It's all sport climbing to me

Why do we travel down new roads?

There are a lot of ways to answer that question. In searching for these answers, I’ve been remembering the importance of listening to people. Even though two roads might converge at some point, we will never be on the same path and you learn a heck of lot more from listening than talking. And while all paths will crisscross and move together and apart (and sometimes back together again), they eventually bring you to a place of happiness and fulfillment that is yours and yours alone.

It’s why I think it’s so important not to hitch my wagon to anybody else’s (for now). I’ve done that before, and I’ve almost done it again. It’s a fail-safe that I’ve used as a crutch in probably all of my relationships.

This is now the reason why I tend to shy away from relationships, but it also forces me to ask myself if I’m really ready for one. In my heart of hearts, I know that nobody is really ready for anything; things happen, life happens, and we roll with those punches. But I also know that the more time I spend, not searching for myself, but creating and figuring myself out, the less likely I will be to wind up in another fail-safe situation.

Besides, I’m in a 100 percent committed relationship with my dog; she takes up less room in the car when we’re sleeping.

Shooter is convinced she is a (65 pound) lapdog. Mark accepts

Shooter is convinced she is a (65 pound) lapdog. Mark accepts

Anyway, I’m staring at this new beginning that I’m holding in my hands and it wants to shape itself intosomething but isn’t sure what it wants to be yet. I’m patient, though. I know if I stop wondering about what it will become, it will just happen when I’m ready.

So I took these new feelings to an old, familiar place. West Virginia was the first place outside of the Gunks that felt like home to me: Fayetteville is home to climbers and Gauly people alike. Fayetteville is home, period. No matter where I travel during the year, my heart remains here in its timeless summer days at the lake and in quiet moments spent on Colleen Laffey’s beautiful property.

Visiting Colleen’s is always like stepping into Wonderland a little bit

Visiting Colleen’s is always like stepping into Wonderland a little bit

Paul Nelson, campground manager at the American Alpine Club down here, friend and all around nice guy, and I went to the Greatest Show Area in the Meadows this week. We both share a love for the New River Gorge climbing, probably above all other crags on the east coast. New River itself has well over 1,000 established routes to climb on some of the most beautiful sandstone rock I’ve laid eyes on.

“Get ready to gawk.” Paul told me as we hiked down the trail.

And did I, ever.

Until that day, I’d only seen pictures of Mango Tango (5.14a), a beautiful arete that overhangs just enough to make you pee your pants a little bit. And then the unmistakable route, The Greatest Show (5.13a). Breathtaking isn’t quite the word for it because it doesn’t take your breath away; it literally steals it and runs off into the woods, leaving you goggling without words. The first section is incredibly R-rated, but beyond a very finger-y looking roof, is a BEAUTIFUL corner crack.

I did the entire climb so much injustice right now, so it’s better if you just go and see for yourself.

Paul Brenner on the starting moves of Puppy Chow, possibly one of (if not, THE) best 12 sport climb in NRG

Paul Brenner on the starting moves of Puppy Chow, possibly one of (if not, THE) best 12 sport climb in NRG

Around the corner from a sport climb Paul Brenner was working on called Puppy Chow (5.12c), was a 5.12 crack that stays dry in the rain. Lynn Hill’s Big Top was put up, Paul Nelson said, when she came down and did The Greatest Show.

The climbing began way left of the route with careful movement up onto nice ledges (the alternative being an unprotectable 5.11 start on the face). Below the roof, I took a moment to listen to nothing. The sound of the meadow river behind me brought me back, and I began to move through the roof where I could clip a few fixed guys we’d seen from the ground. Then, begin the splitter crack (which was the trickiest of cracks!)

I’d given Puppy Chow an attempt earlier, and when I was figuring out how to reach the ledge on the roof with my height, I took a fall or two. No big deal. It was all on permadraws and every fall was clean and into open air. I had repeatedly grabbed an ear with my right hand, brought my left foot high (aka my knee was in my mouth) and tried to lock off and crawl my left hand up the crack to the ledge. It seemed just out of reach every time, and then in one desperate push I’d reach the ledge, but as my feet cut, the ledge was useless and I came down.

