Rock Climbing and Managing Risk

Logan Erf on

Logan Erf on “Anthill Direct” in Eldorado Canyon

For months, I awaited my friend Matt Dodson moving to Denver. He arrived last Sunday. And having climbed together while students at Belmont University, it was only fitting to strike rock together as soon as possible. Tuesday was the day.

Ripping its way through our rolled-down windows, the wind fueled our energy as we drove to Eldorado Canyon. Our goal of climbing “Yellow Spur” seemed to blur out the radio. There was nothing else. Sunny skies welcomed the upcoming climb. The moment was filled with ecstasy.

But as we pulled into the state park, we began to see them. Grey clouds were easing their way into view behind our destined summit.

Quoted a 5% chance of thunderstorms by the park entrance ranger, we still decided to approach the climb. As we toiled forth a mile, the 700 foot elevation gain seemed to bring us closer to a darkened sky. Onward, we hiked every inch of it.

And as we found the first pitch of the climb, flaked our ropes, prepped our gear, and I tossed on my climbing shoes, I became more psyched for the lead. Then, as I placed my first foot onto the rock, we heard it—a booming echo through Eldo’s walls. Thunder struck.

At this point, we were left with a choice. With the clouds appearing to move away, it seemed unlikely for the storm to blow directly through the canyon, but there was still the chance of danger upon the sandstone above.

I think in my past, I may have chanced it.

But, life has a way of changing. This is no secret. Circumstances ebb and flow and our outlooks on the world change with them. I will soon partner with the most beautiful woman in my life; our wedding date is July 18th. It will be the happiest day of my life thus far. I also increasingly yearn to inspire an adventurist culture towards a spiritual understanding of creation. I have many reasons to live. Tuesday was not to take my life for granted. The chance of lightning strike, however slim, was not worth the climb.

Matt and I gathered up our belongings and headed home.

A famous climber and base jumper, Dean Potter, and his friend Graham Hunt recently died while wing suiting in Yosemite National Park. I had the pleasure of meeting Dean a couple of times, and I know some of my friends in the park are suffering the loss of these two individuals.

I have watched over the past couple weeks as climbers nation-wide have responded to their death. Some have stressed the “decision-making” that led to it. On the other extreme, many have commended them for “going out doing what they loved to do.” I hope that both extremes can agree upon one thing. These men were cherished. They lived in this world just like we do, and they had further aspirations for their life that will never be accomplished. This should be tragic to us.

Yet so many responses to their death tried to hit on something beautiful about their final act. Can risk really be beautiful?

Dean and Graham risked it all. Was there beauty in that?

Is there anything for which I would risk everything, including life itself?

For climbing I would not. The people and aspirations for which I live outweigh death on a rock. Sure, climbers constantly face the challenge of risk assessment. Some may even consider the risk of death worth a climb. I myself climb routes that I believe have no serious risk of death. The point is we choose the level of risk we engage when we choose which route to climb.

Eldorado_Canyon_Anthill_Direct_Summit

Andrew Bellisle cleaning the summit of “Anthill Direct” on a different day in Eldorado Canyon

I think life often works the same. There are daily risks of failure, looking the fool, pain, embarrassment, health issues, injury, hurting others, and getting hurt. Like an impending storm, so many of these things are out of our control. We can only control our reactions once they have happened.

But often, we do control our risks by placing ourselves on a certain path. Depending upon which path we choose, certain risks will arise. And we each beautifully decide some of these risks are fully worth taking!

For instance, I know in marrying Laura, I will embrace certain risks: hurting her, being hurt, failing to put her best interests at heart, watching as she goes through sickness and health, seeing her cry, letting her down. But ultimately, these risks are minimal compared to the incredible gain of spending my life with the most beautiful woman I know. She has my heart. She’s worth the risks. And I hope to be for her.

So what risks are we willing to take? Which are worth it? Some are. Some aren’t. It may not be as simple as the cliché, “The greater the risk, the greater the reward.” Perhaps the phrase should be, “The greater the risk, the more sure we should be it’s worth risking.” Then, it can be beautiful.

Let us be selective and wise about the routes we choose. Let us be selective and wise about the risks we take. This is our responsibility. Risks—that are truly worth it—can and should be beautifully taken. Find what those are for you. Embrace them. And go risk it.

Eyes wide open,

Andrew Bellisle

Founder of The Network 5.12

Levitation 29

A gentle ember rose amidst the surrounding cliffs. It was past 5 am just outside of Red Rock Canyon, Nevada, and we emerged from our tents focused on the ensuing climb.

