When I was 17, I set out to “climb” my first 5.13. It was my first day in Boulder, Colorado, where I’d stopped to pick up my friend Mark en route to the City of Rocks, Idaho. The year was 1989, and Boulder was already a climbing center thanks to Eldorado Canyon, Rocky Mountain National Park, and the first-generation sport climbs in the Flatirons, with their dark sandstone and vibrant-green lichen patches, and which appeared in magazine articles and La Sportiva shoe ads being sent by famous, sponsored climbers. An overstoked kid from backwater New Mexico, I was ready to fling myself at these iconic routes in the hopes of likewise becoming a lithic demigod.
The reality: I had only two years of climbing experience; I could barely get up 5.12 on a good day; my footwork was shit and I often climbed myself up into a corner, with no plan for self-extrication other than keep thrashing upward and hope; and it was mid-July on the Front Range, when daytime highs are in the 90s and the rock oozes sweat and despair.
Never mind all that: I was going to send Eldo’s Rainbow Wall, Colorado’s first 5.13. So it was that Mark and I set out, midday in the depths of July. Buzzing with impatience, I ran straight to Rainbow Wall, a flat orange face of river-washed sandstone blazing in the sun above South Boulder Creek. I expected to find pro climbers there, photographers, perhaps a talent agent waiting to sign up this “promising” kid from New Mexico for some lucrative sponsorship deals. But there was nobody; just heat smacking off the rock and insects droning in the underbrush.
“Rainbow Wall is so sick!” I told Mark, who, being a few years older than me did not share my puppyish enthusiasm. “I can’t wait to jump on it.”
“Don’t you want to warm up first?” he asked.
“Warm up? What?! Hell no! That takes too much time.”
“It’s also in the sun,” he said. “You might want to wait and try it later.”
“Why would I do that?” I asked. “It looks fine to me.”
Mark sighed. “OK. I’ll belay you.” And belay me he did, though of course there was little point. I skitched up the unprotected 5.9 opening slab, popped a cam in a flake (fortunately, one of the three cams I owned fit the placement), clipped the first two ring bolts protecting the opening crux, and immediately slid off the sloping underclings and greasy smears, my swollen feet throbbing in my tight, board-lasted rock shoes as sweat stung my eyes. I halfheartedly tried the moves a few more times before I left a bail carabiner and lowered, my unrealistic hopes revealed for that which they’d always been.
“You might want to plan better next time,” Mark said when I was back on the ground. “You may have had a shot.” He was being kind, but I knew in my heart of hearts that I had no business on Rainbow Wall that day. And I knew that, if I was ever to get better at climbing, I needed some strategy.
It’s a lesson I’ve had to continually learn, and something we’re all working on. But with more climbers than ever out there, and so many coming out of the gym pipeline, I see more of this unconsidered behavior at the rock. For example: climbers trying routes in obviously poor conditions when they could easily time their efforts to synch up with sun/shade; climbers sketching on clips close to the ground, pulling up rope and dropping it again, over and over, until they take giant, out-of-control whippers; climbers hogging routes, individually or in groups, while waiting climbers in redpoint mode lose their warmup and shot at a send; climbers not brushing off their chalk or tick marks; and so on. Just, poor (or no) planning and no situational or self-awareness.
I’m sure you’ve seen it all too. Any time we’re not self-aware or tuned in to what’s going on around us, we become part of the problem. Along those lines, here are the four biggest logistical mistakes I see climbers making, with ideas about how to address them.
1) No plan for the day or the crag. All too often, climbers show up with no real plan for how the day’s climbing will flow, having not researched the options for warming up, onsighting, projecting, maximizing conditions, etc. Instead the mentality becomes, “Let’s just climb—on whatever, whenever.” This works fine in a gym where you can go from route to route and have the same net experience. But at the rock, there are more variables.
I look at it this way: You made a plan to get to the cliff, so what did you think—or hope—was going to happen today? Instead of just going in blind, do some research. If I’m at a new crag, I’ll look at a guidebook, the Mountain Project, and notes about specific climbs on 8a.nu to get an idea of quality and consensus difficulty. And if I have a project, I damn well make sure that I’m timing my efforts for perfect conditions, checking the forecast up to and even on the day of. Yeah, my behavior is nerdy and obsessive, but it usually yields results, or at least minimizes frustration.
2) Lack of basic safety awareness. There are the fundamentals—harness on correctly, knot tied correctly, belay device rigged correctly—we must all get right all the time. But there are other, second-tier safety considerations that go overlooked. These include awareness of the belay box—are there hazards you could impact if you were yanked up abruptly by a falling climber?—and awareness of how safe a climb, even a sport route, actually is.
One thing I’ve seen climbers be cavalier about is clips near the ground, in particular the third bolt, which is high enough to get you injured or even killed if you were to lob with clipping-slack out. No matter what, always have a plan for clipping—especially the third bolt. If you think you’re too pumped, grab the draw by the dogbone and slap the rope in; if that’s not working, downclimb as far as possible, give your belayer a heads-up, and jump off. And never, ever be afraid to stick-clip, either to a high bolt to get you through difficult opening climbing or up on a route in situations where you’re not comfortable falling; or, on trad climbs, to double or even triple up on protection before cruxes. Don’t let the naysayers—or even the little voice in your head—call you out. It’s better to be safe and smart than unquestioningly, macho-ly, stupidly “bold.”
3) Lack of humility. This manifests in the form of spray and cocky declarations about what you will be climbing that day or have recently climbed. But the thing to remember is, whatever route you’re getting on, whether it’s your or someone else’s project, someone else could onsight it. So while you might feel like a big dog with all the attendant bragging rights for getting on that notorious 5.13 at the crag, Alex Megos or Margo Hayes could come along and onsight it as a warmup, barely remember the climb, and move on before you’ve even blinked an eye. Better to be quiet and humble and focus on the process of climbing than to be ostentatious and loud about your goals.
4). Lack of social awareness—i.e., not sharing. Permadraws and the gym mentality have changed the landscape, and l routinely see climbers “project shopping” and/or checking out routes leagues harder than their hardest send because the fixed draws let them jump on with no commitment. If no one’s waiting for a route, go for it—knock yourself out; head on up and flail. You only get an idea for what hard climbing is and where your limits are by seeing what these routes are all about. But on the flip side, climbs are a shared resource—in particular the classics. You need to weigh your own personal agenda against what your situational awareness is telling you, invoking the social etiquette of understanding, are you going to spend 1.5 hours working out the moves, and if so, might it be worthwhile asking around to see if anyone else is waiting, particularly climbers in redpoint mode whose efforts will take way less time than your own?
As for me, I’m still figuring this all out—I’m far from perfect and I’ve certainly been guilty of the behaviors listed above. We all have. And for the record, I did go back and get on Rainbow Wall again, a couple of years ago. It went about the same as back in 1989, only this time it was too cold. The bolts were also the same ones I’d clipped 30 years earlier, which did not inspire confidence. So I bailed. Perhaps I’ll come back in another three decades, and finally get the damned thing done. Perhaps …
Matt Samet is a freelance writer and editor based in Boulder, Colorado.
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