Projecting My First 12a

Two weeks ago I finally did it – I redpointed my first 12a.

In layman’s terms, that means I climbed a route rated 5.12a, on lead, without resting on the rope or taking a fall, in a single go.

I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but seriously.. this is not something I believed I could do.

For those of you who don’t climb, I could at this point write a long-winded explanation of the Yosemite Decimal System, its history, and its use today, but you’d get bored and so would I, so if you’re truly interested, just Google it. The short story is that sending a 12a is similar to earning your black belt in Karate, but for climbing. While it’s definitely not the hardest grade in climbing (that would be 5.15c currently), it’s a significant achievement that few folks who try climbing ever attain. For me it’s been somewhat of a Holy Grail – something I’ve always aspired to, yet just out of reach. Something I never thought I would actually accomplish, but rather a signpost in the direction you’d like to go.

I started climbing thirteen years ago, in early 2004, as a fun new hobby. I wouldn’t say that my inherent finger strength was particularly good or that I was particularly fit when I started, so my progress as a climber has not been very fast – in fact I know several climbers who have reached 12a in a third of the time. However, I do have one advantage: I like climbing. In fact I would say that I’m pretty passionate about it.

That helped me stick with it as a sport. But to be honest, for the last couple years, my progress in sport climbing had stalled out. I looked it up – I sent my first 5.11b on March 11th, 2011. I’ve redpointed a couple other routes rated 11b since then, but for five years, that was my highest grade sent. I’m not really sure why – maybe I just assumed that I wasn’t strong enough to send an 11c? Maybe I was just too afraid to even try? I just reviewed my climbing log today, and somehow, I managed to get on only two routes harder than 5.11b for five years. Yikes.

But last year, I don’t know, something changed. Maybe it was the fact that I started a new training plan the season before. Or maybe I just got lucky. I spent a long weekend climbing in Squamish with my two most awesome climbing partners, Rachel and Sarah. They were working really hard on an 11d called Rug Munchers, a short overhanging climb with powerful, bold moves and difficult clips that really tests the limits of your power endurance. Your forearms end up on fire by the end of the climb. It’s tough.

But my friends were all working it in earnest. Really figuring out the moves and how best to clip the rope at each bolt while holding on with only one hand. And as much as I assumed I could never do it, I tried it anyway. And.. I didn’t do so hot. I made it maybe halfway up, on toprope. But even that outcome showed me that maybe it wasn’t quite so impossible as I had assumed. I also spent some time that weekend working on an 11c that Sarah was interested in, called Filth Infatuated.

I didn’t send that 11d that weekend, nor the 11c. But I did come back three weeks later with my girlfriend (now fiancée), and not only did I send Filth Infatuated on Saturday (my first 11c), on Sunday I ended up sending Rug Munchers as well! The moves seemed to flow smoothly like water in a stream, every movement calculated, visualized, and practiced beforehand. In fact, when I clipped the chains at the top of the route, I almost felt like it had been too easy – like I was cheating or something. But that’s how it should feel when you’ve truly mastered a route.

The key to my success on that trip was the magic of projecting. Projecting is climber-speak for working the same route over and over, learning its holds, moves, and clipping positions, and practicing it until you can execute it in your sleep. While I only took two burns on Rug Munchers per day on my first trip, I watched several of my friends take turns on it, and in doing so, I learned not only the correct holds to use but the body positions, sequences, and clipping positions that make the climb as easy as possible.

You see, a good climb is like a well-orchestrated dance. Your hands and feet work in concert with the twists and turns of your body, allowing you to flow upward with the minimum amount of effort required. While climbers might have a reputation for raw finger strength and bold fearlessness, it’s the vertical dance that really separates the good climbers from the great. The ability to balance properly and use your center of gravity to your advantage is infinitely more useful than raw strength. Advanced techniques require lots of focus and lots of practice. But learning these techniques is essential to any budding climber’s progress.

This summer, I made a pact with my friend Rachel to project a 12a named Rainy Day Woman on the World Wall at Exit 32 / Little Si. Rachel has Wednesday afternoons off, and although I typically work a standard 9-5 job, I foolishly agreed to take Wednesday afternoons off in June and July this year in order to work on this specific climb. This plan was foolish not necessarily because of the vacation time I’d need to use, but because I had no reason to believe that sending the route was even possible for me – especially considering that I’ve only climbed one 11d and two 11cs in my entire climbing career. So this climb was likely to be harder than anything I’d ever even tried before. But I didn’t care – I decided what was important was putting in the work, and actually projecting something difficult, for once, and if I send, then that’s icing on the cake. So we started heading out to the wall in early June to work on it.

Let me pause here to tell you a little bit about the route. The first thing you should know is that it’s a monster of a route – 80 feet of overhanging volcanic serpentine rock. It’s neatly divided into three sections; the first 30 feet culminates in an awkward bulge, that is quite taxing and cruxy regardless if you go left, right, or straight up and over it. But completing this section earns you an amazing ledge that you could take a nap on – or simply get your heart rate under control. After that, there is another 30 feet of sustained, slightly overhanging, pumpy climbing on mostly good holds, aside from one tricky clip halfway through. Finally, after a pretty decent rest position on some bomber jugs, the last 20 feet starts with a very difficult crux move followed by taxing, powerful moves that really test your power endurance until you reach the chains at the top.

