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“This is it dude, if I don’t get it on this attempt, I’m done!”
I had just taken my third 30-foot whip. Each time I fell, despite my best attempt at running backwards down the slab, I inverted when the rope caught me, my butt, shoulders and head slamming into the wall each time.
When my climbing partner Jared asked if I wanted to climb the infamous Childhood’s End (5.12a R) on Big Rock Candy Mountain in the South Platte, Colorado, with him, I was hesitant. Or rather I nearly said no right off the bat. I’m not a 5.12 climber and the idea of 100+ foot runouts on 5.7 slab was far from appealing. However, I had a two-day break during a month-long stint in the field for a battalion-level training exercise on Fort Carson, and I was itching to get out on a big route.
I hadn’t sent anything harder than 5.11a previously, and this would be the most committing route Jared and I had attempted together. After a little reassurance that he’d take the runout 5.7 pitches if I wasn’t feeling it, I told Jared I was in.
We had met via Mountain Project a year earlier. He became my mentor as I learned to trad climb. I went out with an AMGA guide and learned the technical aspects of trad, but Jared was the one who imparted the confidence that’s required to be a good trad leader. The Yellow Spur, in Eldorado Canyon, was one of our first routes together. I’ll never forget his words from the first pitch belay, “Alright dude, this is your pitch!” He was infinitely patient with my inexperience, but he always made it clear through his own climbing and attitude that he considered leading trad an act of boldness. He didn’t back down from a challenge, and he expected the same from his partner.
Jared had done all the route research for Childhood’s End, and in true amateur style, I just gave the beta a cursory read and opted to rely on him. As we climbed, Jared told me about some of the route history. The first ascent party (Ken Trout, Eric Winkelman and Brian Hansen) had put the route up on lead. The entire route has a pretty serious feel: all the sport pitches, 5.9 and under, are quite runout. Apparently, the FA party was running out of bolts toward the top, hence the 100-foot runouts on the 5.7 slab. They had no bolts left when they topped out, and rappelled off a pile of small boulders stacked on top of each other.
The first few pitches were uneventful, but when we got to the top of pitch three, the bolt line split. Jared told me the 5.9 variation went left, so I headed hard left and was quickly out of sight from the belay.
The climbing felt way harder than 5.9, but given that this was the South Platte, I figured it was probably just healthily sandbagged. I headed up an insecure water groove with widely spaced bolts. As I neared a small bulge, my foot popped, and I fell. I was running backwards as fast as possible, but I couldn’t keep up with the speed I was falling. I inverted. The impact jolted through my butt, shoulders and head as I smashed into the slab, falling past the belay.
“Well that sucked,” I said, in an attempt to be nonchalant, as pain and adrenaline coursed through my body. I looked back up from where I’d fallen, and told myself, It’s only 5.9, you can do this.
I headed back up the pitch and took the same fall again; I made no attempt to hide my feelings this time; I was mad. Why couldn’t I send this 5.9? What was Jared thinking about my pathetic climbing? I headed back up.
It was a sport pitch, but there was a thin flaring crack midway between the bolts at the crux. I plugged a micro nut and a terrible .1 BD X4. Before I could clip, I took the whip, again. I was pretty shook up by this point, but I told Jared I’d give it one final go. If I didn’t get it this time, I was done.
The micro nut and cam would have failed either way if I had whipped, but my feet held this time, and I made it to the anchors.
When I got back home that night, I read the route beta and discovered our error: I had been on a runout 5.11 slab pitch. It wasn’t a full redpoint—I didn’t redo the traverse at the start—but I wasn’t far off, and it was the most difficult lead I’d done.
If I had known it was a 5.11 R, I never would have attempted it, much less gotten back on it after the first fall.
In the world of climbing we talk about our “mental game” all the time. On certain routes, the ability to control your fear and focus on the climbing itself, can transform your ability to send the pitch. There are obvious limits to this concept. If you lack the strength and proper technique for a route, your “mental game” may be rendered irrelevant.
That single experience on Big Rock Candy Mountain taught me the power of a good “mental game.” It won’t always get you the send, but in some situations, your mental state is the only thing holding you back.
And of course, I learned not to sell myself short and balk because of a grade. Sometimes a number is just that—a number.