Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Zodiac

I sat on a plank of rock high on the right side of Yosemite's El Capitan, letting my heels dangle and kick the granite wall. My climbing partner, Jamie, handed me half of a sandwhich. I spread the bread and examined the contents. There was chicken, lettuce, and cheese. I began folding it all back together when I noticed one important detail. Jamie and I rested on Peanut Ledge; sixteen hundred feet of sheer rock, and twenty hours of non-stop work sat below us. My focus shifted back to the side of El Capitan and the meal in my lap. Delirious from climbing through the night, I suddenly had a moment of clarity. The sandwhich had mayonaisse. I hate mayonaisse.

My climbing career began at Vermont Academy. After a fall of riding the bench on the football team, and a winter slogging through the snow on a pair of cross-country skis, I joined the students and partipated in the climbing club.

The club spent half of our time behind the gym in a small room filled with mattreses, dust, and a ceiling of climbing holds. We fought to swing around on the holds in the room, excitedly taking turns. A third of the time, we climbed the wall of plastic holds in the gym. Occasionally, on our best days, we got to take trips to the Keene Bridge, Rumney, and the other local crags to climb outside.

The twelve passenger van filled with an assortment of helmets, ropes, harnesses, and students. We bounced over the hills east to New Hampshire. The bluffs of granite seemed unnaturally large when I climbed them. I was terrified whenever I set foot on the rock during these trips. While I shook like an autumn leaf on the grey stone, the other students sat below eating their sandwhiches and talking casually about their classes. When I finished and began eating my lunch, they smoothly ascended the rock.

The naturally talented Grayson Holden showed the rest of us how to climb. He flowed up the rock, confident, and relaxed. He exmplified the ideal student of Vermont Academy-intelligent, modest, and an outstanding athlete in snowboarding, and rock climbing.

While the academic aspect of high school came easily to me, the social aspect did not. I held students like Grayson in high regard for their ability to mold both. They held their ideals close to them, and then made smart and cool descision when under pressure. I graduated from Vermont Academy and made a half-hearted attempt to attend the University of Vermont. I felt lost in college, out of place, and not ready despite my high school preparation. I left Vermont and headed to Yosemite California, hoping to find the same confidence that Grayson and the other Vermont Academy students had.

In Yosemite, I worked a menial job making beds at a tourist lodge. I climbed the granite walls, learning to be comfortable with who I was. I climbed before work. I climbed after work. I climbed on my days off. Soon, the nervous shaking I had experienced while a student disappeared. The small crags turned into larger cliffs and then into entire walls. While the physical challenges of rock climbing were hard, I approached the climbing with the academic rigor I had been taught at Vermont Academy. I tackled the smallest and easiest subjects first and progressively learned how to deal with the harder bits until a fall day in the late afternoon, I found myself at the base of the Zodiac, an 1800 hundred foot route up the side of El Capitan.

I led the first section, hanging the rope for the initial eight hundred feet. I yarded my way up the rock, clipping pitons, and placing gear into the rock. Jamie followed behind me, climbing the rope. When the sun fell, when we were 800 feet off the ground, Jamie took over and began leading. I followed him through the dark. After midnight my head fell against the granite wall, bouncing against the rock as I fell asleep then woke from the thunk of my skull hitting the rock. With a late afternoon start the majority of our climbing was done in the night; we had little sense of exposure.

Then the sun rose and a sea of granite swept up below us. Jamie hung beneath a large roof, his feet kicked in space as he reached up and placed a camming device into the rock clipped into it and stepped a little higher. He placed another piece three feet higher and continued the crawl. This was we had moved all night, like caterpillars ascending a few feet at a time. When Jamie reached a ledge, he established an anchor and clipped in our climbing rope.

I fixed my jumars to the rope and ascended the line. I found Jamie laying on his back and muttering when I joined him at Peanut Ledge. I nodded to him. I understood. He could barely move from exhausation. We exchanged gear so that I could led us through the next hundred feet. I sat down for a moment of rest and Jamie opened our small daypack, handing me the sandwhich.

The Yosemite deli had coated the bread with a pink cranberry goo. Delirious, I fixated on the mayonnaise. Should I or shouldn't I? The question drove my mind from the cliff towards something more real and more important on a daily basis. It was an important moment. I hated mayonaisse and was on the verge of freaking out on the side of El Capitan. I recalled Grayson and the other students at Vermont Academy, how they remained poised and true to themselves. With my blackened hands, I grabbed a piton from our rack, and scrapped the sandwhich clean, leaving a trail of metal, but removing all the mayonaise. I decided to keep my ideals and stay away from mayo. I ate the sandwhich, iron and all. We headed to the summit and topped out the noramlly five day adventure in a 21 1/2 hour sprint.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


I have a question for you. I do not want you to tell me the truth. I want you to tell me what you think I want to hear. Here is the question: Am I fat?

