Not So Soft
“It’s the fear that lives in a forest of stone were the sun rarely filters down and the ground is not so soft.”
— Ani Difranco
A cold wind blows across the snow covered Utah desert, momentarily distracting my thoughts. I have spent the past hour contemplating the 20-foot section of blank rock ahead of me. It looms like a riddle needing to be solved before I can be allowed further passage.
Below are a dozen birdbeaks, freshly pounded into the soft Cutler sandstone of the Fisher Towers. They mark many stomach churning hours of work already done today.
I decide to commit to a series of hook pendulums and call down to my partner for slack, to no avail. “Spawn” I yell again, my body starting to shake with fear.
“I’m busy.” He curses back.
I tug the rope; a meager amount slides through the Gri-Gri. I clip it to the hook and bounce up and down. “Hold me here.”
The sweat on my forehead mixes with sand, burning as it runs into my eyes. I wipe it away and feel lines of rashes break out on my face.
I lean on the rope; still there is no tension.
“I said hold me here!”
No response. His mind is obviously somewhere else – I have been on lead for five hours already - knowing him it’s probably some chick. I can smell the odor of fear penetrating through my fleece. My stomach grumbles. “Shut up” I whisper, hoping that my own stomach will at least heed my orders. I continue to force my tortured soul up the muddy stone.
“Okay.” He calls out, oddly contented.
I weigh the rope again. This time it holds.
Several delicate pendulums later I barely reach an incipient seam. I strip away layers of sand around the crack. Each stroke of my hammer against a frail piton releases ballasts of grime that cascade over my body. The placement fails, I fall short. I lower back and hang from the rope. Fighting against my screaming stomach I reach out as far as possible and tap in a1/4” bolt, rolling the drill to the apex of my fingers. Two more bolts later I call out that the line is fixed.
Spawn cleans the pitch.
“What were you doing?” I question him.
“…. Do you promise you won’t tell anyone?”
“Sure. “I say.
His words choke back with each syllable. He is clearly uncomfortable. “I spunked on the ledge.”
Another clear February morning in Colorado. Spawn comes out of his room and joins me for a smoke outside on the porch. Spawn, as we call him, is one of my roommates and closest friends. We've climbed together for years, and he has always been the most willing of all my partners to stick his neck out. We are both in our early twenties, and looking for some direction and meaning in our lives – climbing in the Fishers seems to be the best way to find it.
“Do you want to go to the Fishers today?” I inquire.
With nothing better to do, he says yes. We throw a skimpy rack together and are off. Provisions: PB & J, water and smokes.
A few hours later we are on the heavily bolted Colorado NE Ridge of the King Fisher. It goes well, and we can’t wait to come back. In Crested Butte there is still no snow, we won’t be shoveling roofs for $15 an hour so we return to the Fishers. Next route: the Finger of Fate on the 1,100ft Titan –the largest tower in the country. Buzzing but unsatisfied we start planning our next objective. We consider repeating a hard aid route, such as The Hazing on the King Fisher, but think the better of it. Beyer death-pieces... not yet.
Putting up a new route strikes us as the most bang for our buck, so we pack binocs into the car. After the four-hour drive we run out eagerly and graze every wall with the binocs. The Oracle stands out – a striking 800ft butte, but the proudest line - Beaking in Tongues - is already done by Steve “Crusher Bartlett.
Spawn spies a series of anchors down the north face of Cottontail Tower, the most appealing line we see, even though it looks climbed already. The next morning we hike to the base. I see a couple of bolts leading off the ground leading to a thin crack. The rock is steep. We roll some smokes and stare at our new project.
We pour out our packs filled with iron onto the decaying purple mud at the base, and immediately get to work. I climb forty feet at a snails pace before we are submerged in a whiteout. The climbing is intense, consisting of expanding, thin nailing. I leave a short piece of rope fixed to the highpoint, a lone bolt, which has a bail sling and rap ring attached to it.
The next week I try to rouse Spawn to come back but he declines. Did he find another girl to keep his bed warm? I leave alone.
I fix the line off the first two bolts for my solo anchor, jug to the one bolt anchor with the mysterious tether, and set off into the unknown. The crack above is as thin as before, I use up my six birdbeaks quickly, then resort to blade tips, and some natural hooking before it gets dark and starts snowing again. I make fifty feet of progress and forget the headlamp back at the car. I stumble back, feeling my way in through the molasses night.
