Tag Archives: risk

No Other Reason

img_1226

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.

img_1228

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.

img_1235

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.”

img_1239

“Stupid.”

img_1241

“Irresponsible.”

img_1242

“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”.

img_1245

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.

img_1247

Frogland, 5.8, 6-7 pitches, 700 feet, Red Rocks, Nevada

Those who have lived it know: There is no other reason.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , ,

More

IMG_1050

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.

IMG_1053

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.”

IMG_1059

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!”

IMG_1060

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.

IMG_1099

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.

IMG_1090

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.


IMG_1054

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.

IMG_1127

Tagged , ,

The Time Has Come

IMG_1083

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.

IMG_1084

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.

IMG_1085

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

 

 

Tagged , ,

Schnebly Hill Road

IMG_1046

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.

IMG_1049

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.

IMG_1041

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.

IMG_0997

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.

IMG_1047

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…

IMG_1050

Rusty Cage

Tagged , , ,

One and Done

IMG_0973
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.
IMG_0947
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.
IMG_0976
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.

Tagged , , , ,

Goodbye Needles

IMG_0869
As I prepare to move to the desert, I’m going back to do the climbs that have shaped me.
IMG_0883
I am climbing them with my sons. I will not imply a goodbye to my friends and partners over the years by involving them in the project. There is no goodbye for them.
IMG_0870
As I return to the old routes, I am finding them suddenly easier. I think it is because I am finally climbing them without any surpassing ambition.
I am not climbing them to become a better climber or to get to the next, harder route. Instead, I’m starting where one always ends: climbing to make the next move.
IMG_0884
And as I do so, I’m finding just how deeply those routes have etched my nerves, my bones, my ambitions, and my morality.
They’ve given me technique, tough fingers, persistence, acceptance, joy in small victories and peace in grander desires.
IMG_0880
Actually, I’m finding that I can’t say goodbye. I can’t surpass those routes, anymore than I can ever really untie from a partner. They’ve made me, and I will take them along to the desert.

Tagged , , , ,

Mouse-Catching

IMG_0827
“I was an idiot,” he said.
We looked up the thin crack dividing two, hexagonal pillars. The wind buffeted us, seated as we were on the sheared edge of a broken column-top.
He proceeded to explain that the route which we regarded had been the site of one of his ‘big whippers’. He’d had a proper ‘big whipper’ era when he was climbing hard, during his second decade.
In the case under discussion, he had been leading the route in the heat of the day. As he stepped up to the crux, a strenuous move involving counter-pressure, he passed out.
He looked like a skydiver in the fall, his limbs extended from his torso and flapping slightly against the rising airspeed. At least, that was his belayer’s description. He only remembers lurching back to consciousness as the rope came taut.
Now, the shade of the big whipper haunted the narrow split in the rock above us. I looked at his face. He would hold the rope if I climbed it.
He would do his best to shake his way up when I got to the top and yelled, “On Belay!”
But there were other mice to catch, and I knew where this one lived. It wasn’t like he didn’t want to climb the route. It might be the route he wanted most. It simply needed to ferment a little before he could take it in.
We rappelled back to the cozy ledge on the Southeast shoulder.
IMG_0822
Above the little garden of juniper and gooseberry perched on the sheer side of the Tower, every line was occupied.
A team from Boulder, CO was climbing up to the awful hanging belay on Soler, a climb every bit as good as any at their home crag. A pair from Montana was queued up right behind them. We would watch the two teams try to share the bolts at the unsupported stance as we left. At the other end of the ledge, a guided group of four was climbing the easiest route from the ledge, aiming for the summit.
The trip back to the base of the Tower involved a scrambling traverse. Most of the time, it was done with a single-layer safety system – the finger strength and caution of the climber. But the consequences of a mistake or mishap, like a falling rock, a seizure, cardiac dysrhythmia, etc., would be fatal. Having seen its vulnerability to the shade of the big whipper, such spooks preyed upon my friend’s mind. I paid out rope for him until he was safe, threw my end on the ground and followed.
Back at the base, we packed up and moved around to the West face. On the way, we passed the viewing tubes – sights pointed perpetually at the stake ladder constructed by two local ranchers years ago as a publicity stunt. Nobody was paying attention to the tubes. In fact, we saw few pedestrians until our way departed from the main trail.
There, my friend exchanged a few words with gawkers who shook their heads at what was, to their eyes, the modern equivalent of stake ladder activities. But I was already looking at the West face. We had not escaped the show. All of the prominent routes were occupied, some doubly. Perhaps the gawkers were partially correct; it was absurd.
We started up the boulder field. The day was too nice; we couldn’t turn away.
We found an open line, or at least, a line where we could establish priority.
As we sorted ropes and gear at the base of the thin crack, another team completed a nearby route. After they pulled their ropes, they began discussing further options, a little too loudly. One of their options, as it turned out, was our line. Usually, I would demur to visitors, but not in the midst of the carnival. We exchanged the usual pleasantries which allow etiquette to be enforced. We suggested a nearby route. They had some initial misgivings, but soon quieted down as the climbing began.
IMG_0825
I was already past the wider sections of our line by then. I was confronted by a series of challenges – three or four hard moves, followed by a secure stance, each set harder than the last and ending right before the anchor bolts. I placed a small aluminum wedge or camming device every four feet or so on these sections.
Part of the trick is knowing the difference between placing protection which safeguards life and limb, and placing protection which bolsters the psyche. Part of the trick is learning not to care too much about that difference. I made it. Now it was his turn.
With the rope ahead of him rather than trailing behind, the haunts fled and he moved smoothly. He even took a fall in stride. As I lowered him, he told me how good he felt about the climb. He told me how good he felt about the whipper-era too, in retrospect.
IMG_0824
We pulled the rope and left the particular carnival at Devils Tower. I dropped him at his house and returned to my own. I would do a few more days of work in the medical clinic, helping people postpone their fate, before I got to go back to the Tower.
As I pulled into the driveway, my little cat was perched on a rock by the walk, intent on something in the grass. She was well fed. If she caught a mouse presently, she would not eat it. Cat activities were no better than stake ladder activities, or climber activities, or perhaps even tourist activities. I started to shake my head, but she looked up. Her puzzled expression stopped me.
“And?” it said, “There are mice to catch.”

