The Hail Mary play is nearly mythical in the football world. It is an act of heroism: glory or failure, all or nothing. I mean, just imagine if Florida State’s receiver had actually caught the ball. The Hail Mary isn’t about optimizing, hedging bets, or playing it safe. It’s about putting all the chips on the table and seeing what we’re made of in one singular effort, even if the outcome is as much dependent on luck as it is on prowess. In climbing, I think we also have Hail Mary plays, and I think they deserve a similar mythical status – for better and worse – as they do in football.
I should start by distinguishing a Hail Mary attempt from other climbing tactics. In my definition, one could throw a Hail Mary on any route for which the stakes (whether physical or emotional) are high. Sure, it could be trying to onsight a hard route, but it could also be an end-of-the-trip, go-for-broke attempt on a project. Or maybe it’s a place-a-good-cam-and-climb-like-a-badger-to-the-jug or hike-up-your-feet-and-dyno-and-hope-it’s-a-good-hold. What these all have in common is that in each situation (and other variations), we balance the pendulum of success against a universe of unlikely odds, then put every shred of our being into trying to get it to swing our way.
There are some other criteria for a Hail Mary attempt. First, the game has to be close. If my team is, say, on track to set a record for one of the greatest point spreads in Super Bowl history, a Hail Mary would seem absurd at best. Likewise, I won’t be making a Hail Mary attempt on the Dawn Wall or La Dura Dura. Telling my belayer I’m going for it and then skittering off just above the first bolt demands criticism for grandiosity.
Second, the stakes have to be greater than in the individual act. For example, if I am hangdogging up a route and decide to try a huge dyno rather than crimp through a sequence, I’m just dynoing. But if I try to redpoint the same route, and because I’m so pumped I can’t grab the crimpers and desperately leap for the finishing jug, that’s a Hail Mary.
I go into all this because I’ve recently had some experience with the Hail Mary play. My wife and I drove west in early March for a grand desert adventure – nearly four weeks on the road, a good, old fashioned American road trip which took us back to our younger days as dedicated dirt bags. How the various vectors of our professional lives had crossed (or diverged?) to allow for this month of few enough responsibilities for this trip is a whole different discussion.
We first headed to the center of dirtbag gravitational pull, Indian Creek. The Creek was once the place my wife and I went to feel good about ourselves. The cracks once felt friendly, straightforward, and satisfyingly positive. Now, because we’re older and softer, the Creek just hurts. We spent several days wincing, taping, retaping, gluing the tape to our fingers, changing shoes, avoiding gobies from certain size cracks, and complaining. Basically, we got totally shut down.
My Creek experience over that last eight years or so has been tethered to one particular line: Air Swedin. At 5.13 R with unavoidable forty-plus-foot falls off the crux, it is a definitive Creek testpiece. The splitter crack and arête that make up the route loom over the approach trail to the Battle of the Bulge Buttress – one of the Creek’s most popular cliffs. In 2006, I got the wacky idea in my head that I could climb this thing. It suffices to say that at that time, it was well above my pay grade. But because of its position, basically the gatekeeper into Indian Creek, it captured me. Over the years I’ve put in several attempts, often trying it multiple times over a season, getting close to sending it, only to have uncontrollables get in the way and having to leave it behind. The last time I tried it, in the fall of 2011, I climbed all the way through the crux, only to have a foot slip higher, and fell. What should have been a mild 15-footer turned into a nearly 50-foot fall when the small cams, blindly placed in a pod, ripped. I badly bruised my foot in the fall and hobbled away discouraged and shaken.
Fast forward to this March, and our return to the Creek. I decided – after much fretting – to try Air Swedin again. After a few attempts on top-rope, which only served to make me feel more doubtful, I decided to lead it. This was no Hail Mary; it was arm-wrestling a demon, not trying to win but hoping to make a good showing. I managed to climb further than I expected, but slipped off the last hard move of the crux. The fall, while big, was fine. As I hung on the rope, I told Becca, “I think I’m done with this route. I just needed to take that fall one more time.”
