Refocus

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Arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) blooming in front of the Monument crags at Smith Rock. By mid April these guys were everywhere.

 

I really thought I botched it. Instead of smoothly locking off to clip the second bolt, I hesitated, used some different hand holds, pasted my feet onto things I had never used before, and then I clipped it. “Shit” I thought. I was right about to embark on the  hardest part of “Darkness at Noon”, Smith Rock’s first 13a, and I was already screwing up. If there was any room for error, that was it. I had to climb the rest of the route flawlessly if I wanted to have a shot at it. The crisp morning had already given way to what would be a warm afternoon, with the temperatures seemingly elevated in the little “solar oven” created by the opposing rock faces on either side of me. “Why the hell am I doing this in the sun?” I thought. Looking up, I saw about 25 more meters of unrelentingly hard technical rock climbing that lay ahead. I shook out on a bad pocket for a moment, refocused and forged onward.

A week prior, my partner and I arrived in Smith Rock on an unseasonably warm Sunday afternoon, the parking-lot jam packed. With the guidebook in hand we donned our summer hats and after *begrudgingly* paying our parking fee, went out to explore some of the areas we were particularly keen to climb at.
I have heard Smith Rock be described as a face climber’s dream area. The routes are typically vertical and feature small edges and pockets. I tend to think of myself as a one-trick climbing pony. I excel at technical, vertical routes that demand finger strength, good balance and static movement. On the rare moments when I climb well, chances are high that it is on a route of this nature; I sort of flail up most other things. For someone like me, then, Smith Rock  always seemed like an obvious place to put on my climbing destination bucketlist.
So, when a friend invited me out to Smith with him I jumped at the chance to finally go and to test myself on this territory.
My partner was eyeing a classic line at the Dihedral Wall and so I perused the book looking for something I could work on there too. The route “Darkness at Noon” immediately caught my attention merely for the fact that it was a four star 13a. Quickly I discovered it was Smith Rock’s first 13a, put up in 1985 by the guidebook author himself, Alan Watts. The history of the route attracted me as did its difficulty.

Surely enough, Darkness at Noon and the entire dihedral wall, including To Bolt or Not to Be, Smith’s test piece 14a , commands your attention before you even hike into the canyon itself. Unfortunately this is party due to just how damn chalked up everything is, but primarily it is a stunning feature in a scenic location.

Flowers along the Gray Butte trail on Weds. April 13, 2016

The classic image of Smith Rocks from the parking area. 

Upon closer inspection,  my desire to do the route mounted. It seemed like a harder version of Penguin Lust, my first 12c out at Donner Summit that I still hold in high esteem as one of my favorite routes I have ever done. Basically, a lot of small holds up a vertical face. I was all in to try it… on a cooler day.
Smith Rock is a special place not only for its beauty and uniqueness, but because of its place in the history of climbing in the US. It is often referred to as the “birthplace of American sport climbing.” Sport climbing, which was already accepted in France and Europe in general was being broadly adopted in the states, starting out with Smith in the 1980s. A lot of climbers at that time scoffed at sport climbing because it is much more safe than traditional climbing and many in the states, where trad climbing was king, thought it took away from the danger of climbing that relegated it to a sport for the bold and strong.  The bolts at Smith, trying to keep with this “bold” tradition, are pretty good indicators of the overall climbing philosophy at the time. Compared to our modern crags,  the bolts are further apart from one another, making some routes a little bit “spicy.” Typically it’s all safe as the walls are clean and there isn’t much to hit on your way down, but it does certainly add a mental element to the climbing which makes it all the more difficult for climbers like me who still often wrestle with a gut fear of falling.
I know myself, though, and I know that whenever I *irrationally* fear falling, the fear will dissipate if I am motivated on the route. Looking up at Darkness at Noon that day, one of the first things I noticed was the bolt spacing, especially between the second and third bolt. The falls- which would inevitably occur- would be safe but long. This was in the back of my head before I roped up for it, but wasn’t enough to deter me. I knew that it was safe and that all of my fears- as long as I had a good belayer- were irrational. Once I sussed out the moves, got excited on the prospect of sending, I would begin to and move confidently on the rock.
On a side note.. the first bolt of Darkness at Noon is notoriously high. It is ridiculously high, in fact. Sometimes people stand on each other’s shoulders just to reach the damn thing with a stick-clip (helpful pole used to clip in bolts from the ground). Reading the guidebook I learned that the way the developers decided where to put the first bolt was by bouldering as high as they could go- no crash pads allowed- and then placing the first bolt at that spot (later on rappel). Since they didn’t use crash pads, one can only assume they would then have to down climb.   Holy shit, Alan Watts… that was a high way to boulder up! (on another side note I read in a forum that at the base of some routes erosion has caused the starts to be lowered by 2-5 feet!.. still though it’s really ballsy).
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The left-most side of the Dihedral Wall. The climber on the right hand side of the photo is about halfway up “Darkness at Noon” (13a), my project.

