The front edge of my helmet drags across the granite as I move my head from side to side. I feel the beads of sweat break loose, falling from my brow and down my face. I try flexing my thighs to wake them from their blood strangled sleep, but to no avail. Matt is stationed below me, helmeted head pressed firmly against the wall as he looks between his legs at the Gunnison River a thousand feet below. Not 15 feet away from me, I see his shoulders heave. A deep sigh or a sob? I hang, slowly being strangled by my harness’s leg loops as the waist band cuts deep into my kidneys. I look up to find Miguel moving slowly. On this vertical wall of Braille, he searches for a micro ledge, a crystal, a savior. Any purchase for his chrome-moly hooks.
[story by Jesse Zacher] This piece is an excerpt from Volume 4 of The Climbing Zine.
He passes his fingers over a section of rock to his left, his fingernail coming to rest on an edge. I imagine the sound of finger nails grating across granite; all real sound is sucked down below us. The wavelengths are scattered by the roar of the river as it descends down the gorge. Miguel picks through his collection of hooks, fingerless gloves revealing black digits. He settles on the smallest. As he tries to place the hook, he momentarily stalls looking again for the edge, lost. The hook’s beak, the size of a pen’s head, moves in millimeters to find its place. He holds it still as he snakes his foot into the lowest stirrup of the aider. As he shifts his weight slightly, while keeping balance, the hook grabs. Removing his hand, he readjusts. He places more weight, and the hook bends slightly. Consequences. He stares at it with sorrowful intensity. Not wanting to commit, but knowing he must. He shifts more weight onto the hook. By his grimace, I know he hears it crunching the rock. I brace myself thinking about him blowing it and the 190 pounds of flesh and metal gear that would come crashing onto me. He freezes, then retreats off the hook. Hanging amongst the roar of the river, deciding. He pulls his face close to the rock and presses his cheek against it. The minutes are flighty as intensity saps us of our patience, our perception, and time. We continue our dance with gravity. This dance robs us of time, and life measured in blinks and in sobs while hanging on the edge of a black void by a hook.
I remember the day when I was standing in front of a cliff with an old climber. I confided in him my reservations about leading the climb in front of us. He shrugged and told me that he had always approached the fear of a climb with the saying, “I will not be intimidated.” He smirked at me in an old crusty way and said, “What’s the worst that can happen man? We are all a foot away from a dirt nap anyway.” We discussed what climbers are afraid of. On a basic level, they fear for life. They worry about plunging head first for earth. Climbers fear the fall for the failure of accomplishment. As they climb more, they fear what is called the “real world” because it bites at your heels, trying to pull you away from climbing.
Dirtbag climbers have become professionals at avoiding responsibility and chasing away the hungry dogs of society. Climbers avoid and fight anything that stands in the way of climbing, and once they have arrived into the arms of their beloved sport for an hour, a day, or a weekend they are still filled full of fear. The tickle of adrenaline and safety is always there, but they do not fear this, this is why they keep coming back. What they fear is defeat. They sacrifice relationships, family, and jobs to be right here, poised on dime edges, refusing like hell to be defeated by gravity. In climbing all the safety is there if you need it, but ultimately you don’t want to need it. It is tempting to use that safety as a crutch and form the limitless excuses of why you fell. We cling to mantras like, “I will not be intimidated” anything to keep us from down “there.”
Through accomplishing this, climbers are either focused and in control, or vacant and close to injury. Nothing tests this like big wall climbing. This is in part why we found our way to the Black Canyon, a test. We had spent months searching the guidebook and the internet looking for an appropriate challenge. The Black had a reputation for offering adventure. We settled on the Hallucinogen Wall on the North Chasm View Wall. Probably because it was a route that had the most information available about it, and it was soaked in history. I spoke with a few friends of mine who had done the route many years ago. They just smiled in a knowing way and told us to go do it. We came together pretending to be un-intimidated. We fortified ourselves against the perceived danger with the stories of climbers getting benighted by the canyon, left to divvying out their chapstic to eat as that’s what was left. Old stories of sitting a few hundred feet from the top, but a thousand from the ground, watching the walls close in and the sun set. If they could do this, so could we. Sitting respectively at school, at work, and in the marines we all wanted this test to prove to us, and to them what we were made of. We inflated ourselves with so much machismo yet told no one of our plans. We wanted this climb to serve as a litmus test for our futures as adventuresome chaps. The Black Canyon provided.
