Category Archives: climbing

Balance Impaired

 

DSC00176Close-up, the little gully evoked a strong sense of deja vu. The angle suggested that one might almost be able to stand up and walk it. The rock looked like a crocodile’s skin – all knobs and chunks with few cracks or pockets – and the few voids in the surface had formed from the erosion of yellow clay inclusions. I had been in this situation before, in the Canadian Rockies, the Tetons, the Cascades. It meant sparse and dubious protection for insecure climbing, with an ugly fall looming throughout.

The fresh memory of yesterday’s Eureka foray reinforced my unease. Just going into the mining country in Colorado’s San Juan mountains is sobering.  The road winds through acres of avalanche terrain peppered with jumbles of gray boards and rusty iron marking the eternal resting places of generations of abandoned avarice. Eureka itself stands for self-consciousness of our bitter relationship with the range. Once a small,  hopeful mining community the town is now a single building. The lone, windowless watchtower bears a prominent sign with the name of the town, placed there, no doubt, by the same sort of joker who might strap a party hat on a skeleton.

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Yesterday was our second consecutive day at the ice climbs in the valley above the ghost town. The day before, we had been denied access to the longest climb in the area by an SAR exercise. Yesterday, we encountered a line of four parties on the same route, and we decided to trudge a bit further past the routes at the valley’s entrance. Around the bend and not far above, we found a lovely pillar of ice baking in the sun. The air temperature was cold however, and the ice looked to be in good shape from the ground, so we went for it.

My partner took the lead and ran the two pitches together. It went well until the very top. There he found the last few feet melted out and he could not get to the fixed anchor. Worse, in a fit of hubris, neither of us had thought to have him take the kit for building ice anchors. He put in two ice screws at his high point and I lowered him back to an intermediate ledge. He set up a belay and I set off to retrieve the ice screws and build an anchor in the ice to get us back down to the base.

Looking up at the situation, I knew that I should not risk falling. He had placed the two screws at the anchor properly. They had already held his weight on the lower. But the stainless steel tubes were basking. Many times, I had raced the process now at work on the anchor, placing another screw on a sunny climb before the last one heated up enough to melt loose. I arrived at the anchor and placed a back-up screw. Out of curiosity, I jiggled the anchor screws. They rattled in their holes, and by the time finished the rappel anchor, I could lift the screws free with two fingers.

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By the time we got back down, the crowds had migrated our way. We had another objective in mind for the afternoon, but our hopes were squashed on the road, for we found a fellow standing at the head of the approach trail just staring across the valley as if he were reconsidering something. He informed us that he had ridden a slab avalanche for a few meters down the slope below our goal.  My partner had his wife and young son waiting back in Ouray anyhow.

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There had been angst around bringing the child, who was their first. He was a nidus of concern in some familiar ways. He was 18 months old and did not want to eat or sleep regularly. He clearly understood everything said to him, but his only bit of expressive language was the word “No”. Each morning, he spent a non-stop hour on Rube-Goldberg action. Cups went into other cups, packets of jelly were transferred from person to person and then into the cups, and then back to their original owner. All of this chaos worried his parents. It seemed so overwhelming that one could hardly imagine any organized behavior arising from it.

Unless you had seen it before. I had. I distinctly recalled worrying about how I could possibly teach my first child to speak. I had no training, and no idea where to begin. Nevertheless, the kid started to talk. He had inherited the talent for it. From an adult perspective, it looked like a miracle, because adults liked to think that they had, each and every one, invented the world – or at worst discovered it. That way, the adult felt more competent, and the world seemed more solid.

From the child’s standpoint, he was building a constellation from the inside out. He had his experiences – what he might come to call ‘sense impressions’ should he grow into a particularly deluded adult – and he had the dots and lines to mark and tie together those experiences, inherited in his nucleic acids, language, and culture. The dots and lines were powerful tools. They would allow him to develop at heady pace, mapping out massive territories, like language, on the fly.

