We keep coming back to it.
Because, it is one of the best climbs in Sedona.
It has four distinct cruxes.
Starting right off the deck.
My son demonstrates the most photogenic method of ascent. He still has a way to go; good technique is boring.
This Summer, climbing ended.
A journey which began in exploration of the heights by a few weirdos equipped with boots and a powerful dissatisfaction with life on the flats, concluded when Alex Honnold climbed El Capitan in Yosemite Valley equipped only with boots and a powerful dissatisfaction with life on the flats.
El Cap. was where the closure had to happen. It was where climbers rounded the bend to see the sport’s conclusion, because El Cap. was where the use of climbing implements – pitons, ropes, chocks, etc. – peaked and then slowly started to tilt toward freedom. Now, parties still engineer their way up the face of Yosemite’s premier monolith, but their methods have been exposed as second-best. They have been rendered the sport’s Civil War reenactors by the nuclear blast of Honnold’s solo.
Yet there may be hope for roped climbing. It may still be more than shooting blanks at a campout.
All history looks circular from a certain perspective, but that view misses the metamorphoses within lifecycles. And, that miss is a big one. The transformations carry all the themes, while the repetitions merely demonstrate mechanisms.
Yes, the butterfly will lay eggs, but its wings are beautiful.
Ropes and pitons opened the way up previously forbidden ice and stone. But the equipment also bound us to each other and the mountains. The rope gave us things like Pete Schoening’s famous catch on K2 in 1953. Actually, it gave us the 1953 K2 expedition. It gave us Peter Terbush.
We shouldn’t forget that the rope also gave us Alex Honnold. Without a safety system which allows for failure, and for pushing past the point of failure, soloing is just a stunt, like going over Niagra Falls in a barrel. The rope allows soloing as perfection of an art. A soloist climbs alone, but not apart from other climbers.
Still, climbers are a breed apart, and not because we are capable of feats which are beyond the average citizen. The rope sets us apart. It lets us see that soloing El Cap. is not a stunt. Climbing accomplishments of all sorts, which the average citizen, mired as he is in the institutionalized narcissism of our civilization, can only see as ego gratification, we see as steps on a path to a broader vista.
Use of a rope gives access to that view: of the self as part of a team, the ego as malleable, and a person as part of the fauna on the vertical face of the crag. Some people will always yearn for that perspective, despite societal admonitions to keep looking down and stay in line. And so, roped climbing will persist as more than a quaint habit.
Ben Sasse fears for our youth.
He is a U.S. Senator, and therefore he is a very busy man with little time to spare for side projects. Yet, so great is his concern for our kids’ predicament, that he has taken the time to write a book about it. It is not a bad book, even if you do not agree with what it says. You will have to trust me (or not) on the exact contents, because, “You may not make this e-book public in any way”, is all I will quote directly from it.
His thesis is laid out in the book’s title, The Vanishing American Adult, and he has summarized the gist of his prescription in the subtitle, Our Coming-of-Age Crisis – and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance.
In the text, he depicts a generation afflicted by aimlessness. They have been stunted by coming up in the shade of social media and cultural relativism. Deprived of the harsh choices and bright lessons of social responsibilities and traditional rites of passage, kids have grown passive. They lack the ‘grit’ to sustain our society.
I won’t quibble with his depiction. Social media is a blight. The current generation operates on the assumption that ‘someone will take care of it’. Giving up is always an option for them.
I do disagree with his diagnosis and prescription, however. He seems to think that helplessness and hollowness result from a deficiency of citizenship. The correction would then involve a big shot of citizenship. He is completely mistaken. In fact, emptiness is the natural outcome of citizenship, and helplessness is just a reactive symptom.
On the most basic level, citizenship is a position in which one gets told that one’s life is fungible. One’s time, attention, motivation, and psyche can be chopped up and traded for goods to satisfy certain needs. Of course, Sasse recognizes this situation. He mentions “development of the individual” on a couple of occasions as a worthy pursuit, but only if it is pursued to certain ends (becoming responsible, self-sacrificing, ‘gritty’ – in other words, all those things that make a solid citizen). As far as I can tell, only the ends distinguish healthy developmental activities from selfishness, in Sasse’s estimation. And in a shocking coincidence, healthy ends are those for which the goods of citizenship come in handy.
