I wanted the final 5 days of Project 365 to go off with a bang. I rolled into Las Vegas feeling like I had to deliver. Everyone I had been meeting kept asking me, “wow, have you gotten super strong after climbing that much?”.
Although I would always offer a feeble attempt at explaining that building strength hinges on adequate rest, something I was purposefully avoiding, I couldn’t just say “no” without feeling like an unworthy hack. Plus, I thought I had gotten a little stronger despite my schedule–so I had to set the bar high and hope that I could deliver in the end. I had Nick and Stefanie following me around with cameras, capturing my every move–which was comforting knowing that we would be tallying up good footage for the documentary, but it always drew inquiring glances from other people. When you climb with a crew shooting you, it’s tough to maintain a low profile.
Either you have to be super extroverted and tell everyone what you’re up to so they understand that despite the cameras, you’re not some stuck up jerk with an entourage, or just focus on taking care of business and risk being seen as some stuck up jerk with an entourage. I enjoy meeting people and talking about Project 365 but certain times are better for that than others–and when I am trying to send my project, I want to focus on not shattering my lower extremities rather than small talk–but at the same time I hate feeling like I am impinging on other people’s experience who are also out climbing! It usually works itself out naturally enough and nearby climbers turn out to be nice people who are psyched for our effort–but I worry about things. That’s what I do. It’s probably a good thing I don’t write stream-of-consciousness style.
Day 360: Our arrival in Las Vegas coincided with bitterly cold weather that was slotted to continue right until the last day of the project, after which point it was supposed to warm up and be pleasant again. I had inadvertently signed up to do the hardest climbing of the project, with daytime highs in the 30s. As we went out for a light day of 3rd class scrambling and bouldering in Red Rock Canyon, it snowed as we left the parking lot and began hiking.
I had been feeling dizzy all day. Stomach pain added to the building fear that I would wind up battling the flu, eaking out the last days of Project 365 with all the power and excitement usually associated with a wet sponge. Hitting up a climbing gym in between runs to the bathroom would be a pretty exciting way to finish, right?
Each time I would lean my head back to look up, my surroundings would spin. Nick asked me if I needed to turn back, but I felt that since my condition was miserable but not deteriorating, that I would press on. I found a boulder split by a hand crack and I was able to climb it by groping my way up and down the fissure, which was handy because if I had been climbing the face, having to look up for my holds, I probably would have wrecked myself in the process.
It was cold. But as I kept moving, I felt considerably better. “What will Jason think when he arrives in two days?” I wondered to myself repeatedly as we climbed up to the top of a large sandstone fin that allowed us a sweeping panorama of a million rocks that could be climbed. As the cold wind cut through my frankly insufficient layers, I worried that Jason might be bummed to have flown all the way from New York to Vegas only for the desert to be colder than the east coast!
Day 361: I woke up feeling considerably better. The dizziness and stomach pain were gone. I assumed that the flu couldn’t deal with listening to my worrying and anxiety and decided to find more hospitable quarters. My blood sugar was cooperative, so I kept my insulin routine the same as always. Split the Lantus into two half doses of 10 and 2-4 units of Humalog with meals. We would eat early enough that my bolus would peak and decline before starting the approach, so that helped keep lows at bay.
We decided to head out to work on my project, the hardest roped climb that I had attempted–ever–a gently overhanging, thin and sustained 5.12b called “Wedgie” of all things (hence the title of this post!). I began working on this route last February at the start of the project and while I had been close to sending, it had always eluded me. I had done all of the moves, but I had not been able to link them together without falling or hanging. I had been so close so many times that it began to feel like it was just not possible to be anything more than close. I spent so much effort working that route that it consumed me last winter and I had to step away from it, because it had started to get in my head and affect my confidence.
Here is some video of the process of shooting this climb last February…when it was a LOT warmer!
Red Rock Prime (behind the lenses) from Living Vertical on Vimeo.
This route faces south and on a cold day, it holds some of the best odds for finding any warmth in the canyon. As we hiked up to the base of the route, I tried to remember the sequences and moves from last year. I wondered if it would feel easier or harder. ‘Maybe I’ll get it on my first go. That will be sort of anti-climactic.’ I thought.
