What big-wall climbing teaches you about life

There are many subtle things that climbing teaches you, beyond using gear and climbing technique, that I think can help you live a better life. In life, as with climbing, the bigger the challenge the more (and faster) you learn;  there are some interesting parallels between being successful on big wall routes and doing well in life.

Aid climbing and the habits that define you

Personally I find aid climbing a slow, however, not being super strong, on big walls I will generally find myself doing it at some point. That said, the interesting thing about aid climbing is that the lazier you are, the harder and slower it is. Efficiency is everything.

(If you do not know what aid climbing is; it is basically sticking in a bit of climbing gear to the rock, attaching a fabric ladder, climbing the ladder and putting another bit of gear in. Repeat.)

Nathan Murphy aid climbing.
Aid climbing, Photo Oli Lyon

For example; let’s say you aid climb 1000ft of a route, your aiders are about 5ft long with about 1ft per step.

If you are being a little lazy, you use the second step on your aider and place your gear at a ‘comfortable’ distance, instead of top-stepping and placing the gear as high as you can, the difference in height gained at each placement can easily be 2ft.

Over a 1000 ft route, this would mean 330 placements instead of 200… 130 extra placements, at 3 minutes each = 390 minutes = 6.5 hours more time spent climbing. This can easily mean an extra day on the wall, which means more food and water, which means slower and harder hauling compounding the inefficiency.

The point I am getting at is that, seemingly benign inefficiencies, when multiplied out throughout a route has a significant impact on your ability, and the time it takes, to reach your goal.

Your life is a bit like a really long aid climb and, almost any way you cut it, this analogy applies, for example;

Health; That bit of cake every day, along with a tendency to skip a bit of exercise for the odd drink after work seems totally fine, but over a period of 20 years, the extra calories in, and fewer calories out means you put on weight. Combined with a slowing metabolism and the fact that being fat makes exercise harder you ‘come to terms’ with the ‘inevitability’ of putting on ‘middle age spread’ and now your just another fat dude sweating it out on the tube wearing a suit that used to fit.

Your personal projects; Most people I know have some kind of side-project. Something they are doing which is not their main vocation but would kinda like it to be. However most people I know do not work overly hard to achieve the side goal and, in reality, because ‘today was a long day at work’ or ‘I deserve a rest/treat/meal out’ or the myriad of lame excuses people use to do nothing in the part of the day don’t sell to an employer, they don’t get it done. If you spent a little over 2 hours a day on your project; it would equate to 16 hours; 2 ‘working days’ a week. If you were given 2 working days a week by your employer to do your own thing; what would you get done?

The reality is that you have more than ‘2 days a week’. After a 5pm finish you have about 7hrs of usable time before you go to bed – plus your weekends. You easily have another working week within your normal ‘working week’ should you want to use it. Not using it is a gross waste of your time and does no justice to the value of your life.

Financially; Let’s you like a nice coffee and a bit of cake every working day, you buy your lunch at the sandwich shop near work and you take the tube instead of cycling. Say this costs, as it would in London, £15/day. Over a year = £3975. Over 20 years with 8% compound interest; £175,000; which could give you £14,000/year in interest in your retirement and enable you to retire a few years earlier. Instead, due to a seemingly benign ‘comfort’ habits you work longer and are less financially secure.

The same goes with.. maintaining relationships, improving skills and probably many other areas I have not thought of. Essentially your life, with any luck, is many years long and small comforts and lazy actions are magnified by time and can make the difference between early or late retirement, physical health or obesity, or simply meeting the goals that make you feel satisfied with what you have achieved and live without regret.

Use the top step.

Speed climbing / goal focus

This is about focus and taking risks.

Speed climbing usually involves commitment and a slightly higher level of risk; you carry next to nothing so a second day would be a real problem and you are probably short fixing (leader self belays the next pitch while the second jumars/cleans) or climbing together where there is more risk of injury in the case of a fall.

Whatever you want to do, doing it in your ‘spare’ time is going to be less efficient compared with doing it full time. All that time spent hauling and messing around with your job slows everything down.  Being 100% committed and taking the risk, speed climbing gives you focus; the option of a night on a hard ledge with no sleeping bag and no water or food is pretty unattractive and this positive stress forces continuous action.

