Day 53 (July 27): A Change of Pace

Post-Opal, we were ready for a change of pace. We briefly discussed booking it to Smith in Oregon to finish out the trip, but quickly realized most of our time would be spent driving. The best we could do was drive north half an hour to the Cheakamus area. Unlike most of the climbing near the Chief in Squamish, Cheakamus consists almost entirely of sport routes. Mico was able to revisit and ultimately send a 5.13 he’d tried on a previous trip. I proved to myself that, while I can usually do all the moves on a 5.12a climb, I’m still not a 5.12a climber. We met a local named Dale, a large, barrel-chested dude who, in peak condition had climbed 5.12 while weighing somewhere between 215 and 230 lbs. For me, a woman built more for rugby than rock climbing, this was inspirational. I’d thought that all people who climbed 5.12 and above were of a naturally stringy build.

That night, our final camping dinner, we tried to finish most of our food, but failed when it came to consuming a tin of canned mushrooms and bamboo shoots, our two worst food purchases the entire trip. They were slimy and chewy in all the wrong ways. Would not recommend to a friend, or even a recent acquaintance. We spent the evening talking about friendship and fears. Though I’d joked about some of my fears in the past, I think this was the first time Mico realized they were serious concerns, that I am someone who will joke about the things that cause me the most pain. Perhaps this is an indication that I need to reevaluate the way I express myself if I want to be understood by those close to me.

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 29: Face Value

Ceri loves the limestone cliffs of Ten Sleep Canyon. Short and tall, slab, vertical and overhung, pockety, edgy, and cracky, the cliff bands of bighorn dolomite that line the canyon provide endless possibility of adventure.

On arrival we saw a dirty green subaru full of unkempt youth circling around the ten sleep campsites. They drove up and down the road, stopping in front of white camper vans. Quickly they’d creep from their vehicle, glance around, and then dart into the depths of the sites. We naively assumed they were looking for bears. We’d seen one earlier, we were sure of it. Driving north out of the canyon a large black loping furry mammal trundled through the tall grass on the right of the road. Large, like a refrigerator or perhaps two harly davidsons. It was big and we were frightened so we drove on, eyes glued to the road.

We met a women. She was tall, slightly chinese, and in need of a shower. A vagabond we thought. As a friend of a friend we got to know her better. She likes whiskey and offers it around at the end of a hard climbing day. Once a masters student at UCLA, now a climbing celebrity, she’s an organizer for all things women + climber. On her off days she produces films professionally with three close friends.

In Tensleep, we’d heard that locals sleep late and spend long afternoons on the south east facing walls. While partial to this shade searching, we were tight on time and planned to make the most of every day. On our first day climbing we selected a small shady out of the way wall. Our first climb was an easy five ten up horizontal pocket bands. then a slightly harder ten using underclings and side pulls. More fun but fewer stars. While Ceri was leading the third route, a hard eleven arete, sounds of civilization, clinkying metal and janglying chains broke through the bird calls and bear growls of the forest. Oh yes, the serial killers had final found us. First their dogs appeared, one, two, three, four and finally five knashing hounds rounded the corner of crag. Their handlers appeared, six in totally, two where just there for the show. They tried to play innocent, which climbs did you like, what do you reccomend, how about this one? But then they asked about the festival, are you going? Growing up I was taught not to take candy from strangers, look for their lost dogs, or get rides in their cars, especially if the windows were painted out. Here they were offering a festival, great food from a cart, a raffle, silent auction on climbing gear, live music, fire works, and painted out vans galore. Ceri and I decide we had to outlast them. No way could we go back to the car, they’d follow us. We continued to climb.

Later Ceri led 12a, this one with four stars. Yet where ever we went, who ever we spoke with, they all ended their convesations with “Maybe I’ll see you at the festival”. How did they know I was going? Whats with this maybe, like maybe you’ll last that long? It was a cult we determined, a dog loving, thrill seeking, gear giving, climb climbing cult at which we would be initiates (hopefully) or ritual sacrifices (more likely).

Day 25: Forces Beyond Our Control

We’re back in Lander. Back so soon? Isn’t this supposed to be a climbing trip? Why are we always hanging in town? As we were driving out last time to go set up camp at Sinks Canyon, Mico noticed this little golden light on the dashboard. This little golden light was in the shape of letters, and these letters spelled the words “check engine.” When Mico pointed this out, I was ready to have him turn the car around and head back to Lander immediately. To me, a car is a mysterious, magical creature. I do not know how it works, but most of the time I take for granted that it does work. I’m willing to pay people, who claim to know how these creatures work, large sums of money to assure me that everything is hunky dory. Mico knows something about cars because he is a mechanical engineer and did an extracurricular activity with the alleged goal of building a race car. Before I went on this trip, my mom told me to do whatever Mico advised because he is an engineer. I have been trying to follow her advice, though she herself is not an engineer. Mico said he thought we could wait, climb for a couple days, see if the check engine light turned off on its own, if it didn’t, then we could go back into town and speak with experts. Thinking of my mother, I agreed.

The next day, when we turned on the car to go climb, the little golden light was still on. In the afternoon, when we drove back to camp to put the rain fly on our tent (who knew it was possible for it to be sunny in the morning but rain later in the day?), the light was still on. We decided to get up early the next day, climb for the morning, and head into town in the afternoon to get the car looked at. Worst case scenario, we’d be stranded in Lander for a week while they ordered a special part for my 1999 Subaru Legacy.

With this in mind, we tried to make the most of our climbing. We got to the crag at 7am, and by noon we were struggling to complete climbs due to exhaustion. In town, we asked the woman at the local climbing store for a mechanic recommendation, dropped the car off, and went thrift store shopping. We purchased a set of 4 cassettes titled “The Golden Age of Country” and a Celine Dion cassette. It’s possible that we may have been overcharged ($5.15) since, last time I checked, cassettes stopped being used in the early 2000s.

We took shelter from the hail in a coffee shop with a climbing wall. There I received a call from Brant, the mechanic, who said the problem with the car was the catalytic converter but that I wouldn’t need to address it until it affected performance. After I hung up, my resident car expert asked me with a grin if knew what a catalytic converter was. I, of course, did not. Appraently, it has to do with car emissions, so we’ll be polluting at a higher rate until it gets fixed. I wonder if there’s a room in hell reserved for people who don’t get catalytic converters fixed, and if they share that room with oil industry tycoons and Scott Pruitt. Probably not. That seems a bit extreme.