Pride…

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My favorite thing about being an outdoors instructor isn’t spending my working days out in nature. It isn’t in being a strong climber or an accomplished paddler or an expert backpacker. It isn’t getting up before the sun nor the exhaustion of a long, physically demanding day guiding clients. It definitely isn’t for the money.

My favorite thing about being an outdoors instructor is seeing the light in my students’ eyes when they try something they never thought they’d be doing. It’s that moment in a class when someone overcomes a fear of heights and reaches the top of a climb, or gets in the ocean on a tiny piece of plastic when they are deathly terrified of the ocean, or when a 60 year old woman rides a bike for the first time in her life.

Today, the employees from the Tustin REI got a free mountaineering class from Outdoor School. For most of them, it was their first exposure to snow travel. They learned to put on crampons, carry an ice axe, kick steps, self-belay, and to self-arrest during a fall. They spent the day in the snow working on the basic skills of a mountaineer.

Normally, my facebook post would be about how amazing of a day it was to be teaching outside. About how fantastic it was to have such a great group of students. How I was at the top of the snow slope giving encouragement and yelling tips as they slid down the slope.

But today, I wasn’t there. It wasn’t me doing the teaching or taking the group out or even just being out with them. Today, I was in the office sending emails and answering phone calls. Today, I had to sit out something I really, really wanted to be a part of.

This season, I wanted to make mountaineering happen for REI. Not just for our paying customers, but for the employees too. Mountaineering is why I got into the outdoors in the first place. I always knew that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to climb big, snow covered peaks. The Sierras. The Rockies. The Andes. The Alps. The Himalaya. There is something magical about being in snow, up in the thin mountain air, with an ice axe in your hand, and determined courage in your heart.

I wanted to share that. I wanted the other REI employees to know what that was like. I wanted to plant that seed, to give them that starting point for their mountain adventures. Even if they never try it again, I wanted them to get an idea.

This is mountaineering. It’s fucking amazing. You can do it.

Mountaineering is what REI was founded to do. We started as a co-op to bring Austrian ice axes into America in the 1930’s. It’s the reason we have ice axes on our doors. It’s the very heart of what being a part of this company means. No matter how big REI gets, I remember that we started in mountaineering.

Yeah, it’s good business. The employees are suddenly much more knowledgeable about gear and experience. Yeah, it’ll sell more ropes and harnesses and ice axes and crampons and tents and boots. Customers will get outfitted.

But I don’t really care much about that.

I care about pushing the limits of your comfort zone. I care about overcoming fear and developing courage. I care about the quiet solitude of the up-high alpine making you a deeper and more introspective person. I want everyone to become a better person through their experiences outside. Today, I wasn’t able to be there for that.

But the thing is, I set this whole thing up. I pushed the store managers to pay for it, I got the instructors, I set up the date and times, and I made it all happen. I just wasn’t able to be there in person. I had other responsibilities.

It’s part of my new role. I accept that I can touch more lives from afar. I can’t be there for every class or for every student. It’s just too big of a job for a one person. No, someone has to do all the background work. Someone has to do the coordinating and the motivating and persuading. I’m not just a single instructor anymore.

So I miss a day with the employees of the store I grew up in and in the class I am most passionate about. I trust my fellow instructors. They are really, really good. It’s part of the role I play. I am a little sad that it’s not me.

But today, I see the pictures the employees posted. The big smiles on their faces while posing with ice axes in their hands. The groups of them on snow slopes planting their axes to the mantra of, “in-balance, out-of-balance, in-balance, out-of-balance.” Their status updates and their hashtags.

They look tired. Dirty. Bruised.

But, what I see most is pride. Proud that they tried something really intimidating and scary. Proud that they got up at the ass crack of dawn and drove up to a 10,000′ mountain covered in snow. Proud to have strapped little knives to their feet and kick stepped around on snow and ice. Proud that they were able to fall head-first, backwards, down a snow-covered slope and stop themselves with an ice axe. All these REI employees, all these brand-new mountaineers, they post their status updates all over facebook. There are so many smiling faces in those pictures. So many proud status updates and proud instagram posts.

I see all this, and I can’t help it.

I feel proud of them too.

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A lucky joy…

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I’m tired and sore and stiff after a fourteen hour day at work. And I’m pretty sure I’m coming down with a cold or flu.

But despite that, I am incredibly lucky to be doing a job that fills me with joy and allows me to share my love of being outside with others.

I’ll never be a world-class mountaineer or a pro climber. I’ll never be on the cover of Alpinist or be featured in a Warren Miller film. But today, I get to teach a dozen or so aspiring mountaineers how to put on crampons and self-arrest with an ice axe. I know it’s not Annapurna or the Eiger or even the Sierra. It’s just Mt. Baldy. But for a few short and sweet hours under the Southern California skies, I get to be a mountain guide. And if that’s all I get, well, it’s still pretty damned good.

I Love Climbers!

Wordpress Screenshot

I didn’t know the visitors chart went to the thousands place, let alone the TEN THOUSANDS place.

