Climbing En Plein Air by Birch Malotky

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The dance of renewal, the dance that made the world,

 was always danced here at the edge of things…

 

—Ursula K. Le Guin, Dancing at the Edge of The World

 

My first sense of it is auditory. I am walking toward the rim, eyes straining to see over an edge I can’t yet comprehend beyond expectation, when I hear a noise lost somewhere between gasp and sigh, punched from the lungs a few paces in front of me, pulled from throats as if by the vacuum of space. In seconds, I feel the same sound wrenched from my body, a river rasping rock for five million years.

 

“What is this, Mama?”

 

“It’s the Grand Canyon, baby girl.”

 

Six nuns in sneakers walk by; a big-eyed, curly-haired toddler holds his father’s hand; selfie sticks bob through crowds; and a chipmunk scales the rocks beneath a packed viewpoint, no doubt hoping for snacks. I am alone, due to meet my partner Madison later. The plan is this: I fall asleep at an as-yet-undetermined forest road that night and wake to her car parked next to mine, hatchback open, with coffee brewing on the tailgate. It doesn’t seem a far cry from the first time we climbed together when, after a conversation on the phone and a frantic night packing, I agreed to meet her ten days later somewhere in the Cirque of the Towers. I crested Jackass Pass to find a beautifully hand-drawn map secured to the trail sign and followed it to camp and a steaming bowl of food.

 

“I can’t believe how much life there is.”

 

I follow the paved Rim Trail, falling in with a flow of humanity thick enough to rival the Colorado River, invisible between folds of multicolored rock, nearly five thousand feet below. A kid hops boulder to boulder just in front of me, unsteady but learning. After a minute, he falls and scrunches up his face as if not sure how to respond. That’s why you shouldn’t play on the rocks, his mother scolds. I bite my tongue and step out of the river of visitors, eager for a view over the edge. As I near the rim, fewer and fewer people crowd around me. Those I leave behind call, like sailors to an overboard mate, that I am crazy for standing so close to the rim. They pose thirty feet back from it, not trusting the earth beneath their feet, then dash inland when the camera clicks, as if running to safety. I suspect that, like the boulder-hopping kid, they were warned many times to stay away from the edge.

 

“I am just one of millions.”

 

I turn toward the canyon, and the Zoroaster Temple hits me in the face. Having never been to the Grand Canyon, I see it and know it immediately, this thing rising up from the river, deeply rooted but untethered from anything else around it, looking impossibly far away and demanding to know how I plan to reach it. Suddenly, the trail maps, topos, and approach descriptions I have read are obliterated in an instant, lost in air space vaster than an ocean. I see it and know with certainty that it is impossible—too divine, too aloof, too hard for me.

 

“It lives up to the expectation, doesn’t it?”

 

The unfamiliar is always daunting; for the visitors I watched fearful of the edge, it’s the feeling of living rock underfoot and a dizzying expanse of air and space with nothing between them and it. For me, it’s that, just a little farther away from the parking lot. Ten-miles-and-ten-thousand-feet-elevation-change farther away. No-source-of-water-for-two-days far away. Four-pitches-of-climbing-at-or near-my-limit far away.

 

But not everything in this landscape is unfamiliar, so I anchor myself in what I know. I start with the thin soil beneath me, the warm, dry air from the canyon folding over the rim like a sigh. At more than seven thousand feet above sea level, the ponderosa pines growing behind me are close enough to smell, here on the edge, and piñon pine and juniper dominate—small, twisted, and spiritually thick. With a curtsy to their boughs, I tumble my mind a couple thousand feet into the canyon below, tasting the bitter-bright Mormon tea I have tasted a hundred times and dodging sharp-leaved agave bundles. Amongst familiar and drab desert scrub, pink erupts like bubble gum from the succulent pads of a beavertail cactus. Its petals are so thin that pollen granules blown from the flower’s anthers glow golden like a desert lava lamp. I know the burn of its tiny needles under my skin. At 2,400 feet, the bottom of the canyon, I shatter through the canopy of an old cottonwood, and float west on a river whose silt has been stolen by a dam upstream.