So you want to do [thing-you-want-to-do], if you do it in your ‘spare’ time say it might take 5 years. If you focus completely; it would probably take 6 months.. this obviously depends on what you are doing and how well you use your ‘spare’ time but going at something hard and fast, although tougher, is the usually the quickest way to meet your goal.

In summary..

Loosely speaking, you could apply this to many sports, especially endurance activities, but for me, there is something about the big wall experience that amplifies life-scenarios in a way that, with retrospective analysis, can give clarity and insight in to the way I live my life.

There are also obviously many other things climbing in general teaches you, from relationships, handling stress, injury management etc etc.. but big-wall specific; this is my take 🙂

Half Dome in a day

As part of our three week trip to the valley we wanted to climb the Regular route on Half Dome. After resting from speed climbing the Leaning Tower we geared up and got ready to hike up to the base of Half Dome. We went up the death-slab route which, although steep and pretty arduous with all the gear, was actually not too bad. There were fixed ropes in place for the steep sections that you could hand-over hand climb so the main trouble was a lack of fitness. As it was a surprise trip (only one week’s notice) my general fitness was not particularly amazing – my office-conditioned legs could not keep up with Oli – a ski racing coach when it came to strength and up-hill plodding.

Regular Route on Half Dome
Half Dome – Pic by Oli Lyon
Oli Lyon at Half Dome Camp
Oli Lyon at Half Dome Camp

Half way up we enjoyed some amazing views and after a while, and forcing through quite a lot of shrubbery with big bags, we got to the base of Half Dome. Like all the other routes on this end-of-season trip we had the entire face to ourselves (with the exception of a wing-suit flyer jumping at dusk). We didn’t want to bring up a stove, plates or cooking equipment and as we had bought burgers, sausages and baps we figured we could make a stone-based cooking arrangement.

Nathan Murphy Cooking food on a rock
Cooking food on a rock & comp sauce sachets from the shops

I slept badly for some reason despite being warm enough and on a perfectly flat surface – we got up – racked up and moved to the base of the route.

The plan was to climb most the route moving-together and using a Wild-Country Rope-Man at belays to prevent the second climber pulling the leader off incase of a fall.

The second strategic decision for the route was for me to lead the whole route and Oli, being more experienced at cleaning gear, would second.

I raced up the first pitch, pretty easy climbing and I placed the minimum amount of gear for saftey in order to reduce the number of times we needed to transfer gear up to me on the tag line.

As I got around 25 meters of the deck I lunged up for an edge – my right foot on a smear however as I touched the edge with my left hand my foot popped off – a bit more polished than expected perhaps – and I fell about 30ft in a weird fall in which I seemed to lumber and slide my way down the corner. It was a pretty daft mistake; but I carried on after a mildly disappointing assessment that, with the exception of a few bumps and a cut finger,  I was good to keep leading.

We got off to a pretty bad start! The first half of the route is actually very craggy/meandering – it is like a long HVS pitch – and we had way too much rope between us to do this simul-climbing. The rope drag got REDICULOUS and at the time Oli thought I was just faffing like a little bitch but the reality was I was placing gear every 10 to 15 meters and was still having to haul rope up, perhaps hold it my teeth before climbing a section.

In one section I was in such a climbing frenzy to make up lost time I went about 20m off route, climbing up very loose blocky rock, and after a while I just could not get more rope – it was totally jammed – a blessing in reality as it made me take stock of the route and my bad navigation. It did mean however down climbing the section unprotected as the rope was so jammed it would not feed back to Oli.

In retrospect the whole charade was down to poor communication; partly Oli’s fault for pushing and not listening but mainly my fault for pushing past Oli’s certainty – until he understood what I was trying to communicate. It did not help that for the duration we were at least a pitch a part – usually more. I should have forced Oli to come up to my belay and explain the issues but at the time I just could not be arsed so carried on with rope drag in a mild cut-my-nose-of-to-spite-my-own-face way.

Anyway – it all came to a head when taking a carabiner off the back of my harness, not realising the small wire of the rope-man was hanging on it, I managed to neatly roll it off the biner and drop it down the route. From there we were back to short-fixing and a much more relaxed style of climbing – it was from then on we started to enjoy the climbing again and moved well.