Over this last weekend, my article I Hate Climbers… went viral (ish)!

I usually average 3-4 visitors to my site per day. I had 13,000+ on Monday alone. Over the last few days, I’ve had over 40,000 visitors.

I’m completely blown away by the response and traffic this piece that I wrote a year ago has received. Thanks everyone!

For the record:
Yes, I love climbing! Yes, I love climbers.

Well, mostly.

I catch myself sometimes saying exactly the types of things I complain about in my article. And I laugh at my hypocritical ass. Because as much as I deny it, I’m a climber too.

For all the climbers out there reading this, I want to send you on a mission:

GET CHRIS SHARMA TO READ THE ARTICLE!!!

He owns the damn gym I climb at (Sender One in Orange County, CA). It can’t be that hard to have him look it over. My life would be complete if he commented here.

Anyways, thanks for everything and I’ll have some more stories and updates coming soon!

-Outside Ed

8000m Challenge, Winter Edition

Baldy Bowl.

Baldy Bowl.

We woke up in the sub-freezing alpine hours, when the sun was still asleep below the dark line of the horizon and the glow from my headlamp illuminated only the warm puffs of my breath. Our group was nestled in the trees by Dry Lake on Mt. San Gorgonio around 8000’ and we were getting ready to push for the summit.

“Why are we doing this again?” Sean asked in the dark.

As I fumbled around in my sleeping bag, my head brushed against the low, nylon ceiling of the single-walled mountaineering tent and condensation rained down on us. I shivered in the cold.

“Because we want to live full lives,” I muttered.

Grumbling and stumbling, we hastily threw on soft shells and goose down jackets over our softer, goose bump skin. Outside, I started jumping up and down trying to warm up. I repeated the mantra in my head, “Live a full life. Live a full life. Live a full life.” I was trying to convince myself that this was a good idea.

Mark Fulton 8000m Challenge.

Mark Fulton 8000m Challenge.

This was the Mark Fulton 8000m Challenge. Outdoor retailers like REI, Adventure 16, Sport Chalet, Zappos, Gear Co-op, and others send small teams of gullible hikers and ultra runners to race up the three tallest peaks in Southern California: Mt. San Antonio (10,064’), Mt. San Gorgonio (11,499’), and Mt. San Jacinto (10,835’). They were the three saints of the Southern California skies and the three devils in our hearts. In a single day, we do thirty eight trail miles and over 10,000’ of elevation gain.

I’m a bad hiker and a poor runner. On weekends, instead of training, I smoke Parliament cigarettes and drink too much beer with my friends. Somehow, I’ve stumbled my way through the race three times. And I have no idea why I keep signing up. It’s long and painful and hard and no fun at all. Every year I tell myself I’m never doing it again. And every year, when they post that sign-up sheet in the break room at the REI I work at, I put my stupid name on that stupid list and curse my stupid self. This year, for the 25th Anniversary, they decided to host a winter version. Same three peaks, in winter, with mountaineering gear and guides. And again, I found myself signing up.

Sean looking epic.

Sean looking epic.

I wasn’t like my tent mate Sean. He once did the 8000m Challenge by riding his bike between the peaks instead of driving. 100+ miles of road cycling in the desert with heat and headwinds and hill climbs between the 38 miles of hiking. All done within 24 hours. He belonged here.

Or like my fellow REI teammate Cyndi. She was an ultramarathon runner with long hair and long legs who has got to be in her mid forties, but looks like she’s in her mid twenties.

Mark climbing on Gorgonio.

Mark climbing on Gorgonio.

Or Mark, a middle-aged Brit who worked for Zappos and had just qualified for the Boston Marathon. He confesses to me that he’s never slept in a sleeping bag.

“This is so far out of my comfort zone,” he said.
“You qualified for Boston! You ran a seven-minute mile the whole way!” I replied.
“That’s different.”
“I’m happy if I can run a seven-minute mile for a mile!”

I think he’s got a pretty big comfort zone. He’s in shape and he’ll be fine.

Our guide, Amy.

Our guide, Amy.

I had no question about our guides. Like Amy, a strong looking blonde girl in her late twenties who had just spent a month in Patagonia putting up a first ascent with her boyfriend.

“What did you name it?” I asked.
“Plate Tectonics.”
“How hard was it?”
“5.12 C1, 20 pitches.”

Just like that. A 5.12 first ascent of a big wall in alpine conditions in Patagonia. No big deal.

Kurt Wedberg.

Kurt Wedberg.

And then there was Kurt. Kurt Wedberg was our lead guide and the owner of Sierra Mountaineering International. He was a tall, imposing man who was very much in charge. Everest, Aconcagua, Denali, Kilimanjaro, he’d done it all.

The day before, we were taking break in the shade of some trees at South Fork Meadows when a boy scout had walked up to Kurt.

“You guys going to the summit?” he asked.
“Yeah.” Kurt replied.
“There’s a lot of snow. We didn’t have any snow gear so we’re heading back. If you have crampons and stuff, you should be ok. Are you taking the trail?” The kid is trying to be helpful.

