Monday, December 28, 2009

The Lost Generation

The walls were closing in on me. After work, I stood in the meadow. El Capitan and Middle Cathedral moved ten feet closer each day. I barely rock climbed any more, spending the majority of my time sanding and painting a house in Yosemite West. I went to the job site late and made up for it by leaving early. The pressure of working a menial job and being too tired to climb tore at me. I needed to escape to find something new. I had contracted ditch fever.

Aaron checking out the climbs at the Red

A native Kentuckian, Aaron wanted to leave Yosemite to visit family and meet up with Hayden, a fresh out of high-school sport wanker and his upcoming partner for a trip to Patagonia. The Red River Gorge, home of the State’s largest concentration of quality sport climbing, sat a mere half hour from Aaron’s home. When he mentioned splitting gas at the job site, I immediately tossed two liters of high octane energy drinks and a batch of homemade brownies into my station wagon. We escaped the vortex of the ditch and the staleness of staying too long in Yosemite, pounding out the 2500 mile drive to Kentucky in a 48 hour continuous push.

Aaron, Matt, and Hayden to break a tree at the Left Flank

Though I’d been in Yosemite for a few months, I arrived at the Red not having climbed for a few weeks. I wasn’t out of shape; I consider round is a shape. I started climbing Monday, checking out every crag, trying as many routes as I could. I was psyched. By the following Monday, I could barely make it up the warm-ups. I was worked. Apparently, seven days of climbing makes one weak. At the top of Tuna Town (12d), one of the uniform jug hauls that the Red is famous for, all the climbing hit me. I got jazz hands and Elvis legs. I pulled up the rope, trying to clip the anchors. My hands slowly opened as I shook like an autumn leaf. I whipped. The ground rushed towards my face. This was insane. The biggest impression I’d leave on the earth would be a two foot crater where I decked. Why couldn’t I find a nice safe desk to sit behind? After seventy feet of screaming, the rope slowed. Hayden launched to the third bolt, and I came level with him.

Local cowboy Cory Herr on Flower Power at the Madness Cave

Hayden climbed with slightly more success. On the left side of the Mother Lode, at the GMC wall, 8 Ball (5.12d) follows an obvious corner system, arching rightwards as it nears the anchor. The fumes off a blunt of “Kentucky Dro” drifted across the Madness Cave as Hayden finished his bowline, and shot up, trying to onsight the technical route. He used his ninja footwork up into the corner and then to the base of its arch. A line of chalked holds followed the arch out right. Instead, Hayden headed straight up a desperate path of unchalked crimps in no man’s land. The vision quest began. He wandered about the face with his elbows pointing skyward and his body shaking. He fought to the anchors and managed to pull it off, despite climbing completely off route.

“I could see how most people get suckered out by those big chalked holds to the right. The crimp sequence above sure was heinous.” For the most part, the climbing at the Red is straight forward. Crimp left hand, crimp right hand, pull up. But even the best get lost. They go on these vision quests, the rights of passage where they struggle, get lost, and realize a bit of who they are.

On the drive back to camp from the Mother Lode, the fall sunset turned the clouds a thousand shades of orange. Hayden choked up. That night, he bought the after adventure beverages from the beer trailer on the county line. Maybe he found a bit of himself because that night he got lost in beer.

Hayden on Take That Katie Brown 13b

After climbing for a few days, Hayden, Aaron and I rested at Aaron’s cousin’s apartment in Richmond. The Slade Weekly ran an article about the local community law enforcement. The chief of police wanted his officers to command more respect so “Officers who grew a mustache received a 66% increase in pay.” The town’s class was made more evident when we ate breakfast at a greasy diner, the Waffle house. The snaggle- toothed waitress said “Ok, sugar” when I ordered pancakes. She said “Uh-huh darling” when I ordered orange juice. I wanted to order bacon but I was afraid she’d call me her boyfriend. While I wanted to get lucky in Kentucky, the idea of trapping myself in a place where most genetic characteristics go to die, scared me. Plus she could have eaten corn on the cob through a chain link fence. Before we left, I stopped to reconsider. Maybe she was the girl for me. After all, she had something the three of us didn’t- a job.

