This morning I took a little survey of reviews on SummitPost and Mountain Project. Here is everyone else’s assessment of what I personally would describe as, uh, the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done.
“I was disappointed. Fairly easy climbing and over-bolted.”
“Missed a bunch of bolts on two or three of the pitches, but didn’t need them.”
“Non-strenuous great fun for overweight geriatrics.”
“You can focus on your feet and not worry about the spacing between the bolts.”
“Super easy climbing, great as an intro to slab or to run up at the end of the day.”
Meanwhile, in my world, the route is over-bolted only in the sense that I wouldn’t have tired to lead it in the first place were it not bolted at all. And I can’t imagine I’ll live to be an overweight geriatric when I’m Elvis-legged on a 5.7, negotiating frantically with lizard-brain: Do not start crying, I protest, you’ll get the slab wet and then you’re definitelygoing to fall.
Seriously, I hate this sport. Who wants to go next weekend?
Sunday: Twenty minutes into the ride I realize that my face hurts—it’s wrenched somewhere between a death-mask and a grin. Sabrina is not someone I (or you, most likely) could ever hang with; up here she is quickly reduced to a blue blur in the aspens and then a speck on the horizon where the Forest Service washboard meets the sky. Regardless, I am having an excellent time. There are flowers I don’t know and the world is bright and balmy.
Later, in town, I lie on the grass drinking a milkshake while watching people run the Ironman. Heh.
Monday: Among my more drastic and less frequently used tactics for subduing fear is to attempt something scarier than my actual goal in order to make it feel easy by comparison. I decide to apply this method to my mortal terror of outdoor leads by attempting an easy free-solo of the second Flatiron. Sure, right?
To be clear, this is kid stuff (literally—note all the photos of happy toddlers). But I’m quickly off-route, and the easy bail option is not easy enough: in sight of the top, I yield to my commitment issues and downclimb—all the more absurd because doing so is almost certainly more dangerous than finishing. Alas, there are known knowns, and I will always prefer them when 500 feet off the ground.
Tuesday: By contrast, my relationship with the sport of mountain biking has matured—which is to say that I no longer feel any obligation to try. This is especially true at resorts. Gone is the lift-pass guilt, the pangs of impostor syndrome that accompanied a big-bike rental, and the self-consciousness of plastering myself in armor just to ride my brakes down green runs. I know what I can shred and what will shred me and these days I’m pretty much fine with leaving those categories as they are. I paid my money and I’m here to have fun. And I do, bro, I do.
Thursday: On the bus I meet an Australian who relocated to Boulder to join a startup. They’re developing some sort of kitchen appliance for growing fish. (“It’s very modular,” he explains. “Like, you have the option to add a tomato vine.”) In retrospect, this is the first indication that I may not have actually left San Francisco.
Friday: Lisette and I became friends at a collegiate mountain bike race in which I tried to sit on her wheel and she tried to push me off a cliff. These days she attends parasitology conferences, most recently in New Orleans, where she received a flask engraved with the image of a hookworm wearing Mardi Gras beads. This to me is very glamorous.
She escorts me to the forest (ROOSEVELT National Forest!) for my first-ever view of the Continental Divide. The sight of the white-gold glow behind the rim of a still snowy cirque has me in big-dork tears that I attribute equally to oxygen deprivation, rapture, and dismay at the realization that it’s physically impossible for me to ever reach such heights without months of expensive acclimatization in a mountain town.
But I have to admit I would not chose Boulder proper. It’s one thing that the air is thin, another that it lacks atmosphere.
Saturday: Eric is living the dream so hard I’m initially concerned it may be difficult not to hate him for it. But Boulder has made him a generous rope-gun: he runs me up an El Dorado Canyon arrete that combines slackjaw exposure with reassuring rock in a way I didn’t think was possible. It’s a glimmer of hope that my consistently miserable attempts to convert this activity into Type I fun might not be totally futile. Dare to dream?
We go back into town to eat nachos and wait out the heat, then start the first Flatiron at dusk. That ending a day like this is feasible—the casual undertaking of six pitches?—blows my little flatlander mind, as does the view from the rappel: summit silhouettes and a big moon, distant Denver rising from the wide, dim plains like Oz.
The shuttles are running and the falls are flowing. It’s open season.
The campground has the feel of some manic jamboree. In the glow and smoke and trees I am quickly lost amidst coffin-sized iceboxes and palatial tents done up in Christmas lights and other states’ flags. The grimy bathroom reverberates with dueling blow-dryers; I yield the sink with my mouth still full of toothpaste, cowed by the unnerving reflection of teenage girls queuing up behind me to apply their mascara. It’s 10:45 at night. Where the hell are they going?
