The following is an excerpt from Climbing Out of Bed, available now.
The climbing life is like poetry. Being somewhat removed from this existence with the demands of steady employment, I sometimes forget the feeling, the clarity the mind finds after a long, hard climb, the satisfaction of living very close to nature, and the bond that grows out of trust and sweat between climbing partners. With that in mind, I set off from the Gunnison Valley, Colorado, into a great expanse that separates us from another holy, sacred place, Yosemite Valley, California.
It was a tremendous coincidence that my good friend and summer couch surfer Brian was driving to Yosemite the very day that my summer vacation was set to start. I was nearly broke, so the couch surfing karma was important; I knew Brian would let me catch a lift without paying for much gas.
I like Brian for many reasons, and on a cross country journey, I knew he’d be infinitely entertaining. He’s one of those people who’s always verbalizing most of his thoughts, so conversation could go anywhere from sustainable building to the little Seinfeld like scenes we all go through in life. He’s an engineer who has worked as a timber framer, who also enjoys taking three months at a time off from work, hence the couch surfing. Since he’s always talking, he always makes me think. This notion was confirmed when he wholeheartedly agreed that we should bring a dictionary along on our journey, to test each other’s vocabularies. He also thought it was a great idea to do twenty pushups every time we stopped and got out of the truck, my kind of guy.
Our connection in Yosemite was Mark, who was living the dream more than any other rock climber I knew. I can’t help but wonder if his experiences in his college days at Western State in Gunnison shaped his psyche and his attitude towards living for the moment. During his senior year, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer, which led to surgeries, radiation treatment and finally chemotherapy. During this entire time, he remained a climber, surprising the hell out of more than one friend when he’d asked to stop at a climbing area on the way back from the five hour round trip for radiation treatment. Then he’d climb his way to the top of some difficult crack route, and many times the friend could not even repeat the route that he’d just completed.
He’s also Brian’s best friend from childhood. Brian once told me a story of Mark climbing in the gym after a chemotherapy treatment. Mark was trying his damnedest to climb up a vertical wall with small holds, grunting and giving it his all. As innocent, young and dumb climbers will do, a bystander started yelling unsolicited beta about the climb up to Mark, a pet peeve to many a traditional climber, “Put your left hand up to that crimp, move your right foot up to the hold with red and white tape…”
Mark, bald from the chemo, dangling from the rope, could have responded, “Shut the fuck up,” but he simply yelled back in frustration, “You don’t understand. I’m on chemotherapy.”
Four years later and still cancer free, he’s settled into a life of a rock climbing guide. On a recent climbing trip, he met Norma, an architect from Mexico. Norma had joined him in California, where Mark had somehow secured two hundred dollars a month rent at some prime real estate in Yosemite. When he’s homeless, an old camper on top of his Ford truck works as home.
Mark told me that he was living in the best house in Yosemite, and he’s not one to hype up things that aren’t great. We rolled into The Green House, slightly haggard from our travels, and ready for some rest. It was midday and late summer, hot and humid, nearly oppressive. I took refuge on their trampoline under a tree and drifted off to sleep.
The house wasn’t the greatest because it fit into a definition of luxury; it was the greatest because of the location and rustic feeling. It was a mere ten minute drive from the famous glaciated granite walls for climbing, the floors creaked when you walked on them, the kitchen had a bucket of water under the sink that constantly needed to be changed as water was used, and there was no bathroom, only an outhouse.
Later, I began to learn the stories of The Green House. It was another basecamp, hundreds had stayed within its doors, and the journals in the living room recorded this. They brought the place alive, all the way from its rustic roots of being farmland and a stop along the way for the railroad, to the current role of housing outdoor educators and couch surfers passing through Yosemite.
Our story, our climbing, well, it was hot in Yosemite, so much so that there were not any other climbers there, and essentially we had the most famous walls of the United States to ourselves. Once the mileage and toil of the road wore off, I began to feel free and content, I was here to climb them walls, and when we weren’t climbing, there was food and beer, and there were the people who make this climbing life worth living.
