Outdoor Climbing

Category Archive

Journey to Multi-Pitch: Part 1

Twelve years ago I was introduced to rock climbing by a friend from work. It became the number one hobby that I never had time for. Even after twelve years, I wasn’t an especially advanced climber. Living in Peoria, almost an hour away from the gym and three hours from the closest outdoor crag, made it difficult to commit to more than a couple times a month at best. In my climbing group, I was the one lagging behind. Even though I’d been lead certified for eight years, I could only manage 5.10a lead and not cleanly. Yet, I was happy with where I was. While I desired the ability to climb harder routes, I enjoyed climbing what I could and cheering for my friends who I would belay on tougher climbs. Then late last fall, one of my friends floated the idea of taking a trip to Boulder, Colorado.

At first, it just sounded exciting, as he talked about doing multi-pitch trade and getting guides, but it quickly occurred to me that I was in no way prepared. Could I get ready in time? What if on this multi-pitch route, I was the slowest one? What if I couldn’t make it? How embarrassing would it be to hold back the group? A five or six pitch route is a commitment. Getting stuck on some pitch in the middle would prevent my partner from advancing to the top. I needed to prepare myself so that I wasn’t a drag, and so that I could make the most of a great opportunity.

The plan was set. Drive out on Wednesday, June 5th. Climb Flatiron 1 with our guides on Thursday. Do more multi-pitch trad in El Dorado Canyon with guides on Friday. Then finish up Saturday with some sport climbing on our own in one of the many surrounding climbing areas. It was November and I had resolved to climb more. Over the next two months, I managed seven trips to the gym in Bloomington. My first hurdle was my own mind. Getting past the third bolt felt like reason to celebrate and take a break. I needed to rest. What if the next hold wasn’t good? I wasn’t comfortable clipping from anything but the biggest jugs with full finger strength. Not because I couldn’t do it, I just didn’t want to. Who wants to fall 10 or 15 feet? Well, some of us are more daring than others. So I’d get halfway and start chickening out. I also suffered from addiction to high clipping. I knew better, but it was always so tempting to try and clip from as low as possible, stretching my hand way above my head. The danger of high clipping is multifaceted. High clipping takes longer, so you are wasting extra energy which could lead to a fall. It carries the risk of the dreaded z-clip since you are usually so close to the last clip that you can grab the rope under the quickdraw instead of the rope coming off your harness. Also, a fall while high clipping will be farther than if you were clipping at chest height. 

Fear was a big part of what was holding me back. Well, there’s only one way to deal with fear, and that’s to face it. I had a goal and a new mantra: no takes. It was easy on some routes that I had climbed before. I was close to making those anyway and just a bit of motivation got me to clean a few. But then I pushed into 10b and there came the falls.

My main weakness was finger strength. While balance and technique are what make excellent climbers, grip strength and brute force aren’t bad companions. One climbing friend had loaned me his 40lb Grip Pro Trainer months before. I had used it here and there but now it became like a hobby in itself. Whenever I was on the phone or reading some technical document at work, I was squeezing my way to more hang time. I worked my way up to using a 50lb trainer.  There’s nothing worse than getting ready to clip and feeling like your grasp is quickly peeling away. Soon that feeling came less and less often. I started to feel like with a good perch, I could hang on one arm forever. 

I was pushing my way through 10b into 10c and then it happened, the glorious day that First Ascent opened in Peoria. My clipping had improved, but in the first few months, I would have to switch to bouldering while waiting for the rope area to be built. I hate bouldering. I should say I hated bouldering. Something about the routes I had tried just hadn’t interested me. But with the wide variety and excellent setting at FA, I soon found a lot to like. My problem was taking adequate rests. It’s easy when you have to take turns with your partner. But with nothing holding you back, you can burn out fast. That’s where my poor technique and inflexibility started to emerge.

I have never been able to bend down touch my toes. While I would have liked to take advantage of First Ascent’s yoga studio, my schedule only allowed for one visit a week. So I went online and found a great seven-part series on yoga for climbers. This made for a good stretching session that I could do at home in just half an hour. My daughters were excited to join me in the exercise. They would be contorted in the position the instructor was demonstrating, then they’d look back at me and say, “Dad, why aren’t you doing it?” I had to laugh at myself. But, within weeks I was able to touch my toes with my knees locked. I noticed that I could also lift my legs up higher when struggling to find good footholds. 

