Last week sucked. I had a lot of tests to study for, essays to turn in, a training schedule to try to stick to, field trips to attend and bureaucratic paperwork to slog through. I was overwhelmed and when Friday finally came I had one of my longest days yet; I was up at 6:30 AM and didn’t come home until nearly 12 hours later at 6 PM. Strangely, despite my exhaustion I did not sleep well that night. I spent half the night tossing and turning, half of me debating going through with the plans I had made to go to Tahoe the next day to try Penguin Lust (5.12c, 7b+) again. It was supposed to be cold and windy and I was not looking forward to making the drive up there. But, winter was approaching and soon we would set our clocks back an hour and the sun would set at a horrific 5 PM; “this weekend may be my last chance to go to Tahoe before spring”, I thought. I began to visualize the moves of Penguin Lust in my head and pretty soon my psyche was quickly restored and with a thermos filled with coffee I again was on the road to Donner.
Since my first trip to Tahoe at the beginning of the year (which I wrote about in my blogpost “Fall”) I returned to Donner Summit two more times, all with the intent to try to send Penguin Lust, a 5.12c I had become completely obsessed with. Before today, I had gone to Donner over the course of three days in the past 30 days, putting in a total of only 5 goes on the climb, thought it felt like a lot more.
The last weekend I went I had a little mini-breakthrough on the upper crux, finding a high foot hold that was much better than the shit I had been using. It still was the hardest move for me on the entire route, but it seemed much more possible than the previous beta I was using, which I could do repeatedly as an isolated move but which would be very hard to link with the rest of the climb.
(a note before you read on- I probably should have mentioned this a long time ago but climbers use the verb “send” to signify that a climber has climbed to the top of a route without falling- aka has been successful in “sending” the route. This is the basic goal most sport climbers have.)
We arrived at Road Cut and conditions were great. It was chilly but the rock had been in the sun all morning so I got the benefit of the added friction without the numb hands. I went with Emmanuel, whom I had gone with before (see previous blog post) and who I had successfully spread my obsession of Penguin Lust too. We had both tried it together on all 3 weekends and last time Emmanuel got really, really close to sending. I was sure he was going to do it and once he pulled past the beginning crux- the hardest move for him- with what seemed like relative ease, I knew he would climb to the top without falling- and he did! I was super stoked for him but I have to admit that his send just doubled the pressure I was already feeling. As I mentioned, I thought that this could likely be the last possible weekend I could come try this thing during this season. To reiterate, the next day, the time would change so the sun will set at an achingly painful 5 PM here. It is also getting colder and it has already snowed in Tahoe. On top of all that school-work is piling up as we inch closer to our second round of midterms and finals. Plus, my partner had just sent the route, so if I didn’t do it now who else could I ask to come belay me on this thing? Road-cut is a pretty small crag with only a handful of routes so it has been super convenient that I found a partner so dedicated to the same climb as me.
So, I put my shoes on and gave it a whirl… and got past the part that I usually fall on. And then some. Before I knew it I was one quick-draw away from the anchors. As I was catching a quick rest at the flake I felt nervously confident that I would send the route.. though I knew that the hardest part was waiting for me. I won’t bore everyone with the details of this beta, but the short story is that I screwed up. Since I just only solidified the beta last week I didn’t remember exactly where to put my left foot and I put it way too low and though I tried to move it the holds were just too bad to allow for such a dramatic body change position and I fell off, on the last hard move of the route.
Emotions welled up within me and I hung despondent at the end of the rope, feeling totally crushed and defeated. Penguin Lust is not an easy climb physically or mentally and I wasn’t sure if I could pull it together again for another go. I can’t recall me ever getting so emotional about falling. I was so close.. it felt like it just barely slipped between my fingers. I I did not want to give up though so I repeated the beta on that one section until I had it down pat and repeated some other moves on the climb I didn’t do exactly right.
The truth is that it was a very, very good effort- by far the best I had had up to that point. But, we don’t sport climb to fall just below the anchors and say “good enough”- we sport climb to clip them. I took a 20 minute rest and ate some food, contemplating the route and also the looming clouds forming overhead. The weather began to look grimmer and grimmer and though I didn’t feel rested enough I wanted to get on it again in case it started to dump on us.
I got through the lower crux, which by then I always seemed to get, but fell on the middle crux going for a very small crimper (small hold). I had fallen here before a lot; in fact before my previous go it was the highest I had gotten on the route previously without falling. It is a hard move on small holds but it’s not as hard for me as the upper move. I knew I could pull through it and grab a quick rest above that section so I had Emmanuel lower me and gave myself maybe 3 minutes before going again, rushing because of the weather.
I grabbed the crimp I had fallen off of last time and barely held on long enough to pull up to the large sloper you can get a shitty rest on. Before I knew it I was in the same place as I was while on my first go- resting on the flake preparing myself to try the crux move of the route. I began the sequence but paused for about a second at the crux move. I breathed and executed the move. A couple of moves later I hit the jug hold below the anchors and started to scream with joy- I knew I had done it. I clipped the anchors and my entire body was flooded with a mixture of relief, euphoria and pure adrenaline.
I had did it, I had climbed my first 5.1 c (7b+), one of the most beautiful lines I have ever tried.
But, it was may more than the number. I had given everything I had into this climb. I worked my ass off in school so I could have at least one day weekend free to go to Donner just to try this route. I didn’t do too much during the week besides train and study, driven by a fanatic devotion to climb Penguin Lust. All of this for 5 minutes of purely unencumbered flow, uninterrupted movement on a beautiful slab of granite rock in a gorgeous setting. Physically, it was tough. The holds were tiny and the feet were non-existent. There were some dynamic moves off of small pockets sprinkled in between shit rests. It was the hardest thing I had ever done, for sure. Mentally, though, it was just as challenging. The route is not bolted dangerously but I had to do a lot of very hard moves with the bolt well below my feet. A few times on this journey I let it get to me and botched some efforts due to it. It also takes mental strength to keep on getting on something you have fallen on again and again. This time, it clicked. I didn’t think once about falling; I had tunnel vision for the climbing, pure and simple. Nothing could touch me.
I had never tried something more than 6 times before and I climbed Penguin Lust on my 8th overall go, which is not a lot of efforts at all, but for me it still represents my longest-standing project ever. I also had never projected anything that I had really continued to come back to from my home. I had always already been at the locations on a trip, never legitimately structuring my week around one single climb. I had never invested so much into anything before and it paid off.
Driving back I was overcome with joy and also with a profound feeling that I had really measured myself with this climb. I think it’s important to push ourselves to the limit with whatever our passion is because in the end it’s the best way to discover yourself. As cheesy as this will sound it is true- you find yourself present in a mental realm you never had accessed before. Challenge yourself and feel strong- feel alive. Yes, climbing is something I do for enjoyment and in the end it is all in a sense pretty meaningless. But at the same time it is what defines me, because the culture of climbing goes so far beyond the actual routes.. it is the drive up, it is the music we listen to on the way to the crag and the food we eat after a hard day. It is the clothing we wear and it is the routes we choose to climb. It is quite literally a very huge part of my identity. Penguin Lust may just be a slab of granite off of the road, but to me it represents so much more; it represents struggle, determination, perseverance, doubt, sadness and joy. It represents the euphoric release of all of these emotions. I was reminded of why I climb as I hung off of the anchors of Penguin Lust, looking onto the snow- covered mountains surrounding Donner Lake- a scene I had observed over the past month morph from a summer setting to a pre-winter landscape- feeling invincible for a few sweet moments. Nothing feels this good. Nothing feels this good.
Now- time to explore a different crag for once!!