Flights Over Baghdad

Climbing out above gear is climbing into darkness. It is climbing out of control, climbing into fear. It is something I’ve never been great at, but in recent weeks and months life on the ground has been at least as out of control as anything I get tied in for. At least roped up I know which direction to go.

I went out yesterday with my friend Bayard for a soggy day of mixed climbing on a longterm mixed project I dubbed Baghdad Holiday. Baghdad is a crack to an icicle, a trad-protected mixed line I found four winters ago. I started working it back then, but placing gear through M8+/M9 — including two roofs — proved more than I could handle. I was never able to link everything while slamming in gear. I’d climbed it with everything pre-placed, but plugging pieces I couldn’t make it go.

But yesterday was different. First off, I’m not sure how much lighter I am these day (I don’t have a scale), but life turbulence is a powerful diet. In the last two months I’ve lost enough weight that not only are most of my pants to big, so are my belts. I’m not a big man to begin with (5 foot 7, less than 150 pounds), but even size small has begun looking baggy. Dropping 10 percent of your bodyweight has a way of making it easier to hold onto ice tools. Combine that with a feeling that life on the ground is far more uncertain than anything on route, and you’re going places. Fear isn’t such a big factor if lowering does nothing to reduce it. That fact has become my secret weapon lately, first on Skywalker, then on The Mercy, and yesterday on Baghdad Holiday.

I fired the first crux slinging nuts and cams as I went, then launched into the sketchy central section and then powered through the upper roof. The last six feet had limited gear, and my feet cut as I was hanging from a steinpull 75 feet up. Somehow I stayed calm and reeled it back in, something I’ve never been particularly strong at. I clipped the chains and let out a shriek. TRIUMPH, after four years of work. It was a second act to The Mercy, I was climbing as close to the edge as possible. Only this time there were no bolts.

This is not how I normally climb. I bring a logical, engineering-type approach to the vertical world, particularly when the going gets difficult. I once led Dropline placing 13 screws, and I took 45 minutes to climb Within Reason. I spend forever rigging protection and considering consequences. On route I do more thinking than feeling, and letting go to climb is not in my nature.

Lately, however, the old strategy is out the door. There is a whole world of things I’ve learned I cannot control in recent weeks, and all the sudden the consequences of life on the ground seem more serious than those in the air. Losing control high above a cam feels far more controlled than losing control with both feet on the ground.

Now that I know that, logic as a strategy goes is the window. Faith suddenly starts to play a much more central role. The gear will show up, the hook will hold. It has to. It just has to.

And if I’m wrong up there, all that happens is I fall. It’s not that simple back on earth.

[Author’s Note: The awesome photo of me on the start of Baghdad is by Anne Skidmore. She took it several years ago when I first started working this thing out. It’s worth checking out her blog.]

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