I’m Sorry, Mom

“I’m sorry, Mom,” I muttered to myself.

“Did you say something?” my climbing partner Mico called from the belay station 20 feet to my right.

“Not really,” I shouted so I was clearly audible above the wind buffeting the cliff face. It was an uncomfortably cold day for climbing. I tightened my grip on the frigid rock I was using to hold myself on the wall as my body was racked by a shiver.

I thought back to the day before when we’d loaded up the car, and I’d said goodbye to my parents. Lately, I’d noticed that my mom’s parting words whenever I left for a climbing trip were “be safe.” Like most adjectives, the word “safe” is a relative term. One person’s safe is another person’s insane. And if safe means the absence of all risk, then few people in modern America are truly safe. Most of us get in cars. Leaving the house assumes a certain level of risk.

Where do you draw the line between what is safe and what is not? My mom never dropped me off at high school soccer games with the parting words “be safe,” even though I sprained my ankle more times than I could count playing the sport. Then again, soccer does not involve hanging from a rope several hundred feet above the ground. People don’t usually die playing soccer.

“You’re shaking your head,” Mico observed. He sounded amused.

I was shaking my head because of what lay before me. I hadn’t moved since our last exchange. I’d been taking turns resting my increasingly frozen fingers on the warm back of my neck in an effort to regain feeling. Mico says this is a temporary fix, but even if it provided little more than passing relief, I was grateful.

I’d traversed 20 feet from the belay station on moderately sized holds and was still another 10 feet below the first bolt on the climb. I had yet to find a crack or pocket in which I could place gear. We were on the third and hardest pitch of a four pitch trad climb titled “Risky Business.” Originally, I’d assumed the person who’d developed the route was a Tom Cruise fan, but now I was beginning to suspect they’d been entirely unaware of the 1983 film when they christened the route.

Back on the ground before we’d started, Mico’d volunteered to lead the first two pitches. I was initially grateful, until I realized it meant I’d be leading the 5.10c pitch, the route’s crux and, coincidentally, tied for the hardest trad lead I’d ever attempted.

“Are you sure?” Mico had asked. I think he was a little surprised by my willingness.

Of course,” I’d said, wanting to appear brave. Going into the trip, Mico’d asked if I had any climbing goals. I’d told him I wanted to climb things that would give me street cred, so I could efficiently shut down men who second guessed my climbing ability.

200 feet above the ground, I was cursing my petty, perennial desire to impress others, a desire that seemed to dictate my whole life. On a warmer day, when I could feel my fingers, face climbing on 10c-sized holds would have been a task I could accomplish with minimal effort. Though the holds were the same size as they would have been in warmer weather, they seemed to vanish beneath my numb fingertips. This, combined with the  pitch’s sparse protection, kept me immobile with fear.

I was between a rock and a hard place, a hackneyed phrase which Google seems to believe originated in the Odyssey when Odysseus had to pass between the giant whirlpool Charybdis and the cliff-dwelling monster Scylla. I choose to believe that the phrase originated with the crazy climbers who seem to enjoy working themselves into rocky hard places. I’d climbed to a point on the pitch where it would be difficult to return to the belay station (crossing the Rubicon–it’s amazing how many cliches come to mind while you’re busy losing your shit on a rock face) and was not happy about it.

Returning to the belay station would involve some down climbing. I wasn’t confident I’d be able to do the moves I’d just done in reverse without falling. Falling was a bad option, especially because of the traverse I’d just made. There was a fair amount of rope out, which meant I’d fall a ways. Additionally, because I’d moved mostly laterally from the belay station, I would not only fall but swing, penduluming into the column on top of which Mico was belaying. If I continued toward the first bolt, Mico would need to feed out more rope, so I’d risk falling even farther. Another bad option, as I’d smash into the same column but with the added force of a longer fall (sometimes I wish I’d skipped high school physics). However, I couldn’t stay where I was, trading hands on the back of my neck. My energy was slowly dissipating. Eventually, I’d be too weak to continue clinging to the holds and would end up smashing into the same column.

