Sunny St. George Part I: Breakin’ The Law

On rare occasions I take a short hiatus from thinking about training, writing about training, and training, to actually go rock climbing.  Over the New Year’s Holiday the family and I headed west to the warm climes of St. George, Utah for a week of climbing.  St George is home to a vast array of rock climbing possibilities, from the Grade VI Big Wall free and Aid climbs of Zion, to the bouldering of Moe’s Valley, and everything in between.  The guidebook lists more than 40 distinct crags, and the area hosts a wide variety of different rock types, including sculpted sandstone, basalt, Volcanic tuff, conglomerate, and some of the best limestone in the US.

Sunny steep stone in the capitol of Utah's Dixie.  Photo Dan Brayack.

Sunny steep stone in the capital of Utah’s Dixie.   Fencing with Tortuga, 5.12a, at The Turtle Wall.  Photo Dan Brayack.

My primary objective for the trip was a power endurance route called “Breakin’ the Law“, which climbs out the upper of two shallow limestone caves at the Black & Tan crag.  The route was the vision of Salt Lake hardman and fellow training advocate Jeff Pedersen.  However, a young Dave Graham nabbed the first free ascent, and the name is reminiscent of the confessionary “I Am a Bad Man” (now known simply as Badman), so-named by JB Tribout after his friend Alan Watts told him, ‘you can have any route [at Smith Rock] except that one’.

The Black and Tan Wall.  Breakin' the Law climbs out the subtle dihedrdal in the left side of the higher cave.

The Black and Tan Wall. Breakin’ the Law climbs out the subtle dihedral in the left side of the higher cave.

The route begins with big moves up a steep wall to reach the roof of the cave.  The crux is climbing out to the lip of the cave, then turning the lip to get established on the headwall. It would be quite a challenge for me to send a .14b in a week, but I’d heard from various accounts that the line was soft.  However, just before we set out for Utah I talked with a prominent, much-stronger-than-me climber, who assured me the route was quite hard for shorter folks.  Apparently tall climbers can get a big stem/dropknee that essentially eliminates the first, harder crux.  So as we left Colorado I was apprehensive and anxious to find out for myself.

Breakin' the Law: Midway through the first crux, a difficult traverse to the lip of the cave.  Photo Dan Brayack.

Breakin’ the Law: Midway through the first crux, a difficult traverse to the lip of the cave. Photo Dan Brayack.

We planned to split up the long drive with a break in Grand Junction for lunch and a hike out to Independence Monument.  I avoid aerobic exercise when I’m in performance climbing mode, but I like to go on “brisk walks” at least every rest day.  It helps keep my metabolism humming (for the purpose of weight management), and it allows an opportunity to clear my head.  The trail was snowy and muddy in places, but it was still a fun hike.  I’ve climbed Otto’s Route at least three times that I can remember, and I suspect I’ll climb it again with Logan some time in the next decade.

Hiking to Independence Monument outside Grand Junction, CO.

Logan and I on the hike to Independence Monument, outside Grand Junction, CO.

We spent the night in a flea-bag motel in fabulous Salina, Utah, then continued toward St. George the next day, making a beeline for Black & Tan.  We met my friends Dan Brayack and Lena Moinova at the crag, who happened to be on vacation as well.  Dan is a fellow Trango team-mate, and an outstanding climbing photographer.  A hefty chunk of the photos in The Rock Climber’s Training Manual were generously provided by Dan. Some of Dan’s images are peppered throughout this post, or you can check out his amazing gallery here. 

After warming up , I got on my presumed project.  The climbing starts out with fun, huge spans between large holds.  There’s a big jug at the crook of the roof, then the first crux comes traversing from that jug to the lip of the cave.  You can either shuffle or cross between several holds, but you end up with a good incut crimp and a tufa pinch.  Depending on your sequence you can either dyno into a big iron cross, and then struggle to climb out of it, or you can make a wild lunge to a flat edge at the lip.  I think this is where the drop knee would be used if you were tall enough, allowing either sequence to go statically.  Since I was not able to use the dropknee, I tried the two alternatives and settled on the Iron Cross solution. 