I worked the route on top-rope a few times and then began to give it lead burns. Like I suspected, once actually on the route with the prospect of sending in the back of my mind, I didn’t think too much about falling. I shouted the occasional “watch me here” to soothe me , but really was not that nervous.

It was starting to warm up and so I decided to head out there in  the morning on a day that was forecast to be slightly cooler. The route gets its name from the fact that it goes into the shade at noon. With such small holds and glassy feet, you really do not want to climb this thing when it is hot. Nevertheless, I went out in the early morning sun, hoping that the rock would still be cool from the night, rather than wait until the afternoon when it would be in the shade but still be holding the heat from having baked all morning long.

On my second go on the route that day- seventh overall- I made it to the chains. It was not a very pretty go; I totally botched some of the lower moves, but I tried really, really, REALLY hard. My focus was consistent yet I had to make a concentrated mental effort to not stray from the task at hand. At the rests, I made sure to stay as long as I could if I thought it was helping- the moment I felt like I wasn’t getting anything back, I continued to climb. I can’t quite put into words what my mental state was like during that climb, but I can say that it took every ounce of fortitude to keep myself focused and climbing efficiently. Physically, I was getting really pumped despite the rests. At the very top there is a move that is the most popular place to fall on your red-point burn. I stuck that move, but was worried about the very final, perhaps cruxy move where you use two decent crimps to make a big move to a jug. For someone of my height, this was a pretty long move and I had actually fallen here once before on a top-rope burn after not having fallen on the rest of the route. After having botched the beginning there was really no room for error anymore and I knew I had to hit it just right. The hold is big, but there is only one part of it that is actually good. I went for it and despite the fact that my foot cut due to fatigue, I somehow managed to stay on. A few more moves on jugs (10b that felt like 11d at this point) and I clipped the chains and felt a rush of joy come over me; that was one of the hardest mental and physical rock climbs I had ever done, and now all of the strength I had put into keeping focused was dissolving into a euphoric fog that flooded my body. Everything relaxed, my arms, my legs and my mind.

I lowered down with a huge grin on my face,  satisfied and proud that I picked a challenging route, endured and struggled with it, and – in a relatively short period of time – achieved the goal. My partner and I then proceeded to get the hell out of the sun and I went and belayed him on his project, deciding that I was done for the day- I didn’t want any shitty go on some other route to cloud my contentment.

Then, something happened. The next few days, I climbed very badly. Not only was I not climbing well technically or physically, but my mind was straying. My motivation to climb was present, but my focus wavered. I would tie into a route and then halfway up start to  realize I wasn’t really having much fun. Then I would lower and want to go climb something else and the same thing would go on repeat. I vowed to take a break, but that little flame of desire- fleeting and ephemeral- kept me at it when I probably should have stopped.

It was undeniable, I gave something to Darkness at Noon that I still hadn’t recovered. I had to dig deep, deeper than I ever have on a sport route, and extinguished some sort of reserve I did not know I even had. For the next week or so, my mental fallout was noticeable. I felt covered by some thin fog of lethargy that I couldn’t quite shake.

I don’t think this was solely due to Darkness at Noon. In retrospect, a route that you only try 7 times is definitely not at your upper limit. If I could make it to the top after botching that lower beta, I knew I could definitely get something harder if I had the mental willpower to learn the route and execute things perfectly. What “grade” I would send if I made no errors, I don’t know. The real challenge came not with making the moves but with wrapping my mind around such an intimidating route and not giving up. Still, my efforts on Darkness at Noon was just a catalyst for a gradual loosening of a knot of motivation and psyche that had been slowly coming undone over the course of my trip.

I ended up taking around four days off, belaying my partner and going on some nice runs. One run in particular was quite memorable and I recommend it to anyone in the area. I started at the Gray Butte trailhead which was filled with wildflowers (see my previous post) and ran it down into Smith Rock, where it connects with the summit trail. I then took the summit trail to the river trail and made it to the parking lot where my friend (and gracious chauffeur ) was waiting to drive me back to my car. The run was about 12 miles long and one of the most scenic jaunts I’ve ever had. Starting in a sage/juniper ecosystem I moved through some grasslands filled with lupine and gazed at all of the volcanic pillars of rock cropping out from seemingly every corner. Descending into Smith Rock, the views of the Cascades (though today was a cloudy day) were gorgeous and of course the actual park itself, with the crooked river snaking its way alongside you, is breathtaking.

