It starts out just like any other day going to the crag. I’m tired, didn’t sleep enough the night before. I fall asleep in the car. When I open my eyes, we’ve just taken exit 26 off 93 North and have 30 minutes to go. I scroll through endless videos of me falling off the same move. A precarious foot hop that looks more like a party trick than the most efficient way to free the toughest climb I’ve ever taken on. As we pull down the road to Rumney, the clouds gray and rain starts to trickle down onto our front window shield, disobeying the sunny weather forecast from the day before. Bummer. Well, hopefully I can really just dial in the bottom section today.
We meet Joe Klementovich at the parking lot as we’re heading up. In his bag, there’s a box containing a drone that will take the key shots that Ruth, the videographer for the project, has so desperately been wanting. Twenty minutes of hiking later, we turn the corner, and there it is – Jaws II. To an outsider it would seem like a mid-sized cliff that you could pass by without much thought. To me it’s a majestic white-striped wall with complexities beyond what I thought were possible for so few moves. It’s as though one foot of wall unwinds into tens of feet of intricacies. How will my right foot land on that dime-sized edge or how will my pinky skin slightly fold under my index finger?
One thought from my coach Randi crosses my mind: “If you don’t think you can do it you won’t. Period.”
When I was in middle school, working on my 5.11 gym project, I first heard about Jaws. It was supposedly one of the hardest climbs on the east coast, and, more than that, it had only been completed by a select few people whom I admired. This was a climb only professional climbers could do. “It would be cool to try one day,” I thought.
Flip forward to 21-year-old Jesse, and I’ve been working on Jaws for nearly two years – more time than I’ve put into anything in climbing. It has two hard parts - lower and upper. When I first tried it, I wasn’t close on either. But I had never projected anything for more than about a week, and this seemed like an opportunity to see what I was capable of. I cared about it, but not that much in the beginning. It was just a side project that, one day, I hoped to work out the moves on. I had never had a long-term project, and the fact that it had been in the back of my mind since I was little enticed me to keep trying it. My excitement towards it grew into obsession. It became a self-fulfilling goal where, the more work I put into it, the more important it became. To spend 21 days examining and trying a single rock face takes a different kind of desire than I was used to. I thought about it while going on runs, while day dreaming in class, or before falling asleep.
I would get one day a week to try it, maybe two, depending on my school schedule and the weekend weather. It’s hard showing up, knowing that, if you don’t do it today, it’s back to another week of exams, projects and papers until next time.
When I first tried this process, I wasn’t sure why it was so important to me. I imagined fellow students laughing about that wild kid in their class who always seems to be spending weekends up in New Hampshire. I wanted to show myself what I was capable of if I put in the work and opened myself up to the possibility of failing at something I cared so much about. That was Jaws.
When I come back, Joe’s drone is in hand. Before this season, I had done everything I could to eliminate phones and other tech while being outside. Now it seems like that idea has turned upside down. As Joe lets the flying machine rip, it sounds like a swarm of wasps fills the air. I step up to the pedestal and approach Jaws. Regardless of how I do today, I know that we will accomplish something. We’ll have angles and shots of this climb never seen before.
My first three burns fly by. They’re much worse than my tries on previous weekends. And on my third burn, a small muscle on my back spasms. Fifteen minutes pass. I still feel my back, but my excitement levels have peaked. This will be my last realistic try to send it. The weather doesn’t look good in future weekends – this really could be it.
I step onto the wall taking a deep breath. You can do this. I get to the third bolt, and stare down the undercling – the first crux. My muscle spasm fades into the background as I grab the V shaped notch, driving hard with my feet.
Photo: Ruth Castillo
I stick the undercling and twist my hips open. Pause.
Photo: Ruth Castillo
I lift my left foot, and as I bring it down on the hold, my right leg swings off – the perfect foot dyno. I just did the hardest part of the climb! I can feel my mind rushing – keep moving. The next holds are more decent. I keep it together making it to the only rest on the climb.
Slow your heart rate. My right leg starts to tremble. I imagine I’m in yoga – in through the nose, out through the mouth. I feel the Beat, Beat, Beat. Reduce to beat..beat…beat. I look up. From the rest, I see a three finger crimp three feet above my head that I will soon have to jump to.
When I first tried this second crux, I didn’t even get close. I’ve always struggled with moves that are high commitment from an awkward position. The hardest part is that, if you have any doubt in your willingness to do them, you won’t. I’m typically a slow climber. I like locking off to things, and endurance-centered climbing. Jaws defies this technique with several low percentage moves stacked on top of one another. And this, I realized, was why sending this climb was so important to me. I wanted to do it because it challenged the type of climber I am.
Sending this climb, was about more than just a grade, this climb became a symbol of having an impossible seeming goal, and still being able to maintain the perseverance and dedication to accomplish it. Whether you’re climbing 5.11 or 5.15, the path to success is the same. The process is all about learning how to stay with a goal, even if you never thought it was possible in the first place.
My hands on the rest that were awkward before now feel like they were properly molded into the holds. Despite my leg shaking up and down I can feel my body ready for action. Minutes have passed. I move my right hand, and reposition my feet with a little dance. I let out the scariest yell I’ve ever made in my life. I actually can’t believe it – that small hold is no longer three feet away. I’m holding it. I glide my way to the finish. I’ve just done Jaws! I hug my knee into my chest. Little Jesse would be so proud :)
Photo: Ruth Castillo
I’d like to thank Ruth Castillo, for filming my progress on this climb and supporting me until the send. I’d also like to thank Randi Goldberg for helping mentor me through the mental and physical challenges. Thank you to the many friends for the belays, and a special big thank you to my community for supporting my efforts with this climb. I think it’s hard to open yourself up to so much failure, but having people that support you makes it all the more manageable.