by Mark Anderson
On Friday, September 23rd, I reached my lifetime sport climbing goal of climbing a 5.14d. Actually it’s a bit of a stretch to call it a “lifetime goal”, since for the vast majority of my life I never dreamed I’d be capable of climbing a route so hard. That changed last summer. I was at the International Climber’s Fest in Lander, WY, listening to Ethan Pringle’s inspiring keynote address about his journey to send Jumbo Love. He spent seven years working the route, including 18 days during the Spring 2015 season in which he eventually sent it. I had never spent 18 days on any route ever, even spread over multiple seasons or years.
My takeaway from Ethan’s talk was that I didn’t know the first thing about commitment. Not on the scale that sport climbing’s elite practice it. I routinely hear tales of top climbers spending scores of days, over many seasons or years, to send their hardest routes. I had never even tried to do that. I typically picked projects that I already knew I could send, and expected to do in a single season. Never once had I clipped the chains on a hard project and thought “that’s the hardest I can climb; I can’t climb any harder”. Instead I most often felt a deflating “well, that was easy” as I casually finished off my dialed project. Never once had I selected a goal route expecting it would take multiple seasons to send, if I were able to send it at all. If I wanted to find my true limit, some day I would have to try something hard-enough that the outcome would be uncertain. To have any chance of succeeding, I would have to commit to an all-out effort despite the very real possibility that it could culminate in utter failure.
I had been enjoying life at 5.14c for a few years. While I’m still making gains through training, frankly, the pace is glacial. At 39 years old, it’s unlikely I can count on suddenly becoming a significantly stronger or more powerful climber. If I’m not at my lifetime physical peak, I’m pretty close to it. Furthermore, I have two young kids, and I don’t want to plan my family’s lives around hard sport climbing for much longer. It was the right time to make an all-out effort, to put my 20+ years of hard-earned knowledge and ability to the test. I needed a worthy goal.
In the American grade scale “5.14d” may not sound much better than 5.14c, perhaps not worth an extra special, once-in-a-lifetime effort. But most of the world uses the French scale, where 5.14c is “8c+”, and 5.14d is “9a”. The Ninth Grade is a magical threshold. Wolfgang Gullich separated himself from the other protagonists of the sport climbing revolution with his ascent of the world’s first 9a, Action Directe. It’s what every top sport climber around the globe aspires to, and clearly worthy of a special effort.
After several weeks of research and deliberation, I settled on Rifle’s hardest route, Shadowboxing, a phenomenal, slightly overhanging 40-meter wall of underclings, slopers and edges. The route was originally bolted in the 90’s by Nico Favresse, tried by many, but left to collect dust until Jonathan Siegrist arrived in 2011 to bag the first ascent. This attracted more suitors, until a key hold in the crux crumbled, leaving the route’s status in question. Jonathan eventually re-climbed the line to prove it would still go, but despite attempts by most of Rifle’s best climbers, no further ascents came until Jon Cardwell put it together in August 2015.
That history provided plenty of unnecessary intimidation for me. I don’t have a great track record at Rifle. I’ve failed there more than at any other crag. I’m best suited for thin, technical lines where I can stand on my feet and use my tediously cultivated finger strength. The burly, upper-arm intensive thuggery of Rifle has sent me slinking out of the canyon with my tail between my legs more often than I care to admit. So I decided to give it four days of reconnaissance, and then re-evaluate. At the end of those four days I was still psyched to continue, and soon after I was hooked.
I spent 13 days working the route in the Fall of 2015. I made a lot of progress, including many routine “2-hangs” but wasn’t truly close to sending. I did, however, gain some confidence that I could do it, eventually. I returned in May 2016 for another 12 days of frustration stemming from the flu, perpetually wet and seeping rock, broken holds and a tweaked back, ultimately devolving into oppressive heat. Despite my laundry list of excuses, I made significant progress, most notably a handful of one-hang ascents. By mid-June I was failing more often than not about seven hard-but-not-desperate moves from the end of the difficulties. As the summer heat squashed my chances, I could honestly say I was close. But I would need to wait several months for decent conditions to return to the canyon.
Over the summer I trained, adjusting my program so that I would arrive physically ready to send when I returned in September. It worked. In training I was experiencing the best power of my career simultaneously with the best endurance of my career. Normally those peaks are separated by 4-5 weeks. On my first go back on the route I matched my previous highpoint. I knew I was physically strong and fit-enough to send, I just needed to re-gain the muscle memory for the route’s 100+ moves.
