Making the Grade

Having a 'pinched nerve', I think, is a general misnomer that covers any and all types of nerve-style pain with which many of us, at some point, are afflicted. I am, of course, referring to a variety of pain that feels much like an electrified ice-pick stabbing into a very specific area, radiating outwards with all the discomfort of being covered in stinging nettles. Straining my Trapezius muscle has become a favorite pastime of mine; the aforementioned pain receptor short circuit is secondary to my latest muscle tear. When I turn my head, it feels like a needle covered in battery acid is being driven into the margin of my upper spine.

What better time, then, for physical granite rock climbing? I can think of none better, which is why I spent the last two days straining and mantlepressing my way up vertical to just-under-vertical rock. Surprisingly, I feel better after the experience than before; this is a somewhat unheralded result and I'm not sure if it betters or worsens my approach to injury prevention.

In any case, a friend of mine recently established a free variation* to an old bolt ladder on an old, somewhat forgotten climb called Swim at my favorite climbing area, Index. I believe the name refers to the way in which one must 'swim' up a sea of blank-looking granite whilst attempting the climb. Having done the route in the past via the 30 feet of bolt-pulling, I wanted to try the new pitch. We started the climb with an optional pitch which includes another hard bit of climbing that is somewhat height dependent. I pride my 5'6" (or 5'7"?) self in having a 5'9" reach that just barely negates this disadvantage. The first bit went well, as did the second pitch, despite copious amounts of dirt on the latter. Rain seems to coat this section of the Index Upper Town Wall with moss and dirt that collect on features and act as small ball-bearings when one attempts to grab them. A steep but easy crack then led us quickly to what I assumed would be the effort of the day. I wasn't entirely wrong.

The new variation begins from a wonderful, spacious ledge with a great view and a memorial plaque. Difficult from the get-go, this section of climbing features a strange mix of rock types (there is a band of finer-grained rock about 60 feet high and several hundred feet in length in the middle of this section of the Upper Wall) and a rather perplexing crux section. After several minutes poised contemplating the possibilities, I cast off on ten feet of thin holds and slipped off midway through. In my estimation, I missed the first-attempt (onsight) completion of this pitch by a thumbpress (or about 2 inches worth of movement). Although dwindling daylight prevented another attempt, I feel pretty good about my effort: after all, 5.11 at Index is a difficult grade to just waltz up with confidence and a fall is nothing to be ashamed of. At 5.11d, Swim is a classic testpiece on Index granite. The new pitch certainly falls into the category of 'hard 5.11d'. Although few will choose to pursue the outdated but extremely satisfying style of standing on one's feet and trusting them absolutely while searching for tiny handhold features on a wall that is barely vertical in angle, the rewards are numerous: sore toes, raw fingertips, bruised egos; yes, this pursuit is truly that of the purist, a trial-by-fire for any aspiring climber.

After years of crawling slowly up the climbing-grade ziggurat, dividing my time amongst the different rock climbing disciplines, I finally feel ready for the real challenge, the one that has been waiting benignly in my own backyard climbing area for decades: face climbing on the Index Upper Town Wall.

*free climbing is pulling on features inherent in the rock; aid climbing is placing gear (including bolts) and using them for upward progress. Disclaimer: climbing is a game with rules.

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