Monday, June 25, 2012

Love in the Border Country

In October of 2009, Katie Lambert, Ben Ditto,  a Slovenian climber named Luka, and I climbed on the north western face of Yosemite’s Middle Cathedral.  The route, Border Country, was named after a poem written by a well known climber. The night before the climber’s death in an avalanche in China, he wrote a poem about the climbing life, of living in the Border Country.
When we reached the base, I realized I had left my chalkbag in the car.  I ran down to get it.  Katie was waiting when she heard a voice cry.
“Heeey Katie.” Ben offered to tag our water up the first 200 feet.
This was the first time Ben saw his future wife
I’d told Katie that Ben was a Utah sport climber. She was sure he’d suck.  But the way he’d said hey, the way he’d said her name, she thought “whoa who is this person?”  
We climbed all day but hardly saw Luka and Ben.  They were too far ahead.  Every once in awhile, Katie caught glimpses of a flashing smile, weird long hair, and a bandanna.  Ben was climbing smoothly up the wall.  On the crux pitch, he broke a horn but caught himself on a hold below.  It was one of those days when Ben couldn’t fall.
At the top of the headwall, Katie led to the stance where Ben was taking pictures.  He first saw her through a camera lens. She arrived at the belay and went to lower down. She clipped a single biner and a mess of old webbing left by the first ascentionist.  Ben thought either she really knows what she’s doing or she’s kind of sketchy
When the shadow of the Nose hit the Zodiac, we rappelled.  We cramped into tiny belay stations. Katie and I were at the bottom. Luka and Ben, who had helmets, were on top.  We held out backpacks over our heads so we wouldn’t get pummeled by the rocks when we pulled our ropes.
At one ledge, while we waited for Luka to rappel, there was a conversation about relationships. “Well, what’s up? Any prospects?” Ben asked Katie.
“No.”   Katie replied
 “I’m sure they’re lined ten deep.”  Ben said, shaking his head.
I snapped this photo of Ben. He was charming even with long eccentric hair.
We continued down the route.  Ben talked about Keep the River on Your Right, the story of an artist and anthropologist who travels into the jungles of Peru.  Ben was being characteristically smooth, living up to his nick name The Coffee Shop Killer.
It was an adventure. Pretty exciting. Not like Katie Lambert getting lost inside her sleeping bag but exciting anyway. 
I read this story at Katie and Ben's wedding Summer Solstice 2012
When we got down, we parted ways.  Katie looked for Ben in Camp 4 a few days later but Ben was climbing on El Cap.  They stayed in touch while he went to Patagonia.  In the spring, Ben met Katie in Ridgecrest, when her car broke down. They climbed in Bishop and became partners.  These days, they live climbing together, defining intrepid, and living a life in the Border Country.

Congratulations Katie and Ben

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Professional and the Lifestyle Climbers