The day after, as we took stock of our wounded hands and feet, we decided to leave the Creek. It was all for the better, as I already felt the lingering call back to Air Swedin, but I knew that asking Becca to go up there again would tax our partnership (and maybe our marriage) too much. So we headed to Red Rocks, NV, and enjoyed much more forgiving cracks and plenty of sport climbing. We even rented a house through AirBnb for part of the time. It was luxurious and reminded us that we are not the dirtbags we used to be.
We took a guide course in Red Rocks and had a few days off before our next engagement. We decided to go to Zion to try Moonlight Buttress. Becca and I have wanted to try Moonlight for years. It’s unparalleled for its aesthetics (one crack for 600 feet!) and quality. More importantly, it’s a big, hard route that we could do together as the nature of the climbing plays to both of our strengths.
Our initial plan was to work the route over a few days. We’d start to climb from the bottom, redpointing each pitch as we could. If we needed, we could then rappel in from the top to focus on climbing the upper pitches on a second or third day. Then we checked the weather forecast. We had one day before the rain set in. We opted for the Hail Mary and set our alarm for 6:30am.
After the exhilarating foot-soak crossing the Virgin River, we scrambled to the base and started climbing. The first several pitches, a range of cracks and face climbing from 5.10 to 5.12, all went easily. Even though we still had many hard pitches to go, our confidence increased and the gitters subsided. I started up the crux pitch, and the next forty feet of power laybacking sucked away all the confidence that the prior five hundred had provided. The crack, banged out from years of nailing pins and prying on stuck cams, offered great fingerlocks, but I struggled to blindly place good cams in the smaller crack between the scars. Midway through the crux, I tried to stuff a small cam, and the crack refused it. Desperately, I tried a smaller one, only to have this one rip out of the crack when I tugged on it. Pumped and discouraged, I sagged onto a lower piece.
I managed to find better gear and climb through the crux with a few hangs and then climbed the rest of the pitch without any falls. I knew that I could send the pitch if I tried it again, but there were four more 5.12 pitches above, and so we decided to continue up rather than burning up energy and our one good day of weather on one pitch. Becca followed the crux pitch cleanly and with confidence. I managed to onsight the rest of the pitches of the route, which felt like a huge accomplishment on its own. We topped out in the late afternoon and sauntered down the Angel’s Landing trail, deeply tired and satisfied with one of the best and most challenging days we’ve had together.
I chewed on our Hail Mary on Moonlight for a while afterwards. We hucked the ball down the field, dove into the end zone, and watched the ball bounce off our fingertips. While it was a truly incredible experience to climb the route onsight in a day, technical speaking we didn’t get the touchdown. I hung at the crux, and Becca hung on a higher pitch. It was a mythical attempt, the stakes were high, but we came up just slightly short.
But, it rained, and so we didn’t try it again. We went back to Red Rocks to meet friends and climb smaller rocks. A week later, it was time to drive home. Some other friends were in Indian Creek, and we decided to break up the drive by stopping there. It wasn’t totally on the way, and we were road weary, but I couldn’t help but want another go, a Hail Mary attempt, on Air Swedin.
We arrived in the evening, and it was easy to persuade our crew to climb at Battle of the Bulge the next day. I knew I had one good attempt, so I spent most of that day relaxing, only climbing enough to stay warm and fresh, and encouraging others to try hard. Around 5pm, the crux arête of Air Swedin went into the shade, and I tied in. This was a familiar ritual: wait for the shade, tie in, climb the crack, pull out to the arête, fall, untie, walk down, drive home.
But this time was different. I pulled on the arête. I didn’t feel confident. My feet slipped a few times, but I stayed on the slopey sidepulls. I paused just before making the final throw to a jug. I reached for it, years of failure weighing me down, but I grabbed the hold. I desperately tossed my other hand onto the hold and pulled my feet up and stood into the rest. I’d made it through. The rest of the route, maybe fifty feet of odd 5.11 climbing, was surreal. Untying was surreal. Driving home was surreal. Most of the time, the Hail Mary play is one that makes people smile and shake their heads: “That would have been cool.” And sometimes, every once in a while, it makes you feel like a champion.
Part way up the arete. Photo by Craig Muderlak