A Jack In The Box In The Chalk Bag by Spenser Tang-Smith

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I woke up before dawn in the parking lot of an apartment complex. My girlfriend and I had been living on the road for two years, and the tiny trailer we called home was furnished with a memory foam mattress atop a plywood bed frame I’d installed in its previously empty interior. For us, Walmart parking lots, rest areas, dirt pullouts, friends’ driveways, and any other flat spot away from imminent danger was a potential site for a good night’s sleep.

by Spenser Tang-Smith

I don’t normally wake before dawn. I’d love to be the type of person that does, the go-getter always chomping at the bit, the worm-catchiest bird that ever earlied. Sadly, I’m not. On this morning, it was the promise of an all-day adventure that caused me to set my alarm so early.

Evan was sleeping on the floor of our friend’s apartment. We hadn’t spent time together in several months, and were looking forward to a couple of days of long, moderate routes. A 15-pitch classic was on the docket for the day. I went inside the apartment and woke him up, the two of us grimly mumbling about needing coffee.

spenser and evan

Spenser and Evan in the middle, preparing for another adventure.

Evan is one of my best friends, and we’ve been partners for various follies spread over a decade. We met at UC Santa Barbara’s scrappy little climbing wall, which was mounted to the back of some bleachers and relegated to an inglorious corner of an aging adjunct gym facility. The wall was short, as was the window of time we were allowed to climb on it. Thanks in part to this limited schedule, a group of us formed fast bonds and are friends to this day.

Evan seemed to have a similar relationship to climbing gear as his girlfriends: he loved to rely on them, but never quite trusted them. In an apparent effort to banish his fears via immersion therapy, he tried valiantly to push us toward bolder, scarier, gear-oriented multi-pitch climbing. We usually demurred in favor of grappling with Santa Barbara’s numerous boulders, and he would good-naturedly strap on a crashpad and join the fun. We were (usually) single college males who enjoyed showing off for females, and though these mythical sirens rarely appeared at the boulders, we knew for certain they wouldn’t be on the cliffs.

Evan was also pursuing an interest in Search and Rescue. This obviously dovetailed with his gear obsession. There was a month during which he had trouble not showing you photos of that time he rappelled out of a helicopter. Later, he became an EMT, and would remain sober during Halloween weekend to drive inebriated partygoers to the emergency room. He seemed to genuinely enjoy taking things seriously and being the responsible one.

Evan did succeed in getting us all to have some big expedition days. We once drove 7 hours from Santa Barbara to Yosemite Valley, slept briefly on the ground, and woke up at first morning light to climb Snake Dike, a route ascends the iconic Yosemite landmark Half Dome via a long, runout route. Another friend, Dan, had brought one paltry liter of water for the 18-mile, 5,000’ elevation day. For this, he was teased mercilessly. Evan, the responsible one, was there to make sure we all survived the day, but he didn’t anticipate a biology undergraduate like Dan to botch something as simple as hydration. I was at least aware enough to be responsible for myself, which freed up some mental capacity for the recreational ridicule of my companions. We got up and down without incident and returned after dark, exhausted but satisfied.

Evan and I grew up 20 minutes apart, though we didn’t meet until college. After graduation, we were both living with our families, and decided to drive up to Tuolumne for a week of high country peak-bagging. On our second day, we tackled Matthes Crest. Leaving the car at 7am, we hiked for 3.5 hours, traversed a mile-long knife-blade ridge, and hiked back at dusk.

Back at camp, a celebratory cup of champagne, coupled with a medicinal cigarette, caused me to suddenly get light-headed. I got up and tried to amble to the tent. This failed. I woke up shortly thereafter in the dirt, blood dripping from a hole in my lip which in turn was caused by face-planting into a picnic table. Evan, being the responsible one, wouldn’t let me crawl into the tent to pass out, but instead drove me 90 minutes to the nearest ER.

Many of Evan and I’s most memorable moments together include some sort of silly strife that we bring upon ourselves or each other: my teeth-through-the-lip incident; that time Evan broke our friend Ben’s ankle by pushing him in the ocean (the responsible one, indeed!); myself getting banned from Joshua Tree National Park for 6 months because we tried to set up a slackline between two cars in the parking lot at midnight; or when Evan got shot in the penis by an Airsoft gun, and nobody felt badly for him because he deserved it.