Thursday night we checked into our hotel, with the Friday forecast showing a 40% chance of rain, mostly before noon. The next morning it was partly cloudy with a scant few sprinkles, but a sickly dark cloud loomed ahead as we approached the crag. We arrived to a steady rain. Shadowboxing was still dry, except for the last two bolts of 5.10 climbing. But based on the forecast, we expected the rain to stop within a couple hours, so we decided to wait. Four hours of hyper-active pacing later, I was pulling out my hair to climb. The rain seemed to be ebbing, but water streaks had streamed down the top third of the climb, soaking the thin edges and pockets surrounding my previous highpoint. I decided the day would be a loss anyway, so I might as well get started, regardless of the wetness, figuring I could at least rehearse the lower cruxes in preparation for redpoint attempts on Sunday.
Surprisingly by the time I finished my warmup, the upper panel seemed dry. My first go of the day was solid, resulting in my 8th one-hang, but with some encouraging micro-progress on the “Crimp Crux” that ended the burn (along with the seven previous one-hangs). The fickle move is a long rock right on a slippery foothold to reach a shallow crimp/pocket. While certainly difficult, I realized my troubles with this move were more mental than physical. After failing here so many times, I had trained myself to expect it–to brace for the fall instead of focusing on my execution. After I fell I rehearsed the move a couple times, making a point to move off the hold as soon as I grabbed it, instead of bouncing and adjusting my grip until I had it latched perfectly.
I rested about an hour and tied back in for my last attempt of the day. I cruised up the opening slab, over a short roof, then into the business. I flew past a series of crux holds, each one representing the doubts and tribulations I eventually overcame to master them in previous seasons. I was going well, confident I would reach the rest at two-thirds height. Once there, I implored myself to try hard and remain focused at the crimp crux–just keep cranking full speed ahead until you fall off.
Eventually I went for it, feeling the first wave of pump doubt about ten moves higher. I kept motoring, paddling my hands and feet toward the Crimp Crux. I stepped up to the hovering, thin panel of rippled limestone, and grabbed the sloping and thin “Pinch Plate” with my left hand. This time I completely committed to latching the crimp–I tried hard and focused on doing the move correctly. I hit the shallow crimp–not especially well–but I didn’t care and I didn’t hesitate. Instead I immediately rolled it up, and proceeded, fully expecting to fall on the next move—a sideways slap to an incut slot—but I didn’t. The key piece of beta turned out to be: TRY FUCKING HARD. Don’t give up, and don’t hesitate. If you hit the hold, however badly, just keep going. Assume you have it good enough, until gravity says otherwise. That’s not always the right beta, but it was right on that move, on that day.
I had finally done the Crimp Crux from the ground, but there were plenty of hard moves remaining. I felt pumped but I kept charging. I stabbed for a shallow three-finger pocket and latched it. As I moved my left foot up to the first of two micro edges, my leg began to shake. I stepped my right foot up to the next micro edge, and it too began to shake. I got my feet on as well as I could despite the vibrations, leaned right, and stabbed left for a half-pad two-finger pocket, again expecting to fall. I latched it and pulled my trembling right foot up. Now I hesitated. The next move was really hard. While I’d never reached it on redpoint before, I’d had plenty of nightmares about falling off here. And now there was no denying–I was absolutely pumped. I took a good look at the target (a 4-finger, incut half-pad edge), settled in my stance, and with zero reluctance I slapped for it, putting 100% effort and concentration into the latch. I hit it accurately, but I had a lot of outward momentum to stop. I had it well enough though. I bounced my fingers on, amazed that I stuck it.
Next I had to high-step my left foot into the incut slot. It felt incredibly hard for a foot move, but I got it on there, somehow. By now my elbows were sticking straight out. I noticed I wasn’t thumb-catching with my right hand like I ought to, but it seemed too late to correct. Now the only thing to do was huck for the jug and pray the friction was sufficient to keep me on the wall. Somehow it worked, but I wasn’t home free yet. I was pumped out of my skull and had one more long throw to do. As I was wiggling my left hand into the best position on the jug, I could feel the lip crumbling under my fingers. Not good! I kept it together despite an evil impulse to give up and jump off (saying take wouldn’t have helped, I was now ten feet above the last draw!). I squeezed a few fingers of my right hand onto the jug so I could adjust my left hand and clear the new formed debris. I pulled up into position for the throw and hesitated for an eternity, fruitlessly kicking my flagging left foot around in hope of some purchase.
