The Frayed Ends of Summer

With sudden violence, my foot skated off the tiny nubbin I was standing on and I found myself dangling 15 feet lower, the 50m of rope out above me feeling much like a ridiculously huge rubber band. I started into a tirade, abbreviated only by the two Europeans watching with anticipation from the nearby belay. They were rooting me on and for that reason alone I was forced to muzzle my profanity, lower to the belay and try again. I checked the sole of my right shoe, the one implicated in the unexpected foot slip. A dime-sized piece was missing from the rubber at the most critical part of the instep, revealing the midsole beneath. With knowledge of the grim reality of my footwear, I tightened up the shoes, straining the paltry needle-and-thread reinforcements I had made to the leather lacing loops two days prior. As a climber from yet another team began to traverse towards my belay, I climbed back up to the same spot and was again summarily rejected. A frustrated embarrassment welled up as I padded quickly up the twenty feet to the crux move and once again took flight. Whether it was me or my rapidly deteriorating right shoe, the route was handing out a serious beatdown and four other people were now watching it happen. I rested for as long as I could stand, trying to shake off the angst and calm down. I climbed back up, trying my hardest to get some positive momentum going. The hole in my shoe gripped the foothold just long enough for me to thrash my way through the move and I steamrolled angrily through the rest of the pitch. This was the first and easiest of the three cruxes on the Free Grand Wall at Squamish and it was not an auspicious beginning.

The day before my climbing partner Ben and I had done a little warm-up climb on Slhanay (a more culturally sensitive moniker for the formation formerly known as 'The Squaw') called "Frayed Ends of Sanity". I think someone had pointed out this route to me on my first (bouldering) trip to Squamish; it takes a strikingly prominent line up an arete that forms the boundary between lighter and darker rock on the upper part of the formation:

The arete pitch is the upper extent of where the white rock in the middle meets darker gray rock on the left. Disclaimer: I stole this image from elsewhere.

My first attempt on the pitch ended at the first crux where a hold featuring a razor sharp quartzite crystal filleted my right middle fingertip. I filled the wound with chalk and climbed through to the top of the pitch where I promptly core-shot the rope on the final move of the pitch ('Frayed Ends' indeed!). I lowered down, the dizzying exposure shimmering below me and blood covering my pants as I attempted to staunch the surgically precise little slash in my fingertip. At the belay, I endeavored to compose myself for another attempt at the pitch. Spattering the rock with blood and still nervous from the wild view beneath me, I managed to climb through the punchy little crux and clip the chains. Ben worked out the moves, lowered down to the belay and climbed back up without issue. I realized something seemingly obvious as we topped out the formation: I was extremely rusty at climbing these exposed routes and it was making the climbing feel way harder than it actually was. Too much cragging right off the ground means trouble adjusting to the times when I really have to air it out on hard moves with a view.

Fast forward again to the Grand Wall the next day. I sat on the ledge above the Split Pillar half an hour, waiting for the European team to pass so I wouldn't feel rushed leading the first real crux pitch. The Underfling is a pretty straightforward bolted power undercling pitch that veers right before the A0 bolt ladder on the regular Grand Wall route. Since my nerves were wracked by crappy delaminating shoes and by being a chicken shit while climbing hard moves way off the deck, I wasn't feeling as smug as when we'd started the route. I climbed too slowly, got pumped and took a good whipper towards the middle of the pitch. I lowered and pulled the rope but my expectations were getting lower by the minute. Why was it so fucking hard? Well, again: if the pitch was right off the ground at my local crag, I doubt it would be half as much of an issue; it's all about perspective. I do generally think that falling off defrays nervousness and in this case it sort of worked: the next try was much better although I still managed to screw up my footwork on the final mantle to the belay like a dumb ass and pitch off. Oh well: next time I guess. Ben followed the pitch with no problem and we set up for the real crux of the route: a three bolt slab rejoining the regular route above the bolt ladder. Both of us figured out the moves pretty quickly but a no-falls ascent of the pitch wasn't to be had, unfortunately. 5.13- slab sounded like it would be hard and the pitch didn't disappoint although it is certainly all there. Since both my shoes had holes in them at this point, I find myself wondering how the pitch would have felt with actual sticky rubber. Maybe better? Who knows. The moral of the story is to save the worn out Mythos for easy slabs (or just throw them away) and to get on the TC Pro bandwagon as soon as stores actually have them again.

I was surprised at how the altered perspective affected my ability to climb. I guess it had been way too long since the last time I'd done a route with more than five pitches. Too much climbing in my comfort zone at Index has turned me into a weak little kitten on larger objectives. However, the nice thing is that this problem sort of takes care of itself: after a couple of longer routes (and a few whippers at altitude) the impact of the exposure just feels less intense and it becomes easier to relax and enjoy the view. To wit, although it is far more mellow, a fast-paced foray on Millenium Falcon the following day was an absolute lark after the Free Grand. The real reward of topping out the Chief 1.5 times, aside from the view, was motoring down the crowded hiker's trail in my flip flops past the throngs of galumphing tourists, garnering reactions ranging from irritation to outright astonishment at the fact that we'd 'just climbed the thing with a rope'. Muttered phrases in unfamiliar languages were plentiful: I will never know just how denigrating or encouraging they were.

In all fairness, I played the part of the gumby just as aptly as the intrepid weekend hiker with his convertible shorts/pants, boots and gaiters on in the summer sun. It took me a few frustrating moments to remember that the more we assume to be true, the more expectations we have, many of them unreasonable, unwarranted and inaccurate. Shunryu Suzuki states that "in the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few". It's a rather poignant observation: in climbing, the more assured we are of our abilities and their applications, the less well we react to outlying circumstances like failure in front of other climbers. It's all about the ego and the way our perception frames the circumstance. In any case, I am more excited than ever to climb long routes despite all the catch-up work I feel I have to do. That and the inexorable approach of a new season, one fraught with copious amounts of moisture and a dearth of dry rock here in the Northwest. But that just means it's time to head indoors and injure ourselves in climbing gyms. Right?