The Climbing Life

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Red Rocks, Nevada. Shot by Ben Matthews

There was a moment when the pursuit to defy gravity changed my life. When the sharp end became scripture and the crag my cathedral.

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I have spent most of my adult life trying to understand this fantastically complex universe we call reality. I believe that to fundamentally understand nature is to truly understand ourselves and ultimately why we are here.  And although my pursuits may have given me more questions than answers more awe than understanding I hope to never lose the way. A wise man once said “You do not look to the sky for God, you look into you” and although, in the end, I think he is quite right I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to truly tear my gaze from the stars.
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The Mountain

This morning I woke up with excitement. In a moments time, I travel back to the mountains. A journey I have made before and intend to make time and time again. It’s in the mountains where I feel alive. The brotherhood, the realness of action, the breath. All of which mean more than can be explained in words. But for those of us who return undoubtedly leave a piece of ourselves behind. These pieces scattered throughout the airy cliffs of our travels forever change us. They forever rest upon the slopes of the mountain. There they wait solemn and quiet until in the comfort of our homes, or the caring touch of a woman’s skin they start to whisper…The alpine starts, the warmth of the rising sun, the challenge, all giving us a glimpse of a different time. Beckoning us back to the Mountain.

This past weekend marked the change in seasons for our kind, the rock junkies. Although here in Arkansas “Rocktober” was a little warm, November has come. No longer do we have to fight the landscape and the time of day for shade. For what seems like an eternity we were like lizards in the desert. As the temperatures soared we devised climbing plans to take into account the aspect, the time of day to chase the shade. That was then. Now we have begun to welcome it. The sun’s warmth, the cold hands, the feeling of leaves under our feet. The excitement builds.

Climbing “Brick Attack” 5.12a at Cave Creek, AR // IG @george_bieker [P.C. Danny Henkel]

     We have waited for what seems like an eternity for this. We have dreamed of certain climbs, certain movements, certain grades. We have dreamed of testing ourselves against the stone. We have fallen, we have bled, we have trained and we have sweat all for the moments to come. The storm before the calm. We have yearned all year round on artificial walls, on rock rings, and on campus boards for the feeling of flow. For the focus that we achieve on the wall is like nothing else. Our own little bubble in the sky. A place so far detached from the mundane of everyday life. So far away from smartphones and LCD monitors. A place where nothing else matters. No drama, no emails, no tweets. There are no depressing headlines or traffic lights. There is only you. You and the rock. A place of serenity, a place of fear, but most of all a place of experience.

Thomas Gaston on the traditional line

Thomas Gaston on the traditional line “Involuntary Manslaughter” 5.10d at Cave Creek, AR. // IG:@thombomb [P.C. Danny Henkel]

Wherever we go, to the boulders, to the mountains, or somewhere in between…
However, we climb, on the rock, the snow, or the ice…

We are the sharp end.
We are a tribe.

And there is no better time than now.

      We are stardust. We are here, but only for a moment. A flash in the cosmic sense. But alas we are here. Here together. And it is here that we have this gift. Potentially the most special gift in the universe. The gift of thought, of choice, of action. The gift of human experience. The experience to feel, to cry, to love and to learn. So dare to never stop. Experience life in all its glory and its horrors. For no matter the trials or the tribulations it is a blessing, a gift. For one day we won’t be so lucky. So blessed, to look to the stars and wonder who we are.

Night sky over Sam’s Throne, AR. Captured by Danny Henkel. IG: @dannyhenkel

Commitment.

Like any good climbing trip, it started with a hangover. We woke to blurry eyes and snowflakes, a stark contrast to the desert sky to come. We spent the last few hours of the morning with those closest to us. For not many things in life can match the caring touch of a woman. Packed and ready the night before made the late morning transition (and leaving the bed at the very last minute) inevitable. After our short shuttle to the airport, we said goodbye and headed for Vegas.

We arrived at the airport expecting a delay, for dirtbags tend to purchase economy, even when an airline is the subject matter. Turns out cheap tickets usually lead to cheap (and full) planes. It cost $350 each for round-trip flights and a rental car so of course, we waited without complaint. We waited and drank coffee. A habitual morning addiction to slap sense into the sometimes senseless. We waited and thought of our destination. Not for lights, women, nor gambling, like most, but for the challenge. The high desert walls beckoned to us climbers to test ourselves against them. Today marked the first day of our seven-day climbing trip and it seemed everyone else could tell. I’m not sure if it was my 70-liter Andinista packed to capacity or the climbing helmets strapped to our carry ons. Nonetheless, Nik ended up handing out a business card long before we’d even boarded the plane. But really this came as no surprise.

