Stick clip the first bolt; breathe; tie into the rope; put on my shoes; breathe; apply liquid chalk and air out my hands to let the liquid dry; breathe. For the last 3 seasons (Fall, Spring, Fall) this had been my routine out at Smith Rock prior to climbing my project. A fist bump to my friend Cameron completed the routine and I was ready to climb.
Darkness at Noon had been my single focus out at Smith Rock for the past 3 seasons. That means that for the last Summer, Winter, and Summer once again, I did nothing but train so I could be strong, flexible, and mentally capable to climb a new level of difficulty for me. The route is rated at 13a, which is a respectable grade among climbers but sometimes even more at Smith Rock where impossibly small holds and long stretches of technical climbing with sparse protection is the name of the game.
To lead climb and excel at Smith rock at almost any grade, you need strong fingers, a very developed sense of balance, and a psychological game that you can count on under the crushing pressure of potentially long falls. As the grades get harder, the more you're required to draw on these skills; but it's not uncommon to have to tap into these skills at lower levels. Darkness at Noon is no exception. 100 feet of vertical to gently overhanging climbing with relentless small edges and pockets, feet the size of pebbles (in the hardest sections) and the potential for some long falls in various portions of the route make for quite an adventure for those that decide to climb it.
The route is perfect. It can be seen from as far away as the parking lot of the park. Even those that have no interest in climbing it are drawn to the aesthetics of the route, outlined in white polka-dots that seem like a cruel prank on an otherwise flat surface. I don't remember exactly when I got it in my head that it would be a good idea to attempt to climb the route. I know I greatly underestimated the effort it would take to be able to complete the route, bottom to top, with no falls.
I know that I'd been in a rut prior to setting my sights on Darkness. I'd been working at developing AnitGravity Equipment into a successful shop, 6 days a week non-stop. My climbing (among many other things in my personal life) had suffered as a result. I felt sluggish in my movements. I'd gained weight and I felt heavy and out of shape. Worst of all, I was climbing without any real inspiration. Gym sessions were mediocre at best and my overall grades outside had dropped considerably from my last big climbing trip where I'd successfully climbed several challenging routes; two of them were 12d, just a letter grade below what Darkness was rated.
I was in need of inspiration and Darkness at Noon not only provided inspiration and motivation, it provided (as I would learn three seasons later) one of my biggest learning opportunities. To pick a project route, is to pick something challenging enough that it will take you anywhere from several attempts to, sometimes, years to finish. I've had many projects in my climbing career but none that ever took me more than a month or so to finish. These projects were usually just a bit outside my (then current) level of fitness so it didn't take long to develop whatever I needed to see the route to completion. I was starting Darkness from quite a low point and would need a serious level of commitment and dedication to training just to be able to physically do the hardest sections of the climb; let alone put all the moves in 100 feet together in succession with no falls.
Patience. If I had to reduce everything that I gained from completing this route into one word, that word would be, patience. My friend Jordan touched on it during a brief conversation after I'd completed the route and we were all sitting at the base in somewhat disbelief at the completion of my project. He posed a question-statement in reference to the patience it must have taken to gain the skills necessary to complete the route. The memories of the past year scrolled back in warp speed to my very first cycle of training. I put together a program for myself and a few friends based on the Anderson brothers' training manual and enlisted the help of my friend Cameron to teach us supplemental exercises that would complement the climbing workouts. For the next 14 weeks of that summer, we trained mercilessly. Patiently constructing our workouts week to week, month to month. We analyzed, revised, and documented everything to see progress. From patience, sacrifice was born. As results became more evident, I stripped away a little at a time, all that was unnecessary or worked against my progress. By the time the fall season hit, I was back to climbing close to what my peak level had been a couple of years before. I began to put in serious work on Darkness driving out every Monday (my only day off) to meet Cameron and work on our respective projects.
That first Fall season was not enough to complete the route but significant gains had been made and I was fully committed to the process. I was testing my climbing abilities beyond their limits and found that I had more within than what I'd previously thought possible. The route was encouraging me to develop an acute awareness of balance to make things less about power and more about efficiency. By pointing out movements that were near impossible for me to make do to inflexibility, I was encouraged to practice exercises that would help with hip flexor and hamstring flexibility. The potential for long falls encouraged me to further develop my mental game to keep comfortable under pressure and still be able to move through my sequences despite the possibility of stomach-turning falls throughout the route. Throughout this entire process patience was required because none of these lessons could be rushed and progress could only be made on the route once I'd developed what was lacking thus holding me back.
