Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Wheel of Aquarius

Climb ‘Aquarius’, then traverse the lip into ‘The Stoner Traverse’. Top out.

This climb means a lot to me. It’s most likely the hardest climb I’ve ever done and most certainly my hardest first ascent to date. More than that, I’ve put more time, effort, and emotion into this climb than any other in my climbing career.

The project cycle started sometime in spring of 2020 when I opened my California climbing guidebook in search of something new. After flipping through pages of areas I’d been to countless times, I stumbled across a full-page photo of Chris Bloch on an amazing-looking sandstone feature from an area I’d never heard of - Aquarian Valley. The caption read:

“Aquarian Project • V? - Chris Bloch attempts the hard move on the undone ‘Aquarian Project’ traverse. This is a rare plum, waiting to be plucked!”

Upon further inspection, I made another realization: Aquarian Valley is actually the closest outdoor climbing area to my home in Sunnyvale (as the crow flies). My interest piqued, I set this project aside for the time being as I shifted gears into building a bouldering wall in my garage and beginning my grad school application cycle.

After completing a particularly grueling application on an early December morning, I had a sudden burst of inspiration. I grabbed some crash pads (and my dad) and decided to utilize the afternoon to check out Aquarian Valley for the first time. Following a strenuous approach, (solely due to the fact we got lost multiple times) we found the infamous ‘Stoner Cave’ as described in the guidebook. I was blown away.

In my opinion, this area is most similar to Mortar Rock in Berkeley. It’s characterized by one very long continuous wall with several traverses / linkups / standalone lines spread out across its face. The main differences? No crowds, actual texture on the holds, and truly incredible movement you only find in places like Hueco Tanks or Rocklands.

I immediately set out to try the ‘hard move’ as described in the guidebook, but unsurprisingly it was far too hard for me on that day. Instead, I began checking out The Stoner Traverse (V7 in the guidebook) and found it to be an incredibly fun yet challenging climb.

Over the next few months, I made the trip back up to Aquarian, enjoying the process of figuring out the climb one move at a time. It felt natural to push my limits in an incremental way, relishing each new insight of beta as it came and not feeling pressured to complete it in a certain duration of time or for anyone other than myself.

The linkup I decided would be the best test of my skills would be to climb the most classic line - a V5 called Aquarius - into The Stoner Traverse. There were quite a few moves separating each climb that did not appear on any described problem in the guidebook. To the best of my knowledge, this linkup has never been completed and thus merited figuring out my own beta from scratch.

Starting at the very end of the traverse and working backwards, I made slow but consistent progress. Each move felt impossibly hard at first, yet with each repetition felt more and more flowy. The most engaging elements were puzzling out beta in between sections that I could do, trying many different variations before finding an approach that worked. I even set a simulation climb on my home wall of the crux moves (roughly V10 if I had to grade them).

Finally, after months of piecing moves together, I felt ready for a real attempt. I chalked my hands, grabbed the starting holds* (more on this later) and began climbing. I felt completely weightless, moving my body between positions I knew all too well. I knew exactly what I needed to do at every hand or foot placement and executed each without conscious thought. In a weird way, the climb almost felt easy.

Two and a half minutes later, I found myself matching the finish jug. I let out a huge sigh of relief. I decided at this point to top out the boulder - a feat I had not attempted before - which took an additional two minutes of mossy scrambling and hold finding. In any case, I’d completed my project on my first try!

…or so I thought.

After a day or so of mental jubilation, I decided to go back to the guidebook (long since forgotten at home) to check the description of the climbs I’d linked one more time. To my horror, I realized I’d started two holds too high. From the guidebook:

* “Aquarius • V5 - Thuggish climbing up the seam. Start … on a good 2-finger pocket for the left hand.”

In all my excitement in figuring out the hard beta, I’d accidentally started Aquarius with both hands on the jugs directly above the 2-finger pocket and not bothered to double-check where the ‘correct’ start was. Inspired by Dai Koyamada in his well-documented ‘double’ ascent of The Story of 2 Worlds in Switzerland:

“Later learning start holds were different from the original, I was persuaded to do the ascent again.”

In my case, all I figured I would need to do is add an additional two moves of V0 into a climb I’d already completed with what felt like relative ease. Piece of cake, right? Right.

