Tuesday, December 3, 2013

My One Fall Season

My legs burned. I coughed as I hiked above the smoke of the Rim Fire.  A trip to drop the line.  Another trip to hike a second line. The excitement of freeing the granite monolith pushed my legs faster.  I stopped only to take a picture from the top of the East Ledges.  Every trip to work the Freerider, I took a picture of Half Dome.  How many sunrises would I see before I finished the project?

The smoke cleared the Valley floor within a few days.  I rappelled 1300 feet from the top of El Capitan a half dozen times in two weeks.  The skies grew blue again. A difficult boulder problem, two thirds of the way up the formation, thwarted my previous year’s efforts. 12 weeks in Rifle, a spring on Fifi Buttress in Yosemite and 50 days in Hueco prepared me to try again.  I fell on the difficult moves my first few days.  Frustrated I, I spent a day working a difficult stemming variation.  Todd Skinner and Paul Piana aptly named the pitch The Teflon Corner.  My feet skated.  The boulder problem seemed easier.  I kept working on the pitch. At the end of two weeks, I managed to free the pitch on minitraxion.
Matt Ciancio stopped at the top of the East Ledges and waited for me to take a picture of the sunrise a week later.  We rappelled to the boulder problem, pulling our ropes as we descended.  In the middle of the wall, I sent the difficult moves of the boulder problem.  As I rested, a loud speaker yelled from the meadow below.
“Yosemite closed! Government Shutdown! No recreating!” A voice cried from the meadow.  A congo line appeared heading up the fixed lines half way up El Cap, climbers determined to stay through the shutdown.  Matt and I continued up the wall, swinging leads.  I fell on two pitches.  Progress in a suddenly still Valley.

Yosemite remained quiet for 18 days.  The absence of tourists holding cameras out their car doors, of hikers snapping pictures of the Yosemite falls with their camera phones, of buses loudly driving the Valley loop became the most obvious part of the closure. With the quiet, finding solitude became easy.
The wildlife noticed as well.
Though the government closed the park to visitors, nature remained open. With fewer chances of human interaction, the wildlife emerged from the trees.  Bears wandered through Camp 4.  Foxes ran across the roads.  A small owl hid beneath the rocks on the top of El Capitan.  The normally domesticated deer, who eat crackers from tourists’ hands, suddenly shied away. The animals became feral. They returned to nature.
A certain wildness spread through the park.   
The bipartisian gridlock suspended recreation in the park. Climbers parked at the base of El Capitan received tickets.  A local ranger issued a citation to a Nose in a day party.  “Closure of Public Use” read the $175 ticket.  My Saturn, embossed on the hood with the Stonemaster’s lightning bolt, taxied an El Cap climber out of the park.   In the moonlight, two base jumpers flew over El Cap.  Base jumping, rock climbing and interperative nature walks became the activites of criminals.  
 Unwilling to wait for mankind to improve, the outlaw lives as if that day were here.” Tom Robbins wrote in Still Life with Woodpecker.

I set the alarm for 3:30am.  Hayden Kennedy and I biked from Yosemite village to the top of El Capitan.  At the top of the East Ledges, I snapped a picture of Half Dome. We rappelled to the boulder problem and climbed out.  We were the only climbers on the monolith.  Devoid of tourist buses, the usual stream of traffic and gawkers, Yosemite felt wild and adventurous.  We climbed out from the boulder problem.
The climb went smoothly enough.  Hayden dispatched the boulder problem with a little effort.  I sent it was well.  The corners went well.  On the last offwidth, the notorious Scotty Burke, I tied my shoes too tight and wore thick socks in my high top climbing boots.  I desperately laybacked past the wide climbing.  My numb feet skated off the rock.  I whipped.  The rope grated along the edge cutting through the sheath of the rope and into the core.  Scary. Falling from the top of El Cap would be a miserable thing.  Dying wouldn’t be so bad, everyone does it, but falling from the top of El Cap gives you so much time to think about it.