His ancestral mechanisms  assembled his star chart in a blur, and if he was at all self-conscious in his adulthood, he would spend a lot of time figuring out how he got there, and what kind of picture he had made with all those dots and lines overlying the bright spots of his experience. It would be daunting and he might be tempted to throw his hands up and just call the dots and lines the truth, to give the mathematical, linguistic and philosophical accretions on experience an undeserved solidity, while relegating the experience itself to a dirtier, incomplete status.

My partner’s son would have an antidote in that case. He would learn to climb, and that would at least open the blinds on the relationship between the picture of the stars and the stars themselves. He would still have to look, but most people didn’t even get that chance.

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Perched in the little gully, I saw the true landscape.

I was not motivated. I felt the burden of all those extraneous considerations which populated the slope with angels and demons instead of little edges and blotches of ice. I climbed back down and handed the sharp end over to my partner. He was motivated, and managed to lead the pitch despite some misgivings about the security of the climbing. I followed without slips or fumbles. It was sketchy, no question. We looked at the next pitch, but decided against it. It would be there when the stars aligned favorably, or even better, when no one was thinking about the pattern of stars at their back.

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Rabbit Holes

I have looked at the little wall for a couple of years in a slightly creepy way. The pathology  was reflected in the looks on my sons’ faces as they stood with me at the base of the cliff, and in the way that they looked away when I finally broke long, silent stares at the thin crack in the sandstone tower. Their expressions were familiar to me from my rotations on the psychiatric wards. The nurses looked at new admissions with the same expression right before noting in the record, “Patient appears to be responding to internal stimuli”. A person with that phrase recorded in their chart inevitably received an antipsychotic medication.

But, the boundary between dream and delusion is an eggshell composed of success, and I might just be able to climb this, after months of driving back and forth, writing a script composed of all the little holds and moves, dangling on a top-rope cursing, and route-specific training. All of these things are expected. I have done all of them before, with every project that I have done, just as I have sworn off projects after all of my other projects.

I fully expect to swear off projects after this project as well, even though I have been eyeing another route at the other end of the crack-width spectrum for several years, and with the same unhealthy obsession . The rejection of projecting at the end of each project results from an incremental increase in the sanity quotient which comes from terminating the effort. To be clear, I am not saying that anyone who engages in projecting is banking up mental health; quite the opposite.

To start considering a route on the edge of one’s ability, one first must feel a little bored and unmoored. One must ask oneself, “What am I doing with all this? Where am I at? What else is there?” before the darker ambitions can take over. The desire to take on a maximally uncertain climb is a mark of deterioration. The only enduring benefit may be a touch of healthy fatalism. A person taking on a project won’t help himself because he can’t. It is part of the lifecycle, which rolls on with or without our acceptance. Amor fati, or not, the route may go…

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Losers

I have to confess; I climb at a gym. I could dress it up and say that I train at a gym, but that would not quite be true. I climb the routes sometimes.

At my last gym session, I was just about to indulge in that guilty pleasure when I overheard something which totally gasted my flabber. A woman had clipped into the autobelay  on a steep section of wall and struggled up a few feet before auto-trundling*.

As she swung to the padded floor, her husband walked by with their toddler in his arms.

“Did you lose already?”, he asked.

“Lose?”, I thought, “You don’t lose at climbing.”

In the first place, climbing is never over.

In the second place, I can’t see what would constitute losing, short of just not trying at all. Everybody falls. Every steel-tendoned youngster runs up against something they can’t climb. Even the best can die in the mountains, and to think that even such an extreme endpoint defines losing at climbing is a subtle reversal.

Climbing is instrumental, and it is the finest instrument in my book. Think of it like a Stradivarius. A Strad. is worth a lot of money. Investors will bid on a Strad. and brag about owning one. But the violin still gets played, and the day that it gets locked in a vault as a chit is the first day of loss, because the violinist is the one who really possesses the instrument, while the investor is a mere parasite upon it.

There will be a gold medal for climbing soon. There are already prizes, sponsorships, grades and bragging rights for climbing. Some will take all those trappings seriously. However, we should not take those people, or their trappings seriously.

There is no loss in climbing.


  • Auto-trundling – as opposed to cleanly popping off the route and subsequently orienting oneself in mid-air, to auto-trundle is to disengage from the holds in a disjointed fashion, resulting in a tumble which closely resembles a loose rock rolling down a hill.

