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An Obsession

“A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.” the Psalms

October 29th 2015

My stomach is in knots. I’m walking into Black Velvet canyon to solo Frogland. I don’t believe it would be all that hard, but I often get a case of the nerves before a solo. The moment I step off the ground, my nerves became calm and I began floating up the route. Frogland went well. I enjoyed it. As I climbed I fooled around taking pictures and was generally quite relaxed except for a few sections. The one spot I was concerned with (I’d climbed the route 2.5 years earlier), a slabby traverse, I avoided by traversing low. While walking off from Frogland I scoped out the Epinephrine descent – I was curious given the fact I screwed up the decent, the one time I’d climbed the route 6 or so months ago. It was simple, I can’t believe I missed it.

Frogland took me a mere hour and twenty minutes to climb. My speed was casual; I took breaks and messed about. Once down from the climb I was faced with a decision. Should I solo Epinephrine? This question has been weighing on my mind for years now. In the beginning, it was a dream, like climbing free climbing El Capitan or going the Olympics – something you dream of but know for certain would never occur. Two and a half years ago when the idea first occurred to me, I’d soloed very little and would have never believed I’d actually do it. It would have been suicide. At that point I just wanted to climb Epinephrine, and that alone took me two years. Over the last year I began soloing easy routes in Red Rock regularly. That’s when the dream began to take serious root in my conscious.

“Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion…I go to them as humans go to worship. From their lofty summits I view my past, dream of the future and, with an unusual acuity, am allowed to experience the present moment…my vision cleared, my strength renewed. In the mountains I celebrate creation. On each journey I am reborn.” Anatoli Boukreev

The problem of course is the Epinephrine is the classic stout solo. That is to say, it’s hard. For Red Rock it’s difficult 5.9 and it’s long, steep, and sustained. That wouldn’t be an issue if I was a crusher, but alas I’m not. I’m a moderate climber with big ambitions. My only stand out skill is that I’m relatively bold – but I’d far prefer to be strong. More or less it’s probably too hard for me to be within the realm of a safe solo. Which is a problem – a big problem, if I were to solo it. My hardest onsight, Mushroom People, was a one move wonder 5.10+ and was far and away my hardest onsight. I think an honest assessment would put my Red Rock on sighting ability, when fresh, at around 5.10b, which makes Epinephrine two grades below my on sight ability – a damn thin margin.

“A man who says he has never been scared is either lying or else he’s never been any place or done anything.” Louis L’Amour

I’m obsessed. When my mind wanders it wanders to soloing Epinephrine. I search for answers, climbing the route in my head time and again. I weigh my desire against my concern. I am not suicidal. For me falling to my death is the worst of nightmares. I’d like to die at exactly age 100 in my sleep – not rag dolling off a cliff. If I thought it would happen, I wouldn’t do what I do. However, I’d be a fool to believe there isn’t a chance it could happen. The fear and danger helps make climbing what it is. Climbing is a special pursuit because it flies in the face of humanities greatest fears, death and heights– insuring it doesn’t become football or some other inane sport. Managing and battling with those fears makes climbing as intellectual and psychological as it is athletic.

In my heart of hearts I know I’m going to try and solo Epinephrine. I also know it’s insane. Up to this point my solos have been mostly safe. I honestly believe that. Yes, perhaps a time or two I’ve run into something that I didn’t expect or had something go sideways, but that doesn’t necessarily suggest the absence of an acceptable safety margin. I’m seriously concerned I’ll be abandoning that margin if I solo Epinephrine.

“If you are out of trouble, watch for danger.” Sophocles 

I need to figure out a way to increase that far too small safety margin into something acceptable. I have a few ideas. Become mentally strong, aka, solo lots of routes. Become physically strong – go to the gym and train and boulder as much as I can. Become a better chimney climber – climb lots of chimneys. Gain endurance – climb lots of long routes, climb till pumped regularly.

