I don’t want to talk about the process involved in climbing it. We all know that story: hiking pads alone, making progress, regressing, doubting and believing, and finally the unexpected send. It’s a story as archetypal as bouldering gets. Instead, I want to talk about the process of moving on from that send.
It’s common enough to have become cliché. After many sessions spread out over a year and a half. Not being able to link a single move in that first session. Struggling to learn the movement and the body positions. Giving up for a few months and returning when I felt stronger one day, I found myself on top of the boulder, more than a little surprised that it had finally gone down. I had flowed through the crux moves, holding the tiny intermediate crimp just right, turning my hip into the smear back-step perfectly, executing the huge fall-in cross with the right amount of momentum. After 9 or 10 sessions, all that work finally just clicked. I sent.
The best part was that this was MY boulder. A friend and I had found it a few months before I started trying it. I helped clean it, build the landing, suss out the moves. He eventually decided to let it go, and so it came down to me. The Kern Canyon isn’t exactly a climbing destination. And Bakersfield isn’t exactly a climber’s city, so I was the ONLY person trying this climb for most of the process. Throw in the fact that I had started trying the line on the first day of my return to climbing. After taking a few weeks off (1 week less than I should have taken) to let a broken pinky heal up, and we have all the necessary elements for an obsession. I was happy I could climb, the line was challenging, and it was mine alone.
I start this way because that is the point I want to make; this line was my main project for a significant amount of time. That said, I don’t want to talk about the process involved in climbing it. We all know that story: hiking pads alone, making progress, regressing, doubting and believing, and finally the unexpected send. It’s a story as archetypal as bouldering gets. Rather, I want to talk about the process of moving on from that send.
I have done FAs before. Searching for and developing boulders in the Kern Canyon is what kept me sane through school. After a week of work/train/study, a Saturday morning wandering the steep, oak tree-strewn hills or hopping from rock to rock across the river to look at features. Imagining possible lines was the best way for me to recenter myself and prepare for another week of the same. I spent hours roaming, sometimes with friends and sometimes alone. I kept a mental list, and when something looked good, I’d dive into the clean/try cycle. Some I sent. Some are still there waiting for me to come back too.
On top of the boulder, my most brutal FA to date, I had mixed emotions. Relief, pride, excitement, happiness, all those emotions we as climbers know and love… but the next day, when I sat in front of my garage wall and put my shoes on to do a little training, only one emotion was left: sadness. Maybe that isn’t the right word; perhaps it was a kind of emptiness. I don’t know.
Words don’t do such a good job describing emotions even when we fully understand ourselves, and I didn’t quite get what I was feeling. I still don’t. I do know that I couldn’t get my shoes on and get on that wall. I couldn’t find that deep, inner motivation that had kept me going year after year, failure after failure, the thing that kept me going back to the climb I had sent just the day before. It just wasn’t there that day.
The Big Why
Sitting there, one shoe half on, and thought about what I was feeling. I thought about the send and the big Why—the “why do I do this shit” question. I thought about the hours I had logged on that 8×12 training wall and about the many small sacrifices I made daily to try and be my best on the rock. About the nights of drinking I had missed over the years, about the pizzas I hadn’t eaten… this lasted almost an hour, and, finally, I gave up.
I couldn’t find an answer but a framework that made sense of what I was feeling. I should have supposed renewed, motivated, and validated. I had sent it! I had done something that, before, I could not do! The training, the hours and the days, the months and months, had given me the abilities I needed to climb this rock. And yet, the feeling remained. I didn’t know what to do.
I ended up driving back out to Kern Canyon to take a walk. Walking outside has always been a way for me to think or, perhaps more accurately, escape my thinking. Somewhere on the way up the road, while I was driving through the steep-sided canyon looking at the river and the rock, I remembered a boulder a friend and I had seen years ago, one that we had written off as beautiful but featureless.
A few minutes later, after rock-hopping across the river and zig-zagging up a steep hill, I found myself in front of a huge, over-hanging, right-facing blunt arete/dihedral type feature. At first glance, it looked as featureless as it had before: almost completely holdless. But then I noticed some feet on the right face, perhaps the right distance for a kneebar. The arete itself appeared to have a few spots that were slightly more textured than the rest. There were even some thumb-catches, maybe some pinches. So, I crossed back to my car and returned with some shoes and pads.
I still haven’t sent the climb I found that day. I’ve gone back maybe 4 times and worked out all the moves, a delicate balance of technique and power, core tension, and body position. The climbed fully engaged all the skills I had been working on through all my previous years of climbing, and it allowed me to find access to my inner motivation again. When I had to give up for the season, as the heat rose and made holding the blunt granite more and more improbable, I threw myself back into training with that one project in mind. However, the next season was one of the wettest on record; the river rose so high that I could not make it across.
It’s been a year and a half since I have been able to touch the boulder in Kern Canyon. I’ve moved away, and I’ve got new projects, and I am still training, still pushing. But I haven’t forgotten about that boulder, the one that refilled my motivation and snapped me out of a short but intense lull. You better believe that when I visit my family for the holidays, I’ll be checking those water levels every year, looking for a new way across. Until then, I will work so that, when the day comes, I can get there, I’ll be ready.
Quote- Alex lowe, “the best climber is the climber having the most fun.”