My body ached from the previous day’s climbs — we managed 8 pitches in the upper 5.11’s in just 6 hours. The skin on my fingers was tender. My toes were begging and pleading to not be imprisoned within the confines of climbing shoes again. Afterall, I had already climbed over 5,000 vertical feet. Despite agreeing to climb Time Wave Zero that night, it almost came as a surprise when at 4:00 in the afternoon, Jeremy said, “Well, we better get going.” — “Wait, am I actually going to do this? Am I ready?” I had never been so nervous to go climbing before in my life.
Time Wave Zero is a 23 pitch 5.12a (or 5.11a A0) bolted sport route that climbs 2,300 ft. of limestone from bottom to top. It’s the longest sport route in all of North America. By typical definitions, it is a big wall. It’s in the same realm as The Nose on El Cap, Half Dome, and Mt. Watkins. However, it’s not nearly as famous as climbs on those other iconic mountains simply because it is bolted the entire way, a moderate climb, and can be done in one long day by an average climber such as myself. 21 of the 23 pitches are 5.10 and below.
For an entire month leading up to our trip to Potrero Chico in Hidalgo, Mexico, I forced myself to stay in Boulder just to train in the gym rather than travel in my van and have grandiose adventures. I’ve been an athlete my whole life, but any of my accomplishments have come in marginal, incremental increases. Over a lifetime of athletics it looks impressive, but not with any huge, abrupt jump in milestones. Considering the most I had ever climbed in a day outside was 12 pitches, a year ago, Time Wave was well above my comfort level. It was bigger and more intimidating than anything I had ever done outside. It’s not the grades of the climb that bothered me, those were well within our limits given the bolt ladder on the 5.12 section, but more so how long it was and knowing we were going to be on the wall for 12+ hours. I was not going to drive 2,000 miles to Mexico just to fail or waste time getting in shape while there.
Our first multi-pitch as a group of three didn’t go as planned. We’re all experienced trad and alpine climbers and assumed we would just cruise on comfy, bolted belay ledges. We did Black Cat Bone, a 9 pitch 5.10d and linked several pitches together to do it in 6. It still took us 6 or 7 hours. 6 or 7 hours to do 9 pitches? How in the hell were we going to do 23 pitches in anything less than 20 hours, even if we split up into groups of two? My confidence in our ability to even get on Time Wave started to wane. Actually, I specifically remember thinking it was an impossibility, but I didn’t want to bring the other two people down so early in the trip so I kept it to myself.
But then we got better. Managing two ropes at a hanging belay is a skill in and of itself, and transitioning leaders can be a pain with three people hanging from the same two bolted anchors. Nevertheless, we worked out our systems. We each assumed some task within the whole process. And we started to cruise. We did 13 pitches of Yankee Clipper, a 15 pitch 5.12a (but our 13 pitches were 5.10b), in just 6 hours, up and down. Shit, maybe we can do Time Wave!
The third person in our group had to leave Mexico early so we were now down to a group of two, Jeremy and me. As we walked the approach to the base of Time Wave, we discussed strategy — linking pitches, simul climbing, who would lead which pitches, beta we received from other groups. Doing so eventually worked me into a ball of nerves. Thankfully, Jeremy brought up the point that we could bail at any point if we didn’t want to summit. Or something happened and we couldn’t summit. After hearing about another party’s 18 hour experience and how emotional it was for them, I needed that reassurance it’s ok to not make it.
I racked up for the first pitch of 5.7. At 5:20pm, I placed my right hand on the rock for the first time. I said, “climbing!” Jeremy echoed, “Climb on; have fun!”
The beta we got was to not link the first two pitches because the second pitch goes at legitimate 5.11-, and you wouldn’t want to have that much rope drag while pulling the crux. Albeit that 5.7 is just 5.7 and we probably could have solo’d it, I was regaining my confidence we could do this. Jeremy then led up the 5.11 and linked it with the third pitch. I followed. The crux of the 5.11, as I remember, was a very vertical, if not slighly overhung, thin face. I’m not sure if it was soreness, doubt, or the added weight of our 10lb. summit pack plus approach shoes, but I fell at the crux. My confidence in completing this entire route was now at an all-time low. I’ve already fallen on pitch #2 of 23.
