Climbing for Brian

Climbing for Brian

10553818_903535722993720_2619385696188103555_oTwo years ago my friend Brian died. He was climbing on Cathedral Ledge, doing laps on a route I’ve been on countless times before. I was in Peru at the time, a long way from home, a long way from the people I turn to when things get difficult.

I had plans to spend eight months in South America, plans to bounce from Peru to Chile to Argentina and all over and up to Central America. But it didn’t fit. After a month traveling in Chile I flew home.

Instead I went climbing: Red Rocks, Zion, Eldo, Rifle. Looking Glass. Rumbling Bald. The Obed. I wandered through 14 states over five weeks, clipped bolts, jammed cracks and hung on gear. I got scared. I got lost. I fell. I saw old friends and made new ones. I took the type of trip Brian loved taking. He and I had discussed a trip to the desert or to Yosemite, though it never happened. But I felt a connection to him out there, a recognition that “gone” and “with us” can be indistinct.

A month ago was Brian’s birthday. Facebook was kind enough to remind me. It popped up in my feed like he was still here, like I should send him a card or a gift. But he’s not.

13172996_1480482645311149_7238612379710389030_oA few weeks earlier I made it to one of the desert towers Brian and I talked about. The North Face of Castleton is a beautiful 5.11- up steep orange rock. My friend Jim just happened to be in Moab at the same time as me, and it was his birthday. He put a post on FB asking if anyone wanted to climb the next day. “Seriously?!” I said. “You’re in Moab?? Let’s climb Castleton!”

We met the next morning around 10 a.m. and drove to Castle Valley. It was noon by the time we reached the route, but at only three pitches we figured it would go quick. I took the first lead, a steep blue Camalot crack that ended in thinner cracks through a patch of white calcite. Two guys were repelling off as I started up. “Mountain Project says you need 6 number threes,” one of them said. We had two. Jim looked at me. “Maybe leapfrog that one below you?” I heeded his advice.

But the crack was straightforward, the climbing uncomplicated. I jammed and I jammed, making quick progress. I hit the calcite rested and laughing, enjoying the movement and exposure. No wonder Brian so loved such places—the red of the sandstone gleamed, and every jam felt handcarved. This was climbing at its best.

13147451_1480754145283999_7137182934756421799_oJimmy followed, pushing his way up the final exposed crux with a grunt, and we scampered up two more pitches, both excellent.

From the summit the Valley ran off in every direction, a landscape carved out from the red stone with snow-covered mountains as a backdrop. It felt like paradise, God’s country, the kind of place Brian would smile at.

There is a photo of Brian taken on top of another tower. He is sitting, his legs outstretched, writing in the summit register. A valley spills out below him. The sun is high, the sky blue. It looks peaceful. This is how I like to remember him. He was joyful, at ease.

It’s been nearly two years since Brian fell. I’m on another trip, roughly 20 states in, another handful of climbing areas. There has also been surfing and freediving and random beach visits. And yet this still feels like an homage to him. He keeps popping up. I started this post a year and a half ago, while I was on that first trip. It came back to me today, begging to be finished. I couldn’t ignore that call.

There is a sense of being lost in wandering, but there is also an open door, a chance to be reminded of people, events, places that otherwise fall into darkness. So quickly we forget, but wandering we remember. Some of that can be painful. Other parts are beautiful. Perhaps every visit to the desert will in part be Brian’s. I hope so. I see him in the beauty of the landscape. I feel blessed to share it with him. It may only be in my heart, but that is enough.

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The Project Stands

The Project Stands
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Andre and I below the Enduro Corner.

Not every project goes down easy.

Sometimes a route takes two tries. Or three. Sometimes more. Sometimes it’s days, or weeks, or months.

Then there are those that take years.

I remember the first time I read about Astroman. I was 19, only a handful of leads under my belt. I’d never been to Yosemite, or anywhere really. I’d grown up climbing on scrappy crags on the coast of Maine, made my way to the Gunks and Adirondacks and now was out in Colorado for my second try at college. But the plan was really to climb—Eldo and South Platte rock, ice in Ouray and Vail. School was an excuse to play in the Rockies.

That’s where I first I read about it, “The best rock climb in the world.” 12 clean, hard pitches up the steep east face of Washington Column. The Enduro Corner. The Harding Slot. First ascent by the Stonemasters. Freesoloed by Peter Croft. This was the land of legends.

I, meanwhile, climbed 5.8. I carried around a rack of hexes like cowbells, and if there wasn’t some kind of sling running bandolier-style across my chest I wasn’t leaving the ground. My rope had never seen a leadfall. Astroman was a dream, a myth shrouded somewhere in the distance. I had no idea what such a thing truly meant.

15 years, however, has a way of changing things. Some projects, afterall, take years.