Me climbing some 12a at the Left Flank

Business Weekly discussed the current high rate of unemployment coining the term the “Lost Generation”- the young and unemployed, who have been disproportionately affected by the economic down turn represent an enormous demographic. Unable to even grab the first rung of the corporate ladder and faced with a depressed income due to being stuck in a career below their educated abilities, this group of high-school drop outs and college graduates are lost in America. Some of them, like me, found their way to the Red River Gorge, and more accurately, the camping behind Miguel’s Pizza Shop. They wander about causing trouble, roaming listlessly, and contributing to society only through their basic consumption.

Late night fireworks on the road by Twinkie

A 30 rack of Miller Lite in camouflage cans sat next to a gravity bong at the camp site. A high school student in Richmond kept us in heavy supply of ounces of brown stems and seeds that were bricked together and called “Kentucky Dro”. Our basic consumption, the cheap beer and brick weed usually kept our insanity at bay, but more often it ignited Aaron. After a blunt and a six pack, he’d shout, “I do what I marijuana!” He shot bottle rockets and M-80s at anything that moved then started enormous wax fires causing mushroom cloud explosions that lit up the field around the camp fires. Aaron let loose; he had escaped a long summer of humping haulbags, sanding and painting houses, and stacking wood. He scrounged his dollars and bought his ticket to Patagonia, trading his manual labor for a career in big wall climbing.

Aaron's wax bombs

After more pyrotechnics for Aaron, more huge whips for me, and more desperate onsights for Hayden, we spent another night in Richmond. At midnight, Hayden rustled on an air mattress when the door suddenly opened.
“This is my house and I need to use the phone.” A tweaked out woman barged in screaming, “I won’t kill you.” Hayden evaluated the woman from his sleeping bag on the living room floor.
“Uhh…,”Hayden said. He attempted to listen to her rapid fire gibberish and provide some advice but she only stared and babbled on.
In a moment of complete maturity; Aaron offered the woman some direction. He propped up on one elbow and yelled from the couch, “You’re lost. Now, get the fuck out of here. “
The tweaker pivoted on her heel and bolted from the house, slamming the door behind her.
Hayden pounded up the stairs, running into the guest room, and waking me. “Dude, did you hear that? She was tweaking and randomly came into the house. Weird.” Hayden watched her run across the back yard towards another Kentucky townhouse. “Dood, on a scale of 0 to 1; I think she was a 1.”

Hayden on Table of Colors 13b at the Left Flank

The Kentucky weather soured when we got back to the Red. Hayden and Aaron left for Colorado to train for their upcoming Patagonia trip and prepare for their Gasherbaum 5 adventures. I drove west to the next crag. The radio played a song about a cowboy casanova who broke hearts all across the Midwest. I tuned it all out, watching the odometer click off two thousand miles. The endless flats of Oklahoma forced me to reflect, something the whirlwind of Kentucky hadn’t let me do.

Hayden and I fighting at the Overtow wall

Climbing offers an easy escape, a justifiable excuse to ditch out on sanding and painting, an opportunity to forget about the despondent economy, and the possibility of a life behind a desk or worse, a mop. It’s easier to climb than to grow up. But was I just treading water rock climbing? Was there any sense in it all or was my life just a series of scrambled adventures: tweakers busting into the house, huge whippers, pyrotechnics, and the search for a “1”. I stopped the seriousness of my thought. What would Hayden and Aaron do? They’d say “fuck it”, turn the radio dial, and search for gangster rap in middle America.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Plastic Prince

Snow blew in through the window of my red station wagon. Inside was a nuclear meltdown: sweat soaked my cotton shirt, and my palms wet the steering wheel. I drove 13 hours before deciding that Boulder was in the wrong direction. I had planned to devote myself to three months of writing and climbing, to buckle down and make my dreams of being a real writer and rock climber a reality. I was also headed to a future with no money, no place to live, and an intense feeling that I had been living this lifestyle for too long.

On the side of the road, I called my twin brother and told him I was returning to his couch in California. I needed to kill the bohemian inside of me. For eight years I had lived the dream, traveling and climbing. But after nearly a decade of hopping between crags, living in a tent, and scraping by on peanut- butter-and-jelly sandwiches, I wanted to be more than a dirtbag. I wanted some security, a steady income, a sense of home, and some companionship. I wanted to be a regular member of society.

Moving to Berkeley, back to California, meant that while I searched for a career I would have to stay in the city and away from the walls. Adjusting from the dirtbag lifestyle to a normal one involved trading real rock for the unknown of plastic. Still, I approached the climbing gym with confidence. I was a seasoned veteran with ascents of El Cap in a day, onsight free solos of 5.11, sends of scary trad climbs and pumpy sport routes. How hard could gym climbing really be?

