Back to Beginner Land: Part 1

Grand Wall

Midway up the Grand Wall, Squamish, BC. Arjan de Kock photo.

When I began climbing 15 years ago at the age of 9, I hated climbing outside. I much preferred the colorful variety of plastic gym holds to the helmets, queues, and pre rigged top ropes I found outside at youth team outings. Instead, competitions drove me to train harder and pour my time and energy into gym sessions. I felt comfortable in the poorly lit, chalky climbing gym – it was the place that made me stronger, day after day.

Eight years later, on a trip to Rifle, Colorado, I discovered ‘cragging’. The narrow canyon of Rifle was the place to climb the grade ladder, surrounded by my friends, with no hiking, and line after line of new challenges. If I didn’t like one route, I could move on to the next just a few meters away. The climbing was physical, and I could feel my body strengthening with each new day. Rifle’s outdoor playground was my bridge from the gym to the outdoors.

The obscurity of climbing on rock captured my attention. The holds weren’t taped, the routes were longer, and the complexity of movement far exceeded what I knew in the gym. I fell in love with each new obstacle, begging family and friends to make the drive to Rifle each weekend. On longer school breaks, I began to explore other crags around the US – limestone sport climbing in Saint George, Utah; sandstone endurance climbing in the Red River Gorge; vertical crimping at Smith Rock. With each area, I learned more about the sport, myself, my capabilities and my weaknesses.

Over the next few years, and after graduating from University with a marketing degree, I explored new-to-me climbing zones around the world. Among my trips I made the first ascent of Digital Warfare (5.14a) in South Africa, the second ascent of the blank slab Art Attack (5.14b) in the Italian Alps, and the first female ascent of Just Do It (5.14c) in Smith Rock, Oregon. I clipped thousands of bolts, took hundreds of falls without blinking an eye, learned to embrace hiking, and sent a few projects along the way. Sport climbing was comfortable, familiar, and safe. I could try routes beyond my limit without reaching outside of my comfort zone.

For years, I promised myself I would learn to place gear, to explore other parts of the sport besides clipping bolts. But I could never quite set aside my sport projects to go flail on “easy” routes placing gear.

This summer, I ventured up to Squamish, British Columbia with my boyfriend, Arjan. Our goal: to play. The magical forest of Squamish offers sport climbing, bouldering, multi pitching, and tradding, all within a ten minute walk. This was our chance to get more comfortable placing gear. I wanted to branch out, to commit time and energy to something I wasn’t good at and that, quite honestly, scared me.

I never expected to fall in love with trad climbing, but after my first lead, there was no turning back. Exasperator, a brilliant 5.10 finger crack, may be one of my favorite single pitches of all time, anywhere in the world. It climbs very much like a sport route and acts like a magnet for gear, making it the perfect first trad pitch for me at Squamish.

With the enthusiasm of young, naïve children, Arjan and I felt that a lap up Exasperator was sufficient preparation for Freeway, a classic 11 pitch 5.11c up the Dihedrals of the Chief. After warning from friends to save Freeway until the end of our trip when we had more experience under our belts, we reasoned that it was Arjan’s birthday and thus, an ideal day to climb Freeway.

After sweating our way up a linkup of the first two pitches (5.10d and 5.11b), we began to question our motives, already feeling a bit worn with 9 more pitches to go. Low clouds swirled around the Chief, but again, we reasoned that this should be a birthday ascent, plus we had a backpack full of cupcakes. So we trekked on, pleased to find the subsequent pitches shorter and significantly less damp.

Our adventure didn’t end without minor struggle. I found myself trying harder on the 11c pitch 4 than I tried during an entire month projecting Dreacatcher (5.14d) in the forest below. My desperate lunge for a finger slot nearly stole our flash of Freeway, but a grunt of effort and a miracle latch saved the day. I was in unfamiliar territory on all accounts – multipitch, trad, cracks, dihedrals. As a sport climber accustomed to route finding via the next bolt and line of chalk caked holds, I found myself a bit lost on various pitches. Typically, these moments of disorientation came when I was following, when one might assume you couldn’t possibly take the wrong path. Alas, I quickly learned to pay attention to my trajectory, or else be forced to toprope down-climb a dihedral, without belayer communication.

The increasingly magnificent view rewarded us with each pitch we climbed – a gift sport climbs just don’t offer. By 4PM, I found myself shocked to be standing on top of the Dihedrals, ready to hike down in time for dinner, long before the sun set. I expected an epic – a horrendous lightning storm, stuck gear, tangled ropes, feelings of panic, or at the very least, sharp pains in my toes. Instead, our Freeway mission accomplished the seemingly impossible – I had enjoyed a multipitch climb, and I wanted more.

A week of sore calves proved as a reminder that 8 hours of 10 slabby pitches were not the norm for a boulderer (Arjan) and a sport climber (me). The next day, we chose to work on a single pitch 5.12b line called The Masses are Asses. A foot slip near the top sent me sailing off the rock and onto a small blue Master Cam – my first ever fall on gear. We returned a few days later for sends, realizing that placing gear on grades we were normally comfortable with made for a significantly more exhausting and intimidating experience.

Arjan learning the art of Dihedrals

Arjan checking out The Shadow, Squamish, BC

Trad climbing in Squamish reminded me how fun it is to be beginner. The world is your playground when you’re unconcerned about grades, projecting, perfect conditions, or even getting to the top without falling. While it feels strange to relish in the joy of hangdogging a route two or three number grades below my sport limit, on a select number of climbs I felt proud of myself just for getting to the top. A beginner’s perspective allowed me to see climbing on a macro level – getting to the top of this rock looks like an exciting challenge, and I want to try. While this sense of accomplishment will likely wear off as I become more familiar placing gear, I hope that I can maintain a bit of this outlook throughout the journey, and even apply it to my sport climbing. Those times when we feel a small bit of accomplishment are the rare occasions we’re proud of ourselves. Those are the times we have fun, and those times shouldn’t be rare.

Now I’m hopping a plane to South Africa, where hopefully Arjan and I can bumble around on the trad climbing at Table Mountain in the summer heat!

This is a short essay I wrote for Metolius Climbing. Over the last few seasons I’ve spent at Smith Rock, I’ve gotten to know the folks at Metolius, since the brand is located in nearby Bend, Oregon. When I decided I wanted to learn to trad climb this past summer, they said, “here are the tools you need, go for it”. And I went for it. Check in for Part 2 next week. 

Following the Grand Wall

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