Thursday, August 12, 2010

Into the Great Wide Open...

I knew exactly what was coming up, and I was stoked. Tomorrow, Oz and Hobbit Book: perfect Tuolomne granite, six pitches, a super mix of bolts and bomber gear climbing. The day after, we would climb the Harding Route on Mt Conness: ten pitches of 5.9 in a spectaclar position, ending at 13,000 feet. The good Peter Croft gives both the maximum number of stars.

We pulled otu of town, loaded with food, booze and gas, and would our way up to the Sawmill Campground, where we hauled our tents to the site and swatted bugs. My partner, The Captain, was however oddly quiet. As we finished set-up, I asked him what was up, and he said that his Mom had gone to hospital with some as-of-yet undiagnosed ailment. He was worried.

The next day The Captain led us through the first two pitches of Oz, and I launched into the coolest-looking crack I'd ever seen, outside of the Split Pillar: 40 meters of overhanging dihedral, perfetc hands, and feet to take the edge off. And as I placed my third cam, it hit me.

Suddenly, I couldn't move. My right arm, jammed into the smooth clean crack, stiffened. My legs felt frozen, and yet my feet stuttered and skated on the knobby stance. My left palm dripped with sweat.

"What's up?" yelled the Captain.

"I, uhh--" came out before I realised, I had no idea. I had bomber gear, loads of it. I had no chance of hitting anything like the deck, a cam at eye-level, loads more gear, a bomber stance, and seven years experience climbing exactly this sort of route, mostly at harder grades. I was fed, rested, fit and psyched. And I was totally fucked.

Long story short, I downclimbed and down-aided back to the Captain, and could not explain what had happened. I was paralysed, scared shitless, and what was worse was, there was no reason for this.

We bailed. At the ungodly hour of 10 AM, we arrived back in the campground, and I sunk into my chair, dazed, a sick hollowed-out emptiness inside me, and yet I was oddly glad that here I sat, on a perfect climbing day.

The Captain went to town to use the phone, and I self-examined. It bugged me. WHAT was going on? I had FREESOLOED the grade I'd bailed off, for Christ's sake! Don't get me wrong-- I am as chickenshit as the next guy. I have bailed off alpine routes, ski tours, boulder problems and all kinds of climbs because I was worred about either objective hazard or my own skill. I am no stranger to wussiness! But this one...this one didn't provide me with an answer. WHY?

The Captain returned and said "bad news."

His Mom in Vancouver had been diagnosed with cancer. He might have to bail from our Sierras trip and go home. I told him I'd drive him wherever he needed to geta bus or a plane. He said "let's see how I feel in the morning, but I gotta warn ya, I might not be into this."

At 4 AM, the Captain said, "might as well" as I shook his tent, and later we trudged through mint-scented pine forest and crunched up onto a snowfield, and won the ridge crest as the sun dawned, pale and clear, into an icy still blue sky. We made our way down to the start of the Harding route. The Captain geared up and led. After placing two nuts, he stopped, hung, and said "I can't do it," before backing off.

Now if you are going to bail, the base of Conness is a great place to do it. Below us stretched a talus field, trees, and Tuolmne, and way out West in the haze was what might have been The Valley. The Captain sat, totally still, eyes closed, sweating. I drank in the still and the quiet, and my mind returned to yesterday. Still no answer.

It being obvious that we were not gonna get up the Harding Route, I wondered about the West Ridge. Croft gives it four stars and says that, outside of the first ascent of an 8,000 foot 5.11 route he did, in one day, with Conrad Anker in Pakistan, it is his favorite route. The Captain and I loaded the gear into the packs, and ambled off to the west. I wanted to see the ridge.

And beautiful it was...a low-angle start, then a cleaner and cleaner, and steeper and steeper line, on beautiful golden granite.

We sat on a lovely clean boulder and munched lunch. And suddenly the Captain stood up.

"Fuck THIS," he said.


"Let's climb this."

"Are you--"


I didn't ask any questions. We put on rock shoes and chalk bags, and started soloing on perfect cracks, with endless incuts everywhere. After the arch-bridge-- the part where Croft writes how he tried to make himself feel light-- we figured we'd done about a third of the route, and roped up. I handed the Captain my Tiblocs, and when he'd installed the first started climbing. Cussing not having brought the gri-gri, I decided, what the hell, u8ntied from the rope, and attached myself to the rope using only a prussik.