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Smith Rock as seen from the Burma Rd. (BLM land)

After those four days I took one day of easier climbing that didn’t go too well but I kept at it, trying to re-tighten that knot and get back some of that “try hard” elixir I had extinguished. The next day, my partner left and I – in a lone wolf kind of mood- went and top-rope soloed on some classic routes like “Crossfire” (12b) and “Karate Wall” (12c.) This actually helped me, a lot. I was climbing well , perhaps feeling less burdened because I could move at my own pace without anyone around, really. I also went and checked out a route called “The Product” a 13a on a little-visited spire near the monument that gets four stars in the book but evidently is rarely done. I had some trouble setting up an anchor on this thing as the 5.6 ridge to get to the anchor felt too dicey to solo. Luckily I met a nice woman who was also wanting to get on it and together we worked it. It is evident this thing doesn’t get climbed too much as chalk was nowhere to be found. It runs up an interesting face and then follows a striking arete to a powerful diagonal crux. It stretches the rope a good 35 meters and requires some finesse as well as strength. While I liked the route, I decided to not continue to work on it as the sensation that I wanted to leave Smith Rock and change up the scenery a little bit kept on creeping up on me. It was also getting warmer and warmer and it has always been cruxy for me to wait for the sun to get low in the sky at around  6 PM and then give it my all. I’ve always been a morning-riser, and I just didn’t want to give this route the amount of effort that would be needed. Next trip, perhaps.

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Juniper Spire. The Product (13a) runs along the left most arete right underneath the “chin” of the top of the rock and out into the diagonal feature .

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 After my partner left I spent about 4 days sort of indecisively deciding what to do. I had some thoughts- Squamish , BC? back to California? Stay here… I had a month left and definitely did not want to stop climbing or exploring, but my lack of energy was evident. I didn’t even want to run, which is kind of a rare event for me.

I decided to leave Smith Rock and go look at some flowers up north. Leaving the cliff, I felt, would refresh my mind and maybe put it on “reset”- it is pretty easy to just stay somewhere when you know how everything is, what the camping is like, etc. So I went on a little flower journey up near Portland and even checked into a hotel room for a night , just to be able to throw all of my crap wherever I wanted and take a hot shower. No need to fumble around in my Toyota Corolla to find what I needed- it was over there in the corner of the room, in a huge space that I could fill with all kinds of useless things! I don’t know how to describe this, but the feeling of having what seemed like a large space all to myself, was kind of glorious. After a day though, it got old and I went right back to my little cubicle of a home.

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Some spring cleaning was in order for  Jonathan (the name of my car, inspired by “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” by Richard Bach) out at my bivy spot near Smith

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Stopping to take in the view only 45 minutes into my 9 hour trip to Squamish. Horses grazing near Warm Springs, OR with Mt Bachelor in the background. 

I stopped near Portland and took a walk through our country’s largest urban forest- Forest Park.

Tiarella trifoliataFoamflower

Foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata) 

Vanilla leaf (Achlys triphylla)

Vanilla leaf (Achlys triphylla)

Flowers in Forest Park, portland Oregon on Saturday, April 30 2016.

A faded Western Trillium (Trillium ovatum), while the flowers start out white, they start to fade to pink as they age.

In the end, I decided to pack up my things and head north to Squamish, BC- home to some of Canada’s best granite climbing of all types, sport , trad and bouldering. However, I left with the goal to focus on trad climbing as I want to stop always being a “one-trick pony” and broaden my climbing repetoire. Furthermore, I am going to be working in Tuolumne Meadows for the summer, surrounded by granite domes, alpine climbs and tons of trad cragging that I would like to get after. After having climbed with a lot of people over the past three months, what I admire most about some of the best climbers I have had the privilege to rope up with is their dedication and ability to choose one goal amongst what seems like an endless sea of options and devote their energy and time fully to that quest. As someone who tends to be wishy-washy in my ways; always wanting to get out but kind of never having a clear and defined idea or goal for improvement- I felt if I could emulate this I could improve as a rock-climber overall. It may mean sacrificing some random outings in the name of a more precise mission, but I think it will be worth it.

 Squamish seemed like a good choice to go hone in on some trad, get back to granite , and completely change my scenery.  It was a good call. The weather is unseasonably warm and I am writing this from a small apartment I scored for the next 3 weeks , for basically nothing. All I have to do is a feed an adorable cat.
 Within 48 hours I had already gotten up two of the “top 100” multipitch climbs and the weather looks, if anything , to be too damn warm for the next bit! A heat wave seems to be rearing its head everywhere on the western coast, including BC… I won’t go into what I believe is a contributing culprit (hint- climate change) but as I write this a fire is raging in Fort McMurray on the opposite end of the country, forcing thousands to flee and doubling in size due to unseasonable dry conditions, and when it should be raining and cold here in Squamish it is downright balmy.
Well, I can’t complain. No rain means more climbing and more time spent outside, exploring this new wonderland that I am in. Time to refocus my energy and thoughts toward a new place, a new style of climbing and some redefined goals.

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