Several trips and multiple attempts later, most definitively wrong.

For some reason, adding two additional moves of V0 felt like it made the climb impossible. If I had to guess, it’s because it adds one additional right-hand undercling move, bringing the total of right-hand undercling moves up to three. Considering the redpoint crux itself is a brutal right-hand undercling move, maintaining right bicep strength in reserve is absolutely key.

With this in mind, I went back to my home wall with renewed purpose, training key movements and power-endurance. I put laps in on the garage wall simulator and did a bunch of bicep curls with some free weights I managed to scrounge up. Then I waited for a good weather window.

After one false start, (too much fog & moisture accumulation on the rock on a reconnaissance trip) I returned in late April feeling more ready than ever. I brushed off the holds, applied some liquid chalk, and grabbed the *actual* starting holds. The moves felt even easier than before, and my extra power from training allowed me to move with supreme confidence between holds. I felt unstoppable.

Unstoppable, that is, until I reached out for a bump move that I’d never fallen on before only a move or two before the redpoint crux. As I slapped out for a sloper with my right hand, I slipped and found myself flat on my back. I silently cursed my misfortune, (actually, not so silently) but knew it was a mistake I probably wouldn’t make twice.

Undeterred, I tried again. Feeling fatigued from the previous attempt, I made SURE to go for the ‘correct’ spot on the hold I’d slipped off of before. Somehow, I slipped again. This time, I definitely didn’t hide my frustration. I was pissed.

Knowing my body was getting incredibly tired from these efforts, I knew I at most had one more try left in me. I thought my chances of sending this time were particularly low, but we still had a bit more daylight left over and a small part of me would be annoyed with having to hike back out not having given the climb everything I had.

For some reason, at this point, I made a mental connection to competitions. In comps, there are moments where you are given one final try on a climb, one shot for glory. These are the moments I live for as a competitor. Send or go home. Throughout all my time projecting this climb, I’d never needed to tap into this fight or flight mentality. Until now.

Feeling a primal energy that definitely didn’t exist on any previous attempt, I chalked up for one final go. As I pulled on, I instantly felt a dull fatigue setting into my right bicep. For a moment, I was tempted to step off, chalk the day up as a ‘practice’ round, and head home. Then my competitive side kicked in. I gritted my teeth, focused in on the next hold, and continued to climb.

It was far from pretty. Nothing at all like my first ‘ascent’ of the climb. But it didn’t matter. As I pulled through the moves guarding the crux, I attacked the rock with a ferocity you only get once every so often. I grr’d my way through the hold I slipped off of earlier and found myself staring down the crux. With nothing left to lose, I jabbed my fingers for the pocket, latching it with barely-concealed desperation.

On pretty much all other attempts, the rest of the climb (aka The Stoner Traverse V7) felt relatively chill. On this attempt, however, it felt whatever the polar opposite of chill could be. Screaming through moves between actual jugs, I willed my body not to give in to the incredible fatigue setting into my forearms, biceps, fingers, and core. It was only after pulling the last few moves to the finish jug on the slab that I let out what can only be described as a visceral yell, channeling all of my frustration, fear, anxiety, and doubt into one victorious release.

Thus is my story of completing Wheel of Aquarius. I hope you found it interesting at the very least and can use this reflection in whatever way benefits your own projects or goals. I am proud of my contribution to Bay Area bouldering and I hope many future generations will find this climb a fun and unique challenge.

I would like to thank both my parents, Richard and Carrie, for their endless dedication to support my goals. They made countless trips out to Aquarian with me, lugging multiple crash pads both ways. When it came time to put in goes on a complete ascent, they both performed brilliantly, with dad moving pads to ensure my safety and mom filming as I traversed the wall (not an easy feat considering the steep incline and uneven ground!).

I would also like to acknowledge the Long Ridge Open Space Preserve for accommodating and maintaining excellent outdoor recreation, as well as Jim Thornburg for documenting Bay Area climbing in his phenomenal guidebook. Special thanks to Chris Bloch & Chris Summit for their area beta and support!

As I mentioned before, this problem is most likely the hardest climb I have ever done and most certainly my hardest first ascent to date, which is why I have given it a grade of V13. I am of course open to additional opinions and would welcome further ascents to confirm (or alter) its difficulty.

