After our successful sufferfest on Ama Dablam, Adrian and I opted for the warmth and waves of Southeast Asia. We flew from Kathmandu to Bangkok and then onto Saigon where we took a 5 hour car ride to Mui Ne – a hectic resort town on the southern coast of Vietnam that’s home to amazing kiteboarding beaches and perhaps the highest population of Russians outside of Russia. For 10 days I took kiting lessons from a tan French guy named Mathieu, who helped me understand the behavior of the wind, how to harness its energy to fly a kite, and how to use that power to ride a board on the water. In the process I swallowed copious amounts of saltwater, got stung by a jellyfish, and almost maimed a Russian couple when I overpowered my kite, launched myself 15 ft out of the water, panicked and dive-bombed it onto shore, just inches from where they were frolicking obliviously in the waves. The Vietnamese police got involved, Mathieu had to apologize and offered the couple a discount on lessons. Somehow I don’t think they were into it. But after 10 days I was no longer as much of a threat to myself or others and managed to master the art of getting up out of the water and riding for a few hundred feet before plopping back into the water again. Success!!!
We flew home to Tahoe and were really excited to embrace winter and go skiing, but then it looked like this:
And Adrian didn’t look like that for very long. Good thing we had alternative plans. We flew to Spain to go sport climbing for a month at this area called Chulilla – a marvelous little town on top of a hill surrounded by, what else, the most perfect Spanish limestone canyons with perfect long beautiful routes and perfect weather and everything was perfect.
I’m not kidding it was actually kinda perfect. I’d been dreaming of going sport climbing for months prior to this trip. It’s funny because sport climbing used to be the only kind of climbing I ever did. All I cared about was sending hard routes and I trained hard year round to reach my goals. I’d put unreasonable amounts of pressure on myself, stress out about what I ate and how much I weighed, and take it exceptionally hard if I fell short of succeeding. I wrote a short article last month for my friend Andrew Bisharat for his column “Day I Sent,” that chronicles this phase in my climbing with a bit more detail, but the bottom line is that my love for sport climbing began to fade a result of how serious I was taking it. I’m not saying that I should not have taken my climbing seriously, I achieved successes through that hard work and motivation during that time that has helped me reach the place I am at today, but I needed to take a step back and realize that there is more to climbing than sending hard sport routes, and more to life than climbing in general.
I’ve sport climbed on and off for the past two years, but it’s been sporadic at best and interrupted by long periods of traveling, getting scared placing gear on easy trad routes, getting back into skiing, or freezing at altitude in the mountains. I did go to Spain a year ago for a month with the goal of climbing 5.14, but failed because I simply wasn’t fit enough. I spent the entire month trying one route and managed to one-hang it by the end but still returned home without sending anything. This time, I knew I had to have a different approach.
We chose to go to Chulilla because my friend Hazel Findlay had told me that it was the perfect place for getting back into climbing shape. Supposedly there were loads of 5.12s and easy 5.13s to try, all vertical to slightly overhanging. I hadn’t climbed in nearly 2 months and for Adrian it had been almost 4. Needless to say, we were going to get crushed.
We did get crushed at first, although not as badly as I anticipated. I decided to take it slowly at the beginning, both for my ego and so I didn’t get injured. I onsighted some 5.12s the first week, climbed some amazing 5.11s, and started trying some 13a’s. Surprisingly, I found my groove at this grade rather quickly and managed to tick off five 13a’s in the first few weeks on my second or third try. Spain has a reputation for having softer grades relative to some other places, so maybe that’s what was going on, but the new Chulilla guidebook just came out and all of the routes appear to have been downgraded by at least one letter so they couldn’t have been too far off. Either way, I felt like I was climbing well and gaining fitness and that made me happy.