Nothing disturbed the serenity, not even the voices of other rising climbers. The moment was impenetrable, the calmness frozen into the morning air.

Things stayed this way for quite some time. My climbing partner for the day, Rett, jet-boiled water and added it to oatmeal and coffee grinds. We drove into the canyon. We took a last oh-so-precious stop in the porter next to the trailhead. And then we hiked the long but magnificent approach to the base of Levitation 29, our looming challenge of the day. Through it all, serenity remained.

Driving in to Red Rock

Forecast: 68 and sunny.

Jacket: still in the car.

I believed it would only get warmer. And more importantly, I embraced the idea that the morning calm would last the day.

I was wrong.

Each pitch of the climb took us higher into the whipping wind. Apparently, Red Rock Canyon is known for causing chapped lips, but the wind became a larger issue than dry skin.

Starting out on the 1st Pitch

Because of my idiotic choice to leave the jacket behind, my discomfort developed into a more prevailing concern. What was once a mild shiver steadily formed into a more and more violent shake.

The wind was becoming so incessant that I forgot the morning tranquility. Calmness was gone. Painful, howling chaos was all I breathed in. I even no longer noticed the incredible journey of the climb I was on, making each move brainlessly, distracted by the gales that imprisoned my attention.

I was cold. To be honest, I was miserable – a descriptor I have never before used on a climb.

Uncomfortable, missing out on the climb, and even unable to effectively communicate with Rett on the route, it became clear:

The wind tyrannically ruled the day.

But delicately tucked within these grueling hours of climbing, were a few distinct, beloved moments on the rock. Their brevity made them no less adored.

In these cherished seconds, for when the wind would cease, warmth was restored, the glorious views of the canyon faded into my vision, I could properly call commands to my climbing partner, and overall, life would return with vivacious color. I was taught a lesson in this.

Chaos, noise, and discomforts – we so often bring them upon ourselves.

Whether we choose to leave behind our jacket, fill our iCalendars to the brim with meetings and projects, keep the television playing in our homes for the entirety of a day, or constantly place ourselves in the public to feel less alone, we are deciding each day to besiege ourselves with loud, distracting, and ultimately harmful winds.

Sadly, we get so caught up in progress, that unnecessary clamor becomes the norm. We don’t even notice the destructive behavior of our busy-ness anymore.

I am grateful for the rest, for the shelter from the wind that consumed my attention on Levitation 29. The quiet gave me a new appreciation for stillness.

But I now wonder how often I become voluntarily captive to other winds of the world. And I wonder – what serenity am I missing because of their howl.

Andrew Bellisle

Founder of The Network 5.12

Levitation Summit

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From Boulderer to Big-Waller: How to Climb Taller

Our bivy from the last night on the wall

If I had told my college buddies that I would one day be heading up the Nose of El Capitan, they may have immediately laughed in my face.  Big-waller?!  Me?!  No way!

…at least not a couple of years ago.

But a year after graduating, I spent a summer in Yosemite.

And while there, without even meaning to, I learned a few things about how to transition from the small stuff to the big stuff.  Having now climbed Washington Column (via The Prow), Halfdome (via The Northwest Face), and El Capitan (via The Nose), I guess I could say I’m becoming a big-waller.  I feel like I’ve made a solid progression, and perhaps a couple of things that I picked up along the way could be of help to you.

So if you find yourself about to tackle the intimidating task of your first big-wall, here are some thoughts from a climber who just went through a serious transition:

For Starters

In college, I was hands-down a boulderer/sport-climber.  I was terrified of placing gear, and never climbed more than two pitches back to back.  But personally, I would get a little frustrated when old traddies would throw out claims that their level of commitment was above that of us “pebble wrestlers.”  I didn’t see them projecting a V10 for months to stand proud 15 feet off the ground.  At the time, climbing wasn’t about elevation for me, and the long fight of a boulder/sport project was (and still is) in my mind a rewarding, worthy commitment.

But the reality is, that there is a DIFFERENCE between committing to a big wall and a boulder.  No duh.  You can’t deny that.

And while I wouldn’t belt out that either is more difficult than the other (I’ll leave that argument to the Mountain Project and Rock and Ice forums.), I did drastically change my mindset to make it up the walls.  Here’s what I mean:

Mental Change

1.  Learn the technical!

Come on people!  Sure, Alex Honnald is cool.  Yes, free soloing makes you a stud.  But big-walling, most often a combination of trad and aid climbing, requires a great amount of technical knowledge to be done safely.  This past summer, I hit the books as hard as I hit the cliffs.  DON’T SKIMP ON LEARNING THE ROPES!  Knots, anchors, hauling techniques, self-rescue possibilities…learn them all.

