A Steep Learning Curve

Since the inception of climbing related internet blogging, I have been adamantly against contributing to what i’ve considered to be a pool of self-masturbatory drivel; the writing has focused mainly on personal accomplishments and has failed to add anything constructive to the mix. More recently I’ve been appreciating fresher and more insightful posts and perspectives from some of our community’s more vocal players such as Jaime Emerson (b3bouldering.com) and Jon Glassberg (jonglassberg.louderthan11.com). My chief reason for abstaining from throwing my hat into the ring has been that I just didn’t feel like I had anything notable to contribute. Ironically, it’s taken a sudden realization that I will be unable to climb for the next 4-6 months to gain me a perspective that I feel should be shared with others.

Here’s what happened: A couple weeks ago I was belaying my good friend Dave Wetmore on his four month project, Supernova 5.14b at Rumney’s Starship Wall in New Hampshire. This is a route that I finished a year ago fairly quickly and then several weeks earlier had repeated after I found Dave was working it from a lower, more obvious start. My love affair with this route has been intense; it has everything one could ask for in 30 feet of climbing. For those who are unfamiliar with the routes at Rumney, many of them are fairly short, often 30-60 feet, and consist of beautifully sweeping waves of schist. For a climber who has spent his years pursuing pure, high, difficult boulder problems, Rumney’s sport routes are a dream come true. Back to the subject at hand; watching Dave epic on this route and realizing that he was only climbing about 15 moves between the ground and the mantle at the top of the route sowed the seed of a lofty plan inside my ambitious brain. I decided that Supernova could very well be a boulder problem. While I have certainly climbed higher problems without a rope, I have certainly never tried anything with a landing as weird as this one; there is a decent sized boulder behind Supernova that sort of rises with the climb that could make a fall from certain parts of the route not as dangerous as they would be otherwise.

I spent the next 2 weeks mulling it over. On one hand, it would be the best pure bouldering ascent of my life, on the other, a fall from either the middle or the top crux could send me shooting down a steep and rocky hill. Up to this point in my climbing, when entering the ZONE of highballs I have always had a very singular and confident focus: When I see a tall problem that inspires me and I know is within my capabilities I have always been calm, collected, and KNEW that I was not going to fall. Though I was still unsure of whether I would go for it or not, I decided to bring pads and my friend Taylor out with me and Dave this past Saturday. Taylor has been working on his film SICK: Climbing in New England for the past year, and I was anxious to get more footage this weekend that we could use. It was definitely intriguing to think that I could get such an ascent on film, after all, this would have been one of the hardest free solos to have ever been done! It was at this thought that my judgment began to get clouded.

We arrived at Rumney on a gorgeous fall day. It felt warmer than we had expected, perhaps in the mid 50s. A good omen. Or perhaps not? I warmed up by running laps on Zig Zag Crack (V1) for Taylor’s camera, one of the country’s best easy boulder problems and making a quick ascent of a V9 variant. Continuing the warm up circuit I jumped on Satan’s Sister Sally (V10) and floated to the top, doing pull ups on the finishing jug. I felt good and readied myself for the first major undertaking of the day: an attempted onsight of Black Jack Crack (V2), a stunning 25 foot splitter crack usually lead on gear sitting on a giant block in the heart of Rumney’s Black Jack Boulders. I had been looking at this problem for several years and had been putting it off. While it is only graded V2, it is a crack climb in its purest sense requiring an array of jams thoughout its course with a tenuous layback leading to the boulder’s lip. My focus felt strong and I took off, climbing the bottom half of it pretty quickly before having to spend a few extra seconds sussing out the tricky jams and smears that guarded the top half. Soon I was on top, my heart pounding. “I love this shit!” echoed through the boulders as I sprinted down the backside of the block and pounded fists with Dave and Taylor. I felt brilliant.

