China Doll Dreams: Dealing with Fear and Failure


I woke up in the middle of the night covered in sweat.  I had just fallen sideways onto the ledge again- this time in my dreams- but my heart was racing and my throat closing.  It was just a dream but this was not comforting enough to go back to sleep.  Only a few more hours until I’d be leading China Doll on gear again.

I’ve never been so scared rock climbing.

For the past 5 years I’ve been setting goals for rock climbing around the New Year.  I usually set one big goal for the whole year.  It has to be something that I know will be super hard for me- something that if I were to achieve it I would surprise myself.  And looking back on the accomplishment I’d have to think, “I can’t believe I did that.”

And each year for the past few, with a mix of working hard, having supportive belayers, and a bit of luck, I’ve been able to achieve my lofty goals.

But this year I failed.  I aimed too high.

Last year around this time Chris and I were sitting around our dinner table, discussing possible goals.  In the past we’ve had some of the same projects, which is really fun because you get to work out beta and obsess about it together, but it’s also practical- we both need a belayer.

Chris introduced me to the idea of trying full China Doll, a 14a R traditional route in Boulder Canyon.  He had done the 13c sport pitch years ago and now also wanted to try the extension (on gear and on its own goes at 13d).  Ultimately the goal would be to ignore the bolts down low and combine the two pitches making it a 40 meter 5.14 trad pitch.

Full China Doll had this reputation for being a test piece on the Front Range.  It’s only been done by fewer than 10 guys (all the biggest names) despite being located 25 minutes from the most densely populated climber city in the country.  Since I wanted to do another hard trad line, I thought this would have to be my goal.  This would be a real prize tick in my book.

As it turns out, I’ve never really climbed much on granite.  I climbed two 5.13 minus sport routes, and a couple pitches in Yosemite years ago.  Everything on granite felt hard.  Where were the holds?  I didn’t understand this kind of climbing.

But I knew enough about granite to know the first day on the route I’d get my ass kicked.  Here are a few excerpts from my journal from the first few days working the lower 13c pitch on toprope.

Day 1: I feel like I have never rock climbed in my life. Feet skating, no hand holds- don’t know what the hell I’m doing.

Day 2: I have concepts of what to do but still have no real idea. The crux is ridiculous. I’m too short and weak.

Day 3: I’ve tried the crux for hours with no success, however I did half of one of the moves-progress. Plus I didn’t cry which has become part of my goals.

Day 4: Big breakthrough day. Made it through the crux of the 13c for the first time. Listened to a podcast about champions (TED Talk) yesterday and it re-inspired me to continue to work and try hard.

And many, many more days later- so many that I stopped keeping track- I still haven’t done the route.  Working on it consistently for 4 months until the canyon became snowy and icy, I had to let it go for this year.

I failed.  And it was really, really hard to let it go.  But, as my friend Katie Lambert said, the good thing about rock climbs is they tend to stay put- I’ll be back.

And what I have to remind myself to help keep some sanity it that my goal was supposed to be super hard.  If I don’t ever fail I’m probably not setting my sights high enough.  Some of the climbers I look up to the most are Chris Sharma and Adam Ondra who have the determination to keep at their multi-season projects and eventually send at their limit.

I did make some notable gains with China Doll.  I was able to send the 13c sport version,  two-hang the full version on gear with overlap, and learn how to overcome fear with climbing.

I’ve never been a fearful climber.  For instance, when I first started climbing, I really wanted to lead a trad route and my boyfriend wouldn’t let me.  He thought I was too bold and he felt he couldn’t bear to risk my safety.

But China Doll was a different story.  For the first time in my life in climbing, I was terrified.

The first 40 feet is a 5.7 free-solo, which I don’t normally do (Honnold we’re not all like you) and it took a couple tries to get comfortable.  There is no gear until about 35 feet up where I could place a .75 and #1 Camalot in a horizontal crack, just below the start of the 13c.

The scariest part of the whole climb is at the opening 13c bulge just above a ledge system.  The gear here is not great, and it’s difficult to place.  I place a 000 C3, followed by 2 small off-set Metolius cams before I can get a good nut and larger cam placements.

I had practiced placing the gear on toprope a number of times before attempting to lead on gear and thought the pieces looked good.

My first time leading the route I fell at the bulge and ripped two pieces of gear, falling onto the 000 C3 (the smallest cam made).  Falling sideways, I smacked the ledge below me.  I’d never ripped gear out before- it was a disconcerting feeling.

And just like after getting bucked off my horse as a kid, I had to get right back on.  I was able to fiddle with the placements making them a little more reliable, but it was (and still is) scary.  I try to just not fall there anymore.

After months of work my best attempts were two-hangs with overlapping linkage. I’ve got all the logistics down, like the beta and gear. I just felt like I needed a little more power to make the two crux boulder problems more reliable and reproducible.

As for this winter I’m all about training, bouldering, and turning those China Doll nightmares into dreams.

China Doll extension Photo credit: Jon Glassberg

China Doll extension
Photo credit: Jon Glassberg of Louder Than 11 













  1. Your determination is inspirational. I’ve never really set a true climbing goal for myself. This past summer, it was “I want to start leading 5.11’s.” And I did. I finally sent three 11a’s and felt pretty good about that. You cheered me on to victory on one of those climbs in Tensleep. 🙂 I’ll have to put some thought into goal that will push my limits. I can’t wait to see your blog next year when you send China Doll. It IS going to happen!

    1. Much love to you Melissa! I think of you bunches. Happy holidays and happy climbing!!!

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