I was up to lead pitch 4. It goes at 5.8/5.9- and we decided to simul climb. With my confidence rattled and the sun beginning to set, I didn’t feel secure even on 5.8. It didn’t help that it was our first time doing that and had not previously practiced together. At the top of pitch 4, we just decided to link two pitches at a time as we had done for all the previous climbs.
When I brought Jeremy up on pitch 6, he admitted that the thought of bailing had already entered his mind. I was slowly getting back into the challenge at hand and said, “Well, the 3rd class scramble is just 2 pitches away. Let’s get up there, take a break, and then give it the ‘ol college try and see how we feel after the next two pitches after that.” By 8pm, a little less than 3 hours after we started, we were sitting on top of pitch 8, the 3rd class scramble, and watching the full moon rise above the knife edged fin across the canyon.
After our break, Jeremy took pitches 9 and 10, the first ones with headlamps, and cruised the 5.9+ and 5.10-. He brought me up, and I greeted him with the motivational joke I had been yelling since pitch 6, “We’re halfway done!” We shared a laugh, and at this point, we committed to the summit, regardless of how long it might take.
Pitches 11-14 were all ego boosting moderates. Really fun. Really fast. At belay stations, we turned our headlamps off and belayed in the dark by the full moon light. Jeremy even followed with his off sometimes. While lead belaying Jeremy, I saw a Ringtail critter scurrying across a seemingly blank cliff side as if he were Spiderman. I told him to fuck off out of jealousy and went about my belay duties.
“Real climbing” begins on pitch 15. It’s a 6 pitch block of all really solid 5.10’s by the guidebook, and told to be runout between bolts by word of mouth. I started, which means I was getting 4 of the 6 pitches. Doubt was in the back of my mind once again, but at this point, the experience we were having was overshadowing any thoughts of not finishing. As I look back, those 6 pitches might have been the best I experienced in all of Potrero Chico. The movement was amazing, the runouts, seemingly between each bolt, felt bold, and climbing by night made it feel more consequential if you fell. Whipping into the dark abyss of night felt so utterly terrifying.
Mountain Project says most of these pitches are 5.9+ so whenever I felt fear creeping into my mind, I’d just tell myself, “No big deal; this is only 5.9.” I knew I was lying to myself. I knew there was a pitch or two of 5.10d hidden in there somewhere, but I didn’t want to know where. I didn’t want to know if they were my pitches or if I was getting the softer of the 5.10’s. Jeremy knew exactly which pitches were which, but I made him keep that information to himself. “I’m only climbing 5.9.” The lies we tell ourselves…
The pitches I led all had vertical or slightly overhung cruxes. The moves were straightforward, but finding holds by headlamp was sometimes a challenge. I’d see a shadow and wonder, “There’s a shadow, but is there actually an edge there? Fuck it.” At one point I found myself in an overhung dihedral with my left foot smeared on a blank face and my right foot jammed in the crack. But I needed to step around right onto the face of the dihedral. Not a difficult move by any means given the jugs I was on, but with shadows dancing in front of my face every time I turned my head, changing the perceived shape, edge, and depth of each hold, it was not trivial. I needed to accept that this might be the time I finally whip in the blackness of night many times within every pitch. Again, not because it was hard, but because you’re playing a high risk guessing game with the holds you decide to reach for.
Another time, I found myself staring at a crux on a vertical face between two run out bolts. More run out than usual. The things that looked like they might be holds appeared to be either extremely thin or horrendously sloped. With 10ft. between the bolts, I needed to calculate the next 3 moves and decide how much risk I was willing to take. I picked the line I felt had the highest probability of positive holds and left the comfort of having a bolt at my waist. My first right hand stuck to a positive crimp. I matched feet on the chip my right foot was on so that I could then flag it off to the side for balance as I found what I had hoped was a crimper side pull with my left. Lucky twice in a row.
Once again I matched feet and found a vertical edge to push off with my left foot in opposition to the left hand side crimp I was working. I was now 3 or 4 feet above the bolt and at the point where I had no idea if the next hold was a smooth, slopey piece of shit or possibly a “Thank you, Jesus” jug. It was a dynamic move. If it stuck, I would be about a foot from the next bolt, easily within clipping distance. If not, I was looking at a 20’-30’ whip based on the slack in the system. Jeremy was belaying blind at that point. This crux was over halfway on the second pitch I linked together. That’s about 55 meters of rope in the system. Other than me saying, “watch me!” he could have no idea how big the move was or how close I was to the bolt.
“Fuck it,” I said again as I threw for the hold. It stuck! “Thank you, Baby Jesus,” I sighed with huge relief. After a few more bolts on easy terrain, I made it to the anchors. Once Jeremy reached me at the belay, he told me how glad he was he didn’t lead those pitches. “They were scary.” He said, “you know, both of those are the 5.10d’s that were mixed in.” No, I didn’t know. And I’m glad I didn’t.
After the block of 10’s, you find yourself staring at the 5.12a pitch. It was already planned this way, but Jeremy was up to lead it. After 20 pitches, regardless of how strong you are, you’re still really tired. I heard from so many people that the 5.8 pitch after the 5.12 was the hardest 5.11 they’ve ever done, if you catch my drift. Jeremy didn’t bother trying to free the 5.12 crux; he made quick use of the bolt ladder aid. But it’s not done yet.
Immediately after the 5.12 aid section, there’s one or two really hard 5.11 moves left on the pitch. Jeremy made short work of it on lead after two strategizing takes, but I struggled, HARD, following after. “There is no fucking way we’re getting shut down now,” I thought, despite falling several times and a couple of failed aid attempts. I was in direct to the bolt to avoid rope stretch after a failed attempt and falling even further. I was so frustrated at failing, I gathered whatever anger and aggression I had left after twenty-one-and-a-half pitches and decided to go for it with the moves I had been scouting and practicing through trial and error. I grabbed the only decent crimp I had with my left hand, put my feet on the only two holds available, took the tension off my PAS, unclipped the bolt, and in one pathetic display of fury, I went for it.
And fell again. And fell further than previously.
“FFFFUUUUUUUUUUCCCKKKKKKK YYYOOOOOUUUUU!!!!!” I yelled out into the blackness of night. It echoed back at me from the other side of the canyon in a way that made it seem like the mountain was mocking me. Afterall, I was here to conquer the mountain, not the other way around. And the mountain was winning right now.
I felt defeated. I felt like we really were going to get shut down. “How could I let this happen? We’re so close!” I decided to use the only thing that was still somewhat working: my brain. I remembered seeing someone aid up a trad route by making a foot ladder out of a quick draw and nylon sling. Duh, it seemed so obvious. I made one with the gear I had cleaned along the way, stepped up onto it with my left, and finally found the distance I needed to grab the vertical jug with my right hand. Finally! Nothing but easy terrain from here on out. I cursed at Alex Honnold as I flipped off my sling dangling into the night.
I didn’t find the 5.8 pitch (#22) particularly as hard as everyone else seemed to think. There was one crux where you had to pull yourself over a bulge on slabby, bullshit holds, but it wasn’t horrendous. If anything, I thought it was really runout and would have hated to be leading after that shit-tastic 5.12/5.11 section. I was mentally fried while following; I couldn’t imagine leading something, anything, that runout at that point. I don’t think I’ve ever been so relieved to get to the anchors. It wasn’t because I was exhilarated about making the moves themselves, but because I knew we were going to summit.
I’ve also never been afraid of heights or had issues with looking down while being precariously perched atop of anything. But as I met Jeremy at the top of pitch 22, I found myself experiencing vertigo and exclaimed, “Holy shit we’re high!” Thank God I was still on belay. We had finally gained the knife ridge, and I was looking at the small towns and villages surrounding Hidalgo from 2,200ft. above.
The elation of completing the climb was starting to set in. Endorphins were coursing through my body. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. I was still really dizzy. And yet, there was still a 5.7 scramble to the true summit.
There is a fixed line on the last pitch we used Via Ferrata style and solo’d up to the top.
We made it.
As I took my shoes off on the plush, flat, expansive summit, I couldn’t control my feelings of conquering my first ever night climb. Of accomplishing a climb SO BIG that I have nothing else to compare it to. Of climbing for 9 hours straight through the night. Of overcoming fear so many times in such a short period of time. It was truly indescribable. I never thought I’d be the guy who could tackle something that big and actually finish it. It just goes to show, you’re more capable than what you think, but if you never take these big risks, you’ll never know how capable you really are.
It just felt really good to accomplish something this huge. I put on my approach shoes as we got ready for our 21 rappels. My toes were really happy.