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The Climbers I've Met

Submitted by hangdoggypound on 2003-11-18 | Last Modified on 2010-02-26

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The Climbers I’ve Met: An Abridged History of My Climbing Life

“…I climb for fun…” I explained, then struck a tai chi pose, a physical and cultural statement that I thought he would understand.  At this we all laughed. 

-          Lynn Hill, Climbing Free

         Years ago, when I first started climbing during college, I skipped class on a Thursday in March to go climbing with my friend, Ryan.  This was our first time going to an area of Queen Creek Canyon called Atlantis.  Atlantis is a tall and narrow canyon that is a quick rappel or hike from a pullout along highway 60 just East of Superior, Arizona.  Due to it’s proximity to the highway, and the extensive amount of tall bolted routes, we figured it would be a fine place to go on a Thursday. 

        It was a bright day, and the morning was still quite chilly.  The canyon is carved out of dacite, and there are some large trees with yellow and green leaves. When we arrived at the pullout, we decided to hike a scree field down into the canyon since we didn’t really know where the rappel station was.  It was only about 8:00 AM and the canyon was still completely shaded and bitterly cold.  So, we started with a 5.8 face route on the South wall of the canyon.  As my good fortune would have it on that cold morning, Ryan took the first lead.  I looked at the lower portion of the route and became nervous at the painful looking crimpers and tiny holds. 

        Ryan On BelayLike the champ-chump he always is, Ryan made it up without a fall.  He paused a few times, but I don’t remember having to hold his weight on the rope.  He set up a top-rope anchor and I lowered him down.  We both took a rest before I climbed.  His hands were too numb to belay, and my hands were numb as well, yet the sun was slowly creeping around the corner. 

        “I was scared up there,” Ryan said while untying the rope.  That’s probably the same thing we say every time, but we mean it more and more every time, too.  Ryan is also much taller and much more athletic than I am, so hearing him say this had me nervous.

        “Just by looking at it and feeling how numb my hands are, I don’t know if I’ll be able to reach the top.”

        “You better, because I sure as hell can’t climb that thing again.”

        Here we were at the beginning of the day and we were ready to pack up and go get a giant homemade burrito and a cold beer. 

        Then two other climbers showed up.  I still remember that feeling of when I first started climbing and having to climb near people who appeared to be seasoned rock-fiends: I was afraid and insecure.  The two smiled as they walked by and one said, “Whu-sup?  Cold isn’t it?  We’re going to be right here across the canyon from you on this route, so don’t let us bother you.”  It was like they knew that we had very little experience, and it really didn’t matter to them.   As it turned out they were great climbing neighbors.

        I started up the beginning slab and fell to the ground about three times.  My fingers were very numb.  I whispered to my self, “This sucks.”  But since we had neighbors, I tried again and again until I was able to make one move, and then another, and then another…

        This worked for a few moves.  Then I came to a section in which the holds seemed to disappear, as they do so often when you consider yourself a novice.  I became frustrated, so I mumbled and griped to myself.  About this time, the other two climbers had started a route directly behind me on the opposite wall of the canyon.  The one climbing was gracefully dancing through a roof, and then he rested at a stance to clip a bolt and chalk his hands. 

        He turned towards me and said, “It’s a gorgeous day isn’t it?  Nice and quiet.”  He grinned and waited for my response.

        I answered, “Uh yeah…”  My voice cracked because I had a dry throat from panting and being scared and nervous.

        He chuckled and said, “It’s a pretty cool view, too.  It’s kind of nice that it’s just us.”

        I was thankful that he was there: he must have remembered what it was like to be new to climbing.  I even believe he helped me get up that route without telling me where to put my feet or where the next hold was, or anything obnoxious like that.  So, I smirked and replied, “Yeah, it’s great.”

        I moved on by pinching my fingers into a tiny crack and by placing one foot in above the other over and over again.  I heard the climber say, “Yeah…that’s it, man.  You got it.”  And he climbed on as well. 

        When I arrived at the anchors I was thirsty, scared, numb, and ready for a piece of beef jerky from Ryan’s pack.  The climber behind me had clipped into the anchors at the top of his climb and watched me finish.  As soon as I anchored myself, he said, “Right on.  Way to go.  That’s not an easy climb, man.  You did really well on that part.  You stuck with it and got to the top.”  He seemed to be genuine about his remarks.  Even if he wasn’t, I sure thought so and that’s all that really matters.  So, I grinned at him thanked him for his words.

I clipped myself to the top-rope anchor with a sling, pulled the rope up until I found the middle, and tied a figure-eight-on-a-bite and clipped that to the anchor as well.  I untied the rope from my harness and fed the end of the rope through the three bolts, asked Ryan if the ends were on the ground, and then united the figure eight that was keeping the rope.  I probably checked my other knots fourteen times.  Then I set up my rappel and checked everything again.  As soon as I knew it was safe to clean  the top-rope anchor so I could rappel, I tested and checked the system another fourteen times before submitting myself to the rope and three bolts.


