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Climbing


Submitted by michael on 2006-10-18 | Last Modified on 2006-12-10

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MY FIRST TASTE of climbing occurred when a friend found I had an intense fear of heights. Three weeks later we imbibed a few forties with matching bunkweed, and videogamed our way up the winding road to Idyllwild, barely keeping in the sweep of our headlights. I woke to a pounding head with a rock for a pillow and needles for a blanket, only to have Tahquitz perfectly framed in the surrounding pines, glowing in the morning red.

A thousand feet of scree led to another of solid granite, forming a needle against the skyline. To the right lay a wide swath of black and white with barely a scratch. History was made in those five pitches. Not once, but twice. The Vampire. Part myth, part lore, all real. Rather than fear, that first day became one of repeats over the years, always with the intention of coming back and sending The Myth. Twice rained out, and a third by fog, the years rolled by and forced the dream into the attic. Family and a place to shower replaced groveling and diving in dumpsters. Then Lady Luck rattled the cage - I met Royal Robbins.

Nostalgia rang deep as he recounted The Myth. It was 1959. Robbins, with Dave Rearick, used the tools of the day, consisting of hemp ropes and steel boots, and sent what was likely the hardest route at 5.9, A4. Two weeks later, the cage rattled again as John Long settled near my home. Days of climbing became fights to hang at the belay to hear the man speak. He would wrap his conversation mitts around us and kept us rolling with stories of the Stonemaster crew and the glory of their youth, including the coveted free ascent of The Myth. It was 1973. Long, Rick Accomazzo, Mike Graham, and Bill Antel set out to prove that stiff rubber soles and a set of nuts could set the world on fire. They did. The Stonemasters “free climbed Tahquitz’s greatest prize.”

My wife quickly found herself alone with my daughter, again a weekend widow. My compatriot Mark hopped on the training runs, and soon enough the day came.

A sleepless night in the comfort of the van made me long for the intoxicants of the past. Mark snored as I counted stars through the windows. I continued to corkscrew in the bag until the sun pushed the blackness away. Stepping out and stretching the bones, I found a paw print, outlined with dusty precision on my rear window from where he looked in on me. All these years I never encountered a bear. Good or bad?

A splash of water, a chug of caffeine, and off we went. The Myth appeared and vanished through the trees during the hike. Finally we were at the base. I was physically ready, but mentally? Each pitch rattled in my head. My hands shook tying my laces. Finally, I stood and closed my eyes as a gentle breeze touched my face. Zen state. I calmly reached up and grabbed a pile of sap. Yanking away, I smacked the rock, instantly swelling the middle finger immobile. Perfect. Mark and I laughed hard at the ego check. A quick wrap of tape, and off we went.

I assume the opening pitch is memorable. In our froth of eyeballing the upper pitches, we placed ourselves off-route in the middle of an off-width horror show. I tunneled through the granite, shirtless against the wall behind, donating knee skin to the wall in front, eventually popping out and ropedragging my harrowed ass towards the safety of the correct anchors.

The Bat Crack was next. Perfect hand jams led to a rusted piton. Mr. Robbins? Another forty feet and I found myself in a mantel, stuck with one foot up, the other dangling free. The anchors mocked me from two feet away. The wind matched my howl as I willed my leg to press it out. A tiny edge saved me from space, and the anchors were in my face.

“Nice lead,” said Mark, “ready for round three?”

Fifteen feet of traversing to reach a thin finger crack lay ahead. Halfway, my fingernails were bleeding. Robbins performed an A4 miracle, Accomazzo jumped to catch the flake. The pain was so intense, I chose the latter. Somehow I stuck, and adrenaline took over. A perfect lieback of 5.10 fingers took me through the headwall, and directly into the next pitch.

The sun had come around to warm the rock, just in time for me to exit the crack and tackle the slippery face. A lone bolt would halt some of the slide, but not enough to warrant any comfort. I climbed down and rested on a jam. Something shined in the crack. I reached further, wiggled a bit, and out popped a large cam. Booty!

Back to the show, and the smears before me. Ever so slowly I walked my feet up to pressure mantel the muffins, making myself horizontal in the process. Parallel to the ground, out of sight from my partner, and twenty feet out, insanity gained strength. Elvis hummed in my ear as my legs kept the beat. Just as I was about to cash in the frequent flyer miles, I reached blindly for a seam. Two pads gripped a micro edge as my body slid off. The tips remained strong and a newfound stance kept the urine in place. I shook my way to the belay, sewing it up to obliterate the obscenity in my mind.

I looked down to my partner, grunting, clutching and teaching a sailor how to cuss. Finally, he found the sequence and sprinted to the belay. I prepared myself to give up the last pitch, instead, Mark quietly handed me the gear.

“So far you’ve managed to flash your dream. Let’s finish as we started.”

And we did. It wasn’t history. It wasn’t unique. It was merely a day. But it was my day to climb with the gods before me.

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