Struggling to climb out of the Iron Cross on Breakin the Law. Photo Dan Brayack

Struggling to climb out of the Iron Cross on Breakin’ the Law. Photo Dan Brayack

Once at the lip, a really hard crank off a thin, sharp crimp gets you onto the slab.  I struggled quite a bit with this move, perhaps because I was tired from working the lower crux.  I figured this would end up being the redpoint crux but I was too exhausted to really work it.  I moved on to the headwall, which was mostly fun, technical face climbing, but hosted one sinister move in which you have to high-step your right foot onto a polished block that slopes away at a 45-degree angle.  There is a faint bit of patina on this block that allows you to toe-in a bit, which is key since you next have to reach for an over-head undercling, using this dire foothold to push against.

Beginning the second crux, a heinous crank to gain the headwall.  Photo Dan Brayack.

Beginning the second crux, a heinous crank to gain the headwall. Photo Dan Brayack.

At the end of the day I had all the moves worked out.  Typically if I can do all the moves, I can send, but I had no idea if the moves would come together in the four climbing days remaining. The second crux requires a pretty hard crank after a long series of hard moves, and that is something I struggle with.

"Rest Day" hike to the West Rim of Zion Canyon.

“Rest Day” hike to the West Rim of Zion Canyon.

The limestone surrounding St. George is much more monolithic than the stone at most US limestone crags.  That means it’s not very featured, and generally quite sharp.  There are the odd pockets, but most of the climbing is on small edges.  The result is that the climbing tends to be less steep at any given grade than you might encounter at other, more featured limestone crags like Rifle, or the Wyoming crags.  This is great for technicians like me, and these crags really shine in the 5.12+ and up range.  Below that, the climbing often isn’t all that fun; it’s certainly not the type of climbing you want to do on vacation.  Fortunately St George is all about variety, and there really is something for everyone.

Jumanji is one of the better limestone 5.12a's in the area.  It's a fine route, but its sharp, polished, and so not particularly fun by holiday standards.  Photo Dan Brayack.

Jumanji is one of the better limestone 5.12a’s in the area. It’s a fine route, but its sharp, polished, and so not particularly fun by holiday standards. Photo Dan Brayack.

With this in mind, we opted to experiment with some different warmup crags over the next few days.  The notorious Chuckwalla Wall is often derided by serious climbers, but I really enjoy climbing there.  It’s by no means a wilderness setting, but the routes are just plain fun, and the approach takes about 90 seconds, which is key for climbers with kids.  The cliff is stacked with 30+ classic sandstone jug hauls from 5.9 to 5.12, and they make for great warmups and fun all around.  For the next two crag days we started at Chuckwalla, then after my last warmup we hopped in the car and raced down Highway 91 to Black & Tan, slightly frantic to get on my project before my warmup had faded (note: it took us about 50 minutes to get from crag to crag, approaches included; this turned out to be quick enough that I never lost my warmup.)

Unwinding from the Iron Cross.  Photo Dan Brayack.

Unwinding from the Iron Cross. Photo Dan Brayack.

I made good progress on the second day, primarily refining my foot sequences, and rehearsing the big dyno into the Iron Cross at the lip.  I was able to do the crank onto the headwall much more consistently, and on my second go I managed a 1-hang, which is always a nice milestone, but certainly no guarantee of future success.  We celebrated New Year’s Eve by watching Logan’s Strawberry Shortcake DVD 4 or 5 times in a row and hitting the sack at 11pm.

Spotting Logan while while hiking near the Chuckawalla Wall on New Year's Day.

Spotting Logan while hiking near the Chuckwalla Wall on New Year’s Day.

