• Suicide and Pirates by Andrew Allport

    Jun 20 • Locations • 1324 Views

    My father taught me how to climb, just as he taught me how to play guitar and ski—badly, I could say. But that isn’t quite right. Perhaps impatiently or unevenly. As a teacher, he managed to combine a sense of high expectations with a stunning lack of actual instruction. I would follow his skin track for hours into the Sierra backcountry, then proceed to fall all the way back down, the giant skis and floppy leather boots chattering and twisting in the wet, gloppy snow. “Parallel! No, not like that!” he’d shout. The same was true of our jam sessions. If I hit a wrong chord while he was soloing, I received something I began to call The Look—a withering wince of pain, disappointment, and disgust. How could you go to the minor there? Didn’t I teach you better than that? No son of mine flubs the opening of “Wake Up Little Susie.” Yet I never recall him telling me to keep my thumb on the back of the guitar neck, how to hold a pick. I don’t think he ever showed me how to change a string.

    by Andrew Allport (note: this piece is published in Volume 12)

    He had learned all of these things without teachers, of course, and so in comparison, I was getting it easy. But he had learned them slightly wrong himself; I was also picking up his bad habits, as well as his attitude of contempt toward actual instruction, which would spoil the sense of adventure.

    Piano lessons?


    The Sierra Club?


    The Boy Scouts?


    Guidebooks stole the soul of experience, made it a pedestrian exercise in following a map. We knocked over cairns, vandalized trail markers. We dwelt in the realm of myth and legend, going forward bravely into the unknown…

    The author and his father in the Sierras, circa 1997.

    Except all of those bad habits were transposed onto the rock. A partner of his once arrived at the top of a crux pitch to find him clove-hitched to a couple of finger-sized mountain mahogany branches, grinning at the sketchiness of the anchor. After their falling-out, my father referred to him as Safety Dick. Another legendary story was the argument he had with a partner at Red Rocks about placing a bolt at a belay; his partner won, drilled; my father took the lead, promptly got off route, and ripped out all the other gear, including the other piece of the belay, a nut which my father insisted was “totally bomber.” I recall hearing lots of these stories but never a moral or practical lesson like, “And that’s why you always equalize your anchors, son.” Rather, I learned that part of going climbing was the quest for a good story, which usually involved an element of reckless endangerment as a precursor to skin-of-the-teeth survival.

    My relationship to climbing was different than my father’s however. For him, the discovery of the mountains came in his thirties and was a kind of release for his rage at a variety of obstacles in his life: his career, his marriage, his upbringing, and, especially, his father, who was an object of cold scrutiny, a man who had abandoned family after family and now lived a monastic life in the Catskills. For me, climbing was exciting, but I didn’t carry the same emotional baggage. After all, I wasn’t breaking away from my father—I was following him.

    When we would have a particularly hairy moment on a climb—rapping off suspect blocks in a rainstorm, for instance—it would inevitably occur to me that this was my last chance to tell him I loved him. “I love you, Dad,” I’d say. He would give me something like The Look, though a little more pitying. If he said anything, it was in the vein of “It’s going to be fine.” And it was. Until it wasn’t.

    At twelve, I took my first real fall on a route called Hair Lip (5.10) at Suicide. Later, my dad wrote about it, in fact, in Climbing. In “Passing it On: A Blessing or a Curse?”, my father expressed a kind of inner doubt that I’d never suspected. A lot of it is written in a kind of mythopoetic style that evokes Gary Snyder or Robert Bly, both of whom were mainstays of my dad’s bedside table, writers who combined lyrical imagery with clear understanding of physical experience, poets who could swing an axe. He doesn’t write much about the actual route, which follows a line of well-spaced bolts—at the time, dubious-looking quarter-inchers—up an arête, with an airy crux that involves a potential barn-door off into space (look up some of the videos online). This, he decided, was a good introduction to 5.10. I took the fall, and I can vividly remember dangling from a bolt, knees and fingers bloodied. I looked down: my first three pieces, all nuts, had zippered out because my dad was belaying a good fifteen feet from the wall. “Are you going to finish it?” he asked. I think I did.

    At the beginning of the summer, I had written a list of climbing goals: do 15 pull-ups, climb Airy Interlude, do a 5.11b sport climb, etc. Their modesty irritated my father. They looked like something you’d get from a magazine or—worse—a coach, a teacher. Over my neat handwriting, he scrawled THE PIRATE with a Sharpie. The Pirate (5.12c) was (still is, I guess) a test piece at Suicide, a tiny seam up a near-vertical buttress of white granite. It was first freed by the legendary Tony Yaniro in 1978, when he was sixteen, a year before I was born. High expectations. My father set up a toprope and wondered aloud if, with my small fingers and strength-to-weight ratio, I’d flash it. I pulled past the first two finger locks and popped off; with the rope stretch and his casual belay, I bruised my heel on the talus.

    For training that season, we built something called The Death Board, a ten-foot plank of redwood drilled with two finger pockets and leaned precariously against the eave of the house. If I wasn’t at the beach, I would spend afternoons campusing until I could barely hold a fork at dinner. With my allowance, I bought a pair of 5.10 Moccasyms at Nomad Ventures in Idyllwild. They stained my feet bloodred; I gritted my teeth and minced around the kitchen, trying to break them in, retelling myself the story of my fall, filtered through his published version of it. Over the summer, I checked off every goal—except one.

    The author on his Death Board, circa 1993.

    After that summer, I moved away from California with my mom, saw my father on long weekends and school breaks. I went to high school in the hellscape of Phoenix, left for college on the East Coast. Climbing was a thread running through it all, or perhaps the background pattern. The memories with him are a series of close calls, as most climbing stories are. We got off route on Merriam Peak and rapped down in the dark. I nearly sliced my thumb off fucking around with a knife in Black Velvet Canyon, and we spent the night in the North Las Vegas ER; the next day, I led Prince of Darkness (5.10) with a baseball-sized wad of gauze wrapped around my thumb. When I was living in San Francisco, he sketched out on a highball at Indian Rock, and I ran around begging for crash pads (of course he disliked them). In Acadia, visiting me at college, he pressured my girlfriend into leading what he promised was a mellow route (scary 5.11; her first lead).

    Even as we continued to climb together, my life was diverging from his philosophy. I remember going to climb at The Needles a week into graduate school and bringing a course reader full of literary theory—Foucault, Derrida, Paul de Man. I tried to explain the arbitrary nature of the relationship between signifier and signified, the false binaries of low and high culture, to my father. He gave me The Look and declared I’d soon have “no guts to write with.” In his opinion, I’d have been better off spending a year as a fire lookout, a monk, or a climbing bum. The realm of the pure intellect, of books and professors, equivocations and fine distinctions, seemed stifling to my dad, who had dropped out of college to act and play music in 1969. For some reason—perhaps because I didn’t attend a real school until the fifth grade—classrooms and libraries always had a magnetic draw for me, and, even now, the two places where I feel most comfortable, most at ease with my ability to navigate, are the claustrophobic bookstacks of university libraries—particularly sections PN–PR (Library of Congress Classification)—and exposed alpine rock. This love of the abstract baffled my dad, who understood everything with his body first and who distrusted written authorities or, more accurately, any authorities. That weekend, accordingly unarmed without a guidebook, we wandered around looking for a supposedly classic route on Hermit Spire, ending up on a lichenous face with a line of bolts to nowhere. We rapped off a single bolt, then a slung horn. By this time, it no longer worried me. After all, it was going to be fine.

    And then, less than a year after my marriage, my father was gone, dead in an avalanche. Tempted by a huge storm in the local mountains, he had ignored every warning sign in pursuit of a glorious line and disappeared under ten feet of wet snow. It was unbelievable, unthinkable to be without him. His physical presence was as imposing in its absence as it had been in life. And without his approval or understanding or jealousy, my relationship to climbing shifted. There would be no one to call on my way home from a great trip—though for a while I’d still leave messages on his voicemail, telling him where I’d been. More often, I’d listen to the last message he left me, after a big winter surf session, his voice still crackling with adrenaline and relief: “Hey, Andrew! Big Wednesday, wasn’t the best one out there, but I was out there. I’m alive, man; you would’ve been proud of me!”

    In the aftermath, I wanted to be alone, especially when I climbed. I took up soloing at Joshua Tree, leaving in the middle of the night to beat the traffic. I went bold, soloing routes near my limit. I wasn’t solid; I sketched out; I burst into tears at the top or sometimes at the crux. I had my joy and pain all mixed up; I wanted him to see me and perhaps, unconsciously, I wanted to cross over, to meet on the threshold. At the time, I was teaching Dante, Virgil, Homer: stories about a descent into the underworld and the incapacity of the dead to answer the questions of the living. Dante says the dead know the future but not the present; in The Aeneid, the hero sees his dead wife in the underworld and can’t stop trying to hug her, even when he knows it’s impossible. “Do you understand this,” I would say to my bewildered students. “Do you really get it?”

    The adrenaline hangovers after a weekend of soloing were profound—my department chair called me into her office and asked if I had started doing drugs. I dragged random partners out to the farthest reaches of Joshua Tree to try the boldest lines I could find—anything put up by Walt Shipley, who had taken this psychological game to its limits—and dabbed my hands into chalk mixed with my father’s ashes. I buried his shoes under a cairn in the Queen Mountain wilderness; I hung his chalk bag deep in the Wonderland of Rocks. Then I’d walk out in the dark, dreaming of scarier lines and singing Stan Rogers’s “Northwest Passage,” an a cappella yearning for adventure that Dad used to sing when things got hairy: Ah for just one time / I would take the Northwest Passage / Tracing one clear line / Through a land so wild and savage.