We look over at Kurt. We were all thinking the same thing: “This teenager has no idea who he’s talking to.” Kurt looks at the kid a second before replying. We can see him trying to keep a straight face.

“We’re going straight up. Direttissima. Right up the throat of it…” he breaks off as he starts choking on his laughter.

We all laughed at this poor kid until he had left.

Headlamp start.

Headlamp start.

The moon was high and bright and threw thin shadows off the black trees as we hiked in the headlamp darkness toward the base of our snow climb. The dozen of us snaked in a single line of shivering determination and arriving at our climb, we pulled our ice axes and crampons out.

“Wait, how do we size this thing again?”
“Which way does the strap go?”
“Um, I don’t think this is right.”

We were new to this. We bent low, fumbling around with the nylon straps on our steel-toothed crampons, trying to attach them to our newly bought and not yet broken-in boots. The sun rose over us as we climbed in small rope teams. Our guides led us, switch backing across the low-angled snow, firm in the early morning cold. I could feel a little anxiety in my team as we moved higher and the slope got a little steeper.

Climbing by headlamp.

Climbing by headlamp.

To calm our nerves, I started singing. I am a terrible singer. I like to say that what I lack in talent, I make up for in volume. So I sang, loudly and badly, “Should’ve been a cowboy, should’ve learned to rope and ride!” Country music with its cowboys and truckers and the wide open spaces always seemed appropriate to the outdoors. So I sang Toby Keith in the rising morning sun on the side of this waking giant of a mountain.

Gorgonio summit.

Gorgonio summit.

I could feel my blood warming and my adrenaline rising with my off-key voice. We climbed steadily, kick-stepping our crampon points and planting our axes. “In-balance, out-of-balance, in-balance, out-of-balance…” I kept the mantra in my head. Looking down the slope, our camp seemed so far away and only grew smaller and smaller in the distance. Upward, the summit grew larger and larger until, suddenly, we were on top.

pointing

We stood together for a moment and zipped up our jackets against the whipping wind. The clear blue Southern California sky seemed to go on forever in every direction and only the other peaks broke the skyline. I could see San Antonio to the northwest where we had come from. To the southeast, San Jacinto rose up from the desert floor where windmill turbines spun in white circles. We’d be climbing it next. We had to hurry, so we snapped a quick summit photo and started down.

On the long hike down, I kept seeing that same tired smile on the faces of my teammates. It’s that familiar look I see at every 8000m Challenge I’ve been at. Somewhere between the pain and misery and cold and heat and dehydration and painful, embarrassing chafing, we find something to smile about.

I was blistered and burnt and dried out. My quads were sore and my calves were tight. My head hurt from the altitude and strangers laughed at my sunburnt, raccoon face. But the beauty of this event was that there are no pros. There’s no glory, no press, no spectators. We all suffered together. The mountain didn’t care who you were. Triathlete, ultra-marathoner, rock climber, or cigarette-smoking me.

I did this event because it was hard. Because it was a massive challenge with three towering mountains. Because I hate climbing San Gorgonio and love climbing San Gorgonio and have lived and loved and died so many times in my freezing-cold sleeping bag and my hypoxic altitude sickness there. Because I wanted to be able to come back and say that I did do it. Because of my blistered feet at the end of a headlamp finish atop a 10,000 ft peak with other blistered children of the mountain, of freezing in the beginning of hypothermic misery with others who are frozen in body, but burning in spirit.

Because it is hard. Because it is there. Because I’m trying to live a full life and because I’m going to go straight up the throat of it. Direttissima.

So when that sign-up sheet shows up in my break room at work, I’m going to put my stupid name on that stupid line. One more time. Because I want to live a full life.

But mostly because I’m gullible and have a poor memory.

Starting up Baldy.

Starting up Baldy.

OMG! Shooz!

For someone who professes to hate climbing and climbers, I do a lot of climbing. I’ve been using my Five Ten Anasazi Mocs for about a year and I think I’ve done a pretty good job of destroying them.

Fantastic shoes, so I decided to get another pair. Check out the difference…

I hope this counts as climber cred.

Mocs - New and Old 2

Old on the left, New on the right.

Mocs - Worn Toe

Check out the hole!

Mocs - Toe

Top: Sharp and clean edge. Bottom: What rubber?

Mocs - New and Old

Well loved.

Where I Am

Tyndall

Mt. Tyndall in the High Sierra.

You were dancing by yourself in that bar in Big Prairie just down from Mt. Goliath when we first met. It’s the one with the black and white photos of long-ago Western stars and the posters of their forgotten movies pinned to the wood-paneled walls. It was almost empty and only a couple of German tourists were shooting pool at a table in the back. I sat down on one of the dusty stools, ordered from the bored bartender, and watched you from across the room. I was exhausted and dirty from climbing all day and it was beer, not love, I was looking for. But the neon lights of the jukebox lit up your face with bright yellows and warm oranges and I knew I had to have you.

