An Epic Climb
A little about the sport of rock climbing: it is a sport in which your life is appointed collateral, so you better know what the heck you’re doing. That’s why I like climbing with my brother; I have complete trust in him.
A climber’s life is dependent on several safety systems; each with its own list of do’s and do not’s, weaknesses, and limitations that all climbers must fully understand in order to climb safely. If all safety precautions are utilized properly, the risk of injury or death is greatly reduced; but that is certainly not to say that any occurrence of injury or death can ever be ruled out entirely, in climbing as well as in any activity, even right down to taking a walk.
In the mathematics of probability, unless the statistics resulting from the testable data are somehow infinite, 100% is merely theoretical. We know the sun will rise tomorrow, but by our math, even a most certain event such as the sunrise is only theoretical, as it is based on the fact that rising is what the sun has done thus far. (Don’t panic, it’ll still rise, trust me. I’m told it may burn out in a billion years, but I feel no pressure to worry about this possibility until a billion years has passed and the problem presents itself).
I guess what I’m getting to is that if you are living, life will eventually throw out something totally unexpected, sort of an inevitable curve-ball. And then there is human error, also inevitable. Human error mixed with an uncontrollable environment causes death. In life, safety is partially ambiguous. You may wear your seatbelt, drive the speed limit, and be cautious and courteous towards other drivers, but you can still end up a fatality in an accident caused by another driver that was under the influence of alcohol. So, in climbing, it is wise to expect and be prepared for the worst-case scenario, and it is foolish not to.
In life, human error is inevitable. In climbing, human error is impermissible. So, climber’s need to do all in their power to prevent and avoid any type of error whatsoever.
Rule #1: Always check and double-check each one of those systems your life is dependent on. Then, you and your climbing partner check and double-check each other’s safety systems. You cannot allow the monotonous tenure of programmed safety precaution after safety precaution affect the use of those safety checks and precautions, no matter how many times you may go through them, over and over and over again. You don’t allow mistakes. At the same time, you watch out for them, expect them, and prepare for them. Here is a good example of why expecting the unexpected is a necessary precaution in the sport of climbing. This is a story about two climbers that were only somewhat prepared for what was ahead of them.
[page] One day, my brother and I embarked on a climbing adventure of epic proportions. We did this entirely on a whim. That is why it turned out to be no less than epic; it was a serious climb that we did on a complete spur-of-the-moment decision.
On any given day of climbing, if you wish to learn and become a better climber, you have to be willing to leave your comfort zone. This does not mean to do things that put you in a risky or dangerous situation; it means to reach for that handhold you haven’t been able to stick to before, or to pull yourself over that luminous horizontal shelf that has intimidated you from the first time you looked at it, and to be willing to take a nice (scary/long) fall in order to accomplish these feats.
On any given epic day of climbing, you have to be willing to leave your comfort zone in order to survive. Or you can just get stuck hundreds of feet above the ground on the face of a cliff and hope that a rescue team is going to come to your aid (which will work too, if it comes). This is not a good situation to get into, and certainly not worth deliberately placing yourself into. In our adventure, my brother and I got the best of both worlds. We made it to the top and back down again without the aid of a search and rescue team, but we passed them on our way back driving home.
It all started with another one of those days where we were just going to “have a look-see” at the rock itself. Elephant Head is a 1,000-foot rock formation in Madera Canyon, a mountainous region near where I grew up. As first noted in a Thono’odam Indian tale, if you look at Elephant Head from a certain geographical perspective point, it looks like the head of an elephant, thus its name. On average, most people would look at Elephant Head and think or say something along the lines of “wow,” or “neato,” or “beautiful rock,” but when my brother and I looked at it, the thoughts that came to us ran along the lines of “hmmm…let’s climb that beautiful rock.” When we look at a rock, building, large object, or even ridiculously small object, we first scope it out, noticing only its climbable features, and then we climb it. This way of thinking makes perfect sense to climbers, and it comes quite naturally.
For quite some time my brother and I had been looking into the idea of climbing Elephant Head, and fully intended to do so, but on the day we actually did climb it, we intended in no way whatsoever to climb it (naturally). We took a country-road out to the base of Elephant Head to, as I said before, just “have a look-see,” but it started looking so good we just couldn’t help it…and we were unable to resist the challenge. After only a few moments of looking at it, my brother went ahead and made the suggestion we were already both contemplating.
“Hey Mark, what do you think about climbing Elephant Head today?” he asked.
“Today?” I asked, as if surprised. “Okay…let’s do it.”
After quickly putting on our harnesses and getting our backpacks loaded up with gear, an intelligible thought entered my brother’s mind. "Is 11:30 AM too late in the day for a good start? Have we enough food and water to sustain us?"
Indeed these were important thoughts to be taken into consideration, but they were completely brushed aside in my response to my brother’s next question.
