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1998: Leaving Llamaland

Posted on: March 10, 2016


About the author:
I live in Gunnison, Colorado, the hometown that I spent much of my adult life trying to get back to. I'm a software engineer turned writer (of mostly science fiction and fantasy). A few years ago, I decided to become a mom. I still climb, often alone, but my first priority is coming home safe to my young daughter. Because I don't have images of Llamaland, I added in shots of Levels of Doom (VI 5.9 A3+), located on Twin Brothers, which Eric Rasmussen and I established in 1997.

[This story was first published in Alpinist 53 as part of the 30-page Mountain Profile on Zion National Park-Ed.]

My solo climbs were austere affairs with only the bare necessities (plus a paperback or two) in the haulbag. Eric Rasmussen taught me how to climb walls in luxury. We had tunes, box wine, hot dogs—all the comforts of home. I found these stylish safety glasses in the hardware store in Hurricane and was super keen on them. [Photo] Eric Rasmussen

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JANUARY: SHADOWS AND SILENCE fill the canyon of Zion National Park. Within the Emerald Pools amphitheater, icicles clatter to earth. I pull out my binoculars. A gently overhanging prow on Mt. Majestic catches wan winter sun. Bracketed by deep clefts, the sleek, southeast-facing buttress rises through dark-red sandstone and mahogany iron stains. A central chimney leads to discontinuous thin cracks. Up higher, the seams close down, but the rock looks rough and featured in the side light. Other lines emerge as the sun's angle changes, but none captivate me as much as the prow. The days are short and cold—so many hours of darkness to spend with just my thoughts and a circle of light from my headlamp. After two pitches, I descend.

Memorial Day: traffic clogs the canyon, a constant rumble. It's worse than rush hour in Boulder, where I work at a video-game company. Still, the air smells of desert, clean and pungent. A cool damp lingers along the Virgin River. Park visitors amble on the hiking trail, necks craned, wafting sunscreen and deodorant. They startle when I ask to pass, my torso canted to counterbalance my eighty-pound haulbag. There is mutual confusion when we consider each other's purpose. I wish it weren't so. I'm longing for just one person to understand when I say I'm scared.

The truth is, I'm often lonely in a crowd, not sure where I fit. As a child, I'd tote my books into the rafters of our hay barn or wander by myself on desolate sagebrush hills. As a climber, I've learned that I succeed most often when I'm soloing; when there's no one to hear my insecurities, they seem like conjurings of the imagination—unvoiced, and therefore not real.

I am an impostor, pretending to be a climber and first ascensionist.

The wall is steep. If I make a mistake, retreat will be as hard as going up.

No one will know if I fall.

I leave the trail, striking out up the hill alone.

Loved this pitch. Beautiful, arching Lost Arrow to Knifeblade crack which brought us to a pendulum onto another of Eric's routes, Peyote Dreams, for the top out. [Photo] Eric Rasmussen

My cache of water has grown stringy grey colonies of...something. Another trip to the car, another sloshing load humped through a gaggle of sightseers. I slide on safety glasses to keep out the constant rain of sand. The rack settles over my shoulders, jangling and heavy. I touch the stone, grunting and shoving my body into a flaring chimney that drools sand down my collar. After two ropelengths, I'm back at my old highpoint. In January, the lonely sweep of stone above me loomed dark and cold. Now, the amber sunlight warms the wall. This is work that I love in a place where I belong. Climb, rap, clean, haul. Repeat. My fear falls away.

Where one crack peters out, another opens just within reach. Ledges appear just in time to set a belay. By evening, the growl of the traffic wanes and the songs of canyon wrens echo. Feet dangling off my portaledge, I watch the last, smoldering glow fade from the rim. Later, I wake to claws scratching nylon. A rodent scurries over my sleeping bag, goggling me with eyes big enough to drink the starlight. I roll over carefully to keep from knocking it into space.

Halfway up the wall, my drill bit pulls out mud. Belay bolts sink through a dry layer into sodden rock. Maybe the storm water of winter is still percolating down, or maybe the formation never really dries out. Will my gear hold a fall?

Some good old fashioned blue collar work. The route had amazing features that occasionally required a couple holes to connect. I fell backwards on the crux (not sure if this is the pitch) when a block shifted under my hand. After careening twenty-some feet headfirst toward a ledge, my chest harness yanked me back upright. [Photo] Eric Rasmussen

Two pitches later, I'm hooking through corrugated stone, knuckle-wide bumps crusted with patina. I'm stepping onto a new placement when the wrinkle that held the previous hook crumbles away.

Two millimeters of metal tooth into fragile rock. Ten feet down, a pair of tipped-out beaks wedge in an angling, calcified seam. Beyond, meters and meters of blue kernmantle arc across bare rock, cross a blunt arete, disappear from sight. Somewhere, half a pitch below, is a hand-sized cam in waterlogged sandstone.

Fingers pinching features, weight spread among patina edges, I step up, afraid to breathe. Afraid to drill a chicken bolt because I don't want to rattle my hook off its nub. I find a bigger edge—my eyes shut while I give it a firm pull. Movements blur until I finally get a hand jam between detached flakes. I wedge a cam into the gap and swallow the metal taste of fear. A breeze cools my neck while I pant, forehead against the wall.

I am an impostor. But I've made it this far.

After months behind a desk, my body and mind aren't prepared for these dawn-to-dusk days. Each morning, I stare at numb fingers for five minutes before I can curl them into fists. My swollen wrists ache from the repetitive strain of hand-drilling belays.

Exhausted, I leave my portaledge assembled and clipped under the haulbag. I'm at the next belay, hauling, when the wind kicks up. The ledge is an azure aluminum kite, clanging against the stone while it rides the air. Ropes snarl.

I want off this wall.

On the fourth day, the sun presses on my shoulders like an iron. Brown and beige huecos tilt just beyond vertical. I take a few tepid sips of water. Climb, rap, clean, haul.

Finished.

This 60-meter pitch (name: "The Crusher") was too wide for our gear. I stacked our biggest cams with sections of 2x6 lumber—two screwed together gave an extra 3" of protectable crack width. Eventually the chimney opened enough to get inside, but required free climbing above those wood/cam stacks. I was glad to get to the belay on that one. [Photo] Eric Rasmussen

Lips too cracked to smile, I'm adrift in a slab that slants like the deck of a sinking ship. Four hundred feet away, a pinon tree leans over a sandy dish. I fix lines and ferry my gear before taking off my harness for the first time in days.

Reluctant to think about descending, I recline against the tree and read away the afternoon. The next day, I rappel into a slot canyon filled with ferns and the peeps of frogs. At dusk, I sink to my ankles in soft sand. Zion is empty when I climb into my truck. I'm glad; tomorrow I'll be ready for crowds and conversation. But not today.

Not yet.

We got a weather forecast over the radio just before the thunderstorm slammed us. The canyon sprouted waterfalls all along the wall—gorgeous! Amazing watching the leading edge of the flash flood on the Virgin River move down canyon. [Photo] Eric Rasmussen

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