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Having a Project Made Me a “Dumb” Climber

Learning how to try hard is hard. And it’s so easy to be stupid.

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Part I. The Big Easy

I have a general hatred for trying hard. This will come as a surprise to those who climb with me—my belayers often stare at their feet in embarrassment while I thrutch and scream up steep sport pitches and offwidths—but it’s true. Climbing hard hard is not for me.

I love that 80th-percentile of try-hard. A sequence that may feel out of reach on my first go, but after a few more tries (and usually within the same session) I have beta that works and I’ll redpoint the pitch before long. If a problem is actually difficult for me (like, multiple sessions to work out a single sequence, or multiple seasons to fire a single pitch) I am completely and utterly disinterested.

I’ve held this element of my climbing personality in high, cocky regard for years; I learned to climb on big, loose, and easy routes in the Canadian Rockies, where one’s ability to onsight with confidence is a far more important skill than one’s ability to suss out (and execute) nails-hard sequences. But, as is the case for many wannabe Rockies hardies, my love of living eventually outweighed my love of chossy faces, and I began seeking out more difficult climbs on solid stone. As a good friend of mine often says: “Life’s too short to climb on bad rock.”

So I swapped broken ridges for water-worn limestone canyons and granitic peaks, but I lacked the mental discipline to actually enjoy projecting. In fact, my redpoint and onsight grades, for both sport and trad, were often (and up until very recently) the exact same grade.

Part II. Having a Project

As a Climbing editor, I speak with professional climbers on a fairly regular basis. Boulderers, bolt-clippers, alpinists, you name it. Each of them has a level of climbing fitness and skill that I will never even half-heartedly try to achieve. I will, however, ask for (and then at least try to implement) any and all climbing advice that Carlo Traversi or Sébastien Berthe can give me. 

Talking to the world’s best climbers about their career-highlight ascents is, as you can imagine, pretty damn inspiring. And I soon began to wonder where my own physical limit lay. Or at least how hard I could onsight in the alpine. (I’ve bumped up three letter grades since starting this job a year ago.) It would appear, now, that I like to try hard. Like hard hard. (I tried an overhanging friction corner three times this summer and I still don’t know how to do the crux move!) Which brings me to the point of this spray-a-thon. Projecting. How to do it, how to think about it, and how not to do it (i.e. how I did it).

Recently, I threw a toprope down a technical and thin trad pitch that connects seams with shallow cracks and runout face-climbing scoops. It’s a cult classic, and a pretty safe one at that, but the gear is a bit tricky and the line’s reputation for big whippers and broken heels is justified. I dropped the rope, plugged a few directionals for the traverses, and began toproping the pitch. The off-vertical granite felt tenuous and insecure, but not all that pumpy, and I basked in the toprope illusion of security. I sagged onto the rope near the top, at the redpoint crux, a shallow corner with no immediately apparent holds or gear. I pawed at the nine-inch-wide open book, moving my hips like a pathetic Bachata dancer, trying to finesse a sequence.

This crux feature was brief, with a chalk-splattered knob just out of reach above, but I realized the last obvious crack was over a body length below me. That would be quite the ride, I shuddered. I wanted security, and I wasn’t about to find it on a greasy sloper rail in July. I swung around out left and found a series of diagonal micro edges—half-pad laybacking with crystals for feet—and I did the crux (barely) on my first try. I climbed to the top, lowered, and (barely) made it through the crux a second time. Huh. I guess that’s my beta. My partner, Emilie, was dealing with a bad cough—we’d been living out of a leaky pickup truck for the previous five weeks and our lungs were attacked by the thick accumulation of black mold beneath our bed—and she declined to try the pitch. “You look good from down here!” she wheezed.

I returned with Emilie the next week and tossed the toprope down again. This time it was wet, but, somehow, I stuck the layback crimpers once again. I ran another TR lap while placing gear, which was terrifying, because I could see just how far away my last finger-sized cam was, some meters below me while I squeaked through the crux. 