 

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That Moment

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Every climber starts out believing in their own invulnerability. Death and injury happen to other people, because they are fools, suckers, or just don’t have the luck, like you do. Believing oneself impervious comes in very handy, especially during the formative years. In that era, every risk and critical action is still new.

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The other ‘O.S’ route, North Ridge of the Grand Teton

You will take big run-outs whether you plan on it or not. You will make potentially fatal mistakes along the way. If you think nothing bad will happen to you, then you will march on past those moments of critical danger and learn the game. Of course, other outcomes are possible. Some people get the chop during the formative era. Some get bored with their apparently inevitable success and abandon the sport.

For everyone who sticks with it, there comes a moment when the belief in one’s invulnerability gets wiped away. For me, it was watching people die, and nearly being killed by the falling bodies. After that, there was no wishing my way back to the last age, where it couldn’t happen to me, no matter how convenient such a wishful belief may have been.

We can’t pick and choose what we believe in the end. No matter what, those moments come to spoil the utility of our delusions. Yet after the disappointment fades, you begin to understand: what you do after those moments is what really matters.

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The Age of the Toilet Ant

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I  shifted on the cot, but I could not find a dry spot. It was soaked through with sweat, and the time was only 2 PM. The temperature would remain above 100 degrees F until well after 5 in the evening. Maybe the next time I took a vacation from the desert, I would not just go to another desert.

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I got up to go to the outhouse. The pit in this campground was exceptional. Surrounded by a wooden screen and open to the sky, it still cloaked itself in an invisible cloud of stench despite maximum ventilation, and it had ants. They swarmed over it, through it and across anyone with a need to approach their shrine.

I’d spent the last few evenings before the trip watching “Dirtbag: The Legend of Fred Beckey”. Ants had crawled over Fred, I’m sure, as he slept in the dirt by his car. The fact provided some sense of justification.

Brushing a few stragglers from my leg, I stumbled back to the tent. Immobilized on my back, I stared at the mosquito mesh overhead and waited for dark. Events of the morning bubbled through the broth of afternoon sensations. There was something about a disappointing performance on a climb below my level (supposedly). An awkward high-step on a fist-jam figured prominently. I recalled the extraordinary feeling that I did not have enough #4 Camalots. My knee and elbow hurt.

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Jeeps trundled through my fever-dream every few minutes, on their daily migration back to Moab. The campground lay very close to the road, and the grinding of their tires and engines echoed off the red sandstone cliff which stood 20 paces behind our tent. An inevitable bump-bump of music accompanied the Jeep sounds, to placate the humans who clung to the great beasts. They passed with a slight weave and steady speed, suggesting instinctive movement.

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The sun finally set, the air cooled, and my brain began to solidify again. Thoughts picked up where they left off: on the subject of “Dirtbag”. Fred did not consider himself a dirtbag, and he offered one piece of evidence for his position: he always had a car.

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these.

Those verses set Western expectations of the wandering, mendicant seeker. It was a romantic vision, and a wrong one. Beneath every seeker lurks an offering plate, an alms bowl, a trust fund, or a pink Thunderbird. Even the originator of the myth waffled on its purity, since he qualified the key verse with assurances of heavenly treasures and even a Creflo Dollar wink and nod toward earthly rewards.

I got up to walk around the campground. The little brown bats were out flipping and twisting after invisible bugs. All lower mammals hew to a lived aesthetic.

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The next morning we chose a shady canyon as our climbing venue. We had done the approach walk the day before, after the hot wind had chased us away from the other crag. It looked good, but I had failed to accurately assess the aspect of the climbs. The sun shone full on our perfect hand crack. After an adequate fit of denial, we turned around and marched back down the lovely canyon to flop on sweaty cots through the heat of the day.

I woke to the sound of a light slap against the tent wall. A quiet curse from my son followed. It was dark , and the propane lantern was burning. He crouched over a large beetle lying on its back by the tent door. Ants swarmed over the bug. They bit its legs, locked their mandibles and then the ants attached to the legs were bitten by other ants in the swarm, forming a rude shackle.