I started thinking about my gear as well. Generally, I’m a thrifty person. I’ve had the same harness since the day I started climbing. It was the Vision model from Wild Country, which was a good beginner harness.  I knew it should probably have been retired a while ago, so I asked around and got a few recommendations for the Adjama harness made by Petzl. It’s comfortable and has extra gear loops, which I thought would come in handy on multi-pitch. My shoes were pretty worn, so I decided to get them resoled. They are a pair of Red Chilis I got for free from a friend, but they were $150 new. I knew it would be well worth it to get a second life out of them. Then my friend pointed out that they were fairly aggressive and probably too uncomfortable for a full day of climbing.  I like the stability that really tight shoes provide when climbing, but they are very painful to walk around or belay someone in. That’s why I always bring sandals to change into. I ended up going with the La Sportiva Tarantula and ordered an EU 44 since my Red Chilis are 42. I like the way the Tarantulas go on. They have tongue loop that makes it easy to cinch down. They proved to be a very comfortable shoe with only a little loss in stability. As soon as they arrived, I sent my old ones to Rock and Resole. It took a couple of months to get them back and the cost was around $60. I was very pleased with the quality. 

With still over a month to go, I felt very optimistic. I was really pushing myself and trying to do all the lead-only routes I could on the pillar. I really enjoy all of the different features on that part of the gym. I had climbed really hard one day and after I felt mostly burned out, my friend wanted me to top rope a very crimpy 11.b that was slightly overhung. I knew it was an area I needed to work on. I would struggle to get up, but I went for it. My fingers were very sore, and I would make only a few moves before I felt like my hands just gave out. Although I did finish it, my fingers had paid the price. Their soreness continued longer than usual and was mostly located in the middle finger of my left hand. The next week I tried to climb easier routes. After the first, the soreness was back to full strength. I pushed one more climb and gave up. Describing my situation to my friends led them to the conclusion that I had a #3 pulley injury. The odd part was that I didn’t feel a pop, which most had experienced with theirs. For those few climbers unfamiliar with the injury, the tendons in the finger run through bands of tissue that wrap around the bones called pulleys. This prevents the skin from being pulled down. Too much load on the tendons will cause it to tear through the band. It can be very painful and take a long time to heal. Luckily mine was not as severe as it could have been. It did stop me from climbing though. 

I definitely didn’t want to jeopardize the trip by making it worse, but I also felt that I wasn’t yet where I needed to be. Not climbing for a month could cause me to backslide. I was talking with my wife about the situation and she suggested that maybe trying to lose weight before the trip would help. She was worried that the suggestion would hurt my feelings, but I really appreciated it. It made perfect sense, I just hadn’t thought of it before. I didn’t end up doing any serious calorie counting, but I cut out all snacks and sweets. I avoided treats that were brought in to work. I stopped drinking alcohol. My wife already cooks very healthy meals and I don’t drink much with sugar in it. I continued doing some weight lifting, step-ups, and weighted lunges. When the day of the trip arrived, I had lost almost ten pounds. I still had some pain in my finger, but it was much improved. I still had the same doubts and worries, but I felt that I had done all I could to prepare myself. I was ready to see if it had paid off.

To be continued…

James Dunn is a member at First Ascent Peoria.

Trip Report: New River Gorge, July 2019

In this trip report, Danny Delanty tells us about his weekend trip to the New River Gorge in Fayetteville, WV. Thanks for the beta and the wisdom, Danny!

Over the past weekend, I was able to check out the South Side crags at the New River Gorge. Since the crag can be accessed only from one very small dirt road, the South Side crags typically do not get the traffic they deserve. We were able to go to the Mud Hueco Area, Area 51, Brilliant Pebble, and The Other Place. With 200+ sport routes at these crags alone, this forgotten area is a hidden gem within the NRG.