“Why won’t my blood sugar go down?”
Maybe my analysis is unfair. Sasse contends that we are all a little defective, and our institutions may be a little defective, too. We should not expect a perfect synergy between man and social machine, even though the basic program is sound and actually the best that we can do.
But I hear differently all the time.
“I’m doing all those things that the diabetic educator told me to. I have changed my diet. I am walking every day. I am taking my medications like clockwork. So why is my blood sugar still high?”
This person is in my office every day, wearing a different, outfit, a different ethnicity, or a different gender. Yet they are the same person. They have a sit-down job, or two, in which they spend 40-60 hours per week dealing with an incestuous dataset – something so about itself, whether it is driving a cab or processing claims, that it demands attention to automatisms rather than any particular skill. To ensure that their attention does not waver, an overseer tracks their activities and rates their efficiency. Their extraneous physiological and psychological functions are regulated by the employer as distractions.
The citizen in my office sleeps 6 hours per night, or less. They drink energy drinks to keep going, and eat foods which the package or the vendor says are healthy, because they haven’t the time or energy to prepare their own food. They are too exhausted to exercise properly.
As a result, they are obese, diabetic and hypertensive. As a result, they now require one of the goods for which they can sub-divide themselves: medical care.
Which brings us to where the defense of citizenship as a natural-born fertilizer for human development, breaks down. The trouble with the whole thing is not the palate of goods on offer, their costs, or the means of valuation. The trouble is the chopping, because the roots of experience (attention, motivation, responsiveness, etc.) can’t be cut up for a purpose, especially for delayed gratification of a specific need. The very notion mistakes the nature of needs and the relationship between our needs and our activities. Here, Sasse may have been better served by spending a little more time reading Nietzsche, and a little less time reading Rousseau and the Bible.
For an organism’s needs can’t really be parsed. The motivations underlying our activities are merely aspects of a single motive which Nietzsche labeled ‘will to power’. Even when we try to perform an isolated act of attention, we feel something about it, our neuro-hormonal system responds to it, and it tires us globally.
But Sasse seems to think there’s a neat way around the problem of dividing the indivisible.
Life on the Farm or 8 Pitches Up?
In the latter half of the book, Sasse talks about how he sent his daughter to work on a ranch. The idea was to teach her how to enjoy work – not any particular task, but work itself. Basically, he sought to teach her how to thrive as an instrument. It’s pretty clever, really.
He explains the strategy in a vignette:
Martin Luther met a man who had just become a Christian and wanted to know how best to serve the Lord. He asked Luther, “How can I be a good servant? What should I do?” He expected Luther to tell him that he should quit his job and become a minister, monk, or missionary.
Luther replied with a question, “What do you do now?
“I’m cobbler. I make shoes”, the man answered.
“Then make great shoes”, Luther replied, “and sell them at a fair price – to the glory of God.”
In other words, find integrity in being a good instrument. I think the flaw in this reasoning is obvious: Why not make great shoes to the glory of Satan? It’s the devotion part that really matters, right? This notion of the human lost at heart and essentially in search of a set of rails (any rails) undergirds fascism through the ages, and it works superficially, so long as the social venue is stable.
But I took another path with my kids, because I learned more from sitting on a ledge, than I ever did from a job.
We have climbed several long routes together. We have looked up, down, and out from ledges in the middle of those routes and soaked in the lessons: however precarious the position, what falls to us is to pass the water around, check the system, and find our way through the next rope-length of terrain; trust your partners as you trust yourself; no matter how cold, hot, tired or thirsty you are, the beauty of the sky and landscape remain; achievement, i.e. ‘ticking the route’, doesn’t really matter – it is only a means to get you to the ledge.
In taking them on those climbs, my hope was to offer them a way of life which put making a living in perspective, rather than telling them that making a living would put everything in perspective for them.
A different vignette illustrates my point:
Cook Ding was cutting up an ox for Lord Wenhui. At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee — zip, zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the Dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Jingshou Music.
