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The Dark Art

BY FITZ CAHALLSITTING IN A KATOOMBA PUB, GARTH MILLER TOLD ME, Whatever you do, don't grab the surfboard.We were in the center of the Blue Mountains...

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Outlook-160SITTING IN A KATOOMBA PUB, GARTH MILLER TOLD ME, “Whatever you do, don’t grab the surfboard.”

We were in the center of the Blue Mountains. My mouth loose after a pint or two, I had announced my plans to climb Bladderhozen, a three-pitch, runout 5.11 face climb in the notoriously loose Grosse Valley. I puzzled over Garth’s strange advice, slept nervously and relayed the information to my partner.
When the 10-by-3-foot wide “surfboard” flake appeared in an otherwise blank section of rock on the third pitch, I tapped on it. It moaned. I moaned. I inspected its mooring. It didn’t seem to be attached. I considered the source of the advice – Miller, the climber who established 5.14 in Australia – and studied the surrounding face for a line of micro crimps. Nothing. Already 10 feet out from the last bolt, with the pump setting in, I had only one option—grab the surfboard. I imagined riding it all the way to the talus below. Before waves of panic set in, I grabbed either side, smeared onto a tiny edge and shuffled my hands up.

Days later, when I ran into Miller at the same pub, he asked, “Did you grab the surfboard?”
“I did, too,” Miller said with laugh. Realizing I had been duped by greatness, I bought the man a beer.
Through the years, I’ve been talked into climbing crumbling sandstone towers, leading offwidths that require sophisticated knee and arm pads and found myself nearly in tears after pulling the crux on a highball boulder problem only to discover that my friends failed to mention the agonizing mantel. Slowly, the gullibility eroded away and was replaced by an icy heart. I, too, came to revel in the ruins of friends’ egos. I had become a sandbagger.
As time goes by, our climbing culture has grown more and more supportive and trustworthy. With a plethora of super-detailed topos and Internet sites providing gear lists and beta, today’s climbers rely less and less on word of mouth. Route descriptions aren’t just proliferated around campfires by shady dirtbags coming off Old English binges. Climbers actually encourage one another.
Frankly, it’s getting dull. Something has to be done. Oft-maligned, yet time-honored, the psychological sandbag—climbing’s true dark art—is in danger of disappearing altogether. For the last two months, I have compiled notes, ransacked my journals and culled information from fellow sandbaggers. Here are a few basic, introductory strategies to undermining your friends’ or soon-to-be ex-friends’ hopes and dreams. Remember, even if you don’t wander down the dark path, a thorough understanding of these strategies allows you to avoid the sandbag.
Whether in demolition derbies, poker or climbing, sandbagging is a form of misrepresentation. A driver of a battered Dodge Pinto feigns mechanical failure to draw an opponent in. A card shark fakes a weak hand. Essentially, a climbing sandbagger downplays one’s strength to gain an advantage over a usually weaker peer. If it sounds a touch sadistic, it is.
The skilled poker player also looks for the mark whose wallet is bulging. In climbing, we gamble in ego. When sizing up and selecting a target, look for an outpouring of confidence. Seek someone who won’t back down. If that confidence is accompanied by ambition and naivete, you’ve got your mark.
In the mid 1990s a young Jason Smith arrived in Yosemite Valley looking to climb El Cap. A longtime Valley climber, Chris Van Leuven, befriended Smith, whose wild, frilly shirts, self-made on a sewing machine, earned him the nickname Singer. Despite only having led a few aid pitches, Singer decided to rope-solo Lurking Fear. He turned to Van Leuven for advice.
“He showed me what he had—a few cams, cheese and crackers, and a few gallons of water,” says Van Leuven today. “Why send him up with a bunch of water and food that he was just going to have to hike down? I thought he would bail. No one solos El Cap with so little experience.
“Everyone thought I was trying to sandbag him. I wouldn’t do something that evil. At least not now.”
Singer embarked on a four-day odyssey with a single rack of cams, only a basic knowledge of aid climbing, a box of Triscuits and will. He slept curled inside his haulbag, weathered August heat with little water, and leap-frogged cam placements forever.
Singer’s epic ascent illustrates an important point. Even if the victims realize they are woefully under-equipped or in terrain above their ability, they often persevere. Their drive and stubbornness is ultimately what sandbags them. Don’t feel guilty. The traits that make young climbers such easy targets—confidence, ambition and boundless enthusiasm—may make them great climbers. In the long run, you’re doing them a favor.

