The End of the Beginning


 

Even when they use bolts, the decision-making process, when they stand at the base of a new climb and try to imagine how it will unfold, is a vital part of the experience—one that ordinary sport climbing, with its predetermined selection of bombproof pro, nearly eliminates.

Like other ascensionists of difficult trad climbs, whose diverse backgrounds range from sport to bouldering to comps to walls to alpine, Matt and Eric's approach demonstrates how much the boundaries between different categories are blurring. If climbers like them are mixing the vocabularies of what had once seemed like wildly contrasting cultures, it's in part because they belong to all of them.

Segal working the aid line formerly known as Lycra-Clad Donkeys in Eldorado Canyon. Segal freed the route, which he dubbed Iron Monkey, at 5.14; it now stands as the hardest trad route in Eldo. [Photo] Jonathon Copp

Unlike many contemporary climbers who update their 8a scorecards and appear regularly in magazines, Matt doesn't like to brag about his own accomplishments, even to his girlfriend. The story I know about his early climbing life is pieced together from the bits I've been able to glean from him, filled in with conversations with former coaches and his mother.

But once talk turns to details about his latest project, his voice begins to rise uncontrollably until it's a soft yell, his hands flap, his brown, feathered hair seems to stand on end, and a large, vertical vein starts to bulge in his forehead. Matt's twenty-two, and like many of his generation he was first exposed to climbing in gyms. In Miami, where Matt grew up, climbing meant pulling on plastic.

At age fourteen and 100 pounds, Matt had already begun training with Kynan and Derek Waggoner, owners of Miami's X-Treme Rock Climbing Gym, when climber Tony Yaniro arrived to set routes for one of the Waggoners' comps. Among the kids climbing around him, Tony noticed one with more tenacity than the others. When he walked over to help Matt with a problem, Tony was impressed by the boy's polite responses to his suggestions; here was someone who seemed entirely open to learning, a well-behaved student who would be willing to put in the work it took to climb hard.

Yaniro himself had played an important role in the development of hard trad. In 1979 he'd redpointed a forty-foot overhanging double roof crack, Grand Illusion, in Sugarloaf, California, the world's first 5.13b/c. His techniques, a combination of hangdogging and specific home training, reflected a dramatic shift in perspective. Two years earlier, Ray Jardine had used hangdogging and his new invention, Friends, to "work" Phoenix, the first 5.13, in Yosemite. At the time, Camp 4 purists insisted that whenever a climber fell, he or she had to lower off, backclean and climb back up to the high point from the ground. Jardine's controversial style, together with his easy-to-place cams and the advent of sticky rubber and chalk, allowed climbers to try lines at or past their limits—while, some might argue, reducing the uncertainty in a way that prefigured sport climbing.

Like Jardine, Yaniro received a lot of criticism from traditionalists, who called his 5.13 invalid—both because the grade was rarified, and because Yaniro's style meant, according to them, that he had "aided" the route. Even though he backcleaned his protection between attempts, he'd practiced moves while hanging on the rope. Yaniro retorted that his method allowed him to push the grades faster, bypassing the years of preparation such routes would otherwise require. Although he did plenty of bold routes, the difficulty, not the risk, was what interested him; according to Yaniro, "anyone can die free soloing a 5.8," but until the European sport mentality brought with it a new emphasis on training, few Americans were willing to work hard enough to climb 5.13.

Yaniro's climbing mirrored the changes in his generation. Although he continued to climb hard trad routes in a "sport" style, when comp climbing spread to the States, the opportunity to focus completely on technical difficulties fascinated him, and he became a route setter, climbing-wall designer and teacher of pioneering clinics. In the 1990s, indoor training was a relatively new concept. Yaniro's scientific approach targeted certain muscle groups for specific routes, and he saw Matt as the perfect testpiece for his latest innovations.

Matt proved to be an eager pupil, and in between attending Yaniro's clinics, he continued to train, waking up early to run or campus, then returning to the gym after school for ladder training. Under Yaniro's tutelage Matt became a comp-killing machine. Within his first year of climbing, he made the Youth National Team, and during the next four years he went to the Youth World Championships and progressed to World Cups in Italy, France, Austria and Germany. From 2002-2004, he placed within the top three at the American Bouldering Series. In 2004 he became the ABS National Champion.

Yet during that time, an empty feeling slowly built in him. When Yaniro noticed Matt was losing interest, he urged him to try climbing on real rock. "Move to Colorado," he advised. "Get out of Florida." Ultimately, he told Matt, comps were only practice for the real thing. As Yaniro explained to me, "You can only climb in a gym so long before you're not stimulated anymore."

Tony Yaniro on Pirate (5.12d), Suicide Rock, California, in the early 1990s. Climbs like this, and his 1979 testpiece Grand Illusion—the world's first 5.13b/c—established Yaniro as one of his generation's strongest climbers, but purists regarded his methods with scepticism. Yaniro went on to apply his scientific approach to comp climbs. In the early 1990s, he became Segal's coach. [Photo] Heinz Zak

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