Launching into the upper crux of my long-term project, my sympathetic nervous system took over. My mouth was cotton and my heart was racing. It was key to get the first finger-lock just right, if not I’d slip out before I had a chance to get pumped. I wiggled my right middle and ring fingers into the small seam until I thought they might break and took a deep audible breath, preparing for battle.
I threw my left foot up by my waist and twisted it into the crack. Coring up, I got the first right hand flaring lock, got my hips up, then went again right hand for the pin scar. These were the hardest moves, maybe V9 on the bouldering scale, and I’d fallen many times attempting to get my left foot up- it involves a crazy amount of core.
Belting out a guttural, animalistic scream, miraculously my left foot was on a decent edge. If anyone heard me they probably thought someone had been attacked by a mountain lion. From here, the boulder problem was V5 for the next 10 moves on slopey sidepulls. At this point I blacked out. I’d never tried so hard in my entire life. Somehow I came to and found myself at the final left hand gaston-jug- holy cow I’m on the jug!
Fighting the panic of “Oh my God I’ve never gotten this high before,” I told myself, “Heather, you cannot fall here. Period.” I fought through the last finger-lock and layback and found myself at the rest stance before the final 5.11 topout.
I scream down with excitement to my belayer, Molly, and she gave a celebratory scream back. I knew it should be over, but my heart was racing and I had to slow it down. It wasn’t over yet. I’d heard of people falling up here. I stayed at this rest for 5 minutes or more, convincing myself to just focus on the final moves and not get too excited. I stopped shaking involuntarily and finished the final moves, reaching the anchors I’d been to so many times, but this time was different. I’d just climbed the hardest pitch of my life.
On Wednesday, June 25th, I redpointed China Doll, 5.14 R on gear. I’d been working on this route for just over a year, putting in roughly 70 attempts- my longest project to date.
China Doll is a 40-meter right-leaning crack in Upper Dream Canyon of Boulder Canyon, CO. This beautiful line is divided into a number of pitches. The first is a 5.11 bolted climb with little to no gear options, and the second a 13c bolted crack. The third pitch is a 13d seam with no bolts.
Bob Horan snagged the FA of the 13c using bolts in the mid-90s, Adam Stack freed the 13d as its own pitch in 2002, and Mike Patz claimed the first ascent in 2007 for the full China Doll in trad fashion. Since Patz, about 10 hard-men have done the route in this style, placing gear and linking the 13c and 13d pitches. As for the ladies, Mayan Smith-Gobat pink-pointed the 13c in 2012 (she uprated it to 13d- I’m with you Mayan!) but no woman had done this plus the 13d extension placing gear for a 14a trad ascent.
My husband, Chris, and I had been brainstorming about climbing goals last year and he brought up China Doll. He had done the 13c pitch on bolts years ago and after placing the 13d anchor and had tried the extension a handful of times without success. He wanted to do the full China Doll on gear. I was searching for a big trad goal and this fit the bill. The route was practically in our backyard, AND I’d have a steady belayer (Chris), and so I jumped on the bandwagon.
I remember the first day I tried China Doll last May very well. Chris and I had set up a toprope to practice the moves. I couldn’t do a single move. Granite was a foreign concept to me- there were no hand-holds or feet! Being a limestone-sport kind-of gal, I felt like I’d never climbed before as my feet skated off at any given moment.
It was a humbling day to say the least, and I knew I couldn’t focus on the end result when approaching this project. It was too overwhelming to think about doing the whole route and place my own gear. I couldn’t even do the moves!
I broke the climb into smaller goals. Number one, do all the moves of the 13c. It took me four full climbing days to nail the crux sequence! Next I’d focus on redpointing the 13c on bolts, then toprope the 13d extension clean, figure out the gear, and finally try to lead the 13c plus 13d without using any bolts.
Last year I was able to accomplish some of these steps. I redpointed the 13c on bolts, toproped the 13d extension, figured out the gear and put in some attempts for the whole rig. But I came up short on my goal and at best 2-hung full China Doll on gear.
