I woke up this morning and felt the call of the woods. After six weeks of climbing, of slowly working my way westward from the beaches of North Carolina to the Southern California Pacific, I wanted to run. I wanted to watch trees dance past in a blur, feel the spring of soft earth beneath, splash through streams and feel the sweat trail down my forehead. After weeks of ropes and harnesses the occasional wetsuit I wanted unencumbered movement, raw movement. Something animalistic, tribal.
That’s running. It’s pair of shorts, Vibram Five Fingers and a four-legged trail partner tearing down the steeps of the White Mountains. After six weeks of wandering I was home again, and running called.
But while running pulls at me, lures me in, I’m easily distracted, and climbing owns my soul. Sometimes I just can’t get out of the way.
I drove to the cliff, the air still cool with morningness, my run on my mind. The trail begins at Cathedral, then winds its way over to Diana’s Bath, up the back side of Whitehorse and then down the south slopes before climbing to the summit of Cathedral and back to the car. It’d been a while since I’d run that loop, my regular loop. In fact, it’d been a while since I’d stood below Cathedral Ledge at all and just arched my neck to look up at it. If there is a center to the universe, a place the world might have been born from, it is Cathedral. The earth spilled out of her cave. From the Central Wall in winter to the Prow buttress in summer to the trails surrounding it, it calls. Rain, wind, snow, sun, it doesn’t matter, it is always whispering to me. Sometimes I forget, wander away for a week, a month, a year, but when I see the towering granite it pulls me back in. I can’t get around it. And If I could I’m not sure I’d want to.
I drove slow. If I were running I’d drive to the winter gate and park, the very end of the road before it starts climbing. But I was barely to the kiosk when I pulled over. The cliff was calling, louder than the run. A different kind of run.
I parked, pulled out rock shoes and dug around in my trunk for a chalk bag. I changed into shorts—not the lightweight running kind, but durable canvas, the kind built for scraping over granite. I slipped into my flip flops and started up the trail.
There is no such thing as smart soloing. Or maybe there is and I just haven’t happened onto it. It’d been nine days since I’d touched rock, nine days since I’d climbed 16 pitches of immaculate Yosemite stone to the summit of the Sentinel, the outstreached palm of Yosemite Valley, but the Funhouse to Upper Refuse circuit is one I know well. It would be like falling into conversation with an old friend again—I would know when to hang back, when to push. Right?
The cliff towered above. In the sun the morning coolness was burning away. I laced my shoes at the base of the first corner, taking deliberate breaths to slow my heart rate. I could feel my nervousness blending with excitement, all blending with an elevated pulse from hiking in too fast: Solo climbing is not about speed. It is about slowness, about deliberate movement. It seems fast by virtue of its simplicity, but if you’re rushing, breathing hard, scared, you’re in danger. I closed my eyes and exhaled, working my way back to that.
Then I started climbing. The sun pushed hard from above. The rock felt slick but familiar. I wrapped my fingers into cracks they’d brushed countless times. The trees danced in the wind behind me. I began to sweat. I patted my hand in my chalk bag, grabbed the rock holds, looked at the polished feet and moved upward. My body recognized the process, the unencumbered movement. It was running only slower, with a chance to fall, to die. I stuck my hand in a crack, jammed, focused on my feet and moved again. Hand. Hand. Foot. Foot. Hand. Foot. I flowed over the rock, a deer in the forest, a brook down a mountainside. The movement: There it was.
But if the movement was there, my head wasn’t with it. It was full of noise, choked with errands and assignments and things to do now that I was back in town. My hands wrapped holds, my feet pressed edges, but my head was caught in its own dance.
But I kept climbing. And as I moved upward the rhythm took over. Gravity pushed the thoughts aside, and I kept jamming, grabbing holds, moving my feet up, one more twist of the body, one more offset movement to regain balance. The noise of life bled away. I began to notice the grain of the rock, the sound of the trees in the breeze, the subtle shifts in temperature as the air moved. I came back to myself, the climbing pulling me along.
By the top rock was flowing effortlessly beneath me. I crested Cathedral and wrapped my hand around the cool metal fence. I exhaled, safe on horizontal ground, pulled off my rock shoes and slipped back into my flip flops. My tee shirt was damp with sweat, but the sweat of movement, of deliberation and concentration and presence, not the sweat of fear. I trotted to the descent trail, the rest of the day before me.
I was home. And there was still time for a run.