Category Archives: climbing

Bees and Sech

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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A free-hanging, 190 ft. rappel topped it all off.

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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.

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We would come back. It was easy to justify having a look with a such nice consolation prize in hand.

 

 

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The edge

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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.

 

 

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More

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Damn, why won’t the rope move? Instinctively, I blame the belayer. Instinctively, but also because I know him as the kid who has a D in English because he’s bored with English and so doesn’t try to do well in English. He has already told me that he’s bored with belaying today.

I yell down, “Slack!”

“There is slack!” comes the answer.

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Uh-oh. I pull on the rope again, and flip the cord hard a couple of times, all to no avail.

The hell if I’m going to spoil the clean lead. I place a pair of cams and clip in without weighting them. I tie a clove in the rope through a carabiner  clipped to my belay loop, and then I carefully climb back down, past one piece, to the little roof. There, I find the source of the problem.

It’s a splitter problem, and one I’ve never encountered before. As I moved above the roof, the rope slipped into the crack and behind the cam I’d placed at the lip. With some tension coming from the GriGri, the rope had pushed the cam farther into the narrowing crack and gotten itself stuck behind the gradually closing, upper lobe of the cam.

At this point I must note, that the tension from the GriGri is not the older boy’s fault. The last thing I say to him before I leave the ground is, “No Euro-loops.”

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God help him; he listens to me. I am subsequently tugging on the rope all the time. Until this moment, it has seemed harmless, or even helpful, as resistance training.

Now, to free up the rope, I really should lower myself below the roof, not stand at the lip, where I am. But, that would mean hanging on the anchors.

Instead, I reach down below my feet and commence to jiggling. I’ll admit, I am still learning how to place  clean cams in sandstone. I have a tendency to over-cam them a little, and a little is all it takes to makes the device’s hold on the soft, grippy rock, tenacious.

The hold for my left hand is good, but I’m stretched out completely and off-balance, so my feet offer little more than moral support. The clock begins to tick. I can feel my fingers start to slide off their sandy perch. But I can also feel the cam shifting slightly, so I keep fighting the losing battle: re-adjust, slip a little faster, re-adjust, etc.

Just before I melt off the hold completely, the cam gives. I can turn it upside down and retract the lobes. I step up and settle into the jams above the roof for a rest.

Once I catch my breath, I trudge back up to the anchor and tie in to the end of the rope once more.

“Back on,” I yell, and as an afterthought, “This still counts!”

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There is no response from the belay. It’s OK; that’s why the GriGri and the parent/child relationship were invented. Both allow us to learn sympathy for ridiculous people.

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A second crux awaits just before the anchors. I don’t pass it quite as gracefully, now that I’m tired, but it goes. I can’t convince the kids to follow the route. They offer the excuse that they are too tired from climbing Andy Kauffman Crack.

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I don’t believe them for a second, but at least they indulge me (and vice versa). If that’s all they get from the experience, it’s enough.


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They did come back to climb Rusty Cage. The pair of climbs – Rusty Cage and Andy Kauffman Crack – are on the back side of North Mesa. Just walk up the Cathedral
Rocks trail off Back O’ Beyond road. Where the trail passes a little cliff band on the right, keep going on a right branch instead of continuing up and left with the hikers who are headed for a saddle between the two major sets of formations which constitute the Cathedral Rocks. Keep walking all the way around the corner at the far end of the North Mesa. When it looks like you are about to come to the end of the road, look uphill to the left. You will see a shady grotto formed by a pair of towers nestled close against the main formation. You will recognize Rusty Cage as the clean splitter on the right. Andy Kauffman Crack is hidden on the left.

Rusty Cage is .10 c and takes a red tricam, a # 2 Camalot, and then  as many or as few # 3 Camalots as you feel comfortable placing. Six of them keep you looking at no more than a 20-footer at any time.

