Vertical Year: The KP ‘La Esfinge’ Climbathon

Shakka brah! Josh looking pretty fresh for just having climbed 800m of rock… (Photo by Bec Perkins)

The pain in my fingers, forearms and legs was forgotten as I neared the top of Idiot Wind, despite the fact that I’d been climbing for almost 15 hours. A generous smile spread across my face as I moved up the massive flake which guards the upper segment of this KP classic. I soaked in the feeling of pulling these final moves.

When I clipped the chains, I had done it. I had climbed more than 800m of vertical ground at Kangaroo Point in a single night. This distance matches the height of the Original Route on La Esfinge, Peru’s premier big wall and a route I hope to climb as part of the Vertical Year project.

When I came up with this crazy idea, I also came up with a few simple guidelines:

  • Climb the required height in a single session
  • Try not to repeat any routes
  • Climb every route on lead, and
  • Aim to climb in as clean a style as possible

The last point may be contentious for some, but for me it was simple. This was not a competition. It was not about how many climbs I could redpoint, it was about turning a single-pitch urban crag into a more adventurous environment. The addition of elements such as fatigue, strategy and climbing at night would test my mental capacity as much as physical – a more accurate reflection of what it is like to climb in the mountains.

In the early hours of the night, with other climbing parties around as well as a generous crowd of well-wishers, I found it hard to get into a rhythm. I remember being lowered off a route just before midnight when my girlfriend Bec asked me how I was doing.

“Tell me how you are feeling in three words.”

I looked at her blankly, straining to think.

“Flat… Sore… I don’t know,” was my feeble response. It was also five words.

“Maybe no words can describe,” she quipped, attempting to make me feel better.

I was not even a quarter of the way through and felt daunted by the prospect of a long and lonely night. Two of the guys I had planned to do this with were forced to pull out in the weeks leading up to the night. Ryan had taken an outdoor education job starting the following day, whilst Chris was still recovering from a shoulder injury he sustained in a ground fall a couple of months back. I respected their decisions and would have made the same had I been in their shoes, though not having them climb with me added an extra element of pressure.

Climbing by headtorch in the wee hours… (Photo by Bec Perkins)

It was around three in the morning when I knew that I would complete the challenge. The floodlights had died some three hours earlier, and the sound of people barbecuing and exercising had long since disappeared. My world had shrunk, no larger than the tiny beam of light cast by my head torch. This made it difficult for me to see exactly where I was placing my feet, so I focused… I focused hard on my little world.

I was climbing on the Left Main Wall at KP, an area known for its non-descript climbs and ankle-breaking ledges. Though the routes were not technically difficult, ranging from 15 to 18 (5.7 to 5.10a in YDS), I was dealing with poor visibility and was climbing many of the routes onsight. Even so, I was

revelling in the moment, totally absorbed by the climbing. Had I been climbing these routes during the day, or under floodlights, I doubt I would have enjoyed them so much.

This was exactly the feeling I had hoped to capture with the challenge. By altering the factors at play, I’d created a different experience, a more adventurous and fulfilling experience. Sure, there are much nicer climbs and certainly much harder (the hardest routes I completed during the night were three lines graded at 24), but climbing is about so much more than a grade. I was being offered a chance to be challenged over an extended period of time, facing multiple cruxes caused by many different factors, not just the mere technical difficulty of the moves. This kind of experience is what I love about climbing in the mountains, and something I’d hoped the challenge would replicate. Thankfully, I was right.

At about 4am, the floodlights came back on. We thought that was a bit strange given first light was to occur less than half an hour later. Regardless, I had been climbing in my little head torch bubble for four hours and the extra light was a welcome change, even if it was artificial.

My regular climbing partner Chris, always knowing when to push, suggested I take this moment to jump straight onto the last remaining ‘moderately difficult’ route on the list. Prickles (21) is one of the more aesthetic lines on the Left Wall at Kangaroo Point. It has several bulges in the lower section which push you out from the wall, with sloped footholds offset by positive in-cut holds for your hands. The crux is a slightly overhanging crack where friendly jugs await above the edge of the headwall. I had only attempted this climb twice before and always found it testing. How would I go after a long night climbing?

After 11 hours of climbing, I pulled through the moves smoothly and ran up the slabby finish, avoiding the climb’s namesake vegetation to the anchor chains. Chris laughed when he lowered me to the ground.

“You didn’t even look like you tried,” he said.

I had never sent that climb with such style before. It was a reflection of the state of flow I had come to find myself in over the past several hours. I was having fun.

As the sun rose, it brought with it renewed energy and life. Cyclists and people out for a morning run started to pass by, probably taking no notice of our silly antics. My girlfriend Bec returned to see me finish on her way to work. She just laughed and noted that I looked less tired now than when she had left earlier that morning.

We quickly dispatched the remaining climbs on the Left Wall and then ventured down to KP North to tick a couple off the list. At about 7am, we did a quick tally and soon realised that I was closer to the 800m than we thought. I wanted to finish the night on something enjoyable, a climb that I know and love. I suggested doing a quick lap on JAFKPR (14), which I had never climbed, and then finishing on the KP classic, Idiot Wind (21).

The initial moves of Idiot Wind felt fantastic. My arms were not sore, my fingers felt good. Even the constant pain in my heels, rubbed raw by my climbing shoes, fell to the back of my mind. I found some flow moving through the little v-groove at half height, then pulled through the right arching flake before tackling the final challenge at the horizontal breaks in the upper section. It felt as if I was warming up for a regular climbing session. Before I knew it, I had clipped the chains.

It was all over. I had done it. I had climbed 48 pitches to cover more than 800m of vertical ground – longer than the Original Route on La Esfinge in Peru.

The time was 7:54am and I had been climbing since 5:15pm the previous day – 14hrs 9mins. Not exactly speed style, but again that really wasn’t the point. The point for me was to take an everyday environment and turn it into an adventure, and hopefully inspire others to do so also. I was successful in my own personal pursuit and I hope somewhat successful in inspiring others.

My buddy Nathan quickly ripped out his smart phone once I was back on terra firma and did an ad-hoc interview, asking me how I felt. When I looked back on that video later that night, I laughed at the silly grin that was spread across my face. It was a nice feeling.

So what now?

Well, if you are reading this, I hope you are inspired to look for adventure in your own backyard, to take an ordinary activity and turn it into something a little more adventurous. I hope you begin to understand that ordinary people are capable of dreaming big and doing bigger. And if you are a climber, I hope that you can start to look beyond grades, if you don’t already.

Look deep within yourself and listen to that voice inside. Filter out what may be externally motivating you, like what other people are doing or what they might think of you. Listen hard and find your intrinsic motivation, for that is what brings true fulfilment.

I was very humbled and thankful to see so many people come out in support of the event, both in person and online. Thank you to everyone who got involved, I really appreciate your support. I was also extremely happy to find out that we had raised more than $600 in the 24hr period of the KP ‘La Esfinge’ Climbathon. Thank you to everyone who has donated so far and if you are thinking of donating you can always do so at here. Whether it is $5 or $500 every dollar is helping to improve youth mental health and combat climate change.

Whatever your next adventure, challenge or dream, I wish you all the best in achieving it. Think big, and climb on!

Josh Worley
November 2017

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?