With this history behind us, it should come as no surprise that this particular 15-pitch route would involve a very close call. Never ones to let our optimism flag, we anticipated nothing but a fun, if tiring day of hiking and climbing.

The author climbing "When I was a Young Girl I Had Me A Cowboy" in Wild Iris, Wyoming. Photo courtesy of the author.

Tang-Smith climbing “When I was a Young Girl I Had Me A Cowboy” in Wild Iris, Wyoming. Photo courtesy of the author.

We left the apartment and drove straight to Jack in the Box. While not typically part of either of our nutritious breakfasts, we were held partially captive by the earliness of the hour and our collective lack of familiarity with the local eateries. Besides, we had eaten there the previous morning without incident.

Resolving to make the most of such nutrient-poor food, I consumed two meals and a large coffee, thereby ensuring that sufficient quantities of all 8 essential vitamins and minerals made it into my stomach between all the empty calories. We also procured a small order of mini-churros. We were fueling up for a big day.

Any athletically inclined individual has a deeply intuitive understanding of the importance of gastric regularity. This is particularly pronounced in endurance athletes, and can be illustrated with a simple thought experiment: try imagining a Tour de France racer peeling off of the peloton, peeling off his shorts, and…well, the difference between having one’s morning glory and not having one’s morning glory comes into very stark relief. For our part, we were anticipating being on the wall for most of the day. In harnesses. The guide indicated many hanging belays.

I’m no stranger to shitting with the bears, as my outdoor semester should prove, but for some reason I didn’t feel the usual coccygeal tingle on this morning, even after the rocky and strenuous approach hike. We arrived at the base of our climb and were thankful to see it, as well as the rest of the wall, completely unpopulated. We donned harnesses and gear, tied in to the rope, and Evan set off with a sling full of gear to lead pitch 1.

During the belay I had a moment to be alone with my thoughts and my feelings. I felt a slight colonic pressure. I felt anxious about hanging in my harness for the next 10 hours. I thought of unripe fruits, coffee that’s too hot, sex without foreplay, and other things that are unsatisfying when hastened. I had no TP and there were no smooth sticks nearby. I can hold it, I thought.

Evan reached the next anchor and called down to me to take him off belay. This was my chance. I could trade ten minutes of discomfort and Evan’s derision for a mind free of digestion-related worry. I looked up. The climbing looked easy. I thought that, with a little extra pep in the step, we could summit in a few hours.

“Spenser, you’re on belay!” Evan called.

“Climbing!” I replied.

Ten minutes later I was at the belay with Evan, and all was going well. Some more climbing, and I felt fine. The air was cool but not too cold, there was a slight breeze, and we didn’t hear or see anyone else. We would soon be enjoying the view from 1500’ above the ground. Life was good.

Then we hit the chimneys. Chimney climbing is one of those incredibly intuitive techniques that never quite feels secure. Though the chimney pitches were supposedly easy in terms of technical difficulty, chimney climbing is never really easy. One must apply constant pressure in an outward direction. Chimneys are psychologically daunting as well, because the climbing itself is often slow, and if the climber should glance between his or her legs, they will see lots and lots of air.

Evan had led these pitches, as I insisted that he needed the practice trusting gear. Also, I was a bit scared of the imposing maw of rock into which we were to insert ourselves. I followed the first chimney pitch, a small backpack dangling between my legs so as to be out of the way.

In hindsight, I believe it was the constant outward pressure I was applying to the rock that caused a release of inner pressure, or maybe it was the second breakfast sandwich finally reaching the small intestine. For whatever reason, a potential problem became an actual problem at this point. Midway through the first length of chimney climbing, I felt what can only be described as inevitability. The feeling was exacerbated by the second and third pitches of chimney.

Reaching a small stance on top of the last chimney pitch, I briefly terrified my companion by giving him a wild-eyed look and demanding that he hand over the rack immediately.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“We need to get to the top of this route as soon as possible,” is not really what I said, telling him, in graphic detail, exactly why we needed to summit with haste. I had visions of verily sprinting up the remaining pitches like the monkeys I’d seen in Thailand. I did not stop to do the mental calculations that would’ve told me we still had hours and hours of climbing to do before topping out. We couldn’t even see the top.