Tagged , , , ,

The Joy of the Circle

I didn’t like to fly. I kept waiting for the bumps to stop. Regardless, the supple machine continued to bob and thrash like a trout in the rapids. A few rows forward, a child began to cry. Between the two of us, adults read their magazines and played video games on their phones. No doubt, they recalled that flying was safe. The statistics were incontrovertible. And in theory, the engineers knew exactly how the air would flow and how the engines would perform. Why should a passenger worry?

Yet no one had predicted the rolls and soft spots in the atmosphere over which we presently skipped. No one really knew what fury of heat and pressure swirled in the engine at that moment. Flying was inherently dangerous. The little boy up front knew it because he didn’t believe in theories yet. He knew what happened when a glass fell off the counter. He knew what happened when a stick, flexing like the wings were, bent too far. I knew it because I habitually did dangerous things and tried to make them safe. I had faith in statistics, but I also knew that sometimes, only one little thing had to go wrong. In the chaos of fluids which sustained our flight, if the one little thing did go wrong, we were all lost without hope of recovery.

The boy’s naiveté could be forgiven, as could the adults’ ignorant confidence, but what about my fatalism? I had better have a reason for getting on this flight, hadn’t I? My children had no one else to care for them. Countless, unimagined opportunities awaited back on the ground at home. What did I have to say for myself and my self-conscious gamble with extinction?

All I could come up with was et tu quoque. I had seen a Wyoming toad once. It was at night, at a rest stop, in the middle of Summer. Its species was endangered, yet this toad made no excuse of the fact. It followed a line of ants down the middle of the sidewalk beneath the streetlights, lapping up the insects one after the next. My six year old son crouched over the little amphibian, delighted. It would never have a better friend and ally, but it couldn’t have known. All it could have known was that the shape looming over it had not struck yet, and that the ants were right there. The toad was gambling with extinction, and a critic might have called it selfish.

But the toad could have responded. If it believed in theories, it could have claimed that it was simply a disciple of Yamamoto Tsunetomo, obeying his dictum:

Even if one’s head were to be suddenly cut off, he should be able to do one more action with certainty.

Or it could have called upon Nietzsche in its defense, claiming that it didn’t pursue ants, but rather:

…a becoming that knows no satiety, no disgust, no weariness: this, my Dionysian world of the eternally self-creating, the eternally self-destroying, this mystery world of the twofold voluptuous delight, my “beyond good and evil”, without goal, unless the joy of the circle is itself a goal…

The toad’s response was better though, because it didn’t believe in theories. Its defense was: a warm night and an Eldorado of ants. Mine would be the same. How else would I defend even my love for my children? No set of laws bound us to each other, only a chance (in theory) arrangement in space and time. Yet it was a chance that went straight to the bone, no question. I had no better answer for the feeling that had gotten me strapped in this chair, bouncing through the sky to an uncertain fate. It was a feeling for a stranger, I’d have to admit if pressed. But it wasn’t composed of what I knew about her, anymore than my love for my children was composed of what I knew about them. It was a chance arrangement in space and time. It was nothing I chose, but it went straight to the bone, no question. Like the toad, I’d risk every calamity with open eyes. I took a breath, shook my head, and stopped waiting for the bumps to stop.

