The End of the Beginning

Posted on: November 27, 2006


Matt Segal on The Evictor (5.12+ R), Eldorado Canyon, Colorado—one of his first trad climbs. Segal and his mentor, Eric Decaria, are part of a new generation of trad climbers combining old-school ethics with new-school grades to redefine the discipline. [Photo] Jonathon Copp

Matt Segal was losing it. Wedged in a shady crack, fifteen feet up, right beneath the roof where the business begins, he'd started singing sweetly, "Come on, sun, come shine for me." The frosty, humid air had numbed his injured thumb (five months prior he'd sliced two nerves and a tendon while cutting an English muffin during a month-long meditation retreat). If he were clipping the route's bolts, he could have overlooked his insecurity, but he was trying to climb it on gear. While the polished jams and ringlocks at the start weren't usually difficult for him—his nickname, after all, was "Vice Grip"—this time he kept glancing below, staring at his rack, then down climbing to readjust the piece beneath him.

My stomach wrenched, adrenaline churning with the crack-strength coffee I'd been drinking all morning. A difficult trad ascent can be like a wild bull ride: the climbers' muscles tense; their bodies contort in strange shapes as they lunge and crimp, trying to keep their balance and maintain control in an unpredictable environment. Sometimes they whoop for joy as they pull through a crux—and then, sometimes, they're off, for a rowdy, airy ride. It's an exciting, but also a nerve-wracking sight... especially if the climber is your boyfriend.

There is no specific crux on Deadline, the bolted 5.14a crack climb on Castle Rock in Boulder Canyon that Matt was trying; it just gets increasingly harder and pumpier toward the top. Both Matt and Eric Decaria, Matt's partner, believed the addition of bolts was unnecessary and unethical. It would go on gear. The bolts should be chopped.

All around us, the sunlight gleamed off granite walls, flickering across the river and rippling into the shadows between the features and the trees. I'd grown up in Colorado and climbed in Boulder Canyon many times, but the familiar landscape now seemed surreal.

Eric was quiet as usual. He remained intently focused on Matt's movements and gestures. As Matt hung on the rope, hunched over, Eric knew he'd fallen into a mental abyss. He also knew what Matt needed to pull him out.

Matt Segal working Deadline (5.14), Castle Rock, Boulder Canyon, Boulder, Colorado. In 2005 Segal became the second person to climb the bolted crack using only gear. Eric Decaria was the first. Other Boulder Canyon climbs, like Athlete's Feat (5.11)—first freed by Royal Robbins and Pat Ament in 1964—represent the origins of hard trad, which climbers like Segal and Decaria are now reinterpreting. [Photo] Jonathon Copp

Matt listens to Eric; he has ever since they began climbing together two years ago. "Dude," Eric finally said, his habitual reserve giving way to an older-brother-like solicitude. "You know what to do. Just take a break and fire it from the beginning."

Matt broke out of his trance. "You're right. I don't know what I'm thinking." He painstakingly backcleaned the steep route. A few minutes later he slumped beside me in the dirt. "If I don't do it on the next try, I'm going to give up for a while," he said.

Eric had been the first person to send Deadline on gear, ground up, a few years ago. Now he had his own standing project just to the left: Headline, an overhanging, glossy, rounded crack with smeary feet and powerful moves, likely to be two letter grades harder.

It was Matt's turn to belay, and as he fed out the rope, Eric began unlocking the opening sequence. When Eric climbs, it's hard to tell whether a route is 5.8 or 5.13. He is a perfectionist, a technician, calculating everything down to the smallest detail, and as he strives to render each move simple, perfect and clean, he can make a climb look effortless.

Once he'd managed to figure out the thugy dyno finish, he backcleaned and joined us on the ground.

"You ready, Matt?" he said.

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