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Psyching Out on Sinocranium

Psyching Out on SinocraniumCold weather has made its appearance; the Quaking Aspens are as bright of a yellow as I’ve ever seen. A Patagonia micro-puff jacket is welcome for the half-mile approach to the climb, and I don’t get cold that easy. It is the 22nd of October and we thought our window to climb at City of Rocks National Reserve was shot. However, a weather report of clear skies and low 50’s was all we needed to realize our window was still open.

Motivated by the excitement of my first multi-pitch climb, I lead our three-man team through the sagebrush flats and up into the boulders that decorate City of Rocks. Paths split and Cody takes over the route finding, getting us to the base of Steinfells Dome for the what-fits-in-who’s-pack shuffling of gear. Three people and two ropes are new to us all, but with the first four pitches of mellow 5.2-5.5 granite climbing ahead, we figure our pre-trip practice will kick in soon enough. Aaron's can-do attitude and Cody's years of climbing experience get us to the 5.8 fifth pitch crux in good time, considering I am the hauling-grunt and learning semi-complex rope management techniques on the side of a 650 foot route.

Aaron leads the crux pitch, warning of the increased difficulty compared to the spoils of the previous easy climbing. With efficiency on our minds, Cody climbs the fourth pitch up to me, then past me straight up number five and six to the “summit”. By this time I am beginning to realize the unique characteristics of multi-pitch climbing; mainly the facts that my feet hate my climbing shoes and hanging/awkward-standing in my harness for nearly an hour also isn’t super comfortable. Aaron's warning weighs on my mind and forces me to wonder if I am prepared for real climbing. Attempting to keep my body ready for the next climb and to find comfort I constantly shift, finding that facing out from the rock, staring at the valley below offers momentary relief. I know I shouldn’t let my mind wander too far, but I can’t help wonder if the angled rock would be feasible for snowboarding given winter conditions? Leading me to wonder if I would be able to self-arrest if suddenly the anchors popped free, if I would survive a spill down the face from 500 feet up? What was a walk-in-the-park climb suddenly displays its dominance in my psyche; down is terrifying.

“Mike, you ready?”

Reality is back. I’m not falling down the face, I still have to climb up it. I’ll have to admit right here that my climbing abilities are far from impressive. A 5.9+ is the most I can brag about; I’ve never even achieved the coveted 5.10. In my defense, I have spent little time honing my climbing skills, other outdoor pursuits have dominated my time, and I have only truly attempted a 5.10 once. All that said, what should be an enjoyable, challenging section of climbing has me gripped, desperately desiring water and trying to slow my breathing.

Forty feet later I once again lean into my harness, this time next to Aaron at the anchors. A cramped belay station forces a short break, and I am back climbing the sixth and final pitch to join Cody at the summit. More mentally drained than physically, I rip off shoes, chug water and enjoy the view without the worry of catching a dramatic, horrific fall. My only worry now: will I have to wait for spring to do it again?

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