When we got to Supernova, Dave immediately suited up and gave it a very good burn, falling going for the lip after his fingers numbed out. In retrospect I should have considered this point more. At this time the sun was still out and it was relatively warm out so it was not a major concern. Soon after, our friends Neil, Vasya, and Jessie came down the hill to chat and watch Dave on his sophmore burn. Dave, as he has often done, was anxious and didn’t wait as long as he wanted to get on again, falling on the crux shoulder move to a two finger pocket with the left hand. “I didn’t feel so good that time” Dave pontificated as I lowered him. Hmmm. As I weighed the options in my head, Dave told the others what I was considering doing. “I really don’t like this idea” voiced Vasya, no stranger to dangerous climbing. Neal, though apprehensive, was slightly more supportive. “If you’re going to do it, we should be here to spot you.”

This was it, I thought. My physical and climbing fitness is peaking and I just warmed up on a heady highball and a crimp ladder; if I was ever to do it, it would be hard to find more conducive circumstances. By this point some clouds had rolled in and it was noticeably colder. I had not climbed in over an hour and thought that a warm up burn was appropriate. I alligned the pads on the slab as best I could and set out. My feet cut a few times but I got to the shoulder move at 15 feet feeling good. Looking down at my spotters I thought twice; my fingers had gone numb. Instead of going for it I decided to save myself and jump down. I hit the pads hard and jumped forward; I was perfectly fine. Well that wasn’t so bad I thought. This knowledge gave me a little bit more confidence, chances were that if I fell from this move I’d be okay. I threw my jacket back on and sat down. By this point the others were ready to go back up to other cliffs to try their projects again. I felt guilty. They were taking time out of their projects to make sure that I didn’t hurt myself. All this weighed on my mind as I sat trying to lose my pump but maintain the heat that had made itself into my cold fingers. As the minutes passed I sort of disassociated myself from the situation. “Just go for it” I told myself.

During my previous highballing exploits I have never thought about the fall; every time I was so zeroed in on what I was doing and so confidant in my abilities that I knew with absolute certainty that I was getting to the top safely. The difference this time was not obvious to me until it was too late. As I pulled on for the second time, my mind seemed to be elsewhere. Instead of having that singular focus that I’m so familiar with, I felt disconnected from my body. By virtue of my past experiences I just assumed that I was going to be fine. As I got to the crux shoulder move again, I set feet, hesitated for a split second, and went for it. I hit the pocket accurately but for reasons unknown, my body sagged out and I helicoptered off. Without the ability to control my fall as I did the first time, I came down several feet to the right, grazed the edge of the pads, and landed with all my weight on my left ankle on a small jagged boulder 5 feet below the slab. The second I hit I knew things had gone wrong. My foot was facing due west instead of straight ahead like a normal foot should. Strangely, there was a pronounced lack of pain and merely an extreme discomfort in my left ankle. As my friends carried me down steep hillside to meet the ambulance I was completely lucid. I did not feel like I was in shock; I did not feel like I had sustained an extremely traumatic injury (which the doctor later convinced us had certainly occured). All I could do was rack my brain to find the reasons for having fallen.

In the six days since the accident I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on this exact question. Why had I fallen? After all, every other time i had gone for a hard, risky ascent i had found myself on top of the boulder instead of in a hospital bed. Whether it was cold fingers, not waiting long enough, or a lack of focus, none of it really matters in the end. I should not have tried to solo Supernova. Climbing is a selfish pursuit and I have long accepted that. Ayn Rand preaches that one should always do what makes one happy as long as it does not impinge on others’ rights to do the same. Well, this time I had gone too far. There were a lot of things I should have considered before pulling on that last time. My good friend Jake List sent me an extremely touching and insightful email several days back. The gist of it was that I deserved to be chewed out for doing what I did. “…so next time you free solo a route, let alone a 5.14 route,” Jake wrote, “think past yourself. Sooooooooo many people would have been CRUSHED if you had bashed your head and died, including me.” The first time I read it I was a bit appalled; how dare he blame me for attempting something that would have brought me happiness! I took the risk, and now I’m paying the price, and no one has the right to tell me differently. But as I sat there reading it over and over I had a minor epiphany. My climbing decisions directly affect every single person that I’m close to; from my employer for whom I cannot set routes for months to come, to my family that will be taking care of me for the next few weeks, and maybe most of all to my friends. Jake ended his email by saying “Take this as a opportunity to look at people you know and see who they really are. See if they really give a **** about you. How many people went out of their way, took time out of there day to chew you a new *ss hole?? And how many self serving b*tches took the easy way out and told you to just feel better?” Though this is an extreme way of viewing things, the point is that instead of being coddled for being indisposed, i deserve to be berated for my bad decision.

