Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Changing Seasons: Dark Horse & Livin' Astro

Fall is officially here in New England! Over the past couple months, I’ve transitioned from the summer life of competing and traveling back into my sophomore year classes here at Northeastern. As much as I love traveling and climbing during the summer, there’s something special about coming back to Boston for this time of year. You really can’t beat the crisp apples and amazing colors display from tree leaves, but most importantly, prime climbing temps and the beginning of a new season of the Dark Horse Bouldering Series.

Last year, I competed in Dark Horse for the first time. I’d watched videos of the events before, but competing in the competitions blew my expectations away. The energy is insane, pro athletes fly in from all over the country, and the finals problems are some of the most innovative and ridiculous climbs EVER. I guess you could say I had a good time.

Coming into the first event of the season, I really wanted to train as hard as possible in order to have the chance of winning the first event, since the winners of each of the first three competitions get an automatic bye into the Dark Horse Championships. To prepare, I really focused on doing a lot of power-endurance workouts and campus board drills to get my contact strength up as high as possible. It was hard scheduling enough time in the gym to train given my workload this semester, since I am currently taking 20 credits of mechanical engineering courses. However, having less free time really changed my perspective on training, as I was able to really focus on getting a lot done during the short period of time available to me.

The morning of the comp arrived quickly, and I couldn’t wait to get to Metrorock to begin climbing. Qualifiers went well, and I was able to complete most of the harder problems in relatively few attempts, securing me a 3rd-place spot in the finals after Vasya and Mike Foley. The top eight men were only separated by falls, so it was decided that everyone would advance rather than just the top six.

Photo: Garrick Kwan
After the “Young Guns” finals (kids 15 and under) were finished, myself and the other finalists headed into isolation to begin warming up and get a quick run-down of the rules for finals. As is Dark Horse tradition, the rules meeting wasn’t complete without several ambiguous hints about the problem, including the fact that problem 1 for the men would not have an actual finish hold, and that several footholds would be scored as well as handholds.

Expecting a balancy slab traverse, we each headed out of iso one at a time to tackle the finals problems. When I turned around to face problem 1, I was reminded why Dark Horse is as exciting as I remembered it by the overwhelming noise from the crowd, who was taking their cues from the announcer (dressed this time around as Wilfred). At first glance, problem 1 did appear to be a balance-intensive traverse on slopers at ground height, but after several botched attempts to work my way across, I realized that a running start was actually required. After I figured this out, I was able to complete it in only a couple more attempts. Problem 2 was a powerfest on lots of pinches and slopers with huge dynos in between, which fit my style of climbing excellently and I was able to complete it on my second try. Unfortunately, problem 3 shut everyone down at the same move, which was a huge throw to a dish, but it had a cool opening dyno that required a mandatory double clutch off of a sloper.

Problem 2
Photo: Garrick Kwan
Problem 2
Photo: Garrick Kwan
Problem 3
Photo: Garrick Kwan
Problem 3
Photo: Garrick Kwan
In the end, the comp came down to whether Vasya or I had less falls. Since I took less tries on problem 1 and only two tries on problem 2, I came out in first! There was some questionable scoring on problem 3 because Vasya controlled a hold that was further ahead than the dish with his left hand, but Charlie Schrieber and I both controlled it with our right hands so it didn’t matter too much in the end.

Psyched to have come out on top, I could now shift my focus entirely to outdoor climbing. As SENDtember transitioned into ROCKtober, the temperatures around the Northeast dropped, and conditions became ideal for some crushing.

One project that I’d been looking at from last season was China Beach (5.14b), in Rumney, New Hampshire. After sussing out the moves and trying to avoid a swarm of wasps and ladybugs on a particularly muggy day, my friend Kai Mu convinced me to try Livin’ Astro (5.14c), the line just to the right of China Beach. After a try or two on it, I was hooked. Livin’ Astro fit my style of climbing much better than China Beach and was clearly the most prominent and natural line on the cliff.

In addition to the style of climbing, the history behind Livin’ Astro was very appealing to me. It was first climbed by Dave Graham in early 2000, who established it as the hardest sport climb in New England at the time. After getting back to my dorm and watching footage of Dave making the first ascent in Dosage II, Livin’ Astro became the only thing on my mind.

Dave Graham making the first ascent of Livin' Astro (4:42)
Video: Big Up Productions

I made the trip up to Rumney every weekend from then on, recruiting rides up from friends all over the Boston area. As several weeks passed by, I found myself making significant progress and began linking sections together. However, I kept getting shut down by a single hard move at the top.

The climb can be broken down into three distinct cruxes: the bottom (sustained V8 up to a sloper rest), the middle (v9/10 core-intensive/shouldery boulder problem to a jug) and the top (four-move V10 for me, V9 if you’re just a little taller). I was able to individually figure out both the bottom and middle cruxes fairly quickly, but the top crux proved to be my nemesis. The entire sequence revolves around a single vertical slot which is the only hold between an undercling just above the rest and the arete. I must have tried the move going to the slot and the move out of the slot at least 50 times, each try seeming no closer than the next. Over time, I finally was able to figure out the perfect body positioning to stick the hold and move off of it, but it was still extremely low-percentage.

The crux hold! Dave Graham demonstrating proper technique.
Working Livin’ Astro was a unique process for me since I was able to come back every weekend to try the climb and train for individual moves in the gym in the weeks between. The majority of my hardest sport climbing in the past was done on summer trips, and the ability to really dial in a training regimen for a project like this was something I’d never experienced before. It also helped that my friend Andrew Palmer was working (and sent!) Jaws II, a 5.15 two lines to the left of Livin’ Astro, as we were able to motivate each other to try to get our projects done.

The weekend after Palmer sent Jaws, I headed up with my friends Alex Coda and Sean O’Donnell, accompanied by filmmaker Ian MacLellan. The temps were well into the 40’s that day, which made for a particularly uncomfortable warm-up, but it was crisp enough to compensate for the high humidity levels. When I felt ready, I laced my shoes and began up the headwall. After fighting through the first two cruxes, I found myself staring down the last boulder problem for the first time on a redpoint burn. I shook out for a long time, allowed my nerves and breathing to settle, and fired the final moves to the top! As I lowered down, I could barely believe I’d finally sent my first 5.14. To see one of my biggest goals in climbing finally realized meant more to me than words can describe.

By the time we all packed up our gear, it was still only around 2pm, so we decided to head over to the Blackout Boulder Brawl at Metrorock Newburyport afterwards. All of us had a great time, and I was able to flash all five finals problems to win the comp! All in all, that day was probably one of the best days of climbing I’ve ever had. However, Sean certainly took home some of his own personal glory by flashing two V5’s and a V6 and placing 11th in advanced! This was super impressive given he’s been climbing for barely a year. Solid, bro!

Now that everything’s mostly settled down now, I can finally get back to schoolwork and training for Dark Horse Round 2. I’m excited to see where the next couple months take me, and am looking forward to getting back out to Rumney in the spring. Jaws is up next!

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