    While I drove back from one of these binges my phone lit up as I came into range: “You have sixteen new voicemails,” said the voice. I had forgotten to tell people I was staying an extra night; the first five were my wife, growing increasingly desperate. Then my father’s widow, then my brother, then two from Joshua Tree Search and Rescue…it occurred to me that other people might have an opinion on whether I lived. Apparently, my state of mind had not been noticed by the dead but was of interest to the living. Without making a conscious choice, I slowly backed away from the threshold. Life had its pleasures and its allure too.

    Three years to the day after my father died, my son was born. When he was just a few weeks old, we put him in a bouncer at the base of Illusion Dweller (5.10), one of the routes that had brought me to tears at the crux a few years before, fifty feet above the desert floor, chalking and wiping my eyes, howling with relief afterward. Tourists had stared at me as I lurched out onto the footpath, convulsed with sobs, my face smeared with white. That man seemed like a stranger now, I thought, bouncing my son with my foot as I belayed. He looked out from a nest of fleece and wool, cheeks bright red in the cold. 

    When I began trying to climb The Pirate seriously, I developed certain superstitions. The first was to climb at the right time of day, during the right time of year. On cool spring afternoons, I waited until the sun was fading around the corner of the wall; at that hour, each tiny crystal cast a shadow and made the sequence apparent. I would have a tiny window—two attempts—and then the sun would be gone around the corner, the light turning flat, the holds receding back into their granite camouflage. The second ritual was to bring a #2 Lowe Ball that had belonged to my father and place it below the crux. (I knew it was solid; I caught him on it when I was thirteen.) The route’s initial moves are reasonable: Three progressively better pin scars with nothing to stand on. Moving from the last finger lock, you have to transition from crack climbing to micro edging, the sort of desperate friction that Suicide is famous for, a style that seems less like rock climbing and more like some kind of Zen mind-control practice. You commit to movement without thought, you find holds in nothingness, or rather, you turn nothing into holds by believing in them. The wall bulges, and the crack is too small for fingers; you find a couple of key crystals to trust, smear your feet, and gun for a sloping black extrusion the size of a nearly used-up soap bar. Mantle onto this, place a nut, breathe. One time, I spent ten minutes with my face pressed to the rock here, switching feet as I felt them slowly melting off the slippery mica, or biotite, or whatever providential mineral made it possible to take a rest. Five more feet of blank slab, the crystals digging into the tips of your fingers like an animal’s bite, and you reach the beginning of what most climbers would recognize as actual climbing: twenty feet of secure finger-sized crack running toward the anchor.

    On the day I finally climbed easily through the crux, it was the final, relatively easy section when I began to think: About my success, about the next project. About my father. Suddenly, I was having trouble focusing. Which foot? Which hand? I dicked around, looking for the perfect sequence. Movement that had felt so natural now seemed impossible—it was like I had woken from a dream of being a climber to find myself here on the rock. Holds where I usually rested and enjoyed the sunset were suddenly too awkward to use. Ten feet from the top, my feet skated and I fell, or let go.

    Strangely, I didn’t mind. The adolescent list of goals, with the blue Sharpie of his left-handed scrawl across them, appeared in my mind. Something about falling there, far above the difficulties, made me feel more connected to him. I couldn’t cross it out. He blessed me; he cursed me. That was the last time I climbed at Suicide.

    That was the last time, yet I’ve been returning lately, working those crux moves in my mind’s eye. Time is but the stream I go fishing in. Once you’ve established the physical intimacy that comes with many trips to a crag, you can always go back. The sound of wheels grinding to a stop in the turnout. The smell of decomposed granite and pine forest in the heat. The color of the rock, the order of routes as you traverse the base. For almost twenty years, every time I hiked the approach, I’d touch the same stones, pass under the same dead log, which I can remember barely needing to duck when I first came up, full of bacon and eggs and trepidation, to climb the Weeping Wall with my father. The log shines with hundreds of pennies, hammered into the old Ponderosa’s gray grain. You touch them for luck, I learned that first day, and I can still feel the texture of the metal and wood, the mystery of their presence. Suicide always seemed like a place where a little extra luck—the bite of a certain crystal, the angle of light, the presence of the right ghost—might be the difference. 

    Andrew Allport taught writing and literature for over a decade at the University of Southern California before moving to Colorado. He is the managing editor of Cutthroat, A Journal of the Arts, and the author of two collections of poetry, The Body of Space in the Shape of the Human and The Ice Ship & Other Vessels. His work has appeared in numerous national journals, including Orion, Colorado Review, and Boston Review, and he was nominated by The Los Angeles Review for a Pushcart Prize. He lives in Durango, Colorado, with his family, where he is often mistaken for someone else.

    Dig the words? Keep the dream alive by subscribing to The Climbing Zine.

    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

    We have also published five books: Graduating From College MeAmerican ClimberThe Great American Dirtbags , Climbing Out of Bed, and Squeak Goes Climbing In Yosemite National Park (a climbing children’s book) .

    Check out our film, Last Thoughts on The Dirtbag, made with Cairns Film. 

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  • Read The Zine – Deals for the Week

    Jun 6 • Dirtbagging • 670 Views

    We know you’re stoked to “read the zine” so we’re now offering a deal every week. Here’s what we have going on this week. (banner photo by Tom Randall)

    Vol. 12 and 11 individual copies for $5.99 (free shipping in U.S.) 

    One for You and One For A Friend for $29.99 (one year subs, free shipping in U.S.)


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  • Time Continuum of Desert Road Tripping by Kevin Volkening

    Jun 5 • Climbing Culture • 3160 Views

    The Pinnacle of Technology, as we called her drifted through the endless space, the time continuum that is road tripping. Flakes of snow silently hurtled themselves at the windshield and accumulated on the invisible roadway beyond our high beams, as if the stars of hyperspace were falling out of solution.

    by Kevin “K-Bone” Volkening (note this piece was originally published in Volume 6)

    Kevin with his wife, Marge. Sadly Kevin died in a climbing accident in 2013. We love you and miss you K-Bone!!!

    Kevin with his wife, Marge. Sadly Kevin died in a climbing accident in 2013. We love you and miss you K-Bone!!!

    Banner photo by Mike “The Mayor” Shaw

    The interior of our interstate vessel was a jumbled mess of rushed packing. Canned food, coolers, and cams crowded the cockpit of our Indian Creek destined container. The pungent aroma, unmistakable when one first entered our ship, had faded out of consciousness, leaving only the occasional flicker of light to remind us of its presence. The approaching Thanksgiving fueled my idle brain’s imagination with a grandiose epic analogous to the heartfelt tale of Columbus. However, in my fabrication I was one of four men on board an interstellar ship destined not for The New World, but for a desert world where sheer faces of Wingate sandstone rise hundreds of feet into the air. The fantasy was broken by the approaching flashing hazard lights of a jacked knife semi-truck, just barely visible through the stars falling from solution.

    Seconds combined with hours, which melted into minutes, all the while Pandora continuously provided the soundtrack for our adventure. Somewhere in the fray I had been asked to take the helm but declined due to my current inability to remain awake. Perfectly uncomfortable in the cargo hold, sleep gripped me instantaneously, until the sudden deceleration of the transport on the final approach vector towards Moab stirred me from my dreams.

    We had wasted the previous day in Salt Lake City between an Indian café, a failed trip to The Front, a few hours at a bar waiting for Pat to arrive, and a marathon of “The Office”. By the third episode chronicling idiotic displays of mismanagement by Michael Scott, it was already dark. Life in the darkened world continued without the natural pause of sleep to package the events into a “day” in one’s mind. Thus, by the time our headlights shone onto the natural spring outside of Moab, I don’t think any of us really knew who we were.

    After eternity had come and gone, morning sun illuminated the gargantuan walls of sandstone lining the road, heading south from Moab. The coming day surprised and startled me, as if I believed our vessel had indeed landed on foreign world, devoid of sun. Our southbound trajectory shifted via the magical junction of Canyonlands National Park. As we descended through layers of time, space, and environment our final elevation settled at the base of the Wingate formation. A culmination of geologic process, unknown and remarkable to my naïve brain, created a continuum of laser cut vertical lines.

    Initially these lines were an exciting, occasional site, however as we pressed further toward the Beef Basin Road, the lines became common. Rounding the corner dominated by the most classic line of lines, Supercrack, the excitement that perpetually draws me toward the vertical world returned with vengeance.

    A fraction of a moment later we stood in reverence at the glory that is Indian Creek; a long forgotten land far from the perpetual stress that defines modern life. Hallowed ground, dismissed as a dusty, dirty, deteriorating destination by the dismissive eye, but delightfully defined as a diminutive piece of our planet dominating many lives. The Creek is beyond the realm of elucidation, hovering somewhere between reality and fiction. A fantasy land bound by thousands upon thousands of adventures, more than enough for a thousand lifetimes. And, this mystic land would be our home for the next nine days, before The Pinnacle of Technology would set a northward navigation through the endless space-time continuum that is road tripping.

    Kevin Volkening was a passionate man who had an endless hunger for climbing and adventure. He was killed in a climbing accident in Clark’s Fork, Wyoming in the summer of 2013. This piece was republished from his blog, www.verticallifehorizontalworld.blogspot.com with the blessing of his wife, Marge Volkening. We love you and miss you Kevin.

    Dig the words? Please consider subscribing to The Climbing Zine

    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

    We have also published four books: Graduating From College MeAmerican ClimberThe Great American Dirtbags and Climbing Out of Bed, written by publisher, Luke Mehall. 

    Check out our film, Last Thoughts on The Dirtbag, made with Cairns Film. 


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  • Review: Climb Tech Top Anchor Hook

    Jun 3 • Gear • 2135 Views

    The construction style “Mussy Hook” has always been one of my least favorite pieces of climbing hardware to see at an anchor. They tend to get sharp quite easily from wear and tear, and their gates often stop functioning properly, leaving an open part of the biner in the system.

    Reviewed by: Shaun Matusewicz, Senior Contributor

    Steel carabiners have largely replaced the construction “Mussys” for top anchors, but recently Climb Tech took things one step further and invented the climbing Mussy Hook, aka the Top Anchor Hook.

