Thursday, April 26, 2012

Shattered Glass and a White Room

     It was a quiet summer afternoon at Rocks and Ropes when only a handful of the committed gym rats were there, because we had nothing else to do. We had set some routes, slack lined, and performed one or two stupid acts that ended with a few mild injuries. Occasionally a family would pop their heads in but immediately leave at the sight of our pack of shirtless, long haired hooligans taking top rope whippers to see how close we could get to the ground. Eventually we all settled in to the back room which we called the "climber's lounge" to chill and watch a video for the 100th time. Our lounge was really just an vacant, dusty room in the far back of the building with industrial beams and stone walls . There was a TV that only had 8 channels to choose from, a VHS player, a stack of climbing videos and a raggedy old couch that I can only imagine was abandoned on the side of the road at some point before its arrival in our little " lounge".
Just a few of the Rocks and Ropes gang out climbing. ( Cecil Foster, Eric Singleton, Doug Ianaurio and Collin Tice)
     I can't remember which climbing video we watched that day, maybe Dosage 1, but what I heard in that video had an enormous impact on my climbing. It was in a dose of Klem Loskot bouldering somewhere in Europe, Klem was our hero and a master of the mind. We all imitated his psyche and we would scream loud and passionately for each other when we were mid crux and on the line between success and failure, afraid to commit to the next move. Sometimes we would frighten customers because our words of encouragement to our friends could easily be mistaken by an outsider as pure rage. We would grunt and scream, like Klem, as we clawed through a crux as if we were charging straight through a battle towards the gates of Valhalla, committed to seeing our actions through to the end. There was an interview with Klem in which he spoke, in his monk-like Austrian accent, of this specific moment in time he experienced working a hard route, when everything in the world disappears from your mind except you and the rock, a "white room". I loved this allusion of his mind being suspended in time, purely focused on one single objective. The world could be ending behind you at this moment and you wouldn't know it because the mind is in some far away place playing chess with your soul.
Klem Loskot in the zone high above the water.
     Fast forward 9 years. I'm still screaming wildly for my friends and now I have new lines of my own, unclimbed projects that I'm obsessing over, like Klem. The line that sets the stage for my experience is called "Shattered Glass". It is a line I found and admired for months. It goes up an overhanging face with streaks of quartz that resemble the scars of a dramatic lightning strike long ago. I teamed up with my good friend Dan Horne to equip this route and see if it were possible. Dan paid for the bolts and I borrowed a drill and we spent a stormy afternoon establishing "Shattered Glass". Dan bagged the first ascent on his first lead burn of the day; I don't think my drill bit had even cooled when he clipped the chains. I then gave it 2 goes falling at the upper crux each time. I was psyched because now I had a real project! The lines I had established earlier that month went in a day, which upset me a little. I like to work routes for weeks if not months. I love going through the process of failing over and over before realizing success. Shattered Glass would be a route that could provide me with this experience and more.
    Two days after establishing Shattered I destroyed my big toe on a curb in a gas station parking lot. I'm constantly amazed how graceful I can be on an overhanging rock face but yet so clumsy walking on flat ground. As the blood poured from my throbbing toe all I could do was laugh, but deep down I was heart broken. I had waited so long to work this line and two days after getting that opportunity I couldn't even get my foot into a pair of street shoes much less tight climbing shoes. I spent the next week training in the gym on hang boards, H.I.T systems, and anything else I could do to alleviate the chaos in my mind. If I couldn't work my project I sure as hell was going to be ready for the day that I could. One week later my toe had not fully healed but if I taped it enough I could get it in loose climbing shoes.
    I spent the next six days in a frenzy trying to find partners to belay me after work. I would run to the cliff and do a warm up line, hang the draws and give Shattered one pumped go before the daylight would escape into the night. I was making no progress at all, falling at the desperate final crux each time. Most days the holds after the crux were soaking wet but I'd desperately lunge for them anyways. I was basically in my twisted version of heaven! After six days and six failed attempts my friend Nathan suggested I go to the North Side of Looking Glass to clear my mind on some familiar routes and since I felt that I may be developing a mental block, it sounded like a great idea. I spent that Friday evening climbing fun 5.10's that I had done countless times well into the night with my friends. Hanging off the enormous wall of  the North Side with the stars and black sky surrounding me really cleared my head. I was psyched to wake up Saturday and work my project all day with some good friends from Clemson, with a refreshed state of mind.