“Ah, this is marvelous!” said Lord Wenhui. “Imagine skill reaching such heights!”
Cook Ding laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way [“Dao”], which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now, now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.”
“A good cook changes his knife once a year — because he cuts. A mediocre cook changes his knife once a month — because he hacks. I’ve had this knife of mine for nineteen years and I’ve cut up thousands of oxen with it, and yet the blade is as good as though it had just come from the grindstone. There are spaces between the joints, and the blade of the knife has really no thickness. If you insert what has no thickness into such spaces, then there’s plenty of room — more than enough for the blade to play about it. That’s why after nineteen years the blade of my knife is still as good as when it first came from the grindstone.”
“However, whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I’m doing, work very slowly, and move the knife with the greatest subtlety, until — flop! the whole thing comes apart like a clod of earth crumbling to the ground. I stand there holding the knife and look all around me, completely satisfied and reluctant to move on, and then I wipe off the knife and put it away.”
“Excellent!” said Lord Wenhui. “I have heard the words of Cook Ding and learned how to nurture life!”
— Zhuangzi, chapter 3 (Watson translation)
I do not see the current generation as sissified hedonists, any more than previous generations. The hypersensitivity, the passivity, the absorption (self and otherwise) all look like symptoms of a bunker mentality. They see what’s in store for them and they don’t like it, but they don’t seem to know how to resist.
A Sasse-type message has gotten through. The citizenry coming of age does think that it must learn to embrace a social role (little worker, little voter, little contributor) wholeheartedly in order to fully mature, and it just can’t bring itself to do so. The instinct is right. Kids growing up in this era are being asked to pursue a sort of faux-maturity which involves merely “giving up childish things”, and the achievement of that state will leave them empty and utterly dependent on a structure which deals with them on the basis of a flawed methodology.
They need a little less Ben Sasse, and a little more Cook Ding, when it comes to advice about how to grow up. Because maturity means dealing with your situation – not just endorsing it – and dealing with it artfully. It means getting over being The Cobbler, The Christian, The Cobbler-Christian, or even The Cook.
In Sasse’s terms, I have laid out the Romantic counter-argument to his Realist argument regarding the nature of the individual’s relationship to civilization. But I reject that characterization to some extent. There isn’t an inherent conflict between the individual and the civilization. We are stuck with our civilization. It lies before us like the carcass of a great ox, and it is just as indifferent.
We get chopped up in our interaction with it, but our own hand is on the knife. And I agree with Ben Sasse here, maturity is the solution. Not the faux maturity which the senator espouses, which is just a form of selling out, but actual maturity which sets limits and carves its own way, not towards some magical future, but like the cook’s knife, in the present where we all reside.
We finally got around to climbing the Mace. Well, we got around to mostly climbing it. We skipped the step between the spires, the scramble to the summit register, and the jump back across. The last section just didn’t add to the meaning of the climb. Plus, we left our water at the base, and we were getting thirsty.
We put off the Mace in anticipation of the right weather conditions. The route ducks in and out of the morning shadows, so it needed to be warm, but not hot.
Spring finally came around, and after several false starts due to damp conditions, we made our way to the foot of the spire.
The first pitch started up a chimney, then broke left to pass a small roof.
The second pitch began as a steep hand crack. After a few feet, the angle relented and the crack branched into an easy offwidth to the left.
A traverse left came next, followed by a bit more chimney.
At the top of the chimney, the route got weird. The way lead through a gap between a trio of towers, to a steep corner with a finger/hand crack in the back of it. But one did not need to stay in the corner. The three pillars allowed a ping-pong ascent, with steps back and forth from the corner to the other pillars. At one point, I was able to stand on top of the rear tower and take a break while reading the chalk-marks on the opposite face.
The clever options ended in a pod which tapered upwards to the critical 15 feet of the route. At the crux, the crack became a leaning, chicken-wing offwidth, made even more insecure by a bolt which proved awkward to clip and showed an unseemly amount of thread peeking over the edge of the hanger.
A few more feet led to the top of the penultimate spire.