In the daytime the valley smells like barbecue smoke and there’s a baseball game underway at the base of El Cap. I watch a seven-foot-tall Nordic behemoth film his friend’s fast-food order at the register with an SLR. All this—Disneyland!—in the literal, creeping shadow of the most fantastic big walls on the planet. It’s bizarre.
What the crowds mean for me generally—no use pretending otherwise—is claustrophobic, misanthropic fury. This is aggravated rather than tempered by the acute awareness that in the next tent over is likely a world-class free-soloist with serious abs and a name like Nadia or Alessia, rolling her eyes and wishing I too would GTFO of her park. Who am I, anyway? Another wannabe in the wrong size puffy, flipping through the guidebook looking for, like, I don’t know, a 5.6 that I could maybe top-rope?
In the end, she’ll have to share with me just as I’ll have to share with tourists who don’t queue or recycle. If I wanted it to myself I could pay for it myself—except it’s 750,000 acres and not on the market so, no, actually, I can’t. In which case, what does it take to protect the backcountry, to convince the public to foot the bill for the 90 percent of that acreage that 90 percent will never see? It takes a (Curry) Village.
On the last two pitches the wind picks up to the point that it’s pulling the bag off my back. I can hardly hear myself speak, never mind our rope gun. This is why I brought radios, but as the static coalesces into speech it becomes apparent that we’re on the same channel as a gang of grade-schoolers playing in the valley below.
Mathew, you have 15 feet of rope—
Alia, I’m safe, you can—
HELLO-HELLO-HELLO, I’m in FOOOOOREEEEEST!
GERALD, GERALD, WEEE-OOO, WEE-OOO!
NICOLE SMELLS! NICOLE FARTED!
I have TEN POKEMON!
More like, POK-E-MOR-ON
Alia, can you hear me?
NICOLE FARTED, ROGER THAT
I’m exasperated. I’m stressed. I’m cranky. I’m 400 feet in the air. I want all these people to control their children. I want all these people to go away. But I’m laughing, I’m yelling, I’m climbing. I’m 400 feet in the air. I want every kid loose in the woods somewhere. I want them to love this place, too.
“What is it, Major Lawrence, that attracts you personally to the desert?”
On the wall I got very, very scared. That I had no legitimate claim to the fear—on top-rope, on a 10a!—meant the proximity to total, tearful panic came paired with the sensation of my ego grinding my cowardice into my face. Robert breezed by me on the adjacent route, fresh off knee surgery and, to my eyes, completely serene. “Having fun?” he asked. “I’m miserable,” I said.
I meant it then and have not forgotten it since, and yet all l I want now is to go again. I don’t know why I continue to marvel at this, the compulsion to torture myself in frivolous, stuff-white-people-like ways—but I still do and I still look for some reason I like better than my own neuroses. I am quite sure now it’s nothing to do with the sport itself. But maybe these places act on you. Perhaps there is some fact of the land that climbing puts you near and lets you touch.
These are after all landscapes generous with room for the imagination. Here is space and here is time, physically real in rock rent over a billion years—or something—and also absent in the canyon’s constant afternoon, in the sense that every long shadow might hide cowboys or dinosaurs, or better, or worse.
(Can’t do panoramas, can stand on a rock and turn around.)
The next day I wandered past the cool kids at the Buttermilks to where the road ran out in the the soft foothills of a peak I didn’t know. As I knelt to peer at a pale cactus I felt, then heard a muted sort of thunder on the ground. A hundred deer came down the ridge like water. As if I ever really had the slightest doubt.
A few belated notes from New Year’s. It was my third in Yosemite and fourth since the revelation—possibly just a symptom of mild hypothermia on my first, ill-equipped snow trip—that it’s a holiday better spent in the woods than the city. The crowds are more manageable; plus I’m less likely to take the occasion to wallow in my own mortality if I watch the sun rise on the new year, rather than the clock running out on the old one. Tick-tock, people.
The lack of snow (versus last year) nixed our plans for Badger Pass, and crossing the stark and ashen path of the Rim Fire on the way into the park was a reminder that the dry winter will have consequences beyond a lousy ski season. This is why I’m not getting smug about the Polar VortexTM: come August, life will realistically end in an apocalyptic, statewide inferno. Get, uh … stoked.