I felt my momentum fizzling and my hips sag. As I imagined my pathetic, sorry-excuse-for-a-climber-carcass hurtling towards the ground after failing to even try a 5.9 dyno, I heard, for the first time, the shouts of encouragement from the gallery of climbers warming up at the Project Wall. At my moment of greatest doubt, although not uttered particularly loud, I heard clearly, as though he were standing next to me, Dave Graham* calmly urge “Allez”. I can’t explain it. It wasn’t the word but the way he said it–like he was talking to himself, and sincerely wanted me to do it. That was the difference, and in that moment I chose to do it. I slapped up and stuck it.
[*the first American to climb Action Directe, and one of the first three to climb 5.15]
The desperation of the last sequence and support from below forced an excited “YEAHHH!” out of me once I realized I had the hold. I rested on the jug for a long time, or rather procrastinated, terrified that the 20-feet of climbing remaining, which were exposed to the full fury of the rain, would be wet or covered in silt from the runoff. Although the climbing was only 5.10 in this section, it’s very insecure, balancy climbing on non-positive slopers. In the end it was trivial–the holds were neither wet nor dirty. I methodically worked up towards the anchor, with no drama, clipping the anchor easily, exclaiming “Wooooohoo! You’re my bitch Rifle!” –the last word on an up and down love/hate relationship with Rifle. To have my greatest triumph there, even though it came at an absurd cost, was incredibly satisfying.
And it was my greatest triumph. Obviously, objectively, it’s the hardest rock climb I’ve done. I spent roughly twice as many days on it (28) as any other project, at the time of my physical peak. But the real challenge was mental. Jonathan named the route “Shadowboxing” as a nod to its lack of shade. But the name took on a different meaning for me, the dictionary definition. It became increasingly clear as the process evolved that I was fighting myself. Physically, I was able, but mentally I was not prepared to accept that I was good enough to climb such a hard route. Overcoming that barrier and sticking with it to the end was the most mentally difficult thing I’ve ever done—harder than the Cassin Ridge, finishing a marathon off the couch, Boot Camp, or the endless drudgery and starvation of high school wrestling. Never have I had to persevere through so much persistent failure, so many setbacks, over so many days and multiple seasons. So many times I could have quit, and I would have been well-justified in doing so. But I kept going. Each off-season, I looked at fat Mark in the mirror and wondered if I’d be able to regain my form in time for the next season. Each time I did. The day of the send was a microcosm of the entire campaign. So many things didn’t go perfectly, so many moments of doubt or indecision crept in to derail my focus. But I kept moving towards the goal, and I was rewarded for it.
When I first got to the ground, someone asked how long I’d been working the route, and I said “So long I’m embarrassed to say”. I am slightly ashamed of how long it took. From a performance improvement perspective, I’m skeptical that was the best way to spend an entire year of my climbing life, even though that is precisely the experience I signed up for. Still, despite my excessive sieging, the route never really got any easier. During the process I (or others) broke at least seven holds that I can remember. If anything the route got objectively harder. That difficutly forced me to train far harder, and sacrifice far more than I ever have for a sport climb. As a result, I got significantly better. I stayed focused and determined despite countless setbacks and distractions.
That’s the great thing about a stretch goal—it forces you to stretch yourself in order to reach it. It wasn’t an experience I enjoyed, but it is was the experience I needed if I wanted to know my limit. As I clipped the chains, I never once thought “well, that was easy”. Instead, I reflected on how hard I worked over the last year, and marveled at how hard I tried in the moment of truth. I’ve never had to try that hard during a redpoint. I’ve never successfully linked so many consecutive 50/50 moves. I doubt I ever will again. That was a special moment, the culmination of a special year. From the admittedly narrow perspective of this one moment in my life, I can truly say, that is the hardest I can climb.
PS, I have to thank my wife Kate. If you ever wonder how it’s possible for me to climb so much with two small kids, the answer is Kate. She takes up the ample parenting slack that my climbing creates. This project was particularly burdensome. Kate endured interminable belay sessions, interminable rest days, and my interminable whining over every little setback. I simply could not have done it without her. Thanks also to my brother Mike who constantly pushes me to be better than I ever think I’m capable of (and for the photos and belays). Thanks to Trango for supporting me despite a year of meager results, to Shaun Corpron for the belays, and to all my friends on the Rock Prodigy Forum who shared their wisdom and support with me.
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