by Zak Silver
My first American Bouldering Series National Championships was an amazing time. It was 2013 and I placed 8th in the country. Going into 2014 I thought, “If I did that good the first year why can’t I do better?”
I thought it would come easy. I had put in the same amount of training hours at an even greater intensity. So why wouldn’t I crush? I didn’t know that Youth A was the hardest age group of them all. I realized this in Isolation on Day One but it was already too late. BOOM! I just took a nuclear weapon to my mental game. I basically told myself I wasn’t strong and that was the end of that.
With that vivid and horrible memory already sunk deep in my brain, taking a break from competing sounded nice. Climbing outside became my main objective. My buddy Billy Ward was just getting stoked and it was contagious. I wanted to send everything. My mom called it the “send fever”. Diagnosis: over-thinking every route you want to try and send in a specific season. Symptoms: clammy hands, day dreaming, inability to explain psych. It was even worse in my case because the previous spring and summer, I had tried a lot of the routes I wanted to try and send this year.
All-the-time training was now swapped with climbing outside at Deep Creek and I loved it. Deep Creek is just 25 minutes outside of my hometown, Spokane, Washington. It’s a place that’s known for its trail-running and mountain-biking. You pull up in the parking lot and after the dust settles, you’re surrounded by blocky basalt walls, most of which are not developed and for good reason.
There are two main climbing areas – the Main Wall and The Pit. The area is intimidating when you first get there. The floor is littered with boulders and small rocks and the wall itself is huge. This is the place to climb in Spokane if you want to test your fitness.
At The Pit there’s a route on the main pillar called Motley Crux. You walk up and it’s the first thing you see. I learned of Motley when I overheard some guys talk about the few people who had done it including JStar, Paige Claassen, Brian Raymond, Johnny Goicoechea, and Alex Rice. This route has been around for almost 20 years and fewer than ten people have climbed it.
My good friend Bryan Franklin started working Motley before me in March. I had just got Masochist (13b) and was in the middle of working a new project called Pit Boss Indirect (13b). Pit Boss is one of those routes where everything has to be perfect! The temperature can only be between 65 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit and it can’t be in the sun because the rock is black and absorbs so much heat so quickly.
After trying Pit Boss for the seventh time, Bryan told me I should give Motley a go. I was already so pissed, I said, “What the heck, why not?” I ended up falling twice but I made it to the old anchors. I was speechless. I couldn’t comprehend what actually just happened. I had always pictured Motley to be a climb that only the super strong could do. One of my heroes, Alex Rice, climbed it about 3 years earlier. That only made the route seem further and further out of reach. I had climbed with Alex before and he seemed way above me. He was also the youngest to climb Motley at 19. If I got the route, I would be the youngest by four years. In my mind that was an impossible task.
My best friend Billy is a sport climber who LOVES to project. He taught me that once you get to touch every hold, you can start to link the sections of a route together. Then and only then will you know if the project is worth the time and energy. Billy would get on a climb for the first time and touch every hold then come down psyched out of his brains! He just clicked the self-motivation button in his mind and from that point forward, Billy knew he would send the route. I took this knowledge and funneled it into my mind set on Motley. I also realized quickly that I was stronger than I was giving myself credit for.
“Mr.Silver?” said my geometry teacher.
“What?” I said.
“What are you doing?”
“Why do you have a piece of paper with scribbles on it? Along with drool coming out of your mouth?” he asked.
“It’s something for climbing, sir.”
“Well, throw it away, and have your textbook out to page 354.”
This very thing happened more than once. I wanted to throw up from embarrassment. My friends outside the climbing scene asked what I was thinking when I had these moments in class. I often had to tell them lies. That sounds selfish, but for me it was necessary. I would try to explain how this route really made me feel but I didn’t have the vocabulary. The honest answer was that I was thinking about an inanimate object that I truly loved.
Before you think I have already lost my mind at 16, hold on to your drawers while I explain. I was thinking about the pure joy the route gave me and about the amount of time that I had devoted to this route. I was thinking about how my fingers felt on the first rest crimps, how little feeling I had in them and the way my heart was racing ONE MILLION miles an hour in my chest. I was thinking of myself climbing the route and thinking about how every hold made my whole body feel, how my feet felt compared to the sequence of hand holds. Last, I was thinking about the complete and utter hatred and anger that I was feeling about the crux position.
I have never devoted so much time thinking about any one thing. I found myself re-climbing Motley in my head every night before I went to bed. It got so bad that I knew every foot hold, too. I usually can never remember my sequences. It got to the point where I fell at the same spot for a solid ten goes. This spot was my crux. Everyone knows the Adam Ondra scream, followed by the uncontrollable crying. That was how I felt after falling there so many times. I wanted this route more than I wanted to eat. I love food, so this is a HUGE deal.
The Thursday before I sent Motley, I tried it once and fell at the same place as usual. I decided then and there I was too weak to climb the route. I have never to this day been as motivated to train in my life. I did six laps on Flip a Bitch Bear (12d) which has the very bottom crux of Motley. The route is about 85 feet; I did three laps in less than 20 minutes. Then I did four laps on The Masochist (13b). This route has the last piece of the crux on Motley.
The night before I sent, I went over to a friend’s house, watched climbing movies, and ate too much food. I didn’t get to bed until early in the morning. I woke up around 7 a.m. feeling less than prime. I went to the crag with Billy bumping to Common Market. To our surprise there were tons of people. We walked down the mighty steep hill and crossed the river bed like I had done a thousand times. Walking up and seeing everybody was a nice warm welcome to a not-so-nice morning.
I belayed Billy on his warm-up – Pit Lizard (5.11a). I followed him to clean the quickdraws off the route. I got pumped out of my mind and came down thinking, “Well… that sucked.” I now had no expectations. I knew that all I could do was try my best and see what came of it. I believe that is what enabled me to send. I waited and watched people climb and felt relaxed.
When I decided it was time to go, I was feeling good. Not pumped, but not too cold. I had blood pumping. I walked up and asked for a catch. My friend Reggie answered. He was shirtless and wore a rabbit skin hat; he was the man of the hour. With his manly chest hair, everyone was cracking Russian jokes. It was a fun atmosphere.
I walked up, took my shirt off and tied in like normal. Right before I went, Reggie pulled me close. It was almost silent. He came in close and said, “You’re going to send”! That was the one and only thing I needed to hear. To know that all my buddies were behind me was a great thing to think about. Then I climbed.
When I sent, everything clicked. I hit every foot perfectly, every handhold in just the right spot, and I didn’t spend a millisecond too long on any given hold. I got done with the first crux; the rest hold is a decent crimp just big enough for me to match. I set the ring lock on my right hand and set up for my rest. After hitting it and resting I knew this was going to be good. I hadn’t felt this rested at this hold on any previous attempt. Going through the next 10-15 moves was nothing different than any other time. I had never fallen in that section.
Then I hit the only jug on the whole route. I was pumped but it wasn’t the normal, nauseating pump. I got the sense this was going to be a different burn. I spent about 2 minutes there – much shorter than normal but that was okay. I was feeling good and confident. I found that on this route resting is almost all mental. If you can convince yourself that you are not as pumped, tired, or beat down as you think, then your rest is more effective.
After the jug there’s a tiny left hand two-finger crimp, pulling through to a really bad three-finger slopey pinch. Then you bump up to a good gaston. You’re looking at the last good hold for the rest of the route. It’s a flat slopey bill-shaped hold I clip my last bolt with. Getting high feet, I do the huge full arm stretch move to a two-finger pinch and pulled through to a triangle shaped ½-pad masterpiece.
There were four holds left. They’re horridly polished with thousands of hour’s worth of chalk. I did the moves like nothing. After I made the big move to the jug, it was done. Let me repeat that. The route was DONE! I screamed my head off. There were two easy clips to chains. As I called to Reggie, everyone was cheering me on and congratulating me. Billy came over and gave me a huge hug. I couldn’t have been happier. After I gave the hugs and the fist bumps, I started texting people. First, my coach and Bryan Raymond. They helped me deal with the psychological stuff. Getting texts back from family and friends was awesome.
The glory was great for a few seconds. Then it was over. Just like that it was over. Because in reality it’s a rock climb. Yes, climbing is my life but I can’t make a living out of climbing. The accomplishment of Motley Crux wasn’t going to be the gateway to scholarships or anything for that matter. It was purely for me and it was worth the time and devotion I gave it. I found out more about myself through projecting Motley than through any other activity – what I was willing to give up and how that affected my life.
I want to give a big thanks to Billy Ward. The long days after school and the many hours spent going over and refining beta on our projects is unforgettable. He was a huge piece of this process and I will always strive to be as good a climber as he is. His psych is something that can’t be copied but I will try my hardest. In other words, thank you, Billy.