Learning Magic… - Rock and Ice

In Partnership with Black Diamond

From the moment Ron Kauk landed in Yosemite Valley as a teenager in the 1970s, he began regarding the natural world as a means to a lifelong education.

"When the rock is teacher … the humble student must live up to the lesson," Kauk wrote in his photo book Spirit of the Rock.

During his climbing career, Kauk authored some of Yosemite’s most iconic routes, from Astroman (5.11c) in 1975 (with John Long and John Bachar) to Separate Reality (5.12a) and Midnight Lightning (V8), both in 1978. He then embraced sport-climbing tactics, at a time when they were still considered sacrilege, as a way of pushing his own limits. That path ultimately led him to achieve his hardest route: Magic Line (5.14b), a deceptive crack near Vernal Falls that he “pinkpointed” (i.e., climbed on pre-placed gear) in 1996.

Of projecting Magic Line, Kauk described his hopeful ascent as a sort of koan, a Sisyphean threshold that might never be crossed. ”I must have spent about a year, on and off, trying to cross this magic line,” he wrote. “Try and try I did to cross over the wall between myself and this climb. Learning to accept the process was the key."

Kauk considered Magic Line to be a “lifetime accomplishment.”

It would be precisely 20 years before Magic Line received a second ascent, and by none other than Kauk’s son, Lonnie Kauk. Lonnie pinkpointed Magic Line in 2016. In the aftermath of his ascent, he felt there was unfinished business. In 2018 he returned to his father’s masterpiece to try to improve upon the pinkpoint style. Ultimately, he placed all the gear on lead, an effort he believed warranted a grade bump to 5.14c.

Over the next year, Lonnie would redpoint Magic Line at least four times, essentially turning one of Yosemite’s most enigmatic climbs into a lap route.

In November 2019, Magic Line received its first non-Kauk ascent by Hazel Findlay, a Briton. She redpointed the route, placing all gear on lead. Her achievement was not only the route’s first female ascent, it was also possibly the fastest, taking her just about a month to complete.

Findlay is a philosophy major, a dedicated meditator, and leads mental-training workshops for climbers. She is one of the most thoughtful, smart, and considerate climbers today—not to mention strong and bold on the rock.

A teacher is only effective in the presence of the right student. In that regard, Magic Line found itself a humble pupil in Findlay. Her process with Magic Line struck all of the hallmarks of what makes spending time with a hard project ultimately such a rewarding experience. And from her experience, she extracted the right bones of wisdom about what this process can ultimately teach us all.

Photo by Jacopo Larcher.

Impossible at First Sight

Magic Line is tucked away behind a canopy of old-growth maples and situated within the soft din of nearby Yan-o-pah (more widely known as Vernal) falls. It’s a striking, thin crack arching up a gray slab though, honestly, it doesn’t look like much; it could be 5.12, if you had to guess.

That deception quickly reveals itself the moment you pull onto the rock and discover movement unlike anything you’ve experienced. The architecture of the crack keeps you feeling always out of balance. The gear seems impossible to place. And there’s the problem of a V11 in the middle of the wall and a V9 at the top.

“Although it’s a beautiful crack climb it doesn’t climb like a crack at all,” wrote Findlay. “But there isn’t much else it climbs like either. The style is completely unique. None of the holds face upwards.”

Finding the right level of difficulty of a project is a key ingredient to a rewarding experience. The right balance seems to be when the route oscillates between feeling potentially doable one moment and totally impossible the next. In other words, it’s not so hard that there’s no hope, but it’s hard enough that you remain unsure if it ever will come together.

Magic Line ended up the perfect difficulty because it gave me no easy way out,” says Findlay. “At first, I had no idea if it would take me three seasons or three years to graduate from toprope to lead. This is exactly what I was looking for.”

And besides, she says, “If it was easy it wouldn’t be hard would it?”

Photo by Jacopo Larcher

An Ace Partner

Findlay teamed up with Maddy Cope, one of her best friends from Sheffield, England, to project Magic Line. Cope is an accomplished trad climber who has climbed E9 on the Grit, free climbed Freerider (5.13a) on El Capitan, and sent Prinzip Hoffnung, a 5.14a R single-pitch Beat Kammerlander trad special in Austria. She has also climbed 8c (5.14b) sport.

