12 in 12: What I learned at Rifle

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If you’re an American sport climber, you’ve probably visited—or at least heard of—Rifle, Colorado.Here in Boulder, the name is tossed around without the slightest flinch by the strongmen of the community. But every time I heard that word over the past four years, I would cringe ever so slightly and feel that familiar wave of anxiety-induced nausea. I had never been to Rifle, and there was one simple reason: I was intimidated. The climbing is funky and weird, really polished with generally bad feet, long and powerful, and super-duper beta-intensive. Not really my style. But everybody seems to love it, so if I wanted to be a legit climber, I had to love it, too—or at least be decent enough to enjoy it.Any time there was talk of my virgin pilgrimage to this limestone mecca, I was met with smirking looks of near-pity. “It takes a while to get used to the rock” and “Don’t get discouraged if you don’t send anything” were the veiled warnings I received. Like a dry sponge begging for water, I soaked up every prophetic and damning word my elders and peers had to share, but in the back of my head I had a tiny hope that it wouldn’t be that bad. Over Memorial Day weekend, faced with crappy weather in our other targeted destinations, it was time to face my fear head-on.With three friends and three dogs, we arrived late Thursday night, psyched for four full days of climbing on this tricky limestone. (Just typing that sounds ridiculous: What fools we were to think that we, as mere mortals, could climb for four days in Rifle!) Towering canyon walls host hundreds of single-pitch sport climbs. Routes go from hard to très dificile, with zero easy climbs and a few moderates that are low-quality. All approaches are less than four minutes, and ample porta-potties, lush vegetation, and the pleasantly ambling Rifle Creek make this place a beautiful destination.

We started Friday morning on Feline (5.11a/b) as a warm-up and a “soft introduction” to Rifle climbing. Since I more or less consider myself a 5.11 climber, I knew I wouldn’t do it first go or even second go. I relaxed and just tried to get myself up the whole route on the sharp end. It really wasn’t too bad, actually. I figured out the crux and another small personal crux in less than three tries for each. I was pretty happy about that. We moved on to Pile Driver, an overhanging and pumpy, ca. 35-foot 5.11b that wasn’t too bad. I was feeling around for holds most of the time, taking at almost every bolt, and shaking out the pump, but did every move with little struggle. I started to feel confident—in no way, shape, or form did I have the endurance for this kind of climbing, but maybe I was starting to get it.

Then we moved on to two other classic 5.11s at Meat Wall: 80 Feet of Meat (5.11a/b) and Cold Cuts (5.11a). That’s where any notions of “getting it” vanished. Ninety percent of the words out of my mouth sounded something like “How the…” “Huh?” and “But… what?” I got utterly shut down. Like “Thank you, good-bye, please come again” type of shut down. This was the baffling Rifle climbing everyone was talking about.

The next morning I felt dejected and sad; while everyone else was antsy to get to the crag, I was dragging my feet and internally questioning if I even liked climbing. It was the lowest of the low. We headed over to the Project Wall, where some big names were crushing 5.12 as their warm-up. Inspiring to watch if you’re psyched to climb; depressing if you’re getting all existential about pulling on some rocks. The boys decided to stay and do a warm-up, but my coworker and strongwoman Amanda and I decided to go somewhere a little less crowded. We headed over to Ruckman Cave to Pellet Gun (5.10c/d).

After my first attempt, I was still in a funk about the climbing here—apathetic, really. After a warm-up go, Amanda sent easily second try and encouraged me to give it another try. Despite my increasing malaise, I tied in again. I made it to the top after a few takes, but didn’t feel much different. I spent the rest of the day watching my friends project 5.12, get really close on a few routes, and send a few others. The day ended, and I still felt like I couldn’t have given a lesser crap about that place.

The third day I awoke to everyone else feeling psyched but tired, so my apathy was conveniently interpreted as fatigue. After a slow morning we went back to Pellet Gun, for others to warm up and for me to—I don’t know what—feel sorry for myself? But I gave it a try, and despite feeling freaking pumped almost immediately, I realized that I remembered the moves. I remembered where the good holds were, what to skip, and how to flow efficiently. Hot damn, that felt good! I rested a bit, then decided to give it another try. Confidence boosted, I stayed loose and limber well past my normal max-pump point and managed to one-hang it. Awesome.

We left a day early, me the only one without a send. But I gained more from that tickless trip to Rifle than even 10 sends at Shelf Road, Colorado, could have taught me. Climbing hard is all about failing. The only way to send is to first fail—a lot. Think about when you read on climbing.com about a hard send, like here or here . He sent it, yeah, but he was only “successful” ONCE. Only once out of dozens or maybe even hundreds of times. The rest of the time he was technically failing. That’s projecting, and ultimately, that’s climbing.

It’s a humbling lesson to learn, but as soon as I realized it, I was immediately psyched again on my own project. Home a day early from Rifle, I’m headed there now. To fail my little heart out.How have your failures turned into successes? Let me know: jellison@climbing.com.Read all the 12 in 12 posts here.

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