I’m not sure how Odysseus made his decision, but I opted to continue climbing. Another 10 feet of rope out wouldn’t kill me, I hoped. Plus, sniveling my way back to the belay ledge would be embarrassing. Caught between a rock and my ego was perhaps a more apt phrase for my situation.

I clawed my way to the first bolt on frozen talons. Clipping it, I felt my body relax. I placed a hand on the back of my neck and looked up to see where I was headed. Nowhere good. The next bolt was separated from me by another 30 feet of edgy face climbing. No cracks or pockets were visible. Why hadn’t we taken more time to read the route description? This alleged trad route was more akin to runout face climbing, and life was too short to risk falling 60 feet.

I’d alway told myself that I wasn’t one of those climbers who was in it for the adrenalin rush. I liked pulling challenging, athletic moves where if I fell, it was a clean fall. I didn’t like feeling like I was going to die. Yet recently, I’d spent more and more time trad climbing, trusting gear that would blow on me if not placed with a fair amount of precision, climbing longer routes that got me even higher above the ground, climbing runout routes where I was looking at 60 foot falls instead of 6 foot ones. Why?

It probably has something to do with the respect trad earns you in the climbing community. You’re not just a dabbler. I like the reactions I get from the people who assume I’m a gym rat and are forced recalibrate their view of me because I can lead 5.10 trad. Or maybe I like trad because it makes everything else feel easy and safe. It’s helped me overcome a fear of falling on sport climbs, and it’s given me a point of comparison for non-climbing endeavors as well. Real world things that might have seemed really hard and scary (like interacting with strangers or starting something new or expressing myself honestly) feel possible now that I have a new point of reference for what is scary and extreme.

It should have been telling that “I’m sorry, Mom” was the thought that kept coming to mind, rather than “I’m sorry, Ceri.” I hadn’t considered apologizing to myself because, though my life was the one on the line, I was satisfied with the way I was risking it. My guilt stemmed from the effect my untimely demise would have on my family.

I wished I’d been nicer to my family before I left for the trip. It’s not that I’d fought with my mom or anything like that. I’d been perfectly nice, but not especially nice. I wanted the last time I saw my family to be special, something they could discuss smiling, tears in their eyes as they sat by my bed, holding my hand, gazing into my comatose face. Next time, and there would almost certainly be a next time, I’d tell them I loved them before heading out. I might also draw up a will. My mom would definitely get my car. But who would I leave my newly purchased trad rack to?

I shivered as I was buffeted by another gust of wind. My exposed ankles had turned a mottled purple, and I could no longer feel my toes. Mico must be equally cold if not colder because he wasn’t climbing. I needed to pick up the pace so we could get off this shady, windswept rock. I took a deep breath and committed to climbing rather than thinking about possible demises. As long as I took full advantage of rest opportunities, making time to locate the hand and foot placements I’d use to reach the next rest stance, and didn’t panic, I’d be fine. Everything would be fine.

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Day 52 (July 26): In Which We Prove Unsuccessful at the Basic Task of Giving Up

You thought we were done with The Opal, didn’t you? Actually, to your credit, you probably didn’t. You’re a smart reader, and, if you’re reading this, there’s a 99.9% chance you know one of us personally and a 75% chance you’re a member of one of our nuclear families. For a while, though, I think we’d convinced ourselves that we were done. I was still entertained by the first three pitches of The Opal, mostly because I was laboring under the idea that through enough repetition I would eventually send the second pitch (the 5.12a layback). The moves that had seemed impossible when I first began now felt doable, though they still involved a large amount of sweating, no matter the external temperature. I was at a point where I was only falling twice on the pitch (usually once from fatigue and once due to inattention). This probably had a bit to do with improved technique and familiarizing myself with the pitch, and a lot to do with the fact that we’d tied off the second rope at the top of the third pitch, so I was no longer climbing with a rope in my pack. Mico was bored of climbing the first three pitches now that he was sending all three consistently, but was still struggling with the fourth pitch. We were running out of time in Squamish, and there were many other rocks to be climbed; why continue beating our hands against a wall?