John Schmid nudged me toward the front desk of a Bay Area climbing gym. Apparently, my longtime climbing partner knew how to smuggle me past the entrance fees, a hurdle that had always kept me out of the gym. John waved his membership card, mumbled something about a guest pass, and then loudly announced my name: “He's kind of a big deal." And they let me in for free. This was going even better than I thought.

At the lead cave, I groped the plastic on a tower and stared down at the rainbow of tape dotting the footholds. I grabbed an orange hold with black tape and white spots then realized that I needed to crimp the black hold with the white tape and orange spots.

Searching the kaleidoscope of holds, my forearms bulged and I froze. In a last-ditch effort, I threw for a jug above my head. I hit it, stuck it, but then the wall spit me off. The hold spun. It kept circling as I slumped onto the rope. I had tried hard on Midnight Lightning but had never managed to spin anything on it. I lowered to the ground, dejected.

John said cheerfully, "Why don't we boulder? Maybe then you can become a real gym rat."

John was a Jedi knight. A former dirtbag climber, he had transitioned to the city well, and now had a successful nursing career, a beautiful girlfriend and an unbelievable ability to crush indoors. He was my role model—a real rock climber and a plastic prince. I followed his lead to the bouldering cave, and launched upward. A tiny series of polished holds had spit me off nine times before I finished it.

"Yes!" I screamed. I hung from the top with intense satisfaction. This almost compared to an ascent of Astroman. I was well on my way to being a badass gym climber. I smugly dropped to the ground, and searched the start holds for the grade. "Vfun," it read. My jaw dropped. This boulder problem was easier than V0? My ego plummeted, and I crumpled into a ball. A desk jockey saw me huddled below the problem, and walked over. "Yeah, dude, like half the tape fell off. Didn't you hear the beta from the Thursday Night Bouldering session?"

Lying on the ground, groaning and letting my pumped forearms recover, I noticed the circus around me. Little kids jumped around, couples fought over topropes, and a dating scene flourished. A dude sauntered toward a group of women, struck a pose, then pedaled his feet up the wall. Outside, the gym climbers had brought tales to the crags of the slinky yoga goddesses and other beauties who tore across the lead caves. They insisted that gyms were total meat markets.

"Haven't you read the articles in the magazines? That's exactly what it is like," they said, punching me in the arm.

Looking around, I noticed that, unlike at the Northwest Face of Half Dome, the Moonlight Buttress, and the offwidths of Indian Creek, there were girls at the bases of most of these routes. Maybe the plastic princes had a point.

I wondered if I could ever make it in the city. I was overwhelmed with the difficulty of the gym climbing, and by its busy culture.

John tried to reassure me. "Maybe you aren't the best gym climber. At least it's a place to meet girls."

I started thinking about who to approach. Surely the women would like me. I am, overall, a decent guy. I just needed to be genuine. Then I remembered the plastic princes, how they strut around with bare-chested bravado. At the crags they had boasted, assuring me that their tactics worked. Maybe that was how you got the girls? I puffed my chest, and sashayed forward.

"Are you running toward me or away from me?" I asked a girl on the treadmill.

Mascara smudged with sweat below her eyes as she hit a button on the dashboard and increased the speed of the treadmill.

"Well," she responded, "Now I am running away from you." So much for the cheesy pick-up lines. The plastic princes had been only partially right. The gym, I decided, was one-quarter meat market and three-quarters butcher shop.

This was too hard. The spinning holds, my damaged ego, the girls, the gym rats ... The reality of climbing at an artificial wall was overwhelming. This was the hardest crag I had ever been to. Why bother with any of this? There was no way I could attach myself to the city lifestyle if I could not even deal with the climbing.

I left Berkeley and headed for Bishop. Three hours into the seven-hour trip, I ran into a snowstorm, and headed back to a gas station to buy some chains. At the store, I stared at the price—$60. Instead, I bought a pack of M&Ms, sat in my car, and tried to decide what to do with my life. I ate a green M&M and thought I should go. I could keep climbing, ignore the loneliness and lack of fulfillment. I could be a man on the rock and let my passion for climbing be enough. I ate a red M&M and thought about stopping. I should become responsible, find a job, start a career, and commit to being something more.

