“I was an idiot,” he said.
We looked up the thin crack dividing two, hexagonal pillars. The wind buffeted us, seated as we were on the sheared edge of a broken column-top.
He proceeded to explain that the route which we regarded had been the site of one of his ‘big whippers’. He’d had a proper ‘big whipper’ era when he was climbing hard, during his second decade.
In the case under discussion, he had been leading the route in the heat of the day. As he stepped up to the crux, a strenuous move involving counter-pressure, he passed out.
He looked like a skydiver in the fall, his limbs extended from his torso and flapping slightly against the rising airspeed. At least, that was his belayer’s description. He only remembers lurching back to consciousness as the rope came taut.
Now, the shade of the big whipper haunted the narrow split in the rock above us. I looked at his face. He would hold the rope if I climbed it.
He would do his best to shake his way up when I got to the top and yelled, “On Belay!”
But there were other mice to catch, and I knew where this one lived. It wasn’t like he didn’t want to climb the route. It might be the route he wanted most. It simply needed to ferment a little before he could take it in.
We rappelled back to the cozy ledge on the Southeast shoulder.
Above the little garden of juniper and gooseberry perched on the sheer side of the Tower, every line was occupied.
A team from Boulder, CO was climbing up to the awful hanging belay on Soler, a climb every bit as good as any at their home crag. A pair from Montana was queued up right behind them. We would watch the two teams try to share the bolts at the unsupported stance as we left. At the other end of the ledge, a guided group of four was climbing the easiest route from the ledge, aiming for the summit.
The trip back to the base of the Tower involved a scrambling traverse. Most of the time, it was done with a single-layer safety system – the finger strength and caution of the climber. But the consequences of a mistake or mishap, like a falling rock, a seizure, cardiac dysrhythmia, etc., would be fatal. Having seen its vulnerability to the shade of the big whipper, such spooks preyed upon my friend’s mind. I paid out rope for him until he was safe, threw my end on the ground and followed.
Back at the base, we packed up and moved around to the West face. On the way, we passed the viewing tubes – sights pointed perpetually at the stake ladder constructed by two local ranchers years ago as a publicity stunt. Nobody was paying attention to the tubes. In fact, we saw few pedestrians until our way departed from the main trail.
There, my friend exchanged a few words with gawkers who shook their heads at what was, to their eyes, the modern equivalent of stake ladder activities. But I was already looking at the West face. We had not escaped the show. All of the prominent routes were occupied, some doubly. Perhaps the gawkers were partially correct; it was absurd.
We started up the boulder field. The day was too nice; we couldn’t turn away.
We found an open line, or at least, a line where we could establish priority.
As we sorted ropes and gear at the base of the thin crack, another team completed a nearby route. After they pulled their ropes, they began discussing further options, a little too loudly. One of their options, as it turned out, was our line. Usually, I would demur to visitors, but not in the midst of the carnival. We exchanged the usual pleasantries which allow etiquette to be enforced. We suggested a nearby route. They had some initial misgivings, but soon quieted down as the climbing began.
I was already past the wider sections of our line by then. I was confronted by a series of challenges – three or four hard moves, followed by a secure stance, each set harder than the last and ending right before the anchor bolts. I placed a small aluminum wedge or camming device every four feet or so on these sections.
Part of the trick is knowing the difference between placing protection which safeguards life and limb, and placing protection which bolsters the psyche. Part of the trick is learning not to care too much about that difference. I made it. Now it was his turn.
With the rope ahead of him rather than trailing behind, the haunts fled and he moved smoothly. He even took a fall in stride. As I lowered him, he told me how good he felt about the climb. He told me how good he felt about the whipper-era too, in retrospect.
We pulled the rope and left the particular carnival at Devils Tower. I dropped him at his house and returned to my own. I would do a few more days of work in the medical clinic, helping people postpone their fate, before I got to go back to the Tower.
As I pulled into the driveway, my little cat was perched on a rock by the walk, intent on something in the grass. She was well fed. If she caught a mouse presently, she would not eat it. Cat activities were no better than stake ladder activities, or climber activities, or perhaps even tourist activities. I started to shake my head, but she looked up. Her puzzled expression stopped me.
“And?” it said, “There are mice to catch.”