To Bolt or Not To Be

Up high on Kings of Rap at Smith Rock State Park. Photo by Micah Humphrey

On my 27th birthday, I woke up buried in my sleeping bag, nestled in my car in the middle of Central Oregon. I poked my head out to see frost building up on every window of my car, yet the sky was clear and the sun was strong. This wasn’t an unfamiliar scene- I had spent many nights this winter and spring in the exact same spot, and I welcomed the cold weather. Cold weather meant more days of climbing. In fact, the forecast for the week looked so good that I organized my work around it at the last minute,  driving down from Seattle by myself to capitalize on what would likely be the last week of crisp conditions that would grace this area for months.

The route on my mind, the route that I had been essentially obsessing over since early March, was To Bolt or Not to Be. It is rich with history. It is America’s first 5.14a and, 32 years since its first ascent by J.B. Tribout, it has maintained that grade. Most other early 5.14s have been downgraded as hoards of strong climbers float up them, but To Bolt stands proud at its original grade. It is long and intimidating. Small crimps, terrible smears, and sharp side-pulls line the wall. The beta is complex and unique. Since the holds are so small, conditions need to be cold. Smith is sharp in general, but because you are bearing down on every single hold, To Bolt is particularly ravenous on the skin.

To Bolt is the only route I ever cared about trying before I  laid eyes on it. It is the epitome of the vertical, technical climbing I am most fond of and tests some of the attributes in climbers that I most admire – perseverance, footwork, finger strength, body tension and the ability to unlock and remember complex, individualized beta. I always assumed that the movement must be incredible. To climb To Bolt, in my mind, you cannot just be a strong rock climber, you have to be a good rock-climber. While that day would be my 15th day of work on the route, I had been dreaming of doing it for years.

However, I hadn’t felt ready to even try to top-rope the route for a long time. Luckily, I was able to get down to Smith a lot during the winter. I owe this all to my good friend and partner in crime on my To Bolt mission, Nic Thune. I have never met anyone quite so psyched on rock-climbing like Nic, and we quickly fell into a routine of making the long trip from Seattle, cooking dinners and belaying each other on our projects. I ticked off a lot of routes I had always wanted to try, including Kings of Rap, Time’s Up and Heinous Full. Two years ago I had sent Darkness at Noon- in many respects a much easier version of To Bolt-and a year ago I climbed Churning in the Wake. When I sent Rude Boys in the dead of winter, I gained some confidence. This was a route that had always intimidated me, mostly because it is my complete anti-style – bouldery and savage. Once I sent Rude Boys, the seed was planted to finally boot up for To Bolt. Even if I couldn’t do 90% of the moves, I needed to try it. Some people were surprised- if I wanted to do a 5.14a why didn’t I try some of the “easier” or “more approachable” routes in the park, like Scarface or Mr. Yuk? The thing is, I didn’t care about climbing 5.14a, I cared about climbing To Bolt.

The classic rose move on “Rude Boys”
Stretched out on Rude Boys
Clinging onto the arete on Kings of Rap. Photo by Micah Humphrey .

My first go on top-rope went better than I had expected. It took me an atrociously long time to get to the anchor, but that was not abnormal given the length of the route and how complex the beta is.  In particular, footwork is very individualized to body type. I had done all of the moves and the route was even better than I had expected. I absolutely loved the movement. I was throwing my feet high, back-flagging left and right and above all- crimping very hard.

However, I knew that if I decided to sink my teeth into this thing, I would likely fail this season. If I wanted a shot at success I needed to completely dedicate my climbing to this route, rearranging work and my social life around trips to Smith. To Bolt would have to be priority number 1, second to nothing else. When I first tried the route I was on the beginning of a 2-week long trip,  but after that, I would have to make trips from my home in Seattle- 6 hours one way without traffic. A route like this would also require some different projecting strategies. Normally, I like to throw myself at a project and try it as many times as I can in a day. This would not work on To Bolt. On just one go my skin was tender and throbbing. I would have to do a day on day off- something that can be hard for my energetic personality- and could not give it more than 2 goes a day. I had 16 days at Smith Rock in March but only was able to climb it 12 times. I was committed to the necessary schedule, but because I simply could not climb it enough, I was nervous that I would not have the time needed down here to map the neural pathways necessary to remember the beta. The fact that I was trying it relatively late in the season- it was sure to get hot in April- increased the pressure that I felt. Even if all of this did magically come together, the chances of simply slipping off of any odd foot because I didn’t place the correct molecule of rubber perfectly on some  particular grain on any given foothold felt high.  All of the factors that needed to come together for me to send – fitness, conditions, time, skin, luck -compounded with how few goes I could give it in a single trip -overwhelmed me. Failure seemed inevitable.