It’s hard to describe the crux move exactly, but it involves a very high, barely feasible crimper for your left hand and then moving your feet onto quite precarious footholds before pushing off your right foot in order to reach the next right hand, all while above your last bolt and trying to pretend you’re not afraid to fall. At least when I do it. Even while fully rested, the move is not easy. After that it’s still a struggle to get into position for the clip, and the next move to the next bolt requires high feet and a long stretch with your left hand into a V-shaped notch in the crack, thumbs down. The final moves to the chains wouldn’t be so bad except you’re traversing right on mostly non-existent footholds and by now you’re probably pumped out of your mind.

Suffice to say, this is a very hard route with hundreds of moves, each of which must be executed flawlessly in order to save enough strength for the crux and not pump out before the chains.

Our first day out was not particularly impressive. In fact, neither of us could finish the route on lead – as I said there is one move that starts the high crux that is very difficult, even to the point of being cryptic and inscrutable the first time you encounter it. We refused to feel defeated though – we were still able to practice the lower two-thirds of the route, which we still needed plenty of practice on.

On our second Wednesday out, we managed to clip one more bolt, past the crux move, but still didn’t have the strength or the nerve to finish the route. Doubt of our eventual outcome still hung in the air as we departed.

The third Wednesday was a little better. Rachel finished the climb on lead, albeit bolt-to-bolt. Meanwhile, both of us were trying a few different things on the lower, bulgy crux, in order to determine the best and easiest possible path to the bomber ledge above. Things were going just.. okay.

By the fourth trip, it was my turn to lead the route again. We’d been switching lead duties so that the other could climb with the psychological safety of a toprope, focusing on the moves and not the fear of falling. I’m pretty sure I finished the climb on lead this time, though I might have pulled on some draws in the process. Embarrassing, I know. Oh, and I also fell right after the first bolt. Oops.

Our fifth Wednesday out was a bit of a breakthrough for me. Rachel couldn’t climb that day, so I asked our friend Samantha if she wanted to work on the project. To my surprise, she agreed, so we headed out there, and as the more experienced climber it was my responsibility to lead. I accidentally led the route clean up until the high crux at which point I chickened out on the crux move and asked for a take. But on my second burn on toprope, I actually climbed the whole thing without falling. Hot damn! Suddenly the send seemed not only possible, but actually within reach.

Two Saturdays ago, the three of us headed out to climb the route yet another time. Since we arrived earlier in the day, when we arrived at the wall we were surprised to find that it was in the sun – and it was a pretty hot day! Fortunately, by the time we had each warmed up on a 5.9 and both Rachel and Samantha took a burn on Rainy Day, the sun had moved enough to put the wall in the shade for my attempt.

The first section went swimmingly, aside from my extremely high heart rate after I pulled over the bulge. I literally spent five minutes breathing deeply on the ledge, trying to get my heart rate down. Excessive resting, you might say. The next section flowed pretty smoothly too, aside from one clip that has always given me trouble, because you’re clipping from either a bad side-pull on the left or a far-away right hand. So I skipped it until I was in a better position above and could clip it at my hip.

At this point I took another excessive rest in a relatively good position below the high crux. I found I could almost arm bar my right arm to my left while standing on really good feet. Cycle hands and repeat.

Once rested again, I started moving. There is a set of jugs by the clip before the crux move, but I’d learned previously that you don’t want to stall here – you have to keep moving. So without hesitation, I put my feet into position and threw my left hand up for the high crimper. As always, it was good, but not great. I strained to move my left foot under my center of gravity, and then pushed down on it to get high enough to grasp the next hold with my right. Surprisingly, it worked, and I made a couple more moves to get into position for the clip. Clipped.

The next move is a high right foot followed by a high left foot, while keeping hands on the same holds used to clip, and then standing up enough on the left foot to strain and reach into the crack high to the left, with my left hand. Somehow, this also worked, and I managed to clip the last bolt before the chains.

Only a five foot traverse up and to the right remained. Of course, my forearms were incredibly pumped at this point in time, so even though the last several handholds were jugs, I needed to stem off a corner to the left and cycle hands on the clipping jug to regain just a tiny bit of strength. Then, I made the moves necessary to reach the chains. It was a little ugly, as I was seeing red for the send and not thinking clearly due to the adrenaline running through my bloodstream, but I made it, and clipped the chains.

Boom. My first 12a.

Now that was a rather long-winded story, and it might even seem self-aggrandizing, but the point I’m trying to make is not that I’m an amazing climber or anything like that. As I said, I’m not particularly strong or skilled for someone who’s been climbing for thirteen years. My point is that, for a really long time, I had assumed that sending a climb at this grade was impossible for me. Like, literally, completely impossible. And I think this belief held me back for a long time. Projecting showed me that even something that seems impossible at first glance might be quite attainable if you keep at it, maintain a positive attitude, and put in the work.

Is there something you’ve always wanted to do in your life, but have always assumed is impossible? Is there a dream that you’re holding onto that you’ve never truly pursued because you don’t want to face the fear of failure? Maybe it’s not as impossible as you think. Maybe it’ more attainable than you realize. Is it possible that you could take small steps between where you are and where you want to be, put in the work, and succeed in the one thing your heart truly desires?

I think you can. But there’s only one way to know for sure – believe in yourself, get started, and put in the work.