I have sent a few routes in my 18 years of climbing. I have conquered climbing plateaus and ascended to new grades. I have projected and despaired and overcome. But I have never felt what I did after sending No Joke, my first 5.13b. The day I saw No Joke, I saw a route way out of my league. I couldn’t do the first move, and laughed as I grabbed my draws and hung them on something easier. Still, the route compelled me. There was smooth flow, amazing movement, and small holds. Right up my alley. But it was a 13b, and at that time my proudest send was only 12c. I shrugged and tried to ignore the siren call of the route, but wistfully wished that I could actually give it a burn. That same evening, I hiked to the top of the crag and fell to the bottom, breaking my spine in two places, shattering my pelvis, snapping my tailbone, collapsing a lung, smashing a kidney and fracturing an ankle. The doctors weren’t sure I would ever walk again and I was wheelchair-bound for 5 months. I pushed myself every day in physical therapy and spent my free time trying to wiggle my toes. I was determined to climb again. I had a route to send.
Less than two years later, I was working the cruxes on No Joke. I was infatuated with the route, and saw sending it as a sign of fully overcoming my injury. My progress in climbing was like a very inconsistent ladder. In the beginning the rungs were very close together as I went from taking an hour to get up a 5.6 in the gym to leading 5.12s clean outside. I ran up the rungs, progressing quickly. Now the rungs were far and few between as I struggled on No Joke for months on end. I figured out my beta, waited for winter to thaw, and forgot my beta in the spring. It was a frustrating dance, a love-hate tango. Once the warm weather came in and No Joke was climbable again, I became obsessed. I dreamt of sending almost every night and drew beta maps in my notebook during class. Every bit of free time I had I was in my classroom of rock, perfecting footwork and linking moves. The crux migrated up the wall as I fell higher and higher up the route. Finally, the crux was the last hard move on the route. The move involves cranking down on a 1/3 pad mono to a decent three-finger pocket then throwing, fully extended, to a jug. After you stick the jug, it’s over. I fell throwing to the jug three times. I was frustrated, discouraged, and just plain stressed out. It was starting to get cold again, and I was not about to wait for the weather again. So I changed up my mental game. I didn’t think about sending. I thought about the moves as I did them, not in desperation hoping I would stick, but in full appreciation of the movement itself. I danced, letting loose and just having fun while keeping my movements precise. When I got to the mono, I didn’t hope frantically that I would stick the pocket. I assumed I would stick the pocket and instead thought about the delicate footwork necessary for sticking the jug. I thought of it as nothing, and it became nothing. I was a little pumped but nothing drastic. I was breathing hard, but steadily. My feet were exact. I stuck the jug. Barely. It’s a full extension for me and I was hanging on by my fingertips. I stayed calm, kept breathing, and pulled through the rest to the top.
As I pulled through the last twenty feet to the top, things started to fall away. I grabbed a good pinch, and the pain of physical therapy seemed trite. My feet found a huge ledge, and the terror I felt while falling seemed far, far away. Curling my fingers around the third jug from the top, the sleepless nights spent relearning to walk seemed like a drop in the ocean. Clipping the chains, I felt weightless. Refreshed. New. I was reborn.
“Ah yes, the past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it, or you can learn from it.” - Rafiki, The Lion King