Andy Kauffman is a corner and then a roof. It is well protected, but takes a # 5 Camalot or a bit of alpine run-out skill in the section just before the roof. Multiples of 1’s, 2’s and 3’s help if you are getting used to sandstone .10 a.

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The Time Has Come

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The oldest child will begin to lead. I’ll admit, I’m a little nervous. Leading is for real, or at least a little more for real than following on a toprope. Still, the transition to leading is as much a shift in psychological reality as it is in physical reality.

You lose control of the short fall, but gain some control over the big one. Tying in to a rope through someone else’s anchor never feels quite the same after you start leading. It is better and worse at once, since you know how many ways their set-up could be defective, and you commit to trust it nonetheless.

I don’t want him to fall. I sure don’t want him to get hurt. I suppose I could turn around and tell him to hoard his life. He wouldn’t abide the dysfunction that goes along with hoarding, though. Ambition turned toward more and more security for its own sake. Money to buy security. Prayers to beg security. Saturdays at work and Sundays listening to some chump explaining how nice it would be to live forever, and how penis-mechanics somehow preoccupy the Almighty. He knows better than all that; he’s watched the swifts.

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Trying to be attractive? Pretty sure they know shit about attractive.

White-bellied swifts fly around our crags. I have seen them fly through a crack narrower than their wingspan and reverse course almost within their own body-length. They happen to feed on bugs loitering around the cliffs. What they do, however, is fly. The bugs are incidental.

Once you see that arrangement of motivations and necessities, you can’t see it back the other way. So, I don’t think I could stop him from leading, even if I really wanted to.

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It’s OK. I can live with the nervousness. It is an incidental. It will get its due and no more.

 

 

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Schnebly Hill Road

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Getting a feel for the rock

 

Sedona is not quite as hard to negotiate as the Needles. The sandstone canyons and pinnacles sprawl across a true Western landscape. The sense of the place suggests reference to heavenly fairytales, rather than middle-earthly ones. Still, you can get skunked. The routes and the approaches are often not as they appear from afar, and bushwhacking through a sea of prickly pear and wrap leaf bursage is not a viable alternative to hitting the right approach, right.
But, there is a sure thing: the Roadside Crag on Schnebly Hill Road. It isn’t a total gimme, but anyone should be able to get there and do some climbing with a little diligence.

The road itself takes off uphill at about 2 o’clock (if the roundabout is oriented North-South) from the last roundabout on highway 179 before it meets up with highway 89. This is the traffic circle right where the road crosses Oak Creek.

Schnebly Hill Road goes on for about 1/2 mile as rough pavement before it turns to rough dirt at the Marg’s Draw trailhead. If you have a low clearance vehicle, park it there. Although there is always some low-rider van parked improbably beyond the array of ruts, drops and boulders between the end of the pavement and the first picnic area, the sane will not want to subject themselves or their vehicle to the rigors of two-wheeling this 4WD track.

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Looks easy. Look closer.

 

If you have a high-clearance vehicle, pull in behind one of the pink tour jeeps and bounce your way to a small pull off about 1.8 miles up the road, on the left side. If you aren’t riding, you’re walking. But it is a pleasant walk, largely in the shade on a gentle grade. Mind you don’t get run over by a pink jeep – you don’t want your kinfolk passing that tale down the generations.

The right spot is where the creek suddenly gets wider and the road looks like it is about to pass left around the end of the Teapot formation which has been on your left for the last mile (yes, it really does look like a teapot in the process of being carved from the rock ridge).

Cross the creek on the trail and find a climbers’ trail branching off to the right as you go up the hill towards the end of the sandstone wall which flanks the far side of the little valley. The whole walk should take no more than 5-10 minutes, and you should be able to see the anchor bolts above the routes from the road.