“All your life you’ve never seen a woman so taken by the wind…” the jukebox sang. You twirled in small circles, smiling to yourself and softly humming along with Fleetwood Mac. Your hair swirled down around the curves of your hips. They were long strands of blue and green and purples, brightly dyed and free-flowing, colored like the swishing peasant skirt you wore. Your wrists were encircled with small jeweled bands of rose quartz and beads. You were a bright rainbow of hippie color splashed against the drab walls.

I drank my beer, stood, and walked over.

“Are you dancing by yourself?” I asked.
“I don’t have to be,” you replied.
“Can I join you?”
“I was hoping you would.”

You smiled and the dark bar seemed to brighten a bit. Your eyes were brown pools of expectation and your freckles flaked your cheeks with youth. I pulled you close to me, and we slow danced alone in that empty bar until the bored bartender kicked us out. We shared a smoke outside and watched the stars rise in the mountain sky. The moon was high and bright and our moon shadows flirted with each other in the parking lot.

“You traveling?” I asked you.
“Yeah. I’m on the road,” you replied.
“Me too.”
“I thought as much.”
“Where are you staying? Can I walk you back?”

You leaned in close me.

“You can walk me to your place,” you said as that slow, sly smile I would come to love most about you spread across your face.

I took your hand and took you home. Home was a tiny tent pitched next to my truck on public land among the boulders of the foothills, below the jagged peaks of the rising mountains. We made love there, atop my flimsy foam pad and under the duck down sleeping bag, hidden from the real world by the millimeter nylon of my tent. We lay there, tangled in each other, and you nestled your head against my chest and curled your naked leg around mine.

“How long have you been on the road?” I asked as my fingers traced the outline of your bare shoulder.
“Just a couple weeks. You?” you replied.
“Every summer for the last ten years. Been doing this a long time.”
“How old are you?”
“Older.”
“You don’t look older.”
“Thanks.”

We climbed together all through that summer. We scrambled over scree and trudged through talus. We marched up peaceful peaks and down mountain passes. I’d stop to catch my breath and you’d take it away with a kiss. We’d tire through the day and exhaust ourselves on each other through the night, zipping our sleeping bags and sewing our bodies together. On Ascension Peak, you smiled that devilish smile again and beckoned me with a finger as you took your top off and the bare, white skin of your breasts gleamed like the treeless, granite landscape around us.

We roamed the highway together. Up the road to Mt. Stoney, where I watched from below as your long legs and full hips climbed up a sheer rock face. That night, we stopped at a cheap motel outside town, and I watched from below as your long legs and full hips climbed onto me. You held me tight at night, but, somehow, I knew you wouldn’t hold me forever.

We were up north, past White Wolf, when the first snows of winter fell and we got my truck stuck in a bank of fresh powder. We steamed up my truck, trying to keep our bodies and our hearts warm while we waited for the snowplow to rescue us. But as winter set in, the cold mountain air, the shivering frost that started covering our sleeping bags and our tent, it seeped into everything.

“It’s getting cold,” I said.
“I know,” you replied.
“I’m thinking about heading home.”
“Where’s home?”
“Greenton. Why don’t you come with me?”

I had climbed enough and roamed enough. I wanted to go back to a warm bed and a warm kitchen and hot chocolate around a fireplace. I looked over at you in the passenger seat. You were looking out the window and at the passing evergreens, laden with the first, fresh powder of the season.

“It’s cold there too,” you replied.
“I can keep you warm,” I said.
“I don’t know.”

We drove on in silence and light, fluffy flakes of falling snow rhythmically tapped against the windshield like a ticking clock.

I dropped you off in Mountain Ridge, where you found a job working ski lifts and busing tables. You got out of my truck, waved at me through the frosty passenger-side window, turned, and walked away. I hoped you’d look back, but you just walked across the street and disappeared into the ski shop.

As I drove the long miles back to Greenton, I thought of you and me and the space between us, growing with every turn on the highway. You were just starting your journey, just beginning to fall in love with the road. For you, winter’s whiteness was carving turns and deep powder. It was a wonderland of endless adventure. For me, the months and years I’d spent on the road had worn me down. My truck tires and my heart were bald and bleeding. Another freezing winter, sleeping in the back of my truck, bundled up in all my blankets and my gear, it wasn’t adventure anymore. It was tiring and cold and miserable. The road had taught me, in the blurring lines of the lanes, to cherish the fleeting warmth of love. But you, you haven’t learned that yet. Someday, you will. Someday, you’ll be where I am. And maybe, somehow, I’ll be there too.

A Fall Climb

Fall Climb

Crack climbing in Joshua Tree.

I am sitting at the base of Youthful Indiscretion, a hard 5.11b climb in the heart of Joshua Tree National Park. It is November and the desert is cool and cooling. The roaring, impossible-to-breathe heat of summer has simmered past and the wildflowers of youthful spring are a long-faded memory. Mild daytime temperatures draw climbers out from their hiding places and we scramble, like the kangaroo rats and jackrabbits, over the exposed granite of bulging boulders and monstrous monoliths. In a month or two, winter will be here; bringing frost and a heavy, frozen silence over the high desert. But for now, there is only a clear blue sky and the sublime sun. In the desert, fall is a perfection.

