End of Digression.
Part I: The Colonial Years
George Washington and the cherry tree is first presidential mythology. Fiction and fabrication. But the Revolutionary War stories, the Potomac, well, those are as true as Indian Creek Splitters. Ole George had quite a life. He worked as a surveyor at 17, inherited Mount Vernon at 20, and married Martha Dandridge Custis (a widow and a few months older) at age 26. Together they cultivated hemp and tobacco. They built a political career. They managed the affairs of their plantation. But – a little known fact – they were also gym rats. Barn rats. And they lived a life very similar to that of a Boulder or Seattle couple who spends too much time pulling on artificial holds above thickly padded floors.
A great man once said that the truth will…well, do something or other. So that’s what we’re aiming for here. The truth. The facts. And this is where the story gets interesting. Fact: George Washington was a full Colonel by the age of 24. Fact: George Washington received recognition for bravery during a battle in which his British forces lost and his British general was killed. And fact: George Washington had a huge hard wood. Enormous. Odd-angled. Knotty. Aimed to the rafters. Rippling, knobby, and featured. George Washington’s wood covered the South wall of his entire Mount Vernon barn, twenty feet high with a cave, two arêtes, a slab wall, and “The East Side Overhang” (which, rumor has it, Thomas Jefferson or TJ, as they called him flashed barefoot and drunk one crazy Wednesday night). And a bit of irony: All of the climbing holds were carved out of cherry wood. George wouldn’t have had it any other way. He loved to propagate myths. He’d say, “I know that a cherry wood hold, pulls the project into the fold,” and then he’d wink at the portrait painter that always seemed to be there early paparazzi paint brushes up in George’s steez.
George loved his own sayings. “Georgisms” he called them. Full of off-rhymes, alliterations, word-plays, and bad puns. His pleasure in saying them was only matched by his friends’ displeasure in hearing them.
George was a good climber though. For a while, the best. They called him Georgie. And Georgie could send. He was crafty on slabs, powerful when he needed to be, and unafraid of the sickest slopers. His Georgism: “Even the wickedest sloper, I’ll put my hand on her and grope’er.”
But Georgie developed a little domestic problem. Nothing like TJ’s domestic problems mind you (which were aplenty), but a crux none the less:
Martha learned to boulder. And her talent was phenomenal.
Martha began climbing late in life, at age 27 (her first marriage having gotten in the way of regular gym time). But she made up for the lost years. Whenever Georgie went in to town to meet with the other representatives at the House of Burgesses, Martha was down in the barn working on footwork, doing pull-ups in the rafters, campussing on the overhang, running laps. Becoming legend.
The stable boys loved to watch her climb and dubbed her “The Mar”, a name used in secret at first, behind her back, admiringly, but soon to become her public nickname. When The Mar would allow, the stable boys would watch her climb while they beat on various-sized cooking pots, creating different tenors of clang, a primitive form of techno, the beats urging her through her workouts.
Georgie caught on. Not on to techno, no, but onto the fact that The Mar was getting strong. Seeing that she was almost as strong as he was, he finally grasped her full climbing potential. And he panicked. He didn’t want her to outsend him. He didn’t want to fall off anything she could onsight, and he certainly didn’t want to be projecting her warm-ups. So, being a politician, he quickly drafted marital legislation. A binding agreement: Climbing together was sacred. Their own. Physical and romantic. Almost like love making. So they must do it together. They must climb together at night, as partners and spouses. They would remain a team, be supportive, be encouraging. Married. During the day, Georgie would represent at the Virginia House. And at home, The Mar would darn socks and such. Familial climbing would take place at night and on weekends. The Georgism for the new deal: “During the day we work in the world, and at night we climb on the board.” No matter how awkwardly Georgie said the word “board”, he couldn’t make the phrase rhyme. It was terrible. So he said it three times, changing emphasis and pronunciation each time. And The Mar winced as if she had taken a bad fall.
Georgie thought that the agreement would solve the problem, but he failed to grasp the full extent of The Mar’s addiction. And he vastly underestimated the blank spaces in her day-timer.
