Trip Report

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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: 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.

Dragon’s Cave and the Hot Sea by Julia Kuo

In this special guest post, FA member Julia Kuo shares how she got into climbing through illustrations and words. You can see more of Julia’s work at juliakuo.com. We love stories like these! If you’re interested to share your story, email us at blog@firstascentclimbing.com

Trip Report: Chattanooga Area Bouldering

FA Setter Ryan Smith recounts his Thanksgiving trip to two sandstone bouldering meccas: Rocktown near La Fayette, Georgia and Stone Fort (aka Little Rock City) in Soddy Daisy, Tennessee, both easy to get to from Chattanooga Tennessee. Read on for some highlights and beta!

FA members and staff enjoy taking their holidays on the road. This time around a large crew went to Tennessee and Georgia during the Thanksgiving holiday to grapple with some sandstone boulders and work off some of the turkey weight. Bellies full of Thanksgiving food, the FAm packed up at headed southeast.  

FA setters Mike, Warren, Liz and myself spent our first day of climbing in Rocktown, located in La Fayette, GA, about an hour outside of Chattanooga.

FA crew hanging out at the base of “The Comet” boulder. Photo: Mike Rosen

The best time to climb at Rocktown is Fall through early Spring. Climbing at Rocktown requires a specific permit to climb there, and it can be a bit tricky to find, so here’s the beta: go to Georgia’s Outdoors License webpage, fill out some personal information, and select the Non-Resident (if you’re not from Georgia) Angler License. The license cost $10 with a $2.50 service fee, this will gain you access to climbing and camping for one day. You are able to buy multiple days for around $3 per day. If you’re planning to multiple times per year, it may be worth it to buy an annual pass instead.

Rocktown is home to some phenomenal climbs. If you like awesome sandstone features and beautiful dense forests this is the place for you. There is a high density of 5 star climbs from V3-V7, but there are plenty of climbs for climbers of all ability levels to get on. If you’re worried about crowds, don’t – Rocktown features boulders that are spread out from each other, so even on busy weekends you can find some seclusion.

One big highlight from the trip to Rocktown was an awesome FA meetup at “The Comet” and “The Scoop” boulders. It was such a great experience have to have FA setters, Customer Service staff, and members all climbing with and supporting each other to the tops of many of the climbs there.

One of my personal highlights had to be climbing with FA setter emeritus Chris Feghali, who has now moved to Memphis Tennessee but joined the crew to climb for a few days. Since moving on from Chicago, Chris has become an assistant manager at Outdoors, Inc. He has also put together a climbing shoe review website (climbingshoebeta.com), and he’s been doing plenty of mountain biking. Though he may not be in a climbing gym all the time, he was still able to make quick work of “Tractor Traylor”.

Chris Feghali putting down “Tractor Traylor” V8. Photo: Rana Accawi

At the end of the day we had a great group session at “The Orb” area, with crews of FA climbers on “The Orb”, “Double Trouble”, and “Soap on a Rope”. Some of us stayed even later to have a night session on “The Orb”.

FA setter Warren Wernick working “The Orb” V8. Photo: Pilar Amado

Day two of climbing, we ventured to “Stone Fort” (aka Little Rock City) which is located in Soddy Daisy, TN just outside of Chattanooga. Climbing at Stone Fort is a bit simpler than going to Rocktown – all that is required of climbers is to drive to the Montlake golf course (yes, golf course), head into the clubhouse, and pay for a day pass ($8.75). From there, you have less than a five minute walk to the boulders next to the golf course. One thing to be wary of: there are boulders near the golf course and those are off limits while golfers are playing.

Stone Fort is another beautiful field of sandstone boulders that is much more densely packed than Rocktown but still offers great variety. One of my favorite V1’s is located here called “Firecracker Flake” as well as some other greats like “Shotgun”,  a techy V6 accessible to climbers of all shapes and sizes with a variety of betas.

Liz Escobar with the mono crux on “Shotgun” V6. Photo: Mike Rosen

Liz figured out some very inspiring beta on this climb and I have no doubt she is going to send it the next time she heads to Stone Fort. One of our final climbs of the day was “Deception” a thin, technical climb I had attempted before and was unable to send. Myself and a few others put in some valiant efforts but continued to be thwarted at the very end of the climb.

Ryan Smith eyeing the next move on “Deception” V7. Photo: Mike Rosen

While it is disappointing in the moment not to send, this open project gives me a great reason to plan for a return trip and will be that much more sweet when the climb finally gets completed. See you again soon Stone Fort!

P.S. if you are looking for great BBQ I hear “Sugar’s Ribs” is the place to go.

Go on a trip recently and want to share with the FA community? Email us at blog@firstascentclimbing.com to pitch your Trip Report. FA members get a huge FA Bonus award for contributing!

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