True climbing encourages bravery and induces suffering. It’s at the heart of the endeavor, and all seasoned climbers recognize this. For most of us it creates a foundation of who we are, builds our character and gives us life philosophies. For most of time climbing was never mainstream. Then, starting with sport climbing, gyms, and bouldering, climbing reached more and more people. It reached me as a hopeless kid growing up in the flatlands.
This piece is an excerpt from the upcoming book American Climber by Luke Mehall (banner photo is from an old school disposable camera)
Fortunately I landed in Gunnison, Colorado where a hierarchy in the climbing culture was basically non-existent. That’s a good thing. All climbers being created equal. Sure, we’re not equal in terms of ability, but no one was going to think or act like they were better than you simply because they climbed higher and harder. There was a spiritual flare to it, and that is what appealed the most to me. The greater climbing scene could be weird. Climbing, no matter how mainstream it gets will always have the weirdos; good or bad.
Visit any crowded climbing area and you’re bound to find some weird. The current state of climbing is a sport trying to find its identity. All hope is not lost though, once you become a competent climber you realize there’s an abundance of rock in which to paint your art. At least in the American West, and especially where we were at in these days. Climbing at its core, a dirtbag sport, rejects the mainstream. But, climbing is mainstream nowadays, and we’re still sorting it all out.
Ancient Art, located in the heart of the Utah desert, in the Fisher Towers, is one of the most photographed summits in the desert, an iconic corkscrew that winds up into the blue sky, with an unbalanced summit room enough for only one person. It is disgustingly crowded on a busy weekend, and a testament that often as a whole the climbing community lacks vision and skill; why in the world we will climb behind ten other people says something about the modern human race.
Ancient Art is no Mount Everest though; people aren’t dying regularly because of the problems. It’s simply an inconvenience. And, when we were in our younger twenties we saw no problem getting behind several parties and starting up.
It was Two Tent, Tim and I, leisurely climbing the Stolen Chimney, behind several other parties. We were far from wise, no young climber is ever wise, but we were willing to climb slowly, and we really wanted to stand on that corkscrew summit.
So we waited behind the line, and eventually after an hour, it was our turn to start up. Two Tent led the first part, and he was like a Zen machine, you knew he would get the job done with ease and style. I belayed and simply fed out rope, as he motored up the pitch. As he finished, and built the belay, a character emerged out of nowhere. “Hey, you guys mind if I pass you?” he asked.
Slightly stoned, already laughing about a previous incident that had just happened when one of the parties rappelled down and dropped a rope on a climber coming up. The woman started freaking out yelling, “I’m down here. I’m down here,” as if certain death and doom were going to follow the rappel ropes.
So we were laughing and stoned, and okay with everything, until this guy shows up. First of all, it was just him. He had no partner and he wanted to rope solo the route. Rope soloing is an art of the one percent in climbing; probably less than one percent. I’ve met a few, and their primes seemed to be in their mid to late twenties; and they were going through a breakup or some identity crisis. They needed to prove who they were to themselves. The Fisher Towers, The Black Canyon, and Yosemite have witnessed some impressive and partially insane rope solos; pushing the limits with a partner is one thing; pushing those same limits with no one but yourself to be your best friend is another.
I doubt this guy was one of the proud ones; my guess is that he was so annoying he had a hard time finding steady partners. So that fateful day, his motivation to climb, with no partner, put him behind us, and ten other people.
“I don’t know,” I said to the guy, while looking at Tim. “I think we’ll probably move faster than you. You have to climb each pitch twice, man.”
He was unfazed and motivated to shoot to the top of the tower in the fastest possible time. Two Tent built an anchor and we climbed up to the ledge. Then we sent Tim up. Tim was just in his first year of leading, and moved slowly as one often does when they are learning. He was in a chimney and kept climbing further and further into it for security. Solo Guy came up and forcefully built his anchor, using the same bolts we were clipped to. He quickly rappelled down and cleaned all of his gear; moving efficiently, but still annoyingly.
Once he was back up at our ledge Tim was still deep in the chimney moving slowly. Fear, and lack of experience can make time stand still for the leader, gripped, thinking injury may be one move away. So Solo Guy was back at our anchor and Two Tent and I were just laughing at his presence, when he announces he can’t stand it anymore he’s climbing.
