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Climbing, Falling and Fall up Independence Pass: Rock and Ramblings, Part 3

Jamie Lynn Miller's picture

Some things can only get accomplished out of cell range. Most of the time, searching for service means I’m out climbing; no one wears a watch, cell phones sleep and time, as I’ve said, stands still yet simultaneously fast forwards through the day and you’re always late for something when you finally get reception.

I’ve often joked that I’d be sending 5. 14, if only there was cell service up Independence Pass,about 20 minutes from downtown Aspen. Working in ad sales for seven years, I’d field sales calls on the gondola or the chairlift, even while crossing the river in my ski boots getting out of Maroon Bowl. But when I overflexed my flexible outside sales schedule to go climbing, it involved taking a few hours off in the middle of the day and ultimately, out of cell range; my cell phone wasn’t the only thing searching for service up Independence Pass.

In bouldering, a completed sequence is called a problem (always a problem, never a solution); in climbing, working through a route is called projecting and the completing the route, sending your project. And though projects definitely pose problems and you need to work through your problems to send your project, the mere fact that it’s called a project gives the impression that it can actually be completed. Even if it takes all season.

A few summers ago, I had one big project called Walk in Central Park, with all stolen moments spent thrashing about on the rock and many moments stolen business hours or whenever my partner, Andrea, could join me in the quest.

* * *

Andrea and I met on the slopes when I first moved to town, about 12 years ago, then re-met on the rock when I started climbing, four years later. She has a dog; I’m allergic to dogs. She grew up in Oregon; I grew up in California (not as similar as it sounds). She’s very philosophical and intentional, reads non-fiction and how-to books and applies them to real life; I’m kind of goofy, love stupid humor, scary movies and novels and have a real penchant for the imagined life. She lives mid-valley and her garage is really organized and she’s a killer chef and drives a truck; I live in Aspen and drive a convertible and go out to dinner too much and while I know where everything is (buried deep in my storage locker) I prefer not to get too specific about my filing system. We’re different in a lot of ways but we like a lot of the same music - a fine basis for any good relationship - we get to the bottom of stuff through deep talks in the wilderness and between our two climbing styles, we get to the top of stuff.

There’s something really engaging about climbing with someone who’s at around the same level; as you each progress, move by move, there’s this collective feeling of accomplishment and excitement and the feeling that you’ve worked through the route together. And someone who’s tackling the same project gets the process, allowing you to try different sequences, take falls, hang on the rope, kick the rock and yell and drop the not infrequent F-bomb (have I shared too much?) and generally exhaust yourself trying to work out the moves until you have a breakthrough or as Oprah says, an A Ha! moment, and figure it out; a patient belayer is a projecter’s best friend.

Andrea and I have worked a bunch of routes together, borrowing beta or information from each other and inadvertently figuring out a better way to do a move as one of us discovers it, the other tries it and voila, sequence linked. She tells me I always find some cool new way of doing a move. And her deliberate breathing, her flow and her dynamic swipes challenge me to be a little steadier and a little less static.

* * *

So Walk in Central Park was a fun project for us both; not easily doable, but interesting to the point of becoming project-worthy and weighing in at 12a, a grade we’d been hovering around. I figured out the bottom in an efficient sequence which Andrea successfully applied, as well. We eyeballed the fall potential at each clip and she wisely decided to place a piece of gear down low where the bolt line ran out a bit; the climbing was fairly easy there but no point in hitting the ground should a fall happen.

The crack section was both eluding and intimidating me; I fooled around with a ton of foot placements and right hand before left, or left hand where right was, trying to make some headway. I took a fall. I took it a few more times trying to link the moves. Andrea gave me a soft catch, each and every time, allowing me to float off the rock and weight the rope like a spider spinning a web.

We finally found a sequence, combining a big old left hand swipe to the top of the crack with a wedged in left toe, then smearing the right toe onto a blank, friction-filled rock face, for a quick high step to the next handhold. I took some falls at the next section, searching for the right foothold and trying to hold on to the pumpy (toomuchbloodcoursingthroughmyforearmsatonetime) handhold, which would never feel positive until I found the right feet. I think I fell at each section, numerous times, so we knew what each section looked like, botched; what a team player.

I got really close to linking all the moves. I remembered my sequences, found my feet, paused just long enough to rest and evaluate but not long enough to interrupt the flow and let my thoughts cloud up with self-doubt and anxiety.

But I kept falling - not always in the same section, but falling somewhere on the route, for some undetermined reason. I’d worked through each move but I couldn’t seem to put them together in one continuous run for the anchor.

* * *

It was late afternoon, feeling crisp and fall-like (the season, not the climbing) and the light was stark and clear and the weather was perfect sending temps, as I recall, meaning just the right degree of not too warm not too cold to really climb and optimize each hold with just enough friction on the rock to get things done.

Andrea went first. She’d worked the moves, made them look continuous and positive and was on the brink of sending. We both knew it. We both were.

She let out a few quick breaths, getting into her state of mind where she concentrates on her breathing and uses it to guide her through whatever transpires on the rock. I shouted encouragement, a “nice” here, and a “Come on, A, you got it” there; I watched, amazed, as she transported herself up, over, clipped, shook out and seemed to move towards the anchor like some sort of stealth, zen’d out ninja warrior, flowing through the sequences and totally focused and finally, finally, connecting all the dots and clipping the anchor. I let out a “Woo hoo!” and she paused for a few moments before I lowered her.

Back on the ground, she stared down at her feet and was quiet for a minute. When she looked up, she had tears in her eyes. “That’s the hardest thing I’ve ever sent,” she said, smiling in between more tears. I gave her a big hug. “OK, now your turn,” she commanded, pointing at the route.

* * *

I didn’t send that day. I came back a few more times but with each subsequent run, it felt like I was making less progress. I kept falling, getting pumped out, fumbling somewhere crucial along the course of the ascent, each and every time.

I don’t know if it was fear of failure or, even more insidious, fear of success, pressure to send because Andrea had done it and there was no reason I shouldn’t, at that point; but each time I came back to try the route, I felt dread instead of determination, intimidation instead of inspiration.

I talked to Andrea about it, looking for some insight.

Climbing is about the journey, not the destination. My mind was wrapped around the end result, the get it over with, the what if I don’t make it, fast forwarding to the next clip instead of savoring the moves in front of me. Anxiety about repeating mistakes and not clipping the anchor obscured my enjoyment of moving through the route and working each section, before thinking about the next one.

Fall deepened and the hour grew later, earlier, with shorter days and colder weather. I said goodbye to Walk in Central Park for the season. The real project was still in my head.