“We have to get out of here!” I could barely hear Mayan as she shouted across the small channel. The wind and waves from the Tasman Sea began to swell and crash through the narrow strait slapping against the 12-foot base of the Totem Pole. The sea stack slightly shook with each hit, threatening to topple the 213-foot spire into the now raging water—with me attached. I’d just swung across on a fixed rope to the base and placed my first piece of gear on Deep Play (5.12b) when Mayan shouted that a storm was on its way. It was our third time up the Totem Pole, and we hoped that the weather would hold. Shielded by the rock I peaked around the corner and saw swells of water from the sea and sky headed toward Mayan Smith-Gobat and myself.

“Yep it’s time to go!” I shouted back.

6 weeks earlier I sat in Grand Junction, CO watching the arrow on my PC glide around the outlined image of the Totem Pole. Located on the outskirts of the Tasmanian Coast near Cape Huay, the Totem Pole juts 213-feet out of the sea, surrounded by cliffs on both sides, creating a funnel for the elements. The Dolerite sea stack offers any climber a chance to find true adventure in an exotic environment, surrounded by all sorts of creatures; including whales, dolphins, sea lions, and of course—jellyfish. 

Pioneers of the outdoor world, such as Paul Pritchard, tested themselves on the Totem Pole, establishing new lines throughout the 1990’s. Even though Pritchard was experienced and one of Britain’s leading climbers in the 1980s and 1990s, on February 13th, 1998 he was hit by a falling boulder while climbing the Totem Pole—causing loss of feeling and movement on the entire right side of his body. That didn’t deter the imagination and creativity of other climbers, including Lynn Hill who attempted an onsight of the free route, but was stymied by a broken hold. It wouldn’t be until Monique Forester visited the Tote in 2003, and onsighted the sea stack via Deep Play. That became my goal: onsight Deep Play

Photo by Will Ockenden

Photo by Will Ockenden

I let out an audible “boom” causing odd looks and giggles from my students for the day. I was working as a substitute teacher in Grand Junction, and even though the kids knew me well enough by now not to ask questions, they still shook their heads and laughed when I forgot that I was in a classroom and daydreaming of far away lands. 

“Where are you headed to next Mr. R?”

“Australia to climb some sea stacks!” I said without thought. I glanced up to see one of my climbing students and immediately was embarrassed that I’d been caught; I was supposed to be looking up reaction rates for chemistry.   

“When do you leave?” He asked.

“End of November, beginning of December.” I said and abruptly continued the lesson for the day lest I distract the kids from work.

December of 2013, I sat with renowned climber and stone cold crusher Mayan Smith-Gobat, and world-class photographer Andrew Burr on a plane to Tasmania. Mayan and I had just finished a small tour of Australia’s Grampians National Park, and now shifted focus to climbing as many sea stacks as we could. Weather was supposed to be descent, but the stone is situated on a latitude that changes quickly. Getting stuck in a rainstorm was more probable than not.

We trekked to the edge of the world early in the morning for the Totem Pole; our bags laden with heavy loads of static rope, camera equipment, and climbing gear. The trail is well carved into a landscape of rolling hills and sea cliffs and even equipped with sand stone steps. Two hours of hiking and 1,275 stone steps (I counted) we stood on a ridge above the Totem Pole and stared down the narrow channel. We watched from above as jelly fish and seals drifted lazily through the water below, but my gaze fell upon the Tote. My fingers pulsed in anticipation.

“Do you want the first or second pitch?” Mayan asked.

“I want the first ... it seems like shenanigans and that is right up my alley.” I said.    

We scrambled down to a simple rappel station and threw our first length of static rope into the chasm. Locked and loaded, Mayan zipped down the line quickly to a small stone platform 250 feet below. A few minutes later powered by the intensity of our environment I joined her at the bottom of the line bursting with energy.

“How do we do this?” I asked bouncing up and down.

“The guide book says that you either stay tied into the static line and swing across the gap to the base of the Tote, or risk racing across the small land bridge 15 feet below us,” Mayan said with a smile.

I watched as the kelp-covered land bridge, 10 feet below, was constantly being hammered by the sea. It looked like a meat grinder just waiting to take my legs and break them like toothpicks. I thought about the sensation of jumping and sailing to the base of the Tote. Meanwhile, images of Indiana Jones flashed my imagination.

