Wednesday, March 26, 2014

7:02 PM
One of the most popular posts on my blog is post written by a good friend of mine about her attempt to send (aka climb to the top without falling) a 5.13a route called "Cell Block" at the famed climbing area "Jailhouse" prior to her 40th birthday. She has been working this route for more than a year, rising early each weekend to drive 2.5 hours to the crag to put in the time necessary to build the physical and mental strength needed to complete her project. That’s the thing with 5.13as. They don’t come easy.

It seemed only fitting that as part of the rock climbing month of my Fitness Project that I should go with her out to Jailhouse to belay her on her project and to also see what I could do. I had only been there once before – probably about seven years ago. I was childless, strong and climbing all the time so I remember the trip as a great adventure. Since having kids though I have never put in the time that is really required to be able to climb at that level. The people that climb at Jailhouse go every weekend, many of them for both days, and then they still complain about not being strong enough. The people that climb at Jailhouse are the people like the bouldering phenom Margo Hayes, who at 15 got 3rd in the 2013 National Bouldering Competition, and who we chatted with as we hiked out last Sunday. The people that climb at Jailhouse are, quite simply, really good and very dedicated climbers.

Intimidating? Yes. Inspiring? Yes.
This is what Jailhouse looks like – a huge, steep piece of volcanic rock jutting out of the hillside, just begging to be climbed.  This place is not for the weak or uninitiated. Other than two 5.11ds and one 5.12a/b (“the warm ups”) everything there is 5.13a or harder. The climbs are long and very steep. So steep, in fact, that if you fall you dangle in midair. Named after the penitentiary up the road, the climbs have names like “Fugitive”, “Soap on a Rope”, and “Whipping Boy”.
Into Thin Air
So weeks ago we settled on a date and last Sunday we rose early and met at an East Bay Starbucks in the pre-dawn darkness. By 8 AM we were hiking into the crag, happy to be outside and anticipating the exploits ahead. We filed into line behind the couple of others that were ahead of us on the warm ups, and then took our turns feeling out the rock, alternatively panting hard and resting as we moved up the wall. From the warm ups we moved through to her projects and my mini-projects, filling the day with intense bouts of climbing, metered by casual and wide-ranging conversation.

What was so interesting to me about what turned out to be an awesome climbing day, was how natural it felt to be out there, climbing hard on real rock, even though I haven’t done it in so long. Though I am in no shape to climb well at Jailhouse, I was surprised to note how instantly my body reacted to the experience and how effortlessly I was able to drop back into the “zone”. As soon as I started climbing I felt a strange, but familiar calm come over me. It is very real up there on the exposed rock face. The slightest error can mean a fall, not necessarily an injury, but the unsettling feeling of falling uncontrolled through space until the jarring catch of the rope arrests your trajectory. Knowing the consequences, my mind stills everything else and it is just me, and my hands and my feet, and the suck and pivot of my hips, and the spotting of the next hold and the movement – powerful and deliberate. I will feel my body shaking with exertion, but as long as I am calm, as long as I can control my breathing and still my thoughts, I know that I am OK and that I will make it through. It is only when the panic takes over in my mind and I begin to doubt that my fingers and body finally give way and I hurdle through a short gasp of space. Such is the art and the sport of rock climbing.

As I walked back to the car from the crag I felt a similar sensation to what I always feel at the end of a race – exhausted and exhilarated, already making plans for the next time. This Fitness Project is making me fall in love with climbing all over again.
Me Attempting "Iron Junkie", 5.13a
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  1. You are so awesome. I'd be terrified to climb that. Thanks for sharing the story!