Disco, Blood, and Midlife Angst at Jailhouse

This article originally appeared on Climbing

Every other day for sixty days straight in the winter of 2023, I wrapped my legs in duct tape. Three wraps. Two legs. Twice a day. After fifteen days, I stopped hiking the duct tape from the crag. The pile grew. Each failed attempt on Jailbait (5.13c) added to the mass. A baseball formed, then a football, and then a basketball. As I threw myself at the steep basalt line, the duct tape ball grew.

Jailhouse hosts steep, blocky, and cryptic enduro lines. (Photo: James Lucas)
Jailhouse hosts steep, blocky, and cryptic enduro lines. (Photo: James Lucas)

Jailhouse, the 200-foot enduro cave in the Sierra Foothills, demands intricate kneebar jessery. In fact kneepads originated at the crag, which boasts nearly a hundred routes from 5.11+ to Connor Herson's recent Underage Linking (5.14d). In the 90s, Troy Corliss of Tahoe stitched rubber pads onto a pair of baseball pants, while Tommy Herbert of Reno glued sticky shoe rubber onto a neoprene pad. From there climbers began a downward spiral to where they are now--donning strap-on kneepads secured with duct tape and sometimes glue to keep the pads from sliding as they crawl up the blocky, overhanging rock.

Scroll to continue with content

Named after the nearby jail, the crag has been a staple in my climbing circuit from my first visit in 2004. I'd kneebarred up my first 5.13a and 5.13b at the crag. In the winter of 2015, I'd come close to sending my first 13c, Jailbait, falling once at the penultimate bolt. I was fit from freeclimbing The Freerider on El Capitan in a day earlier that year, bouldering the difficult Phonebook (V8) in Camp 4 that same month, and sending another 13b, Kingpin at the crag that same week. With a thirty move 13b sprint to a rest followed by a seventeen move 13b to the anchor, climbers knew the Tom Herbert route as a benchmark for the grade. Visiting hardman Steve Hong infamously called it, "The hardest 13c in the country." I returned eight years after my first attempts on the line to prove something to myself.

Nolan <a class="link " href="https://sports.yahoo.com/ncaab/players/160233" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Van;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Van</a> Werk on <em>Cell Block.</em> (Photo: James Lucas)\
Nolan Van Werk on Cell Block. (Photo: James Lucas)\

"Why am I even here?" I thought after falling on the crux move at the 5th bolt for what felt like the 176th time. I struggled to grab a left hand pinch correctly and the subsequent throw to the ear felt impossible. Most climbers hike this part and then fall going to the anchor. I dreamed of making it that far. I tried to link sections of the route. After leaving Jailhouse in 2015, I'd moved to Colorado and started bouldering, which fit better with my work at Climbing Magazine and as well as the pursuits of my girlfriend, then fiancee. After getting laid off and lacking direction, my fiancee dumped me for someone else. I battled heinous depression. I tied back into a rope, wanting to avoid bouldering alone and sketchy free soloing. The time with my friends let me reassess my old goals. Sending the nemesis line and feeling stronger than ever at 41--not to mention making strides towards my climbing career goal of 5.14--seemed like a great way to handle my mid-life crisis. But an atmospheric river flooded Jailhouse. The bottom of my project seeped and I battled the wetness and a growing existential crisis. I'd invested nearly 50 days into the route. I wondered what I was truly doing with my life.

<span class="article__caption">Jailhouse Rocks’s namesake, the Sierra Conservation Center. </span>
Jailhouse Rocks’s namesake, the Sierra Conservation Center.

"At least I'm adding to the duct tape ball," I thought of my endless attempts. I'd made a duct tape ball in 2007 with my friend Rob Miller. I'd spent 40 days at the crag that year amassing a collection of tape. At the end of the season, we'd hung the spinning gray ball. It acted as a testament to our devotion and our tireless commitment to climbing. For a few days when it was up, I envisioned a disco ball, a series of sequins that glimmered onto the basalt.


"Errt-ar-errt-ar-oooo!" The cock crowed from under my van at 4:30am in Chinese Camp, a town of 150 people that once prospered with Chinese laborers during the Gold Rush. I spent rainy rest days fighting to go back to sleep after the rooster would wake me up. With little to do after climbing, I would chase the rooster around the yard, dreaming of eating chicken and waffles in my quirky Rocky montage training scene.

