The Climbing Life

Posted on: September 1, 2006


Off route and out of holds, I press my nose against the sun-cooked rock and inhale a smell like hot iron. Above Devils Tower the oncoming storm washes the sky green; forty feet down, my fiance, Keith, waits for me to lower off the bolt I've just clipped with one of his new quickdraws. Both of us will be pissed when I leave it behind.

I touch my tongue to the rock and taste minerals, bitter as fear. All summer we've ended our days the same way: Keith silently whipping the rope into coils around his arm while I pry my toes from sweaty climbing shoes and swear that next time I'll top out, next time I'll let myself be lowered without a fuss ("Am I on? Are you sure? You got me?"), next time I'll do a tidy pushup onto the belay stance instead of banging my knees. Keith wants a climbing wife, and I want to be a woman whose smooth biceps flow from her tank top as she pulls through a crux, but this summer I've learned that those aren't reasons to climb, not when the actual act of climbing—earth receding beneath my tingling soles, rock resistant under my scrabbling fingers—fills me with the recalcitrance of a scared child.

"Pretend you're lichen," Keith used to tell me. "You need the rock to survive." But that's him—climbing guide, traveler, bewitcher of clients and initiated member of an Aboriginal tribe. It's not me, graduate student, who finds the rock cold and lonely as an all-night study room buzzing with fluorescent light. These days Keith just says, "Move your foot to the left," if he says anything at all.

Now he's yelling I should come down, and he's right. But I balance on a slim coin of rock, a bolt at my feet, and search frantically for the promised buckets that will lead me to a belay ledge broad as a kitchen counter.

The rock flickers before me—lightning drawing closer—and I see what I've missed until now: a belay stance straight above, the chains glinting in the stormy light. It's not the one I want. Now I know exactly where I am: I've wandered onto the 5.10 beside my 5.7. The wind freshens with the promise of rain.

"Let's go!" Keith yells, but his voice is only a thread in the wind. "What?" he yells again, thinking I've spoken. "What are you doing?" I don't answer, because I don't know.

And then I do. When I've failed on climbs before, it's been in a torrent of words. Now, a compulsion twists inside me, wordless, wholly mine. I look again for holds, remembering to search down and to the side as well as straight up. Nothing. I'll be damned if I'm going to lower off now, so I invent a hold for my right hand and paw against the rock. I invent another for my left foot, just a panicked smear; I reach, shuffle, stand up. I improvise a pinch on a crystal, smear my right foot and jerk my left foot up to a triangular recess. Wherever I am, it's not a route, but I don't care, I climb it anyway. I listen for hints from the rock, scan the planes and edges before me and see lines as clear as words on a page.

After a few moves, a fat bolt appears at my right knee and invites me back onto the 5.7. I concentrate on clipping with a neat, swift movement, the way Keith taught me. I reach the kitchen-counter belay ledge, tie in and turn. Instead of looking down at Keith, though, I look out over the plains. The storm blots the sky to the east, moving fast away from us.

"I'm off!" I yell. I don't need Keith's belay now. I sit atop the climb in silence, dangling my legs above the empty space, watching the sunset shoot across the spreading plains.

—Gallaudet Howard, Iowa City, Iowa

Vicious Cycle

Larry puked on Jane Fonda today. The route, I mean, not the actress: Jane Fonda's Total Body Workout, in Indian Creek. In twenty minutes he gained twenty feet, stalled out and lowered; on the way down he hurled into the offwidth. Lovely. Larry hasn't been getting out much lately.

After he finished, he asked me to go up and clean the gear. What could I do? Half of it was mine. And yes, the crack was dirty, and it was hot... but man, he sure put in a lot of gear.

Larry is caught in a vicious cycle. Maybe you know it: he's out of shape so his confidence is low, his confidence is low so he puts in a lot of gear, he puts in a lot of gear so he gets pumped, ad infinitum—and in Larry's case, ad nauseam. Yep, been there, done that.

After I rapped down, Larry walked it on toprope. He didn't avoid the puke in the wide part the way I did; he just slithered right through it. He said it made the climbing easier. Whatever. Maybe he needed to punish himself.

Larry was frustrated. "Man," he said. "Crack climbing is hard!"

Larry is right; crack climbing is hard. Dangerous, too, sometimes, but mostly just hard. But if climbing cracks were safe and easy they'd call it something else—"bowling" comes to mind, or maybe "hanging out in the bar."

I can see it now. Some random guy in the parking lot: "Hey, Steve—whadya do today?"

Me: "Bowling."

Random Guy: "Rad! Whadaya doing tomorrow?"

Me: "Hanging out in the bar."

RG: "Cool."

But that's not the way it is. So here we are stuck with this hard and sometimes dangerous (but mostly just hard) hobby. Weird, huh? I mean, like, why do we keep doing this to ourselves? You, me and all the Larrys of the world, living in the dirt, blowing off work to do some stupid, pointless activity where we just get scared, pumped and hurt. Weird!

Larry insisted I get drunk with him tonight, so I did. We sat around the fire with some friends, and the more I drank, the more I heard myself spray. Unlike Larry, I'm fit and my confidence is high. But the routes I heard myself saying I was going to do tomorrow—oh, man!

Larry stumbled off toward his truck an hour ago. He did good, better than on Jane Fonda: he got halfway before he face-planted into the slick rock. He's still out there, groaning.

I think I'd better go help him to bed. Maybe I can talk him into going bowling tomorrow.

—Steve Seats, Moab, Utah

"Look, we told you: if you're gonna climb with us, you gotta lose the scythe." [Illustration] Jerry King

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