Tom O’Halloran has climbed his project at the Pit in the Blue Mountains, creating Baker’s Dozen and in so doing becoming the first Australian to climb 35/9a – though he is hesitant to put the mythic grade to the route. We caught up with him to ask a few questions.
Congrats on climbing your long-time project, Baker’s Dozen. Can you tell us a bit about the route and its difficulties?
Thanks, I’m pretty psyched to have finally gotten up it! The route is at The Pit, a relatively new crag for the mountains, just outside of Katoomba. The cliff had been fairly well developed when I went down there for the first time. It was great to climb on all the new routes and get a feel for the cliff. Each time I was down there in those early days I was drawn to a very steep section on the right hand side of the cliff. It looked like a very obvious ‘miss’ by Emil and the rest of the bolting gang. A steep, fairly featured, direct start into the top slab of Emil’s mega classic, Mono no Aware, (27). So one day I packed my drill and went to scope and bolt it. Turns out there were some good holds, located in cool spots, forming a pretty radical looking sequence. It looked like an easy enough route. Maybe bouldery at 28…. however I soon found that was not so.
It starts in the back of a small cave, climbing out the roof in five moves at about V6. A couple more moves take you up to a sit down rest at the base of the hard climbing. From here it’s 12 moves of maybe V12, which take you to a big rest and the base of the final slab of Mono no Aware where it’s about grade 25 to the anchors.
It’s been a project for a while, how long did it take and what was the process of climbing it?
I bolted it nearly two years ago and gave it a few attempts straight away. Figuring it was going to be 28 I thought it’d be rad to just tick it off, quick sticks. Not compiling a monumental list of projects is hard to do in the mountains. There are so many good hard things! I quickly worked out it was proper HARD and it must have taken me about six or seven days before I had actually done all the moves. Sequence finding for a first ascent is a tricky thing. The sneaky ‘hip twist back step drop knee to get the layaway’ sequence hadn’t been found yet. You gotta work that stuff out yourself! Anyway, yeah, it took a while, then a touch longer before I was able to link the sections of the main crux together. The opening move of the crux is definitely the hardest of the route. Bad feet and small edges, lock off right arm with every bit of lock you got and reach high above your head to a poor one-pad, back-three undercling. Once you get enough meat on the undercling you need to hold all the tension in the world and bring your feet up onto bad smears, hold the undercling some more, then snatch for a half-pad edge across yourself. I exploded off this move over and over. Landing on the end of the rope became a familiar feeling. On the times I climbed through this move I would stuff something else up and come screaming off the wall. It was getting a little frustrating.
The final move of the crux was a bit of a head destroyer as well. It’s not the hardest, but you’re fatigued and just need to pounce at a baby fist jug, from a bit of an awkward matched side-pull on bad feet. Stick that move and you were as good as done. I fell there a few times at the end of last season, resulting in swearing. Lots of swearing. I wanted to do this so badly. I’ve never invested that much time and energy into a route before. The season came to an end and conditions weren’t quite there. Plus work ramped up and life took over. I was going to have to wait till next season.
This year the weather took it’s sweet time to get cold. We were in shorts and t-shirts at the crag in April! I figured I would get some good training days on it though, in anticipation for the colder temps. There were some shocking days in there but it was good to go through the motions. All in the name of training for better days.
How did the ascent go down on the day?
The actual send went well. I warmed up well and felt super solid on all the moves on my first warm up, bolt-to-bolt go. I’d just do a bolt-to-bolt lap to get recruited, brush holds and get ready to try hard. On my first redpoint go I was feeling good. I got through the undercling move feeling strong but then fluffed it four moves later, losing concentration and tension. Undershooting on a long side-pull move. I fell and swore myself hoarse. I was sick of falling. All I did on this thing was fall. I knew I could do it, but I kept falling for some reason. Nory and Leah threw some encouraging words at me and I pulled myself out of my grump. It was a great day out after all, and climbing is as much about being out there with your pals as it is about the climbing.
Second redpoint go felt very good as well. I got even higher. To that last awkward move actually. I was staring at the baby fist. All I needed to do was swing my hips and push off my right foot. But I froze and had premonitions of you know what. BANG! I was sailing through the air, screaming as I went. Again Nory and Leah were great pals, throwing more encouraging words my way. ‘Next time for sure, man. You’ve got it.’
Nory was right. Next go up, third go of the day, I was climbing through it all as easily as I had always hoped. I didn’t feel jittery and stiff on the moves. I was feeling the flow. I was at the last move, staring at the baby fist, ‘Come one Tom, just bloody do it.’ I launched and stuck it. The next couple of moves to get to the ledge and big rest felt surreal. It was a strange mix of heart attack nerves and relief.
The top slab felt solid. I had always had visions of fluffing something up. But everything was in control and it was great to savor the moment of the send. Clipping the anchors was pretty cool.
What do you think was the difference between success and failure?
I don’t know what the difference was. I think I just kept on coming back. Kept on spending the time on it. Persistence means a lot when you’re trying hard.
I’ve also decided to pull my finger out and get some consistency with my training. Although I’m early on in my plan, the last couple of months has been the most diligent I have ever been with it. I’ve attempted to pull my finger out a few times before, but would usually lose motivation and get lazy a week or two in and just go back to climbing. But I have a great training plan from Lee Cossey, he’s a really smart cookie with that stuff, and I’m feeling good about it. Training doesn’t feel like hard work if you actually want to do it!
Where does the name come from?
