Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Pirate’s Puzzle

When Chris Sharma said in the climbing movie King Lines, “October is the best month for climbing”, I couldn’t help but agree. Perhaps I’m biased because I regard Chris as the complete personification of climbing in my own sense of the word.  Perhaps it’s also Oktoberfest, a time when I un-celebrate my birthday. Or perhaps maybe because some of the best temperatures for climbing around the world happen on that 10th month of the year.  Whatever  it is, I’ve come to accept the many reasons I have lined up  and I’m glad I’m able to climb every October in whatever part of the world. 

This year, I was once again given the opportunity to go climbing in Cantabaco, Cebu.  I passed up the chance last year when I chose to go to Getu Valley in China for the annual Petzl RocTrip instead.  And while that trip was truly a memorable one, I still couldn’t wait to get back to local limestone. 

“Lust for Lime 8” began early for me.  I arrived at the crag October 26th, but the event formally started on the 30th.  Being ahead meant having extra time at the cliffs with just a handful of others. Belaying, taking climbing photos, and occasionally climbing on 5.11’s predominantly occupied the early goings of each day.  The mornings went unhurried and felt like a long gradual grind for the lone route I was psyched on finishing.  Waiting for the afternoon’s cooler conditions for an ascent felt otherworldly. From time to time, the wind blew, hitting the limestone wall and wafting air across our faces, cooling our sweat-soaked skin caused by the humid jungle air.

 “Jack Sparrow” is the ominous extension of “Whiteflower.” I first tried the pirate’s puzzle exactly two years ago. Before that year, there was only one successful ascent of the route. Photos of those attempts and of a bloody finger cut circulated the net.  After around two visits separated by a month or so, Carlo Chiong of Cagayan de Oro sent the route and proposed a grade of 8b+. The year after, Miel Pahati finished it for the 2nd ascent.  In between those, many have worked the route.  In between Miel’s 2nd ascent and 2012’s  “Lust for Lime 8”, many have tested their  mettle on it yet again.  On this 3rd year of the route, the thought of giving it a go for a 3rd ascent occupied my mind. One ascent a year sounded intimidating, but it felt worth the effort.

Only after a full day upon arriving in the area and getting settled in one of Ate Glenda’s dormitory rooms did I actually get to start charming the limestone. I eased through with routes shielded from the morning sun.  After half a day, the limestone felt familiar again. “Jack Sparrow” rested up on Area 5.  It is soaked in sunlight and best conditions for it came at 3pm. When the moment drew closer, I went up and joined several others to work it.

The breeze signaled my attempts regularly. When nature spoke, I listened. And when I do, nothing else mattered. Anxiety built rapidly. Calming myself down before each attempt felt difficult.  My pulse raced, my mind over thought, and my body felt on edge.  When it was my turn, I stepped under the 35m-long line as it stared down indifferently at me. I tied-in on one end of the rope, had my belayer watch me, and started climbing. 

I easily scurried up to the 2nd bolt.  I felt awfully strong.  I cruised on the early part of the route.  I tried to power through the lower crux believing I had enough. It felt easy.  I felt light.  I felt stable and in full control.  But as quick as the easily changing breeze, it hit me. The stigma of failing the 1st crux at the very start plagued me again in one swift blow. There was a sudden failure to understand a section of the route before it all collapsed. My fingers started hurting on the sharp pockets, my shoulders started to sag low, my core slowly gave way, and my feet started slipping off the smooth footholds.  I tried to collect some more energy.  I grunted out a guttural primal scream from deep inside me.  I was able to lift my shoulders for a time to get stable.  I held on for what seemed like time without end.  I held on until the pain became too much to endure.  I peeled off the rock, my mind went into withdrawal, and my spirit waned.  My mind exploded into an emotional fit. I punched the wall, but the sound of my knuckles hitting the rock was distant to my ears.  I breathed, relaxed, and decided to continue up the final crux to the top of the route. 

A vivid memory of the two attempts I had on “Jack Sparrow” two years ago left me with a sequence and a struggle, and a mind unable to wrap itself around them.  Now two years after, the same crux felt different. The sequence felt lighter.  The crimps didn’t feel as sharp, the marginal shallow half-pad under-pinch for the left hand felt enough and the slopey pocket for the right middle finger felt deep and stable. The crux involved moving from these marginal holds for a right hand deadpoint to a far away pocket. Getting stable with the left hand for the huge throw to the right felt like a V7 or V8 boulder problem, only it’s carrying a long pump in tow.  I was able to stick the long throw a number of times over the course of my stay. Several times I had to climb to the very top with only the lower crux undone.  At times I would fall on the crux move, but still I would be able to connect to the chains.  It became just a matter of piecing the whole thing together in one go.  Failing on the lower crux always sapped my motivation. I knew if I could do the lower section faultlessly, my drive to finish the top crux will be bigger.

The last climbing day of the trip brought with it both anticipation and a lot of surrender.  I was excited for the outcome but I was no longer clinging on to the thought of finishing the route in one go. While it would feel so good doing so, giving it my all and just enjoying the effort was at the forefront of my mind.

I started the route with a calm mind.  The lower crux, where I usually struggle, felt undemanding.  Planting my left foot onto a slopey foothold and twisting just enough at the hips to secure a solid stance felt natural. I sailed through the route to the roof where “Jack Sparrow” really began.  I started to feel my breathing get constricted, and I took my shirt off to let it fall 35 meters to the ground.  The wind on my bare skin felt like a soft touch that urged me to proceed up the last hard section.  The crimps didn’t bite back.  The slopey pocket didn’t push away.  The under-crimp felt bigger than usual and the throw for the far-off pocket seemed nearer.  I felt my fingers latch on. My body didn’t peel off the rock.  The entire weight hanging on my arms felt nil. It was done!

The effort of thinking about the route for two years, letting go of it, coming back for it, trying as hard as I can on it, surrendering and finally enjoying every bit and morsel of the entire route in one complete consummation, flooded my brain.  Every nerve ending felt alive.   For the entire belay down I was somewhere else. I was in a place where voids are filled and where one second felt like hours. When I reached the ground, I untied, walked off to another route, took in the last bits and pieces of the other world and then climbed again.    

Maybe Chris Sharma is right. October is the best month for climbing. 

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