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The Saddest “Day” in American Rock Climbing

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Aka How I learned to climb steep rock—the hard way

Imagine a world where overhanging climbing is barely a thing. There are no drop-knees, no kneebars, no soft, downturned shoes; no bouldering caves at the gym (because there are no gyms), no super-steep lead swells; no Rifle, no Hell Cave, no Mother Lode, no Clark Mountain. Just lots of cracks, thin vertical faces, and slabs, with maybe—just maybe—the occasional roof.

This was rock climbing in America in the 1980s, the period when I learned to climb. The stone around Albuquerque, New Mexico, where I grew up, was either granite (tends toward vertical) or volcanic—columnar basalt and welded tuff. The bulk of my climbing was on the scruffy boulders in the foothills of the Sandia Mountains above town, where I could session with friends after school. Wearing high-top rock shoes, we stood on gerbil-teeth crystals and tugged on razor-sharp crimpers and black xenolith knobs. For sport climbing, we had Cochiti Mesa, with its off-vertical tuff dotted with shallow pockets. On angles vertical and below, we did O.K.—and even up to five or so degrees overhanging. Beyond that, however, we were hopeless, our feet scrabbling for purchase, arms quivering, butts stink-bugging in the air. This probably sounds familiar to anyone trying overhanging climbing for their first time ….

In my junior year in high school, one of our band, Lance Hadfield, suggested we go down to the Box Canyon southwest of Socorro, New Mexico. I’d only been there once before, in summer, with the New Mexico Mountain Club. Our trip leader told us to wear blue jeans and flannel shirts as a protective layer against the bloodthirsty No-See-Ums that breed in monsoonal pools along the canyon floor. It hadn’t worked: The bugs feasted on our hands, necks, and faces while we sweated under all those clothes. We did a few pitches—naturally on the area’s slabbiest wall, the Corner Block—then bailed. It was a misery, and I vowed never to return.

Beyond the Corner Block, Socorro’s walls are mostly overhanging. And other than Lance, who’d been there a few times before, none of our crew had a clue how to climb them. It wasn’t for a lack of youth or vigor, however: John Myrick was a high-school wrestler, bulging with muscle and with single-digit body fat. I was a workout fiend who was always either out for a run, on my bike, bouldering, or lifting weights. Jeff Ash was long and lean, with flowing, rock-star hair and precise footwork. And Lance had six-pack abs and fingers of steel, and was probably a double-digit boulderer before that, too, was a thing—the only bouldering rating system available then was the clumsy B-Scale (B1: 5.10 and up; B2: A difficult problem, only climbable by a few; B3: A problem climbed only once by one climber, and that immediately drops to B2 if it’s repeated). We should have been able to muscle our way out the overhangs, but even that remained elusive. Having all climbed 5.12 on vertical rock, we found ourselves flailing on 5.10s and 5.11s.

Those early forays to Socorro all blend, through the fog of memory, into one long day—what you might call the saddest day in American rock climbing. Here were the issues:

  1. We had no idea how to keep our hips into the rock. We climbed frontally, hips turned into the wall like frogs, the only way we knew how, which …
  1. Meant we had to lock every hold off while reaching up and feeling around for the next grip, which in an area with few visitors and no chalk meant …

3)   That we got hideously pumped, quickly, even on the many short, three- and four-bolt sport routes, which meant …

4)   That we were gripped out of our skulls, intimidated by the angle, over-grabbing the holds to create a feedback loop of further pump, then further overgripping, and so on, which meant …

5)  We could barely let go to clip, or at least to do so with what felt like a modicum of control, which meant …

6.)  That we fell, a lot, or at least grabbed the draws like punters while we tried to figure it all out.

John Myrick, who later became a climbing coach, in full 1980s regalia—high-top Scarpa rock boots, lycra tights, massive chalk bag—on Left Socorro Louie (5.10c), Minor Wall, Socorro, New Mexico. Because we were still learning to climb steep rock, pulling up rope on short climbs like this vicious three-bolter was inevitably terrifying. Photo: Matt Samet

Like I wrote higher, Lance had more experience on steeper stone, and we began to pay attention to how he moved, sometimes standing on the pinky-toe side of his shoe to bring one hip close to the wall and reach cross-body with that same hand. (This is called backstepping, despite that pimply-faced, rock-gym-belay-test deskie insisting that “backstepping” is actually when you get the rope behind your leg.) He was also more dynamic, deadpointing for holds so he could climb quickly up the leaning, pocketed walls. Lance, a few years our elder, patiently coached us, but really we were all learning together, figuring out this steep-rock thing as we went. I don’t recall any specific breakthrough; more just a gradual improvement, a learning curve and process until the movement began to feel more natural and I wasn’t shitting my pants at every clip, and was more intuitively backstepping, heel-hooking, heel-toe camming, and so on.

The summer after our season at Socorro, we visited the Enchanted Tower, one of the steepest crags in America. Here, the volcanic spire and outlying tilted walls protrude over piñon trees in a quiet canyon in southern New Mexico, the stone dotted with sinker pockets that make its 30-plus-degree-overhangs survivable. This was a whole, new level of steep, and on routes where today I’d be laughing my way up jugs (if a climb is 5.11c and overhangs 30 degrees, you know you’re going to be swinging around on monkey bars!), I found myself gripped stupid once again, locking off where I could have been dead-hanging, and pumping out, grabbing draws, taking whippers, turning recreation into terror. Still, we battled on, and after a few trips to the Tower we became more fluent in the style.

In 1990, during a break year between high school and college, I began working on a wildly undercut sit-start to a problem at U-Mound, the main bouldering area in the Sandias. It linked from an overhanging hand crack across a sloping shelf then tiny slimpers into a stand problem that involved lunging to a minuscule gaston. Working the traverse moves, I figured out an outside heel-toe cam on the shelf—I took my left foot, backstepped it on the ramp way off to my right to bring my left hip into the wall, heel-toed my shoe externally between the ramp and lip of rock above, and dangled my right foot in the air like a tail for counterbalance to reach the slimpers. For some reason, I felt like this move was “cheating”—maybe because I’d never seen anyone do such a thing. But the problem was hard for me; I needed every advantage.

“Crazy beta,” said my friend Lee Sheftel, whom I’d recruited to spot (we didn’t have crashpads yet, either) as I tried the problem one morning. “I’ve never seen that before—very creative!” And with that encouragement, I pulled it together and sent on my next try. As I topped out, I realized I hadn’t been cheating after all; I was simply taking the skills I’d spent the prior two years refining, and put them to work. All my suffering, fear, and flailing on overhanging rock had paid off. If you’re patient enough, they usually do.