Here's a pic I scavenged online...what the route felt like.

With 20 meters of rope trailing below me, I followed the Captain as the rope snaked up into the sky. We did the last two-thirds of the route in three long simul-pitches. The rock flowed, the air was warm, the entire Sierra spread out below us, and at times I waved my right arm over hundreds of meters of still air off the side of the ridge. On top, I found myself high-fiving the Captain with a shit-eating grin on both our faces. The whole route must have taken an hour.

Wordlessly, we picked our way down the descent, glimpses of El Capitan and Half Done away, way DOWN, in the hazy distance.

Back at camp, we sat amongst the mosquito wail in the sun, and again the Captain said "fuck it."


"I'm not going home. You know, my Mom has cancer...but they can't do anything till tests are done. I could go home and worry, and do nothing, or I can climb."

Two days later, I began shitting myself on Sun Ribbon Arete when the only gear in the crux was a blue Alien (which is nobody's friend). And then I realised, again-- I was so worried about falling (onto an Alien, and then three bomber nuts, in utter safety), worried about things not going as planned, that I wasn't paying attention to what was right in front of me.

And then I understood. I had known what I was going to do, four days ago. The Captain had known that his Mom wouldn't get cancer, and then he'd KNOWN he'd have to leave his trip to see her. We were both wrong.

This was the real gift, it turned out: the totally unexpected happened. Failing is a part of climbing...and so is failing when the possibility seems remote. Emotional pain is part of life...and so is looking it in the eye, feeling it, and dealing with it. We got handed what we didn't expect, our plans changed, and what did we get? I stopped worrying about the "causes" of my silent, day-ending freakout. The Captain stopped pointlessly worrying about Mom. And the Universe threw in an awesome route-- the West Ridge-- we hadn't planned on.

I swung my right leg out, toed the nubbin, reeled in the sidepull, sunk my hands into a nice deep crack, and smiled.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Butch Makes Lemonade (2)

So there I was after my second day of climbing, wandering around the campground, looking for partners. My very limited set of options-- 5.8-- was used up. I now needed to step up, or rope up, and since I am WAY too much of a wuss to step up and solo some 5.9, I went a-partner hunting.

Now you gotta love Applebee Campground. You thought that the hottest people in the world were in porn films, or perhaps on America's Next Top Model, or maybe in Napoleon's new SUV, or perhaps lounging about the Gossip Girl set? NOOO! The hottest people in the world are at Applebee Campground, and when the daytime highs are 25 Celsius (that's "freakin' hawt" for you Yankees) what you get is people stripping down to the essentials: clothes that reveal bellies and forearms, and a chance to rock the coolest possible headwear. Ladies and gents alike stood around, sat around, even strummed around-- one guy and his girlfriend, who were not climbers, had hauled in a guitar, some comfy chairs and a mean stock of vodka, and sat while their buddies climbed, wailing away, even pulling some major rock-star moves one evening when dry lightning and Twi-hard clouds brooded.

There were so many sexy people around that Butch, your humble narrator, couldn't keep it in his pants. Especially when his spraying Coloradan-- Sprayradan-- neighbours were joined by more Coloradan buddies, this newest batch of whom upped the spray ante by spraying about not mere All-Along-The-Watchtower-esque 5.12-, but 5.13b! ooooh! They turned the spray into a downpour when one of them told me that "yeah, it was a couple of Germans who did it, so it might be easier than 5.13b." Pretty good, but not anywhere near as good as


(posted on the V.O.C. bulletin board after a certain climber, well known to the now-14 followers of this blog, returned from their first trip to the Valley)


After my chat with the Sprayradans, I ambled down to the Smoking Spaniards. En route, I passed the miniature tent which contained the California Girl and her husky boyfriend. I had been dutifully eavesdropping outside their tent every night, waiting, penis in hand (the Sprayradan truck in the Porcupine Lot had had a massive one drawn on it), for their sex sounds, which turn me on ever so much, but none were forthcoming. (I later found out that this was because I had forgotten to remove my earplugs before creeping around camp, which also accounted for the odd breathing sound i constantly heard the next two days of climbing, and how my partner-to-be would resort to sign language and thrown rocks to get me to haul the rope up.) The husky Yankee lay about, reading George Orwell. I said to him "weapons of mass destruction" and he said "yup" and I left it at that. The girl was nowhere in sight.

