East Coast Fist Bump

“People over projects”

The phrase ran through my mind for weeks, a hopeful mantra, each utterance a sandbag in the wall pressing back on the rising waters of obsession.

In 2012,  John Crawley and Dave Bloom introduced me to the project, a climb that would inspire and compel me for the next two years.  It began as just another un-climbed line, a fissure, just a few millimeters wide, indistinguishable from a hundred others in the broad basalt amphitheater of the Oak Creek Waterfall.  As we repeated the existing routes and cleaned, projected, and climbed dozens of new lines, the list of remaining projects dwindled to a few.  At the top of this list, first in difficulty and last in likelihood, was Fist Bump.

East Coast Fist Bump in the Hall of Giants, Oak Creek Waterfall, AZ

East Coast Fist Bump in the Hall of Giants, Oak Creek Waterfall, AZ

Winter 2014.  After finishing Gemini Dragonfire (5.13+), my attention turned to Fist Bump.  Riding high after success on another difficult line, I was ready to get serious with the new project.  Over the course of weeks, I pieced together the long and delicate moves between the small sharp edges that make up the crux.

Success in deciphering beta was replaced by the stark realization that although I figured out the crux and could piece it together a half move at a time, I could barely link any two of the dozen moves in the crux sequence.

Understanding how far I was from putting it together, I turned to training, putting in my time on the hangboard and campus board.  Gaining finger strength and power, I inched my way closer to the level of fitness that Fist Bump demanded of me.

Joel Unema on the FA of East Coast Fist Bump, Oak Creek Waterfall, AZ

Joel Unema on the FA of East Coast Fist Bump, Oak Creek Waterfall, AZ

Spring 2014.  Progression and training were abruptly cut short by my trip to Yosemite and the ensuing injuries I sustained.  Patience.  I attempted to learn something about this valuable trait, while healing up.

Summer 2014.  Arizona summer brings uncomfortable heat to the Waterfall, and although it remains climbable through the hot months, pulling down on the Fist Bump edges was out of the question.   And besides, I had travelling to do, as Carrie and I packed our backpacks and headed to Scandinavia for 5 weeks of sampling the finest in Swedish and Norwegian granite, and coffee, and candy.

Fall 2014.  As we returned to Arizona and the heat of summer slowly gave way to the meteorological perfection of fall, my thoughts returned to Fist Bump.  Training started again in earnest, kick-started on my August Grand Canyon river trip for work, where I brought my hangboard along, mounted it to the boat, and woke up every other morning to work out on the board at 5 am before work started.

Dedicating myself to improving, staying motivated, and getting stronger even in challenging circumstances stoked the fires of motivation.  I came back from the river psyched to find new projects, and train harder.

Dozens of other projects paved the road towards the goal, and I honed my friction finesse and basalt awareness on dozens of new routes at Volunteer Canyon, Whitetail Canyon, and the Waterfall.

Joel Unema and Jeff Snyder on Pack Mentality, Volunteer Canyon AZ.  Photo Blake McCord

Joel Unema and Jeff Snyder on Pack Mentality, Volunteer Canyon AZ. Photo Blake McCord

As truly good conditions returned in late fall, I began attempting Fist Bump again, re-aquainting myself with the movement, and perfecting my sequences.  As I continued to throw myself at the climb, Carrie, Dave Bloom, and my other partners put up with my endless attempts and continued giving me belays and encouragement.  Despite the training and significant strength gains, I still felt far away from linking the crux sequence.  Hours of research and input from Rob Miller, Alex Kirkpatrick, some of the smartest and strongest climbers I know, led to a revamping of my training program.

Moving towards the goal required taking a step back, spending less time on the route and more in the gym.  I stuck with my training for months, and when I finally returned to Fist Bump to measure my progress, I was blown away.

I stuck the hardest move on point for the first time ever, then fell and linked the entire crux.  Even though this was done on toprope, I couldn’t believe how much stronger I felt, and knew that I was close.

Joel Unema on the FA of East Coast Fist Bump, Oak Creek Waterfall, AZ

Joel Unema on the FA of East Coast Fist Bump, Oak Creek Waterfall, AZ

Now that I had the fitness, the physical limitations were gone, and I was left only with the mental and logistical barriers.  January brought periods of beautiful weather punctuated by rain and high humidity.  To this point, my passion and motivation to send Fist Bump had bordered on obsession.  It dictated my training, my diet, my schedule, and my sleep.  I took every chance I could to attempt it, whether good conditions or bad.

I tried it in bitter cold wind.

I tried it in the rain.

I tried it straight out of the car after driving back from Joshua Tree.

I began rationalizing the neglect of anything that stood between me and the project, until one day, Carrie gently suggested that I might be taking things a little too far.  I realized that I had been allowing my project to control my actions.  I knew I had to turn it around, to personally take control of my drive, and put my relationships with my partners and friends ahead of my desire to send.

It all seems a bit silly at this point, but that’s climbing.  It’s a game in which we each make our own rules and set our own goals.

My passion to send my project was strong, but pretty insignificant next to my relationships, the things that really make life great.  I resolved to put people over projects, no matter the outcome for my project.  I still wanted to send, but I could only do so when I was at peace in my relationships.

Things came together on a beautiful Sunday.  Oak Creek was swollen with runoff that morning, and Dillon Smith, Carrie, Laura and I were forced to take a different approach to the Waterfall.  The stoke was high as Jeff Snyder caught our attention from across the raging river.  He had come just to cheer me on and watch the sports action.  He braved a tree-choked Tyrolean Traverse on a long-abandoned cable across Oak Creek and joined us for the hike up.

DSCN1122 (2)

Fueled by Jeff’s energy, belayed for the millionth time by Dillon, and with Carrie just around the corner, I managed to cling desperately to the final crimps at the end of the crux and keep it together to complete the route.

Every project I finish teaches me something about myself and about life.  East Coast Fist Bump was no exception.

Relationships mean much more than climbing accomplishments, and realizing my goals is infinitely more satisfying when I do so without compromising in the way I treat others.

Joel Unema on the FA of East Coast Fist Bump, Oak Creek Waterfall, AZ

Joel Unema on the FA of East Coast Fist Bump, Oak Creek Waterfall, AZ

People over Projects.


Thanks to Dave Bloom for inspiring me, Dillon Smith for sticking with me through pretty heinous weather and always being positive, Jeff Snyder for being the most psyched monkey in the zoo, and Carrie for supporting me and helping me grow into a better person.

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