A plantation owner’s wife had little to do in those days. The mistress was required socially but that is all. She had tea parties and correspondence to attend to, and, if she so chose, small amounts of mending or knitting. Overseers and butlers and maids did the real work of the house. So Georgie’s marital legislation was a hollow bill. The Mar needed but an hour or two per day to complete her work, and then her hands became idle. And wanting to believe that idle hands were the work of the devil, The Mar faced quite a quandary. Either work diligently on her climbing abilities and break a vow with her husband, or sit and choose idleness, awaiting the friendship of the devil. So secretly, and under unfortunate pretenses, The Mar kept on climbing while Georgie was busy with the Burgesses. She climbed and trained and improved, climbed and trained and improved some more. And it took Georgie a while to catch on.
The Mar knew she had to hide her improvement. So although she often didn’t feel any weaker from her earlier workouts, she pretended on a regular basis to be unable to send a project or two at night simply to keep Georgie from making any unfavorable discoveries. Also, she began to work out a system wherein night sessions were for new route setting and morning sessions were for sends. So at night, she would fall a few times off of each problem, failing for appearance sake, while in her head gloating about her earlier beta flashes. Thus The Mar kept up the appearance of middling skill and warded off direct questioning.
But The Mar got greedy and prideful. As gym climbers do. She wanted Georgie to know how good she was. She wanted to flash routes and spew beta. She wanted to spray sequences at him as he struggled with starting moves. She wanted to offer weak condolences after she easily sent his projects. And so, slowly, hoping to still keep her husband unaware of her daily workouts, The Mar began to send harder and harder routes at night.
This was fine at first. Georgie was encouraging, even singsonging. He made up a housekeeping and bouldering rhyme: “Thinking of a project during the day, makes The Mar’s darning seem like play.”
Georgie found hidden Virginia forest boulders when he was eighteen years old while surveying the Shenandoah Lands for Lord Thomas Fairfax. It took him ten years to actually go outside and sample them.
John Adams was there, down from Harvard to visit the Virginian Representatives. Adams, portly, intelligent, philosophical, and regularly baked, was not a strong man. He was so out of shape, in fact, that the crew sarcastically dubbed him John Adams Hercules, or JAH for short. His cane, pearl-handled, fashioned for a dandy, too short, gave him an odd little walk, like a broken duck. That walk earned him the second half of his nickname: “Limp”. And so John Adams became known as JAH-Limp.
If not for his incredible footwork, JAH-Limp would’ve never topped out a single solitary boulder. Not one. But he possessed a strong mind, and he used that mind to focus on smearing, jamming, flagging, hooking, scumming, and heel-toeing with the best of them. JAH-Limp was a slab master, technical and proud. When he wasn’t drunk or high, he didn’t worry about barn-dooring, cheese-grating, or awkward landings. Simply stated, JAH-Limp was brave.
So JAH-Limp was there. And TJ, who was the taller, stronger ladies man. And of course, Georgie and The Mar. Those days weren’t too different from our own. The trio of men flirted with the single solitary girl, The Mar, while she climbed hard, well spotted, and flashed future first-lady skin (uncovering her wrists and ankles on multiple occasions). JAH-Limp was more hands-on than was appropriate, and Georgie consequently became vigilant to the point of jealousy. But then TJ who nobody trusted around women got his fingers tangled in The Mar’s bodice during a short fall, and Georgie got downright angry. But being a politician and a future national leader, he hid his anger. He acted decisively, with diplomacy. Discretion being the better part of valor, Georgie urged The Mar to sample some untapped forest boulders with him, not too far to the west. He said, “To the west we should go venture, a husband and wife bouldering adventure.”
TJ and JAH-Limp groaned. But The Mar forced a smile. The love on her face was like she had been asked to eat her chalk bag. She said, “Good rhyme, honey.”
As The Mar walked to join Georgie, she turned and stole a glance at an unclimbed line following a fifteen-foot, 45-degree prow. Then she followed her husband into the forest.
