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.

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