The importance of a good partner for single-pitch projecting isn’t as obvious as in multi-pitch or alpine-climbing scenarios. But there are certain ideal qualities one might want for a projecting partner. There’s the benefit of being able to share and refine beta together, potentially speeding up the process and helping you see what you might otherwise miss. And of course, it helps to be around someone whose company you enjoy and keeps the mood light and energy high.

In all these regards, Findlay called Cope an “ace climbing partner.”

“She’s one of my best friends,” says Findlay. “We could go up to crag and have fun even if we don’t feel like climbing. The emphasis is always on having a good day rather than being performance driven.”

Findlay says that she and Cope have similar strengths and weaknesses, and they were able to help each other dial in the beta.

“It’s quite hard to motivate yourself when you’re not psyched, or be confident in yourself when you might not do it,” says Findlay. “You gotta find the fun when you aren’t doing as well. A good partner can help do all of that.”

Gear Matters

On hard trad climbs, placing gear can be the crux. At the very least, placing gear is “adding moves” to a route, in a sense. This is why Findlay agrees with Lonnie Kauk’s assessment that Magic Line is harder as a redpoint than a pinkpoint.

The gear on Magic Line can be especially cruxy to place as the feet are so bad. There is also a blind placement above the crux of the route.

While the crux of the route is protected by Ball Nuts, Findlay used the new Black Diamond Z4 cams elsewhere. Small single-stem cams have always suffered from being a bit floppy when retracting the lever, which can make blind or quick placements (especially when you’re pumped) all the harder. The new Z4s and Z4 Offsets boast a RigidFlex stem design that keeps these units stiff while placing them, but allows them to flex while climbing past them or during falls.

The Z4 design was born during a particularly productive athlete meeting at Black Diamond HQ in Salt Lake City, Utah.

“We have a small army of climber engineers that love geeking out on gear,” says Kolin Powick, a director at Black Diamond Equipment. “But sometimes when the athletes are in town, it’s the freestyle brainstorm sessions that are the most fun and productive.” Powick says that it was at this meeting with Carlo Traversi, Hazel Findlay, Sonnie Trotter, and Babsi Zangerl that the idea to build a cam that was stiffer and easier to place, but also flexible once placed to reduce walking was born. “That was the kernel that got the design team churning,” he says.

Findlay describes the gear placements as being both minimal and tricky on Magic Line, with multiple blind placements.

“Placing gear is another ‘move’ on the route,” says Findlay. “You don’t want to be fumbling around, and you don’t want your gear to move after you place it, which is why the Z4s were so good for this route. You’re already placing the minimum, and so that one piece you want to really be able to trust it.”

Small Steps, Big Progress

That confidence of dialing in gear and getting comfortable with the dicey movements helped Findlay graduate from top-rope to leading the route after about two and a half weeks of effort.

“Today I graduated from top rope to lead and the result was fairly underwhelming (as you can see),” wrote Findlay on Instagram, posting a video of herself thrutching up the seam and taking a little fall onto a Z4. “But it’s all about the little steps with these big projects.”

It’s easy to burn out on hard projects when you feel as if you’ve hit a wall, but one way to keep the stoke going is to celebrate even the smallest of victories: the subtle way to stand on your foot for one move; getting through that one little runout for the first time; feeling more secure in that greasy finger lock. All of this is a sign of learning.

“It’s funny how we always look for the hardest thing we can do, and then we get grumpy when it takes a long time,” says Findlay. “When the route becomes the very thing you wanted it to be—hard—for some reason it can get annoying. For me, not falling into that mindset was the whole challenge, in a way. I felt like I was constantly managing my psychology.”

This sentiment reflects how hard projects demand that we hold two paradoxical ideas in our heads at the same time: that the process, and the end goal, are simultaneously the most important pieces of the experience. This a strange thing to reconcile. It requires a degree of self-deception: that you could be just as happy walking away from your project without a send because the experience of getting to climb has been so valuable, but also knowing deep down that that’s a damn lie.

“I was always managing this temptation to be like, ‘Oh, why i haven’t i done it by now? Why can’t it be over?’” says Findlay. “But you don’t want to wish this away when the experience is exactly what you were hoping it would be.”

History is Important

Much of what makes any rock climb special goes beyond the aesthetics, the movements, the exposure, or grandeur. It’s the history. It’s the stories of the first ascentionist, of course, but also stories about those who have had their own powerful experiences trying the route can be equally part of the richness that any route offers.

