Every fresh climb, if you have never climbed it, is a new climb. It doesn’t matter if anyone else climbed it before, or how much beta one has read, or the number of videos one has viewed regarding a crag, you never quite know what to expect until you lay hand on rock. For you, for your first time, it is brand spanking new.
Sometimes the easiest crags become nightmares an arm-length off-route. And the hardest routes can drop in ratings when you don’t follow the intended line. Climbers call that “cheating.” I knew this as I read the ratings for this climb.
‘5.7, it says here,’ I say
‘That’s an Eldo 5.7. That was when ratings only went up to 5.10,’ responds Mark, as he ticks the cams with his fingertips, arranging by size. ‘These routes were set in the 60’s, and are stiffer than other areas.’
Rewritten, a 6 pitch multipitch trad in Eldo was a couple of firsts for me: first multipitch, first trad multipitch.
I read the beta, knew all about the 4th pitch hand traverse and vertical crack climbing after. Knew about it “in theory” that is.
The interesting thing when you get to the start of a multipitch trad climb is, there’s no “there” there. There are no pre-installed bolts like a sport route. You are at the side of the mountain, just like many other sides of the mountain.
And that’s where you start.
There might be a trafficked area where previous ropes lay, or seemingly not much at all. Most trad routes follow weaknesses in the crag — cracks or folds, or basically anything that makes it look climbable. It’s the art and craft of route building/route finding. As explorers, we get the barest of navigation, often lat/long, with the number of feet to hike to the start. Lucky if you have an obvious signpost, a natural marker like a tree or an over large boulder.
And because of the parallax distortion between what the original photographer’s position was, lens size and aspect ration — the beta photos never look like what you see with your eyes bared.
Mark prepares his gear of nuts and cams and slings that looked like ancient tools of torture at the time. I later found out that the placement of said tools could be very torturous.They hung off him like seaweed off a deep sea diver newly returned from kelp forests. Or the chains of quasimodo. Like the air in scuba tanks the gear is our lifeline as we ascend to areas rife with potential danger. We train with them in order to not only use them, but to use them with grace.
I reel out slack as he ascends, one party is already above us, and two more parties are waiting behind us, to get a crack at it.
There’s not much I remember about the first three pitches, other than retrieving pro was sometimes easy, sometimes hard. That sometimes Mark clipped in to old gear without telling me, letting me discover, after tugging at the damn things for awhile, that those pieces will never come out. In those early days, while I climbed, I didn’t necessarily do the tourist thing. It was all survival, and grip strength, and questioning the solidity of the flakes and crimps, and breath and breath and breath.
Looking across at the hand traverse on the 4th pitch for the first time I was overcome by the feeling that possibly ALL first time climbers have upon thinking of setting out across this line. I felt a combination of fear, and wonder, and how-is-this-even-possibleness. The feet looked non-existent, and the hands precarious at best. And Marko racks up and just — goes. I imagine the fall, how I need to be prepared for the violent tug on my belay hand, my harness jerking me to the edge.
But he never falls.
I asked Mark about this once, and he said, ‘My rule is: never fall on lead.’
That’s the bar that is set. That is the confidence, and the competence that I need when I lead trad (and I will lead). The idea is: sure, you may fall, but your mindset must be so confident in your abilities that it is inconceivable that you will. It’s a mindset that Honnold has, that Mark has. Because the consequences of a fall in trad are several degrees removed from sport climbing. The safety is not just in the gear. The safety comes in the placement of the gear. Or, I should say, the competence of the person placing the gear.
Halfway across I hear Mark, the Mark that jogs up 14ners in an hour (that takes me five), the Marko that is a former Force Recon special forces soldier — breathing heavy. He hangs by his left hand, toes on nubbins, while searching for the piece of pro that will fit. He tries one, doesn’t like it, breathes, reclips and sorts through the pro hanging near his waist, huffs, finds a suitable piece that fits in a suitable crack, continues on.
It’s the first time in our shared history that I have ever heard him breathe hard. I always kind of thought of him like a decent version of Hannibal Lector who’s pulse “…never got above 85, even when he ate her tongue.”
And as quickly as I notice that, he finishes the rest of the traverse in workmanlike fashion, and rises up the following vertical crack into the sky.
I follow, and even though Mark said, ‘the feet are there,’ I find that the feet are not there. Or maybe I’m not, as in not skilled enough to recognize the divots and creases as suitable feet placement. I set the edges of my Solutions on what I thought of at the time as impossibly small footholds, over-gripped, and made my way across, trying to ignore the hundreds of feet of — air — below me.
I reach the crack and puzzle my way up. I don’t climb crack that often. Colorado seemingly has few — at least in the few areas I had climbed up to that point. But I rise, twist locking my feet and hands, and think ‘Either this is easier than I thought, or I am that much better than I was.’ I had, I thought, rewrote myself.
A year earlier, my doctor was lecturing me on my low vitamin levels, my bad diet, high cholesterol and blood pressure. As an elderly gentleman once told me, ‘You can’t be a wimp getting old.’ But my last visit my cholesterol and blood pressure had normalized, my energy rose and the CT scan of my heart was 100% clear of calcium deposits.
When I tell people my age, I invariably get the what-the-fuck-that’s-not-true look.
I tell them it’s all that blood of virgins that keep me looking young.
But a new diet and the exercise — both physical and mental that climbing brings has kept me young, kept me competitive.
I reach Mark on the belay station. All that remains is the final shark’s fin of the arete. On one side is a 750′ expanse of the rock. On the other is the 850 foot drop to the parking area far below. When I round the bend and see it, I can’t believe that that is the next task.
At one point, both feet are flat against the fin on either side, my hands cupping the fin on top. I feel like I am riding a sea beast as it rolls across the ocean. I raise a foot, I move a hand, repeat on other side.
I drop down to the crevasse between and then up and I’m done. I feel that thing I feel like when my life was filled with other things besides rock climbing. Like snowboarding, or hiking a fourteener, or biking for 75 miles — a feeling of, I don’t know. Privilege is not the perfect right word, nor is it the wrong word for the feeling I have. Privileged to be one of the few to see the view from the shark fin arete. Privileged to have friends that were willing to teach me about my love.
As a counseling student decades ago, part of my training was in suicide prevention. And one of the ideas was to affirm that suicide was a decision that could be put off. Like: you might as well postpone it. The opportunity is always there.
And that might be enough to have the person stop, and re-evaluate.
When I talk to non-climbers about my adventures, I sometimes get the glazed eyes, the shaking head, as if what I do is sheer madness. A kind of purposeful suicide. Inconceivable that people actually do this for fun.
I can understand that.
Sometimes, in the middle of a route, with air all around me, I think: ‘What the fuck am I doing?’ But, I would argue: what I do is the opposite of suicide. I do it because it makes me not just feel the most alive, at the times I climb I am at my most alive.
At any point in our lives we can rewrite the script. No person who lives to be an adult is ever hopeless or helpless. They can remake their life into something else entirely. These are the thoughts that run through my head as we sit at the top of the climb. Recovering, reminiscing about the climb, and our lives.
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Originally published at gripandclip.com on November 19, 2014.