When I Grow Up, I Want to Be a Firefighting Border Patrol Agent Dog Trainer Engineer Physical Therapist Who Sells Weed


There are some who would say that job hunting while living out of the passenger’s seat of a Subaru in the middle of the Southwest desert is not the best place to job hunt. And while they would technically be correct, this has not stopped me from conducting informational interviews with nearly everyone we’ve met along the way.

Quizzing the people I meet at climbing areas on what they do to maintain their climbing habit predates my current jobless state. However, unemployment has undeniably increased the fervor with which I ply these people with questions.

Multipitch climbing does not, for the most part, lend itself to meeting new people. In an ideal world (according to the handbook of serious climbers), if you are unimaginative enough to be on a climb popular enough to have several other parties on it, by the time your leader reaches the next belay ledge, the follower from the party ahead has already left. And vice versa for a party behind you. This allows you to maximize the illusion that you are alone on the rockface going mano-a-mano with nature.

This perfect system breaks down when the party in front is slower than the party behind. And it really breaks down when the party in front gets their rope stuck rappelling the pitch the other party is climbing. This was how we met Dan and Monica at the bottom of pitch 3 of The Nightcrawler. 

They were cruising up the climb. Dan, a slight, mustached man joined us on the ledge as we began pulling our rope. It became clear that our rope was stuck, so we chatted with him while his partner, Monica, a short haired woman with glasses followed the squeeze chimney pitch.

We complemented Dan on the speed with which he was ascending. He explained that he was training to climb Cloud Tower in another three weeks by going up every corner system he could find in the park. Cloud Tower is the climb that keeps me motivated when I start to think that trad climbing is a needlessly scary and reckless pastime. Last winter, I’d made it ten feet from the top (thanks to Dante’s ability to lead the harder pitches. I’d failed ten feet from the top because of my foolish decision to lead the last pitch which went at 5.11c, over a grade above my hardest successful trad lead at the time). While The Nightcrawler is a far cry from Cloud Tower, learning that a route I’d just led was being used as someone else’s training made me think I might one day be ready to go back and try to lead the harder pitches of Cloud Tower myself.

Small talk out of the way, I asked Dan what he did for a living that allowed him to climb in Red Rocks on a weekday in November. He explained that he was completing PT school. This magical-sounding school involved a rotation that had placed Dan and Monica in a series of locations no more than half an hour from some of the best climbing in the USA. They were currently based in Vegas. Before that, they’d been living in Bishop, and their next stop was St. George. By now, Monica had joined us. She’d studied mechanical engineering at Yale and currently works remotely, allowing her to move with Dan. While working remotely as a mechanical engineer is probably not in the cards, a PT school that necessitates living near some of the best climbing areas in the USA doesn’t sound too bad.

The next interview I conducted with the woman waiting on us at a place that advertises itself as the world’s largest weed dispensary (in case the people conducting Sarah’s background check are reading this, Sarah did not come with me on this adventure. The “us” refers to a handful of friends from New Haven). While my friends asked her about the effects of various different gummies, hard candies, and cannabis-laced beers, I asked her what the hiring process was like for her job.

It had involved the typical interview followed by a drug test. “To test if she used weed,” her husband had joked at the time. She’d then had to complete a weeklong course which educated her in the science of weed and the specific products sold in the store.

“Are you hiring?” One of my friends asked. Everyone laughed at his joke, but I had been contemplating asking the question seriously moments before. His joke brought me to my senses. While it would be great to live near Red Rocks and go climbing whenever I wasn’t selling tourists gummy bears with a one to one THC to CBD ratio, the fact remains that I’m not a huge fan of weed or customer service jobs. If those qualities didn’t render me unhirable, chances were I’d come to hate the job. On top of that, I’d be stuck living in Las Vegas.

After Vegas, Sarah and I shivered our way through Utah and into northern New Mexico. On November 27, we woke up just outside Diablo Canyon, a crag that claims to have some of the best climbing in New Mexico. It was 15 degrees when the sun hit our tent. All of my water bottles had frozen shut. Our normal routine for climbing involves making breakfast, packing for the day, and heading out in short succession. On this day, we finished getting ready and sat in the sun for another hour drinking coffee and wearing all of our warm layers. Not long after we hit the crag, a couple who looked to be in their mid 30s approached us. Matt and Amber were the only other people staying at the crag campground. We chatted briefly while Matt warmed up on my intended project for the day. They then left to try some harder routes in the nearby cave.