In 2009-2010, Beth Rodden, fresh off of her redpoint of Meltdown (5.14c), put in a campaign to do what would’ve been the second ascent of Magic Line. Despite her recent success with Meltdown, the other contender for Yosemite’s hardest crack climb, Rodden was injured, amid a divorce, and not in the most ideal headspace to perform. Meltdown had been just that, and after eking out that send, there wasn’t much left.

Still, she came extremely close, essentially “one-hanging” the route on her best effort. She climbed from the ground through both cruxes, and only fell on the very last move of the route when her foot slipped. She lowered down to a no-hands stance mid-pitch, and climbed it from there to the top.

For Rodden, Magic Line is the one that got away.

“When I heard where Beth fell,” says Findlay, “I thought, ‘I really hope that doesn’t happen to me. It’s so hard that I couldn’t imagine getting through the crux more than once. It’s really easy to let that affect your psychology that if you fall up high, you might never get through the start again.”

Photo by Jacopo Larcher

There’s Always Unforeseen Setbacks

Partway through the redpointing process, both Cope and Findlay’s fingers began flaring up with pain.

“Unfortunately, a niggling finger injury affecting both our index fingers has morphed into a semi-real injury and now we’re debating whether to keep trying it or preserve our finger health and leave it until next year,” wrote Findlay.

In addition, Findlay broke a “key” foothold on a route that’s already devoid of good feet. Ron Kauk originally reinforced key feet on the Magic Line, but those reinforcements have since crumbled, making the route even less secure.

“Hard not to get frustrated by how low percentage this climb is and yet I’m still under the spell of Magic Line,” wrote Findlay. She described one section of the route where her foot popped off dozens of times in a row.

Ultimately, Cope listened to her finger and decided to throw in the towel, a decision she felt was the right one. “Trying this route was always about playing the long game,” she wrote. “This is probably the first time I have made this sort of sensible decision and it paid off.”

Findlay, however, felt she was able to manage her tweaked finger well enough to keep battling. Progress was slow and steady and by the first week of November, Findlay was climbing from the ground to the upper crux.

“It felt amazing to finally be at the upper crux on the lead having got through the nails lower crux,” she wrote. “Who knows how many burns my finger will let me have before my season here is over but even if I don’t send this year I’m more than psyched to have got this far and know that a route this demanding is possible for me.”

Ironically, breaking that foothold became a source of power for Findlay. She managed to find new beta and was encouraged by this.

“You’re doing the hardest moves you’ve ever done, and then a foothold breaks and they get harder still, but then you go back to the drawing board and unlock it again,” says Findlay. “It was super satisfying.”

Mind Over Matter

Findlay fell on that upper crux a few times—a heartbreaking effort. Victory appeared to be so close, and yet crossing that magic line still proved to be elusively far.

“At the rest before the final crux I reminded myself that although I didn’t know if I would do it or not, this unknown was not only OK but it was precisely why I was here,” she wrote. “I was the only person responsible for what would happen in the next few minutes; it was entirely in my control and yet the outcome completely unknown. I just didn’t know what would happen. But the magic is in the not-knowing. How boring would climbing be if you always knew you were going to do it?”

Findlay was slated to leave in three days, which meant potentially up to two more days of climbing with one rest in between. On that third to last day, on her third go of the day, she made it all the way up into the upper crux, and was poised to reach for the last jug on the route, beyond which you’d never fall. And just was she was reaching, reaching, reaching … a grainy foothold crumbled and spit her off the wall.

“I don’t think I could have tried harder nor kept my head better than I did today,” she wrote. The boulderer Keenan Takahashi had offered to belay (now that Cope had left the Valley), and caught Findlay’s whipper.

“An intense experience to share with someone I only met the day before but [Takahashi] was ace,” wrote Findlay. “One rest day then one last day trying before the storm and my flight home. I‘ve got some deep fatigue building up and my index finger hates me so wish me luck pals.”

Photo by Jacopo Larcher

Last Go, Best Go is a Thing

In the 48 hours prior to her last climbing day in Yosemite, Findlay said she did a total of three hours of meditation. She called it “emergency meditation, which is my term for meditation used in times of need. I bring this out of the bag during breakups, bad news and moments of important decision making.”

She arrived beneath Magic Line with an aching finger, a battered body, but a clear head. The pressure was on. She knew she could do the route. But knowing and doing are two different things.

She put in three burns on Magic Line, coming up empty-handed each time. There was little gas in the tank. It looked as if she might have to wait till next year to cross the magic line. After her third burn on the route, which didn’t go that well, Findlay gave herself one more chance.

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