After a couple weeks of ice climbing around Chamonix, Alisa and I returned to Siurana again one month ago. This time I came with plans of trying a specific route, and today those plans were realized when I did my first ever 5.14, a redpoint of “Kale Borroka” (8b+ / 5.14a). When I first starting climbing, 5.14 was the highest number in the YDS rating system, and it’s not a grade I ever imagined climbing myself, let alone aspiring to climb. Of course in 2021 the world of sport climbing is drastically different than it was 20 years ago, and 5.14 is now a grade that some people warm up on. Redpointing a 5.14 is an insignificant climbing accomplishment in 2021, and even for me personally I wouldn’t count this among my top 50 climbing achievements. Nonetheless, I consider this a significant personal milestone. My main focus as a climber has always been the high, cold mountains, and it’s not easy to progress as a rock climber when a typical year involves 3-4 months in Patagonia, 6 weeks skiing and alpine climbing in Chamonix, 6 weeks living at 4,000m on Denali, and 7 weeks at a 4,500m basecamp in the Karakoram! Thus, even though rock climbing has been a significant part of my life since I was sixteen years old, my improvement as a rock climber, while steady, has been extremely slow.
Since traveling was so limited in 2020, I did much less alpine climbing in faraway places than I would have normally. Around the middle of the summer I was thinking that maybe the autumn of 2020 would be the right time to finally do my first 5.14, something which I have felt close to for a few years, but never pulled off. Then, in late August, I put together last minute plans for a trip to Karakoram, climbing solo but sharing basecamp with my friends Jeff Wright and Priti Wright. High-altitude expeditions are particularly bad for one’s rock climbing fitness, so when I departed for the Karakoram I forgot about my ambition to do my first 5.14. Upon returning to Europe, I started rock climbing again, in mid October. As usual, right after returning from a high-altitude expedition I could only barely climb 7a (5.11d), but I was psyched nonetheless to be regaining some technical climbing fitness. I still imagined that climbing 5.14 was off the table, but my alpine climbing ambitions for 2021 are relatively technical objectives, so doing a bunch of sport climbing felt like the right training to be doing in any case. Alisa and I spent the month of December climbing around Siurana and Margalef, and by the end of the trip I finally felt that I was in pretty good sport climbing fitness, climbing a few 7c+ and 8a routes within a couple days of effort. When we returned to Chamonix at the start of January I was definitely psyched to do some ice climbing, but we already discussed more sport climbing in the near future. Even if you are climbing WI6 and getting your arms tired, your sport climbing fitness is rapidly deteriorating. So, after two weeks of ice climbing around Chamonix, we returned to Siurana on Jan. 16, and for the first time in my life I travelled somewhere to do a specific sport climb.
By now Alisa and I have been to Siurana for several visits, first in the autumn of 2017. I briefly tried Kale Borroka on our first trips, but never even managed to touch the crimp near the end of the crux section, despite hanging on all the quickdraws up to there. I pretty quickly realized that it might not be a realistic project for me at that time, turned my attention to easier things, and eventually did my second and third 8a+ redpoints, “Ramadan,” and “Zona 0.” This year I could clearly tell that I was in better climbing fitness, because I could do all the individual sections of Kale Borroka within a few tries (I think the hardest bits are probably roughly V7). That was encouraging, and convinced me to put in the effort of really projecting it. At this point Kale Borroka is definitely the climb I have projected more than any other in my life. I would guess that the total number of times I tied in and climbed at least part way up the route is around 40 (although I probably only climbed to the anchor about 12 times).
Kale Borroka is a long (40 meters), steep route, on which resistance (AKA endurance) is a big factor. So, even though on this trip I could do all the moves pretty quickly, that was still a long ways from redpointing the route. On almost every portion of the climb, I did the moves using the first or second method that I tried, but soon realized that many of my methods were inefficient and wasted lots of energy. So, even on sections that I had already cleanly climbed using a given method many times, I ended up changing my sequences, and slowly I refined my beta throughout the whole route.
As of about one week ago, I could fairly consistently climb from the ground to 60% of the way up the route, and fairly consistently climb from 50% of the way up to the route to the anchor (overlapping “links”). However, climbing more than 60% of the route starting from the ground seemed to be far away – I simply would get way too pumped to be able to execute the crux sequence. 50% of the way up the route, there is a cluster of good holds that is a logical place to try to rest and de-pump before starting the crux 10 meters section. Even though these holds are quite good, the wall is still very steep there, the footholds below aren’t great, and I barely felt like I could de-pump at all. Dave Graham kindly lent me a kneepad, and explained to me the three places that he had used kneebars on the route. However, one try with a kneepad, something I’ve never used before, was enough to decide it wasn’t the right choice for me – It felt uncomfortable and restrictive, and even with rubber on my knee, I didn’t feel like the kneebars helped me at all, I think basically because knee-baring is a skill that I haven’t yet learned.
