was not as proud as an onsight, but still a great accomplishment. Next, was a 5.12b. I belayed my friend as he floated up the climb, danced through the crux, and clipped the anchor. It looked so easy. Without much thought, I roped up, and "flashed" the 5.12b. I moved quickly, resting where I could, and focusing on not letting go. At the top, my forearms felt like they were going to explode. It is the type of pain and pressure that makes me wish i could just sever my arms at the elbow. Yet, it didn't seem that hard.

A couple days later on the drive home, I stop for a little bouldering. I climb a V4 on my second try, which roughly translates to 5.12a, and then climb a V6 (5.12c) second try. Again, it doesn't feel so hard. Bouldering 20 feet is not the same as climbing a 100 foot pitch, but I am noticing a theme.

Weekend warriors swarming the desert
The next weekend, we escape the rain and head to the desert with the rest of the Washington weekend warriors. Without a guide book for the area, we kind of just guess at what we want to climb. Asking people to see their books, and browsing the internet, we end up at the base of a route called Red M&Ms (5.12a). Someone is toproping the route, so I grab some quickdraws and make a quick run up the adjacent route. I am warmed up, and I feel good. Looking up at the thin parallel cracks that define the climb, I try to be calm and confident. In an area teaming with beginners, one guy watches me and asks if I am going to lead Red M&Ms. He suggests I take some extra small gear, and offers a handful of micro cams. I feel a bit of pressure, but hold the anxiety at bay. Without wasting any time, I tie in, chalk my hands, and begin.

Megan doesn't usually say anything when I climb the first 20 feet without gear, but she asks me to place a piece after the first 10 feet. The crack is small, and accepts gear sporadically. There is not a lot of good placements, but I find enough. More than anything, I am thinking about not trying too hard. Reflecting on the advice I got the week before, I try to censor myself. If it seems like I am doing a really hard move, I am probably doing it wrong. I move my feet a lot, I keep my arms straight, and I breathe slowly.

Halfway up the route, after some big reaches and very thin climbing, I suspect I am done with the crux. However, there is still 50 feet to go, and the cracks do not get any wider. I never have more than the tips of my fingers wedged in the crack, but by focusing on my footwork, I do not have to pull very hard. Volleying my weight between the two cracks I methodically shift from left to right, standing on small edges or just smearing my feet in the tiny corner. Before I know it, the ground is far below, and the cracks seam up and disappear. Apparently, there is a second crux. Pausing briefly to look for holds, I see a way, and move without hesitation. It does me no good to doubt the last piece of protection down below my feet, or to wonder if I will find another hand hold over the roof. In that moment I know I can do it. Standing on top of the route, I realize I have arrived at my destination.

Clipping the anchor was like overhearing someone point out the 5.12 climber with big curly hair and skinny jeans. I have no choice, but to believe it.

There are mixed emotions when we accomplish something like this. The saying, "it is about the journey, not the destination," took on a new meaning for me. It started with that route 7 years ago, and it has been an incredible journey. Back on the ground I felt happy, but slightly disappointed. It seemed too easy. I have poured myself into this pursuit for so long. What will I do next?

Sunday, January 12, 2014


Governor Ernest Lister
My climbing may have slowed in the past couple months, but my excitement for climbing has not waned. I have developed a bit of a reputation regarding my enthusiasm for often overlooked, and, in my opinion, under appreciated local climbs. Bellingham's location between Seattle and Vancouver, BC makes it a perfect spot to visit some world class climbing in just a couple hours drive. The climbing in Bellingham, however, is not the sort of stuff you will see on magazine covers or movie segments. However, being a resourceful individual, I have taken it upon myself to exploit ALL the climbing opportunities at home. I have been slowly developing a local sandstone cliff called "Governor Lister". Perched above Samish Bay in a thick evergreen forest, it is a picturesque example of what makes the Pacific Northwest so special. A plaque commemorating British born Ernest Lister, marks the trail to this rough cut gem. A Washington transplant like myself, Lister, ran a foundry and woodworking shop in Tacoma, WA before entering politics. As governor, he supported civil rights of blue collar workers and helped bring the eight-hour work day to the Pacific Northwest (amongst other things). Truly, a man after my own heart. Developing this climbing area is a way I can give back to the sport, encourage Bellingham climbers to get out of the gym, and do a little blue collar work, all in the guise of recreation.

View from the top of the Governor Lister Wall
I like to think of it as a community building effort, though my girlfriend jokes about my lack of success in trying to enlist partners for the project. It is important to note that I don't have a power drill which makes bolting a much more taxing affair. I hang in my harness for hours at a time, hammering a half inch drill bit, rotating it a quarter turn at a time, until I have an adequate hole to install a four inch bolt with a two part epoxy. With the goal of longevity, and safety for the routes, this painstaking method produces about one bolt per hour. These are thankless events, yet strangely gratifying. Ripping loose blocks off the wall, cutting down tree branches, and scrubbing moss reveals inspiring sections of rock. I have lost track of the hours and days I have spent working on this project, but every time I talk about it my excitement grows. I feel a sense of ownership and pride, but not in a way that is restrictive. During my last visit, on a rare clear winter day, I found a group of people climbing one of the routes I had put up, and they were having a blast. It doesn't matter that this little sandstone cliff will see rare traffic and no fanfare, what matters is that I am able to facilitate recreation right here at home, and share my skills, labor, and vision with the community.

When the project is done, I look forward to documenting and photographing the area to share with the wider climbing community. For now, I am content talking up "Governor Lister" to anyone who will listen, and counting each climber I meet at the crag as friends.