On some level, it’s the kind of people we are. The ability to beat your hands and head against a wall for a sustained period of time and enjoy it is an ability that proves quite useful in the Ivy League. I think we also felt that, while we’d given it a good go the last time, conditions had been less than ideal. Hopefully, the time we’d taken off had given the wall time to dry. There was no rain in the forecast, so our only limiting factor was daylight. We also realized that the grant Mico’d received to climb The Opal required action shots of him on the wall. We didn’t have anything that fit this description, so we were going back up The Opal whether we liked it or not.

The days off had not made The Opal any drier. If anything, the wall was even wetter than the day we’d climbed it in the rain. How this sorcery was possible was entirely beyond me. Maybe the water had pooled at the top and slowly seeped down the climb over the course of the week. The black algae coating the wall had rehydrated, and was now thick, spongey, and very slippery under foot. The night before, Mico had asked me if I wanted to lead the first pitch. I said “yes” without hesitation, which seemed to surprise him. One of my goals for the trip was becoming comfortable enough placing trad gear that I’d be willing to fall on it. With 4 days left in the trip, I decided that now was the moment to become comfortable. What was the worst that could happen? Probably death. Or maybe life-altering injury. Below is the tearful goodbye I recorded for my parents.

Mico also documented what, at any moment, could have been my last moment.

And below that is a video of me decidedly not dead at the top of the first pitch.

The only thing that died on the pitch was Mico’s yellow Metolius cam, a piece which I’d tried to eliminate earlier in the trip by getting it very stuck in the rock. I was foiled that time by Mico who managed to extract it. This time, however, there was nothing to be done. I’d placed the yellow Metolius right before I attempted to pull the corner, the crux move for me on the pitch. I hastily stuffed it at an awkward angle and prayed it would hold as I threw my left hand out for a jug sidepull around the corner. My left hand came an inch short of the jug I was aiming for, and I fell. The force of the fall jerked the piece to the side, bending some of the wires. When Mico pull the cam out of the rock, all the lobes were fixed at slightly different angles. Through this experience I learned that 1) trad gear allows for some margin of idiocy when placing, 2) a nut would have been more appropriate in that situation and likely would have survived the force of my fall better, and 3) a yellow Metolius cam retails for roughly $60.

The next couple pitches were a battle against the black algae. Both Mico and I fell on the second pitch, so by the time we got to the bottom of the fourth pitch, it was clear Mico was going for the summit, rather than the send. You can see the opening moves of the second pitch here.

After a few attempts, Mico finally succeeded in stringing together the lower crux sequence of the fourth pitch. His arms were shaking. He looked ready to peel off the wall at any moment as he climbed, but he was able to push through the muscle fatigue of 52 days on the road, keeping his hands and feet on the wall in an amazing display of willpower. He came up short of the hold at the top of the second crux, and had to repeat the moves a few times before sticking it. Having completed the two cruxes, though not in sequence, he made it to the top of the fourth pitch and, for the first time, set up a belay station. It was now my turn to climb to the top of the fourth pitch. I was excited to cover new ground, but also anxious because I’d be aiding my way to the top (pulling on draws and other gear attached to the wall in order to skip moves that were too difficult) while climbing with the heaviest pack I’d ever had (rope plus two liters of water plus all our food for the day). Moves on the pitch that I’d completed with relative ease in the past were now a struggle. I aided whenever I could, but sometimes the draws were too far apart and I had to pull on the thin, sharp holds that gave the pitch its grade. I fell a lot and cried in frustration, feeling weak and useless. In these moments, I was reacquainted with the fact that The Opal would have been a lot easier for Mico if he’d had a stronger partner. I reached the top of the pitch exhausted, with obvious tear tracks on my cheeks.
“Are you okay to continue?” Mico wanted to know. No, I thought. No, I do not want to limp through another two pitches at my max (5.12a and 5.11d). I can’t. I want to go back to the car and wallow in self pity. I said none of this because getting to the top of The Opal was Mico’s goal. He’d been so patient this trip, climbing 5.6 multipitch trad routes so I could practice gear placement, giving me long belays as I freaked out on 5.9 trad or fell repeatedly on 5.12c top rope. I’d held him back in many ways on this trip, but getting to the top of The Opal from here was within my power, so I said, “yes.”