Rope breaks.  You fall.  There goes the corner pitch.  Bye bye boulder problem.  Now you’re accelerating past the alcove.  Later Monster Offwidth.   Still Falling.  Say goodbye to Hollow Flake.  Maybe you’ll miss Heart Ledges.  You’re almost to the ground. But wait there’s Mark of Art, Sacher Cracker and if you look up you can still see: BOOM! You’re finally dead.
Hayden and I hiked down towards the East ledges descent of El Cap.  At the top of the Zodiac, Liv Sansov and Vanessa Francois, a paraplegic woman who had just done 4,000 pull ups through the closure to summit El Capitan.  It as pretty inspiring to see her on top.


Hayden left the next day.  Sport climbing instead of El Cap adventuring called him.  For a few days, I felt lost.  The closure was nice and quiet.  No one was around.  Finding partners became impossible.  I minitraxioned Cosmic DebrisI soloed Royal Arches.  I enjoyed the solitude.  The absence of tourists made Yosemite feel special.
All the solitary time allowed me to reevaluate an old relationship.  I wondered what I could have done better.  I needed to grow more.  I was close but had failed.  I tried to focus on climbing.
I screamed.  Every move felt harder than the previous.  I kept trying.  I stepped my feet onto the horizontal.  Two more moves.  My hand reached for the thin finger lock.  I pitched. I screamed as I fell.  Disappointed.  So close. During the closure, I worked out the moves on Cosmic Debris, a difficult crack climb behind the Chapel.  I worked the route a lot the previous year but fell off the thin finish.  Then it snowed.  This fall, I managed to toprope the route cleanly.  I was close.

“That was a really good effort,” Hazel said. The young Brit flew into the States from South Africa and met me a few day after her plane landed.  She had few plans other than to climb in the Valley.  I quickly convinced her to join me on an El Cap mission. I was close on Cosmic Debris.  Maybe I’d send both Freerider and Cosmic this fall.
For the amount of time I’ve climbed on El Cap, I’ve spent very few nights on the granite monolith.  Hazel and I stocked our bags full of bars, toilet paper, plastic bags,
 We hiked to the top of El Capitan.  I took a picture of the sunrise from the top of the east ledges.  I scrounged a half dozen gallons of water, extra supplies from my trips to work on the Boulder Problem.  We rappelled down to the Alcove, mid way through the route, and dropped off our haul bag.  We continued to the ground.    We rested the next day.  The following day, we woke started climbing at 4 am.  I linked the first pitches.  We swung leads to Heart Ledges.  I fell on the thin move off of the ledge worked it out, and sent the pitch from the no hands stance.  We continued up the route with little difficulty.
“It’s hot.” Hazel said.  We sat on Hollow Flake Ledge.  Most of the day’s work and most of the day had passed.  We still had the daunting Monster Offwidth to finish.
“Yup,” I said.
We then started into one of my favorite games.  It goes like this- French fries or French toast, big or small, mountains or oceans, magic or science, ties or suspenders, boxers or briefs, empty places or crowded rooms, sun or moon, stop signs or stop lights.  I can’t remember what Hazel said but her answers seemed satisfactory enough to put her on the sharp end to lead the Monster.  She fell getting into the beast.  I worked out the moves but had fallen.  I pulled my way up and set a tr for the beginning of the pitch.  Hazel hiked through the traverse in and then fought up the offwidth.

“I don’t think I can do this,” I said.  I wanted to weight the rope.  The Monster ate my thigh and devoured my elbow.  I was so tired.
“Come on,” Hazel shouted. “You can do it.”
I dragged my corpse up to the belay, exhausted. Hazel  We reached our bag in the Alcove.  We set up for the evening.  I cranked the volume on my iPod.  The Talking heads vibrated the granite walls.  Hazel and I split an apple.  We ate chocolate.  We danced in the dying light.