Tired of his company, we just let him go, and he starts up the chimney, with Tim forty feet above him. He quickly climbs to Tim, and they talk. Solo Guy is spread eagle on the outside of the chimney, with Tim deeper in the chimney than he is. “You see, your first problem is your pants,” Solo Guy says. “They’re too baggy, you need to get something that fits better.”
We’re laughing quietly to ourselves at the belay. Tim is frightened and we don’t want to upset his nerves, and we also don’t want to Solo Guy to know we’re making fun of him. Two Tent and I are in a world of safety, beauty and camaraderie, Tim is scared, and perhaps learning something about pants and climbing, and Solo Guy is fired up to pass as many parties as possible to stand alone on the corkscrew summit of Ancient Art.
Solo Guy passes Tim, awkwardly climbing the chimney spread eagled, and he’s still giving advice, and now addressing Tim like he’s his best friend and mentor. “Hey Tim, I don’t mind if you clip my gear, but if you clip this one you might die.”
Two Tent and I stare at each other lost in the comedy.
“This one is okay though, you can clip it,” Solo Guys said.
Solo Guy finally leaves our sight and Tim slowly climbed up. Then Solo Guy comes down to clean his gear giving more advice to Tim, and then he goes back up. Tim and him arrive at the next anchor near the same time. He brings us up.
We arrived at the ledge only to look up to Solo Guy passing more parties, surely annoying other parties as much as he annoyed us. At the ledge we have more company, a guy and a girl, the girl being the one who was frantically yelling earlier.
Here’s another phenomenon in the modern climbing world: guy learns to climb, guy wants to impress girl, guy takes girl climbing, guy is unsafe and gets the girl in over her head, girl has meltdown, fighting ensues and echoes throughout the climbing area for all to hear. This was one of those situations.
I could imagine a scenario where rules are reversed, but the old saying “the women are smarter” speaks for itself. Most of us are still cavemen.
We introduce ourselves, and so do they. They rappel back to the ground, and we have a second of solitude. The main feature unfolds before us on the last pitch, a small walkway, a diving board’s width, leading up to a thirty foot corkscrew looking feature, winding around to the summit. A thousand feet of air beneath you; the classic red rock old west desert landscape, but this is the new west.
Climbing on the feature it seems like something that’s going to fall down one day, destined to be a part of the boulders and bushes and trees below. Probably would scare the shit out of some rabbit frantically running about on the desert floor for food, safety, or sex. The phrase “fucking like rabbits” is said all the time, but in all my days in the wild, I’ve yet to see it. Maybe I’m just not looking at the right time. Maybe the rabbits are more discrete than we give them credit for.
Back up at a thousand feet we finally had the tower to ourselves. Two Tent led, weaving the rope up the corkscrew formation like a spider, carefully, with ease. He stood on top and when he stood on top he looked comfortable. When I went up on toprope, I stood on top and immediately climbed back down. The top was slanted, and I felt like any sudden movement meant either I was going to fall off, or the tower was going to fall down. And, what if it did? Would I survive? Would I be “that guy who was on Ancient Art when it fell down”? It didn’t, it still stands to this day, although just last year, The Cobra, an often climbed shorter tower in the Fisher’s did just that, it fell to the ground.
No word on rabbit fatalities.
Two Tent, Tim and I, the ninth, tenth, and eleventh people to stand on that little guy that day rappelled back to the ground, only to find eight more people, lined up like Disneyworld.
A couple seasons later Tim and I returned with Jerid to repeat the climb. It was slightly less crowded; no rope soloists in sight either. At the diving board feature, on the way to the summit we made fun of Jerid while he humped across it, beached whale style, trying to take a photo of him. He jokingly swiped for the camera, a disposable one (still pre-digital camera era here), and it fell out of Tim’s hands. We watched the thing fall a thousand feet, like a slow motion movie, slowly, slowly falling back to the desert floor.
Bummed that we would be losing some shots from a great trip we tried in vein to find the camera as we hiked back down the trail. Tim became convinced that someone else had picked up the camera, and ran down a family who were hiking. Gone for twenty minutes, we just sat there, blazing in the desert sun, ready for Tim to come back so we could go drink beer and eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Then, we see him, on the horizon, hands in air, “I found the camera!”
It was a glorious moment, and when I took the camera in to process the photos, (it was still relatively intact even though it fell a thousand feet) what do you know, the very last photo, the family had taken a photo of their kid, sunglasses tilted, hands in the air, posing like a hip-hopper; the photo before that, Jerid, humping along the diving board, that delicate little summit behind him.
About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle.