It Takes a Community: The Story of My First 5.14
By Kerry Scott
I always knew sending Proper Soul would mean a lot to me. Not only is it a beautiful, unique, and challenging line suiting my style, but it was also the first 5.14 established at my favorite climbing area — the New River Gorge. What I never imagined was how much my community would be involved, and how it would end up becoming the best part about the send.
I started climbing on the youth team at Earth Treks in Rockville, Maryland at age 9. As I grew older, I began taking trips outside. My teammate Evan and I would go to the New River Gorge on every possible three-day weekend when I was a junior in high school.
We both fell in love with the climbing there — beautiful sandstone with just enough features to get you to the top of the wall. The routes are technically challenging with long reaches between small crimps. Many climbs require a lot of thought and creative beta, and you better prepare your hip flexors for all the hand-foot matching!
My coach at the time, Will Anglin, always had a list of routes he thought Evan and I should try at the New. His suggestions helped us navigate through the hundreds of climbs there. The list included classics like Legacy, Discombobulated, Apollo Reed, Quinsana Plus, Pocket Route, and Jesus and Tequila.
One day during practice, Will suggested I try Proper Soul. At the time, I had sent one 5.13 and was still trying to establish myself in the range. I laughed it off, but he insisted it was my style — long, pumpy, and technical — and that I should give it a try someday. The thought of doing a 5.14 seemed ridiculous! But the idea remained somewhere in the back of my head.
Fast-forward a season or two, and I was working on Apollo Reed at the Coliseum. I had fallen off the upper crux four times already that day, and I was starting to get discouraged when Vasya Vorotnikov walked in to put some work into his project Journeyman (still called The Dihedral Project at the time). I knew of Vasya from watching Open National championships, as well as hearing about all the hard climbs he sent at the New. I was a little starstruck and pleasantly surprised when he said hello.
I decided to give one more burn on Apollo Reed, and the extra cheers from Vasya and Evan helped push me through the crux to a send! When I returned to the ground, Vasya congratulated me, and he told me it looked like I tried very hard and had plenty of endurance. He then proceeded to suggest I try Proper Soul.
I was baffled — why did people think I could do that route? This time, though, it really stuck. I told myself I would climb 5.14, and I wanted Proper Soul to be my first one.
It wasn’t until the spring of 2015, my freshman year at UNC Chapel Hill, that I actually tried the route. I could not do the move entering into the dihedral, even in isolation. Eventually I just skipped it, and then it took me another 20 minutes or so to work out the moves in the two-bolt-long dihedral section. I had to take at every bolt, and I eventually came down before the traverse section in the upper half of the route.
I felt discouraged, and I distinctly remember thinking, “What the hell, Will? I can’t do ANY of this!” It was also the day I met Brian Pardo, who had done the route and insisted I actually did well for a first try. I didn’t believe him, but I was still psyched! I had a goal, and it gave me a reason to continue training.
The following summer, I lived at the Red River Gorge and tried to get more familiar with climbing on real rock. I sent eight 5.13s, and built up my confidence to get ready for a larger challenge. I was psyched to dedicate myself to projecting Proper Soul the fall semester of my sophomore year.
I told myself I would train hard and make it out to the New every weekend to piece the route together. However, between my job, running the climbing club on campus, and my classes, I only made it to the New once. I didn’t even try Proper that season.
Finally, during the fall semester of my junior year of college (about five years after Will first suggested I try Proper Soul), I was able to make more weekend trips to the New. I was going to dedicate myself to this climb for real this time. However, I started to feel a lot of doubt and negativity creep into my mind.
During the drive to the New for the first weekend trip of the season, I convinced myself I was not worthy of getting on Proper Soul again. I was afraid of failure. I was afraid that I would get back on the route only to have it feel no better than the first time I tried it a year and a half ago. I was afraid I would have to accept that none of my training had worked, and that I wasn’t any stronger than I had been my freshman year. I had successfully convinced myself not to try the climb until I opened my bag and saw a small white envelope with my name on it.
It was from my boyfriend Alex, and it read, “I hope this note finds you in good spirits, standing in the Cirque under a beautiful West Virginia sky, looking at this beautiful line that inspires you.” His words were enough for me to remember why I chose this route in the first place. I accepted that the process would be hard, and that’s okay. I will never find out what I am truly capable of unless I fail along the way.
So, I gave it a try, and I fell a lot…. but I did every move this time! It would take a lot of work to figure out how to link the different cruxes, but I felt like it would be possible! I had officially become fully committed to my new project.
We returned to the New the next weekend, and I was excited to put some more work into Proper Soul with my friend Alex Ng from Maryland. I opened my bag, and to my surprise, found another small white envelope! I thought it would be from my boyfriend again, but it was from my high school best friend, Claire Bresnan, who was studying in Colorado at the time. She wrote, “I know if you put your mind to it you can do amazing things, and know I’m always on your team. Love you loads my fancy, apple crushing, math solving, rock clamberin’ best amiga.”
