Born in Virginia and raised in Maryland, I began climbing in Minnesota at the age of 34. This year, I turned the big 4-Oh my god what am I doing with my life?!?, and set about to test myself with the climber’s birthday challenge; climbing the number of routes equal to your age in a single day.
Originally inspired by the video “35”, I decided to go somewhere that has become special to me over the past few years, Horseshoe Canyon Ranch in Jasper, AR. HCR has an area called The North Forty, and the theme fell into place from there; 40 climbs for my 40th birthday in The North Forty. #404040
I began preparing ahead of time by climbing more often, adding auto-belay laps at the end of my gym sessions, using my hangboard at home again, and running. Yuck, running. Although… I haven’t stopped running since and have already signed up for two races this year. Turning 40, I think, means branching out and trying things that my younger self declared “not for me”.
When the time came, I hopped in a car with three buddies and drove south. Another few carloads joined us, and a crew of Minnesota climbers stormed the ranch. We drove overnight and arrived on a Thursday morning. That day included some light climbing, acquainting first time visitors with the ranch, and settling into camp. Friday was the day.
I woke up early the next morning and roused the good doctor, Chris Hanson. Another of our camp mates, photographer Chris Worlow, was also awake and asked to join us. We headed off around 7 am to a climb that I traditionally call my “breakfast climb”. Sour Girl is along the path to The North Forty, but stands alone on a 35′ boulder before crossing the creek into the actual area. On many prior trips, I’ve woken up, grabbed a partner and a rope, and knocked this climb out before having breakfast and truly starting the day. I figured this was the perfect way to start my birthday challenge. I was not wrong.
As I climbed, I shared an idea that I had with Chris… and Chris. If each climb represented a year of my life, what was I doing that year? Sour Girl being number one, the good doctor suggested that all I was probably doing was pooping myself and searching for boobs, and commented on how little has changed since then. Well played, sir, well played.
This was a fun exercise throughout the day and my friends began to learn a little more about me than perhaps they had ever known, or cared. My first record (Flock of Seagulls); the year my mother remarried; the years I played lacrosse; so many jobs working in malls; my brief stint in college; a short move to California, then home again; my first apartment; my second; the move to Minnesota; the year my first son was born and I was married; my second son’s birth; our move from the cities to the suburbs for better schools; the cafe we bought and operated and sold while leaving marriage behind for friendship; the year I began climbing and then… never stopped.
Again, I digress. Sour Girl is like an old friend to me and after we did our dance together, I, along with the two Chris’, returned to camp for a hearty meal, some packing of gear, and another look at what the day had in store.
I tied in for my second climb around 9 am with Paul Kravolec. We had plans to tackle Love Slave together. At 5.11c, it was going to be the hardest grade on my list for the day and I thought it best to get it done early. So, Paul and I found a few warm ups, and then took on Love Slave. During the lead up to this event, I was asked, and wondered myself, what rules I would play by on this mission. I knew I wanted to lead and place the draws on every climb that I tried (some had permadraws, however), but what if I fell or called for a take? Would it count? In my planning sessions, I decided that future me needed to make that decision. I could say whatever I wanted before the actual event, but only the guy who was actually doing it in the moment should have the final say.
Paul and I set up for Love Slave and I tied in. It opens with a boulder problem. Moving from the first clip to the second is easily the hardest part of the climb and it shut me down. Once, twice, a third time from the ground up and I did not make the move to gain the second clip. So, I untied and walked away. Paul then roped up on Love Slave for his first time and after a couple efforts made it to the anchors. Psyched that he had gotten to climb the route he had been talking about for months, I got back on it, hit the second clip and never looked back. I knew in my heart that I wanted to send each and every one of my 40 climbs without falls, without takes, and that moment cemented it.
From there, I lowered the grades a bit and set out to put some numbers behind me. This happened a couple of times, where I wanted to roll through five, six, eight climbs in a row for the sake of moving forward. Before the day really began, I didn’t think 40 was such a big number to reach. But, with moving around the crag, chatting with friends, cheering on other climbers, and eating (can’t forget to eat!), time seemed to get away from me now and then.
I had asked several of my friends if they had climbs they really wanted to do in The North Forty and scheduled myself to climb them with those specific people. Like Paul and Love Slave, I similarly climbed Sonny Jim (5.11a) with Angie Jacobsen, who had a score to settle with the height dependent crux. Climbs like those really stood out to me when this project was all said and done. As much as it was about me and my mission for most of the day, climbing is always about these shared goals, and I reveled in watching and supporting Paul, and Angie, and likewise, Chris Worlow on Crimp Scampi, which he had been projecting prior to my arrival.
With Sonny Jim done, it was time to knock out another few climbs quickly to keep pace. I finished the 20th climb of the day on the nearby The Controversy, a fun 5.9 with a spicy start, and then headed to the far end of The North Forty to get some easier grades and shorter climbs out of the way before attempting Crimp Scampi, which would be the last of the higher grades on my list for the day.
On several occasions, I said might stop for an hour, do some yoga, lay down, something other than climb. Each time, I found my next burst of energy and tied back in for another route. Later, I found myself on Crimp Scampi after watching Chris W walk up it. Fresh beta in mind, I cruised the thin climb and only had a race against the day left in front of me.
The sun began fading away and climbers wandered back to camp for dinner and rests. A couple of people stayed with me throughout this period and then took their own breaks as I continued to climb. As night crept in, the majority of the Minnesota crew returned to the crag for some night climbing and my remaining climbs turned into a dance party. Photographer, Matt Holland, had stocked up on glow sticks for the second year running, and we all decked ourselves out. Tunes were cranked, long exposures were taken, and the wild rumpus began.
A couple of climbs later, the majority of the crowd dispersed. A handful of the faithful accompanied me to my last climb of the night, African Herbman (5.8). As I tied in at midnight, Angie asked if she could give me her glowsticks “as a tribute”. I liked the idea and said yes. Then, one by one, the five or so climbers that were still with me removed their glowsticks and did the same.
And with that, it was done. 40 climbs celebrating my 40th birthday in The North Forty. My dream was recognized.
And while in the end, I did not learn some big life lesson, nor make a video of the occasion as I had originally intended, I did walk away with a greater appreciation of my life, my friends, and what climbing means to me.
So, since I have no poignant video of my own to share, let me leave you with this one…
A huge thank you to everyone who came to Horseshoe Canyon Ranch and supported me with a belay, by cleaning the draws and ropes I left in my wake, and for encouraging words, burritos, beer, laughter, friendship, and so much more.
Special thanks to:
Mad Rock Climbing; all 40 climbs, along with 12 others that weekend, were in a new pair of M5 shoes.
Spire Equipment Gear Order; my new 60m Trango 9.9 rope easily saw 80 ascents over the weekend.
And to Chris Worlow and Aaron Zirbes for the lion’s share of belays. Your psych fed my psych.