American Climber, the memoir written by our publisher Luke Mehall is celebrating its one year anniversary this month, and this week we’re shipping copies of the book for $9.99, with free shipping.
This is an excerpt from the book, which documents Mehall’s tumultuous journey to climbing, which ultimately saved his life.
Chapter 24, The Road and Zion
I have to admit that I was chasing the climbing high. I wanted to feel that feeling frequently and often, and I drove all over to find it. With any highs, there are the lows. Being a dirtbag climber, it’s the loneliness of the road, at least for me; we all have our own demons. I was riding high out of Mexico, back into Texas, but the flat roads of Texas and Oklahoma had a way of killing the high.
Of course, I just had to find the next high. I stopped off in Gunnison, and it was still in the throes of winter. Gunny couldn’t provide me with the fix I needed. So I kept moving, kept pumping gas into the truck, and ended up in the Utah desert. I climbed in Indian Creek for a while and then had the appetite for something bigger. Zion was the destination, a sandstone Yosemite of sorts; the kind of place that would feed my dreams and give me the fix I needed.
I’d lined up an old college buddy, Dave, as my partner. Dave was the ying to my yang—he was calm and collected, and I was a bit hungry and charged. After two months of mostly predictable climbing, I knew the tall walls of Zion would provide adventure. Dave was a climbing guide and had the demeanor; in many ways, he was the only truly experienced climber in our duo; he could read the weather and the rock and knew when to push onward and when to back off.
This was perfect because I was ready to just set sail in any type of weather; I just craved the adventure, and I was full of the hopeful, youthful enthusiasm that will get you into trouble quickly. And, when we were two pitches up The Touchstone Wall, a classic thousand-foot route of seams and cracks, a wicked storm started brewing above us. A towering wall of dark gray clouds hovered, but I still wanted to press on. Dave looked at me like I was a damn fool, which I was, and told me we needed to rappel down, right now. And we did, and the rainstorm ensued, keeping the sandstone wet for days, so we rolled around the area in my truck, just wasting time.
The area surrounding Zion is a Mormon stronghold, and what is particularly interesting is that there are still the fundamentalist Mormons who practice polygamy, a once-common practice in their history. Now, being in Mormon country means you have to be very careful with weed and alcohol; those bastards will spy on you with night goggles when you’re in camp and deliver a thousand-dollar fine, plus probation, simply for hitting the peace pipe, which we often did in those days while celebrating a climb over a campfire and rice and beans.
On one rest day, a rainy day, we wandered over near Colorado City. I was reading Jon Krakauer’s Under The Banner of Heaven, which chronicles the sad, deep sins of the Mormons and their ties to polygamy and the abuse of women, and I was disturbed but curious. We drove through Colorado City, and it was like a pool of incest, a haunting reminder of how the Mormon religion started. People looked inbred and sad; I couldn’t bear to look them in their eyes, and we got out of there as quickly as possible.
After several days of wandering the region and trying to stay out of trouble, the weather cleared, and we went back up on Touchstone.
At this point, I was charged and ready to go and wanted nothing else in the world than to be up high in the vertical world. Tim rolled in at two in the morning and pulled into our campsite from Monticello, Utah, where he was living at the time. I demanded we get up as early as possible and everyone obliged. I was surely impatient and too eager. Tim slept slumped over in the front seat of his truck and looked haggard in the morning. Dave and I had already packed everything up the night before.
I was upset at how long we took in the morning and just wanted to charge the climb. We had to wait for the shuttle bus to get a ride in because Zion is closed to cars in the busy season. The tourists looked at us like we were out of our minds, draped in climbing gear. We tried to pay them no mind as we discussed our techniques. We were hoping to do the climb in one push, no bivouac, just up and down in the daylight; we’d be popping beers by nightfall, we hoped.
My selective ADD mind recalls the fourth pitch, a perfect 5.11 splitter that I tried to free climb. At the time, it was at my limit, and, with a few hundred feet of air below my shoes, the effort was thrilling and intoxicating, which is probably why I still remember it. Heart pounding, muscles shaking, I made delicate moves up the face, and barely pulled it off without falling. I was proud of my efforts, and I arrived at the belay awash in adrenaline and psych.
A truly experienced climber will take stock of the situation and decide if there’s enough time to complete the climb. I didn’t do that; I was just in love and in a trance with the experience. I mean, I didn’t analytically think about how we were going to get off this wall or if we had enough time to complete the climb. I just thought, “Holy fuck, this is awesome; this is the life, pushing myself to the limit, ending up higher and higher on a huge sandstone wall, surrounded by bigger sandstone walls. I just want do this forever and never grow old.”
I was not yet an experienced climber. I had enough experience on how to climb but not how to climb with style. At this point, Tim’s fatigue started showing itself. The guy had only slept a couple hours after driving all night. Dave was calm and collected like always and took the lead, pushing us higher. But the sun was setting as I took the next lead and climbed into the darkness.
We missed a key part of the beta on how to properly climb the Touchstone Wall—you’re supposed to rappel down once the steep climbing is over. The route continues, but it wanders up several unimpressive slab pitches, leading to a point of no return.
I’d climbed into the darkness, the night, and we looked at our topo, and we still had about five pitches to go until the summit. Once Tim and Dave came up, we realized that, very unfortunately, Tim did not have a headlamp. He got mad at himself for the forgetfulness, but that’s the breaks—sleeplessness leads to forgetting things. And, climbers are almost proud of our ability to improvise.
