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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August 23: Fat Lizards and Free Soloing

My next climbing partner was my aunt’s personal trainer’s longtime boyfriend, David. Heading into this experience, all I knew about him was that he’d been climbing for a long time and was super into it. I think he had even less info about me and was worried that he had someone who might prove a total liability on his hands, at least this is what I surmised from the slow, careful way he explained everything on the phone. He asked me if I was comfortable leading sport. I felt bad for him because he was probably doing this as a favor to Kirschen, my aunt’s trainer, being kind to her employer’s niece.

We met at the agreed upon time and location, and hiked to a secluded pink and gold sandstone spire overlooking Malibu Canyon and the ocean beyond. It turns out David is 57 and has been climbing since he was something like 10. He played a big role in the development of the LA outdoor climbing scene (the place we went climbing was a crag that he had found and almost singlehandedly bolted) and knows most of the famous climbers who’ve come out of Southern California over the past 4 decades (because I am a climbing history ignoramus, of the many names he listed, the only one I can recite for you here is Lynn Hill).

There was a wooden bench at the base of the crag which David himself had carried in and constructed. He toured me around (the crag had climbs ranging from 5.4 to 5.11), and asked me what I wanted to warm up on. I selected a 5.9 and offered to lead it, hoping to set the record straight about my climbing abilities. The 5.9 didn’t start from the ground, so David suggested we see if I was capable of completing a boulder problem that led up to the ledge where the 5.9 started. The problem involved one kind of reachy move that I completed with ease. I think this was the moment David began to trust me.

He suggested we continue to the top of the spire following a 5.4 route. We weren’t roped. I thought about what my mom would say, but then I remembered that I was 22 years old and allegedly capable of making my own decisions. I looked at the route. It looked like the kind of thing I would have scrambled up as a kid without a second thought. It was a ladder of ledges; there was no way I would pump out on it, and I knew I could complete every move, so I said yes. Perhaps, I was being foolish. I can’t really call it peer pressure because of the disparity in our age and experience, but I was definitely guided by a desire to prove myself. For those who are concerned, though I felt secure at every point on the route, it will not be the launching point for my career as a female Alex Honnold. I prefer climbing with the knowledge that if I fall, the worst injury I’m likely to sustain is a broken bone.

David was relieved to learn that I could belay (he must be a very kind/trusting person to take me out for the day without this knowledge). In between climbs, he told me stories about LA climbing history. At one point, he pulled out a bong and asked if I minded. I was amused more than anything. At the end of the day, David gave me some life advice. Unlike many of the people he grew up climbing with, he’d gone to college and gotten a day job (as a real estate agent). The people he knows who are his age and have been climbing bums their whole lives are miserable; they didn’t make plans for a future where their joints were stiff and their recovery time was slower and they couldn’t climb as hard as they had in their youth. He described 60-year-old men who’d lost most of their teeth and lived in vans parked on the side of the highway. I was ready to get on the career train then and there.

I stopped by the condo David and Kirschen are living in while they remodel their house. Kirschen’s also in her mid 50s and has the body of someone who’s been running seriously since she was 12. She was walking around their condo in small shorts and a bikini top. She greeted me warmly when I walked in and introduced me to their fat, paraplegic lizard, Miss Dinky Doinks, who they got instead of a dog. I held Miss Dinky Doinks using two hands and marveled at the way each breath rippled through her soft, enormous stomach. Dinky blinked at me and let her tongue hang out the side of her mouth. She is an utterly charming lizard.

Before I left, Kirschen insisted I take a plum and flavored Pellegrino with me for the drive, and David offered to introduce me to other climbers in the area. He mentioned a girl my age, which sounded promising. Below is me with Kirschen and Miss Dinky Doinks:

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Day 7: Bear and Blood

We finally met a real, live Bear. This particular Bear was Ariel’s dog, a large, black sled dog. Bear is the product of an unplanned pregnancy in a female Iditarod racer. He was too big to be a good Iditarod dog (preference given to smaller dogs that consume less food and are better endurance runners), so Ariel and her husband Patrick ended up adopting him from the humane society.

Ariel took us bouldering at a place near her house. The sandstone was soft and friendly, but I still managed to leave blood on every boulder we climbed. This resulted from a combination of sloppy foot placement/poor technique and the web of scabs covering my legs and arms. Whether it’s thin skin, “bad genes” as Mico likes to call it, or a sloppy way of moving through the world, the result has been that my body is almost more scab than skin. When climbing, I invariably end up upsetting one or more of these scabs, so I come off the wall with a trail of blood leaking down my shin, my inner thigh, etc. This constant reopening means the scabs aren’t healing, so I’ve decided to start naming the perennials after people in my life. It’s hard to say which ones will last, so I haven’t named too many. There’s the Jon Chen Knee Scab, named for Jon who once told me about a knee scab he had that took over a year to heal. There’s another called Mommy located on my inner bicep. We’ll have to wait an see which others stand the test of time.