The next two pitches were scary runout sport climbs, a mix of face and slab. Mico did not send them cleanly, and through this experience learned that one should not leave the last two pitches of a route unclimbed until the last day. I aided and cried my way through the last two pitches. As I pulled draws, I marveled at the 20ft spacing between bolts and Mico’s courage. By the time I reached the top of the climb, feet numb with pain, dripping a mixure of sweat and tears, I’d decided that I was not cut out for rock climbing. I don’t know what Mico felt in those moments at the top. Maybe some sense of accomplishment, some disappointment too. He says it’ll be a while before he’s ready to try and climb The Opal again. His main concern at the top was whether our 70m rope would allow us to reach the bottom of the 6th pitch (we left the second rope at the top of the 4th expecting that we only had 35m repels ahead). We were climbing on his new bipattern rope and had crossed over from one pattern to the other while on the 6th pitch, an indication that it was longer than 35m. Thankfully, rope stretch allowed us to make it. This was the first time I was fully able to appreciate the use of stopper knots.

The rest of the rappel was uneventful. Mico reclimbed the fourth pitch while I took photos. We walked down the south gully for the final time that trip on tired, shaky legs.

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 43: The Joys of Moderately-Sized Wall Climbing

With Ben and Sylvan gone as of Day 42, we no longer had an easy excuse to avoid projecting The Opal. We also realized we only had 12 days or so to send the route, and there was no way we’d be able to spend all those days climbing. We were running out of time. We decided to alternate 2 days on The Opal with 1 day resting until a) Mico sent the route or b) we ran out of time. I was losing some hope because we didn’t seem to be putting in the time required to send such a daunting project, and after 3 days on the climb, Mico had yet to make any vertical progress.

Today, however, marked a turning point in the climb. Mico aided through the crux section at the bottom and climbed up to the second major crux near the top. Having climbed most of the pitch and identified the sections that needed serious work, he graciously let me top rope it. I was super excited. The holds on the wall were small enough and dirty enough that from the belay ledge I could really only imagine what he was climbing. I worked my way up to the first crux and was able to confirm that the dyno he’d been trying repeatedly without success looked truly impossible (pulling off a tiny edge with his left hand, rocking onto a right foot that was way too low to be of much use, and jumping for a generously sized, slopey ledge that looked much farther away on the climb than it had from the belay ledge. “This is psychotic,” I told Mico as I halfheartedly lunged for the ledge. I suggested he try using a gaston to the left of the bolt and give up on the dyno. In Mico’s defense, he’d already come up with this idea, but had initially rejected it because he didn’t think he could hold onto the holds. I was not suggesting anything to him that he had not already thought of. Mico is a climbing genius. All I did, as a person of very average climbing intelligence, was prove to him that I could hold onto the holds, suggesting that he could also hold onto them and probably even move off them. With this tenuous spark of an idea, we lowered to avoid rappelling in the dark, and made plans to test it out the next day.

Day 40: Behind the Scenes

We’ve frequently been asked if we are actually having a good time. I believe that our friends and family see our posts and wonder: What is it really like? Are they filtering their posts? Do the bad things come out? Are they hiding anything? Do they make up the good stuff?