Our Italian blooded Miguel, with his colorful pirate tattoos from wrist to neck, had just returned from the Marines. Matt, finished with his math degree, didn’t know what was next. And I, I had stopped going to school. What had started off as an itch to go, just an idea, evolved into lists and plans. This brought us to the top of the canyon on a late spring afternoon. The Black Canyon stands out amongst other destinations because of how one must start a climb there. We had to descend every inch of what we hoped to ascend. We descended via the Cruise Gully. Luckily the decent was perhaps the tamest of the access gully of the canyon. The Cruise Gully is a V-notch on a steep cliff which funnels a detritus of rocks, plants, and egos. Typically, climbers go for a light and fast ethic in order to get to the rim by sunset. We had planned for three days spent on the wall because of the degree of difficulty and the height of our chosen climb.
We hurled ourselves down the gully with a hundred pounds each on our back. When the sun started to sink behind the steep walls we were still descending and trying desperately to avoid the poison ivy that grew out of any and all breaks in the scree. Our smiles devolved into pursed lips of concentration as we strived for balance. Our laughter and machismo was drowned out by a new sound. A sound that would enter and slowly rape us of our sanity: the river. In the spring, the upper dams are hard pressed to hold back the spring flows. For a period of a few months the dam releases the Gunnison River, and at once you reckon with the force that created the walls on which we were to climb.
Near dark, we hack away the poison ivy for a place to sleep. Matt and Miguel climb the first pitch. I am on water duty. I carry the twenty seven empty bottles with ease down a hundred yards to the bank of the river. I stand and stare deafened across the river seeing an arching wall of water standing taller than I. Wave train after wave train of water commands a passage and resonates through the rock, through my shoes, and into my chest. I find the smallest eddy possible. The noise drains thought. I begin filling the bottles but have to constantly chase the water as it surges eight inches up and down with the will of the flow. Faced with such ferocity, I look more positively at getting on the rock and off the ground as I envision sleeping and drowning as we are washed away, a rogue whim of the river.
Bottles filled and a tablet of iodine in each, I struggle to lift the pack in which they lie. I walk a few steps but stumble to a stop. I take out half and ferry the water in two loads. Miguel and Matt have finished the first pitch and some of our sleeping stuff has been unpacked. Our haven is barely big enough for three as we cinch the sleeping bag’s hood over our faces, trying to deny the noise of the river. We say nothing because we can’t compete. I watch the stars as if with blinders on, the walls of the canyon threatening to enfold us on either side.
In the morning we don’t admit to each other how much we are suffering from lack of sleep. At the casual mention of the possibility of our endeavor, we were told by more than a few that we were not ready or experienced enough for this trip. Their cautionary words had only served as a primer for what we perceived as our glorious coming-of-age adventure.
The first full day on the wall was a search for synchronicity. One of us climbed, while the other sat and belayed. The third person was left to counting tourists dangling from view points on the southern rim. All of us stared at the river. No matter the height, the roar of the canyon’s hydrology followed us. The sun baked the rock and as we pushed and pulled our way up, our skin burned. We had allotted two liters per person per day. The sun vacated our fluids and as we crept up the wall like slow ants, we tasted our dry metallic tongues and chewed our cheeks. When we drank, we held the water in our mouths as long as possible trying to moisturize the imagined cracks. When we finished a pitch, we had to work for another hour, hauling our stuff up the low angled wall. With pulleys, we pulled on the rope. We threw our bodies down the cliffs as counter weights, slowly moving the bags upward. As the large bags inched up the rock, they continued to be caught on even the slightest protrusion. Everything worked against us. I was hoarse from screaming commands a hundred feet above them. Screaming to even whisper as all sound drowned out and away, down canyon with the river. We were reduced to rope tugs for communication. The more I depended on the rope, the more I thought of its meaning. The rope that kept me on the rock, tied into my harness, snaking through the protection until it arrived at my belayer, keeping me alive. I could feel when wind caught the rope; I felt it dragging on the rocks, and the sound of individual fibers snagging on the rough surface as I pushed closer to the cliff. It was a shared umbilical cord, and from it we begged some modicum of safety.