On the plane, we sat beside an eclectic eighty-something-year-old lady in a blue sequined hat. We passed the time by looking at pictures of her grandkids and imagining what was in store for this group of twelve (all born around the dawn of the second World War) as they descended upon Sin City. I ordered whiskey to calm the nerves. I turned up the beats and turned down the cares for we would have plenty of that in the days to come.
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I woke to the sound of scraping. Tired from jet lag it took my mind a few moments to gain its bearings on the world around me. That scraping was the sound of snow and ice sliding off our tent. Nik repeatedly punched the ceiling of our tent to meld it back into its normal position. We had woke with the tent nearly touching our faces. Unbeknownst to us three inches of snow had dropped that previous night. It seemed no climbing would be done this day, which is a normal occurrence on climbing trips into the mountains. Nonetheless, the desert was beautifully covered by this winter wonderland. A stark contrast to the blood red rocks and cacti that covered the horizon. We made our coffee black and our oatmeal thick as we waited for our hands (and my feet) to thaw. We contemplated our options.

A wise man once said, “It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong.” That man (Yvon Chouinard) now owns a multi-million dollar clothing lifestyle brand and has become a leader in outdoor ethics and conservation so I’ll take his word for it. So, I guess it was that day that our adventure truly began…we just didn’t know it at the time. No matter how much you have planned, evaluated every option, or seem prepared, sometimes you just have to roll with the punches. I live for that. You see like Lionel Terry once said, we are in essence “conquistadors of the useless”. Men who throw themselves against what inevitably means little to nothing, at least to most. Lionel went on to be the first person to climb both Makalu in the Himalaya, and Cerro Fitzroy in Patagonia. I won’t spend the time to explain these feats, just trust me. So in our useless nature, our modern day vagabond mindset, we did what anyone like us would do. We left.

We headed to our new destination, a place neither of us had ever been, a place neither of us thought we would go. California. Joshua Tree National Park is a place far from the high desert sandstone of Nevada. A granite mecca of southern California. We hoped for better weather and a warmer climate. Two days on the oversized granite boulders would give the snow in Nevada time to melt and the stone to dry. It seemed like a logical approach. It was an adventure after all.

When we first arrived late in the afternoon we were itching to climb. We hopped on a two pitch 5.7 called Overhang Bypass to test the stone, the grade, and the style. You see, every area in climbing is different. Whether it be overhanging limestone, multi-pitch sandstone, or huge granite domes. All of them have their individual qualities, their textures, and their movements. Each uniquely different, special from the last and it takes time to learn them. Like a lover, their subtleties you remember, the little things you cherish. Each unique and special in their own way.

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We came to climb traditionally (trad). A style of climbing in which a leader places his own protection (usually spring loaded cams or metal nuts) from the ground up. Unlike the more prolific activity of sport climbing, most of the climbs have no pre-placed, or permanent, protection (i.e. bolts). You have to make your own way. Judge your abilities against the stone. Analyze the route in front of you and behind. Methodically prepare your movements and your protection. Can you climb five feet higher before placing a piece? Will you need that protection higher on the climb? Higher into the unknown. It is a game of risks and like our trip, our adventure, things rarely go according to plan.

The next day we topped out on one of the tallest climbs in Joshua Tree. We enjoyed the seventy-degree sunshine, tank tops, and sandals. That day was Nik’s first “real” multi-pitch and first trad climb of over a ropes length… ever. We each got to enjoy the sharp end, climb through hanging belays, and get a little Elvis leg in places (a phenomenon of a leaders inability to keep their leg from shaking). At the top, we soaked in the sun with a local and her Colorado climbing partner before navigating the way down for them (though we’d never been there before). We headed out of California and back to Red Rock Canyon where we’d hope for adventure and better weather than before.

We set up camp and drank Fireball. It was dark and the crisp winter air had come far too soon. It was Wednesday night and our plan for tomorrow was to scout the approach of Inti Wantana, a twelve pitch route that led up the face of Mt Wilson in Red Rock Canyon. Mt. Wilson is a monolith, a seven thousand foot mountain just outside of Las Vegas. Its main appeal is its’ eastern face. Twenty-four pitches, nearly three thousand feet of fifth class climbing. The El Capitan of Red Rocks. Our proposed climb was a Grade V 5.10c. With our gear, our rope, and our rack ( total amassed trad climbing gear) there would be no other way to describe it than simply committing. There could be no retreat, no room for error. The climb required a two and a half hour approach through cacti, desert brush, and involved fifth class scrambling (soloing with full backpacks). Even after the approach and the full three thousand feet of climbing any of three descent options off the summit would take three plus hours. That is if done without error. Hardly an easy task especially at night (when we would most likely be attempting the descent).Commitment at its finest.

