Anthony, Joshua Tree National Park
“It’s thinking of death for so long, really. Thinking of the risk is what gets to me. I push through it, but there’s times where my legs are shaking, because I’m scared, not because I’m tired.”
Anthony doesn’t get many days off work, but he generally spends each one rock climbing. He came to Joshua Tree this past December to train for his goal of climbing sky-scraping big-walls in Yosemite. His training includes hauling heavy packs with ropes and pulleys, aid climbing, and getting used to having an unnerving amount of empty space below his feet.
He didn’t have a partner lined up the day I met him, so he planned to ‘rope solo’ using specialized gear to catch him if he falls. Two guys and I were climbing together up a route he was looking to climb, so I invited him to join us. He happily accepted, saying how it’s always more fun to climb with people than to climb alone. The four of us spent the rest of the day taking it easy, taking turns climbing Joshua Tree’s more mellow routes until it felt appropriate to call it a day and gather around Anthony’s campsite for a couple beers.
After a few days of climbing as a group, Anthony taught me how to aid climb up a vertical crack. It felt like cheating since I was putting all my weight on ladder-like ‘aiders’ clipped to gear I placed in the crack, but it’s a necessary part of getting through difficult sections of big-wall routes. After we finished up and put our gear away, I asked Anthony about his big-wall training, how climbing can be mentally exhausting, and what he loves about the outdoors.
Did you grow up doing outdoor sports?
I grew up skiing, snowboarding, skating, dirt bike riding, hiking all the time. My family hiked in Bishop a lot and I’d climb up on a boulder that’s not too high, then my parents would get down low and take a picture, to try to make it seem like it was super high to fuck with my grandma.
What’s your favorite thing to do outside?
Right now I’m a fiend on rock climbing, because I’m trying to get on El Capitan.
So big-wall climbing in Yosemite. Is that style of climbing your main objective?
I want to do everything at least once in my life, like alpine climbing and mountaineering. I kind of feel like once I hit all of the different kinds of climbing I’ll phase out because that’s just kind of how I am. If I get tired of a sport then I’ll move on to something new.
My friend Jake has the goal to do El Cap in September, with his partner and me. I’ve pretty much learned all the techniques now, and at this point I just need to dial them in, where it’s like second nature. I did the lower outs—I did the pendulums—so I’m ready for King Swing.
Joshua Tree doesn’t seem like the ideal place to train for big-wall, is there another spot you train?
My favorite place is Tahquitz so far: it’s got that big-wall feel. That’s where we’ve been practicing big-wall techniques. We haul gear. I got two really big tires—I just found them on the side of the road. I haven’t weighed them, but they’re burly off-roading tires. I drilled right into the sides and put chains into the holes and haul that.
We’ve done a couple big-wall simulations where we’ve done everything we need to do on the big-wall, but we just weren’t on a big-wall. It’s definitely good to have it dialed in; when you’re there, you know, you don’t want it to be your limit. I feel like a lot of people don’t prepare themselves enough when they try to first do a big-wall. Some people say you should be able to do it in like four months. It’s like yeah if you’re a climbing dirtbag, because then you’re out there every day. For me, I can only climb like four times a month, four to six, depending.
Is that pretty much all your free time outside of work?
Yeah, I’m kind of getting tired of it, the training part of it. Because a lot of times, I’ll go to a place and only train. It’s like, ‘Okay, I know I need to do this, so I’m going to do it’. But I would rather free climb and not focus on technique.
So El Cap takes multiple days if you’re doing it with aid climbing. You’re planning to sleep on the wall?
Fuck yeah. So I need to buy a portaledge, aid gear, bivy sacks, haul bags, my poop bucket. I told my girlfriend that the other day, and she was just looking at me, ‘Like, really?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, you seriously have to haul your shit’. Otherwise, when you’re climbing on the route, it’s going to be a shitty route, literally a shitty route. That’s one of the more gruesome things of big-wall, but that’s the reality.
Are you psyched for living vertically, like sleeping on a portaledge, or is it more a part of the process that you’ll have to endure?
I’m really psyched. That’s what most big-wall climbers say is the best part of it. You finish climbing, you set up your portaledge, and you can just relax, look at the view. I’m one that can just sit and look at mountains for a while, and be entertained with that. At the end of a long ass day of working your ass off, it’s super rewarding to crack a beer, smoke a bowl, and just chill, watch the sun go down.
Does being up that high with the exposure worry you?
Yeah that’s what fuckin scares me. I’ve been doing more exposed routes, like we did a 5.10b [rated route] called Constellation Direct. I was getting tired, not physically, but mentally. [My climbing partner is] used to climbing 900 foot routes, and I’ve only done one 900 foot route. We did that one, and the next day we were aid climbing, which I had never aid led a C2 or A2 [rated] route, so it was a big day for me. The day before was a big day too. So I was just like, ‘Dude, I’m so drained, just looking at the route is making me drained’. You can kind of feel where you’re like, gonna make stupid decisions if you don’t stop climbing.
I can identify with that aspect of being mentally drained from climbing, tell me more about that.
It’s thinking of death for so long, really. Thinking of the risk is what gets to me. I push through it, but there’s times where my legs are shaking, because I’m scared, not because I’m tired. And it’s just like, don’t look down, don’t look down. If I focus on the wall, then it kind of goes away, but of course, you need to look down eventually. So I look down and then, the Elvis Presley leg starts shaking again. It’s just a matter of building up to it.
I took my girlfriend on The Trough in Tahquitz and it’s a great 5.4 route. There’s no overhanging sections, it’s just solid jugs the whole way up. She’s done 5.6s, 5.7s, 5.8s, but she had only done max 80’. So by the time we got to 200’ feet, she just looked fucking miserable, like someone was yanking her teeth. And she likes climbing, but it’s the heights; it was getting to her. By the time she got to me, she just broke down crying, so that’s a good note on what exposure does to you. And she’s just like, ‘I’ll continue climbing’. I’m like, ‘No, if you’re scared now, wait till you get another 50 or 100 feet up. You’re going to fall because you’re not making smart decisions’. So I felt like it can take away that smart voice in your head.
How does she feel about you solo climbing and planning to do El Cap?
I don’t know if she’s interested in big-wall climbing, but she definitely hates the thought of me climbing by myself. Obviously it’s more dangerous, but when I solo, I solo in places like this where there’s tons of people around. If I scream in agony, I know someone will show up eventually. If I can’t get myself out of the situation, I’m only a quarter or an eighth of a mile away from people.
Last question—what do you love about climbing and the outdoors in general?
The views. I like the physical part of it, where it makes you noticeably stronger. It’s kind of a niche sport, and I’ve always been the kind of person that stays away from the crowds. I didn’t get an iPhone for a long ass time because it was so big. If it’s big, I’ll stay away from it. But rock climbing is not, so it’s cool cuz it’s like, you’re not even doing crazy shit and people will be looking at you like ‘Wowww’. You know what I mean? You’re just soloing a 5.4 and they’re like ‘Oh my god, this guy’s amazing’.
You kind of have to juggle with your mind when you climb. There’s that ever-lingering fear—I like gaining control over that fear. You have to [get control over it], especially if you’re lead climbing and there’s no place for protection. I like overcoming that, where you’re like ‘Oh fuck, oh fuck, I can’t find any fucking holds right now’. Dude, you either fall or you go up, so go fucking up.
This interview has been trimmed and edited to fit this format. If you would like to access the unedited interview audio and unposted photography, see my Patreon page.