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Ever since I topped out my first pitch I’ve wondered just how difficult a piece of rock I could climb. When I was 12, my one-time mentor, Bob, an alpinist more concerned with safe mountain travel and the splendor of an alpine vista than the numbers game, told me that rock-climbing standards were advancing each year. This was in the early 1980s, and Bob thought that 5.14 was probably as hard as people could climb.
“So what would 5.14 be like?” I asked after paddling my way up a 5.7 toprope that he had patiently set up.
“I don’t really know,” he answered. “Probably like a smooth, overhanging wall of glass with little bullet holes for the hands and feet. And the holds would always be just out of reach.”
I carried that picture with me for years, but even now that I know better, I still quake in my boots at the mention of that improbably number—5.14. Bob’s description of the ultimate grade had conjured up visions of crazily bearded mountain freaks grappling with the underbellies of huge, unprotected roofs thousands of feet off the deck, all the while plugging sloped-out shot holes as their feet dangled helter-skelter in the winds of an oncoming storm. So when I picked up my first climbing magazine, I was disappointed to see that, instead of the Grizzly Adams types, it was the cafe-haunting, parapente-flying Euro weenies who were pushing the envelope. And all those shiny bolts so close together…what was up with that? Oh well, I still figured that 5.14 had to be hard since I could barely toprope 5.10.
In the ensuing years, which coincidentally saw the birth and boom of American sport climbing, I decided that I too wanted to climb 5.14. In the summer of 1997 I finally realized my dream, sending Zulu (5.14a/b) in Rifle, Colorado, after years of artless bodgery in the purgatories of 5.11, 5.12, and 5.13.
Has that climb changed my life? No. Have I changed the sport? No way. The 5.14 grade was established in this country in 1986 by Jean-Baptiste Tribout (To Bolt or Not to Be, Smith Rock) and people have been ticking it ever since. I’m just another hack, a jonny-come-lately thrashing my way up some over-sprayed pile that Sharma did in a day or two and could barely be bothered to remember.
Nevertheless, it was immensely gratifying to top out the thing, putting 10 years of experience to the test and finally pulling it off. But, really, the afterglow wasn’t that much different than the times when I sent my first 5.13a, 5.13b, or 5.13c. A quick rush, maybe a celebratory beer or two, a smidgen of false modesty, and then it was off to the next route.
As any fool who has realized a long-held goal can tell you, the real reward is in the process—the means more than the end. Thus, I have gone to great pains to study what it takes to climb 5.14. Ignore all those training books and articles from here on out. Ignore all those campus boards and system boards and wango boards and flavor-of-the-month pull-up rungs. They will just give you elbow tendonitis or make you so strong that you’ll forget to use your feet.
Climbing 5.14 is all about sacrifice and attitude. You must cultivate an aura of monastic narcissism, bestowing godliness upon yourself as you proclaim your membership of the 5.14 Club from the top of some sooty, anonymous roadside cave.
So, here are some tips that I’ve learned along my way to 5.14, gleaned from careful study of the sorry antics of myself and my peers both on and off the rock. Enjoy and I’ll see you at the top.
The job / education dilemma
As most sponges know, a job or the serious pursuit of an education can cut into hard-core selfishness (e.g. playing Doom all day or trying to climb 5.14). Here are some sure-fire ways to get around the obstacles imposed by modern life:
- String out a namby-pamby college career as long as possible, making sure to take frequent semester-long breaks to climb in Europe. In the meantime continue to collect parental checks and/or student loans (neither of which need to be paid back).
- Upon graduation, take that “much needed” pre-work road trip, extending it until your very last peso. Still pumping out on 5.13c? Shit—it’s time to get a job.
- Don’t worry about using your degree to get a real job (it only makes you look desperate and silly). To create the kind of time you need to spend all day pissing off at the crag, find yourself work that is eminently disposable. Try menial labor—the pay is bad, you’ll feel like you are cheating yourself, but, hey, you can quit anytime and go climbing. I can personally recommend furniture moving, snow shoveling, and tomato farming.
Bonus tip: Ignore all those articles about people who still find time to climb 5.14 despite having real jobs and happy families. It’s intuitively obvious that the so-called “5.14s” these girls and guys scrape up are at most 5.13c.
The relationship dilemma
Sex and romance are a bit like trying to climb 5.14—elusive, indefinable, frustrating. OK, maybe that’s not entirely true, but anyone who has done the grade will probably tell you it was because he or she had a supportive partner. Then again, if your attempts to climb 5.14 are unsuccessful it’s probably because your partner “just doesn’t understand.”
That being the case, drop your lover like so much ballast and put an end to all the nagging and wanting to do “something besides climb or talk about climbing.” Any partner who can’t come to terms with your mind-numbing egoism, single-mindedness, and narcissistic sense of purpose is probably too selfish to understand you.
Find and date another climber. Yes, this probably means a penniless psycho just like you, but he or she will make a good belayer. Be sure you and your partner time each other on redpoint attempts and hangdog sessions—each one of you gets 45 minutes, no more. If your partner begins to show signs of climbing better than you, let her know you feel threatened by dissing her footwork.
Coping with failure
Sadly, it usually takes a lot of falling to eventually redpoint a 5.14. This leaves plenty of opportunity to throw a “wobbler,” or adult tantrum. Use the Wobbler Equation to determine how long your are entitled to scream and sulk upon failure.
Thus, if I fall on a 5.14b, I’ve been climbing for 10 years, I’ve tried to redpoint the route 40 times, and I estimate the relative humidity to be 90 percent (and remember, “it’s so greasy, dude” cannot be expressed numerically), then I come up with the number 3.15. Therefore, I am allowed to kick the rock and scream expletives for 3.15 minutes, after which I must come back to the ground and sulk for 3.15 hours. Simple math.
Notice as the number of years you have been climbing increases, the time allotted for wobbling decreases. And also notice that if your number of attempts exceeds the relative humidity, time again decreases. This means you need to give up and try something easier. Sorry, dude. In my next article I’ll explain and describe the “rad-boy” attitude quotient (pi divided by number of times you say “dude” per sentence) and how it can spike your equation.
Here are some suggested phrases you can call up at will during a wobbler in order to let your belayer and bystanders know that falling off wasn’t your fault:
- “I wasn’t even pumped.”
- “I’m sick of this route.”
- “I’m just sick.”
- “You hosed me on that clip.”
- “I’m more of an onsight climber.”
- “I hate this sport.”
- “Just dirt me.”
In the rare event that this article actually helps you climb 5.14, please contact the author so we can swap war stories and route beta. It is amazing how much kudos you can score from an ascent of a few feet of crumbly roadside rock. Just look at this article.
This article was originally published in Climbing No. 177 (June 1998).