Gray and white clouds rack up in billowed folds like the belly scales of a snake and curl widely across the winded and golden sway-grass plain, crackle dry and wetted now and then by passing scattered storms. This rolling stretch of yellow land drones on and on, far beyond what the eye can see and what attention spans, punctuated here by a single tree, a patch of cattle black as crows against the honey fields there, and suddenly, an eruption of piled stone, windblown and lonesome in this scenery. My mind’s eye peoples this land with buffalo and butterflies, not the interstate tourists and semitrucks that line up along the great gray stinking snake of petrol and gravel, drinking petrol, breathing petrol, bleeding oil. I picture instead a distant lean smoke line, thin and faint and curling up, and antelope, and windy open thoughts, long squints against the dry breeze.
by Chris Schulte (banner photo of Kat Whipple on Right Torpedo Tube by the author)
(note: this piece is published in Volume 14 of The Zine)
Later, around back of the rocks, we walk toward the van, a long day aching behind. Out in the open, the storm comes in ambush like a pack of coywolves: Little rumbles pass away overhead; you are lured into safety, into the open grasslands; you could make it clean to treeline. But the single singing cell just was there to pull you out of the shelter of the rocks. It groups with the pack, rumbling away in the distance, which it has closed with alarming quickness. It devours you, howling, teeth of hail and slobbering rain.
An hour previous, I hate this, I think, as I hang. I’m too cramped to fully slump onto the rope; the wide crack is too narrow to accommodate my shoulders. Even in hanging, I feel awkward and out of place, crooked, ill fit. I can find no art, no trick, no flow in this grunting, thrutching, foot-slipping thrash for upward motion. No sequence worth speaking of in this heat, no respite of balance, no way to chalk my sweating palms. It took fifteen minutes to tape up, don knee and elbow pads, and set out up another wide crack that looks just as easy as the rest, and never is.
The motivation for such things usually comes to me about two hours afterward, disgusted and battered. Now there seems to be nothing left, and I hang as though dead, still scraping against rough Sherman granite, giant cams poking into my ribs, breathing heavily with not enough climbing behind me for even a boulderer like myself to get pumped.
It’s a lot of effort for a 5.11 that everyone knows is 5.12 but they still call 5.11 because of the area standards for the style, set by some ham-fisted, barrel-chested war dwarf. I’d be more bitter if the beast hadn’t also climbed a number of difficult finger cracks here, or if I’d not spent so much time in Fontainebleau, where sometimes, you just cannot, will not ever, get both feet off the ground on what translates to V4. But eet eez steel what you say eez V4. Eet has been so since thee ’50s.
But here in Woo, there is no balance, no sandy landing and a rest in the shade to contemplate the complexities of a slight shift of hip or trust of sloping foot, just a flaring length of struggle and fight where either you know how, or you don’t. You do or do not, and today, again, I do not. The feeling is exactly like the moment I quit mixed climbing, but hotter. Gods I’d rather be bouldering right now I think, as I did then.
It takes four days before I think, with set of eye and aspect, of getting on the flare again. Damn this route and all who sail in her.
Another weekend drive of an early eve, sunset just an hour out, and hot, still hot. Dry and hollow grasses swish and sway a golden-silver alloy, matte and at once bright, aglow with the low-lying light. You could squint straight into that weathering fireball and crack a half a smile through dry lips, tip your hat agin’ the glare, and ride into oblivion. The trains glitter hence, cattle cars and rail repair works on flatbeds with clacking wheels that crawl to and fro across this windy plain. Sometimes they carry shipping containers with Chinese names spelled out in pinyin English script, flashed with graffiti from the seaside cities. Sometimes they’re racked up with tractor trailers, semi engines left behind to save the cents per mile overland. Sometimes they’re empty steel, just going by for nothing. I feel it: empty and heavy iron, clanking and hollow, traveling to move, burning fuel, moving nothing.
There is no art or poetry, no romance of the Western plains for me, just torque and weight and scrape and hot. Sometimes a drift, a coasting grade, and up and through! To nope, more nope: another crux, another something I don’t get, don’t know how to do, and I’m beaten back and slumped onto a big-ass cam, bumping my bald head on sharp crystals, reminding me that not a single one of these things is made of how it looks. Perhaps I should have put in some toprope time on some of these instead of setting out each time from the ground to make an incremental gain up into unknown terrain beyond my ken, to flop and flail and aid back down again. Yeah. I’m getting good at down-aiding wide cracks. I hate down-aiding.
They say there are more movements to be mastered in climbing than in any other sport. Some twenty-plus years have gone by since I spent my high school work-study paycheck from the bike shop on a pair of slippers and crimped my way up the sandstone block wall behind the climbing shop in Durango. It took some saving and a birthday before I had a rope and harness, Sticht plate, webbing, and a couple locking carabiners. Since then, I’ve climbed small rocks up to V15, frozen waterfalls above the faded and blurred lights of old mining towns, delirious with cold and late-night off-route lack of sleep. I’ve fumbled my way through three languages to try to find beer, bed, and boulders. I’ve run out gritstone-style routes on Indian Creek sandstone, wiggled up a skinny or wide Wingate splitter or two, and topped massive blocks on the east and west sides of the Sierra, breathing deep the desert and the snows, or the mosses and the live oak trees depending. I saw Joe’s Valley when it was fresh, Hueco Tanks shut down, RMNP blow up, and aid fade. I could think to myself, a million moves later, that I’ve done a fair few bits of this and that. I know how to figure a move.