 

“It was aliens, or Paul Bunyan.”

 

If, from the river, I could ascend back to the North Rim, to the highest meadows of the Kaibab Plateau, it would be the ecological equivalent of hiking to Canada. To get atop Zoroaster, we face a 1.7-billion-year journey from the Vishnu Basement Rocks—schist baked by the heat of island arcs colliding with the North American continent—all the way to the Temple’s Toroweap cap, the remains of a fickle shallow sea. I may recognize some plants from other desert climbing meccas, but this objective is going to take a lot more than a day of Wingate cragging after a morning of coffee and the neighborhood rounds at Creek Pasture.

 

The author (left) and Madison Brandt in the Grand Canyon. Photo: Birch Malotky Collection

 

I’m not sure I’m in shape; I’m not sure I’ve got the head game. I take out my watercolors. When Madison first shared her watercolors with me in the Tetons, I felt like I do looking at Zoroaster—wildly unprepared to undertake something I was sure required planning, mastery, and an ineffable right to take ownership of the verb to be. Though I had often made art, I was not an artist. Though I lived to climb and hike, I was not enough of a climber to scale those heights. You can’t just pick up a brush and paint the Grand Teton, I thought.

 

More and more, I see that I’m not alone among people who are intimidated to enter spaces like art and the outdoors. There seem to be rules, and we don’t know them. There seem to be credentials, and we don’t have them. When my classmate Emma taught me to trad climb, none of the other climbers we went to school with would climb with us. Instead, one of them arranged to “meet” with us about a “disturbing picture” I had posted on Facebook. It was of another climber we had been in the Gunks with, belaying off a tree that our classmate said “looked sketchy.” He told Emma and I that we didn’t take our safety seriously. I heard, Everything you do is being scrutinized.

 

It’s hard to be new to something when you think others are judging, because beginners do silly things, and learning isn’t pretty. That “meeting” turned classmates, who I once though could be mentors, into examiners. It seemed like if I ever wanted to be taken seriously, I couldn’t afford to make a mistake.

 

Even after I graduated and found a more-open climbing community, the specter of someone watching, someone judging, followed me. Art critic John Berger said, “a woman is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself…taught and persuaded to survey herself continually,” such that “whilst she is walking across a room, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking.” It’s not vanity; it’s self-defense. “Every one of her actions,” Berger said, “is read as an indication of how she would like to be treated” and “how she appears to others…is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life.”

 

Most of the days I spent climbing in the alpine, I was the only woman and often had the fewest years of experience. Because I wanted respect and acceptance from my community, I found myself as concerned with how my climbing reflected on me as I was with the climbing itself. Real or not, I could feel eyes on how much gear I placed, how fast I climbed, and how much noise I made. If I wanted credibility, I had to prove that my partner wasn’t “bringing me up” the Diamond and that I was unfazed by that “exciting traverse” in the Black. Berger said that in man’s world, a woman’s “own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.” For me, my own pursuit of climbing was being supplanted by the desire to be appreciated as a climber by others.

 

But then Madison came along, my first female partner since Emma, and we charged headlong into seven days of Wyoming mountains on the word of a mutual friend. Talk about open. She greeted me in camp, hiking skirt floral, hair braided into pigtails, and a huge smile on her face as she told me about the four-mile ridge she traversed in a summer snowstorm to get there on time. The bear bag was hung and dishes done, so we reviewed the Northeast Face of Pingora topo, set our alarm, and curled into sleep full of excitement. The next day though, I was thrown off by a lack of urgency in her morning routine, skeptical when she insisted on bringing a camera in her pack, and shocked when she started yelling on the short off-width on the upper pitches. I was almost ashamed when we didn’t summit until sunset, not realizing that it was one of the most beautiful evenings of my life.

 

Madison was showing me what it was like to climb without worrying about someone watching me or living up to the narrow standard of perfection reinforced by climbing media and the people around me. Unbelievable though it seemed, I could be a climber—a strong, competent climber—without having to be ruthlessly efficient, icily stoic, and utterly focused on summiting quickly and descending safely.

