“Just because winter has arrived in Colorado doesn’t mean that climbing has to come to a stop”, I thought as I was searching desperately for a partner to climb with on Saturday. It was my Thanksgiving Break, and most of my friends had either gone back home or decided to turn the hiatus into a ski-bum experience. I, on the other hand, had an incredibly strong allure to the rocks. My friends always give me a hard time for this. I just cannot get ‘into’ skiing or boarding. To me, snow and ice only add to the fun of technical climbing and mountaineering. I would much rather satisfy my craving for being outdoors at a slow pace vertically than at a fast pace horizontally. Nevertheless, I was bent on climbing at North Table Mountain, the closest local crag from where I was staying for Thanksgiving. It was also mostly Sport Climbing, the type that I love the most. Being able to climb a rock face that could otherwise not be protected is just awesome. If I cannot find anyone, I will just bring my crap and try to find another group to climb with. This is what I kept telling myself as I sent out e-mail after e-mail looking for someone. Finally, I got a response, the night before I planned to go to North Table. Fellow SP member Andy Leach and his wife offered to climb, and we decided to meet the next morning around 10.
I met up with the Leach family the next morning at the Golden Cliffs parking lot and we took off to the Brown Cloud Crag section of the cliff face. The day was perfect, not too cold and the sun shining in a cloudless sky. I was jittery and wanted to get going. I decided that 'Lemons, Limes, and Tangerines' (5.8) would be a great warm up. As I began to lead I fell back into the mental trap of imagining falling, and consequently made it not very far on the route before offering to run to the top and set up top rope. This is best part of the Golden Cliffs; if you find yourself in a jam you can always just walk to the top and set up top rope. I was disappointed with myself; I know I can climb this. Shit, I climb much harder than this usually!
The Offer of CrackI wasn’t too worried though. I knew that if I could get comfortable with the feel of the rock, I would be able to lead later. North Table Mountain rock has a weird type of feel to it. You know immediately once you grab the hold that it is solid and will go nowhere, but at the same time it feels well worn and used, creating a sense of insecurity. The hard and dark volcanic rock is much different from the gritty sandstone that I am used to in Garden of the Gods. Will my two fingers grip this enough to hold my body weight while I temporarily campus to the next move? is a common thought here as the temperatures rise and the holds seem to become even more greasy. It is this sense of uncertainty and the stiff ratings that always draw me back to North Table and makes it one of my favorite Front Range crags.
Soon Andy was rocketing up the same climb, with much less trouble than I had displayed while trying to lead this route. Claiming to be not that good a climber, Andy made quick and simple work of the face climbing on the route. We stayed in the area, climbing several of the so called ‘easier’ routes in the Brown Cloud Crags (such as Thelma 5.7). Andy led after I failed to complete a route again. I top roped the face, and with the extra security blanket of a rope above, I searched for the tinniest holds and hardest moves I could find on the face to get up to the top. I was in my element. This is what I love about sport climbing. Being able to lunge and do the hardest moves possible, on a face with little to no holds available. You can easily turn a 5.7 into a 5.9 by skipping holds, or using only three fingers, or moving slightly to the left. The power and the focus on the movements themselves is what make this niche of the climbing world awesome!
Andy had mentioned that he had his trad rack along with him, and he wanted to try to lead a 5.6 crack called ‘Killians Dead’. I had mentioned a 5.8 crack called ‘Big Dihedral’ right next to the first climb we did as a warm-up that we could top rope. Although not a big fan of trad climbing, I had no reservations or negative ideas about the climbing; other than the image of the occasional arrogant hard-core-trad climber I encounter at my college who denounced all forms of climbing other than trad. I actually enjoy the techniques of ‘filling the void’. Using ones hands as flesh caming devices to move up the weakness in the rock is brilliant. Once again, Andy claimed not to be a good crack climber, but this was not the case. I showed a few specific techniques that I used on this climb before that made it easier for me. The crack is wide at the bottom, perfect size for a comfortable hand jam sequence once the thumb is lowered. Near the top it becomes smaller and then flares, making hand jamming more difficult. Here you either have to fist the crack or lie back and walk up it. After Andy climbed the route, I also took a lap.
