Escape Route

Posted on: September 1, 2008

I have a notoriously bad memory. Perhaps it's because I spend most of my time lost in my imagination, which I generally find preferable to reality. Not that "reality" is bad; it's just that when you have particularly vivid daydreams, the world your mind creates can seem far better than the one your feet tread upon each day. Occasionally, however, there are days that live up to my fantasy, and I'm reminded: this is the life that's real.

One such day started with a road trip.

Chris Sharma, Nate "Biggie Smooth" Gold, climbing filmmaker Josh Lowell and I had all traveled to India together, and then a movie had been made, followed by a movie tour that stretched from Seattle to NYC. Along the way I grew up.

Although I was twenty-one years old, I hadn't spent much time before with people my age or felt comfortable enough to let go and try new things. But in the course of this journey, I found myself drinking, dancing, inhaling my first puff of smoke, totaling my car (not related to said puff), running full-tilt down the sand dunes of Death Valley—and experiencing a day of climbing that remains equal to anything my imagination could produce.

WE PULLED INTO TUOLUMNE AFTER DARK. As I stepped out of the car into the alpine air, it felt cold and primal. Through the popping fires of the campground and the occasional barking dog came the sounds of the wild. I shivered and quickly pulled on my coat. Stars shot their light into the black sky. So much of my life, for so long, hadn't made sense, yet as I stood there, the smell of the pine trees in the darkness crystalized my senses.

Chris had convinced the boys to solo the Matthes Crest the next morning, but I wavered about joining them. It sounded like a long day, I was inherently lazy, and I had never soloed anything before. It wasn't that the plan seemed dangerous: apart from one short, technical section, the climb was mostly a ridge scramble.

But for me, and particularly during that time in my life, it wasn't about wants, but about "shoulds" and "should nots." As my imagination created various scenarios for the future, even the most basic decisions seemed overwhelming, fraught with the potential to impose a later regret. In the end, though, a trait that I got from my mother won the day: F.O.M.O. (Fear Of Missing Out). I decided to go.

When the alarm went off in the morning, however, sleeping seemed so much better than getting up to hike in the raw night. The temptation to turn the alarm off and dip back into my dreams proved nearly overwhelming. But Chris, Nate and Josh were waiting outside the canvas tent, and as the sun rose and our bodies warmed with the day around us, our pace and conversation quickened. The sunlight sent arrows of light through the branches, and they hit the pine-needle-softened ground around us in a strange latticework of sun and shade.

We passed a large granite dome, wrapped around its back side, and landed at the base of our intended route. Glinting in the sun, the ridgeline looked massive, and as we moved toward the base, I was struck that this climb would merely be a continuation of our walk thus far. There would be no break in the flow of movement, no need for preparation and heavy gear. We'd brought climbing shoes in case we got nervous, but we weren't even planning to change out of our approach shoes. Those, plus water and food, were all we needed. I marveled at the blending of the horizontal and vertical worlds.

The majority of the Matthes Crest has more traversing than vertical climbing. We moved seamlessly from the ground up the impeccable granite ridge, walking or shuffling along, barely needing to hold on with our hands. With less focus on strength and technique, there was more freedom than I was used to: it was the perfect synthesis between climbing and walking. Soon I was alternately grasping the coarse granite and standing upright to gaze about at the expanse that plummeted a thousand feet in every direction.

To my left the rock plunged off on a slabby incline all the way to the valley. It was hard not to imagine tripping, sliding, somersaulting and bouncing down that huge stretch of stone. I made sure to keep my body leaning forward, afraid that tilting too far in a downhill direction would send me toward my doom. To my right, when I leaned over the ridge and peered down, the rock dipped back below me at a steep angle. The thin layer of granite upon which I was resting felt as if it could snap at any moment. I pictured myself jumping off the ridge in flight.

We passed roped climbers along the way who were more than happy to let our little group scamper past. Chris scooted along ahead, while Josh, Nate and I followed in a jolting procession, each of us stopping from time to time to wonder at the world that we seemingly stood on top of that day.

Eventually, we reached the one technical pitch that gives the Matthes Crest its 5.7 rating. A series of three or four hand jams lay above us. There was only one problem: Nate, the bouldering and sport-climbing film star, had never hand jammed before.

We climbed one at a time. I took a deep breath, then, second in line, followed Chris. Aware that now, for the first time, I was actually, truly soloing, I placed each hand jam with immense precision. Every undulation in the granite captured my focus. I kept my attention on each bend in the rubber of my shoe as it moved and stretched under my weight. Images of my foot slipping flitted through my mind. I forced them out and moved up and out of the crack.

At the top, I looked behind me: Nate still displayed his slightly goofy grin and continued to crack jokes, but his voice had taken on a higher pitch. While he put on his climbing shoes, we offered encouragement and a mini-clinic in jamming. There was no turning back at this point, though, so with Josh pretending to spot him and after a couple of false starts, Nate powered through the 5.7 crux as though it were the world's hardest boulder problem, Biggie-Not-So-Smooth screams the whole way.

Once we stopped for lunch and a general gathering of wits, the rest of the day moved along on the breeze that gently followed us. We continued, switching from one side of the ridge to the other, until a gentle slope led us at last down to the ground. Before landing on terra firma, the boys decided they were ready for an afternoon smoke. After one small puff, however, hands giddy from the day's adventure loosed the one and only lighter into a small crevasse, within sight but out of reach. The details of the incident that followed remain fuzzy in my memory, but ask any of the boys and I'm sure they could recount moment by moment the hours of shenanigans spent trying to retrieve that lighter. Did they finally get it and enjoy their smoke? I can't recall.

What I do remember is hiking back to Tuolumne, stopping for a brief dip in the alpine water that rushed along downhill beside us, getting sunburnt, and arriving back at camp spent but full of contentment, a feeling that was always so fleeting for me back then, in my struggle to grow up and find a place I fit in this world. How something as simple as scrambling across a ridgeline could give a girl a sense of belonging is beyond me, but there it was. I was home.

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