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TNB: Super Unknown - Austin Dark Horse Establishes 5.14d in Random Texas Cave

02-Apr-2013
By Jeff Jackson

Nick Duttle on another Rupesh Chhagan test piece <em>Dharma Gate</em> (5.14b/c). Photo: <a target="_blank" href="http://merrickales.com/">Merrick Ales</a>. A few days ago I heard that Nick Duttle had made the second ascent of I, Me, Mine, a route put up by my friend Rupesh Chhagan, a doctor of Chinese Medicine and Hakomi who lives in Austin, Texas. The route follows a grievous set of blobs and tiny crimpers out a 50-foot limestone roof on the right end of a pretty, flat-floored, privately owned cave in the Texas hill country.

The crag is scenic, hung with angel-hair fern, situated on the banks of a clear spring-fed creek. More pertinently, it’s liberally blasted with incut horizontals, little travertine tufas and solid flakes. I used to live about 300 yards from the cave and bolted 25 of the 50 or so routes. Some days I’d walk down to the right end and look up at the gray rock, ripped here and there with seams and edges, and try to imagine a line up the tabula rasa.

Since I moved to Colorado eight years ago, that side of the cave has seen some development by a tight crew of local climbers including Clayton Reagan, Andrew Oliver and Rupesh. They told me about the lines, calling one of them 5.13c. I chuckled because the climb traverses a 60-dregree overhang and has features about as prominent as the warts on an alligator’s belly. I suspected that the heady combination of talent, humility and parochialism might be skewing their perspective, but I didn’t quite realize the extent of the sandbagging until this winter when the journeyman pro climber Nick Duttle began trying to repeat the lines.

Duttle has climbed six 8c+’s (5.14c) and a few V14s. He told me yesterday that he has done Right Martini, Hueco’s benchmark V12, at least 70 times. So it’s fair to say that Duttle has a firm grasp of the grading scale. When he sent Rupesh’s “13c” this winter he upgraded it to 5.14b. Other routes proved about as difficult, including a first ascent that Duttle pulled off in January, Enero Mariposa (5.14c). It didn’t take long for Duttle to start wondering: If the 13c’s are this hard, how hard is the “5.14b.”

Regardless of how many confirmed 9a’s there are in the States, to me it’s interesting that a decidedly part-time climber put up one of the most difficult routes on the continent at a backwater crag in Texas. How can that even happen?Born with a genetic disorder called hypohidrotic ectodermal dysplasia, Duttle has a host of syndromes and issues including an unusual cranial-facial structure, but his biggest challenge is the fact that he doesn’t perspire. This can lead to overheating (Duttle has almost died a couple of times from hyperthermia). Ironically, his disorder can make his hands too dry to stick to slopers and crimps. Rather than chalking up, he often resorts to misting his hands with water prior to climbing! The humid central Texas climate suits Nick and he spends time there most winters.

I met Nick about a decade ago when he first started coming to central Texas, and he has always struck me as one of those rare individuals who knows exactly what he wants. In his case, he has always wanted to be a pro athlete. Even in the midst of his battles with his condition, as a frail little boy with lots of health issues, wispy hair and a face that looked different, when asked by a teacher to draw a picture of what he would like to be when he grew up, Nick drew an Olympic athlete. Since he found climbing, he has systematically trained, traveled and sent the hardest routes—downgrading a lot of them—until this non-sweating New Mexican boy realized his dream and became one of the best. At one point he was number five in the world in the combined 8a.nu rankings.

So when I saw a notice posted on 8a.nu—Nick Duttle has done I, Me, MINE in Texas for his first 9a after having done six 8c+—I took notice. I knew Nick and Rupesh, and wasn’t surprised that the route was upgraded from 8c … but 9a is a pretty rarified realm. Off the top of my head, I can only think of 10 routes confirmed at 9a (5.14d) or harder in the entirety of North America: Golden Direct (9a), Psychedelic(9a),Dreamcatcher (9a), Southern Smoke Direct (9a), The Fly (9a), Moonshine (9a), La Reve (9a), Kryptonite(9a),Bad Girls Club (9a), and Jaws II (9a+). (I’m not including routes like Jumbo Love (9b) that haven’t been repeated. Please feel free to add other confirmed 9a’s in the comments below.)

Regardless of how many confirmed 9a’s there are in the States, to me it’s interesting that a decidedly part-time climber put up one of the most difficult routes on the continent at a backwater crag in Texas. How can that even happen? Well, one reason is Rupesh Chhagan.

Rupesh Chhagan.Rupesh, the son of Indian parents, grew up near Dallas and learned to climb in a gym. Eventually he found his way to Austin and started repeating hard routes at the local crags. It wasn’t long before he was filling in the blank spots at areas like Reimer’s Ranch and Roger’s Park with his own very difficult routes and problems. In 1999, however, he badly injured his shoulder and was forced to take a look at life without climbing.

When I asked Rupesh about that experience he wrote: “I tend to be an industrious guy who gathers a lot of self esteem from accomplishments and goal achieving. But feeling good about yourself based on accomplishments is not sustainable. I learned that the hard way after my injury. That's when I got into the healing biz.”