Outmatched by his younger friends earlier in the day, friends who regularly climbed outside, Georgie hoped to impress The Mar on his own, without competition. So he went on a moderate sending spree. He hit everything below his limit in a fairly impressive four-hour session. And by the evening, he had sent no less than 20 different mid-level boulder problems. The Mar had made several comments about his stamina during the afternoon, building him up, egging him on, and he returned to camp feeling victorious, proud, and annihilated.
JAH-Limp and TJ had cut short their own session after arguing about whether or not TJ had touched the ground on a tough lowball send, helping him through the crux, but all had been resolved via a large fire, a pint of French brandy (TJ had a weakness for the French), and two thick venison steaks.
After supper, The Mar and Georgie played gin and drank gin until their eyes crossed. TJ and JAH-Limp practiced fencing with pine boughs, leading to even more arguing. Then the crew retired to sleep around a well-stoked campfire.
Late that night, in the dark, the sliver moon witnessed The Mar’s quick attempts on the prow. While the others were sleeping, she snuck over to the boulder, put her hands on its rough starting holds, and pulled the first two moves. But The Mar was still somewhat drunk and her footwork was sloppy, and even her building desire yielded no additional progress. The line was scintillating, but her balance wasn’t equal to the task.
Excited and unquenched, The Mar sought fulfillment under TJ’s sleeping comforter. But sliding in next to JAH-Limp on accident, she was horrified by the feel of his fat and unmuscled belly. His naked body hair. She retracted her hands and stole quickly back to her own bed next to Georgie, resolving to be more sober, more loyal, more careful, more circumspect in the future.
So The Mar, simply via time, dedication, and training techniques became a better climber than all. And the smell of hay was her betrayal.
Georgie said, “How was your day, Mar?” as The Mar used a barber’s razor to pack a gnarly after-work blunt for him.
“Not bad. Pretty good in fact. I spent most of the day mending, knitting, darning socks.” She passed the freshly minted blunt across the table. Then she slid across two matches.
“Hmmm,” Georgie paused to light the blunt upside down, rolling the match in a circular motion. “Mar, why do you smell so strongly of barn hay?”
The Mar covered quickly. “You know how I love to be near the horses, Georgie. I’ve always loved the horses so.”
“Hmmm…” Georgie took a long inhale and held it deep. “…is that right?”
On the tenth advent of this same conversation, Georgie no longer believed her. The Mar was easily sending V10 at night (Virginia 10 a difficulty rating in a complicated, sandbagged, pot-adled, drunken, inconsistent rating system).
The Mar was caught like an adulterous.
Then came the project.
Georgie set it one particularly cold May evening while he and The Mar were down in the barn working endurance. In between sets, Georgie envisioned the line, a sit-start series of legs-up campus moves leading to crimps and technical cross-throughs, foot smears, two long, dynamic moves in The East Side Overhang, a long traverse along the rafters to the slab wall, then body-tension lateral downclimbing on some of the most ill slopers the slab wall ever possessed. Georgie worked the moves in his head. And even though he wanted to sing out a Georgism on the proposed project, he kept quiet and did not mention the line to The Mar.
Over the next few nights, when he believed The Mar was busy with her own setting or climbing, Georgie worked the route. It was much too difficult to link at first, so he attempted three-move overlapping sections, one old move with an addition of two new moves. He whispered to himself, “One move now in addition, brings the project into submission.” And giggled.
But The Mar could play a chess game with herself in her mind. She’d learned that exercise while attending long, boring, political dinners. She could nod and smile and move white knight to C3 in her head. And she recorded every climbing move she ever saw.
So Georgie and his project were known. Watched. Memorized. The Mar knew the route. It was easily V12.
She got to work on it Monday morning. Georgie kissed her goodbye while she sat in a chair in the den, an improbable stack of books next to her.
Georgie said, “Are you going to read those books today?”
The Mar nodded, “Yes, dear.”
“All of them?”
“Yes, dear. I’m very tired.” The Mar sighed. “I think I’ll just read today.”
