AUTHOR: Benjamin Rueck PHOTOGRAPHY: Andrew Burr
“You know that Sonnie Trotter flashed this route?”
Mayan Smith-Gobat glanced over at me with a sly smile. She just red pointed Welcome to Barabados (5.13b) on her second attempt as I sat stiff and sore from pervious days climbing. We were in the heart of the Grampians National Park, Australia as I stared at Malcolm "HB" Matheson's masterpiece— an intimidating 150 foot traditional roof climb that ended with the climber emerging from a giant hole in the rock. I was exhausted and grumpy.
Malcolm was one of Australia's foremost hard men whose passion and drive for climbing has pushed him even into his 50's. In his heyday during the 80's Malcolm established world classic climbs such as Taipan Wall's Serpentine (5.13b). Known for bold ascents he had the imagination to attempt the 150 foot roof on make-shift protection like stacked nuts and fiddled gear stuffed into pockets on sandstone roof. After two weeks he managed to get the first ascent and named the route Welcome to Barbados as a whimsical joke regarding a tattoo and a man's junk.
"He flashed it?" I asked with a sigh. It seemed impossible and my mood was not improving.
I pulled my shoes on and tied into the rope— a slight inkling of determination twitched my muscles.
"Running Beta?" Mayan asked.
"You know it," I said, 'What's the worst that can happen?'
For over an hour I climbed. Every once in a while, when the blood wasn't pulsing through my head drowning out all sound; I heard Mayan shout out some moves. As I climbed the realization that every piece of gear was placed in small clusters through a hodgepodge of shallow pockets and slings to equalize them. Some of the cams were wedged into the pockets with half of the head sticking out. I wasn't sure that the protection would handle a fall. This would not have been a problem if the distance between each cluster of protection wasn't 20 feet apart. The route barely gained any distance from the ground; which meant that a fall had a high chance of decking 40 feet below.
"Oh my god," I started to complain, "the route never ends!"
"You're about half way through— keep going!" Mayan encouraged.
Entering the crux, I was exhausted— granted I was tired before I even started. Each move on the slick sandstone made me feel like there was no chance of ever reaching the end. A hand placement out of sequence set my forearms on fire as I searched for anything to grip and move to the next hold— reaching for the stone out of desperation I missed and barely kept myself from whipping to the ground. Panicked I retreated to a rest position and waited for my heart beat to drop. I was desperate as I switched my hands back and forth trying with all my might to fight the pump. After five minutes of this dance I entered a different state of mind. I was emptied of thought, my pulse slowed and I saw the rock through a different set of eyes; the route separated into a million manageable pieces. I felt light and limber. I could finally hear Mayan calling out beta.
I flowed to the end of the route— I am still not sure how. I was still really tired and has to fight, but in October of 2013 I flashed Welcome to Barbados. Joy, elation, or happiness can't really describe the emotion— the only identifiable feeling I had was contentment. For 150 feet I felt awful; and yet I managed to stay on despite how badly I wanted to let go. An orange blaze from the setting sun lit the rock on fire as I took a moment to relax and untie the rope from my harness. As the sun sank past the horizon, I wondered, 'What else am I capable of?'