I’m standing on a hollow flake,
about 150 feet above the ground, and only 20 feet from the summit. Hidden Valley Campground is spread out below me, people are cooking around their campfires, chatting about the day and playing music. The pinyon pines and juniper trees create shade in the late afternoon, while the orange white boulders create stools, tables and playgrounds for the park visitors. Normally I would be down there with them, enjoying the sunshine, stretching and talking, but right now I'm more focused on not dying. My palms are sweating.
There is a number 1 cam securely wedged behind a large hollow flake at my feet. But I wouldn’t trust it. The flake, a large outcropping of rock that is mostly (but not entirely) unattached from the formation I'm climbing, makes a hollow wooden sound when I tap it with the toes of my climbing shoes. Cams, small metal devices that are used to protect climbs like this one, are incredibly strong and it would be extremely unlikely that this cam in particular would break or fail if I fell. However, rock is much more unpredictable. The Joshua Tree granite I find myself clinging to has a reputation for being crumbly, and in general, placing gear (another term for cams) behind flakes isn't failsafe. Flakes like the one I'm standing on can peel off under the weight of a fall.
That would be... bad.
My next closest cam is about 10 feet below the flake and to my left, which means if I fall here and the number 1 rips out, I’ll be taking a pretty big and slightly violent fall to my left. I know there is a ledge somewhere over there. Would I hit it in a fall? Would I whip into space? Would I slam into the wall below? What if that piece also blows?
I look up. I know the summit is close. There is a shallow flaring crack in front of me that runs out into nothing but friction slab. I know I can’t get any more pieces in until the top, the crack is way too flared, nothing would fit.
My hands are wrapped in white tape, smeared with dirt, and there is a small cut on the back of my thumb I hadn’t noticed until now. The chipped purple nail polish I put on around the campfire last night stands in contrast to the chalk caked in my cuticles. I’m breathing heavily, but clearly. There is only one way out: Up.
Right in this moment I don’t feel scared. In this small, 5 second window I am clear headed, calm, and I know what has to be done. The thought of bailing and lowering down or climbing around through safer terrain doesn’t even come close to crossing my mind. I know I can set my hands in the shallow crack and pull myself up. I look at the flaring crack and I’m pretty sure if I can pull that move I’ll be able to match my feet into the shallow groove, pray the sticky rubber soles keep me on the wall, and then move my feet to where my hands started. That should be a pretty good stance, then I can reset my hands and keep moving up. Unfortunately I can’t see what the friction slab above holds.
I shake out my hands, dip them into the chalk bag at my waist, blow on my finger tips to get the excess chalk off, and set my hands into the shallow crack.
There is no time to waste. I pull myself up using the shallow crack as a handle. I smear my feet against the orange crumbly Joshua Tree granite and tip my body forward. My strength as a climber lies in my flexibility and technique over my strength, I use this as I bring one rubber clad toe to a small grove with a crystal in it that looks like it will hold my body weight. Probably.
The crystal is only inches below my hands. I remove one hand from the shallow crack, and flag my other foot out left, keeping me balanced by applying slight pressure against the wall with the inner part of my foot, but not bearing any weight. My hand moves slowly but deliberately, with my breath, until it finds the small rail of crystals above me. The width of a tube of chapstick and sloping downwards at a difficult angle to grasp, it is still the best hold around me. I pull down on it and stand up on the miserable little crystal under my foot.
I can feel the fear of falling beginning to rise in my chest, but I don’t have time for it. I need to cross my right foot over my left in a delicate balance-y move that will put both of my feet into the shallow crack, resting on crystals the size of half a pinto bean. This means I need to completely trust my bottom foot.
As I lift my right foot to cross over my left I have an unsettling moment of vertigo. I’m looking down at my feet, the campground below me comes briefly into view, crossing my legs over each other, my core tightens to offset the ‘barn door’ motion that gravity wants to pull me into, and off the rock. I let out a grunt, half fear and half exertion.
My breathing comes in quick, shallow bursts and I begin to vocalize my fear in small grunts and half screams. But my body keeps moving.
By some miracle my foot on the pinto bean sticks to the granite and I transfer weight to the opposite foot. I match my hands on the chapstick rail above me and pull up. Hands locked off in front of my chest I make my feet leave the shallow crack and onto the sloping face. My feet are now set in shallow granite dishes, the size and dimensions of a spoon covered in sand paper. Each movement causes me to let out another small grunt/scream. My body keeps moving.