Tip: Living in Yosemite, I would supplement rest days with reading time.  Not only did it force me to take days off, but I learned a ton and could keep my psych up during the rest!

2.  Embrace the suffering

Yep.  I said it.  YOU’RE GONNA SUFFER!  And yep, you should suck it up.  I’m not gonna pretend I never let out a complaint.  In fact, I was probably the worst climbing partner ever on every approach (two words: “Death Slabs”)!  But I always found the suffering to be worth the accomplishment.

Tip:  Change a complaint to a joke.  Negative grumbling can wreck a trip.  But light hearted sarcasm about how much you love it when your big toe breaks is better for both your own mental state and your partner.

3.  Work up to the heights

Big walls are…well, big.  And I’ve now heard story after story of climbers being caught off guard by exposure and then trapped in a panic.  My progression to the Nose was not an overnighter.  I worked my way from 1 pitch, to 2, to 5, to 12, and so on.

Tip:  Get accustomed to the exposure before adventuring on your first multi-day, tough-to-turn back wall.

Dave at the end of "Thank God Ledge"

Serious exposure under my climbing partner Dave at the end of “Thank God Ledge” on The Northwest Face of Half Dome.

Physical Change

On top of the mental difficulties of big-wall climbing, there is obviously the physical battle.

After spending 5 months climbing in Yosemite, my body actually changed.  Now understand, I’m 5’8” and a pretty a small guy.  At the beginning of the summer, I only weighed 140 lbs.  I didn’t think I could lose any more weight…but I did.  I actually dropped 10 lbs, both in fat and muscle.

For big walling, you want to be light, lean, and enduring.  Here are a few physical changes I adopted in order to embrace big-walling.

1.  EAT!!!

If you’re used to cragging around boulders or southeastern sandstone, you’re in for a shock when you discover how many carbs you burn on a big-wall.  From what I heard in the valley, climbers will drop anywhere from 5 to 15 lbs on a 3 day climb alone.  You just can’t always replace what you lose up there.  So carb-up before and after climbs!  You’re gonna burn it off. Myself…I go “healthy” with pizza.

2.  Endurance/Stamina

Everyone who has talked to a big-wall-monkey has heard it, but it’s true.  A day on a wall is like doing 1,000 pull-ups, 2,000 sit-ups and running a half-marathon in a day.  ENDURANCE. STAMINA. ENDURANCE. STAMINA. ENDURANCE. STAMINA.  Embrace and obtain them both.  The boulder in me was particularly caught off guard by the level of cardio-endurance I needed in Yosemite.  Get it done.  Go train!  If you aren’t willing to build the stamina, you’re not in for a very fun time.

And Spiritual Change

Sitting and meditating before sandstone boulders in Tennessee brought a spiritual focus to my life that has transformed me as a person.  With intense focus, I would summon the determination and physical strength built into my bones to grab sends with the hardest moves I had ever accomplished.  This would test my design to reach its full potential.

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This is very different from the spiritual journey of climbing a big wall.  To understand more of where I personally am coming from, you’d probably best benefit from reading another of my posts, “Climbing The Nose of El Capitan.”  But to try to sum up my thoughts on the spiritual journey of a wall, I will say this:

If you’ve never embraced the connectivity of this world, if you’ve never thought about how you are engrained into the existence of the universe, you will.  As your fingers meet rock, your breath seeps forth, as you wake up on a ledge and fall asleep to the stars, as you meet hardship and overcome, you will battle through a life-changing experience that will not fail to spark spiritual curiosity.

I myself find answers in the belief of a created world and a man named Jesus.

But from wherever you are coming, allow the curiosity to grow and truly wrestle with your place in this world as you find your place on the rock.  It will only add further growth to the experience.

Andrew Bellisle

Founder of The Network 5.12

So there it is.  If you are about to embark on your first big-wall adventures, I hope this has helped channel your focus to where you could use more commitment.  In fact, the word commitment might sum up what you are about to experience the best.  So go do it.  COMMIT.  To mental, physical, and spiritual change, COMMIT.  Get out there, and big-wall.

If you’re already a big-waller, let’s hear it?  What are other preparations you made in becoming one?  We’d love to have your input!

