The following is an excerpt from Climbing Out of Bed by climber and writer Luke Mehall, available now.
Author’s note: This story was originally written as Mark was being treated for testicular cancer. This particular passage comes after Mark spent a winter receiving radiation treatment. Coincidentally it was Mark’s senior year at Western State Colorado University in Gunnison. He is now fully recovered.
Driving across the United States, we’d seen the forests of Northern California to the desert of Nevada, and now we crossed from Salt Lake City headed south, desolate and lonely, to the red rock desert of Moab, the real thing, man. The real thing if you’re a dreamer, an outdoorsman, a climber, like us. If you’ve read Desert Solitaire by Ed Abbey, and he planted dreams in your head of adventure in the forms of rock towers, red dirt, lone ravens, cactus, juniper trees and blue, so blue, skies.
Our destination is Castle Valley, home of the prettiest rock towers I’ve seen, some four hundred feet tall, and very climbable. We set up camp, which only means throwing our sleeping pads and bags in the dirt and getting some food in our guts. Mark wants to wake up before sunrise to get an early start, and who am I to argue?
Motivation for that desert high gets us up way early. The landscape we can’t see it yet, it’s still dark, but we know it’s there because we’ve been here before. We don’t hear much noise from the ten some climbers camping nearby. There is competition for these climbs, the gems of Castle Valley. It may have been what Abbey feared, the inevitable popularity and population of the red rock desert, but it’s really no big deal. We just have to get up before they do.
We hike up to the Rectory, the first tower we plan to climb for the day. The sunlight replaces the headlamp and the towers, along with the nearby La Sal Mountains to the southwest are unveiled. Our legs are well conditioned. I’ve been on a three week climbing trip, and Mark, he’s always in good shape. Hiking is a pleasure when you’re prepared, and the suffering is little to none. The workout feels divine and puts our minds exactly in the moment. We find the base of the Rectory. Castleton is just behind us, a perfectly square four hundred foot tower.
Our objective in front of us is a four hundred foot series of cracks up red rock sandstone. The tower itself is slender. It is long, three hundred feet wide or so, and juts into the blue sky. On the boulders above the red dirt, we organize our climbing gear.
I take the lead first, jamming hands in the crack, breathe, jam feet (bam), breathe, jam, breathe, a few times over for a hundred and fifty feet. What a way to wake up. Did we eat breakfast? I’m sure we did, but I don’t remember what. I hope that I’ll forever remember hanging on above the void, above my belayer Mark, striving to get higher and higher. Mark comes up to my perch, a nice little ledge, and sets off for harder climbing above, perfect style, the reward for our lonely days in Escalante. Not so lonely here, I look back and there are climbers approaching up the hills we climbed a couple hours before. It feels so divine to climb in good style, hell, good style or reckless struggle, look around and you’ll have a view to remember. Red rock is everywhere. Of course, a few lone ravens are up and about. In the distance is a winery, which adds welcome greenery to the surroundings.
I clean Mark’s pitch, yanking the gear out while still hanging on. And then there we are, a hundred feet below the summit, still early as hell. Mark is rather excited and talkative. He’s here in his element, late spring in the wild desert, always a sense of reward for those who endured a cold winter. How good does it feel for a guy that spent his winter treating cancer in a hospital? Well I can tell you he was psyched and the excitement was building in his chatter. The guy likes to talk, loves to get excited.
We don’t hang out long, and soon I’m leading off for the summit pitch. Just because you’re near the top, doesn’t mean it’s over. Some sandy, exciting climbing begins the pitch. The sand makes me question my foundation; each foothold seems a little insecure. In the moment, at least I’m trying to be, Mark is still talking a mile a minute. I try to focus on the climbing. Mark is still jabbering about God knows what. The morning has packed in so much adrenaline, workout and joy. Quickly, I am entering a fearful state, and I need to concentrate as much as I can, “Will you shut up,” I yell to Mark.
He doesn’t take offense because he knows the process my brain is going through. We are brothers of climbing. I’m inching up, the sandiness disappears, the quality of rock perfect again, the climbing harder and harder still, but protected by bolts, which all I have to do is clip ‘em with a carabineer. And there I am. Later there we are on the summit, and it’s still before noon. “Let’s get in another tower,” he says.
I was waiting for him to say it, and it’s decided. We rappel back to the ground. Our next objective is just around the bend, a route called the Honeymoon Chimney on the Priest formation. We hike over and have a granola bar lunch. We’re a little tired. Mark decides to do something about it and finds a good place to stand on his head, a yogic way of revitalizing energy.
It’s Mark’s lead. He starts to wiggle himself in the chimney. With chimney climbing, you just put your whole body in the crack. Physically demanding, and mentally too, when the protection for falls is limited. He’s got a rock in the back of the crack slung with some webbing, clips a mediocre bolt, but doesn’t have it. Grunting Grundon, struggling and wiggling, not much progress, after a half an hour, “I don’t have it. Do you want to try it?”
“Well, hell no, if you can’t get it,” I felt good enough. The desert was alive within me, or at least I had that high. I know that feeling and it’s much better than exhaustion. Our day has been good enough. There’s no one keeping score in rock climbing.
It’s a little past noon. We hike back down as the hills wind through red rocks and red dirt. The clouds are rolling in a little. We feel good. I feel perfectly content with The Rectory being the final climb of the road trip. Should we go back to Moab for lunch? It’s out of the way, but how good is a prepared meal when you’ve been eating camping meals? So good, but not good enough to use that much gas, that much time to go out of the way. Our way is east, back to Colorado, back to Gunnison. River Road, east, soon its I-70, soon enough Grand Junction; food, food, what else would we think of?
Once he’s energized with a modest meal, Mark starts talking of more climbing for the day. I go along with the plan for a bit, but the comforts of home have already entered my mind. I can try, but I usually can’t keep up with Mark. He’s disappointed I don’t want to get a couple of afternoon climbs in Escalante. I feel guilty and start to come up with excuses. There we are in Grand Junction, the center of our desert experiences; Mark always ready for more living, more climbing. //
Luke Mehall is the author of Climbing Out of Bed and The Great American Dirtbags. He is also the publisher of The Climbing Zine. To read this full story check outClimbing Out of Bed on amazon.