    Right when I saw a sample a year or so ago, I was excited. Now, after having installed some, and clipped many, I really like these things.

    For starters they are really easy to clip. Some of the older steel carabiners for top anchors are a joy to see because you’ve arrived at the top of a pitch, but often they were a pain to clip. Not so with these wire gates, they are super smooth.

    Second, they are burly enough that it seems like they will last several years on popular sport routes. They are zinc plated hardened steel, and also camouflage well.

    All in all the Top Anchor Hook from Climb Tech is the best thing I’ve come across for fixed lowering anchors on sport routes.

    Climb Tech’s website 

    Please consider subscribing to The Climbing Zine. It’s $19.99 a year for three issues, and $37.99 for two years (six issues). 

    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

    We have also published five books: Graduating From College MeAmerican ClimberThe Great American Dirtbags , Climbing Out of Bed, and Squeak Goes Climbing In Yosemite National Park (a climbing children’s book) .

    Check out our film, Last Thoughts on The Dirtbag, made with Cairns Film. 

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  • A Venture Backward, Inward, and Upward by Rhiannon Williams

    May 29 • Climbing Culture • 2441 Views

    In Memory of Towyn Williams (1926 – 2016)

    I associate much of my childhood with a little white farmhouse in the Welsh countryside. My roots are firmly planted there. Planted between the rows of strawberries and the tunnels of raspberry bushes.

    by Rhiannon Williams

    (note: this piece is an excerpt from Volume 9, The New School Issue, available on Kindle. Sold out in print.) Banner photo of Amy Lipschultz by the author. 

    My feet are planted in the red carpet, right in front of the fireplace where we gathered for tea or telly. I can picture my grandma balancing out a huge tray filled to the gold brim with dainty porcelain cups, announcing “Teeeeea-tiiiime” in a corralling singsong, and like the chickens at feed time, we’d all come running to the beckon of her call.

    After tea, my grandpa would sit in his armchair and watch the news, patiently allowing one or more of my three sisters and I to sit in his lap or decorate him with sparkly plastic hair barrets. I was usually the one climbing up his sturdy frame like it was a jungle gym. Grandma would set to work on a crossword puzzle, inking the daily newspaper with rounded lettering, persevering until every square was filled. I often sat in the window that jutted out of the house turning it into a sauna-type space. Dead flies and butterflies lined the bottom of the window. I used to look at them curiously, and Grandma would collect the butterflies and pin them onto a framed board, preserving their legacies behind the glass. Now, I’m back in that living room on an unexpected deviation of my ’round-the-world climbing trip; the red carpet has faded several shades. My grandpa is in a hospital bed in front of the same window.

    The trip I’m on is technically a climbing trip but has transformed into a quest to explore my roots, both physically and metaphorically. I’ve had time to explore what drives me and time to figure out what’s important to me, but it’s a quest that’s evolving with no tangible answer, and I’ve come to terms with that. This “climbing” trip has molded into a thing of its own, a thing that questions and pokes and prods and gnaws, a thing that gives me a glimpse into the scale of things. A scale beyond my comprehension, which makes me take a step back and laugh at how seriously I take things like climbing sometimes. I’ve found expansion and rhythm by stepping back versus forward. When my friend Amy and I planned this trip, I saw it linearly. Yet, this trip has been anything but linear. I’ve looped around, tying in loose threads along the way. Synapses are connecting, and bigger pictures are transcending. Frayed, unfinished ends of past memories and experiences are weaving together. And now I’ve found myself on the farm where I learned to love and play and climb. Where my story started. But this story started high up on the granite walls of Yosemite.

    On an exposed pitch near the top of East Buttress of El Capitan, I have a moment of panic as I get to an awkward move on a flaring groove. I am distrustful of my gear in the slippery flare and am scared to commit to the next move, not knowing if I can complete it without falling through vapid space. I eventually go for the tricky maneuver and pull through with shaky legs and over-gripped forearms, glancing back at the ghastly fall I would have taken if I hadn’t been successful. In that precarious moment, I pulled from a confidence that has often been out of grasp for me.

    I want to ground it before it flies away, and so, building off the buzz we’ve cultivated on this climbing trip, Amy and I start talking about planning something bigger. It starts with some hypothetical words put out there into the space between us. Not yet a fully fledged idea. Not quite literal. But once the words are out, they linger in the air, hanging in dead space, and then gaining momentum, they edge into conversations more frequently: first as a joke, then as a question, and then metamorphosed into a real plan, actualized with the clicking of a rectangular button with the word BUY. We quit our jobs and are going to go on a trip, starting in Spain with no real plans for destinations or end dates.

    The span between buy and fly soars past in a kaleidoscope of memories, and I try to grasp the dry-desert sunsets and late-night roommate chats. I hold on to the translucent moments where my sisters and I let down our barriers and cry and laugh in raw honesty. And then the kaleidoscope comes full circle, and I’m in New York with Amy and her family, preparing to fly to Spain. A day before we leave, we run around a bitterly cold New York, frantically buying things we think we need and playing the in-and-out game with gear and garments. While our packs are only sixty liters, they are almost splitting at the seams and grow tall above our heads, creating a slightly crooked profile. I feel comforted by the idea of travel; this is to be my second long-term trip. The first I took was several years earlier where I grew more than I knew was possible at the time. Transitioning out of a long-term relationship, I had turned to surfing as a way to process my thoughts and insecurities. What started as a surfing trip in Indonesia, ended as a climbing trip in Thailand. Climbing is different than surfing but is the same in the way that it simultaneously challenges and connects me. It has taught some of the biggest lessons in my life.

    After a long flight, we are picked up at the Barcelona airport by Amy’s friend Jonny, a charming Brit with rosy cheeks and an infectious spirit. He inaugurates us to the best climbing areas in Spain, and we travel around Catalunya for the next month, exploring steep limestone walls and little Spanish towns. We sample tapas, take over eighties nights at seedy clubs in off-kilter towns, and practice paragliding in ground school while we watch our friends soar off cliffs into the blue sky that ends where it meets the indiscriminate ocean line. And we climb. We climb with heart. I climb until my arms are solid. I can almost see the lactic acid swirling around my forearms, angry but satisfied.

    I take huge, flighty whippers. It seems that I have adopted the habit of always taking that fall that you don’t want to take. You know, the one where you follow the line from the ground and think to yourself, I wouldn’t want to fall there—right at the generously spaced bolt, or the ghastly pendulum. It’s my new thing, I guess—hopefully, a passing trend. While I don’t necessarily love flailing through the air like an unwieldy grasshopper, I like what it stands for.

    Women are often described as being calculated and calm in climbing, but women can also be bold and hearty. Like my grandma who, as a teenager, legendarily beat all the village boys in a sprint race, much to their disbelief and confusion. She didn’t hold back to fit a mold. Amy climbs with mastery. While she’s the stronger climber, I rarely notice because we see each other as equals. Climbing partnership isn’t about who’s the strongest, it’s about stepping in when the energy is dwindling and stepping back when there’s an opportunity that will empower your second. Partnership is about laughing the jitters off before you start on an intimidating multi-pitch and understanding that everyone gets hangry sometimes, especially when you forgot the food bag and are eight pitches up. That’s when you share the emergency granola bar that you stashed in your pocket so you can finish the climb together.

    Before long, we find a rhythm. That’s one of my favorite parts of traveling, when all of a sudden you find yourself in a groove without knowing how exactly you got there. It’s like climbing in the Creek; at first, it’s awkward and painful, and then at some point, you’re chopping up cracks and hanging off jams with smooth rapport. The daily routine begins with morning yoga (and acro-yoga attempts) and is followed by copious amounts of French press coffee drinking and crepe making. The hikes to the walls are winding and gorgeous, often following rivers and always boasting stunning vistas. After pulling on pockets (or tufas) all day, we make pie. Mushroom pie, sweet potato pie, soft, flaky handmade crust (always adorned with a cute center cutout). We are pie-making machines. This too reminds me of making blackberry pie with my grandma. We’d scour the brambles for berries, staining our hands and lips a dark purple. Then we’d prepare the crust from scratch and follow her instructions: a pinch of this, a dash of that. In the interim between pie time and bedtime, we dedicate time to learning something new, knowing that life’s complexities reach far beyond our climbing microcosm. We read articles about social justice and politics, and then, if we have the luxury of Internet, we throw in a few cat videos for good measure.

    We choose Margalef to spend the remainder of our time in Spain. It’s a town nestled among endless pocketed caves and cliffs. There’s a village store run by Anna, who always greets us warmly and kindly and entertains our attempts at Spanish. We adopt a pet that we name Silky Kitty, although she’s really half silky, a quarter muddy, and a quarter matted. She has a temperament on the unpredictable side, but she slowly lets us see her inner softie. The climbing style in Margalef is powerful and often requires dramatic gymnastic-like moves. At first, we’re completely destroyed after just a few turns on the endurance routes, but after a while, we notice we can hang on a little longer, and then just a little longer. I go through a grueling process of ego bashing, which I quickly learn to let go of in order to preserve my sanity. I climb with the intention to learn, and that is all. I let go of expectations, and my climbing improves. Through these subtle revelations, I realize that the great growth I desired at the beginning of this trip is transpiring in subtle and intricate ways, ways I could never have planned for. The lessons float to the surface and magnetize from somewhere deep in my psyche, revealing connections that were at the tip of my tongue.

    On our last day in Margalef, Amy and I both get thrown off of our projects on the last move. Over and over again, we get rejected by the wall, and I imagine it grinning from ear to ear as it propels us into the air. I’m one move away from sending a grade that I didn’t know was even possible for me six months ago. While it’s frustrating, it’s also true to the style of this area, and it almost feels good…almost. Really, it just sets the hooks in deep, and I know I’ll be back. We hitchhike out of Margalef, getting picked up by some climbers who are kind enough to tolerate our massive bags engulfing the limited back seat space, squishing strangers together in an awkward tangle. We have a few days to play in Barcelona while preparing for the next leg of our trip, which is in the UK.