Last February when I attempted this route, my sugar had been running high and I thought that may have been contributing to my failure to send. Now, my sugar was good, hovering between 100-120…if only I could just get the sun to come out…
We got to the base of the route and all of the nearby warm-ups were occupied. It was overcast, so it felt like 30 degrees and the wind did little to help the situation. I was immediately distracted by the other people climbing. I felt frustrated that I had to perform with the pressure of other people watching. I had failed in my mind before I ever tied into the rope. In my haste and poor judgement, I decided to skip warming up on an easier route before I got on my project. I bouldered around and did some calisthenics hoping that it would be good enough. It was so cold and I could see snow blowing in from across the canyon. I decided to just give it a try and hope that I could climb through the crux fast enough to cross this troublesome route off my list.
I tied in and climbed up to the ledge below the first bolt where the hard climbing started. I clipped in and got about three moves further before I hesitated. Either I had gotten weaker or the route had gotten harder. Maybe both. It seemed so foreign and the only familiar bit was how infuriating the complete lack of footholds were. When I say there are no footholds down low on the route, that’s not an exaggeration. It’s smooth as a turtle shell down there. I pulled down on the starting hold, stabbing at footholds and found nothing. I stabbed at tiny rugosities with my feet, my flailing legs resembling those of a ventriloquists dummy.
The holds were small. Not really handholds, more like fingerholds. I felt the sharp, thin crimps biting into as much of my fingertips as I could cram onto each hold–and it hurt. My fingers were so cold that I couldn’t fully feel anything except searing pain when bearing down hard on a tiny hold. All I could think was that if I made one move further and fell, I would hit the ledge below and break my foot. Stefanie broke her foot leading back in 2007 on a similarly protected route and I got to sit through her arduous and painful recovery. I couldn’t afford to take the chance of getting injured with 4 days remaining.
I felt humiliated. I felt like a coward as I desperately down-climbed to avoid falling and then sagged onto the rope. Why couldn’t I do it? I knew I had gotten stronger and I felt sure that this route was physically within my limits. Violently shaking my hands out, I willed the blood and feeling to return to my hands. I kept throwing myself at the opening moves and failing to get past that first bolt. The first 30 feet held the hardest concentration of moves–I had to get through that and still have energy to complete the upper half of the route. I had expected to cruise the hard part at the bottom and simply conserve enough energy to make it through the top half. Instead, it was back to square one. This was worse than last winter. Great. What a way to finish the project–public humiliation.
I had gotten cut down to size. I hadn’t made it past the opening moves of the route and I had 4 days to make it happen. Everyone was watching the project now and another type 1 climber (Jason) would be flying in from across the country to climb with me. I had dragged Nick and Stefanie and all their camera gear out to shoot me flailing and hanging on the first bolt. As I felt completely unworthy of anyone’s attention having failed completely—it started pounding snow. That seemed a fitting end to the day and we packed up to go back to Nick’s place for the night.
It was pretty quiet in the car on the drive back. I don’t think that my feelings were well concealed despite the absence of words. I can deal with failure–I can’t deal with self-defeat. If I go out and give my best effort and it is beyond me, then so be it. But I was held down not by a lack of physical strength but because of my mind’s weakness. I didnt let myself go all out because I was afraid. The holds were small, but I did not actually fall off–I had hung there dithering about trying to find an easier, more secure way to climb through the hard moves to safety only to down climb and let go.
Three hundred sixty one days of climbing and I was still myself. The same old, self defeating, self loathing–no matter what I did, I was still me. Climbing forces you to look at yourself honestly–in the best and worst light. At the end of the day, you cannot obfuscate the truth when you are taking stock of your own performance–and sometimes what you find is not what you want to see.
Back at Nick’s house that night I started watching the footage from last February to see what I had done differently. I got over the days failure and put my effort into visualizing my success on the crux sequence. Next time I went out, I would dial in the moves and just go for it.
Day 362: We slept in and tried to take an easy day of bouldering in order to recover.
In the sun it was reasonably warm and it felt so good, but my mind was preoccupied with sending my project. I stayed on easy boulder problems as a result–which also helped me conserve my power for the following day–because Jason would be arriving from New York and I wanted to be as fresh as possible, not haggard and discouraged. I spent a lot of time reviewing video again that night, hoping that if I could fully visualize my success through the crux that I would simply go out the next day with Jason and send it.