Tagged , , , , ,

Burning Daylight

The future, Mr. Clean

The future, Mr. Clean


The speakers hammered out The Chieftains’ O’Sullivan’s March.
“What the hell is this?” he demanded.
I shrugged. “I can’t help it. If there is reincarnation, then I once wielded a Claymore. But there is no reincarnation, so let’s go.”
I switched off the engine. He didn’t know what I meant by that comment. He thought he did, but not really. He would someday though; I was sure of it. He was a smart lad.
It was already hot. The air smelled of baking pitch. My legs felt rubbery under the sun’s pressure, but the feeling didn’t last. By that time of year, the body had become acclimated. Marching up the paved trail, weaving through the lumbering tourists, my circulation rallied and my stride steadied. I passed pedestrians, some on the trail, some on the rocks beside the trail. It wasn’t that we were short of time; it was just nervous energy that made me walk fast.
I slowed down when we turned off the asphalt and started up the narrow climbers’ trail. When we hit the relative cool of the Tower’s shadow, I began to stroll. Where the trail butted against the rock’s base, I stopped. We dropped our packs and broke out harnesses and helmets while the sweat dried from our necks. He was ready quickly. He stood there looking at me, wearing a well-measured expression of annoyance.
I wouldn’t do this with someone else’s child. We had a bond, from the beginning, that made it alright. When the neonatologist told us that he had been put on a ventilator, his mother started to cry. I held her hand and told her not to worry. She had been part of the pregnancy, and reasonably expected that she had been delivered from its troubles. I had watched it the whole time from the outside, without any expectation of relief. We both knew what could happen. We had seen fetuses get tangled in their development and come out confused. We had seen maternal physiology give up on the process and, against the mother’s wishes, abandon it all in various ways. She knew these things could happen to her. I knew what I would have to watch. It was my proper place. I was a climber and I knew how to be helpless without suffering from helplessness.
That was why I didn’t cry, not when he was intubated, and not when I sat by the plastic crib and watched him lay too still. He wore a blinder for the first few days, to protect his eyes from the ultraviolet lamp which did his liver’s job for him and cleared the toxic pigments from his blood. They took the little mask off the day after the last of his tubes came out. He looked up, then he looked straight at me. He stared for a long time. The nurses made a big fuss about him recognizing his father, but I knew it for what it was. He had a little patch of nerves on the side of his brain which were devoted to facial recognition. Those nerves made a baby stare at faces, and they were working for him.
He stood looking bored and a little impatient as I fiddled with my helmet’s chin strap.
“This is hard, you know. I can fall off of this one,” I warned, “You’re sure you are OK with that? We can always go over to Assembly Line
“No,” he said flatly, “Burning Daylight
I was serious about Burning Daylight. It was a place that a friend of mine took those who would lay their hands on Mateo Tipi – the Bears’ Lodge – with impunity.
“I ought to be able to knit a sweater while climbing .10b,” the last one had said to him.
When he demanded his sweater as she scrabbled over the last roof, wild-eyed and bloodied, she didn’t reply.
Second pitch of Tulgey Wood