* * *

“The lands around my dwelling / Are more beautiful / From the day / When it is given me to see / Faces I have never seen before. / All is more beautiful / All is more beautiful / And life is thankfulness. / These guests of mine / Make my house grand.”

Eskimo song

That Thursday I should have been sitting in a classroom at the G. Homer Durham English building on ASU campus, but I led a 5.7 run out face next to a waterfall instead. It was my turn to lead, and Ryan picked this climb for me; I think it was because he wanted to top-rope a 5.8X next to it. At the time neither of us knew what “run out” meant – or what that little “X” in the guide book meant – and when we looked at the wall, Ryan said, “There’s a 5.8 here that looks cool, but there’s only two %@#$ing bolts and they’re a million miles apart. Let’s do that 5.7 next to it and top-rope it.” From then on, I’ve equated 5.8X with “top-rope.”

When we approached the base of these routes, there was a party of four climbers working on some rather steep and difficult sport routes to the left of the climb to which we were headed. A young woman was belaying a thirty-something man who was struggling quite a bit. He was about two-thirds up the climb and hanging on the rope. I watched him fall and yell, “God dammit!” Then he tried again and fell, “$#!&!” Between those two falls, the three people on the ground looked at us. Ryan waved and quietly said, “Hi.” Ryan is a likeable guy – he’s a bartender, and bartenders seem to have that friendly vibe even off the clock. But this group looked at each other for a moment and went back to watching the guy struggle with the route without even replying. I’ve heard the term “elitist” used for climbers who are big meanies who happen to climb well. I don’t really know if these folks would classify as “elitist” since the climber was hangdogging, but they do fit neatly into a category I would call “defeatist.” I figured they were having a bad day by maintaining crummy attitudes, and therefore had to spread the cheer to anyone who came along. After the climber fell a third time, he looked down at Ryan and me and mumbled, “Now we have neighbors.”

I roped up anyway and started to climb. I could still hear that guy screaming and getting furious about falling, and I didn’t understand why he didn’t just take a break: I had an idea why he wasn’t able to make those moves. I climbed on and after I clipped the first bolt, I stared up at my route for a minute or two, afraid to climb up. Ryan eventually said, “Just get your ass moving,” so I started with one move and whispered, “Good. Now do that again.” And I did.

Then the moves were fun: sometimes I’d have to stretch my left toes way out to the side and then pull in the opposite direction in some finger pockets. The lock-offs felt good and I was able to reach high with my right hip pressed into the rock. And my shoes seemed to stick to the rock very well. The sun was bright. After clipping another bolt, I looked out to see nothing but blue sky with a few light, wispy clouds hovering way above the spires of Queen Creek Canyon. There was a light breeze that felt nice because it was about 10:30 and the sun was warm. The sound of the waterfall, the stroke of the breeze, and the warmth of the sun - I think all of that made the holds seem better than I typically think they are. I like to believe it was because of that first climber back at our first route that I breathed calmly and spoke to myself: “Ok, you’re doing really well, Mark. This is great. God, this is scary. Pinch that edge, now shift your weight to the left…” And when I got to the top, I set the anchor while sitting with my legs hanging over the edge. I was probably grinning so hard my face hurt. I breathed heavily. Queen Creek Canyon, Arizona ViewThe group of four climbers had left. I watched a few birds dive and glide. I looked out to see some trees waving with the wind and then I looked down to smile at Ryan. He looked at me and yelled, “What the hell is taking you so long?”

You always have to be prepared to run into other climbers while taking a day to go climb. Many of my encounters with other climbers have not been nearly as positive as the one I mentioned at the beginning. Here is a story about meeting another group of climbers at a crag. My friend, Gretchen, and I escaped from class early on a Friday morning once, and we bolted for Sven Slab in the McDowell Mountains North East of Scottsdale. It’s easily accessed and there are several good, moderate routes there. Just about every time I’ve climbed at Sven Slab, there has been at least another party or two.

As Gretchen and I made the short hike up, we saw a group of people and noticed they had about three ropes strung on three different climbs. Two people were at the top about to rappel down. I guessed that they just set up a bunch of top-ropes and would be willing to let us pull a rope down if there was a route we wanted to do. I came up the last boulder before the base of the wall and met a Golden Retriever who barked and growled at me.

“Hi Puppy – are you climbing today? Are you having fun?” I like to talk to dogs. I like the way they wag their tails, lick their lips and seem to smile when they pant.

There was a woman, about 30 years old, standing next to the wall. She looked at me and was not amused at the way I spoke to her dog. She could have barked and growled at me too. The woman was wearing a t-shirt, spandex shorts, a climbing harness with just one large carabiner and belay device, and her brown hair was pulled back.