As I started to work the route, my self doubt only grew. I found that bolts 3-7 were intense and difficult.  Linking felt  like it would be impossible- and that was only to bolt 7! A lot of people say the principal crux occurs at bolt 9; how would I ever get there? After that, there are 4 more bolts of 12d/13a?! I had only done 13 routes graded 13a or harder, only two of which were 13c. Watching videos of two rock climbers I look up to,Nina Caprez and Paige Claassen, working To Bolt both motivated and disillusioned me. I had seen and climbed with Nina before; she is insanely strong and talented. Sure she sent To Bolt very fast, but I am nowhere near her level of ability. Was I ready for America’s first 14a? Even if I was, what was the point? The weather was going to get hot, my skin was already essentially  reduced to hamburger meat, and I would walk away without having climbed on anything besides this route. Maybe I would get weak on it. Did I really not want to climb any of the other routes and return to this later? Again, thinking of the route as a whole overwhelmed me. I had to break this thing down into small goals.

The end of a hard sequence from bolts 3-4. I ended up really enjoying the beta I found here. Photo by Simon Carter’s Onsight Photography
Occasionally conditions were.. too cold?!

After 8 days of work on the route, I had still only linked to the 6th bolt. The intense pain in my fingers made trying to do longer one-hang links difficult since I often would succumb to skin pain. At the end of my spring break, I was forced to go back to Seattle for a week, which might have made all the difference. It gave me time to focus on my work, allowed calluses to form and skin to heal, and gave my body a break from intense crimping. In the moment, though, I felt that taking a week off the route would make me forget all of my beta. To try to counteract this, I visualized the route daily. This technique became crucial even while I was at Smith, allowing me to make the most out of the precious few goes my skin would allow me to have. During my break, I found out that I was awarded the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, a highly coveted fellowship. The award is prestigious and competitive, I did not expect to get it. This gave me confidence in other respects of my life, made me proud of myself, and reignited the passion I have for my work when I realized others in science found it meaningful and important.

When I came back to Smith I immediately pushed my high-point up to the 7th, and I felt very strong. I was ecstatic. This was the first time I actually believed I might be able to do the route. Unfortunately I only had 2 days, so I tried to climb the route two days on, which didn’t work very well. I had pushed myself a lot on my first day and the weather was warm, increasing the amount of skin loss I was already experiencing. On the second day I got to my highpoint, grabbed a draw, curled up into a ball and cried because of the sheer pain emanating from every single fingertip.

The next weekend I came back, I was able to one hang to the 9th bolt, but did not push my highpoint up much further. This time I was smarter about my skin and only tried the route once on my second day on and twice on my first day on. I had enough in me to amnesia flash Karate Wall, one of the best 12c’s I have ever done, ever. It felt good to climb on a different route than To Bolt.

Nic Thune dancing up “Last Waltz.” I tried this route at the end of a particularly vicious day on To Bolt, and did not get very far.
A very strong climber and friend trying the classic “Just Do It”
Mikey Schaefer up high on Scarface

I returned to Seattle, worked, and came back for another two days at Smith. This weekend was important. I high-pointed to the 9th two times in a row on my first day on, and on my second day on I even got to the 11th! I  had only been past the 10th bolt maybe four or five times, so I really had no idea what I was doing and definitely punted off. However, I had never tried so hard in my entire life, both physically and mentally.  I had to dig deep, deeper than I realized I could go. I was so exhausted by the time I had stuck the 9th point crux move that I couldn’t find some of the holds I used for the next sequence and just made something up on the fly- grabbing flakes of rock like crimps-that shockingly worked. Even if I didn’t send, I told myself, climbing to the 11th on that go was the hardest piece of rock I’d ever scaled and I was proud of myself. That was go #26.  We didn’t get home until 3 AM.

