Stuck

“Come on!” I heard Sarah grunt, followed by manic scraping, the sound of the cam being bludgeoned by her nut tool (a hooked piece of metal used to remove gear stuck in the rock) and labored breathing. 

And then silence.

“Ceri, it’s stuck. I don’t think it’s coming out.”

I’d never had to leave behind a piece of gear because it was stuck and had trouble believing this was the case. Plus, chances were it was my fault if it was stuck, and I did not like what this said about my ability to place trad gear. 

Was it stuck or did it have yet to move? I wondered. If you had the right attitude, maybe nothing ever seemed stuck. And all glasses of milk were half full.

Positive thinking, however, would not change the fact that it was now 2:30 pm. Sarah had been struggling with this cam for over an hour. I was cold from lack of movement, and we were running out of daylight.

“That’s fine,” I called down to Sarah, “I can try to get it when we rappel.”

We climbed one pitch higher and assessed our situation. I wanted to continue up the next pitch of the climb which was described as “exciting.” Sarah thought we should head down given our limited daylight and the fact that our first rappel ran the length of a rope-eating crack, perfect for getting our rope stuck when we pulled it to begin the next rappel. With all the grace of someone whose ego-fueled desire to reach the top is telling her to continue, I acquiesced to Sarah’s plan.

We set up our double rope rappel and made it down to the top of the pitch with the stuck cam. We began pulling the rope now anchored over 120 feet above. We heard a whoosh as the rope descended toward us, then a slap as it contacted the rock 20 feet above. I gave the rope a tug, expecting it to continue its downward trajectory. It didn’t budge from the crack. I gave it a flick and another tug but still nothing. Sarah made a similar attempt with similar results. I gave it a series of exasperated tugs, each one lodging the rope deeper in the crack. We then conceded that our rope was stuck (or at least had yet to move and seemed unlikely to given our current efforts). Which meant that we were also stuck.

“Let’s just cut it,” Sarah said. I shook my head. While that was the quickest way out of our predicament and the lowest risk, it would reduce Sarah’s rope to a half rope only fit for the gym.

Our other option was to lead climb back up to where it was stuck and throw it down. This would involve re-climbing the most difficult section of the route, but I was fairly confident I could do it safely and not willing to classify the rope as irretrievably stuck. My pride wouldn’t stand for it.

“Are you sure? It’s my rope. I’m fine with it.” Sarah is incredibly safety conscience, a quality I value in a climbing partner, but also a quality that constantly leaves me feeling like I’m being reckless and pushing the boundaries of what is sane.

I had Sarah put me on belay on the other end of the rope and proceeded to climb back up the crack, plugging gear to protect myself from a fall and using the gear slings as hand holds to make climbing easier. I got back up to where the rope was stuck. It had doubled over itself and caught in the crack. Beneath it lay a graveyard of abandoned rope segments, a testament to the many before us whose ropes had been eaten alive by the crack.

I threw the rope down to Sarah and was then faced with the choice of building an anchor and lowering, or climbing back down the 20 feet I’d just gone up, pulling the gear meant to protect me as I went. The first was a safer option but one that would require leaving behind a couple pieces of gear. It should not be difficult to guess which option I chose.

Lowering myself over the bulge was the scariest part. I unclipped my top cam, which would be out of reach once I lowered. My next cam was at my feet. I reminded myself that this was no different than a potential fall while lead climbing. I would fall twice the distance to the next cam. I might be bruised, but I would 100% still be alive at the end of it. 

Learning to trad climb with a modicum of confidence has been a series of finding myself in situations like this where my brain says, “oh, shit, we’re gonna die!” and I start to panic. In these moments, I have to slow my breathing and remind my brain that falling does not equate to death because, unlike Alex Honnold, I’m attached to a rope.

I jammed my fist into the crack and lowered myself on that arm until I could grab the sling of the cam below. With tentative, cautious movements, I made my way back down to the belay ledge. Sarah thanked me for the intact retrieval of her rope, noting that it was good we had turned around when we did so we could carry out Mission Impossible: Rope Retrieval in the light.