George is somewhere near halfway when he yells down a warning.

“Watch me!”

I immediately tighten my hands on the rope and shove my foot against the rock face expecting to brace a fall. I look up the length of the route and strain to spot him. Up the curving left-hand crack, across the step-around, past the overhanging roof, and I finally see him on the exposed face. Wearing a bright red shirt, he’s a solitary spot of color silhouetted against the brown, lifeless rock. He’s a hundred feet up and on the crux: the hardest part of the climb. He is in trouble.

“Watching!” I yell back.

The crux is a series of hard holds, pea-sized pinches set in a featureless face, where the rock turns from granite to glass and courageous climbers lose their grip and their nerve. His left arm is stretched out wide, tightly gripping a precarious hold. Even from this distance, I can see his sinewy forearm outlined with tendons and strain. He reaches out with his right, searching for something to grasp. Nothing. There’s nothing there.

“I might go!” he yells.

His left leg, perched on a toehold chip begins to pulse uncontrollably up and down. It is the tell-tale sign of a climber too full of adrenaline and exhaustion to control their muscles. He could fall at any second. I look down to check my belay device. It’s a small, hollow ring of metal the size of a fist. Designed to stop a falling climber through the friction of the rope running through it, it is worn rough with use. The once bright orange finish is rubbed off; showing only bare aluminum from the hundreds of climbs we’d been on. It is old, but it is functional and solid. I check the carabiner and ensure it is locked. Everything looks good and I tighten my grip on the rope a little more. A second later, he goes.

“Falling!” he yells.

Everything happens in slow motion. His fingers fail and his hand opens. His weight drops onto his feet and the sudden force rips his rubber-soled climbing shoes off the tiny flake he is standing on. He peels backward and drops into empty space. His body falls.

Five feet. Then ten. Then twenty. With a hard slam, the rope finally catches him in midair.

The sudden weight on the rope yanks me off my feet despite my efforts to brace and I am thrown against the rock with a smashing thud. I am momentarily stunned and my shoulder throbs a protest where it hit the wall, but I am otherwise unhurt. I look up to check on George. He is dangling awkwardly in midair, but he fell cleanly without hitting the wall. The rope had stretched to dissipate the fall force and the spring-loaded cam he set into the crack for protection held firm. Only his ego is bruised.

“You OK?” I yell up.
“I’m OK!” he yells back.
“Try again?”
“No, I can’t pull the move!”
“You want to come down?”

There is a pause as he thinks about it. A few seconds pass, then he commands, “Yeah, lower me!”
“Lowering!”

I ease my grip on the rope. It feeds cleanly, and he is soon back on the ground.

We take a few steps away from the climb, away from possible rock fall, and George takes his helmet off. He claps his hands together and a small cloud of powdery white chalk explodes out from between them. He wipes his hands on his thighs, leaving fingertip streaks of white on his favorite faded green climbing pants. His t-shirt is dirty with dusty grime. Sweat covers his wrinkled forehead and drips down into the crow’s feet corner of his left eye. Reaching up, he wipes his head and runs his hand through his graying hair.

Concerned about the fall, I examine him closely. For a man in his fifties, he is in exceptional shape. Years of running hills built his lean legs and decades of climbing mountains built his powerful arms. His skin is covered in sunspots and lacquered in time. He stands with the easy grace of an athlete and the quiet confidence of a veteran. He looks back at me with tired eyes. There seems to be a knowing sadness in them.

“What happened?” I ask.

He shakes his head. “I can’t pull the move. I don’t have any power anymore.”

He goes on. There’s only a small edge big enough for a couple fingers of one hand to stack onto and the foot placements are non-existent. Two feet above is a solid handhold. Between the two lies only empty space and the raw, visceral strength of the climber. The solution is straightforward: a one-handed, two-fingered pull up.

He looks down at the palms of his weathered hands. He rubs his right palm with his left thumb and examines it closely. The angle of his slightly cocked head and the intensity of his gaze reminds me of a fortune teller. I can almost see him reading his future in the criss-cross lines etched there. He traces the long crease, the line of life, with a slow, methodical motion and stops near the end of the line.

A long moment goes by and he shakes his head a little.

“I’m getting old,” he says.

I lean over to peer at his hands and he holds them out to me. I strain to see what he sees. I try to conjure up an image of the future, but it eludes me. I can only see his past in those hands.

I see his skin, wrinkled with weather and wear, but hardened by the holds and heights. Calluses cover the joints of his fingers and the flesh of his fingertips is peeling. I see a mottled mish-mash of scars. Some are familiar: like the long, angry gash that runs along the knife-edge of his palm, where he had abraded the skin jamming his hand into crack after crack on the east buttress of Mt. Emerson last season, when he bled so much his chalk had turned red. Or the deep circle near the center of his palm, where a sharp missile of rockfall had homed in from some unseen height and nailed him while he belayed me on Desolation Mountain a few years before that. I know the back of his hands tell the same story: the knuckles of his fists are black and dense where the scars have torn and healed and torn and healed again. I know one of those knuckles juts out farther than the others after being broken on some climb in Yosemite a decade ago.

