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This article was originally published in Climbing No. 250 (August 2006).
I’ve spent the last 10 years on a more or less endless road trip. Sometimes I had a solid partner, but often I traveled solo, climbing with whomever I met, including a clean freak who swabbed his entire body in rubbing alcohol everyday, a homeless woman, and a drunkard who kept calling me a “worthless cockroach” over one long, hellish day of cragging during which he ingested two 12 packs of malt liquor.
I’ve been nearly dropped, bailed on, and often resorted to soloing, but my most memorable experience almost ended in death, atop Epinephrine (V 5.9) in Red Rocks, Nevada.
Winter 1998: I’d augured in at the legendary Gordon Ranch in Joshua Tree, where I met a certain ex-Marine sergeant turned rock climber, whom I immediately dubbed “Sarge.” Speaking in a scary Clint Eastwood-meets Hulk Hogan dialect, Sarge, a rumored covert-ops veteran and ripped, 200-plus-pound black belt, told me he was hungry for the multi-pitch Red Rocks’ classics Levitation 29 (IV 5.11c) and Epinephrine. Game as ever, I agreed to a short trip.
Our troubles began early on, with Sarge insisting his Dalmatian tag along for the exposed, scrambly approach to Levitation 29.
“Dude, we cannot afford to be slowed down by your pooch,” I told him.
“My dog isn’t slow; she’ll be leading the way,” he retorted.
And so it went. Soon, we were bickering like a pair of petty, old fools. Then, suddenly, Sarge exploded: “How about you shut the fuck up before I crush your over-inflated head like a grape?!” Peeved myself, I still could recognize toxic anger. I backed off, and we settled into a quiet mutual hatred. As predicted, it took Sarge hours to push his dog up the endless approach, though we did dispatch the route quickly.
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The next day we rose early for Epinephrine and approached, again, in a festering spiteful silence punctuated by the occasional barbed exchange. For example:
Gee, Sarge, I was just thinking—it’s too bad your pooky isn’t here, so we can totally epic on this approach, too.”
“You know, I’m bettin’ your parents didn’t put a whoopin’ to your backside for your smart-ass behavior, but if you don’t shut your cocky little trap I’d me more than happy to make up for lost time.”
“Thanks—real friggin’ compassionate, hardass.”
“I’ll show you compassionate, you little pickle sniffer!”
And so on.
Six pitches off the deck, I missed a bolt that led out onto the face, and went direct, slowly grunting up a 5.11 offwidth. Sarge, seconding, was less than pleased. “You stupid son of a bitch … your head us so far up your ass you can’t see where the route goes!” he bellowed. “Pull on the rope, motherfucker! Pull on it!”
Thirty long minutes later, Sarge half-climbed, half-convulsed onto my ledge. “You have to be the biggest idiot I have ever met!” he offered, and then, like a Chihuahua on amphetamines sprinted off on his pitch. Anxious to be rid of each other, we charged up the route’s monster chimneys.
On the last pitch, Sarge, lobster-red with anger and exertion, looked at me and said, “I’ve got a surprise for you, you little turd!” then charged off on the lead. I paid out rope; suddenly, after 120 feet, it stopped moving—no slack, tension, or even play in the line as he downclimbed or set an anchor. I waited a good hour, yelling “Up rope!” every few minutes. Nothing. Shit—no choice but to free solo the last pitch, a crumbly 5.6 jug ladder 1,400 feet above the desert floor, yanking the gear and shoulder-coiling the rope as I went.
I rounded the final ledge and came upon the end of the rope … tied into a drooping twig on a spindly tree. Sarge had gone too far, and my curiosity quickly turned to rage. Fuming, I speed-scrambled up hundreds of feet of fourth class to the summit, my anger building in anticipation of a showdown.
There, in all his glory, stood Sarge, indignantly pounding his fist into his open hand. “You never leave your partner like that!” I screamed. Trained killer or not, it was time for a face-off.
“I’m going to make you wish you had fallen, you cocky little shit,” he said, whirling his arms around in some sort of Sarge-kwon-do attack maneuver. “Let’s go, right now!”
“Bring it, meathead!” I retorted, searching for a good-sized rock. “Bring it!”
“Alright, then,” he said flatly, creeping toward me and shadow-boxing a bit too deftly in the warm Nevada air. “That’s just what I wanted to hear.” He karate-kicked each leg above his head, warming up for the deathblow.
Then, it hit me: Sarge was going to kill me. He was going to split me in half and throw the pieces off Epinephrine. He was going to snap me like a speed-climbing twig and rag-doll my corpse into the abyss. He was going to make me bleed. “Look, I’m not going to fight you,” I said. “I’m a pacifist.” I also began to apologize … profusely.
The tension left his eyes. “Spoken like a man …” growled Sarge, “a scared girly man.” Then, he shook my hand, saying, “I was just trying to teach you a lesson.”
“Lesson learned,” I said meekly. “Now, let’s go back to Josh.”
I’ve since bumped into Sarge, and I believe we both learned something up there. Sarge is mellower now, and I’m a little less outspoken. In fact, if I see Sarge again, I think I’d like to rope up with him … but maybe for some single-pitch stuff.
After honing his granite trad-climbing skills, Valley fixture Cedar Wright is off on his next road trip, to the boulder of Rocklands, South Africa, where none of his partners will be ex-Marine sergeants … he hopes.