Siebe Vanhee Faces His Limits On His First 9a Estado Critico
4.0 minute read
I haven't ever considered myself a sport climber, or more precisely, I haven't ever truly tested the mettle of my sporting limits. Since I was 18, after my first trip to Squamish and then Yosemite, I fell in love with trad, and the thrill of expedition climbing became my focus. But, a few years ago, I began to wonder what it would be like to climb the mythical grade of 9a. I haven't stopped loving big walls, but the question of what I was physically capable of if I dedicated myself to bouldering and sport climbing weighed on me.
This is precisely what I found when I stepped onto the route. After the initial (6c) pitch, I put my hands on what I discovered to be a 40-meter, full endurance (8b) on tuffas. This pitch is varied, technical, and pumpy. After working the moves, I knew right away I was lucky to have chosen such a beautiful route; this single pitch at any crag would be a must-do, 5-star. As I took in the rope with a smile, I could hear my second’s agreement as he worked the moves with exclamations of delight! The (7b) pitch is a long stunning colonnette, and then there are the two magnificent (8a)’s on tuffas. The easier traverse and top pitch might not deserve too much celebration, but they allow you to link between four incredible pitches.
Working on Une Jolie and figuring out every detail, I couldn’t help but remember my adventure on the Voie Petit (500m, 8b max) back in 2016. At altitude, above a glacier, and on granite, these two routes have little in common, but my process was just the same. Negotiating with my fear 300 meters up a new wall is always an intimidating position, especially my fear of failing. I had to refocus on the pleasure and enjoy it. After all, I was abandoning my kid for a full day, so I had better make it a worthwhile success.
My achievement wouldn’t come through a grade, though; for a long time, I have realized grades are all relative. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if it is a 9c or 7c; no one cares! It’s only climbing. It can only be for MY pleasure that I decide to put myself through fear, tiredness, and then, hope, and belief, which all turn into a passion. Of course, over the two days that I worked the route, I had quite a few moments where I despaired in figuring out a method. I also went to bed those nights, asking myself why I was doing this. But then, waking up at 5 am to beat the afternoon sun, I itched to put my hands on the rock, savored the idea that I could only rely on myself to get the rope up; this project reawakened the climber that I am.
I came home with precise sequences in my head and the knowledge that if I trained, visualized, and prepared, I had a chance to link it all. I knew training would be challenging, especially motivating for another endurance lap through the summer heat. But I was finding myself again, finding my space to be a climber and a good mum.
I returned to the route with James a month later while the grandparents took care of Arthur. Part of me wondered why we were leaving our baby, and we both felt a bit empty without him jumping around the van. But then in the early morning, I put my game face on, James transformed into Mr. Perfect Belayer, and the fun began. In the (8b), I had no idea if I had the necessary endurance, but in a month’s training, I had noticed that it was all coming back quickly. I climbed precisely without a single mistake. I have no idea how it happened–maybe being a parent and having little time forced me to improve my efficiency. The (7b), the first (8a), the (5c) it all went smoothly. Then, in the last (8a), I made a few mistakes. I forgot a few methods, and there was a moment at the very end, where I realized I had to make the right decision very fast, or I would be off, and maybe not have the energy to try the pitch again.
It is here that I faced my old friend, the fear of failing; every climber has to find a way of dealing with this. When I was a competition climber, I used to tell myself to focus closer on the pleasure of the movements. This time, with my forearms about to explode, and while I was struggling to slow my breathing on a relatively restful tuffa, I could see in my mind Arthur dancing to his favorite music. With that, I realized that falling would be ok; failing was indeed not that sad. Accepting the possibility of not doing it gave me the energy to finish the pitch and scrape my way to the belay. One more (6b), and I had done it, I was again the climber I wanted to be! I had proven to myself that there was a balance between being a mum and a climber. That even the joy of my little one could give me strength for climbing that I hadn’t had before.
I'd love to tell you James and I drove back home playing Une Jolie, but that would be too whimsically poetic. After all, ticking the climb for its name or notoriety is not the experience I was after. Plus, James hates the song, but James's story of understanding French poetry, and as I say, “truly” becoming French, is another story altogether.