Georgie’s shoulders relaxed. He was fairly certain that The Mar had watched his last three goes the night before. He had felt her wolverine-like eyes on his back as he linked seven moves for the first time.
Georgie kissed her forehead. “Have a good day reading then.”
“Thank you. Have a good day with the Burgesses.”
“Oh, I will.”
The Mar waited for twenty minutes while fake reading the first page of the first book. She began to sing a send song in her head, then softly out loud. She sang, “Send, send, I want to send. I reach, I stretch, I stick, I wend. Send, send, I want to send.” She realized that her song was a little like a Georgism and she shuttered at the thought.
Down in the barn, The Mar used a pitchfork to pile hay under the overhang. Then she carefully warmed up on good holds, five minutes on, five minutes off. Three sets. Ten push-ups. A slow stretch.
She sat down under the campus moves. She had that stickiness in her mouth that preceded an attempt on a new barn route. It tasted like unripe apple.
The start holds felt good, better than Georgie had made them look. She hoped this wasn’t going to be just another route that a guy had pretended was tough.
The Mar hit the first three campus moves. She would have stuck the fourth, but her toe drug on the wall. That was the problem with a contrivance. But she made a mental note to keep her right foot clear on the next attempt.
Go two, she stuck the campus moves, three crimps, and the first cross-through. The project was coming to her. Her heartbeat aroused. Her skin flushed. Inflamed. She fell off irritably, her teeth jittering slightly.
She sang another round of her send song while laying in the hay. Her blood kindled.
She stood up and felt the holds softly. She brushed her hands over them. She reached back and undid her bodice. That morning, she had asked her chamber maid to tie the bodice loosely, complaining of a backache, knowing she’d need her freedom to send the project. But now she needed even less restriction.
Go three got her into the overhang. Her chest heaved with the rhythm and the exertion, the agitation.
Number four was a wasted go, but number five saw The Mar finish the overhang, traverse the rafters, and fall off only two moves from the finish.
The impending send was not a taste now but a smell, the smell of the barn and the horses and the cherry wood holds, her own sweat steaming up from under her untied bodice, and the resin on her awakened hands. She was close, close, almost there now, feeling it coming inside her. She could feel all of V12.
Then she got tired. Attempt number six ended in the overhang, as did seven and eight. And she knew that no try afterwards would do any better. She resolved to calm, pacify, rest, eat, hydrate, and wait for tomorrow.
Georgie came into the kitchen like a bad tobacco crop. While arguing a tax bill earlier in the day, the thought had suddenly occurred to him that The Mar might be faking tiredness. Reading all day? He doubted that. And especially not if she was tired.
The Mar was drinking water, pushing fluids and salt. She handed Georgie a whiskey to dull his perceptions. He accepted the Trojan horse grudgingly. He didn’t say thank you.
The Mar didn’t notice. She was in a bad humor as well. She wasn’t worried about being caught (she had bathed an hour ago to remove the sweat and the hay smell), but she was annoyed by her apparent lack of power endurance. Normally, a route like that was a testament to her ability. Power endurance was her demesne. She usually finished on a route like that.
“Good reading today, Mar?”
She was pulled back into the kitchen with him. “Huh?”
“I said,” Georgie paused ominously, taking a deliberate, long drink, “good reading today?”
“Oh yeah. Fine.”
He swirled the contents of his cup. “Fine?”
“Just fine. I felt weak today.”
“Hmmm. I hope you’re not ill.” He said it in such a way that meant ‘I hope you are ill,’ but The Mar didn’t notice that either.
After they had climbed for a while in the barn, supped on stew, and retired to bed, Georgie couldn’t sleep. He was quite certain that The Mar had watched him attempt every single move during their evening session. He could feel her staring open-eyed and owl-like as she pretended to work on her own new routes. Not once did he catch her looking at him, a fact that proved her guilt.
Before leaving the barn, Georgie had left one red ribbon tied around the starting hold of his project. Even to him, the ribbon seemed to hang limp and submissive.