Our next discussion was how best to retrieve the stuck #3 cam. The rappel had taken us to lookers right of the cam. Getting there would require a lateral traverse of at least 25 feet. I’d then need to anchor myself with another cam to keep from penduluming across the rock face. I played out the physics in my mind, watching myself careen uncontrollably when I made a misstep on the traverse. While I very much subscribe to a no cam left behind philosophy (a product of my incredible cheapness) and while I felt personally responsible for having gotten the cam stuck, the sun was setting. The prospect of careening through darkness was unnerving and as Sarah sagely put it, “probably not worth it.”

The cam was stuck, or at least, it had yet to move until another party with superior cam unsticking skills climbed the route and claimed it as booty.

The rest of the rappel went smoothly. The sky was a deep blue green when we reached the ground, and we hiked out in the dark.


This was only the beginning of our misadventures with getting things stuck in Red Rocks. The following day, we got our rope stuck pulling it from the top of Mushroom People. The rope wrapped around a horn protruding from the rock face and would not come down no matter how hard we tugged. Later that day, we learned that we were stuck in Vegas on our cross-country road trip until Sarah could determine if they’d refill her prescription or if she needed to return to LA for blood tests. The following day, we got the rope stuck rappelling the crux pitch of The Night Crawler and had to wait for the party behind us to climb the pitch and toss the rope down. Dan and Monica of Los Angeles were very kind and did not make us feel inept for what was clearly becoming a chronic problem.

At this point, it began to feel like everything in my life was stagnating, flat-lining, stuck. Not only were we stuck in Vegas with what seemed to be a proclivity for getting everything we owned stuck in the rock, but I was also stuck in life, unable to pick a path forward. I realized I’d felt a little stuck ever since I’d graduated from college. Up until that point in my life, I’d been on a path, making steady forward progress. Post college, I’d lost that path. I remembered a discussion with a friend who was ecstatic to have graduated and said he’d never felt more free; he could do whatever he wanted, go wherever he wanted. For me, that was the problem. But perhaps, like the cam we’d left behind, I was not stuck; I just had yet to move. My sense of stagnation was a mental state and only real as long as I believed it.

I excitedly related my breakthrough to Sarah who pointed out that walking a path, while it might not equate to stagnation, was certainly not freedom. In a sense, I was never really free.

Prescription in hand, we hit the road again, heading north to the Utah high desert.

August 18: No Reply

Sent my sister an email with the subject line “hi” and had her send me one back to make sure my email address was working. It had been days and, after applying for jobs with 7 coffee companies (if you break it down by individual stores, it was more like 10 or 11 job openings) and 1 climbing gym, I’d received nothing beyond a few automated “your application has been received” emails. I knew going into this that it probably wouldn’t be as easy as handing over my resume and getting hired on the spot. I knew that a Yale degree wouldn’t impress someone looking to hire a barista, that if anything, my degree would make it seem like I was less serious about learning the barista arts. I knew all of this intellectually, but I don’t think it prepared me for the utter radio silence that followed my applications.

After about a week of nothing which felt much, much longer to my unemployed brain, I opened my inbox Tuesday morning to find I’d received a single email calling me in for an interview with Urth Caffe, a local chain devoted to organic, responsibly sourced coffee, tea, food, etc. “Do you have any questions?” the woman on the phone, who I spoke with to set up the interview, asked. “Uh,” I said, “Is there a dress code?” She assured me that casual attire was fine.

Hair washed (yes, you read that correctly), sporting a pair of dark jeans and a respectable sweater (black because I thought it made me look slightly edgier, and because it’s never a bad idea to do a subtle homage to Steve Jobs), I made my way to Urth Caffe’s downtown headquarters. The address took me to streets lined with warehouses on the south side of downtown LA. I got to the door a few minutes before 9am, joining a small group that had gathered outside the door. Urth Caffe was doing what they termed an open house interview. You could show up anytime between 9 and 10:30 am. They said to except a 45 minute wait. I thought I could get around this by being one of the first people there. My early bird companions consisted of a boy who looked even younger than me (not helped by his skinny frame and the backpack he was wearing) and a man who looked to be in his early 30s and was wearing slacks and a button down. The boy, in his hand, held an Urth Caffe to go cup. “Suck-up,” I thought, bitterly wishing it had occurred to me to rep my love for the product.

