Dr. Heather Weidner: My Very First Time
I was sixteen and it was homecoming.
I knew tonight would be the big night. Frankly I just wanted it to be over with and I was tired of missing out on all the hoop-la.
He was a swimmer and we ran cross country together. What I remember most about him was his unusually good posture, minuscule amount of body hair, and the fact (unlike me) he did not have an ounce of belly fat. He was jock cocky.
We first met in third grade. My best friend Katy and I were honor roll students and would win awards for being nice to all of our classmates. But we would laugh at him. He walked with a prance like a horse and talked with a slow, know-it-all drawl. It was recess and I thought it would be fun and to throw rocks at him (kids do the damnedest things to get attention when they have a crush). He ratted on me and I got in so much trouble. My teacher was so shocked and ashamed of this goody-two-shoes-gone-bad-girl, and I cried for hours.
And so here we were, eight years later, all dressed up and making out on my couch after the high school dance. For once, a guy was totally into me. No guys had ever given me a second glance- I was the gawkiest little girl and teen you’d ever met. My knees were knobby, my chest flat, and my face dotted with freckles. But tonight, with my smokey makeup, curled up-do, and long satin dress to cover up my skinny legs, for the first time in my life I almost felt attractive.
I know this sounds mean, but I don’t really even remember liking him that much. But to his credit, he was the first guy to ever pay any attention to me and we were “going steady.” I wore his class ring on a necklace and he let me wear his letter jacket. Taking the next step seemed like an appropriate thing to do and no big deal. And like the first time for many of us, all I can say is it was awkward and not what I expected.
But “firsts” are usually conceived of as monumental- even if the experience turns out to be a bit of a letdown.
As a 34 year-old, I talk among climbing friends who describe how magical it is to drill virgin stone and establish your very own route. To do this and climb the route for the first time merits you as the First Ascensionist. Our good friends Celin and Laura had been planning a trip to float the Green River in Utah to explore and establish first ascents in the surrounding canyons. Chris had done a similar trip years ago, and was all in. I was intrigued by the fascination my fellow climbers had with FAs.
And so, just like the night of homecoming, I was inexperienced in this realm but looked forward to taking the plunge into unknown territory and making the experience happen.
We headed down to Moab, Utah, where we met up with our friends Celin, Laura, Rob, and Roy to get organized for the embarkment on the river. We planned on floating for two to three days, and climbing for four. We rented our three canoes that would hold our respective parties of two in each boat along with our massive amount of climbing and camping gear.
Donning our straw cowboy hats and bathing suits, on day one we paddled about twenty miles. But when our arms needed a break we’d link up boats, crack a few beers, swap crazy stories, and laugh until we were all in tears.
It turns out the Green River is anything but green- it’s basically mud. Except for the reflection of the dense lining of green vegetation, the river is so brown and filled with sediment that it would plug up our water filters daily. We set up camp on a white sandy beach where sandstone splitter cracks jutted out from red buttresses just a thirty minute hike away. The boys had their binoculars out and scoped the features above us- there was the potential for high quality climbs to be established.
As a first-ascenscionist first-timer, my eye for good lines was truly lacking. I’d see a razor-cut splitter and jump on the opportunity to climb it without really looking at each part. Chris would warn me and say he thought the rock quality was bad, or there would be spots where it looked un-protectable with gear, or that the climb looked too hard in difficulty. My first two attempts at establishing first ascents were duds. Both times I had managed to climb through the muddy and extremely loose rocks without ripping gear, killing my belayer, or cutting my rope. But by the last day of climbing I finally realized I should listen to Chris and stick to trying to put up the good looking lines, particularly on such a short trip where extensive cleaning of routes was not going to happen.
Our whole team spotted the ultimate line from the base of the cliff, and we all agreed it was beautiful but maybe too hard to climb with just one last day on The Green left. You just never know until you try, so I took the risk to try to establish my first FA. I started up the twenty foot ramp start which was the base of thirty feet of a clean and striking double crack. I got shut down on my onsight lead attempt, finding the cracks super small (even for my fingers) in sections, and opening up into difficult rattly finger jams. I could barely do any of the moves, and after drilling the anchors, set up a toprope to work it out.
Chris and I figured out the moves together on toprope, but they were still really difficult for me, and after the session I couldn’t even link the crux. Time was running out, we had about two hours left of daylight, so I thought- what the heck? I’ll try to lead it.
I didn’t know my gear or how exactly to execute the moves, but my pain tolerance from shoving all my appendages into the sharp and small cracks was getting lower by the minute. I knew I only had one more try in me. I miraculously made it past the knuckle crushing finger-lock section into an awkward sideways hand jam “rest” with a sandy heel hook to take some weight off. It wasn’t over yet. There was a six foot section that was a difficult size for my fingers just above me, then super tight hand jams to the top. I was trying to stand up on my feet and keep the rattly jams, but I felt my upper body slipping backward, and like a trad gumby I actually double gastoned the crack for a moment in order to jump my feet up and reach to the hand crushing jam above. Success! I couldn’t believe it!
My best guestimate for route difficulty is 5.12+- the hardest of fourteen new ascents made on the trip, and this success made for quite the happy ending. I have to say, unlike my first as a teen, my first ascent as a rock climber was anything but a disappointment.
~ Dr. Heather (Robinson) Weidner, prAna Ambassador
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