We woke before the sun and climbed a few hundred feet to the Boulder Problem.  Hazel worried that she wouldn’t send the pitch.  We raced against the sun.  I felt tired from the Monster Offwidth.
I crimped hard and threw my thumb against the rock.  I pressed my two thumbs together. I would free climb El Cap.   I reached a large loaf of granite. All the hard work would be rewarded. I moved to match the hold.  A moment of insecurity entered.  Then I fell.         
I tried the boulder problem again.  And again.  Hazel worked the moves. I fell.  Hazel sent.  The sun was coming. I tried once more. I wanted it. The sun burned the holds into my fingers. I was tired. I fell. I pulled through and climbed to the anchor.  I slumped my head against the wall.  I didn’t want Hazel to see me cry.  I barely knew her.  I failed because of my inability to see myself succeed.  I felt like a failure.      I fixed the rope.  We rappelled to our camp in the Alcove.  Hazel hung the rope made a make shift curtain.  We hid from the shade.  Walker Emerson climbed to the alcove on a mission to the Teflon corner.  He rappelled back down and provided us with some much needed batteries for Hazel’s headlamp.  I had brought 2 instead of 3 extra.
We watched the sun set. The unmistakable whoosh accelerated past the alcove.  He flew by the Monster Offwidth.  Still falling.  He said goodbye to the Hollow Flake.  He missed Heart Ledges.  He was almost to the ground.  He would die!  Then BOOM!  The parachute exploded and the basejumper glided to the meadow.   I slept restlessly.  Feelings of failure crept into me.  I would try once more in the morning.  Only once.
We woke early and climbed to the top of the Boulder Problem.  My headlamp danced across the rock as I pulled onto the moves.  I mantled.  I crimped.  I threw my thumb against the rock.  I pressed my thumbs together.  I reached for the loaf.  I moved to match it. I fell.  Close.
“Do you want to try again?” Hazel said.
“I told myself just once.”  The pitch stared at me.  There was still much climbing to do.  I failed.  I was a failure.  “Let’s keep moving.”

I swam up the Sewer pitch and led to the base of the difficult corners.  Hazel dispatched the pitch easily.  I followed cleanly.  On the second corner, I fell clipping a fixed piece.  I pulled up, clipped the fixed hex, and continued to the anchor.  I one hung the pitch.  Whatever.  I hadn’t sent the route.  Hazel followed cleanly and dispatched the traverse.  We met at the Round Table ledge.  Hazel fought up the fist section but got the single big cam stuck.  She lowered and I finished the pitch.  She followed cleanly.  Turbo charged by a fair amount of caffeine shot blocks, I dispatched the Scotty Burke offwidth.  Hazel fought her way to the top.  We summated.  Hazel free climbed El Cap.
“Are you sad you didn’t send?” Hazel said.
  “It’s still here.  I want to do it in a day anyways,” I replied.  I wanted to sound nonchalant.    But the fact that I failed crushed me.
We rappelled down the Salathe.  At dusk, we reached our bags in the alcove.  We considered spending another night but decided to continue our descent.
“It’s hard to be a lady on the wall,” Hazel said.  I ate as much chocolate as I could.  We hit the ground 2 hours before a snow storm hit and soaked the Valley for a few days.  Hazel took the time to rest and then climb the Nose with Hans Florine.  I focused on sending Cosmic Debris.  Maybe I could walk away with one tick?

I threw my finger into the granite.  My finger caught on the edge of the crack.  I tried desperately to reel my body into the wall.  I fell.  A chunk of skin hung from the side of my index finger.  I one hung another project.  Close but not quite there.

I cleaned my gear. Hazel met me in the meadow.  We stared at El Cap.  I looked at the Freerider.  Hazel looked at the Nose.  Her boyfriend, Peter aided through the Great Roof.  Peter and Ben wanted to climb The Nose in a day.  They were far off a reasonable time but they would summit, suffering for 28 hours.   They failed on the coveted in a day mission but they accomplished something.
 I stared up at El Capitan once more.  I would be taking more pictures from the top of the East Ledges.   I walked to my car and escaped the Valley. 

Friday, August 16, 2013

Mountain A La Mode: On Climbing and Pie

“She’s a psychopath,” Ryan said.  The Carbondale local introduced himself over beers at the Pour House bar when he heard talk of the pie baking contest. “My mom’s been judging the contest for years.  I’ve heard of Judy Harvey.  She’s absolutely obsessed.   If you win, she may kill you.”
Cover Model status thanks to Tara and Andrew
Two years ago, I was Fruit Number 1.  During a summer of Rifle sport climbing, I dropped off a granny smith all butter crust apple pie, the first entry into the fruit category at the Carbondale Mountain Fair annual pie baking contest.  I dreamed of being on the cover of Martha Stewart’s Home Living, wearing an apron and holding an apple pie. I dreamed of being a handsome climber boy killing it in the kitchen.