The next logical step is to link in the ‘hard move’ start sequence as pictured in the guidebook to Wheel of Aquarius. As with Wheel, this is to the best of my knowledge still undone, but awaiting a challenger strong enough. I know one thing for sure: I cannot complete this on my own. Perhaps it will be you!

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Monday, September 21, 2015

5 Parks, 5 Months

Photo: John Colby
“There is nothing so American as our National Parks. The scenery and the wildlife are native. The fundamental idea behind the parks is native. It is, in brief, that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us. The parks stand as the outward symbol of the great human principle.”

– Franklin D. Roosevelt, August 5th, 1934

These were the words delivered by the 32nd President of the United States during a radio address from a small cabin in Glacier National Park, Montana. His speech came at a time of major economic shift in the country as Roosevelt enacted his New Deal policy, which included a transfer of 56 national monuments and military sites from the Forest Service and the War Department to the National Park Service. Looking back, his vision to preserve our greatest natural playgrounds for future generations still stands as one of the best political decisions of all time, at least in my book.

For the past five months, I’ve had the chance to explore the American Southwest from an entirely new perspective. Having grown up in beautiful Northern California, I moved to the east coast in 2012 to study mechanical engineering in Boston at Northeastern University. One of the main attractions of Northeastern for me was their co-op program, which encourages their students to take part in six-month paid internships (co-ops) interspersed between years of school. For my most recent co-op, I landed a position at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California to work on the robotic arm of the 2020 Mars Rover.

Standing behind the desks of NASA Director Charles Bolden and JPL Director Charles Elachi at JPL Mission Control
Photo: Craig Martland
Working at JPL was one of the coolest experiences I can imagine. From an early age, I’ve been obsessed with space travel and the exploration of the universe, probably since I saw Star Wars for the first time. Contrary to what its name suggests, JPL does not build jet engines anymore, but instead is a federally funded NASA research center dedicated to the robotic exploration of space. JPL is responsible for sending the first-ever US satellite into orbit, landing rovers on Mars, and sending spacecraft farther into the outer reaches of the solar system than any other organization on Earth. Having the opportunity to be a part of history by contributing to the next chapter of human space exploration was truly out of this world.

Selfie with the Curiosity Mars Rover!
One of the best perks about being a JPL employee is that we got every other Friday off, given that we worked a minimum of 80 hours over two weeks. To take as much advantage as possible of these extended weekends, some of the other Northeastern co-ops and I decided to use the extra time to explore the nearby National Parks and really get a feel for one of the most scenic natural areas in the country. We ended up visiting five total parks, on average one park per month, starting with Joshua Tree and finishing with Yosemite.

The Valley!
This time period marked a major lifestyle change for me personally. With a background in competitive climbing, I’d become accustomed to a yearlong indoor training cycle with my primary focus being maintaining peak performance for each event and only getting outdoors when I had “free time”. Then, about a year ago, I tore my labrum in my left shoulder while climbing. After undergoing surgery to repair the tear in December, I found myself needing to to fill the void that climbing had left with another activity while I rehabilitated my shoulder. Hiking proved to be the perfect activity, as it combined a non-impactful lower-body workout with the ability to discover new areas with friends in the great outdoors.

At the top of San Gabriel Peak in Pasadena
Photo: Craig Martland
Now that I’ve had the opportunity to journey to these five magnificent parks, the next step is to share my experiences with you. Grab your hiking boots and plenty of food, water, and sunscreen, here are some tips to help you plan your perfect adventure in some of America’s greatest outdoor areas.

Park #1: Joshua Tree National Park

As our first stop on this Southwest tour, Joshua Tree certainly has a lot to offer. From breathtaking vistas to windswept valleys, J-Tree is the ultimate desert hotspot for anyone looking to try out some hiking or climbing in a location straight out of a Dr. Seuss book.

Visitor’s Center Address:
6554 Park Blvd
Joshua Tree, CA 92252

Driving time from:
Los Angeles Area: 2 hours
San Francisco Bay Area: 8 hours
Phoenix: 3 hours
Las Vegas: 3 hours

Best time to visit:

Cottonwood Campground includes a fire pit and access to a bathroom with running water with each site. If you’re lucky, you may run into fellow campers with stargazing telescopes who will let you take a peak through the lens at distant galaxies in the night sky. $20/night.