There was some structure to our days; I would fall asleep on the trampoline and then awaken later to the coyotes howlin’ in the middle of the night. The sun was the natural alarm clock, but hitting the snooze button of the heat was impossible. Mark was off to the park in the morning to work nearly every day. If he didn’t work, we would climb; if he did, we would climb later after he was off.
Mark, Norma and I hiked up to the Cookie Cliff. The objects of our desire were some crack climbs, ones that went for a hundred or two hundred feet, practice climbs for the big walls that always lay ahead in dreams. Norma let us go. I suppose if you are going to date a climber, you must let them go. Norma was the coolest, tranquillo. We just went and she stayed content at the base of the walls.
Somewhere in climbing, the past fades; the voice in your head moves on from rewind or fast forward, and the poetry begins. My memory comes in when I began leading. The knotted stomach and butterflies compares to asking someone out that you really dig.
I reached into my chalk bag, and powdered up my sweaty hands, jammed my fingertips into the crack, the tips of my shoes barely going in; it’s an instinctual thing, climbing, a flow and a pace is developed by measuring fear, fitness and fun. More or less for forty feet now, three hundred feet above the towering pine trees below, I’m moving up the perfectly vertical, straight up rock, looking for anything on the side of the crack, dime sized edges to stand on with my feet. I place cams into the crack, a rush surging through my body as I pull up the rope to clip in. I’m working as hard as I can, the limit, when I reach up to slide the tips of my fingers into the crack, and I pop off falling fifteen feet in a split second weighting the rope, with a scream that echoes into evening, something primal. I get back on, and keep climbing.
Norma seems content when we return, rappelling down the granite face shouting nonsense loudly in the air because we can, because we like the feeling of yelling jokes that only we get. The language barrier between Mark and Norma enhances their true communication of love.
At dinner, over soy sausages, we explain some English slang to Norma. Somehow we talk about love, and all the slangs and directions that love could take. She says quietly to Mark, “I love you,” with no idea of how sincere and poetic she was.
“Living’s mostly wastin’ time,” a lyric in a song by Townes Van Zandt I used to listen to all the time. I guess I wasted a lot of time on that trip. Climbing demands rest to build those muscles and to be psyched on pulling your body up the granite cliffs day after day. So I’d just walk around there, feeling some yin and yang attraction, and looks from women with their summer aura about them, as we were dwarfed by the towering granite walls, the blue sky above, the ninety degree heat, the trees and the deer and squirrels all running around. Eating ice cream for calories and energy, to stay cool, and when that didn’t work, finding release in the river, which instantly energized and cooled off that oppressive August heat.
Our next memorable moment on the walls came a few days later. I had to leave back for Gunnison to work soon, so we planned around Mark’s schedule, and the energy that comes with the steady pace of conditioning with a bigger, physically demanding goal ahead. That goal became a thousand foot wall, which faced north, and got shade all day. Just opened to climbing after being closed for months to peregrine falcons and their nesting, it’s called The Rostrum, and it finishes up as a hundred foot wide pinnacle, right at the top of a canyon, where beer and the car are right there. But I’m getting ahead of myself with thoughts of celebration and ending.
Mark was off work around four in the evening, so we only had about four hours of daylight left. The plan was to rappel down into the canyon, attempt to do the entire route in that remaining time, but if our ambitions were unrealistic, we could sneak off the wall via a simple escape with minimal trickery.
I’d heard of the route for years, even saw video of a man climbing it with ease, without a rope. It was always closed for the falcons that nest up there, or out of my realm because I wasn’t strong enough on previous trips. I went into the thing a little cocky, thinking it would be vertical hiking. It was more like the master that is Mother Nature had to teach my consciousness a lesson. I wormed up a chimney to reach Mark’s perch, as he belayed me up. We did the transfer of the gear, my mind not at all present; we had eight hundred some feet of rock towering above us, and the daylight was nearing an end. “I need progress,” my ego said, “and I need it soon.”