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The creek crossing

 

There are 3 routes to lead here, and a top-rope in between, if you can figure out how to get to the anchor. The farthest climb to climber’s left, and just up and left from one of two very nice shade trees (the crag gets sun for most of the day), is Tourist Trap. It is hands and off-width. Bring gear from finger-sized to # 5 Camalot. You don’t have to get into the wide crack if you do not want to; lie-backs will get you through.

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Tourist Trap

 

Just right of Tourist Trap is Steal Your Face/Crack. It starts with four, generously spaced bolts on easy climbing, then goes up a short, steep section of pockets (red tricam is very useful) before transitioning into a featured hand crack. Take gear to #4 Camalot.

Lastly, above the finest shade tree on the right side of the crag, is Roadside Attraction. Steeper than the other two routes, this one is a nice mix of finger locks, hand jams and face holds. It takes gear to #2 Camalot, mostly on the smaller side, with multiple good stopper placements in the first half.

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Roadside Attraction

 

These routes are safe, have solid fixed anchors, and can be done with a single, 60 meter rope. The ratings are 5.9-5.10 and not sandbagged. All in all, a good place to go to get a feel for the rock, and to get a pleasant day of climbing under your belt before venturing off to face spiteful vegetation and frightening exposure on one of the local towers.

But, it is not the only cragging destination in Sedona, just maybe the kindest. If you want more, there is more to come…

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Rusty Cage

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Worried About That Gag and Dog Collar in Your Closet? Let Me Show You Something…

 

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As I was shopping for knee-pads, I realized: I might have a problem. It was clear that I had developed an unhealthy appetite and here I was, about to feed it. The pads would allow me to wear lighter clothing and so carry on climbing wide cracks into the heat of Summer.

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I fondled one of the expensive pads. It was real leather and neoprene. Clearly, the expensive pad was superior, but it would get destroyed just as fast as the cheap ones. My poor technique limited the pad’s lifetime, sure. However, the nature of my needs did too.

 

Because, there is a beautiful variety of wide-crack climbing. I refer to the art practiced by people like Luebben, Scarpelli, Randall, Jackson, etc., involving maneuvers like Levittaion, the Kick-Through, and the Hand/Fist Stack. The technique involves only limited insertion of the practitioner’s anatomy into the gap in the rock during any one maneuver. The movement is improbable, powerful and gymnastic.

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Someday…

I am incapable of such feats, and furthermore, they are not what I want. I’ll admit, I am after something to fill the hole left by separation from (relatively) easy access to ice. I want a fight. Just like some people cannot feel loved until they have had their bottom spanked, I am only truly happy with climbing when I have done something unlovely, daunting, and bloody.

It isn’t that I don’t enjoy a technical or purely physical challenge, it’s just that I want the stuff just beyond. I want to have to hold it together and be stopped, if I am stopped, by the total exhaustion of everything at my disposal.

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The kind of wide crack that delivers for me, does not abide expensive knee pads. It is too abusive. You have to climb into it, and the whole trip resembles nothing more than an edentulous dog trying to chew up a bone. It is not pretty. Perhaps it is even obscene. I just can’t help it, though.

 

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Sedona

Why is the place surrounded by myth?
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Vortexes?
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Crumbly rock?
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Bad gear?
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Well, at least there aren’t any vortexes.

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Realism in the Time of the Troonians

