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The Routes That Spanked Us, 2022

An ode to the routes that got away—and what they can teach us if we let them.

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Ah, Thanksgiving, that blessed time of year when we gather in hot, stuffy dining rooms with people we can barely tolerate (our family) to shovel dead dinosaur flesh and other assorted foodstuffs into our pieholes, argue politics (“No, Uncle Ronnie, Joe Biden isn’t sending COVID-infected transgender immigrants to steal the jet skis out of your driveway, despite what Newsmax tells you”), watch team sports (I think it’s football season, I guess?), and somehow steel ourselves for the horror of the upcoming month, when American consumerism reaches its noxious apotheosis during the holiday shopping season.

Or we sidestep it all and head for warm climbing destinations like St. George, Indian Creek, Hueco Tanks, or Southeast sandstone, avoiding the madness by hiding out at the rock.

Regardless of where you find yourself, I’d like you to take the time this week to give thanks to the stone. But not in the predictable way you might think, for granting you passage. No, instead, this Thanksgiving you must thank the rock for making pee-pee all over your hopes and dreams, as it has all over mine for years. (At this point, I’m sure that my “anti-tick list” is longer than my tick list.) The goal with these climbs that spank us is, instead of becoming disheartened, we should thank them then use their teachings to become stronger, more strategic, more resilient climbers. That’s right, it’s time for a new tradition, Spanks-Giving, the perfect coda to Send-Tember and Rock-Tober.

The Routes That Spanked Us, 2022

1) Some Scary Multi-Pitch Climb

Swifts drift on thermals, darting in and out of the cracks that stretch to the skyline. The sun drops a tick lower, enfolding your cramped belay in shadow that seeps into your bones. How many snacks do we have left? you wonder. And how much water? You look below: The trees are matchsticks, even though you know them to be 80-foot pines. The exposure feels horrifying, as it has since pitch one. Your partner shouts something vague and ominous from above, her words quickly torn away by the wind: “Off….I can’t…shit…how much rope is–…I can’t find the–” If and when you reach the belay, you’ll tell her: It’s time to go down. But maybe it’s better to go up—is the top closer now? You vow to do more multi-pitch climbing, at least a day or two of it a month, so that it doesn’t feel so foreign, so terrifying, the next time out. It’s a promise only you can keep.

2) That One Sunny Climb With the Super-Effed Condies

In my experience, routes that get all-day sun will either be too hot or too cold, unless you can find that elusive semi-overcast day in the high 50s or low 60s with no wind. Full-on sun hitting the rock, even on a 40-degree day, makes things greasy. And if the air temperature is in the 30s—cold enough for the rock to be grippy—then it’s probably too cold out to keep your muscles supple, a classic Catch-22. There is an entire cliff in Boulder Canyon, Colorado, I’ve written off—Blob Rock. It’s high on the canyon rim in an old burn area and gets tons of sun, so it’s always either roasting (all that sun) or frigid (no wind protection).

3) Bouldery Climb You Are Too Weak For But Your Ego Wouldn’t Let You Admit It

The excuses are legion: too reachy, too bunchy, fingers don’t fit in the holds, the sequence doesn’t fit your “small box,” conditions weren’t favorable, etc. But I’ll be the first to fess up: Most of the time when I can’t do a move it’s simply because I’m too weak. I can see the sequence and see where my body needs to be, and maybe even watch another climber do the move, but I can’t actualize it. Yes, some sequences may be truly hopeless at one’s body size, but I suspect it’s fewer than we think, especially if we’re willing to work on our weaknesses and come back stronger, like Alex Johnson did on the The Swarm (V13/14).

4) Pumpy Climb You’re Not Actually Fit Enough to Recover On But Your Ego Wouldn’t Let You Admit It

“There’s nowhere to shake out on this route,” is the common refrain. But it’s a vast oversimplification of the real issue, which is that there’s nowhere for you to shake out because none of the holds feel big enough. So put your time in: Train resistance, build muscle memory on the route, work on overlapping linkage and lowpointing, and you’ll soon be shaking out on grips you could barely hold before.

5) Cracks, Dude, Fucking Cracks…

I mean, seriously, bro, how do you even climb these things? Well, I’m not sure, either. Kind of like the Italian I once spoke, my crack-climbing fluency is covered in cobwebs. Non é molto bene! To tune up, buy Pete Whittaker’s Crack Climbing: The Definitive Guide and Kent Pease’s The Crack Climber’s Technique Manual. Tape them to the backs of your mitts—now your hands should be big enough to fit most cracks. (Or, better yet, read the books and practice at your local crag.) 

7) Wild Card: Some Random Little Route That Just Kicked Your Ass for No Apparent Reason (Until You Dig Deeper, That Is)

You know this climb—the one that has your number. It doesn’t matter what it’s rated or where that grade falls relative to your hardest send. It doesn’t matter that your partner and his grandma and his dog and his two-month-old baby and his favorite houseplant all day-flashed it and called it “soft,” or even that you did all the moves first try and were confident that “it’ll go.” None of that matters because you keep falling off—in “random” spots. Though it’s not so random, is it? There’s always a reason, if you look closely enough. Usually it’s because you slip or botch the beta or pump out on easy ground or stop paying attention to your feet or get nervy or a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil that sets off a tornado in Texas that kicks up a breeze that blows you one degree off balance and you barndoor off the crux for the five-hundredth time.

This bad boi is the route you should be thanking the most this Spanks-Giving. It’s the one that will teach you every lesson all at once, over and over, until you slow down, go internal, and unpack what’s really going wrong. Who knows, you may even send one day—if you don’t eat too much pumpkin pie to sublimate the anxiety of listening to Uncle Ronnie spout conspiracy-theory bullshit at the Thanksgiving table, that is!

Matt Samet is a freelance writer and editor based in Boulder, Colorado.