My son plopped down at the anchor and said, “Never again.”
Obviously, he didn’t care to lean across to the ultimate spire and jump back across the gap on the way down (the draw for most who climb the Mace).
Neither did I, but not because I thought that the route was worthless. I thought that the route was interesting, if not good. It deserved to stand on its own merit, rather than on a circus trick at the top.
“Look at those assholes. Ordinary fucking people. I hate ’em.”
– Bud, Repo Man
I dodge between the two ant-lines of hikers, one ascending and one descending the gravel path. About one in five says hello. I don’t respond. I am not here to socialize. I am not part of their program. There are few solo travelers, like me. Most hikers walk in groups of two or three, chatting about their jobs or mortgages. The majority of the loners are not really alone, either. They are on their Bluetooth devices, conversing with insubstantial partners on the trail.
The only socially isolated walkers come by it naturally. They are the elderly. Bent over their trekking poles with grim determination, getting their exercise as prescribed.
I pass them all and turn off on a steep trail to the peak. Without breaking stride, I scramble up a little chimney and across an exposed traverse to a ledge. There, I set up the rope for my training climb.
Crouched like a gargoyle, I take a moment to glower upon the crawling lines of walkers, now far below. The feeling of the moment is familiar. I had it just a week before in Ouray.
There were no walkers in the ice park, with one exception: an elderly lady walking her Papillion. The lady smiled and waved to my son and myself as we trudged up the snow packed road. She was wearing shearling slippers and mismatched halves of a pair of tracksuits. She did not look out of place.
The narrow gorge teemed with climbers on top rope. Belayers chatted amongst themselves about technique and equipment. Downstream, a group waiting in line to climb, fired up a hibachi. Charbroil smoke wafted up the streambed.
I really don’t begrudge the outdoor recreationalist his or her fun. He or she belongs to other things: careers, classes, religions, cultures. I understand. Belonging puts climbing and everything associated with climbing in perspective. It justifies the ice park atmosphere and bidirectional queues in the desert.
I understand because, as I crouch on the little ledge, a strong sense of belonging comes over me. I look down over the ant lines, the obscene Scottsdale compounds, and the roads leading off toward the ice park. I lean back on the rough desert granite, one hand on the rope, and it all comes into perspective.
Today was a climbing day, and I woke up tired. This happens with some regularity, and I have learned not to put too much stock in feelings of early morning fatigue. Like delayed-onset muscle soreness, tiredness is part of life’s Muzak.
I have learned to just get up, move around a bit, and turn off the thought process until the first 8 oz. of coffee get into the moving parts. Then, I can take a breath and figure out what I ought to do. Sometimes, I figure I ought to go climbing, less frequently, I figure I ought not.
I did not go today. There were traffic issues, household chores, homework for the kids, and an empty fridge, all weighing on me. But I could ignore those trivialities if the day looked promising from a climbing standpoint. If I had a good day out, I would return with motivation to spare for shopping, vacuuming, and glaring at a teenager while he did everything in his power to avoid completing an English research project on time.
However, today did not look promising. When I thought about the plan, I could not get my motivation to gel around the climbing which lay in store. Of course, a sort of meta-motivation was there, driving the self-assessment process.
Meta-motivation is part of the Muzak too, and is the explanation for why I actually get up when the alarm goes off, instead of following my tiredness back to sleep.
I can climb on the meta-motivation. I have climbed on the meta-motivation. It depletes itself, though. It relies on ambitions and creates them – getting to the next level of difficulty, getting payback on the route that thwarted me, keeping up or catching up with partners. Leaning on the meta-motives fails to reconcile the day’s motives with their sources in one’s emotional state, severity of muscle fatigue, metabolic state, etc. It works for a while, but the sources will not be ignored forever, and come back around to bite in the form of injuries and burn-out, neither of which can be overcome by ambition.
The day’s motive is the real thing, not the desire to realize plans and ambitions. Too bad it is so slippery. It can be reconciled with its sources in principle, but understanding the depth and relevance of the various sources is tricky.
