In the world of Rock climbing there are different levels of riskiness when you climb large walls. Top Rope is the safest, being secured for the entire climb, safely protected by a rope at the top of the climb. Next is Sport Climbing, or "Lead" climbing, for this type you take the rope up connected to a harness and clip the rope thru carabiners that are clipped to bolts drilled directly into the wall. Lastly we have "Trad" climbing (Traditional), this is the riskiest type of rope climbing because you rely strong metal pieces that you place into cracks in the wall. The reason Trad is the riskiest is because it relies on the climber's knowledge of how to place gear correctly. If it's placed incorrectly and you take a fall, there's a chance for it to pull completely out of the wall and send you plummeting to the next piece of gear....or the ground.
Something I struggled with when I first starting "lead" climbing outside was my mental game. I was pretty spooked on sport climbing anything outside for a while until I forced myself to overcome my fear. Trad climbing is a whole different monster of because the risk is there that the gear you place might come out when you fall. I've had kind of a love / fear relationship with trad climbing, where I really want to be a strong all around climber, but am nervous about taking the plunge into leading on trad.
Going into my 8th week of non stop climbing and traveling, I heard about a guy in my training program taking a trip out to the Witchitas for some Trad climbing. He gladly let me tag along for the trip and we headed out early Saturday Morning. We got slightly lost in our search for "The Narrows" and we were lucky enough to tack on some mountaineering training into our Trad day...I choose to stay positive about our 20min detour.
After arriving to our wall and consuming several Peanut butter blue berry bagels (The official food of a climber who forgot his food) Zach got geared up and ready to rock on our first climb of the day, a 5.6. The climb was a Dihedral crack where the smooth face of the wall meets in a corner of the side of the cliff. Zach cruised up the climb placing gear every 6-10 feet or so, what we refer to as "plugging it up" with gear.
After Zach finished the climb Amanda "cleaned" the route on Top rope. I had danced around with the idea of doing the route of Top rope first just to get the moves kind of memorized in my head before taking the leap into actually leading the route on Trad. But I remembered my first time sport climbing outside, and how I had wussed off a 5.9 because I was too scared to fall. I knew I had the strength and the climbing knowledge to climb this route, but this would be a test of my mental fortitude. So I racked up and dove in head first.
The climb is pretty vivid in my mind, as well as my thoughts while climbing, so I'm going to pull the curtain away and show exactly what goes through my head when climbing something that gets me a little spooked.
I walk up to the first moves of the climb, check my knot on my harness, chalk my hands, grab the first hold and pull myself onto the face. Zach had told me on the ground that I want to be placing gear every 6 feet if I could. He had this kind of look on his face that was like "Well I hope he can do this". I get up to the first ledge about 7 feet high on the wall, and pull my sling from my back to across my chest to see which "Cam" will fit the crack best. After some messing around with it I get in a spot I'm comfortable with. I notice that it takes way longer than clipping some carabiners on sport climbing, and that my right leg is pretty tired already with a hot sensation hanging out in my thigh. I keep going on up, the feet are a little more slanted than I was expecting on a 5.6, and it had me taking some extra time placing my toes on specific spots. I throw my left hand high up on the next ledge and mantle onto the top of it finding a nice spot to place gear from. This was probably 10 feet above my last placement so I made a mental note to try to place a piece about neck level into the crack and another piece a full arm's length above it. I'm feeling slightly spooked at this point so I increase my focus by putting some thought into my breathing, letting everything else fade out with only my exhale filling my ears. I get about 8 feet up from my last Cam placement and get situated in this indentation in the wall. At this point my left foot is secured on a slightly slanted ledge but my right foot is completely smeared against the flat face of the wall. I pause for a moment and look down at my last piece of protection 8 feet below me.
There's a point my mentor Mario talks about when you do large multipitch climbs he calls "The Point of No Return", meaning you've gone too far up, there's no way to down climb...Going up is the fastest and only way to get down. This realization hit me about 40 feet up this wall, There was no stopping, it was game time and I needed to move quickly and precisely to avoid getting too tired to climb this route. I plugged in a Cam into the crack about belly level and got a higher foot to place another one in a small roof crack above my head. I continued to the right side of the roof crack pulling myself onto the face of the wall. I noticed an "X" had been marked with chalk on a deep jug which means "DONT GRAB ME - I MIGHT COME OFF THIS WALL AT ANY POINT". However this jug...was the best jug of all time.. and the X had been placed weirdly and could've easily been meant to mark rock in the roof. I decided to place my left hand lightly in this jug, while getting a high right foot and grabbing a small ledge with my right hand. Delicately walking both feet onto the face of the wall, I grabbed a cam from my sling and placed it in the crack about eye level. I could see the end of the climb just 30 more feet up this wall I had climbed 60ish feet already.
I traversed over probably 5 feet and mantled onto a small ledge. I stood up carefully on the ledge, glancing over my left shoulder looking at my last piece about 9 feet down and to the left of where I stood. I leaned forward into the wall taking my hands completely off the wall for the first time in 70 feet. Simultaneously thinking, "Man it would suck to fall right here and whip into that roof" and "Is this what Alex Honnold feels like when he was free solo'ing El Capitan". I careful twist my hips to the right and step carefully across this half a foot wide ledge, using nothing but my feet and balance to get me across. I got over to a bulge of rock with a nice side crack in it and placed another piece of protection. My legs were pretty tired at this point and started to shake, or what we call "Elvis Leg". The top was only 15 more feet up this, and very featured with gigantic blocks of stone protruding from the otherwise clean face of this wall. I recognized that this would be the easiest part of the climb and didn't waste a second, feeling a surge of joy that I had only a few feet between me and my first Trad lead, I flew up the last section of the climb.
I grabbed the top of the wall and clipped my "PAS" (Personal anchor system) to the bolts at the top of the climb and yelled "OK I'M ON ANCHOR" down to Zach. Something I try to keep in mind whenever I'm climbing is that you're not done until you're back on the ground. A lot of climbing mistakes happen because people get hyped up at the end of a route and forget that it's still dangerous until you're on the ground. I lock my carabiner, untie & feed the rope thru the chains. When I'm safely back on the ground I'm ecstatic. The feeling of being scared and overcoming it while you're in the moment is like no other.
I've done a lot of sport climbing in the two years I've been climbing, and even done a second ascent on a 5.12, but I don't think anything I've done can compare with my 5.6 Trad lead. Something about being nervous about something and the laser focus you get because of it just makes it mean more. I meant to put a GoPro on my head before I went up, but completely forgot, and I didn't get any pictures of me climbing it because I think everyone just wanted to watch how it went haha. I almost like that a little more than having photos or video, because I'll always remember my first time trad climbing on a cold, windy, day in Oklahoma.