The best part about having an extended period of time to climb is that you’re not in this huge rush to get everything done. I took some time off to head back down to the New River Gorge and meet some friends from Philly.  Zac Mutter was excited to climb at Butcher’s Branch at Kaymoor, and I was happy to explore a new crag.

He had his eye on a sport climb called Lost Souls (5.12a), which had a tricky little start sequence. There were two long reaches to horizontals, and 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 hung the draws to work the moves and quickly went to work on his redpoint attempt.

Zac cruising past the starting moves on Lost Souls (5.12a)

I had met Zac and his girlfriend, Kristen Branin, in the Red River Gorge one year ago while their pup, Roman, and Shooter chased each other around at Miguel’s one morning. Since they travel together during the year so much, they are typically each other’s regular climbing partners. As I watched Kristen belay Zac on Lost Souls, I noticed how incredibly patient and supportive she was. I don’t know that I’d really given much thought to who belayed me before that day. I realized how much confidence a good belayer versus a good belay actually gave me.

When it was my turn, I tied in and Zac held the end of the rope. His tone of voice had an immediate calming effect on me. Even when the moves were hard and I felt myself slipping into panic mode, he talked me through it the whole way, giving me enough confidence to eventually make it to the chains. 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. Photograph courtesy of Anthony Italiano

We continued to explore some new areas this trip, specifically those with crack climbs. My crack climbing technique is definitely not perfect, but I’m having fun as I slowly learn how to jam my hands. What might be the coolest part about climbing crack is that you can take grades and throw them out the window because the level of difficulty is solely dependent on your size. Learning how to hang off of a hand jam was a game changer for me–it was better than a jug!

And then the great mystery: offwidths. I’m told that you have to enjoy suffering on an entirely new level because of how strenuous and desperate they can be. I’m enjoying being faced with the challenge to use my entire body. Maybe one day, I’ll even be moderately ok at them.

Either way, there is no cheating your way through most cracks, wide or small.

A humble attempt at Let’s Get Physical (5.12a). I have no idea what I’m doing. Photograph by Elliot Gaunt

My appetite bigger than my ability, I coerced the group to head to Bridge Buttress in the late afternoon. I wanted to try Let’s Get Physical, a 5.12 crack that calls for an invert at the base of the lip. The route is 5.10ish up to the second roof. I had borrowed 5s and 6s before leaving on this trip, and so I had no excuses not to try it.

Well, I couldn’t have picked a worse day. 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 insecure. I delicately walked my feet to pull through the roof, and I rested in the pod for a while.

I leaned over, scoped out my next move, and put in a piece of gear. I could shove my legs inside of it, but my feet ached so much from the pressure. I tried over and over again to use an inside crimp to help upright myself but was unsuccessful. Also, what the fuck is a chicken wing?

The route is aptly named. I was physically beat and shut down, but I still really appreciated the time my partner took to belay and encourage me. Zac’s words from the beginning of the trip came fluttering back to me, and I remembered that it should always be about sharing others’ psych as much as your own. Zac said, “I get just as stoked watching someone else climb as if I were to climb it myself.

Those are powerful words to me.


Cover photograph courtesy of Anthony Italiano.

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