Bushmaster, the Art of Mid-Air Bonsai
I eye the #2 cam, rotten flakes of basalt breaking free of the pocket's bottom as the piece is rotated. The stone balanced beside my foot is as large as a television set, and as stable as a bowling ball on the roof of a VW bug. Its quality is as the finest sculpted Italian marble when compared to the majority of the holds in the corner I had just climbed through.
Delicately, I pull a cactus spine from my fingertip with my teeth, spit it out onto the rock, and look up through the brush to the turquoise blue Arizona sky.
Rain had come hard on the heels of my departure from the Oak Creek Overlook, the previous weekend, covering that sky and scattering the climbers at that popular basalt crag. Rain that fell in sheets, in buckets, in a torrent the likes of which has not been seen since Biblical times. Rain that had soaked my friends Rich LeMal and Jane Bull, camped in the Northern Arizona backcountry. Furious storms blew up out of the southwest, or fell down from the North, and soaked the Mogollon Rim on a daily basis. From Sedona's rainbow ramparts to the conifer flanks of the San Francisco Peaks, east to Winslow and Jack's and west to the Forks and the side canyon where my friends camped, the rain came, and stayed, from Sunday night through late Tuesday evening.
Phoenix, meanwhile, had parched in the heat, although one or two storms had snuck into the north Valley after sunset, they brought only humidity, no relief. I sweated through the days, nursing a strained knee and impatient appetite for great lines on high canyon basalt.
Mechanical failure made Wednesday and the rest of the week a bust for work, opening a surprise dead spot in my schedule. Without a pause, I switched smoothly into Plan B: Escape From Babylon.
Food, gear, and tunes are quickly loaded into the New Machine; a faded silver-and-primer-grey 1979 Chevy conversion van, with a rebuilt 302 smallblock engine and turbo transmission, rotating captain's chairs, plush interior, and a bed big enough to hold the M&I Basecamp, with Sherpas. Cook kit and sundries snug into the dark den of storage, climbing gear locks into a Action Packer bolted to the floor, the cooler and water jug slide between the back seats, sketch pads, journals and maps fall in a scattered pile as I blast out of suburbia, pausing only long enough to fuel the leviathan and take on vital liquids (caffeine and ethanol).
Cool blue sax notes slide me out of the concrete warren, into the rising hills, across the plateau. The signs and traffic and streetlights fall away and I'm free; winging north on the cusp of evening as Sunset Point glows in the last light of a dozen snapping cameras, RVs bellowing "Freedom of the Road" in the parking lot, tiny dogs straining on leashes at the legs of their overweight owners.
Now, on the sharp end, I inhale the musk of the thriving forest and my own sweat, settle my weight over one foot, and ease a small, flexible-stemmed Alien out of the tangled mass of gear racked at my waist. It skates along the crack, refusing to pass the lip, and I snort in frustration, sweat beginning to trickle down my forehead and scalp under the helmet as I return it to the gear loop and crane my head awkwardly, my free hand lifting the cams out and into my line of sight.
The smaller piece, then, and I sigh, clipping the biner and looking at the flake behind which it is set. Tapped, it has a vaguely wooden sound, like a salad bowl clamped in a vice. Dubious, I punch it with a palm from below, and watch as the bottom crack widens marginally.
Okay, mental note to self: do not pull upwards on that one.
I look back at my previous gear, a #.75 Camalot sunk behind stacked, detached blocks in the mossy, mungy corner. The #2 Camalot grates a few more degrees in rotation as I change hands and chalk, more debris flaking free beneath the elegant arch of the machined cam faces. I extend the runner, trying to balance the increased load of a longer fall against relative stability of a borderline piece in less-than-stellar rock.
If I have this figured right, my gear should blow just enough scree free, in the event of a fall, to ensure that I should be completely and instantly buried, just after I crater at the base.
Well, at least we got that covered.
[page] Walking into an empty camp is always a spooky feeling. Even if you know the folks dug in there, it is vaguely wrong, somehow. Perhaps it is because of that familiarity, the absence echoing too hollow where life should resound.
I had threaded north from Flagstaff after the long drive Wednesday afternoon and evening; punching across the hills and prairie to drop south again, as pavement became gravel and then crawling over bare dirt forest roads, wallowing through deep mud, ruts, and vast pools, winding around trees and stumps, following the cleverly hidden cairns when even the road ended. The Machine sounded like a Panzer creeping through the forest, and I smiled at the thought of my friends' faces when I arrived in camp.