I do all these things. I work up my soloing ability to 5.9 in Red Rock – only soloing one or two 5.9s. I purchase a membership at the new bouldering gym and wreck myself all summer long, getting stronger as the result. I head out to plumbers crack and climb it 12 times in a row – hoping that’ll improve my chimney technique. I don’t have to try to climb long routes – that’s my jam, I do that anyway.

“Man could escape danger only by renouncing adventure; by abandoning that which has given to the human condition its unique character and genius among the rest of living things.” Rene Dubois

What I should do, but haven’t, is climb Epinephrine several times with a partners, wiring the moves and fleshing out how safe or not I’d be when potentially rope-less. I want to, but it’s a matter of opportunity. One needs a willing and able partner and a car that gets down the rough road out there. Most climbers I know aren’t terribly interested in repeating it. Understandably so, it’s an exhausting climb.

In my mind I climb, practice, and train with this one goal. Solo Epinephrine. I still don’t know if I’ll ever do it. My training, however hard is half assed. In my mind I should be onsighting 5.11 sport routes with ease, floating up 5.10 chimneys, and climbing routes the length of Epinephrine with plenty of pep by the end of the day. I can do none of these things.

I’m afraid of telling people what I ponder doing. My doing so places a weight on their shoulders and gives them permission to inject doubt into my head. I know I want the decision to be mine and only mine. I want to do this climb for myself – not to impress others or because I talk myself into a position where I feel obligated to fulfill an idle boast. Still, I derive great benefit from talking ideas over with others. I find that a great help in fleshing out the weak points of my ideas.

“Risk is an essential dietary constituent.” Thomas Hornbein

One night, at the gym I have an in depth discussion with Patrick, a climber I don’t know well, despite having close mutual friends. Patrick and I are opposites. He’s strong, climbing 5.12 sport routes, but the idea of scary trad climbs, run outs, soloing or anything of that nature, is foreign and scary to him. We wind up talking at length and I really enjoy the conversation. I tell him I have this burning desire to solo a big hard route, but I’m torn. It seems at or over the edge of acceptable risk. When I suggest we should climb together sometime, I’m shocked he says he’d like to but, honestly he’s intimidated by me. I’m floored – I can’t ever remember being told I’m intimidating, and it boggles my mind to think someone that strong would be intimidated by me. I wonder, have I really strayed that far from a normal assessment of risk? That night I realize how badly I want to solo Epinephrine. It doesn’t make sense, it just is.

Only a few people know of my longing. I tell my dad in passing – he doesn’t grasp the significance and pays little attention. I talk about it at length with Micah, my housemate – he treats it the way I do, that’ll be damn dangerous, and advises I should do many laps prior to the solo. My partner Jake guesses my objective after a conversation similar to the one with Patrick, and tells me I’m out of my mind – a reasonable response. Jake actually took a huge whipper on Epinephrine, and he’s a 5.12 climber – when he broke a microwave sized hold.

That day after climbing Frogland I sit on a boulder and struggle. My logic and drive clash viciously. An opportunity has been handed to me; do I take it or walk away? I’m a naturally cautious person, people laugh, but it’s true. For me, risk taking was a learned behavior. I feel like I haven’t prepared enough to solo Epinephrine, but I feel this may be my best opportunity to do so. I prefer understanding every possible ramification of a decision before making it. Not to do so seems illogical to me. I’m hardly a natural ‘live in the moment’ type. I prefer to think my way to victory – not seize the moment and fly by the seat of my pants. I’ve learned however, that however illogical it may be, the second of these options seems to lend itself better to many personal decisions relating to life. It’s just one of those goofy things I wish wasn’t true.