5 Things the World Should Learn from Climbers about Community

I. Love. The climbing community.  It never ceases to amaze me.  Here are 5 lessons I’ve learned from it that I wish everyone, even people who don’t climb, would too:

1.  Encouragement is easy.

“Come on!  Come on…breathe…yeah, come on.  Stay tight!”  How many times do we climbers listen down to someone yelling phrases like these at us?  Half the time I’m thinking, “STAY TIGHT?!?! Really? You just said that?  If I go any tighter, I’m adding a hernia to my ticklist.”  But on the flipside, the simple words of positive jibberish we use are often exactly what is needed to stick the next hold, take a necessary breathe, or ultimately reach the top.  Climbers know how to encourage one another, and we’ve learned it isn’t that hard to mutter positivity.  The world could use some more encouragement.

Chair_Bouldering

2.  Distrust brings safety.  But trust brings accomplishment.

I feel sorry for people who spend each day with eyes popping out of the back of their heads, just waiting for the next person to stab them in the back.  To them, every stranger is a criminal until proven otherwise.  And sure, their distrust might possibly keep them safe.  But climbers don’t live like that.  Why?  Because we’d never accomplish anything.  My distrust in someone doesn’t get me to the top of a Yosemite big wall.  I have to find a partner I trust.  And believe it or not, it’s really not that hard.  We as climbers put our lives in the hands of belayers every time we harness up, and I for one love the instantaneous trust we’ve learned to develop as a community.  It’s oddly what gets us to the top.  We could all learn to trust a little more.

3.  Competition is ok.  Improvement is better.

For those of us who’ve tasted the competition scene, we’ve experienced something remarkably different about this sport than any other.  Sure, everyone loves to win, but in climbing, winning is only nice if theirs a free pair of climbing overalls as the grand prize.  Pride in one’s status is for the most part insignificant and even frowned upon.  In other words, the emphasis is taken off of always being better than the next guy, and placed on self-improvement.  Not much room for pride here folks.  Let’s all just get a little better.  Hence most competitions just feel like birthday parties.  I wish the entire world focused a little more on improving ones self than being better than the next guy.

4.  Diversity is cool.

You know how you felt the first moment (probably after graduating high school) when you realized that it’s really not that cool being like everybody else?  Climbing gives me that feeling every day.  There seems to be absolutely no kind of magical common factor between climbers.  Trust me.  I’ve searched.  Some climbers are even scared of heights.  Riddle me that!  But it’s beautiful when the adrenaline junky and the slow-and-steady philosopher, the music major and the tax examiner, or the Christian and the Buddhist get together and climb.  Sure, for me, the belief in a Christian creator is a major factor as to why I enjoy this sport.  But that would never stop me from hitting the cliffs with someone who claims a different religion.  We are all so different, yet find joy in this beautiful adventure.  Through it, we have much to learn from one another.  The planet could definitely work to love each other, even in our differences, a lot more. (Note: Embracing the beauty of people’s diversity is not the same as complete tolerance of everything or accepting all beliefs as truth.  Please don’t take this blog in that direction with any comments below!)

ACMNP_Crew_on_Cathedral_Peak

5.  There’s strength in numbers.

Once again a cliché proves true.  The climbing community is faced with a couple of very large tasks: gaining access to climbing land and maintaining that land once we have it.  It has been incredible to witness some of the major develops in these endeavors since I started climbing 5 years ago.  Access funds and conservation movements are gaining constant support as we mount our forces together in respecting this earth.  Trail-building days, competitive fundraisers, movies made to bring awareness, and increasing number of Leave No Trace certifications constantly prove the ability of our unified efforts to bring good into this world as we also accomplish our goals of obtaining new areas to climb.  We work together.  We get it done.  Sounds so simple.

Founder of The Network 5.12

Andrew Bellisle

Alright climbers: What are other lessons you have learned from our community?  We would love to get your thoughts below.

Climbing The Nose of El Capitan

Climbing can mean many different things to many different people: it is a physical, mental, and spiritual activity mixed in with countless other aspects of life.

From a physical perspective, climbing is scaling a mountain, ascending a rock face, or even hauling your tired body up the front porch steps after a long day.

In the mental realm, climbing often references self-motivation, the process of rising above unfortunate and trying circumstances.  From climbing out of bed and pressing on through a tough day to grieving the loss of a loved one, being able to climb over mental obstacles is a necessity in this life.

And through a spiritual lens, climbing takes on yet another context: it is the choice to have faith and hope in something bigger than this world, to grow in communal love with those around you, and in our lowest moments, to reach past feelings of abandonment and alienation in order to find God faithfully waiting on the other side.

Climbing, in short, takes on a lot of different meanings. But no matter how we look at the journey, it always describes something beautiful, some powerful moment of rising above the ordinary. In fact, I’ve never heard someone say, “He climbed his way over that obstacle—I sure wish he hadn’t done that.”