“I’ll swing.”

The first two jumps to gain the base of the Tote were misguided. I slipped on sea soaked rock, which sent me crashing in the back-wall.     

“Third times the charm,” I mused kicking off the wall. My hand slapped the base of a larger flat piece of Dolerite rock and stayed the crystals bite into my fingertips. I quickly clipped into a bolt and untied from the fixed line.

It was tricky climbing. Each foot placement and hand position threatened to slip due to the plumes of sea spray that erupted when waves slammed into the wall. Each movement sent me farther from my last piece of protection, which was normal, until I realized that even though I was 15 feet above the sea, my last piece was so far below that if I fell I would plunge into the icy water. Unfortunately, I was still 15 feet from the next bolt. I crammed my fingers into a constriction in the rock and twisted them until they jammed. I had only one piece of traditional gear on me, which made my placement have to count. It didn’t. I wedged the small Camelot into a marginal position and watched it rattle to the base of the crack. With a small sigh I continued up the route hoping to clip the bolt.   

Two more body lengths allowed me to properly protect myself from a fall, and eventually I pulled onto the belay ledge.

“Ok Mayan! You’re on belay!” I shouted down.

“This is kind of scary!” Mayan yelled, the wind carrying her voice at a startling speed.   

She had just pulled herself over the to the base of the Totem Pole and began to navigate the first pitch when the weather shifted and a small drizzle of rain hit my cheek. I glanced out and saw a roaming shower travel over the horizon.

“Take your time, but just so you know it may rain on us.” I shouted.

Mayan nodded and climbed with subtlety, grace, and efficiency and quickly stood next to me on a large ledge. The small drizzle had stopped, but I was ready to get out of the elements. 

“It’s your pitch now. Time to summit!” I said.

Without hesitation, Mayan pulled onto the second pitch of Deep Play. Her small frame looked like it was about to blow off of the vertical rock; each gust shifted her balance making her compensate and pull a little harder than normal. Placing fingertips and toes on small crystals and horizontal edges, Mayan completed each technical section to gain a large horizontal break. She paused and tried to shake the pooling blood in her forearm out.  She was a little pumped.

“My god the wind is intense up here! I almost fell from it. It keeps throwing me off balance,” she yelled. 

After 5 minutes, she gave her arms a final shake and smoothly polished off the last 30 feet of climbing. We had on-sighted the route, and neither one of us had fallen as we sat at the final set of anchors on top of the Totem Pole. Mayan and I made the trek back and repeated the Totem Pole three more times. On the second repeat attempt, we were caught in a massive storm and had to retreat. We ascended the 200 plus feet up the fixed line, bombarded by freezing rain.

The Totem Pole is as fragile as it is iconic. This piece of history will some day topple into the ocean due to its precarious nature. The wind and the sea will continue carving that ever-narrowing base, and in an estimated hundred years, the sea stack will rest at the bottom of the channel, quiet and peaceful.

 

Watch the footage of Ben and Mayan's adventure below:

Ben Rueck is a professional climber sponsored by adidas, Five Ten, CampUSA, Sterling Rope, Gnarly Nutrition, JTree Life, The American Alpine Club, and Pur Climbing Holds. Follow Ben's other adventures on his blog.

P.S. If you'd like to contribute, we'd love to share your story.

an interview with alex johnson

We recently had the pleasure of speaking with 2-time World Cup Gold Medalist, 5-time National Champion, and  professional female crusher, Alex Johnson. Here’s what she had to tell us about her current climbing insights, ambitions, and of course, we asked her about her favorite beer, too:

 

With the coming of the fall season and a return of sending temps in a lot of climbing areas, what are you up to now and what are your projects for the season?

Fall is my favorite time of year. Usually I take a lot of time off in the summers to let my body rest, regroup, and have some fun before the season starts again. Fall will be mostly climbing around Vegas, getting fit again, and then I will eventually head back out to Bishop to take on The Swarm (V14).

Now that you’re living in Las Vegas, is Red Rocks your favorite place to climb?

