The following is an excerpt from "A Year In The Heart of a Climber," from Climbing Out of Bed, available now.
That night after we arrived back at my friend’s house, there was a pile of my clothes and belongings in the house, with a note from Lynn saying I needed to call her. When I did, she was in tears. She told me she needed to go home. I stood outside in the meadow in back of the house; the sun was setting. It was the brightest orange I’d ever seen. She asked if I wanted to go back with her. We’d only been in Yosemite for three days, and I’d yet to climb anything serious. I decided to stay. She drove sixteen hours straight back to Gunnison. I was in Yosemite with Scott, a friend who had just broken up with his girlfriend as well. It was a sad situation, but I figured I was where I was supposed to be at that juncture in life, with good company, and a perfect place to reflect on what had just happened.
We’d made plans to climb Stoner’s Highway, a ten pitch 5.10c R that goes up the center of the Middle Cathedral, right across from the monolith, three thousand foot El Capitan. I figured that it would be just a regular outing on the rock that would pose only minor difficulties given the 5.10 rating, and the fact that I’ve been climbing at the grade for ten years.
We jokingly dubbed ourselves “Team Breakup” while hiking up the trail to the wall. I was more than eager to do some longer climbing; we’d been festering around the short, one pitch, well travelled routes for the last few days, and I had the itch to get a few hundred feet off the ground. With a game of rock, paper, scissors, it was decided that I would start out with the leading; an easy, but loose and crumbly pitch led us up to the beginning of the more difficult climbing.
I’ve always found that when space is gained into the vertical, above the ground, my head space becomes different as well. Reflection is natural when looking around you in the vertical world, and in nature. That day, my thoughts were with Lynn; they were thoughts of guilt. I’d led her all the way out to Yosemite to realize that my own selfishness was at the heart of the journey. I wanted to experience being up high on the walls, and she was a beginner, and we were broken up. How did everything happen so fast?
The meditation and reflection of hanging on the wall is gained through climbing. This day the climbing demanded some serious focus, much more than I had anticipated. After my first mellow lead, it was Scott’s turn on the sharp end of the rope. I watched him climb twenty five feet to my left, with no gear off the belay. Had he fallen, he would have violently come swinging back my way. So falling wasn’t an option. Scott brilliantly completed the sequence, secured more gear, and then climbed another run-out section. He arrived at the belay, then I cleaned the pitch, and soon it was my turn for a run out lead.
Scott had set the tone with his incredible, delicate, climbing, and I was determined to emulate his style. I climbed up off the belay about five feet, clipped a piton, a relic from the seventies, all rusted, a ‘maybe’ piece of protection, as in if you fall maybe it will hold. Then I climbed twenty feet out to the left, heading for a crack system. At this point I was on a small perch, contemplating my fall with the toes of my feet on some good footholds, my hands on some decent holds as well, eyeing the next moves to get to a crack where I could place some pro that would hold a fall. It’s at this point in climbing where complete focus is necessary. I zoned in to the moment, delicately stepped up eyeing a handhold, leaned into it, and stepped up to place gear. I was safe again, and climbed up a decently protected crack system to the next belay.
Stoner’s Highway demanded this type of dangerous, delicate, in the moment type of climbing, pitch after pitch. Scott seemed to get the most difficult pitches, with 30- and even 40-foot runouts on 5.10 climbing. He told me he didn’t think he could have done the moves if he hadn’t just broken up with his girlfriend, and was in the state of mind he was in. I don’t think my breakup figured into my risk taking. I just wanted to be up climbing on the wall with a friend, and reflect.
We made it up to the ninth pitch, and it was my turn to lead. The first bolt was a good twenty feet up above the belay, and I couldn’t confidently reach it. I climbed back down to Scott, and he went up. He felt the same about the risk, it was too much. We rappelled back to the ground.
Rappelling is usually the scary part, but this time there was relief in the air. We didn’t complete Stoner’s Highway, but we’d done enough mind clearing and thought provoking climbing. I felt the same piece of mind I get after doing a big trad route. That clarity of being in the moment, the feeling that life is one crazy ride and you just have to roll with the punches, know when to fight and when to run away. We ended up running away on Stoner’s Highway, and never came back; to speak for myself, I don’t know if I could ever get the nerve to go back. But it was the perfect climb for that moment of recklessness, that feeling of abruptness a breakup can induce. And we both had the satisfaction that we didn’t give into the craziness, and believe that we could do something dangerous that we shouldn’t have. The closure of that breakup didn’t come for months, even years, but I had clarity.
I wanted to climb more with Scott, but he was scheduled to go up and climb El Capitan in a couple days and needed to prepare for the four day effort. I was bummed because he was the perfect partner for the situation, but alas, Team Breakup was only destined for one climb. //
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 check outClimbing Out of Bed on amazon.