The climbing-day ritual, in which motives get explored and reconciled with current affairs, is a moral endeavor, of sorts. Through it, I learn what I ought to do, and in a way which cannot be attributed to a calculation of debits and credits, or simple puzzle-solving, in which I just match up pieces of motive and facts at hand.
I think maybe that’s the way it is with all moral endeavors. They aren’t problem-solving with moral facts. All moral evaluations seem to suffer from the troubles of theodicy, if they are factual. The explanation for the existence of evil in a world ruled absolutely by a good God eventually defaults to the relevance of evil in light of God’s (infinite) magnitude. But all things go to zero along that asymptote. So it is with the determination of moral facts. One moral fact may always supersede the next, looking forward, and the qualifications proliferate endlessly in retrospect.
If that’s the case with the pursuit of moral fact, then pursuing moral fact is much like climbing on meta-motivation. The chase will lead to diminishing returns and, finally, to contradictions.
“I didn’t bring my gear because they said there was no climbing in Sedona. Because it is sandstone. Like Las Vegas.”
– Anonymous climber, sadly hiking by the base of The Pirate
Who would lie so viciously? Most sandstone is climbable. Maybe you have to approach it like a mixed ice-climb; you know, distribute the weight, climb statically, don’t pull out.
And some of the climbs are apocryphal, or protected by hostile vegetation more nasty than anything the North Cascades could dream up (yes, worse than Devil’s Club).
But there is so much that is so good.
I looked at the anchor. There was a lot to it, but it was all small. Still, it showed no sign of motion when I bounced on it. Bouncing on it was my job, and that was OK, even if the anchor failed its test. I hadn’t called ‘off belay’ yet. If the whole thing blew out of the crack in the Apache sandstone, I would fall about thirty feet.
It wouldn’t be pretty, but everyone would survive, because I had done the same thing at the last anchor. Having tested the set-up, I did the usual thing and stopped worrying about it. I would check it a couple more times as part of the process, but those would be dispassionate inspections and a matter of course.
I felt a twinge of pride in my hard-earned discipline because, from a certain perspective, I was in the process of engineering m own Armageddon. I had both of my teenage children 500 feet up a technical climb with no fixed anchors. If things went wrong, everybody could end up dead. Sure, the climbing was far from a red-zone effort for me, but the possibility remained. From a certain perspective, our trip up the route was irresponsible, if not abusive on my part.
The perspective in question had been on public display over the past couple of weeks. Just before our climb, two alpinists were given up for dead on a mountain in Pakistan. The typical mewling followed.
“Darwinism in action.”
“High price for a cheap thrill.”
As always, the simpering pieces of shit making those comments were … well, to be fair, they were simply unqualified to comment. They were the kind of weak which makes me ashamed to be classified in the same species as them.
They were Nietzsche’s vision of the last man, realized.
I believe the term-of-art is, “punk-ass bitches”.
Anyone who has climbed knows why the two men were on that mountain in Pakistan. They were there because it moved them – the mountain, the climbing, the commitment, the whole thing. While they were climbing, they were living by a pure aesthetic, and anyone who has not lived that, cannot understand it.
Those who have lived it know: There is no other reason.
…A Louisiana man died in Arizona after he was stung more than 1,000 times by bees….was hiking with friends in a Mesa park when a swarm of bees attacked…Park employees and a Good Samaritan tried to help … was lying on the ground still covered with bees. They couldn’t get close enough to him because of the large, aggressive swarm..
“I just wanted to bring it to your attention,” the younger boy said in his most weary tone, “that there are bees flying in and out of the hole in the rock up there.”
“I’ve been watching them for a few minutes,” he added.
Damn, it looked like we would just have to climb Dr. Rubo’s Wild Ride again.
The bees’ nest sat above the first pitch belay for Quiet Storm. It appeared to be a good route, but maybe we were better off leaving it for another day anyway. For “a few minutes”, I had been scoping the route. The line was enticing, but the belay at the top of the first pitch was a little cramped, and I wasn’t exactly sure that I could see where the second pitch traverse started. Dr. Rubo’s rated a fair bit easier, but it made up in aesthetics what it lacked in difficulty.
