Eleven months and seven days ago I did something unwise that prevented me from doing what I left “default” life to do. Life in a boot meant time for reflection, and it was fairly easy to assess what went wrong on Saigon Direct that put me on crutches for 6 weeks.
Yesterday I did something that is preventing me from taking advantage of the best conditions we’ve had since we arrived in the south. In fact, the weather is just getting more and more sendy as the days go by, but I’m worried that I won’t be climbing anything for a while.
On Tuesday, Vikki, Niko, Katie, Walker, Hammie, Greg and I all went to the Apartment Boulders so that Niko and I could finish up a cool little compression problem that we’d tried a few days before. Walker was just in town from Sweden, and we hadn’t climbed together in about 6 years. Greg is just another local crusher, the kind you hate because they’re stronger than you and (seemingly) care about half as much. I was psyched. It was cold, the compression thing was going down for sure, and then there was the gorgeous creekside boulder that we were going to finally bring enough pads to try.
So there we are, early afternoon, at the boulders, crisp temps, and I’m warming up. One must temper the psyche and make sure the muscles are doing their chemical reactions properly, or else one gets the flash-pump, the barfies, and the confidence-sap that goes with it. The warmup slabs are good for getting moving, building trust in your shoe rubber…but what of the core, the upper body? What about dynamic muscular engagement, engrams, momentum? Gravity changes day to day, one never can be too sure how a flying body is going to react.
Hammie’s playing an imaginary game using wizard sticks and magic with Vikki, Walker is climbing for the first time in months and having a ball, Katie is in shut-down mode because it’s cold and her atoms have slowed down to a crawl, Niko is just being his chill little self, and Greg’s not there yet. I’m thinking, “Alright boy, it’s try-hard time pretty soon. You know the name of the game, the more warmups the better, and let’s add some swing to it this time!” So off I go to the other little boulder around the corner, feet crammed into climbing shoes and chalk bag in hand.
I climb three jugs to the top, then walk back to the ground. I need something spicier. I spy with my little eye a hold that pulls to the side: a sidepull! “How cool,” I think, “I’ll cross left hand to it, twist my right hip in while bringing my left foot up to the starting hold, and unwind my right arm to that big hold up there. Controlled dynamics are the best!” And with nothing but innocence and grace, I pull onto the boulder and execute the aforementioned cross.
Things are going really well at this point. My split tips have healed, my elbow and I have come to an understanding, there’s a great crew at this gorgeous spot where we’re catching the last of the Fall Colors, and the agenda includes some awesome stone. The hold I’ve just crossed to is a really cool little sideways finger-jug, a piece of orange-pink patina with the sort of texture that all holds should be envious of. “This hold is cool,” thought I, “it reminds me a little of the holds in Santa Barbara.” This thought was ominous.
“I just love movement,” is what I wasn’t thinking, as I heard and felt the really cool hold with really cool texture evaporate in my hand. “There’s nothing like finding a good warmup boulder with big, solid holds that you can use to just experiment with your own body mechanics without any worry about falling or making a wrong move,” is what I might have been thinking if I weren’t rocketing backward through the air toward a landing of unknown character, the former sidepull moving faster than it has in millenia. “Warming up on a climb like this is one of the best ways to build confidence for the rest of the climbing day,” would have been a possible thought, except that the climb had broken and sent me downward like a re-entry craft sans parachute.
As all of these thoughts weren’t passing through my head, I allowed an audible “FU-H-H” to escape my lips the instant before impact with the ground turned my incipient profanity into a sound you might attribute to Biz Markie. The split second that followed involved only the sensation of being spanked way too hard with a blunt object. When everything came to a rest, I was on my back with my head downhill, about 6 feet in altitude below a mark on the boulder that bore tribute to the existence of the Hold of Broken Promises. Taking quick stock of my corporeal form, I determined that nothing life-threatening had happened, but that something painful indeed had.
Thankfully, I had missed all of the uneven rocks that might’ve torn my pelvic calcium apart. Still, the ground at this point was hard dirt, and I would not be shocked to pick up a copy of Archaeology Digest in 50 years’ time and see an article about the mystery crater in Southern Tennessee. I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and rejoined the group near the warmup slabs.