I met a friend, Craig, down at the NRG and we traded belays working on our goals for that weekend. Craig was working on an extremely aesthetic climb called Crossing The Line (5.13b) at the Area 51 Crag while I was going around trying to get up as many 12- and 11+ as my arms would let me! If you climb 5.13, Area 51 at the NRG is for you, almost all the routes have permadraws, and there are multiple highly rated 5.13’s in that area. I ended up one hanging two really fun and chill 12-‘s and sending another one that goes by the name of Hard, Pipe Hittin’ Tiggers (5.12b). This is a route that everyone should hop on; it is a little contrived since you can skip the crux and go around it to make the climb go at 5.11-, but the crux sequence is very exciting! You get a good kneebar for rest, then you come out to two half-pad crimps which set you up for a big throw to a sloping but good ledge. From there it is jugs to the anchors. Leading up to the crux, however, is a super fun, (slightly reachy for those like me with shorter stature) very techy slab climb for the first 3-4 bolts that would be fun enough to do on its own!

We camped at a campsite on the river and were lucky enough to be given some low tide which exposed some large dry rocks on the river that were the perfect spot to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner on. Anyone who is a fan of camping and climbing would simply find this spot to be a paradise! All four crags are within a 15-minute walking distance from your tent at the campsite, so once you drive in, you do not need the car until you drive out! There are no modern facilities at this campground though, so do remember to bring all the water, food and filtration necessary to support you as you go send hard!

Climbing with people that are working on routes four grades harder than yours is a very good experience. On one hand, if the rock doesn’t humble you, seeing someone crush a climb you’re constantly whipping on will humble you. On the other hand, when belaying you can not afford to look away too much, and through this, I have learned much better technique and resting strategies. Employing what I have learned just from one person has surely bumped me up a few grades on sport, which is what all climbers want and deserve!

Recap: Red River Gorge Beta with Dru Mack

If you’ve been climbing in the gym for a while, it’s a pretty safe bet you’ve caught the outdoor climbing bug—after all, outdoor adventure is the root of our sport. But it’s not quite as easy as throwing your stuff in the car and driving to the Red River Gorge. Every climber should know some basic etiquette and ethics to enjoy all that the Red has to offer in a sustainable and safe way. That’s why we had the Red River Gorge Climbing Coalition come out to Avondale on May 11 with pro climber Dru Mack to help us learn more about the do’s and don’t’s of climbing at the Red, whether it’s your first time or your 50th.

After the event, we had the chance to catch up with Dru to get his pro tips on how to navigate RRG crags. Here’s a bit of what he had to say:

Keep an Open Mind

Sometimes, it can be easy for more experienced climbers to negatively throw the word “gumby” around when new outdoor climbers make mistakes in etiquette. But new climbers are usually not making mistakes on purpose: “A lot of times more local climbers or people who have been climbing longer think people are messing up and they know better,” Dru says. “If you offer advice or help they’re usually more than willing to hear you out and make their process easier, as long as you don’t come across as a jerk.”

 

Manage Your Group Size

The Red is growing rapidly in popularity—and overcrowding can easily become an issue at a crag, especially with large groups who lock down routes for hours. “I’ve been to a crag where someone told me ‘there are 13 people in line for this route,’” Dru says, “but there weren’t even 13 people at the crag.” What’s the solution? “If you have a big group, spread out—go to different crags,” Dru says, “but if you’re all at one crag, make sure to let other people hop onto the route in between your whole group.” At the end of the day, communicating with other climbers is key to making sure your large group isn’t putting off negative vibes to the rest of the crag’s climbers.

Stay Within Bounds

In many areas at the Red (and in other crags around the world), climbing’s slotted into very predetermined areas. Outside of those areas, if a person or dog wanders around, erosion and damage to the landscape can threaten our access to those spaces. But that’s not just for out-of-bounds: Dru says keeping your pets and gear corralled is important for safety reasons: “It’s easy to be distracted, especially as a belayer,” Dru says, “and if someone’s dog is going through your bag, it’s really easy to look away and not give what you’re doing enough thought.” Keeping your gear and person within bounds leads into the next point covered: leaving the Red how you found it.