    I went into the day with high hopes and I was sure I would send because in my mind I did everything right. I hydrated, loaded up on carbs and didn't go out at all so I could get 8 hours of sober sleep. I packed my food (2000 calories), my Katana Laces (my sending shoe), my chaos harness and my super supple 9.4mm Dominator ( my "project" rope). I gave Shattered two great burns that day but failed to keep it together when I was pumped and stabbing at the desperate slopers and edges of the final crux. It wasn't that I didn't know what to do or that I didn't want it bad enough, I just wasn't focused or maybe I was too focused. I was starting to get upset with myself. Physically I could crush every move but mentally I was somewhere else. My mind was lost in the dark and haunted by the whispers of my ego, the distant footsteps of my insecurities, and the quiet breathing of my selfish desires. I vowed that Sunday would be a much need rest day and I would put Shattered Glass out of my mind for the day.
    I woke up the following morning at 8:30 and felt like I had been run over by a train, repeatedly. Six straight days of projecting had taken its toll on my body. My shoulders felt like knotted cables, my fingers throbbed and my elbows were on fire. I got up, had some coffee and packed my bag with my worn out shoes, a harness and a belay device, leaving my draws and rope behind. I packed a little food but nothing to support a high performance day. I  met my friend, Josh Baggett at Brevard Rock Gym and I immediately told him that he had a belay slave for the day and that I would not be climbing. Josh had several lines he wanted to work and I was happy to offer a catch and encouragement as he had done for me many times before.
   We arrived at the crag and began warming up. Throughout the day several people asked me if I was going to give "it" a burn  and I would reply, " No, I'm wrecked and its probably wet again. I'm here for Josh today." Josh set about making quick work of Crown Royal, bagging his first 5.12 and I like to think my "Klem-like" screams of encouragement helped. Riding the high of his send Josh set out to climb Cathy's Corner, a bouldery 5.11 mixed line, just a few feet right of Shattered Glass. Josh fired Cathy's in one go and lowered down happy and accomplished. I agreed to clean the gear from the route and maybe take a look at the hold in question on my route when I got to the top. I felt surprisingly light on Cathy's Corner and when I reached the top I realized the holds of Shattered were bone dry! The voice of my "dark passenger" immediately began to whisper into my mind, " Just give it one go! You need this, WE need this!" I always listen to my "dark passenger", so I called down to Josh that I was going to brush it, hang the draws and give it one burn.
Briefly resting after the initial crux
    So there I was doing exactly what I said I wouldn't do just hours earlier. I was standing below my project for the 8th time, shoes on, bowline tied. Typically I spend a few minutes with my eye's closed, imagining my beta for each move. I try to calm my mind and slow my breathing. I try and try and try to do all these things so that I may be calm and peaceful during the stress of the cruxes, but not this time. Something in me snapped and my mind went to a place it only goes when my back is against the wall and I have to fight my way out. This is a dark but powerful room in my mind where nothing but my most primal rage exists. The walls are painted with images of war, lust and chaos. In the center of this room is my monster chained to the floor, foaming at the mouth and breathing heavily, waiting to be unleashed on the world. I came to and my eyes focused, I began to breath  heavily as goosebumps covered my body. I charged toward the rock and asked Josh if he had me. I was simply hungry for a war, I wanted to be perfect or be ripped apart in the process.
   I moved through the lower V7 crux, turning to stone on each delicate hold. I clipped quickly, without pause on my way to the next move. In seconds I was at the black roof that lies mid route. I hung only briefly to catch my breath then pressed on to the crux. I was not just grabbing the holds I was trying to crush them under the weight of my quiet rage. I made the final clip before the crux and the world vanished. I was in the "white room", the place that Klem spoke of years ago in Dosage. I could hear sounds but they seemed to be universes away. The wind slowed as it kissed my skin and I could feel the granules of rock being pressed into the pours of my finger tips. My monster was gnarling and thrashing at his cage and I happily unlocked his door. I began to squeeze and compress the slopers of the upper V8 crux and before I knew it I was lunging through the air for the final  hold and as I hit it my skin bonded to the rock. I was not coming off. I clipped the anchors slowly and deliberately, savoring what I had waited so long for.