Stretched out near the 9th bolt crux. Photo by Simon Carter’s Onsight Photography

I re-arranged my work schedule to capitalize on the next – and possibly last- week of cold weather. So, two days later, on my 27th birthday, I woke up back in Smith. People told me I was a bit crazy and perhaps a wee bit irresponsible, and maybe I was. But, to be honest, I didn’t really care. This was my shot and I was going to take it.

I had a mission that day- I was going to rap into the top to suss out the beta in the upper half of the route, without having to sacrifice skin on the lower portions. As I mentioned, last weekend I had made it to the top – where the difficulty eases up- but fell because I had forgotten my beta. That would not happen again, I vowed. If I ever made it to the 10th- where two slopey pockets represent the one “rest” after performing 60ish moves of 5.13+ rock climbing- I would send the route, or I would at least fall while actually climbing well. I glanced at my skin. It honestly had not looked good for the past 6 weeks. I pushed on the tips with my forefingers. It was tender, but my pain tolerance was increasing.

I cruised to the 8th and slipped off suddenly. I then one-hung it to the 10th. The same thing happened on my second go- a sudden foot slip while feeling strong. My nerves crept up on me- why was I slipping off? Bad body tension? Bad beta? A douse of bad luck? Was I regressing? I tried my best to not fixate on it- I had slipped before in random parts of the climb, that is just the nature of the route. I did make a mental note to myself to try some beta that another climber who was working the route, badass Monique  Forestier of Australia, was doing.

I climbed with a couple that I had met just last weekend. They could sense my nervousness and recognized my self-doubt. They let me talk non-stop about the route and once they realized that it was my birthday invited me over for dinner, so I didn’t end up eating alone at camp. Both of them were strong climbers, on the beginning of a road trip. More importantly, they were good people who instantly showed me support and comfort. I also had a great time sharing beta with Moinque and had good conversations with her and her husband Simon Carter, a professional photographer who took photos of me on the route. They both continually told me I had it in me to send, that it was only a matter of time. It seems like every time I go on a trip by myself, I run into the best kinds of people.

The next day I went out I climbed with a great friend of mine, Brittany Goris. We had gone on a trip to Mexico together in December – a trip that in many ways was the opposite of my current Smith ventures. While I climbed well there, The focus instantly centered on friendship and making memories. I was in a tight community where, despite just having met, we all loved each other and had loads of fun together. Now, my focus was deeply  internal and my motivation came only from within. I wanted to push myself, discover my limits, test my passion and fulfill deep personal goals. Brittany is one of the strongest climbers I know and has an extremely vibrant, honest personality.  Her love for climbing and eagerness to push herself inspires me. I knew she understood what I was going through and I was excited she was around.

Kneepads, limestone, and tequila- a whole different world in Mexico. Still, excellent climbing to be had, like here on Ayotzinapa.
Brittany Goris cruising Techo del Tecolote. I pulled through the crux and had a lot of fun messing up all of the right beta

The day was sunny and because I was breaking in new shoes I decided to climb two warm-ups instead of my usual one. On my first go I fell again at the same spot as last time. I tried Monique’s beta, liked it better, and quickly adopted it. On my second go, I thought I might send- I linked through all of the hard sections only to have my left-hand index finger mysteriously slide off of a hold. I was sick of sliding off and decided to never use that hold again. I then one-hung the route for the first time, solidifying my upper beta. I was tired, though when I got to the anchors and, since this was the 2nd go of the day, figured I would throw in the towel- there was still one more day of good weather. As I lowered, though, around 6 PM, I decided to do it again. Those two goes were way too good, and I still had some skin left. Conditions were only improving and I always seem to climb best on my very last goes of the day. I would belay and rest for an hour. If my skin hurt more than usual in the first few moves, or if I felt fatigued at the first hard move, I would stop.