Georgie didn’t sleep all night, and in the morning he was exhausted. So he resolved to skip work. He would made a grand exit from the front porch of Mount Vernon, rode his horse to the edge of the property, tied it to a tree, and snuck back to the barn. Come late morning, he would catch The Mar in her moment of infidelity.
Georgie was incredibly uneasy. His hands were shaking. He remembered the half of a blunt he kept stashed in his breast pocket. Using a wooden match on the bottom of his shoe, Georgie lit the fat green cigarette and smoked it to his fingers. Then he entered the barn.
The Mar wasn’t there. It was dark inside, and quiet, the stable boys having taken the horses out to pasture. Georgie laid down on the crashpile of hay. From where he lay, he could see the whole route, the finish descending down on top of him.
The hay felt like 800-fill down beneath his body. He was so tired. Georgie pulled a huge pile of hay over himself, around his head, and fell asleep. Only his mouth was uncovered, sunken and impossible to see.
The Mar’s lantern didn’t wake Georgie up. Neither did her warm-up.
She felt good. Strong. Impassioned. It was one of those days when every handhold felt like fine-grained sandstone, every foot coated in tacky glue.
The Mar held herself back. She held herself back as her breathing began to rise in her chest. Then she gave herself to the project, unleashed and uninhibited. She pulled through the campussing and the crimps, and she would have finished on her first go but her bodice restricted her as she climbed into the cross-throughs and she fell.
The Mar looked around furtively. The stable boys were off. The maids and butlers up at the house. She felt the warm repetitive swish of blood pumping in her throat. Her breastplate. She looked around one final time and slipped her bodice off. Then, as an impulse, she pulled her skirt and undergarments over her head. Warmed-up and strong, she stood naked in the light of the single kerosene lantern.
She sat down at the start, laughing at Georgie’s flaccid red tag, feeling the hay stick to her sweat-dampened skin. She took two breaths in and two breaths out. Then she campussed.
Her hands were dry and vice-like while the rest of her body contracted. She rolled her hips, left then right, rocking, smoothing, flowing through each move, easing now, sliding and breathing in perfect position. Being with the wall. Rough congress with the wall. Naked and unctuous, oily. The Mar climbed as she had never climbed at any other time in her life, feeling the brush of her bare skin against the hard wall, the brush of nipple against the wood. Touching, then off again, touching and away, then nothing in the overhang. She swelled with her breathing as she groaned during the long movements in the rafters.
Then over. Down. Over. Down. To the end. To the conclusion. To the finish. To the consummation.
As she stepped off the final move, exhaling slowly, relaxing now, letting her mind unburden, sinking into the pile of hay, her heel caught on something beneath the pile, not hay but an animal, a dog perhaps, or a large animal underneath. Asleep or dead underneath.
The Mar screamed as she rolled her ankle over whatever it was underneath the hay. Her ankle popped like a broken climbing hold off of an EP wall, and she went down.
And then the thing stood up. Hay covered, backlit by the burning kerosene, like a phantom, like an apparition, like a beast, and The Mar would have run if not for her quickly swelling right ankle. She lay naked instead, naked on the hay, immobilized by the six-foot-two figure, dark before her.
“Mar?” it said. “Is that you?”
The Mar clawed quickly at the hay beneath her in a vain attempt to cover herself. “Georgie?” she said.
“Yes,” he said. Paused. And again, “Yes.”
The Mar could not cover herself or run or hide. She could not think of a lie.
George Washington stood above her, his face shadowed, a realization coming, a realization surging, dirty, dirty now, dirty as politics. “Mar, did you…”
“Mar!” He shouted. “I have to know. Did you?”
She nodded slowly. She admitted the betrayal. And he knew. They both knew. She had experienced the wall. Completed. Finished. She had finished the wall. On the wall. Satisfied, slurred, and satiated.
Peter Brown Hoffmeister is a regular routesetter at the Mount Vernon National Monument barn. He also sends Virginia 12 boulder problems as warm-ups.