    Of all places, climbing in Great Britain intimidates me the most. My opinion is based off of Internet videos featuring terrifyingly runout trad, exposed sea cliffs with finicky placements, tiny, slick footholds, and crazy Brits who somehow find the humor in it all. Climbing grades have names like “Hard Very Severe” and “Extremely Severe.” The descriptive names evoke grave mental images, but luckily, we come to find that the Brits like to exaggerate (just a little). As a child, I was oblivious to the looming sea crags and rich climbing history that surrounded me. Instead, I found trees and barns to satiate my desire to climb higher and higher. I later discovered that my dad used to scale the local quarries, boldly unroped. This doesn’t really surprise me since he was always the parent at the park that was precariously balancing along the top beams of the jungle gym frame while the rest watched in amusement from the safety of the benches. I am excited and nervous to explore my homeland in a new way.

    The author climbing the Old Man of Stoer in Scotland (sea stack) Photo: Amy Lipschultz

    We start by spending a week in Sheffield, a British climbing hub. We are lucky enough to have places to stay with people we have met along our adventure thus far. It rains, but we climb anyway. This seems to be the culture of climbing here. When it rains at a rate that even scares the Brits off the grit, I adopt one of Amy’s favorite pastimes, scouring thrift stores in search of the coziest and cheapest sweaters. In the constant gray drizzle, it turns out that a soft sweater and a cup of tea help you turn a blind eye to the weather. When the sun finds its way through the gloom, we climb at Stanage on the infamous velcro gritstone. We learn the twin-ropes system to account for the rope drag since the climbs are often longer sideways than they are tall. We tick off some classic routes and solo some easier ones. To call it soloing is a stretch though, since the height of the walls can’t be much taller than Buttermilk’s highballs.

    We wind all over Wales, following jagged coastline in our friend’s white VW van. We spend a week climbing the limestone cliffs in Pembroke during one of the hottest weeks of the year. The rock is sweaty in the sun, and it makes the climbing much more precarious, almost soapy. Armed with a mishmash of wires scrounged up by our friends, it takes time and patience to master the placements, fishing the wires into awkward openings and slotting them down, hoping they won’t wiggle through the undulating rock, as they often do. Yank it once well, then once more just in case. It’s a game of patience. A process that can’t be rushed. The ocean is fantastically blue, rushing in and out of the rocks below. I struggle with moments of panic when I become frustrated with the gear, whispering to myself to stay calm, relax your grip, find a solution, and there always is a solution. I learn to trust my gear more than I have before, growing confident in my capabilities. It feels so satisfying to get out of my comfort zone and to be encouraged to do so by the people I surround myself with. In the past, others have discouraged me to climb bold or scary routes. I question whether this would have happened if I were of the opposite gender. We deep-water solo over the freezing waters. At one point, I look down to see the biggest pink jellyfish I’ve ever seen, bobbing calmly below. Its ethereal tentacles flow in and out of the glassy water, making me smile; we are both in our element.

    I take time off from climbing to visit with my grandpa, who has been struggling. It’s the moment in the trip that catches me off guard and wrenches me backward, reversing that linear plane in which I understood the world to work in. I’m back in front of the window in the living room with the red carpet. I spend time sitting with my grandpa, just holding his hand to let him know that I’m there. His hands are softer than I remember. They used to be weathered, slightly swollen, and patterned with abrasions. I used to stare at them, intrigued. These days, my hands look like that. I have the hands of a farmer. The hands of someone who isn’t afraid to get dirty or work hard. In college, my hands didn’t fit in with the manicured, lotioned hands of my Florida friends, but I didn’t mind, because I knew that a person’s hands tell a story, and I wanted mine to be unabashed and weighty.

    Being back home floods my senses with images and smells. The house is still smoky, like an incense you can’t decide whether you like. I decide now that I like it. Picture collages on the walls are gathering dust: my family in matching gold-and-white striped sweat suits, my sister and I with matching bowl cuts, festive Christmas days filled with tinsel and smiles, and my parents on their wedding day, yellow roses in my mom’s red hair.

    Wandering into the garden, I spy my favorite tree, which is rotten now, just a few nails evidencing the old fort my sisters and I built. We thought we were so clever when we made a pulley system between the branches, sending notes back and forth, then pails of “food” (different concoctions of flowers and sticks and sap). Eventually, we figured out how to pull ourselves up to the highest branches by attaching a milk crate to a rope and hoisting ourselves all the way up to the tippy top. Once, I fell out of the tree, hard onto my back. Wheezing for air that refused to fill my lungs as it should, I thought I might die. As I reflect on my dirt-crusted, tree-climbing self, I can trace the evolution of my growth in climbing and my need to explore and adventure.

    Moving on from Wales is difficult. I’m not sure when I’ll be back. I’m not sure if I’ll see Whitehall farm. I somehow know that this will be the last time that I see my grandpa. Driving down the bumpy farm road away from the white house, I hold back tears, remembering when I was twelve, and we left to move to Florida. My sisters and I cried a chorus of blubbers and wails as we looked out of the back window of the car and waved at my grandparents, who were slowly shrinking from our vision. Dust from the road masked their melancholy faces. I wrestle thoughts in my head to try to make sense of everything. There was a lot of love at Whitehall farm. It’s a sense of love that doesn’t leave when everyone else does. I find it in the quiet moments bivvying under sky of stars or wandering around the woods. I find it when I talk with my parents and sisters, noting how they’ve absorbed the gentleness of my grandpa and the vivaciousness of my grandma into their own identities. Those years on the farm have affected my family in immense ways, and we’ve inadvertently integrated and preserved their legacy in complex ways. For me, climbing has been a way to connect back to the spirit of the farm and the lessons from my grandparents. But while climbing is a central part of the itinerary, it’s not the most important part of this trip. I climb. But that’s not who I am. Instead, climbing is a catalyst for exploration. It helps me to see the important stuff: How I treat others. How I treat myself. How to love myself. How do I love myself? It pushes me to chase the scary stuff because I know what falling and failing and trying again give me. And it reminds me of myself as a six year old, dressed up in my very best party dress, only to sit in the deepest puddle I could find, blissfully unaware of the beautiful contradictions that I was making.

    As a kid, Rhiannon Williams was an out-of-control tornado child whose immense energy made her parents shudder. Luckily, she’s figured out how to harness this energy into climbing, art, and yoga! You can see more of her art at www.rhiannonklee.com.

    Art by Rhiannon Williams

    Please consider subscribing to The Climbing Zine. It’s $19.99 a year three issues, and this greatly helps us produce free web content like this. 


    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

    We have also published four books: Graduating From College MeAmerican ClimberThe Great American Dirtbags and Climbing Out of Bed, both written by publisher, Luke Mehall. 

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  • Review: Edelrid Topaz Rope

    May 28 • Gear • 814 Views

    Doing a gear review Climbing Zine style for a rope is difficult. For starters our method for reviewing gear is simple: we use it in our normal day-to-day climbing, as anyone else would. We pay attention to what we like, and what we don’t.

    by Luke Mehall

    Ropes are tricky because any rope can get a core shot and die an early death. Sometimes its because a rope isn’t very durable, but often it can be user error, for example, running the rope over a sharp edge, or using the wrong kind of rope in a particular situation.

    Banner photo: Mark Grundon showing how much he likes the Topaz. 

    With that disclaimer, let’s take a look at the Edelrid Topaz Pro Dry, a 9.2mm, triple rated dry treated rope. I tested the 70 meter, dry-treated version out for three seasons on various types of rock, from Indian Creek first ascents to sharp Mexico limestone.

    Retail: $269.95

    The main feature I like about the Topaz is that it has the “feel” and durability of a thicker rope. Looking at the numbers, this is likely because the sheath is relatively thick with a 37 percent sheath proportion. That also makes it check in a little heavier than most 9.2’s — at 59 grams per meter. Personally I’ll take the little bit of extra weight to have that durability, but with that said, this rope feels more suited for a climber who dabbles in a variety of styles, rather than just projecting sport climbs.

    I used a Gri-Gri+ and Mammut Smart while belaying with the Topaz and it fed through both very smoothly.

    This rope is bi-pattern, but its the most subtle bi-pattern I’ve ever come across. It took me some time to quickly notice the change, and its even harder to notice when it’s dark out and you’re rappelling.

    Testing the Topaz out on some sharp limestone in San Isidro, Mexico. Photo: Mark Grundon

    Since this was the first Edelrid rope I’ve ever climbed on, I kept a close eye for signs of wear. It’s really withstood the abuse of running over fresh sandstone edges on first ascents, and even sharper ones on new routes on Mexican limestone. After seven months of steady use, it’s still my go-to cord for anything from a new route to laps at the local crag.

    There’s also some things worth noting that go beyond the function of the rope. Most notably Edelrid seeks out the independent Bluesign environmental certification for all of their ropes. According to Edelrid, they were the first rope manufacturer to do so. In turn that enabled a 62% reduction in CO2 emissions, 89% water saved, 63% less energy and 63% fewer chemicals. When we were first shown this rope at the Outdoor Retailer show, I was impressed by Blair Williams, the Sales and Marketing Director’s passion for conveying how important it was for Edelrid to consider the environmental impacts of making gear. Hopefully other climbing companies will follow in their lead.

    Overall, this rope is perfect for a climber that wants a thin, but burly rope—once I post this article you can be damn sure I’ll be tying into the Topaz for my next lead.

    Edelrid Topaz on Backcountry.com  (currently on sale)

    The Fresh Pink option of the Edelrid Topaz.

    Please consider subscribing to The Climbing Zine. It’s $19.99 a year for three issues, and $37.99 for two years (six issues). 

