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Our Area

Submitted by cruxmonger on 2005-06-17 | Last Modified on 2006-12-10

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I had been climbing with my friend Jon Codington for years. We grew up playing soccer together, we cheated off of each others tests in junior high, we smoked our first cigarettes and drank our first beers together, and we taught ourselves how to climb together. Too arrogant and overconfident to hire a guide or find someone with some experience and knowledge to climb with, we bought a couple books, learned some knots, bought some gear and started climbing. We’re probably lucky that we didn’t kill ourselves in the process, but we learned though practice, time, and the occasional scolding by the older more experienced climbers at the crag. But we were doing it, we were living, we were climbing.

Jon, or Cotton as we called him, excelled. He had that “climber’s body;” a slender but muscular torso, long limbs, and powerful hands. It didn’t take him long to start pushing the limits of our local crag which topped out in the .11d/.12a range. He was a rising star in our small Midwestern climbing community. I, while not as naturally gifted, trained exhaustively to keep up. I worked and worked and worked in order to stay within a couple letter grades of my pal, Cotton.

We started traveling, and going to competitions throughout the Midwest. Cotton would place near the top while I finished respectively, but in relative obscurity compared to my chum. Cotton and I continued working the routes at our local crag until there were none left. We had climbed everything. We kept climbing the difficult routes over and over again until we could have climbed them in our sleep. We needed something more, something different, and something harder.

Cotton and I were brought to a place close to home by a climber that he met at a competition. His name was Gil Jones, and he would become my mentor. Gil was in his mid-forties when we met him. Think of any stereotypical old climbing bum, and that was Gil. He had a rough, ragged look. Greasy, unkempt hair accompanied his tattered and repaired, and tattered and repaired ad infinitum canvas trousers and faded green tank top. Gil had a knack for storytelling and an “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” attitude that more than explains why the gear that he still uses to this day was originally purchased well before I was born. Gil took an interest in Cotton because of his natural ability. Cotton was starting to climb in the .12d/.13a range and Gil was past his prime and ready to pass on some of the knowledge he had gained through is life’s experiences.

Gil took us to one of his favorite places in the Midwest. He described it to us on the way there as very steep, very hard, and very virgin. That wasn’t the start of it. The area itself lies in a small, obscure State Park not large enough for a proper excursion, but more suitable for short day hikes and Cub Scout camping trips. As we descended over steep terrain and switchback after switchback on a small, seldom traveled path I began to hear water; lots and lots of water. The further down we went, the more the sound intensified. The trail began to flatten out, and I knew we were getting close. The sound of rushing water was deafening.

“Just one more bend,” shouted Gil, barely audible under the sound of the water.

As I came around that last bend in the path, I saw it. It was beautiful. A ten meter waterfall poured into a wide shallow pool at its base. Another 25 meters downstream produced another cascade measuring roughly seven meters. Gorgeous as they were, my focus was elsewhere. On either side of the river sat these imposing 30 meter, deep pocketed sandstone amphitheatres. From the base of the rock, the face grew up and out like a half dome where it nearly reached horizontal at the top. Steep, was by far, an understatement. “I’ve been coming here for years to boulder,” said Gil. “None of these routes have been climbed.” Gil went on to explain that climbing with ropes was prohibited in the area. “Due to the steep rock, the park Rangers think climbing the amphitheatres is too dangerous so they’ve banned it in the park,” he continued.

“This has to change,” I exclaimed. We spent the day working out a couple of hard problems at the base of the amphitheatre and in a couple of nearby caves, Cotton stomping the most challenging ones and Gil giving me the necessary beta to complete the moves. While we climbed we talked about the necessary steps we needed to take to open this magnificent area to the climbing community.

The better part of that summer was spent in that same spot bouldering, hiking, and getting to know the Rangers in my new favorite place with Cotton and Gil. The following winter, Cotton traveled around the country and Europe climbing while Gil and I worked on access. I spent the winter months either petitioning for support, attending Access Fund meetings and events, or meeting with Park Rangers, State Representatives and other officials. All of my spare time was spent training. I knew I was going to need all the strength I could find if the area was ever opened.

We received word that the area was going to be opened for limited access that March, just days before Cotton returned. I couldn’t wait to tell him the good news. Our area was to be open to climbers on weekdays only, and we were expected to practice not-a-trace ethics. We had no problems with the stipulations. We were just happy that we would finally be able to climb this wonderful rock. Gil and I formed a group to help maintain the sanctity of the area by scheduling regular cleanup dates, and traffic was kept to a minimum simply because of the severe difficulty of the routes.

The rest of the summer was spent bolting routes and numerous .13b-.13d first ascents by my friend Cotton who became more and more eager to climb, and less and less eager to help out with the day to day maintenance of ensuring lasting access to the beautiful area. He was busy, though. Cotton was traveling a lot attending climbing competitions, photo shoots, and film sessions for the sport’s most popular magazines and video producers. He was a star and we were his friends. As circumstance would often dictate, Gil and I would bolt a new route, work the moves for weeks or months, and get this close to completing the climb just in time for Cotton to show up for the red point first ascent. While the process became slightly annoying, I was OK with it. Cotton was my best friend, and I was happy for him.