On our third climbing day we revisited Chuckwalla, then hightailed it to Black & Tan.  My last warmup route felt really soft; either that or I was just feeling really strong.  We got the kids situated (i.e., turned on the Ipad), rigged the rope, and I started up.  Often I have a tendency to sprint on short power endurance climbs like this.  Each of the crux sections involve careful foot placements and subtle pressing to stay on the wall.  Perhaps since I didn’t know the moves super well, I took my time and made sure I did every move correctly, following Alex Lowe’s adage to ‘never move up on a bad [ice tool] placement’.  I expected to pump out at any moment, but I just kept motoring, going from one move to the next until I was on the headwall.  After a nice long shake I hiked up the headwall to the chains.

Logan and me at Black & Tan.

Logan and me at Black & Tan.

The total effort took 5 burns over three days.  I think the route is comparable in difficulty to Mission Overdrive in Clear Creek (which took me 6 goes over 3 days), which is to say its a hard 14a or easy 14b, without the stem/dropknee.  I’m inclined to go with b 🙂  I’ve been crushing the campus board lately and I believe my power has reached a new level.  Occasionally periodization doesn’t work out quite like you hope, but this time I think the timing of my fitness was perfect for the characteristics of Breakin’ the Law.

To celebrate, we headed to Kelly’s Rock (named for my old friend Kelly Oldrid) and climbed “K-8”, ‘one of the best 5.11s in Utah’, according to the guidebook.  The climb includes two exciting roof pulls and some of the most amazing jugs I’ve ever seen.  Certainly a worthy line and easily the best limestone 5.11 I climbed that week. 

Tune in next week for Sunny St. George Part II!

Celebratory Double Meat with Everything (hold the cheese), add whole grilled onion and chili peppers, from In N' Out Burger. Definitely not on the diet plan but well worth it.

Celebratory Double Meat with Everything (hold the cheese), add whole grilled onion and chili peppers, from In N’ Out Burger. Definitely not on the diet plan but well worth it.

Logan stoked at In N' Out.  His new favorite food is Chocolate Milk Shakes.

Logan stoked at In N’ Out. His new favorite food is Chocolate Milk Shakes.

Roped Bouldering in Cowboy Country

Logan enjoying the Fall foliage along the Loop Road

Logan enjoying the Fall foliage along the Loop Road

We recently spent a few days in Wyoming to take advantage of the last week of Kate’s maternity leave. Sinks and Wild Iris are among our favorite crags.  I can’t ever recall having a bad day at Wild Iris.  Even when I get bouted by a project there (which happens often enough), the warmup climbs are so fun and the setting so magnificent its hard to leave the crag without a smile.

The weather on our trip turned out to be a bit schizophrenic, varying from highs in the 80’s to snow and a high of 40 only a few days later.  This kept us bouncing from crag to crag in search of bearable conditions, but we were able to spend a gorgeous day at Wild Iris and a few at Sinks Canyon. This was our first serious climbing trip with two kids, so we weren’t sure how things would go.

Sending The Urchin, 5.13a

Sending The Urchin, 5.13a

We started at the Killer Cave, and I managed to climb a number of great routes, including a pair of classic 5.13s.  I attempted an onsight of The Urchin, a short, gymnastic roof climb right at the top of the approach trail.  I fumbled the roof sequence, which was probably a blessing because I doubt I could have kept it together on the tricky finishing slab.  I also sent Virga, a super fun, super reachy .13c or d (d in my experience, at 5’7″).  Quite a fine effort back in the day by the frequently underestimated Paul Piana.  Virga climbs some of the best limestone I’ve seen in America, but it only lasts for about 20 feet, and the winch start is literally as long as the route itself.  Still, the climbing is super fun and definitely worth doing if you like dynamic pulls between sinker two-finger pockets. Pretty much every move on the route is burly, but the moves are so big that its over in a flash. 

One of the big moves on Virga, locking-off a sidepull almost to my knee!
One of the big moves on Virga, locking-off a sidepull nearly to my knee!

