The Climbing Life

Posted on: March 1, 2006


Off

Dancing around the same square foot of rock, I crane my neck across the steep arete, trying to see a way onto the slab. This pitch isn't supposed to be hard—where are the goddamned holds? I move down, then up. Back, then forth. I shouldn't be here. I look at the sling hanging impotently off my one piece of gear. Maybe I am off route... or maybe I am just off. It doesn't matter. I down climb to the piece, remove it, and in the slow motion of retreat, I retrace the airy traverse to the belay.

Jim offers to give it a go, but we both know this is the second lead I've backed off in the past five pitches. I don't want to get dragged up this wall, I tell him. He looks disappointed and relieved. The day's pressure temporarily relaxed, we sit for a moment in our harnesses, watching a couple below finish the second pitch. A slender woman whose white-blonde wisps frame her helmet cranks through a sequence of undercling crimps and smeared feet. I thread the rappel.

As I slide down the skinny cords, I accelerate to a meeting point with my faults. It isn't just this route; I haven't been able to get up anything since arriving in Yosemite two weeks ago. Each attempt finds me trembling with pro at my waist, unable to commit to the unknown terrain above.

All winter, past images wracked me with longing: the dissonance of a spiky yucca as Janet climbed toward me, both of us breathless on La Esfinge's high face; the warmth of Jim's body along my side as we huddled on El Cap Spire, June snow falling around us; the rich silence of Cathedral Ledge, midway through an early morning solo.

With the arrival of spring, my longing turned to giddy excitement. Finally, I locked the door to my attic apartment and got into my truck for the two-day drive to the Valley. Three hours into the trip, I turned onto my favorite dirt-road shortcut: a desolate thirty-mile track along the headwaters of the Colorado River.

I remember the back end sliding out, the sensation of floating when the tires lost their traction. The rest comes back to me in single shots: tipping onto two wheels at the beginning of the small drop-off; the sudden crunching sound when the truck stopped upside down on the mesa. Splintered branches of a pinon tree pierced the cab space around my torso.

"That curve gets three cars a year," my rescuer—an aging man wearing a foam-brim hat—said in sympathy, just before heading back the fifteen miles to cell service. Alone, under building thunderheads, I pulled my wall gear, the cooking box and Jim's surfboard from the wreckage. I picked my silver bracelet out of a tuft of sage.

But it was the unseen that could not be salvaged: the perspective of an unchallenged life. It's the speed with which we lose everything—the instantaneousness of our vulnerability—that grips me now.

Fleeing Yosemite, Jim and I drive south to the Needles. He pursues quiet routes and a legal bivy; I hope for a change in my head.

We climb alone on the giant, lichenous formations. I move into surrender, handing over the sharp end indefinitely. On Atlantis, Jim climbs above me, confident as always, his body tapping into a rhythm that seems innate. He is enjoying himself. When the rope comes tight, I begin to lieback the thin flakes, surprised at how automatically my body responds. My shoulders know how to do this. My mind quiets. Latching a good edge with my right toe, I rock my body into vertical, catch a brief rest behind the widest part of the flake, and keep moving.

—Sarah Garlich, Laramie, Wyoming

Czech Mate

Camp 4, October 2004: What was once the world's dirtiest campground is now the world's coldest, wettest, dirtiest campground. Empty beer cans float like ducks in the large puddle beside my tent. Last night's unwashed dishes are reincarnated as a mystery stew of leftover beans and rice. Abandoned Wal-Mart tents, Styrofoam coolers and gas canisters litter the ground, adding to the postapocalyptic charm.

Three days ago under bright morning skies, the camp hummed with the collective charge of 200 climbers on vacation. At first, few noticed the extended forecast. But as word spread, the parking lot slowly drained of vehicles, leaving a skeleton crew of dirtbags, Eurotrash visitors and us East Coasters to fend for ourselves. Some don't have access to a car; others can't let go of their granite dreams. And Mad Dog and I? Hell, this is California—how bad can it get?

On the second night of rain, we prowl through the deluge. Puddles have become ponds; trickles are now streams. Soggy tarps hang between stands of ponderosa pine. Muffled laughter and off-key guitar cords waft across the darkness. It's a safe bet that nobody in the camp is dry. Or sober.

The hope for shelter leads us to the handicapped bathroom. Inside, the whole room is carpeted with cardboard, a battery of candles flicker on the shelf underneath the mirror, and a jug of red wine is perched on the toilet. Out of the shadows, five pairs of eyes stare at us. It feels like a seance to contact the ghost of Warren Harding.

"Howdy," Mad Dog says. "It's nice in here." After all, it's their party we're crashing.

"Ah yes," a stocky guy immediately to the right of Mad Dog replies. He's shaking his head and smiling. "Rain!" A felt hat overhangs his chubby red face. There are four of them, clad in a collage of dulled florescent fleece and worn hiking boots, sitting with their backs to the walls.

"How long have you been here?"