We quickly packed up our gear and moved around to the SW side of the sandstone tower. The bees paid us no mind; the heat had yet to stir them to an irritable state.
I started up the little corner with the subconscious expectation of cruising it. But like a good, smoky scotch, the route demanded slow sips. It was all there, but it was often behind, or on the arête, or wedged in the flaring crack. The technique shifted continuously through the little roof above the first set of fixed anchors. Then, came the 30 feet of perfect hand-crack.
One more small roof marked a transition to an easier slab above, and the anchors.
Pitch 3 was the notorious traverse. Compared to some routes in the Black Hills (Three Rings comes to mind), the hazard level was low. A fall would have been inconvenient, but probably not injurious.
From the gear anchor, it was a short jaunt across to the other half of the tower, past a bolt-protected boulder problem, and up to the top. The top was no anticlimax either. A platform the size of a large dining table, it was flanked by the looming Coffee Pot formation on one side, and the valley south of Sedona on the other.
A free-hanging, 190 ft. rappel topped it all off.
We skirted wide of the beehive to retrieve our packs, as the traffic in and out of the hole had picked up, and a few of the little bugs on the way to nearby cactus flowers, detoured to buzz around our heads.
We would come back. It was easy to justify having a look with a such nice consolation prize in hand.
One hundred degrees feels hotter in the desert than it does in town. The relentlessness of the sun is part of the difference. Running in the Sonoran desert, in Summer, is unwise, but I don’t claim to be wise. It is just a few miles, after all, on good trails.
The sun is rising high by the time I get going. The first three or four miles remain comfortable, but I can feel the heat building in the air and in my blood. I have to slow down. Still, it gets hotter.
Half way around the pile of granite blocks which passes for a mountain in these parts, I feel a little adrenergic twinge. Those who have pushed themselves will understand what I mean. It is the thing that comes after a second wind in the form of a slightly panicky, angry feeling accompanied by a tightening of the skin and a little nausea.
The feeling marks a reserve opening up, but at a price. Blood goes to the muscles and away from the viscera, but also away from the skin, where it is needed to exchange heat with the air. I slow down some more, but the heat keeps building.
I am getting close now. I can see the power lines which cross the trail just a half mile from the trailhead, with its shade-shelter and water. I think I know just how much I can allow myself to speed up, and I do.
The last quarter mile feels a little desperate, but I trot into the shade in good form, with a little left. I walk back and forth for a long time, cooling down. A cop patrolling the trailhead gives me a hard look. I understand; I don’t like the idea of getting sucked into a rescue either.
I was close to the edge. How close, I don’t know. That’s the thing. You can’t know where the edge is until you are over it.
Or rather, there isn’t really an edge. Sure, there’s a last step and an end to all efforts, but that last step is in a different spot every day. You can get pretty good at knowing when you’re close to the last step, but you can never know just exactly where and when you will collapse. The uncertainty keeps things interesting. The uncertainty is motivating.
And, the uncertainty is everywhere. The same run is not the same run. Feet land in different spots, the wind shifts, the sandy dirt is soft or packed.
So it is with all defined entities and their instances. Identities hold for instances. This desert is this desert, where I run this close to the edge, but not over. That is true. This desert is also the Sonoran Desert – practically, but not really. Accepting the latter sort of identity gets me to the trailhead, but no more. It doesn’t get to the truth, any more than talk of the edge informs me where the edge really is.
But now I recall; it is not true that there is an edge, only a retrospective, last step. I’m always thinking about the edge, because it helps keep me off the last step. Knowing about the last step does nothing for me, even though it is the truth.
Or rather, it does nothing because it is the truth. It is local and transparent. I can’t pack it up in a box and take it away to inform me elsewhere and in the future. But because it is local and transparent, I must move by it. And because I must move by it, the truth is inextricable from my motivation.
I think that’s why all of us remain enamored with the truth, even though it is useless in its own right. I know that’s why I will continue to run in the desert – the uncertainty of the true, last step and the very deficiency of my edge-theory – even though it may not be the most useful thing for my health in the end, mental or otherwise.