     I didn't make a sound and dropped into the quiet, still air. I sat suspended 60 feet off the ground and took in the moment, trying to absorb every detail  and remember how many times I had been humbled by this beautiful route. Moments later my world came crashing back and all the sounds of the forest flooded into my ears. I looked down at Josh and he was smiling and my friends across the crag were yelling "YEH! Way to go!". It hit me all at once and I let out a scream and kicked my feet in the air in pure, uncontrollable joy. My two month journey was over.
Entering the final crux of Shattered Glass 5.13b
    Days later I was able to reflect on the entire process that was Shattered Glass. The wonder that surrounded it, the creation of the line, the realization that it could go, the injury that kept me away, the countless evenings of training, the frustrating failed attempts and the final realization of the dream. This is why I climb, to be tested and pushed, not just physically but mentally as well. To run head first in to the storm of impossibility and continue forward when rain and lightning crash into the mind. Sadly this experience is gone now and I have to find a new route that will once again provide me with a window into my white room, that will satisfy my monster's appetite. This is the endless cycle of a climber's life and it is a beautiful process.      
   Yesterday I established "Napoleon", a route I  named for its short stature but powerful movement. The moves of this route are stunning and very low percentage. While much shorter than Shattered Glass, Napoleon is leaps and bounds harder in terms of pure difficulty. It will require even more of myself, more training, more sacrifices, more blood, more sweat and more tenacity. The process has started all over. I'll be forced once more to try and find my way back to that place in my mind where peace and power dance together.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

My so called life.....

High off the ground in Georgia
       Climbers have been trying to explain what we do and why we do it since the very beginning. I am not about to try and explain why I do what I do, because I can't. None of us can. We can give generic responses like: "It's so peaceful.", "I want to see where my limit is.", or " Its my way of expressing myself in nature." etc etc. I believe George Mallory said it best when asked why he wanted to climb Everest. His answer was "Because it is there!". I don't think he was talking about Everest itself though. I think he was describing that urge we all feel. That knot in the chest. That gravitational pull down a phantom path. He was describing what every climber that has ever existed feels, the presence of our "dark passenger". We climb because IT is there, always there, telling us to go harder, higher, faster, longer.
   Since I walked into Rocks and Ropes in Greenville, SC at age 17 my life has been on a course; I have had an objective. That objective has been to make climbing my path in life. It is a most arbitrary path I will admit. Essentially I try and find the hardest, not easiest, way up a rock face, for no reason other than, because that's what I like to do. Some of these faces are 10ft tall and some are 1000's of feet tall. And get this... I don't like doing things that I know I can do. I look for the faces I may NOT be able to do. That is just insane if you really think about it. But I spend my days reading books about, watching videos of, talking about, training for, resting after, hydrating for, dreaming about and thinking of climbing.
Getting the first ascent of "Crown Royal"
       I've made a lot of sacrifices in the pursuit of my dreams. Relationships have suffered and blown up in my face because a lot of the times climbing seemingly came first. Loved ones worry about me constantly because to them I'm on deaths door everyday, which is not the case, but try telling your Mother that climbing  400 feet up a vertical face or whipping 40 feet into the void isn't that dangerous. Sometimes I can't go out to the bar with my friends because I'm working a hard route the following morning and I don't want to be out late drinking. I work jobs that allow me to climb as much as possible, sometimes I leave for 2 months at a time. So I'm not really building a retirement fund working for a big corporation but instead I'm guiding and working at a gear shop. But then again I don't want to be working some career I care nothing about. I'm content making just enough money to be comfortable while not cutting into my climbing. Its a simple life. I have set my life up so that I don't really have anything to fall back on but I can also pick up and go as I please, to a certain extent. I've seen the older, weather worn climbers. There's no end game in this life. You do it until you can't. Then you die. To me that is beautifully simple and honorable! To give all of one's self to a single pursuit. So yes, sometimes I eat tuna and ramen for days on end and I get really depressed on rainy days. And so most of the times my bank account is lower than my IQ, and I'm no genius FYI. And yes the only women in my life are usually my climbing partners and you can't date your climbing partners just so you know. You don't want your belayer pissed off at you because you didn't do the laundry.