 

Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace means exactly what it sounds like: leave it how you found it. “Our impact [as climbers] is one thing,” Dru says, “but leaving gear or trash or things out there has a negative effect on the area.” Most people aren’t intentionally littering, but it’s easy when you’re dealing with a lot of gear to drop some tape here, a wrapper there, especially with everything going on at the crag. But that stuff adds up whether you meant it or not—in both physical impact to the land, but also its beauty and the landowners’ willingness to tolerate climbers. It helps to pick things up even when it wasn’t yours. All climbers should make a point to pack out whatever they can to help keep the Red in great condition.

 

Get Involved Locally and Stay Educated

The RRGCC, who sponsored the event, is a great organization for climbers to get involved with if they want to integrate with the local scene and meet other climbers—on top of learning good etiquette and ethics. The best way is to contribute and stay up to date on new info: “Donating money goes a long way to maintaining the Red’s areas or buying new land, which can help spread people out,” Dru says. “But if you can’t donate your money, then donate your time,” like at trail days, where volunteers can maintain trails to the Red’s amazing crags.

It was a great event, and we’re so glad the RRGCC and Dru came out to talk to us. Follow them both on Instagram to stay up to date and learn more about outdoor climbing!

Red River Gorge Climbing Coalition: @RRGCC
Dru Mack: @drumack5

Climbing photos by John Wesley @lightningsnaps

Trip Report: Pete’s Lead, Jackson Falls

In this month’s trip report, Sydney Bock, FA Youth Climbing Team member, tells us about a trip to Jackson Falls back when she was only 9. She is now 11, and felt it was important to mention that 5.7 is no longer a difficult grade for her thanks to all the training she does as part of the Team. That is, unless there are frogs. Take it away, Sydney!

It was 2017, the same year our family took a trip to Jackson Falls. The same year I sent the climb “Pete’s Lead.”

My breath came in short ragged gasps, and the hot sun relentlessly beat down on my back. Which, fortunately, wasn’t as tired or cramped up as my arms and legs. The heat burned, almost as much as the aggravating itch from the mosquitoes that continued to hover around my face, even after my pitiful attempts to try and swat them away with my one free hand. Struggling so badly at only about two thirds of the way up this climb, didn’t make the possibility of me sending it a very likely outcome. I kept persisting however, and soon reached about where the three fourths mark would be, if there was one. After a quick thought, I decided to take a rest on a pretty big pocket just a little ways higher than I was at the moment. That way, I could get some much needed shaking out and chalk. Which was critical in my condition. Mind you, I was shaking with each movement and ninety-five percent sure I was going to fall at any moment now, so a rest sounded pretty nice.

One more move, just another move, you can do it; one move and you’re practically done. The words that continually coursed through my thoughts as I made my slow, and not-so-steady ascent towards my resting pocket. Now that I think about it, I kinda feel bad for my belayer. I must have taken a bajillion years getting up that rock. Just a few more holds…. finally! I stuck my hand into the pocket as a mixture of triumph and relief washed over me, but just as quickly recoiling my hand when I feel something soft and slimy at the back of the hold. I peek in and am caught by surprise when I see the form of what looks to be a frog, but whether it’s dead or just sleeping, I can’t tell. I don’t want to startle it, but what else is there to do? I can’t use the hold if the frog stays in there, and I can’t continue on the climb if I don’t rest on that hold. Finally after a few minutes of contemplation, I come to the conclusion that the best course of action is to – or at least attempt to – awaken the frog, hopefully without scaring it too much. So, I slowly stick my index finger into the hold and lightly touch the frog again. Its response was not what I was expecting. As soon as my finger came in contact with its body, immediately it jumped out so fast that I didn’t even realize what had happened until it had almost reached my shirt. It never got the chance to land on me though, only because I was able to move out of the way fast enough to where it landed on the rock instead. This action almost made me fly off the climb because of a mixture of my surprise, reflex, and tiredness, but by some miracle I managed to stay on, clinging onto the rock for dear life.

