Tag Archives: rock climbing

The Overhanging 5.9 Hand Crack

The fates have determined that, from time to time, I will dine with royalty. And I have determined that, on those rare occasions, I will not pass up the opportunity to say something stupid.
While waiting for the food at a wilderness medicine conference banquet with my friend Andy, our table-mate, Dr. Hornbein, politely inquired as to our post-meeting plans.

I casually replied, “Oh, we’re headed off to climb the Grand.”
It was February.
To his credit, he blinked once and said, “Well, good luck.”

After sharing grilled chicken and carrots with Jack Tackle, Andy and I asked him what he thought about 2 possible routes for the next day.
He said that he liked the first route well enough. It was clean, with consistent climbing, and little loose rock.
The 2nd climb had some bad rock and mediocre climbing down low, but had an overhanging, 5.9 hand crack for most of a pitch in the middle.
“So,” I asked, “do you think that 2nd route is better?”
He stared at me blankly for a couple of seconds and replied, “It has an overhanging, 5.9 hand crack.”

In the light of subsequent experience, I get it. But at the time, I thought that I wanted to climb 5.12, so the 5.9 rating tarnished anything to which it was affixed. I worked pretty hard towards the goal of climbing 12’s, and I climbed a few 5.9 hand cracks along the way. I got there, barely.
The effort wasn’t worth it though. Working the routes endlessly, with creaking tendons and crushed toes, just did not justify the final victory. It was like winning World War I: a victory, sure, but an atrocity nonetheless.

I think I understand why other people are enamored of more difficult climbs – and yes, I recognize that 5.12 is the basement of “difficult” rockclimbing. For one of my ‘hard’ routes in particular, getting the clean ascent was like making a friend. I became so familiar with every little edge and crystal, that I’m sure I could regurgitate the beta for the route to this day, decades after I touched the rock last.

Working harder routes on rock can be painful and tedious. I don’t think it is the suffering and frustration that turn me off, though. I liked the more difficult mixed climbing that I did, and I was highly motivated to climb grade 6 or harder ice. I obsessively studied and salivated over those ice routes in the same way that some sport climbers I’ve known would microscopically analyze their projects. I trained for hard ice until I thought my forearms would pop.

I think the difference may be in the proprioceptive aesthetic of the climbs. The way a climb feels to the touch and the body position it demands get less attention than the way it looks and the puzzle it poses. The proprioceptive aesthetic is the last to be appreciated.

But the proprioceptive aesthetic leaves the most profound mark on me. It’s always front and center in ice climbing. The appreciation of touch flows from the essential circus trick at the heart of ice climbing: extending one’s consciousness from fingers, toes, wrists, and ankles into the pointy bits of metal attached to those natural appendages.
Maybe that appreciation of touch naturally gets tamped down the harder you crimp and lock off.

Or maybe, this is all just sour grapes. I don’t think so though. Given the choice of magical elixir which would allow me to climb as hard as the best climbers on rock, or a map to a thousand foot, clean, sandstone, overhanging hand crack, I’m certain that I would pick the map without a 2nd thought.

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Analytic Truths (and all the other stuff)

There are, in climbing, certain analytic truths. An analytic truth is something which is true by definition. A statement like, “Dan is tall”, refers to some fact external to the criteria for Dan and height. The statement depends on Dan’s relative height, and is not an analytic truth. On the other hand, “A unicorn has one horn” is an analytic truth. It doesn’t require any supporting facts. In the United States, climbing’s analytic truths pertain to the Yosemite Decimal System, or YDS, as its devoted followers refer to it.

The YDS is one of several numerical rating systems for climbing difficulty. All of them would make Francis Galton proud, because they are all consensus systems. Numbers get assigned based on the collective experience of those who have travelled the route. But unlike Galton’s casual survey of fair-goers, the YDS has normative power as well as statistical power. Nobody wants to be the arrogant prick who over-rates his route. Nobody wants to be the arrogant prick who under-rates his route, or worse, downgrades someone else’s route. Because the number-ratings themselves are synthetic – they refer to facts in the world regarding rocks and people – the moralizing can only go so far. The internal consistencies of the system have no rails, though, and frustrated moral instincts often seek fulfillment among the system’s analytic truths.

Some of climbing’s more problematic truths include: “5.11 is harder than 5.10.”, “A 5.9 climber can climb 5.9.”, and “A 5.9 climber cannot climb 5.10”. Now, the latter two statements may appear to refer to some actual climber or climbers, even if they are hypothetical. Admittedly, the statements could be interpreted that way. For instance, if Dan says that he is a 5.9 climber, then his colleagues may reasonably expect that he can get up a climb rated 5.9. But that interpretation is rarely used. Instead, the statements are taken to be strictly consistent. At best, the definitions have to be realigned to fit. In other words, if Dan fails on a 5.9 climb, then he is not a 5.9 climber.

At this point, some examples are in order.

This is 5.9:

This is 5.9:

You got it, 5.9:

Let me emphasize the human factor in these photos. Some of the people shown climbing some of these routes have absolutely no hope of climbing any of the other routes (not me, of course, as I am a 5.11 climber).

But, if I am a 5.9 climber, shouldn’t I be able to climb 5.9? If I don’t climb that 5.11, am I still a 5.11 climber? Is there something wrong with me, or is there something wrong with the rating? Or am I equivocating between a synthetic category and its logical extensions?

The YDS axioms do not really sort climbers, nor do those truths-by-definition really sort routes. Yet the climbing community still takes the YDS formulas seriously, as prizes, urine marks on the wall and occasionally, inspirations.

As inspirations, logical consistencies are particularly treacherous.They can be like the funny little man at the rollercoaster entrance with a big smile and beatific expression, his finger pointing at an invisible line in the air.

“You must be this tall to ride”, he says, “and if you can’t make it today, maybe come back a little later and you will be up to it.”

But formulaic aspirations can flip without warning. The little man can turn nasty. He can suddenly point his finger at you and screech, “This is how tall you are, bitch. This tall and no more. Now go away!”

In the end, the climb goes or it doesn’t. Paying attention to the numbers themselves can help a person figure out what is worth the effort. Sometimes, the numbers can even keep a person out of trouble.

The truths about the numbers’ internal consistency are another story. Those get gummed up with ambitions and insecurities in no time. They are, like all analytic truths, entirely uninteresting in themselves, be they ever so ripe for projection.

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Better and Better

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“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

 

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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.

 

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Tenacious Calculus, the best

 

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).

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Book of Friends

But there is so much that is so good.

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No Other Reason

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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“Stupid.”

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“Irresponsible.”

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“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”.

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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.

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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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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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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