I stand up on the shallow sandpapery spoons, my hands grasp out in front of me, desperately looking for holds. I find smaller and shallower dishes than what my feet are on to lodge just the pads of my finger tips onto.
Fortunately for me, the slab begins to lower in angle. Making it much more likely that my shoes and fingertips will hold me to the granite. The hollow flake with the number 1 cam in it is 10 feet below me now.
I feel the wind whipping around my body, adding to the vertigo sensation. I do not trust the feet to hold me and I expect my hands to come sliding off the granite any second now. I know what will happen if they do. I’ll fall through the air, 10 feet to my piece, and then 10 more below it, plus 4 or 5 more feet with rope stretch. And that’s if my piece holds. If it blows I’ll fall another 10 feet and swing left into the chimney next to my climb.
My brain has caught up to what my body is doing and it’s screaming at me to stop. It doesn’t realize we’re almost through. My body hasn’t stopped moving.
Every step is a scream. Will this foot blow? Will this hand hold keep me on?
I know I’m climbing the top out in poor style, but I don’t care. I’m clawing, grunting, high stepping and smearing my feet on non existent holds. The granite begins to slope out into a ledge. I desperately claw my way up the last few feet.
I’ve made it.
There is no moment of relief. What floods my body is pure ecstasy. A switch has been flipped from terror to euphoria. My screams of fear turn into screams of exuberant happiness. I let out the loudest ‘whoop’ I am capable of as I stand upon the summit of the climb. It rips from my body and into the air like a physical thing. I hear a few people call back with hoots and monkey calls. They don't know what I've just done or who I am, but they can revel in the stoke of a strangers success. Standard practice in Hidden Valley campground.
My scream of joy turns into manic laughter. I am standing on the top of a giant boulder in the desert, and laughter is pouring out of me.
I'm not dead! Holy shit!
I am doubled over at the waist, belting and screaming laughs exploding from my chest. I know I sound like a crazy person. I feel like a crazy person.
I'm alive! Ah!
Every cell in my body is tingling. This is better than sex. Better than food. Better than a good nights sleep. This is what it feels like to be alive.
I'm not dead! I made it!
I come slowly back into myself, the giddy burning sensation in my chest is still there, but I can finally stop laughing as I begin to build an anchor.
With my anchor built I bring up my partner, Emma, who is a strong climber but a shy leader. I’ve been leading most of the harder climbs today, but I don’t mind. With her on top rope, the falls are much less serious. The rope attached to her is running up through all of my previous pieces and to the anchor I've made at the top. If she took a fall, she would only slide a few inches down and then be able to reset herself and try again. She easily finishes the pitch and comes up to me. The crux (or hardest part) of this climb is definitely the mental aspect.
I’ve taken off my helmet, my dirty blond hair is blowing in the wind. It's been 4 days since my last shower, or was it 5?
“That was a killer lead!” Emma says to me as she makes her way up over the final slab moves to the summit. Her bright red hair is tucked under a purple helmet, and she is smiling wider than I’ve seen her smile in a long time. “Just awesome! What a great climb!” Her Australian accent emphasizes 'awesome' and 'great' and her blue eyes are wide and excited as she sits down next to me and begins to untie herself from the rope.
Seeing her excitement in the climb makes me ecstatic all over again, I feel like a waterfall is spilling out of me as I talk too quickly about how terrified I was and how I can’t believe it worked and how that number 1 cam was shit and if I had fallen I would have died. We sit for a second at the summit and rehash the climb as we watch the sun begins to set behind the mountains in the distance. The yellow glow turns to orange and then to pink. The light illuminating Hidden Valley is soft and expansive, giving everything a light purple hue and no shadow. It's the time of day when you can smell the juniper trees on the wind and everyone unconsciously speaks a little bit softer.
We are both grinning like fools as we begin to break down the anchor, coil the rope and begin our descent. It’s just a short scramble down from the blob, a formation in Hidden Valley Campground, to the ground.