A few days ago, an Australian guy, Simon, asked me why I wasn’t using the obvious heel hook in a hueco at the cluster of good holds midway up. I replied that I had tried it, but that it was too painful on my achilles and ankle. It didn’t occur to me until later that evening that I ought to simply make it less painful, just like I would for climbing a rough fistcrack or offwidth. So, today I took a spare sock to the crag, cut open the toe area, and pulled it over my ankle before putting on my rock shoe. I did a third warm-up climb, going to the midway point on Kale Borroka, and then stuffing my well-protected foot and ankle into the hueco. To my delight, I was able to cam my foot inside the hueco very effectively – No longer hanging just on my arms, it was transformed into an excellent rest. I knew immediately that it would transform the route for me, so I lowered to the ground from there, ready to make my first real redpoint tries.
After belaying Alisa on her project at l’Olla (which she sent later in the day!), I returned to Kale Borroka at nearly 2pm. Unfortunately the wall was already mostly in the sun, it was too hot, and not windy. On top of that I had woken this morning with a sore back and was generally feeling not very spritely. Because of these factors I thought my chance of sending was pretty low, but I was anyways psyched to put in a good effort and see how far I could get to using my new-found rest. I put some athletic tape on my ankle for additional padding, put on my sliced-open sock, and for the first time on this trip stripped down to just shorts and no shirt. As this is already starting to get dangerously long-winded for a report about 40 meters of rock, I will spare you the play-by-play of my redpoint, but my new-found rest allowed me to get drastically more recovered before the crux section than on any previous attempts, and to my surprise I pulled it off (trying quite hard though!)! The fact that I finally managed to send on a day with poor conditions just goes to show how much the beta matters on sport climbs that are near your limit!
During the past three years I have spent noticeably more time sport-climbing than I have during most of my climbing life, and I enjoy it more and more. The main reason for that additional sport climbing is that Alisa loves it, and it is an activity that we really enjoy doing together. Additionally, I think that sport climbing is very good training for many of my alpine climbing goals. I feel like many of my climbing peers grew up gym climbing and sport climbing a lot, and turned to the mountains later. I, on the other hand, grew up mountain climbing a lot, didn’t start gym climbing until I was 19 years old, and didn’t start sport climbing until my early twenties. Before ever climbing my first 5.12 (the classic, lower half of “Heinous Cling” at Smith Rocks!) I had already climbed multiple 6,000m peaks, the classic 7 summits of the Fitz Roy skyline, and a new linkup on Cerro Torre. For most of my “adult” climbing life I have been playing catch-up, slowly improving my rock climbing skills between expeditions. Since my technical climbing skill has usually been my limiting factor, especially in a place like Patagonia, my alpine climbing abilities have improved with a pretty clear correlation to my rock climbing abilities. Of course, the fact that I have redpointed one 5.14a sport climb isn’t really relevant on the side of a mountain. However, in the process of getting good enough to redpoint one 5.14a, my “off the couch” climbing level (my rock climbing level after 3 months with no rock climbing) has improved correspondingly. I think that one’s “off the couch” rock climbing level is what is really relevant for alpine climbing – When you have been 5 weeks at a remote basecamp with no climbing, when you’ve already been climbing for 16 hours, when you’re climbing by headlamp, when you’re climbing with a heavy pack, etc… In those scenarios I think it is your baseline, “off the couch” fitness that really dictates how well you climb.
Unfortunately, I don’t think the correlation of increasing sport climbing fitness and increasing alpine climbing abilities is limitless. During the past few years, for the first time in my life, I’ve actually done enough sport climbing that I feel it has been detrimental to my alpine climbing. At the moment, for example, I think my cardiovascular fitness is much lower than it typically is. It would have been good to go trail running on rest days from climbing, but a 40m 8b+ is so difficult and exhausting for me that I didn’t have energy for trail running on rest days from climbing. One of the things I love about alpine climbing is that it demands skills from every subset of climbing, but it is always difficult to balance fitness in one type of climbing with fitness in another type of climbing. I certainly hope that in the coming years I can continue to slowly improve as a rock climber, but it can’t be too much at the detriment of my alpine climbing goals, which are ultimately much more important to me.