As the day wore on, I lead the first of the hard pitches. I stared at protection that looked as if it would explode on me. I stood up on the first head of the pitch, trying to trace every micrometer of metal as it contacted the rock, looking for movement when I fully weighted it.
“These things are fucking time bombs,” I told Matt.
“Clip them, sniff them, but don’t fucking rip them,” he said cryptically and paid out more rope.
I stepped higher up and looked at the next head I was to clip. The brass was tarnished which sparked my imagination of the negative twenty degree winters and the ninety degree summers. I thought of the yearly exhale of the canyon, the rock and metal expanding and contracting year after year.
“How many more times do you think we will be out here again?” I asked as I clipped the brass head and started to step on to it.
“Shit, I had to promise the next three weekends to hiking and wine tasting with Danielle just to be able to go this once,” Matt said. Miguel stayed decidedly quiet as he has so few attachments in life as of yet.
I thought of the argument my girlfriend and I had when I breached the subject of going climbing with the guys for five days. I remember counting the use of the word “responsibility” fifteen times in that first argument. After many occasions, Matt and I had perfected the task of asking for a climbing trip. We always asked early, and for more days than we had really wanted. A few months after the first argument, “responsibility” was still the key word, but I felt her slowly giving in. Maybe she felt that I would not be moved on this, I was going. Perhaps she didn’t want to lose perceived control of the situation, or maybe she didn’t want to think she was subpar.
As I stood up on the third head in a row, I envisioned the season’s toll on the canyon. I tried to forget about things like metal fatigue and corrosion. I didn’t even want to guess when the last time this climb had been attempted. I tried to forget it all together, I will not be intimidated. The truth is, I have never had good luck with mind games. I am reactionary and as I cling to desperate seconds, I act in ways that are far from controlled. I prey on all elements of luck, and so far I live. I looked down between my legs at my partners. Matt hung, belaying me, as Miguel sat ten feet lower, straddling a bucket with his pants down, shitting and waving at the tourists. You take everything up with you, or it all comes down together.
Exhaustion better describes a hard work out, a long day at work, maybe lack of sleep. The word struggles to encompass the state of our mind and bodies as we set up our camp on the side of the wall. The simple tasks of erecting the portaledges proved monumental as we weakly tried to connect the pieces with our swollen hands. Our portaledges, finally pieced together, hung one above the other. Matt slept alone as Miguel shared with me. Our headlamps pierced the noise and dark only far enough for us to see each other. We didn’t even think about sipping from the flask that we had dragged seven hundred feet up. Our minds were too ragged as it was. The sound of the river never grew faint. There were moments of silence as we settled into our sleeping bags that were punctuated by wind whipping up from the canyon. We ate canned fruit, powerbars, and talked quietly for a while and finally stopped when the wind became too loud. We were rocked to sleep by the gusts of wind hitting our portaledges turned kites. I turned over onto my side as we set sail into the night. I realized that other then the conversation earlier with Matt, I hadn’t thought about my girlfriend once. This trip was not only a test, but an escape from all our respective problems. Perhaps our shared struggle on this wall provided us with an understanding of each other’s problems that words could not provide. We rode on into the night on our giant kites wondering where we would arrive tomorrow.