This was Adrian’s first real sport climbing trip in his 25 years of climbing, which seemed totally crazy to me, but he did grow up trad and alpine climbing and so I guess that makes sense. At first he didn’t quite get it and he wanted to climb 12 pitches of 5.10 a day and not take rest days and only try routes once even if he fell on them (huh?). After a week or so though he realized that even though Chulilla is supposed to be home to more “moderate” grades, that meant 5.11 and 5.12, not 5.10, so his 5.10 marathon days were just not going to pan out. In addition, he realized that projecting a route is a pretty physical endeavor and that when your forearms hurt so badly you can’t hold a wine bottle correctly (a crucial skill to have in Spain) because you’ve rehearsed the last 20 feet of a 12c fifteen times in a row, you need to take a day or two off. In the end, his sport climbing performance skyrocketed, his characteristic determination and ability to push his body further than it wants to allowed him to send his first 12c, then 12d and first 12a onsight. Not bad for a high altitude snow hiker!!
After I fell at the last bolt while trying to onsight El Bufa (13b) and then sent it next go I decided it was time to try something a little harder. I’d tried this route called Montaña Magica (13d) at the beginning of the trip and couldn’t do the crux moves up this slopey tufa, nor could I really climb through vertical resistance section up top, which consisted of big lock-offs on small crimps with poor feet. I was also scared because it felt runout. Maybe my head just wasn’t ready to go for it up high at the beginning of the trip. Whatever it was, I think climbing on easier (but still challenging) routes for a few weeks helped me feel more comfortable. I worked out the moves and this time managed to find a crux sequence I could do, but barely.
After 2 or 3 days of trying, our trip was coming to an end and I still hadn’t sent. The all-too familiar stress and pressure of wanting to succeed returned and I started to get nervous everytime I tried. This always happens to me when I start to really care about a route, and now it seems less like a negative sentiment and more of a comforting reassurance that I still care about sport climbing and that struggle to succeed is what I really love about it.
I sent the route on our second to last day in Spain in my usual “last try best try” style. I had to fight hard through the crux – harder than I had in a long time. Then I had to keep it together for another hundred feet to the anchors. I’m proud to say that I climbed really well the entire time. Every move felt perfect and precise, I rested well and still had to try hard and not blow it at the end. I think it’s one of the coolest sending experiences I’ve had. Maybe because it had been a long time since I’d been so focused on a sport route, since I’d had to unlock the puzzle of the sequences, battle the mental barriers, maintain composure and keep fighting to the chains. I’d forgotten how much I missed and loved that process.
We left Spain two days later and flew straight to Ouray for the Ice Festival. It was a last minute decision to attend because Adrian was asked to give a slideshow, so I decided to do the competition. I wasn’t really thinking it through when I agreed to compete. To put it mildly, I was completely unprepared seeing as how I hadn’t ice climbed or even held ice tools in a year. I felt awkward and insecure during the practice round and like I didn’t belong competing in a sport I hadn’t practiced in a year. When my turn to came to compete though I pushed it out of my mind and focused on climbing. I tried to tell myself that mixed climbing isn’t really all that different from sport climbing and that as long as I trusted myself and tried to move well I would be fine. It actually worked and I managed to climb all the way through the natural mixed route below, onto the artificial wall, and up to the first hanging log before falling off. I still have no idea how to manage the logs and I get really confused and disoriented when they start moving around on me. But my performance was enough to tie for 3rd place – the time tiebreaker left me in 4th, which I was more than happy with. Alot of people say that mixed climbing is contrived and silly, which in some cases it totally is, but I also find it to be super fun and interesting, and I’d like to hope that the skills will someday translate to more practical uses in the mountains.
(photo by Kevin Zeichmann)
We’re back home now, about to move into a new place and praying for moisture; not only because the ski season has been nonexistent, but for the sake of the health of the state of California. The weather has been absolutely beautiful everyday – endlessly sunny blue skies with mild temperatures. It feels really odd and sort of uncomfortable to experience such weather in January, unsettling and a bit depressing. But no precipitation and unusually warm temperatures means that the climbing season never ended, and there’s not much else to do with that fact besides seize the opportunity and head to Yosemite. For the first time in probably ever, I won’t be bummed if it rains on us!