We were hoping to climb the route in 10 hours or so, but our bad start had totally destroyed that so we just went at a normal short-fixing pace.

Nathan Murphy (author) on Half Dome's awesome crack climbs
Nathan Murphy (author) on Half Dome’s awesome crack climbs

We had lots of fun, I kept on leading until we got to a big squeeze chimney in which I just could not figure out how to do so I put ‘Oli-off-width-master-Lyon’ on the job. As I lowered on some old tat – it gave way – luckily it was backed up a few feet below with a cam – but always a good reminder and gave me a nice retro sling (it had managed to work itself around the edge of a chock stone). Oli dispatched the squeeze chimney quickly – at times during this pitch he was totally sideways with his legs kicking out the crack like a frog. He clipped a piton, I jumared up got back on the lead, and we carried on for a few hours.

Night fell quickly and, at a suitable spot I suggested swapping lead for a bit, after 15 hours on lead I was getting pretty tired and needed a bit of belay-time to eat some food and re-charge. It was about that time that I found how crap Oli’s torch was; he had been using a Petzl E-Lite as his main torch for the trip – light and stuff – but his one had become faulty during our trip – it had a loose connection or something which meant that 80% of the time it was off. This meant when jumaring & cleaning you had to keep shaking your head to try and get the torch to give a flicker of light in-between hanging in darkness. This obviously slowed down the progress of the second.

Oli accepted and lead the next few pitches until he found a belay spot in a square slanted hole about 15ft deep, it was probably around 11pm by now and Oli who loves a shit bivi (and another) and was was also tired thought we should try and bivi for the night in the hole. It was rediculous but I lowered him down, the bottom was pretty narrow and it would have been a bloody terrible bivi.

Oli in his ‘bivi’ spot hole

Despite Oli’s enthusiasm for a vertical stacked/cramped bivi I suggested we get on with the route so I racked up and took the lead again. As we reached Thank’s Giving ledge I put a couple of great cams in the corner for Oli to jumar up; I walked back and forth up and down the ledge – partly to entertain myself and partly to see what was coming (I did the last two pitches in one so did not have enough rope to short fix) – in the day time I imagine there would be quite a lot of exposure, but at night the 1000ft drop was basically irrelevant.

Oli got up, I moved fast across the ledge, up the squeeze chimney and on to the face. There are a couple of cam hook moves, and not having used one before, actually managed to pop one and take a reasonable swing which was punctuated by some course language. After that was some face climbing and not long after we were finally at the top of the route.

On the last pitch a pain in my big toes, which had been accumulating, really started to come through, I took off my climbing shoes and it was seriously painful. Wearing fairly tight rock shoes for 21 hours non-stop the pressure on the back of my nail was causing serious aggravation. To add to this the temperature being around zero or -1°C combined with the pressure of tight shoes meant blood had not been able to get to my toes for quite a while and, perhaps partly a result of previous frostbite, this caused loss of feeling in my big toes for two to three months.

We finished the route we were both pretty knackered – the whole thing had taken around 21 hours – waaaaay longer than planned but it does not really matter. The route is incredible – simply brilliant and fun climbing throughout!

At the top we walked around for quite a while trying to find the Cables to get down, but as they had been taken down for winter they were hard to find at night, we got out the wind, put our feet in our bags, I borrowed one of Oli’s many jackets and we just lay down trying to be warm in a rather chilly bivi until the sun came up.

As soon as it did we decended holding on to the cables (which were laying on the floor) and walked back to camp. I did most of it in bare feet as putting my swollen toes in to my shoes was more painful then walking on granite rubble.

Half Dome was a great route – a good learning experience; I had not simul-climbed much on rock routes before and otherwise was just brilliant climbing.

Nathan Murphy (author) looking a bit wasted
Nathan Murphy (author) looking a bit wasted
Hands after 21 hours climbing
Hands after 21 hours climbing

The Leaning Tower in a day

The West Face of The Leaning Tower, North Americas biggest over-hanging rock face, was an obvious choice for a speed ascent during our short trip to Yosemite (November 2010). Our plan was for me to lead the first half and Oli to lead the second half. The ‘average ascent’ time is 3 days, but we were aiming to do the route in under 12 hours.

After managing to hitch a ride to the the end of the trail we hiked up the the start and made camp on a small flat area to the right of the traverse to the base of the route.

