Right now, this detail is all that matters: the carabiner just fell back into the crack, and you’re staring it down as if it’s the only damn thing in the whole universe. Your middle finger brushes it aside on the first pass, then just lightly levers it toward the waiting index and thumb with a pinch of rope between. My god, could this take any longer? Your right foot is skittering on a joke of a nubbin and about to blow; sweat drips down your helmet straps. An audible click signals that the carabiner is finally closed.
by Drew Thayer, Senior Contributor (this piece is an excerpt from Volume 8)
The cam looks good…good enough. You only have two left and neither look like they’ll be much use. You scan above again, as if the geometry of the wall might have changed in the last few minutes. No such luck. There’s either a nut placement up there—and you have the size—or it’s thirty feet to the ledge, and you’re gunning it in one go. Forearms fatigue, but calves burn, and this stance isn’t all that good anyway; it’s time to go up. Your mind quiets again as holds connect to moves, to sequences…a sketchy nut just fits in the fissure, and no time to ponder; motion must continue. Feet press and fight for purchase, an upward glance yields a quick calculation: you can reach. Big breath, smear a high foot, and you lunge to slap the ledge. It’s not as good as you hoped, but you already decided you wouldn’t let go. So you don’t.
It ain’t pretty, but you flop your belly onto that ledge and kick your legs to shuffle your chest forward, until you can pull up and sit back. As the oxygen creeps back into your brain, your eyes relax and you slowly become aware of the vast expanse behind…crags and trees stand in still silhouettes against the open sky. Your breath returns as you fiddle in gear, tie your cordelette, and settle into the rituals of the belay. Reach down and pop a shoe off each heel…toes sigh with relief, and you can’t help smiling. The world returns to a semblance of order; for now, you do not have to be bold. Eyes focus out to behold the greater place. Distances fade away to the horizon, beyond reckoning.
A microcosm, a little vertiginous window, a limbo stance, a temporary perch. The hours spent tethered above on belay ledges vary in style but are all similarly removed from the order and routine of the world of clocks. We’ve spent this time above quiet woods, harsh deserts, howling steppes, gated tennis-and-golf communities, above the shimmering lights of Colorado Springs and Las Vegas, above nothing but the vast expanse of British Columbian interior, ranges and valleys and torrid rivers stretching beyond comprehension toward the Arctic Circle. We have passed these hours shivering, huddling out of the wind, sweltering in the sun and praying for water.
The emotional landscape we bring to these ledges is as diverse and dynamic as their physical states. Sometimes the space is pure; sometimes it’s as cluttered as the calendars and desks we left in a hurry to get out here. Sometimes we ask terrible questions: What if this nut blows? What the hell am I even doing here? Sometimes we just want to get the f*#% off this thing. Everything flows through: courage, cowardice, gratitude, disgust. Fear.
At eighteen years old, twelve miles deep into the Sierra Nevada, I first knew the paralyzing fear of being stranded when my partner fell and lost consciousness for five seconds that felt like eternity. I looked out from the wall at the huge vault of air around me, plunging down two thousand feet to the river and up the slabs and cliffs across the valley, not a soul in sight, and realized that despite my fear, the wilderness does not care…I was beginning to learn the meaning of alone.
Hot and cold, confident and doubting, winter and summer, we pass though unending cycles and occasionally pause on a ledge for a finite moment. I’ve huddled in a shaded alcove and pressed out vertical push-ups on the wall to fight my shivering. I’ve stared upward in vice-like focus at my partner, hesitant and scared on lead, on one of those pitches where he has to get to the next stance. I’ve wondered the horrible, essential question: will we make it? I’ve relaxed back on my tether and turned off my lamp and watched the stars pierce the black void above, soaking in the velvet silence of night augmented by the soft tinkle of aluminum on stone.
In the Black Canyon, off-route and tired and struggling upward in our third hour of darkness, I hung from the wall and searched the convolutions and aberrations of the rock above for any passage to our deliverance to the flat earth. Shivering above the dark abyss, I committed to selling my rack and taking up a “normal” pastime, anything that could never get me in such a lunatic position. Such plans we make, promises, bargains…and rock remains above. On that dark night, we groped the braille of the wall like blind men; each time, we found the weakness and gained ground. I dragged my belly across the “womb fight” and climbed up until the world turned flat, and we stood above the canyon rim exhausted and content, and it was a good day.
On occasion, we arrive on a ledge and get to experience, for once, a truly quiet slice of time. For a brief half hour, the world of men and machines is reduced to the gentle clink of metal and the slow rhythm of feeding rope, and we have nothing to behold but the whole wild world. Treetops sway in telltale breezes, ravens whirl on invisible thermals, swifts dart into their secret nooks. A deer walks through the meadow and pauses to eat, unaware of our presence.
Sometimes, while I’m perched alone on a belay ledge in the high places and I can feel the cold or thirst or constant grind of uncertainty eroding my patience, I wonder about the other human souls who have passed a similar time here. What thoughts have dwelled on this ledge? What emotions have reverberated off this stone…confidence, despair…hope? A climber has reclined in this small nook amidst the insane verticality of this world and paused during an audacious act…what inspirations have been born here, planted in minds to sprout elsewhere, around campfires and towns and homes.
Do you ever consider—only a thin cross-section of humanity has ever visited this place. Arriving here requires skill, stamina, and courage; continuing onward may demand much more. Here, we share a common ground with everyone who’s ever rested on this perch: a commitment to struggle, a belief in the value of boldness and the purity of suffering, perhaps a wound within that never quite healed. Perhaps a belief in something larger than our fickle selves, something we’re learning how to chase…
…and the rope pulls tight…three steady syllables of your partner’s voice echo on the wind. As slowly as the spell was woven, it suddenly breaks—it is time to work again. Legs crunch upward, and shoes snap over heels; toes wince for a moment in pain. Laces tied, jacket stowed, chalk bag opened, cold hands begin fiddling with the anchor…a time of rest is over, and it is now time to follow this rope upward in pursuit of the vertical unknown.
Drew Thayer is a based out of Laramie, Wyoming, and despite the demands of grad school, he cannot contain his fascination for the physical and mental journeys we travel in the vertical world. He explores these pursuits through climbing and writing and remains committed to pursuing type-two fun on objectives that seem a little too big. He records musings and images of his ventures at www.carrotsandpb.blogspot.com.
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.