That’s just it. People really care about me and its been folly for me to assume that I can do whatever I want without any repercussions to those in my life. So while I’m bummed that I’ll be missing the fall season and will be relegated to doing crosswords and watching football in HD in the Florida heat, I’m thankful for having gotten this little dose of mortality. Despite how cliche it is, whether you like it or not, you WILL learn from your mistakes. My lessons were clear. DON’T be overconfident; DON’T assume that everything will be okay; THINK about the effect that your decisions will have on those closest to you.

I will.


Max Zolotukhin is head route setter at the BOSTON ROCK GYM.


Filed under Uncategorized

12 responses to “A Steep Learning Curve

  1. I’m sorry that you’re out of the game, but that was well written and I agree with what you’re saying. I used to base jump a lot and I’ve had the same conversations with myself


  2. Pingback: A Painful Learning Curve | Climbing Narcissist

  3. Pingback: Soloing and Risk. (Part 2) « Adventures in Dirtbaggery

  4. Well I guess I’ll take the easy way out… hope you feel better! I’m glad you found something you enjoyed writing about because it is a great post. You really connect with the thoughts that go through your head when you try something risky. Maybe since you will be layed up for a bit you can do some writing in your spare time.

  5. Pingback: Extreme Athlete: Falling From Grace | America Peals

  6. Pingback: HighBalling ou Free Soloing? « Nortebouldering's Blog

  7. Jenny

    Max, what’s the prog on your foot? I had a bouldering accident 22 months ago and had an open wound fracture of tib, fib and discloated my ankle. I’ve had 7 surgeries in the last 22 months and was on crutches for 14 of them. I haven’t been able to walk normally and am still struggling to just get back to normal – i.e. not walk like a retard. The pain is overwhelming and it hasn’t gotten better. I know exactly what you mean, I’ve said the very same things. If I ever boulder or lead again and fall on my ankle, I can kiss it goodbye and get a prosthetic. This has been the hardest thing to accept – that I was once a hardcore climber pushing the grades, and now I’m at best, a top-roper, I’ve never known anything else but climbing and its demoralising. I really hope you will recover better than me though. Whatever you’re going through, I’ve been there and will probably understand more than most people. Will cross my fingers and toes for you. P.S. don’t do too many pull-ups out of frustration, tendonosis is a bitch.

  8. Joe

    This was a great post and it was also very insightful knowledge.
    All I can say is thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience with us.
    Get better.

  9. Pingback: Free Soloing Has a Steep Learning Curve at Backcountry.com: The Goat

  10. Rick

    Max, some advice from an old guy with scars. Risk-takers in every endeavor eventually learn the lesson you did. I did as well. Whether it is climbing, motorcycles, scuba, etc.. once we discover our mortality, we anguish about how to continue the activities we enjoy while mitigating the risks and consequences, including to the family and friends who care about you. Luckily (and it did seem to be dumb luck in your fall), you and I are not paralyzed or somehow else a lifetime liability to friends and family- but imagine that possibility.
    My advice; do not judge a risk by its probability of occurrence, but rather its consequences.. and choose your mitigation strategy accordingly. There are old risk-takers and bold risk-takers, but not old bold risk-takers.
    I still ride, with protective gear. I still dive, with a backup pony tank. I still climb, with a rope and a helmet.
    After climbing, there will be something else, I guarantee you. Meet your next passion with a fit body and mind.
    Get well and climb again.

  11. Stunning, I did not know about that up to now. Thankz.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s