But many other scars were a mystery to me: there was a ragged bite of something in the web of his left thumb, a crooked lightning bolt slash across his right middle finger, a slightly misshapen bend in his pinkie where a bone had broken and reset. They were the relics of a mysterious past, like the ancient petroglyphs etched into the rocks around us. They were the stories he only hinted at in the half-asleep car rides: Lightning Peak’s North Couloir, or Cerro Blanco’s West Ridge, or Austrian Direct on Mt. Fairweather. Sometimes, I would see his name in guidebooks: First Free Ascent: George Leigh, 1988, 5.11d. I’d ask him about it, and he’d just shrug his shoulders and say, “I was young and foolish.” Where he sees a falling future, I see an ever-climbing past.

I wasn’t having any of that quitter talk. I look at him squarely.

“Bullshit! Get your broken-down geezer ass back on the climb.”

George shoots angry eyes at me. A long second passes. I almost regret what I said. Then, he suddenly laughs.

“Fine! But if I get it, you owe me a beer.”

Laughing, we walk back over to the climb. We banter for a bit as we tie back into the rope dangling down from the climb.

“I thought you only drink Ensure.”
“When you get to my age, Ensure is like beer.”
“Then I’ll buy you a six-pack of Ensure.”
“Deal!”

George looks relaxed as he climbs. His tendons are drawn into tight tension, but there is a loose lightness about him. I marvel at the beauty of his technique. It’s effortless and masterful. Every toehold is placed perfectly, every finger slots solidly. His arms are an ancient alchemy. His legs dance some dark devilry. And soon, he is back at the crux.

“Watch me!” he yells down.

The command is the same, but the voice is different. It’s steady. Confident. It’s the voice of experience and wisdom. I brace, but I know he won’t fall. He won’t ever fall. I look up and watch. I’m not watching for a fall, but watching a master at work.

“Watching!”

His black, rubber-soled climbing shoes stick to some flawed flake and he stands upright. Without hesitation this time, he places the two fingers of his right hand on the problem hold and locks his thumb over them. With the deft grace of a ballerina and a sudden burst of some hidden, ageless power, he pulls. He launches upward, and he’s suddenly on top.

“Got it!” he yells down.
“Hell yeah!” I yell up.

*****

Later, after I had flailed and failed, after I had given up, and after he had hauled me hand-over-hand past the move, we stood on top of the climb together.

Preparing to descend, I take the long loops of our rope between my outstretched arms and start to wind them into a backpack coil. The bright blue and white sheath has withered under the ageless sun and the slick newness has worn itself over the rough edges of craggy cliffs. Short strands of the outer nylon stick out in a fuzzy haze along its length. George walks over and picks up the other end. He squeezes the rope between his fingers testing for any weaknesses; looking for any dead spots.

“Problems?” I ask.
“Nothing,” he says as he works his way through the coil toward me. “But maybe we should be retire it anyways. I fell pretty hard on it.”

I look down over the edge of the climb. From the top, the rock seems like slick, slippery death. I can see the blank emptiness of the crux. It is intimidating and it is impossible. At the bottom, a hundred and fifty feet down among the ragged rocks, I see our packs. They are far away memories: small in space and tiny in time. Without George, I couldn’t imagine trying something this hard.

I look over and he is gazing off toward the horizon, lost in his thoughts. He is squinting and the lines of his face seem a little deeper, but there’s a sage strength in his eyes and a relaxed sureness in his stance.

I shake my head. “It’s got another season or two left.”
“You think so?” he asks.

He looks over at me and smiles a broad, satisfied smile. The grin pulls back his weary wrinkles, and the crow’s feet disappear from the edges of his eyes. The years seem to fall away from his face. For a moment, he looks young and strong and happy. Under the clear blue desert sky, lit by the sublime soon-setting sun, he is a perfection.

“Damn sure, Old Man,” I reply.

Pretty damn sure.

Ortega Climbing

A hundred degrees in the shade and I spent the weekend climbing a little and teaching climbing a little. Went to Ortega, off the side of the road and past the small sweltering game trails in the sun, up to the small rock formation, slick with the memory of water over it, and we set top ropes and rappelled down. Five short climbs in the shade of the afternoon after the sun had fallen behind the hill. A couple moderate chimneys, a couple hard face climbs, and a very hard feeling 5.9 finger crack. A single slip on the 5.9, but pulled the very hard 5.11 face move past the overhang where I thought I’d fall for sure. And my hand is healing after the light abrasions peeled the skin on the back of my hand.

I Hate Climbers…

I hate climbers.

I tell my friends this and they seem surprised. They ask me, “You hate climbers? But aren’t you a climber? You rock climb right? Doesn’t that make you a climber?”

Yes, I climb. And no, I’m not a fucking climber. Fuck those guys.