We slept little, and with the rising sun ate more canned fruit. My jaws ached from chewing through my tenth powerbar, and it would pop in complaint as I masticated. As we packed up I wondered what we were trying to prove, and to whom. Superficially we believed that we just wanted to live the experience, and to grow from it. Perhaps we wanted the experience for reference. We wanted it on our life resume. We wanted the stories from it. I knew that for me, it was about forgetting what lay beyond the cliffs. When climbing, real unadulterated fear grabs you so completely that time oozes through you unnoticed. The utter focus and hyper awareness forces details of survival into the forefront of your mind and all other problems to the periphery. This fight or flight was tasted readily on our climb and it was personal. Though we may have shared this expanse of rock together, our battles measured in vertical feet, are limited to the individual. It is limited to the one on the sharp end of the rope. We only shared our fear of what was to come as we go higher into difficult territory and farther away from a retreat.
We all winced as we organized and packed up. Most of our gear, being made of aluminum, left residue on our hands and sunk into our bloody cuticles causing them to swell. We sipped on our water, and through the morning each lead a challenging and hard pitch. We gathered on a ledge and pulled up our bags. As we got higher, the walls got steeper. This made it harder for climbing, but easier for hauling. We ate a lunch, more powerbars, I hate powerbars. The folded up topo told us that the next pitch was to be the hardest. We argued about who was to lead it. We had developed some system of deciding, but it had long been forgotten. We bickered and begged, trying to trade and swindle each other into taking the lead. I copped out, saying that I had led the bulk of the previous hard pitches. Miguel is pissed off and I imagine him in marine fatigues with rifle in hand rather than a hammer. How we convinced him to spend his first few weeks after his release with us I don’t know. Throughout the climb I had wondered how this struggle compared or paled to being in the infantry. Do IEDs and heads share the same space on the shelf of fear in his silently brooding brain?
“Fuck it, move out of the way,” Miguel said.
Moving out of the way was impossible when three people were hanging from the same point on the rock. In our un-admitted cowardice, Matt and I were silent and accommodating. He casted off on to the blank wall, hooking a ledge and then another. He clipped a bolt and stared up for a long time. I willed him to look down so that I could smile reassuringly, and let him know that I was there to catch him if he fell. He gave me no such satisfaction and started traversing left until he stopped 25 feet out from that lovely bolt, on a hook, staring at its point crunching and scraping at the rock.
I have known Miguel a long time. I have watched his face illuminated by brake lights as he sits in a shopping cart, tied to a car at 40 miles per hour. I have listened to his voicemail over and over as I called for days only to find out that he had left for war and couldn’t tell me. I have seen him bloody from fights, shared the loss of mutual friends. I have written countless papers for him to graduate high school. The challenges we have faced have reflected off of him in a seemingly emotionless way. Calls from Afghanistan where I picked at him and his experiences with tact and sensitivity; all he has to say in return is that it’s just a job. I can only guess at the layers within as he gives me a stony affect. As he retries the fragile hook, I see his cracks slowly widening. I see his eyes flitting back and forth between the hook and rock, and his possible landing zone. He commits onto the hook fully and I see him shaking from his feet to his fingers. His chest heaves as he tries to pull control together. He is screaming something into the wind but as he opens his mouth his words are abruptly stolen. His hollow mouth is filled with the canyon. His mind is frying from the possibilities that extend into the future. What-if-this-fucking-hook-blows? Below me, Matt vies for something to reposition himself from the fall zone. I am left looking up seeing his face from in-between his legs, looking at him and watching his body refuse rationality. I imagine the wind catching his tears and sending them to land somewhere on the wall where he is not. Weighing options, we say nothing. At this pivotal point, it’s not about pushing through, but about getting out of a mess.
The gravity bites at his feet and he moves slowly to see what is next. Miguel pulls through. He does a few hook moves and gets to a bolt, and four hours from when he started he arrives at the top of the pitch. We join him sometime later to find him tied in and sitting on a small ledge, hunched over and defeated. We allow the river to console him as we organize and I set off for another pitch. I am shaken from the display on the last pitch and climb slowly. The hot day has turned cloudy and windy. Fifty feet up I lower off a bolt and pendulum twenty feet to my right to gain another crack system. I glide over the wall and reach the crack, my feet a thousand feet above the ground. Even after climbing for so long, exposure has a tendency to sneak up on me. I reach a small diagonal ledge full of brilliant reds and oranges from a large hanging colony of cacti. The cacti’s spiky orbs craned slightly over the ledge, staring down day after day at the ground.
