First Ascent

Posted on: June 1, 2008



NINE YEARS AGO, Marty Lewis, Kevin Calder and I clawed our way to the surface of California’s Owens River Gorge for the first time. Our new route had hardly been a coveted plum or a last great problem. Sure, the cliff was the biggest around, but, more significantly, our ascent was an about-face from local wisdom. For a number of reasons, the chaotic upper reaches of the wall made little sense.

Some 760,000 years earlier, a truly galactic explosion had ripped out of the ground near our homes in Bishop with an intensity that exceeded the relatively mamby-pamby Mt. St. Helens by 1,500 times. I’ve been told that pieces of pumice hit Nebraska. Closer to home, hundreds of feet of lava coated the nearby countryside in a coagulated layer. This layer, in its entirety, was what we had just climbed.

We’d spent months just daydreaming about the line, speculating on what the eerie upper rock might be like—or whether it was even rock at all. What the cliff lacked in big-wall bigness, it more than made up for in its Jekyll-and-Hyde metamorphosis. On the top, the rock was a foamy-looking caramel color, shaped like sponge-toffee gargoyles. A little lower the wall became a pinkish orange. Then, as the rock got denser, it turned warm brown. At its lowest point, under the weight of 500 feet of cliff, the stone was the color of dark chocolate, and flint-hard. Visually, it was like a tasty layered dessert in a tall, skinny glass.

Our kooky concept to cast off and up for the obviously sugary rock promised to be something like a geological journey from the center of the earth. And this had given the plan a compellingly twisted appeal.

[Illustration] Jeremy Collins

MARTY AND I STARTED UP IN A DARK, dank, almost twerpy little corner at the right end of a massive roof. Even there, where the rock was good, the climbing was distinctly oddball: in fifty meters, the pitch traversed forty. Briefcase-sized blocks wiggled in the hand traverse like loose teeth in a massive smile. Halfway out I tensioned left off a hand jam and elbowed a black tusk, then, as the tusk teetered, I shouldered it away from me. It took off into a gasp of silence while I clutched the crack, resting my chin on its edge.

There my focus snapped in tight: a tiny bat splayed itself flat on the rock in front of my nose. Big-eared and covered by a soft coat of yellow-orange fur—looking like nothing so much as a black-winged apricot—it shivered and gritted its pointy teeth as if to say, “Holy crap! What was that?” Bat-wise it must have seemed like The War of the Worlds: the block’s removal had suddenly changed night to day and revealed my giant head. I took out my nut tool and gently spatulaed the quaking little vampire farther into the dark depths.

After a day’s worth of construction work, I watched Marty free the pitch in the hour before sunset. His six-foot-six form swung away from me, Samson-strong arms aping from hold to hold on the endless traverse.

MORE THAN ANYONE ELSE I KNOW, Kevin Calder is a first ascenscionist: he shifts into overdrive only when he peers into the unknown. From the hanging belay on the lip of the monstrous overbite, Kev propelled us onto the bulging wall above, where we played block and tackle, drilled bolts and inhaled mouse-shit dust that reeked of Hantavirus—all the while trying not to do anything stupid. Of course, it was too late for that.

After Kevin groped his way up a super pitch of slightly overhanging mailbox slots, Marty wove through a slightly less wonderful one of scabby rock cauliflowers—which left me fighting to keep my head up when the rock went spiraling down the toilet. Luckily, my particular talent is enthusiasm, no small thing when you’re bruised, battered and choking on bat turds.

Swinging out off a low undercut, I latched a jug the size of a washbasin and popped for a tightly pinched seam. Here, the rock turned to funk, like centuries-old crme brle: a thin crispy shell with a dried custard consistency underneath. With the rock too hollow to place a bolt and the seam too thin for any gear, I drew out the only thing I had left: my Chouinard alpine hammer.

Purchased while I was a teenager, the hammer has been my go-to piece whenever climbing turns into the bitch-slappee’s art of survival. Although the pick had lost a good inch through attrition over the years, I reckoned it still had enough to carve out a shallow nut placement. A couple of whacks, though, and the tip jammed.

My strategy immediately changed. I shrugged off the sling and used it to pull up. Then I swapped it into a high stirrup, wincing as I watched the eighth-inch of steel flex in the crusty matrix of volcanic snot. As I rose, I pictured the pick popping loose and cracking me in the face, the solar plexus, the stomach, the... you get my drift.

Soon my bad route finding and grinning-idiot optimism had me out of sight of my belayer and lost in a sort of vertical gravel driveway. Eventually the rope drag and the scorching afternoon sun, both of which had been building exponentially, ground me to a halt on a sloping bookshelf fifty feet from the rim.

[Illustration] Jeremy Collins

Twenty minutes later I had sniveled in two pieces: a half-inch TCU behind a flake the size of a rye crisp, and fifteen feet away, a Stopper snagged on the crust of an old gas pocket. Both failed a timid tug test. Another five minutes found me settling into a meager butt scoop of a belay.

Kevin came up cheerfully, and luckily without shock-testing the holding power of butt cheeks through gravel. It’s moments like this when clumsy climbing, dangerous decisions and punishing heat can reduce one to a puddle of a man; but it’s also at moments like this when the sudden appearance of a best friend’s wolfish grin can tip you toward success; the sometimes-selfish act of climbing ceases to be about oneself, and you know that what we do can never be called a sport.

WHEN WE FINALLY FREED THE CLIMB, it was a different route and we were different climbers. With no more dead ends to get teased into, the leader shed some thirty pounds, leaving behind the hammer and pins, bolt kit and bat spatulas. Instead of dirt-caked faces and bloody knuckles, we now climbed freshly showered and in clean clothes, daintily dabbing chalk as we went.

Stumbling up onto the flat, sagebrushed rim, we gulped in the view like fresh air and celebrated our nifty coup: the first people to rock climb back to ground level. Below us the river sparkled and glinted as we marveled at the geology tour we had made through a landscape cooked underground, then coughed up almost a million years ago—all, it seemed, just for us.

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