Then I ate a handful of yellow M&Ms and made one clear decision. I needed to end my indecisiveness. The marginal existence of a dirtbag was romantic bullshit and completely overrated. Experience taught me that much. The city was something different. It would give me a chance to climb, work, and provide my life with some balance. I smacked the steering wheel and gave up on the frivolous lifestyle of a dirtbag climber. I headed back to Berkeley to try again. I drove three hours and then made the 15-minute walk to the gym. I really wanted to send the pink route anyway.

Published in Rock & Ice

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Tales of the Temporary

Americans are twice as likely to kill themselves on a Wednesday. At work, the stapler eyeballed me, beckoning me to punch little bits of metal into my skull.

The recession doubled the competition for jobs in the Bay area; I fought with hundreds of other applicants to file papers for the California State Bar. At 8 am, during the hump of the week, I started shredding, filing, faxing, and copying. During my fifteen minute break, I sat on the curb, watching San Francisco's financial district's honking traffic. My head fell into my hands and I was in Yosemite climbing for a moment. The glacier polished cracks swallowed my hands and the Merced flowed lazily beneath me. Then the exhaust from a Greyhound tore me from my day dream. Those ten seconds of dreaming were the highlight of 120 hours of work. I shuffled back inside to shred, staple, file, fax, and copy. I hoped that the stapler would kill me. The job was death by paper cut and I was bleeding out.

The temp gig lasted three weeks. The job before that lasted three months. I ran food at a bar and restaurant in Berkeley. The restaurant manager eventually sat me down. I expected a raise or a promotion. There was nothing of the sort.

"James," he crossed his legs. I wondered if the stench of beer and pizza would ever wash off him. "Why are you here?"

I needed a job to get established in the Bay area, and to "springboard myself into a corporate environment." I wondered if the bullshit was thick enough. Maybe he wanted something more philosophical, more Zen. It was Berkeley. My mind raced through vague memories of Plato's Symposium, of Siddhartha, and of the stories I'd heard at the few Yoga classes I'd been to. What should I say?

Whatever he wanted I wasn't quick enough to answer with so he said, "You walk without a sense of purpose."

I didn't know how to respond. This was not exactly a promotion- actually it was the opposite. I stared at him. Maybe if I didn't blink for thirty seconds my eyes would start tearing. How could he fire a crying man?

At 8 am, in Saturday morning, I started my regular job or rather the less temporary one. When the sun came over the top of Half Dome and hit Washington’s Column, I began up the Enduro Corner of Astroman. The rack felt anorexic as I thrutched my way up the splitter crack. With his tube socks, mullet, and passion for classic rock, Mad Dog defines hard trad climbing. With an associates' degree from the Yosemite Valley Community College, and solid work on his bachelors at the University of Patagonia, Mad Dog could run it out with a thin rack. As an aspiring rock jock, I wanted a piece at my knees, waist, and chest. Instead, I punched it through the greasy splitter crack. I thrutched, fell on my jams a few times, and made a half dollar sized gobie on my hand. Mad Dog hiked the pumpy crack. At the belay he attributed his skills to his high sense of fashion

"It's important to go acrylic. Stripes help too," he yarded up his socks and fired up the Harding Slot.

Though there seemed to be truth his words, I suspected that Mad Dog's skills came more from years of climbing. He'd been working on YOSAR for four years, freeing the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome, Free Rider on El Capitan, and managing an ascent of the hairball aid climbing test piece, The Reticent Wall on El Cap. He spent his winters in Patagonia. In his free time he traveled to Alaska and the East Coast with his lady friend. He'd made a commitment to the climbing lifestyle. If successful and dirt bag could be used in the same sentence to describe someone, they’d fit with Dana “Mad Dog” Drummond.

I moved to the Bay area 9 months ago in an attempt to solidify my life. Big words and phrases like “career”, “professional development”, and “paycheck,” had a sudden pleasant ring to them. A move from the transitory life of a climber towards one of successful city dweller. It hasn’t happened. First I walked without a sense of purpose and then I wanted to put staples in my head.

My skull bonked against the rock behind me, snapping me back to the moment. “Get a piece in,” I told myself. A long stream of blood flowed down my arm. The Harding Slot had not gone well. I fell. And I gobied. We finished the route, ran down canyon, and now as the sun started to fall over the western end of the ditch; I struggled up the off width of The Rostrum. I stacked my hand against my fist, slotted my knee and looked at the cracks’ wide jaws. I had no gear for twenty feet and a strong desire to pass out on lead. Suddenly, taking a stapler to my temple didn’t sound so bad.

