Climbing

Newb (click for audio version)

I have quite a few monkeys on my back. Sometimes, they like to go ape shit. When I first started climbing in 2005, I had intense performance anxiety. I worked at Planet Granite in Belmont, CA, and was barely able to pull 5.7 on plastic. When I finally TR’d a 5.10, my co-worker and climbing instructor looked at me and said, “Good, you should be climbing at that grade.” Everyone crushed. I flailed. Well, everyone flailed, but they did it on the hard stuff. To think of all of the opportunities I missed to go climbing with so many stellar partners who surrounded me, because I was afraid to fail…

RZ, what I wouldn’t give, to take you up on that offer to kick it with the crew in Bishop.

Eventually, I got stronger. The sport became central to my life. Even though on the wide spectrum of experience, I knew nothing except how to clip draws, control the crimp, and throw in a fancy drop-knee here and there, I solidly defined myself as a climber. And then, one sleep deprived morning on a road-trip back from California, I got my ass handed to me at Smith, and my mojo vanished into the ether. People can tell you to shake it off until you both turn blue in the face, but those goddamn monkeys are strong. Later, during a sesh with one of my buddies, he looked at me with his head cocked to one side and said, “Yeah, I remember one of the first times I climbed with you, you just walked up to that 5.11c and went, “Yup, I’ll do it.”” And I had. With style. And grace. As they say. How had I become such a timid climber?

Ego, for one. Not to be mistaken for confidence, ego is the monkey that pummels you in the chest every time you grease off, every time you don’t send at the level you think you should be sending at. Ego is what turns you into the whining brat that everyone at the crag is kinda embarrassed for. Cognitive dissonance, a subtler brother, will tug at your harness with all the best excuses for why you’re having an off day. I’m not warmed up yet. Ugh, my shoes feel really tight today. This route sucks. I can’t climb as hard as these guys. I shouldn’t have worn jeans. This route really sucks.

Deep Creek, or simply “the Creek,” is a basalt crag hidden near the end of a river bed that dries out in the summer. The routes, 5.11+, are long, chossy and steep. While it sees occasional action from big name climbers – Joe Kinder and his girlfriend, Colette were sportin’ it up last week, and Paige Claasen claimed FFA on Motley Crux (5.14) – it’s mostly a favorite afternoon training ground for stout, water-jug-hauling, Spokane locals who know that it’s too swampy to climb there at 2 in the afternoon, and that it gets chilly after 7, so bring a hoodie.

The last time I was here, I hadn’t climbed in months. I got tossed off of the easiest route – a mild 5.11a – and I was on TR. That was almost a year ago. But, I finally ran out of excuses. The monkeys had a good run going ape shit, and I was tired of backing down because of them. Shane, my friend and impossibly patient climbing partner, and a whole cohort of supportive (and strong) lady climbers, set the tone…”it’s all you, get after it.” So, with my sweaty jeans clinging to the back of my knees, I did. And then I led the route next to it, and flailed at the crux. And when the afternoon heat dissipated, I got so cold I was about a minute away from snatching someone’s rope bag to cocoon myself in. Two newb mistakes, I was later, affectionately told. So, yeah, seven years in, I’m back to being a newb. So what. You’ll find this newb sequencing the crux on her summer project – a pumpy 5.12b, tossing the monkeys off her back, one move at a time.

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Clarity

I spend eight fucking hours a day pretty much not being myself. So much time in fact, that I sometimes forget who I am as a person. Climbing, and all the details that don’t need to be explained about it, reminds me…I am tempted to write “of who I am” but that seems woefully inadequate. It reminds me of the moment between heartbeats, when the silence is loud in your ears, when the intensity of your focus has effortlessly seared away the good, the bad, or the bullshit life has lobbed your way, and time stops because you’re willing yourself to keep the body tension so tight so you don’t take that thirty foot whipper, and even the mitochondria in your finger cells are doing their part to hold on to the dicey grit you’ve clawed on to, and you’re snorting through your nose with a bite bight of dirty rope in-between your teeth and making impossible promises to God, Yahweh, Allah, and maybe even Shiva too. It reminds me that I am no longer dreaming, or alternately, that I am in the best possible dream ever.

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“I chuckle to myself because I can almost hear Kevin’s oft used words of wisdom – don’t die.”

The Methow Inspiration Route

The Milky Way arches across the sky, a band of ethereal luminescence. It’s dark all around and for a long moment, I marvel at the multitude of IMG_0802incandescent dots that fill the sky. Clipped into the rappel chains I am quite literally suspended between heaven and earth. Suddenly, I feel both strands of the rope jerk, and I am called back from my reverie. “On rappel!” a shout comes from above. We are on our way down, an unexpected nighttime descent from a five-pitch sport climb on one of Goat Wall’s smaller buttresses called the Methow Inspiration route.