On the bright side, the conditions (and my more competent friends’ gear and goodwill) meant I got to do Snake Dike. The climb had a great fun-to-terror ratio; despite this I was so focused on Not Dying that I was within a hundred yards of the summit before I remembered where we were actually going …
That moment of realizing where I was—on the map and in time and on my own evolving bucket list—was humbling and gratifying at once, well worth the long-ass hike and a tense ten minutes spent downslope of a mountain lion in the dark. More of these in 2014, I hope.
(Reflective moments on granite, I mean, not lion sightings. Yeesh, those eyes!)
I had a lovely time in Joshua Tree, really I did, and I’ll get to that later. Alas, my current preoccupation is everyone’s favorite vacation souvenir, food poisoning. This is obviously high on the list of banned subjects for blogs, but three days of applesauce and The Mindy Project (…) has allowed me a lot of time to reflect on what it is I’m being punished for—and that, in further penance, I will share. The short-list so far:
Spending Thanksgiving with strangers (well, friends I hadn’t met yet) instead of my family, who are located literally eight hours closer to me than the desert is.
My dismissive attitude toward people with restrictive diets, often manifested in such savage, Epipen-elitist questions as, “Like, just stomachache allergic or actually allergic?”
Consuming meat products prepared by a chef previously occupied in serving the mangled carcass of a quail to his red-tailed hawk, a “bitch of a bird” (only I found this moniker funny) who chirped happily while pecking bits of heart off of her handler’s glove and wearing, like him and me and everyone else, a glow-stick necklace.supplied by a PhD candidate studying air pollution. “I don’t like the way it’s looking at me,” said the scientist of the raptor, which was fair, so we swapped seats and I got to watch the campfire flicker in the bird’s eyes and recite Lord Alfred Tennyson under my breath like the happiest nerd on Earth. Seriously. Screw Burning Man.
The point is: I swear to the Great Chief of all weekend warriors that I will never do any of these things again if you will just forgive me and let me out of bed, on my bike, and to the nearest cheeseburger. After that I could rewrite this recap to focus on the good stuff—and really, there was plenty.
I am frequently advised to focus less on my lack of natural talent for all these reindeer games and more on minor accomplishments. So, here I go! Last weekend, I:
Weaseled my way onto a climbing trip with a bunch of (awesome and accommodating) people I’d never really met. Given that I can contribute neither skills, nor gear, nor a car, this is, like … a 5.11c social maneuver.
(Related) Simultaneously packed my bag and baked bribery cookies without setting my house on fire.
Took three whole steps on a slackline. Eventually.
Also I have a new word, “cragro,” inspired by an observed dispute with another party’s snarling rope-gun over whether it’s acceptable to clip the first bolt of a route using a ladder (left in the bushes, one would assume, for that purpose). Climbing is full of such philosophical conflicts, and also, I’m beginning to notice, personalities inclined to hash them out with anyone in reprimanding distance. I’m not sure if it’s a mountain-biker’s habit of live-and-let-live or just British reticence on my part, but I find it very strange.
Anyway, fortunately our representative in this discussion had a sense of humor about it. When asked, “Well, why don’t you just do the whole climb carrying a ladder?”, he just clipped it to his haul loop and, um … did.
After sliding around on slabs Saturday, an early start and a gasping march to the base and the main event: Cathedral!
My own trip up was uneventful, even approaching efficient. Alean counteracted my slowness at cleaning gear by not placing much, and apart from a few fat-Santa moments in the chimney the climbing itself felt manageable. Which is not to say I could envision leading it. I would have been berating myself for this cowardice even without all the un-roped and unfazed free-soloists breezing past me—but that was a nice touch, Tuolumne, thanks.
Anyway, whether I deserved them or not: stunner, stunner views. Very few routes allow someone so amateur so much top-of-the-world; to sit on that summit block and watch the shadows skim the granite was a privilege and a gift.
Mountain folk may point out the impending weather in that photo. Indeed! Start to finish—from the moment Casey recognized the buzzing in his helmet as static (and not a bee) to the first reflection of our headlamps off the license plates at the trailhead—the retreat was nine hours of retrieving stuck and abandoned gear and people. No harm, no YOSAR report, no foul, but a long day nonetheless. Thank goodness In-N-Out doesn’t close ’til 1 a.m.
Lovely little trip to the Leap as a freeloading follower. The guys were practicing trad leads on mellow routes at Hogsback, so I got to take my time remembering what to do with real rock without the usual complication of being in over my head. Refreshing!