I’d like to address this issue. First, the great bed bug incident, Day 13, was a total hoax. We just found a look-alike-bug, got Ceri worked up about something Trump said, and then boom, a story in the making. Similarly, the vaseline spill, Day 21,was faked. It was really just water and poor lighting conditions and another Trump-ism. And lastly, that early morning drive after only a few hours of sleep, how do you know it wasn’t just late at night? Or right after sunset for that matter? All the “bad” things that have happened are fabricated. We just throw them in there to make it seem like a real trip. And the good stuff, it’s fake news. FAKE NEWS! What actually happens, the gross, sweaty, yucky mundane stuff that you can only guess at, we will lay bear. You get to see what really happens.

Multipitch Climbing: Peeing, pooping, living is a challenge. Take your life and now tether yourself to a vertical wall. You feel like a dog on a leash or a baby in a harness, except there is no owner or parent to make food or pick up your poop. Instead you’ve got this big granite wall that’s either too cold or too hot, too steep or too ledgy, too sharp or too smooth, to be comfortable. Poop, and it stays in your pants. Ask for a sandwich, and you get a pinecone.

Camping: The only thing worse than Camping 24/7-55 days a year would be 24/7-365. Every day you wake up, pack up your room, do your day, unpack your room, go to bed. After a dirty day with your granite babysitter, you get to go home, pull your kitchen out of a box, cook dinner, then put your kitchen back into a box, put that in a bigger box alongside the box for your living room, bed room, and parlor.

Hair: I will liken hair to the bristle’s of a brush. 10 days without washing, my hair was a soft bristled brush. At that stage I could have sold my mane to a car dealership, for I am sure that they would use it to wax and polish car doors. After about 20 days, my bristle hair reached a point unsuitable for polishing. The stiff strands were more akin to a natural fiber brush, good for light cleaning applications. At day 35 my hair was so stiff that, with great effort, I cut a strand and used it to pick the lock on our car. Looking ahead, I imagine that my hair will be used as a replacement for rebar in poured concrete construction. Renewable and non-toxic.

Ceri: Smelly, dirty, grouchy.

Me: More smelly, more dirty, more grouchy.

Day 38-July 12: Adventure Strikes

Sylvan and Ben rolled into camp late Saturday night (Day 34) and brought with them energy and enthusiasm. Over the last few months they planned a week long trip to Squamish. They knew a week wouldn’t be enough to pack in all their adventures so they decided to share. Perhaps together the four of us could have a summer’s worth of adventure within only a 7 day span. Sunday we climbed at the Smoke Bluffs. I’d sworn never to return to the crowds and death by top rope that lies in wait at the bluffs, yet Sylvan and Ben had a plan. Three climbs they said, Flying Circus, Crime of the Century, and Split Beaver. Two long delicious finger cracks and one hands to off width crack. Arm bars and finger jams awaited. While the bluffs weren’t high on my list, Ben and Sylvan are. We followed them, like chicks trailing a chicken, through the maze of crags that make the bluffs and found that our routes were free.

On Tuesday we climbed Angel’s Crest with Ben and Sylvan. The name meant nothing to me, it was just a climb that they’d added to their tick list. Now it’s a 13 pitch 5.10 on an arete formed by the North Gully and The Sheriff’s Badge. Ceri lead pitches under 5.10 and I lead the 5.10 pithes. Well, except for the 10c slab/crack that she unknowingly climbed. Uh-oh. But it worked well. No falls. Complete success (unlike on Vector when ceri took a fall/slide off a vertical hand crack onto the crag below). There were a few hairy parts. We lost the trail to the Acrophobes, two spires mid route, the first which we later successfully climbed then rapped off the back. The 3rd class high exposure that followed was mildly traumatizing. Unfortunately no photos or videos of this climb. We kept our hands on rock/rope. You’ll have to settle for another pre-opal video. Tomorrow we go back for the third attempt. Hopefully the first three pitches will be climbed without falling.