Confused by a rating on the topo, the piece of paper that described the route, the range of the rating made it seem well within my ability, and it was, but it was not vertical hiking, it was vertical finesse that was needed. The brain needed to be calm, the body needed to perform in a yogic way; the vertical terrain above me would demand everything I possibly had.
I was traversing on small edges again with my feet reading the rock for holds, trying to dance with the rock, but I wasn’t dancing at all; I was tense, the mind demanded, “the clock is ticking.” But no clock was ticking, the rock wasn’t going anywhere, it would be patient, the err here within the form of the human. Since I wasn’t dancing, wasn’t using the yoga I had in me, I tried to muscle. Muscling it, I didn’t correctly, strategically put my gear in the rock, an eighth of an inch crack was all there was. I climbed awkwardly with fear, putting my feet and hands in all the wrong places, my inner voice doubted, sent negative thoughts all around; I couldn’t tell you for sure, but I bet my anus was gripped.
I relayed my fear and doubt to Mark, “I don’t know man. Can you just do this? I just don’t think I have it.”
As patient as the rock, he refused to let me slip further into my spiral of doubt. “No, you’ve got it. You can do this.” Kind words from a true friend.
I eventually struggled my way through it, not pretty, not dancing, but our journey continued. Of course, we took the mellow option, sneaking off the climb with perfect cracks above us for seven hundred more feet. But I was tired, humbled, just in need of food, and the rock above didn’t inspire, but it would soon enough, the rock always inspires the climber. Love always comes back around if you believe in it, maybe not in the same place, but if you keep climbing up the hill, keep waking up with hope that with the new sunrise are new possibilities, you’re bound to find that magic again. Climbing, athletic and masochistic, silly at times for a grown man to be infatuated with it, it’s about love really, if you don’t love it, and the experience, well, there are other things to do with your time.
I had a pizza dinner with my new favorite couple the night before returning to the climb again. I felt the love, no awkwardness being the third wheel. We talked like people talk when someone is about to leave.
It’s a great feeling to be ready for the big climb. Proper conditioning, nutrition and attitude, when those things come together, the dangerous activity of climbing is joyous to share with your partner. You get out what you put in.
I woke up that morning and just had a good feeling in my mind and my gut. We leisurely got our things together, had a breakfast of soysauge and eggs, good protein, and visited with the newest arrivals to The Green House, Outward Bound instructors wrapping up their summer. There would be a small party, with more coming in tonight for beer and a bonfire, toasting to the end of the season.
We started late, not too late, just in time where we knew in our internal clocks of climbing experience that we could climb the thousand feet before it got dark. I asked Mark if I could lead the pitch that gave me such a mental battle before. He obliged. I knew he would.
I went into the climbing aware of the difficulty, the risk, not over gripping the handholds, carefully placing protection into the crack. Still the nervousness was in my stomach, but that’s good, it lets you know you’re alive. The move sliding my right hand pinky and ring finger barely into the crack then leaning left putting my weight on barely an inch of those fingers. I had pulled through. I was dancing. It was yoga, and positive vertical progress ensued.
The climb was the best ever because I had to try, really had to do, and I did. Mark, a Yosemite master, showed me his vertical walking, but still grunted in sections. Some of the climb demanded that in the moment precision with just the fingertips and edges of my shoes on the wall, other parts half my body chimney-ed in a crack, with my elbows and knees and feet making the slow upward progress.
The last pitch was one of those bigger cracks, where you have to figure out what side of your body to slide in for progress. It got so wide at one point I had no gear in; had I fallen it would have been a big disaster, a possible tumble fifty feet down the vertical rock.
Reaching the top of that crack, there we were, through the struggle. We shook hands, a team that had won, accomplished the goal. We were there, mentally, spiritually and physically. //
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 and more check outClimbing Out of Bed on amazon.