“First” Ascents for Everyone!

Ethan Pringle on the FSOA of Lost in Translation (5.13; four pitches). The Great Arch, Getu, China. Photo: © John Evans
Ethan Pringle on the FSOA of Lost in Translation (5.13; four pitches). The Great Arch, Getu, China. Photo: © John Evans

The world of climbing is all about firsts. First climb of the grade, first free ascent, first female ascent, first ascent in winter… . To do a thing before anyone else is to become a glorious human bullet point in the history books — or history blogs, as the case may be today.

But damn, being first is hard! Not everyone can be first — that’s why it’s called “first.” After that, well, the scrap heap of history is full of unmemorable people who did things second, third, fourth, or seventy-sixth. As Ricky Bobby said, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”

This state of affairs is all well and good for the Sharmas and DiGiulians, the Messners and the Hills of the world, but where does that leave the rest of us, who dwell unexceptionally in the middle of the bell curve? Nowhere special, that’s for sure.

Luckily, with a little creative thinking, there is hope for us all.

First, consider what makes you wonderful and unique, like a snowflake. Consider your physiology, your skill sets and perspectives, the clothes you wear to climb, your cultural background, etc. Therefore, it should be no great challenge to find a way in which your ascent can be the first of its kind — a qualified FA, if you will. Below are just a few examples. Can you think of any others?

FCA (First Costumed Ascent) – You might recall a scene in the old Cooper Roberts climbing flick Sessions in which Ana Burgos climbs some boulder in Hueco Tanks while wearing a rabbit costume. This was almost certainly the problem’s FBSA (First Bunny Suit Ascent). Similarly, the late Kurt Albert made the FLCA (First Lederhosen Clad Ascent) of Devil’s Crack, in the Frakenjura, and Ethan Pringle made the FSOA (First Spiderman Outfit Ascent) of Lost in Translation (5.13), a limestone multi-pitch on the Great Arch in Getu, China. Thousands of FCAs (not to mention their opposite, First Nude Ascents) await. In fact, I know a friend who has a banana suit you can borrow if you’re interested…

FTFSA (First Tripping Free Solo Ascent) – The late Major League Baseball player Dock Phillip Ellis, Jr., claims to have pitched a perfect game while under the influence of LSD. Along similar lines, legend holds that a certain Gunks climber showed up at the Lost City area tripping his balls off and proceeded to free solo Survival of the Fittest, a powerful 5.13 with a jumble of big pointy rocks for a landing. Although not recommended for a whole slew of legal, ethical, and safety reasons, many FTFSAs remain to be claimed the world over. On the other hand, FSAs — First Stoned Ascents — have pretty much all been ticked at this point (sorry, dudes).

FMURA (First Most Undesirable Route Ascent) – In the Tao de Ching, Lao Tzu writes: “True goodness is like water. … It goes right to the low loathsome places, and so finds the way.” So can the crafty FA-hunter find what he or she is looking for by going straight to the lowest, chossiest, most tick-and-spider-infested pile in an area and proceeding to climb. Enjoy!

FSTAA (First Shorter Than Average Ascent) – Shorter than average climbers (≤5′ 9″ for men and ≤5′ 4″ for women) will often use height as an excuse for failure on a route. Such excuses rarely hold water, as many of the world’s best climbers fall into this category and most rock climbs offer a variety of holds for short- and tall-person beta alike. However, it is true that certain climbs are known for their “reachy” nature. A prime example is Dogleg, in the Red River Gorge. For those six feet or taller, it is appropriately graded at 5.12a. But for the 5′ 5″ Mike Doyle, who made the FA of Lucifer, the Red’s first 5.14c, Dogleg‘s reach-crux was a serious challenge. After sending, he logged it on sendage.com with the note, “1000th attempt, finally stuck the dyno. Some people say 6c-/7a+, I say 8c+ :)” With typical Canadian modesty, Doyle suggests his ascent might not be the FSTAA: “For all I know, Lynn Hill and Katie Brown tag teamed flash ascents of this beast.”

FNCSA (First Non-Climbing Shoe Ascent) – Before 1980 and the invention of sticky rubber climbing shoes, pretty much everything was a FNCSA. But in the modern era of climbing, the undeniable advantages of skin-tight footwear with super-sticky soles means that few new routes or problems get done in sneakers, flip-flops, unshod feet, etc. The world is your oyster here, but first a tip: train on a campus board and pull-up bar to prepare for those footloose moments when your painted wooden kletterclogs refuse to stick.

FPPA and FGA (First Pre-Pubescent and First Geriatric Ascent) – For the very young and very old among us, simply doing a climb at whatever age you happen to be might qualify as an FA of sorts. But don’t count on it — the roster of wee tikes and old farts getting after it grows longer every day.