He asked me, “Mark, do you think that our excitement might be clouding our judgment?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “I’m too excited to tell.”
With that, we donned our backpacks and started hiking towards the West Gully, the climbing route up the backside of Elephant Head.
[page] My brother had expressed his doubts about our preparedness and readiness for this climb. We had very little food and water (one gallon of water total and one package of ramen noodles apiece, which would be eaten dry). There is no possible way this amount of food and water could provide us with the energy that should be had in any physical activity, let alone climbing, and we certainly did not have an early start, which is crucial to this type of climbing (backcountry/big-wall/mountaineering style). However, the hike to the West Gully was very nice and relaxing, causing all doubts to shift to the back of our minds…or at least my mind. Nice shaded forest of mesquite trees, cactus wrens singing away; this certainly was going to be an excellent day of climbing.
The West Gully starts out at a low angle, with a thick rusted steel cable running along the beginning (low-angle) section of the climb. The cable was someone’s attempt to turn the West Gully into a tourist attraction. Needless to say (and for obvious reasons), the attempt failed (I do not believe tourists would enjoy the misery involved in climbing the West Gully). It may not have served its’ original purpose as a tourist trap, but (as the guide book suggests) it worked quite nicely as a safe piece of protection for me and my brother at the easy start of the climb. The rock then straightens out into a maze of vertical cliffs and short distances of flat desert covered areas. You then have to leave the cable behind, never seeing or knowing what it actually was anchored to (probably a large three ton boulder performing a delicate balancing act), but I guess the cable did its job.
Once the climbing becomes vertical, you basically choose your own path, trying to eyeball the one of least resistance, and hopefully a path that will lead you to the top of Elephant Head, and not some other spire or pinnacle to get stuck atop of.
The day certainly did start out wonderfully, and it is understandable that our hopes would be high. Easy going approach, easy low-angle section for the start, and good calm weather. We even took our time at first, stopping every once in a while to snap a few pictures of potential sport routes along the way (cliffs climbable by putting bolts in them). Our situation seemed fine and dandy, but it would casually progress into a more serious test of strength and ability. When the full realization would come upon us of the actual trouble we were in, it would already be too late, and there would be no backing down.
When the climbing became vertical, that’s when the wind picked up, stunting our ability to communicate, and communication is absolutely crucial to safe climbing. By the time we reached the halfway point of the climb, our water supply was gone.
Badly needing nourishment, we each ate our one package of ramen noodles, speaking to each other about the ramen noodles as if they were gourmet meals (an effect of the hunger that had set in). At the time, those noodles really seemed as though they were something outstandingly delicious. We would take turns pouring the seasoning packets on top of our dry crunchy noodles and saying things like, “man, this is soooo good,” but at the same time, dreaming of a true home-cooked meal.
After we ate our rations, our situation began to worsen at an increasingly dangerous speed. The sun was going down! If the sun set before we reached the top of Elephant Head, our troubles would increase exponentially. We looked back towards the jeep, literally nothing more than a little white speck in the distance. We looked down along the path we had taken so far, and then up towards the peak of Elephant head. No returning the way we came; it would be much faster and safer to continue going upward to the top as opposed to trying to get back down the way we came. From the top, we could take a path down that would involve no rappelling.
[page] We realized more and more the troubles nightfall would bring. This wasn’t the type of climbing you want to do in the dark. Furthermore, and worst of all, we had no cell phone. We have always had at least one cell phone with us when we climb, because at least one person we are climbing with always owns a cell phone…but James and I didn’t own a cell phone, and it was only us two in the fleeting daylight with no way of contacting anyone and let them know of our location out in the middle of no-man’s-land, just in case we would have found our way into a really serious jam.
My parents are not fond of rock climbing. Looking at it from their point of view, I can understand why. It’s not so much the fear of heights that gets to my mother, but more the thought of two of her children dangling on ropes, toes, and fingers, hundreds of feet in the air...this doesn’t sit well with her. It doesn’t make my dad very happy either (and I believe that he is afraid of heights). So, when we told them we were headed out to Madera Canyon just to investigate its 1,000 foot high cliff formation, I’m sure they got a little worried as the day dragged on with no sign of our return. Scratch that…they weren’t just a little worried, they were worried sick. If we had only had a cell phone to contact them, we could have informed them we had decided on a slight “change of plans,” and saved them from some (not all) of their torment.
But we didn’t have a cell phone…and even if we did, it wouldn’t help us climb any faster anyways, and that’s what we needed to be concentrating on. We had to get to the top and back down soon, as we both did not feel up to spending a night in the full exposure of the chilling cold with no shelter. Climbing kept us in full motion, so our bodies were kept warm, but if we had to stop for the night, then we would feel the cold, and our hunger, thirst, and exhaustion would only have intensified the temperature a great deal.