Today, I’m in Black Velvet canyon because I have a car that’ll get my there with ease, a loaner while mine is getting fixed. This isn’t going to happen again. The temperature is perfect and the sun is masked by clouds, meaning I’ll need little water – a fantastic advantage on a route of this length. Silly as it may sound. I’m concerned that if I put off a solo of Epinephrine that’ll I’ll certainly do it further down the road, but with a borrowed vehicle, and that if I kill myself doing so, the person I borrowed the vehicle from would feel guilty because they enabled me. I don’t want that burden on a friend.

We don’t talk about death much in our culture. It’s morbid, so we say. I feel differently. I’m of the opinion one should constantly run a program in the back of your mind calculating the odds of death and trying to avoid it. I also believe an honest dialogue about death is equal parts interesting and healthy, especially if one engages in activities that are actually dangerous or seen as being dangerous. I think risk is healthy. I think it sharpens the mind and invigorates the soul. Our lives today are tamer than ever before in history-it’s actually kind of outrageous. We have it so good we’ve all gone soft. I don’t want to be like that.

I want to test myself. I desire to know my limits, physical, mental, and psychological. I want intensity, to explore the unknown, to understand fear and its ramifications. I hope that by doing so I might learn to better deal with other fears in my life.

I grapple with deciding for an hour and a half. I’m crazy. Why risk my neck for something and inane and useless as climbing? Why love something so pointless? I know the answer. The flow is addictive. I wonder what God thinks of this. I pray. I have no indication that God is for or against this solo. I believe he protects me. I’d like to think I have the best guardian angel in the business. I don’t believe that God’s protection insures that I’ll survive what I’m contemplating. Call it a paradox. My brother and I have a joke where we bombastically claim to be invincible – but it’s exactly that a joke and we know it.

The clouds in places are dark and stormy – threatening rain. This is a massive objective hazard. The Aztec sandstone that makes up my route, and all of Red Rock, becomes very weak when wet – if it rains while I am on route, my goose will be cooked. Latter the clouds drift away without rain. I decide that after two hours of agonizing decision making that I should at least walk to the base of Epinephrine – I’m not sure I’d forgive myself otherwise. Once at the base the inner turmoil replays itself. Never before have I been so uncertain about anything, or been so emotionally scrambled – I feel anxious and shitty. I decide that my drive to solo Epinephrine is going to be dangerous whenever it occurs and putting it off achieves little. I commit my soul to God, say a prayer and step off the ground.

Sometimes a solo feels like a prayer. Like I’m climbing my way closer to God – it’s so peaceful up there. Soloing demands perfection, drive, passion, and total commitment. It quiets my over active mind. It is the antithesis of modern life. A good solo is the closest thing to perfection I’ve felt in my entire life. A good solo is the very opposite of adrenaline. The first pitches before the chimneys flow by, I climb perfectly. Precision is everything. I reach the chimneys and throw myself at them forthwith.

“Nature for man is only truly manifest where danger, challenge, and exposure have not been shut up.” Reinhold Messner

The many times I visualized this solo I broke the climb down into bits, the most basic being the lower chimney pitches and the sustained long face climbing up high. One has to break something like this down mentally – a shear wall in excess of 2,000 feet high is just to terror inducing otherwise. When I onsighted the route with a partner, I led all the harder chimneys, and generally felt comfortable in them, but over exerted. I had a foot skate on me once, but I didn’t feel like I came close to falling. The upper face climbing pitches however, felt difficult. I was pumped up there. One of the cardinal rules of soloing is never, ever get pumped. Getting scared is unavoidable at times; getting pumped is a different story. Thus, I assumed that the real challenge would be in the upper pitches and that I could handle the chimneys, while not with ease, with little chance of falling. I reasoned that I’d never fallen in a chimney before.

