Somebody once said that climbers DO get scared because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t continue climbing.
The sun sagged toward a forest of juniper and pinions that surrounded the rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. It was the first week of October and having passed the Fall equinox, daylight had transitioned to the lesser half of 24 hours; this fact had been ignored when Paul and I decided to climb Scenic Cruise, a thirteen-pitch route that slithered up to the north rim. Cams slotted into granite eyelets and small flakes for my over gripping fingers kept my exhausted body from falling 1300 feet to the river below. Pausing beneath a bulge and asking no one in particular, “When will this climb end?” I extended my hand West measuring two fingers between the sun and the horizon. It would be less than 30 minutes before it set.
I was nervous about falling from the bulge, but I was more worried about being stuck on the wall after dark. Out of water and food and with only light jackets we’d survive, but it wouldn’t be fun. So with arms cramping I groveled upward. Paul arrived as the sun set, quickly took the rack, and beneath a sky of glowing pink clouds stretched the 70-meter rope to its max. Squinting in the pale light we wandered through cactus-filled ledges, squeaking onto the North Chasm View Trail as the rising moon bathed us in its cool, indifferent light. The moon didn’t care whether we spent the night on the wall or not.
Some climbers say they’ve never been afraid, but I don’t know them.
A few days after escaping the Black Canyon Paul and I joined some friends in Castle Valley, Utah. One pair in front of the other we all climbed a route named Crack Wars on the west side of the Rectory. The first three pitches were quality. Only a little dirty and if you’re into wide hands and fist cracks it could be described as enjoyable. Then above a roof on the fourth pitch the solid sandstone gave way to something closer to the consistency of Graham crackers. After tiptoeing through 50 or so feet of crumbling rock only a short bulging off-width remained. Moving gear, adjusting my knot and thinking of skinny things, I repeatedly tried to squeeze into the slot. It was useless. A bold lieback was the only option I could fathom. Falling from the lieback would be messy. If the cam wedged in soft stone at the base of the bulge actually held then the flake that I was standing on would likely grab a leg and try snapping it. Down-climbing could provide okay rock to build an anchor affording the possibility of a retreat to the ground, but failure would be a disappointment.
Trying one more time to fit inside the slot I recalled a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Always do what you are afraid to do.” Damn it! Would Emerson really tell me that if he saw the situation I was in? I took a deep breath, pulled my head out of the slot and told myself not to fall. The slowest moving lieback possible commenced, which if anyone had been watching they would have mistaken me as a statue attached to a cliff, but after what felt like an eternity the lip was reached. Once we were all on the summit plateau I joked about the climbing phenomenon of moving at a snail’s pace when you’re petrified, “I climb that slow so I can savor the moment… To be sure and never forget that six feet of rock.” I am certain within a matter of months that sections will be buried and forgotten by better memories.
The following weekend on Bottleneck Peak in the San Rafael Swell Paul and I received yet another lump from climbing. Torrential rains from September, which flooded the town of Price 30 miles to the north, had left the cracks frosted in layers of sand. Jams that typically felt bomber were now insecure. Leaving our egos at the base we immediately resorted to pulling and tugging on gear to get through the first two pitches. But it was the third and final pitch, which was rated the easiest, that proved most memorable.
Above a fist-jam roof, which I stuffed full of gear leaving little for the remainder of the pitch, one six-inch cam protected twenty feet of climbing above a flake that sounded like a gong when I tapped it. Next was a choss-choked corner. The stacks of rubble that were loosely collected in cracks and on shallow ledges required precise movements and my undivided attention. A tipped out cam was followed ten feet higher by a tcu nested beside a chockstone that appeared to be floating in the crack without a single point of contact. If there was faith in any of the cams to hold body weight I would have bailed immediately. Falling was way too gnarly to think about so instead, while stemming gingerly upward, I began a conversation with Bottleneck.
“I think a break would be healthy. Really… It’s not you, it’s me… It’s over between us.” Passing the hallowed chockstone I placed my foot on it; at first with no weight, but slowly, ounce by ounce, I transferred onto it. To both my disbelief and relief it stayed in place.
From the summit we soaked in the day’s light, which cast a warm glow to the surrounding peaks and walls. Below, in the shadows, was the glimmering water of the San Rafael River reflecting back to us through stands of cottonwoods and tamarisk. Despite the drama of the climb everything in the world around us carried on as if nothing was wrong.
Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Do one thing every day that scares you.”
Back at the car, after rappelling the north face of Bottleneck Peak using corroded ¼ inch star-driven nails and homemade hangers from the 1973 first ascent, each station backed up by a single 20+ year-old oxidized 3/8” inch bolt, I asked Paul what he had planned for the next weekend. “Sport climbing!” he replied speaking over the last couple words of the question. I was in complete agreement, but I wonder if Mrs. Roosevelt would approve?