As we made-camp we buried our food bags under a pile of rocks in the hope that it would reduce any bear-enticing smells. Oli was not overly keen about sleeping here, and put up a few skinny branches in the hope that it would alert us to any sneaky bears. I slept like a log – Oli probably managing to give himself a bit of bear-paranoia and, as a forest is never quiet at night, did not sleep well at all.

We got up & racked up and traversed to the base of the climb. The traverse was pretty easy, but we roped up to be safe. I started up the first two pitches; aiding a steep overhanging bolt ladder, leaving just single biners on ever 4th bolt for protection. The aim was to be as economical on gear as possible because as we were short fixing the route we needed to move efficiently.  We climbed on a single 70m rope and trailed a 50m tag-line for passing up gear to the leader; short-fixing means you rarely meet your second at a belay so the leader needs to be resupplied with protection every so often using the tag-line.

We climbed quickly to a big ledge, traversed right up a funky rock feature with small pro and up towards some free-climbing before hitting a bolt ladder. A couple pitches after this Oli joined me at the belay, we switched over gear, and Oli took the lead.

Oli climbed the overhanging corners fairly quickly and it was not long until he was on the big roof in the top section of the route. That went well, but when it came to cleaning the roof I managed to get myself a bit tied in while trying to get the gear from the back of the route without leaving any pro behind. It ended up with me having to use a shit load of arm power to get out of the situation – pulling myself in to the corner with on hand – holding most my weight while the using the other hand tried to untangle the lower-out cord.

Oli climbing the roof at the top – cleaning this pitch was bicep pain!

A massive faff and the result was cramping biceps as I got up out of the over-hang and moved up towards the final section of the route. We completed the route and as I racked up the rope on a ledge below the belay Oli could see the sun setting on El Cap – some serious Alpen glow – not that I would find out as, in the few minutes more it took for me to coil the ropes and climb up to him, it was gone.

From there it was a long and tedious rappel down the rubble gully down the back of the route. The 50m tag-line was not really long enough for this job (take two 60m ropes) and by the time we got to the bottom we decided to eat the snacks we had left over and sleep there before heading back in the morning.

The good news was that we did the route in a respectable 10.5 hours and no-one was molested by bears.

Photos:

The Bolt Ladder – Nathan Murphy in the lead
Penduluming round the corner to get to the funky traverse
Nathan Murphy
Funky traverse before more free climbing
Oli Climbing the overhanging corners
My Feet

Surprise trip to Yosemite & 1st big-wall speed ascent

In mid October (2010) I was climbing in the Peak District with Oli Lyon (who was spending a time in the UK between Ski seasons). I mentioned that I actually hoped to get to Yosemite this year, but I planned to give it a shot in 2011. He suggested that we could go this year but if we did we would have to go quite soon. I agreed and we confirmed the plan later that evening in the Little John (the only true after-climb pub in Hathersage). The plan was to leave a week later – this conversation is outlined accurately in the cartoon below.

Oli, who had climbed several big-walls before, was keen to get some speed climbing done so we agreed to go with the aim to speed climb as many big walls as possible in 3 weeks which, after travel and a bit of party in San Fran at the end, meant about 2.5 weeks in Yosemite. We agreed to have a ‘clean’ aid ethic meaning no hammered gear – only using clean-aid techniques.

As it happened Oli had a load of his aid gear in his bag so after climbing Regent Street (E2 5c) on lead, I jumped on to try my first bit of clean Aid Climbing. It was pretty easy so we were ready.

We flew out, and stayed at a friend of Oli’s house but being pretty tired so went to bed to get up after about 3 hours sleep to get the coach to where we would catch the train to Merced. From Merced we took another coach to Yosemite. As we arrived in Yosemite we checked in to Camp 4 and shot off to climb an awesome 4 pitch crack climb to get in to the gist of things. Back at Camp 4 we ran into a Japanese guy selling off a load of gear from his climbing past – Oli got some cam hooks and I got a couple of more-or-less new aiders and a ready-modified Gri-Gri – great news as we were planning on short-fixing.

