This is what the next level feels like

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Never-ending slabs on the approach to Rainbow Wall.
The Original Route is the obvious corner splitting the middle of the wall.

As a climber living far from rock with a demanding job and young family, my outdoor climbing days are precious.  I’m usually limited to a quick weekend “business trips” — fly to a crag (usually Red Rocks), climb as much as possible, fly home.  Between lots of gym sessions and 10-12 short trips a year I’ve been able to steadily move through the grades.  Typically I select climbing objectives that are near, but not quite at, my limit in order to maximize chances for success.  However, every once in a while you need to jump into the deep end to reach the next level.  With this in mind, I met my friend Andy in Vegas last weekend for a quick tune-up before our mid-October trip to Yosemite (my first full week climbing trip since my first daughter was born 11 years ago).

We picked The Original Route on Rainbow Wall as our primary objective for the weekend.  It was a monster objective for someone who hadn’t touched real rock or even hiked with a pack in weeks.  However, after success on Levitation 29 and Cloud Tower earlier in the year, I have started to gain confidence at the higher grades.

The Original Route (or “O.G.” as we call it) is considered by many to be Red Rocks’ finest route.  It checks in at 13 pitches, with two pitches of 5.12 pitches, five at 5.11 , three at 5.10, and 3 at 5.9 or easier.  It’s the most continuously hard route I’ve attempted and for added fun the route is guarded by a burly approach that gains 2000 vertical feet.We started hiking around 6:45am and made good progress, arriving at the base of the route 90 minutes later.  The O.G. doesn’t see as much traffic as other Red Rocks mega-classics because of its length and difficulty but as luck (or lack thereof) would have it, a party of Swiss climbers was getting started on the 5.11c first pitch variation just as we arrived.  Many parties climb this variation to avoid the original direct start which involves 5.12 climbing right off the deck.  The Swiss team was planning to do the route in two days and was hauling a “pig“.  Since we intended to climb the route in one day they invited us to pass them but that would mean we’d use the original start.  Luckily that didn’t seem to phase Andy and by the time I had caught my breath from the approach hike he was racked up and ready to go.  Andy and I had agreed to lead in blocks of 2 pitches and as the stronger climber it made sense for him to take the hardest block.  He moved quickly through the first pitch and I followed, wearing a small pack containing water, food, jackets, and a few other odds and ends.  The pack weighed about 15 pounds and on an easier route it wouldn’t have been a problem to follow while wearing it.  However, on a 5.12 pitch the extra weight was a showstopper.  After a couple of falls I finished the pitch but was absolutely throttled.  One pitch down, only 12 to go… gulp.

The next pitch — one of the best on the route — isn’t much easier at 5.11d.  Again I followed wearing the pack, and again I got my a$$ handed to me.  Midway through the pitch my calves and butt started cramping.  I fought through it and finished the pitch. Only two pitches in and I was already spent.  And it was my turn to lead…

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Bringing Andy up at the handing belay just above the finishing roof on P5

With great joy I handed the evil backpack to Andy and cast off on the next pitch, which at 5.11a felt like a break in the action.  It’s all relative I guess.  Without the pack I felt buoyant and caught a second wind.  I finished the pitch and the following pitch of 5.11b quickly and Andy did the same for the next two pitches of 5.10 climbing.  From here the route continues through 4 pitches of easy climbing before the second crux 5.12 pitch.  However, neither Andy nor I was very psyched to finish the route.  After 7 pitches we had gotten a good taste of Rainbow Wall and decided to descend and check out the alternate first pitch that we had missed and also work the 5.12 start for a future ascent.  Honestly if we had been able to do the much easier alternate start AND if I hadn’t tried to climb the first two pitches wearing the pack I would have been much more motivated to finish the route.  But I had fired all of my bullets low on the route and having come “off the couch” the day before I felt like I needed more fitness to finish it in a style I’d be satisfied with (i.e. no falls).

Ironically, after rappelling to the base and eating lunch I felt stronger than I had all day.  I led the 5.11c alternate start and it felt almost easy.  Then I toproped the 5.12b original start twice with no falls.  All in all it added up to about 9 pitches of hard climbing plus close to 3 hours of steep hiking — a big day by any standard.

Even though we didn’t top out on the route, this was a meaningful ascent for me because I now know what the next level feels like.  And I feel like it’s well within my reach.  There’s a saying in bike racing that goes, “It never gets easier, you just go faster.”  I’ve learned over time that this also applies to climbing.  It never gets easier, you just climb harder.

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