The Sharp End

Posted on: October 1, 2006


Bouldering and big-wall free climbing may seem like disparate pursuits, but to twenty-seven-year-old Matt Wilder, the inspiration for both comes from a similar source. In February 2006 the math and computer science teacher (and certified Hueco Tanks guide) won the Hueco Tanks Rock Rodeo; two months later he managed the first onsight of Zion's Moonlight Buttress. Now he's back in the Valley, hard at work on freeing the Nose by a new variation before he returns to school.

[Photo] Matt Wilder reenacting his onsight free ascent of Moonlight Buttress (V 5.12+, 11 pitches), Zion National Park, Utah. Eric Draper [Photo] Eric Draper

Tell us about growing up in New England. I spent much of my youth outside. Whenever possible, I'd bike out to a small climbing area, Den Rock, fifteen minutes from my school. Most of the time I couldn't find a partner, so I'd just boulder. By the end of high school, I was climbing with little regard for height—and improving my focus for future highballs and runouts.

You've got a degree in Computer Science, and you're going back for your Master's in the fall. Do you see any connection between computer science and climbing? In both you've got something you want to accomplish and a set of tools. Often you can work through a problem in its distilled form, avoiding many of the less important and less challenging details in order to tackle its fundamental essence. I'm always most inspired by the problems that stump me at first. And I take a mathematical approach to figuring them out—even on the rock. When a route is at my limit, I analyze each section and try intricate combinations until I find one compatible with my strengths. The clear-cut reward of success is the same: my computer program either works or it doesn't; I either send a climb or I don't.

Most of your accomplishments lie in either bouldering competitions or big-walll free ascents. What's the connection? For me, boulder problems are the basic units of free climbing. Big walls allow me to encounter them in an amazing setting—especially on El Capitan, where the cruxes are often short, blank faces sandwiched between stretches of 5.11 climbing. In addition, when you push yourself on trad routes, you often encounter times when falling is not an option and you enter a peculiar mindset—one that's also achieved on highballs. By exploring this mental state in both venues, you learn how to handle such situations in the future.

You're getting close to freeing the Nose via the "Wilder Variant" to the Changing Corners pitch, which you first discovered and freed on toprope in fall 2005. What difference would there be between this variation and the original Free Nose? Both versions of the Changing Corners pitch have their own beauty. The original line's aesthetic corner, the complex beta it requires and its role in Lynn Hill's ascent make it a classic. The new variation, on the other hand, climbs a sheer face on perfect edges, involving tricky sequences that culminate in a stunning, semidynamic move to the arete. Although its moves are just as tenuous as the original's, they're over quicker, permitting a more reliable redpoint.

You recently bagged the first onsight of Moonlight Buttress. How did this stack up against your other big-wall free climbing experiences? In some ways Moonlight was more enjoyable because most of my time was spent climbing. On redpoints of harder big-wall free climbs, you generally put in a lot of non-climbing-related work. While onsighting is more pure because it doesn't involve hangdogging, for me, it's also a greater challenge than redpointing; I'm used to working routes and memorizing the beta before I try to send them. This ascent was a bit more stressful because there was no room for mistakes.

If you had to give one bit of advice to a new climber, what would it be? I've learned that if I can enjoy the process of climbing, the end result has less impact on my overall experience. We climb because it's fun. Remember to ask yourself, continually, if your climbing fulfills that purpose.

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