The typical sandbag involves ruthlessly wiring an area favorite and then tricking visiting climbers into thinking it’s an easy tick for the grade. I see two problems with this approach. First, it requires talent. Second, it sounds suspiciously like work.
Think psychological warfare. When a friend asks about a route, give concrete details instead of using vague adjectives like “hard” and “scary.” Pantomime complex sequences. Also play up the threat of animals on the route—effective in creating general malaise. A hand jam can feel a lot like a finger stack if you’re worried about a peregrine dive-bombing you.
Last summer, a rumor began circulating that Astroman’s infamous Harding Slot was infested with bats. This gaping squeeze chimney is already the most talked-about ropelength in Yosemite. Originally rated 5.8 by Warren Harding, it’s now considered a sickening, claustrophobic 5.10+. Most aspiring climbers spend weeks fretting over the standard enigmatic advice—“follow the ‘S’ path”—and gathering meaningless beta. When the rumor cropped up, a frantic rush ensued to climb Astroman before the Harding Slot became an impassable cleft of rabid bats and putrid guano. An already notorious sandbag had become exponentially sandbagged.
Once your target has set his sights on a particular route, your mission is to build up your victim’s ego. Let the route break it down. Be more blindly optimistic than Tony Blair and George Bush the day they invaded Iraq. The offwidth section? Tell them that it’s got cruiser hand stacks and the knee jams are brilliant. The double dyno? A gimme at V1+. Blame your own failure to climb the route on a lack of the natural athleticism your friend possesses.
Disinformation also has its place around the campfire. For example, whenever a friend asks if a route takes wide gear, seize the opportunity. Tell her, “You could definitely use the #4 and #5.” You aren’t lying either—somewhere along a 1,000-foot route, that Big Bro could be placed. Hold back laughter as she stuffs them into an already enormous backpack. A bit childish, maybe, but your friend’s face after she has dragged the OW gear up the approach and pumped out in the middle of the crux will bring you nothing but joy.
If you do get sandbagged, remember this—our greatest successes and proudest memories are often born of our miscues and blunders.
I remember cursing the sandbagger who had talked me onto whatever horror show I shook my way up, but in hindsight, these routes were where I learned how to manage fear, to take three deep breaths and start climbing, to be patient even though the instinct is to flail. Through the years, I have had the pleasure of returning to routes that had previously humbled me, induced dry heaving or spit me off in grand, arcing whippers.
Occasionally, I cruise up these routes and relish each jam or finicky RP placement while wondering what the big fuss was about. More often than not, though, I’ve lulled myself into believing that time has made me a far superior climber. Invariably, I’ve trimmed the rack or failed to tape. I try to remember whether I’m going to need that #4 Camalot. The answer bubbles up through thick memory: “Quit whining. You’ll be fine.”
Ten minutes later, I’m grunting and swearing. My mouth feels like sandpaper, my elbows are bleeding and I’m wishing I’d given my partner this pitch. How could I ever have done this without the big cam? The granite seems to perspire, as if colluding to spit me off. I can’t let go; it’s too big a fall. The only option is to climb. I’ve sandbagged myself. The naïve, fresh-faced climber has finally had his revenge.

Fitz Cahall lives in Corvallis, Oregon, and is currently working to settle his karmic debt by volunteering at a local youth shelter.