But camp was empty, so I took a cold Pepsi from the cooler and strolled up across the nearby field to stare down, down over the miles of sandstone and basalt, hawks and ravens, bats and butterflies dancing on their breezes. I carefully stretched my knees, warming the joints after the long drive, loosening my shoulders, just letting the tension roll out and the peace of the silent canyons slowly fill that inner space. Blue flowers nodded at me in the breeze, confirming the wisdom of my choice.
Soon, the familiar red truck appeared in my tracks, and Rich and Jane greeted me with huge smiles and tales of the Deluge.
Rich has accompanied Yours Truly on many misadventures; a staunch friend and a solid climbing partner, and, belied by his retiring personality and quite demeanor, one of the more prolific original developers of Upper Devil’s Canyon, Apache Leap, and a number of other premier Arizona crags. Jane is a retired Oklahoma schoolteacher in her 50's, who visits the desert southwest at least once yearly, a pilgrimage that we all look forward to, when smiles, good food, and fun climbing are the rule.
After I had headed out on the previous Sunday, they had been beset by rain, and their run of bad weather luck had continued for the better part of three days. Wednesday morning, in the face of yet another day’s soaking, they had retreated to civilization for laundry, showers, and supplies. Clean and happier, they had returned to find me waiting, the final piece of the puzzle.
We all exchanged hugs and greetings, Rich handing me a cold Bass and smilingly cursing the weather. In order not to block their view of the small herds of elk, which had been passing through camp in the late evening, I found a good spot away from the tents and put the Beast in the shade of some junipers and a scrub oak. Jane sorted victuals and drying clothing while Le Petite Mal and I shared a smoke and enjoyed the view from the plush comfort of the Machine.
Rich coughed, passed the brass, and grinned conspiratorially. In that unmistakeable laconic Pennsylvania way of his, he said, "Wait ‘til you see what I got to show you... you ain't gonna believe it!"
In the past, his only error in this had been underestimating just how amazed the intended victim might be. I could feel anticipation in the pit of my stomach as we finished the burn and exited the Panzer.
Beer in hand, we walked over the thick needles and basalt cobblestones of the pine forest floor, broken limbs and fallen trees interspersed with cactus and agave, mushrooms and moss, to stand at the edge, fifteen feet beyond the screen of trees, three hundred yards from camp. The dirt and vegetation ended abruptly, and I looked down at sixty- to seventy-foot basalt walls and aretes, cracks and corners.
His eyebrows high on his wrinkled forehead, Rich grinned at my astonished face and chuckled, "Got three TRs set up already. Most of it's ten or so, I reckon."
[page] We spent the next two days trying to find the place on any guidebook while steadily devouring the lines on lead and toprope. Mornings of hot coffee and oatmeal, while the dew glistened on forest grass and gear clicked and clanked musically, the camp full of the smell of woodsmoke and damp clothing and coffee, aimless debate and conversation filling the silence as we wandered casually towards the edge.
Evenings were symphonies of the senses; fantastic food, cold brews, tales of distant andventure and friends lost and found; of lightning flickering among distant thunderclouds, basso grumbles counterpointing the silent stars and dancing bats, crickets and nightjars and frogs filling the dusk with their songs, of the smell of the forest, and a slow-cooking steak, the rich tang of pine sap and the faintly moldy smell of a tattered guidebook.
The hike in was a steep, loose wooded slope, not that bad, but nothing to write home to Mom about. The predominance of the cracks and dihedrals seemed to fall between hard 5.9 and straight-on 5.11, offering no moderate exit/escape, but late the first day I found a likely-looking ramp that seemed to lead to the top. I pointed it out to Rich, who shook his head, smiled, and threatened to lead it if I didn’t.
The next morning Looking Grass West went free and easy at a surprising 5.6, five solid pieces protecting the winding line as it climbed up around a corner, then doubled back right through an arch formed by a leaning pillar of basalt. Climbing the back of this refrigerator-sized pillar, which seemed likely to break loose and plummet directly onto your belayer at any instant (and which has probably been there for a millenium), put me back on the rim less than one hundred yards from camp.