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Thus, when I entered the first real chimney, I was in for a shock. It was hard, scary, and felt far more desperate than I had projected in my head. I still stand by my opinion, that it’s difficult to fall out of a chimney, but that belief did little to help me with the wave of terror that struck as battled my way up the chimneys. I was appalled by how insecure I felt. I had remembered working out rests in the chimneys, but this time around I found myself wondering how I pulled that off. My foot skated at the same spot it did the first time around, further unnerving me. Higher up, on the last chimney, the only one with good edges, I chose to face climb inside of the chimney as long as I could before turning and employing chimney technique. While changing techniques, I found the necessary 90 degree turn far more difficult than I imagined. It wound up taking tremendous effort to make the turn and resulted in my left foot slipping off a hold twice – something that’s never happened to me soloing. By the time I had managed the turn I was hyperventilating badly and felt like I’d just come out of a boxing match.

I pulled out of the last chimney, on to the top of the black tower. I was drained from the exertion. I ate the last of the food I had and consumed a second Gu, the first having been consumed half way through the chimney pitches. As I rested with my feet up, I replayed the first half of the climb in my head. I wasn’t too pleased. The margin wasn’t there. The face pitches above weighted heavy on my mind, but I was glad to be done with chimneys. At least I’d be using different muscles. I was worked – fear hadn’t let me climb in a relaxed manner and I had wasted tremendous energy. As I moved upwards I initially found the climbing thin, but it quickly changed and I discovered I was completely wrong about the face climbing pitches. They were fun, enjoyable climbing, rarely difficult, and generally juggy, if sometimes big moves. I was tired,  but this I could handle. I felt safe again. My body however, was still weak from over exertion. Still, I looked forward to the walk off where I could relax my concentration.

At the rare small ledge I took a photo of my feet as I gazed down on the exposure. It was hard to believe I was 1500 feet off the canyon floor. I was an insignificant blip on the wall, a mere speck in the universe waging a war for survival. For the first time I begin to believe I’d actually pull this off. That was more than mind blowing. The climbing still took serious thought – mostly I was concerned with keeping as many points of contact as possible, because I was face climbing and am always concerned with breaking holds. My body felt incredibly sore which made things more difficult, but manageable.

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Still higher on the wall I came to my last real obstacle, a 5.9 roof. As I climbed up to it I was happy, after this there would be nothing harder than 5.7 – home free territory. I climbed it with gusto, finally cutting my feet and swinging up up a leg to heel hook onto the terrain above. Shortly later when I topped out I checked my phone, it’d taken me three hours, twenty minutes. Not exactly fast, but not terrible for over 2k vertical feet of climbing. After all, I had spent a lot of time milking every rest, and had rested for nearly half and hour after the chimneys. The gravity of what I’d done sank in. It felt like I hadn’t done it. I thought of how impossible it was to convey what I had experienced to others.

I was glad. Glad to be free of my ambition and drive to do this crazy thing. Once and done. I resolved that this was as hard as I was going to push the soloing game for the rest of my life. I thanked God for his protection and heaved my wrecked body down the descent groaning along the way.

“He trains my hands for war, so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.” The Psalms

The below photos are all from other people climbing Epinephrine. They help illustrate what the route is like.

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Postscript: Soloing Epinephrine was a defining moment in my life. I’m inspired by many things about climbing, but the most basic of these is the movement. I’m not naturally graceful, but I’ve learned to be graceful climbing. For me, it’s poetry in motion. Soloing allows me to experience that to the fullest. It’s also the purest, simplest, cleanest, and boldest form of climbing. All these things made the experience incredible and something to be justifiably proud of. It was also dangerous as hell and I’ll never forget that. I’m a little embarrassed that I pushed it that close to the edge. I can’t say if it was a bad or a good idea. Perhaps it was neither. Can something be neither? Now all I can say that it was in me to do. Even though looking back it seems that I didn’t do it, like it was some strange dream, the experience changed me as a person. I’m calmer, more confident in myself,  less worried, and I feel less egotistical. Suffering and challenge are for me, a purifying experience. All of these are changes I’m deeply thankful for. People say climbing is useless, but I’d like to think that God used it for good.

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One response

  1. …read and will contemplate…wishing you well as always

    October 16, 2016 at 6:44 pm

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