There’s a famous climbing story in which a young climber approaches a big wall legend as he’s drinking in Yosemite’s Mountian Room bar, and asks for advice on how to become a big wall legend.
The gnarled and sunbleached Master, skin like leather, beer no doubt held in a monster scared paw, begins by advising the young man to begin a long apprenticeship.
Paraphrasing, he tells the young climber to start on easy single pitch climbs, build up his skills until he’d tackled a couple of benchmark routes in the valley. Get good on slabs and cracks, face climbing and chimneys. Learn to use his head, then his feet, and then everything else. No climb, no matter how easy, is wasted. Start at the bottom and climb to the top. Repeat.
Doing this he will learn how to both place gear and belay, ropework etc, as well as develop the necessary self-control, the balls, or bravery, required to deal with climbs where there was no gear to be had, to be confident and physically and emotionally independent.
He should search out experienced climbers early, and learn all he could from them. Spend more time listening than talking. Be a disciple: sit at someone’s feet and watch and learn, then move on once you’d mastered all they had to teach. Also, don’t neglect to climb with people who are equally as clueless, other keen newbies. Be on the lookout for those who also have the flame inside them, for who climbing isn’t just a hobby or a pastime, like golf or bird watching, or trying to impress the opposite sex, but more than life itself, more than sex. These people will be your future partners. Hold onto them.
Next, he should take these skills onto multi-pitch routes in the valley, dropping a grade or two at first, learning how you stitch together a climb, as well as how to get off them when you’re done, or when they’re done with you.
Discover your limit, then nudge yourself beyond it one move at a time.
On long climbs, often with long approaches and long descents, fitness will be built and tested, being fit just as important as being strong. Often it’s more about being able to stand than it is to hang on. A committed foot does not slip.
You will develop a wilderness skill-set, route finding, navigation, gear selection, making do, understanding time over distance, pace, running on empty, lightning, cold, hear, maybe even just how to get your ass out of bed at 4 am in order to avoid benightment.
Oh, and yes, benightment, get some of that, learn by all the stuff that does not go to plan, after all, life is not a 90-minute movie or a novel, the actual heroes journey one that is generally one mistake after another, perfect the enemy of progress etc. If you give up because you’ve come to the conclusion you’re shit and will always be shit, then you are, and will always be, so best give up.
On these multi-pitch adventures – if pushed just right, laying the foundations of legendary status – there will be lots of cliffhangers, dead ends, dark summits, maybe even a little dying, perhaps silent prayers to the mountain Gods to let you escape; promising – with fingers crossed – that you’ll never come back. It’s all good.
If you come off the pitch as clean and fresh as you came on it then you’re not playing, you’re posing.
Next learn technical climbing, aid skills, jumaring, hauling, starting at the bottom again. Embrace being the novice. Life should not just be all ladders, but snakes as well.
Search out some multi-pitch routes that have some aid moves or sections on. Start on bold ladders and end up happy on skyhooks and copperheads.
Go sleep overnight on ledges, and build your confidence living on a wall.
Maybe then, start ticking some grade V walls, and put it all together and roll what you learn onto each wall, moving onto grade VI walls only when you and your partners believe you have enough experience not to kill yourselves or each other. Hold onto your novice outlook and maintain the ability to learn on the job, to adjust and adapt to new things, while not forgetting the old. Have your shit together, be ship-shape and dependable, take pride in what you’re becoming, but also able to roll with the chaos and disorder, and don’t take it personally.
Maybe then – if you really want it, and still feel the flame – move onto grade VII walls, news routes, the greater ranges, the Alpine, the Himalayan.
Finished, the legend takes a long drink of beer.
“But you never did any of those things?” said the young climber. “You just arrived in the valley as a novice and jumped on the hardest routes, did new routes and stuff. You never did an apprenticeship like that”.
The legend put down his beer and give this young climber a rock hard stare for a moment, which then breaks into a grin, as he spoke these immortal words: “but I didn’t have to ask anyone how to do it.”