Gretchen was in front of me and she said, “Hi!” The woman looked at me without replying to Gretchen, so I said, “Good morning. How’s it going?” Still no reply from the woman.

Her eyes shifted from me to Gretchen and to me from Gretchen about six times before she said, “Uhhhh…we’re here” as if she we’re pissing and marking her territory.

To test the boundaries of their well-protected space, I pointed at a route in front of us with one of their ropes hanging on it and said, “We’d like to climb this route when you are done if that’s cool.” I was hoping she would say that they were done, or that there was no problem and we could go first since they had a few other climbs roped up.

“Sheesh…FINE. I guess I could pull the rope, but I really don’t want to…” I looked up and saw two climbers rappelling down two different routes about 30 feet to my left.

“Is it just the three of you? If we make it too crowded, we can just climb somewhere around the corner or something until you’re done here. We’re cool with that. Do you know of something fun to climb around here?”

“Yes, it’s just the three of us, and we’ve been here since early this morning.” This must have been her way of saying that she had a right to be mean to Gretchen and me. “There’s plenty of other rocks here, you know.”

So, I looked at Gretchen and she made this face at me that asked, “What the hell is her deal?”

“I guess we’ll go somewhere else. Sorry about the trouble.” I tried to not sound facetious.

Gretchen said, “Have a nice day” the best way she could and we hiked down. The woman didn’t say anything. The dog barked.

I knew Gretchen was disappointed – she didn’t deserve to be treated that way by that woman. I was disappointed, too. I just wanted to have a good climb or two. “Sorry about that, Gretchen. Let’s just go back and cruise up the Monk. That’ll be a ton of fun. You want to lead it?”View of Praying Monk

“Yeah, that’ll be great.” She smiled and started to laugh a little, “But I’m not ready to lead yet. I don’t know much about anchors.” So it was settled.

Gretchen spoke up again after we were a shout away from the other group of climbers. “What the hell was that lady’s problem? She acted like we ruined her day just by showing up. She doesn’t own the rock! Who cares if they’ve been there all morning. It doesn’t mean we can’t climb there, too. She could have at least been nice about it. Even her dog was mean to us.”

I agreed and we got a good laugh after the tension settled. After a 45-minute drive we arrived at Camelback Mountain and hiked our way up to the headwall to the Monk.

Two older guys had just rappelled down as we approached the base of the Monk. One looked at us and spoke through his old, gray beard, “That was a blast. Are you two going up? You’re going to have fun!” He explained that he was 56 years old and his friend had just taken him on his first rock climb of his life up the Monk. He threw his arms in the air as he spoke; he tipped his head back and laughed; the man had just climbed an 80’ spire for the first time in his life and he loved it and wanted to share it.

After he the two men began their descent hike, Gretchen whispered slowly to me, “That guy is so in my club.” She keeps an imaginary club of interesting – or cute - old men, and when she meets one she’ll tell us about the new member in her “club”.

I climbed the monk and belayed Gretchen up to the top. We sat on the summit and didn’t say much to each other as we watched the sun go down. From the top of the Monk, we saw downtown Phoenix just to the Southwest and part of the Phoenix Mountain Preserve to the Northwest, and the sun was setting between. When the sky turned a deep purple with orange and red streaks, we rappelled down, packed up and hiked to the car in the dark.

* * *

“One can, I think, listen someone into existence, encourage a stronger self to emerge or a new talent to flourish.”

-Mary Rose O’Reilley, Radical Presence

I used to think that climbing rocks put me into a separate class of folk – an underground community of interesting people who live just a little more than those who drive Volvos, work in cubicles, mow their lawns, and play golf. That is only mostly true. I think it’s a discredit to our little community when we are mean to each other – particularly to those who are just starting out – and pretending to have some sort of claim on a rock wall. Linda Hogan says in Dwellings: A Spiritual History of the Living World, “We want a healing, I think, a cure for anguish, a remedy that will heal the wound between us and the world that contains our broken histories.” There’s plenty of horrible things, and people, I this world; I hope to find that Hogan’s kind of healing comes from people – or exists within people - who spend time outdoors, whether they are indigenous people, backpackers, trail runners, or climbers.

Henry David Thoreau writes in Walden, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach...” I’d say that the woods – rocks, creeks, and critters – can teach us how to be good to one another. I’m an idealist, and frequently a hokey one. I’ve heard that some well-known climbers have fantastic personalities. Somewhere I read that Alex Lowe, before he died, would talk to any mediocre rock climber and encourage her or him. They say the same thing about Lynn Hill. But we should all be that way.


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Great article. I climb the Monk and other Arizona routes and have run into all sorts of people. Mostly very helpfull and friendly. Hopefully I never see the girl and her rock guarding lab. Happy climbing


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