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John Long’s Worst Climbing Trip

No water, no sleeping bag, dead car battery, thorns and wind, punctuated Largo's road trip south of the border. And those were the highlights.

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During my 1,000 or so road trips over the past 30 years, I’ve endured bullet holes in my dad’s Lincoln, fisticuffs and flying spears with Papuan coppers, and eight days in a Tennessee lockup. But for sheer grief and frustration, from start to finish, nothing can rival my trip to Mexico’s Throne with the graceful “Rose,” fellow member of the University of La Verne Outdoor Recreation Club.

Only Corky Renfro, from the Orkneys, joined the University of La Verne Outdoor Rec Club to shoot arrows into hay bails, kayak in the local mud hole, and toprope out at Stoney Point. For the rest of us guys, the pressing recreation was of the horizontal variety, with the dozens of smashing coeds, excluding Rose, whose father (a volunteer outing instructor) drove a gigantic black 4X4, bow-hunted Grizzley in the Yukon, and who showed his teeth to any guy who closed within shouting distance of his daughter.

Anyhow, during one Memorial Day—this was in the mid 1970s—weekend, I decided to skip the annual club slog up Mount Baldy and instead planned a climbing trip to El Gran Trono Blanco (the Great White Throne), down in Baja. Then at the last moment, my partners crapped out. For over a year I’d schemed to take Rose climbing. Her chance had finally come.

I jogged over to the girls’ dorm and found Rose, alone in her room, listening to Vivaldi. She liked the sound of a Mexican adventure; but, suddenly remembering, I inquired about her father, always a critical concern. She swished the air with her hand. Pops was gone for the week, hunting wild boar over on Catalina Island. Not that I feared the man. But Rose feared Baja. Narcos had kidnapped the Governor, she reminded, and dismembered him with a chain saw. That was, like, two years ago, I said.  Once we rolled into Mexico we’d never leave the highway until we got to a forgotten dirt road, which we’d follow to the Throne and repeat an easy big wall. With my vast (two summers) experience on Yosemite monoliths … well, our glory was a given. Early the next morning we loaded up my VW bug and headed for the border.

John Long’s First Big-Time TV Break Turns to Tragedy

Rolling south, every time Rose inquired about the particulars of our expedition, I’d toss out an off-hand reply and Rose would tell me she trusted that I knew best. Then she’d settle back and say nothing for 10 or 15 miles. Slowly, these lingering silences started working on me. After another empty mile I asked Rose what was wrong. “Nothing worth mentioning,” she insisted. I pressed her —friends could be frank with each other, surely.

As it happened, I hadn’t vacuumed or washed my car in a year (the whole rig stank of bongwater). Rose mentioned this. Nor had I shaved in a few days, and my clothes were “eccentric.” She touched on this as well. And why would an athlete like myself smoke cigarettes? With every passing mile Rose found another vice or foible, all cited as a sort of courtesy. By the time we crossed the border at Tijuana, I was defending my right to be alive. In El Hongo, just shy of the rutted dirt turnoff for the Throne, I dropped into a bodega and snagged a quart bottle of mescal, a fierce Latin shine leeched from agave cactus and old tractor batteries.

By the time we crossed the border at Tijuana, I was defending my right to be alive.

I downed the whole bottle, and probably the worm in the bottom, and for the first and last time in my life I was soon to possess no memory of what followed. Who knows how we got to the desert campsite, 40 miles down a maze of crisscrossing dirt roads, in the middle of Baja, California. Rose drove, I hope.

I came to around dawn the next morning, face down in a creosote bush, with a gyre of ravens circling above and Rose pouring water over my head. It had taken her half an hour to track me down, but in 10 seconds she announced how poorly I’d behaved the previous night and how, fearing for her honor, she’d locked herself in the car. I ran for the scrub and ralphed.

“I done a stupid thing,” I said, stumbling back to our camp. “And I’m sorry. But this junket’s over.”

“What do you mean?” asked Rose.

“I mean we ain’t climbing nothing. Not with this head.”