Then I was getting mad. I started leading up the slab, thinking we’re close to having the day over, and I couldn’t complete a move. I climbed up and down, and then started yelling, started screaming, like some ancient rage decided to leave my body that day. Dave and Tim sent up the protocol of encouragement, the things climbers always say like “you got it; come on, man, you can do this.” I was mad because hours earlier I had been performing at a much higher level, in much steeper more difficult terrain, but the darkness and the fatigue were getting to me, and, in fact, had broken me down until I was a person screaming at a rock face, like yelling at the wind, desperation and frustration getting the best of me. Far from the Zen focus I had just a few hours earlier.
I expelled that energy out of me and got it back together, and hours later we reached the top of the Touchstone Wall. It was one of the most pure moments of fear, bewilderment, and awareness that I’ve ever had. The moon shined brightly on the surrounding walls, and it was all out of this world but within this world. The world was this wild, astounding, inspiring place. It really was. It was like being on another planet, or in the middle of this deep dream you wondered how you were ever going to be able to get out of or wake up from.
Our escape was a massive gully system that ran alongside the wall. We’d have to rappel down it in order to get back to the base of the climb, so we could get back to the car. But, how would we do that? The shuttles had stopped running long ago and we were miles from our truck. We were out there, that was for sure.
Dave and I had to go first and last on the rappels, so we could shine some light on Tim, who had no light. After a couple rappels, Tim also realized he’d left his climbing shoes on the summit. This was no time to lament; we just had to move. Tim did end up saving the day with cheese and sausage that he’d brought along, and we devoured that like starving men, hungry, so hungry. We’d made seventeen rappels that had taken us several hours. Was morning approaching, or would the night last forever? we wondered. None of us had watches, or even a cell phone, so we had no idea what time it was. We reached a point where we could no longer tell where the next rappel was. We couldn’t tell and didn’t want to be more dangerous than we’d already been, so we just stayed put. We finally accepted the benightment. We sat there cold, fatigued, and frustrated. Dave made a final effort to find the rappel station and scrambled up twenty feet above where Tim and I just sat with our heads in our hands, trying in vain to sleep. He found nothing and sat up there, with his own thoughts of frustration, waiting for the sun to rise.
And it did, like it always does, and it showed us the way. We were a mere two hundred feet about the ground. We rappelled down to the ground and a euphoria struck us that would last for the rest of the day. The light, the surroundings, everything just became magical. The deliriousness of the night turned into a wonderment of light and excitement to just simply exist. We were hungry and we knew there would be food somewhere. And, we’d survived a situation that could have easily gone badly, really badly.
We caught the shuttle and headed straight to the nearby town where we found a buffet. It was just your normal American buffet, nothing fancy or special, but, damn, it felt special. We ate so much food that there’s no way they made a dime on us that day. We went back for fourths and fifths and talked to the waitress to ask if we could speak to the manager to tell them just how great the food was. We were high on life, man. We were so high on just climbing and suffering and surviving. It was one of the greatest days of my life.
This is how the addiction to a dirtbag life begins—have a big adventure, get scared and humbled, come back down to the horizontal world and everything seems anew. Normal everyday things become sacred, and then you just want to go up and do it all over again.
So after resting and eating everything we saw for a day and a half, Dave and I went back up. This time we packed a portaledge and a big haul bag, and we went after another so-called moderate aid route, Moonlight Buttress.
It seems silly now to carry so much on a route that barely checks in at a thousand feet long, but we needed to learn. And when my mind drifts back to this climb, it’s impossible not to think of it as a work of art from nature/God. A few approach pitches lead up to a laser splitter finger crack that starts and never seems like it’s going to finish. The splitter goes for several pitches, like a highway to heaven.
We had plenty of cursing and struggle to get up to that splitter, hauling everything but the kitchen sink. Our first night, we struggled like hell to get that portaledge set up, manual labor at its finest, fighting to put the metal rods together that form the base and let it sit horizontally along the wall, so we could have a small place to sleep for the night. It felt so awkward, and I went to anger much quicker than Dave, cursing at the damn thing. Finally, and patiently, Dave got it set up, and we had our dinner of one shared beer and some sort of food that we ate out of a can with the nut tool, the same tool we shoved into cracks to get the cams and nuts out, so the tool was covered in aluminum, grime, and dirt.
Like a good completed day of manual labor, we felt hard-earned satisfaction, relieved to have our perch on this sandstone wall in a canyon of sandstone walls, with trees below looking like small bushes, and birds circling and swerving below you and among you. There’s something to be said for living a life among the birds.
The struggle continued into the next day, taking down the portaledge, packing, and moving upward. The progress was simple, and the cracks were perfect, even better for free climbing, but we were not there yet. We were just a couple of hard-working guys, learning the mechanics of aid climbing, paying our dues for bigger climbs ahead.
The struggle was relieved at the top. We were awash with relief and success. We shook hands and proudly took stock of a hard-earned view as the sun went down. A week without showering, two walls, and a lot of wandering around the weird western Utah, it was time to go on to whatever would be next.
On the trail down, it was dark, and we slowly moved down with our ropes and large haul bag, happy as pigs in shit. A party of three passed us, with a couple women. They smelled clean and wonderful, like a flower in spring, showing us everything that was right in the world, and they probably held their noses as we passed. That night, we packed up the truck and drove back to Indian Creek.
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.