I was devastated.
Over last winter, the disappointment I had in myself for failing fueled me to train hard. I knew what this route entailed and what I lacked. I needed more power, so I focused on bouldering, campusing, and lock-off training.
Surprisingly, my training had really helped! This season I started off feeling much stronger on the route. But for a few weeks I was making no significant gains, at best 2-hanging again on lead, falling at each crux. And our weather was not cooperating. I had planned on getting out in full-force while I still felt strong in April and May, but it rained almost every day. Because the climb doesn’t get much sun throughout the day, even if the crack wasn’t overtly wet it was slimy and slippery.
Despite less-than-optimal conditions I kept getting on the route and failing.
I’ve never experienced a climb where conditions were so important as I did on China Doll. My hardest sport climb to date, Stockboy’s Revenge 14b, I redpointed in mid-July in Rifle, CO. But China Doll was unrelenting. There were days I couldn’t do the moves because of the moist conditions. It was a total mind fuck. I’d think I was making progress one day and the next I couldn’t do the moves.
Finally, a week before the send, I had a huge breakthrough. I got through the 13c on gear and fell way up high at the last crux, snagging the one-hang.
On Wednesday, June 15th, my friend, Molly and I headed out for another early morning in Dream Canyon (Chris was out of town). But for one of the first times this season, it was sunny and hadn’t rained the night before. I rapped down to set up a TR for my warm-up, and the rock was actually dry!
In between the warm-up and lead burn, Molly and I had some time to kill (she was resting, so no belaying needed). Molly knows how nerve-racking it can be before the attempt, so she put on some Britney Spears and Kesha to lighten the mood. Racking up, we giggled like teenage girls as my cams bounced to the beat of Warrior.
The fact conditions were finally perfect made me a little anxious. This might be one of my only chances to do this thing.
Having obsessed about this route for over a year, it turns out I was harboring a lot of anxiety. Number one- this route is scary. I start with a 40 foot 5.7 solo then place a bunch of small gear on the opening 13c bulge in hope that one of the pieces would hold a fall. I fell here last year, ripped two pieces of gear and fell onto a 000C3, the smallest cam made, and hit the ledge below. I was ok, but terrified.
Number two- I was putting all this pressure on myself. I’d trained hard all winter and was hoping to do the climb early-ish in the season. Plus I had two different photographers coming out many of the days in hopes of catching the send.
I felt like I was wasting everyone’s time. Chris was so patient with the belays and would make sure I had the optimum temps, I’d recruit friends and randomers- whomever I could find- for the epic belay. I started to feel like I should be committed to a mental institution-I was a crazy person throwing myself at this climb time and time again, just to walk away with failure. Was I even close?
There were many nights before a climbing day I’d wake up in a full-on sweat, thinking about the moves and hoping not to fall at the first bulge again.
And most mornings before I’d climb I couldn’t eat. I was so worked-up and overall didn’t have much of an appetite. This same kind of stress-induced partial-anorexia happened to me in veterinary school studying for the National Board Exams. My family was sending me food in the mail because they were so concerned about my weight loss. I lost 5 lbs.
I was also losing weight because of the exertion this route took. My lead attempts took about an hour and I could only try it once a day because it was so exhausting.
I’ve never had a project like that, where I could only give one attempt a day. A second attempt would yield me a useless, floppy noodle.
Lowering down after sending China Doll with tears streaming down my face, I got to the ground and Molly gave me a huge hug. She and so many others knew how much this accomplishment meant to me.
Our high-pitched screams of excitement echoed throughout Dream Canyon.
All the failure, anxiety and nightmares suddenly turned to a dream. With hard work and persistence, I believe dreams really can come true. Days later it feels surreal; I still can’t believe I sent my project! There’s a small void like, what do I do now? But mostly I feel relief and freedom. And I can finally sleep sound. And eat…a lot.
Celin Serbo photo
Jon Glassberg photo