After a couple of days dragging 60 pounds of Logan-plus-climbing-gear up the steep slog to the Killer Cave, I wanted convenience.  I’ve climbed quite a bit at Wild Iris, but I had never been to the OK Corral, which is located almost on top of the car-camping area.  The cliff is about 100-feet from the road, making it the perfect choice for weary parents. 

I had heard that the rock at the OK Corral wasn’t as good as that at the rest of the Iris.  I couldn’t tell; it was way better than any other limestone I’ve climbed in the last year! I set out with two goals for the day, first to tick ten routes, a major challenge with kids in tow, and second, to try to send the elusive “White Buffalo”, an enourmous boulder with a 3-bolt mini-route on its Southeast face.  The route is given 5.13d/V11, which is a good indication of the way things are graded at Wild Iris.  At any given grade you should expect to have to crank much harder moves than you usually would.  This is presumably because the routes are often quite short, but I think it’s as much an indication of the quality of climbers that have graced the Lander community through the years. 

The Rock-over move

The Rock-over move

Based on the forecast it seemed unlikely I would get another day at Wild Iris, so I would have to give it my best shot to send the line that day.  I took my time getting warmed up, climbing a number of really fun but never trivial warmups.  White Buffalo gets sun most of the day, so I kept running between the main wall and the boulder to check the shade status.  It seemed like the sun was hardly moving at all, so I kept dragging out my warmup waiting for shade.  My final warmup climb was a brilliant “12a” buttress called “Give My Love to Rose”.  It had quite a burly mono crank on it, and to be honest it felt like about a 12c effort to get up the thing onsight…so its probably soft by Wild Iris standards!

At the slopy 1-pad edge

At the slopy 1-pad edge

Around 4pm White Buffalo finally went into the shade, so I jumped on it.  The route overhangs maybe 5 or 10 degrees, and follows tiny imperfections up an otherwise impeccable wall.  The stone is so smooth it looks more like the polished quartzite of Arapiles than Bighorn Dolomite.  The route starts out easily, but quickly gets down to business with a huge rock-over move to a diagonal, left-hand 1/4″ crimp. The crux is standing up with this left hand and moving to a pad-and-a-half-deep four-finger pocket. Its possible to reach this pocket with either hand, either with a huge windmill move with the right hand, or by using a half-pad mono sidepull for the right hand and then bumping the left hand to the pocket.  I experimented with both options for a while but couldn’t manage either.  After 15 minutes or so I moved on to the upper panel.  Relative to the crux, the finish is not too bad, but none of the holds are positive and the feet are small, so each move feels desparate and inscure.  From the 4-finger pocket, a slopy, 1-pad edge allows a clip, then a a pair of 3 finger pockets and a big high-step lead to a committing huck to the lip of the boulder.

Gunning for the lip of the boulder
Gunning for the lip of the boulder

I was a bit demoralized, having failed to do the crux move at all on my first go, but with the sun beginning to set conditions were improving rapidly.  I rested for 45-minutes, trying to cool off my skin, and debating which hand sequence I should use at the crux. Heading up a route without a clear plan leads to hesitation, and on routes like this, hesitation almost always results in failure. Certain routes, like White Buffalo, are best climbed with momentum, barreling onward, leaving the climber no time to contemplate his unlikely position, clinging spider-like to a sheet of glass. The windmill beta was less tenuous, but low percentage.  I commited to trying the mono beta and tied on for my second go.  The natives were getting restless for dinner, so it was doubtful I would get a third try.

I climbed smoothly up to the rock-over move, and latched the left-hand crimp. The rock was much cooler and the tiny edge now felt much better. I carefully stood up, shifted my hips slightly to the left, and delicately placed my finger into the mono sidepull. I popped my left hand to the four-finger pocket and exhaled. After a quick dab of chalk, I reached the sloping edge, clipped, and clawed my way to the high pockets.  I brought up my feet, gunned for the lip, and mantled over the top of the boulder.