Buck to Sickle

Buck on the first pitch of The Nose

This past week, I was incredibly blessed to go on a three-and-a-half-day climb up The Nose of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.  The climb was magnificent.  The weather was perfect.  The company, my partners Dave and Buck (Buck seen in the picture above), became like family.  And I was pushed to new limits I never knew I could reach.  The aspects of life I mentioned before (the physical, mental, and spiritual) threw down their challenges before me, almost taunting me, shouting, “Let’s see you handle this!”

Now, there is a reason that this post covers aspects of climbing beyond just the physical realm.  For not only was I ascending through the corporeal challenges of climbing The Nose, but moments before we started our journey up this granite wonder, I was informed by my family that my Grandmother would pass away sometime while I was on the wall.  To be honest, I almost didn’t go.  But encouraged by my family, friends and climbing partners, I decided that embarking on this adventure would be the best way for me to deal with such heart-breaking news. In the words to follow are just a few moments from my physical, mental, and spiritual climb up The Nose of El Capitan.

Day 1.  The first night was actually quite laughable.  We wanted to “fix” the first 4 pitches of the climb (meaning that we would climb the first few hundred feet and send anchored ropes back down to the base of the wall).  That way, we could have our haul bags already sitting 300 feet up on Sickle Ledge on Day 2, allowing us to wake up and take off.  But the weight of our haul bags and a touch of inexperience proved to be points of comedy.  Dave, the most experienced of our crew, having just finished another multi-day climb, was leaving the first day’s task (fixing and hauling to the top of pitch 4) up to Buck and I, both of whom had never hauled with a 2:1 system before (a pulley system necessary for hauling that much weight).

After getting to the top of these first four pitches and rappelling back to the base, it was time for Buck and I to haul “the pig” (our 2 bags weighing somewhere around 90 lbs) up to Sickle.  So we set up our haul system and began trying to pull…trying being the key word.  Something wasn’t right: our system of pulleys seemed to be set up well, but the bag wasn’t budging.  Buck and I put our heads together for a long time trying to find a solution only to become super frustrated, tired, and hungry.  The bags were still hanging a foot off the ground!  Finally, around 8:30 PM, we decided to come back later that night with Dave, who could mend the system.  So after grabbing dinner and letting some of the steam Buck and I had built up while “hauling” our bags 12 inches into the air, Dave came back to the base with us and began the grueling task of fixing our mess.

To sum up that night, hauling is an exhausting task, and making things worse, knuckleheads like Buck and I don’t always get it right the first time.  A rough evening ensued, but we pushed through–all the way ‘til 3 am, we climbed on.  And after finally reaching Sickle, I went to sleep very quickly, psyched to be done for the day and excited for a new morning.

Picture taken of us by Tom Evans, author of the El Cap Report

Picture taken of us by Tom Evans, author of the El Cap Report

Day 2.  The next day (our first full day) went rather smoothly.  Between Buck and I, we freed every pitch, with an occasional “French-free” move (pulling on gear to help us past the harder cruxes and such).  Our second day consisted mostly of mental challenges: I was thankful to be with Dave and Buck, high-spirited guys who kept me cheerful and psyched on the climb, despite the news I had received the day before.  That night, we slept on Dolt Tower, extremely satisfied after a nearly perfect day.

Day 3.  The third was similar to day two, but was full of some classics (world renowned portions/pitches of the climb) that tend to give people trouble.  Buck got us started by crushing the King Swing, a part of the climb in which the climber lowers down from an anchored point to swing 30 feet to the left, reaching a different crack system in order to continue climbing upwards.  This was quite a remarkable feat to watch, and he nailed it on his first attempt, even pausing for a second after grabbing the intended corner to chalk up and mantle his way around the side, reaching the new destination.

Soon afterward, we hit our main obstacle of the day.  While lowering our gear and maneuvering it over to the new crack system, our bags got stuck in a crack.  A stuck bag or rope often becomes a huge point of frustration for climbing teams.  Retrieving it can result in hours of delay.  But thankfully, in this situation we reacted quickly and were able to pull a few shenanigans to get back on track quickly.

Soon after moving again, the afternoon brought my favorite moments of the whole trip: I was able to aid through The Great Roof, a section of the climb rated C2, and free through the Pancake Flake, rated at a solid 5.10.  Both went super smooth, and day 3 was another huge success.  We slept at Camp V.

Our bivy from the last night on the wall

Our bivy from the last night on the wall

Day 4.  The final day was going to bring some more challenges.  I was getting tired, but that day was mine to start off leading.  I would be mostly aid climbing, going through 4 pitches of overhanging rock, the last of which was the well known pitch Changing Corners.  This is another C2 pitch that holds a move in which the leader must delicately stand in one aider (a webbing ladder) while reaching around an arête (corner) to place a brass micro-nut well above his or her head into another crack system.  For any non-climber reading, that last sentence translates to this: Changing Corners is hard.