My first swing at the legend was six years ago. My partner Jim was an old school hardman, the kind of guy you want on an over-your-head mission. I’d climbed a lot of Valley moderates, long free climbs up to 5.10 or those with short 11 cruxes, and put few walls under my belt. Now I wanted the prize.

We warmed up, got ourselves reaquainted with the physical nature of Yosemite climbing, and then got on the Rostrum, the supposed training-wheeled version of Astroman. The route went, with Jim and I onsighting pitch after pitch of perfect crack. The 11c crux fell quickly, a few pulls on fingerlocks. The only ugliness came on the offwidth, which I grovelled up pulling on cams. It was a good reminder that in Yosemite the wide is often the crux.

We topped out and over pizza made plans for the main event: rest, then Astroman.

If only things always went according to plan…

We started early knowing the route might need a long day. Jim strung together the first couple pitches. Soon we were below the Enduro Corner, a shimmering dihedral of overhanging thin hands. I racked up.

It started well, I felt solid on the jams, stuffed gear as I climbed. But the Enduro doesn’t relent: 40 feet later I was still in small hands, then still 30 feet after that. Then it pinchs down. The feet were small, the rock so clean it felt like glass.

I fell. I fell again. And again.

Soon I was aiding, so gassed I could barely bare to shove my fingers into the crack. I was miles from the anchors. I shouted “Take!”

Make a move.

“Take!”

Make a move.

“TaketaketaketakeTAKE!”

And again. And again. The pitch felt went on forever. Barely a jam or a stance revealed itself anywhere.

Astroman. The stuff of legends.

By the top I was dry-heaving, my skin was in tatters. My tremendous rack was gone. I built an anchor and just sat down, dejected. This would not be the day.

When Jim made it up he looked at me. “Let’s do another pitch or two and get out of here,” he said. I nodded, still too tired for a discussion. We climbed two more pitches to the base of the Harding Slot and bailed. The greatest rock climb on earth would have to wait.

Fast-forward six years: February 2016. A group of friends are planning a climbing reunion. We met climbing in the Caucasus Mountains of Armenia and Georgia, and now our Armenian host was coming to the States to sample American rock. I called my friend Andre: “Yosemite. Will you meet me? I want to climb Astroman.”

It’s funny how an idea can endure, how it can stick in your brain through tremendous changes and come out unscathed. Barely out of high school, more a hiker than a climber, I first fell across Astroman, printed myself a rudimentary topo. Now 15 years later, just off trips to Cuba, the Caucasus and Scotland, I was itching for another swing. This, I figured, was my shot.

13173571_1482271455132268_4317104870608104184_oWe met in Indian Creek, started the tour with sandstone splitters. From there I took a detour to Castle Valley and a quick run up the North Face of Castleton, then on to Red Rocks, where the Armenian (his name is Mkhitar, which he helpfully shortens for Americans to MAH-heek) and I ran up the nine-pitch Texas Hold Em. Things felt good. Astroman was waiting.

But the Valley is not the desert, as Yosemite would soon remind me.

We crossed through the tunnel into Yosemite Valley at midday. We were packed and ready: I wanted a shot at figuring out the Enduro Corner moves, to treat it like a sport climb almost, so at 2 p.m. we started up.

It was hard, but not impossibly hard. I found feet, and rests, and places to jam. But I still took. A lot. The pitch would go, but it would be no easy feat.

The next day we came back, Andre wanted his shot. We were fired up for the top; after the rehearsal the day before we thought it might go. But it was to no avail. The Enduro spit Andre out, left him as smoked as it had left me. We climbed to the Harding Slot and descended.

No big deal. We had time.

13131031_1484702884889125_5028181883377873951_oA few days later we were back. We eschewed the second rope, got an early start, sprinted up the first few pitches and were soon looking at the Enduro once again.

“Go,” Andre said. “You’ve got this.”

I started up. The jams felt solid. I dropped in a cam, climbed, then dropped in another. I punched it, placing less than I’d like but enough to be safe. The clock was ticking. The first rest was 40 feet up, a handjam with a stem. I had to get there. So I went.

Over our repeated missions I’d discovered enough jams of substance to know I could hop between. It meant running it out a bit, but cams in amazing granite kept it safe. I jammed, placed, then punched it. Again. And again. Soon the end was in sight.

Then my foot popped. I was off, flying through the air.

“CRAP!!” I yelled as the rope came tight. “I wasn’t even pumped!”

It was a lie, I was pumped, but I wasn’t out of gas. Inattention that caught me, poor technique, not a lack of forearms. I yarded back to my last piece, got back on route and climbed to the anchor.

Andre was next to me a few minutes later. “Well,” he said, “what do you want to do?”