Second pitch of Tulgey Wood

We pushed through the bushes and clambered over a fallen log propped against the foot of the Tower. Where the scramble got steep, we roped up. The rope was mostly for my peace of mind. He could handle this terrain with little risk, even if it made him nervous. I didn’t have him put me on belay. If I fell , I would stop before my weight came onto him. The rope was for his mind more than his body too. It would speed him up and let him build some confidence along the way.I waltzed over the blocks and bushes, past the gnarled juniper tree and the briars to the ledge. This was the most dangerous part of the day; the routine, soft-focus section where a lapse could occur. I anchored into the base of the Burning Daylight crack and reeled in rope.
He followed quickly, buoyed by the nylon cord.
I hitched him into the anchor and began to sort gear. I would need everything, from aluminum wedges smaller than the end of my little finger, to cams as big as my fist. Part of the difficulty of the route was its variety. It never permitted a comfortable rhythm.
I had him put me on belay and we went through our final check. He understood the seriousness of the process. He was a smart lad. But he didn’t understand all the reasons, not really.I started up.
I placed a medium-sized chock in the first 10 feet. This was for him. If I fell, my weight would not come onto him directly. I would still break my leg if I fell, but he would be in good shape to get back down the approach. I moved out slightly onto the face to climb a series of edges, leading up to a stance below a bulging corner. If I fell from there, the gear failed and I hit the belay ledge, I would be killed. He would be on his own to get down, but I had confidence in his ability to do so. He had a natural faculty for seeing the mechanics of a situation clearly. It would work for him in case.
I pulled through the bulge, feeling solid. Now standing under the crux roof, I dawdled with setting up the protection. I tried to remember how I had done it the last time, but I couldn’t. I trusted that the feel of it would come back to me as I began. That was the useful part anyway. Exposition of the moves just soothed the mind.
I reached up and locked my fingers in the crack. My feet set on the last good holds, I stretched high with my other hand and set its digits in the fissure above the roof. They rested loosely. I tensioned my body against the handholds and moved my feet, the left one onto a small irregularity below the roof, the right to a vertical seam on the wall of the corner. My right knee turned in to hold tension, I shuffled my hands higher in the crack above the roof. The forces shifted back across my shoulders as I raised my left foot over the roof and set it on the smooth, sloping ledge. Without pressure on it, the sole slipped slightly. I recovered and reset it. Gently, I transferred weight onto the sticky rubber until it could withstand some force. One more step and I was over the roof.
The next roof was easier, as it led to a hand crack. I wouldn’t fall out of a hand crack, not unless I had a seizure or was struck by lightning. It ended too soon. I placed a couple of cams near the top of the crack and began stemming up the final, overhanging corner. It was technical friction, not too hard, but with tired feet, it always felt desperate.
I clipped the anchor bolts and yelled, “Off belay!”
I took my shoes off and secured the rope for him. He took a long time putting on his shoes. I couldn’t see him easily past the overhangs, but I was suspicious about the delay.
I called down, “Did you clean the anchor?”
“Yes”
“We were going to use that to clip back in to when we rap.”
“I won’t need it,” he assured me.
There was another reason for leaving the bottom anchor: he would need it if he quit and had to be lowered.
“On belay,” I replied.
“Climbing.”
I began to take up rope as he advanced. It accumulated slowly on the ledge beside me. After 15 feet, I could hear him breathing. The respirations were even yet. Then the rope stopped. He must have come to the little bulge. A couple more feet of rope came up, then the line went taut.
“Damn it!” he spat.
I bit down on words of encouragement. I wasn’t going to take this away from him just yet. Once more, the rope went slack, then taut, but there was no more swearing. He hung on the harness for a long time. When he moved again, the rope kept coming.
“Take,” he called.
No swearing at all this time. He stopped for a minute or two to puzzle out the crux.
“OK, climbing.”
I leaned out from the anchors. I could see him now. He had the rattley finger lock over the roof. His right foot slipped, but he didn’t tense up or let go. He put his left knee against the edge of the roof and re-established the right foothold. He shuffled his hands up, and it went.
“Take”
He slouched in his harness and shook blood back into his forearms. Taking a deep breath, he stepped back onto the rock. At the second roof he paused and asked for a tip.
“Feet high on the right wall until you can reach above the overhang,” I suggested, “then palm out left and get your left foot on a big edge over the lip.”
He started the moves and got stymied.
“What the f-. Oh, hand crack,” he declared, finally wriggling high enough to reach over the edge, “Never mind.”
He cruised the rest of the crack to the friction climbing and the exit moves. The corner was steep again, and he was tired. For a minute, he tried to establish a position in the final, little chimney which would allow him to reach the exit holds. Exhausted, he weighted the rope again. At that point, I was close enough to reach down and give him a hand up if I just extended my connection to the anchor a little bit. The thought crossed my mind, but then he looked up at me. His expression reflected his fatigue and some exasperation, but no panic or defeat. He was comfortable on the rope, and he knew he could finish the climb. He wanted to finish. I sat back.
“Take your time,” I told him.
“Yeah. I’m back on,” he replied.
With a little more fumbling and swearing, he managed to drape his hand over the solution-hold below the belay ledge and pull over the top.
“Nice job,” I told him.
“How hard is that compared to the hardest climb at the Tower?” he asked.
I shook my head, “Not that hard.”
“No, I mean how much harder is the hardest one?” he insisted.
“Three number grades.”
He nodded. I began setting up the rappel while he transferred gear to a sling on my shoulder.
“Do you want to go first?” I asked.
“No,” he said, “you go.”
I checked his set-up and descended. At the base, I thought about resetting the anchor, but decided against it. He lingered for quite a while after I called “off rope”. I didn’t worry. I just sat and looked out at the perfect weather and the perfect flood-plain of the Belle Fourche river, not thinking about anything but the passage of time. And that, I told myself, was nothing at all.
IMG_0523