Though I am a stronger climber than Evan, he has much more experience with placing gear. Any time I saved climbing quickly was lost each time I fumbled for a piece of protection, found it wouldn’t fit, and had to fumble some more. A shot of cortisol would hit my brain with each little delay. At the next anchor, I sketched a trendline in my mind and came to the unfortunate conclusion that nature would take its course before we reached a suitable lavatory location.

I started to weigh my options.

The first was to keep climbing and hope for the best. This was at once the most optimistic and improbable outcome. It was becoming apparent that I was going to have to find a way to take care of this problem while on the wall. The route we were climbing was quite a popular one, and this negated the second option: simply soiling the wall. Such an act, though undertaken out of sheer desperation, would be truly offensive. I would no sooner be able to live with myself if I caused the Venus de Milo to fall over, crushing David in the process.

The third option was to find some sort of container. My first thought was a chalkbag, as they are filled with a drying agent and equipped with drawstrings. Remembering that mine had fallen off in the chimney, I asked Evan for his when he reached the anchor. He refused. We had nothing else with us that would contain a moist mess in any sort of sanitary way. To say that I was panicking at this point would be like calling The Odyssey a travel essay.

Einstein was right about time being relative. Evan led the next pitch. I spent those interminable minutes hanging from the anchor bolts, leaning into a faint corner in the wall in such a way that my gluteals were pressed together. I alternately cursed Evan’s climbing pace, my own poor decision-making earlier in the day, and multi-pitch climbing in general. Had we been bouldering, I reasoned, this would be a non-issue and nobody’s chalkbag would be in jeopardy.

After an eternity, Evan called down to me that I was on belay and could climb. I was sweating bullets, and not from my armpits. Gingerly, I began climbing, but had to pause every move to breathe slowly and remain calm. A few sections required a high-step, and in these moments I felt more trepidation than a soldier about to leave his foxhole. Thankfully, the climbing was easy, allowing me to take a hand off the wall and reinforce my retention when needed.

By halfway through this pitch, I had finally let go of any remaining denial. There were at least 6 more rope-lengths to go until the summit, which translated to at least a couple of hours. This was not a fleeting urgency, but a slow, unstoppable tsunami of rising pressure. The levees were on the brink of collapse and the waters were rising. For the first time in my adult life, I mentally prepared myself to shit my pants.

I decided that Evan was to blame for all this. It was his insistence on long epic days that led me to this point. It was his idea to get mini-churros. For this, he would pay. I resolved to make it to the anchor, and if Evan wouldn’t give me his chalkbag, I would either take it by force, or subject him to the unpleasantness of sharing an anchor with a fully grown person in the act of soiling his own clothes. I would maintain eye contact with him the entire time. I would not apologize for any odors.

The famous Kipling poem, If, was running through my mind, in particular the lines

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,  

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!

I was not a man. I could no longer force my nerve and sinew to hold on, and the will was fast fading. It took all I had to make it to the top of the pitch. When I finally reached Evan, I found him standing comfortably on a ledge slightly larger than a coffin. I was adrift; the ledge was a rescue ship. I was dying in the desert; the ledge was an oasis. I was freezing in the tundra; the ledge was a log cabin and a mug of hot chocolate.

I mumbled something about taking me off belay and immediately started taking off my harness. Evan tried to keep me from free-solo pooping, but his pleas fell on deaf ears. Time was of the essence, and I was busy digging a small hole in the small patch of dirt the ledge provided. As a compromise, he improvised a quick swami-belt out of a shoulder-length sling and clipped me in.

When I was finished, we continued climbing and returned home without further incident.

I would not repeat this experience, nor would I suggest others follow suit. Yet, that day, I experienced a rush of neurotransmitters that I can only describe as the closest this heathen will ever get to attaining nirvana. The length of time spent in severe and increasing discomfort, combined with the exquisite view from our perch and the joy of sharing such a memorable experience with one of my best friends, resulted in the perfect storm of absolute relief.

This is Spenser Tang-Smith’s first piece for The Climbing Zine.  

Spenser Tang-Smith has been climbing for over a decade. He spends a lot of his time behind a camera, trying hard to inspire people by sharing stories of people trying hard. With his girlfriend Vikki Glinskii, he formed The RV Project over 3 years ago, and can’t believe they’re still doing it. They currently live in a 60 square-foot trailer made of love and wood and some steel, and held together by hope and glue and various fasteners.

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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 two books: The Great American Dirtbags and Climbing Out of Bed, both written by publisher, Luke Mehall. 

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