My nerves were running low after struggling up a long, dirty, unprotected chimney and I looked up to see the pitch finish with a short but steep overhanging off-width. I had already used up all my wide gear, but luckily I was able to find some holds to make the climbing more manageable. Reaching over the top I grabbed a jug… and felt it begin to slide toward me. Instantly I realized the severity of the situation. The hold I had grabbed was a microwave size loose block with a pile of friends ready to follow its lead. Holding the block in place with one hand I looked down at my belayer 100+ feet below me, unaware of the danger; it appeared the pitch wasn’t over yet.
Dirty death-choss doesn’t sound like an appealing route description to most and it’s nothing to be taken lightly. However, when putting up new routes in the desert, it’s a harsh reality that has to be dealt with. Loose rock is probably the scariest hazard in climbing. Dislodging blocks can cut ropes and severely injure or kill friends.
While not as scary or dangerous as rock fall, there is another opponent to be faced. Dirt. When exploring new desert routes, prepare to get dirty. Like really dirty. Like sand in your hair, ears, teeth…three showers later dirty. Call up Mike Rowe, I think we got another episode, kind of dirty. On our most recent first ascent “Yeah Dude!” we played ‘rock, paper, scissors’ for who had to clean out the massive pile of rock hard guano that was caked underneath the roof. So glad I threw paper!
Of course establishing new routes involves a lot more than battling dirt, choss and bat poop. It’s part climbing, part construction, and part art. Well-chosen lines and strategically placed bolts are essential to creating routes that flows. If the climbing flows and has good rhythm then you know people will groove to it. In many ways climbing is a lot like playing music. There are a few rules, but everyone has their own style. Classical, jazz, rock…sport, trad, single or multi-pitch, it just has to resonate with the participant.
The similarities are also present in the difficulty of the craft, for no one picks up a guitar and becomes Slash overnight. Like nailing a perfect guitar rift, mastering the elusive ring-lock takes time and dedication, but perfection may not be why we pursue it. A friend of mine who is growing as a climber recently expressed to me his frustration with failure. I laughed, and explained that climbing is 60% failure. Although, this failure is based on a narrow concept of success. Changing your perspective from “getting to the top” or “sending your project” to “climbing with good friends” or “enjoying a day in the mountains” allows every trip to be successful. Even with this change in perception the challenge of getting to the top is still part of what keeps us coming back. Eventually you might get really good…and only fail 40% of the time.
This success driven mindset reminds me of a Dave Grohl quote pointing out the flaws in today’s insta-famous American Idol musical culture “…Musicians should go to a yard sale and buy and old drum set and get in their garage and just suck. And get their friends to come in and they’ll suck, too. And then they’ll start playing and they’ll have the best time they’ve ever had in their lives and then all of a sudden they’ll become Nirvana.”
My old drum set was a pair of blown out climbing shoes and a hand-me-down harness, and my garage was Castleton tower. My first climb in Utah, Castleton is where I can clearly attribute the beginning of my love of climbing. Standing atop a desert tower for the first time, existing on this small island in the sky, my thoughts drifted to 1961, how it must have felt for Layton Kor and Huntley Ingalls to be the first people to ever see the world from this perspective. I dreamt that maybe one day I could be the first to stand atop a tower of my own.
Until recently, I thought this would never become a reality and being one of the last to summit Cobra Tower would be my only claim to fame. Last August, only a few weeks after I stood on top for the first time, the tower collapsed, a harsh reminder that in a world that appears frozen in time, nothing truly lasts forever. As Jimi Hendrix put it “…and so castles made of sand, fall in the sea, eventually.”
In this finite world it’s important to appreciate the here and now. Perhaps no other style of climbing lives in such a present state as first ascensions. Putting up new routes, in a way, is the jam band of climbing. It’s all about living in the moment and figuring things out as they come. There are guidelines to be followed, but with the end results unknown it’s important to follow your instinct and go with the flow.
Whether you’re climbing or pick’n the banjo, jamming out with buddies is a great way to feed off each other’s energy and style. Later, stories can be told, especially now-a-days in which photos and videos are easily captured. However, many climbing achievements have never been documented. Some of the greatest feats of creative athleticism and bold engineering just existed in that time, no audience, no camera, just the climber and the rock playing in perfect harmony. Like when The Grateful Dead played at Kennedy Stadium in June of 1973, you just had to be there to truly feel the vibrations in the air. Perhaps the greatest music ever played has never been recorded. It just existed in that moment in time, for the lucky few that were there. While climbs will be repeated by future generations, a lot like recorded music, they will never be experienced in quite the same way as the first time around. There is something special about being a part of something that is truly finite.
Reflecting on one of these finite moments in time I recall the first ascent of “Whoa Dude!”. Standing at the belay before the unclimbed sketchy looking traverse pitch, I watched Mark Evans put up one of the wildest leads I’ve ever witnessed. Making extremely technical moves traversing into the unknown on highly questionable holds he blindly shoved sparse gear into a terrible horizontal crack at his feet filled with broken rock and dirt, unsure if it was even possible. Amazed at what I had just witnessed I cheered. Then I realized I had to follow it…and not fall… “Whoa Dude!”.
The traverse is now cleaned and bolted and feels like a completely different climb. Likewise, cross-canyon, the pile of loose blocks now sits harmlessly amongst the talus field below- having spared myself and my belayer during its descent. In a way we took the teeth out of the beast, but for the small percentage of climbers who contain a genetic abnormality to enjoy that type of thing, there are plenty more beasts out there to slay. Perhaps the greatest climbs of all time have yet to be discovered.