Tagged , , ,

The Hammerhead Mentality

IMG_0473
Hammerhead (ham-er-hed) n. 1. the part of a carpentry tool used to drive nails 2. any tool’s feature designed to impact an object 3. metaphysically, an implement used to achieve the wielder’s intent through main force 4. (slang, common parlance) any person with a modus operandi analogous to that of the tool, usually expressing the speaker’s contempt 5. (slang, among climbers) any person with a modus operandi analogous to that of the tool, usually expressing the speaker’s admiration and horror.
A hammer has a sort of minimalist beauty. It is clean. It has a singular answer to all challenges. It cannot – it will not – be mistaken for something which it is not. The beauty of the hammerhead mentality is the same. It forges a pure, guileless path in the world. It wakes each morning without ulterior motive; it pounds through each day without ulterior motive.
The psychological dynamic at issue has always been part of the human repertoire. The most famous, historical hammerhead was Alexander the Great. I’ve heard people question why anyone would ever follow such a jackass, as the blustering fool marched his army across Asia Minor to no good end. He wasn’t a blustering fool though, he was a hammerhead and I’m sure his men caught a serious case of Special-Sense-of-Purpose from him. Sure, he didn’t need to conquer India. He was simply out conquering, and India was next. Likewise, cutting the Gordian knot wasn’t a clever, if arrogant, statement or “out of the box” thinking; it was a natural hammerhead move. At the end, nobody was worried about that damned ox-cart anymore, and they could all get on with the conquest.
IMG_0461
In fable, Aesop’s grasshopper, from The Ant and the Grasshopper, is a hammerhead. But only in a certain version of the fable – the one where the grasshopper is not a dissolute slob, the one where he’s just really, really into dancing and singing. It’s the version of the grasshopper with which we can sympathize. It’s the version which exposes the potential meanness of the ant’s viewpoint.
Their noble clarity is why we climb with hammerheads, why we train with them, and why we stick around to pick up the pieces. Because the unaided exponent of the hammerhead mentality is doomed from the start. Nature is bigger than us, and that’s a fact. Some routes will not go. There is a limit to strength, reach, and flexibility. A person can only go without sleep, food and water for so long. You can’t always just push through.
IMG_0456
It’s a flaw as well as a merit of the hammerhead mentality that its hold is unwavering by nature, on the outside and on the inside. Once the hammerhead is engaged, it’s too late. The focus takes over and won’t let go, even in the face of impending doom. Nevertheless, we need the hammerhead mentality. At the very least, we have some unique lessons to learn from observing it in action.
The hammerheads have two things to teach the world. The first thing is: they show us how lucky we all really are. We are much more in command of most situations than we imagine, and we shouldn’t always act so surprised about it. If we just set aside our doubts and fears, we could often do more than we imagine. The odds are naturally in our favor.
As climbers, for instance, our eyes are drawn first to the peaks rather than the smooth rock faces. Our digits are shaped to hook over edges and close around corners. The knobby bits at the bottoms of our brains are really good at keeping us in balance. Our fingertips have little ridges on them. The game is rigged in our favor. We just need to know how far we can push our luck, and of course, that’s the problem for hammerheads.
They need to direct themselves at manageable projects. They can’t be allowed to build up too much momentum. In short, they need help, by means of another behavioral model to back them up and good counsel. They need ants. Not the nasty little ants in the bad version of Aesop’s fable, just waiting to say, “told you so,” and slam the door in the grasshopper’s face. They need the clever ants, the ones with some tricks up their sleeves, who can appreciate the merits of the hammerhead mentality and are prepared to compensate for its flaws. This isn’t pure charity on the ants’ part either.
IMG_0460
Focus is a necessary virtue, despite the requisite sacrifices. A person fixated on the summit, the anchor chains or the next hold has abandoned their self-control in order to push through. On occasion though, nothing else suffices. We all can – indeed we must – slip into the hammerhead mentality from time to time for good and ill, even if it’s not our policy. That’s the hammerheads’ second lesson. Even a good ant may need an ant in their own head now and again, if not a doppelganger at the other end of the rope. Being the ant at the other end of the rope is just good practice.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,
Advertisements