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.