Looking forward to many years of climbing
Previous entries include part 2 on running and part 1 on winter activities.
Cathedral Peak delighted us. We climbed 650 feet to the granite gem in Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows as the divine views improved by the minute. My first big climb always stuck with me, including the last 50 feet where I got stuck.
My partner has already reached the top and I had to follow a vertical crack in the rock. How to do it, I had no idea. There were no handles or support points like I had used before. Eventually I realized I had to get into the crack, which felt painful. It was, but I did it anyway.
At the top, an even grander view of the mountainous horizon rewarded my buddy and me. The challenges we overcame to see it made victory especially sweet. This happy moment made me a climber for life.
At least that’s the plan. Although I recently turned 50, I still love the outdoors and share 50 lessons I learned along the way. This column, the third of five, focuses on climbing.
1. Safety first. Properly attach your harness. Check your partner’s knot and yours. To wear a helmet. These simple steps go a long way to ensuring safety. Yet climbers who don’t do them suffer injuries and deaths every year. Even Lynn Hill failed to complete her knot once which resulted in a bad fall. Respect the security measures and insist that your partner does the same. Exercise extreme caution when abseiling; most accidents occur during this downhill technique.
2. Use indoor gyms to climb more and better. Nothing beats the beauty and fun of climbing outdoors in places like Yosemite and Joshua Tree, but indoor gyms allow for year-round activity and nighttime activity. Those of us who have a job enjoy the obvious benefits. In addition, gyms offer classes for beginners and potential partners, including those with experience and equipment that novices lack. So even if outdoor climbing fulfills your dreams, indoor climbing can help you achieve them. It depends on pandemic conditions improving, of course.
3. Choose a good partner. I usually climb with people I know well and trust, like friends or relatives. But it’s also good to climb with new people who can help you improve and discover new destinations. When I climbed the eastern foothills of El Capitan (the easiest route on The Captain but a landmark climb for me), I benefited greatly from pairing up with a partner I met at Camp 4. I I’ve had nothing but good experiences when I’ve “dated” partners I’ve met online.
4. “Five fun” is the best ability level. Climbing doesn’t have to be too hard to enjoy. I started in Yosemite on moderate classics like Snake Dike, Nutcracker, and Bishop’s Terrace, which are between 5.6 and 5.8 in difficulty. I’ve hit 5.10 on occasion, but I always enjoy the moderate climbs the most, like The Eye and Double Cross at Joshua Tree and Corrugation Corner at Lovers Leap. Let Alex Honnold handle the cutting edge. Nobody has to prove anything to have a good time on the rock.
5. For those who don’t climb every day, don’t worry. A general physical condition will help you enjoy climbing when you can. Running, cycling, and other forms of aerobic exercise will keep you fit, which certainly helps. Upper body muscles also help, of course. Pull-ups are the easiest way to improve your abilities.
6. Time your outings to avoid the crowds. Rock climbing has become much more popular over the years. Showing up to a popular crag at noon on a Saturday will likely result in a long wait to climb. Try to go mid-week or during shoulder seasons. If you must go on prime time, arrive early.
7. If you think climbing provides an adrenaline rush, try steering. This means taking the pointed end of the rope, as they say, and climbing over established protection, placing gear as you go. A leader assumes a much greater risk of a serious fall and more responsibility for the success of the ascent than the follower or second climber. Not everyone is suitable for this, and many outdoor climbs have to be followed first. But when you’re ready, successfully tackling a tough route can make you feel like a rock climbing star. If you feel motivated to try, do your homework. Take a class, read a book, or learn from an experienced partner how to place protection and build anchors.
8. Buy good equipment, even if it’s expensive. Cams, which are reusable spring-loaded protective devices, cost up to $100 each, and a leader may need a dozen or more to protect a single location. They’re worth every penny when you’re exhausted above your anchor and need to jam one quickly into a crack. Don’t go cheap on the rope either. Get one 60 meters long, not 50 meters, as many climbs require extra length between anchors.
9. If you lead and protect a climb well, accept falling within the sport. To improve, a climber must push their limits, which means risking a fall. A top-rope climber (indoors for example) should have nothing to fear. Lead climbers have to accept greater risk, but should still fall safely if they prepare and react correctly. This is an area where I have room to improve, as I take down on average about one leader every five years. By contrast, Tommy Caldwell fell hundreds of times during his six-year quest to scale El Capitan’s Dawn Wall. Better to split these two extremes.
ten. Everyone likes to climb more if we are considerate of each other. This means reducing your noise, picking up your trash and helping those in need. It also helps to climb popular routes quickly so others can enjoy the route once you are done. This has the added benefit of allowing more climbing, as my friend Hans Florine advocates and has practiced countless times on his many record speed ascents.
Cathedral Peak keeps reminding me. After my 50th birthday, I teamed up with my cousin to climb it for the seventh time. After the pandemic restricted the park all summer, we enjoyed a gorgeous fall day.
When I reached the granite fissure that had puzzled me 26 years earlier, this time I knew how to place my hands and feet to scale it. But I also saw a ramp that allowed me to completely avoid the obstacle! Then we climbed nearby Eichorn Pinnacle (5.4) as a bonus.
I look forward to many more years on the rocks, and every time I see Cathedral Peak I am grateful to the majestic mountain for teaching me how to climb and how good climbing is.
Matt Johanson is the author of “Yosemite Adventures: 50 Spectacular Hikes, Climbs and Winter Treks” and “Sierra Summits: A Guide to 50 Peak Experiences in California’s Range of Light.”