Gil and I started seeing less and less of Cotton as the new lines in our area ran out. He had nearly exhausted all of the routes in our area after our first season there, and climbing professionally was taking a lot of time out of his schedule. Couple that with the little falling out he and I had and it explains why he only visited our crag two or three times per summer over the next couple of years. He took a photo and video crew to our crag to capture some shots. Normally, in spite of the higher traffic, this wouldn’t be that big of a deal. The problem was that he was climbing on a Sunday evening and nearly cost us our access privileges. Things were never really the same for us after that. I felt that he disrespected everything that I and more importantly Gil had worked so hard for.

Nonetheless, he was traveling the globe putting up difficult .14c and .14d lines for videos and magazine spreads. I was getting good, too, however. I was consistently climbing .13c and had red pointed a couple of .14a’s at our crag. The most difficult route there was a .14c/d line at the far edge of the amphitheatre with cruxes at the start and at the end with very sustained climbing the rest of the way through. I had been working the route since Gil and I put it up at the end of the last full summer we had with Cotton.

Neither Cotton nor I could even get to the second hanger in those days, but we enjoyed the challenge and the company. We pushed each other as we worked out the sequences and memorized every nub, fracture, sloper and other inconsistency on the route. Every summer when Cotton would come back, despite our issues, we would work that route like we did that first summer. We tried and failed at that route thousands upon thousands of times. Cotton nearly completed the line on his trip back during our third season at our crag. He had clipped the last bolt before the top anchors and was struggling through the final crux when he fell. I lowered him to the ground and he left without saying a word.

The fourth summer at our crag was spent on the project. I had completed almost every route in the area and I almost had the project worked out with the help of Gil’s knowledge and friendship. I was feeling very strong and very confident when Cotton came home in late July. He was feeling pretty good himself, it seemed. After last years near completion of the climb, he had been quoted in all the magazines talking about the project he had developed at his local crag. He returned to the amphitheatre with his media crew to film his first ascent of his project. I was ready to show Cotton and his new crew that it was my project.

Cotton looked strong. He breezed through the first crux, a no footed dyno/campus move, and continued on through the easier, yet sustained, .14b/c middle section until he lost his grip while attempting to clip the bolt before the final crux. He wasn’t worried. He would be here for a few more days and he was very confident that he would work out the difficult section that had troubled him for the last two seasons. I was eager to get started. I tied in and started up the route while Cotton belayed me. I made quick work of the dyno and deliberately made my way through the middle section of the route. It was unlike anything that I had ever experienced. I clipped the last bolt before the anchors and was working my way through the final crux as flash bulbs exploded around me and Cotton’s film crew encouraged my progress. I was pumped. I was hanging by a thread completely upside down on the roof. I pushed with my legs and reached as far as I could and there it was. I made it. I was holding onto a giant jug that was more positive than the route was difficult. I was right next to the top anchors and I yelled, “CLIPPING!”

I started to tug the rope up to my teeth with my free hand and I felt the worst feeling that I have ever felt in my life. I felt a tug. My feet let loose and the giant jug wasn’t enough to hold me as my feet swung and my hand slipped off of the hold. I fell. Cotton had pulled me off of the route.

“Let me down!” I screamed.

I didn’t say another word. I gathered my belongings and walked away from Cotton, the project, and the crag in silence. I left without even looking at Gil. I could not believe that my friend would do that to me. I stayed at home by myself the then next two days writing an editorial piece to a climbing magazine to expose Cotton to the climbing community as a fraud until Gil came over. He let me know that Cotton had completed the route that day and called it The Cottonmouth Conundrum. I said I didn’t care, but Gil knew otherwise. Gil told me that afternoon what I needed to hear. He reminded me of why I started climbing. He made me realize that day that I didn’t need to climb for a grade, or for a magazine cover, or even for a first ascent. I needed to climb because I loved it. I needed to climb because I needed to climb. I worked so hard that summer in order to beat Cotton. I wanted to be better than him as opposed to better than the rock. We stopped encouraging one another and began competing against each other. Our once great friendship had turned to jealousy. He asked me what it would prove if I submitted my article, and he made me realize that the only two outcomes would be either destroying my friend’s career or destroying my credibility or both. Sending that letter would be the equivalent of pulling Cotton’s rope. I never really forgave Cotton, but I tore that editorial up and threw it in the waste bin.

Gil and I continued climbing in our area and persisted in maintaining relations with the park service to keep our access privileges intact. Cotton never returned, and I never attempted Cottonmouth Conundrum again. Gil wrote him from time to time and Gil made sure that he knew that my door was always open to him. I always hoped that he would come back. I wanted things to be like they were that first summer when nothing mattered. We were just climbing. He never apologized and never made the effort to mend our friendship.


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4 out of 5 stars Great moral to the story. Gil sounds like a nice guy while Cotton sounds as if the male-instinct took over as usual; win no matter what. Very nice story.
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Willow River??!

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