If you are like me, you know how much the idea of a climb can grow and subsequently fester in your mind. Whether it is a route you have wanted to do for years or a new climb with a daunting reputation, you know how drastically expectation can color a climb once you finally work your way up to getting on the darn thing. I don’t care if it is an r/x rated trad headpiece or a pumpy sport route with a heartbreaker finish, expectations drastically affect how we climb and, thus, our chances for success on the routes we want to do most.
Thursday was the perfect midweek getaway. I had only a half day of work and the weather was beautiful, so “J. Crew” and I headed off for the local backwater, Currahee Mountain. Currahee has such a dismal reputation that it is often hard to find anyone willing to go despite it being less than an hour away. You would think Athens climbers would jump at the opportunity to not drive three hours to climb. I happen to really like Currahee however. The sport routes are technical and cool, and the trad routes are chock full of little slab roofs that define commitment. To say the least, I dig Currahee and was excited to get some midweek climbing in.
For some reason or another, I gravitate towards runout warmups. The practice is not intentional, but I do find it helps me get my head screwed on straight. Thursday was no exception. I got the day started with Trad and True (5.8+ R), the Slab Walls only completely natural line. Trad and True had always intrigued me but my Mountain Project addiction had informed me that having two gold Camalots was mandatory to avoid ground fall. Finally remembering to actually bring the things, I embarked on quite the dirty journey only to find that groundfall potential is impossible to avoid and I could have done the route without any Gold Camalots.
After having my fun, I offered the next lead to “J. Crew” and suggested he do Deprived Child (5.6 PG-13). “J. Crew” wanted to pre clip the first, forty foot high bolt like he normally does, but I talked him out of it, convinced he would find at least a few pieces of pro to ease his mind. I was right, “J. Crew” got in just enough pro to keep him out of serious danger before clipping that first bolt and entering cruiser town. However, “J. Crew” must have not felt as good as he looked because he confided in me that he got tunnel vision during a sketchy traverse down low, a sensation we would both experience that day.
Since the slabs were in the beating hot sun, we decided to move on to the Brick Wall, home of Currahee’s world famous sport climbs. I started with my favorite warm up, Power Flyer (5.10b). All things considered, Power Flyer is one of the best 5.10 sport climbs I have ever done. The route is sequential and techy from the moment you leave the ground and finishes with a steep boulder problem bulge after an only marginal rest. One of the key features of the brick wall routes is they are all difficult to read. The strange brick pattern imprint makes every hold look identical, meaning that half the time I have my hand on some abysmal sloper when a finger swallowing sidepull is only inches away.
On Power Flyer my faulty memory and expectations almost sent me flying. The technical crux involves a secret crimp, which makes surmounting a four foot “brickless” band of rock fairly reasonable. My expectation, however, that I had the route dialed and would cruise right through it prevented me from even looking for the hidden edge. After multiple aborted attempts, I eventually managed to pull the move sans crimp, putting on a serious pump a filling my head with negativity. As I executed the redpoint crux up top, I couldn’t help but think, “this was the fall I was supposed to send 5.13 and I am pumped silly on a low ten.” My faulty expectations had set off a chain reaction of doubt and insecurity. Luckily for me, while “J. Crew” was attempting the same move, some locals pointed out the secret hold, and I regained my focus. Before then, it never even occurred to me I had done the move incorrectly. Expectations are powerful. With the new beta fresh in my mind, I took a second warm up burn and floated up the route. What a difference.
Now I felt ready for my real objective. Dreams (5.11c R) is a climb I have stalked on Mountain Project for years but never could work up the nerve to lead. I top roped it once a year ago, but I haven’t been back since and probably would not have done it if I had. Dreams follows a finger crack in an obtuse dihedral before cutting right over a blunt prow. The pro ends with a crack and the only gear above is unconventional at best and placed from well within the ground fall zone. A fall from the technical crux is protected but falling from the pumpy, steep climbing above is ill advised to say the least. I finally felt ready to take this climb on but cannot say I was not nervous. For years, I had conditioned myself to be afraid of this climb. For years, I had conditioned myself to be nervous at the crux. For years, I had been setting myself up to fail by fostering toxic expectations.
Getting off the ground was more difficult than expected, but after ten feet, I was in the crack and protected by a 10mm cam. A few more cruiser crack moves led me to some more gear and a gradually steepening wall. Getting gear in before the crux prove difficult. I placed a bomber TCU at waist level but knew I wanted something a little higher in the crack to stack my odds and keep me off the ground. Laying back off of tips jam, I grabbed my smallest cam, a 00 TCU, and shoved it into the crack above my head. It was too big. Only two of the lobes fit in the crack. To make matters worse, the irregular nature of the crack prevented me from getting to cam back out. All the while, a dangerous pump began filling my arms and shaking my confidence. I knew I did not want to hang out there long and made the long slap around the prow for a slopey rail. Pasting my feet near my hips and slapping my way up the arête, I felt like a grit climber. As I neared the end of the crux, I realized I was not going to fall. Tunnel vision in full effect, I made an off balance slap to a jug only to find out it wasn’t. PING! I felt the TCU rip as I plummeted twenty feet downwards and into the corner, a few precious feet above “J. Crew’s” head. If one more piece had blown, he would have worn me like a hat.
While cleaning the rest of my gear on rappel, I noticed two massive jugs inches below the nothing I had slapped for earlier. Had I gone into the route with no expectations, chances are I would have seen the jugs, but my unproductive mental state prevented me from experiences the route. I was so concerned with not falling that I did not have any attention left to spare. In reality, that section of the climb was perfectly safe, no different than sport climbing or bouldering a few feet above a pad. However, I expected a mental battle, which is exactly what I got.