Imagine casually climbing splitter cracks, overhanging sport routes, and perfect boulder problems.  Picture hiking enormous granite formations without a rope.  This is who I want to be.
Alex Honnold fell on the hike up to the crag.  He stumbled on the walk to the base.  Alex Honnold climbs splitter cracks, steep sport routes, hard boulder problems, and free solos with ease.  He’s the type of climber I wanted to be.  
Alex on the Southwest Arete- this picture and a number of the other good ones are courtesy of Michael Pang
 “My skin,” he moaned as he taped every finger tip. Alex had climbed the past 22 consecutive days, wanting to send everything in Squamish in one summer.  He’d cut himself off from his love of sweets to eek more performance from his body. No candy. No cookies. No way. “My skin is weeping.”
Alex clipped the first bolt on Eurasian Eyes, a 5.13b arĂȘte above the Squamish Chief Campground.  Alex has climbed over 500 different 5.13 routes.  He’s mathematical about his climbing, keeping fastidious notes of his ascents, and constantly improving.  This arĂȘte climb, though a difficult warm-up, should have been easy for him.  It wasn’t. 
He was wobbling.  I tried to console him. Alex tries harder than anyone else I know.  “Stop bitching. You can do it.” 
Andrew Burr, a Salt Lake city climbing photographer, dangled nearby taking pictures on the aesthetic line for one of Alex’s many sponsors.  Alex climbed up to the arete’s crux and promptly punted. 
“Lower me,” he yelled.  I’d never heard Honnold so angry before.  He never gives up on a route.  His tenacity is one of his more admirable traits.  I dropped him to the ground where he untied and immediately began moping.
This time, I tried to be nice.
“It’s ok man.  You’re just tired from climbing so much.  Everyone sucks sometimes.” I grinned, and thought about showing solidarity. ‘Even I suck sometimes.”
“But I never suck,” he said. “You suck all the time.  You’re used to it.”
This guy is awesome at everything
I should have drop kicked him in the head but instead I focused on not looking hurt.  Point Alex Honnold.  Obviously the pain crossed my face because a moment later he added, “What? I’m just being honest.”   
We dropped Burr off, and drove to the grocery store.  Alex bought 2 pounds of smarties, 8 enormous cookies, and a fistful of chocolate.  He caved into his desire and abandoned his no sugar diet.  We’re all human and we all wobble.  
Alex on 5.13R at Owens
“Here, you can have the rest of my Canadian cash.” Honnold filled my pockets with a wad of beaver bucks and toonies. “And here’s a cookie.  I’m going to California.”  By the time he arrived in Yosemite, 36 hours later, his skin would be healed. 
Me belaying Alex on his 5.13R at Owens
 Alex climbed 22 consecutive days with every finger taped and bleeding. He wanted to succeed so much that he tried a no sugar diet.  I bit into a chocolate chip cookie and I suddenly thought of spitting it out. If I wanted to stop sucking all the time, I needed to try harder.  I swallowed the cookie anyway.
Most Bishop two bedroom rentals are either a meth lab or part of the barrio. While the former would provide a solid income with the clientele living next door, I have always lived by the adage- “Life Is Good. Don’t Meth it up.”  Two weeks before Christmas, Stacey Pearson, Alex Honnold, and I moved into the upstairs apartment of a four plex.  A couple of crash pads, four of Peter Croft’s half broken deck chairs, and an odd collection of Yosemite cafeteria silverware barely filled our sparse cell of a home in the Bishop barrio.
The life of a Lifestyle Climber
Across the street a chihuahua yapped relentlessly. On Wednesday nights, the downstairs neighbors held their weekly Mexican Pentecostal Bible study. Their chants of hallelujah and bloogitybloogityblah, their speaking in tongues or maybe their bad Spanish, vibrated through the floor.  At night they would exorcize the demons out of the town.  Most days after climbing, we would exercise our demons.  

Arm wrestling is not my forte. Seven years ago, I fell rock climbing. Two surgeries fixed the compound fracture in my elbow but it didn’t repair all the muscle. The lower part of my left tricep doesn’t exist.  It’s hard to mantle with my left arm.  It’s also hard to arm wrestle with that arm. Alex had already done his daily regimen of pushups, situps, and mirror flexing so we arm wrestled for exercise. We went left handed first. I promptly lost.  
 “That was pitiful dude,” Alex said. “Let’s try right handed.  My wrist is a little tweaked but I think I can beat you right handed.”
As we grabbed arms, I thought of Lincoln Hawk, played by Sylvester Stallonne in the amazing 1987 action drama Over The Top.  Hawk took on the bald headed, Bull Hurley in the finals of the World Arm Wrestling Championships in Las Vegas. Before the match, Hawk swiveled his hat backwards to prepare for battle.  I channeled Hawk, imagined myself putting my entire life’s worth, my big rig truck and the love of my son, on the line.  Things were about to be Over The Top.

Stacey put her hand over our clenched fists.  
“Go!” her yell echoed across the empty apartment.  The veins in Honnold’s ripped arm bulged.  My oversized bicep pushed against his.  I lost ground. I lost more. Then I pushed back. Trickles of blood filled my nostrils.  I could almost taste the iron on my lips as I pushed against him.  I wanted this.  I wanted to win.    His arm weakened. Then I slammed it against the table. I won.
“Dude, my right wrist hurts” Honnold said.   “Let’s go left arm again.”    Alex refused to lose.