“Keep climbing,” I said. “I want to send that pitch, but we might as well keep going up.”

The fall, however, broke my resolve. We climbed to the Harding Slot, which I started up, but when things started turned physical I backed off.

“I want to send this thing for real,” I told Andre back at the anchor, “not hangdog my way up it. I want to go down and come back later.”

“Later?” Andre said. We had one day left, and neither of us would be in shape for another go tomorrow.

But some projects take days; others, weeks; others, months. And some last years. The best climb in the world would have to wait.

“Later,” I said threading the rappel.

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This piece appeared on the Trango website. Trango generously supports my climbing, so please check them out, buy their gear.

Failing and Making It Worth It

Failing and Making It Worth It

IMG_7931.JPGI fail a lot.

Yesterday, for example, I climbed Heather, 12b trad. Or more accurately I fell off Heather. A lot. After the initial crack things get thin, the protection gets small, and I started flying. I jammed so hard I took chunks out of my pinky and ring finger, left blood in the crack. I eventually pulled through the first crux on gear after repeated whippers on a slotted microstopper. The jams were so painful they left my knuckles aching. Onto the second crux, a series of sport climbing-esque slaps up an overhanging wall above a fixed pin—I backed up the pin with another microstopper, but on my first whip the rock around it blew. The stopper and quickdraw scurried down the rope to my hanging waste. The pin held, so I yarded back up and placed something else nearby. I took a few more whips and then lowered.

It wasn’t that I didn’t have the finish in me. It was that I was finished. I’d hung enough, my head was spent. I was just tired of being scared. I wanted to stand on flat ground. I was over it. I’d failed.

FullSizeRender-1That was yesterday. Two days before I lowered off Confederacy of Dunces, a crimpy “sport climb” that requires as much gear as quickdraws. Earlier in the day I’d fallen off Promise Land, a route I’ve climbed a bunch before.

Before that it was Astroman, the classic Yosemite 11c. I’ve been up there four times with two different partners, and everytime I’ve retreated. Even the Steck Salathe, a long Yosemite 10b, I had to hang on this trip.

Coyne Crack. Sanctuary. Mean Streak. Fat Lady. Flesh for Lulu. Tight Rope. The Prow. Women in Love. White Eye. The last pitch of The Underground. There are more routes out there I’ve fallen on or backed off of than routes I’ve sent. A lot more.

I fail a lot. A lot a lot.

The last few years this has been particularly acute—my drive to push has ebbed and surged in waves. One day I’ll be fixated on a route, and the next I won’t care about climbing at all. Until I’m standing at the base, until the route is towering overhead, I have ZERO gauge on where my head will be.

Yosemite, for example, three weeks ago: I was feeling lukewarm about the huge projects I’d set out for myself, Astroman and a one-day ascent of the Nose. But then we came through the tunnel and I saw the towering bulk of El Cap. We pulled over, parked with the rest of the tourists, and snapped a few photos. I could feel the excitement rising from somewhere deep inside me. Suddenly I was jumping up and down, eyes wide, my hands on my partner Andre’s shoulders. “Let’s do this!” I shouted, energized, alive. “LET’S CLIMB THAT BEAST!”

We didn’t. We failed. We tried Astroman three times but never reached the top. Even climbing the Sentinel was a close one. We never even got on the Nose.

I remember as a beginning climber backing off everything. I could practically downclimb as well as I could ascend; almost every route wound up including a retreat. The first time I tried the Whitney-Gilman Ridge I backed off three pitches up; I had no idea where to go, and I was too afraid to get stranded. I didn’t have the confidence in myself, the sense of adventure required, to continue. It was the same feeling that came flooding back yesterday.

I also remember when I stopped failing, stopped always backing off stuff and started getting to the top. It felt like a victory, a gaining momentum, like I’d crested some hill and the battle that had ragged for years was finally turning in my favor. Call it confidence, call it whatever, but there was a tipping point and it allowed me to start sending. The foundation was built and it was now time to climb.

There is a power in possibility, power in believing in yourself, believing you are successful, can succeed, power in believing the next hold WILL show up, the next piece of gear WILL be bomber. There is Truth in that. And yes, you might get stranded, there may not be any gear, but most times it will work out. Climbing has the power to get you killed, but when you climb with openness and possibility, when you ask the question “How do I use the holds before me?” rather than “When will the holds get good?” the best of us shows. We meet the challenge with our all. And suddenly you find yourself at the top.

But that doesn’t happen every day. Not in climbing, or elsewhere.

