Friday, November 25, 2016

All the Valley's a Stage

It was on the warm up. I stood on tipped toes surveying behind a flake for a last cam before running it out on unprotectable slab. I never even suspected the flake. It popped loose, a boogie board of sharp stone. It hit me in the right thigh and rode me down. The rope caught me on the next cam, but the stone kept going. It pushed passed my legs, smashed my right foot against the slab and dropped to the ground. My trusty climbing partner, Alex, was okay. The rope was intact. I had a deep knot in my right thigh. I couldn't feel my toes. Maybe the numbness would subside and everything would be fine or maybe it was a mess under the cover of my pant leg and shoe. Alex eased me to the base. I gingerly removed my climbing slipper. Blood pricked from the corners of my darkened middle toes like drops of juice from bruised fruit.

It was my first climbing trip of the season, the first since February. There was novelty in the war story of the 5k bushwhack out from the WV jungle, then there was just atrophy of mind and body in summer.

We sat in the concentrated sun of my backyard. There was something on the grill and we were drinking beer. I hadn't seen my climbing friends in a while. First child rearing kept me away, then I was sidelined by that rock. I was happy to see them. I took a swig.

"Patagonia in December eh? " There was no way I could make it happen, but old ambitions stirred.

I listened to the story of Alex and Spencer's new route on a remote wall in Wyoming. I took another swig, the beer warm and sickly sweet.

By late August I could painfully don climbing shoes. I had planned on a trip to Yosemite in the Fall before I broke my toe, but now I wasn't sure. If I was going to take time away from family it had to be worth it, and here I had no plan, no partner and only six weeks to train.

"Man, so yeah, I could die," I said to myself sitting in the window seat on the airplane to California, reflecting on my progress leading to this moment, finally on route to the big stone.

Previous efforts uncovered new facets in the physical regime or diet. I looked inward to my motivations and fears and sought a new level of discipline on this one. Part of my daily effort was to meditate on the fact that death might come at any time, by traffic or cancer or plane crashing on my house--as it did for my dear colleague Marie--as inspiration to arrive in the moment with zeal and appreciation for what’s truly important, having examined my fears so as to control them rather than otherwise. Yet, I could not deny, if I die climbing it has a different meaning than a plane on my house. I chose this path even while I have such precious things to live for. The question of why always returns.


Climbing used to be my crusade. I would spend as much time as possible out there, stripping fears and supposed necessities, exploring adaptation to extremes. I sought to show the civilized how I could be so hardy as to leave it all, author my own survival. I adjusted and bought in to the usual vestiges of USA citizenry and have started to reap the rewards of work and family: the face of my son after a couple days away, his cracking jokes to get me to laugh, me laughing at his joke, but even more with happiness at his reaching out to me, and him, my son, laughing again, happy at my happiness.

I recalled a trail run long ago, breaking into a clearing to find 5 adolescents boys wearing bright, loose gym clothes and book bags with water bottles and accessory garments strapped to the sides. They were in the act of crossing a 12" caliper tree bridged over NW Branch Creek. Two had completed the crossing. One was mid-way, half crouched, clutching thick branches that obstructed his passage over the central trunk. One was tentatively beginning the traverse on the far end with a tall can of Monster energy drink in one hand. The last waited his turn. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

A Route with No Name

I'm on a boat! And I'm not impressed.
Many climbers have comfort items they take into the mountains. Some carry a can of sardines or a flask of whiskey. Others require an extra sleeping pad or a pair of down booties. These creature comforts bring peace of mind and are almost always worth their weight. But between us, Spencer and I had managed to pack 270 pounds of food and gear for nine days in the mountains. On a pound-per-day basis, this was a personal record. Were we too comfortable?

“Eh, screw it,” we thought. Two unlucky mules would be carrying it all for the first 12 miles. Then we’d load it into a raft to cross a reservoir. After that, it was only a few thousand vertical feet to our planned base camp. We had enough time to make it work. Our goal was to climb a new route on Cloud Peak, the highest point in the Bighorn Mountains of northern Wyoming, a range still cloaked in mystery. We weren’t sure what we’d need, so we brought it all.

