Breaking into new grades

Never have I done a sport in my entire life like rock climbing. Despite picking up climbing fairly late in life, I’m happy that I found it, or rather, that it found me. I have learned a lot over the last 10 years since starting on plastic at a gym in Jackson Hole, a place where I resided during my stint as a professional freeskier. I can remember the exact ski season, sometime around 2008, when I started spending more time in the climbing gym than I did on the ski slopes.

Climbing Photos 175

For me, skiing had always been there. I was intimately familiar with what life was like as a skier. For more years of my life than not, I made the slog from my home in the suburbs outside of Philadelphia in the flat farm lands of South Jersey to the mountains(more like hills) in the Pocono’s of Pennsylvania. I practically lived at Blue Mountain Ski Resort during college, sometimes sleeping in my car so I wouldn’t have to make the drive back home during multiple ski days. Moving to Vail after college was a game changer for me and ultimately changed the direction of my life. Even to this day, that two day drive on a cold dreary November day from New Jersey to Vail was probably the most important decision I have ever made. Leaving New Jersey and making the decision to follow my dreams of skiing the Rockies meant a change in my lifestyle. I was giving up good jobs and security for a life of passion and adventure. Something about the unknown allured me more than any high paying job ever could.

Now nearly a decade into the sport of rock climbing, I’m hooked. Most if not ALL my days are planned around my climbing schedule, or training for climbing. Every day has a purpose, whether it be a rest/recover day, or training finger strength at the local gym just a mile from my house, or climbing a project outside. Weather, work, condition of my skin, soreness of my forearms, objectives, every single little decision for climbing or training is carefully evaluated. Despite all the things I have learned over the last decade and especially the last 5 years since I sank my teeth into the sport, I have learned one very important thing along the way.

The mental game of climbing for me has become the most important element to being a stronger climber. No matter how many hours you train on the campus board or finger board, nothing will improve your skills more than using your mind to your advantage. I remember when I first started climbing 5.12- at my local gym, the Boulder Rock Club, and thinking to myself, “Could I really be a 5.12 rock climber?”. I couldn’t believe that I, me, Curt MacNeill, was going to climb a 5.12. This was a very big deal! I went from hanging virtually on every bolt in the gym, to hanging every other bolt, to two hanging the route, to one hanging the route and to eventually sending the route. All along the way, I didn’t really know what the hell I was doing, I just knew that I wanted to climb a 5.12 and break into the rock god status. Eventually one 5.12 led to another and before I knew it I was a 5.12 rock climber. The transition to sending 5.12 outside may have been a bit more time consuming but in the end, the same thing followed.

Several years later, I was in the exact same scenario with breaking into the 5.13 grade. In the back of my mind, the infamous and rhetorical question popped up again, “Could I really climb 5.13?”. When I projected my first 5.13a outside, a route called SuperKreem, at the Slab up in the beautiful Flatirons, the outcome was completely unknown. Frankly, SuperKreem was a big step up in difficulty than anything I had previously done before. And the question of whether or not I was a 5.13 climber lurked in the back of my mind every single god forsaken burn on Superkreem. When I first started working the route, I remember thinking to myself that this could take me forever to complete. Everything said and done, it didn’t take me forever, it took 6 weeks. And even after sending my first 5.13, I still thought, “Can I really climb 5.13?”. Afterall, some people gave the route 5.12d? Doubt set in once again. But as with climbing, when you break into a new grade, usually with one specific route, others tend to follow. And they did, lots of them…

My very first 5.12a outside, Empire of the Fenceless at Easter Rock…

Several years later, having climbed and trained my ass off, the same exact rhetorical question popped in my brain. But this time, it was different, it was more serious. Afterall, I was getting into more serious grades, a grade that very few people ever reach, a grade so elusive, so mythical, it’s as if I had a better chance of seeing Big Foot in the Flatirons than I did of actually sending a route of this difficulty. As I progressed, the question started lurking in the back of my mind like the Lochness Monster would in Puget Sound. “Could I really climb 5.14?”. Many people try, even fewer succeed.

One of my very first 5.13’s, Sonic Youth in Clear Creek Canyon…

In the grand scheme of things, I had always believed that climbing at the 5.14 level was reserved for the “super elite”. Despite living in Boulder, Colorado, a place where it seems like everyone climbs 5.14, and also being constantly surrounded by media source’s portraying more climbers than ever sending hard, climbing at the 5.14 level meant you had mastered the sport. I had no idea what that meant, I just knew that it was really really hard and that I could probably never climb one. But everyone seemed to be doing it around me so I thought, “Why not me?”. It was a good question and one that I asked myself 500 times over the years. In the past week alone, I learned of Ashima, a little 15 year old girl from New York City, and her feats of climbing V15 and 5.15. “Wow”, I thought to myself, “I’m a total wanker!”. Then I read of Margo Hayes, an 18 year old local super crusher, sending 5.14c at the Red River Gorge shortly after winning the national championships in sport climbing. Again, I asked myself, “Why not me?”. Despite being surrounded by people like this all the time, only because I happen to live in the center of what many people would call the “mecca” for rock climbing, realistically, probably less than 1 percent of the total climbing population actually climbs at the grade of 5.14 or harder.

Joel's Camera Oct. 2008 008

And once again, I asked myself, “Could I actually climb 5.14?”. The answer didn’t really matter in the long run, the nature of who I am as a person is to try to push myself as hard as I could. Call me a grade chaser if you want, I think its clear that the best rock climbs in the world happen to be the really hard ones. Every time I watch a video of Chris Sharma projecting a 50 meter 5.15 somewhere in Spain, I start foaming at the mouth like a rabid dog. What can I say, it’s the hardest lines in the world that are the ones that inspire me to want to get stronger or try harder.

When I first started projecting my first 5.14, I didn’t think I could ever actually climb that route successfully. It was hard, really hard. I couldn’t do crux moves and I could barely get through sections to clip up. But, I was stubborn, really stubborn. I was inspired by the line and wanted to climb it no matter what it took. Nearly 18 months after touching the holds on a route of that difficulty and a grade I never thought I could climb, I SENT. And even after I sent, I still asked myself the question, “Could I really climb 5.14?”. Afterall, some other strong climbers who climbed the route said it was 5.13d. And as with all routes, when you do one, you typically want to do another. To me, this is what climbing is all about, its that “search” for the route that inspires you to pound yourself into the ground, sometimes doing whatever it takes, to take it to the next level.

Burly tufa pinching on what would be my first 5.14, nearly 18 months before the send…

The most important thing that I learned throughout the process of self doubt is to take the rhetorical question of “Am I really a_______climber?” and throw it out the window. Having self doubt will do nothing but undermine what your really capable of. Replace it with, “What do I need to do to climb a________?”. Having self confidence and setting realistic goals in small incremental steps should be your best plan of attack to break into new grades. Slow and steady progress is the key and before you know it you will be climbing a new grade that you never thought possible.

After being immersed in this sport for nearly a decade, and meeting super crushers in every shape and size, I am a firm believer that anyone can climb anything if they are willing to put in the work. So now that I have done a few 5.14’s, I ask myself, “Can I climb 5.14b, or 5.14c, or even 5.15a?”. Instead of having self doubt moving forward, Im moving on with confidence, determination and sheer motivation. The important thing in regards to the question above should not be a simple yes or no, but rather, “How hard am I willing to work to climb a______?”. The answer to this question, again steers away from a simple yes or no and gives me a plan of attack. How am I going to train for a harder grade? What is my weakness? How long will it take me? What obstacles will I face?

My dad following on his first ascent of the 1st Flatirons…

Entering into a new domain on the difficulty scale really may just mean you have to work a little harder. Since I have now climbed 5.14a, of course, I now have my sights on bigger and better(and a wee bit harder). Maybe climbing a 5.14b or 5.14c that really inspires me will take me several years to complete? Maybe I will never get it? Maybe I will never be a 5.15 rock climber? In fact, maybe I will never even climb anything harder that the routes I have already done? But, and this is a big “but”, I just might die trying…

One of my best days of climbing with my father atop the 1st Flatiron…


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