Conqueror of the Useless

An excerpted piece from a forthcoming collection of writings from the road.

Fuck, fuck FUCK.

I can feel my left calf begin to shake from standing on the small, barely-there granite face for the better part of a minute. I might as well be one-legged. My right foot is useless. One arm is stuffed in the large crack in front of me, while the other fumbles with a .75 Camalot—a spring loaded contraption with a trigger and four aluminum lobes that allows a climber to secure themselves within the natural features of the rock. If I were to slip, this 4.18-ounce mechanism shoved into a crack would be the only thing keeping me from slamming into the uneven rock below.

“I’m out of gear,” I shout down at my partner Matt, my voice trembling with the suggestion of panic.

The green Camalot, or cam, is essentially useless in the flaring granite divide, which opens into a forearm-sized gauge in the Precambrian rock. The crack is too wide for the cam’s lobes to effectively grip the interior surface of the granite. I try placing the cam back further, but it remains dangerously underloaded. Unfortunately, having climbed the majority of the route, the .75 is the largest piece of gear left on my harness.

“Five-six? Seriously?” I mutter under my breath, deciding to leave the piece in. A 5.6 route is an easy climb in my book, but right now it is anything but. Cursing, I bring up my rope and hastily clip into the carabiner attached to the cam. Ideally, if I were to slip, my fall would be protected by the rope running through this point.

Ideally.

I have neither the time nor the energy to add a shoulder-length sling of nylon to the placement, which would allow for a safer fall. Palms sweating, I feel my heart about to beat out of my chest.

I am way in over my head.

//

If life is a journey of highs and lows, then heading west mirrors life in microcosm. Moving through the high plains at 75 miles per hour leaves little room for the kind of ignorance that might accompany a three-hour drive through Midwestern cornfields—an experience I know all too well.

Right now, I am a few miles shy of Mount Rushmore, a hundred feet above the ground, clinging to the side of a tower. This marks the first day of climbing on a two-and-a-half week road trip through South Dakota, Wyoming, and eventually Oregon—a trip born in a ravenous hunger for a certain kind of adventure, and in a desire to forget a persistent pain.

For the first twenty years of my life, my trips out west were punctuated by rampant thunderstorms on I-80 and that precise moment when ochre-hued mesas interrupt the flat expanses of Nebraska. The states between my family’s comfortable life in the Midwest to our coastal nook in northern California have always been my favorite states to pass through. They mark where the cornfields transform to rolling hills of fragrant sage, and where the word West ricochets off steep plateau walls rather than disappearing into endless flatland. They are where I could catch a glimpse of the rocky spine of a mountain range, and watch weather systems unfold like dark blossoms on the horizon. In our annual pilgrimages back and forth across the country, I watched myself, in the rearview mirror of the family suburban, grow into adulthood with the landscape.

And here I am, on my own terms, with my life depending on a spring-loaded contraption smaller than my forearm.

//

Traditional climbing, or trad climbing, requires the climber to place gear for protection against a fall as they lead their way up a route, instead of clipping their rope into bolts drilled into the rock face, which is known as sport climbing. Something about the cut-your-teeth grit endowed in the epic lore of climbers past had drawn me into this esoteric art for months. Though I had spent the last few years climbing sport routes with the more advanced ratings of 5.10 and beyond, there is an added layer of complexity to trad climbing. Due to the amount of gear and knowledge required, as well as the sheer risk, it is the most technically complicated form of climbing, and perhaps the most mentally challenging.

The razor-sharp granite slabs that make up the hundreds of spires within the Black Hills National Forest are studded with slick chunks of quartz, making for climbs that require delicate balance and deliberate footwork. Trusting one’s weight on a polished rock the size of a quarter is a mental battle against every fiber of intuition and natural instinct. Add the complication of self-placed gear on a traditional route (which one also must trust in order to ascend) and it is difficult not to question what the hell am I doing? And why?

The local guidebook put Not So Sweet at 5.6, which seemed reasonable enough for my trad climbing ability. I am, without a doubt, a beginner. No amount of flipping through dense mountaineering books or practicing at the local cliffs could have prepared me for what I was about to get into.

//

This slightly crazy endeavor began nearly three weeks ago, when I was frantically searching for a used car that would get me from Minneapolis to wherever-the-heck-out-west. Perhaps planning a trip before having a means to make such trip is a bit naïve, but for months I had my mind set on getting the hell out of the Twin Cities and, hopefully, the trenches of my mind.

Climbing has always been a way for me to transcend that which I cannot control; the heartaches, the what-ifs, the shoulda-couldas that so often wind me up into a frantic state. This year had taken on new meaning after agonizing in the aftermath of a failed relationship and receiving the news of my father’s cancer. Climbing became my entire life, a devotion to distraction that filled up weekends and every free hour with learning knots, reading forums, and climbing laps at the Rec. I became the girl with an obsession that had no end in sight, searching for some intangible peace that lays atop the next summit.

It was only natural, then, that I would save the last chunk of summer for an adventure in the vertical world. I left without much of a plan in a car I had just obtained, packed with all the outdoor gear I owned. I wanted to climb as many rocks as possible, in as many states as possible, while stretching my mind and my body thin. The idea was to leave and not look back—and to scare myself enough to render my fears back home useless.

//

The green cam seems to taunt me as I feel my legs wobble. You are not cut out for this, it hisses. I swallow and decide to move. Tilting the cam any which way seems to increase my risk of ripping out gear. There is no way that I can lower on my rope without making the situation worse.

So, I climb up.

Holding my breath, I pull upwards on the slippery granite, and swing my leg as high as I can on the mottled, abrasive rock. I cling to the flake for dear life, knowing that if I fall, I will likely be tearing out my last placement. There are no good footholds here. I might as well be climbing on glass.

Nothing, nothing, nothing.

I have no time to think. I secure my rubber-clad right foot as best I can on the rock and begin to haul myself over the flake. Contorting my lower half in free-space and attached with essentially a single arm, I have arrived at the apex of my climb. Using every ounce of strength, I push against the rock and feel the microscopic granite face disappear beneath my toes.

The anchors.

Beach-whaled over the flake and utterly rattled, I crawl to the metallic rings, nestled at the well-protected top of the spire that I have just successfully climbed. The two large metal rings, corroded by years of weather and use, signify the end of my route and offer a space to thread the rope and descend.

I feel my stomach rise into my throat. I am about to vomit.

The End. Done. Safe.

“Make it to the anchors?” Matt yells from below, his voice at a calm contrast to my trembling form.

I sputter out a half-audible response, something along the lines of that was fucking hard and feel my eyes glaze over with the beginning of tears.

Holy shit.

There is a soft breeze kicking up into a wind. The surrounding scenery, which ordinarily would be enough to shock me into a slack-jawed awe, is almost an afterthought. An afternoon thunderstorm is approaching from the west. I will be headed that way, soon.

I automatically begin setting up the belay, letting my hands do the work while my mind tries to wrap around what has just occurred. A familiar grief visits quietly, though just for a moment, as it is quickly replaced by a strange sensation.

A resilience, perhaps, made clear by a crack in some obscure granite tower.

I finish double checking my carabiners and pull up the slack in the rope, my fingers still shaking slightly. Matt begins to follow my lead, where he will climb the same rock while removing the gear.

My lead.

//