    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

    We have also published five books: Graduating From College MeAmerican ClimberThe Great American Dirtbags , Climbing Out of Bed, and Squeak Goes Climbing In Yosemite National Park (a climbing children’s book) .

    Check out our film, Last Thoughts on The Dirtbag, made with Cairns Film. 


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  • Fall on Rock by George Perkins

    May 25 • Climbing Culture • 1721 Views

    I clipped her to the anchor, untied her knot, and pulled the rope through the gear.

    “I need more time.” Jessica whispered so weakly that I had to lean close to hear her.

    “We don’t have more time. We have to get help,” I replied.

    “What happened?”

    “You fell. You broke your arm and leg.”

    I didn’t tell her about her face. I wasn’t going to be able to do much if she had a serious head injury anyway. “We need to get to the hospital. Let’s go.”

    There was blood all over the fucking place. All over her, all over me. Her face was a mess. Blood covered her cheek, and her swollen and black right eye stared emptily back at me. Jessica was quiet and five years younger than me; because of her reserve, I still didn’t really know her all that well. But she and I both liked rock climbing, so we’d gotten along wonderfully over the last couple of years.

    “I need more time. Wait.”

    We were clipped to old bolts on a tiny ledge 130 feet up. Even though we could see Albuquerque to the west, we were four miles from the nearest road.

    “We don’t have more time; we need to get to the hospital. You’re hurt,” I said.

    “What happened?”

    Her shinbone was sticking out the front of her leg, three inches above the ankle. I pivoted her foot so as to align her bone back inside her leg, if only so I wouldn’t see it, and wrapped it tight in her pants with slings. She had pulled off a bowling-ball-sized rock and had fallen sixty feet on the second pitch of Rainbow Dancer, an eleven-pitch 5.11 on the Shield, the biggest cliff in the Sandia Mountains. When she fell, the rope had slipped through the gear in slow motion as though unencumbered by the weight of a person. When she stopped falling, her body hung limp in her harness, and the moan she made was not a noise from the living.

    “Jess! You fell. Your leg and arm are broken. You lost a lot of blood. We need to get you to help.”

    “I need more time. What happened?

    She didn’t get it. There was no more time.

    “I need more time.”

    Her words haunted me. I had PTSD for months. I tried to talk through it with my wife and friends. Their platitudes were hollow. No one could relate, so I became quiet. After a few weeks, they stopped asking. I had flashbacks almost every night. I’d wake panicked, with hallucinations that my one-year-old daughter was falling off a cliff and I’d try to reach out and catch her. Or, I’d yell audibly in my dreams at Jessica, “We have to go!” When I’d wake, the sheets and my body would be soaked in sweat. Drinking helped some, but it made the restlessness worse and bad dreams more lucid. And I couldn’t drink enough to numb my mind, as I had to get up for my daughter. I was often unmotivated and distracted at work and became detached and emotionally distant from my family. It wasn’t just for lack of sleep. In those months, the day-to-day life just seemed so insignificant.

    by George Perkins

    note: this piece appears in Volume 12.

    Get a copy of subscribe here.

    Sympathetic initially, my wife eventually lost patience. In addition to my problems, our young child was challenging and demanding. There’s little value in sharing the details of a failing marriage…most people have a sense of how hurtful it is when a family disintegrates. We kept trying to make it work because neither of us could face the regret of having given up and then explaining that to our daughter.

    After a particularly painful argument, I called in sick to work on a sunny Wednesday morning in June. I drove back to the Sandia Crest without a partner, looking to feel something, anything, by returning to the mountains that had sent my mind into free fall. Could I stick my hand back in the fire? I hiked away from the empty parking lot and the radio towers, following the faint climbers’ trail under the Engelmann spruce and Douglas fir, through the thin white Madera limestone bands, to the grove of aspens, above the eight-hundred-foot wall called Muralla Grande. I rambled down the couloir of scree and thorny bushes to the base of a classic 5.9. Although I’d only occasionally soloed over the years, I was solid at the grade. Heading up a big wall alone without a rope felt unreal at first; however, it soon became comfortable as I found the flow after half a pitch. By the time I entered the crux in this sea of orange granite, I was seeing only the positive edges with their slightly darker varnish, the coarse crystalline texture on the sloping footholds, and the sequences of movement linking them that would lead to the next stance large enough to rest.

    Photo courtesy of George Perkins

    The Sandias have loose blocks, and holds occasionally crumble, so I’d pull a little more lightly and ease onto footholds before committing to standing on them. Had I been roped up, climbing this route again would have sparked memories of my previous climbs on the formation—of my climbing partners and my life situation at those times—or I’d be mesmerized watching the peregrine falcons circling in the updrafts. But on my own, I was too focused and moving too quickly to stop and reflect. I didn’t notice the light wind picking up when I’d reached the exposed headwall, with its perfect cracks splitting the immaculate auburn face. For that hour, it was as if time had stopped, just for me. Stop. Look down for feet. Step up. Another small edge, but I was always in balance, always solid. It wasn’t liberating, nor did it feel unsafe or scary. I had skill, balance, and strength acquired over the last fifteen years. I topped out feeling proud but still partly empty. There was a feeling of recklessness about the whole endeavor. I didn’t want to risk dying; I had a little girl to take care of. In the back of my mind, I knew that any block or flake could have pulled off, just as it had when Jessica fell. Perhaps, in tempting fate that day in the Sandias, I was seeking to understand: “Had Jessica fallen because she grabbed something loose that she should have seen, or was it just something that had happened?” I didn’t find any answer, and by a few body lengths up, I had forgotten all about why I came.

    Open to the idea of more, I contoured southward along the base of the limestone band and slid down the talus to the start of my favorite climb in the Sandias, a 5.10 called Mountain Momma. I put my shoes on but reconsidered. Once you commit to Mountain Momma’s overhanging finger-crack crux on the third pitch, you need to climb without hesitation and throw your left heel up over the lip and mantel. Could I pull through quickly enough that my arms wouldn’t tire? Prudence triumphed, and I descended farther down the valley to the Thumb’s thousand-foot 5.5 ridge and made my way up. The Thumb looks down on half a million people living below in Albuquerque, none of whom have any idea you’re up there. I sat in the sun on top for a few minutes and tagged the summit register (I miss my girls). Until writing this, I told no one what I’d done that day, embarrassed by the selfishness of it and distressed that it left me feeling as lost and empty as before. My highlight memory of that day wasn’t even the climbing. It was seeing a bear in the approach gully on the way down to my first climb. It was fifty feet away, and it’s funny to me now how irrationally nervous I had been about getting mauled. “Go on, bear. You do what you need, and I’m going to do what I need to.” It let me go by. In retrospect, the whole day seems like a dream. Unfortunately, dreams don’t expel inner demons.

    When my daughter was three, our marriage broke. Everyone tires at some point. Maybe, with more time, we’d have worked through our problems, but we didn’t know that parenting would become less demanding as our child got older. At least the divorce went fairly smoothly.

    The next woman came into my life too soon after I’d moved out. I knew better but did it anyway. Excitement over something that felt like love with someone new worked pretty well to hide the scars of trauma and a failed marriage. She was younger than me, and I knew that she’d want me to be someone other than who I was. But that was all right—I wanted to be someone else, someone without emotional damage. I was still somewhat detached and never even tried to talk with her about what I’d seen; she mistook my restless sleep as being from other things. After two years, I hadn’t quite had the time to heal. A second person that loved me had decided they’d be better off without me.

    “I need more time.”

    “Let’s go. We have to get out of here.”

    Jessica was in shock, confused, with a broken arm, broken leg, and who knows how many other injuries. I tried to lower her to the ground, but she got stuck on a ledge and tangled the rope in bushes.

    “Wait! Stop! I need more time.” It was barely loud enough to hear.

    I tied her rope off to the anchor, rapped to her on the trail line, and tethered her to my harness with slings. With the weight of both of us on the thin rope, the rappel device became very hot, burning my hand, and I almost dropped us to the talus. But we were down. Thank god. Off the cliff. Disoriented, she started to walk on her broken leg. I tried to carry her out. I made it fifty feet and set her down on a partly shaded granite boulder, under the lowest of the three large ponderosa trees at the base of the Shield. Albuquerque isn’t as close as it looks; there was no way I could get her out on my own. Half a million people down there, four thousand feet below, and not a single one knew you needed help. Neither of us had our phones. Damn! I wrapped and slung her bleeding arm and further stabilized her leg with sticks tightened over the wound with my long-sleeve shirt. After a few minutes and a sip of water, she had regained some coherence but was still in shock and confused.

    “I’m going to go and get help. I’ll be back really soon.”

    I don’t know if she understood what that meant. And I didn’t know how soon I’d return, but I didn’t know what else to do. I looked back; those next steps were the hardest to take. I was leaving her to die alone on that rock.

    “Dad, try to think of something happy. You seem sad.”

    “I’m happy, Cora.”

    “I think you’re sad about your life.”

    “My life around me is beautiful.”

    My daughter, Cora, had seen my eyes shift away again, and she gave me a hug. But I still believe those words I told her were true. Being single after fourteen years of having a partner had provided time for introspection. My life oscillated between meditative and depressed, but I had become aware of, and comfortable with, this pattern.

    A six-year-old now, Cora would tell me her thoughts and needs but hadn’t learned to hide things from me so as to not hurt me. She always needed my complete attention. All I could see was that bubble around the two of us, and I put little emotional energy into anyone else. It was like being twenty feet above your last piece of gear on hard climbing. Remain calm, because losing focus can start a cycle of irrationally increasing stress that can end in disaster. The state had determined that Cora would spend half her time with me; so, for half of my life, I was a typical divorcée. We’d read together and play imaginary games. I’d teach her to swim and bake cookies and watch her do cartwheels.