New Years Eve excitement with Stacey, Kim, and Michael Pang
On New Year’s eve, Honnold stared at me from across the chess board.  The half dozen dirtbags cramming out apartment watched intently.  Honnold moved carefully.  I play a lot of chess, which doesn’t translate into skill it simply means that I play a lot.  Honnold barely plays chess, but he had a natural tack for the game. He he played the two knight’s defense, a style that isn’t a defense but more of an opening counter attack.  Cautious and aggressive.  We traded pieces. I sought to win by attrition.  The other climbers stared at the board.  I knew that didn’t want me to win.  They just wanted Alex to lose.  The end game was a slow battle of pushing pawns across the board. Alex stared intently at the locked pieces. I focused on the wall, apathetic.  We eventually declared it a draw.   
Everybody wants to be Bobby Fischer
I grabbed the strawberry Poptarts from above the fridge and than an IPA from inside of the fridge.  Nothing beats high fructose corn syrup, beer, after a near chess win.  I opened the package, offered one to Alex, and placed the other on the counter for a moment.  I sipped on my IPA and sprayed about countering the two knight’s defense to the nearest dirtbag climber. When I turned to grab my Poptart, I saw crumbs.  The crust, the top and the bottom, were broken off of my Poptart. The dejected ends sat on the counter. Nearby, Alex happily mashed on the red 40 food coloring and artificial strawberry flavoring of the middle of my poptart.  The middle of the poptart.  That's the best part.  He couldn’t take a draw.  Was this why he was such a good climber?  He refused to settle for less than success.
Every day, he asked me what I’d climbed.  He wanted me to say I had “sent everything.”  Alex wanted me to succeed like he did.  When we first arrived in Bishop, Alex provided a tick list of routes and boulder problems to prepare me for my spring Yosemite goals.  I climbed harder that winter because I didn’t want to come to a draw with the rock. 
working Excelsior in cold weather in Owens River Gorge
Living together means seeing your housemate stumble to the bathroom in the morning, hide under their sleeping bag watching True Blood all day, and sometimes brushing their teeth.   
“What time are you and Kim heading down to Owens tomorrow morning?” Alex asked in between sets of vigorous tooth brushing. Stacey, Kim, and I used electric sonic care toothbrushes.  Alex preferred a plastic Colgate. By striving for the same level of well scrubbed cleanliness as a sonic care, he could also get a serious forearm work out through vigorous scrubbing.  Translation- Dirtbag toothbrush = trying harder = bigger forearms = easier rock climbing.
Climbing on Flux Capicator in Owens River Gorge
“We’re gonna make breakfast, hang out, and then head down.” I responded through the whir of my mouth vibrator. I thought about sleeping in with my girlfriend, waiting for pleasant warm temperatures, and a relaxing day.
“We’ll be there around 10.”  Alex stared down at me with sudden disapproval. I thought of the tick list he had given me and my Yosemite goals.
“I mean 9,” I added quickly. "What are you gonna do?
“Well, I’m gonna get up at 7, run for an hour, make my egg scramble breakfast, and get down there early.” Alex spit into the sink
 “Wow, that’s motivated,” I walked towards my bedroom.
“That’s cause I’m a "professional climber,” he waved his fingers at me, “unlike you lifestyle climbers.”
I slammed my bedroom door in his face.  For five minutes I stared at the door knob trying to think of a witty retort.  Nothing came to mind, which made me almost madder. 
 I wanted to be a professional climber and get paid to be a climber.  My mind wandered away from snappy comebacks and towards Alex’s motivation behind the comment.  Alex never slept in. He never relaxed.  He couldn’t.  One day out of 30, he hid beneath his sleeping bag and watched 30 episodes of True Blood. It was his one respite from training, from climbing, from traveling, from answering hordes of emails from random fans, from interviews, from people wanting something for him.  Maybe he wanted to be a lifestyle climber and he said it out of jealousy.  Maybe he was just saying if I wanted to be a professional climber, I had to act like one.
Yosemite rematch this spring
To a large degree, I want to be the man who stumbles to the cliff, the man who climbs 22 days in a row with taped fingers, the one who mathematically improves on climbing.  I don’t want to be Alex Honnold though.  Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself…everyone else is already taken.”  It’s taken a few months for that thought to settle in.  I don't have to be Alex Honnold, I should just follow some of his training advice.  I’ve  started waking up earlier, wanting it more, and not eating Poptarts.  But more than anything, I've embraced being a lifestyle climber.