By Matt Jones
There are many ways to approach climbing just like there are many flavors of ice cream at Baskin Robbins; none necessarily “better” than the next. Some people enjoy the challenge of the onsight: to send (no falling/hanging on rope) a route first try with no information (beta). Some like to try and flash a climb: i.e. send a route first try,while having beta about the route before the attempt is acceptable.
You may ask other climbers how hard the route is, where the crux is, how to do the crux, where to clip, where to rest, etc. To redpoint a climb means to send but not on your first try. By definition then you must fail to send at least once on a route before you redpoint it. I did not realize until recently, but my past was preparing me to be a redpoint climber even before I began climbing.
I grew up in Michigan where hockey was life. I might as well have been Canidian (hockey is as big as football, basketball and baseball are in the states combined, if not bigger). I remember my mom asking me multiple times
“What do you want to do when you grow up?”
“I’m gonna play in the NHL”.
She would then always respond like any caring parent that knows the odds of becoming a professional athlete with
“Yeah, but what if that doesn’t work out?”.
“No mom, I’m gonna be a hockey player.”
I didn’t want to do anything else. There were always tryouts at the end of summer/ early fall for the upcoming hockey season. There were times when I did not make the cut for the team I wanted and had to play somewhere else that year, but it never bothered me too much until I was 18. I had just finished my first year of junior hockey with the Green Bay Gamblers of the USHL, the top junior league in the country. This is the league basically every US kid wants to be in because almost everyone that played went on to play D1 college hockey. I was at tryouts and the new coach called all eight returning players into the locker room to discuss the upcoming season, how we were all veterans now and would play a much bigger role this year. We were all excited for the opportunity and just to be back playing hockey again after a long summer. I even remember that summer seeing my name on an ESPN scroll (at the very bottom) of projected NHL draft picks. I was psyched, ready for the season to begin, and to make my mark as a stronger and better player than I was last season.
After tryouts were over, I got a phone call from the new coach. I was excited and curious about what he wanted to talk about (our power play, training camp coming up, who I was going to play with). Out of nowhere, he told me I was cut. I didn’t know what to do. Most other teams already had their teams picked at this point; where was I gonna go? I thought I was a hockey player, thought I had a chance at being drafted and playing college hockey. What was I supposed to do now?
Flash forward a few years: I was in grad school studying mathematics at UCCS. To earn an M.S. in Mathematics at UCCS, one must pass a comprehensive exam in Analysis and you only get two chances. The students would generally study for this exam for a year or so, often having study groups that meet up on a weekly basis (all done while still dealing with the current classes you were taking and teaching). Six of us sat in a small room with four hours to complete the exam on exam day. The exam wasn’t the worst part. It was the wait to know if we passed. Most felt sure that they had failed. I felt like I failed. I heard one girl (a 4.0 student) had failed for her second time. Then a buddy of mine also failed, saying he was not even planning on trying the test again because he knew he would not pass. Finally, I got my email: I had also failed. Again, I thought “what am I supposed to do now? I thought I was going to get my master’s degree and teach Mathematics at a University. I was freaking out and started looking up how to become a firefighter and other potential careers.
More recently Josh, a buddy of mine suggested that we try to work on a route called “My Generation” at Shelf Road rated 12d or 13a, depending on who you ask. I had made it a goal of mine for the past couple of years to climb 5.13, but had yet to attain it. Maybe this could be my first?
The first couple days we went to work on the route were rough; I think we stick-clipped the first three draws and could not even climb to the third before falling. It felt like we were bouldering, only on a rope. We would literally have to campus the start as there was no rock to put your feet on, so the beta was basically do a pull up then get your feel to where your hands are. Then followed a series of strenuous moves traversing to right. We would get completely horizontal and our bodies would strain to keep tension. A long throw to a good hold at the third bolt would give us a quick shake. Then came the business. The first three bolts felt hard, but the next three felt imposible. We would normally go bolt-to-bolt, sometimes linking two bolts together, then hanging on draws to conserve energy so we could keep working the route. On our third day, Josh started linking more sections together. He was looking real strong but I was failing to make the same links as him. Even on days we were not out working on the route we would be in the gym trying to simulate crux moves and putting work in on the hangborad using similar holds to what the route had.
Our fourth day on the route (spread out over six weeks or so), Josh was ready to attempt a send go. He climbed through the first three bolts executing his beta smoothly, yet grunting loudly like a female tennis player going for the match point . He then started the next section of hard climbing and his body swayed out a few times, only for him to pull it back tight to the wall. He got through the sixth draw. He had never made it that far without falling; it was truly some amazing climbing to that point. He had a few more bolts of easier climbing with one crux left to get through, which could spit you off before you knew it was happening. Josh was breathing and grunting hard but managed to pull through and send his first 13a. He was psyched and I was psyched for him.
Now it was my turn. I was determined to keep the “send train” going. I psyched myself up and pulled hard off the ground, extremely determined. I heel hooked, pulled hard, did my best Ondra scream, and….fell at the third bolt. “You can lower.” I said.
“Ya man, rest a bit and give it another go,” Josh said. I rested 20 minutes or so, then got psyched, heel hooked, pulled hard, did my best Ondra scream, and….fell again. This time lower than before. Was this route even possible for me? (I even posted later on Mountain Project, asking if there were any climbers who were 200 lbs and could climb 5.13). Certainly this experience was nowhere near as crushing as getting cut from my junior team or failing the comp math exam. However, it did make me question if I could even climb 13a at Shelf.
In the heat of each moment, I thought these parts of my life were ending. No more hockey. No more math. No 13a. However, a long process followed each.
A couple of years after I was cut from my junior hockey team and out of the USHL, I found myself back in the league, and in a shootout against my old team. I sniped one over the glove of the opposing goalie and smiled as I skated by Green Bay’s bench, looked at the coach, and thought “How do you like me now?” I went on to play a couple years of college hockey before playing a couple more years pro in San Jose’s minor league system.
After I actually applied to be a fireman, I decided I would attempt the comp exam again. I studied for another year, and eventually passed and earned my M.S. in applied mathematics. Some of the most beautiful things I have seen in my life have come from math, and I am glad to have gone through the journey. I am pretty sure God was sitting around with his drinking buddies and said something like “Hold my beer, (waves hands around in the air like something mysterious is happening) let’s see what happens when they figure this one out” when he hid away what is now known as Euler’s Identity.
A year after Josh sent My Generation I decided to start trying it again. This time I was stronger and had much more climbing experience. It turned out to be my first 13a.
I have had multiple people ask me, “I want to climb 5.12, what should I do?” Whatever grade/route you want to eventually climb, I will tell you the secret: try. You will probably fail at first. You may try and try and fail and fail. Your friends may send your project before you. Try again. Do not be afraid of failure. Seek it out. I recently heard a pro climber talking about his project he just sent saying something like, “It only took me 18 tries, so it went down pretty quick.” I am not saying you have to go and try your project 18 times. You can certainly go out for a day of climbing and climb things well within your limit and there is nothing wrong with that, but that is not my favorite “flavor.”
I believe the most rewarding things in my life were things I have failed at one point or another. I learned then to enjoy the process of dealing with failure. If you want to climb at your limit you will need to learn to enjoy the process of dealing with failure. Although I did not realize it, my past was grooming me exactly for this: I was destined to become a redpoint climber.
After sending My Generation. Bad picture, happy moment.