My son flipped the beetle upright and it flew off. But it circled back, then hit the tent, and landed right back where it had been. After a few more rescue attempts to the same end, my son stood up and shook his head in disgust. In the morning, the toilet ants had gone back to their regular haunts and the beetle lay where they had abandoned it. The ants had left the body completely intact.

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In “Dirtbag”, someone asks Fred, “Is there one thing that you have come to value above all else?”

Fred answers, “[To] Stay alive.”

Wowbagger The Infinitely Prolonged was – indeed, is- one of the Universe’s very small number of immortal beings.
Most of those who are born immortal instinctively know how to cope with it, but Wowbagger was not one of them. Indeed, he had come to hate them, the load of serene bastards. He had his immortality inadvertantly thrust upon him by an unfortunate accident with an irrational particle accelerator, a liquid lunch, and a pair of rubber bands. The precise details are not important because no one has ever managed to duplicate the exact circumstances under which it happened, and many people have ended up looking very silly, or dead, or both, trying.
To begin with it was fun, he had a ball, living dangerously, taking risks, cleaning up on high-yield long-term investments, and just generally outliving the hell out of everybody.
In the end, it was Sunday afternoons he couldn’t cope with, and that terrible listlessness that starts to set in at about 2:55 when you know you’ve taken all the baths you can usefully take that day, that however hard you stare at any given paragraph in the newspaper you will never actually read it, or use the revolutionary new pruning technique it describes, and that as you stare at the clock the hands will move relentlessly on to four o’clock, and you will enter the Long Dark Teatime of the Soul.

-Douglas Adams

Fred didn’t act like he simply wanted to stay alive. The toilet ants were about staying alive, and its byproducts. His behavior was more like the beetle’s, or even the bats’, though he could never quite achieve the lived aesthetic. But that’s beyond us all.

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Leaving the beetle incident behind us, we returned to the shady crag. The early morning was dead quiet, so the clack of falling rock startled us. We paused in the middle of the approach slope to look for the source of the rolling rocks. It seemed like the noise came from across the dirt road on the bottom of the canyon, but the echoes made localization difficult. The clatter came again, accompanied by a flash of movement on the opposite slope. A running herd of desert bighorns popped out of the rocks, then halted and vanished just as suddenly.

We watched them pull that trick a few more times over the course of the morning. A jeep or SUV would pass on the road and the sheep would dash up the slope for a few seconds, then stop and disappear. A few of the SUV drivers hit their brakes and jumped out with binoculars and cameras, only to be disappointed. They scanned for the invisible sheep briefly before grudgingly climbing back into their cars. None of the jeeps stopped.

I don’t think that they could hear the sheep running over their tires and soundtracks. And also, I don’t think they were about sightseeing in the first place. Rental jeeping seemed to be about crushing a strip of already well-crushed earth beneath one’s knobby tires, rather than viewing the natural wonders.

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Right on schedule, like we had opened to oven to check on a batch of cookies, the 11 AM breeze hit us. I was vacillating at the base of a nice finger crack at the time, and the puff of heat swept a way my angst. We were done.

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Fred Becky was dead. The bats could stay. We had to go back to the tailgating world  where people ate to eat and drove too fast to nowhere. As we packed up, I took one more look at the dead beetle. I though about kicking some dirt over the body, but it didn’t seem right. I left it as it lay, and without an ant in sight.

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The Sad Side of the Road

Being awake is swimming around in a lake of the undead.

And the undead are like a bunch of friends who demand constant attention.

Demanding constant attention, will only  lead to attention,

And once they have that attention, they’ll use it to ask for attention…

They Might Be Giants

The white truck was about a foot from our bumper. I looked in the mirror at the pick-up trucker. He wore mirrored aviators and had his head cocked in an expression of bored annoyance which only the rich white folks can pull off. I gave it right back, followed by the finger.

Over in the driver’s seat, my son was oblivious to the exchange. He was too gripped. He was driving the freeway for maybe the third time ever, and had shifted into survival mode on the entrance ramp. The truck pulled out and blew past us. At least he passed on the left. As the truck cleared our flank, I glanced around its tailgate at the Eastbound lanes.