The next morning dawns clear - I jug quickly back the highpoint, which consists of a bunch of equalized junk. I notice parties on the Corkscrew summit of Ancient Arts looking at me – topping out one after another as I make almost no progress throughout the day.
There is no sign of any previous passage through the overhanging seams I climb. Though my gut suggests that I am in new terrain, -and therefore allowed to drill at will - I continue on, unwilling to puncture the stone until I am absolutely sure that I am not committing sacrilege. In the darkness I rap off the highpoint, this anchor slightly better than the last – consisting of a few beaks, a RURP and a large hook.
Over rations of cigarettes and sandwiches the next morning, I meet someone who empathizes with my situation. He introduces himself as A.C. Robertson.
"I saw you up there yesterday. "Moving pretty slow, huh?"
"It's pretty hard."
"Is it A5?"
"I wouldn't know. I've never done one. …Sure wish I had some more beaks though."
"I'll give you all I've got." He says open heartedly.
"How would I get them back to you?" I inquire.
"I'll give you my address."
I hurry out to the climb with a boost of confidence and jug to the highpoint and attack the next placements, forcing more beaks into insipient seams. Wielding my hammer violently.
"Aggghhh!" A blood curdling scream expels my from my mouth, I stare at my throbbing fingers to see blood pouring from the first two digits.
I drag the mangled flanges through the dirt and on over my yellow sweater to slow the bleeding. I have nothing to aid my predicament, and wait until the blood stops flowing to continue. Above, every pin I place sheers from the rock. Half the day passes without any more vertical gain. Shaming myself - but at this point 99% sure I am on new terrain I pull the drill and pound in a bolt. Then rap to ground and drive home.
The next week Spawn comes with me again. We trudge out to the wall, and have a surprise. Some slick fucker has pulled the rope tight and cut it. I climb on Spawns shoulders and wielding a Jumar attach it to the dangling end of the rope, which hangs nine feet off the ground. I ascend to the highpoint, and after pulling a small roof aiding on 4 and 5 Camalots I reach a ledge. There are no bolts here – which assures that we are indeed on new terrain. I drill two bolts and fix the line.
Spawn comes up and sets off on his pitch, which begins blank. He drills a hook, then another, and just as he is pounding in the first bolt, his hook crumbles and he falls onto a bolt. He persists for the rest of the day barraging me with rocks and dirt; then he makes his way out a body length roof (on knifeblades) and continues up overhanging thin terrain. The lead takes the whole day to complete. He drills the anchor and we retreat the ground. That night we hang out in his car, drinking the cheapest beers we can get. After a few hours he starts the car and drives into the steepest, most constricting ravine he can find for off roading.
I lead the next day through an expanding pillar chimney, and finish by pounding all the beaks (including AC’s) in a row in a seam. The following day Spawn is back on lead again, and detaches a barrage of rocks clubbing my helmet, striking my shoulders and piercing my neck. His pitch is nearly a rope length and turns out to be the only completely natural one of our route – except the bolts he places at the belay.
The next day while jugging up our lines I near a spot where the rope had rubbed against the rock and notice a large core shot. I stop and let out a quick yelp.
"What is it?" Spawn questions.
"Nothing." I reply, trying to sound casual (and macho). After passing the damage, I pull up some rope and tie a bite.
The next pitch is the most circuitous, and takes me two days to complete. Almost out of rope I reach an old belay station, which marks the end of our independent route. We begin Brer Rabbit from here, a route littered with crusty bolts placed in the late 70’s. After five more pitches we lose our way when the bolts run out. It is here that we stumble into a variation of Intifada, a Beyer testpiece. After one completely traversing pitch, we build a belay off KB's, and I set off onto fixed copperheads and overhanging crumbling stone. Two more pitches take us to the crest of Cottontail, though not the true summit. A twenty-foot tombstone leads to the top, but the sun is setting fast and we still have to get down. Thirteen people have only touched the summit in twenty years, and we will not tread it upon it. We touch the cold ground late in the evening, and walk away.
Chris Van Leuven, is a pizza slinging climbing nerd, who spends his time hassling tourists in Yosemite and riding his tricylce.