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My son pointed at the massive dwelling crouched on the mountainside below us.
“Just one mortar round…,” he said, “Wouldn’t you like to see it?”
He was having some trouble adjusting to our move from rural Wyoming to the swanky part of the Southwest desert. He took little comfort in my assurances that all the car washes and golf courses would soon (in geologic terms) suck the metropolis dry and leave its snotty, effete denizens to perish on the parched dust like beached fish gasping for water. Even the fact that we were hastening the demise of this false oasis by our presence, did not satisfy him.
I, on the other hand, felt a certain degree of fulfillment from participating in the great blooming and dying-back.
But, I had to admit, I would like to see the house explode.
It was offensive to me, for a number of reasons.
The house was part of a cluster of housing developments and country clubs which had sprouted below a small range of granite crags north of Scottsdale. All were emblems of wretched excess, with the concomitant nomenclature: “The Estates at Xanadu”, “Regent Manors”, and the like. I had taken to lumping the lot under the oddest of their labels – “Troon”.
It wasn’t just a funny name; it designated a private golf course and a gated community, so it represented the entire syndrome nicely. The homes all cost millions, and they sprawled. The square footage stood for the worst aesthetic arrangement which our society had to offer, which was the joy of possession over the joy of experience.
Worse, though, was the history of the Troons relative to the surrounding crags. They had posed a serious risk to climbing access.
Most of the problems had been resolved with the creation of Pinnacle Peak Park. However, it was the idea behind the threat to climbing access that was offensive. The threat implied an equivalence, at least, between the Troonians’ appreciation for the crags, and my own.
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Clearly, that was not the case. For them, the rock constituted part of a lifestyle badge. It was kind of nice to look at, and living beneath it gave the Troonian status. He could feel a little removed, and above it all, like the proud peak in his backyard. He didn’t want climbers ruining the image of the rock, much less disturbing his sense of splendid isolation otherwise by yelling ‘off belay’ during his afternoon tea.
I understood the beauty of distant peaks, too. But I also knew the beauty of the rock close up, under finger and foot. It was something more, and forever unavailable to the Troonian. He had no right to impinge on my more complete and superior aesthetic.
But how could one convince a Philistine that he was a Philistine? The problem was intractable. He would always have some rejoinder about a set of related values which justified his being a rotten little twerp. In this case, it would be property, the rights of exchange which came with hard- earned (hah!) wealth, and liberty. Forget the fact that he could not own the rock in any meaningful way. He had to either bring it down or squat below it. Forget the fact that his array of goods for purchase was already limited by the aesthetics of his society, which found it distasteful, for instance, for him to buy humans for any purpose. Forget the fact that he had already sacrificed the greater portion of his liberty in the process of becoming a Troonian (the chances of one of those poor, business-softened bastards even scrambling up the Pinnacle Peak approach trail, were practically nil).
The Troonian’s frame of reference could not encompass my own. He would never be able to appreciate the inferiority of his aesthetic relative to mine, and so he would continue to hold his own values precious by mistake. If ethics boiled down to the reconciliation of intentionality and motivation with truth, there could be no ethical resolution between myself and the Troonian. There was no commonly held truth between us.
Traditionally, that class of differences has been settled with mortar shells. The Trooninan’s annihilation would be a consensual truth. But it would be a superimposed truth, and an impolite way of changing the subject. It missed the intention, since it was no longer about me and the Troonian and our aesthetic differences, but about the prejudicial elimination of those differences. And it was discordant with my motive, which was to appreciate the climbing experience.
The relevant truth was that the Trooinian and I valued something about the peaks, and generally valued our valuations in a similar way. That last bit was the truth that our difference was about, and it was not the truth to which my impulse to see his house explode and to hack him to death with a machete as he stumbled, flaming, from the wreckage, appealed. It did not feel as good, acting on this second-order stuff – the valuation of values – as would a good hacking which made its own truth. I could see how one would come to think that feeling anything about a moral decision was a red herring. And from there, I could see how one would come to think that moral decisions had a real and objective life of their own.
I looked back at my son.
“Hmmm,” I answered, “I’d rather climb the Y-crack.”
And I would. I would rather climb, keep my voice down, leave the crag before dark and choose to see the little McMansion at our feet as a quaint feature of the landscape. Hell, who knew? Maybe the squishy critter in the cage below us was really an old dirt bag who’d hit it big in the lottery and looked up at us with a sense of appreciation and nostalgia.
Maybe, but I doubted it.

