Last week I went climbing at Rifle– something everyone associates with me, regardless of the fact that I’ve done trad climbing, on ice and on big walls everywhere. But nooooo, too bad for all that!
That’s how Alex Honnold must feel about every 5.14 he’s climbed on a rope – literally no one cares about 99% of the climbing Alex has done or will do in his lifetime because the only thing we remember is his free solo.
The only difference is that Alex’s “thing” is much cooler than my “thing”. This explains why Alex was on 60 minutes while on holistic antidepressants prescribed by my goat-herding naturopath. Selah. I find myself like Gustav Flaubert, looking for the right word, the right word, to appropriately express the anguish I feel in the face of this difficult situation. And yet the best I can find is this frowning face emoticon 🙁
Anyway, back to my story… I ventured into Rifle, without a Grigri-equipped human. It’s like forgetting your harness or other vital gear. Today, there is no longer any need to make the pilgrimage to Yvon Chouinard’s tin shack to equip yourself with a carabiner. You can buy all kinds of bullshit online and with an Amazon Prime account get free two-day shipping. You see, the cool thing about instant gratification is that it really makes you feel good and it happens right away.
Spring Stuffed Hornball College Cozumel children have higher standards than climbers to choose partners.
A little Google search, a little PayPal action, and you can quickly acquire anything your salty black rock climber heart desires: Biners, Bongs, Ropes, Chalk, Slippers, C4s, C3s, R2D2s, PeckerNuts, Bippities, Boppities and Boos.
The only thing you can’t order online is a “human equipped with Grigri”. You have to find them in the field, like arrowheads or loot. Maybe in the future, companies will come up with synthetic mandroids or gynoids that know how to rock. I see it now: the “Grigri Gringo” from Petzl. I would buy it and go on all kinds of adventures! Just me and my patient and attentive silicone belayer, Yerian 2.0.
However, since Rifle is the only place I’ve climbed, I know almost everyone and usually have no problem bonding with someone I trust.
But you never know, and you have to be prepared to do what needs to be done. I was ready to shower that special someone with compliments, a secret beta, and IPAs in exchange for the toil of holding my lanyard through yet another marathon dogging session. Arrived at the cliff, I was shocked to find myself in the exact opposite. someone was trying to climb with me.
The gibberish crackpot appeared out of nowhere and overwhelmed me with the stinking stench of his desperation. When he saw that I had arrived alone, he was like a shark and I was a good piece of bluefin tuna.
“Hi. I’m shooting for my local rock climbing club so we can get to a new limestone cliff in New York and… Do you have a partner? I don’t have a partner. Just saying. So, yes, I’m just taking sport climbing pics… I was at Red Rocks and now I’m here, I’m just looking for partners, and do you have a partner did I mention I don’t have a partner partner ? “
Why are we so comfortable climbing with strangers whom, in any other area of life, would we not trust?
All I could think of was, limestone in New York? It was just one of many red flags. I also worried that he was walking around in flat climbing shoes, as if that morning he had put them on like loafers on his way to the office. Of course, the daisy chain hanging between the legs was a big no, scary eyes. But above all, it was the closeness of his face to mine.
Seriously man! Get out of my face!
I could smell his hot, lustful breath as he talked about that mystical New York limestone, all the while hinting that he was interested in climbing together. Brown hair stuck to a broad white face, the color and opacity of raw shrimp. His back arched, his hands clawing at a DSLR, he continued to drag me into his fantasy as I recoiled like a snake being pricked with a stick.
A single train of thought crossed my brain. Now he will ask me to climb with him. He’s going to ask me to climb with him, isn’t he? I really hope he doesn’t ask me to climb with him.
Luckily, I never met a gibberish weirdo that I couldn’t outrun. I pulled out the old “OH MY GOD, what’s that over there?”
By the time he turned around to say, “I can’t see anything,” I was already preparing for a warm-up with my friends Danny and Wendy.
Earlier in my climbing career I wouldn’t have hesitated to let this guy insure me. He is on a rock; he has material; he must know how to insure. After all, belaying is the very first thing every climber learns… right?
Bad! One way or another, I inevitably encounter climbers who forget, fail, or never really learned the most important technique in climbing. And we have no way of knowing who these people are until we take them for a test drive.
I’ve always found our casual take on the role of belay strange. Why are we so comfortable climbing with strangers we wouldn’t trust in any other area of life? Like, we’d never pick up That Guy on the side of the freeway, but if he showed up at the rock in a harness, it was like, “Cool, I’m letting you be in charge of my life today.”
The hornball-drunk college kids coming out of the spring in Cozumel have higher standards than the rock climbers for choosing their partners. We get along with anyone.