This spring, my long term girlfriend and I broke up.  To deal with it, I threw myself at free climbing a new big wall route in Yosemite.  I toiled, tried, and worked. After a few months, the route fell to my tenacity.  With no goals left, no girlfriend, and no direction, I felt lost.
The Final Frontier in Yosemite- Mikey Schaefer photo
Remembering my dream, I packed quick draws, a harness, shoes, a rolling pin and my pastry blender into my Saturn station wagon with plans of returning to Colorado.  The competition in Carbondale would provide direction in my life, somewhere to invest my energy, and a chance to be a cover model.

Before leaving, I prepped for the contest by baking a chicken pot pie in Yosemite.  Traveling east, my friends in Salt Lake City loaned me their kitchens to bake a mixed fruit pie, an apple pie, and a strawberry rhubarb pie.   
A perfect apple pie at Nik Berry's house
While traveling, I studied endlessly, devouring cookbooks and searching the ends of the Internet for recipes. On July 1st, The New York Times published an article about tarts, crisps and most importantly, summer pie recipes. I read the piece fifteen times.    In Salt Lake, my friend’s mom provided beta on cold butter, on shredding apples and how to crimp the edges for the best presentation.  When she was out of the kitchen, I snapped pictures of her grandmother’s 100 year old apple pie recipe. 

With a solid technical foundation, I drove to my friend Hayden’s house by the confluence in Carbondale. Hayden’s kitchen provided a perfect place to bake a second apple pie, a bourbon pecan pie and a chocolate bourbon pecan. I tailored my Rifle climbing towards pie baking.  
Me climbing on the long 8th Day in Rifle photo by Tara Reynvaan
The steep limestone routes provided core training.  The small edges allowed me to crimp until my fingers cracked.  The sidepulls worked my hand strength. By the end of the month, I used an ab roller to press out the pie crust.  I crimped the edges of the pie to perfection.  I broke apples in half.   Beyond the training, I sought advice from master bakers.   

For the past 20 years Judy Harvey has dominated the Carbondale Mountain Fair pie baking contest. White and dark chocolate mousse. Boysen berries. Caramel coconut creams peaked with translucent amber spikes of macadamia nut brittle. Judy mastered these recipes and the subtleties of pie baking.  In 2005, the Aspen Times featured Judy in an article about the contest.  Her husband, Roger spoke of Judy’s determination describing trial run pies stuffing their garage refrigerator and inviting friends over at all hours to test the pies.  On competition days, Harvey wakes at 4 am to begin baking. I wanted her obsession.

The Carbondale phone book provided her number. Judy shied away when I first rang.  “My family is setting up camp for the 4th of July.  Can I call you back?” she said.   After 3 days of silence, I dialed again. The call went straight to her voicemail. The master baker ignored my pie enthusiasm.

