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50th Birthday MoonBoard Challenge: Epic Fail?

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On my 50th birthday, I gave myself the goal of setting 50 new problems on the MoonBoard—specifically the Grasshopper Climbing Master Wall with the 2019 MoonBoard set. The rules of the birthday challenge weren’t too strict, but I had a few parameters I wanted to follow:

  1. I couldn’t just create one problem then spin off a handful of variations; each problem had to be more or less unique.
  2. The problems could be of any grade, but ideally they’d all be challenging (for me), meaning I couldn’t just find the easiest possible way up the board 50 different times.
  3. I had to climb all of the problems.
  4. In a single session.

At first, as I thought about it, my goal didn’t seem unreasonable. During the beginning of COVID-19, when all the gyms were closed, I sometimes put in five- or six-hour sessions alone in the garage, climbing on the board and spray walls adjacent to it. There was nothing else to do and nowhere to go, so I just trained and trained and trained. And I’m sure that during some of those sessions, I climbed at least 50 problems, especially when I was doing 4x4s on the board for power-endurance. But these were problems that had already been set. I only had to do them once.

The Challenge

On my 50th birthday, after warming up on the spray walls in my garage, I got to work on the MoonBoard. I gave myself most of the day for the challenge, figuring if I did 8–10 problems an hour I’d be done in 5–6 hours, the duration of those early-pandemic sessions. Coming up with 50 different problem names was going to be difficult, so I just went with a theme. The first problem would be HBD2ME1Happy Birthday To Me 1—and then I’d move on from there. So if you see that cryptic string of numbers and letters attached to a bunch of problems on the MoonClimbing app (setter name: Pinklebear), that’s what they mean. They mean I’m not very creative….

The first problem I set was V4. I’m short—I climb short and often set short, with lots of tick-tacking—and many of the problems I set that day fall into this category. But the most interesting moves on the MoonBoard are often also the big ones: the mega-deadpoints, Moon Kicks (aka “pogo moves”), and all-out jumps, where you have to suspend disbelief and just go for it. I tried to set a few of those too, though what’s a jump for me, at below-average height, is rarely a jump for taller climbers. I mean, shit, I just set a problem called Pogo Lancio, a V5, on which I had to do a giant pogo move, only to have James Lucas send me a video of Alex Honnold (5’11”) turning his hip in and doing the same move as a basic deadpoint. And to make matters worse, Honnold didn’t even have a rope on…!

Here’s short-ass me doing Pogo Lancio. Note that this was back in my 40s, like a month ago, when I was still “young” and “strong.” Now, I’m ancient. I would fall off this problem and break both hips and get pneumonia and die.

The first five or so problems went well. I was feeling warmed up, good, connected to the grips, full of creative energy, seeing patterns and sequences and different combinations of holds, and firing off the problems in a try or two. Then, around problem seven or eight or so, I began to slow down—not because I was physically tired, but because I’d started to realize the sheer magnitude of the challenge. Namely, that I was going to have to do each problem multiple times: in sections, as I refined the beta and added, swapped, or subtracted holds; and across different attempts, since I was unable to flash the harder problems and in some cases was taking upward of five tries. Which, on a 40-degree-overhanging wall that fosters dynamic movement, is draining and remarkably hard on your shoulders. (Don’t believe me? Try MoonBoarding two days in a row. Actually, don’t, unless you like shoulder surgery…)

As I came to problem numbers in the teens—HBD2ME13, HBD2ME14, etc.—I started to dry up creatively, and quickly gained a newfound appreciation for route-setters at gyms, who have to be creative, in volume, during a fixed time period. I was about two hours in at this point, and my skin was getting raw and fingers creaky. I tried switching to big moves on big holds to mix it up, setting a problem, HDB2ME17, that I hoped to just fire and move on. It had high, heel-hook feet and a rose move under your armpit to a big hold, then finished on crimps. I worked out the sequences, which felt “not so bad” individually, then started trying it.

It was here that I hit the wall. My core tension began to fall apart, lock-off strength evaporated, forearms began to feel strained, and I was just growing so exhausted that it was hard to remember the beta—which I promptly forgot try after try on HDB2ME17, until about seven tries in I finally remembered I needed to jack my left foot up for the exit crux, and sent.

As I dropped to the pads, I had one thought and one thought only: 33 more of these? There’s no fucking way!

What I Learned

In the end, I was only able to do 25 problems—so, one problem for each 2 years of life, which, I suppose, is OK. It was half of the original goal, but there was still some symmetry to the numbers and some intrinsic logic to the challenge.

As I got into problems in the late teens and low 20s, I could feel the wheels coming off the car; the holds began to get closer and closer together with each subsequent problem, because I was no longer “poppy.” And my setting, I’m sure, became less inspired. My goal at that point was simply to finish 25 problems without getting injured. On HBD2ME25, my family came home from running errands and I gave my kids my phone to have them film me. The video is below. In it, you can hear me sighing, exhaling hard, and emitting weird little Ewok grunts as I battle with the grips. On the final move, I was so blasted I could barely bring my foot up to some giant hold, in order to set up and match the finishing hold. I’m not sure how I held it, but I did. Probably because I knew that if I fell, I’d break my hip and get pneumonia and die.

But none of that seemed to matter to my kids, which put it all in perspective. While my older son filmed, my younger son said “Good job” and “Yes” as I climbed—to him, I was doing just great, and I was happy to have the encouragement even if I was falling well short of my original goal. As soon as I hit the mats like a sack of potatoes (audible THUD at 0:37), I went inside to the basement to clean up, my muscles slowly congealing into searing balls of pain, fingers crooked like some forest witch. I’d given my best—25 new problems set and climbed in 4.5 hours, likely equating to 100-150 trips up the board, not 25. To have tried to set and climb another 25 problems would have been folly; I’d have been trashed for weeks, if not gotten injured.

But I’d learned something, both about where my limits lie and what climbing means in the tightrope walk of life. I love climbing, and I love MoonBoarding, but this was “too much of a good thing.” In fact, so much so that it had started to become grim and lose its luster. I suppose that’s what a half-century of living teaches you: Life is all about balance, even when you’re an obsessive climber, and it is possible to climb too much. As my hands dried in the bathroom and I rubbed lotion in, I heard my kids hollering from the kitchen.

“Da-da, get up here, it’s time for pizza and cake,” one of them yelled. And it was. I went upstairs to join the family, and to finish celebrating my 50th birthday.

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