I struggled to the belay, clipped in, and fell against the cold granite. Mad Dog hiked the crack behind me, grabbed the rack, and led to the top singing The Scorpions’ “Rock You Like A Hurricane.” At the summit, I thanked him for dragging my carcass up the Astroman-Rostrum link-up. “You didn’t do too badly for a weekend warrior,” he shouldered the rope and sauntered off to the car. I followed slowly behind.

Though the climbing had been hard for me, I’d move with a sense of purpose- a task I’d been totally incapable of in the restaurant, too apathetic to try in the office, and too despondent to attempt in the city. Cementing myself to an urban lifestyle, attaching myself to that lifestyle was too hard. I’d tried. I walked back to my car and started to run a mental budget. This plus that plus this and that…I could make it out of the city at the end of October. We drove to the Swinging Bridge below the Sentinel and in the dark, we dove into the cold Merced. The water stung the cuts on my body but they would heal. A few more weeks of work and that pain would be over too. I could become a gypsy, get tube socks and be a hard man like Mad Dog. At least return to the dirt bag lifestyle...even if it was just temporary.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

One of My Heroes

I held the rope nervously as a man twice my age with four times my courage ascended the runout face climb.

John Bachar moved with a delicate grace. His feet transitioned smoothly onto each rugosity of Hammer Dome's classic 5.10c Shadow of Doubt. At each bolt, he stopped, leaned into the wall and mimicked the stance that he would take if he had been the first ascentionist hand drilling the route on lead. John climbed the route with a casualness and poise I had never seen.

On Sunday, July 5, while climbing on the Dike Wall in Mammoth, John fell. It is unknown what caused his fall or where exactly on the wall he was. John laid in a pool of his blood, breathing but unconscious. The rescue team moved as quickly as possible, carrying him across a boulder field to a nearby lake, where they loaded him into a motorboat and brought him to Mammoth Hospital. John died in the hospital, due to the severity of his injuries.

John Coltrane belted into a funky solo on his sax as John scrolled through his slideshow and dozens of photos of soloing in Joshua Tree. There was John bouldering on Up 40, sticking it out on the line on More Funky then Monkey, and being cool and composed on Father Figure. Hearing the voice of Johnny Rock describe soloing touched me. He spoke about slow warm ups, about taking a fresh approach to soloing everyday. Cool and calculated emotions controlled his ropeless climbing; when he felt off or insecure in his movement he simply stopped. Soloing was an integral part of the climbing experience.

A few days after John’s slide show, I found myself at the base of Joshua Tree’s North Overhang on Intersection Rock. Four and a half years earlier, I fell from the top of the formation while free soloing. My body flew seventy feet before hitting a ledge. I rolled off and fell another thirty feet to the ground. I laid in a pool of my own blood. It was a lonely place. I had 8 surgeries, spent 81 days in the hospital, and returned to climbing 381 days later. John inspired me to return.

The four-runner bumped, shaking its black frame side to side, as Public Enemy belted heavy, old-school beats. The SUV parked on the side of 120 between Tenaya Lake and Tuolumne Meadows. The bass kept booming as John, Lucho, Linh, and I fell out of John’s rig.

We marched a long thirty minutes to South Whizz Dome, wheezing from the high altitude of Tuolumne. We skirted a small marsh, then hit a small slope of granite. Just around the corner from the start of the dome came the wall- a hundred fifty feet of technical steep edges and knobs. Kurt Smith and John established many of the hard, run-out, ground-up test pieces. John made the first ascent, on top rope, of a beautiful black streak in the middle of the wall. From a ledge sixty feet off the ground, Blackout follows a series of walnut knobs for sixty feet. Kurt onsighted the route, drilling two bolts on the lead, snagging the first lead ascent, and solidifying the 5.11 route as a serious undertaking. The route with its old bolts, and scary old-school vertical climbing is the definition of a “museum climb.” John flaked out the rope, grabbed two quick draws, and a couple of cams.

After fifteen feet of delicate climbing, John clipped a quarter inch rusty bolt. Another twenty feet passed before John clipped another rusty quarter incher. He moved slowly, placing his feet, shifting his hips, and transferring his weight onto the overhanging knobs with the elegancy of a ballet dancer and the funk of Flavor Flav. He danced his way, unprotected for thirty feet, to the top.