In the evening, as Sarah and I were making dinner, Amber approached and invited us to join them by their fire. It was another frigid night. They could have been serial killers, and we probably would have agreed. 

At the fire, we had the opportunity to find out more about what they did that allowed them to take the month of November off to climb. Amber owns a dog training company in Durango where they live. Being a business owner with a couple employees allows her to tailor the time she takes off to fit Matt’s schedule. I have a fear bordering on phobeia of dog saliva, so I quickly ruled this out. 

Matt is a firefighter for Farmington, a conservative town in northern New Mexico. His department has them on a two day on, four day off schedule. He’s able to trade shifts with friends. If he gets a single shift covered, he gets ten consecutive days off. He and Amber have made a habit of taking November off to climb and have gone to exotic climbing destinations ranging from Thailand to South Africa. On top of that, Matt gets healthcare through his job. I’ve never been particularly oriented toward making a lot of money; all I really ask out of a job is the flexibility to climb and health coverage when I’m old. Firefighting sounded perfect.

Sure, I’d probably be one of only a few women at the station (in Matt’s case there were no women working at his station) and I had a history of asthma which might not combine well with hanging around fires, but what was a little discomfort in exchange for a lifetime of climbing and healthcare? On top of that, it wasn’t like firefighters were answering calls 24/7 during shifts. Matt had seen all the latest movies and had plenty of time leftover to workout and nap. I could get a masters and finally achieve my dream of having a six pack all while collecting a paycheck.

Matt, sensing that there was more to my questions than polite interest, suggested that wildland firefighting might be an even better option for a climber looking for steady (but not too steady) employment. Wildland firefighters work from May to September or so, and make enough to live the rest of the year. Depending on the level of risk your specific branch of wildland firefighting requires (anything from preventative brush clearance to jumping out of a plane to fight fires inaccessible by roadways), you could make quite a good living. While I appreciated that Matt was trying to help, this sounded less appealing than regular firefighting for two main reasons: 1) I’d met a wildland firefighter earlier on the trip and he did not have health coverage during the part of the year when he was not working and 2) I was much more likely to die working as a wildland firefighter. Dying in the line of duty appeared nowhere on my list of job requisites.

Firefighter now ranking at the top of my list of potential jobs, we headed south toward El Paso, TX and the Carlsbad Caverns. The National Border Patrol Museum had drawn us to El Paso, a partched city at the westernmost tip of Texas. It’s a tiny museum, more like a PowerPoint you can walk through than anything else. We wandered through border patrol paraphanelia of the past century and read plaques informing us that border patrol’s original purpose had been to keep Chinese from entering the country illegally.

To the right of the exit, a large poster board read, “Interested in a career in law enforcement?” Below were pamphlets about the process and benefits of becoming a border patrol agent. “Not a desk job” it read in large font across the front. I pictured a lifetime of wearing a green uniform and sunglasses, holding a giant German Shepard, stopping cars at checkpoints across the southwest (preferably checkpoints within 60 miles of a killer climbing destination) and asking drivers if they were American citizens.

Definitely not a customer service job, but also not a job that would get me killed, hopefully. A government job, so medical benefits and a pension. The application process involved many steps: an application, a written test, a physical test, a polygraph, and then time at the border patrol academy if all went well. I could already do 20 push-ups in 60 seconds, so I figured I had this job in the bag.

I called my parents to tell them their baby was going to be serving her country as a border patrol agent.

“Yo creo que es una buena idea,” (it’s a good idea) my father said.

My mother, however, was even less enthusiastic than she’d been when I’d called earlier in the trip to tell them I was going to be a firefighter and she’d reminded me about my childhood asthma. 

“Yo creo que es una buena idea,” my father repeated. He offered no further explanation. It’s often hard to take him seriously. This is the man who used to yell “brinca” (jump) whenever my sister and I were climbing on the roof of the garage as kids.

As I compared the relative weight of my parents’ differing opinions, I continued reading about the benefits of life as a border patrol agent. Compared to firefighters, they didn’t get much time off at all!

My mom was right, I decided. Being a border patrol agent sounded pretty lame. 

As Sarah and I headed east, watching desert turn to swamp and menu items become increasingly deep fried, I remained directionless as ever. But at least I’d ruled out becoming a firefighting border patrol agent dog trainer engineer physical therapist who sells weed.

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.

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.