I fail a lot. And not just in climbing. I tried writing a book once, a guidebook to Western Maine rock. I never got past collecting topos and building a website. My “career” is a handful of fits and starts, nothing to write home about, a small town writing gig that keeps going with some adventure on the side. And I was married once. That didn’t work out either. Life has a way of handing us failure, adversity, reminders we are imperfect, routes we can’t seem to get to the top of. Our best efforts of the moment aren’t enough to crest the hill. The summit might just be out of reach. Life has a way of reminding us of that.

I failed yesterday. A lot. It came at the end of a week marked by failure, and a trip marked by failure. At the end of a few years marked by failure.

And in the midst of those lessons on failure the failures can compound. They can transform from a single moment to a storyline, from one climb to climbing, from event or sequence of events to a life narrative.

Blah.

But each of those moments are single moments, blips on the screen, instantaneous and individually inconsequential. “Failures” in name only.

As I bailed off Heather yesterday my friend Pat walked past on his way to Airation, a Cathedral finger crack. I’d seen him working the route a year ago, but he’d fallen at the crux.

“I’m getting back on it,” he said. “I’ve still got to send it.”

Not a failure, an ongoing challenge.

Life does a lot of smacking around. It is about mistakes and missteps, confusion and corrections. Climbing is a stupid, pointless way to spend the weekend. And I love it. It has a tendency to mimic the rest of existence, remind us of the challenges we face every day.

Today my fingers hurt. And my abs. I’m thinking a bike ride, or a trail run, fits more than climbing; I’m thinking I need a mental break from falling, fear, and visions of failure.

But yesterday as I walked down the descent trail after retrieving my gear I turned to Nick, my climbing partner. “Thanks man,” I said, “today couldn’t have been more fun.”

He smiled. “Yeah,” he said, “that was awesome.”

Failure can still be worth it.

And I’ll be back. I’ll be up there again, fingers jammed to the bleeding-point, gear smaller than I want disappearing below me. No matter how many tries it takes me it won’t truly be a failure, just an ongoing challenge, just one more route I have yet to send. And there are lots of those. I’ll never send them all.

 

Enoch Glidden, and the Question “How Can I?”

Enoch Glidden, and the Question “How Can I?”
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Glidden on Washington Column.

What does it take to climb a 3,000-foot cliff?

For Enoch Glidden, a 37-year-old wheelchair-bound climber born with spina bifida, it might sound like a complex challenge built around planning, hundreds of feet of rope, specially designed climbing equipment and more.

But ask him what it takes, and he doesn’t give a complex answer. The Western Maine native keeps it simple: Climbing a 3,000-foot cliff requires friends.

“Nobody does anything without help, disabled or not,” he said.

Next fall Glidden is headed to Yosemite Valley, Calif., the mecca of American rock climbing, with plans to climb El Capitan, the massive granite touchstone for rock climbers worldwide. He’s been there once, last year, and despite his inability to move his legs, he climbed 600 feet up a towering granite rock face.

“It’s possible,” he said. It just comes down to a question he’s asked himself over and over: “How can I?”

That is the theme of the slide show Glidden will be giving Saturday night at International Mountain Equipment in North Conway. “Go Beyond the Fence” discusses his trip last fall and is a step on the road to his next challenge, El Capitan.

“That question has come up my whole life,” Glidden said. “How can I?” He got his first wheelchair when he was 4. Paralyzed from the waist down, he refuses to let that hold him back: He skis (both downhill and cross-country), competes in wheelchair races, plays basketball and is close to getting his pilot’s license. When he sees a challenge he runs at it, and four years ago the new challenge he discovered was climbing.

“It’s just kind of the ultimate challenge,” he said. “It’s all me to get up there.”

He started in New York with Paradox Sports, a Colorado-based nonprofit dedicated to adaptive sports. That led him to ice climbing closer to home — he’s attended Paradox Ice events in North Conway the past three years.

In Yosemite last year, he and a team climbed up Washington Column, a granite tower a few miles north of El Capitan.

But as he said, these kinds of climbs don’t happen alone.

“Pretty much everywhere I go, someone volunteers,” Glidden said. Last fall they had a team of four the night before the planned ascent. By the next morning, their team was up to double digits. People just seem to want to be involved, Glidden said. “I did one presentation, and a whole bunch of people volunteered.”

The group hiked to the base of Washington Column, carrying Glidden over broken rock and talus. They climbed 500 feet up, spent the night, then climbed another 100 feet the next day.

“Two climbers go ahead and set the rope,” Glidden said, “and then I do pull-ups on the rope.”

He has a special rope-climbing device rigged with a mini pull-up bar, he said, which he uses to climb the rope.

“The hardest part is living on the wall,” he said. He can’t stand up, so he can’t move around easily. That makes routine tasks like dressing and going to the bathroom difficult. “You can train for pull-ups. You can’t train for the portaledge,” the fabric platform he uses for resting and sleeping, he said.

