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Jonathan Siegrist: The Rock Philosopher King

Siegrist opens up about the allure of rock, establishing the first 5.15 in the south and dealing with failure

Photo by: Rachael Galipo

It is difficult to grasp. The magnitude of the first 5.15a in the southeast almost comes as the concluding chapter to over four decades of development along the New River Gorge. Though nearly every third person you meet might sport a classic Miguel’s Pizza T-shirt, you will find far fewer climbers that have travelled to the reaches of NRG and its adjacent crags.

In some ways, Fayetteville, West Virginia remains one of the few, relatively unscathed locations of classic American rock climbing. It has always been beautiful.

Jonathan Siegrist on The Full Metal Brisket – photo by Rachael Galipo

In 1983, Doug Reed would establish NRG’s first 5.11-. The following years would see unending first ascents and an even greater number of bolted projects that would ultimately come to define one of the Southeast’s most classic areas. Rock legend Lynn Hill would push the bounds of single pitch traditional climbing in establishing The Greatest Show on Earth 5.13a, while Chris Sharma would come away from the New saying that it is home to some of the best single pitch sandstone routes in the country.

As the sport developed even further, the southern crag would become a playground for the North Carolina-raised Kai Lightner as he conquered some of the hardest 5.14s the New has to offer. Subsequent years would host perhaps the most righteous deep-water soloing competition of all time, as the bouldering began to develop.

While house-sized blocs fell to the hands of the pebble wrestlers, the German powerhouse, Alex Megos would find his way through the difficult sandstone, and establish two of the area’s most challenging routes: Superpod and the Brilliant Pebble. Each coming in around 5.14+, the impressive effort led many to give each of these long-unrepeated routes further attempts.

Superpod, the extension to Summersville’s classic 5.13b, the Pod, climbs directly out of the lake-adjacent Coliseum into an edgy and awkward V12. The full line leaves the climber with a rest a couple bolts before the end of the 5.13b.

The 5.14d mega was inspiring for the southeast and become one of the east coast’s most challenging routes. Still, the question of whether or not 5.15a existed in the south still remained. With so much rock, so much heritage, it seemed inevitable, but then again, so many legends had failed to find it.

Finally, in 2020, the New would welcome back Jonathan Siegrist.

Jonathan Siegrist on route – photo by Rachael Galipo

Perhaps the most prolific American-route sport climber, the Wisconsin born, Colorado raised route climber would take some time to find his footing out on the rock.

“My dad introduced me to climbing when I was young. He has been climbing for like 40 years. I would follow him on easy trad climbs, but I didn’t have a personal relationship to climbing until I was 18. I would go climbing maybe three times a year with my dad, but it wasn’t until I was in college that I really found climbing.”

Unlike many who begin climbing today, Siegrist learned how to rock climb long before climbing in the gym. He said, “During that time there were only a handful of climbing gyms. In the 90s, there were only a handful of climbing gyms in the US. 90% of my first few years climbing, and all of my introductions to climbing styles, were outside: mostly trad climbing or top roping.”

“I really learned climbing as a method to move through the mountains. Most of my dad’s friends, and a lot of my original role models early on really valued that. My dad, during his climbing life, was also really interested in alpinism and mountaineering. He did a trip to South America early on and even a trip to the Himalayas. Climbing was a tool that you would use to achieve a summit or to move through the mountains. Even for him, there was no focus necessarily on climbing. For the most part, if you can climb 5.11a or 5.10, the majority of passage through the mountains is available to you.”

“It’s funny, his interest in difficulty really evolved with my own. As I got more interested in training and trying harder, so did he. That was a pretty cool transformation to see.”

“In the beginning, all I did was go bouldering. It felt like the lowest amount of commitment. I was going to college in Boulder, Colorado, so there was great bouldering just 10 minutes out of town, and it was free. That was cool. I could go with my friends all of the time.”

“I gradually got a little more influenced by my dad and his friends, and at that time they were getting more interested in sport climbing and going to places like Shelf Road, Boulder Canyon, and the Flatirons. Eventually, I was totally hooked.”

After college, Siegrist would begin spending an increasing amount of time on the road and on a rope. “For seven years, I lived entirely in my truck. Then I started doing some travelling to Europe. That was insanely formative for me: meeting new characters, seeing new places, and being challenged in ways outside of climbing.”

“I like to end a climbing trip with more memories than just a send or the view from the crag. I think there are too many lessons to really elaborate on, but I think there is something really beautiful about travelling alone, especially in this sport that necessitates making relationships with people. I still travel alone quite a bit, but I love that. I’m not afraid to meet new people, go climbing with new people, and go to the bar or the spot or wherever and have a sense of actually living and exploring a place as something more than an outsider.”

“I’m never going to be a West Virginian and I am never going to be a Canadian, but when I go there, I definitely want to go home and talk about things more than just the climbing. Honestly, that aspect of travel and exploration is as valuable to me as climbing. I often say that if I could only climb in one place for the rest of my life, I would probably give up on it. Having climbing as a vehicle for travel, and having all of those other experiences that come along with it is probably half of the fun.”

In those years during and after university, Siegrist would explore the many styles of American rock climbing. Though his recent ascents have been characterized by steep overhangs and pumpy, powerful sequences, this was not always the case.

