I don’t want to be here. Below me 600 feet of previously unclimbed terrain spreads out expansively. Above me loom rotten roofs and chimneys. Left and right are blank slabs, and vertical space. I don’t want to go anywhere, but I surely can’t stay here. How did I get here? It’s my seventh first ascent of the season – my third consecutive one climbed without a partner. The fun is gone out of it. It’s starting to feel like a job.
Who cares? It is a question I have become obsessed with. Approaching these unclimbed walls, I play over in my mind the words I will write about them. For whom? Alpinist, of course – and then maybe if they don’t care, my blog. Or maybe Patagonia will do something for their catalogue – I heard that pays much better than any magazine. I could write something for the AAJ, maybe Dirtbag Diaries will take an interest, I could do a slideshow maybe. “It was my seventh first ascent of the season, and once again, I climbed it entirely free and solo – overcoming major fall potential in 5.11 terrain on a number of pitches. This one I chose to call Lucky #7.” That’s what I’ll say. Yeah, that sounds good. Aggrandizement through understatement – that’s good.
The rock has turned to shit. I grant myself permission to go down. I’ll lose a ton of gear, I won’t be able to write about it, I’ll be stuck at 6 for the season. But I’m not going to die up here on this stupid crumbling choss pile. I’m over it. You can’t free this anyway – not even with a belay. It would be too foolish. Maybe with bolts. But there aint no bolts, and you don’t got no bolts or pitons or hammers or anything like that anyway. And nobody cares if you aid a new route at C2 or something – anyone can do that. So I decide I’m okay with going down. But first, I have to at least try going up. In spite of all the good reasons not to, there’s something in me that still wants to try. That same thing that got me into climbing in the first place – there’s some vestige of it left yet.
Don’t mix business with pleasure. You don’t want to destroy what you love by making a profession of it. Climbing is freedom – new routing, the ultimate freedom. But it’s not freedom if you’re doing it for accolades, for paychecks, or for opportunities. If I cannot turn around when I want to, if I feel the need to tell someone about every little thing I do, the freedom is lost. I am slave to my own motives, of which I have become increasingly skeptical.
It’s an awkward mix. I begin chimneying up, being careful to exert only outward pressure with my back and feet, not downward. All the same, dust and gravel cuts loose from every point of contact, showering down upon my anchor. Above my head is a shallow chalky slot of a type of rock I don’t recognize. It’ll take a yellow metolius – if the rock holds. I place the piece, watching the rock crumble into powder where it touches the cam lobes as I pull downwards on it. But beneath the chossy veneer, something holds. I clip the piece dubiously, but do not weight it. Then I continue chimneying onwards, not up so much as out, under roofs. Here is a flaring #2 placement in decomposing granite. A #3 would be better, but the only one I brought is incorporated into my anchor. The yellow metolius looks better, but what the hell, I leave them both. My legs are starting to shake, the wall slopes away from my feet. Something has to give soon. Either begin free climbing on a PDL, or start weighting the gear. I know that only the latter is a realistic option – the former, suicide.
Just make it to ten, just make it to ten, someone’s GOT to care if you make it to ten. And then maybe you can get a job somehow. I don’t want to go back to school – but I’m sick of being a dirtbag. Proud title indeed. I’d like to be able to take my lady out to dinner rather than around to the dumpster out back. But you have nothing anyone cares about- a degree in philosophy, whooptydo. Your only in, if you can even call it that, is the climbing industry. Patagonia, Black Diamond, North Face, La Sportiva, Petzl, Mountain Hardwear, Outdoor Research, Five Ten, Metolius, Sterling, Bluewater, Fixe, etc. You know them all. One of them should care. If you write enough articles, if you put up enough FAs, if you win enough grants, if you just fucking stick it out long enough, someone somewhere will think you’d be a valuable member of their team. It’s all about who you know – get your name out there enough and someone somewhere, is bound to recognize you. That’s a foot in the door.