    The author on Death Drives a Stick at The Dungeon. Photo: Gary Parker

    Cora and I would often hike to our closest climbing area, the Dungeon, where she’d eat raspberries she’d picked along the trail, splash in the stream, and, screaming with glee, swing on the ropes hanging from the roof sixty feet up the overhanging gray rhyolite. The Dungeon was an oasis among the charred mountains from the forest fire five years ago. Canyon wrens nested in pockets in the cliff, and pink-chested hummingbirds and bright-yellow swallowtail butterflies flittered above the gurgling waters of the tiny stream. Sheltered by its rocks, the Dungeon and the plants and life in its immediate surroundings had remained unchanged.

    The other half of my duality was a routine of climbing with every spare minute. At the Dungeon, I’d warm up on Gangland, a 5.12b I’d climbed hundreds of times. I knew the choreography and subtle body position of every move. Pull up. Cross over to undercling with the right hand, reach high left to the pocket. Place the outside of my right foot flat in the hole, reach high with the right hand, bump again with the right to a side pull, stem, reach high left, to the jug. Start the technical crux, cross over with the left hand, make the tiny high right-hand crimp, bump it to the baseball, hit the tooth with the left, and shake with a drop knee. Then sprint: left hand straight above, match with the right, left, then right again to the three-finger pocket, bear down for the hard clip, make a long reach left to the diagonal edge. Go far with the right hand to the square edge, left hand straight up to the crimp, match on it, and roll over left to the rest. I knew most of the other Dungeon climbs almost as well. Most of the time, success or failure was reflective of how I felt on any given day, whether I was able to summon up the effort to try hard or keep focused at the crux, but sometimes it would still surprise me when I climbed well or poorly. With just the right positioning, I could feel secure on the smallest edges, thinner than I believed I could. After climbing, on the occasional darker days, I’d drink too much in compensation for a lack of direction. On the good days, I’d work out more, motivated to do the 5.13 I was projecting up the middle of the cliff. Climbing three times a week at the same place wasn’t particularly exciting. I just couldn’t think of anything better to do with my time.

    Every now and then, I’d remember when Jessica and I used to climb there together, back before the accident five years ago. Back when we were younger, when climbing was what we cared about more than almost anything else. Gangland had been her hardest lead. In addition to innate talent, Jessica had always been optimistic and pushed herself. If she were here, she’d probably have been showing me how to do the crux on my project. Or she’d have been lying on a rock in the sun…those days seemed like a long time ago.

    Days into weeks into months. I returned to the Dungeon so often that I’d feel the seasons and notice the subtle changes around me. Every new burnt tree that had fallen down or the stream level that tracked with the monsoon rains. The raspberries along the trail would be ripe one week, the purple and yellow asters flowering the next, the aspens turning gold the next. For me, this place had become so much more than just another concrete-colored cliff where I climbed a few routes after work. I knew I’d be going there frequently for years ahead, over which I’d witness the forest regrowing from the ash and the aspens growing taller each year. Yeah, I think I ought to be able to find peace with this.

    The Dungeon eventually became too snowy, and my routine got put on hold until March. That winter break, my work was closed, and Cora was with her mom and new family. Not wanting to stay in my lonely house for the holidays, I was happy to head to Canyonlands with a friend. His old truck slowly carried us around the White Rim, a hundred-mile jeep trail used by prospectors hoping to find uranium six decades ago. Like them, I’d hoped that I too would find something in the stark desert and return whole again. There’s nothing quite as cleansing as the pure effort you have to put into sustained desert cracks, the adventure of carefully testing loose, sandy blocks and old, sketchy fixed gear, and the reward of tiny, seemingly unreachable pinnacle summits high up in the perfect blue desert sky.

    The excitement started on our first climb, Chip Tower, on Christmas Eve. Looking up from the highest rivet on the smooth last pitch, I was surprised to see a shallow, eroded hole—was the last bolt missing? I stood on the hanger, reached high to a half-pad edge, and folded my thumb over my index finger. I slapped the arête with my left hand, smeared, bumped higher up the arête, placed my toe on the edge, and lunged for the lip at the top. We kept a regular cadence—one desert tower every day, for five days in a row—and still forgot which day it was. We’d camp in the frigid temps with twelve hours of darkness mostly spent in sleeping bags in the back of the truck, silently drinking tea and reading. We would wake to the snowcapped La Sals over Monument Basin and the pink Wingate strata, and we would sleep with Orion rising over Taylor Canyon’s towers. Other than the desert bighorns, we were the only souls out there, in the Island in the Sky. But after rappelling down from Moses, I drove for ten hours straight back to the same life and the same psychological scars that were there when I left.

    “Dad—is God real?”

    Oh shit, this wasn’t in the parent manual.

    “Well, Cora, what do you think?”

    “The other kids at school believe in God, but Mom doesn’t.”

    “What do you believe?”

    “I don’t know.” She looked at me intensely, as though I knew a genuine truth. I paused.

    “The other kids probably believe what their parents told them. They might not even be thinking about it. What do you think I believe?”

    “Don’t know, Dad.”

    “I don’t know either, Cora. I can’t answer that for you. But I’ve seen some stuff that’s hard to explain.”

    She listened intently as I let my eyes drift off. The memories of turns of fate and eternity that could have gone otherwise started flowing…when I was eighteen and fell soloing slippery terrain on Little Bear in late-October snow. A microwave-sized block had pulled off, taking me with it. Somehow I caught myself after fifteen feet rather than tumbling down to the tarn below…the avalanche debris I crossed over on my way back from Castle Peak, which hadn’t been there on my way up earlier…being fifteen hundred feet up the formation Isaac in Zion, when the rope dislodged a block that hit my partner. Out of my sight below me, he gave a moan like the one Jessica had made. The rope didn’t move for what seemed like an eternity, then he kept on climbing…on the overhanging right side of the Diamond on Longs, watching the blocks of ice falling behind us from the top, splattering on Broadway and the chimney we’d climbed by headlamp an hour earlier…another time, just after topping out the Diamond with a high school kid, the sky opened up with cracking thunder followed by a deluge of hail. A small overhang provided a minimal amount of shelter from the icy waterfalls around us, and the storm passed before we got too wet and cold. After it cleared, we continued on to the summit, watching the swirling mists…waking up to perfect bluebird skies after an open bivy on the sandy ledge nine hundred feet up Howser Tower in the Bugs, on a climb where I was too young, and my dad was too old, and we were both too slow…seven hundred feet up a wall in Zion, hoping to move half a body length higher, committing my weight onto a marginal small cam in a sandy pin scar, with a series of tiny brass offset nuts wedged in the overhanging seam splitting the perfect pink sandstone below me…

    One memory I just couldn’t bring myself to tell my six-year-old. My partner and I were a few minutes down a popular trail in the Sandias, with nervous excitement to climb a 5.11 with thin gear. Hiking with his daughter, a fellow in his fifties collapsed in front of us. A dozen people helped to do CPR, but he spent his last moments there in the sun. He was fit and hadn’t shown any symptoms for a heart failure or stroke. My partner and I both silently thought about our potentially dangerous route and contemplated the inequity of fate.

    Most of the time fate gives you a pass. The climb is too difficult, or the weather turns bad, so you leave some gear, rap off, and walk back down to your normal life. But every so often, it lets you know that control is illusory. All it takes is one loose rock or a storm moving too quickly. Sometimes the outcome of a day in the mountains isn’t what you’d planned.

    Out of time, I ran downhill from the Shield toward Albuquerque, through the scrub oak and the piñon toward the Sandia Foothills trailhead. I was shirtless and covered in blood. Three miles below, I met two hikers to whom I frantically relayed what had happened and Jessica’s location. They went down to make the phone call, and I headed back up. When I returned, Jessica was awake on the flat granite rock under the ponderosa tree. The bleeding had subsided. Her eyes fixated in the distance; she was hardly talking anymore. Jessica had always been a quiet person as long as I’d known her. She was still breathing but in a transitional state between two worlds. I knew there wasn’t much more I could do to keep her alive. Just hope and wait. I silently watched her condition, wondering what would happen when she stopped breathing. How long could I do CPR knowing it couldn’t change the outcome and undo the injuries that caused her body to shut itself down in the first place? Would it be better to make her last living moments in a beautiful place comfortable and peaceful? Jessica had said she felt cold, but the rock she reclined on was now warm in the full sun. The bees hovered around us. Thinking her blood was nectar, they’d light momentarily on her crimson-colored clothes, then fly off disappointed, only to return seconds later.

    The Black Hawk helicopter and Albuquerque Mountain Rescue arrived a few hours later and lifted Jessica off to a sterile place. As it turned out, the impact had damaged her lungs. This injury—tension pneumothorax—caused each inhalation to force a small amount of air into her chest cavity rather than her lungs. Every breath was just a little bit shallower than the one that preceded it. Had the helicopter arrived much later, she would have used up all her space to breathe.

    On the drive home from the hospital the next morning, I stopped at the gas station at San Felipe Pueblo and picked up a cup of coffee and my first can of Copenhagen in a decade. People there gave no second thought to my bloodstained clothes. My injuries were emotional, and at that time, I had no idea of their severity, how long the scars would last, or how much my life was about to unravel. People would tell me I was a hero, an angel—as if I had saved my friend’s life. At the time, I thought it was just luck.

    Jessica spent weeks in the hospital with tubes in her chest and limbs. She was held together with astonishing amounts of metal and no recollection of the accident. She would fully recover and finish up her degree, travel the world, fall in love, and do so many things other than climb with a singular focus. When her path would lead through New Mexico, we’d catch up with each other and go cragging for a few hours. Other climbers would sometimes ask her about the four-inch-long curving scar on her right arm, just above her elbow. Jessica’s response would simply be, “I fell,” and her eyes would meet mine. It was good to see her healed and moving on with her life.

    It took me over five years to recognize that on that day in the Sandias, Jessica wasn’t talking to me. Her disoriented prayers and questions were meant for other ears, and she’d gotten the time she asked for.

