“Regardless of our actual level of fitness, if we feel strong, agile, and adventurous, then we climb better than if we feel weak, clumsy, and meek. Climbing hard involves making moves that feel improbable, and continuing when the situation seems nearly hopeless.” – Arno Ilgner
I jammed my hand into the crack, lifted my feet off the ground, and then jammed my feet into the crack. My muscles felt fatigued. As I climbed higher I placed two, three, four cams into the crack. Every move upward felt dense and heavy. Every move took effort. As I reached a small ledge, the top of the first pitch, I set up an anchor, pulled up the rope, and began belaying Andrea.
The past week had been filled with some amazing climbing. In fact, the previous day, Andrea and I had an incredible time pushing hard – she redpointed her project and I onsighted my hardest route to date. But clearly all the challenging climbing was catching up to me and my endurance was wavering. It was the last day of Valley season for Adam and I. That night a snow storm was expected to hit the high country, which meant we needed to sneak over Tioga Pass to the east side before the road shut down for the season. Andrea and I had to get in one last day of climbing together and she insisted I should onsight New Dimensions, a beautiful four-pitch classic crack climb at Arch Rock.
As Andrea pulled onto the small ledge, she started handing over gear.
“I honestly don’t think I’m going to be able to do this. I didn’t realize how tired I was from the past few days, and I’m already pumped!”
“You’ll be fine.” Andrea assured me. “Just try this next pitch and see how it goes.”
A dark flaring chimney ominously lurked above as I started up the second pitch. I squeezed and scooted my way upward inch by inch. Past the chimney, the climbing seemed to stretch on for miles. With each upward jam or jug I shook out my arm, reached for the next hold, then shook out my other arm. The most intense fire burned deeply within my forearms. No amount of shaking would extinguish it. Easy moves felt hard. Desperation started to set in when I finally reached the top of the pitch. With shaking hands I built an anchor and belayed Andrea up.
“Andrea, I’m not going to be able to finish the last two pitches. Maybe you should lead this next pitch.”
Andrea rebuttled, “You got this! And if not, it’s no big deal, but I think you’ll regret it if you give up now. Just take your time.”
Pulling a steep bulge delivered me into a wide crack. I grunted and roared in desperation. A non-stop stream of encouragement flowed upward from Andrea. She seemed so effortlessly and entirely certain that I could do this. But why?
The previous day she had projected the same positive attitude of assurance and belief. On a whim we decided to climb the only route in the shade. I had climbed past the crux without a problem, but had found myself with roughly 30 feet of 5.10 offwidth in-between me and the anchors and no cams larger than a .75 (I swear it didn’t look that wide or that long from the ground…). I struggled to decide if I should lower down to grab larger pro or if I should go for it. As I debated, the pump started to set in. If I was going to commit, I needed to do it rather than waste more energy thinking about it. I hadn’t planned on onsighting the route, but, after reaching this point, I knew I could and the thought of giving up drove me crazy. As I committed above my last piece my mind went completely clear and I focused all my attention on each careful movement. Andrea talked to me the entire time, encouraging me, building up my confidence, and believing so deeply in my abilities that I couldn’t help but believe in myself too. As I pulled out of the offwidth and clipped the chains I was completely amazed. Amazed that I had been bold enough to finish the route without gear. Amazed I had just onsighted my hardest pitch of climbing.
As I wedged my body into the offwidth on New Dimensions, I thought about this experience as I caught my breath. Andrea and I just met in September. We had been friends for roughly a month at this point and had only done a handful of climbs together. Yet a number of those climbs were some of the best climbing I’d ever done – and I didn’t think it was coincidence. Finding the right climbing partner can make all the difference. Andrea emanates strength, competence, and psyche. Her positive attitude and confidence radiates out, infecting those around her – infecting me. She transforms my self-doubt and fear into self-belief and empowerment.
My leg shot up and down out of control, like the bobbin of a sewing machine. Fatigue had turned into exhaustion, yet somehow I kept hanging on. Standing below the last pitch of the climb my desperation had now transformed into determination. I made it this far and I’d be dammed if I didn’t finish this last pitch cleanly. An intense focus swept over me as I made the first couple moves off the belay. A thin crack split the corner of a dihedral and eventually led to the top of the cliff. I only thought about the moves in front of me. The tiny crystals I dabbed my feet on. Twisting my fingers. Controlling my breath. As if out of nowhere, I was able to find a rest stance and shake out for a moment. I yelled out with each move. The closer I came to the top, the more I wanted it. My strength was completely diminished, but somehow I found the reserves to perform one final pull up. I hurled my body onto the ledge. I couldn’t believe I had just pulled it off. The glass walls that had held me in shattered. I had finally stepped through to the other side – the side where self-belief, determination, and drive can overcome even the most stubborn mental barriers.
It’s amazing how far you can push yourself past your perceived limits. One of the major draws of climbing for me is getting the opportunity to push myself to that threshold and then pushing past it to see just what I’m capable of. It’s in these moments when you get to know yourself and what you’re truly made of