You need to lead this, the toxically proud part of me warned. Carlo Traversi wouldn’t toprope this much.

Part III. Finishing a Project

Two weeks later I was about to leave town and I hadn’t given this pitch a lead attempt. I recruited Nat, a mutant friend of mine who’d climbed this pitch as his first of the grade, to give me a catch. I allowed myself one more toprope lap, to practice placing the RPs on the low crux, before tying in sharp.

“Dude, what are you doing?” Nat laughed, as he watched me quest to the left, to my tiny layback crimps, at the redpoint crux.

“What? This is my beta. I’ve done it this way, like, three times.”

“Why don’t you stay on the route? Just reach past that corner and grab the juggy knob. … And there’s two gear placements in the seam at your chest—that’ll shorten your whip.”

This was a lot to take in. I shuffled back to the right, squarely below that damn corner, hiked my feet up, and, sure enough, deadpointed to the knob with minimal grunting. Then I peered into the seam and, sure enough, two excellent placements stared back. I lowered, cleaned my gear, and pulled the rope. 

Twenty minutes later, I hiked the pitch. I was never fearfully runout and I giggled (loudly) at the chains. Sometimes the hardest part of trying hard is not trying too hard.

Part IV. What did I Learn?

In the days since this mini project, I’ve talked to my co-workers, friends, and pros about my beta-finding ineptitude. I was prepared for a well-deserved ribbing, but empathy largely prevailed. As it turns out, it’s easy to be dumb while projecting. Here are my takeaways: 

Climb with people who are stronger than you. 

Having never climbed on the route with anyone before, it hadn’t occurred to me to try different (read: more powerful) beta. I wanted slow, controlled movements—that’s why I chose the thin-but-plentiful crimps out left—instead of a single explosive lurch. But Nat, being much stronger than I, didn’t find this deadpoint to be all that cruxy, and, though I didn’t have the self belief to figure this beta out for myself, as soon as Nat recommended it to me I realized it was a perfectly fine option. (Note: climb with strong people who, ideally, are roughly the same height as you.)

Climb with people who are weaker than you. 

Another way-stronger friend of mine, Nolan, invited me to his project and then promptly stole my beta. Previously, he’d been taking my first piece of advice, climbing with people far stronger than him, and trying to emulate their beta, but what he found is that 5.14 rock climbers can use 5.13 beta to climb 5.12. I, on the other hand, need every ounce of that 5.12 beta to send 5.12—and by taking me there, Nolan got to watch me develop the physically easiest beta—a sequence full of weak-man intermediates and foot trickery that Nolan realized was the most user-friendly solution. 

Play to your strengths but be willing to confront your weaknesses.

Had I been willing to think critically about my beta, I would have realized that the style that suited me was not the easiest way. And, had I asked literally anyone for beta, I would have learned that “no one goes out left.” Most of the time, the go-to beta is the go-to beta for a reason: it’s the easiest way. Don’t refuse to try it just because it’s outside your style. But also be looking for ways to tweak beta so that you’re playing to your strengths. For me that means finding ways to make big moves slightly less big without closing myself off to anything that isn’t static.

Buy your belayer a pizza, since beta-finding takes time.

While I moan here about not climbing with anyone on this route—that my belayer literally just hiked up there to support me while she hacked up a lung—I will clarify: belaying projects is far more work and far less interesting than your typical cragging belay, and those willing to support you should be showered in gold. Or beer. Or pizza. 

Don’t define what is “hard” for you.

This aha! moment would have never happened if I hadn’t planned to “try hard” from the beginning. But, since I decided I was finally going to “have a project,” I made the route harder to send because I went into the process with that expectation. It turned out to be fairly easy for me, unfortunately, and my friends are asking when I’ll actually get on something hard hard.

Anthony Walsh is a digital editor at Climbing. He looks forward to not trying too hard in the mountains this summer.