That evening we set our ledges up and try to forget the day. We are two-thirds of the way up. The wall above us looms over us breaking past vertical.
In the morning, there are only a few pitches between us and the top. Miguel leads nothing and is left to the duty of hauling. He can often be heard cursing and becoming easily frustrated with any task. I am the first to reach the top. As I squirm through the exit moves of a nasty loose chimney, I poke my head above and see flat ground in the cloudy, fading light. I hear a surprised yell from a Japanese couple sitting at a nearby overlook looking at me in a horrified way. I fix the rope to a giant Pinyon Pine that looms over the edge. Matt and Miguel are short to follow. We lean against the tree, leaving our bags to dangle for now. The Japanese take pictures of us as we hold our hands up to block the flashes of their cameras, such the celebrities we are. We drink the dregs of our water and relearn to walk. We bring the gear up to join us and we compare bloody scabs on our hips where we had hung in our harnesses for three days. Two thousand feet above the water our ears are still filled with the thundering voice of the river, like a buzz in a damaged ear that won’t quit. There are few smiles, and I feel as if we are still stuck in the throes of a suffering mind. We had stashed a few beers and as we limp to the lookout, where the alarmed couple had sat, we lean over the railing sipping at the beer, immediately feeling its effect on our weak bodies. The canyon sighs and the updrafts play at our faces. We collectively smile down at our accomplishment, at our suffering.
Back at the car we have no one to call and tell of our achievement. It is on the packed gravel road leading away from the canyon that she comes to my mind. As if the spell of the canyon broke as soon as I lost sight of it. I hoped that my trip had been long enough for her to clear out and wipe away her presence from my apartment. How many remaining boxes of hers would there be to face upon my return?
Back in Grand Junction everything moves quickly and we are faced with reality. Our adventure had been a vacation of the truest form. We were released from it all for a few days. We were encompassed totally; the reality extending past the cliff was vacant. A few weeks later I get a call from Miguel. He is selling his climbing gear. Fear can reveal too much truth.
I return to work, to the apartment, to climbing. I reflect over the coming months about the tension of relationships between that of a significant other, and with climbing. This conflict is no new subject; every climber has had to come to grips with the issue, because it is always an issue. The friction and inflammation of the two; one swelling while the other emaciates. The attempt at balancing the two over time.
One month: the dishes, the home improvement projects, the needed time spent together, all satisfied. She smiles at you more than naught, and things are good. Yet you look down at your hands and your calluses have started to peel, and your forearms begun to weaken. Your day dreams, your night dreams, they are all of climbing. Are you living a lie? You think of the list of objectives made to complete before winter, that new arête with outstanding exposure, or that techy face from which your ring finger is still trying to heal from. The rat nags at you, chiseling with its sharp teeth at that special part of your brain that feeds you those highs that she could never supply.
Yet when that rat has been put to rest, and you have engorged when you were hungry, that you return her smiles with ones of sincerity. You find a still contentedness and you foolishly believe it will last. You figure it out, or she does. One of you walks away, or it is all held together with a careful knit of promises and complicated schedules to satisfy yours and hers.
I only remember the night before I left for The Black. That familiar argument of what I love more, and it had ended with the one word that she was afraid of and didn’t want to hear: climbing. Back in the apartment, my unpacked haul bags lay in the middle of the front room. I reach for the phone and dial half of her number before canceling the call. I instead call Matt.
“Hey man, how did your return to the domestic go?”
“Well, if I said Zion this weekend, what would you say?”
There is a few seconds of silence and I hear that he must be in the kitchen by the sound of a sizzling frying pan. They must be making dinner together. I imagine the conversation, the chopping of veggies, and a table laid for two.
“Hello?” I say.
I hear the sound of the sizzling pan fade as he leaves the kitchen.
“I say hell yes.”
Jesse Zacher sticks it out in Grand Junction, Colorado, where there is still plenty of new rock to explore and bad bolts to replace.
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.