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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August 21: In Which I Begin the Search for a New Climbing Partner

After almost two years of climbing with the same person, I’m having to find a new training partner, someone I get along with who has similar climbing goals and lives on this side of the country. I found a climbing partner once before, so I should be able to do it again, right? But it’s like every time you start a new school, you end up asking yourself, “how did I make friends last time?”

I began my search with what I thought was an easy target, my little sister, Remi. On the plus side, she lives near me (down the hall), we get along, and she has lots of free time. On the less positive side, she’s leaving in two weeks to go back to school and has only ever top roped. She claimed to prefer climbing outside to climbing inside, so I used this to leverage her into going with me. She beautifully summed up her reason for going as we walked out the door, “what else would I be doing today?” Her words reminded me of the woman in The Breakfast Club who attends detention out of boredom.

With our terrified mother’s blessing, we drove to Malibu Creek State Park. This was my first time climbing outside in LA. I got us lost a total of four times on our way to the crag known as “Stumbling Blocks,” so our approach ended up taking an hour and a half. The first time we got lost (when I parked at the wrong intersection in my effort to avoid paying the $12 fee for a day pass), we followed a trail through some bushes and arrived at a parking lot filled with people and suitcases. They were lining up in front of other people with clipboards. It looked like some kind of summer camp check-in except for the fact that none of these people were children, and they were all dressed in expensive, urban-looking clothing. The people with clipboards were wearing shirts that said “Camp Mars.” Other people in Camp Mars shirts were tooling around in golf carts, speaking into walkie talkies. I thought that it might be a film set for a movie where they figure out how to grow plants on Mars and use this technology to exactly replicate the biome of Southern California. Then rich people with floral-printed roller bags start going to the planet for vacation.

An internet search many hours later proved me wrong. Apparently, Camp Mars is an event hosted by the band 30 Seconds to Mars for their fans. Fans over the age of 18 can pay $1,000 for the “tree huggin’ package” aka the privilege of spending two nights and three days camping in a tent (it’s bring your own tent, FYI). For those less into roughing it (or who don’t own tents), $2,500 will get them two nights spent in a yurt with AC and shared bathrooms. Days at Camp Mars are filled with activities like yoga and rock climbing, and evenings are spent making s’mores and attending concerts. Los Angeles is a truly amazing place.

The final part of the Stumbling Blocks approach involves an easy traverse along the edge of a deep green pool. It’s really stunning to walk up the dry creek bed and arrive at this large body of water (large by LA standards. In Louisiana, I doubt it qualifies as a puddle). When Remi and I arrived, people were gathered on the banks, laughing and jumping in the water. I was sweaty and ready to join them, until I spotted a curtain of lime green algae floating off shore. I then reflected on the fact that we’d just walked up a dry creek bed to reach this mysterious pool of water, so it clearly wasn’t draining anywhere. If other people are anything like me, the water’s probably half urea by now (perhaps the reason behind its pleasing green color).

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When we arrived at the crag, I gave Remi a brief tutorial on lead belaying. Instead of taking in rope, you’re feeding it out, never take your brake hand off the rope, etc. I think she absorbed it all and displayed good belaying technique, but I could never be sure because I couldn’t watch her while I was climbing. As a result, I was never fully at ease. Remi doesn’t know how to lead climb, so I would put up a route, and she would follow on top rope. She’d clean the climb if the method for cleaning the anchor was simple. If it required rappelling, I’d go up a second time. I was pretty beat by the end of the day, but happy that I’d had the chance to go outside and climb. As we walked back to the car, Remi announced that she preferred climbing indoors because outside “takes too much time–you have to drive and hike to the wall, and then you have to set everything up!” This was the beginning and end of our short time as climbing partners.

 

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.