Besides, there is always something better in Sedona

Besides, there is always something better in Sedona

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One and Done

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The one and only Devils Tower Climbers Festival has passed into the annals of our nation’s first national monument. It transpired over three days in September, and it aimed to be a little different than other climber rendezvous – but not too different. Festival events are hard to plan, but there are some successful examples to draw upon. For the Devils Tower event, the organizer studied a long-running festival nearby, and used it as a springboard. The idea was to take the International Climbing Festival in Lander, Wyoming and kick it up a notch.
The Lander Festival is a big to-do. It’s a party, really. There are cookouts, and vendors, and if there’s any extra time, a little bit of climbing. The afterthoughts occur at Wild Iris, a famous sport crag outside town. All in all, the International Climbers’ Festival at Lander, Wyoming is what passes for a glamorous event in the world of real, amateur climbing.
What the organizer of the Devils Tower gathering sought was not to out-glam the Lander event. That would be expensive and difficult. The idea was to be more authentic than Lander, and pull the climbing into the festival. Now, there was a complicating factor from the start. The climbers’ festival coincided in time, and mostly in space, with the annual Beer Fest in Sundance. The arrangement was intentional, and not entirely unreasonable. As a rule, climbers have taste for beer, not to mention wine, and the occasional sip of scotch. The organizer calculated that the Beer Fest might attract a few visiting climbers on its own merits. And, the Beer Fest had some notoriety to lend. It had grown large enough, over the few years since its inception to draw the ire of local moralists, as expressed on the opinion page of the town paper. If an event provoked fear in the righteous for the souls of the general public, that event likely had coattails.
What went unconsidered in the decision to link the two events, were the effect of alcohol on the climber psyche, and the true role of alcohol in the climbing culture. The ‘in-town’ events for the Climbers’ Festival were scheduled for the evening, while the Beer Fest was up and running soon after the sun rose. This was a mistake.
There is a thing in the climbing world called, “bailing” – as in bailing out of a stricken aircraft. It crosses all sub-disciplines. Everyone understands it. It refers to the abrupt decision to stop going up and start going down, in particular, and, by metaphor, any abrupt decisions to change course drastically in the face of adverse conditions. It carries the suggestion that one is definitively casting one’s fate to the wind. Attending the Beer Fest provided a strong temptation to ‘bail’ on evening lectures and slideshows in favor of, say, passing out.
On the first night, the ranger in charge of Devils Tower resource management gave a talk on the preservation of the Tower as a climbing destination, and the climbing management plan. It was a very good talk, I’m told. Three people attended. On night two, the crowd swelled to seven. However, there were more pictures and music ( the speaker is an accomplished pianist).
Nor was the drinking crowd prone to participate in the actual climbing part of the festival. But that should have come as no surprise. The climber’s reputation as a booze hound is largely mythological. It used to be the case, back when the avocation was associated with the counter-culture, and the gear was so bad that it helped one’s performance to be hung-over or even still a little drunk while climbing. But the modern climber is an athlete. He or she is much more likely to have a temperature controlled cooler full of (ostensibly) performance enhancing supplements in the back of the van, than a box of wine. Modern climbers have a bedtime.
Festivals still attract the alcohol traditionalists, but the drinkers don’t show up for any active activities. Such exertions are better left to the professionals. The drinking crowd wants a show – and a little validation. The best festivals leverage the dichotomy between the athletes and the partiers. The Southfork Icefest, for example, has the synergy dialed.