I think so. There’s so much and it’s so fun. You can just go out all day, and not worry about your skin at all, thanks to the sandstone. It’s great. Bishop is really fun, but it’s also reeeaaaallly sharp.

 

Every once in a while you experiment with sport climbing (such as in your RV Project Birthday Challenge); do you ever foresee yourself getting more into that realm or will bouldering always be your primary style?

Since moving [to Las Vegas] I’ve sport climbed more than I have over the past eight years because the season is so hot for Red Rocks that we have to go up to higher elevation in Charleston and sport climb. It’s mostly an off-season thing. I like it; I don’t love it. It’s a little easier on the body than bouldering. They’re so different though; it’s like a sprinter going for a long jog—it’s just not my passion.


How about trad climbing, any enticement there?

Trad climbing terrifies me. I think trad will be something I will get more into when I’m older. But now, I basically feel like I’m free soloing every time I do it … I’m actually less scared when I’m highball bouldering, which is weird, but it’s a different mental state for me. There are those moments when you just cannot fall and you know that if you’re a few millimeters off you could get seriously hurt. Sometimes I’ll just know I’m not ready to do a highball because you really have to fully commit and if you don’t, you can’t do it—or you will really get hurt. I guess falling just can’t be an option in your mind at all, and when my head is in that state of mind I know I’m ready to go for it.


You’ve been taking part in competitive climbing since the age of 11; how have you seen the entire sport evolving in both positive and negative ways through your experiences?

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I was introduced to climbing a little differently. I didn’t have a team that took me outside and my parents didn’t climb, so I didn’t grow up climbing outside. So right away indoor competing was the sport of climbing for me—and then eventually I started falling in love with real rock climbing, going on trips outside, and even up until, geez, almost 2012, climbing was still: train in the gym, go compete, and climb outside when you can. And eventually I didn’t like it any more. It just didn’t have me the way it used to have me, and all I wanted to do was climb outside. So it sort of just totally changed my game plan.

I’m over competing because I have to train in the gym. In order to stay at the top of the game you have to train at the gym year-round, almost every day. And that’s what rock climbers are doing now. They go to the gym every day, year-round, and go outside maybe once or twice a week … MAYBE.

And I just wanted to climb outside, so I would go on these 8 or 9-month road trips. The first was in 2011-12 in my mom’s van. I started in Wisconsin and went down through Colorado, Utah, Yosemite, Bishop, Vegas, Hueco, then back up to Vegas, Bishop, and Yosemite. And it was amazing. I was all by myself (well with my dog Fritz), and I would just meet up with people along the way or just go climbing by myself—and that was the trip that totally changed me. I was like, okay, I’m done. I’m not climbing in the gym every day. That’s not rock climbing to me. Rock climbing to me is getting up and going rock climbing.

 

 

 

 

So would you say the sport is kind of splitting, between indoor and outdoor climbing?

I think so. It’s definitely possible to do both and be really good at both.  Shauna Coxsey climbs V14 and wins World Cups; Anna Stöhr climbs V13 and wins World Cups. But it’s harder to maintain being able to win World Cups and climb that hard outside, because they’re so different. Indoor competitive bouldering is not the same as outdoor bouldering. The movements are different, you have to use your feet differently, and transitioning from one to the other is really hard. It’s possible to be good at both, but for me right now, in order to be good at both, I need to spend significantly more time in the gym … and I don’t want to. I can’t commit to just going inside and training all day in the gym. And that was part of the allure with Las Vegas. There is a gym here but there are so many rocks around me that it doesn’t even feel like an option to me.


I know that your career has enabled you to travel abroad for comps, training, and to climb at amazing destinations; as a professional athlete do you get much time to just explore the culture and engage with locals or are you guys hitting the rock right away?

Unfortunately, you only get a couple of a days of site-seeing and then you have to climb in the gym to get used to the jetlag and loosen up a little bit. Then it’s competition, competition, competition, maybe another day or two of site-seeing, and then you go home. That’s how traveling abroad was for me. On longer-term trips, like when I was training in Austria for several months, I was more immersed in the culture—getting to use the German I learned in high school.

 

What is the most amount of consecutive days you have gone without climbing in the past couple of years? And what is your favorite way to spend a rest day?