 

During that week, we climbed thousands of feet, mountain after mountain, hiked dozens of miles, and witnessed fifteen out of eighteen sunrises and sunsets. We also gathered wild greens for dinner, talked for hours about our families, our partners, and our sense of obligation to do something with our lives, carried a melon that tasted like champagne thousands of feet to the CMC camp, and watched the eclipse from the shoulder of Mount Moran, alone but for a little pika with a mouth full of grass.

 

Later that night, she offered a brush and a palette of watercolors. I wasn’t an artist, but Madison poured me a glass of the wine we hiked up with the melon and told me that it didn’t matter, that I didn’t have to be the best to deserve to try, and that as long as I made art, I was an artist. So I picked up the brush and painted the Grand. It may not have come out quite like I expected, and surely looked different from what someone else might have done, but it came out all the same.

 

It’s dark, it’s dawn, and we’re through the Redwall Notch. We have hiked, scrambled, and ‘schwacked from the rim to the river and back up. Yesterday we followed switchbacks to the Great Unconformity, a one-billion-year gap in the geologic record, making good time. Like the era of deposition, the day was warm and full of life. I greeted again pink cactus blossoms and pressed close to a huge agave spear—the only stalk it would ever produce—bursting with buds so full their edges turned yellow. We slept on rock laid down during the Cambrian explosion, the greatest evolutionary diversification in Earth history.

 

Now, we confront a series of rotten cliffs, each one twenty to one hundred feet tall and linked by slopes of loose sand and gravel, their pitch canted with mathematical precision. We cannot guess at the line. Cliff to our right, air to the left, we traverse scree I hope won’t slide and search for passage through the various cliff bands of the Supai Group. A weakness here, a chimney there—over and over, the way up appears as a revelation, a crack in the corners of a world I hadn’t thought was mine to enter. A long scramble up a loose slope of deep-red Hermit Shale brings us through drying climate: from the sea, to a coastal plain, to the edge of the desert.

 

The technical climbing on Zoroaster is through Coconino Sandstone, two hundred feet of creamy-white quartz sand lithified in ancient dunes. By the time we arrive at its base, we are slipping into awe and have lost all sense of scale. We’ve climbed high enough that the juniper have returned, and we tuck our bags amongst their roots. The shale at our feet falls away to red cliffs, which step down to the shores of gray slopes, vast and eating away peninsulas atop the black-walled river channel. We take a slow lunch, caught between sandstone and sun, watching lizards dart across the wall. Madison tells me about her life on the road, how she feels most alive in these places, embodying this freedom, but longs to do something good and useful too.

 

The first pitch is hard. Madison shuffles a couple 4s along a wide undercling, smearing on rock that looks suspiciously fresh and unweathered. The crack does not narrow even as it begins to rise, and Madison still hates wide. She curses her way up, back-cleaning, bumping, and groaning. She yells down that its hard and wide and she’s running out of gear. I don’t ask if she wants to come down, because I’m teaching myself that expressing fear, or having difficulty with something, does not mean you can’t do it. Fear simply occurs when you begin to push the edge of what you can do, and the less energy you spend trying to hide that fear, the more energy you have to push that edge. That’s the working theory, and I wait to see if it works. Madison sends.

 

At the second pitch, it’s my turn to put the theory to work. A step out onto little sandstone nubbins leads inscrutably up toward a tantalizing crack. A healthy population of lichen garnishes the porous rock, and slab being my weakest style, in my head each potential hold is a wet algal smear that will send me either onto the ledge or onto the anchor. I’m feeling the fear of my learning edge. I grab the first holds, try to caress solid edges from them, mentally tick a couple bumps, and then downclimb back to Madison, sheepish.

 

Then I do it again, and again. At some point, when I pull onto the starting holds, I’m already thinking about the apologetic look I’ll need to give Madison when I retreat to the anchor yet again. Up and down, I watch myself struggle, thinking more about my failure than pushing the edge. But Madison refuses the sorry in my eyes, and although we both know how quickly she would float it, she never offers to take over. I try to relax, pull my vision into the wall, breathe attention back into my body, bend my will to the climb. I may not want to pull the moves, but I am not going to give up. I am serious and focused, hands reaching for the starting holds, when Madison breaks down into laughter.

