I am not a skilled climber by any stretch of the imagination, although I am quite sure that I could hang 600 feet off the ground simply by clenching my butt cheeks onto the smallest of ledges should the need ever arise.
It is true that I’ve done my share of climbing, and even followed a few easy multi-pitch routes, but rarely do I ever find myself too far off the ground on anything more challenging than a ladder unless I am somehow bamboozled.
And therein lies my weakness: An inability to say “no,” even in the face of a challenge far greater than my level of skill or physical attributes. Unfortunately, all of my friends seem to know this. My wife certainly knows this. Even my dog probably knows this. Which is why I think I have a good case for claiming temporary insanity because in that brief moment between an invitation to go climbing and my friend awaiting an answer, my cerebral thought process typically seizes, causing all rational thought to short circuit and fantasies of gliding smoothly up rocky crags to the sound of spectator applause take over.
First rule of climbing with friends: Whenever the inviting friend freely volunteers that the route is “easy,” automatically add a factor of five to the difficulty level and imagine an outcome hovering between painful and paralyzing fear. I remember one such occasion many years ago, when I was invited to climb Moosedog Tower in Joshua Tree National Park in California. My friend Bob Gross promised me an easy introduction into overhangs and learning to place protection and to clean a route. He seemed true to his word as he flashed up the rock face like Spiderman climbing a building, pausing only briefly to dust his hands once or twice in climber’s chalk. At the top, he peered down and yelled with a smile, “Piece of cake, you’re going to love this one.”
Second rule of climbing with friends: Never trust words such as “you are going to love it” when they are uttered by someone who can tie knots with one hand, while comfortably hanging miles above the ground from an invisible nubbin on an otherwise featureless rock face.
I recall the route started off well enough — a few quick, artistic moves over a jumble of boulders and there I was standing at the bottom of the climb staring up. In short order I found myself grabbing onto flakes of rock that appeared to grow incrementally smaller for every foot I grunted and wheezed my way skyward. Seventy-five feet above the earth’s surface, clinging to a vertical rock surface that even mountain goat wouldn’t be caught dead on, I paused with my toes wedged into a narrow crack and my body pressed against the rock.
So far, I had managed to remain calm. Just above me was a 5-foot overhang. I needed to find a way to somehow negotiate the obstacle. In theory, the solution was to hang from the roof with one hand while reaching around and onto the rock face for a hand hold that was reportedly quite large, but for now out of sight. Once I had grasped this secure hold, I had been told, it was a simple matter to pull yourself up and, from there, it was a straight-forward climb to the top.
As I perched precariously contemplating my fate after a first failed attempt at this sequence of moves, all of my senses flooded out of every pore and corner of my soul with a blinding fury, opening the door for a heavy dose of FEAR followed by waves of PANIC. This, in turn, sent vibrations through my legs causing them to shake and hop rather like an old Singer sewing machine. Although I had planned on staying put until help arrived, my newfound vibration technique began moving my feet laterally along a crack without any assistance from the rest of me.
“Nice moves!” my friend screamed hysterically from above as I helplessly moonwalked, shimmied and toe-tapped my way into view. Meanwhile, quite a crowd had gathered below, no doubt truly amazed at the skill required to dance along such a tiny crack.
I am not sure what possesses me at moments such as this when my life seems to be slipping away and out of control. Perhaps in this case it was the fact that the crack was disappearing and all those craning necks below were beginning to look far away. Perhaps it was the thought that I was now clear of the overhang, but onto a rock face that to my eyes appeared nearly smooth and unclimbable save for a few flakes, slivers and tiny cracks. What I do know is that by using knee squeezes, lip jams and full body hugs, and by doing unspeakable things to the rock in the name of survival, I manage to squirm and whine my way the remaining 50 feet up to the top and survival.
Respectful applause could be heard below, probably because after an hour, everyone was no doubt getting very impatient to climb and also because they were certainly very grateful that I hadn’t fallen on them. Bob clapped me on the back enthusiastically and gushed “You practically flew up that 5.9. I thought you said you could only climb 5.6. Clearly we need to try something harder next time.”
I probably should have said something to him, thanked him for the encouragement and support in making it up Moosedog Tower, but I was far too busy remembering how to tie a hangman’s knot with one hand while I had hold of his neck with the other.