This is why I climb. This is what I have progressed to in my aspirations. From a simple pad person (boulderer) focused on the hardest single move I could do, to a total test of body and mind, of planning and preparation. The necessity to execute as flawlessly as possible when it mattered most so that we could expose ourselves to the least amount of risk. For in this arena, risk can never be eliminated in its entirety. Not here. Not with objectives like this.

So we scouted. We elected to use Thursday, an entire day of our trip, to find and decipher the approach and half of the descent. In other words, we gambled. Time versus attempt. Days versus objectives. Our target was a shorter climb to Wantana’s left (south) on the same eastern face. It was a seven pitch 5.9+ trad line that shared half of the descent with every climb that reached Mt. Wilson’s summit. In other words, when we returned by headlamp for Inti Wantana before the sun crested the eastern horizon we would know the way up and down.

Our day started late on Thursday, another adventure in our midst. I received a call from Mike Hoover, my boss at the Outdoor Connection Center, that bore great news. He offered me a graduate assistantship at the University of Arkansas’ recreation program. Pending my acceptance into grad school, I would receive my masters for free. This would be at the same institution that set me on this path, living this lifestyle in the first place. I was elated and the 9 am start didn’t seem so bad at the time.

With full packs, the sun baked us for over two hours. We trudged up the mountain to its base. The “scouting trip” turned into a sufferfest of cacti (in my hands and thigh), boulder hopping, and backpack soloing. A great start to the true mountain experience. For this is how it always is, all the perceived romanticism of mountains and their summit are forged by these lesser known realities. By blood, sweat, and tears. By burning muscles, self-doubt, and sometimes a little “What the Fuck?!” A time of beautiful masochism or as some term it, secondary fun. It was testing, it was fun. It was remote. Though we were only a few miles from Sin City, we were (and felt) entirely alone.

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By noon we finally stood at the base of the climb. We could finally start the “real” climbing. Faster than we had ever wanted, ever realized would happen, we were in it. Exactly where we wanted to be. Exactly why we came. We were at our limits. The traditional leads were more difficult in grade and in style than we had ever experienced. A lovely look into the sharp end, into the self. The going was slow, careful, and precise. Our reason for coming had already been accomplished. The approach had been scouted. From the start, route navigation was extremely difficult and time-consuming. At three hundred feet off the ground, we made the decision to call it. At 2 pm we wouldn’t make it to descent by sundown and if so we wouldn’t have the energy (nor equipment) to attempt Inti Wantana later this trip. So we bailed. After multiple chockstone rappels (an anchor of wedged rock) with our single rope, we were at the base. By 6 pm it was buffet time. Vegas style. It was a welcomed luxury to our oatmeal and grocery deli sandwiches of the last four days.

The following day, we elected to climb a small four hundred and fifty-foot climb with a short approach. Our logic was simple, touch the stone, practice route navigation and placements while saving strength for the summit push on Saturday. It would take a 3 am wake up and at least a sixteen hour day if we were to climb Mt. Wilson by Inti Wantana and Resolution Arete. Lotta Balls 5.8 was the chosen “rest day” climb. You could probably guess why the route has that name. To say the least, it was exciting. After four hours and our final rappel, we headed to the car. Another great day of climbing and a confidence booster. Our leads and our gear (only the necessities) were dialed or as much as they could be. We had clipped two bolts on lead the entire trip (besides some anchors), got some great practice and were psyched for the twenty-four pitch test piece of the following day. What we didn’t realize? Those would be the last pitches of the trip. Saturday showed rain by 1 pm and twenty mph winds, less than ideal conditions. Honestly, something that just couldn’t happen, a gamble we weren’t willing to take. Not with Inti. Not with Grade V. Then and there we vowed to return. To come back and attempt the masterpiece we had witnessed. To test ourselves against a lump of rock. We vowed for another adventure because surely, hopefully, something would go wrong yet again.

In the end, we may have not climbed the tallest or the hardest climbs. We may have not “epic’d” on the wall but we got all that we could have asked for. We got all that and more. We got adventure. For the mountains only succumb to any man when they want. We are always at their mercy and to think otherwise is foolish, is most certainly deadly. After this trip, we would return home wiser and stronger both in body and in mind. Lessons learned. And what more could any man want? Our adventure, like any, had ultimately changed us. We would return different men than when we had left. From this little trip, this ounce of adventure, we would return to life, to the cities, and the mountains from here on out forever altered.

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“Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against.” – Fahrenheit 451