Anderson Climbing Team Version 3.0, in the Tetons

Rest Day in the Tetons with Anderson Climbing Team Version 3.0

On A Mission

I’m heading out to Smith Rock in a few days for a two-week trip. The climbing at Smith is extremely thin and technical — and difficult to prepare for. I believe strongly in taining and I generally feel that using indoor tools is superior to “just climbing” outside (for building strength, power, and endurance). That said, indoor training is far from ideal for developing or polishing technique. For highly technique-dependent climbing, like that at Smith, some amount of outdoor skill practice is essential. Outdoor training can also help prepare your finger skin if its done wisely (in moderation).

To Bolt or Not To Be, 5.14a, Smith Rock

To Bolt or Not To Be, 5.14a, Smith Rock

In 2008 I spent two weeks at Smith working and sending To Bolt or Not To Be, perhaps the most technical single-pitch climb in America. My training strategy for that season was pretty unusual, but very effective. I lengthened my Base-Fitness Phase by adding more ARC workouts, and I ordered a bunch of really tiny crimps to add to the Lazy H. I did a standard Strength Phase (but I added a thin, closed-crimp grip to my hangboard routine). After 8 hangboard workouts I immediately transitioned to outdoor climbing 2 days per week (normally I would have a 2-4 week transition period of bouldering and/or campusing). I climbed in the Lazy H a third day each week, doing thin, power-endurance linked bouldering circuits.

The key to this approach was selecting an appropriate “training route”. That season I worked Third Millenium at the Monastery, a barely overhanging, thin, technical, and sustained 5.13d. Ironically I didn’t send Third Millenium in 8 days of work (though I went on to send it later), but then went on to send To Bolt in just 7 days (you do the math on that!). Third Millenium was the perfect route; it got my footwork dialed, my lead head in order, and trained power-endurance on the right types of holds. The point being, if you want to utilize outdoor training to prepare for a goal route, the most effective way to do so is:

Third Millenium, 5.13d, The Monastery

Third Millenium, 5.13d, The Monastery

1. Pick the right training routes, those that are as-similar-as-possible to the route you are training for, in terms of steepness, hold type, continuity, commitment, and length.

2. Accept that the purpose of each day’s cragging is to train for your goal, not to send! This may mean cutting sessions short to avoid trashing your finger skin, to avoid too much fatigue, or to squeeze in a bit of indoor training at the end of each crag day.

In the pre-parenthood era of 2008 I had a lot more options, whereas now there are significant advantages to staying close to home. I decided the ideal training route this time around would be “Mission Overdirve”, a linkup of “Mission Impossible” and “Interstellar Overdrive” in Clear Creek Canyon. Mission Impossible was bolted by Jay Samuelson and immediately offered to the community as an open project. Dan Woods eventually came away with the FA, calling the line 5.14d and the hardest route he had ever climbed, even hard than Jaws II (5.15a at Rumney), opening with a V12 boulder, followed by pumpy climbing to a V11 finish.

Entering the hardest bit of the low crux.

Entering the hardest bit of the low crux.

Jonathan Siegrist actually tried the line first, but didn’t have time to commit to the full route. He established the Mission Overdrive link-up before heading overseas, calling the line 14a/b. This linkup climbs the opening “V12” boulder of MI before joining Interstellar (5.13d) for its notorious “V8” crux. The entire line is about 70 feet long and overhangs 10 feet. The first half is basically dead vertical, with super thin, slopey edges and invisible footholds. The climbing is super insecure and there are about 10 moves in a row where you can pop off at any point. The Interstellar crux is steeper, with very tiny crimps that are fortunately incut-enough to pull out on. The pivotal move is a huge lock-off from a half-pad crimp to reach a slopey finger slot. The route is perfect for me and a great training route for Smith.

I first tried the route last Saturday. I was able to do all the moves on the lower crux but I couldn’t see how I was going to link all those moves, or even let go to clip. By the time I reached the top I was too worked to make any progress on the Interstellar crux. Then on the second go I shocked myself by climbing most of the way through the low crux, ultimately stymied by a precarious clip. At that point I knew the line was do-able and I was committed. I spent some more time on the upper crux, then headed home for a campus session.