At the Icefest, the daily agenda begins with a fashionably late breakfast – ‘free’. You’d be crazy to pass it up. Then there are clinics and tool demos. These are held on some of the easier climbs in the valley, and are not too far from the road. After a couple of hours of edification, and having gotten properly chilled, everyone heads back to town to get ready for the evening meal and slideshow. As the food is served, a new group of festivants appears, burned by wind and sun, glassy-eyed, and still outfitted in their climbing gear. These stragglers have come for the “best lead” contest. Basically, it is a chance to spray, an irresistible opportunity for the hard core. Everyone gets to tell a story of the day’s climb, and why their partner should be rewarded for having lead the most mind-blowing route in the valley. Then there is a pull-up contest. Everybody leaves happy. The hard core have unburdened themselves and gotten some recognition. The rest have heard some stories and gotten a little validation by association. During the Devils Tower Climbing Festival, any visiting athletes remained at the Devils Tower campground, rather than venturing into town.
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Only one group of locals attempted to enter the real climbing event. That event was not ill-conceived. It capitalized on the history of the Tower as a bastion of traditional climbing by challenging participants to climb a route with passive gear only, and film the ascent. The best movie would win a new rope for the artistes. The only takers made a valiant effort. My partner and I spoke with them as they were headed up to climb Walt Bailey Memorial. We climbed a nearby route, Double Indemnity, so we could hear them all the while. It seemed to be going well, so we were surprised to see them all looking glum at the base of the rappels. Upon inquiry, the cameraman simply held up his iPhone, which he’d been using to record the leader’s success. It had fallen out of his pocket 250 feet above, at the start of the rappels. Even Gorilla Glass has its limits. The phone still came on, so they hoped to download the movie. But it was not to be. Chalk one up for the Luddites; the new rope went unclaimed.
They still showed up for the final day contests. This was the best-attended portion of the whole meet. It was held in the little park behind the county courthouse, just across the street from the beer fest. There were three events: slack chain walking (like a tightrope, but slack, and chain), a combination pull-up and ‘toes-to-bar’ lactate tolerance test, and crate stacking. The last contest stood out as the most entertaining. It was also the activity at which the attendees excelled. The test of strength was disappointing. Fifteen of each maneuver was the best that anyone could muster in the allotted two minutes. At the Southfork Icefest, I have watched Aaron Mulkey crank out 35 pull ups hanging from a pair of ice tools – and that’s after a hard day of climbing. Nobody got across the slack chain in three tries. But, climbing at the Tower doesn’t take pure footwork or arm power; it takes dynamic weight distribution. Stacking one milk crate upon the last, as one stands on the growing structure, tests one’s dynamic weight distribution. The winning total was 19.
Besides being suspenseful and impressive, the crate stacking event had an old-west flair, as it was conducted with the belay line strung from a giant cottonwood on the courthouse lawn, calling to mind the era of frontier justice. A crowd, drawn from the adjacent beer fest, gathered (the other two contests having been completely ignored), and a couple of wobbly young men among the onlookers even asked if they could have a go.
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When the climactic event concluded, the results were read and prizes distributed with little ceremony. Participants said their brief goodbyes and dispersed. No one felt particularly disappointed; it was just how things focused on the Tower, worked. The Bear’s Lodge is an awesome and intimidating object to regard. It reflects one’s attention back. As a whole, those who have stood at it’s base have recognized the mirror-effect. Aboriginal people have approached it privately, quietly, to leave their prayer bundles in the trees surrounding its rearing columns. Climbers feel it as well, and then some. Climbing at the Tower is hard. It can’t be overpowered or out-foxed. However, it will let you be as safe as you want to be. It treats its climbers like a good grandparent, at once strict and kind. It does not feel right to pound beers and get loud with grandfather looking over your shoulder. And maybe that is the main reason for the failure of the First Annual Devils Tower Climbers’ Festival, as such. However it was promoted, organized, and realized, it was still a party in honor of a place just doesn’t generate a party atmosphere. And that’s OK.

