By Noah McKelvin
Photo Credit: Luke Negley
To set a goal for yourself that seems so beyond your comprehension of ever achieving is one of the many gifts we get in life. To achieve something not many people have done usually means you must put yourself through something others aren’t willing to do. In all my years of climbing, this concept has remained a constant for me. Simply put, I must give it my all. I think climbing is about pushing well beyond your mental and emotional barrier. In those moments, you find out who you really are.
My obsession with Must’a Been High (5.13c R/X) began when I was 17 years old, climbing in Eldorado Canyon. “Eldo” is located between Golden and Boulder, CO. For those that have been to this canyon, they know that every grade deserves respect. It’s a mostly traditionally protected area where you place all your own gear instead of clipping bolts. The climbing is slippery, polished, and sandbagged. The gear is finicky and far apart. Routes are given ratings of PG, PG-13, R, and X after the number grade to indicate how tricky and far apart the gear will be. Like a movie, PG means it is well protected and safe. While PG-13 means you could potentially break something if you don’t place the gear well enough. Further, R means there is massive fall potential and you’ll most likely break something if you fall. Finally, X means there is almost no reliable gear on the pitch. A fall from X usually means you’ll die. Many of Colorado’s boldest and scariest climbs are in this canyon.
I can remember hiking up to the crag when I was 17. On the way to our 5.8 climb, we walked below Must’a Been High. I remember being instantly inspired. It looked impossible. There were no holds on it, no cracks for gear, but somehow there was chalk spattered up the wall. I couldn’t believe someone had actually climbed it. I ended up racking up to lead my first 5.8 that day. I took a big fall, my first on gear, and lowered back to the ground, defeated. As we hiked out, I stopped again underneath Must’a Been High. At that point, I never dreamed I’d ever climb it but I was really inspired.
As the years went by, I slowly progressed through the grades. After climbing most of the well protected classics, I dove into the routes that incite a little more fear and some might consider wildly runout/dangerous. Some of these climbs could kill you if you fall, similar to soloing. You must be confident in yourself. Some of these climbs are first climbed by top rope. After top roping it and knowing the moves, then you can decide for if you want to lead it. Like Alex Honnold rehearsing all the moves until they become second nature.
Why am I interested in these “high consequence” routes? Since I was young, climbing has always been about the aesthetics, adventure, unknown, and testing yourself. It has always included risk. For me, I find more enjoyment in pushing my mental capability rather than pushing grades. I find enjoyment in the routes most avoid. Perhaps it’s a bit masochistic but I love putting my mind through the ringer. I love extremely demanding experiences. I love putting my mind to the test. When you are clipping bolts, taking a fall is safe. You can think you can do it and usually pull it off. On a dangerous route, there is no room for error, you must know you can do it. It’s extremely nerve racking, but I must find comfort in the uncomfortable. I don’t recommend a lot of the things I’ve climbed to anyone but for me. They were my dreams.
Four years ago, my confidence was high. I felt strong mentally and physically but Must’a Been High still felt like a big jump from the previous 5.12 X type routes I had climbed. Must’a Been High is one of the hardest and boldest trad climbs in the state. The whole overhanging crux 40 foot section is directly above a slab. The whole crux is protected by a very suspicious lone piton. Above that, only the smallest gear made available protects the climbing. It has big potential for you to break your legs if things go wrong. It’s extremely technical, core zapping, and very insecure. Adding all of this up makes the lead quite terrifying.
2016/2017 Winter Season
Setting the top rope up for Must’a Been High was always a process on this climb. You have to climb a scary 5.11c that led into a 5.10+/11a R traverse just to get to the anchors. I was completely shut down on day one. I was unable to even start the crux section. I couldn’t even get established on the climb. It was demoralizing. I continued to come back day-after-day repeatedly getting shut down. I’m stubborn. This climb was worth it to me. It’s important to live for micro progress. First, my goal was to four hang it. Once I achieved that, I then wanted to three hang it. Soon after, the two hang. No matter if it was 30 degrees and snowing or 50 degrees and sunny, I went back again and again.
Finding partners wasn’t easy. I’d try to find new climbing partners at CityROCK. I would try to make Eldorado Canyon seem like a great idea only for partners to realize that I was masochistic and they were going to have to hang out in the cold, shivering, in a snowstorm. But many partners joined in offering their own beta for the climb. I made subtle tweaks to the way I moved on the climb. One foot an inch right would make a kneebar better. Grabbing a certain hold an inch higher took the sequence from impossible to doable.
By the 7th day, I had achieved many one hangs on top rope. I became impatient. I decided to start leading it before sending it on top rope. I thought I would try harder on lead. For a whole week beforehand, I was haunted by the seriousness of leading this climb. I just hoped I wouldn’t break anything. I led it four times that winter, walking away without the send. I didn’t break anything but it was extremely stressful. At the crux, you have an extremely hard cam placement. Similar feeling to trying to place a piece mid crux on a V8. If you blow that stance, you will slam into the slab. It’s such a hard placement that I made a velcro strap on my harness to rip the piece off. Every second counts. If you blow the crux moves above that placed piece, and it doesn’t hold, you will break something. This crux piece is a .1 cam in a small flared pod. It’s just about the smallest cam made. It’s scary to just rely on one small cam.
My last lead on the 9th day was in near 60-degree temps. It was hot. Conditions weren’t good. I tied into the sharp end and started climbing. As I ripped the cam off my harness at the crux, I realized that the carabiner attached to the rope and the cam had slid over my figure eight tie in knot. It was caught. I panicked. I was going to take the fall you shouldn’t. I somehow hung on just long enough to get the carabiner back over my knot. Right when I placed the .1, I fell. The cam held. My wife advised that for my sanity (and hers) that I should move on for the time being. I was mentally exhausted. I went back to the gym and started training much harder.
