I entered Canyon Land with the uncomfortable wish that today would be different. I feel an eerie sense of trepidation about change, especially when it concerns my most reliable routine: falling on my project. Ironically, it’s never clear why we ask for change in the first place, or what will become of us in the end; we only know that we want things to be different because different sometimes means better. Unfortunately, it would be easier for me to change autumn into summer than to cease falling on my most longstanding project ever.
Semantics can be important in climbing. You must not call a flash an onsight—a disturbing trend among today’s youth. It’s no longer apropos to say “project” when referring to this particular route, a cruel dominatrix called Living in Fear in the darker recesses of the Rifle Mountain Park canyon. The word practice somehow makes more sense. Projects inherently come to an end, but you can practice something for the rest of your life.
In Canyon Land, as Rifle is sometimes called, the inevitable question arises. “What are you working on?” People want to know this specifically. No one asks or cares about what successes you’ve had, if you were lucky enough to have any. What are you trying to do? They could cut to the chase and simply ask, “In what ways have you suffered today?” This paradoxical response, the enjoyment we derive from watching someone else’s pain, defines the unique culture of Rifle. It’s a scene here, with cliques and drama and a bunch of other high-school-grade bullshit. Understandably, many will be turned off by it. But those who stay here eventually find comfort in each others’ failures. I know of a few popular routes with guaranteed fall points, and anytime I am truly desperate, I will park a folding chair beneath these climbs and sit until I feel better. The greatest pleasure humans have ever known is not comedy, but tragedy.
I’ve been trying Living in Fear for so long that the members of this queer outdoor gym have recently convinced themselves that I’ve already redpointed it—an interesting twist. The idea that anyone could try one route for so long without success is too terrible for most to comprehend. I now get this reaction: “Oh, I thought you did that already.” I find this to be a pinprick, both in the present as well as to that future moment when, if, I actually send.
People think sport climbing is an exercise in foregone conclusions, and in some ways, they’re right. Enslave yourself to one climb long enough and eventually you should be able to get ’er done. The infinite monkey theorem comes to mind. Put monkeys in a room, give them MacBooks, spank ’em on the bottoms to set them typing and, some time near infinity, they’ll produce Shakespeare. The monkeys have it easy, I think. We only get six weeks between issues here at Rock and Ice. But success isn’t always guaranteed, no matter how long you try, and in this regard sport climbing gets less credit than it deserves.
I remember watching Will Gadd at the 2010 Ouray Ice Fest top-rope the same bleak waterfall for 24 hours straight. Gadd’s half-cocked idea was to raise money and awareness for the dZi Foundation, which builds programs to improve education and quality of life in small villages in the Himalaya. Around hour 20, and lap number 170 (of a total 194), I checked back in on Gadd. His footwork had gone to shit and he was slobbering like a fool, his saliva now neon green from pigging out on his favorite energy drink, which shall not be named. A gang of adoring savages stood around, cheering him on and holding signs that read, “God is now spelled Gadd!”
“Poor devil,” I thought. Being doomed to climb a single route for an eternity is precisely my version of hell.
My hell, however, gets spread out, which certainly makes it more bearable. I’ve found it takes five full days for the pain of last weekend’s failure to subside, and for Hope to regenerate. Thankfully I have a full-time job that aids in keeping me off the rocks, and away from the precipice of that unique insanity some endure when climbing is all they have in life.
It occurred to me that, though I have other stuff to do beyond climbing, my life is basically one giant exercise in making lists and ticking checkboxes. I sometimes feel as though ticking something off—whether it’s finishing a column, making a car payment or occasionally sending a route—is the greatest pleasure I can expect on any given day. Perhaps this is why sport climbing is so popular … or perhaps why it isn’t. Does the trad/sport divide come down to the mundane peculiarity of whether a person likes ticking boxes?
I normally wouldn’t be so public with the details of my project, I mean, practice, because I have the good sense to know better. In the climbing world, being specific about what you’re doing is sharply offensive. No one likes spray as a general rule. None of us seem capable of valuing any ascent other than our own without cloaking our most atavistic sentiments in the superficial exclamations and encouragements of a Hollywood housewife. (A few rare individuals are exceptions to this rule, and I cherish them like precious single malts.)
If anything, mentioning the source of my greatest act of foundering is embarrassing since this route is, without exaggeration, a warm-up for many. In theory I’m happy that the projects of yesterday are now the warm-ups of today, for this is how it should be. Still, a lineage of climbers has been dimmed and ultimately vanquished by Living in Fear. Occasionally I see one of these defeated Gollum-creatures, with their sad vestigial forearms, off to go kayaking, biking or any other equally vapid activity with a high success rate. Say Living in Fear to them, and they shrink, hiss and scamper into the shadows.
Living in Fear is relentless, despite being a mere 70 feet. The beta, for everyone regardless of stature, is exactly the same—a despicable though interesting repercussion of the route’s chipped nature. There’s only one place, perfectly halfway up, to match hands, and this is Living’s lone “rest,” a term used ironically, of course. The longer you try to shake on this angled bathtub-slick sloper known as the Bevel, the more tired you become.