At that moment, a large man in a large teal shirt joined our group. He addressed his remarks to the man in slacks, who had an air of authority, likely because he was wearing slacks. The man in teal wanted to know if he had parked in the correct location. The man in slacks didn’t know because, in spite of what his clothes seemed to indicate, he was not in charge. We were joined by a man with torn jeans and blue dreads of a slightly more purple blue than the man in teal’s shirt. We stood in silence until the doors for Urth Caffe were thrown open. Everyone jockeyed for position in line. I ended up near the back by the kid with the backpack. One by one, we entered the building, signed in, and were ushered to a holding area with folding chairs. It was 10am before the first person was called in for an interview, and nearly 10:30 by the time I went into the small, brightly lit room where three managers were waiting.

Two of them sat in silence during the interview, and I wasn’t entirely sure they were paying attention. The third, the man, began his line of questioning, “You went to Yale?”

“Yes.”

“What are your longterm plans?” Jeeze, it’s like this guy was peering into the depths of my soul and drawing inspiration from my insecurities.

“Uh, I don’t really know right now.”

He asked a couple more questions about my availability, and then it was over. It had been less than five minutes. On my way out, I asked when I’d know if I got the job. He said I’d receive an email by 5pm that day if they wanted to bring me back for the second round of interviews.

I did not hear from them by 5pm that day. The day after, I kind of hoped I’d get a “whoops, sorry we didn’t send this sooner, but we still want to interview you!” email. After about three days, I gave up on that fantasy.

In the days following my Urth Caffe rejection, I got an email from Peet’s saying they’d like to interview me, and an email from the climbing gym. I responded with my availability, but have yet to hear back. I’m glad La La Land didn’t win best picture, but I’m also glad it exists because the film’s given me a way to conceptualize my situation. For those who’ve seen the movie, you know the montage where Emma Stone’s going out to all those auditions, and people aren’t even looking at her? I feel like that, expect that I’m auditioning for the job Emma Stone already has when the movie begins; I’m trying to get the job she has to make ends meet while she tries to realize her dreams. What I’m trying to say is that La La Land glosses over how she got her barista job to begin with, but there’s probably another movie in that story. Maybe it’ll be the prequel.

 

Day 49 (July 23): Tug Munchers

July 23rd began like any other Sunday. The alarm went off. I was mid dream. Ceri rolled over, shook me awake, and I got groggily up. The day continued with breakfast, oatmeal because it’s fast, and then an early start at the Smoke Bluffs. Ceri wanted to fall on trad so we choose an easy to protect 5.10, Flying Circus, but, given its popularity there was a line. We moved on to Crime of the Century and then later returned for her successful attempt. There was a little hiccup up as she fussed with gear nearly 2/3rds up. Stressed, fearing for her life, Ceri plugged in a yellow alien (choose your own adventure yellow alien or yellow alien), made two moves, then popped in the yellow metolius. I thought, now that’s silly to place the same sized gear within a 3 foot span. A few feet higher Ceri had a fright. No gear would go in. The red alien was too big and the green was too small. The orange and blue metolius wouldn’t fit either. Ceri started shaking. A bystander would think she was doing an Elvis impression (video), her legs twitching uncontrollably. At that point my frontal lobe connected elvis legs and no gear, she was terrified. “Use the black nut!” I shouted. It’s the same size as the yellow cams, the cams that fit in cracks that fall between green and red aliens and blue and orange metolius cams. She slid in the black nut clipped a carabiner, sighed a little, and continued to shimmy up the wall. That was how our Sunday started.