Written by Siebe Vanhee
Photo & Video by Talo Martin
Stage 6- Buoux
We stayed four days at the "Auberge des Seguins," which is a perfect location to go to the crags on foot. They even let us take our dinners outside by the bedroom while the baby was already in Bed. Buoux doesn't need any publicity. It is a unique, incredible crag, and there is a reason for its Fame. Buoux is a Must visit". No matter what your level is, you will find a gem to climb!
Stage 7- Mouries
Mouries is a long way from Buoux, and we had initially planned some extra stops. But the heatwave had begun, and the other planned spots were not as exciting. So, instead of climbing stops, we biked for two days, visited an abandoned troglodyte village (les grottes de cales), and loved it!
Mouries again is an old lady, and if you can get away from requiring extremely tough grades and enjoy the technical climbing, you will love it. Mouries is a climbing lesson in itself.
Stage 8- Fontvieille secret crag
I can't tell you the secret crags, as they are secret because they aren't technically allowed. To find them you have to ask as you meet climbers on your previous days and if you are lucky they may tell you the secrets! France is full of them, and sometimes these are the best crags!
We arrived back home after 25 days of traveling and climbing. It wasn't always restful, but then living with a baby is never restful! Every day brought us load of discoveries, from a wild tortoise to incredible pains au chocolates, to meeting an old friend. Baby Arthur loved it. The minute we stepped back in the house, he was pointing again at the window, asking, "where next?" For James and me, we finish this adventure delighted to have realized that we still have so much left to explore, and it is all less than 100km from our home. This bike and climb trip is only the first!
The question was rooted deeper than just strength, though. I had the ambition to raise my skill to climb 8b+ sport and trad multi-pitches. Why 8b+, because it had been the standard grade of many mythical routes in the Alps that attracted me. But I knew I wouldn't reach this level if I didn't focus purely on climbing strength, something I couldn't achieve on adventurous terrain alone. I knew the best way to increase my strength would be to set a sport climbing goal, and when I was 17, I climbed my first 8c, so my logic was to raise the bar to 9a.
After a successful Patagonia trip at the beginning of 2019, I decided it was time to face my weaknesses, train, plan some sport climbing trips, and ultimately choose a route. I knew I had to choose a 9a that would play to my strengths of endurance, slightly overhanging, and crimpy. Still, it wasn't until December 2020, when I arrived in Siurana, Spain, and lay my fingers on the sharp edges of Estado Critico, that I knew I had found the one.
Up to this point, I was training and growing as a climber and had even ticked 8b+ multi-pitches with ascents of Silbergeier, Yeah Man, Unendliche Geschichte, and even Orbayu (8c). It wasn't until the unlikely chain of events, though, of briefly testing Estado Critico followed by the travel restrictions of COVID-19 that I dedicated myself to projecting something that required an unknown amount of time.
I am getting ahead of myself, though. In spring 2020, I was in Belgium training during the first lockdown. Then in the autumn, I isolated with a group of climbers in Saint-Léger-du-Ventoux, where I pushed my grade, climbing my first 8c+ since 2016. This success gave me hunger for more and the courage to face my 9a. Plus, the season in Siurana was starting, so I took my chances and went to face Estado, knowing that in these times, it would be a commitment of not only climbing but also quarantining and then not being able to move much due to the travel restrictions.
The route is a 7-pitch (8b), and 6-months after having a baby, the idea of achieving this was going to be my “I am back” diploma. When I chose it, I knew I was on my way back to fitness, and I had just figured out a rhythm where baby let me train and sleep a bit. Fitness isn’t everything, though I also needed focus, dedication, and the will to finish such a route. What I experienced as a young mum was a total shift of focus in my life. Every second of the day, part of my mind was on my little one – Does he need anything? Is he in danger? When baby Arthur was 6-months old, I couldn’t write a full text, read a book, or focus. I willingly disappeared behind “the veil of mum.” But I was hoping I would find my fully functional brain again, on top of my late abdominals.
Estado Critico is a 40-meter route that starts on a steep crack and then, after a rest, traverses right for five moves into a beautiful blue streak of vertical rock. After the traverse, you enter the crux, comprised of four boulder moves followed by the fifth and hardest move. Here, from a very bad foothold in slightly steep terrain, you have to block off with the right on a sloppy vertical crimp to quickly launch with your left hand to an openhanded three-finger crimp. Then there are 25 moves of pure resistance climbing to the chains. I knew I would manage the resistance climbing well enough, but overcoming the boulder section would be my battle.
In Siurana, I discovered I was not only facing the physical test of the route but also learning about the challenges of projecting and the power of my mind. To begin, I'm impatient and a very nervous climber. I always chose projects that would give me quick satisfaction, like routes I can make the crux move on in only a few tries or onsighting at my sub-max limit. Honestly, I had been sandbagging myself to gleam quick success, and I had little patience for slow progression–This was a painful lesson to face. I had wanted to return to the van every day with a small token of success; instead, I was coming back feeling I had nothing to show for the day, which left me deflated. I wanted to quit, runway, and go to another crag where I could devour routes one after another until I was full with the gluttony of success. But I didn't; I'm also dead stubborn and stuck it out through my self-doubt. Then there was the environment and managing my skin, which of course, didn't help my impatience. I knew skin would be a challenge from the start, and climbing on cold, dry days would be essential. I also knew I would need lots of rest days; thus, I planned to alternate days climbing and resting. Of course, I can't control the weather, and with my hunger to unlock the moves, it was inevitable to climb on bad days; otherwise, I would never succeed. Or so my impatience told me!
Winter and the travel restrictions added to my mental pressure and strain. I was fortunate to be allowed to live in my van and climbed with only a few other people, but it was cold and humid, and I didn't have much access to a shower or a warm place to recover. Then there is the sharp rock, which leaves only short periods to climb each day when the conditions are optimal; the other routes I had close access to were the same. So essentially, the only time I climbed was on Estado. You can imagine this is very unfavorable for one's climbing shape across the span of three months. To combat this, I worked flexibility and trained daily in my van on a hang board and with rings, and ran three times a week. When I took multiple days off in a row to let my skin recover, I would go to the local climbing gym to train on the MoonBoard.
Across the span of these three months, I discovered I could harness and transform the same power my mind had of crashing in waves of despair into a positive strength. Ultimately, I could climb with joy and confidence like never before, and I could accept that 9a was an achievable goal but would require patience. Accepting this was my biggest lesson, and my down moments became less deep. I had the courage to leave the project alone when the weather and my skin weren't optimal or I was mentally empty. In the end, completing this was going to require confidence, discipline, and trust in myself.
This discovery came at a great moment, the clock was ticking, and I would soon have to return to Belgium for other work obligations, which meant more tests, more isolation, and less motivation to return. But I had already taken days off climbing in the process, so when it was time to go, and I hadn't sent, I left relaxed. I knew I could enjoy other things in life and relish in a distraction from the route without carrying the weight of failure or anxiousness to return. Of course, I would be lying if I didn't say I still checked the weather, trained, and worked the moves in my head, but after all, I am a climber. Nonetheless the pressure I originally carried was gone, and I could mentally remove myself from Estado to enjoy other things.
When I returned at the end of March 2021, ready for testing and isolation, I was hopeful of sending, but I had no expectations of when. I was relaxed and excited to see what this time would bring. Mastering this mental pressure paid off, and I let go of the importance of climbing the route. Without this weight, I was able to send on my first day back in Siurana. Of course, I did everything to better my chances of success, but I didn't care about the results. I had transferred the importance of the climb to the process I had already lived and was still living.
After climbing the elusive grade, I have learned what it means to test my physical limits. Still, my most significant achievement came in finding a positive mindset and flow by putting distance between myself and the importance of the route and grade. This process reminded me climbing isn't about numbers. What I really accomplished was a lesson of climbing consciously and with patience that brings me joy in each try and a reminder that climbing goals are about the experience, personal curiosity, and the give and take of sharing with others no matter what level you climb. So, thank you to everyone who helped in my process. From the veterans I called for advice to friends who are new to the sport, all of you remind me that climbing goals are about the experience, not the number. I now look forward to whatever process is next.