Recommended Hike:
Lost Horse Mine Trail (6.7 miles) offers an excellent and mostly flat tour around an old mine.

Points of Interest:
Mastodon Peak, Ryan Mountain, Cholla Cactus Garden

For more information, visit

Park #2: Grand Canyon National Park

Described by Theodore Roosevelt as “The one great sight which every American should see”, there’s a reason why Arizona’s state nickname is ‘The Grand Canyon State’. Stretching over 277 miles in length, up to 18 miles wide and over 2,600 feet deep, The Grand Canyon truly earns its place as one of the seven natural wonders of the world.

Visitor’s Center Address:
Market Plaza Store
Grand Canyon Village, AZ 86023

Travel time from:
Los Angeles Area: 7.5 hours
San Francisco Bay Area: 12 hours
Phoenix: 3.5 hours
Las Vegas: 2 hours

Best time to visit:
March-May or September-November

The Grand Canyon at Sunrise
Mather Campground includes a fire pit and access to a bathroom with running water with each site. $18/night.

Recommended Hike:
Bright Angel Trail (12 miles) is the most iconic day hike into the Grand Canyon. Commencing at the canyon rim, the trail descends steeply for 4.5 miles before leveling off and leading to a scenic overlook of the Colorado River. CAUTION: Plan for at least 2-3 times as much time to ascend out of the canyon as it took you to descend, keeping in mind the total elevation drop of about 3000 feet. Bring plenty of water and electrolytes to avoid heat stroke.

Plateau Point on Bright Angel Trail
Points of Interest: Mather Point, Yavapai Museum of Geology, Desert View, Toroweep Overlook, Grand Canyon Train Depot.

Mather Point
For more information, visit

Park #3: Death Valley National Park

Located close the border of California and Nevada in the Mojave Desert, Death Valley the lowest, driest, and hottest place in North America. Far from being a deterrent, however, these distinguishing characteristics give Death Valley its signature desolate beauty and allow it to transport any visitor to another world with its supernatural landscapes. Here you can uncover the mystery of the Sailing Stones, stand 282 feet below sea level at Badwater Basin, and follow in the footsteps of your favorite Star Wars characters as you travel through iconic filming locations for Star Wars Episode IV.

Visitor’s Center Address:
Furnace Creek Visitor Center
Furnace Creek, CA 92328

Driving time from:
Los Angeles Area: 4.5 hours
San Francisco Bay Area: 8 hours
Phoenix: 7 hours
Las Vegas: 2 hours

Best time to visit:

Can you spot Brandon in this photo?
Furnace Creek Campground includes a fire pit and access to a bathroom with running water with each site. $12/night from April 16 to October 14 (walk-ups), $18/night otherwise.

Recommended Hike:
Gower Gulch Loop Trail (6.7 miles) offers a stunning palette of desert scenery, complete with a gorgeous view from Zabriskie Point at the halfway mark. Don’t miss the Manly Beacon or the Star Wars scene-matching area at the beginning of the trail.

Points of Interest:
Zabriskie Point, The Red Cathedral, Badwater Basin Salt Flats, Dante's View, The Manly Beacon, assorted Star Wars filming locations, The Sailing Stones

Zabriskie Point
Badwater Basin (elevation: -282 feet)
For more information, visit

Park #4: Sequoia National Park

Home of the tallest trees on earth, Sequoia National Park certainly serves up a tall order when it comes to natural beauty. Sequoia boasts both a Tunnel Tree that you can drive through as well as the illustrious General Sherman Tree, the world’s largest living tree by volume. Additionally, Sequoia also features over 400,000 acres of vast alpine wilderness, 84% of which is only accessible by foot or horseback.

Visitor’s Center Address:
63100 Lodgepole Rd
Sequoia National Park, CA 93262

Driving time from:
Los Angeles Area: 3.5 hours
San Francisco Bay Area: 4 hours
Phoenix: 9 hours
Las Vegas: 6 hours

Best time to visit:

Cold Springs Campground is first-come, first-serve, includes a fire pit at each site, and has access to a pit toilet. Use the bear lockers for any food items (including toothpaste). Potable water available: May 20 to October 13. $12/night.