A little later we found ourselves racing back to O’siyam park in Squamish. We had a 1pm tug of war team selection and rules meeting to attend. Ceri and I formed a partnership as team Light Weight. We’d be randomly paired with another, hopefully larger male-female team, and, legs willing, tug our way to victory to win one Maxim 70m rope each. At 12:49 we parked and walked, with a bit of a hop in our step, to the park where we checked in and found shade near Cynthia’s LYO dried fruit’s tent. There we ate and scoped out the competition. Ceri saw this big girl with good strong legs. “We want her,” and then “Maybe not,” she said as the women walked from the tall burly red headed man (not Will Stanhope, he’s too skinny) towards a smaller, thin, one. It was unclear who this gold standard tug of war machine was partnered with. Was it the other, gold, maybe diamond standard male or the bronze?

Teams were drawn. Tug Munchers was paired with Pull My Finger. The audience let out a groan. The two biggest dudes, the burly red head and another shaggy man Ceri deemed The Hulk, were paired together. This meant Ceri’s friend, the gold standard tug of war machine with arm and leg muscles, was (i) with the biggest dude and (ii) now our enemy. The officials conferred. They looked at instant replays of the team draw (was it rigged?), checked body weights, considered bell curves and percentile graphs. A new rule was made: Tug Munchers and Pull My finger could not partner up. Tug munchers got a new partner, team Light Weight. Yes! Whoopy! We got the best team! Our Aussie and New Zealand teammates, Shane and Victoria, were gold standard for sure. Maybe we weren’t but that didn’t curb our enthusiasm. Like us, they had looked up tug of war strategy. We’d put our best in the front (Shane) and then Ceri in the back. Victoria and I would go in the middle.

We saw 7 matches before our turn. Strategies ranged from coordinated tugs (effective most of the time), alternating line ups (only one team used this), pulling with the arms (not so great), and lying down (perhaps a result of slipping on the grass).  It was our turn. We lined up, set our feet, and pulled. I’d like to make this sound dramatic, like it was 50-50 for a bit or maybe there was some grunting, but we just walked backwards and sealed our advance to the semifinals. That match was pretty much the same and finals was equally boring. Matt, Victoria’s boyfriend, summed it up well, we had “the biggest girl legs”. That was crucial. Then we had the biggest guy and a lot of focus. My legs weren’t the biggest. I think I was about average.

image

 

Day 48 (July 22): A New Hope

The first thing Mico did after quitting The Opal was shave the “beard” and mustache he’d been growing. He hadn’t touched a razor to his face since the beginning of the trip, so this was kind of a momentous occasion, a rebirth of sorts. He didn’t have a razor of his own, so I let him use the pink one that had been languishing in my toiletry kit. I wanted to capture the whole event on film but was limited by lack of storage space on my phone and my subject’s lack of enthusiasm.

The Arcteryx Academy was happening in Squamish that weekend, so we declared the day a rest day and headed into town. We met up with Mico’s friend Cynthia who was hawking freeze dried camping food at the gear fair. I spoke with a 5.10 rep who told me the rapid decline of my pink anasazis was likely due to a manufacturing error and would likely be covered by the warranty. We did yoga in the park to loosen up our limbs. Mico engaged in a dodgeball game with many other grown men, and a handful of women and children. As compensation, he received a 5.10 hat and much needed clean t-shirt. The Squamish farmer’s market was taking place next door. We took advantage of this, purchasing potato thyme sourdough bread, maple candy, and chipotle yam hummus. 

In the evening, we returned to the Arcteryx Academy to see the results of a photography challenge and listen to live music. While listening to the music, we observed a lanky ginger moving through the crowd with a lager in hand. Periodically, people would stop him to shake hands or get their picture taken with him. The lanky ginger was none other than Will Stanhope in the flesh. I told Mico I’d give him $20 if he went up to Will and asked him for his shirt as a memento. Mico had other, more mature ideas. In 2015, Will Stanhope climbed The Opal (evidence of this can be found in the form of a photo on Will Stanhope’s personal website). If anyone in Squamish could provide us with the beta to unlock the 4th pitch of The Opal, it was Will. With this new hope, we spent the next half hour plotting the best way to introduce ourselves to Will while following him from a distance. Again, I offered Mico $20 to ask for his shirt, but Mico did not feel that this would be the best introduction. We observed Will purchasing another beer and making out with his girlfriend, but had yet to come up with any good ideas for an introduction. Our opening came when we saw Will talking to Cynthia. We walked over, greeted Cynthia rather awkwardly, and then Mico turned to Will and asked him about The Opal. The conversation went something like this:

Mico: I’m trying to climb The Opal.