<span>"Errt-ar-errt-ar-oooo!" </span>(Photo: James Lucas)
"Errt-ar-errt-ar-oooo!" (Photo: James Lucas)

Snow fell on the low elevation crag and I buried myself in sleep. When I emerged from my van, Bryan "Coiler" Kay, a friend who lived a few miles from Jailhouse, told me, "The rooster died during the storm." The weather had been too cold for him. I looked to see the poor bird's feet laying outside the coop.

It warmed but rain kept falling. Then a storm hit the foothills and a tornado landed a mile and a half north of the crag. I wanted to give up on my project. And for two weeks, I retreated to Vegas. I hiked in the desert, danced under a giant LED disco-octopus, and waited for the rain to stop. I considered abandoning my project. I felt like the dead rooster.


"It's worth giving it a try," Jonathan Siegrist texted me from Spain, where he'd been trying Stoking the Fire, a 5.15b and the hardest route he'd attempted. Now would be the best time to get it done. I committed to five more climbing days on my project. What else did I have to do?

On my fifth day on my project, I broke through the boulder problem. I fought to the rest and stared up at the 17 moves to the anchor. Breathing deeply, I started up the last few moves. I felt my body shake. Skipping the last bolt, I held onto the snow cone, grabbed the pinch, rearranged my feet and stared down the anchors. Maybe this was it. Maybe. I threw. My hand hit the finish hold. And I fell 40 feet filled with disappointment. I wondered if I should add a chalk mark to the flat rock at the base. Jeff Merrick had fallen on that exact move nearly two dozen times on redpoint, filling the rock with lines. I took my duct tape off and added it to the ball, feeling dejected.

"You can do it. You can do it. You can do it." I said to myself two days later. My hands had numbed out in the lower crux but I'd fought through. I'd nearly fallen out of an easy kneebar but I caught myself. I'd rested as long as possible and started the moves to the anchor. I skipped the last draw and could feel the air beneath my feet. Again, I told myself I could do it as I reached from the snow cone hold to the pinch. The anchor dangled above me. I rearranged my feet and threw to the finish jug. I smacked the hold perfectly, walked my feet into a kneebar, and I clipped the anchors. I hung for a few seconds below Lolita, the 5.14- extension that tops out the cliff. I could kneebar up a few moves and get closer to my career goal, or I could stop an arbitrary spot on the wall. Fatigued and unsure of the compression boulder a few bolts up, I headed to the ground.

After lowering from the anchor of Jailbait, I put my duct tape on the ball. I felt success for a moment. I'd invested a significant amount of time and achieved my goal. I'd climbed my hardest sport route. But success felt ephemeral and arbitrary. Crawling half way up a basalt wall, even if it did take fifty days, hardly seemed like it'd be the confidence I needed out of my mid-life crisis. Trading in my van for a fiery red Tesla would have been easier. I fought to find meaning in my time at Jailhouse. I started my next project.

<span class="article__caption">The duct-tape disco ball, prior to getting a bedazzled upgrade.</span> (Photo: James Lucas)
The duct-tape disco ball, prior to getting a bedazzled upgrade. (Photo: James Lucas)

After putting my duct tape on the ball, I carried it across Shotgun Creek, past the curly haired bull that guarded the crag, and to my van. After a stop at the Sonora arts and crafts store, I spent the night bedazzling the duct tape ball. Long strips of bright gems and smaller green, reds, and blue sequins shined against the black duct tape. I brought the disco duct tape ball back to the crag. I'd taken the sweat, blood, and pain, wrapped it up in a ball, and gave it a party theme. All the hard work now glimmered and shined.


The early afternoon light hit the gems as it swung from my harness. I climbed up Soap On A Rope, the classic 5.13- that I'd been warming up on, with the eight pound duct tape ball swinging from my gear loop. The BeeGees played in my head. "I'm a dancing man and I just can't lose." I hung the ball in front of a dark overhang on a rarely done extension. The duct tape disco ball spun around the crag, catching bits of light. I had completed a second long time project at Jailhouse, one just as arbitrary as sending Jailbait but with more sequins.

(Photo: James Lucas)
(Photo: James Lucas)

I hiked out of the crag, stopping to look back. The disco ball would come down eventually. My feelings of success at having sent and mounting this odd trophy would dissipate as well. The light hit the ball and reflected onto the wall. I thought about the work I'd put into the crag over nearly two decades, about the failures and sends, and of making a disco duct tape ball. I questioned the deeper meaning of my pursuit, or climbing, of the silliness of it all. Light bounced off the gems as I hiked to my van. At least my dancing had improved.

Also Read:

For exclusive access to all of our fitness, gear, adventure, and travel stories, plus discounts on trips, events, and gear, sign up for Outside+ today.