I spend a great deal of my time with young climbers. Most have boundless energy and seemingly unlimited potential as climbers. Despite all their physical strengths, I cannot spend enough time stressing the importance of learning as much as they can each time they touch rock (or plastic). While it is good to focus on areas like power and endurance, the more time I spend climbing, the more I am learning the value of knowledge.
Case in point:
7 years ago I had been climbing for a few months and was quickly getting stronger. There is an area at the predominantly quartzite Devil’s Lake called the Old Sandstone area that features some great sandstone climbs. I went with a few friends to Old Sandstone and we got on a classic 5.8 crack called Curving Crack. The name aptly describes the 60 foot line that follows the gently rightward curving crack.
At this point in my climbing progression I had not climbed on sandstone ever, nor had I really climbed cracks at all (although Curving is not exclusively climbed by using the crack). Despite climbing harder grades in the gym, I found Curving Crack to be quite difficult. It was so difficult in fact that I could barely muster the energy to complete the tough lieback moves at the top of the crack. I spent the next 7 years convinced that this must be the hardest 5.8 on Earth.
Fast forward to this past weekend at the Old Sandstone area. In the 7 years since my initial experience with Curving Crack I had learned a great deal about different rock types, movement, hold types, technique, injuries and numerous other aspects of climbing that have allowed me to climb smarter and harder with less overall effort.
This time as I prepared to climb Curving Crack I was roping up to lead it on natural gear, something I had just started learning about earlier in the month of September. As I was racking up I found that I was feeling a little bit unconfident that I could climb the route without falling based on my 7 year old memories of the difficulties up high. Was the top section too slopey and pumpy for me to climb comfortably? Most of my gear leads have been on quartzite and I had also never lead a crack of this size, would the gear be easy to find and place? Setting off I wouldn’t say that I was nervous but my level of focus was certainly heightened.
The bottom is fairly easy climbing on bigger holds around the crack, and I was able to place a nut and a #2 C4 pretty quickly in the first 20 feet. I climbed for about 15 more feet before I realized that I should probably find another placement. As I stood on two small footholds I struggled to process the crack before me. It was relatively thin on the outside but quickly opened up in back. This was not a placement I was familiar with. Should I keep climbing and hope for a better placement I asked myself. No. I was already too high from my last piece I reasoned (I could hear my belayer commenting to someone about the runout as well). I should just stick with it and figure it out. It was at that moment that I realized that the older version of my climbing brain would have freaked out in this moment, and I would have probably tried to retreat or sought some other escape. Instead I calmly adjusted my feet as necessary and figured out how to finagle in another cam.
Phew, problem solved….except I still had to tackle the last 20 foot section which looked intimidatingly wide and hard to protect from the ground…plus there were those nagging memories about this top part being the hardest 5.8 climbing in all the land…
Fortunately, I found that overcoming the initial doubt that creeped into my mind at the first hard placement had increased my confidence to the point where I found the rest of the route was actually quite easy. I was able to calmly climb the lieback moves and place gear without feeling uncomfortable in the slightest.
The completion of this route wrapped up a month in which I spent every weekend pulling down on real rock refining my trad climbing skills on a variety of different routes. I am almost positive that this is the first time in 7 years that I have climbed 5 straight weekends on real rock and it was really incredible to re-connect with the climbing at Devil’s Lake. I may not be sending the hardest I ever have numbers wise…far from it I guess. However, I feel very strongly that I am climbing the best I ever have simply based on the climbing knowledge that I am able to tap into each time I leave the ground.