We whooped in celebration of the discovery, a user-friendly alternative to the hell hike out. With one down and many to go, we spent the rest of the day on harder things; stemming and jamming, yarding and groveling and swearing and falling and loving every minute of it. Prickly pear unfortunately thrives along the Rim, growing at the base and among the belays, and we were all soon pincushioned with tiny golden spines. I scratched absently at poison ivy from the week before and reflected on the joys of backcountry climbing as Rich and I talked Jane through the fine points of stemming.
Friday morning, Rich cleaned the debris from the cracks on either side of a large roof, and we climbed out of a cool green cave through a beautiful dual crack system to a fine finish. This line offered so many variations that the entire morning was spent just running laps.
After lunch, we went in search of the Next Great Problem.
[page] Farther down the crag than we had yet ventured on rope, Rich's earlier explorations had spotted one or two promising things. We wandered along, leaving Jane to relax in the shade while we pondered these prospects. The choices were many, and we weighed their relative merits in the haze of an afternoon safety meeting; cooling breezes blowing through the forest, picking absently at cactus spines with fingernails and teeth as we eyed crumbling corners and doubtful cracks, fantastic edges and vegetated ledges.
At last, a line was chosen, and we went for the gear.
Now, with pro of a purely psychological nature staring me in the face, and loose plates and boulders dancing between my feet, I crab slowly around the corner, high-stepping across the bomb, to find myself in the middle of a mid-air bonsai session.
A small divot/corner breaks the cliff here, foreshadowing the crack I had hoped waited above. Hoped the way a Baptist hopes there is Bar-B-Que sauce in Heaven. Hoped the way a drunk hopes for one more drink from an empty bottle.
My faith, it seemed, was to be sorely tested. At the base of this corner, whose solid rock beckoned me like the Grail, a dozen saplings, all less than wrist size in diameter, spring directly from the only holds on the face.
I lock off and, balanced, cheek to stone, reach right to grip one of the healthy young trunks. A tug that very nearly pulls me from the face does little more than rustle the youngster’s foliage. My comments range across a short selection of my rigger vocabulary before I inhale, reset, and grab another.
I could no more budge that slender reed than I could have pulled my van sideways by tugging on one of the tires. Time for the Art of Mid-air Bonsai.
“Trees are on, today, aren’t they?” I cackle, contemplating the insanity of a slung sapling. Rich mutters something dubious from below, and Jane, ever thoughtful, admonishes me to be careful. I smile at that, doing my damnedest to comply, and scum across the face to sink bloody fingers into the vegetation-shielded crack. Two cams follow in short order, and I breathe a sigh of relief as the draw on my first good piece clips solidly. Equalizing it with another, I find myself laughing, crouched on melting humid holds in bushes, a dozen yards and more above the ground, sweating and impaled with cactus spines.
“I really am loving this…” My voice is a raven’s croak, “Do you think I need professional help?”
Then I lean right, fingers torqued into the only hold, reaching, reaching…
… and my questing hand falls into a perfect jam, thumb up. Feet smeared, I pull, hard, step high, toe riding a broken corner, balance swinging as I rise up over the bulge and the trees. My mouth falls open in a bark of laughter, and I inhale deeply, dipping for chalk.
-pause to swallow with a throat suddenly too tight to speak,
“-that is why I climb.” I murmur, to no one in particular. Almost without thought, my fingers find a small cam and sink it, clip the companion QD, locking the ‘biner with long-practiced movements of thumb and forefinger.
Above, the perfect hand and finger crack snakes up the open book, unmarked by the passage of man. For all I know, I am the very first human to ever crest that bulge, fight through the vegetation and rotten rock and cacti, chasing restlessness and destiny and and unmarked forest roads to touch this classic line shining in the evening sun. Stemming, jamming, breathing in simple rhythm with the wind and the sky, I move through the thinner fingers. The crack takes gear like a greedy kid on a Christmas morning as I cruise the last ten feet of hand jams, highstep/mantle left in an exciting blind fingerlock-to-fingerlock move around a corner, and dance past another cactus to set a bomber belay at the separated summit blocks.
“Safe.” I call, and laugh with tears in my eyes. All the first stars of evening seem to pour into the suddenly-opened places in me, rivers running wild in the secret backcountry of my soul. Something breaks, then, and I sob in a breath that comes back out of me as bright laughter, silver notes beneath a gibbous moon.
A peregrine cries in the canyons below, one last scream of defiance in the dying light, and my heart leaps to join her in the celebration of life.
Bushmaster, the Art of Mid-Air Bonsai, 5.8 R/X, BW III, Mike Gray and Rich Le Mal, 8/17/01