Ever talk with a climber? None of it ever makes sense. They’re full of slang and jargon and gear and I always feel like I need a dictionary to talk with them.

What the hell is a redpoint? How’s that different from an on-sight? Trad versus sport versus bouldering versus alpine? Mixed? What’s free-soloing? What about aid climbing? What’s the V scale? Or the Yosemite Decimal System? What’s an overhang? How about a dihedrals? Cracks? Slab? Liebacks? Stemming? Fist jams. Stacking. Highballs. Whippers. Decking. Jugs. Pinches. Underclings. Beta. Chossy. Sandbagged.

No clue? Don’t worry, once you figure out the vocabulary, you realize every friggin’ conversation is the same. All that climbers talk about is climbing.

Not a climber? Tough luck buddy. You’re not going to be able to hold a conversation.

Something like:
“Man, I was totally pumped out on the roof, but then I got my foot over and heel hooked the shit out of it, and when I got over the overhang, there was this fat thank-god jug, so I grabbed it and mantled over and put in a cam and just hung there for a while. I didn’t think I was going to make it, but man, it was sweet.”

Or the route beta:
“It’s got a pretty awkward off-width start, but if you go to the right, you can just climb the slab and get back into a bomber hand crack.”

Or:
“It’s got great fist jams and takes pro pretty good, but then there’s a steep crux with a bouldery move near the top.”

And they’ll do this for hours. Back and forth. This climb, or that climb. It’s J-Tree or Yosemite or Tahquitz or the Buttermilks or Red Rocks or the Alabama Hills or wherever. They’ll rattle off climbs with names like White Lightning or Traitor Horn or Overhang Bypass. In areas like The Old Woman or The Blob or Intersection Rock. It’s like this for hour after hour, night after night. The same shit around the campfire.

Then, when they’re done talking about climbs, they start talking about gear. So much damn gear. Their cams, their nuts, harnesses, rope, crash pads. Bolt hangers, anchor chains, shoulder length slings, keylock noses, wire gates, ovals, HMS, and lockers. Reverso versus ATCs. Dyneema versus nylon. Tricams and hexes. A full rack of Bee Dee cams with doubles of certain sizes for this or that crack. How tri-cams are a pain in the ass to get out, especially after a fall. How dyneema doesn’t take a knot well, or what size cordage to use for a trad anchor. Or how this stopper doesn’t slot well because of the ridges, or how this cam has a better range, or whatever.

I hate that after you climb a bit, that gear talk actually becomes useful. Tricams really ARE a pain in the ass to get out after a climb. And #1 and #.75 BD C4’s really ARE nice to have doubles of.

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Tricams are great!

I hate the legends. I hate looking at a guidebook and there’s a first ascent set by Chouinard or Robbins or Long or Bachar or some other name that I recognize and have no idea why I recognize it. I don’t know why I know who the Stonemasters are. I don’t know why I see those climbs and immediately want to climb them.

I hate that there are places like Salathe Wall, or Astroman, and that I know what they are. I hate that I’ll never be able to climb them. I hate that I know who Lynn Hill is. I hate that she’ll always be a better climber than me. Even when she’s 90.

I hate Alex Honnold. I hate that he gets on the cover of National Geographic. I hate that he climbs harder without a rope than I will ever climb with one. I hate that it kinda makes me want to try free-soloing. I hate that he, too, talks about being scared. Except he’s scared free-soloing up the face of Half Dome, and I’m scared on some 5.5 J-tree trad lead.

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Me getting scared on a 5.5 lead in J-Tree.

I hate that he talks about trying to achieve and maintain certain mental flow states, like some sort of zen master. I hate that on certain climbs, I get glimpses into similar thoughts, only on a much, much lesser level.

I hate Chris Sharma. I hate that he’s the best damn climber in the world and makes it look so easy. I hate that he’s basically a laid-back pothead with superhuman climbing ability. I hate that I’m not a laid-back pothead with superhuman climbing ability. I hate that every climbing girl I know has a huge crush on him. Fuck that guy.

I hate being scared. I hate looking out across a slab traverse with no protection, knowing that if I slip, I’ll take a whipper fall into the rock. I hate looking out across that traverse and cursing it loudly. I hate doing all that and STILL stepping out onto the granite slab, looking the world like a polished piece of slick death, and somehow finding small chips for my feet to go on, and I gingerly place my feet, one at a time, until I look up and suddenly I’m across without any incident and I can slot in a nice nut placement into a convenient crack.

I hate the lead falls. You’re hanging there with fear building up in your chest, and lactic acid building up in your forearms and knowing, just knowing, that you can’t make this move and that you’re going to fall, and ah-shit you lose your grip and suddenly there’s nothing between you and the hard ground, but then you’re suddenly yanked to a stop by the rope gods and maybe your balls get pinched by your leg loops and everything hurts like a mutha-fucker, but you’re thanking whoever it was that invented kernmantle construction and dynamic rope stretch. Then your belayer asks you if you’re ok, and even if you just crapped your pants a little, you don’t want to seem scared, so you yell, “yeah, I’m good, just lower me a bit so I can get back on the climb.” When, really, all you want to do is get back on the ground and pack your shit and go home because that was terrifying, but for some stupid reason, you swing your dangling ass back onto the route and start working the problem again.

