My friend Susan is thoughtful, moral, good. She was once a practicing anesthesiologist, and her exit from that profession, to some extent choosing not to wait around to be sued, was a great loss because that is the kind of careful person you want as your physician. She is Susan the Good, and I feel like the dark side. In El Potrero even in the deepest night she would walk clear across the campground to the bathrooms, because, cumulatively, camping areas and cliff bases often begin to smell like urine. Me, in the middle of the night I get 20 feet from my tent, max. Susan doesn’t graze in the bulk bins at Whole Foods. I try to get most of my chocolate-covered almonds to the cash register.
Last week, on another of our many sort-of annual climbing trips, we were on the sweeping six-pitch Unimpeachable Groping (5.10) up in Juniper Canyon, Red Rock, when held up by a slow-moving party of three, one of the people carrying an enormous pack. Of course, that party said they would have been fine if not for the slow-moving party (carrying enormous packs) in front of them.
When Susan had to wait on holds 10 feet below their belay, they apologized, and I heard her say, laughing, that it was OK: “If we give you crap, we’ll deserve it next time we’re the ones holding someone up.” I smiled. A lot of my friends would have betrayed their impatience, and my spouse says he would have climbed right through the people, but I could count on Susan.
We parties ended up rapping separately, thank god, and then by headlamp Susan and I thrashed down the long approach, first on rock slabs and then amid braided trails and through sandy washes and avaricious vegetation. Once we went uphill in the wrong direction for 20 minutes. We stopped many times to look back for any sign of the other party. We also watched tiny headlamps zip down the 1,000-foot Crimson Chrysallis, on a nearby buttress, and heard that party’s chirpy yells; but no specks emanated from the crew we’d met.
Arriving at the parking lot at 9:30 in states of agitation over the $125 fee for parking past 7:00 (we had not applied for the late permit), we crowed with delight to find a blank windshield. We were just backing the rental car out when Susan said, “Ohhh, shit.”
Three large white trucks rolled toward us in the gloom. One was a park vehicle, and two appeared to be police.
I leapt from our rental, apologizing, clearly outgunned but still by nature ready to try to talk our way out of that $125 (which Susan would have accepted because, as she observed later, “We’d earned it”). Talking fast to the first uniforms I saw, I said I was very sorry, but we’d been held up, by climbers now in concerning circumstances behind us. I didn’t know the one ranger and two cops needed no diversion.
“That’s who we’re looking for,” they said. “Their friends called for a rescue.” The friends had said the climbers had no gear for the night. A helicopter, the friendly near policeman told me, was on the way.
Suddenly Susan and I transformed from chagrined and in my case conniving miscreants to essential sources. We had last seen the missing climbers, knew where they had been and were rappelling. We eagerly pointed; hurried to the car for the guidebook to bring out photos and diagrams. I smoothed my helmet-matted hair.
No one said a word about parking tickets.
The people were OK, we avowed. Or had been when we last saw them. They’d certainly had something in that big yellow pack. It had never occurred to us until later that they might not have had headlamps in it.
Did they need the helicopter? we were asked. I stopped. I asked if they would be charged for it, and the cop said a quick no. I still didn’t think one was necessary. But … they had been having a hard time. What if someone was hurt on the descent? Suddenly that felt like a crucial possibility. Susan and I nodded.
One of the cops saw the light of a cell phone flash in what he thought was the right area. The lamplit Crimson Chrysallis crew hustled down the trail, a lot faster than we had.
The helicopter appeared, reached the massif forming one side of the canyon, and zipped around above, throwing an intense, wide, amazing light. From the ground I played a heady game of remote control, relaying instructions through our cop friend with his radio.
“No, not at the top of the cliff. Their route ended halfway up, at the top of Ginger Buttress. Tell him to move down.” The helicopter descended. “Tell him to go left.” It did. “Now right a little. There! …. OK, now look in the gully right below. That’s where they’d left their other packs.”
After a careful scan, the helicopter decided to come back and talk to us. That bird in 15 seconds covered what had taken us nearly three hot, stumbling hours. We produced our guidebook and diagrams again, recited the climbers’ names for a ground crew to shout. I was torn between fervent hope and fear that we’d be asked into the helicopter.
But just as the helicopter whizzed back to the far canyon and searched anew, a call came in. The climbers had phoned out to their friends, were fine, were walking out. We could not imagine how that would be possible without headlamps, and I tried to imagine that all night, or as long as I was awake, while also remembering the clean, airy pitches and the surreal moment we got high enough to see the towers and lights of Las Vegas from that vast other-planetary wilderness. I still don’t see how without headlamps the people could find the way. But I’m sure they aren’t there anymore.
IT WAS THE LAST DAY of our trip. The day before we’d done another long route, thrashed out in the dark yet again, thistime from Black Velvet Canyon, and this time as a result of our own doing. We’d initially had trouble finding the correct start to the route, and then high on another remote and brilliant route, late, we’d wanted to finish: to do that last pitch.
Now we were walking on sore feet within a rocky corridor, just doing a few moderate sport pitches before a meal at Whole Foods and the next morning’s flights out. The narrow corridor teemed with what looked like a climbing class, while we chatted with a trio near us, who had brought a small white dog named Tofu.
Susan and I had picked up and were moving to an upper level, and I was peering straight ahead, when Tofu darted snarling out from the shadowy side and bit my toe with his needle-y little teeth. I was wearing trail shoes, and it didn’t hurt, but I jumped, startled.
The owner grabbed the dog and took it away, saying, “Bad dog,” not meeting my eyes or speaking to me.
When, an hour or two later, we returned through that canyon, I asked the owners to pick up the dog. Their friend scoffed at me.
I said, “Well, he bit my toe when I walked through before.”
The friend said, “Oh, well, that’s his trick.”
And Susan, courteous Susan, said clearly, “If he bites my foot, I might put it through his head.”
We walked out amid perfect silence.
At the end of the corridor, I turned to her. I couldn’t believe she had said it, and I couldn’t stop laughing. It’s a good partner who has your back.
The above is from 2009. So many of us have had unforgettable experiences in the vastness of Red Rock, a place that is reachable yet where you can feel like you’re on Pluto. This writer has been going there since 1987 … at least.