F[Insert Your Ailment Here]A – Erik Weihenmayer, Hugh Herr, Craig DeMartino, Ronnie Dickson — all guys who climb harder than you despite facing challenges like blindness or missing limbs. Their FAAs (Fist Adaptive Ascents) are the stuff of legend and not for the average climber I’m addressing here. For folks like us, there are far-more accessible FAs for the taking, such as the FEDA (First Explosive Diarrhea Ascent), the FAUA (First Alopecia Universalis Ascent), or the FNAA (First Nut Allergic Ascent). Are you one of the 6.974 billion people on planet Earth who suffer from a physiological or psychological ailment, impediment, or challenge? Then there is a qualified FA out there waiting for you. To quote Brad Pitt in Troy: “Take it; it’s yours!”

10 Tips for Climbing on Opposite Day

Illustration of person climbing perfectly... on opposite day

Remember Opposite Day? That special time when we were kids where everything we said was magically inverted to mean the contrary? Such power we wielded! I recently discovered that January 25th is the pseudo-official date of this imaginary “holiday.” But in my opinion, the best thing about Opposite Day is that it can be invoked at any time — a sort of floating Shangri-La of sarcasm that materializes when called.

With that in mind, I have compiled the following 10 tips for how to climb on Opposite Day, for total beginners and experienced rock wrastlers alike. Follow these tips carefully to become a great climber… Not!

1. Hold your breath – Science has shown that only through holding your breath can you create the proper body tension required to climb. To prepare for vertical voluntary apnea, practice not breathing in a safe place close to the ground. That way, when you pass out, you won’t have far to fall. Recommended breath-holding practice locations include a sofa, bed, or crashpad. To be avoided: hot tubs, the high limbs of trees, a closed room containing a pack of hungry pugs.

2. Care about looking cool – Few things are more important to a real climber than appearance. Favorite skinny jeans and striped tank top in the washer? Better to stay home than to head to the crag. Feeling a little bland at the gym? Try getting an arm-sleeve tattoo, capping your matted crop of dreadlocks with an ill-fitting trucker hat, or growing an ironic mustache. The self-confidence you gain from your new appearance will be all you need to power you up the wall.

3. Carry as little water and food as possible – The only edible thing Clint Eastwood brought up the Totem Pole in the cult classic The Eiger Sanction was beer. And he didn’t even mean to bring that — his good-for-nothin’ partner slipped it in his pack. The takeaway here is that hydration and nutrition are for sissies. A good rule of thumb before a long multi-pitch day in the desert is: one tall glass of water before you leave in the morning and, if you feel you need it, another when you get back to your van. As for that gobbledygook about “bonking”? Go sit in an empty chair — Clint will tell you what you can do with your Camelbak and Clif Bars.

4. Use you arms – Can you do 10 pull-ups? Then you can do at least 10 climbing moves. It is commonly known that the best rock climbers have spindly little legs, and that’s because their lower limbs, like the human appendix, are borderline vestigial, used only for transporting their powerful upper bodies to the base of the climb.

5. Wing it – As it’s Opposite Day, I won’t hesitate to let you in on a little secret: belaying requires neither information nor practice. I mean, you pull the rope through the doohickey and then when your climber falls, you grab tight and hold on for the ride. It doesn’t matter how far the climber falls as long as he stops short of the ground. Or at least slows significantly before impact. And to answer your question: Yes, those rope burns on your palms are normal.

6. Throw your helmet in the trash – You probably have one of those friends who swears that it’s safer to drive without a seatbelt because, in the event of an accident, he’s likely to be thrown from the car and safely into a soft pile of dried leaves. Turns out your friend is right. And a similar logic applies to helmets. For example, if you’re struck by lightning, today’s modern foam-and-plastic brain buckets would almost certainly be fused to your head. Not worth the risk!

7. If you can’t climb it, chip it – There is more than enough rock in the world for everyone to climb. Therefore, if you’re trying to do something that’s just too hard, or maybe tweaks your shoulder a little bit, grab a hammer and a chisel and make like Michelangelo. No one will notice, and even if they do, they’ll probably thank you for transforming nature’s half-assed rocks into king lines. Boom goes the dynamite!

8. Freak out – No one ever climbed anything worthwhile with a level head. When you realize that you don’t have enough cams to protect the rest of the crack you’re trying to tackle, do the following very important steps: 1) contract all the muscles in your body. 2) Start hyperventilating. 3) Babble hysterically to yourself, the wall, and your belayer. 4) Start unclipping the remaining gear from your harness and flinging it into space. 5) Disrobe as much as possible. 6) Give up on life and climb as high as you can above your last piece of gear. Good luck!

9. Pump up the volume – Birds singing, a babbling brook, the whistling whisper of wind between the trees and boulders… Eff that ish! Time to bust out the iPod and portable speakers and blast some dubstep. How else are you going to get psyched?! Of course, once you’re up on the rock, breaking the rad barrier to the unrelenting, grinding pulse of Deadmau5, you’re also going to want to cut loose with some Ondra roars and unedited expletive explosions. How else will people know you’re not just out climbing some rock like all these other n00bs?

10. ABC (Always Be Climbing) – Any fast food chain owner will tell you: success isn’t about quality, it’s a matter of sheer volume. Climbing every day or even multiple times per day, is the quickest way to get stupid strong. Tendon pain? Partially dislocated shoulder? Exhaustion-induced illness? Meer bumps in the road to glory. Now get back on that wall and give me 20 laps.