As Sonnie Trotter dinked around at the base of a cliff in Red Rocks, Mike Doyle’s voice rang out.
“If you onsight Pablo Diablo
, I’ll buy you dinner.” The 5.12d, at the Stratocaster Wall, is a notoriously hard onsight.
Now, Sonnie, despite 15 years of top achievement in sport and trad climbing, claims he is not consistently motivated, or at least not in the way of some of his peers. But upon hearing Mike’s bet, he soundly battled up the onsight.
“I never would have done it,” he says, “if Mike hadn’t said that.” He cashed in on the dinner offer, of course—“gladly.”
Steve “Manboy” Townshend, a Canadian like the two above (apparently a betting breed), once wagered Trotter five nights’ worth of dinners at an all-you-can-eat buffet—though neither he nor Sonnie remembers over which route or what even happened.
And on a trip to Mount Potosi with Alex Honnold a few years ago, Sonnie fought up a 5.14 second try partly because it was the pair’s last day in the area, but mostly because, he says: “I needed to remind him that even though in his eyes I'm ‘old and married,’ I can still get up steep rocks.”
How many climbs have people pulled off simply thanks to external factors or pressure? I’ve done it myself, just barely flashing a crack climb in Joshua Tree because impending rain prevented any procrastination. But that’s normal stuff. Climbers have a vast and varied history of external motivators that created efforts out of, as it were, thin air.
In his memoir Revelations
, the former British and world climbing star Jerry Moffatt writes about standing at the belay below Little Plum
, a project at the physical and forbidding Stoney Middleton, when Neil “Noddy” Molnar pointed to the road below.
“Look,” Noddy said, as recalled in the book. “It’s Kim and Dougie. … They’re watching you, Jerry.” Kim Carrigan, then Australia’s best climber, and the strong local Dougie Hall had also tried to free the route.
“I know,” the young Jerry answered.
“Get up and try it, then.”
“I don’t know, it’s …”
“Go on Jerry!”
Moffatt flung himself up the bouldery moves, held all his weight on a matchbox edge, and finished the pitch. Later he returned to work on the route’s second pitch, which contained a six-foot overhang and which almost no one had even tried to free. Moffat fell at the roof every time his feet cut loose, and began to doubt that the pitch would go.
Handily, the same thing happened as before. Below appeared Geoff Birtles, then editor of the great British magazine Crags
. Birtles himself had once co-authored the hardest climb in Britain, with Tom Proctor in 1968: Our Father
(E4 6b with a bouldery start), also at Stoney. No polite silence attended his approach.
“Get on with it,” Birtles shouted at Moffatt, as described in the book. “Stop messing about.”
The next passage describes the moment:
‘Geoff Birtles is watching,’ I told myself. He had written about me a few times in his magazine but never seen for himself what I could do. I wanted to show Birtles that I was the man.
Moffatt summoned “every muscle in his body,” controlled the swing, lunged, and pulled the powerful roof. Free climbing Little Plum
(E6 6c / 5.13a) had been his dream. It was probably the hardest route in the UK at the time.
Who else? Who among us has (or who among us hasn’t) gained purely situational, perhaps base, motivation?
I ask around on Facebook, and one reply is from Laura Snider, a science writer from Boulder: “I did my very first lead because my partner said he'd give me his car (it was an old Toyota Celica but I didn't own a car at all, so I was psyched) if I onsighted a climb. It was Totally Tammy
at the NRG, which at the time was rated 5.8.” But everyone around knew the route, today given 5.10a, was a sandbag. Laura got up the route, but “it wasn’t even close to an onsight.”
That guy knew that his car was perfectly safe.
From Angelo Ghiglieri, a California climber: “I've heard of people sending out of fear from a bad belay.”
Amy Heppe Villacci, New Castle, Colorado, pipes up that she sent her first 5.11 “because some dude had just inquired if we ‘ladies’ needed a top rope hung on a popular nearby 5.9. I guess he was trying to be nice but it made me dig a little deeper!
Cybele Blood of Phoenix chimes in: “I'd frequently step up to some pretty nervy (for me) leads if there were guys around vying to get on the routes or clearly watching ... I didn't want to just look like ‘E's girlfriend’ or a female only on tow (no offense please but honestly a lot of women out there don't even try to learn to lead).”
Mark Eller of Boulder recalled an unintended but mandatory thrashing when, visiting France, he left a bantering note in “horrific” French telling the local climbers “that although they might think the climb they'd recommended was 7c it was really just 7b and the strong Americans would be back soon to send more of their weak-sauce routes.” The next day he and Mike Portanda arrived to find all of their draws transferred to a nearby mega cave route, 40 feet of dead-horizontal climbing leading out of the cave and up the headwall finish above.
The ensuing “multi-hour” retrieval battle involved every “pathetic” trick Eller could think of: making stirrups with draws, jumping to grab at hanging draws, stick clipping and anything else: “I couldn't do any of the hard moves.”
A classic—if horrifying—tale of an external motivator is that of Jim Collins (think tube socks) making the first solo of the famous multi-pitch Naked Edge
(5.11), Eldorado Canyon, after a fight with his girlfriend. Speaking to him years later, I asked if the tale were true. Oh, it was, he said. But he hadn’t intentionally put himself at hazard out of hollow despair. The act was, he said instead, a manifestation.
“It was a way of saying, I’m a climber. This is what I do.”
An old friend of mine from the U.K. once told me that he soloed a route—now here’s a reason—“Because this really pretty girl smiled at me.” He immediately turned and began charging his dumb ass up the first route at hand, not even knowing its name or grade.
Halfway up the route, he flamed, and shouted for his friends to run to the top of the crag and drop a rope. The line descended, hovering, with a loop and a carabiner on the end. He stared at it, unable to let go with either arm, and finally sprang outward and grabbed it with one hand, shouting, as the friends lowered him down toward a gathering crowd, “Faster! Faster!”
Alex Honnold agrees with that fundamental premise: “The biggest external motivator, I think for most dudes, is having chicks around.” He cites “chick sending power—that super-human strength you can tap into while trying to impress” someone.
As to the story about him and Sonnie at Mount Potosi, Alex doesn’t even remember the “old and married” joke (the two were 25 and 32 at the time), but clearly recalls the resultant feat: “Sonnie did Mon Pote Assis
[5.14a] second try. It was really impressive, one of the most impressive efforts I've ever seen. His feet cut in the crux, like while he was literally holding the worst hold of the route, and he just karate-kicked them back against the wall and kept holding on.”
Honnold continues, “I'm all about the external motivators. I often bet dinners on onsight efforts and things like that. I like that, because win or lose, it’s all good. Either way your partner puts in an awesome effort and you both go out to dinner. Everyone’s happy.”
What was the last funny or odd external reason you—or a friend—climbed something?