We now knew the need for speed. Our climbing was sporadically mixed with scrambling here and there. Rope up for a pitch of climbing (one rope length), come untied for short hikes on any flat areas we came across, and rope back up again when ran into a cliff system. This process was repeated over and over. We were steadily closing in on the peak little by little, but little by little, a feeling of doubt was growing in size inside of me, allowing fear to slowly eke its way into my consciousness.
We came to a chimney (a formation of rock; kind of like a large crack big enough for a person to fit into). It was only about twenty feet high, but had a sloped landing that would be terrible to take a fall on, so we needed to rope up. This chimney was the only possible path available for us to take, unless we were to back track and find a different route, and in the process lose our last rays of sunlight. So, once again we roped up and got ready to climb. We didn’t know what was at the top of the chimney, but we were satisfied that it was higher than our current location. Would it lead us to another climbable feature? To the peak of Elephant Head? Or to a dead end? What more could we do than climb it and find out?
My brother is always the one to go first on this type of climbing. He knows how to place the gear, and all I have to do is follow behind him and clean it up. He started up the chimney, looking for the first possible gear placement. There was only one, a tree root about ten feet off of the ground. He climbed up to it, grabbed it, and gave it a yank to test its integrity. It didn’t have much integrity…the small wimpy tree was yanked right out of the rock. Other than the tree that was no longer there, there wasn’t anything to protect with…so, he had no choice but to climb the rest of the way to the top of the chimney as safely and methodically as he could, though unprotected. This he did successfully…meaning he made it up the chimney without falling back down. Once he finished, I started my way up behind him, only I had the comfort of a rope, available to me because he so graciously free-climbed the protectionless chimney.
Once I reached the top, we started hiking along another flat area. It didn’t take very long for us to discover that we were hiking along the rim of Elephant Head. We faced northward and were greeted with a view of a one thousand foot vertical drop. I don’t know whether to describe that view as the amazing beauty of nature, or the horrifying amazing power of nature’s beauty. It was incredible! We were hiking right along the ledge of an immense drop off, with ropes coiled up on top of our backpacks; not connected to our harnesses, and not connected to any piece of gear in the rock. We quickly decided to remedy that. We roped up, moved a good safe distance away from the ledge, and continued hiking eastward along the rim, towards the peak of Elephant Head itself (which was not yet in our view).
After a short distance, we came up to another cliff. This one was different. Climbing it would mean climbing above the drop off, giving us full exposure to 1,000 feet of empty space. I won’t downplay what I felt inside…I’m glad my brother is always the one to go first. At the sight of what we were about to climb next, the fear felt at previous times during the climb seemed to be nothing in comparison to what I felt at this point during our climb.
[page] Back where I grew up, it’s generally dry most of the year. But, around monsoon season, all the rain the land has been missing out on for an entire year seems to finally come…all of it at once. It’s as if it builds up, and then the clouds burst forth and pound you with constant rain drops the size of marbles. Over many years, this rain has created all kinds of weird natural formations on the rock of Elephant Head. There are natural bridges, cliffs, walls, tunnels, spirals, and even rumors of a cave system that runs underneath Madera Canyon.
Located on the rim of Elephant Head, directly at the base of the cliff we were about to climb was the most amazing structure of all those we had yet seen during our assent of Elephant Head. Right at the spot where I would sit to belay my brother (feed him rope and “put on the brakes” if he falls), was a spiral in the rock facing downward and opening up with a gaping view into the valley far below, as if it were a portal that led to another world. I say “portal into another world” because when there is a hole in a rock, opening up to an incredible view of itty-bitty trees far away, sitting on it provokes vividly imaginative thoughts.
My brother and I got ready to climb the cliff. I anchored (tied) into a couple of firmly rooted trees. Inside the portal, a large rock had jammed itself in a way that created a nice comfortable seat. (Side note-the technical term for a rock that jams itself into a crack or such as this one is ‘chock stone’). I imagined that the rock had been locked in a fight with the portal for a century; the portal was trying to suck it down into its alien realm, and the rock was stubbornly fat (too large to fit through the hole), not budging one bit to the immense power of gravity. So, trusting the rock's stubbornness, I laid my back against it, and it ignored my presence. From where I sat, I had an up-close and personal view through the portal and down into the trees on the ground 1,000 feet away.
What a view! And to think…only a climber could ever get the chance to see this incredible sight. The most amazing views of nature often come from the perspective point off the side of cliffs or on top of mountains…and if you want to enjoy the privilege of seeing them, then you’re going to have to become a climber.
My brother began climbing, in the last visible light of the sun. I kept looking through the spiraling hole, and watched as twilight met both our worlds. As the sun embarked on the last leg of its day long journey, eerie shadows crept up all around us, down the dark cliffs on both sides of us, and through the foreboding portal I sat in the mouth of. For some time after the adventure of Elephant Head, my brother and I had to immerse ourselves in sunny, bright, cheerful, flat landscapes in order to free our minds from the nightmarish thoughts of black shadows blanketing the ground from our sight, and turning our surroundings into black abyss.
