The “ah ha!” Moment


Justin Willis climbing in his world cup in Busteni, Romania

Photo by Kendra Stritch

Competition day. I take a moment before going into isolation to sit on my bed in my hotel, close my eyes, and listen to my favorite song – “Outro” by M83. The song ends, I grab my duffel bag with everything I will need for the next four hours of sitting in a small room waiting for my turn to climb. I walk into isolation and am immediately intimidated. There are climbers pulling multiple one arm pull-ups on the warm up wall, everyone is chatting and of course, I am by myself. This is not my first time in an isolation zone. I used to climb competitively in the US for sport climbing, so unlike most of the other climbers, I enjoy isolation. It gives me a chance to calm my nerves. I am lucky to make friends with the Canadians and Dutch at the pre-competition lunch so they, very kindly, take me under their wing and show me the ropes.

About five minutes before I climb, I sit on a bench and stare at the ground, focusing on the excitement.  Next to me, a voice asks if I am nervous. I laugh and say “No! I’m all good!” not only trying to convince him, but also trying to convince myself. He is an 18 year-old Swiss climber named Jonas. He and the other three climbers on the Swiss team, Kevin, Petra and Silvan, would become my good friends over the next couple of days. He tells me that this is his 6th competition and that he still gets nervous. That comes as a huge relief as the truth is that I am more nervous now than I ever had been.

Then, I hear my name. I stand up, and walk down the narrow hallway that leads outside. They lead me to a tent directly behind the competition wall. I listen to the spectators cheer and then “ahh!” when the climber before me falls. Now it is my turn. I figured I would be extremely anxious walking to the base of the route, but am surprised that I felt so comfortable. I walk out and my friend and fellow US team member, Kendra Strich smiles and gives an encouraging nod. I tie into the rope then stop, close my eyes and take a few very deep breaths. I feel good. I feel strong. I start climbing and am surprised by how fast I climb the first section. I feel myself enter what I call “the flow”. Extremely focused and extremely calm, I keep going. I reach for the next hold then suddenly, everything pops off but to my surprise, the tool stays on the hold and I kick my feet back onto the wall. I clip and keep climbing. Not tired at all, I realize that I might actually climb the entire route! Then, in a flash “Pop! Pop!” I am falling. The belayer lets me down and I am all smiles. “You didn’t fall off the first hold! Nice work!” I tell myself. I feel very proud.

Although I was very happy with how I did, it struck me how fast it all went. I would be lying if I said the thought hadn’t crossed my mind “I came all the way here for that!?”But after spending time thinking about it, I realized that this attitude is not what it’s all about. You have that attitude and you will miss out on a lot of great experiences. It is never about how much you climb or how the quality of the route is. Sure, both of these can be huge bonuses on the trip, but it’s all about the people you meet, friendships you make, and knowledge you gain. A perfect example of this is a trip I just took into the Beartooth Mountains near my home in Montana. My partner Keenan Waeschle and I planned on climbing the North Ridge of Mount Inabnit. It has only a five-mile approach, but in waist to chest deep snow, it just didn’t happen (We are bringing the skis next time for sure!) We ended up spotting an ice climb that I had never seen before, so we slept, got a very late start and moseyed our way to the base. When we got there Keenan’s fifteen year old plastic boots were totally cracked and literally falling apart and I had boot problems also. Turns out, when you leave soaking wet boots in freezing temperatures the whole night, they freeze and an inch of ice gets collected at the toe of your boot. I of course didn’t feel this while I was hiking because it was ice, so it made my toes numb. When we got to the base I took my boot off and my toe nail was falling off and I had a mild case of frost nip. So we went back to the car. We spent three days and two nights in East Rosebud and didn’t climb a single pitch, but just hanging out with a great guy and being in my favorite place on Earth was more than enough for an enjoyable trip. Climbing is my passion, but I view it as my “vessel” to see and experience the world.


Keenan in East Rosebud for his first time.

I now sit in my bed at home and dream about my next trip. Whether that next trip is to the Ruth Gorge in Alaska this spring with my friend Peter Mamrol, spending next winter in Europe, climbing in some of the coolest climbing areas I’ve ever see photos of, or my dream trip to Greenland, I am most excited for the whole experience…not just the climbing. I truly believe that with this attitude, I will never be disappointed; in fact, I will most likely be pleasantly surprised!


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