We’d started late, much too late for a party of three. After making our way up a steep scree trail, we finally found the start of our climb after playing “match-the-features-to-the-guidebook” game. Summer and I agreed to trade-off leading pitches. I’m fairly certain that I had already happily tied-in even before the words, “Are you sure you don’t want the first pitch” made it out of my mouth, and was pulling the rope through the first clip even as I looked back to say, “Really, you don’t mind?” Lucky for me, the first moves were invitingly mellow. I glanced below to see the lime green strand of my new 9.8 mm rope trail beyond my sight – the climb was on.

More experienced climbers might dismiss the Inspiration route because of its moderate nature and its well protected line, but I was unabashedly ecstatic. I’d been climbing for a few years, but this was the first time I would be leading on a multi-pitch route and have to decide many things, such as the most appropriate way to belay up my second. None of my mentors would be around to double-check that the gates on my biners were locked, or that the anchor was equalized, or to remind me not to rap off the end of my rope. Hundreds of feet in the air, I had to make decisions that would impact my safety and that of my climbing partners.

The day progressed reasonably well, if not slowly. Ascending in a group of three with a single rope can be a time-consuming, amusing, and sometimes frustrating effort. It took five attempts to throw the rope down the slabby and windy second pitch before I realized it would be faster to have Summer lower me down far enough for me to get the rope to down. On pitch three, Summer and I chuckled at the sight of our third, futilely try to clamber, turtle-like, through the roof section with his unwieldy pack and no chalk.

At the start of the fifth and final pitch, we were surprised to be overtaken by a two-person team who thought we were on our way down. Dismayed, but compelled by climbing etiquette, we offered to delay our own progress so that their smaller group could advance to the summit. Although they moved quickly, our own bid to the top was pushed back by at least an hour and a half. Tired and wincing from the unbearable pain of having my beet-red feet crammed into my climbing shoes for the better half of day, I star-fished my way up the last pitch.

Two moves shy of the top, a purple dusk rose up from the valley below and slipped passed me, quietly, quickly. The sun, heavy and orange, had sunk beneath the ridgeline and in that moment I understood we would be rappelling in the dark.

This trip almost didn’t happen. It was like one my favorite scenes in Return of the Jedi, when the Millenium Falcon comes shooting out of the Death Star, barely clearing the inferno exploding around her. Having agreed, all the way back in July to accompany Summer to Seattle to visit a good friend of hers, I was supposed to be spending the weekend with my lips glued to the brim of a coffee cup, studying. It was the start of the academic quarter and I had homework to do. There were countless other responsibilities besides. But, the summer climbing season was wending to an end and I was wallowing in a puddle of discontent. All the boys had gotten their summer adventures, had tied-in to the sharp end and seen the rope trail beneath them to their belayer. But I, I had no rousing tale of success or failure to tell. And I wanted, nay, I needed one.

I admit, “need” is a strong word. Where “want” conveys a sense of desire, “need” is urgent and carries with it the implication that survival, the very state of being and existing depends on fulfilling this “need.” So it was thus, standing in the uninspiring hallway outside of Wild Walls on Thursday night, that I attempted to explain to Summer why I was bailing out on our Seattle plans at the last minute. “I don’t know, I can’t explain it. I just need to do this.”

One heart-to-heart, two U-turns, and 48 hours later, I look up and see headlamps shining 30 meters above me. We are still two hours away from congratulating one another on completing the climb, two hours and three minutes away from passing around a delicious stout that was left for us by the two-man team we let by, and always just one incautious move away from trouble. I chuckle to myself because I can almost hear Kevin’s oft used words of wisdom – don’t die.

Doing these things, being out here, this is when I feel the most alive. I am learning from today. I will for instance, strongly consider using my ATC in guide mode next time, and will definitely utilize the Muënter hitch. I will have a better contingency plan if I accidentally go past the anchors, and I will invest in a better headlamp. I will not, however, use my aggressive crag shoes for anything beyond two pitches, and I will not start a multi-pitch climb at midday. I click my headlamp back on to guide my partners to my ledge. Consulting the topo, I guesstimate how far in the darkness below me the next set of rap anchors will be. I should be able to find them. I hope.

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7:00 a.m. MST

IMG_2975_2The morning is still and dark and the cold burnishes our cheeks and noses. In the beacon of headlights, the air is crystalline. We load into the vans. Our gear is packed, our down and fleece donned, and we are soon our way. The seduction continues.

I like the way the ice tools feel in my hands, the weight of them, their deliberate curvature, and the elegant utility of adze, pick, and spike. I flick each wrist reflexively, shake off the pre-climb jitters and reacquaint my arms to these tools – they will become extensions of myself.

The crampons bite into the ice, the climb is on.

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