When the fall season came to a close the route had not yet granted me access to the anchors. I'd made progress on two thirds of the route in pieces but I still did not even know if I had what it took to pull through the moves that guarded the top of the route. In the winter when training began again for the upcoming Spring season, I redoubled my efforts. With the help of my training partners, I committed to an even harder 2nd season. I'd cut out most alcohol and sugar; the difficulty of climbing workouts went up with the added gains from the previous season; the supplemental exercises that Cameron put our training team through became more targeted and more vicious as our tolerance grew; eating habits became more targeted. By the end of the season, I'd dropped from 167 lbs. to 160 and that feeling of fluidity and lightness returned to my climbing.
Spring season started in April and I couldn't wait to see what progress I could make out at the park. For 3 months I would wake up at 3:30 a.m. on Monday morning and drive out to Smith to meet Cameron. We'd warm up at our leisure at an almost empty park, and then get to work on our respective projects. We'd make attempt after attempt on our routes until our finger tips and will power gave out, then headed out to The Depot for food and make the three-hour trip back home. I'd get home around 9 or 10 pm, shower and fall asleep ready to work through the week and get back out there again the following Monday. Patience.
Half way through the second season, I'd finally made it to the top of the route in pieces. I knew then that I had the ability to complete all the moves on the route. I struggled in several sections and my movements often felt like desperate attempts to clutch at nothing on the wall, but I'd been to the top and that meant it was now possible. By the end of the season, I was able to link the entire route to within about 20 feet of the top in one single push. It was at the last 20 feet of the climb that the final sequence on small, sloping edges and delicate feet would send me rocketing down preventing me from reaching the top in a single attempt.
Spring season came and went. Summer was just too damn hot to climb at Smith but offered 4 excellent months of training. If we'd made the workouts targeted before, they were damn near laser-sighted this time around. I had data now and that made all the difference. Circuit training was added to our supplemental exercises. I dropped an additional 10 lbs. and often hovered between 150 and 153 lbs. My friend Jess Blackmun helped me add a stretching routine that would allow me to touch my toes for the first time in years. I was dying to crush outside at Smith but there it was again... patience. It would be too hot for me to make any serious attempts on the route until October, which was perfect because we'd started the training cycle so my friends and I would be in peak shape for that month.
October 2nd was my first official day of working on Darkness since the Spring. I did my usual routine of getting up at 3 and arriving at 7. I knew I'd find Cameron rocking out to metal music in the parking lot. It was pretty cold still, enough that we had to break open some hand warmers on the way down the trail. After warming up, the sun came out and temperatures were borderline too hot. Once the shade hit at 1:30 with a little bit of cloud cover for good measure, I tied in, did my normal breathing routine and cast off, anxious to see how I felt on it for the first time. To my surprise, I reached the anchors with only 2 rests by weighting the rope. It was evident that the third season had provided massive gains. I was able to go through all the sequences without too much effort. I climbed steadily and uninterrupted except for the two sections in which I had to rest on the rope due to fatigue. The cruxes (hardest parts of the route) were difficult but the movements came with relative ease and didn't feel at all desperate. I was able to reach the anchors 3 times that day. Not without weighting the rope, but I knew that I'd done everything I needed to be able to complete the route. Now it was just a matter of putting all the pieces together in one single go.
On October 7th, The Circuit hosted their annual bouldering competition, The Portland Boulder Rally. A second group of friends dropped into the training cycle during the summer to be ready for the comp and we all went together to compete against others in our respective categories. I woke up at 8am that morning, got ready, warmed up, and arrived at The Circuit at 10:30. Half an hour later, the comp was on and I was in full competition mode having the time of my life with my girlfriend, her family, and all my friends! I stuck around for the afternoon session to watch the rest of my friends compete and we all got together at one of their apartments to watch the finals. Later that evening, my girlfriend and I met with other competitor friends at the Wonder Ballroom for three hours of music and entertainment before heading home to sleep at around 12:30. The alarm went off at 4:30 a.m. and Danielle and I were on the road to Smith by 5 to meet up with Cameron for a day of project-ing.
