My path as a climber had to face a most real enemy: pure unadulterated fear. This fear manifested itself in the biggest baddest canyon, nearby, the most intimidating chasm in Colorado, and even the entire United States, The Black Canyon.
Excerpt from American Climber, the new memoir by Luke Mehall
“The Black” as we called it, was basically in our backyard. Had it been further away I could have never faced it, never seen the terror or transcendence it has to offer. Since it was close, only an hour and a half away, there was no other option to face it if you really wanted to call yourself a climber.
My buddy Gene, 5.14 Gene we called him, after a Halloween outfit he wore so perfectly one year, an eighties brightly colored spandex get up, had the enthusiasm of ten climbers. He was the kind of guy who would be standing on a bar yelling, “Let’s get wild” at two in the morning, and then crush 5.12s the next day. One day, when I proposed we did a big climb in The Black, called The Cruise, he was on board with no hesitation.
It could be the suicides. More people die from suicide than climbing, exponentially, in The Black. Was it their spirits that haunted the inside of this chasm, this giant gaping hole in the earth? Was that why I could never sleep properly in the campground before tomorrow’s climb? I’ve heard the ancient people, the Utes, the inhabitants of the land before the white man came along, believed the canyon was haunted as well. But, I am not a religious man, nor a superstitious man, and I don’t try to come up with answers to the big questions, I’m just here. And, when I was there, in the throes of the battle of mind and body, climbing a steep pitch of pegmatite split granite, I felt more alive, more in the moment, and clearer than at any point in my existence.
We arrived at night, too late, drinking Red Bulls on our drive and smoking weed. We watched the World Series, Gene a child of the East Coast was rooting for his Red Sox, so I obliged and watched with him. I don’t recall if they won or lost. I do, however, remember this climb of The Cruise.
We awoke with the darkness, after fitfully tossing and turning for a few hours, so basically there was no solid sleep. Sleep is the magic ingredient for life, as far as I’m concerned, and I don’t operate well without it. At this point in my climbing, I wanted to test myself. Sure I was a lifestyle climber, but I wanted to grow. I wanted to prove myself. Not for recognition, but for inner growth. The tests that the Black Canyon offered were more memorable and more valuable than anything higher education presented in the classroom.
So Gene and I woke up, ate oatmeal, slammed coffee, pooped, and shouldered the ropes and gear as we slipped into a gully of poison ivy and fear. The sun came up as we found the base of the route. We were already fatigued and tired, and had we known the angle of repose that an experienced climber has we would have suggested something smaller, easier. That said, a climber can only gain experience through experiences. Everything else is just bullshit, talk, and the world has enough of that.
We looked at each other with the eyes of eternity before we started up. Gene led the first part, a wandering fractured slab, that leads to the base of a giant wide crack. As I belayed and looked up the wall in front of us seemed infinite, that the top was so far away I couldn’t conceptualize an end in sight. And these are the greatest climbs, when one is fully engaged with the experience, having no idea how it will turn out.
The off-width, wide crack was my lead. I wanted it, but only in the concept of an idea. The actual climbing of the crack was part horror, part beauty. The crack, wide enough to get my elbows and knees in, made me work for it. The Gunnison River slowly roared below, and soon my voice would be muffled, we would only communicate in the brotherhood of the rope, when I would pull up the rope to clip Gene would know exactly what I was doing. When I ran out of rope and pulled it tight to Gene he would have to start climbing. Two figure eight knots together, two knots of eternity on each end of a ropelegth.
Jamming my elbows and knees in, in fear, a simple math equation, a puzzle that demanded athleticism and the management of the mind. I was also climbing like an amateur, even though I had some Black Canyon climbs under my belt, I still fumbled and made movements like a scared beginner. I wore a small pack, filled with a hydration bladder and snacks for the climb, pears and some lemon bars my girlfriend had made.
As I was a hundred feet from Gene, my body slammed into the crack, I felt a sensation of water dripping down my back. The hydration bladder had leaked and it dripped all the way down to my feet. I tried to move upwards and my shoes were covered in water. I didn’t have a piece of gear in for twenty feet, and I panicked. My heart beat faster than it ever had in my entire life. Relax. Breathe. These are rarely followed but useful mantras in everyday life. In climbing a simple mantra can keep you alive. The fear is always greater than anything else, you tell yourself. Just breathe, you can get through this.