Looking for new unclimbed routes
       There is a lighter side to this lifestyle. That's a drastic understatement actually. There is a GOLDEN side to this life I lead. When most people are out at bars on a Friday night I'm usually hiking out of the woods with one of my best friends under the stars of a dark, crisp night sky with a mountain we just climbed far behind us. When the average person is at work I'm deep in the backwoods climbing in remote and beautiful settings, surrounded by pristine, natural wonders. My vacations are frequent and cheap and can be up to a month or more in length. I never question my fortitude because I get to test my mental and physical limits daily. I have friends all over the country that I can crash with for free, unannounced. I'm part of a community of brave, humble, tough and unique characters from every walk of life. My best friends are people I trust with my LIFE on a daily basis. When I go to work I'm either teaching people how to climb outside in the places I would be if I were not working or I'm at Looking Glass Outfitters, talking to people about the climbing and helping them find the right gear or pick the best place to climb for the day. My boss calls me to ask if I can cover for him so he can go climbing and I do the same to him. I don't even wear shoes to work most days! Climbing pays my bills, but I'm not getting rich. Its just enough and not too much. Essentially I'm living my dream, a simple dream but the dream nonetheless.
Showing off my sponsors' gear
     From my passion and training and a little luck I've managed to get sponsored by two prominent companies in the international climbing marketplace, making me in a way, a "pro" climber. La Sportiva, an Italian climbing shoe company and BlueWater Ropes, an American climbing rope company, have selected me as one of their athletes. Being sponsored basically means that these companies recognize my passion and abilities and therefore give me their products to use when I climb ( I'm bound by contract to use only their products and not a competing companies') and in exchange I promote their products through word of mouth, pictures, articles, BLOGS, events and other marketing mediums. Now let me say this... I am not some super elite athlete. I'll give you an analogy using other pro athletes to put things in perspective. If Chris Sharma (one of the top climbers in the world) is playing at the NBA All-Star level, I'm playing for a respectable college team who occasionally makes Sport Center's Top 10. I'm a relatively strong climber but not at the cutting edge of my sport. I read somewhere that the grades of difficulty I climb put me in the top 1% percent of climbers in the world but there are still 10 year old girls and 40 year old men that climb harder than I do. Climbing is like golf, it is a lifetime in pursuit of perfection and is a unique but similar journey for everyone involved.
This is why its important to have your trusted friends as partners.
   While climbing is my job, I haven't sold out to THE MAN. The climbing community is a family of like minded people. I can call my "corporate" sponsors anytime if I need help in life. I've done shots with CEO's of marketing at the crag and I call them on their birthdays. 90% percent of the time people have no idea what I'm climbing or "projecting" ( the art of working one route that is at your limit for long periods of time). Every so often I hire a photographer or put out a video promoting my sponsors but most of the time I'm out there, just climbing. But if my sponsors decided to drop me today, nothing would really change in my life except my ropes and shoes wouldn't be as shiny and new all the time. I'd still go climbing everyday and I'd still be madly in love with my sport/art. I don't do it for the glory or attention and it is still as pure to me as it was the day Jason and Sara Heath took me under their wings as a clueless newbie. If anything it means more to me now  than it did then.
     I'm 26 now. My hair is thinning, rapidly. Hangovers hurt a lot more as do workouts. I have to actually stretch before climbing. I'm maturing as a climber and slowly stepping into a position with more responsibility to my community rather than the "loud, naive gumby" I once was. I still have a lot to learn and I also try to pass on my knowledge to younger climbers as my friends did to me when I was starting out. I still have the mindset of an 18 year old with severe A.D.H.D. but I'm growing up nevertheless. I've started to take a step back and look at my life as I am forced to become more and more aware of my fleeting youth but I must say I'm pretty content. I think I still have my best climbing in front of me and I'm happy with the past climbing has laid behind me. I've met amazing people and seen amazing things from perspectives most people can only dream about. I like to think I have a better grasp on why I do what I do after all these years and I'll do my best to convey what I've learned about myself, but this is like trying to describe to someone what love feels like. All I can think to tell you is that I love climbing the way a mother loves her only child, that I need climbing like a lover needs the warm skin of their partner, that without climbing I would be lost in a world of consumption and  greed. Climbing is the first thought on my mind in the morning and the last thing I think about before I fall asleep. To add to George Mallory's answer to an old question, I climb because it is there, I climb because I can not imagine a life without climbing..
Bouldering at 13,00ft in Colorado

Thanks for reading and please pursue your passions at whatever the cost.