By the time I started up the route at 7:15 PM the park had emptied out. On previous attempts, I had attracted quite a large crowd, which never really bothered me or changed how I climbed, but it always made leaving the ground a little more nerve-wracking. It felt more relaxing to be just with my belayer. Just another training burn.

When I got to the 4th bolt, the hard move that usually is an accurate indicator of my fatigue felt remarkably easy. Pretty soon the coveted flow state kicked in and  I climbed fast, strong and confidently.  The next thing I knew I was at the 10th bolt rest. I had done all of the very difficult climbing. Although I welcomed the chance to stop climbing, shake out and mentally prepare for the rest of the route, I now became cognizant of the building pump in my arms. Despite this, I realized where I was- this was my shot to send- but felt relaxed and focused. I had one false start, in which I started to move but then decided to return back to the resting hold; I made a monumental mental effort to not let that false start get the best of my nerves. I was tired but probably didn’t look it. If you look tired on To Bolt, you will fall off. I made it through the last 5.13 move at bolt 10, finding micro rests on my way up. Bolts 12-14 are characterized by big lock offs to decent slots, and one last, final insecure traverse. I didn’t have these moves dialed by any means, unlike the first half,  but I more or less knew what I had to do. The flow state was on overdrive and I danced up the wall, tired but never hesitant. Once I passed a very insecure bump at bolt 13 and clipped bolt 14, I trusted the last final bad foot, grabbed a good pinch, and then the arete. I had never climbed so well in my life. I had sent.

Last final cranks before the 10th bolt rest. Photo by Simon Carter’s Onsight Photography
The highest foot of my life near bolt 6, right after the tricky undercling sequence.  Photo by Simon Carter’s Onsight Photography
Near bolt 7, another section in which I really enjoyed finding strange beta that worked.  Photo by Simon Carter’s Onsight Photography

I turned the arete and instead of standing on top of the rock and cheering, I leaned into it, sat down and began to cry. I didn’t feel like I had conquered To Bolt, I felt like To Bolt had deemed me worthy enough to climb it.  I have never felt so emotional about a rock climb in my life. I looked out to a nearly empty Smith Rock as the sun was setting and felt joy. I lowered down and realized Brittany was crying too. I gave her a big embrace and looked up at my rope. I then began to cheer and dance. I ran up to a rock that was nearby and gazed up at the route. I called Nic, my principal partner on the route, and blubbered the news to him.

I am proud that I sent to Bolt. I am proud that I worked insanely hard, uncovered my own beta and never let my self-doubt become bigger than my passion and motivation. It was worth everything.  I am driven, strong and self-reliant. However, without Nic, there is no way I would be writing about my success. He came down with me every weekend and became invested in the process as well. He talked me down when I came off of route flustered. He reminded me of my good moments when I exclaimed I would never do the route. He motivated and inspired me by sending almost everything he tried in a quick hurry.  He dealt with me constantly talking about how I felt, or about conditions, or how horrific my skin was. He taught me about rope work and helped me build out my Subaru to make the long cold nights more comfortable.  I don’t think I know anyone who loves climbing more than Nic does. While To Bolt taught me a lot about myself and about climbing, it also taught me a lot about partnership.

As I tied in on my send go, Mike Doyle walked by. He is an excellent, professional rock climber and sent To Bolt years ago. We had a short conversation in which he remarked that to climb To Bolt you don’t have to be 5.14a strong, you have to be 5.14a good. I agreed with him, tied in and sent.

I am not trying to be humble, but I really do not believe I am 5.14a strong. I don’t even think I am 5.13d strong. Maybe I am occasionally 5.13c strong.  But I do know that I am 5.14a stubborn, 5.14a good, 5.14a driven and more in love with rock climbing than I ever have been in my life. This gives me meaning,  confidence, strength, and joy,  for which I am eternally grateful. On to the next great obsession…

Olsynium douglasii and a Lomatium species at Skull Hollow, where we would camp
Fritallaria pudica near Smith
Taking in the view on Kings of Rap. Photo by Micah Humphrey .

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

-Theodore Roosevelt

2 thoughts on “To Bolt or Not To Be”

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