I was still psyched, mind you, and nobody else had seen or heard anything. I mentioned that I’d broken a hold and also my ass, but as I could sense no major injury, I kept climbing. Many moves hurt, particularly core-intensive ones, but we all climbed The Brain and it was awesome. Niko and I both fell at the end of our compression climb, which is great because we’ll both do it next time we try it.
Then it was nighttime, and Vikki, Greg, and I were going to do a power workout in his apartment. I could do nothing that didn’t hurt my tailbone in some way. Soon, only a soft, soft couch was painless. Standing up became a chore. Right before bed, I was standing near my bag of clothes when Vikki called my name. I turned my upper body and slightly twisted my leg in its socket (a totally normal thing to do in day-to-day life, not like circus freak twisting or anything), and a bolt of pain shot up my spine and I even felt it in my sternum. Today does not feel much better, as I shift in my seat in the clubhouse to keep Left cheek and Right cheek from falling asleep.
Did I break my tailbone or just bruise it? I can’t know for sure (and my deductible is too high to afford a curiosity X-ray), and either way I’ll be hobbling around like a cowboy fresh in town for a little bit. But this is the second time this trip that I’ve landed on bare ground and gotten hurt. So what have I learned?
Well, the last time around I learned that confidence isn’t the only ingredient in highballing success. Even though my spotter and I had a plan for when and where the pads would be moved underneath Saigon Direct, shit can still happen. If we had just opened up the other pads we had there that day, I would have most likely landed on at least one of them, which would’ve saved my heel. This lesson was applied in spades in Squamish this summer, and I have two and a half months of highballing without a single scratch to show for it.
This time around, I re-learned the fact that holds can and do break. When climbing on classic sloper problems at high-traffic areas, you can rest assured that things are probably solid. Millipede will not suffer a breakage any time soon. Yet fragile patina resembling the chossiest place I’ve ever climbed might indeed break, despite looking solid. In fact, friable rock is one of the biggest objective dangers in rock climbing. So what can be done about friable rock? The short answer is nothing.
I know some of you are thinking that I should’ve had a pad under me, and that I’m an idiot for climbing without spotters. It is true that if there had been a pad where I landed I would not have broken my ass. However, if I had brought a pad with me, I likely would have missed it anyway. A pad is not the only answer. I should have listened to my gut, which told me the hold was likely not of the highest quality, and just skipped it instead of trying to do a cool eliminate with an awesome cross-unwind sequence. Then again, how many people pull on questionable holds all the time and escape unscathed? I was trusting the fact that it hadn’t rained, and my years of experience pulling on Santa Barbara rock which is ALWAYS questionable.
I’m not going to stop warming up without a pad. I don’t mean to be defiant, I’m just being realistic. Every single other time I’ve done this sort of warm-up, I’ve been more than fine. I’ve been climbing long enough to know when I might fall, and to down-climb before that happens. What I can promise is that the next time I’m in front of a boulder like this, I will avoid the holds that are questionable.
It’s a Catch-22, innit? If we want to climb things, there will always be a risk that, in doing so, we will hurt ourselves in such a way that would prevent climbing. Breaking holds is something that everyone will encounter if they climb for long enough, no matter what sub-genre of climbing they choose. Ice climbing, for example, is nearly impossible to do without breaking off parts of the climb. Then again, people sprain ankles wearing high heels, get hit by foul balls in baseball stadiums, get struck crossing the road, get mugged in broad daylight. Everything is full of risk. The question each person must answer is what level of what risks are acceptable to them?
For my part, I accept the risk that if I warm-up without a pad, there is a very small chance that I’ll fall and get hurt. I like not having a pad because I can then spend ten minutes exploring the area and enjoying some peace and solitude before the busy day of climbing and filming/photographing starts. I like not having a pad because I will do more warming up if I just focus on doing moves rather than “problems.” The risk that I will fall is very slim, and if I do fall, the risk of serious injury is also very slim, and in my mind, it is an acceptable risk.
Hopefully, I am back in the climbing game before too many of these perfect days pass. In the meantime, I’ll be reflecting on file hierarchies, as I take this opportunity to organize all of the photos and footage we’ve amassed in our 19 months on the road.