Golden Limestone, Abandoned Quickdraws, and a Budweiser: How I sent my first 5.12

Ten Sleep, Wyoming. It’s my favorite time of day—the sun has just dipped below the horizon and the residual light saturates the limestone walls with a rosy, golden hue. I sit in my harness, smiling about how hard we were laughing yesterday at this same time when Matt said, “Dude, you can like, feel the light right now.”

Our laughter was more about his stoner-like language and less about what he was describing, because we all knew exactly what he was talking about. The evening light in Wyoming feels dense somehow, like you could swim through it. It makes the objects of the landscape blend together—the lines that illustrate the trees, the rocks, the grasses, and the canyon walls stop acting definitive and slowly become fuzzy and soft. Eventually the light turns such a deep shade of gold that the shapes diffuse right into each other, and you can’t help but feel as if you’re doing the same.

“You can dirt me,” shouted from above, interrupts my thought. I lower Matt off the third bolt of Cocaine Rodeo, a long, sustained 5.12 on the Drugs and Sex wall.

“I’m just not feelin’ it,” he says, looking down as he wrestles with his figure eight knot. I glance up at his quick draws, wondering how he plans to retrieve them. “I’ll just leave them till tomorrow,” Matt says. “Unless you feel like getting them down for me.”

Without thinking about it, I quickly agree to get his draws, before fully realizing that that means I will have to climb all 100+ feet of the route. The length of the route doesn’t intimidate me, there is plenty of light left in the evening, I don’t even feel that tired despite having climbed all afternoon. There’s just one small problem—I’ve never climbed 5.12 before. In fact, I tried this route just a few days ago and got shut down very low to the ground, in the same spot Matt lowered from.

I also, based on the presumption that my day was over, just drank a Budweiser.

Whatever, I tell myself. Pull on draws if you have to. Get your ass to the top anyway you can. Just get the draws down.

I laugh a little as I clip every quickdraw we own to the loops on my harness. “What a shitshow,” I say, twisting my torso side to side. The biners clang against each other.

“Yeah, it’s a long one,” he says.

As I tie in, I notice that my usual pre-climb jitters are absent, I feel entirely calm and have no desire to rush. This is new to me. I’m the kind of climber that gets overly excited and nervous for even an easy warm-up I’ve done a hundred times. But there’s none of that right now now, despite the fact that I’m tying into the sharp end for the hardest climb I’ve ever touched. I have no idea what 70% of the climb is like, where the crux is, what the holds are like, if it’s reachy or balancing or burly, I can’t even see the anchors. Somehow this is all completely fine with me. Maybe it’s because the light is making everything glitter, maybe it’s because my task is to simply get the draws down, maybe it’s the Budweiser.

Let’s just go see what’s up there. Just get the draws down.

I pull off the ground with this attitude.

After a few boulder problems stacked on top of each other, I find a decent rest. My breath is slow and I’m smiling from how enjoyable the movement feels to my body. I hardly notice that I’m high above the section that shut me down last time. I shake out my arms, dip my hand into my chalk bag, and look up. The light is even deeper now, the line of pockets that form the route dissolves into the rest of the wall, it all glows golden. I can’t see very far ahead, but the weight of my harness tells me that I have many bolts above me.

I admire how limestone offers routes like a Jackson Pollock painting: rounded pockets that appear so chaotically flung onto the canvas, random and arbitrary, but once you spend some time with it, you realize there is an order to things, a method. Lines start to emerge. The shapes all connect to each other, and in the case of this route, they all connect in a really beautiful way. I haven’t fallen, pulled on a draw, or hung on the rope. I’ve climbed it clean so far but that doesn’t mean anything to me, it doesn’t affect my attitude. I’m just taking delight in the process of learning how the features of this line link to each other, I’m just climbing.

My hair twists in the breeze and I can’t stop smiling.

golden limestone image

Maybe it was the long, sustained nature of the route that prevented my mind from ever coming to some kind of conclusion about if I was going to send or not send. In fact, the concept of “sending” was not a part of my internal dialogue on Cocaine Rodeo. I didn’t care in the slightest. This is ironic, because as the light got deeper, I kept passing bolt after bolt without any awareness of how close I was to the anchors, if I was past the crux, where my next rest was, if I was going to fall on the next move. I just kept climbing until I clipped the chains without a single fall. I sent the route. I sent the hardest thing I had ever climbed without any projecting, training, planning, or daydreaming, and I had onsighted over 70% of it.

It’s not that the route was easy for me. At the time, it truly was the most difficult route I had ever climbed, not just the hardest grade. I pulled moves that were comparable to boulder problems I had put months of work into, one after the other, with forearms that begged for rest. Even now, quite some time after that summer evening in Wyoming, all of my hardest sends have been with this attitude. Even if there is training, projecting or anticipation involved, when I send, I am never focused on sending. I am only climbing, enjoying the process, learning how the features of the route connect to each other. It’s like I’m just up there to take down the draws.

This is not only the time when I climb my hardest, but it’s also when I’m having the most fun. When I get done climbing something in this manner, regardless if I’ve sent it or not, I think to myself, YES, that is how I want to feel when I’m climbing, that right there is what it’s all about. 

Every time I go climbing, whether it’s outside or in the gym, at a sport crag, on a big wall, in the mountains or a boulder field, I witness climbers (including myself) act and think in ways that are extremely limiting to themselves. Not only are we denying access to our strength and draining our personal power, but we are preventing ourselves from enjoying the climb. I truly believe that we would all be climbing worlds harder than we ever have before (and having fun while doing so!) if we stopped talking so much shit to ourselves.

As cliche as it sounds, we really are capable of far more than we’ve ever done. We have power within us that has never been tapped, strength we’ve never used, volition that has never breathed, and spirit that has thus far been bridled.

This is true when we are climbing or doing anything in our lives that requires heart.

What would happen if we went into every climb with the mentality that we were just up there to learn something, to figure out how the features link together in a way that works for our body? No sending or not sending, no thoughts of being too short or too scared or too weak, no wondering if and when you’re going to fall, just enjoying the movement of this sport that we all love so dearly. Maybe you’ll onsight the hardest route you’ve ever tried. Maybe you’ll send a project. Maybe you’ll try something you deemed impossible. But whatever happens, you will definitely have fun, and that’s really what it’s all about.

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