A Moral in the Mountains
This may be the first story I have written that has some sense of a moral at the end, albeit a moral I have yet to fully articulate. Nonetheless, I hope to uncover its essence through writing. It goes something like this: Find something you love, something that gives you a reason to wake up in the morning, and pursue it until you die …. and you become worm food.
Now armed with a vague notion of subject matter, I may begin.
Red Rocks, Nevada, is officially designated as a national conservation area by the government. Although I have yet to encounter any animals there aside from climbers, tourists, and bikini models, I trust that they exist (after all, I’ve seen signs warning about tortoises and the hefty fines for feeding the burros). The park boasts some of the best climbing in the country, and when Salt Lake City freezes over and the boulders enter hibernation, students from the University make a pilgrimage to the desert. While the winter months blanket the valley with snow and ski enthusiasts flock to the Cottonwoods, Red Rocks cools down just enough for climbing.
Side note: I never quite understood why we choose to pursue sports in the outdoors. We could be lifting weights and getting jacked. It’s far less dangerous and likely would help us attain any physical goals we wish to accomplish. But here we are skiing 100 days a year, injuring our tendons, and tearing our ACL’s because our buddy convinced us to go to hit a rail.
On one particular trip to the park, a group of four climbers, including myself, decided to tackle a classic multi-pitch route. After an hour-long hike, we reached the base of the climb, only to find three other parties eagerly waiting to start and more climbers leisurely progressing up the wall. Realizing we wouldn’t be able to complete the climb before 3 am, we made the decision to bail and try a less crowded mixed route called Crimson Chrysalis. Unfortunately, my partner and I only had three pieces of trad gear on our harnesses, which turned out to be woefully inadequate. Undeterred, my partner embarked on the first lead—a 90-foot pitch with a mere four bolts and about a 20-foot gap between each one. Right away, we knew falling was not an option on this route. Moving gracefully up the wall, without thinking about the run out between bolts, he clearly was far more at home on this cliff than I.
I stood motionless in the snow as I belayed him, and by the time it was my turn to climb, my fingers and toes had gone completely numb. I began by stuffing my frozen feet into my shoes and then chalked up – though it wasn’t like it was warm enough to sweat at all. I reached the anchors and prepared for my lead, but all I could see was a single bolt, 20 feet above my head.
I got above my belayer and felt ok – cold and scared – but ok. The initial part of the climb was a struggle for me, as fear clouded my judgment and caused me to grip too tightly. Instead of utilizing the large, solid edges and reliable sidepulls, I found my neanderthal brain reaching for the tiniest crimps right in front of my face. When I finally reached the bolt and clipped in, a sigh of relief washed over me.
Taking a moment to regain composure, I reminded myself that I was on an easy route and needed to stop being foolish. The subsequent bolts felt better, and I navigated my way over a ledge and into a secure offwidth crack, where I could find stability by jamming my body deep inside. I would look up at where I was headed, make a few upward movements on the face, and when I got too psyched out, flee back into the crack and regain my confidence.
“Right hand, left hand, ok. Right foot, left foot,” is what I would tell myself out loud. It felt like I was relearning how to climb entirely.
However, after the third bolt, the offwidth section came to an end, and when I looked above, I saw no bolt in sight. I continued past a small roof, still searching for the next bolt. Feeling puzzled and concerned, I called my belayer to tell him the news, though in hindsight it felt silly. What was he supposed to do, keep the rope tight for the 50+ foot fall I’d take?
In a moment of fear and tension, I made the oldest mistake in the climbing book – I glanced down. To my dismay, I saw my rope extending into the distance without a single quickdraw in sight. Through the walkie talkie, my belayer suggested that I place one of my own pieces of gear. I fumbled around my harness until I found the #1 Meticulous Cam, a piece of trad gear that I had only practiced with a few months ago on flat ground. I wedged it into the rock, tugged on it to ensure it held, understanding that its presence offered only mental reassurance, not real protection.
Reaching the anchors, I belayed my partner up. He would continue leading to catch up with the other pair above us. Watching him effortlessly climb between bolts while placing solid gear in strategic spots showcased just how comfortable he was on the climb.
Finally, we reached the top of the fourth pitch and found ourselves on a ledge where we could all fit comfortably. Above us loomed a vertical wall devoid of any bolts. Considering our limited supply of trad gear and the setting sun over red cliffs, we decided it was time to turn back.
As we descended without any issues and hiked out with our headlamps illuminating the way, a sense of accomplishment filled me. I knew that what we had just accomplished might have been a walk in the park for others, but it made me feel like a badass. Although we didn’t reach the summit, and the climb wasn’t particularly difficult or the one we had planned for that day, we still felt a sense of accomplishment.
A final side note: I don’t know why, but doing anything outdoors always feels incredibly rewarding. I’m sure whoever is reading this can attest to that too. It doesn’t matter what it is. How bad, cold, hot, easy, or difficult it is. If it’s outside, it’s good. I like to think we’ve found the thing that we love, something that gives us a good reason to wake up in the morning. And something we can pursue until the day we don’t wake up … and we become worm food.