After accompanying our mules to the reservoir, it was time to say goodbye. We piled all of our gear, plus three adult males, into a tiny inflatable. While the motor was being gassed up by our guide, I noticed the fine print on the side of the raft: “Weight limit 600 lbs.” The engine sputtered to life and we shoved off. I felt the desperately cold water as we motored along and quickly realized it would prove impossible to salvage our gear if we sank. We hadn’t yet seen our objective and already I felt committed. None of it seemed to bother Spencer. He spent the whole ride making small talk with our guide who, in a dusty Stetson and painted-on Wranglers, didn’t strike me as the nautical type.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Red Rock: The Gift of a Trip

"Dude, name that band, name that band," says the shirtless knit-capped twenty-something climbing gym patron of the post-garageband-1st-world-white-teen-angst rock playing via Pandora on the establishment sound system. His friend first tries planned ignoring, head down, seated at one of the glass tables between roped and bouldering climbing areas, studying a laptop or something. Slowly he looks up, stalling for time, "what?" then acquiescence, "who?"

"Name that band," said with expectation of Holy Communion between individual experiences, with voice loud enough to invite the half dozen of us within eavesdropping range to observe his membership, to invite us to join, or at least to want to join.

Funny, the expectation of communion. You chase your musical whims in the vast field of methodically arranged aural frequency sets to find a particular set that tingles you in old and new regions. You play and replay it. You attach it to your collage of self. You watch for perked up ears among the outside collages when you play it. Then you see someone else get tingled and it's like you're sharing the same parts. You're made of the same stuff. You attain elusive intimacy that well-functioning humans seek.

To observe the musical interfacing from the outside feels perverse, like witnessing PDA, or, in this case, a failed pick up line. "It's...'' I didn't recognize the name. "Oh, really, I didn't know..." I left to complete my session.

I’d been diligent about maintaining a streak of lunchtime sessions during the week. There simply is no other time, and to climb a few boulder problems, strength train a little, and run one mile each day on the treadmill is enough to keep me whole, but now the lunchtime workout was engendered with a sense of mission. My wife's mom and brother were coming to town for the weekend. The kids were covered. I could go climbing.

Alex and I attempted to plan a traverse of the Presidential Range in NH for this weekend weeks ago, but I had no kid coverage.  It fizzled. Then he made plans with Spencer, who has been further hardening his slender man visage to ice monster function between congressional recesses. Now I'm back and crashing the party. Spencer had our sights north so far as Quebec, where there are ice falls the color of sanitary outfall, d'Or as they say, 1000' tall, and where you have to ski, or ski doo, as they say, 10 miles to access the flows. But man, that's a lot to try and pack into a long weekend, and the forecast was for the kind of dense cold that feels like death itself, crystalline yet liquid, curling into your nostrils, frosting nasal hairs to an iced web that cracks as you wrinkle your nose, and there's no good feedback saying that the big poop flows are in condition.

And ice climbing is a rough sport to adopt with home base in DC. As a rock climber you feel that your skills should segue well to climbing ice, but then you encounter the severity of it. You fall off good steep rock and the rope whips through carabiners attached to metal wedged in solid rock substrate till rope tension, gentle swing into wall, and bounce to a stop. You fall off ice, which grows clean only at low, leg breaking angles, and is chandeliered when straight, and your rope whips through carabiners attached to metal in brittle water substrate till rope tension, gentle swing, crampon point catches ice, ankle break, or, worse, chandelier blows up. It defies the casual approach. I used to just get after it, embrace fear. I faked it. Now I don't want to fake it. I want to do it for real as the ice monster with tuned strength and instincts, but you have to have a certain surplus of time to nurture regionally esoteric skills. Anyway. There was doubt in my heart you see. High’s of 70 degrees in Red Rock outside of Vegas? Alex saw it too. Yessiree. Tickets booked. Hotel booked.

The wonderful thing about ice climbing is that it transports you to a crisp, ethereal, brisk world of glinting, refracting light, and sounds all hushed by snow, but, inevitably, after a few bouts of the screaming barfies where blood returns to freezing digits and complains loudly about the whole getting shut out in the first place thing and slugs the same part of your CNS that makes you want to barf after getting hit in the genitals, you start to daydream about the simple life of climbing rock on gear in determinate substrate, birds singing, warm light as around sunrise or sunset, with only the need for thin fabric covering. This time, dead of winter, we're cutting straight to that warm image, and we're going to live it out. We are going to play act the dream. Spencer, I'm afraid, is too tuned up. He refuses the dream. He will roam quarries in PA in search for ice.