The Spaniards were gone, off to do the Becky-Chouinard, having left behind only the older guy's sick girlfriend, who complained about la grippe and her dolor de cabeza, and in true Spanish style threw cigarettes and whiskey at the virus. The Koreans were eyei9ng their new route-- now four pitches long-- with an array of binoculars, while one of them fried Spam. I then finally hit the jackpot-- I met one Nelson from Nelson, BC, and we had soon hatched plans for doing the Super Direct on Snowpatch.

OK now Butch will S.T.F.U. for a bit and show you some pictures.

This is Nelson leading P2 (5.10c?) of Super Direct. It was somewhat (I) cleaned it. I spent about two hours seconding this pitch, and when I was done, an enormous shit-stain of moss, dirt and rocks spewed onto the glacier below the route, much like my computer screen drips with my saliva when I spray about my routes.

This is the route base when we finished. MMM...but seriously, now the AWESOME P2 is clean

Here Nelson follows P5. Awesome position and very easy chimney/stembox climbing.

This is Nelson ont he scary (but cool) P6, which has a hair-raising traverse, amazing position, clean know, all of the good stuff you expect of the Bugaboos (except there was no beer stashed on top).

Here, Hardman Nelson follows me on the final pitch, an epic of weird moves, traverses and end-of-route surprises.

Well anyway, we had a super day up there on Super direct-- if you are in the Bugs, and there aren't enough smoking Spaniards or Sprayoradans in camp to entertain you, and you don't want to do Sunshine Cracks AGAIN, do this route. If only because Peter Croft (and me) have climbed it, so you can be like him (and me).

Back at camp, the young lady Spaniard continued to cough and smoke away. The Koreans were now 6 pitches off the deck, tink tink tink, and as I lay me down to wait for my espresso pot, I closed my eyes for a nap, and the Yankee Girl in the mini tent ambled over and said "I hear you're massively badass, plus I was checking out your rack earlier and you're totally hot, so would you like to hook up tonight-- I'll do anything you like [at which pooint I imagined having her go to the food locker and dig my sugar out of my dry bag]-- and go climbing with me tomorrow?" I then woke from my afternoon nap, but did in fact find the Yankke Girl there. She launched into a tirade about her lazy-assed partner, asked me if I had plans, and I told her sorry, since I was, like Elizabeth Bennet would have said, "firmly engaged," at which point her face fell.

The Sprayoradans returned from their day-- "just some twelve-minus, we were tired"-- and then began spraying about tomorrow's big day, where they were sure to onsight the 13- (err, they mean, 12+) and show the Germans what was up with grades.

The Ground Crew guitar player had created a song. We sat about and chatted awhile, and discussed music. I, being the old fart in the group, said that I was amazed at how much good music was out there, and what a huge variety there was, and how many artists were selling themselves via the Internet. The guitar player, Dustin, said, "yeah, and a lot of them are really creative!"

"Like who?"

"Nickleback. Pushing the aesthetic limits."

"Yeah. First, the singer was blond, with wavy hair. Second album, even blonder!"


"Third album...even blonder, a-a-and he STRAIGHTENED it!"

"Yeah man. THAT is innovation."

On my final day, Nelson and I went to do West Side Story, which was pretty cool...except opposite us, on PAddle Spray Direct, were yet MORE Sprayoradans, who went on and on about what a bummer it was that they were climbing only Paddle Spray, and not The Power of Lard (5.14R, WI7+, M13, A5+, V13, VI). We enjoyed our day, and watched the leading Sprayoradan grunt nd heave through the crux of Paddle Spray. "That," said Nelson, "should have looked easier" and we both laughed. The hardest thing of course was the rappels: since McCrowd Arete shares raps with WSS and Paddle Spray, it was a veritable international village of rap techniques and knots and waits.

Back at camp, I soaked up the view, brewed more coffee, fantasised about the Becky, said goodbye to the Yankee Girl, the SPaniard Girl, the Sprayoradans, and went to bed, hoping that Lisbeth Salander would finally corral the bad guys.

And now it is time to head BACK to the Bugs...I am hoping that over the next four days I will at least get to check out some more international accents and cooking styles.