Learning Curves

With my last final project slipped under my professor’s office door and my car packed up with camping and climbing gear, I left the realm of academia to enter the completely different world of the New River Gorge.  Instead of filling my brain with details of Duchenne muscular dystrophy and acute myeloid leukemia, I was thrust into a multitude of other learning curves: resting efficiently on long enduro routes, being friendly with strangers in attempt to trade belays, and, of course, car camping.

After primarily being a boulderer these past two years, I have successfully strayed away from these learning curves.  I have couch-surfed my way through trips with the luxury of a hot shower each night after climbing.  Hiking out to the boulders alone is no problem: there’s no delay in getting on the wall as the crash pad on my back is the only safety requirement.  Out here, it’s different.  The AAC campground provides a great starting point for my dirtbag curriculum.  Being close to town, supplies are never an issue and with the rafting adventure facility right down the road, snagging a shower every few days is totally feasible.  But I won’t pretend like I don’t totally suck at camping right now.  I’m slowly but surely figuring out my camp meals and cutting down on eating out, which adds up to be hella expensive.  The portopotties running out of toilet paper is a sure bet, and now four rolls of it sit in my trunk.  I’ve finally come up with some sort of organization for gear in my tiny car.  My sleeping schedule is in tune with the sun, turning in less than an hour after the sun sets and waking up to sunlight filling my car.

My first day here, I headed out to Summersville with Marina and her friend Daniel.  We warmed up and spent the rest of the day in the Coliseum with Marina and Daniel working on The Pod and me working on Apollo.  It was the perfect day.  There were a ton of other climbers to chit chat with and get to know in between burns, the breeze from the lake was heavenly, and I had a blast working through the moves of Apollo.

I had tried Apollo a couple of times last year, but had become too impatient to really project it.  I was frustrated by the fact that I did all of the moves on my first try on it, but felt like it would be completely impossible to link them all together.  I didn’t understand the point of projecting a route: why would I climb 75 feet of rock just to fall off of the crux at the top?!  My boulderer’s mindset got in the way of any progress, not understanding that projecting this route is not about any individual hard move, but rather about training my body to execute each move as efficiently as possible.

My first go on Apollo this year was flail-filled, bolt-to-bolt, pumped-out-of-my-mind beta sussing.  I didn’t even pull the crux.  I was a little upset when I got to the ground, but I’ve learned that this is part of the process for such a long route.  My only goal for my next attempt was to climb it a little bit better than my first.  And that I did.  Significantly better.  I still pumped out a couple of times and fell or had to take, but I figured out the crux move and climbed to the top of the route.  I rested for a good bit, then got on it again.  My goal for this attempt was to make a link at the first big move I had fallen on previously.  Not only did I make the link, but I fell going to the jug that if I had caught.. the climb would have been sent.  And that was the first time I realized I could climb this route.  Too exhausted to give it another good burn that day, I committed to coming back the next day.

The next morning, I headed out to the lake alone with a half hour drive and half hour approach to sort thoughts out in my head.  I was confident I could do Apollo but I knew it would be a battle.  I wanted to tell myself I could do it without being too cocky and blowing it.  After striking up conversation and sneaking my way into a warm-up rotation with a couple of guys from Philadelphia, I traded belays with another solo climber in the Coliseum.  On my first try of the day, I fell a couple of moves below my high point from the day before.  I worked out the upper moves and lowered down feeling pretty disappointed.  Not because I didn’t finish the climb, but because I felt pumped beyond belief.  There was no way I could do this thing… I was an idiot for thinking otherwise.  My belayer left the coliseum to drive back home and I was left alone with my thoughts in this massive cave.  I checked the time and decided that I should rest at least an hour before I tried the route again.

Turns out, it was 2 hours before I found another person to trade belays with.  During those 2 hours, I laid down underneath Apollo, slowly depumping.  As my arms gained back their strength, I gained back my confidence.  I ran through my last go in my head, picking out points that I could climb more efficiently, cutting out unnecessary rests, spending more time on other rests.  I had my plan and when I got back on, I executed.  I thrutched for the godsend jug I had fallen on the day before and shakily made my way to the top of the climb.  It felt fantastic to try so fucking hard.  I reached the anchors, and yelled down to my belayer that I was taking the victory whip.  I was too tired to be scared of the fall and gratefully let go of the wall to swing into the open air.

The final moves of Apollo.  Photo by Mike Delaney
The final moves of Apollo. Photo by Mike Delaney

That night, I crawled into the trunk of my car with a belly full of rice, baked beans, and beer and body covered in a layer of dried sweat.  I’m definitely towards the bottom of all of these learning curves, but I think I’m starting to get it down.