    I still haven’t answered that question from my kindergartener. I don’t know what Jessica saw in that space between life and death or what’s controlled by luck, fate, or some higher power. I’m not sure it matters. When I reflect on my life after my daughter was born, it hasn’t gone how I’d hoped it would. But now, six years later, I remember most the details of individual moments of love and laughter, of fear and excitement, and of those that hurt. I smile as I recall those perfect sequences with my girl, with people who love me, or in the mountains with my friends.

    I’ve changed. I’d like to think my demons are finally gone, and the only remaining scars are the rope burns at the base of my fingers. I’m no longer as hurried; I’m calm and accepting as I tie the rope to myself once again. I know that, after I step off the ground, I will be in that focused and aware mind-set where I can see precisely the crystalline roughness and the small edges of what’s immediately around me. Time will again slow down, just for me.

    George Perkins is a sandbagger living in Los Alamos, New Mexico, with his lovely daughter, Cora, 7. He enjoys cheering for his kid at gymnastics meets and appreciates dogfights at his local crags. Soon after this piece was completed, he finally sent his first 5.13. He asks that those who enjoyed this story kindly donate to the Albuquerque Mountain Rescue Council to help save someone’s life.

    Dig the words? Keep the dream alive by subscribing to The Climbing Zine.

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    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

    We have also published five books: Graduating From College MeAmerican ClimberThe Great American Dirtbags , Climbing Out of Bed, and Squeak Goes Climbing In Yosemite National Park (a climbing children’s book) .

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  • Monster Cracks by Pete Whittaker

    May 5 • Locations • 2674 Views

    Over hundreds of thousands of years, water has trickled, raged, and poured down cracks and creases, winding and weaving through rock rugosities, and worn paths through weaknesses to form (what is now known as) Canyonlands.

    by Pete Whittaker

    note: this piece appears in Volume 12.

    Get a copy of subscribe here.

    After another trip there this fall, I got to witness with my own eyes really how this landscape has been created. Thunderstorms so brutal and flash flooding so rapid that gear, jackets, and bags were only just snatched from the pressurised rainwater that got forced and funnelled down the roof cracks into the caves below where we climbed. One moment, a few drips on the brow, to fifteen seconds later feeling like you were being blasted by six pressure washers—the pressure washers they use to strip paint off objects, total skin rippers.

    Wind roared through the valleys, in between towers, and looped into the back of caves, shaving sand from their walls, and deposited it somewhere over Moab town—a sand shower. So vigorous, in fact, it picked up our abseil rope (the rope we used to ab into the climbing), all its stacked coils on the ground, lifted the whole bundle into the air, and strewed it across the top of the cliff, totally out of our reach.

    Luckily we were high up, but to any hikers in the wash below, it could have been serious. The basin of the canyon collected thousands and thousands of gallons of water from off-shot waterfalls, rivers, and runoff, in just a split second.

    Water pouring down Lamb of God, a 5.14 roof crack in Canyonlands National Park. Just a minute before this picture was taken, Tom Randall was working the moves in excellent conditions. Photo: Pete Whittaker

    Waterfalls poured over the top of cave entrances, and rivers scoured out troughs in the soft, muddy hillside below us. There was no mist or cloud, but the rain was so thick you could only see for a hundred metres out the cave entrance, a blanket of water blurring our vision of the carnage outside.

    As we dashed, darted, and fumbled with armfuls of belongings up the sandy slopes of the cave, to dry safety and shelter, I finally got to witness how these monster roof cracks we were climbing on had been formed. A real lesson from the area and it was a pleasure to learn. No class or teacher could have described it any better. Why weren’t college field trips like this? I would have learnt much more!

    Before this fall and my new learning experience with the desert environment, I’d taken numerous trips to Canyonlands, the first being on my quest to climb Century Crack with Tom Randall. A roof-crack climb originally found and solo aided by Steve “Crusher” Bartlett and given the name Chocolate Starfish in reference to it…well, dumping you out the back door, in probably a similar squidgy consistency as what you might imagine to come out of your rear exit, whilst trying to climb it.

    Crusher, a desert first ascensionist and pioneer, was therefore the first to embark across these long ceiling journeys and unique formations, a ceiling so big that wherever you stand on the ground, the start and finish can’t be seen at the same time.

    That’s not possible.

    That’s just not possible, I thought.

    But it was.

    Canyonlands has a unique ability to blow scale and perspective out of proportion and make big bigger and the bigger things incomprehensible.

    Stevie Haston was the first to have the vision to climb across these ceiling cracks with no aid, trying to muster enough burl and brawn to shuffle his way across Century. Although his efforts to free the route were thwarted by pain, fatigue, and brutality, his vision was the birth of free climbing, on what we’ve now dubbed as Monster Cracks.

    It’s strange to think that many of the pioneers of this very niche and unique climbing form (scaling Monster Cracks) are in fact British! Crusher, an expat, was the first to embark on the ceiling journey, Stevie was the first to envisage that these things could be free climbed, and Tom and I were the first to manage a redpoint of one of them. That’s not to say American climbers hadn’t sought out roof-crack climbing in this area—they had. But, the Monster Cracks have been left solely to the Brits. Why is that? Is it because, coming from Britain, we have nothing, so when we’re offered something, we want everything? We go for the biggest, the tallest, the hardest, the burliest? Maybe. It’s hard to say. Speaking my own thoughts, for me, it’s either all in or all out. I’m like that with most things I do—110 percent or nothing at all. When Monster Cracks are ripe for the picking, for me, why would I go any smaller?

    Monster Cracks aren’t just roof cracks that are twenty, fifty, or one hundred feet long. These lengths and sizes you can comprehend. Monster Cracks are ones that blow your mind even if you’ve seen them hundreds of times before. One hundred and fifty feet of roof climbing is the entry level. They require inventive tactics, teamwork, rope work, and rope swaps just to work them. They’ll gobble a quadruple rack of cams. Multiple ropes. Dozens of pairs of shoes. Many harnesses. They’ll let you have one redpoint attempt every four days, as they’ll beat, maul, and spit you out ripped and broken. Monster Cracks don’t give in with ease and without battle. No climber—dare I say it, not even Ondra—would make one look pleasant and easy, even though the grades they are given are miles below what he is capable of. They are brutal, and a strong, overly optimistic belief that the impossible is in fact possible is the only way you will succeed.

    Once you’ve had a dose of desert crack, you’re hooked in a strange, masochistic way to the pain and the pleasure. There won’t be another single-pitch climb in the world when, after topping out, you are so glad the experience is over yet instantly craving more. It isn’t a joke when I say you can’t walk, stand up, lift an arm, or clench a fist after you’ve finishing; they literally physically paralyse you from top to toe. That’s rewarding, that’s inspiring, that’s addictive, and that’s the drug that keeps luring us back to the desert time and time again.

    We’ve now established four Monster Cracks in the Canyonlands desert, and the final one, the fifth, the hardest one, The Crucifix—the one that will break me while I try to complete it—remains a project.

    Century Crack was the first and our learning experience with this type of climbing. Even though we set two years aside to train for it and had that amount of time to comprehend size and scale, it still blew both our minds when we first saw it.

    The most mentally challenging part to completing Century Crack was the training. We had a goal in mind, but we were training blind. We trained for a climb for two years, on wooden cracks in Tom’s cellar, without having ever seen or been on the route. All we had were two photos, for direction, education, and knowledge.

    It’s comparable to a sportsperson saying they are going to enter the javelin competition at the next Olympics and win. But, they are just going to study images to understand what it is they are competing in, practice in a small room with a polystyrene javelin to gain some form of technique, but never actually throw a real javelin on a real athletics field. You’d tell them they were totally barking mad! And they would be. And so were we.

    We studied two photos of the crack to get an idea of length. We got some rough dimensions from Stevie about crack width, and we built an eight-foot section of horizontal off-width in Tom’s cellar made out of old kitchen work tops covered in grip paint. We told ourselves we’re going to establish the hardest off-width in the world, in two years time, and put our minds and hearts solely on it. Total, total madness!

    But there lies beauty in the madness. What if we lived in a place full of distractions, of great crack climbing? What if we lived close to the project and could go on it whenever we wanted to? Well we probably wouldn’t have trained as hard. The sense of unknown difficulty made us train to our limits. There was no end to the training in the cellar—you could only do another lap, and you could only get better. What if Century Crack was that extra lap? What if we did need to get better?

    Tom got stronger than me, which then made me get stronger than Tom. A constant cycle of tiptoeing up, overtaking, and overlapping each other—a snow-balling effect of competition helping the other person strive forward in fitness and strength.

    Pete training in The Cellar. Photo: Tom Randall

    “Well, the route must be harder than that; therefore, we must train harder still.”

    A vicious cycle. But a cycle that worked in our favour and to our advantage. That was our motivation, and that was our secret, the guide of the unknown.

    After those two years of training were up, we put two months aside to make a tour of all America’s hardest off-widths. Our reasoning for climbing the wide cracks that the States had to offer was simple: it would first act as a warm-up for Century Crack, it would give us a gauge on how we were climbing, and we would be able to give a better-justified decision when on completion of Century Crack we had in fact climbed the hardest off-width in the world…because at the end of the day, who was going to take two off-widthing Brits seriously? That’s right, no one. We needed to back ourselves up with other climbing, not only to prove to others but to also prove to ourselves that we had taken a step forward.

    We completed the climb on our second day of trying it and have since taken our “guide of the unknown” and applied it to other hard crack climbs worldwide with great success.

    In 2015, we decided we wanted to step things up a notch. Or two. Or three. We had a vision to take crack climbing and trad climbing from the stagnant 5.14 level it had been at for the past 20 years and push things forward to 5.15. Find something really hard. Next level. Testing.

    Our default setting for the search was Canyonlands. The formations were correct, and the area had endless amounts of unexplored territory. We were looking for roof cracks and our specifics were: big, architectural, hard, cool, and a variety of different sizes.

