The Overhanging 5.9 Hand Crack

The fates have determined that, from time to time, I will dine with royalty. And I have determined that, on those rare occasions, I will not pass up the opportunity to say something stupid.
While waiting for the food at a wilderness medicine conference banquet with my friend Andy, our table-mate, Dr. Hornbein, politely inquired as to our post-meeting plans.

I casually replied, “Oh, we’re headed off to climb the Grand.”
It was February.
To his credit, he blinked once and said, “Well, good luck.”

After sharing grilled chicken and carrots with Jack Tackle, Andy and I asked him what he thought about 2 possible routes for the next day.
He said that he liked the first route well enough. It was clean, with consistent climbing, and little loose rock.
The 2nd climb had some bad rock and mediocre climbing down low, but had an overhanging, 5.9 hand crack for most of a pitch in the middle.
“So,” I asked, “do you think that 2nd route is better?”
He stared at me blankly for a couple of seconds and replied, “It has an overhanging, 5.9 hand crack.”

In the light of subsequent experience, I get it. But at the time, I thought that I wanted to climb 5.12, so the 5.9 rating tarnished anything to which it was affixed. I worked pretty hard towards the goal of climbing 12’s, and I climbed a few 5.9 hand cracks along the way. I got there, barely.
The effort wasn’t worth it though. Working the routes endlessly, with creaking tendons and crushed toes, just did not justify the final victory. It was like winning World War I: a victory, sure, but an atrocity nonetheless.

I think I understand why other people are enamored of more difficult climbs – and yes, I recognize that 5.12 is the basement of “difficult” rockclimbing. For one of my ‘hard’ routes in particular, getting the clean ascent was like making a friend. I became so familiar with every little edge and crystal, that I’m sure I could regurgitate the beta for the route to this day, decades after I touched the rock last.

Working harder routes on rock can be painful and tedious. I don’t think it is the suffering and frustration that turn me off, though. I liked the more difficult mixed climbing that I did, and I was highly motivated to climb grade 6 or harder ice. I obsessively studied and salivated over those ice routes in the same way that some sport climbers I’ve known would microscopically analyze their projects. I trained for hard ice until I thought my forearms would pop.

I think the difference may be in the proprioceptive aesthetic of the climbs. The way a climb feels to the touch and the body position it demands get less attention than the way it looks and the puzzle it poses. The proprioceptive aesthetic is the last to be appreciated.

But the proprioceptive aesthetic leaves the most profound mark on me. It’s always front and center in ice climbing. The appreciation of touch flows from the essential circus trick at the heart of ice climbing: extending one’s consciousness from fingers, toes, wrists, and ankles into the pointy bits of metal attached to those natural appendages.
Maybe that appreciation of touch naturally gets tamped down the harder you crimp and lock off.

Or maybe, this is all just sour grapes. I don’t think so though. Given the choice of magical elixir which would allow me to climb as hard as the best climbers on rock, or a map to a thousand foot, clean, sandstone, overhanging hand crack, I’m certain that I would pick the map without a 2nd thought.

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