Only once has a climbing partner had to say this to me and I was hoping to never have to say it to any other partner. I tried sugar coating it, but the meaning was clear. “Erin,Belay on!” Hesitation. “I’m not stoked on my anchor, be careful!” Translation: Don’t fall! These two cams pressed behind a janky block will yank out and we’ll both go flying.
I tried to move as little as possible, thinking myself weightless I was neither standing nor sitting with a sharp wedge of granite up my rear and nothing solid enough looking to rest against. I had climbed to the end of the rope, searching in vain to find something fitting the route description. Instead I climbed through a loose chute and up the side of a tower into a choss chimney.
Erin and I had skipped out of camp at the alpine-ish start of 5am, still stoked on how easy the Swiss Arete had been two days before, but planning extra time for the grade IV Venusian Blind on Temple Crag. The boulder hopping was easy in the pre-dawn and there was only a short patch of ice to cross before approaching the first pitch. (And yes, those crampons we had been hauling around were finally an essential tool.)
We were fairly certain we found the correct start to the first pitch, but when we gained the top of it our horizon broadened and picking our route was like finding the coconut cream chocolate in a mixed box of See’s candy without the key. It all looked, as the Nepalese say, same same but different. Aretes we thought were continuous had sheer gaping cliffs and towers we thought were disconnected were actually joined by giant class 4 notches.
Relating descriptions from the Croft and Secor books to the rock was the equivalent of me telling Erin to find Homer Simpson riding a unicorn in the clouds. Sure, you could see anything up there. Nothing was a perfect fit and we soon dubbed the books “Crap” and “Sucker” and decided we were on our own. The ambiguous folds of the rocky towers and aretes were a maze to navigate through, up, over, and around. The best move, we collectively decided, was to keep moving upwards and try to get a better view of our situation. This is what led me into the crumbling chimney from hell where a deep insecurity settled into my gut and started teasing out that thread of fear that I normally keep well sheathed in logic and reality.
Belaying Erin up that pitch, I looked out over the mountains, then up into my limited view above. I took stock of our situation and struck a delicate balance in my mind between knowing we would ultimately get out of this unscathed, but realizing how it would happen was a huge unknown and it could easily turn really ugly before it got better.
We began to logically work through our situation. Erin is an amazing outdoor guide (Outward Bound, Wilderness Orientation and UC Santa Cruz Rec Dept.). She’s calm and smooth in all situations with the requisite degree of lighthearted silliness. We’ve both spent quite a bit of time in the alpine, had loads of training and were just starting to tap into our collective resources by playing a little game called Tell Me What You See. Swapping leads, each of us would climb up, gain a bit of a view, relay it back and make a decision on which way to go from there.
In my head I recognized I was exercising text book fear management, thinking; “This is what I have to do to keep myself functional, and this is where some people step off the edge and let fear swallow them, immobilizing their minds and bodies.” Granted, I knew I was a long way from loosing my shit, but as Erin later pointed out, this is when I stopped making photos, meaning, I wasn’t having fun anymore. Clearly my perception of danger was manifesting in the emotion of fear.
The thing I feared most was the unknown, which is ironic since most alpine climbers equate unknown with adventure and adventure with fun. (A deeper conversation with myself about the meaning of all these words ensued over the following hours, but it’s unresolved nature deems it unworthy of repeating.)
My unknowns: Am I going to climb myself into a situation where I have neither enough gear to protect myself nor the skill to climb it? Am I going to climb to the top of this tower and find that it does not, in fact, lead to a continuous ridge line I can follow to the top, and if so, how much of this minimal, yet expensive alpine rack am I going to have to leave behind to set a rappel anchor up and bail? If we have to bail, what the hell are we rappelling into and will our rope reach a ledge below? And the biggest unknown: Out of all the loose blocks stacked on this mountain, which, if any, are going to trick me into thinking they are solid when I tap on them, yet as soon as I weight them, are going to rip off the wall, taking me with them, severing my rope and pulverizing me as I fall to my death and dismemberment?
Okay, a bit extreme. But when taking a full account of a situation it’s key to identify perceived vs. actual danger and why not exercise your imagination while you’re at it? Actual dangers can be recognized, mitigated to the degree possible (ie. always thump a rock before weighting it, pull down not out, and pretend to be weightless) and then filed in the list of concerns.
My perceived danger of out-climbing my abilities or protection were a long LONG way off when I thought about how easy all of the climbing had been. I began feeling pretty good about all this as I continued to ascend a tower that we thought might lead to a ridge line, but couldn’t see beyond the steepening blank wall around it. I made some irreversible moves on a slab, climbed higher to easier ground and mounted the top of the tower. Looking around the corner and down from the mini fridge size summit block I saw something that immediately took the edge off.
Erin followed me up and I pointed out our two options: 1. Downclimb 5.9 off the back side of the tower and continue up and down an unknown number of towers over unknown difficulty level, OR, 2. Downclimb 30 feet to the side on 5.6 to a rap station made up of two bomber knife blade pitons (metal integrity awesome), and a nut, all with fresh tat connecting the rap ring. Our rope would easily reach into the class 4 gully below and lead us onto what could have ultimately been the route up an arete leading to the summit ridge. No brainer. Smiles. We rapped down, scrambled up the summit ridge and proceeded to hoot, holler, and hug ourselves silly with great sighs of relief to make it to the top.
None of what we had done was physically challenging, but knowing we were off route and the threat of unknowns was mentally and physically exhausting. It was a test of fear management and a good indicator that I let my mind wander a little to far in the direction of perceived danger; A lesson I will hold on to for next time. And hopefully a lesson I can apply to the rest of my life- there are some real dangers out there, but with a little navigation and a friend who’s got your back, nothing’s so serious as to stop you from blazing your own path. It also made me give pause to admire the first adventurers, who didn’t even have a bad route description to follow. They climbed anyway and were also rewarded by the mountain’s good tidings.
We were down long before sunset, in time for a cleansing dip in Third Lake even. On the descent we reflected back on Temple Crag, still unable to pick out the exact line of the Venusian Blind. Unless we return with more beta, these two Venusians will remain blissfully blinded.
Nice writing here, and on Sill. You managed to take routes I’ve done scores of times and inject me with the feeling of the First Time, of forging upward into… into — How the hell does this work again? Thanks, man! You made the Palisades alive for me again! You made the peaks sing!
Gotta get up there again, and soon.