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The Sensei

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Photo by Chris Van Leuven


Most top climbers aspire to free El Cap once in their lifetimes. Justen Sjong has already made two free ascents of El Cap and is well on his way to his third, the Muir Wall (VI 5.13c), which he hopes to complete in the spring of 2006. In April of 2004, he freed his first El Cap route, the Salathé Wall (VI 5.13b/c) with Adam Stack. Soon after, in June 2004, he freed Golden Gate (VI 5.13b) from the ground up with Steve Schneider. Not content to just free hard big walls, he established Tower of Power (5.14c), a sport climb in Jailhouse (California) in November 2004.

During the years that he coached at the Boulder Rock Club, the climbing team dominated the JCCA. He has trained such young guns as Daniel Woods, Emily Harrington and Adam Stack. In need of a good wall partner, he recruited Stack who he says was “ … a spastic teenager that could barely walk without tripping.” Reflecting on his and Stack’s team free ascents of the Leaning Tower’s Westie Face (V 5.13b) in March 2004, then the Salathé, Sjong says “Adam is one of the more knowledgeable folks up on the Big Stone.”

At 33, Sjong has been climbing since he was 20. He resides in Redwood City, California, with his wife, Angele, (a 5.13 climber herself). He is taking a hiatus from managing the Touchstone San Jose Gym to pursue climbing full time.

What got you into climbing? Where did you start?I started climbing at Index, Washington. I bought a pair of Boreal Ninjas, ‘cause they were the cheapest ones (laughs). I also bought a British book about climbing. It talked about twin ropes, so I bought some twin ropes and a belay plate. The book didn’t put much emphasis on harnesses, so I had a swami belt. This was in ’92. I was pretty out of touch. Then eventually – not quite a year – I ran into Tom Danc, a proud Hungarian. He taught me the fundamentals of trad climbing, and I’ve been obsessed ever since.

Which climbers inspire you?That’s a good question. I admire Lynn Hill for her ambition to play not just against women but everybody, and her ability to be amazing all around. Peter Croft I admire for his modesty, Tommy (Caldwell) for his hard work. I admire anyone who tries hard. It’s amazing to watch someone put it on the line and just go for it.

Do you feel like you are still improving?I feel like I’m not necessarily always improving number-wise. Skill-wise I always try to improve. There are so many facets to master. I don’t put a lot of emphasis on numbers. I never have. By trying to improve my mental skills, my physical skills will just naturally go up.

What was the worst food you ever ate as an impoverished climber?I never really lived that lifestyle (laughs). For a while I was a vegetarian because I couldn’t afford to buy meat. No, I can’t say that I’ve eaten much gross food (laughs again).

What’s the worst thing that ever happened to you while climbing?The stupidest thing is I didn’t finish tying into my rope a couple times within a two-week period. Once was on a 13+ project that I dogged. And the other was on a 12b roof crack that luckily I onsighted (laughs). In my second year of climbing I did the Nose. It was pretty well over my head. Up there on the Greybands – it was late at night and I was supposed to make an anchor for my partner to come over and I was so dehydrated I was hallucinating. I couldn’t make an anchor. My partner had to just come over and make the anchor for me. That was definitely messed up.

Have you had any climbing injuries? Do you practice any preventative exercises?I’ve been very lucky not to have any chronic injuries. It might just be genetic. Sure I feel my fingers once in awhile and that sort of thing. I’ve been very lucky. I don’t do a lot of power training; instead, I do a lot of long endurance stuff.

You freed Leaning Tower and El Cap with Adam Stack. How did you find these experiences?I get great pleasure out of watching the kids that I coach succeed. It’s very entertaining to see how Adam goes about things. There are a lot of things from when he was 13 that haven’t changed now that he’s 20. It helps that we’ve been friends for a long time. I know exactly what he knows and what he’s capable of doing, which is very helpful up there. It worked out great for both of us. At first I was nervous doing it with Adam, because at first he wasn’t the worlds greatest crack climber. It wasn’t easy for me either.

Do you ever have any doubts or fears? I have fears of not being able to meet other people’s expectations. I don’t like to be judged, just like no one else likes to be judged. Everyone has bad days and a lot of people don’t realize that good climbers have bad days too.

How do you keep going when you are completely fried and want to give up?It’s hard to make sure the mind is in control of the body when the body is hurting. I’m willing to accept that pain if I really want that success. A lot of people just let go, and I’m there too – sometimes I just let go.

Fall 2004 you started work on the Muir Wall. How close are you to freeing it?I feel confident, and am waiting for perfect conditions.

How does the Muir Wall compare to the other free lines you have done on El Cap?I think it’s a far superior line to both the Salathé and Golden Gate. And I’ve also been on the Zodiac. You have to bring a big rack up and plug in a lot of gear. On the Salathé there’s a bunch of rock scrambling to a hard pitch up high. Golden Gate meanders all over. This is a more direct line. It’s amazing and sustained. You need a lot of cams, and it eats up RPs and HB offsets too. It’s never dangerous but it definitely keeps your attention.

In 2004 you went to Alaska and fired the first ascent of a V 5.11+ (with Tim Kemple and Adam Stack) in the Arigetch Range. Would you go back, or do you have any ideas for another expedition?Maybe I’ll go back in a couple of years. I’m planning to go to the Karakorum in the summer of 2006. I’d like to do Shipton Spire or maybe Great Trango.

You established the 5.14c, Tower of Power, what’s it like?It’s long, pumpy and constantly steep. It’s a killer line. You have to keep yourself together till the bitter end. It requires throwing your knees in left and right and keep crawling up. I’d be psyched to see someone repeat it and find out if it’s actually 14c.

Are there any routes that you wanted to do but were unable to complete?It’s that age-old climbing issue that your hit list gets bigger the longer you climb. Recently, I’ve been able to quit my job and climb more thanks to my wife. So being able to finish off all those undone projects is a lot easier in recent times.

Ever have a nickname?In Colorado I was known as Crusty because I’m not a morning person. In California, the guys at Jailhouse call me Sensei.

What are your future goals?I’d like to establish a free line on El Cap. I want to tick off more mid 5.14’s. I also would like to onsight 13c, and do 14a in a day.

Do you have any advice for aspiring big-wall free climbers?Learn to be comfortable on the wall. Don’t approach it like a trad climb, because it’s more of a project. Get used to being up there and get used to jumaring. Be creative. It’s a lot of work and don’t think it’s going to be easy.