Is Don. Is Good.

10 months ago on the 9th of June 2011 my friend Duncan Steel did the first ascent of a route called The Don. It is a route first bolted by Australian climbing legend Kim Carrigan, but it remained untried for several years until Duncan took it on. In 2005 I had a quick play on the route and couldn’t even hang the holds. Six years later I hung on a rope and filmed the first ascent, and it was the culmination of five years of seasonal effort, and hundreds of attempts over that time. I was holding the rope and yelling encouragement for the majority of those attempts. Bearing witness to someone achieving a goal they have worked so hard towards is something I will never forget, and my happiness was off the charts that day. It was not even a question as to whether I would also try to do the route, it was just a question of when.

In the years while Duncan was focussed on The Don, I spent my time climbing all the existing, established hard routes at the cliff (27s to 30s) and then going on to put up my own. Routes like Ahead Of The Curve 28, Gay Pride 29, Angry Dragon 29, Below The Belt 31, Schadenfreude 31 and The Singularity 32 all took time and energy. Some a few weekends, some months upon months: true siege tactics. All of these routes have now seen repeats from the likes of Duncan, Adam Palmer, Matt Clifford and Tom O’Halloran, and I get a definite thrill seeing others repeat my routes.

Me trying what would become Schadenfreude, circa 2007
I had spent the majority of the 2011 season working on a link-up project of mine called Vicious Wishes. The weekend before Duncan sent The Don, I reached a highpoint on my project. Feeling the best I ever have, I was setting up for the final move when a loop of rope leading to the belayer got tangled around a tree root on the ground. I fell. Waking up the next day I found I could not bend my pinky finger. Capsulitis was diagnosed. This led to a few weeks off, then two months of not being able to crimp. The project was out of the question. After over 70 attempts invested, I was gutted. I couldn’t really train, and to keep my sanity I climbed only at crags like Coolum where 99% of the holds are open grips.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom though. From September to November, we were in Kalymnos where along with running two Upskill Climbing camps, I did a whole stack of climbing including doing the mighty Punto Caramelo 8a+/30 second shot. Climbing on mostly big and open-grip holds, my finger gradually improved and by the time I returned home, I found I could train on my wall again. Happy days.

I climbed with some great climbers in Kalymnos; guys who were really crushing on 8b+/32s and 8c/33s. Watching them and chatting about their training, I’d come to the realisation in Kalymnos that finger strength was a key weakness that I had never specifically addressed. I’d always managed to siege my way up things by getting more route-fit, and getting more efficient. Vicious Wishes showed the flaw in my design. You can do everything right but if you can’t dominate small holds, sometimes, you just won’t do the route (before it injures you).

I knew The Don was on the cards for 2012, and I knew every nuance of the route and what it would demand. So as soon as I returned home in November I began to focus completely on fingers to the exclusion of all else. My fitness dwindled away, while my fingers got stronger and stronger. I would go out and climb routes and find I would climb through cruxes on onsights, missing vital holds and still managing to hold on to micro-holds and make it through, often to then get ballistically pumped on easier ground. The training was really changing me. After six weeks of this training I went on a one-week trip to the Blue Mountains where I climbed lots, onsighted up to 27 and did Fresh Goats Milk 28 and Mr Magoo 27 second shot, on my last day, exhausted.

I did three more weeks of finger strength before switching to recruitment training where I achieved my first clean chin-ups on the Beastmaker 45° slopers, ticked off all my hardest boulder problems on my wall, and then started setting increasingly absurdly difficult problems which I projected and eventually climbed. I was, by far, climbing the strongest I ever have.

These months of preparation brought me to the end of February, and my first day back at the cliff for 2012 with Duncan. When he asked me what I wanted to get on that day and I said “The Don!” without any hesitation, I think he was quietly pleased.

Cowboy country.
The meat of the route is a constant 30° overhang which requires an unusual slow-burning, precise power. You can’t thrash. Everything must be perfect. The holds are small - sometimes extremely small - and often at maximum extension, which means body tension is critical. Duncan and I are the same height and have the same reach so we could share beta. There were only two moves I figured out which were different, and made the route more solid – for me.

On the first day, I had done all the moves. I went home and built a simulator of the route and trained on it as much as I dared. On the third day, I climbed it in overlapping halves. On the fifth and sixth days, I fell on the deadpoint to the hold that marks the end of the ‘meat’. Yesterday, April 12 2012 was a Thursday, but the forecast was for unusually cold, dry and windy conditions. An excuse for a day off work if I’ve ever heard one. I climbed a couple of warm-ups, then did a session on my DIY hangboard before donning my down jacket for the first time of the year. Before I started to cool down too much, I decided to have my first burn on the route. As it was the first burn, there was no pressure. I chalked up, and pulled on to the wall for the 18th time. As I climbed the opening moves, everything felt right. I continued to execute every move without error and I found myself sticking the final deadpoint. It felt very much like a dream, and not at all like the send. With numb fingers, I carefully climbed the easy but long runout to the anchors.

Cool positions on The Don.
People get caught up with the grade of routes. I have a love/hate relationship with grades. That said, I am finding myself less and less concerned as time goes by. I’m much more interested in quality of the route, and the effort that goes into it. I truly do believe that the only person qualified to give an opinion of a route’s grade is someone who a) has climbed the route and b) has climbed several benchmark routes in the grades above and below. And even then it’s really only a suggestion as we all have very different body types.

So there’s no way I am qualified to comment on the grade of this route. I’ve never climbed a 33 before, and I’ve only ever done one confirmed 32. There are other guys and girls with the resume required to make an informed suggestion. We have climbers who have climbed 33 in just a few shots, and on the world scene, grade 34 is being onsighted with increasing regularity. What I can say is that The Don is by far the hardest route I have climbed which wasn’t a first ascent. It’s something I’ve been wanting to climb for years, and the actual movement and style of climbing on the route did not disappoint. It’s a true classic. I would put money on the fact it’ll see its third ascent before this season is out.

Touchdown immediately after the send. Duncan (L) and me.