In an essay on his website windhorsemedicine.com, Rupesh writes about breaking up with climbing: “For a year, I wandered lonely as a cloud, trying to enjoy being single again. It was a dark time, living with my parents, working the night shift at our motel, and nursing an obliterated rotator cuff. But a curious thing happened.”

That “curious thing” was the discovery of Traditional Chinese Medicine, sitting meditation and his path as a healer. After a year or so his shoulder started feeling better, and every so often Rupesh would go climbing. Freed from his former acquisitiveness he’d experience “the ferocious beautiful dance across horizontal roofs.” Climbers from areas like the Red would tell me how Rupesh would show up, flash a bunch of 5.13s, and then disappear.

About eight years ago, Rupesh sunk the bolts into what became I, Me, Mine, a route he described as, “A pipe dream. Holds so small my fingers felt like they were breaking. Moves so powerful my biceps felt like they would snap and roll up like rapidly retracting cheap 70s window blinds.” He halfheartedly worked the route, but it wasn’t until his friend Clayton Reagan started making impressive links that Rupesh bore down and got one-pointed. Two years ago, he redpointed the line. With no reference points, operating in the vacuum of central Texas, he called it 8c.

Yesterday, when I asked Duttle about Rupesh he seemed almost at a loss to explain how a guy who doesn’t really focus on climbing can crank so damn hard. “Maybe it’s the meditation thing? He doesn’t know how strong he is.”

I was able to catch up with Rupesh over the weekend and he offered some thoughts and insights about motivation, meditation and climbing.


RI: How old are you?

37 years old.


RI: How long have you been climbing?

18 years.


RI: What’s the backstory to sending I, Me, Mine?

It was a Friday night, and my friend Dan Jones was on his deathbed. In his 70s, riddled with pancreatic cancer, five of us visited him and paid our respects with a 15-minute silent meditation. Dan had been a skillful guide to my men’s group. Now, here I was in a vigil with this long-time Austin psychotherapist and pioneer of men’s groups. I decided to keep my eyes open, resting them on him as I sat on the floor. He was on his side in a hospice bed, breathing through his mouth, laboring to take in air.

All of a sudden, we switched places. I was him and he was me. I was old and dying, swimming in an opiate fog, cancer consuming my organs, breathing like a fish out of water. I was horrified. On a visceral level, I understood that I will die. And I was not ready.

I struggled to keep my eyes open, but the stronger force of fear prevailed. My inner “hero” fought for a while, but eventually the kindest thing I found for myself was to let my eyes close. That evening, I clearly witnessed in me the One Who Is Afraid to Look. Dan Jones died just a few hours later.

The next morning, I went climbing. We got a late start at the crag. An afternoon Texas sun roasted above. And yet, that day, from the first move, I knew something unique was happening. I felt light—almost like I was levitating. The difficult moves felt easy and I remember feeling quizzical as I floated up the rock. My body was moving with power and precision, but my mind felt like a point of consciousness outside of myself, witnessing myself climb. It was an out-of-body experience. Next thing I knew, I was standing on top of the wall, elated.

I felt Dan’s presence. An immense joy infused my being. In that moment, I saw clearly that Dan was in everything. I saw that we never really die or are even born—that we’re just shape-shifting energies arising and passing in this continuous field of activity.


RI: What does the route name mean/reference?

It's a reference to the psychological development of an ego. Setting boundaries and going after what we want and need are all healthy developments of self. In my younger years, I experienced abuse. For me, these transgressions really interrupted my sense of boundaries and feeling OK with claiming space and needs. So, I started cultivating my sense of "I, Me, Mine" late in life.

My good friend, Clayton, and I started working on the route together in earnest shortly before I sent it. We've had first ascent rivalries for 10 years. He wanted to call it a name that I was not down with. I had sunk the bolts and was attached to having some say in the name. But I was in a bind. I wanted to be a good, unattached spiritual person who would not be troubled by something so minor as naming a tiny rock climb on private property in the middle of nowhere. That kind of bullshit is what they call "spiritual materialism." And I was knee deep in it. Clayton and I went back and forth over the ethics of it, but in the end, I had the say so. I realized that I needed to name it something around the whole process of developing an ego. Hence, "I, Me, Mine."


RI: Speaking of spirituality, how does your meditation practice affect your climbing?

That's a good question. A big one. Meditation raises awareness. On a performance level, I think it helps with keeping your cool as well as seeing other possibilities—whether you are working out beta or staring up at a wall scouting new lines. Meditation helps me to activate only when necessary and relax in between those moments of effort. It brings me back into the awareness of my surroundings—nature's beauty—instead of only noticing the limestone swell I want to climb. It helps me maintain the attitude of climbing as communion rather than conquering. But most importantly, meditation helps me find a deep self-acceptance and not take climbing so seriously.


RI: Anything you’d like to add?

Big props to Clayton Reagan and Andrew Oliver. Their boulder problems and DWS routes are visionary. It's ridiculous how much hard off-the-grid stuff has gone down in central Texas.

And mad props to Nick Duttle for leading the central Texas 2013 sport-climbing renaissance! He has repeated all my routes lickety split and put up a bunch of new stuff. Nick and I are currently working on a variation of I, Me, Mine, which is significantly harder. All the moves have been done and good linkage has happened. It's got a tentative name: Us.

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