My first attempt actually failed.  As I dropped my weight onto the nut I had placed, it stripped, and I took a 7 foot fall onto the last piece I had placed (still connected to my daisy chain).  It hurt.  And having already been on this pitch for an hour, baking in the sun, it took every bit of drive I had to push past the fall, get back into the aiders, and start again.  But I did.  And I finished the pitch without any other mishaps.  It was incredible: my portion of leading on The Nose was finished!  Dave took us the rest of the way up, and we topped out the 4th day to see a remarkable sunset sprawling out all across the Yosemite Valley.

It was under this sky, at the top of El Capitan while calling my folks to give them news of our safe ascent, that I received word of my Grandmother’s death.  It immediately felt like the climb wasn’t over.  Struggling to swallow and gather my thoughts, I was overwhelmed with so many competing emotions: a deep longing and loss, a remarkable satisfaction from finishing the climb, a brotherly love for my partners who had just gone through it all with me, and a yearning to be home with my family who would be grieving in the coming weeks.  It was hard to process.  But as time passed, and I’ve been able to sort through the muddiness of that moment, I’ve come to new understanding of what it means to climb.

We all do it.  We climb every day.  In order to overcome the obstacles that life presents, we honestly aren’t left much of a choice but to climb.  On El Cap, it feels physical, like heaving heavy haul bags, unfixing a stuck rope, and continuing on in the moments after a fall.  But physical moments of climbing aren’t the only challenges we face: just as tangibly, life brings tough days at work, family arguments, messed up travel plans, unpaid bills… or the loss of a loved one.  And each of these circumstances requires climbing.

So how can we climb through them?  Perhaps it is quite similar to what we do as rock-climbers.  We relish in the difficulty.  We learn from our mistakes.  We celebrate once we’ve made it through.  And then we brace ourselves for the next obstacle.

Life is full of climbs, and we almost always make it through them when we set our mind to it.  So my encouragement in this post is this: Relish, learn, celebrate, and brace.  Then, when all else fails, dig deep, and keep climbing.  Because when you do, when you gain the other side of the cliff you just climbed, you will find the deepest and most remarkable satisfaction in the fact that you are living your life to the fullest, embracing all it has to offer, and accomplishing climbs you once never thought possible.

So keep climbing.

Andrew Bellisle

Founder of The Network 5.12

Climbing Halfdome

After a two and a half mile hike referred to as “The Death Slabs,” an approach gaining 3,000 feet in elevation, there stands another 2,400 feet of raw granite cliff towering over the Yosemite Valley floor.  The Northwest Face of Halfdome is a 23 pitch route that climbs free at 5.12 or aids at 5.9/C2.  For anyone reading who does not know what any of this means, it is simple:

Climbing the Northwest Face of Halfdome is not exactly easy.  Up to date, it is the hardest physical feat of my life.  I hope the following words neither sell short or boast of the send.  Many have achieved far greater climbs or have climbed this particular route with far more excellence.  But I loved the adventure, and even more importantly, I learned a lot along the way.  So here is a taste of climbing up the granite wonder.  Here is climbing Halfdome.

Sunday, August 4th

6:30 pm

Given 70 degree weather and an encroaching darkness, Dave and I began to knock out the approach up the Death Slabs.  We chased the sun for every second it would concede, but 3,000 feet of elevation gain over only two and a half miles with a thirty pound pack of gear on my back beat my chicken legs to jelly!  Easier put: I was slow.  The sun escaped.  Night fell.  Meanwhile, the presiding emotion up this grueling trail was turning to a fear that I would lack the energy in the morning to actually climb the face.  Thankfully, this changed.  A moment of pure encouragement, emotional refueling, and spiritual renewal awaited me at the base.

10 pm

Throwing our packs down at our bivy (our campsite at the base), I dragged myself to the source of this incredible moment.  15 feet right of the first pitch of the climb, Halfdome conceals the most pure and quaint spring right out of its base.  If water is a symbol of life, this spring could reveal one’s purpose.  I wish I could send you each a bottle of this spectacular energy.  Sitting at this spring, guzzling its gifts, thinking of all the climbers who have been given their water out of the very wall we climb, blew my mind.  I was overwhelmed with how perfect that moment was.  Nothing else mattered.  Minutes before, I had been mentally and physically destroyed, apprehensive of the following days task, and now, with simple sips of water, I was psyched for the adventure and keenly aware to the beautiful metaphor that this spring painted of life’s purpose.  Halfdome, the very climb that yearned for my attention and devotion, was willing to give me the source of life I would need to finish the task it called me to.  It gave me more than water.  It gave me energy.  It gave me life.