Rose chuckled. “You say the silliest things sometime.”

“Nothing silly about it,” I said. “I go roping up like this, I’ll make us both dead.”

Rose glared. “You promised!”

“I never did. I never promised.”

“You are a liar,” she said, with a look that could cut glass. “And a lightweight.”

She quietly pulled up a rock and started reading The Bell Jar as I circled like a dog before it lies down. Or dies. Her silence was worse than my hangover.

“OK,” I finally said. “Get your stuff. We’re going.”

“You better drink some coffee,” said Rose, who’d brewed a pot. I tossed off a few cups, shouldered the haul bag and started wobbling across slabs toward the gully spilling to the base of the south face and the start of the climb.

Rose cheered up, sure we were heading for a magnificent adventure, confident she was in the hands of a certified expert, blah, blah, blah. Then we started down the Gully from Hell, formed by the slanting base of the Throne on the left, and a trashy granite bastion on the right.

John Long: Violating Sacrosanct Trad Ethics Was, Ironically, Liberating

The gully was choked with thorny branches swarming with fire ants, and we took several hours to bash down to a huge pool at the base of the climb, where I took a header deep into barbed thicket and emerged looking like a chetah had clawed my face. Rose applied some strange herbal potion to my wounds. I screamed and she told me to pipe down and man up. Then she pulled on her harness, uncoiled the lead and haul lines while I plunked into the spring and tried to snap into leading shape. It didn’t work. My head felt like a meteor.

“You got this,” said Rose. “Don’t worry.”

“Ain’t worried,” I said. “The moment I came to from that shine, I wrote myself off for dead. Hell, I might be dead. Just don’t know it yet.”

Rose peered up at the wall, waiting for me to rope up and lead us to the clouds.

Sketchy as I felt, we drifted up the climb without pause, Rose following except for the seventh pitch, leading to a huge ledge, which Rose ticked at 5.7. The next pitch had the only aid, 40-feet of it, so I fixed that bit and rapped to the big ledge.

Fifty foot square and flat as a tabletop, aside from a few rodents and scattered cacti, the ledge afforded a perfect bivy site. We even gathered brush enough to start a little fire. I rooted out some food—filched from the college cafeteria—and stuffed myself, then sucked a half-gallon water bottle dry. Rose applauded a spectacular day. As night crept over Laguna Salada, far below, and stretching east into the horizon, I started feeling like myself again.

“Rose,” I asked, “what exactly did I do last night?” The color fell off her face and she drew the sleeping bag up around her neck.  Apparently, I’d started off singing along with the Ranchero tunes blaring on the car radio. After circling the boulder for a while, I’d started blathering about my dear old grandmother, God rest her soul, then I fell to the ground and started pawing the dirt, and Rose dashed to the VW and locked herself inside. With each disturbing detail, Rose slithered deeper into her bag until all I could see were her eyes. I mumbled out a “Goodnight, Rose,” and slunk over to the fire on the far side of the ledge.

I passed out, then snapped awake when gusting winds blew an ember onto my bag that melted through to my thigh. I frantically doffed the bag, which unfurled in the wind like a spinnaker and instantly was ripped from my mitts and blown into oblivion. The bag belonged to the outdoor rec club, and I’d just bought it. I jammed my legs in the haulbag and pulled my sweatshirt over my head, but the wind slashed like 10,000 daggers so I low-crawled over to the fire, sat in a hollow, and blew on the coals. The black sweep of Laguna Salada, far below, struck a dark note in my soul. That I was a knucklehead. Bereft. Teeth chattering. Hunkered over a meager fire and wondering how come. Just as I started sawing some honest firewood Rose kicked me in the ribs. The fire had gone out. And she couldn’t find the water. And she had never heard man nor beast snore so loud.

“We’re off this thing in three hours,” I said, furiously stuffing the haul bag. On the penultimate pitch, however, the lead rope jammed in the back of a flare. I tried yanking it free, but only further set it. Finally, I rigged an anchor and rapped to the snag and for several hours tried everything. Eventually, I led off on the haul line, brought Rose up, rapped down to attach the bag to the line, climbed the damn thing again with a prusik belay, and then hauled the pig to the top, abandoning my only lead line to the winds.