2017/2018 Winter Season
I get asked about what I do for my training. First off, I don’t think there is a secret out there. Like anything, the more you do it, the better you get. And what one person does won’t work for another. I have never followed a training program. I spent the first ten years of my climbing career climbing outside at least four days a week. I probably only stepped a foot in the climbing gym 5 times during those years. It’s important to build up a solid foundation of technique, and strength before you start training. That’s not to mention building up the mental toughness outside.
There came a point when I couldn’t climb harder then 5.12c. Near this point, ten years into my climbing, I started going to the gym at least two times a week. I started campusing, hangboarding, and bouldering. I eased into it. I noticed huge gains in my outdoor climbing over the following year. But nothing compared to the moonboard. When CityROCK got the moonboard, I became very motivated to train. The moonboard is very difficult and kind of not fun. The moonboard has helped me more than anything. The core tension, flexibility, contact strength, and power it trains is extremely realistic for what you encounter outside. I would spend two days a week on the moonboard with at least a day or two of rest between sessions. The day a week I spent climbing outside was soul crushing. I would find the grade that I could onsight only on my best days, and then I'd try to do ten pitches at that grade. It’s not fun by the end of the day. In the gym, I focused only on power and finger strength since that is my weakness.
I came back the next winter much stronger. By day two, I sent the climb on top rope on my second go. But the following two goes after were horrendous. It felt so effortless when I sent it, but so desperate every other go. I needed to be consistent on every go before leading. After this day, part of me wanted to move on. I had sent the climb on top rope. That’s good enough right? Deep inside, I knew the answer. I had to send it on lead. I never made it back that winter. I was working full time with construction on top of trying to achieve my goal of being a paid career firefighter. I only had so much energy. I didn’t go back for two years.
2019/2020 Winter Season
I knew this was the season to go full throttle again. After achieving my dream of being a career firefighter at an amazing department, I finally had some free time. I went back to try the route. Day one passed quickly. It was like starting over again. I managed to tweak my finger even. I had forgotten all the micro beta. I achieved the one hang by day four. The weather was extremely unforgiving. It was either cloudy and in the low 30’s or too hot. I got the flue. Then an upper respiratory infection. I just wanted to give up. Mid-sickness, despite my wife’s good advice to stay home and rest, I drove up to Eldo with Jeff. I could barely hike for 2 minutes without feeling like I was about to die. It felt like an achievement getting to the base, where I proceed to spew a ton of bloody vomit. I tried to cover it up with a rock before Jeff looked. I wasn’t fast enough. He then tried to convince me to hike back down and go home. But I refused. I was fine. I managed to get my burns on that day but it definitely wasn’t graceful.
Soon enough, I healed up. The first session after sickness started off horrible. On the second go, I broke a crux hold. A hold I had used 50 times. I was extremely depressed. That was it. It was no longer possible for me. There was no other sequence I thought. But on the following two goes, I made up a new sequence on the fly and nearly sent! The momentum kept building and the following session I sent on top rope! Now was the final dreaded step, to send on lead.
The week before was again horrifying and stressful. The day of, the weather and conditions were absolutely perfect. My wife even made it up to Eldo to support me. Stanley, the only one that had belayed me for this lead made it down from Frisco as well. Everything was perfect. I had momentum. I threw myself at it on lead five different goes. The .1 cam at the crux hung directly over the crux hold making it unusable. I couldn’t use the hold. I tried a new sequence on the fly without success. Finally, on the fifth go, I figured out a new way to do the crux. It was too late though. I was exhausted.
I was both excited and sad. Excited about my progress. Sad that there was always something getting in the way. It was two anxiety inducing weeks before I made it back. This time I was joined by Jeff and Luke. The weather was horrendous. It was in the low 30’s with 30 mph gusts and cloudy. It was the last “descent” day before even colder temps and snow arrived. I couldn’t even feel my fingers on the first top rope go. To my surprise, I felt strong.
Photo credit: Luke Negley
I told Jeff and Luke that I was going to lead. I knew it probably wouldn’t go well but to just top rope the whole day felt like regression. I started off on lead. I got to the last rest before the crux. I breathed. I closed my eyes. It was time to give it my all. I fired off with such motivation and execution. Soon I was at the crux move with strength to spare. I pulled the insecure move and latched the undercling jug marking the end of the crux. I was so elated. Luke was hanging on a fixed rope shouting encouragement. It wasn’t over. I still had pumpy, insecure runout 5.12 climbing ahead of me. I placed a small RP and a slider nut and casted off.
I messed up all of the beta in the 5.12 section from excitement and nervousness. I was barn dooring all over the place. I don’t know how I didn’t fall because I should have. I got to the best knee bar on the route, blindly placing a 00 TCU between my legs. I rested. I couldn’t blow the last few feet of 5.12 climbing. I fired off with confidence. At the last knee bar, I clipped the chains. I finally clipped the chains! I did it! I screamed in so much excitement. Somehow in the worst conditions I’ve ever had, I pulled it off. The completion of a long-term dream. Like a kid in a candy store, I hiked out with such relief. It. Was. Over.
For the days and weeks that followed, I was overcome with a complete gratitude for life. No one could take that moment from me. I think many people have been confused about why I have lived my life the way I have. For me, climbing is the very ultimate expression of living life. Every day of life isn’t promised and the life you have today could instantly change tomorrow. Do what you love now, not later. For me, as I look back at my 28 years of life, I have absolutely zero regrets. I’ve had such an incredible run and for that I am grateful. Must’a Been High has left me with an unforgettable journey that I will not soon forget.
*CityROCK does not encourage free soloing or pursuing dangerous routes. We do support our climbers and our climbing community, whatever that means for you.
**Want to share your climbing story? Email Ange