10:30 pm

I fell asleep to the stars.  A years worth of reading could be written about the stars in Yosemite.  For the sake of your time, I’ll leave it at this: THEY NEVER QUIT APPEARING!  I think new ones came into sight until the moment I last closed my eyes.

Monday, August 5th

4:30 am

It didn’t take long for Dave’s wake up call to get me into a seated position.  I was psyched.  Breakfast.  Gearing up.  Filling water again.  Calming down.  The norm.  Here we go!

Northwest Face 2

The Spring at the Base

5:35 am

I began leading the first pitch.  Early.  Nervous.  5:35 am.  Still warming up.  The first pitch goes at 5.8, IF you stay on route.  Unfortunately, a deceitful crack and a lack of good beta resulted in me heading up a very stout hand crack.  Well protected by a red #1, I was pushing through to a tree that was clearly on route, but took a pretty unexpected fall before I could get there.  To say the least, it shook me up!  This was supposed to be a 5.8 easy pitch, the FIRST pitch of the biggest climb I had ever attempted, and I already fell!!…But I was more than safe.  I had just simply veered too far right.  Resulting was a quick painless whipper on that strong #1.  That’s all.  No big deal.  I took in more life with a few sips of water, and I began again…this time, on route.  Pitch 1 down.  Pitch 2 and 3 linked easy.

7:25 am

We sat at the top of pitch 3.  My rhythm was restored.  We weren’t exactly breaking a speed record, but things were locking in along with the assurance that I could do this.  Having chosen to lead pitches 1-9, pitch 4 would hold the crux of my block of leading for the day.  Now Dave and I made the decision not to fully aid any of the climb.  We would either free climb anything in our realm or French free (pull on gear) anything above our grade.  Pitch 4 starts with a 5.11 lieback and turns to a 5.10c fingers section.  This was it.  If I could climb this, I knew I had it.  And I did.  Pulling on gear a few times, I was able to cruise quickly through pitch 4, keeping rhythm as we also linked pitch 5.  The groove was set, and I was now fully psyched!  This was gonna happen!  We were climbing Halfdome!

My portion of leading ended without much other delay.  I slightly got off route again while simul-climbing pitch 8 (we simuled 7, 8, and 9 for those wanting beta), but it was an easy fix and we regained a lot of time before pitch 10.

11:30 am

Dave took over.  What can I say?  He’s a champ.  I won’t give as much detail for the rest of the climb, for he led the rest, but he absolutely crushed.  The only hold-ups were me getting a rope stuck while jugging pitch 13, a 5.9 squeeze/chimney with a couple of snags at the bottom and Dave putting in a number 2 that walked itself into an over-cammed position on Thank God Ledge, pitch 21 (see picture below).  Both would be easily avoidable the next time but good lessons learned.

8:35 pm

We topped out to the best sunset I’ve seen here in the valley.  The Valley, never having much cloud cover and engulfed by cliffs, doesn’t lend to the most breathtaking sunsets, but on top of Halfdome Monday, being above the cliffs and having a partly cloudy evening, our eyes sponged in the fiery glow surrounding our summit.  And while standing on the granite peak before this splendor, I took my last sip of water.  My 2 liter had lasted me perfectly through the climb.  The spring had given me exactly what I needed to top out.  It was time to hike down the 9 mile trail.

The Summit at Sunset

The Summit at Sunset

11:00 pm

After 2 hours of hiking without water and a very physically demanding day, dehydration set in.  Cotton mouth reigned to say the least.  But hope was to come.  Another source of water existed 1 mile from the finish.  We just had to get there.

Midnight

The story comes full circle.  We arrived at the water filling station just off the bridge below Vernal Falls.  I pounced at the spicket and was reminded of the Halfdome spring.  This water was not as natural or spectacular in theory, but never the less, it was water, the source of the life I would need to hike the last mile to the valley floor.  It seems the fuel we need is always right around the corner when we need it most.

Tuesday, August 6th

1:30 am

A shower had been surreal.  Food had been devoured.  And the warmth of my bed was again embraced.  I was safe.  The climb was complete.  This was the moment of full satisfaction.  I wish I could gift-wrap this feeling and send it along with the bottle of Halfdome spring water, but I am sure you too have done something in your life that has brought you this feeling of contentment.