The rest of the climb, luckily, was straightforward and easy so I was able move up much more quickly and efficiently than before. Soon enough I was matching both hands on top of the ledge and looking out across the vast and rocky landscape. A view that had taken so much effort to see, made me appreciate it only ten times more. As I gave the signal to lower, and passed by the frog who was still hanging out on the rock, I realized that I wouldn’t remember this climb because it was fun or had a weird name. I would remember it because of my encounter with this very frog. This little guy had startled me so much that I almost fell off the climb, yes, but the uniqueness in meeting it had made this trip so much more fun and special. I watched on as the little frog hopped up the rock back to its pocket, and I sent it my well wishes.

I would like to dedicate this story to a few special people. Firstly to my mom for being so kind and generous, and making sure that I always feel supported. I love her so much—thanks, Mom! To my brother Austin, for making me laugh and teaching me that no matter what, I should always play LEGOS with him. Though he can be pretty annoying at times, he is still my brother and I love him infinitely nonetheless. To the frog for pushing me to finally reach the top and for making Jackson Falls so much more memorable. Finally, to my dad, for introducing me to climbing in the first place, and being so supportive of my passion. Thank you guys so much, it really means a lot to me.

How to Navigate the Crag Series

To help support your gym to crag transition, we’ve created a set of 5 guides for newer gym climbers interested in starting to climb outdoors for the first time: How to Navigate the Crag. Though it came in five parts, each with their own sets of details, the information contained in these guides is really pretty simple.

Those who’ve spent time in the outdoors, whether hiking or pursuing other sports, may have heard some of this before – particularly part one. For others, it might all be new. Take a look through the series below for the need-to-know topics about climbing outdoors for the first time.

Click the heading name to view that entry in the series. Enjoy!

Part 1: Leave No Trace

What’s Leave No Trace? It’s a seven-principle manifesto, codified in 1994 by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, that equips adventurers with the skills to use the outdoors ethically and responsibly. Adopting the Leave No Trace Seven Principles makes it possible for others after you to enjoy the spaces we travel to in order to pursue our sport, and helps us maintain access to the beautiful spaces in which we climb.

Part 2: Crag Etiquette

When you first start to climb outside, you’ll realize there are no instructors hanging out, ready to correct your etiquette or skills – so to stay safe and conscientious, you need to show up educated and attentive. The new climber who shows up at a crag ready to watch, listen, and learn from more experienced climbers, but already well-versed and educated in the basic etiquette for being good climbing citizens, are the people who grow as athletes more quickly, integrate more deeply into the community, and have the most fun.

Part 3: Learning Local Style

The safety and local practices you should know when you go to a new crag are often referred to as the local “ethics.” Without knowing local ethics, you could still have a great time, but you’d likely end up violating some local access rules, making crag maintenance more difficult, or possibly endangering yourself or others. Plus, a huge part of growth in climbing is about building up your repertoire of skills to become more adaptable as an adventurer and athlete. Be sure to know local ethics for the crag your visiting, or go on your first trip to that climbing area with someone who does.

Part 4: Choosing Routes

Knowing how to choose the right routes to try on your first trip can be tricky. The simple, first answer is this: If you’re a new climber, thumb through the back of the guidebook, where you’ll likely find an index of routes sorted by grade. Pick a grade perhaps one below your gym level (gym routes rarely feel as difficult as the equivalent grade outdoors for a number of reasons), and look up the best-rated routes of that grade. But it goes even deeper than that – check out the article for more guidance on projects.

Part 5: Planning Your Trip

Plan carefully: If you show up unprepared, without enough gear, or even without a partner on the same page as you, it’ll be tough to climb what you want to climb. If you’re not using the right vehicle, it might be difficult even to access the routes you want to try. Beyond the basic camping gear (or whatever you need for your lodgings), here’s how to plan your first trip to a new crag.

Remember: climbing outdoors is a privilege that it’s up to the climbing community to responsibly enjoy. If you’re ever unsure about proper safety protocol, etiquette, ethics, or logistics, talk to other climbers, or contact the climbing coalition or club closest to the area you’re visiting. We wish you all the best as you enjoy the exceptional beauty and raw adventure of outdoor climbing. Climb on!

By Chris Rooney, FA member and writer.

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