I follow Jenny Fischer down the sloping trail toward a narrow canyon edge, where we set up camp and take a light lunch. It’s warm, but not as hot as it could be for the time of year. I’m relaxed, buoyant, and smitten with this girl who’s always going. “We could try a couple of things just here,” she says, indicating a complex of blocks and caves gathered not forty feet from the picnic table. I’d seen some Instagram photos, mostly of Lycra-clad lasses spinning about a few feet off the ground as they whirled through heel-toe cams and calf locks, stacking boxing gloves of tape and stepping through, laughing eyes so fierce and focused that the poise pools and runs off the iPad.
We start with a V4, which somehow is also 5.11+: Life Without Parole. I should have taken the immediate grade-conversion discrepancy for it’s true value, but I put these thoughts away and chalk up with an aspect on me mug that may have said, “How quaint, what a lark this ought be.” A pair of hand jams at the start: this I know quite well. My foot swings up and jams out right, and immediately everything goes to hell in a large and unwieldy handbasket. I’m trapped. I’m sure my ankle is about to break, along with my neck once I hit the ground headfirst, as that foot will surely stay there until dinosaurs once again roam the Earth. I hit my head instead; a pair of sharp, square crystals rolls up snake eyes, and I’m bleeding immediately. My low-top bouldering shoes begin to fold in the jams, crushing my arches and sliding, not out, but wedging me deeper into the crack, like those woven finger cuffs you got the first time you went to Mexico.
“Okay, now thread your other leg through and stack,” Jenny says, apparently ignorant of the fact I need a hoist, a rescue, and a medevac chopper. I fumble feet through a chamber far too narrow to accommodate my shoulders—progress!—and now I’m stucker still. I wiggle, stack like I seent in the pitchers, and extricate one foot, which I’m now supposed to “walk waaaay out and jam, heel in toward you” somehow beyond the lip. It does not, will not fit. I’ve never been so thankful to fall onto my head and neck: at least I won’t need to be cut from the cave to survive. I’d offwidth for you, my love.
Reflecting out beyond the route and hiding in the shade, I perform a brief systems check that lets me know these feelings have been felt before, when I was a newborn noob and fresh, not even a plan for just how to backstep, dropknee, Gaston, heel hook; I didn’t know these motions existed in this world. I didn’t have a fucking clue what I was doing in this space between two blocks; it was cheating, big time dab…and it felt if not good then intriguing. The novelty was alluring. The struggle was fulfilling. Big, furniture-moving muscles were sore, not teensy little finger joints. The artlessness was frustrating—and still is—though now there’s a little more art, but struggle is still waiting, up there in the wide. I’ll get through the “crux,” as everyone knows it, only to be foiled by the 5.10 chickenflanglestackenwing moves I just don’t yet know how to do. I hand-jammed wide cups against my calf muscle the other day to reach up and grab my own heel, folding myself in half inside a giant toothy butt. It’s maddening, and only another dimensional facet that makes me question my motivations in climbing.
Another, another, another day, anothernotherother lap on the kinda-long-for-here approach. It’s hot: eighty-two degrees of heat on the Fahrenheit scale, and the walk seems all the longer for it, marching between stands of dry and yellowing aspen, which offer scant relief from the afternoon sun. Around the bend and up the hill, winding through fallen logs and skrittle blocks, we reach the shady alcove where I collapse and peel away my sweaty T-shirt and plop down heavily onto a slanted boulder to empty half my water jug.
“You want to go first, or should I?” Jenny asks, looking up at the curving maw, sharp with crystals and dull with repetition.
“Oh no. All you,” I reply, not much to say today—the hottest day yet I think—as I feel like the psych has been cooked off a bit.
I’ll need to wait and cool my jets and blood before taking another why-the-hell-not-I’m-here lap on the Thingy. Jenny’s up and off, and goes a ways before a sudden ping of foot sends her jangling onto the Camelot 4, deep in the crack but still in the way of the foot jam. Every goddamn piece is in the way as you pass it; she’d float it if she soloed. This thing makes for a right shite warm-up, and when my turn comes round, I suit up heavy, pads and tape and high tops and all the biggest cams, and set out melancholic from the ground, jamming smoothly, nary a care, breathing easy, fiddling pro here and there in the always-flaring, usually fat-crystal-filled crack until I’m sorta satisfied or over fidgeting the widgets. I reach my high point kinda quick, but the right-arm pump has me in its jaws, and I submit: just eat me then. Feel the steel of my fat rack when you shit me out, you bastard; hope you get piles.
Back on the ground, not but a minute passes before I’m looking back up, wondering what I could have done better, knowing I did well, knowing a warm-up is all it takes to get the engine running. A few minutes later and I’m up again, moving faster, smoother. Fist jams matched, I clip the #5 and feel no pump, no heavy breath as I walk my feet outside the crack and layaway a Gaston slope, I cram my arm—it’s going to go!—and jam my elbow deep, which starts to slide…WTF…and then I see from the vantage point of “damn, I’m nearly done”—I’ve forgotten my elbow pad, my armor, my aid, my shield. Skin slips and crystals bite into my poor right arm, and I chicken out, my mind says nope-how-can-you? I quit, and hang, and hate myself.
Of course, in hindsight, I rather wish I’d paid the flesh and fuckitall, so’s not to have to go up there again. But I can’t not go back up, and now I sit in dirt and wonder if there is an attraction to this failure, and will I hunt this frustration? I’ve spent seasons on a single move, years to link a block together. So much of that was utter failure, a vast percentage outweighing all reason. Will I be drawn in? Have I been? Is it too late?
We’re going back up tomorrow.
Postscript: Shortly after writing this the author realized his hands are the same size as Bob Scarpelli’s, and all his excuses are invalid, and that Bob’s secret is actually good footwork.
Chris Schulte has been on a weird vision quest for over twenty years, one of those where you’re not sure if you’re on the right track, but then suddenly, it’s wide and easy and opens up to one hell of a view.
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