I had a feeling. All week I'd had this feeling. Even though the previous day was filled with physical activity and late-night festivities, I still had this feeling like I was ready and I had a good shot a completing my hardest project to date. The day was on the hot side. I knew early on I'd have to wait for the afternoon to provide shade. I warmed up climbing sporadically through the morning. By the time 1:30 rolled around I was ready to give an attempt. I was nervous but it was a good kind of nervous. Something like a race car waiting for the red to turn green. I knew anything was possible, especially success. My friends gathered around to watch. Cameron stick-clipped the rope to first bolt so I could climb the first 18 feet protected. After completing my normal breathing and fist bump routine, I placed hands and feet on the wall and began to climb.
The movements came effortless. They fluidity was one of a sequence rehearsed over 3 seasons. 3 seasons of hard work; workouts I didn't want to do; food I didn't always want to eat; drinks I passed up; sessions climbing with my friends that I didn't participate in; exhausting day trips with 6-hour drives; most of all, the fluidity in my climbing came from 3 seasons of patience. Patience while learning, failing, and trying again. During my climb, every move was controlled and precise. The pace was marked by a metronome-like breathing pattern. The only time I stopped is when I reached the pre-determined rest points on the route. The best thing was that I was in complete control mentally. I felt perfectly comfortable on every single move, no matter how small, or how reach-y. Nothing ever felt desperate. I relished in the entire process, having time to look around and enjoy the surroundings; the view from 50 feet up, then from 60 feet up and again from 80 feet up.
Though I had a half a dozen friends there to back me up, it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Even passer-by's dared not a word. All I could hear was my breathing. Then, the moment of truth was in front of me in the form of a tiny right-handed edge about the width of half a pad on three of my fingers. For the left, a horizontal pocket big enough for three fingers that you had to move to perfectly in order to latch the tiny lip. I made the move calmer and with more strength than I'd ever done before. There was that feeling again. I was now just 15 feet from finishing. Two more moves and I would officially be higher in one single push than I'd ever been before. I made those two movements and the two movements after that. Two power yells later I was within spitting distance of the chain links at the anchor station. I latched the second to last hold and a split second later I grabbed the final hold just beneath the carabiners connected to the anchors.
I let out a cry of success that rang through the entire park. The sound was matched by cheering from all my friends below and immediately the echo that followed was not an echo of our cries but the sound of the entire park cheering as well. Even those that couldn't see what was happening or had no idea what had just been accomplished, cheered. In that moment, an entire park cheered together in unison for the success of one individual. That invoked a feeling of unison and faith in humanity that spread to the core of the marrow in all my bones. Strangers from one end of the park, through the center, and clear to the other end cheering for the success of another stranger. It was the definition of catharsis. Yeah, you bet there were tears. They'd been patiently waiting for their time as well.
In the end, I know that 5.13 is no headline-worthy accomplishment. Kids as young as 15 have been able to complete Darkness at Noon. After 5 minutes of fame no one but myself and maybe a few close friends will care or even remember. The reward is not the completion of the project. The real reward (like so many things in climbing) lies in the benefits you reap as a human being. When you take on a project (whatever grade or route that might be for you) and you put in the time, the effort, the patience, you grow as a human being. All the things that are required of you to complete that project change and directly affect you and your view on the world as whole if you choose to pay attention. The lessons imposed on you in order to surpass something that you couldn't do before are directly applicable in your daily life and in your interactions with other people. Because of that route, I made a new friend who later became a vendor for my store. I met Justin Brown of Rhino Skin Solutions, who also happened to be working on that route. This project inspired me to become a better teacher and to research new and updated ways of training. This route forced me to work harder than I'd ever worked for any goal in climbing. When things in my personal life or my business were less than ideal, I had this route to look forward to and kept me focused and sharp. If the commitment I made to this project inspired even one person to attempt their impossible and in turn they inspire someone else to do the same... well, that is 100 times better than clipping those chains any day. But I'll take the win either way!
Huge thanks go out to everyone who cared enough to ask how the project was going and listen to me rant my responses for close to a year. To all my friends that supported me in training and to those that joined in and trusted me with their training too. To my buddies Steven and Missy for all the encouragement. Especially to my friend Cameron for all the exercise routines and patient belays staring at my butt for session after session wondering when we were finally gonna get out of "The Office" and climb something else. Go Team SW/AG!