I remember the day I sent my hardest route. It was a wet, rainy one at the pipedream cave in Maple Canyon, Utah. For some reason, I was on a Norwegian heavy metal kick. I was climbing a route called “Divine Fury,” and it just seemed right to listen to music that channeled that “fury.”
It rained a bit early in the afternoon, and though the crag was normally quite populated, few people were present. I was pretty sure I’d have no luck that day. I’d do what I had been doing two days out of every three: putting in goes, building muscle memory, and feeding the upkeep on the ridiculous amount of fitness required to climb in that cave.
Before what would ultimately be the send go, I put up both my hands and said: “In the name of Odin, stop raining!”
Five minutes later, it stopped. (Photo right: Ciara Rinaudo, from the day I sent “Divine Fury”)
I went through the pre-climb motions. I pulled on my knee bar pads, cinched down my shoes, and slathered my hands with homemade liquid chalk. I double-checked my bowline, then started singing an amalgamation of a 90’s pop song that had a minute connection to the route.
“Every little move you do, Never seems to hard for you-ooo, I’m just gonna try this again, Some day I’ll se-eeend! And baby when you fi-na-lyyy, Go and clip them chains, Guess what, It’s gonna be sweet!”
I gave up on the whole “on belay?”/“belay on” routine because it just made me nervous. My belayer and I had climbed enough together to know when the other was ready to go. I’d sing through the opening moves, and by the time I hit the roof, I was in it. The singing turned into calm breaths, and I was firing the routine I had been rehearsing.
The route features seven back-to-back boulder problems, near equal in their difficulty, for 100 feet out a massive roof. The climb had several big inverted knee-bar rests, but I would need to climb the long, sustained first half of the route to reach them. I remember thinking beforehand that I might have to skip a clip after the first crux, that I might not be able to keep up my pace if I stopped there for a moment; that it’d be worth the bigger fall to gun for the heel-hook/finger-lock “jug” rest.
(Photo: Elodie Saracco, the lower cruxes of “Divine”)
I’m a bigger climber, but I probably wasn’t going to deck. I also realized I was giving the route far too much respect. I could do every single move, I could do each one back to back, and I could do them my way and have plenty of gas in the tank to finish the route. no need to fret, just send it!
I launched into the kick-through-toe-hook-match-move, hit the finger lock Gaston, and set my foot jam. I did the big lunge and pulled rope for the clip. I split-second realized that it wasn’t worth my effort, and kept on climbing.
I hit the rest with my finger bleeding profusely. I like to keep an empty chalk ball in my bag, and it turned out to be just the thing I needed to stop the bleeding. The time spent doing that minor finger surgery kept my mind occupied during the few minutes I needed to stay at the rest, and I was ready to go again shortly.
I almost slipped out of the final dead point crux, but gave everything I had to stay on — and somehow did. After chilling in the next rest for a minute or two, a smile crossed my face as I realized I wasn’t pumped at all. Giggling, I felt my heart rate drop, and I recovered nicely. I had gone all in on building the fitness for this crag, realizing that I might never be in a position to do so again. I climbed the second half of the climb with giddy abandon, loving every minute.
And when it was over, I was just happy. I wore a smile around for days. I had already bested myself earlier that summer by climbing my first 5.14s, and one-upping myself again was just gravy. 5.14 had been looming over me since early in my climbing life, and it had felt like such a relief to do the first one.
14-year-old Tom had been dead set on climbing a 5.14 some day, and 24-year-old Tom had finally done that. Climbing an even harder one somehow didn’t translate into that desire at all. The goal was over and done with, and I was just enjoying myself. I climbed a route I never thought I’d be able to, and I had a ton of fun.
And then, a week later, the universe gifted me a dog.
(Photo: Tom Smartt, of Ato!)
In the time since I’ve picked climbs based solely on what looks like something I just HAVE to climb. I expanded my climbing style and started ticking heinous slabs, and I got back into bolting routes. Some have been ridiculous, some have been awesome, and some have pushed me to my limits, but all of them have been lines that just looked fun.
I’ve again found myself at that “hardest route project mode” on a tricky and painful slabby route in Idaho. The route, “Disco Steppin,’” seems blank. Without draws and my few tick marks, it looks like nothing is there. It took me three days to find all of the holds, and to finally decide to place bolts in the rock.
(Photo: Tara Kershner)
How hard is it? I don’t care at this point. I had a great time, but after three seasons of effort, have yet to send. I found a crazy job as a high school English teacher/coach with The Climbing Academy, and spend my winters traveling the globe, drinking fancy coffee and playing Pokemon GO in castles.
I’m psyched to send my route someday, but it will still be there for me when I get back from round four at maple canyon, or after the cliff thaws out following my next year with the Academy. Whenever that day comes, I’ll be psyched.
Upon hearing the advice of his mentors, Tom decided to follow his dreams and visit the places he had read about in the climbing magazines as a kid. He’s spent the majority of the past few years living in a truck, traveling and climbing all over the country. Tom is a Butora Athlete and you can keep up with him on Instagram @tomsmartt