After spending some time back down in New River Gorge, it’s finally starting to feel like summer again. The nice thing about having an extended period of time to climb is that you’re not in this huge rush to get everything done. Friends from Philly and Lynchburg came down to spend the weekend with me, and Zac Mutter and Kristen Branin were excited to check out Butcher’s Branch at Kaymoor. It gave us some time to play around at the Glory Hole, the perfect place to start your day or burn out on at the end of it.

Zac was super excited about a route called Lost Souls (5.12a), which had a tricky little start sequence until you figured out how to use the smaller holds to get to jugs.

Lost Souls has two long reaches to horizontals that couldn’t be more positive if they tried. After two HUGE dynamic moves to jugs, there is a thank God hold at the end. It has GREAT movement, a fun traverse before you pump out, and is totally exciting and fun to project!

Zac cruising past the starting moves on Lost Souls (5.12a) in the New River Gorge

Zac hung the draws to work the moves and continued to go for the redpoint afterwards. Watching Zac and Kristen had me seriously thinking about climbing partnerships. I met Zac and Kristen in Red River Gorge one year ago on my last day in town. Kristen’s pup, Roman, and Shooter were scrapping around in the basketball court one morning. Even though we never had the chance to climb together until this year, they are probably two of my favorite humans.

Good climbing relationships are always so interesting and awesome to me. I watched Kristen belay Zac on his project and how patient and supportive she was, and I started thinking about the best belays I’ve had. Most of the time, I don’t mind who is going to give me a catch, but when I’m working on something intimidating, it becomes one of the most important elements in my climb.

Zac caught me on Lost Souls and when I came down, I told him how his tone of voice had such a  calming effect on me when I was up there. Even when the moves were hard and I felt myself slipping, he talked me through it the whole way. Everybody needs the kind of belayer who can encourage you, but also one who believes in you and makes you believe that they believe in you. It’s a good day when you have a solid, competent belayer. You’re one of the lucky ones if you have a belayer like Kristen or Zac holding the other end of the rope.

Zac, Kristen, and Roman dog. Photograph by Anthony Italiano

Saturday brought us to Beauty Mountain where Mikaela and I passed the Genocide cave and continued on to Burning Buttress. Mikaela climbed her first crack called Happy Hands (5.9), which was just a really sublime line. It has super good hands with several face features and was an all around fun, physical climb.

Wham Bam and Thanks for the Jam (5.10b) to the left of the slab was the last climb of the day. My crack climbing technique is definitely not perfect, but I’m learning. I’m finally figuring out better ways to jam and how to use the crack to my advantage. The coolest part about climbing crack is that you can take the grades and throw them out the window because every crack is dependent on your size and shape.

What I’ve learned is that body position is key and I’ve started experimenting to find what works well for me. As soon as I had figured out how to create oppositional pressure between a crack, I could hang off of it all day long. It was better than a jug!

Mikaela Wegerhoff working some interesting compression moves herself on Chunky Monkey (5.12b)

And THEN you have offwidth cracks. They have been a great mystery to me for some time now. People often say you have to enjoy suffering on an entirely new level. Because of how strenuous and desperate they can be, the challenge to use all parts of my body is exciting. Offwidths take more strategy to get up, and strategy is something I do not excel at.

There is no cheating your way through most cracks, wide or small. Often times, I will come across face features which I will sometimes use. I tell myself that to dedicate myself only to the crack is silly because an efficient climber should observe an entire route and use everything that is available. That’s smarter climbing, in my opinion.

After playing in the Hole during the morning hours, we left for Bridge in the afternoon. Let’s Get Physical (5.12a) was my dream climb this trip, and with my borrowed 5 and 6, I had no excuses. We dropped our packs and there was no delay. Nic Lazzareschi got straight to business and told me to rack up, while Gaz Leah and Chris Spratta practiced aiding wet routes off to the right.

Spratta displaying alternative anchor systems at the Hole

Well, I couldn’t have picked a worse day to try and climb it. The entire lower section was sopping wet. Pulling through the first roof is not supposed to be any harder than 5.10, but it was grunt work and the slick rock made it feel much more insecure. I delicately walked my feet to pull through the roof, and I rested at the pod for a good long while.

There was a lot of what I like to call “waffling”. I leaned over, scoped out my next move, put a piece of gear in, and walked back down to the pod. I eventually accepted defeat, having absolutely no clue what I was doing. I could shove my legs in, but my feet ached so much from the cam. I tried to use an inside crimp to help upright myself, but I was unsuccessful. Also, how the fuck does one chicken wing?

Now Nic and I have a reason to practice front levers. I’ll be back for the send, someday.

A humble attempt at Let’s Get Physical (5.12a), New River Gorge. Photograph by Elliot Gaunt

I really appreciated the time that Nic and Elliot took to belay and encourage me on the route, which was well out of my league. Zac’s words from the beginning of the trip came fluttering back to me, and I remembered that it’s about sharing the psych of others and acknowledging and celebrating the person on the other end of the rope. Zac had said to me: “I get just as stoked watching someone else climb as if I were to climb it myself.

Those are powerful words to me.

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