Faith, and Gravity

Climbing above gear is climbing into darkness, launching out on trust and faith, accepting chaos as inevitable. It is embracing the unknown, holding it close and living within it. Every once in a while, however, no matter how strong your trust, gravity comes roaring in, and in its wake faith can slip like sand through your fingers.

I first saw Mean Streak last December on my way to climb Fafnir. The Streak is an early season ribbon of ice plastered in a corner that dead-ends at a roof. The Mean begins after the climb steps left into a corner of shattered rock into sustained mixed terrain. The route continues to the top of the cliff, but the first pitch is recognized as the prize. Last December it called to me and I got on it once, late enough that the ice had dried and turned fractious. It took me an hour to reach the mixed terrain, and the rock was glazed in ice. Cams were useless so I lowered, determined to come back sometime soon.

“Soon” turned out to be a year later. It turned out to be today.

I met my climbing partner Pat in the Cannon parking lot at 8:30 a.m. The mountain was awash in clouds and the snow was falling hard. Ours were the only cars there. We shook hands, packed bags and started walking in, both excited for a day of climbing. I didn’t know, however, just how exciting a day it would be.

It started out well. Pat and I had never climbed together, so we chatted on the walk in and as we racked up. I started up the route with a smile on my face, trusting the climb would go.

The first swing into the ice, however, proved worrisome. It was dry, cracking, exploding with every swing. Mean Streak forms early, but it doesn’t recover well. In the last week or two it had seen several ascents, and there was little water running to refill the damage. I started up the shoulder-width strip of ice placing screw after screw, determined not to deck should I fall. These conditions make it hard to accept fate and fall upwards, I thought as every swing expanded the spiderwebs. Trust? Faith? On this?

But somehow I found them both. I bobbled a screw that didn’t bite enough into the ice and dropped it to the ground, but instead of seeing that as sign I was in over my head I just fired in a sharper one. Foot placements appeared one after another, and I worked my way around the fragile ice to good stuff that bit my picks. THUNK. THUNK. I slowly rose up the column, and soon I was launching out into the mixed terrain.

Mean Streak is not like The Mercy or Baghdad. It is vertical, with lots of hooking on flakes held in place by other flakes. After the ice ended the largest piece of gear I got was a red Alien. I placed several tiny HB offsets, the kind I prefer never to test on Cathedral in summer. But that’s all there was, so I slowly picked my way upward, searching for gear, testing placements, working my crampons and releasing myself from the tug of gravity, the weight of fear. I submitted to the process, falling upwards, relying on trust and faith.

That description is not an abstraction — about halfway up the corner the cracks evaporate and the turf dwindles. There was only one small hook on a shelf that looked friable, and not much for feet to spread the load. Oh well, I thought, looking at the two small cams at my knee, I’m not sure where the next good hook is, but I won’t find it hanging here. With that I cut the cord, floating upward on holds that shouldn’t have held my weight, holding close the chaos and lack of control, embracing it as I floated higher. My feet cut and my legs swung out from the cliff, my tools each on tenuous placements. I could see my gear below me, but I was strangely calm. Faith, I thought, trust that what you need will show up.

And it did. I found a decent hook, then one move higher a good one, then good feet. My cams were now way below me, but I had a handjam and more gear. Faith revealed what I needed. I kept climbing.

I stood on top of a spike and looked up at the next section. There was a fixed spectre about six feet out of reach, and between me and it a series of haggard flakes. I pounded in a pin, made a move upward and sunk a tiny offset. That won’t hold me, I thought, but it fits, and as long as we’re running on faith… I launched out into the flakes, determined to keep floating upwards, buoyed by my trust in the chaos. I hooked a flake, worked my way up a crack, and then put a tool over a horn. I rearranged my feet, lifting them up high, getting them into position for a big move, when suddenly a piece of rock flashed in front of my face. That’s the horn I was on, I thought, my body already falling sideways, parallel with the ground. “JESUS!” I screamed as my hip glanced off the spike I had stood on minutes before. I was more than 120 feet up, with at least as much rope out plus slack in the system. I sailed through the air past the terrain I’d just floated up on faith. Pat, who had been hunkered down against the cold for a long belay, clamped on the ropes with my scream. I came to a halt near a pair of cams I’d placed 30 minutes before.

The offset nut that caught me.

“HOLY SHIT,” I yelled, my feet scraping against the rock, “THAT WAS INSANE!” Both my tools were still in my hands, and despite grazing the cliff as I fell nothing seemed hurt. “I guess I’m going back up,” I said, leaning into the corner. I sunk my picks back into turf I’d led minutes before, this time toproping off a number 4 HB offset. When I reached the nut I stood and stared at it. It was well-placed, but testing it with a fall seemed crazy. How had it held? I looked at the loose flakes above me, my trust wavering. I don’t want to risk that fall again, I thought, but I knew if I didn’t my trust and faith would evaporate. Falling isn’t the same as failure, but not getting back on would be.

So I scraped my tools back up into the loose rock, working my way up the crack to the remnants of the horn I’d just torn off, balancing hooks in rattly flakes. A couple foot moves got my pick onto another edge, my waist high above the nut, and suddenly I was at the spectre hooking in a crack, sinking a nut into a slot. Almost there, I thought, almost there. I’d fallen, but failure would have to wait for another day.

What do trust and faith offer? Perhaps they let us float rather than fight through that which is possible. They cannot save us from falling. I climbed well today, with purity and grace, with faith and trust, and still I fell. Faith alone cannot keep us afloat; gravity is like time — unwavering, constant, able to tear down mountains. We have too little control of the world around us to hope faith can counteract it. But if we can hold it close and swallow it whole it can deliver us from the fear of gravity, the fear of falling. Falling, in climbing and in life, is always a possibility. In some instances it too may even be inevitable. If that is the case no amount of trust or faith can divert it, but making every move in fear, without faith, without trust, turns a possible fall into an inevitable one. There are no inevitable successes, but without trust failure earns inevitability.

In the air or on the ground I am learning to trust radically and embrace faith recklessly, even when falling, when getting hurt, when hitting the ground is a real possibility. I am pushing the fear of what could go wrong out, in hopes of creating the possibility things could go right. And I’m climbing on. Success isn’t inevitable, but through faith I hope it becomes possible. So far it has been working on the cliff. I’m not sure how it’s going here on earth.

And if I fall? I’ll get back on and start climbing again, just like today. Falling is no reason to give up on faith. That would turn falling into failing.

[Author’s note: I learned I was actually climbing a variation to Mean Streak when I whipped. Mean Streak cuts right onto the slab at the spike I was standing on. I was on a variation that meets up with the Pilaf crack instead.]

Fin.
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