But he learned a lot on that trip, worked out many of the kinks. Now “I’m pretty much dialed in,” he said. For his trip this year he won’t be scouring around Yosemite for partners. “This time I’m bringing people with me.”

The climb will take five days and nights, and involve sleeping on the side of the cliff. Glidden will again ascend a rope strung up by partners, doing thousands upon thousands of pull-ups over the course of the ascent. This will be by far the biggest climbing challenge he’s attempted.

But in some ways the vertical world is easier than some of the challenges that come before. First, he has to get to the wall. It’s a steep walk over rough terrain to get to the base of Zodiac, his planned route up El Capitan’s right flank.

That’s where the friends come in: helping get him to the climb, not just up it, and then also off the top of El Capitan and down. He’s got 14 people planning to join for some part of the mission, but it’s still up to him to do all those pull-ups. There will be a crew shooting video, plus Glidden blogging, and Paradox Sports and the Spina Bifida Foundation of Greater New England will be broadcasting the climb as well.

But all that is in October. For now, Glidden is still training, still getting ready for the challenge ahead. He’s been taking lessons from Sean O’Neill of Brownfield, Maine, who pioneered many climbing techniques for paraplegics. O’Neill climbed El Capitan by the same route in 2006, also doing thousands of pull-ups.

“He basically taught me everything,” Glidden said.

And along with training, he’s pulling together the funds to get himself out there. He just finished his degree in computer information systems, and he’s planning to intern for the summer in Palo Alto, Calif.

“The day that ends I’m going to Yosemite to go climbing,” he said.

But Saturday night at IME, 2733 White Mountain Highway, North Conway, the Mount Washington Valley will get a taste of his ascent, with video shot from his trip last fall. And Glidden wille discussing that all-important question, “How can I?”

The event will be held upstairs at IME on Main Street in North Conway Village. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. with free beer courtesy of Tuckerman’s Brewery. The film portion will begin at 7 p.m. There is a suggested donation of $10.

This story appeared in today’s Conway Daily Sun.

Morning Run

Morning Run

10393822_922846194408133_2350935378690804178_nI 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.

1014830_684146251611463_497985571_oI 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.

On the Road

On the Road

13071776_1474279299264817_5955152375711111058_oI stood by the side of U.S. 191 waving my arms. Another car slid past. Then another. And another.

“Damn it!” I shouted after the fifth went by without slowing. “Stupid!”

Rain was beginning to fall, and the wind had picked up. The clouds hung low over the mesa. The La Sals were covered in snow.

I was 25 miles from Indian Creek, 40 from Moab, and the battery in my Honda Element was down to Empty.

I’m such an idiot sometimes.

The plan was for a rest day. After three days of sandstone splitters my fingers were shot, my hands were raw and my arms were spent. I needed a shower, a refill on water, some internet and a grocery store. But instead I was on the side of the road miles from anywhere hoping against reason to flag down a pair of jumper cables.

Sometimes the adventure on climbing trips has nothing to do with the climbing.

Everything began in April. First stop: Washington D.C., the climbing Mecca. Andre, my scheduled Red Rocks and Yosemite partner, offered a session at Earth Treks and to let me crash in his spare room. After a New England winter of ice and snow it felt great to pull plastic. Humbling, but fun.

12961430_1458805094145571_3194725830949882464_oFrom there I drove on to Wilmington, North Carolina, for a weekend of freediving, descending like a SCUBA diver but without a tank, holding my breath as the light faded through the meters of oceanwater. Stealth-camping in my Element, eating meals out of Wholefoods, it felt like any climbing weekend, except that the worst advice you can give is “BREATHE!”

From there I drove west, the favored direction for the next six weeks. The first real climbing stop was Eastern Tennessee and two days at a secret cliff a friend was developing. “It’s a mix of the Red and the New,” he told me, “more technical than the Red but fewer stopper cruxes than the New.” An oath of secrecy later I found myself below a 40-meter high cliffband stretching from hollow to hollow, perfect orange rock towering above.

13002451_1459754597383954_5867903751223971741_o“This route is five stars,” my friend told me again and again. He was right. Beautiful sandstone, and to ourselves. We put up a new 5.12 with a fun bouldery crux near the ground and bolt after bolt of devious climbing above, 16 bolts of perfection. The Southeast is still full of hidden gems.

But I had friends to meet in the Red, as well as a project to attend to.

For Northeasterners the RRG is a transition ground, the place to switch from pulling on ice tools to grabbing rock holds. It’s a spring pilgrimage, one seldom observed fit for rock climbing.

A few years ago I caught a glimpse of Cell Block Six, a soaring line on the Midnight Surf wall. It called to me, a perfect transition route—big holds, big moves, lots of airtime—it seemed to shout “Welcome to sport climbing season!” I wanted on.