People are built to be incredible beings.  We can do amazing things.  This has been said before, and I might not even need to tell most of you.  But the one thing I believe I learned most from this journey, the thing that is perhaps good for all of us to be reminded of is this: When we are accomplishing the unthinkable, whether ticking off our hardest sends as climbers or attacking life with more vigor and love for our neighbor than ever before, we must remember our source of energy.

Much like the water taken from the source of Halfdome itself, the water that sustained me to the end of the climb, I feel that the God in charge of this all, the one who created that water in the first place, has called me to a purpose, and He gives me the energy I need to complete each step of the plan.  All I have to do is drink.

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Andrew Bellisle

Founder of The Network 5.12

Is Faith Just a Box?

Can I be honest?  I hate being told what I cannot do.  Period.  There, I said it.  Being told I can’t do something is never fun.  The words “You can’t do it” tend to precede a flailing and often failing attempt to do it anyway. This may sound juvenile, but it’s not just me!  I’ve watched friends do the same.  I’ve watched limit-pushers talk to strangers, chug hot sauce, and eat live goldfish, all just to say, “There.  It’s been done.  The world is in order.  Now, give me a cookie.”  There’s a switch that goes off when we are told we can’t do something, a simple beckoning turns on to prove that we can.

I find this to be especially true of outdoor adventurists.  We want to break limits, move boundaries, and overcome obstacles.  This is perhaps one of the number one reasons I climb.  If you climb rocks too, maybe you can relate.  Think about it, we climb up a rock, we look around for a little bit, and then we come back down.  That doesn’t exactly make a whole lot of sense…until one has climbed.  The finish of a route is where lies the understanding.  Perhaps this is because at that point, you have done it.  You have proven that you can.  There’s no greater feeling than accomplishing something that did not seem possible.

My friend Lillian pushing through a difficult route for her.  Great moment to witness!

My friend Lillian Brace pushing through a difficult route for her. Great moment to witness!

But unfortunately, the need to prove we can do stuff is often paired with hesitation in other arenas of our lives.  In attempts to prove we are capable of anything, we keep ourselves from committing to anything with the appearance that it will box us in.  I find our generation to be terrified of commitment; we are scared to give ourselves to one spouse, stay with one job, or believe religiously in one thing.  We say things like:

“But what if she isn’t THE one?”

“What if the lousier job pays more?”

“What if I am wrong?”

Could passionate commitment be dying?  Spiritual commitment is certainly gaining the appearance of putting people into a coffin.  Not only with religious faith is there the question looming, “What if I am wrong?” but people also view religion as a list of rules, restrictions, and do’s and don’t’s.  The consensus I hear from most people unwilling to step into a spiritual journey is that faith puts people into a very tiny, unsophisticated, restricting box; so distrust in the spiritual often exists because most people hear from faith whispers of “you can’t” instead of “you can.”

But no.  Am I allowed to say that this has not been my experience with faith at all?!  My beliefs in a creator and in Jesus are constant reminders of what I have done, what I can do, and what I will accomplish through my continued understanding of who God is and the spiritual realm that flows through out this world.  When exploring the wild, my faith binds me with nature, giving me the full abundance of life when I hike or climb because I understand the interconnectivity of the creation of this world, from ground to plant to rock to me; a comprehension of nature’s existence elevates my experience as I work my way up the granite cliffs of Yosemite, the red rock of Colorado, or the sandstone in the Red River Gorge.  In the monotony of cashiering at a grocery store (my current job in Yosemite), I am able to still enjoy a spiritual experience in every moment, because I have a faith that I was created as a communal being to be in relationship with each person coming through my line, whether they are from the United States, Korea, Germany, or Australia.  In attempts to love and encourage others living in the tent village where I sleep, I am motivated to selflessly give and serve more and more because of my developing understanding of who I believe Christ to be and what He has called us to do.  So no, my faith does not hinder me by throwing me into a self-destructive box; as I continue to embrace and learn about it, my faith encourages me to go at life with more vigor and more adventure than I ever have before.

The start of my recent first trad lead, "Bishop's Terrace" 5.8 in Yosemite National Park.

The start of my first trad lead ever, “Bishop’s Terrace” 5.8 in Yosemite National Park.

My experiences climbing have no doubt helped to bring about this perspective on faith.  I know that as I both climb harder and higher, I am learning to believe deeper and follow more faithfully the words of Jesus, truly liberating ideas brought forth by an incredible man.  So my challenge for people who say faith is just a box is simple.  What if faith is exactly what needs to be embraced in order to live in life’s full abundance?  That is exactly what I believe faith has done for me.

Embracing faith,

Andrew Bellisle

Founder of The Network 5.12