Nearing the end of the first crux.

Nearing the end of the first crux.

My next outdoor day was supposed to be the following Friday, but I couldn’t wait that long so I arranged for a short outdoor session on Monday evening followed by an indoor Power-Endurance session on Tuesday. Normally I would never climb two days in a row like that, so the key was to keep Monday’s effort short and minimize any wear on my skin. I did two 30-minute burns, with the goal of working out a viable clipping strategy for the low crux, and dialing the low-percentage upper crux, which comes with a substantial pump. I was able to achieve both goals, but at the end of the day there was still a 10-foot transition section that I hadn’t really worked out. The climbing is ~5.11+, easy enough to figure out on the fly, but just hard enough to get you pumped before the final boulder problem., so I wanted to have an efficient sequence worked out.

Friday was a dedicated outdoor day, so I took my time with a thorough warmup. I climbed a rad .12b face climb at the Monkey House called The Reward. This is a brilliant thin edging climb with a committing crux. If only it were twice as long! My first burn on Mission Overdive, I sent most of the way through the low crux, but botched a foot sequence and pumped off. I took the opportunity to work out the 11+ transition section, but then I was unable to do the Interstellar crux. The move is very precise and requires the perferct coordination of all four limbs. You need to move just high enough to reach the hold; any higher and your low hand will pop off. The high hand has to slide perfectly into a narrow slot, requiring a precise deadpoint. Both “footholds” are miniscule, and must be weighted just enough to complete the move but not so much that your feet slide off. After a few tries I was able to find the right timing.

Preparing to turn the roof.

Preparing to turn the roof.

I took a 45-minute break, and then tried again. This time I recalled my sequence for the first crux perfectly. There are many subtle foot shifts, so that was not a trivial feat. I was pumped, but not overwhelmingly so. The low crux ends at a decent left handhold, allowing a clip and a brief shake. Next the route tackles an intimidating roof with a really cool highstep and dyno to reach an awesome rest. I was able to recover completely at this rest, then I cruised up the 5.11+ section. At the high crux I was notably pumped, but there is a so-so shake just below, and I took my time here and got back what I could. My forearms felt powered-down, but I reckoned I could still bear down for a few moves, so I went for it. When you hit each move just right, this crux almost feels easy, and you can understand how this could be called V8. I got the finger slot, then a few more slopey pods to reach damp jugs and the anchor.

Overall the line is fantastic, hands-down my favorite route in Clear Creek Canyon. I’m really stoked to try the full Mission Impossible, but I think that will have to wait until I return from Smith. I’m not too sure about the grade; this is the fastest I’ve sent a 5.14, so based on that logic it seems unlikely that its 14b. On the other hand, I’m in great shape on paper, so who knows? I highly doubt the low crux is V12; I’ve never even tried an established V12, so I really have no clue, but I assume V12 is harder than that! I would say more like hard V10 or easy 11; and a realistic V9 for the Interstellar crux. The real challenge of the route is keeping it together over a large number of difficult sequences.

The end of the Interstellar crux.

The end of the Interstellar crux.

I think it goes to show how strengths and weaknesses can affect grades. Ideally these factors should be accounted for when assigning a grade but its not simple to extrapolate and so these factors often have a big effect. There is a tendency to assume that certain climbers have an absolute understanding of the grade scale (Adam Ondra, for example) but it really doesn’t work that way. The style of route and the climber’s tastes are critical to their perception of a route’s difficulty. The bottom line is, any time you find a sequence that is hard for you, take it as an opportunity to improve, regardless of the grade.  If you find something feels easy, enjoy it!  The pendulum will swing back the other way soon enough.

I’m off to Smith on Thursday, with pretty thick skin, decent footwork, and high confidence. I’ll be teaching a footwork clinic (8:30am at Redpoint Climber’s Supply) and giving a slideshow (8:30pm), both on Saturday April 20th. Come out and say hi if you’re in the area.