"Ah yes—yesterday!"

"No—I mean, how long have you been in California for?"

"Ah yes—one month! We from Czech Republic!"

Someone taps my arm. I turn; the guy on my left holds out an open bag of Oscar Mayer bacon. He gives a slight nod and swings it toward me. I quickly hand the bag to Mad Dog. Engaged in conversation with his new friend, Mad Dog absently passes it on. The next fellow takes it, pulls out a strip of raw bacon and bites off a chunk. His eyes twinkle.

"Good for alcohol. You need fat for alcohol!"

Vigorous head nodding all around.

"Have you done many climbs?"

"Ah yes—many climbs!"

While Mad Dog leads the conversation through a list of popular Yosemite routes, I think about the three-day drive separating us from home. I go through the names of people I can call—an uncle in Santa Rosa, a friend in Berkeley—or I could simply head straight to Joshua Tree. These Czechs, however, don't have any place to go. They're marooned in Camp 4, adrift in this handicap bathroom while the valley floods around them.

"Hey Freddie—these guys did the Salathe last week too," Mad Dog says. He and his newfound buddy are both nodding their heads now.

"When did you top out?" he inquires.

"Three days ago!"

"A day after us!" Mad Dog's head bobs up and down like a cork. "Did you hear our fireworks?" The guy's face goes blank. "You know—boom, boom—fireworks? Err... I hope they didn't come too close you or anything." Mad Dog is a calm guy, but a hint of concern emerges in his voice.

One of the others, sitting across the floor, lifts his head, but I can't see his face. A flat voice emerges from the candlelit gloom.

"You peed on my carrot."

"What?" Mad Dog's just confused now.

"You peed on my carrot."

"Awww, no! I'm so sorry! Did we pee on you guys?" Mad Dog chuckles nervously. Surely in this torrent of rain and cheap red wine, such trials gain a dimension of humor.

"No. You peed on my carrot." The guy's breath is laced with Merlot.

Mad Dog doesn't have anything to say. There's another tap on my arm. The bacon comes around again. The bathroom is silent.

This time I grab a slice. The greasy strip is cold and slippery in my hand; it reminds me of being force-fed cough syrup in kindergarten. The bacon's so slick I have to chew it carefully to keep it from sliding down my throat.

I pass the bag to Mad Dog, who helps himself as well. He asks about climbing in the Czech Republic as he slurps away on his piece. It's one in the morning, I suddenly realize, and I'm tired, wet and very drunk. The guy across the room nods once and goes back to staring at the floor. I join him and keep chewing.

—Frederick Wilkinson, Upper Refuge, New Hampshire

As the Gym Turns

I walk into the climbing gym with Dave; the first person we see is Lisa, Dave's ex-girlfriend. She's now dating Greg, who had asked Maresa, my ex, out before she and I met. Maresa is now dating Caleb, who was the rebound for Lisa while she was getting over Dave.

What the hell happened to my climbing gym?

The soap opera has too many subplots to count. If one were to connect the dots, nearly everyone in the gym, it seems, has been sexually involved, directly or indirectly, with everyone else.

An hour into my workout, I realize that the social scene at the gym is not only annoying; it's dangerous. I'm twenty-five feet off the ground looking at enough slack for a forty-footer. Dave seems to be taking the idea of the dynamic belay a little casually as he stares at the girl ten feet to his right. He continues feeding me slack, one arm length at a time... but I haven't moved in three minutes.

"T-t-t-take," I stutter as my fingers begin slipping off the greasy crimp. It's a good ten seconds before he's reeled in all the coils on the ground. I let go and hang quietly above the Tuesday-night meat market.

The consequences of habitual gym courtship should not be taken lightly. Should you break up, you'll have to work out visitation rights for the gym; should you acquire more than one ex at the facility, the schedule juggling will become exponentially more problematic. Friends and acquaintances will be forced to listen to your incessant bitching about your ex-lover's new "climbing partner." Likewise, your motivation to train will be inextricably challenged. You'll start doing a lap around the parking lot, looking for their Subaru or Toyota. Making sure that the ex's dog, "Shiitake," isn't tied up outside the entrance will become as important as remembering your shoes and harness. Every same-sex patron will become a probable suitor for your lost love. And every such suitor will have a better body, bigger muscles, or be a better climber than you... Hell, they're probably a better lover too. Get used to it.

But now, as I hang twenty-five feet above the ground, it all seems fairly trivial. After taking in the slack, Dave has resumed staring at the girl to the right. Naturally, his interest piques my own, and I look, too. The girl has long slender legs and small hips. The olive skin of her back is crisscrossed by the tiny straps of a maroon Patagonia halter, and her sandy-blonde hair is pulled back into a haphazard ponytail. Recognition flickers: it's Maresa—my ex.

"Hey, Dave," she says through her sexy grin.

"Hey," he fumbles, trying to conceal his blatant stare. It's a miserable failure. I tell him to lower me; it's time to leave.