Recommended Hike:
Eagle Lake Trail (6.4 miles) can easily be one of the most gratifying hikes you will do in your lifetime. Starting out at the base of Mineral King Valley, the trail ascends a ridge that takes you up into the Sierras with beautiful vistas of the Great Western Divide. After an elevation gain of over 2,000 feet, the trail deposits you at the mouth of emerald-green Eagle Lake, a glacial paradise that is perched on top of the 10,000-foot peak you just climbed.

Eagle Lake
Points of Interest:
General Sherman Tree, Moro Point, Grant Grove, Cedar Grove, General’s Highway

General Sherman Tree
Moro Peak
For more information, visit

Park #5: Yosemite National Park

Nestled in the Sierra Nevada Mountains just east of San Francisco, Yosemite is perhaps the most iconic National Park in the world. The raw natural beauty of the park paved the way for renowned explorer John Muir to help establish Yosemite Valley and its surrounding area as the 2nd-ever US National Park in 1890. Home to sheer granite cliffs such as El Capitan and Half Dome that attract climbers and visitors from all over the globe, Yosemite also hosts several spectacular waterfalls, massive sequoia groves, and a wide array of biological diversity. The park’s legacy has engrained itself into American culture, ranging from everything from the California State Quarter to the moniker behind Apple’s latest operating system, OS X. Yosemite is easily one of the top destinations to visit on earth.

Visitor’s Center Address:
Yosemite Valley Visitors Center
Yosemite Valley, CA 95389

Driving time from:
Los Angeles Area: 5 hours
San Francisco Bay Area: 4 hours
Phoenix: 10 hours
Las Vegas: 5.5 hours

Best time to visit:

Vernal Falls
There are many places to camp in the park. The most historic place to camp would most likely be Camp 4, located near Yosemite Lodge. Listed on the National Record of Historic Places, Camp 4 is home to the world-famous Columbia Boulder and boulder problem Midnight Lightning, and is considered one of the birthplaces of modern-day rock climbing. Camp 4 has access to restrooms, running water, a bear locker, and comes with a fire pit at each site. $4/night.

NOTE: There is a 30-night camping limit within Yosemite National Park in a calendar year; however, May 1 - September 15, the camping limit in Yosemite is 14 nights, and only seven of those nights can be in Yosemite Valley or Wawona.

Recommended Hike:
Although the Yosemite Falls Trail (7.2 miles) certainly is not to miss out on, I’d recommend the Mist Trail (also known as the Half Dome Hike) as the must-do in The Valley. Starting at the base of Half Dome, you can choose to venture up to Vernal Falls (3 miles roundtrip), Nevada Falls (7 miles roundtrip), or hike the cables on the backside of Half Dome to the summit (14 miles roundtrip). The best time to view the waterfalls is in the springtime when the snow melts.
Both sets of falls are breathtaking, but the view off the top of Half Dome certainly takes the cake. If you are planning to hike Half Dome, you will need to secure permits to do so in the month of March or apply for a daily permit at least two days in advance.

Vernal Falls with the backside of Half Dome in the background
Bouldering on the Mist Trail
Photo: Matt Chua
Points of Interest:
Yosemite Falls, El Capitan Meadow, Glacier Point, Hetch Hetchy, Tunnel View, Tuolumne Meadows, The Awahnee Hotel, Mirror Lake

Tuolumne Meadows
For more information, visit

Special thanks to Matt Chua, Amila Cooray, Craig Martland, Lucy Naslas, Brandon Smail, Stephanie Mitana, Dan LaChapelle, Annabelle Sibué, Luseny Palacios, Kate Zhou, and Nolan Ryan for contributing to these adventures.

Hopefully this guide to National Parks in the Southwest will inspire you to embark on your own journey into the amazing wilderness that we are so fortunate to have access to. If you are planning on visiting as many parks as I did, it is well worth purchasing a National Parks Pass that will grant you admission to all National Parks for one full year. As always, stay on the trail, respect all closures and wildlife, pick up all trash (even if it isn’t yours), and leave no trace. That way, future generations will be able to enjoy the beauty of the outdoors for years to come.