Flying Upside Down with David Aguasca

David Aguasca on Ahab (5.10a), Yosemite, California. Photo credit Owen Bissell

During my recent road trip with Brad Jackson to Joshua Tree, California, a familiar face joined our scene. Dressed in a green Patagonia fleece, wire frame glasses, with short, kinky hair and a mid-length beard, it took a few minutes to pin point where we had met before. A beer, maybe two, later it clicked: Space Invaders (5.12a), a popular top rope near the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite Valley during fall 2010.

Though I lived in the Park for over a decade, I had never seen anyone lead Space Invaders. It’s a relatively straightforward undercling/layback, but if you lay it back you can’t safely place gear. To David — as I’d later learn — leading wide/layback routes using offwidth technique on ones that are rarely led, if at all, are his primary focus.

When I ran into David this time he was working on the likely first lead of Throbbing Gristle, a 5.12a layback or burly offwidth, at the Beak Boulder. At the time of our interview a few weeks later he was a whisper away from the top. It will likely clock in at 5.12+ or 5.13a for the lead, making it one of the hardest offwidths in the world.  Video of other parties on the route.

I, like many other climbers, am generally content TR’ing or hangdogging my way up strenuous climbs like Space Invaders or Throbbing Gristle. But, ultimately, I’d like to have success, i.e., redpoint. David is doing it right now. “I like learning how to push myself that hard,” he said. “Feeling like I’m going to throw up, falling really far — it’s an enriching experience.”

Where do you live now?

Right now? – I live out of my car. Been doing that for three or four months now.

Where is your car?

California has been my home for the last two years. Sometimes I live wherever I work, when I have a job and all that. My most recent job was working as an EMT for Yosemite National Park. It’s seasonal. I usually work the summer months. May through October. I focus on climbing in my free time. When it comes to pushing my limits I prefer to pick offwidths.

Why offwidths?

I like getting on things that push my limits in that way. You’re just standing at the base and giving a really big sigh. ‘This is going to be really hard.’

When I first started climbing outside (the Gunks, in 2006) we climbed a 5.6 chimney and I knew right away that I would love doing that type of climbing. I liked the movement [and] being inside [that] space. It felt really secure. Whenever I tried to push myself on other routes, like sport or finger cracks, I would get some sort of finger injury. Pushing myself on offwidths I never get those injuries. I might lose skin and get completely thrashed and sore, and hobbling around the next day, but I’ll never strain a finger or a shoulder doing that type of stuff.

I’ve gotten into leading old routes. 20 or so years ago they didn’t have gear wide enough [to safely protect these routes]. [Today] we have gear to protect [them]. I like the process of figuring out the gear, how much to take, what pieces are important, where to place it. Throbbing Gristle I can’t lay back [on lead] as I have to stop and place gear.

Tell me about Throbbing Gristle.

The last try I gave it was a week ago. I fell probably two moves from the top, which is pretty frustrating.

I think I’m gonna go back to it this year. Hopefully Brad [Jackson] is going to go back or with someone else who is also trying it. It’s not like you get the beta and it gets easier. Every time it’s really hard. Accepting that you’re going to get beat up and thrashed. Which is why it’s easier when someone else is there to keep motivation up and keep trying it. It’s 12a, but not really.

I think Alan Nelson gave it that [rating] when he TR’ed it as a layback. But when leading it and placing gear you have to climb it like an offwidth. It’s number 6 Friends or Camalots the whole way. The gear is arm’s depth. The edge of the crack is wider, like a Valley Giant (#9).

I’ve fallen off a sport climb and [can] be really pumped and that will be about [it]. But falling out of Throbbing Gristle is not because I’m pumped. My heart is going at a million beats a minute and I’m breathing really hard. My whole body is worked. Like I’m put through the ringer.

Brad say’s it’s likely 5.12d or 13a. Brad has a good head regarding those numbers.

As far as I know, every offwidth that’s rated that [high] involves some upside down climbing. The thing about this route is there is one stacking move on it. The rest is arm baring. 5.13 arm-baring is pretty gnarly.

It’s one of the hardest non-stacking roof offwidths. This is an overhanging arm barring offwidth, but very overhanging and it leans and the wall also overhangs for a total of 30 degrees.

How many times have you tried it?

Three or four times on TR. Leading it 12 times now. And I’ve taken the scariest falls I’ve ever taken trying to lead it because I’m falling on the same piece of gear each time. I took my first upside fall. The last three falls on it were pretty high up. Each of those times I actually hit my belayer — from just at the top to close to the ground. It’s not very tall. I’m taking 15-20 foot falls on a 30-foot route. Falling upside down and then hitting your belayer — that’s pretty scary.

Tell me about some other hard routes you’ve done.

My first 5.12 was an offwidth, my second was a chimney. My third was an offwidth.

What are some of the offwidth techniques?

The movement comes from your torso bending back and fourth. That’s what illustrates the difference between face climbing, [and] laybacking. With offwidth climbing, your limbs don’t move independently. You alternate locking them down. Your movement comes from your torso. That is the other part that confuses a lot of people when they get on an offwidth. It is a different type of coordination. The inchworm is the best example. [Inchworms] reach forward with their inchworm body, then pull. They stretch themselves out, grab something with their front legs, then pull and scrunch their body.

Heal Toe: The most fundamental offwidth technique. I see most of the trouble people have with offwidth climbing is getting your feet to push you up. The feet are the most important part of offwidth climbing. Your outside foot is what heel toes [against either side of the crack].

The Inside Leg: For traditional arm bar size [cracks]. Like a knee bar. Your inside foot/leg is doing a thigh lock or a knee bar. You can pull in with your inside leg while pushing up with your heal toe.

Chicken Wing: When the crack is wide enough that you can use your forearm like a cam. A good Chicken Wing will allow you to rest completely onto it. Imagine putting yourself in a push-up position and you raise your elbow up in the air. Now imagine you put the arm in the crack. The elbow touches one side of the crack and your palm hits the other. Your forearm will cam inside the crack so you can hang on it pretty well.

The Lower Body Lock:  This idea helps people move like an inchworm. This kind of movement depends on how the crack is. A good example is Ahab (5.10a) in Yosemite. Ahab is almost an offwidth but not quite, almost a squeeze chimney. You can’t quite get inside of it, or [get] a heel toe. So your lower body moves as a unit. You’re getting a high knee bar with your inside leg and your outside leg is the lower knee bar. Your legs are at a 90-degree angle to each other. When you get a good heel toe you can actually push up on it. But the knee bar allows you to stay in place while you move your upper body.

Wide Pony: Specific to roof cracks. Imagine riding a really fat horse and your knees are bent but the feet are very far apart. Sticking your legs in a roof crack upside down. The way you move is that each of your feet is a contact point. You stack your hands either with a double hand or a hand and a fist or double fist. This allows you to move your leading foot forward and bring the trailing foot along with you. You continue until you can’t hold your self anymore or you finish the route.

The Shoulder Roll: Also called the Caterpillar. When you’re in a squeeze chimney and you can no longer get heel toes, you can reach with your torso and lock your chest in place with a chicken wing and then bringing your hips up. Best for vertical [cracks].

The Sidewinder: You’re locking your hips in place and using [them] to bring your chest or shoulders up. Like the shoulder roll but sideways. Inside of a squeeze chimney, getting yourself sideways. You can cover a lot of ground efficiently. More efficient than the shoulder roll.

A follow up interview is planned for after the send.

David welcomes emails. “I really enjoy talking about this stuff,” he said at the conclusion of the interview.

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