So day one: Warm up slow on 5.10, then head to where the cliff arches at angles that block the sun. Get on the project. Fall all over the project.

Day two: Recover from Day one.

It took two days of gravity testing, pizza dinners and sandstone buckets to clip the chains, but a pair of handjams after the crux unlocked the route. Desperate through the crux, I recovered enough in those jams to feel like the chains came too soon. The transition to rock season was on!

With the project in my pocket I turned west again, to Indian Creek. It’d been 13 years since I’d climbed in the Creek, I was due a visit. And after a few years mostly sport climbing the idea of splitters beckoned. Last fall I was part of an AAC exchange to the Caucus Mountains, climbing rock routes and alpine peaks in Armenia and Georgia. Our host was a strong and energetic Armenian named Mkhitar, and after the trip our group wanted to return the hosting favor. Mkhitar accepted an invitation from exchange member and famous alpinist Jim Donini to take a month-long tour of American rock, from the Creek to Red Rocks to Yosemite to the Black Canyon. Anyone who wanted to join was welcome to tag along.

13123396_1475909295768484_6295289621947350976_oThat’s how I landed on the side of the U.S. 191 waving in vain at passing cars.

The Creek is buried in technological darkness. Indeed, that is part of its appeal—no services, no cell coverage, just coyotes and varnished sandstone. The camping is primitive, the climbing superb. After the noise of Miguel’s and 1,000 miles of highway I sunk into that darkness with relish.

Jim, Mkhitar and a small crew had already staked out a camp and were on the rocks when I arrived. I spilled out of my Element and roped up, barely 7 hours out of Denver. Mkhitar’s face was stretched thin in a smile as he looked at the walls surrounding him. It was going to be a good trip.

But two days later after pitch after pitch of steep sandstone I needed a break. I tumbled back into my car and headed north. Rain spat as I climbed out of the canyon to the plateau, occasionally unleashing in waves, then quiet. I turned on my wipers, then my headlights. Red mud rinsed the land around me.

The first cell signal popped up a short distance from where the road to Indian Creek intersects the highway. My phone buzzed to life; emails downloading, text messages vibrating. I pulled over and switched off the car, leaving the key turned one click to listen to the radio. Three days away and a lot had happened; I started sorting through the layers.

Half-an-hour later, still sitting by the side of the road replying to a Facebook messages, the radio went silent. My phone battery indicator went from green to white.

“NO!” I shouted, suddenly realizing I’d left my headlights on. “NO! You idiot! What are you doing?!”

Half-an-hour—roughly the time it would have taken to get to Moab, where I could have done all of this internetting in the library, surrounded by central air, electric outlets and comfy seats. Instead I was now the proud owner of a dead Honda, parked in a patch of mud along the highway, rain moving in.

I tried the key: Nothing but clicks. I tried waiting a few minutes, hoping maybe the battery would recover enough residual charge, but I was too panicked to let it sit more than 90 seconds. More clicks. Finally I accepted what I had done, what I would have to do. I pulled on a fleece and stepped out into the spitting drops.

The first dozen cars didn’t even slow. Then came the fleet of rentals. “No,” the driver’s would say, one after another, “I don’t have cables. This is a rental car.” One guy offered to send help when he got to Monticello, but that sounded complex and expensive. “At least let me call you when I get there,” he said. “If you are still here I can send someone.”

I relented and gave him my phone number.

Drivers would see other cars pulled over and would pull over themselves, but they too had nothing to jump a battery with. (I, of course, was in no position to throw stones—where were my jumper cables?) I started to grow worried this could get expensive. I had cell coverage. I could call a towing service for a jump. But that felt like expedition tactics, resorting to aid climbing when I had set out for a free ascent.

I have learned that sometimes you can tell a car that has jumper cables. Sometimes the giveaway is the vehicle, other times it’s the driver. This time it was both. Truck. White. Extracab. With a diamond plate toolbox in the bed. A Utahn in his 40s with sandy hair, a mustache and well-worn Levi’s.

He was coming from the other direction. He slowed down and made a u-turn, pulled over all the way to the dirt embankment, letting his truck handle the terrain. He drove towards me, standing small against the desert, but stopped a few yards away. He was on his phone, and he just kept talking. He held up a finger. “One minute,” he seemed to be saying, “I’ll take care of this in one minute.”

Other cars were streaming past. I could be out there flagging them down, I thought. But I had a feeling.

He hung up the phone and rolled down his window.

“Do you have jumper cables?” I asked. The feeling was growing.

He paused, answered slow.

“Yep.”

The feeling was hope. “Can you give me a jump?”

Another pause.

“Yep.”

Another handjam rest. Maybe this crux would go too.

 

This piece originally appeared on the Trango website.