“I think my attraction to different routes has really changed over the years. In the beginning, I was motivated by historical context. All of my first 5.13+ or 5.14- projects were Tommy Caldwell routes. Growing up on the front range, all of the hardest routes were his. I’m totally obsessed with his legacy, and so I wanted to do all of his routes. For me, even if it was one star, if it was from Tommy, I wanted to do it. That was influential for me from the beginning.”

“Over time, I think I got good at a certain type of climbing. I got better at climbing on my feet and using small holds, and that attracted me to certain routes for many years. Eventually, probably three or four years ago, it became clear that there was one discipline in sport climbing that was a glaring weakness of mine: cave climbing.”

With practice, Siegrist would quickly develop into the proficient steep climber that he is known to be today. Enter, The Full Metal Brisket.

After a “mind blowing” trip to the Gunks, courtesy of Russ Clune, Siegrist thought he would continue his gear-placing approach to the remainder of the 2020 season. “I got here and I did that for a handful of days, and then there was a really hot day.” When it gets hot at the New, going to the lake is one of the ways local climbers try to get out of the sun. Siegrist was psyched to get a day of sport climbing in, but didn’t think much of it beyond that. Then he saw Superpod.

“I just totally got sucked in. I saw Superpod, which wasn’t there before, I hadn’t done The Pod, I had never done Still Life or Prohibition.”

After ticking Mercy Seat, B.C., and the Pod, Siegrist sized up both Superpod and Brisket. After looking at Superpod, Siegrist thought that he might be able to complete the route if the conditions improved.

“I said to myself, ‘It’ll be fun to do Superpod, something hard that will make me feel psyched and tuned up, and then I can go back to trad climbing,’ but then I did it much faster than I anticipated. I then thought I should mess around on the Full Metal Brisket while I am here. From the first time I really tried it with decent conditions, I kind of had this sense that it would be possible. I didn’t know if I would be able to do it in the time that we were here, but it seemed cool and suited me well enough that it was worth investing time.”

After attaining the second ascent of the otherwise unrepeated Superpod, Siegrist invested everything in the Brisket.

Breaking Down The Brisket

The Brisket is sick. “You do the first two cruxes on Pod, before you get a really good rest. Then it’s pretty much hard. No real resting when you get on the Brisket. There’s a really big, really fun move, right away off of Pod, that’s super fun. It’s kind of a blind big move over a bulge to an edge just big enough for your hand, it’s awesome. Then you clip a bolt, and from there to the top, which is maybe 15 or 20 hand movements, it’s on.”

“Each little mini-section gets progressively harder. After a few tries, I would climb into what I would call ‘the final boulder problem. Then it was just this process of making it perfect. I can distinctly remember the first day I climbed up into the two pinches, an under-cling pinch and a fat pinch that you take up at the top. It is probably six or so movements from the finish, but I had this sensation that I was completely red-lining. I completely blew out, knowing that the hardest moves were above me.”

“I needed to work to make it way more efficient. Every day I would get a move or a half a move higher. Over the course of two weeks, I think I had eight climbing days on it. I was able to give it three tries a day, which is unusual for me. Normally I can only try a project twice, but I think I had The Pod section so wired that I was able to get through that with minimal damage and do the top. Each day I would get a half move further.”

“The final crux is really bizarre. Your do really tight hand movements and foot movements to get set up in this one position. You do all these crazy moves to get set up in this one position, you take an impossibly bad left-handed, three-finger edge and your whole body is facing toward the left.”

“The hardest part of the route is getting that hold and turning your body from the left to the right, getting a foot up and doing a big move off that hold to a pretty good hold in the roof. I fell trying to get my body from the left to the right three times in a row before I sent, but the final move is so hard that even after punting, I didn’t necessarily think I would do it next try. It could be another week of falling there. It’s a big move. It’s hard on your shoulder, it’s hard on your fingers. Even when I was trying to do overlapping one-hangs, even when I felt good, falling and then resting, I would still fall on that move. So I knew that it might be something that I would have to fight with for a while.”

“I think on Sunday, I got really lucky, temps were perfect, my psych was there, and I was going day-on, day-off by that point so I was pretty well rested. It just comes together. It doesn’t always come together, but I was grateful that it did.”

Siegrist noted that this final-move-crux is a big part of why he loves sport climbing. “There’s a huge mental aspect, there’s a lot of time on a route to talk to yourself in a positive or in a negative way, and, best case scenario, you can only try a hard sport route like three times in a day. It takes a lot of commitment.”

“How you digest failure, and how you keep going, that is what separates the good from the great. No matter how strong you get, you’ll never do your best until you get to the point mentally where you can accept that 99% of the time it’s going to be you failing.”

With that said, this is but one of the many things that makes ultimately climbing a route so rewarding.

“The whole time I was trying it I had this sense that it was just such a gift. I’m just proud to have been a really small part of the New River Gorge history. This place has been here forever, and I have never put a bolt in the wall here, so it is hard to say I made added to the history, but I have really come to love this place, and I can tell from the response to the route that a lot of other people feel this way about this place too.”

Siegrist concluded feeling lucky to be a part of a community that he loves some much. “I have really gotten psyched to see the climbing community rally behind certain characters and initiatives. It’s sick. It would be easy to go through this year and just be salty about everything, but I feel like in a lot of ways, some of the coolest stuff I am seeing come out of climbing is pretty recent. That is pretty sweet. You know who you are if you are out there fighting the good fight. It’s sick.”


Lead photo: Rachael Galipo