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!