Despite Judy’s reluctance to share pie secrets and the rumor of her homicidal tendencies, my mission to bake the perfect pie held true to course.  A climber’s BBQ offered a chance to serve a strawberry rhubarb pie and a third apple pie. Jen and Andrew, a pair of local Rifle climbers, allowed me to bake a peach pie at their house.  I baked until I only saw imperfections in the pies.  The crust that Andrew left, the extra peaches that Jen pushed to the side and Hayden stopping at his third piece became the objects of my obsession.   I baked until I hated pie. My climbing schedule, my life revolved around my next chance to bake.  I transformed into the obsessive Judy Harvey.    
A flower catching the sunrise on Mount Sopris
In between baking pies and climbing rocks, I shuffled along the edge of Thompson Lake, stubbing my toe in the dark.  From the edge of the water, the summit ridge to Mount Sopris, the highest peak in Carbondale’s Elk Range, hid behind the impending sunrise.  A week of insomnia wrecked me.  The alpine hiking helped alleviate my angst and aimlessness.  While wandering lost around the lake at 3am, I fixated on a conversation a fellow lifestyle climber and I had. 
Colette McInerney working on Cryptic Egyptian
“Don’t you think it’s weird that you just climb all the time?” Colette asked me.   We could see Sopris from the confluence where we sat, splitting the last piece of chocolate bourbon pecan pie.  A full-time climber, Colette had begun a transition towards a career, a life beyond rock.   I poked at the pie crust, unsure of how to answer. This trip was supposed to be about more than just climbing.  My travels east, the pie baking contest were supposed to provide direction, to provide a distraction while I found something more permanent. After the contest, I’d be back where I started- driving my car to climb at another sport crag, to find more boulders, or explore new big walls. Climbing, like pie baking, is amazing but ultimately pointless.   There must be more to life than rock climbing and pie baking.   What was it?
Hayden climbing
On Saturday, July 28th at 6 am, I hustled over to Hayden’s house, where I preheated the oven.  The butter cut into the flour perfectly.  The melted chocolate mixed with pecans.  Maple syrup and bourbon provided sweetness and taste. The ingredients filled a 9 inch pie pan and baked in the oven for an hour.  At 10:30, I entered my pie into the exotic category at the Carbondale Mountain Fair Annual Pie Baking Contest.  The exotic category contained a half dozen entries. A meat pie with hotdogs woven into the lattice seemed suspect.  The other pecan pie appeared weak next to mine.  The meringue.  That looked good. The fruit category contained nearly a dozen pies from apple to cherry to pear.  The crème category held just a few pies. I nervously waited for the judges results.

That night, climbers from across the US gathered in a Carbondale barn for Jen and Andrew’s wedding. Thunder, lightning and afternoon showers dissipated moments before the ceremony.   Jen’s father walked her down the aisle. Andrew’s father gave a heart felt speech about new love and old love. The two climbers made a life long union, they were making more of their lives than just the rocks they climbed. It was beautiful.

The wedding offered me a chance to stop fixating on the contest.  Watching these two friends in love helped me realize that perhaps there was more to life than climbing and baking. Jen and Andrew discovered something special in their relationship.  Climbing, while pointless, had brought the two together.    My respite from my obsessions was short lived.  In between the ceremony and the dancing, a dozen different climbers asked me about the competition. 

Andrew and Jen photo by Sam Elias
“Did you win?”  “Did you beat the blue-haired grandmas?”  “You send the gnar at the fair bro?”
“No.” “No.” No.” I answered, explaining the training, my alpine start, and putting in my best effort.   Baking pies while living out of a station wagon proved difficult.  My lackluster excuses did little to negate my loss.  The hardest part to explain was that I never wanted to win the contest.   I wanted to find direction.  If I’d been asked if I was still aimless, then I could have answered, “Yes.”

For six weeks, baking and climbing consumed my Colorado life. I expected an answer to my aimlessness, an answer that would come without having to consciously think about why I was wandering.  I expected an epiphany while rolling out pie crust.   Flashes of inspiration happen slower than that.  They are the product of circling around an idea, drawing closer and closer to it.      

While Judy Harvey sat in her kitchen shuffling through recipes for next year’s contest, I packed my Saturn station and prepared to orbit another climbing destination. I buried my pastry blender beneath my old climbing shoes.  I left my pie pan at Jen and Andrew’s house.  The weather in Yosemite would cool soon.  I drove east from Colorado knowing Judy and I would continue our pointless obsessions.  Maybe someday, we’d figure out why we did it.        

Despite the storm, the Saturn continues its orbit

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Wheelchair

The wheel chair caught on the gravel.  I pushed harder.  Her eyes bore into my back.  When I reached the sidewalk at the end of the driveway, the front door slammed behind me.  The wheels moved smoothly along the cement.  
In the spring, I mailed a bouquet of hand made origami flowers from Indian Creek.  In the summer, I left the base of Half Dome to scream her name when she graduated UC Santa Cruz.  In the fall, we kissed.  Then she ignored me. 

I broke my body in the winter, falling in Joshua Tree.  She screamed when she heard the news. From my hospital bed, I asked her what she wanted. She said "friend."  I only heard "end."  I stayed with her while I learned to walk again.  When I left, we kissed again, with more passion. 

For a moment, it was good.  Then I wanted more.  I wanted love in return. She was hesitant.  It crushed me.  Why was I doing this to myself? 

I left the house without talking to her.  I walked down the sidewalk, leaning heavily on the wheelchair, trying to mask my limp. 