I took my hand, put chalk on it, and rubbed the chalk on my feet. I prayed to God. I talked to myself like a drunken fool. I finally composed myself, continuing upward progress until the rope got tight. I was still thirty feet from the next belay ledge and had no more rope. Gene would be forced to start climbing, not knowing whether or not he was on belay. He wasn’t. I went into survival mode and moved, inch-by-inch, off-width climbing, one of the slowest forms of movement known to man.
I pulled up to the belay ledge and felt like I was going to puke. It took me hours to climb that pitch, I was humbled, hungry, hobbled, a mess of a man, and we still had a thousand feet of granite above us.
Dave led the crux pitch, a dihedral that lasted a ropelength, delicately dancing up on dime sized edges, placing gear when he could and running it out when he couldn’t. I was amazed at his skill, and didn’t know if I could have led that pitch. I climbed slow and desperately, already exhausted in the autumn sun.
The next pitch was my lead. It was a gently overhanging dihedral with good holds. I grasped for them and my forearms failed me, cramping, unable to perform the basic task of holding on. I told Gene to lower me back to the belay. He did. I was wasting precious time, but to mention it would have been to waste more time. Gene was in better shape than I was and went up to take care of business. He did. The sun was fading.
I led up and got off route, wandering up a granite slab to nowhere and then climbing back down. We were barely halfway up the wall, and had only an hour of daylight left. I finally got on route and made a belay at the base of a massive flake. When Gene reached my perch the sun had set. We had several pitches to go, probably seven hundred feet, and talked it out. We were both so exhausted we couldn’t bear to continue in the darkness. We didn’t want to go down because we would have to leave all our pieces as anchors, hundreds of dollars in gear, our most valuable and important possessions.
So we hunkered down, our first benightment. Time stopped and a great darkness overcame us. It finally happened. An epic mistake of inefficiency. It was not like some climbing mistakes though, all we had to face was suffering at the moment, not injury or death. Sure, you could die in a benightment, if weather moved in and you or your partner became wet and hypothermic, but the stark clear sky suggested that would not happen. We just had to suffer.
And we did. We didn’t speak for a while, not out of anger towards one another, but for indifference at the situation. We were supposed to be celebrating on the rim, with the darkness below, instead we drank nothing, our water was gone, and we were one with the darkness.
The ledge was just enough to sit upon, nothing else. We started to shiver and huddled together, wrapping the rope around us for some protection. We were too cold and uncomfortable to sleep. An eternity went by, and then another eternity. We checked our watch for time and were always disappointed.
We talked about what we wanted. We wanted food and water, and a woman to hold for warmth. We rubbed each other’s shoulders, trying to keep warm. We were cold, on the verge of dangerous cold. I thought of my girlfriend, Christina. I longed to hold her tight.
In the middle of the night Gene dropped his headlamp. It fell twenty feet down in the rock and we could see it, but there was no way we would get it. Somehow I’d packed an extra, tiny headlamp that he could use for the rest of the night.
We waited and waited, and lifetimes seem to pass by. When that sun hit us it was the most glorious feeling in the world. We greeted the sun as our God. It blessed us with warmth, and we forced ourselves to soldier on. Climbing should be like this, I knew then and forever. For you should have to suffer for your dreams. You should have to prove to your dreams that you are worthy. Some dreams, like climbing dreams, often demand lives, they demand that young men or women are killed in their prime; such dangerous dreams do we have as climbers.
On day one I was the weak link. I took too long on my leads and was unable to perform on others. On day two I had some chance at redemption. Gene was feeling extremely dehydrated and requested that I lead. I obliged, and I felt like I was climbing for the both of us, you always are in a partnership, but this day felt different, this felt like survival climbing, which I guess the nature of climbing has its roots in survival.
The second lead of the day involved a traverse with over a thousand feet of air beneath my feet, feeling it out, discovering how the holds felt and the best way to lean into them. On these leads I think I discovered I was truly a climber because I didn’t hate it. So much had gone wrong, we were out of food and water and my body felt terrible. But, this, the movement upwards for survival, somehow there was a great divine purpose.
Gene felt worse and worse and depending on me more, which somehow made me feel better. We moved at a snail’s pace up the wall as it became more and more fractured near the top. And, finally it was over.
We craved water more than anything. Then we drank the sky. It was so blue, and we felt so blessed to be alive. It was a privilege to suffer. We knew that then. Soon, I had what we wished we had more than anything in the world while freezing and starving on that ledge throughout the night: food, water, and a woman.
That night I held my girlfriend tightly. Under the cover of blankets and love a journey had been completed, and the magic of the Black Canyon was alive in my heart.