We’d just passed a sign that read “safety corridor, fines doubled,” when a sprightly young rabbit hopped into the path of our headlights. I had just enough time to think “is it safe to swerve?” before I heard a thud followed by a crunch. Having been raised by a superstitious mother, it was hard to shake the feeling that this was an inauspicious omen for my road trip with Cady, a reminder that in climbing and in life there are no such things as “safety corridors.”
Cady, my primary climbing partner from my time at Yale, had kindly agreed to help me drive my car from LA to Anchorage during my month off between jobs. We planned to spend roughly a week at Smith, a week at Squamish, and a week doing eight hour driving days.
When we were both at Yale, mutual friends would often mix up our names for reasons I never quite understood. Cady is several inches shorter with large, alien blue eyes and looks like a much nicer, more approachable person. Perhaps people were more perceptive than I gave them credit for and were responding to a similarity in attitude, rather than physical appearance. Aside from climbing at essentially the same level, Cady and I are both highly competitive individuals who thinly mask this quality with a ceaseless stream of self-deprecating comments. We both loath decision-making, preferring to pawn it off on others whenever possible (as one might imagine, this has led to many an impasse on our trip thus far). We both have a talent for reading road signs aloud, misinterpreting them whenever possible (“baby changing station” and the like). And we are both practicing hypocrites, prone to indignation when we perceive others to be judging us. However, this in no way prevents us from forming our own harsh opinions.
Much of our time at Smith was spent judging others and being judged in turn. My mother is fond of saying “comparisons are odious,” and she is, of course, correct as she is in all matters. That said, some people almost seem to invite it–the people camped next to us, a mixed gender group of individuals in their 30s and 40s who seemed to enjoy wearing loud patterns and chanting over their food while in a huddle. Cady and I, apparently, also fall into this category of those who invite judgement.
While in Smith, we devised a three group system for describing the people we encountered: climbers, people who were here to climb, and other (a mix of day hikers and trail runners). We weren’t sure how to classify ourselves. Thankfully, we had other people’s judgement to help us come to a better understanding of self.
At the end of our most ambitious day of climbing, Cady and I had just finished panting our way up the hill to reach the Smith parking lot when we heard someone shout, “Best climb of the day!” We turned to find two lanky, long-haired men sitting in the bed of a pickup truck enjoying an afternoon beer. Cady and I both made a half-hearted attempt at laughter, assuming it was a joke about the climb to the parking lot which had left us red-faced and breathless.
“No, what was your favorite climb of the day?” one of the nearly identical dudes insisted.
“Oh, uh… Monkey Space,” I said, selecting the climb I thought would most impress them.
“You guys climbed Monkey Space? The 11b? Wow!” Their tone seemed to suggest this 3-4 pitch 5.11b was a climb to which they could only aspire. However, they proceeded to describe the climb with a degree of detail only someone who has been on the route would be able to. It dawned on us that their tone was one of surprise and mild condescension rather than reverence. Regardless of where we might place ourselves, the world seemed to think we belonged in the “here to climb category” along with the manbun-sporting weekend warriors from Portland, distinguished more than anything by the pristine look of their clothes and the soft, recently-washed look of their skin.
To be fair, the two men’s surprise that we had reached the top of Monkey Space was equal to our own. That morning, Cady and I had nearly talked ourselves out of attempting the climb countless times as we poured over the route comments on Mountain Project (“scary,” “decking,” “exposed,” and “should be comfortable on-sighting 5.11” were some of the more popular phrases).
The only reason we’d made it to the base of the climb at all was because we’d promised ourselves walking to the base did not mean we actually had to climb it. Even as I began the first pitch of 5.6 trad past the 4th class scramble Cady had led, I continued to tell myself we could easily change our minds and take the more mellow 5.8 original route up the spire. It wasn’t until I was pumping out while attempting to clip the bolt at the crux on the 11a traverse pitch, looking to my right and realizing that with the amount of rope out I was looking at a 25-foot fall, that I was forced to admit we were committed.
We’d thought we were very smart in deciding to climb Monkey Space in the morning when the climb would be in the shade. The day before, we’d done a multipitch in the sun and had come to regret it. As we learned, while in the high desert 60 degrees and sunny is sweat-inducing, 60 degrees and shady can feel quite cold, especially with the wind gusting across the rock face. I was shivering in my nano puffy and could no longer feel my fingers as I locked off, reached up, and felt the quickdraw snap onto the bolt. Like the calm, collected professional that I am, I wasted no time grabbing the quickdraw by the dogbone, passing the rope through the carabiner with my free hand, and begging Cady to take. After waiting for my fingers to come throbbing back to life, I pulled through the crux sequence and finished the pitch by climbing into a cave.
Cady: After hoisting myself into the northwest cave of the Monkey Face spire, I gave Ceri my standard “props for leading this, dude,” still winded from following a pitch I would almost certainly have chickened out of had I been on the sharp end. We pulled up our second rope and the water bottle– and raisin–filled pack tied to the end of it (we were pretty sure we could eventually get up a 5.11 but were less confident in our ability to do it with a pack on) and then surveyed the cave we were now squatting in, shivering. After taking a short snack break and remembering that the only way down off this windy pinnacle was up via the one remaining pitch, Ceri and I scooted to the other side of the cave to scope out the next bit of climbing. Above the lip of the cave, a few bolts and a line of chalked holds disappeared over a bulge. My first thought was “yikes” followed immediately by “I’m glad I don’t have to lead this.”