Saturday, June 22, 2013

My Saturn's Chandelier

The chandelier wires swung. The lights fell off months ago. I concentrated hard. My stomach growled. I was afraid to fart; I’d shit myself. I stared at the dome light wires in my Saturn station wagon. It was never a chandelier. I wondered how long I had lied to myself. In a few hours, the Ward Gulch Fire would consume my car, my problems, and me.

What was I doing with my life?

Four years ago, I drove my station wagon 17 hours to Colorado only to turn around a day before I was due to start an internship at Climbing magazine. What was I doing with my life? I took up residence in my twin brother’s laundry room. Matt got me a job running food at a bar and restaurant in Berkeley. I ran fast around the restaurant, dropping off pizza at the wrong tables and pouring beer down customer’s backs. After a few months, the manager sat me down. I expected a raise or a promotion.

"James," he crossed his legs. "Why are you here?"

I wanted to springboard myself into a corporate environment. That was what post college grads did. That’s what I told myself I was doing. I was spring boarding. Honestly, I just wanted to write and go climbing.

I paused long enough for him to add. "James, you walk without a sense of purpose."

I did not become a waiter. I got fired from that job and then a few more. What was I doing with my life?

Eventually, I picked up work writing a blog for some Bay area climbing gyms. I liked the work. It kept me writing and it let me climb. It kept me afloat. I wrote more. Climbing, Rock and Ice, and Alpinist published a few of my stories. Through some inventive hustling (read trimming hippie lettuce in Northern California), I put new tires on my station wagon and drove to crags across the US.

I anchored my life to free climbing long routes in Yosemite Valley. I met an awesome girl. I got more work. I climbed better.

I obsessed this spring. Kim and I ended our 3-year relationship. I invested all my energy into a 900-foot granite buttress, freeing a new route with my friend. I thought only of climbing. Then I finished the route. I felt aimless. Rather than wait for an existential crisis to hit me, I started driving.

I pointed my station wagon east. The Carbondale Mountain Fair held an annual pie-baking contest at the end of July. I had direction in my life. I would climb around Colorado and win the pie-baking contest. I left Yosemite and drove towards the sunrise.

In Tonopah, I took a wrong turn. I pulled over at the Area 51 gas station where the nearby Alien Brothel served Budweiser and gave free tours. The map showed Vegas an hour south. American adventure. I drove towards the bright lights, spent the night with friends, and proceeded to Maple Canyon the next day. I hiked straight to the Pipedream Cave.

I pulled the rope towards the carabiner. As the cord neared the second bolt, I slipped on the polished cobble. I fell. My belayer tried to take in rope and then tried to spot me. I fell anyway. The rope burned my right thigh and upper arm. I landed on my back, hitting a wood post on the tiered landing.

I climbed the route my second try but I felt like a horse had kicked me in the back. I drove to a friend’s house in the middle of Utah and sat on his couch for a day. A pair of Mormon boys came to the porch. I politely asked told them to come back later. Then I rudely told them to come back later. I barely slept that night; the burn on my leg woke me every hour. When the weekend came, I drove to Salt Lake City and baked a few pies. I couldn’t climb but I could train for the pie-baking contest. My back started to healed a little. I started to sleep through the night. With a few pies under my belt, I headed towards Rifle, closer to the pie-baking contest.

I struggled up the walls. My back still hurt. I ate dinner and tried to sleep but felt restless that night. When my eggs finished cooking on my camp stove, I puked. The diarrhea started a few hours later.

Lightning struck in the Ward Gulch. The fire ignited thousands of junipers and sage. The fire ravaged Colorado. The flames spread towards Rifle Mountain Park, where I had been climbing and camping. City officials evacuated the park. Rumors circulated that there was a 99% chance of the fire burning one of America’s premier sport climbing destinations.

I settled into the back of my station wagon and stared at the wires that had once held my dome light. My stomach quaked. I almost farted. The burns itched. My back hurt. I could feel the fire coming closer. Everything was burning. What was I doing with my life?

I pictured flickering lights shooting through glass and dancing across the ceiling. I pictured a thousand lights at the end of the wires. I focused. I created a chandelier in my station wagon.