    We spent one month driving, walking, abseiling, jumaring, and exploring different caves and crack systems. Too small. Too easy. Not cool enough. We were ruthless with our approach, because if we wanted to find something inspiring and next level, we had to find the correct feature.

    The most disappointing “walk away” from a roof crack was that which became the Millennium Arch. We initially walked away from it, disregarding it as being too easy to be “the project.” However, on a subsequent trip, the knowledge of knowing there was The Monster of all monster roof cracks out there lured us back in. This thing was enormous, and we were unable to fathom its length. It was a three-hundred-foot pitch. The length of a hundred-metre running track, but in a roof! It totally tipped the scale of reality, possibility, and vision. Is this thing even real? Is it climbable? And are we going to be able to climb it?

    When landscapes are that big and dimensions that unrealistic, it’s hard to even set off across into the void. Forty-six cams were needed to protect the route and six ropes to logistically work the route. That’s a triple big walling rack to work a single-pitch climb. Two ropes were used to get down to either end of the arch, as the base of the route was too dangerous to walk from one end to the other. One rope was used for working sections and another to lower off midroute, as the lead rope wasn’t long enough to get us back to the ground. A short one was fixed in place to make a jumar back to the belay after lowering off midroute. A stashed rope midroute was used as a second lead rope, because the first lead line wasn’t long enough to finish the pitch!

    After five days of work, rigging, practice, and preparation, we’d adjusted our blinkers to believing it was possible, and we were the ones to climb it.

    The crack was mainly hands, and good hands, although there were several cruxes revolving around wider sections, but there was also respite at halfway. The pump in the thumbs is astronomical after a hundred metres of horizontal jamming and made the rope swap halfway more challenging than it needed to be. Oh yes, there was a rope swap. Our eighty metre obviously didn’t make the hundred-metre stretch, and if it did, the rope drag would have been too bad at the end to finish. So, untying in a no-hands rest midroute and retying into our prestashed rope was the only option.

    The route is an arch—you don’t top out; you just step off at the other end. When Tom made it to the finish, I could barely see him, a little speck far, far away in the distance.

    It’s a once-in-a-lifetime route. Once-in-a-millennium route. They don’t come that big, that pure, or that spectacular very often. It was a privilege and honour to be able to make such a feature into a piece of climbing. A real treasure of world-class single-pitch climbing. A Monster Crack. The king of Monster Cracks.

    The search for the project still continued. We searched every canyon and just about every major cave system but to no avail—we couldn’t find anything difficult enough. One month in the desert searching seas of overhanging crack systems and we hadn’t found what we were after. Disappointed is not a strong enough word. Gutted doesn’t make the cut. Devastated is closer to the truth. We were driving out of Canyonlands empty-handed and projectless.

    It sounds cliché to say that the project was found in the one final cave we double-checked on the drive out. But, it actually was!

    It was a section of canyon we thought we’d fully scoped; however, the size of the cave didn’t quite match where we had looked before. We’d gone wrong. This time we wouldn’t. Back down again.

    Walking into the cave, I could tell it was big, and I could tell there were options. Roofs, roof cracks, and caves everywhere. Start there; finish here. Start here; finish there. From the side. From the back. Pure lines. 5.13. 5.14. 5.15. A maze of linkups, possibilities, and projects. But right from the back, right from the heart of the cave, was the project line. Blasting out, incredibly long, impassibly thin. Another Monster Crack and The Crucifix project was born.

    We knew straight away it was going to be hard. A thin section at the beginning and a closed-up part at the end were going to prove to be the difficulties. The end went free with a crucial pinch block; thankfully this section was only 5.14a.

    The first half of the route was where the problems were going to lie. The 5.13c climbing lands you at a definite crux. Desperate beyond belief. Turn the Cobra Crack mono horizontal and multiply the length by ten, and you can start to get an idea. It was so hard, but it was all there. All the holds linked and fitted.

    We dubbed it The Crucifix project due to the bisecting crack that passed through the centre, giving it a cross-like look, and the fact that trying to climb this thing would probably be the death of us!

    You can’t create the cutting edge of something without putting the mileage in on similar terrain. Tommy Caldwell didn’t discover and climb the Dawn Wall without many other first ascents on El Capitan. Adam Ondra didn’t climb Silence without hundreds of grade 9s first. This route seemed so far above what we had done before and so hard mentally to comprehend doing, it was important to spread the weight onto doing further desert projects. More Monster Cracks to get familiar with the Crucifix Cave.


    First up was the bisecting crack. A two-hundred-foot pitch. First half hands. Second half off-width. It was the second half that proved to be the crux of the route. Sustained no single hard move. Climbing the route was the closest I’ve come to falling on an off-width without actually falling. It was skin-of-the-teeth stuff. Three-quarters of the way along, my body was on shut down; it had had enough, yet there was still fifty feet to go. A total grind, a total battle, and body pump so painful it got past the point of pain and melted into the background, only revealing itself when I lay immobilised on top of the crag. Painful burns scolding my skin, and sickening lactate pushed through my veins.

    It’s probably the Monster Crack that will be forgotten first, overshadowed by Century and Millennium. But this one gave me the most physical fight I’ve had to put up on any of them. A Monster Crack that takes into account all skills. Hands. Fists. Off-width. Spin throughs. Left-leg leading. Right-leg leading. Wide Pony. Private Pirate. Sidewinder. You name it—it was in there. A crack so weird new names have been created to describe techniques. Private Pirate: a downward palming and undercutting technique used to make upward progress. Wide Pony: an upside-down stacking position, which resembles riding a wide pony.

    You can’t just have one trick for this one! You need to pull out all the tools and fight from the toolbox, and they all need to be sharp. Crown of Thorns joined the tally of Monster Cracks.

    The author on Lamb of God. 5.14. Photo: Tom Randall

    The final Monster Crack was a stepping-stone towards the Crucifix. Link the beginning of CoT to the end of the Crucifix. A dogleg of a line but still another two-hundred-foot beast. It is probably the easiest of all four, but that doesn’t mean you don’t need inventive tactics to work it. A belayer and a self-belay system are the only way you can “toprope” the end section, and even then, when you fall off, you still end up miles away from where you want to chalk, feel, and observe holds. A total nightmare.

    The important thing was, it was a stepping-stone. A small one. But a stepping-stone nonetheless. We knew if we climbed it, we’d cement in our heads that, “If the crux of The Crucifix goes, we’ll climb to the end.” Another ceiling journey and play on words and The Cruzifix became a reality.

    The first half and crux of The Crucifix was up next, to really start chomping away at. Although we knew it was possible, some moves weren’t even close to going. Start at the beginning; start basic. It was a big achievement to just hang a single position. “The five holy hangs” were created—a test to see whether the five hardest positions could even be hung on the route. From thinking it was sickening to even pull on, we got to the point where some moves in the crux actually got done.

    However, the hardest still remain uncompleted, and the thought of linking them together seems inconceivable. This is all in the mind though, because it is obvious it’s all there; it’s just beyond our current level at the moment. Swinging across a roof off the second and final joint of one finger, with terrible footholds, will seem desperate and daunting. With time, like everything else you do enough, familiarity will build and feel normal. The body will adapt, and visions will, I hope, become real.

    Since Century Crack, we’ve been on three trips to the desert. One, to find the Crucifix. Two, to develop our skills in the area. And three, to do continuous development and work on the big project. Every time we’ve come back from one of these trips, the question is always asked, “So, do you think you’re going to do The Crucifix project next time?” No! The answer is an obvious and resounding no.

    We’ve had fourteen sessions on the route; that’s barely even scratching the surface of hard redpoint projects. Steve McClure just spent 128 days on his new 9b Rainman at Malham Cove. A hundred and twenty eight days!

     The Crucifix is the hardest thing I’ve ever tried, been on, or seen close up. This isn’t a twenty-session project or fifty-session project. This is hard and is going to take an uncountable number of sessions and multiple years. It’s going to be a slow, rocky road and blur the lines of whether something is possible or impossible for us.

    It’s going to take more than just training, tactics, inventiveness, a solid partnership, and heaps of dedication. The Crucifix is no quick fix; it’s not going to come easy, but I’m ready for the fight!

    What now? How do we go about trying to make the impossible feel possible?

    We’ve gone back to our roots. Building replicas. We’ve come back to the same old place, home, and brought the crux of The Crucifix with us. The lengths between the holds have been measured, and sequences have been logged. We’re not training blind, but in reality, this thing is too hard to train blind for. However, we are training with no distraction. With a specific replica, we can have the hardest sections of the route in Tom’s cellar to work on whenever we like. We can really focus in on strengths we need to gain, skin-pain tolerance we need to build up, and muscle memory we need to develop. In this next year, things are going to start getting very real. Progress does have to continue tiptoeing forward.

    Why so open about a project we’ve not yet done? And are we not worried of other better climbers coming and stealing it? These are a couple of questions I’ve been asked a few times. I have no worries though, as I think climbers have respect for other people’s projects when they can see that time has been invested.

    Also, when was the last time anyone other than Tom and myself climbed a Monster Crack? When has there ever been more than five people climbing roof cracks in Canyonlands full stop? The answers are no one and never. The climbing style is niche, the location is a total pain in the arse, the route logistics are a nightmare, and you need a climbing partner equally as psyched as yourself to stand a chance. It’s not a Spanish clip up. Nothing is easy, and nothing about this climb has the draw factor saying, “Come and climb me.” I think Tom and I are alone with this one.

    If, dare I say it, we ever manage to complete this marathon project, the Monster Crack of all monster roof cracks, will that be the end of desert climbing for me? I don’t think it would be the end of my desert climbing. Like I say, the battle, the pain, and the pleasure draw me back—it’s addictive. What I can say is, and I know for sure this is true, if I ever climb The Crucifix project, I will never climb anything as hard ever again.

    William Blake wrote, “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” Pete Whittaker takes the never-ending vertical road to find his limit, an end. But do roads even have an end, or is there always another turning?

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    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

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