I had no idea how the note had gotten there, but it filled my heart with joy. Once again, I felt uplifted and encouraged to get on my project thanks to my amazing friends. Both Alex Ng and I made some big links on Proper Soul, and it was a great weekend.
A few weeks later, we packed our bags and geared up for yet another trip to the New. This time it was fall break, so we had four days to climb. I opened my bag and voila, another note! This time it was from my roommate and best friend, Hannah Smith. She wrote a beautiful note that ended with, “...and remember that no matter what grade you do or don’t climb, no matter how many competitions you do or don’t win, you are strong and amazing and you inspire me.”
Once again my heart was full, and I was excited to get back on my project! Alex Ng and I were both making serious progress. By the end of fall break, I had linked the bottom of the dihedral to the top of the climb. There was just one low-percentage move entering the dihedral that I needed to dial.
School started picking up, and I was swamped with midterms and computer science projects. I was itching to get back to the New, because I could feel the send coming. I had a trip planned for the weekend of November 5th and 6th, 2016, but I canceled because of a programming project I couldn’t finish. I spent all of Saturday in the library, getting more and more frustrated with this impossible assignment, and I called my dad practically in tears. I was stressed about school, and I was anxious about feeling so close to sending my project.
I was expecting him to pull out the typical Dad-speech and tell me to focus on my classwork. His voice got a little quiet and he said, “Well can’t you just go to the New for one day? Would your friends go with you? You can do this climb, Kerry.” That was it. Maybe it was a bit irresponsible, but I turned in my assignment with a solid 4 out of 10 points. I called my friends, and we began our 4 and a half hour trek to the New in no time!
We arrived late Saturday night, and I began to feel the pressure. We had driven to the New for just one day, for the sole purpose of me trying to send Proper Soul. Sure enough, I opened my bag and was surprised to find another small white envelope. How many of these did Alex have for me?
This one was from Coach Brad, who had been training with me since freshman year, and he wrote, “When it is hard, be thankful that there is a challenge that you cannot overcome in a day or a week.” I thought back to all the progress I had already made on this route over the past 3 months, and I was thankful to be at the New to give it another try.
Sunday proved to be a beautiful day, and Alex Ng and I found ourselves trying Proper Soul in near perfect conditions. I spent most of the morning falling on the lower crux entering into the dihedral section. I was starting to get frustrated about consistently falling on that one move, but then immediately pulling back on every time only to do it easily.
One time, I got to the rest right before the move, and I told myself to pretend like I had already fallen. It actually worked, and I pulled into the dihedral from the ground for the first time! I knew the rest of the route very well, and I started to feel butterflies in my stomach.
I climbed nervously and fell after the jug at the end of the dihedral, a silly place to fall. I started to feel like I had blown my one shot, but I realized such negativity had to leave if I wanted to send. I focused all my energy on how I had successfully pulled through the lower crux from the ground, which had been a huge mental barrier for me before.
I took a long rest, during which I tried to stay positive about my new highpoint instead of thinking about how I fell in a sequence I had dialed. I have a mental trick I like to use where I tell myself, “I am past the point in my life where I am falling on that move.” I focused on how I had already pulled the lower crux once today, so I could do it again.
I tied in, and I soon found myself moving past that move, entering into the dihedral, climbing calmly and smoothly, exiting the dihedral, and resting on the jug before the second crux. I couldn’t believe I had made it to this point, but I knew I had a lot of fighting left.
I climbed through the second crux, and I found myself in the kneebar before the final endurance-crux that guards the chains. I had to take a couple of breaths — and shake out on the jug because I was super pumped.
I started thinking about the send, which is always a dangerous thing to do. So I reminded myself that I just beat my highpoint by about 6 bolts. I had proven to myself that I was out of the rut of falling at the beginning the dihedral. If I could get up this high once, I could do it again. No matter what happened in the final two bolts of climbing, I had made so much progress.
So I took a couple deep breaths, and told myself to give it my all. No pressure, just rock climbing. And that was the best possible mental state. I moved confidently, and before long I was clipping the chains on my first 5.14!
My boyfriend had reached out to 10 people who inspired me, and had them write encouraging notes. He had saved them for different points along the journey, and prepared each letter for times when I needed a confidence boost. After I sent, I read the rest of them with tears in my eyes. I keep them in my desk now, and re-read them before big trips because they help keep my head in the right place.
Matt Londrey told me, “Take in the frustration and misery and heartache and appreciate what that shows you about this route.” Dru Mack reminded me that feeling frustrated and failing were the experiences you have to endure. Will Anglin wrote, “You just have to keep telling yourself it’s not impossible. You can literally climb any route you want.”
I learned a lot from my friends through the process of sending Proper Soul. The first lesson was that I am capable of so much more than I thought. The second was realizing every emotion that happens when projecting a route is an important part of the process.
Climbers don’t choose projects because we want them to come easy. We want to be challenged, we want to struggle, we want to fail a little, and give one hell of a fight to prove ourselves we can step up after being beaten down. The journey of overcoming butterflies, dealing with heartbreaking falls, and shedding tears proves how much we care about this crazy sport we love.