Haha, the name is just a name. Who doesn’t like getting 13 sweet treats when you pay for 12! Poor oral hygiene isn’t the only reason I need eight filling on my next trip to the dentist.
We know that you think it might be grade 35 – are you going to give it this grade?
I don’t know about the grade. Throwing 35 out there feels pretty daunting. It has taken me far longer than any other route I’ve done before. It’s similar in style to a route like Mr Pink, 34 at Diamond Falls. Mr Pink took me three or four days and it felt pretty easy compared to Baker’s Dozen. I wasn’t doing much in the way of training when I did Mr Pink and had been going back and forth with work a lot. It didn’t require me to do anything more than spend some time on it. I think Alex Megos said it was the hardest 8c+ he’d done?
As for comparing it to something like The Red Project; that’s a weird route. It’s an easy route that keeps on spitting you off for one reason or another. That’s kind of how Baker’s Dozen felt. It would just spit you off because you didn’t do something exactly the way it needed to be done. But when done well, it feels easy.
I spent 15+ days on Baker’s Dozen I think, so all the difficulty has become a bit of a weird fuzzy thing. I have become so familiar with it, how hard it is has lost context.
Also, throw in the first ascent process of finding holds, sequences and all the other little bits that need to come together on a new route. On a repeat of something, you know it’s been done and there’s a different headspace that goes with that. Bad weather and conditions play a part on days that don’t result in a send too. It’s another day on it but you can’t quite do it because it’s too humid, wet or chilly. Or your skin isn’t great, or you’re tuckered from climbing the day before. There’s a lot to it.
I really don’t know. I just know it’s the hardest I’ve had to try on a route and taken me far longer than anything else. Based on that, maybe it is 35. But maybe its just 34 and I built it all up too much in my head? There is so much that goes into climbing a new route. Based on the Gospel according to Jens Larsen and his time grading theory, I guess its 35. It’s a tentative dangle though.
If it is 35, it would be the first 35 climbed by an Australian – a big achievement. In our article, A Punter’s Guide to Australia’s Well ‘Ard Climbers we had you at 5/1 to be the first Australian, although we expressed some reservations about your likelihood of success due to the fact you’d recently become a father and your Instagram handle Oldstealthbelly suggested possible weight issues – how did you overcome these handicaps?
Haha it’s pretty funny. I do catch myself singing nursery rhymes in my quiet moments. Rests on routes, doing the shopping, filling the car with petrol. I don’t mean to, they are just there. They seem to have a calming affect on me. Perhaps not the songs as such, but the memories I associate with them. Having a child is a special thing. The joy they bring you is far beyond anything you can put into words. Audrey means everything to me. She’s a smiley little cheeky monkey to come home to.
As for weight issues, I find yummy beer far too yummy to indulge in thoughts of fatness. Cakes are good too. And pizza. I had pizza for dinner last night. Muffins are good as well. Brownies, slices and tarts are yum. I had pancakes with jam on them for breakfast on the weekend. I’m hungry! I do also live with a Sports dietitian though, so I’ve learnt a lot about how to eat for my climbing.
We had the Cossey brothers at slightly better odds to climb it than yourself, have you been rubbing it in their faces?
The Cossey brothers?? I thought there was only one of them that climbed? Lee. Ben doesn’t climb anymore! He’s a semi professional fingerboarder! Haha nah he’s pretty good at rock climbing actually. I don’t know many people who can look pretty casual on an off the couch attempt on Sneaky Old Fox, 34, while five kilos overweight. I’d have put them ahead of me too. I would still put our house on both of them climbing 35 in the not so distant future.
Have you been climbing other routes or have you just been focusing on Baker’s Dozen?
I’ve been dabbling on a few other things. But the main focus has been Baker’s Dozen. Last year I was spreading myself thin on a bunch of projects. Getting close on them but not actually doing them. This year I decided I needed to get a bit more focused and just concentrate on one at a time. It’s paid off I think. It’s been fun to get a couple of things under the belt this year.
Is the route conditions dependent?
It is a bit conditionsy. The undercling had a tendency to feeling a bit buttery sometimes. Making it far harder to pull up into. The rest of the moves were more forgiving on warmer days. These were the days I’d just do as many laps as I could on the rest of the crux sequence.
How do you stay fit when you are often working away from home?
Staying fit while away is easier than some may think. Sure you aren’t climbing, but there are plenty of other bits you can do. I have my Awesome Woody’s mini crag board with me all the time. Just chuck a sling around a branch, a rafter, a verandah railing, anything really and away you go! Plus Guy Leech had $20 TRX straps at Big W. They are the ducks nuts. Everyone should get some! There’s plenty of tricky exercises to do on the straps! The secret is not to fall in a heap on your bed after a long day. Super easy to do. Just smash down some peanut butter toast, a glass of milk and go do some hangs.
When do you plan to climb your first 36?
It’d be fun to climb 36. I think my Kitten Mittens proj at Elphy, maybe might be 36? Perhaps? It’s about 34/5 into 33 I reckon? I’ll be psyched to try it now my schedule is open. Plus I’m heading back to Ceuse for Biographie as soon as finances allow! That thing is on my life list. I made some good links on it last year, but temps in the mid 30s and no wind made it a bit tricky. Both of these will require a bit more of me. More fitness, more strength and more diligence away from climbing.
As cheesey as motivational quotes are, they are often pretty digestible motivators. Two that I have been repeating in my head recently are, ‘A goal without a plan is just a wish,’ and ‘If you want something you have never had, you must be willing to do something you’ve never done.’ They are good reminders to not be a lazy sod, I think.