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Experiencing Embodiment – with Extreme Prejudice

Rowan on McCarthy West Face, Hong Variation

Rowan on McCarthy West Face, Hong Variation

The edge was huge – at least half a finger-pad wide. But how to get there? The fingers of my right hand were crimped on the vertical edge of a slight irregularity at shoulder height. My thumb lay across the top of the same feature. My feet teetered on the corner of the column which bordered the little roof. My left hand gripped the corner of the neighboring column, thumb down, elbow up, in a maneuver called a ‘Gaston’.
My right hand needed to get to that good edge. That edge meant security, success, salvation from the tension of my current situation. I stretched for the hold, pushing down with the Gaston and straightening my knees. It was too much for the foot holds on the corner. They needed pressure to work.
I was off.
I prepared to drop into the corner below the roof. I had two small chocks above the feature. They looked set when I placed them, but the crack flared slightly, and small stuff had a tendency to shift. In the time dilation of the fall, I got another glimpse of blood and hair on the rock below, left by a fellow traveler the week before.
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He had been climbing the standard variation on this route. His belayer had been standing on a comfortable patch of dirt about 50 feet below. He fell from about the same level as I had. With rope-stretch and slack in the system, he hit the ledge below the roof. He injured his leg in the initial impact, then flipped upside down and hit his head. He suffered a nasty scalp laceration, but fortunately no damage to the contents of his skull. We wore our helmets, and took the trouble to set the belay on the ledge below the roof. Never disregard a free lesson.
The little chocks held. I jerked to a stop just a few feet below the roof.
I looked down at my son. He looked bored. I couldn’t tell if the expression of ennui was a 15 year old boy’s affectation or actual lack of concern. I hoped it was the former.
“Lower me a little,” I asked him.
He complied, and I got back into the corner, a sporting distance below the difficulties. I moved back up to the overhang and inspected the chocks. They looked no worse for the wear. I grabbed the right hand crimp and set my feet on the corner. My left hand caught the Gaston.
This time, I ignored the edge. Keeping pressure on my feet, I reached up and pinched the corner with my right hand. I leaned back. Like so many things in climbing and outside it, the move felt precarious and it was committing – I would not be able to reverse it – but it was also the answer. My feet locked onto the small holds and I was able to step up. The right hand pinch turned into a good side-pull and my left hand swung up to a nice shelf. It was over. I plugged in a good cam and moved up to stand on the little ledge.
But, it wasn’t over. The corner above wasn’t as steep, but it was still thin and tricky. I got a short break. There was a section of crack climbing, with pretty good footholds. Then the crack closed up again. A bulge confronted me, with no obvious way past. I got a couple of small chocks in the corner formed by the intersecting columns, and took the most feasible path that I could see.
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Once upon a time, my mother-in-law had an out-of-body experience. She was in labor with her second daughter, and things were not going well. As they prepared her for an emergency C-section, she floated above her body and looked down on the scene in the surgical suite. My dearest love relates this story in terms of wonder, as an example of the mysteries of the world beyond our limited comprehension. Her appreciation for such mysteries is one of the things I love most about her. But for me, astral transformation is not so mysterious, though it remains wonderful. It is a familiar experience, and I pursue it doggedly.
It happens on the hardest moves of a climb sometimes. I can break down the moves before and after, but during the movement, the analytic distance disappears and another distance replaces it. The real me is absorbed in action and no longer has time for silly self-awareness. But, the reflective consciousness is selfish. If it can’t do, it will watch. The phenomenon is weird – like a movie observed, but not experienced. Yet it is also wonderful, because for a moment, thought is banished and everything is aligned in its proper place.
That’s what happened at the little bulge. With the moves mapped out in my head, I took a deep breath and began. The fugue hit me. Afterwards I could recall images of small adjustments. I saw my right foot move up to a tenuous hold that I could not have seen at the time. I saw my left foot stick to a sloping hold in the face of counter-pressure from my right hand, which rested flat against the wall of the dihedral.
At the time, I snapped back to a brighter day above the bulge, not entirely sure of how I got there, but feeling wonderful, with the whole thing still catching up to me. Or maybe, it was vice versa.
No matter, I soon stood at the anchor belaying my son as he followed the route (with only one fall and one hanging rest). My motivation had never been higher. I was itching for another lap on the climb – or maybe, something harder.

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