Rob Miller and I stood on the top of Private Property, a crag outside of the Tioga Pass gate to Yosemite National Park. From nine that morning until five that evening, we climbed at the steep granite sport cliff. The routes featured some of the best rock in the Sierras. We stuffed ourselves first with the quality of the climbing and then we over loaded on quantity. At the parking lot, I sat with the sliding door open in Rob's mini-van, packing my face full of junk food, trying to satiate my appetite. I was tired, hungry, and I desperately needed to stuff myself.

Rob's calves are hearts, his biceps bulge through his shirt, and when he is not establishing new hard free routes in Yosemite, he works as a personal trainer at his own Crossfit gym in Santa Cruz. Rob is a dictionary; he has definition. He carefully cracked a 16 ounce can of imported Japanese beer, grabbed two pieces of low-fat string cheese, and tore open a bag of organic nuts.

Rob poured some macadamias into his hand. He counted them, plucked three from his palm, and returned them to the bag.

"How many macadamias do you eat Rob?" I jammed a fistful of cheese poofs into my mouth.

"Well James," his eyes scanned me. "I eat ten but you, since you are a little," he paused and his cheeks ballooned, "you would only want to eat seven."

I spit out my Cheetos.

A year later, Rob and I stopped at Inn & Out burger in Manteca. We regularly stopped on the drive back from Jailhouse, the steep Sonora crag we climbed at. This was our twentieth time getting dinner there. Occasionally, I would buy Rob's burger or he would buy mine.

We walked in and behind the counter was Stacy, the beautiful Inn & Out girl. Flush with the pride of having sent my climbing project, I sauntered up to the counter.

"I have the Inn & Out urge." I told her. She tilted her head.

"I would like a double-double," I said. "I really like the two meat patties on the sandwhich."

She punched the keyboard.

"And can I have it animal style?" I smiled. Stacy tilted her head again. I turned to Rob and nodded, indicating that I would buy his meal. Stacy stared at me then looked at Rob, who began his order.

"We are together," Rob said, looking at the menu.

Suddenly, I became aware of what had just happened. I had told her that I had the in and out urge, that I wanted something with extra meat between the buns, that I liked it animal style, and then Rob told her we were together, like we were not climbing partners but partner partners. My mind stutterred. She probably thought I was a complete freak. I had just blown it with the fast food woman of my dreams. I needed to recover and so I blurted out, "We are not really together. He just tells me I am fat sometimes."

Rob and then Stacy both stared at me. Rob shook his head and ordered the protein burger, the double-double without the bun. Stacy batted her eyes at Rob and stared at his muscular frame. I inspected the color of my shoe laces, and thought that perhaps I should have gotten a protein burger. Maybe if I cut out the exrta buns, I would not be so fat.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Did I Kill Raleigh Collins?

In the winter of 2004, I escaped my duties as a student and headed down to Joshua Tree National Park, the long time haunt of many of my friends. They spent most of their time running around the blobs in the park, climbing ropelessly. That was the game in Joshua Tree and I followed suit. On December 18th, I stretched and headed around hidden Valley Campground, looking for routes to warm up on. My friend Dave and his buddy Raleigh booted up at the base of Double Cross, a moderate 5.7. I followed the pair up the climb and we talked and laughed about the day.

When we finished, I soloed Tabby Litter, a 5.8 on the other side of the formation. Raleigh suggested it. It was a good route albeit short. Dave went back to camp and Raleigh and I bouldered a little. We climbed up and down on the Pyramid Boulder. I was getting worked and wanted to solo more. Raleigh asked me if I wanted to go climb Baby Apes with him on the Bachar Toprope wall. I shook my head and said I would rather go off on my own.

I went to Intersection Rock and fell a hundred feet soloing the North Overhang. I laid in a pool of blood at the base. I felt destroyed. My friends came and helped me. My family flew from across the continent to be by my side.

I came out of the hospital and recovered substantially, going on to becoming a more successful man and climber. My story became well known in the climbing community. I am sure Raleigh heard it.

In March of 2006, Raleigh Collins ran off the top of Sports Challenge Rock and dove into the boulders below. He died taking a smaller fall than I.

I did not know Raleigh well but I often wonder if I set a bad precedence. If he thought that he too could stand up from a disaster, and have his friends, his family, and strangers rush to his side. I set an example. Now I sometimes think to myself, "Did I kill Raleigh Collins?"

I do not know. I only wish we had climbed Baby Apes that day. Maybe we could have helped each other. At the least we could have laughed about something.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


As a teenager in church, Arthur stood next to me. I hung out a lot with him and his younger brother Jordan when I lieved in Vermont. Arthur sold me his old pick-up which went to Rifle, and Vegas, and served as a dirtbag climbing rig for years. Anyway, Arthur Adams lives in San Francisco. When he is not busy playing as a robot in the Oakland based band the Phenomenonauts, he front mans a band called Blammos! This is by far Arthur's best musical work. Here's a little story about how he came up with the name as related to DJ Fog on Pirate radio.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Stand-Up Show At the Barn

Life has given me quite a few lemons in the past week or so. I have been trying to stay afloat. I watched this to make myself feel better. It's me performing Stand-up at the Barn Theater Santa Cruz. I am not sure whether to smile or to cringe.