On a Tuesday morning at 0630, the Eastbound side was the sad side of the road. Thousands of people parked in the lanes, distracting themselves with cell phones, the condescending humor and invective of AM radio, or their own expressions of hatred towards the filthy slacker stalling traffic in front of them. I wondered, as I had countless mornings before: Where were they all going?

Most were off to willingly trade their lives for money. Some were probably going to try to game the system, like us. Maybe they played ball in a league, or played a musical instrument, or read books and then thought about what they read. I was pretty sure that the gamers were a tiny minority. If there were lots of those people, then the sad side of the road would not exist in the first place.

I had thought about the sad side of the road on many mornings, as I drove to work. I rarely got to see things from the passenger’s seat though, and that Tuesday morning, from the passenger’s seat, I began to consider my own side of the road, too.  I wondered where the jackass in the truck was going. He was in a hurry, so he was going to cash in somewhere.

Maybe he was going to buy a ride on one of the hot air balloons which hovered above the dirty thermocline in the near Northern suburbs. I could see a couple from the freeway at 0630 on a Tuesday morning. The trucker seemed like the sort who would enjoy a balloon ride. He seemed ambitious, and looking down on the anthill from just above its pollution was good for the ambitious, especially if it was just a peek, and a costly enough peek to exclude the losers.

I knew where we were going. We were headed for Sedona, to climb a sandstone pinnacle. It was a traditional climb, which means I had to carry and place removable anchor pieces on my way up. I preferred traditional climbing to sport climbing, where the routes were protected by in situ anchor bolts.

I preferred traditional climbing because it got right to the point. Helmuth von Moltke the Elder was right: No plan survives contact with the enemy. In climbing, we sought to verify the corollary to that bit of Prussian wisdom: If you wanted to live, you couldn’t defer or hold back. You could not buy your way through. No faking allowed. When you placed your own gear, the corollary was on you right away. If you clipped bolts, it didn’t hit until you maxed out.

When I glanced back over at my son, he looked a little more relaxed. He had picked up driving quickly. I had tried to work on strategy with him. I hoped that he would continue to drive defensively and remain focused once the operational routines of driving became automatic. I hoped that he would not end up like the trucker. Even just being a gamer was better than that.DSC00084

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Sheep Walking

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“I am done with ice climbing”, my son announced.

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I wish he had waited for a couple more pitches to reveal his new policy, but the psyches of others are objective hazards.

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I couldn’t get too upset about it.

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He raised the usual objections: it’s uncomfortable, it’s hazardous, it’s not technically challenging.

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He may change his mind someday.

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Ice climbing is the nexus of technique and effort.

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Besides, how else will you get to view such luscious sheep?

 

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One Word

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The pick bounced. I hadn’t dropped my elbow at the end of the swing. If the pitch had been steeper, the little tweak would have been unnecessary, and the stick would have been good. Because of things like the swing tweak, I never liked WI 4 as much as the steeper stuff. Sure, your forearms don’t burn, and all the gear placements are solid, but it somehow felt more insecure.

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I looked down at the teenager freezing in the drainage at the base of the climb. He was learning that hours and hours of playing Overwatch were not adequate preparation for climbing in the Valley, among other things.

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When he was 5 years old, I carried him up the last 1/3 of the gully to the Abbot Pass hut. That was the last time he had been in the real mountains, before this. He had surely forgotten the feeling of insufficiency in the face of the real mountains’ light and space, because he did not stand unsupported in it for long. A little house, lashed to the saddle between Mt. Victoria and Mt. LeFroy, had rescued him from the exposure.

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At the time, he pinged around the hut, euphoric, with tears from the gully climb still drying on his cheeks. From a kindergartener’s perspective, the whole thing was an adventure curated by his parent. His tired legs and cold hands served the story and, given the hut, were not real concerns after all.

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Subsequent experience had put mountain fairytales on the shelf. On this trip, he got the larger narrative that the child could not grasp. The cold was not a bit-player. No curator stood between you and the drop. Ambition and inspiration did not necessarily see one through.

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I looked up at the rest of the pitch. It was almost done. The angle eased above, and I could see a nice, flat spot for the belay, just below the accumulation zone where old snow undermined the solidity of the ice.

