Becoming a Boulderer: A Tradster’s Journey to Wrestling Pebbles

bouldering

Last fall I graduated and hit the road, looking for new experiences, to climb new places, and to experience the full opportunities of living life on the road. I wanted to climb when I wanted, chase the perfect weather, and up my climbing game. I knew that climbing as much as possible in new areas would essentially be volume training, and I’d learn the nuances of climbing various types of rock. The only problem? I’d be limited in my choices by winter weather, restricting me to warmer climes.

As a trad lover and crack climber, I had some initial ideas. Hitting the road in November meant I immediately headed to the Creek, upping my ring lock prowess (0.75s were doable for more than just a couple of moves!). I perfected my tape glove technique for thin hand #1s (single layer only, nothing more). And most crucially, I started feeling comfortable falling on thin gear in sandstone, letting me project and get some harder sends.

But then December came. While living in Salt Lake I’d taken trips to the Creek in December and January and survived the weekend. Cold, snow, and wind were doable for a night or two, but waking up every morning for a week with frozen water, a frozen windshield, and little prospect of warming during the day meant it was time to leave. I retreated to friend’s and family’s homes and plotted my next move …

An old friend with a similar bent for trad climbing suggested El Potrero Chico, and I fully embraced the idea despite the thought of clipping bolts. Two weeks seemed reasonable, and with visa and temporary import permit in hand, I drove the three hours south from Laredo.

A week of multi-pitches filled the need to use a clove hitch again, but quickly my visa was up. Returning to the homeland I figured I would drive across Texas and Arizona to make my way to Joshua Tree. Conveniently Hueco Tanks was along the route, and this was where the transformation began.

Arriving around 4 pm one afternoon, I visited the ranger station and found that the first few people at the gate in the morning would generally be allowed into the park. Figuring I’d spend one day here I dutifully lined up at 7 am the next morning, and waited for the rangers to come by an hour later. I made coffee on the side of the road, and talked with the others sipping warm beverages, stretching and waking the joints.

Wanting some friends to hang with and show me around, these fellas were perfect. They had been there for a week, were psyched on some climbs I might be able to do, and more than welcome to adding an outsider. I may have struggled all day with their moderate climbs and barely pulled onto their projects, but the stoke was high. The jokes flowed freely and the shouts of support for individual progress elated my spirits. At the end of the day, we grabbed “burros” from El Duranguito and congregated at the Mountain Hut. It was a day of hanging with fast friends and it was addicting. Rather than a day, I stayed a week.

When the time came for the group to disperse, a few others were headed the same direction. We reconvened in Joshua Tree and started fighting the quartz monzonite crystals. While I was able to convince some of my new friends to rack up for a day, they also wanted to explore some of the bouldering.

Having never climbed in JTree, I acquiesced and immediately hopped back on the struggle bus. I resisted sit starting anything—my limbs were too long and I couldn’t crunch that small. I couldn’t make that throw—it’s too much power. I can’t crimp on that—I’m sweating off everything, maybe I need more chalk?

The reality hit me full on:

bouldering is full of hard moves.

It may have been warm, but my stronger friends were sending because they were simply trying harder. They would do the full crimp on credit card edges because that was what was necessary. They used a chalk bucket because keeping your hands dry meant that you had friction rather than continuously greasing off. They taught me to just tough it out for a couple of moves.

Complaining about the warm weather, my bouldering friends decided to head to Bishop, their version of Mecca. Not wanting to continue searching for someone to trust with plugging my gear or while on the sharp end, I again followed my friends. I rationalized that it’s a new adventure and a new place to climb, and would definitely bring new challenges. We rolled into Bishop to the usual perfect weather, amazing scenery, and plethora of hard boulders.

Having learned to at least try hard sometimes, I started sending some problems. I relearned how to use my long limbs to my advantage: it isn’t just that I could reach high, I could use that kneebar or toe hook to stabilize myself. My fat fingers from crack climbing may not have always fit the pockets in the Tablelands, but my slab climbing cool came in handy the first time I got up high in the Buttermilks.

I started to love the feeling of pushing my physical limit for a few seconds. I became better at trying different beta and memorizing sequences. Most of all, I became comfortable falling from high knowing that pads and spotters were below me. The freedom of movement from this knowledge was similar to falling on gear; I would try any beta suggestions and hop on any climb my friends were trying even if it was likely above my pay grade.

I even surprised myself by doing some things I never imagined: highballs, projecting for multiple days, and thoroughly enjoying bouldering without a thought of hopping on ropes.

So am I a boulderer now? In some ways, absolutely.

I’m excited to return to JTree and Hueco and try some of the unsent boulders with my newfound enthusiasm. I’m excited to return to Little Cottonwood and Joe’s Valley and apply some projecting techniques. And I’m excited to buy new, aggressive bouldering shoes rather than relying on my Mythos.

But I’m also excited to use all of this knowledge in my trad game to push into harder grades. I’m excited to use a true projecting mindset in the Creek to continue upping my crack prowess. I’m excited to get reacquainted with Little Cottonwood and keep my cool high above my last piece while smeared on a couple of crystals. But most of all, I’m excited to return to Bishop next winter. To return to late nights in the hot springs, to return to screaming with fright from the height or from the send, to return to hanging out all day with someone new and becoming lifelong friends and to renew my love for Bishop bouldering.


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  • Oscar Wheeler

    Great article! Awesome to hear about your adventures!

  • caleb john hill

    so fun!
    I took a photo of that exact boulder a few weeks back!

    Great location 🙂

    https://bit.ly/2GSYmdX