For the last 3 summers, I’ve taken about 8 weeks off every year, where I’ll go trail running, kayaking, just hang out, drink beer … be a normal human and not be super worried about staying fit or my diet. I’ll hang out with friends, go to the pool a lot; just chill pretty much. I take training for this winter’s outdoor season pretty seriously. I want to do the best that I can, and that’s why I take so much time off for the summer; my fall leading into winter is very intense.

 

From where and what kind of pressure do you feel in terms of training, your diet regimen, etc. when it comes to being a professional climber?

I think most of the pressure put on us comes from ourselves—at least for me. I know my sponsors will be stoked with whatever I’m doing, as long as I’m doing something. But when it’s ‘go time’ for The Swarm for me, it’s really serious, and it’s the most constructive time of year for training and the diet for me; and all of the pressure just comes from myself. Sometimes you get the allusion that other people are putting pressure on you, but it’s just made up in your head. Sometimes I think, “All these people want me to do this!” but no one is really going to give a shit if I don’t. They’ll be like “Oh you’ll do it next year,” they’re not going say, “Aw bummer, what a disappointment!”

 

In becoming such an accomplished climber, who has been your mentor or motivator in progressing with the sport?

Jessa Goebel. We met when I was younger; she wasn’t my coach, but we would go climbing outside together a lot and have these great life talks. She is very big sisterly. When I’m screwing around she’ll tell me, “You need to get your shit together!” but when I’m doing well she says, “I’m really proud of you.” It’s sort of a big sister relationship.

 

You used to do track and field as a pole-vaulter. Do you ever get the urge to get up and go pole vault?

No. Never. Never. I have nightmares about it, where I have to go pole vault, and I’m like “Nooooo!” It was a fun high school/college thing, but I’m glad it’s over. It was so repetitive. Everything about climbing is different, every single time you do it. And that’s what keeps me so captivated: it’s something new every time. Even going back to the same boulder problem, you’re going to do it a little differently, and it’s going to feel a little differently. But with pole vaulting, it was like “Yes! I got a ¼ of an inch higher this time than I did last time! Now I’m going to do the same thing to see if I can get ¼ of an inch higher!” It’s really easy to track your progress. I mean, you run and jump over a bar. Whereas with climbing it’s so all over the board: a V12 could feel like V9 for one person, and a V9 could feel like V13 for another person. It’s total chaos with tracking progress … but at least it’s not repetitive.

 

How about things like high-lining or base-jumping—is there any appeal for you to try these types of activities?

Not quite yet, but maybe later in life with my desire to trad climb.

 

If we’re cheers-ing to beers celebrating what an epic year you’ve had 12 months from now, what are the accomplishments you’ve made?

Sending The Swarm and making finals or just getting on the podium at Vail again. This year, I thought I would make finals given how hard I trained and because I’ve made finals in the past pretty consistently. But it was actually the worst I’ve ever done in any event ever in my entire life since I started competing since the age of 11 … It was really weird, disheartening, and just frustrating … So yeah, getting The Swarm and getting to finals at Vail would be pretty rad. A medal would be sweet, but finals are step one.

 

Beta on Alex … 

Preference; Summer or Winter: Winter. Well, that’s hard because I grew up in Wisconsin where I definitely hated winter. But now that I’m in Vegas—where it’s like 110 degrees everyday in the summer and 40 in the winter—I now love winter.

Preference; Coffee or Tea: Coffee

Best Crag Food: Goldfish

Favorite Beer: Moose's Tooth Raspberry Wheat (Alaska)

Your Spirit Animal: The first thing that came into my head is tiger, even though that is like the most cliché thing ever.

Favorite Place to Sleep Outside: The best time I had sleeping outside was in Chile up in the Andes. We didn’t pitch tents or anything, we just laid out crash pads and everyone slept under the sky. The closest city was like 3 hours away, so there were no lights anywhere. We were just up in the mountains and the stars were crazy. It didn’t suck

Alex is a professional climber sponsored by The North Face, Evolv, Goal Zero, Pro-Tec Athletics, Organic Crash Pads, Smith Optics, JTree Skincare, and Gnarly Nutrition. Check out her websiteblog, and follow her on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook.

P.S. If you'd like to contribute, we'd love to share your story.