Rack-pack

The next day we got our stuff together and got ready to climb what would be my first big wall; The West Face of Washington Column. The West Face is a frequent ‘first’ for climbers getting into big-wall climbing but not usually done in speed climbing style. Oli took the lead – leaving me to jumar and clean. We were double-pitching and short-fixing for speed (short-fixing basically means when the leader pulls the rope up, ties it off while the second jumars and self-belays up the next pitch until the second gets to the belay and puts them on – saving loads of time).

There was one difficult section Oli took a small fall – and I had not quite reached the belay due to having to work out how to clean a steep traverse – which is not all that easy. Half way up the route – we switched and I took the lead.

A I came to my first bit of short-fixing – I actually did not quite know what to do and not really having used a Gri-Gri before I just had to figure it out (I generally prefer to always use a Stich Plate). It is a bit counter intuitive to figure out as you are technically using it upside down and with the rope from you, the belay to the Gri-Gri back to you – it was a bit of a head-fuck making sure I wouldn’t kill myself should I fall. I got what seemed to work logically, tied a knot 15m down the rope and got on with it.

Oli Leading on the West Face of Washington Column

This went generally well for the next few pitches. However somehow, when reaching down to disconnect my aider I didn’t notice that the Caraniner at the top of it’s wire-gate had flipped open off the biner’s nose and, as I pulled it up using the daisy chain, the aider came off and drifted off with the wind diagonally down the wall. Fail.

I lead the rest of the aid pitches using a 120cm sling with a couple of knots in it. I hit the free climbing, which included some awesome awkward off widths. As I got to the top of the route it was getting dark (the days are fairly short around the beginning of November) and by the time Oli got up (without a head torch) it was pitch black. The last pitch is full of very loose gravelly rock; a real hazard to be wary of if people are climbing behind/above you. I climbed this very very carefully.

I was totally parched, we had about a litre of water each on the route itself, a cerial bar or two for breakfast and all day we had only had a Snickers bar (although I had half of my one left). We got our ropes coiled up and started heading up the hill to find the way off.

The top-out to decent route is difficult to find in the dark and as we only had one torch it was a real pain. We tried to find the way down for about 2 hours but we kept coming to edges, or steep drops and the reality was it was dangerous. I was keen to get down to drink water, by lips were thick and dry and I really needed a drink. We ate the half a Snicker bar which was partly welded to my pocket.

Oli’s winter bivi gear

After finding a flat area and dropped our bags for a minute – and Oli pushed the bivi option again and (despite resisting the previous times) I agreed. After looking around we knew this was one of the few flat areas – so we elected to sleep where we stopped. It was around zero degrees C and Oli was wearing a tee-shirt and hoody while I had a thin Rab jacket, jeans and a beanie; it was going to be a cold night. As we laid the rope out and started to get ready for bed we tried to make some insulation using of the vegetation but being an arid area it is all sparsely leaved and, as insulation, useless.

After about an hour of sleep/dozing interrupted by frequent cramping I came around to see Oli standing up shivering in what looked like near hypothermia- it was at this point I gestured with my head in a comedy ‘come to daddy’ manner for Oli to be little spoon.

Spooning makes a huge difference and, as we were both so cold, it really was not awkward – in fact it was a pretty vigorous spoon, certainly a more vigorous and longer a spoon than a girlfriend has benefited from, which included my hands tucked in his armpits to keep fingers warm. We tried swapping spoon roles but being the taller of the two of us it just did not seem to work.

6am came and we got up, ran on the spot for a while and with the sun due up fairly soon we racked up all our gear and got ready to make a move back down the hill. In the light it was much easier to find where we were meant to go – mainly because we had some reference of where we were.

As we walked down the hill we found water bubbling out the rock. It was incredible to drink after so little in the last 30 hours. We got back to our bags with gear we left at the bottom, which included some more water, and we headed back to Curry Village.

Finding water was amazing

Arriving at the buffet we decided that $15.50 was a bit steep for break-fast, dispite barely eating for the last 24 hours, but on the way out a kind chap gave us a couple of free tickets he and his wife could not use.

We ate a lot of food. Got back to Camp 4 and got rested for some planned free climb routes the next day.

View of Half Dome from Washington Column
View of Half Dome from Washington Column

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Oli on lead - West Face of Washington Column
Oli on lead – West Face of Washington Column
Nathan Murphy (Author) on lead