I feel like I’m in love. The air is crisp and clear. My knuckles are bleeding from where I scraped them against the granite, but I don’t even notice. I reflect on how the climb made me feel as we descend. Nothing and no one has ever made me feel this way. No paycheck, or lover has ever made me feel so extremely alive. My body has never tingled like this. My nerves are dancing. I feel like I’ve eaten stardust. This is what I was meant to do, I think as we scramble down giant pale boulders to the trail below.
The primal experience of fear of death, combined with my own determination and success in the face of that fear seems to have unlocked something inside me. Is this what ‘adrenaline junkies’ are always looking for? That term brings to mind sky divers, base jumpers and BMX bikers. Nothing like what I imagine climbing to be. The speed and ferocity of those sports seems to clash in contrast with the slow meditative movements I was forced to pull. Never mind my desperate scramble at the top.
I start to reflect on the climb as we wind our way past small green cacti, duck under massive orange boulders and casually walk through our friends campsites to get back to our own.
The risk I was taking was all hypothetical, I didn’t fall, I will never know if that cam would have held. From the outside it was just another casual day of climbing. But it felt like more to me. It felt like something had changed.
Something an old climbing mentor said to me floats to the top of my mind. “If you don’t fall, you can’t get hurt.”
Well, I didn’t fall. I didn’t get hurt. But what if?
Is the fear of failure and triumph in the face of that almost-life-threatening failure what made me feel this way? Is my perception of risk and success what made this climb so amazing for me? Even in the worst case scenario I wouldn't have died if I had fallen, right? That flake is probably better than I think it is, and the gear was good... probably. I think about future climbs, about risk, about cheating death, about the actual risks involved in the sport I love so much. Is my enjoyment for this sport directly tied to the fear I want so badly to escape? Can I have one without the other?
What would climbing be if we were never afraid?
We would all be able to climb much harder than we do, thats for sure. Free soloing, or climbing with out a rope, would be mundane and I would have cruised through the last part of that climb with no problem, making it cheerily to the top.
But would it have meant as much to me? I don't think so.
Maybe there is a part of me, and a part of all rock climbers, that enjoys to skirt just around the edges of death. Getting a glimpse of what it might feel like, forcing ourselves to face the reality of our own mortality, but never really stepping out into it. I don't want to die. I want to make it to the top of many, many more climbs. But my encounters with that very real fear of death is not just likely but nearly guaranteed if I continue on this path. Even if the reality of the situation is that I would be completely safe, it's my perception that determines how I feel in the end.
I see the pathway in my mind, like the trail I'm walking barefoot on with Emma in front of me. I watch as the tails of her rope backpack drag lightly through the dust. As I progress in climbing, my perception of safety and the reality of safety will begin to overlap. I'll be able to grasp with more confidence the risk of a situation, which will allow me to climb harder, but also push me into riskier and riskier situations. To what end?
I'm unsettled with the way this thought lands on me.
As we arrive back at camp I shove the thought down and let my mind drift away from that stream of consciousness. There are people calling down to us to join them in the Space Station, a cave in the rock that's an easy scramble to get to, only 70 feet or so above the ground. I'm distracted by their hoots and hollers to bring beer and feel compelled to join the 5 or so dirty bearded friends I have enjoying life among the rocks.
The sun begins to set as we pass around a bottle of wine, laughing about the day and swapping stories from our collective climbs. I am alternatively relaxed and excited when retelling my story. It seems so far away now. The fear is gone, the joy lingers. The appreciation and support and even admiration of my friends mixed with the shitty red wine erases all feelings of unease. How can we complain when we live in paradise? We are all glorified children playing on the worlds largest jungle gym for adults and there is no one around to tell us when it's time to go home.
The Joshua Trees silhouetted against the fading pink skyline are beautiful. As the temperature begins to drop and the light truly begins to fade, people slip out of the space station and return to their trucks, cars, tents, vans and even caves for the night.
There isn't any other alternative for me, I realize as I make my way back to my van. I knew it when I made it to the top of the climb. I knew it when I walking down with Emma. Hell, I knew it when I placed that cam behind the flake.
Maybe there will be a day when it isn't worth it, I think as I shut my van door and begin the process of peeling off my tape gloves. I am wiping away the grime of the day off my face and behind my neck with baby wipes. Maybe one day the fear will be greater than the enjoyment. When the risks are too high. Maybe one day.
But not today.