After 12 Years – A Project Goes Down at Ptarmigan

Twelve years ago, my two good friends and climbing partners Chris Terry and Dan Kryger brought me up to Ptarmigan to boulder for the first time.  We explored the area and climbed everything we could, but as we slowly ticked off the classic lines, there was one obvious line left undone. Next to the classic testpiece Epiphany, the blunt, steeply overhung arête looked impossibly blank.  We did the stand start, which was a very sandbagged v7 called Mr. Universe, but could not imagine connecting the jug at base of the boulder with the upper part of the arête. There just weren’t any holds.

When Chris and Dan would work on Epiphany, I would fondle the arête trying to figure out a way to stay on the wall.  During the second year, I found a little vertical bumpy section for the right hand that I could sort of stick if I squeezed hard enough. From this position, barely clinging to the “nothing” hold, the next move to the point of the arête seemed ridiculous. But I kept trying.

The following two years saw little in the way of progress, until I figured out that I could hang off the nose of the arête and the “nothing” hold if I could generate enough body tension with my feet.  I probably spent two or three days just trying to figure out how to hang there.  This eventually led to trying to stick the move, which I must have tried hundreds of times over those two years with every foot position we could find.  Finally, on a day clarity, the impossible happened and I stuck the move just once, just for a second before ripping off of the hold.  At that point, I knew the line could be done… But for another 8 years I tried that move and never stuck it again.

Sticking the crux of Mr. Universe earlier this year. My right hand is on the nothing hold.  Photo: Kelsey Gray

As the years went by, I would try it every time I went to Ptarmigan but it always ended the same way: me on the ground trying to wrap my head around how I had ever done that move.  I knew I was climbing my very best the year the I stuck it (I did my first v11 that year), but I just couldn’t get back to that level.   Two years ago, I started planning training sessions hoping a little bit of structure would push me through this barrier and get me back to a peak level.   The training worked, and last season I stuck the crux move for the second time ever and actually held it.   Unfortunately, due to weather and other commitments I never got back out to try it.

This year I managed to stick the crux from the ground, which was a first. Knowing how marginal the crux would be, I spent a fair amount of time dialing in every little nuance for the upper moves.  The crux is only the third move in the ten move problem , so having the top perfectly figured out was critical.

Last Friday was my third full day on it this year.  Each go I got progressively further past the crux, but mentally something wasn’t clicking.  I kept losing focus mid-climb and there was no room for the tiniest mistake.  For what may have been only the second or third time this year, I had to sit below a problem and meditate to clear my head of everything.  Normally, this allows me to release tension and focus calmly on the climbing, but it didn’t work.  After years of effort, there was a lot of mental baggage connected to this line and I couldn’t get my head to clear.

On my best attempt I hesitated on the second to last move, changed my beta, and then fell. I threw a full on wobbler – screaming, throwing stuff, punching the pad, the whole nine yards. I’m not sure if I’ve ever thrown a tantrum like that while climbing. Somehow letting loose released the pressure.

Working Mr. Universe – Sticking the left hand sloper is the crux move.  Photo: Kelsey Gray

I sat down under the problem, my mind was clear and the baggage was gone.  I climbed without hesitation, placing every foot perfectly, hitting every dimple and ripple on the holds exactly right without needing to adjust.  I was calm and focused in a way I haven’t felt in many, many years.  After topping out, I simply sat down on the top and watching the clouds and spindrift coming off the top of Ptarmigan Peak. It was done.

A Ptarmigan at Ptarmigan
Photo: Kelsey Gray