Will: Huh?

Mico: What’s your beta for the lower crux on the 5.13 pitch?

Will: Huh?

Mico: The fourth pitch.

Will: Is that the hardest one?

Mico: Yeah.

Will: Uh. I don’t really remember… I think you just gotta bite down on the holds and go for it.

Me (in my head): This could describe the beta for pretty much any climb on the planet.

Mico: So you dyno for the hold out right?

Will: Maybe. Yeah.

Mico: I think I’m too short for that move.

Will: We’re like the same height.

Mico’s eyes are level with Will’s shoulder. Will is quickly losing interest in this conversation. We thank him for his time, say goodbye to Cynthia, and speedwalk to the car. I am reminded of a piece of advice from the talk Hazel Findlay gave the night before, “don’t ask for beta.” Hoping is a sad, sad business to be in.

Day 47 (July 21): Mission Accomplished

Conditions were less than ideal. It had rained the day before, so the wall was a little more slippery than it had been on previous days (the wall smelled like tide pool because all the black algae on it had been rehydrated). When I reached the top of the first pitch, Mico informed me that he had to poop (though I hadn’t experienced the urge to poop on a climb since making my pilgrimage to the top of Boogie ’til You Poop, I could still sympathize with Mico’s pain). Wet conditions combined with a strong urge to poop would have caused me to throw in the towel, but Mico is pro. He’s able to set all these minor to major annoyances aside and focus on the climbing task at hand. He sent the first three pitches, and got ready to tackle the fourth, the 13a crux pitch. Because of his progress on Day 44, we hadn’t been speaking in terms of if, but when he made it to the top. Before we started, Mico announced that this could be our last day on the climb. Before he started on the fourth pitch, we put all the stuff we wanted on the upper pitches of the climb in the smaller of our two back packs, planning to leave the larger one with the excess gear at the top of pitch three. After instructing me on how to tie the second rope to my haul loop, Mico began the fourth pitch. The first third of the climb consists of fun moves off ledges that I am capable of doing. Mico cruised through these, making his way to the slopey ledge at the base of the first crux of the pitch.

My favorite part of watching someone talented climb are the moves that look like sorcery. I have no idea how Mico manages to pull off the two mediocre holds at the base of the first crux, yet somehow he does and is able to hike his feet up to some pitifully small footholds. As according to plan, Mico did this first move and proceed to the 1.5 moves of right-facing layback. He looked really strong; there was no hesitation in his movement. The next move requires reaching out for a sloper with your right hand. It was here Mico paused. And continued to pause. Finally, he started to move his right hand toward the hold. At that moment, his left foot popped off the wall, followed closely by his entire person. As he fell, he yelled a four letter word beginning with “f” that I will refrain from printing here in case there are children following our blog. He then proceeded to repeat this foul four-lettered word five times before falling silent.  He was thinking hard; this much I could tell. What he was thinking was beyond me. If it had been me, it probably would have been something like “I am the worst. A pox upon me and all my relations. I am a disgrace to my ancestors and any future life partners or cats I ever have.” However, as I said before, Mico is a class act when it comes to climbing, so I imagine his inner monologue was something a little more positive. After hanging on the rope in silence for some minutes, he got back in the wall and attempted the move a second time. This attempt went much more poorly than the first attempt. He instructed me to lower him to the belay ledge, so he could eat, pee, and regroup. On the next attempt, Mico punctured his index finger on one of the holds. He taped up, vowing that this was his final attempt. As he made his way to the ledge below the crux, it began to rain. We knew there was a chance of rain starting at noon, but figured it was always safe to bet against weather people. As I noticed the first drop, I looked down at my watch. 12:00pm on the dot. For once the weather people were right. The smell of tide pool grew stronger. Despite dwindling odds, Mico made it through the 1.5 layback moves, reaching out toward the sloper before falling on the foot match. Instead of lowering, he aided his way through the section and continued to the top of the climb. At the top, he told me he was going to pass the rope through the chains and pulls the quickdraws as he lowered. We would not be coming back.

