Getting up to 5.8- and Beyond

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Theoretically there should be no fear when you are on a top rope. And once you get used to it that does indeed become the case, at least after you hang on your knot a little and prove to yourself that the system does indeed work. Or take a little fall while on belay. Figure eight, harness doubled back, double chains above equally weighted quickdraws, the system is pretty much foolproof. But your biggest asset as a beginning climber is going with someone who is not a beginner, someone who can guide you through the miscues of ignorance, for in no way can ignorance be bliss when you are putting yourself fifty or a hundred or even twenty feet above the deck.

Deep inside I’ve always thought that at some point in my life I’d get out climbing enough to at least feel like a genuine participant. But it’s still never happened. Many years ago my buddy Duff and I drove up to Yosemite from Santa Cruz to take a one day class in Tuolumne and got shut out when it rained for the first time in three months. About twenty years later was the one summer I was getting out with a little frequency and I ended up tweaking a tendon in my wrist. That put an end to it. I made some progress that summer but by the time the next spring rolled around I was pretty much back to square one. And I’ve never gotten out as much again.

My ignorance of climbing was of doofus proportions. When in Moab on my first desert crack climbs it took me a little bit to realize that “Ho” refers to the crummy/lesser quality Navajo sandstone, not some woman held in low regard. Wingate is better rock, more solid and less crumbly, better rock to support the cams which will be carefully placed in cracks to back up the lead climber.

I’ve just never gotten over the hump of being a beginner. I’m always content to be on a belay and really have no ego attached to climbing whatsoever. If I climb above my head I can just hang and wait until my arms stop burning and then get back at it. At least it’s a good way to improve without really putting yourself at risk. I don’t care if I ever “redpoint” or “onsight” anything, at least not yet. I’m just out there to have a little fun scratching my knees a little as I hack my way up. I’m eternally grateful and fortunate that I have a couple of friends who are accomplished climbers who don’t mind taking someone like me out every once in a while. This summer my seventeen year old has started climbing and I can’t wait until he’s leading and can start taking me out. One of my biggest problems is finding someone to take me. I could just go hang out at a crag but that would be like the e- harmony of rock climbing and I guess I just don’t want it bad enough.
The truth is I won’t even know how I’ll take to it until I do get a legit stint where I can spend a decent amount of time on some rock somewhere. You may need to lead and take a whipper now and then to find out if it’s really in your blood, right? A two week road trip would probably do it, which brings me to the main point here. It’s amazing to find out that you can get up some legitimately steep rock even as a total beginner.

Climbing something that’s a 5.8 gives you a pretty good idea of what it’s all about. Chances are it’s vertical or close to it, and you’ll probably be surprised how easy it is to negotiate something that looks gnarlier than the sketchy wall Gregory Peck and Anthony Quinn had to deal with to get to the Guns of Navarone.

You don’t have to be an ace to get some pretty good climbs under your belt, you just have to find someone who doesn’t mind scaling back their experience in order to share the spirit of the sport. Sure, there are plenty of A grade climbers who are after it and won’t have time to take you under their wing, but there are also plenty that will love to. Part of the soul of climbing dictates the brotherhood of sharing and teaching. You can get up some pretty rad stuff as a beginner. My buddy Dave took me up Castleton Tower and it was no big deal. Great holds the whole way, a couple of spots which tested my mettle a little, and bingo, we’re on top and it’s as big as a football field. The approach probably took as much time as the climb. One of the greatest fringe benefits of climbing is that you often have to hike anywhere from a bit to miles to get to where you want to be, with a pack full of gear and water. The actual ascent isn’t the only exercise you get.

To be truly good it’s probably just like anything else. A few rare people excel right from the get go, but for most of us we have to put some time and energy into something before we progress. Climbing takes strength, especially in your hands, fingers and arms. Conditioning is a big part of it-getting your body used to the demands of any sport is something you can really do only by engaging in the activity itself.

Bouldering and hitting the rock gym can build strength and endurance polish technique and keep you in tune for the real deal. It seems to be acknowledged that girls get good technique more quickly than guys because they don’t rely on their strength as much when they are learning.

Utah is a climbing Mecca, there are so many places you can go. Great books have beta galore describing routes, providing detailed info about access, ratings, cruxes, etc. The Wasatch sports granite in Little Cottonwood, quartzite in Big Cottonwood, and Limestone in American Fork. Nice variety, huh? The desert areas around Moab are famous for epic crack climbing and towers. Up in the La Sals in Mill Creek canyon there are some gems. Zion has big walls. Logan Canyon has a full range of quality climbs on limestone.
Maple Canyon is famous for its unique cobbles.

Getting out with some frequency may someday get me over the sense of always starting over. Getting more accustomed to being off the deck, making this kind of friction move, or that kind of hand or foot jam in a crack. Topping out and clipping off and breaking down the top rope and rappelling down and doing more multi-pitch climbs. A little familiarity with standard operating procedures goes a long way to learning the ropes.
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The feeling of everything falling into place as you progress is almost hard to believe. It happened for me once on Sasquatch (5.9+!), in Little Cottonwood, a beautiful one pitch crack with a little roof. It was the summer I was climbing a bit, and on Sasquatch everything I found I’d practiced was coming together. Each move presented itself and made perfect sense as I fell into a groove of oneness. No desperation, just a calm understanding of what to do next, seeing it clearly–finger crack, toe jam, layback. Precise moves unfolding where I wasted little energy, negotiating the roof with ease. The joy I got from feeling the flow was as exhilarating as the climb itself. Thanks for taking me Jordan.

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