And you fall at the crux again, and maybe again, and maybe a few more times. And you curse yourself for picking a hard-as-hell sport and you curse the rock for being smoother than a baby’s ass, and the lack of holds, and the thin flakes that pass for toeholds, and your puny forearms.

Climbers are fearless thrill-seekers. Or completely controlled zen masters. Strong, lean muscles and the grace of countless climbs under their nylon harnesses. Long arms and long climbs and the inexorable progress upward on the rock without a hitch. Guys and girls like Chris Sharma or Lynn Hill, blonde beasts held to the face with iron pinches and smoothly slotted crack jamming fists. And laid-back post-climb beer drinkers, easy on the eyes and easy on the road.

Definitely not me, I who curse the rock out loud as I climb. Not the joyful silence of sheer confidence, but the thinly held-together cracking-up of my holding-my-shit-togetherness.

I hate looking at a long, curving crack and thinking to myself, ”You gotta be fucking kidding me. People climb this shit?” I hate that I stand there at the base and start racking gear to myself, as if I knew what the hell I was doing. Sure, I’ll take some cams, and some nuts, and some quickdraws and a few alpine draws. No, I don’t think I’ll need the tri-cams. I strap on my helmet, check my tie-in, tighten my leg loops (protect my balls). Then, to my partner: “Climbing.” And he answers, “Climb on.” I place my hand on the rock and step on. And I immediately wonder what the fuck I’m doing.

Slowly upward, upward, slotting in a piece here and there, wondering who the hell thought sticking little metal bits the size of my thumbnail constituted “protection.”

When I go climbing, I spend the entire time pretending. I’m lying to myself and to my friends. I lie to gravity. I tell all of them, yes, I know what I’m doing. I’m in control here. Yes, I am a climber, I can make it up this impossible pitch. I say shit like, “oh that was a beautiful climb.” That usually means I need to go home and change my underwear. Or the climber’s version of an admission of fear, “yeah, that was a little spicy.” As if airy exposure and hard moves were akin to a pinch of habanero spice in your hot sauce. Hot sauce might make my eyes water, but exposure makes me cry like a little bitch.

I’m not a climber because I’m scared. I’m scared all the time. I’m scared of falling. I’m scared of my pro ripping out. I’m scared of rockfall. I’m scared that something will happen and my rope will get cut. I’m scared of flailing on a hard section. I’m scared of looking stupid in front of my climbing partner.

My non-climbing friends (you know, normal, sane people) say things to me when I tell them that I climb. Like, “Oh, I could never rock climb. I’m afraid of heights.” And I think to myself, “are you kidding me? You think I’m NOT afraid of fucking heights?”

But, of course, I play the badass card and just shrug it off like it’s no big deal. I’ll reply with, “oh, you get used to it.” As if you really do. You just get really good at not looking down, at focusing on your moves, on not thinking that you’re dangling on some wall a couple hundred feet above jagged rocks and if your little 10mm rope were cut, you’d be dead, dead, dead.

I try to remind myself of Lynn Hill’s words: “It doesn’t matter how tall the mountain is, all that matters is how strong you are.”

But despite all the fears, all the good and rational reasons to be scared, I’m most scared of living a life where I didn’t try something amazing because I was too afraid. I’m scared of going to my safe grave in my safe bed after living a safe life and wondering if I should have taken more risks. If I should have pushed my fear down deep inside. If I should have tied that rethreaded figure-eight onto my harness and put my hands on a hopeful hold and stepped up to try something impossible. I’m scared that I would have never known that feeling of standing on top a tall tower of gorgeous granite with the sunset sky over J-Tree and looking down at something I ascended with nothing but a skinny shoestring rope and tired muscles and audacity.

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On top of Bussonier (5.7) in J-Tree.

I’m scared that I would never had known what adrenaline and fear mixed with the euphoria of topping out on some pitch you never thought you’d be able to climb felt like. Like you were some sort of superman full of courage and undaunted strength and that you just did something that so many only dream of. That feeling of superiority over your non-climbing friends, lying at home in front of their TVs with their cats and their boring nine-to-five jobs could never hope to achieve. For a few brief moments, I am greatness.

But then, I get back to camp and hang out with my climbing friends and it’s just talk of route after route after route around the campfire. And I know I’m not a badass. I’m just a pretender. They swap stories about this crack or that slab or this face and it’s 5.11d or 5.12a or V7 and it’s back and forth like gaining the anchor and getting on lead for the next pitch. I come out and have a beer and sit with climbers and listen to them talk and try my best to throw some slang in there and hope that they can’t see through me, that they won’t recognize that I’m just a poser, a fake, a phony, that I’m talking like I climb, I’m just pretending.

I’m telling you man, I fucking hate climbers.

But, god damn, I wish I were a climber.

And seriously, fuck Chris Sharma. I hate that guy.

Sort of.