We gained the summit as the sun dove into the western skyline. We set off in a sprint, but only got half way back to the car and had to pull another bivy when we couldn’t see 10 feet for the darkness and I fell into a hueco and nearly broke my ankle joint.

“Rose,” I said, rubbing my gigantic ankle, “we gotta share your sleeping bag. Mine blew away last night.” Terror flashed across her face. “Take it easy,” I said. “We’ll just unzip the thing and pull it over us.”

She backpedaled a few feet and said, “You can have it.”

“Just keep it!” I said, and hobbled off, looking for a windblock. Another sleepless night.

Around 8:00 the next morning we got back to the car, which would not start. Dead battery. I spent hours trying to push start it in the sand until my ankle swelled to the size of a fire hydrant. I lay back in the dirt, totally gassed. “We’re out of water,” said Rose, holding up an empty gallon container. She looked dejectedly across the lone and level sands and asked, “What will become of us?”

“God hates me,” I said, “and I hate Him.” From afternoon until night I hobbled back to the Gully from Hell, filled the water bottles in the spring, and limped back out to the campsite. Rose was swaddled in the only sleeping bag. I started a fire, propped up my swollen foot and shivered until daybreak.

“I was thinking maybe if you could push the car up on this slab,” Rose said the next morning, pointing to a bit of flat rock 20 yards off the dirt road, “the tires might find better purchase than in the sand.”

“Probably would,” I said, wondering why I hadn’t thought of that. Rose’s idea worked perfectly and a minute later we motored down the dirt road toward the highway. By now my ankle hurt so badly I could barely depress the clutch, but the pain was the only thing keeping me awake. Over the next four or five hours I dealt with a flat tire, a red-hot oil leak, and two Mexican cops who fleeced me. In early evening, we pulled up to the mile-long queue of gringos backed up on the Tijuana border, streaming back into the States. My shirt and pants were splattered with oil and ripped from the evil thorns in the gully, my unshaven face scribed by savage lesions, my ankle black and huge, my eyes bloodshot. The border guard took one look at me and waved us into a fenced area overlooked by a machine-gun nest and half a dozen toughs in flak jackets. A guy with a pencil moustache ordered us out of the car, then a slavering dog was led in and unleashed. It sprang into the car and pawed at the seats, sniffling at the doors and about the floor.

“Someone’s been smoking marijuana inside the vehicle,” said pencil stash, placing a hand on his sidearm. “It ain’t dope that cur smells,” I said, “but my sister’s weenie dog.” The guard wasn’t buying it, but after doing everything short of dissecting the car with a cutting torch, and turning up not so much as a seed, he had to let us go.

Flat broke, I had to beg money from Rose for food and gas, and I still recall the agonizing process of Rose slowly withdrawing a coin purse from her pack and peeling off three 10-dollar bills, and handing them over. I gassed up, powered down a few burgers and booted it for home.

The rain came all at once and with such fury cars slowed to a crawl on the freeway as torrents streamed across the road. The radio said all of Southern California was under deluge. Rose feared for her father, chasing feral bores through the wooded highlands of Catalina Island. I hoped he got washed out to sea. We never topped 25 MPH for the last 150 miles getting back to La Verne.

Around midnight we pulled into the parking lot at Rose’s dorm. They say that misery acquaints strange bedfellows, and I was still hoping for the best, but Rose simply thanked me for a “wonderful experience,” gathered her belongings and left. I drove half a block over to my scruffy dorm and the flooded parking lot, empty because of vacation, save for the big black 4X4, parked near the curb. The cab light flickered on as my headlights racked across it through the rain.

Longtime Climbing contributor John Long, one of the original Stonemasters, is perhaps best known for his first free ascent of Astroman and first one day ascent of the Nose of El Capitan. He is the author or editor of over 30 books and the recipient of the American Alpine Club Literary Award.

This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 127 (September 2003).