Quitting

Quitting

Yesterday I quit climbing.

It was 5:30 p.m. and growing dark. I was standing in my living room, naked from the waist up, a pile of outdoor clothes draped on the arm of the couch beside me. I had been waiting for this moment all day, for work to end so I could go climbing in Crawford Notch, but now that the moment had arrived I was faltering. “Should I go?” I thought, wearing nothing but blue Capilene tights. “Do I really want to? Or am I just going climbing because climbing is what I do?” Would my plan leave me smiling and satisfied, or would I just wind up wishing I was back at home? I didn’t know, so I just stood there in my long underwear watching the sky grow darker.

I tied into a rope for the first time at 17, and ever since I’ve poured myself into my passion. I’ve spent weekends, vacations and thousands of dollar on climbing. Now I can just describe it as what I do. It’s intricately linked to my closest relationships, my work and where I choose to live. It’s how I meet people, what I talk about with friends, how I relax, what social occasions are centered around, the focus of the organizations I donate to and how I volunteer my time. It has become more than a passion — it has become life.

And yet I quit.

I stood in my living room yesterday, lost in my head, naked, exposed, and I didn’t want to go climbing. “No,” I thought, pulling off my Capilene, “I’m not going. It isn’t me, not today. I’m not a climber. I’m just not.”

It wasn’t the first time I’d quit. I quit the day before too. I had plans to go to Tohko on Sunday with Scott, but after two days out at Ice Fest I was tired. I got home and didn’t feel it. “Not today,” I thought as I sat down to read. “I’m not climbing. Not now. Not today.”

It feels good to quit, to reject the passion that in many ways has come to define me. It feels good to put it down, to let it rest, to let the pressures and expectations that built up around it dissolve. Will I send my project? Who knows. Probably not, because I quit. And that’s OK. After weeks and months of doing nothing but climbing, I just walked out the door.

It doesn’t take long to fall into habits, and climbing is an easy one to fall into. When you climb every weekend, every vacation and every free moment it can be difficult to determine whether you are climbing today out of passion or simply because you climb. For me at some point the climbing flips from being a passion to being work. “It is the weekend again. Where are we climbing?” The desire to tick the next project, to push to through the next grade, takes over, and when it does the passion is gone. But I keep climbing because I know nothing else. What meaning does it bring at that point? What value? None. The feelings climbing can elicit are gone, and yet I stick to it. It’s become a habit, just what I do.

When that happens, I quit. I walk away. I put down my gear, fuck it, and do something else. I did it yesterday. I pulled of my Capeline, did some Googling, and instead went to a yoga class. It felt fantastic. I spent an hour and a half trying not to fall over. Every pose was taxing. I embraced sucking at something, free from any self-imposed pressure to perform. It felt the way climbing felt that first day. It felt the way it felt when I quit this summer — instead of tying in I went surfing, and I spent hours just trying to stand up. Ego stayed home during those sessions — I couldn’t afford its critique.

Quitting is liberating. It is freeing. It takes the thing that you allow to define you and puts it back in its place. Climbing isn’t life, it is an activity. It is a way to spend time, no more, no less. It can be fun or it can be miserable, depending on the day, but it is neither good nor bad. And when it starts to feel overwhelming, like it has become a job rather than a passion, the best thing I can do is quit.

And so yesterday I did just that. I quit. I walked away. I said fuck it, and in rejecting climbing I found freedom. It was in every yoga pose — the same feeling discovered 14 years ago, that first day I tied into a rope — the wonder of movement, the high of self-awareness, the intense connection between mind, body and breath. Instead of searching for that feeling in climbing like a heroin addict seeking another fix I looked somewhere else. And there it was. I found it. All that because I quit.

I’ve quit so many times before. I spent a year barely climbing once, and three years off the ice. I went on sailing and bicycling trips, spent weekends camping and watching movies, blew money on cameras, concerts and plays. I’ve quit countless times since too, and each time I discover how much I truly love my other passions. Quitting has allowed me to I train and compete in a triathlon, and it afforded me a stint in Iraq and Kuwait reporting for public radio. Quitting has given me much more than it ever took away.

Quitting has also let me discover, once I finally tie back in, how much I love climbing. The quitting helps me see my passion within a proper context, as one passion among many, all of which are rewarding and expand my perspective. Embracing the quit and the subsequent resurrection refills my passion. It allows the beauty of what climbing offers wash over me. It helps me grow.

Passion are meant to support us, to engage us and push us to new heights and levels of understand about ourselves, but if they come to define us they do the opposite — they make us contract. They can help us seek our own self-imposed boundaries, or they can form the foundation for those same walls. Climbing runs that risk for me. It is in so much of my life it can easily box me in if I sit back and let it. But in quitting I reject that mold and embrace the growth. Quitting allows me to look around with clear eyes and see all the other things I am missing.

