On the weekdays hummingbirds buzz between California fuchsias, pollinating the brightly colored flowers. A dozen turkey vultures circle the nearby jail, scanning for road kill. Small hawks and crows soar by, swarms of cliff swallows rush about, while osprey and blue herons fish in the waters of Tulloch Lake.
On the weekends, there are no birds. There is no beauty. The steep cave above Tulloch lake transforms from an aviary of the Sierra foothils into an outdoor disco of rock climbers. Dozens of manoxeric body builders, skinny little tough guys, swarm Jailhouse to tackle their climbing projects, random lines of basalt holds that dance up the wall. They bring electronic barometers to remind themselves that 62 degrees fahrenheit and 25% humidity means they have a 57% chance of success. They lug twenty pound car batteries to charge their portable vaporizers and fuel their marijuana addictions. They wear Ipods, t-shirts with curry stains, funny hats, and their favorite pair of underwear. They do anything to bring themselves luck as they prance about the base. Sometimes the spandex glad dancers even bring climbing gear.
The blocky, overhanging rock of the cliff, the Jailhouse demands that the sport climbing afficiando wear sticky rubber thigh pads, commonly known as Colorado etriers. Rectangles of sticky rubber are adhered to neoprene pads to help the sport climbers stick their knees to the rock so that they can rest on their abdominal muscles and rest their tired fore arms. While some of the climbers use adhesive spray to keep their pads in place, the majority of the sport climbers wrap the top of the pad with duct tape. After each attempt, the tape is peeled off the leg, wadded, and carried out of the crag at the end of the day. With an average of seven pitches climbed during the day and a wrap for each leg on every pitch, the duct tape adds up quickly. I sentenced myself to forty three days at Jailhouse, which translated into a large amount of duct tape to carry out. In an effort to consolidate my trash, I started to make a ball. Eventually, the tiny bits of duct tape snowballed into something bigger, something to cheer up the crag, something to reflect a little light into the dreary bits of the obsessive work of Jailhouse. The duct tape ball transformed into something else, something like a disco ball.
“We need to wrap it tighter,” Rob Miller laid his strips on the basalt talus, then placed them over the ball, pulling the mass of tape into a spherical shape. “We do not need fluff. We need density.”
I nodded. The blonde tough guy belayed me half of the time I went to the crag. As a good friend, and climbing mentor, he saw the fun I was having bringing the ball together and wanted to join in. Rob wove a cradle for the ball out of the cut end from my climbing rope, and strapped more tape around the ball, suddenly turning the ball of trash into a mace.
With a cord now attached, we were able to attach the ball to our harnessed and climb Soap on a Rope, a popular testpiece in the center of the cave. It was fun. We guessed about the weight of the ball at the base.
“Twenty pounds!” said, Matt Pound.
“Maybe more like ten,” responded Steph Ko.
“It’s at least fifteen,” scoffed Rob.
The climbers passed the ball around the base, each person tugging on it a little, giving it a weighted look, and imagining a scale in their minds Pete Chasse hefted the ball into the air.
“It is a little heavy,” he said. “You both climbed it with the duct tape ball?” Rob nodded.
“Even I did it Pete,” I pointed at myself and gave a crooked smile.
“Okay. I’ll try it,” he clipped the ball onto his harness and started up Soap on a Rope. The crowd giggled as the ball pendulumed.
“Oh god! It’s gonna hit someone,” said Matt, worrying about the safety of the others around him. “Watch out Lidija!” Pete’s belayer carefully stepped out of the way.
“Oh my gawd!” she yelled. “Peete! Peeete! Be careful Peete!”
“It’ll stay on,” responded Rob. “I climbed it twice with the ball.”
“This is classic,” Matt pulled out his phone camera and snapped away as the Jailhouse hardman danced his way up the steep route with the grey disco ball. With every passing visit, the duct tape ball grew. We stopped fixated on sending our climbing routes. Instead we thought about the steady growth of the duct tape ball. Visiting the crag became less about successful ascents and more about the continual growth of the ball. The ball gained historical value. After Tommy Caldwell completed the second ascent of Tower of Power, the cliff’s hardest rock climb, he contributed to the duct tape ball. Ethan Pringle added his tape after doing some crazy toe hooking bat hangs. The duct tape ball helped Jailhouse become a fun and silly place. I pranced around the crag showing off the enormity of the duct tape ball, swinging it over my head, and hoping that everyone was contributing. The ball was almost ready for the sequins and glitter.
“We need to hang it,” Rob, the blonde tough guy, grabbed a bit of thin cord and some nuts from Coiler’s tiny wood shop at the farm we stayed at in nearby on Chinese Camp.
“We should make it a disco ball,” I said.
“Let’s hang it while we have the time.” The veins in Rob’s forehead protruded.
“I am not sure when I am coming back.”
. For the duct tape ball to be more than a pile of trash hanging from the cliff, there would have to be a little more creativity and a little more effort. Sparkles, sequins, and glue needed to be brought to the crag and a small mess needed to be made and cleaned. For it to be truly worthy, would require effort. With some self doubt, I acquiesced and gave up my project to a more demanding man.
Rob climbed high onto the wall, clipped into a bolt, then reached over and girth hitched the ball to a 3/8” stud between Alcatraz and Cell Block. The ball dangled ominously in a small alcove of steep basalt.
“It does look like a piece of trash” Karl, a clowning local asked. “Are you sure it’s well placed?”
“Well,” I responded, “there’s a better chance of the start to a popular 5.13- falling off then the ball hitting someone. Plus there’s history.”
“If the ball is well attached and not just shoestring that is cool. We want the basalt ballast ball to be solid if it’s going to keystone the wall together.”
I smiled and reiterated the diligence Rob had applied in fixing it to the wall.
“Okay,” Karl said. “I guess I do like the idea of Rob climbing up there to hang his duct tape.”
“What’s that?” A group of hikers came to the cliff and noticed the ball right away.
To the casual observer, the duct tape ball obviously had a purpose, or at the least a story. The hanging grey spore, appeared more like a trashy trophy then a sparkling disco ball. Obviously, there was history there but it was not the best kind. In the whirlwind of the creation, I had neglected my own needs and desires. I neglected to stay true to myself, I neglected to remember that my favorite color is shiny, and I had to give up reality for my imagination.
Eventually, Mikey Chaffin, a Bay area nurse, climbed to the upper reaches of the cave, swung over, and unclipped the ball. I ran into him in the darkness of Camp 4 after he removed the ball.
“I almost died!” he said. “I swung around and clipped into the ball. I almost took myself down with it,” He put his arm around my shoulder. “I hope you do not mind that it was taken down but some random hikers asked about it.”
Removing the ball helped some of the obsessed climbers at the crag. For them it swung about ominously, hanging over their heads, and preventing them from sending their projects. They gave the duct tape ball a power over them so the ball’s removal was cathartic, they were able to do a little better on their projects because the curse was removed. Rob felt angry to see the symbol of his hard work removed. The ball had given him purpose a reason to return when he could climb no better, it gave him a reason to return to the Jailhouse when he saw no progress on his climbing projects. The idea to keystone the crag worked initially but then it all fell apart.
For a few days, as the herons fished, as the swallows rushed by, as the vultures lurked above the jail, and as the hummingbirds buzzed, the duct tape ball swung in that high corner. Whenever the light hit it, I saw a disco ball.