Day 44 (July 18): Before the Storm

Things were looking up indeed. With the new beta, Mico was able to do every move of the lower crux section and successfully did the hard move on the upper crux. We were highfiving ourselves as we rappelled that day. We’d take the next day off and rest up, so Mico could send the route the following day, Day 46 of our great adventure.

Day 41: Boogie ’til You Poop

Sadly, my phone ran out of storage space before I could explain my personal connection to the climb formerly known as “Boogie ’til You Puke.” It’s 5.11b offwidth, which ordinarily would be a red flag that I shouldn’t even attempt the climb (on top rope or otherwise). 

Before I arrived in Squamish, the word “offwidth” meant little to me. It meant a crack that was wide enough that I couldn’t use fists to climb it. What was the big deal? Oh my God I was so wrong. I’m not the strongest of climbers, but I can send most 5.10b climbs on the first try. Split Beaver, a seemingly friendly 5.10b offwidth, is one of the three climbs this trip that I got on and bailed off of because I couldn’t finish it on top rope (the others were 5.12s) Offwidth now means sticking random body parts in a crack and flexing them, praying they stick as you feel yourself sliding out of the crack, hearing your flesh tear as you detach from the wall. It means wedging your knees in the crack  side-by-side, feeling momentary relief because the sliding has stopped, only to have that sense of peace turn to despair when you realize the way you’ve wedged your body parts, while it’s halted your movement downward, prevents all upward movement. It means working really, really hard, sweating and grunting, and abraiding every surface of your body in exchange for a vertical gain of zero inches.

So why was I getting on Boogie ’til You Puke, a full number grade above the offwidth I’d bailed off of, a climb I’d watched Mico reach the top of after spending 1.5 hours belaying him, a climb Ben and Sylvan (both stronger climbers and especially stronger offwidth climbers) lowered off of after making it 1/3 of the way up the wall? I was desperate. The video Sylvan showed me, Boogie ’til You Poop, had scarred me. Since watching that video, every time I’d start climbing a route, I’d be overwhelmed by an intense urge to poop. It didn’t matter if it was a single pitch route or a 13 pitch route, the feeling would stay with me until I was back on the ground. At first I thought I was just timing my poops badly with when I was choosing to climb, but as the feeling became a perennial part of climbing no matter how many times I pooped immediately before a climb, it dawned on me that I had a psychological issue on my hands. The theory I developed (based on a  thorough grounding in psychology thanks to my degree in Film and Media Studies) was that the video had made pooping myself on a climb seem like a very real possibility (previously I’d only been   vaguely aware such atrocities could happen), the only way I could get over this fear that was giving me the psychosomatic urge to poop was by making it to the top of Boogie ’till You Poop without pooping.

With no alternative, I wedged myself into the smooth, wide chimney that slowly dwindled to a disgustingly sized offwidth. I chicken winged my way up the offwidth for a while until it dwindled to a size that rendered this impossible. It was here that Sylvan and Ben had lowered, and it was here that I’d planned to throw in the towel, consoling myself with the thought that I’d successfully exorcise a third of my demons. After watching me struggle for a while and prepare to give up, Mico, knowing how important this climb was for my sanity, suggested I try laybacking the crack. If nothing else, climbing The Opal repeatedly has given me the chance to hone my right facing layback technique, exactly what this climb necessitated. This can’t be any worse than the second pitch of The Opal, I reasoned. This thought, combined with the need to exorcise my pooping demons, pushed me to the top of the climb.

An incoherent, sweaty mess, I reached the anchors of Boogie ’till You Puke, and felt a cool breeze lifting my sweaty locks and purging the psychosomatic urge to poop from my body. Healed, I lowered to the ground, ready to begin climbing in Squamish with bowels on solid footing.

For the curious, less suggestable beings who want to see the video that started it all: