My Hardest Climb

If you’re instructing climbing or talking to people who are new to climbing the one question that crops up most of the time is, ‘What’s the hardest climb you’ve done?’ It’s similar to asking a marathoner what their marathon time is, or a full-forward in Aussie rules footy what’s the biggest bag they’ve kicked. As you climb more it becomes less and less about the difficulty, and more about individual lines or moves which seems to appeal similarly to how a musician or artist talks about their greatest work. But, let’s stay on topic here, what is the hardest climb I’ve done? It’s called Emphysema and it’s down at Redcliff at Onkaparinga Gorge in SA.

The climb itself is a result of the development and hard work by Dan Toone and Steve Kelly and has turned Redcliff into an awesome crag with a few different local test-pieces. I had been working my way steadily through the classics since focusing on improving my climbing in 2020 and everything was culminating towards an attempt on Emphysema. The training I put down for this averaged about 6-8 hrs a week of specific strength training plus 1-2 days of climbing a fortnight fit in around work. I often did my training at 5-6am in the morning or past 9:30pm at night whilst I was on camp and then spent my only days off camp climbing. After ticking the climb on a great Saturday afternoon in April 2021 I recorded the feeling with the piece below. Be aware of that I’ve included a lot of climbing jargon so you may or may not be able to understand some of it! What should be clear is that a lot is going on in my head when I’m trying to do things at my limit!

Rob Watson after doing the move.

Emphysema

Grade 28. Hardest climb I’d tried to date and hardest move. But a good fun move. But hard to work and hard to do which makes it a hard climb. But a good climb to get to the move but then the hard move that keeps shutting you down until you’re begging with your internal monologue to just do the move and stop falling because it’s time you actually ticked it. Couple of sessions on it to work the moves out and find what might work but when you’re operating at your ‘perceived’ limit you don’t really know if you ever have the right beta (beta = recipe or pattern of movements) so that’s a constant debate that must be silenced or listened to but you don’t know which. Session 3 came around and I couldn’t do the hard move again like I did in session 2 but I felt pretty comfortable with everything else, fine-tuned the beta etc. and thought it might go session 4. Session 4 comes along last weekend after a kind of stressful week of bushwalking and a hard day of climbing at Thorn and being a bit tired and feeling pretty confident in my beta but lacking the pizazz and hunger to tick a hard route. Kind of had a lazy attitude that it will go this session because i’ve had a good run at Redcliff with recent hard ticks and ticking them quickly (eg. Marlboro and Top Shelf). So, gave it a good couple of go’s but was getting very frustrated in making bad climbing mistakes. Directed my anger into another abseil inspection to try and find some better beta and that yielded zero results besides once again getting sketched out by the wasps and the sharp edges on my rope as I swung around. Got to the bottom and gave it my best go of the day but ultimately left knowing I have the beta, I have the moves I just need to do the route when fresh and tick it.

Another week of bushwalking followed and it was a good week this time. Good staff, ok students, nice weather though and nice amount of stretching. But all week I was just thinking about the move. The move, the position, and falling off it. All my training and resting and stretching and eating was all about setting up for my Grand Final day on Saturday for the move. Because that’s the thing with climbing that’s different to footy and tennis. Every week we go climbing, we roll out there and expect it to be better than last week, get a new highpoint etc. Footy and tennis operate a big season and then build up the grand final at the end where the air smells differently, the pressure is up, there’s a crowd etc. And I miss that in climbing, we never have a grand final. So this week Session 5 was to be my grand final. 

So I was pretty psyched to get to Redcliff on the Saturday and Brodie’s psych was also evident by his response in the group chat. Which was good because the Brodie psych was missed last week whilst he was on his surfing/fishing extravaganza. So we get there at 8 and there’s already a crew at Redcliff which is cool, good to have others down there to watch (it’s like ESPN 8 the Ocho in real life!). A bit warm and windy though which did make me nervous when I saw that in the forecast but Brodie was only available on Saturday, it was going to be possibly raining all next week/weekend so it was time to pull the trigger on the move and tick tick boom it. Wander down, and it’s Nathan from last weekend who was pretty friendly and still working Stalagmite and he was psyched for me to jump back on Emphysema so it was all good. Plus there were two other randoms there on the slabs keeping the average climbs ticked count up for us all. Pull the sending rope out of the bag for the first shot, tape up the double knee bar pad and pull on pretty fresh. Find my way to the kneebar, good rest, pull onto the crux move and then just kind of slip off, more slip off the feet than anything. That’s all good, a good warm-up, plus I rarely send things first go of the day. So psych is still high. Brodie pulls onto Marlboro and finds the undercling move hard but pulls the top crux pretty smoothly and has found a good knee bar pad solution. Second shot comes along and this is feeling pretty good but once again fall off. Got a bit angry, but that’s more to wake up the beast inside. Feeling like I’m in a good mood, having a good day, but I need to climb harder. When Adam Ondra or Ben Cossey are ticking their hardest climbs of their lives they’re absolutely fighting for it but here I am in kind of 4th gear cruising along. The hard part is that Trade Route and the moves past Trade Route are cruisy for me now so I can’t start psyched from the ground because I’ll run out of psych by the top. If the climb were a song the rhythm would be all over the shop and that’s why it’s hard as well. But still, two good go’s for the day isn’t bad and I’m still fresh so we’ll keep the goal the goal and I’ll keep trying.

Over on Stalagmite old mate Nathan is having a red hot crack and gets past the crux but falls at the fifth/sixth bolt due to pump. It’s starting to look like no-one is getting the send today. So third shot, I pull out two extra tricks, the music and the liquid chalk. And Brodie realises he did not say best of skill before the second shot. So it’ll go this time for sure. I will do it. I will not fall. Climb trade pretty smoothly with ‘Danger, High Voltage’ playing. Get to the rest and am feeling psyched. It’s going down. Pull into the crux position and bang, throw out with the right arm, touch the hold, and I fall off again you piece of shit fucking loser. Starting to question my beta again so use the extra psych to play around with some different positions, same holds, but different positions. Not too much better. Come down and feel like eh, it was a good shot. Brodie had filmed me this time so we review the footage and I notice how locked off I look in the crux position, maybe I could change that? Fourth shot of the day I go up and fall off at the underclings despite feeling good. This makes me mad but it’s also that attempt when you’re starting to feel like the day is over, you’re falling lower now so it won’t happen today. Go up to the top and play around with knee bar rest and fully commit to almost free hanging upside down on it. And it’s sick! Another little fine-tune of the beta has at least been achieved in today’s session. So maybe that’s the end of todays session, the rest feels better, the muscle memory for the crux move has been rehearsed and I just need to get stronger. Brodie goes up again and while he’s climbing a big crew roll down with some heavy presence among them. No it’s not Dan Toone or JT or Steve Kelly, but it’s a big Norton Summit crew who have wandered away from the land of chalked holds and carpets to the terrors of loose rock and slippery snakes in the long grass. I have to give it a fifth shot now! I can’t retreat back to my car when there’s the opportunity to throw down on one of the hardest routes at the crag in front of some pretty strong Norton Summit crew. Build up the psych for one more shot, get to the rest and commit into the free hanging position. Feel fresh. Activate some hard psych. Focus on pulling down on the crux left hand pinch to release the right hand hold to grab the crux crimp. Breathe. Breathe some more. Time to go, come on, you better climb it now you spud. Position feels good, get a good grip on crux hold, go hard and step right up and throw, and fall, and yell. Not good. But good. Like I fell but it felt good, I felt fresh again. When you have a shit attempt (no.4) you feel like it’s time to go home. When you have a good attempt (no.5) you feel like you could go again. Get to the bottom and realise the Norton Summit Crew were on Stiletto so they did not witness. Who doesn’t like to show off right? It’s grand final day, and there’s now a crowd building but they weren’t all watching. So I ask Brodie if he’s climbing anything, he says no but he’s happy to stick around, watch ESPN 8 and let me have another crack. So we do. Brodie had earlier asked what climb I’d tried the hardest on in my life and I replied with Unrequited/Orange Crush down in Tassie. Before I sent that I had a nap in the dirt and fully rested. I also needed to send that before the boat left and had one opportunity. Grand final day only gives you one opportunity, the weather for next week and Brodie’s availability this weekend only gave me one opportunity so it was time to use it or lose it. 

Resting on the rocks gave me my dirt nap equivalent rest like before Unrequited/Orange Crush. Here, I demonstrated how I needed to not pull down on the pinch but instead pull diagonally left to have a reactive force against my feet to best engage all my holds to get the right hand crux crimp. With this in mind I needed to focus on pulling not at 6 oclock but at like 8:45 on the hand holds I had. We also got to watch the Norton crew try climb on Stalagmite, One Hold One Quest and Lust and beta spray each other which was relaxing to watch and distracted my mind. But it came to near 12 o clock and I could hear that they wanted to try Camel Filter so I had to get on one last time before they did.

Attempt 6. Feeling good, undercling move wasn’t pulled the strongest but I’m still on so just keep going and get to the rest (I think I even heard Brodie say this). Got to the rest and was feeling good. Tired but good.

Rest.

Breathe.

Rest some more. You’re not slipping yet. Get it all back.

Alright, time to psych, time to commit and pull the trigger. Time to pull hard and commit because there is no tomorrow and you’re not fucking leaving without this tick (eg. Leo DiCaprio in Wolf of Wall Street). Grab the left hand good pinch, throw the legs out left, bump into the right hand pinch, good. Bump up high into the top pinch that I started using in Session 4 and get a great, not good, but great grip on it. Use the right top of my toe to hold my body in as I bring my second kneebar out and pull down on my left toe to hold my legs on. Didn’t slip off. Still on. Now’s the time to pull down and across to 8:45 and deadpoint to that crux edge.

I do it. I get it. I have it. It’s mine. The crowd cheers like it’s the MCG. But I still have to keep climbing, drop the left hand into the good pocket, swing the legs over, bump the right hand up, oh that’s not as good as I remember from Session 2, bump again, that’s better, we’re on here. The crowd are still cheering. Get the feet up, stand up, grab some jugs, look to my left and there’s the chains. The crowd is silent. I clip the chains and embrace the moment for a bit before a quick thumbs up to Brodie to confirm the deal and it’s done Emphysema has been ticked and I am content. Because although I have used a lot of effort to try just the one move and the one climb, one climb does not make you the greatest climber you can be. It teaches you something that you take with you on your next climbing project. Emphysema taught me how to milk a knee bar rest, create a good knee bar pad, fine tune beta, abseil inspection and how to try a really hard move plus how to climb upside down on pinches. But it’s just one climb and at the end of the day I’m just as happy having given it 4 or 5 really consistent attempts today where I climbed smoothly and strongly for all but 98% of the route. But then again, it is really fucking nice to tick that move!!!

2 responses to “My Hardest Climb”

  1. An emotional and physical journey to say the least! Glad to have been a part of it!

    Like

  2. […] Your climbing project is always there waiting for you to try it. Spending more time on climbing allowed me to improve my capabilities in the sport but it also taught me a lot more about my body and how it functions, physically first, […]

    Like

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