The sacred brotherhood of the rope, the sacred bond that unites us climbers in a deeply metaphorical sense and, yes, I suppose, arguably literal, has it gone the way of the Stonemasters and sold out? ! Oh no! How many times do bloggers have to say it? Climbing has lost its soul! AGAIN!
I was flying solo in Yosemite once, a lone wolf in a Hawaiian shirt, with a red Petzl Ecrin helmet and a rack of budget cameras from the Czech Republic. You’d think I’d be an outcast, the wary, desperate loner no one wants to climb with. Instead, I’ve found it relatively easy to string partners together in my selfish world of summit or death mania which is otherwise referred to as “American man in his early twenties trying to earn the respect of his father”. Finding mates was simply a matter of hanging around the bulletin board near the Camp 4 ranger gazebo. Like Craig’s List for climbers, the Camp 4 bulletin board was a place to interact with a lewd specter of humanity.
In the morning, I stood, clutching my commemorative Half Dome travel mug, sipping “free” coffee from the cafe and giving everyone who passed me the “thousand-yard stare” that all ethically tough guys get when they spend too much time cleaning their souls in the “death zone”. Then I hummed Bob Marley and rocked back and forth in a lascivious dance while sticking my hands together. Soon someone would ask what heinous gnar I intended to kill that day.
“I thought it was going to be a day for astromanI would often reply, my eyes narrowed. “But it’s getting late and I don’t want to shiver bivouac at Harding Slot.”
They would say something like, “I want to go do Nutcracker?”
“Yeah OK!” I would say, suddenly dizzy.
During those two months, I climbed with old people, young people, ex-convicts and religious fanatics. I climbed with Californians and Salvadorans, none of whom spoke English, I understood. In the end, it doesn’t matter who you were as long as you had a belay device.
I don’t know what to do with that time in my life, or why I’m different now. Really, it was all about instant gratification – the most endemic vice of my generation born out of the modern era of button clicks. I wanted to climb at that time. You could attribute my recklessness to a simple bad decision. Yet I was never hurt or let go. So was it wrong?
Back to the guy with the gun. He couldn’t take a clue. He was relentless. He was hiding and blocking (poorly) along the base of the wall near where I was standing, which made it all very obvious. Could you move, please?
I attacked for a third warm-up. My climbing shoes were in place. My friend Danny was going to belay me, but suddenly he wasn’t there. Shit! Where is Danny? Over there, eating pistachios! Crap! I am exposed!
The Guy saw his opportunity. The corners of his mouth puckered up. Quickly, he hooked up a belay device and came towards me in a chilling Hey-You-Guys! a kind of clumsy gallop in the dirt – still in his soft climbing shoes, of course.
I was trapped. Not only was I tied up, but my feet were tied up in tiny, reverse-arched slippers. I stood on the rope tarp, a 4 x 4 foot island that I dared not step on for fear that the rubber on my shoes would get dusty. Shit, I know dust reduces rubber friction by 10%! There was no way to run and nowhere to hide.
Danny looked up from his pistachios. He saw the guy. Then he looked at me. My hands were pressed together, lower lip protruding, saying the words, “Help.” Me!”
Danny jumped over his bag and started running towards me, at a sharp angle to the guy’s path. Who would get there first? Aaah!
The Guy won, arriving a second before Danny. “Can I please assure you?” he said, breathless.
In art of war, Master Sun-Tzu writes: “Engage people with what they expect; it is what they are able to discern and which confirms their projections. It sets them up in predictable response patterns, occupying their minds while you wait for the extraordinary moment, the one they can’t anticipate.
In that extraordinary moment, very calmly, very serenely, I said, “No offense, but you’re a stranger, and I’m not just going to let you insure me because I don’t want to blindly put my life in that of a foreigner. hands. So the answer is: No, you can’t insure me.
“Oh,” he said as he walked away. “Okay, that makes sense.”
I felt guilty for shutting down the Guy…but not so guilty. I’ve heard or witnessed enough misbelays that I don’t want to climb with people I don’t know or trust anymore, especially if I don’t have to.
But then I think back to those days in Yosemite, when I was so blind. I know that surviving those experiences were the very beats that helped me become the most experienced and sane climber (whose dad now respects him, thank you so much) that I am today.
Yet I wonder if I’m too careful, too spoiled, too chilly? Am I avoiding the opportunity to connect with someone new and potentially interesting just because I’m scared to death? Where is the balance?
It’s all a game of chance and luck…until my belay android arrives.
For more on Andrew Bisharat, visit www.eveningsends.com
This article was first published in rock and iceJuly 2013.