 

I love that we’re both so challenged by this climb. Somehow, despite our planning, we each ended up leading the pitches that are our antistyle.

 

 There is no malice, no sarcasm edging her laughter, only joy. It ricochets from rim to rim, our little bodies and our little tower caught in the middle. It is beautiful to be challenged, it says—that’s why we came here, over the edge and back up again, to be on the sharp end of growth. My struggle is neither annoyance nor inconvenience, but the whole damn point.

 

I laugh too, lighter for it, and pull the moves.

 

I swim the tantalizing crack above, buoyant, and Madison leads up an airy spine like walking a bridge to heaven. Our hands and feet send sand grains clattering to the hillside below. They land amongst many, coming to rest at the point where friction overcomes gravity. This is the angle of repose, the steepest slant the sand can hold without sliding. To reach that angle, each grain travels to the verge of falling, but is held up by the force of the others.

 

The final pitch, the Screaming Sky Crack, splits the face of a towering headwall perched atop the broader temple base. Across the canyon, we are nearly level with the South Rim, the North Rim a little hazy, the river unfurling east and west in gleaming green patches. We can barely pick out the wash we followed up from camp that morning. I stand in a coastal desert, warm sea winds pushing white dunes over the land like primeval behemoths. By the end of the pitch, I will float in a shallow, ephemeral sea, the Coconino Sandstone a memory beneath my feet.

 

I trace my line through jagged, calcite-trimmed pods, out a roof, to a splitter crack heading straight for blue sky. White veins parallel the line, branching like lightning scars on the smooth face. It’s not so hard to focus my attention on the wall; this pitch demands heart and mind like a sacrament. The rope running to Madison connects me to security I feel confident in, and confidence I feel secure in.

 

I slip my fingers into the wall, working middle and pointer gently into the thumb until I’m locked in. Fingers and toes trace the crack as it rises, traverses, leans right, pods out, and splits the roof. I reach blindly over, letting fingers come to an agreement with the sandstone. The rock is eolian, its sediments laid down by the wind, so I whisper my dreams to it. It’s a tenuous accord, but I cut my feet onto the face, inserting appendages wherever the crack will accept them, and charge into the hands above me.

 

It’s not easy for me to push through self-consciousness to my learning edge. I want to use what I don’t know or can’t yet do as an inspiration to explore rather than an excuse to reject. But to do so with others requires unapologetic acceptance of what I have to give, in that moment, in that way. I’m lucky and grateful to have partners like Madison, partners who are inspiringly strong and boundlessly accepting. They seem to understand what it’s like to be stalled out midroute, shaking and fierce but watching the way their body seems to tremble rather than seeing the sequence they need. I don’t ever feel like I need to prove myself to them, because they love and respect me already, and I them.

 

Pump begins to sap my strength as I move from hands to deepening cups to fists, but I am undaunted. With the earth singing her history below me, the sun pouring down her grace above me, and the canyon smiling spring from rim to rim, my heart soars, and I with it. I throw a fist into the crack, sinking elbows deep and cranking on my feet to maintain their bridge. Brush to the paper, there is no way to edit or undo a watercolor. The only way is forward, with courage and curiosity. Buried in the crack, I’m yelling, fierce, sublime, unabashed. When I reach the top for the very first time, I feel heat rush to my eyes, and the Grand Canyon wells up around me.

 

I screamed. I howled. I yipped. I growled.

I did Coyote’s dance on an island in the sky.

 

Birch one day dreams of growing up and moving back into her truck. For now, she works for The Nature Conservancy in New Hampshire, climbing beautiful granite (don’t tell anyone) and becoming a more well-rounded person.

Dig the words? Keep the dream alive by subscribing to The Climbing Zine. It’s $19.99 a year for three issues, and $37.99 for two years (six issues). 

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 five books: Graduating From College MeAmerican ClimberThe Great American Dirtbags , Climbing Out of Bed, and Squeak Goes Climbing In Yosemite National Park (a climbing children’s book) .

Check out our film, Last Thoughts on The Dirtbag, made with Cairns Film. 

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