It also gives me a chance to recommit. Every time I quit I get to rediscover the wonder climbing brought me that first day. Quitting reinvigorates my passion. Yesterday I decided I would not climbing. I quit, and rejecting climbing as a definition. I won’t go again, I told myself, until the drive comes from a place of passion, a place of love, a place of growth and willingness to accept the unknown. If the thought of climbing provokes a question about to whether I want to be there, whether or not I was making the right decision, I wasn’t going. Climbing should provoke feelings of elation, I reasoned, not exhaustion, so I quit. I just walked away.

Then today I got up and packed my bag for the rock gym. I’ll be there tonight, back on the wall, back among friends. My quit has run its course. My willingness to walk was the ingredient necessary to see my passion with fresh eyes again. After years of pitched battles (within myself always), it now takes just days to be ready again (except for those times it takes weeks or months). Today I’m back to climbing out of love rather than obligation. Quitting kicked the habit, and it no longer rules me. I cannot deny I my passion, but through quitting I let it re-bloom into a passion, a love, of my choosing. If it were any other way I’d have to quit.

Reasons to Climb

Reasons to Climb

I’ve been writing bullshit about climbing for years.

I write about handjams, pick placements and descents, about hauling and bivying, rope recommendations and runouts. The truth is it’s all bullshit.

I don’t climb for the summit or the send. Those are just excuses. The reasons I climb are Scott, Ryan, Peter, Michael and Paul. Josh and Juliet, Paul and Sasha and Jim. Katie and Majka and Jay. Pat, Jack, Adam, Silas, Ray, Elliot, Bayard, Eric, Brent and Jay. Chuck, Michael, Chris and others. People I forgot, others I don’t even know, names I don’t recall. Those are the reasons I climb.

I have been swimming upstream for months now, struggling against something I’m not even sure I fully have my hands around. It catches me at home, at work and in the car and takes me down. It knocks me off my feet and leaves me screaming, crying. In a moment it can rip me ragged, but when I get to Shagg, Shell, Cathedral or Cannon with one of my reasons none of it matters.

Yesterday was that way. Friday night I didn’t sleep. I ate consistently last week for the first time in a month, but that ended Thursday night. I met Ryan and Michael in a parking lot in Jackson at 7 a.m. Saturday. Ryan left Western Massachusetts at 4 a.m. to join Michael and I without asking us to delay our start. I offered, but he said no.

The two of them piled into my car, and we rolled uphill to Pinkham Notch. On the way up we joked, but once we started up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail I began talking. As we hiked I unloaded my pain, frustration and exhaustion. They just listened. We hiked fast, passing party after party. At times I didn’t want to keep talking, but I couldn’t stop. I kept at it until we got to the ravine, at which point I had to sit down. I felt like I’d lost a quart of blood. The weather matched my mood.

When we got to the base of the route I asked if I could lead the first two pitches. I wanted to warm up on the first pitch and then be fresh for a shot at the crux. Neither Ryan or Michael hesitated: Of course, they said.

I never stopped to belay. I had enough rope at the top of the first section to launch into the crux, and I took it. I had an outlet, and I was blasting for the moon.

The rest of the day went smoothly. Michael took the next pitch, then Ryan got the third, and we topped out around 2 p.m. We packed our gear, stripped off our crampons and walked down. I walked silently, knowing with each step I was closer to re-entering orbit. Ryan and Michael carried the conversation, allowing me to drift inside my head.

When we drove back into Jackson they invited me to dinner, but I declined. I’d had enough for one day. I needed to get home and brace myself for whatever was coming next.

A few hours later I got a text from Michael: “Proud work today. Killed it.”

I didn’t feel like I killed it. I felt like I got up, stepped out of bed and start falling. I fell all day, and I was getting ready to crawl back under the covers when his text arrived, sleep serving as my only net. I’m not crushing, I thought, I’m getting crushed.

But every few days I meet one of my reasons for climbing, and I stop falling and start flying. With Scott and Peter as copilots I get to crush, if only for a few minutes on Wednesday morning in the Cathedral Cave. With Paul I get to launch off the bouldering pad into the stratosphere, even if I never make it past the rock gym rafters.

Climbing is not about summits or redpoints, it’s about partners. It’s about sharing a rope with someone who can save your life. And that isn’t limited to when you are in the mountains.

We are astronauts, Peter says, and we are going to the moon. Thank you Peter, Scott, Ryan, Michael and Paul, for shepherding me. Without you I’d have missed my target. Alone I’d be lost in space.

[Author’s note: Peter reminded me that his references to astronauts and the moon were originally coined by Colby Coombs, the founder of the Alaska Mountaineering School.]