I unclip a sling from my harness, unfurl it, and clip one end to the yellow metolius. The other I clip to my belay loop. I chimney and stem further outwards from the piece until I feel my body pulling on it. I am aiding horizontally, not vertically. If my feet slip, I have no faith in the piece to hold. I reach up around the lip of the first roof, and pull up and out to have a look. There’s a thin crack in what looks like solid granite. With my other hand I reach for the RPs. In goes the first one I try. No time for bounce tests. I clip one end of a sling to the RP, clip the other end of it to my harness, and slump less carefully than would be prudent onto the piece. I hear grinding and see rock dust explode out from the crack, but the RP holds. Finally, I am aid climbing – hanging from a small piece of metal with my life depending on it. Awesome.
But you’ve been trying for so long. And the truth is – you just don’t matter. For starters, nobody reads any more. Learn to take a picture, edit film, sell clothes, etc. Do something that will help these guys sell shit. Nobody cares about your writing. And as for your climbing – good luck. Your FAs are small – try something over 1000 meters. The mountains you climb in are irrelevant – ever heard of the Great Ranges? And your talent – your skill as a rock climber – is puny. You don’t even climb 5.13. Your are completely and utterly irrelevant. Your blog is internet fluff to fill the gaps between significant ascents by real climbers. You are not even a small fish in a big pond. You are a measly plankton. All you’re good for is feeding the whale of the industry through indirect marketing. Your sphere of influence is small, but it is real. You sell the dream, and you do it better as a dirtbag than a part of the team. They need you alright – they need you just as you are. Hopelessly devoted to and proselytizing the grand illusion – that climbing will set you free.
For a few placements, I am aiding comfortably on solid rock. The summit ridge is in sight. Suddenly I am surrounded by perfect granite again. The free climbing looks exceptional. Up the overhanging dihedral, out the roof, and onto the final face. Here I see a possible exit to the right. Tension traverse? Fuck it. I drop the clove hitch, and suddenly find myself in PDL mode. I finger sloping crimps and delicately step out right to a stance. A good nut placement, and I’m feeling psyched. But then, the moves are just hard enough. If I fall here I’ll still take a 50 footer – or however much slack is left in the rope. I don’t honestly know. Shit. I pull up a few armfuls of slack, and retie the clove. The small nut should hold if I fall. I place the toe of my left foot on a tiny dusty divot, fondle the crimpy edge where a loose block attaches to the wall with my right hand, and stand up. Without a moment’s hesitation my left hand shoots up to an incut ledge. Got it! Immediately, the clove pulls tight. Hanging from the single arm, I fumble around with the clove hitch trying desperately to free myself. Finally it slips off the carabiner on my belay loop, and I have slack. I pull myself up, and a few feet later, I am standing upon the summit ridge.
I’m shot. That’s it. I have no fucks left to give. Six, seven, ten, zero, it’s all the same. Climbing is real – real dangerous. That worked. Okay. But next time, maybe it won’t. The only way I’ll make it in climbing is by dying out here or close to it – my five minutes of fame a mere obituary, and a lot of undeserved tears for a guy who risked it all for nothing. Real aid climbers eat that kind of shit for breakfast, real free climbers free it. If you’re out here risking your life so that some ‘company man’ in an office will take notice of you and ask you to join his team, you’re delusional and foolish in equal parts. It won’t happen, and even if it did, it wouldn’t be worth it.
I’m not where I thought I was, or where I hoped I’d be. The summit is two pitches up the ridge. I can free the final bit for sure, no problem. I’ll need to leave some gear to get off, but not too much. It shouldn’t take more than an hour. But my nerves are shot, and I’ve used all the gumption I can muster. Looking up at the jagged escarpments, I feel empty. They have no pull over me. From here I can see the Kaweah range in striking red against a neon blue sky. In the distance Nine Lakes Basin holds untold wonders for the horizontal explorer. There are friends down in camp to return to. And after and beyond that, my girlfriend, my parents, more friends, a good life. Finally, I feel ready for the next thing. Looking around at the stunning scenery, I am sated. This is exactly where I want to be. I’m ready to go down.