Above the Bevel, harder climbing leads to the most devious fall point, the 5.8 Dyno, another sinister, ironic term. Here you grab the route’s best, most incut hold and pull hard to reach its second-best incut hold. It’s a horrible, unaccountable anomaly, on par with the rise of the Tea Party, that people fall here. If you have a thin right-hand pinky, you can finagle a crummy knuckle jam in a chiseled-out slot and shake out before the 5.8 Dyno—a massive advantage this high on the route. If your finger, like mine, doesn’t fit, you’re doomed to climb through the searing pump.
Above the 5.8 Dyno is the Death Dihedral, and though no one has ever died here, the misery of deciphering this cryptic, crimpy sequence has caused some (including me) to puke in their mouths. The only other time exercise has caused regurgitation was on the Charles River in Boston, where I rowed crew for a stint. The unremitting action of rowing a boat while being shouted at by a tiny, very ugly female coxswain, feels nearly identical to being on redpoint on Living, except here, instead of one coxswain, you have a dozen equally scaled-down people on the ground yelling up.
Living in Fear got its name because the first ascentionist, Scott Frye, was rumored to have been afraid that someone was going to walk up to his work of art and onsight it before he could do the first ascent. “It’s just not that hard,” he fretted during his long redpoint battle. And in some ways, it’s not. No move is harder than V5, but not a single one of its 49 moves is easier than V3, and somehow this equates to a rating of 5.13d.
For reference, taking into account inflation, climbing Living in Fear today is roughly equivalent to climbing 5.8 in the 1950s, 5.9 in the ‘60s, 5.10 in the ‘70s or 5.11 in the ‘80s. In other words, nothing worth sending in to Hot Flashes—though what is? Grades are mere variables in the algebraic equation of the climbing experience, not crucial to its ultimate worth or meaning. I find it crazy that people take grades so seriously—like the fisherman who only cares about the size of his fish and is blind to the beauty of the river he’s standing in. In every worthwhile experience are core values that do not change, even over time, no matter what the numbers suggest.
To take my mind off the anxiety and dread I feel toward this route, I sometimes join the other Lilliputian climbers in making their particular perambulations up and down the road splitting the park. We stare at the canyon walls and from a distance do our best to dissect their peculiar anatomies for sequences and clues to their outstandingly physical enigmas. It reminds me of the experience of being a kid, looking at maps. The colors, place names and distinct borderlines tend to craze children, and even to this day I find maps magnetic. The first thing I do upon boarding a plane is flip to the back of the in-flight rag and stare at the map, tracing the lines toward all the beguiling places I could go, etching these details into my mind.
Beyond its Gothic architecture, Canyon Land has many distractions and, depending on what mood I’m in, these things either alleviate my self-pity or they bother the shit out of me. Much of Canyon Land has undergone a facelift, with many new routes and lots of route maintenance being done. The number of 5.14a’s here has doubled this season. It’s shocking how much drama can arise out of the placement of a single bolt, even among a group of like-minded individuals. Design By Committee really doesn’t work when it comes to establishing climbs, retro-bolting them or determining whether they are “worthy” of having fixed draws. My opinion on all matters related to establishing routes is simple: those who don’t put up routes don’t get to have an opinion.
All life is lived between the lines. There is no single answer for how routes should be put up—or even that they should. This is only disheartening if you’re a stickler and don’t understand that climbing should never be taken seriously. Despite my whining about not sending, in my day-to-day reality, I remain committed to treating climbing with full irreverence, manifested in my savage gluttony for good food and beer, shared with close friends, preferably to loud music.
My friend Sam Elias put up an extension to Living in Fear, which of course adds more difficulty. After bolting the extension, he went away for a week only to come back and find his vision co-opted by a couple of other climbers, who had ticked up the route, found new holds and sent the extension before Sam had even had a chance to try it. But Sam took the second ascent graciously.
For me, the new route ignited some ignoble feelings, which caught me off guard like a loud fart in front of your date. At first, my ego reeled at the new extension’s sudden appearance because it trivialized my ongoing efforts. It took a little bit of reflection and foresight not to be discouraged by the appearance of Living the Dream and instead find it ultimately motivating. I now look at it as a riveting checkbox, standing on deck.
One trend I’ve noticed in Rifle, and probably sport climbing in general, is that people tend to play to their strengths, choosing routes that suit them. What’s more important? Redpointing or becoming a better climber? The two are not always one and the same. Canyon Land’s beloved philosopher Maurice Waugh first presented me with this koan and discouraged me, via insults, from using certain resting kneebars on very particular routes in favor of just climbing straight on. It took longer to send, but ultimately paid off.
Still, I wonder why I feel such anxiety over sending a route like Living in Fear, which is my complete anti-style. It’s especially confusing since I know that, as soon as I do send, I’ll only replace this challenging experience with another one. It’s the classic Zen question of what is more important: to climb 100 mountains or climb one mountain 100 times.
On my latest attempt on Living, I found some subtle new beta. It’s a small difference, a soft tweak in body position, but I think next weekend things are going to change.
Andrew Bisharat counts the years by the number of Sendtembers and Octobers that pass by.