My brother climbed the cliff above the portal with ease. It was then my turn, and I lack the ease and grace my brother possesses in his climbing style. I tried to climb quickly, because I, as well as my brother, was anxious to investigate what was on top of this cliff, and to see if we had made it to the desired location. A mixture of nerves and cold numbed my fingers and my mind. My body was stiff and sore from the rest I got while belaying. I tried to ignore the drop off below me, and concentrate only on my climbing, but I really was nervous. I couldn’t feel the rock with my numb shaking hands, making it difficult and time consuming to remove my brother's solid gear placements.
After a difficult, straining, tiring (and probably pathetic) struggle with removing the last piece of gear, I topped out on the cliff, and my brother and I began hiking once again along a large hump on the rim. The hump steadily evened out, and a monument of dozens of small elephant statuettes came into our view, which, of course, signifies the top of Elephant Head. No more cliffs or obstacles were between us and the elephant statuettes. We ran as fast as we could to the elephant miniatures, and were greeted with much relief. We both yelled our victory cries, and celebrated by giving each other high fives. In all the climbing adventures I have experienced with my brother, I have never gone through one with quite the feeling of victorious magnitude as that one!
The situation seemed resolved, but our worrying parents back home had no way of hearing our shouts and knowing what we had just done. It wasn’t over just yet for us either. The sun had gone down, and there was not a sliver of moonlight to help guide us as we navigated through the maze of paths that would lead us back to our starting point, a long way away, which we would get to only if we successfully avoided all the cliffs, drop-offs and dead ends.
We pulled out our headlamps. We each had one lamp, each with one set of batteries. We did not know how much use the lamps already had, so we decided to play it safe by only using one at a time, so as to preserve our batteries (it would have been easier to play it safe by remembering to bring spare batteries in the first place. Doh!). Our path back down Elephant Head was through the most brush-choked drainage a man can physically travel through without the aid of a chainsaw, or preferably, a bulldozer (at least a machete would have been nice). We bushwhacked our way through the natural line of drainage, tearing through the thick abundance of thorn coated tree branches, and letting gravity take us in its pull, keeping us on the proper path, the path that water naturally followed down the drainage.
Eventually, the drainage led us to a wash back on the flat ground, and the wash eventually led to a dirt road. As soon as we saw the dirt road, we hit it running hard, and when the road met back up with the jeep, we felt another surge of excitement and victory. Getting back to the jeep was even more comforting and relieving than the top-out on Elephant Head.
Much more comforting still was getting back home to calm our worried parents. As we passed a search and rescue team vehicle on the way back home, we expected it to be for us, and when we saw the cop car in the parking lot back at home, our expectations were verified. We both ran inside the house, looking pretty sorry after our escapade, but our condition was nothing compared to the terrible amount of stress and horror in the look I remember seeing on my parents’ faces. Our return home brought them relief and joy, coupled with an understandable amount of anger for what we had put them through.
I’m blessed to have such loving parents. Not all kids are given mothers and fathers that would call out a search and rescue team of five vehicles, one plane, and one helicopter when the occasion arises (we got home right before they launched the helicopter…I suppose that was a good thing). Then again, the average parent has no need to call out a search and rescue team for their children. Parents may have to worry about their kids, but most parents do not have to deal with the worry involved in having “crazy kids who climb on rocks”.
After we explained our story to our parents and the officer, I believe the first thing my mom said was “Don’t you ever do that to us again!!!”
The officer in the house helped calm my crying mother down by saying “The important thing is that everybody is ok.”
With tear filled eyes that would break even a heart made of stone, my mother looked up at the officer and asked, “Are we going to have to pay for all this?”
After the officer said no, and after my mom had thanked him a hundred times, he left.
My brother and I are not heartless, so we of course did make the solemn agreement with our parents that we would never put them through anything like that again. We swore to always let them know where we are when we climb and that we are okay.
We should very well have been more prepared for this climb; this much is crystal clear to us. It is also clear to us that although we made our mistakes, we did not fail as climbers and survivalists. Failure would have been if we had not learned from the experience, in which case our survival would truly be at stake. Along the way, we did not look at any obstacle as an impossible feat, for this would result in failure.
My brother was a true leader on this adventure; he kept us optimistic and alive. We worked with what we had in order to do what we had to do, and we (mostly he) knew it was in our ability to do it. We came out of the experience alive and well; scratched, bleeding, bruised, tired, thirsty, starved, our hearts beating, our bodies pumped with adrenaline, and all-in-all, feeling pretty dang good considering what we had just been through.
Among the experience we gained is this priceless lesson that we learned…always carry a cell-phone with you when you climb.