On my way out, I ask an employee for a piece of paper and a pen. After scribbling a short sentence, I fold the paper and drop it in the comments box at the end of the counter. My suggestion is simple, and I stand behind it with my entire existence.

"What did you write?" Dave asks as he pushes through the exit.

"I told them they should change the name of the gym," I reply.

"To what?"

"Melrose Place."

—Cory Richards, Red Lodge, Montana

Mulligans

The dew-soaked grass wets my shoes as we walk briskly toward our objective. My pack is unbalanced, and the hardware clinks together, disturbing an otherwise silent morning.

"It goes to the left here," Alex says. I nod and examine the terrain in front of me, then grab the piece I need. Alex is saying something again, but all I hear is mumbling. Nothing exists except my fingertips. I explode into motion.

"Damn it! I should have used a nine iron!" I yell to no one in particular. The golf ball traces a lazy arc and lands fully ten feet shy of the green.

Above the pin, the clean, orange rock of the Sun Bowl on Bonticou Crag shines through the misty light. Maybe if I weren't chasing this damned ball around a golf course so much I could actually do the Terrapin Finish, a crisp overhanging finger crack hidden behind a squat buttress. Four years ago, when I started up it, that clean, arching fissure, leading away from the safety of the topout and into a void of danger, made me shiver, and I took the easier exit. I haven't seen the line since, except when I close my eyes.

I rifle through my bag for the pitching wedge and three-putt the hole, firmly establishing myself in golf mediocrity. I feel slightly guilty playing golf on a morning like this. Alex would have been easily convinced to go climbing, but I wanted something simple and free of fear.

As we walk to the next tee, we talk about how hard it is to shoot a good hole. For years all we ever talked about was climbing. Under the pines in the rough, a small patch of old snow, left over from the winter, jars me, like the nose of a glacier.

Three months earlier Alex and I took our first trip to Patagonia to try a new route on the Aguja de la S. After struggling all day to push a line through a blank granite shield, we headed down to our cave camp. Three hundred feet from that dirty glacier snout, I crashed through a thin snow bridge. I held on long enough to blurt out a weak warning to Alex; then the fragile lip of crusty snow gave way and I fell.

I dangled in the crevasse. My helmet was knocked from my head. As it bounced again and again off the walls, I listened intently, until fear overrode my senses, leaving only the sound of my crampons scraping at the bullet-hard, overhanging ice. Alex, on the other end of an eight-millimeter thread, kept me alive. I struggled out of the hole and lay in the snow, panting and wiping the sweat and fear from my forehead.

Now that moment exists only as a funny story. We walk the morning away, chasing a little white ball that never seems to go in the direction I want. The term "Mulligan" means a "do over" in golf. There are few Mulligans in climbing, so I take them fairly freely here and just chuckle when my tee shot disappears in the woods. A lost ball only costs a dollar. A crux move ten feet out from my gear could cost significantly more. Across the river, Bonticou Crag still beckons, its warm orange a subtle reminder not to take the game too seriously.

—Robert Mecus, Gardiner, New York

Paradigm Shift

We top out around dinnertime, then linger, picking at the orange lichen that polka dots the summit boulders. Determined to light sparklers despite the wind, I burn through a book of matches. They ignite with a hiss, and twirl in a giddy orbit around our heads like the sun, slowly sinking across the sky.

We make a meal from chocolate, smack the melted mess off fingertips and watch the evening's golden sheen uncover musty, dank nooks and corners that have been lost in snow, fog and sleet for days. We know that each other's silence means contentment: future adventures will be measured against today's. Reluctantly we turn to go.

At the top of the fifth rappel, a sofa-sized boulder stands on end, a safe distance from the edge, crowned with a fresh band of webbing. Through habit more than real concern, we check the webbing and the water-knot, throw our weight behind the rock and shove it with our shoulders. It doesn't move.

I wait my turn on the ledge, feet dangling. Below me, fresh snow crystals sparkle like piercing white fireworks. When the words float up—"Off rappel!"—I rig in and start down.

Suddenly something is wrong. Rockfall? Slipped knot? Cut webbing? Questions pop in a staccato beat as my heart quickens. I fall....

And land a few feet later on a short, sloping ledge. Some deep instinct kicks in, a voice commanding inside my head: gain purchase, any purchase, claw, scratch, fight....

I cling to the granite ledge, the ATC limp at my waist, my fingertips throbbing. I wait for the rock or the severed rope to join me.

"Are you okay?" Shannon, perched above, calls from the anchor. She has just watched the boulder shift like a felled tree, dropping me in its ninety-degree arc. "You know, the anchor looks even better now than it did before."

A light wind stirs, carrying the faint smell of grass and earth off the distant tundra. Below, the puckered crevasses lead back to the yellow speck of our tent and remind me the only place to go is down.

Somehow the lack of options is soothing. I pull in the slack, lean back into the twilight and, hands still shaking, begin again.

—Molly Loomis, Driggs Idaho

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