The route then followed a broad ledge rightwards. I could solo up the remaining section of WI3, bring him up, and cross unroped. But when he arrived at the belay, the day was clearly done. He had the look of retreat, so we did.

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His confidence flowed back on the rappels. He began to chatter, pinging from topic to topic like the amazed, excited, five-year-old flitting from window, to window, to window in the hut. He  was excited this time though, because he had begun to understand what we were doing, and it wasn’t some fairytale, adrenaline fix or ego trip.

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Revelation came in one long word, articulated by picks, boots, simple effort, and the perpetual movement of the Valley’s substance in water, wind and light. Once you heard it, you never completely stopped hearing it, as it went on and on without end. It got louder from time to time too, back in the real world, every time you saw somebody get angry about the contents of their coffee cup or tear up when exposed to a flag and a song.

In those moments, it reminded you that you never completely left the Valley, and it called you back as a whole. We already had our next tickets; only 3 weeks back in the real world to go.

 

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Multiple Use

The cheers seemed so close; they could have been for us. But, they really couldn’t have been for us. Because, the noise came from a family playing a game down in the resort, and they were a competing user group.

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We were climbing in Boynton Canyon, and at this particular spot, the boundary between designated wilderness and the spa was the width of a strand of barbed wire. Behind the wire lay tourists, grass, asphalt and chlorinated water. Outside the wire stood rock, desiccated soil, prickly pear, juniper, and us.

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From our vantage point on the canyon wall, I could look down into the resort and the heart of their ridiculousness. They romped and lounged without a care, having been reassured that they could pick and choose when to fret, what to attend, how they smelled, whether they bled. They were willfully oblivious to our presence and activity.

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They saw their presence on the canyon floor as a logical progression. Their God loved a winner, and they had clearly won, as evidenced by the grass, asphalt and chlorinated water granted them by the resort and denied to the rest by a strand of barbed wire. We had a different take.

On our way to the climb, we had run across a pair of strays who had wandered outside the wire. They were women in their 30’s or 40’s who looked kept. There were signs of cosmetic surgery. They wore expensive jewelry and athletic fashion.

They stood at the outlet of an access trail which led 15 steps from the fence to the main trail. They asked us where the main trail went and how difficult it was to follow. We told them that it was a beaten path to the end of the canyon, a couple of miles from where they stood. After consulting with each other for a moment, they thanked us for the information, but said that they had decided to return to their enclosure, as the risk of getting lost was too great.

Looking up from the resort, I could see an overhanging cliff beneath which the Sinagua people had built one of their stone shelters. The dwelling itself was hidden. They had come and gone long ago. Even their descendants bore only foggy memories of the Sinagua.

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The Sinagua did not know that the canyon was designated wilderness, of which they were one user-group. I don’t think they could have comprehended the possibility. They understood impermanence, however, better than the current user groups. They perceived the impossibility of carving out a zone where they could excuse themselves from the land, weather and climate. When the time came, they moved on from their dwellings, and made no history. Continuity of experience was enough for them.

 

 

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Genesis

Along with The Fang, Bridalveil, Kamps Crack, and The Beckey Route, Genesis is a very tired route name. Everyplace has one, including Sedona.

It is a little more relevant in Sedona, because the name graces a route on the walls above the crazy-ass Chapel of the Holy Cross. In the land of the Vortex and burnt-Hippie spiritualism, The Catholic Church just had to get its two cents in. It built a huge, coffin-shaped edifice into the red rock, with a cross from floor to ceiling on the end.

It fits.

And Genesis fits. It is the beginning of a series of routes across the Church Wall.

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The approach is not great. You could die. It wouldn’t be easy, but you could.

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The belay ledge is spacious and picturesque.

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The climbing is good.

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Well-protected.

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With everything from 0.25-4 Camalot sizes. There is a second pitch – see all the loose blocks and the knife-edge flake above the anchor? We did not do that.

Genesis is worthwhile, especially if you approach by climbing Easy Rider on the other side of the Watchtower formation, and simply walk over to the start of Genesis from the anchors.

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