Like I said, no big deal. It’s sport climbing. It’s falling on a roof. Maybe I bled a little bit, but you’re not having fun until someone is bleeding.


Paul Brenner heading to the roof on Puppy Chow (5.12c)

Paul Brenner heading to the roof on Puppy Chow (5.12c)

But there I was, working out the crux of Big Top’s crack, scared pretty much shitless (and not in the funny “I’m going to poop myself” way). I was about five or six feet above what I’d originally thought was a marginal purple C3 placement (it turns out, it probably would have taken a fall just fine because it was a b-word to clean) when I placed a truly marginal Totem and then a truly TRULY marginal red C3 placement.

In the middle of a crux, I had somehow convinced my fingers to hold on long enough to slot it inside. Feeling better and finally ready to move past it, it wiggled out and I caught it in my hand. I wanted to cry. I wiggled it back inside and leaned back, stammering to Paul, “Take lightly! Take lightly please.”

Lydia McDonald made a joke, saying that this is why trad climbing is scary. And it’s probably true for most people: trad climbing can be scary, in instances such as this, and sport climbing seen as relatively fun and safe. I think, at some point, we’ve all heard a trad climber refer to it as “vacation” climbing.

Lydia styling the traverse on Just Another Pretty Face (5.11)

Lydia styling the traverse on Just Another Pretty Face (5.11)

Instead of giving my fingers a rest, I kept both hands on as to not weight the piece entirely because when I looked up, that bitchy C3 was completely passive. Completely and utterly.

On the ground, I rattled off my “I’m sorry’s” and list of excuses and Paul said, “Hey. Are you satisfied with your try?”

I smiled and said, “Yeah, most definitely.”

Paul Nelson asked me how I liked Big Top (and I did; I liked it a lot!) but I also told him that lately, I’d taught myself to become afraid of falling again. It’s kind of a weird, backwards progression. Some days, it’s one step forward and two back. That’s all. Understandably so, as some of the things I’ve been so stoked to get on and try have become harder in grade and in that, harder to protect. Sometimes, we place the bad gear and acknowledge that it’s a piece of shit, and are able to climb onward because it gives us a little bit of that mental comfort (“Well, maybe it will hold or at the very least it could slow down my fall.”)

And other times, we place it and just want to cry (or pee, or both).

Maybe it’s not a bad thing that I’ve been feeling scared of falling on gear again. Maybe that’s the thing that will keep me safe, and more importantly, alive.

SPEAKING of safe and alive, I am never not wearing a helmet again. No, there was no incident that led to this decision, and there was also no singular moment that led to the decision not to wear one. Wearing one during my climbing was just something that had tapered off over time, but I’ve basically come to the conclusion that I don’t need to wait for something bad to happen to start doing something right.

Climbing snotsicles in Ouray, Colorado this January

Climbing snotsicles in Ouray, Colorado this January

Paul and I had talked about how there was such a huge increase in helmet usage in the ski world. I think there had been a fatal accident with a very well known skier (his name escapes me) which contributed to this. I don’t necessarily want this pattern to repeat in the climbing world, so maybe if everybody started leading by example, it would make a difference. And hey, thanks to all of my friends who have poked and prodded me over the last few months about it – I love you, you know?

Anyway, teaching myself to get over that particular fear all over again is a curious task. It’s a road I’ve been down before, and even though I thought I’d gotten through it in my first year of climbing trad, I’m back at the same detour. Only this time, the terrain is a little bit different – or maybe I am.

I have to backpedal a little bit, but that ultimately doesn’t mean I’m not getting anywhere. All of the things I’ve been questioning about myself, I am RIGHT to question. And I have to remember that, in the end, falling is no big deal. Recovery is quick and effortless. I’ll learn to be okay with it again; maybe that’s when the confidence comes back and in the end, it’s all just sport climbing to me.