Once upon a time I was a jerk, which I’m not often, but I’m not against it, at least in principle. My mother used to say never say never, and apparently I interpreted that to being a jerk as well.
Case in point. It was a summer day in Estes Park, and I was on a beautiful granite multi-pitch route on Lumpy Ridge, one of the most delicious climbing areas in the world. I was at a crossroads, a moral crossroads.
Should I sandbag my boss or not? was the quandary.
Not Hamlet, you say, and you’d be right.
Me and my boss—my actual boss who employed me—were high on Pear Buttress. I, on lead, was running it out properly. But then, as chance would have it, I came across a small bush, if you could even call it that; it was more like a vagabond shrub whose roots clung desperately to the thin ribbons of soil that had washed down the cliff and settled into the cracks.
The branch before me wouldn’t have held a small cat if it was harnessed up and took a whipper. It was the only piece I’d place in a 50-foot stretch, but the route was casual for me, as I’m an excellent climber—60% of the time, I send 100% of the time.
Do I sling the shrub so my boss feels dejected when he gets to it?
My boss was a beginner climber and I knew he’d be gripped on the pitch. He’d see the shrub and, I hoped, know I was toying with him.
I thought about it for .0000004 seconds and realized the opportunity was just too good to pass up. I slung the small shrub with a shoulder sling and continued to run it out to the belay. I got cooked at the belay and waited for him to make his way up. Tap tap. Tap tap. My skin would peel for the following week.
In case you don’t know what a sandbag in climbing is, it is when a climber is shut down by a route, either because they have no business being on it, or because it’s harder than what the grade says. Or, in the form of a verb, you can sandbag your friends by secretly working their project, and then, in the opportune time, send it in your tennies.
We all do it.
A sandbag is not defined by an action, but by a psychological result that is inflicted upon the victim. Surprise. Ego deflation. A great laugh. Etc. A sandbag can backfire and you can look like an a-hole, or it can be taken lightly and get a great laugh.
The day on Pear Buttress, I was aiming for the latter.
Some sandbags are immediate. These are good and you can be proud of them. But when you can implement the timebomb sandbag, such that the unsuspecting victim stumbles upon the scene and realizes they have been sandbagged, except no one is around, it is much better, more operatic, in line with drama, postmodern architecture even. Like when the late Michael Reardon left women’s underwear in summit registers during the first sub-24 hour ascent of the Palisade traverse, solo and unsupported.
I was aiming for the timebomb.
The beginning of this tale started when my boss, whom my 22-year-old self reported to, wanted me to take him climbing for my last day of work. “Up something fun,” he said. I had just gotten off a summer in Yosemite dirtbagging and really needed the dough and the job, but the stone needs to keep rolling, as they say.
I had done a lot of routes on Lumpy, but not Pear Buttress yet.
Worried I was not—it would be cruiser for me, since I’m an excellent climber, above average in all respects, nearly phenomenal—people say I float, not climb, but I don’t want to brag.
David was in his early 40s, charismatic and archetypically Mid-Western, and stood about five-eight, red hair trimmed military-style, mildly fit in a backyard-pull-ups kind of way. He had two kids at home.
David was only months into buying a carpet cleaning and fire restoration business—to which I was presently employed—and he had the unfortunate luck of inheriting the previous owner’s daughter as the office assistant, a blond with a textbook RBF (resting bitch face), who sat behind the desk doing jack all day, and the daughter’s boyfriend, a skinny know-it-all named Tom, who, with a resting d$%khead face (RDF), and wielding whatever power he thought he had—and trust me, it wasn’t much—routinely arrived late to jobs only to leave, complaining about this or that. Tom was, hands down, the worst employee I have ever come across, in any job, period.
David would fire both of them within a few months. As he should have.
I had let David know months ahead of time that I had to quit. I worked hard for him, so he said he wanted to go climbing on my last day. Even better, I’d be on the clock in my pseudo-guiding adventure, or whatever you call it, so of course I agreed to take him out for a romp. David worked hard and didn’t get out much.
I opted for Pear Buttress, a brilliant little route, five pitches, 5.8, bomber granite, cracks, face climbing, flakes.
If you haven’t been to Lumpy Ridge, go there. The views behind you are expansive in a David Caspar Friedrich type of way, a broad valley in which storms roll through, a place that is “meta” in the meta sense of the world, African savanna’ish, the mythical Longs Peak nearby, the golden grass like a canvas painted by the wind when the storms approach.
David would be gripped on Pear Buttress, which was the point. The guy wanted an adventure and who was I to let him down.
Some great opening pitches of flakes and cracks got us into rhythm. Naturally, I had left the stoppers in the car, along with my extra chalk and a few crucial cams. Nothing to worry about though. Meh.
David took his time following, which provided me ample time to get sunburnt and work on a severe case of dehydration. At each belay he looked nervous and kept saying how thirsty he was, which, given the sweat pouring off his face, wasn’t untrue. Also, during the first few pitches, he was hooting and hollering, the grand ol’ time it was. He was proud of himself, as he should have been. I was proud of him too. He wasn’t my boss at that moment, just two guys having an excellent time, not that he had ever really acted as “the boss.”
Throughout the day, he’d pat me on the back, say how thankful he was, and check my anchor four times before leaning back. Remember, I’m excellent, very good, the best type of climber. I’m fantastic. But I had never told him as much, out of humility.
Up until this point, David had been nothing but a first-class guy, generous when he didn’t need to be; took the crew out for steak dinners and didn’t squabble when we ordered the 32-ounce New York Strip and three margaritas and then drove the company vans back to the shop. But, then again, part of our job included cleaning up the guts and blood of dead bodies and what have you from carpets and walls and mattresses, and David was making a killing off the insurance money, so I guess a few steaks and a buzz was in order.
As we neared the top—I don’t remember which pitch exactly—I got to that shrub and my moral crossroads.
To reiterate, I slung the bush with a smirk and ran it out to the belay.
Twenty minutes later he came up in a huff, sweating profusely.
“You mother f%#ker,” he said with a cotton mouth, shaking his head, then bursting out into laughter. “Here I am gripped and you f&%king sling some little goddam shrub.”
He looked dejected and humored; exhausted and peeved and overjoyed.
On the inside, I felt excellent. Extravagant. My ego, which every self-help guru in history advises you to not puff up, had indeed ballooned and it felt great, not because I had put David in his place, but because I had given him a good laugh. Timebomb achieved.
Afterwards, we drove into town and ended up at a Mexican joint that had a dirt parking lot suitable for a Boeing 747. I had the chicken fajitas, as I am always inclined, and slurped down two margarites instantly: rocks and salt.
I had a buzz in five minutes. The salt stung my cracked lips, in a bad way.
David was still laughing about the shrub and asked me if I’d consider not quitting. I told him no, “I had to go see about a girl,” which is, funny enough, what Will, of Goodwill Hunting, said to his therapist (Robin Williams) after turning down a job and splitting town. That girl is now my wife.
I can’t be sure of it, but something tells me David is still telling that story today.