We had now come to the 5.6 crack that Andy was going to lead. Being a gear head I was quite interested in all of Andy’s gear and questioned him thourouly about the makes, models, and age of his rack. Andy showed me how he kept the mass of nuts, cams, and hexes organized on his belt. Soon after he took off up the crack. He struggled a little, but nothing out of the ordinary. Placing gear seemed like the most time consuming part of the climb but was also most important. Andy sent the climb with little problems and no major hitches, and I cleaned the gear behind him as I top roped the climb next. As my eyes were wandering to other bolted routes in the area, Andy asked if I wanted to try and lead. I felt really good about the climbing I had done earlier that day, was no where near pumped, and had already got a feel for the crack on top rope. There was no reason for me to say no, so I took Andy up on his offer.
The DealAfter some advice on placing gear and keeping it in order, I loaded my belt and began up the crack. I did not make it very high before I felt like placing a piece already. I put in a number 1 Camalot after struggling for a few minutes trying to find the right size piece, and then moved on. I felt much more comfortable once I had that first piece in. As I climbed, I stitched the crack like the face of Frankenstein. I even felt it was a little ridiculous to put that much pro in, but it was a learning experience for me, and quite honestly I was a little freaked out. The climbing was not hard, my hand jamming felt smooth and the footing was solid. What I could not get over was the fact that the gear that I was placing was supposed to hold me if I fell. This statement seems quite simple, but when you really think about it, you are one that has to make sure the piece of gear you put in holds. Even though this pro is supposed to be more bomber since you are the one placing it, I always feel more comfortable on a bolted climb. True the bolts are not always in the best shape, and you might not know the history of the route, but there is something about a hunk of metal bolted into a rock face that makes me feel comfortable.
I continued my gear placement and came to the crux of the climb, not feeling any different than before. I had to reach to place a handjam in the constriction above me, and then slowly shifted the weight to the handjam so that I could move upwards. It felt good at the time, but I knew I should have put my hand a little deeper in the crack. I could not reach it though, so I just went for it. My handjam came a little loose and I knew that it would not hold me much longer, so I yelled ‘take’ to Andy and tried to steady myself.
I am scared to death of falling, but for some reason was not frightened at all this time. I fell and did not even realize what was happening. You always hear stories of what goes through someone’s head when they are in the process of falling; it could be sadness that they made a mistake, fear that the gear or their partner will not hold them, or anger that they took an unnecessary risk. None of this entered my mind at all, in fact absolutely nothing came to mind. It was as if I had reached enlightenment. My mind was clear of absolutely everything. Granted my fall was quite small, only 6-8 feet, but I was surprised that I had not reacted differently. Below me, Andy had held the fall and it had not disturbed him at all. After the fall all I could look at and think about was the number 3 Black Diamond Camalot that had held me from falling any further. Not soon after a rush of adrenaline filled my muscles and created the ultimate buzz. No amount of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs can create the feeling of that. I felt at that moment invincible. I continued and finished the climb shortly after, feeling that I had conquered some large beast as I got to the top.
ReflectionsThis introduction to trad climbing had helped me face some of my worst mental fears and break through the barriers that they created. The funny thing was that I did not try to do this, it just happened. I led my first trad climb, took my very first lead fall, and finished the climb after the fall without being afraid. I know that next time I climb I will be faced with the same mental fears; falling on lead, not finishing a climb, etc. But for some reason, I feel more prepared now to face these feelings and cope with them positively, quickly, and in a smart fashion.
We are trained as climbers to never fall. Everything we do is to keep ourselves on the rock as best we can. All of the gear we use is so strong that it would only fail if we were an F-150 traveling at 30 mph. Every system is double checked and then checked again, all in an attempt to avoid a fall. It was nice to know that when I tried something new all of the gear worked flawlessly, and the only error made was on my part. This has strengthened my trust in the gear. That is not to say that I will be reckless from now on, relying solely on the gear that I use, but it will allow me to push my limits and develop into a better climber. I guess that this was less of a trip report and more of a reflection on some of the larger thoughts I have about climbing in general. Trad climbing has shown me many things, and I hope to continue this type of climbing in the future. I am sure that I will learn much more. I just hope I don’t go bankrupt buying gear and turning into a crack addict!