Perhaps this thinking was my downfall. I belayed Ceri as she worked her way through the burly crux at the first few (read: only) bolts on the pitch and then fed out what seemed like miles of slack as she cruised the slab above, quickly climbing out of earshot in the ever persistent wind. Three sharp tugs on the rope let me know she had reached the anchors. Then it was my turn. Standing on tiptoe on a small boulder at the base of the climb, I realized I could barely reach the lip of the cave, much less the first bolt. Due to the lack of verbal communication options on this pitch, Ceri and I had decided the best option was for her to keep me on a tight belay. This was great when it meant I didn’t go swinging into the abyss or deck on the cave entrance every time I popped off the sharp holds, but not so great when it came to cleaning quickdraws off the route. The first draw, in particular, was several feet right of any of the holds, so as soon as I pulled onto the route and Ceri took up slack, the draw was yanked fully sideways, making it impossible to unclip.
There’s that potentially mis-attributed Einstein quote about insanity being defined as trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results. It turns out that those “different results” from my repeated sequence of lock-off, try to unclip, fall were to become increasingly pumped and frustrated, and embarrassed too when I looked down to see several hikers had stopped on the trail far below to watch my struggle. How had I gotten here?
I realized if I stayed stuck on that section much longer, Ceri might start to think something was really wrong and lower down to see if I was still alive. In an act of desperation, I clipped myself directly into the first bolt, unweighting the quickdraw enough to detach it from the rope, then miraculously reversed the process so that I was once again hanging from the rope instead of the first bolt. A few more desperate moves, and I flopped onto the low-angle slab above and looked down to see the hikers had long since wandered off, probably having assumed I would be stuck dangling on Monkey Face forever. I had never been more glad to see Ceri’s slightly concerned, frozen looking face when I tottered up the last section of the climb to join her at the top.
We booked it to the rappel anchor (after being good millenials and snapping some pictures at the summit) and made it back to the ground for a much needed 3pm lunch. As we dined on apples and leftover fried rice, Ceri and I watched a guy cruise the beginning section of Just Do It, a 5.14 test piece climb. Unlike us, this man clearly fell into the first of the categories we had made (climbers). He paused below the crux to swap shoes and shout a casual “the conditions are good today” before continuing up the climb.
Ceri and I didn’t stop shivering until we had slogged our way over Misery Ridge and back to the sunnier side of Smith, where we collapsed in the grass at the base and had a classic bout of deferred decision making about what/if to climb. We eventually wandered back over to The Dihedrals where we happened upon more humans from that first judgement category: locals who had come up from Bend and were climbing Darkness at Noon (13a) and Heinous Cling (12a).
Ceri: While I am fairly confident I can get to the top of pretty much any 5.11b if given enough time (why I ultimately felt comfortable attempting Monkey Space), 5.12s are another matter entirely. Only after watching a pair of locals roughly my parents’ age cruise up Heinous Cling did I feel confident enough to attempt the climb.
As always, I gave Cady the option of leading the climb first and hanging draws on the route.
“You can go first if you want to,” she replied, Cady-speak for “heck no!”
If I wanted to climb this route, I was going to have to make it happen. I craned my neck, taking in the climb in its entirety. A finger crack led to a first high bolt followed by a vertical wall of seemingly endless pockets. I reminded myself that Mountain Project had described this as the “easiest 12a at Smith.” How bad could it be?
4 bolts into the climb, I realized exactly how bad it could be. While the couple before me had made it look like climbing a ladder, I’d been pumping out by the time I reached the first bolt. Three bolts and several takes later, I was really starting to tire. The climb’s crux comes between the 4th and 5th bolts, which also happen to be the two bolts with the most space between them (roughly two body lengths). This means if you fall before the next bolt, you’re looking at quite a drop, but more significantly in this case, it means that if you can’t make the single hardest move on the climb, a long move off thin edges and extremely underwhelming footholds, you will have to bail and leave gear on the wall (climbs with closely spaced bolts allow the inept to skip more difficult moves by clipping the bolt above a crux and pulling on quickdraws instead of holds).
I’d fallen twice while attempting the crux, yanking Cady off the ground each time with the force of my fall. Resting again at the 4th bolt, I felt my body sag with the realization that I might not be able to do this. Even if I managed to latch the ledge above the crux, I still had another body length of climbing before I’d reach the next bolt.
How had I gotten here? My usual lack of forethought combined with a lack of respect for elders. This was one of the few times I’d ever gone on a trip without the safety net of a much stronger climbing companion. If I didn’t finish this climb, Cady might be able to climb through the crux and get to the top, but then again she might not. With this in mind, I clamped back on to the holds in front of my face, pushing down hard on the edges and slippery feet until I felt my fingers latch on the large edge above the crux.