A few years prior, John crashed his car while driving back from the Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City. The vertebrae in his spine were fused and he had limited mobility in his neck. We talked extensively about recovery, about the best ways to deal with trauma, and return to climbing. John told me my recovery was impressive. “You’re one of my heroes,” he said. Watching John climb Blackout, to fight his injuries and return to climbing as bold as before, made the metal in my spine become a little more pliable.

I free soloed the North Overhang. It was a cathartic experience for me. If I had fallen again, I would have wanted to die. Trying to fight through the pain would have killed me-if not physically, then emotionally and mentally. John’s candid talk about soloing invigorated me, and reminded me how precious those ropeless moments are. His talk planted a seed in my mind to return to Joshua Tree.

A week before he died, we talked about meeting up this summer to climb some more scary routes in the meadows. I wanted a ropegun and John’s passion for climbing was insatiable. He wanted to get his granite legs underneath him before heading to the meadows. John always climbed so solidly. It pains me to think of him falling. John was a legend. A man made immortal not just by his deeds but by who he was. He will be missed.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Dashed Dreams

Rock climbing is inherently dangerous. Every guidebook, every piece of climbing gear, and signs posted at every major climbing area proclaim the dangers of the sport. It's easy to ignore the dangers. Occasionally my eyes are opened- a friend will pop a tendon, or sprain an ankle. These accidents are common and heal quickly. And I ease back into believing that rock climbing is safe. But it's not.

Eight years ago, in the employee kitchen in Curry Village, a group of climbers and I stood around slandering, plotting how we would eat that night.
"I just went grocery shopping. I've got meat and vegetables." Mikey Schaeffer said.
"I've got some pasta, sauce, and a bunch of pots." I added.
"I've got $2 and a half empty jar of peanut butter." Micah said in classic dirtbag fashion. Micah was a rock monkey, living out of "the technobago", an old RV he parked in the Camp 4 lot. He supported himself on the paltry funds he made during YOSAR jobs while he climbed obsessively.

The next summer, during a rest day, Lucho, Jens, Amelia, Micah, and I piled into a truck and drove to Oakhurst. We bounced out of the valley and ate at a small taqueria. We devoured basket after basket of chips. Micah made sure they were constantly refilled.

Micah and Johnny Copp went to China to climb Mount Edgar in the Minya Konka massif. The mountain is a sub-peak of 24,790-foot (7,556 meters) Mount Gongga, the highest mountain in the Sichuan Province in western China. The pair were accompanied by Wade Johnson, who planned on filming the ascent for Sender Films. An avalanche buried the team. Micah's body has not been found yet but with fifteen days without contact, it is pressumed that he is dead.

On Sunday, Lucho and I headed over to South San Francisco. Josh "Trundlesby" Thompson was having a barbeque and house warming party. Nearly a decade ago, Josh, Lucho and Micah made a push ascent of Eagle's Way, an A3+ route on the right side of El Cap. On the summit, Micah had asked Josh to send up his shoes on the haul line. Josh attached them wrong. When he and Lucho met Micah on top. Micah told Josh, "You're an idiot." He looked at Lucho and said, "I don't know what you did but you're an idiot too." Then he threw his hands in the air and yelled, "I need to get laid!" And the monkeys were alright.

After telling me the story, Trundlesby handed out plastic cups of champagne. He stumbled to the middle of the backyard and said, "I just wanted to take a moment to remember our friend. A lot of you might not know him but some of us did." Josh nodded to me and Lucho. "But he was one of those guys that tried really really hard even though he wasn't that good."

One spring, Micah wanted to redpoint the Phoenix, a classic 5.13 crack by Cascade Falls. He woke up before dawn to get ideal temps. He fought on it for a week. He never got it.

What Micah lacked in talent, he more than made up for in tenacity. The short man had a muscular build, tiny T-Rex arms, and a huge chest. His only advantage in climbing seemed to be his chiseled fingers which he slotted into the cracks of Indian Creek regularly. He redpointed the Regular Northwest Face of Halfdome, hiking to the route for all of the half dozen attempts he made. Later, he showed up at the cafe with the strong comp climber, Matt Seagal. He announced that he and Matty were gonna make the first all Jew free ascent of El Cap. Micah had the big wall experience and Matty had the ability. The two made an early repeat of the Freerider, a 12d grad VI. Beyond his perseverance on the rock, Micah managed to push through college in classic monkey style. It took him 8 years, a number of different schools, and a lot of dedication before he he earned a bacheleor's degree in History from CU Boulder. Finishing school was a proud accomplishment. Micah was able to do more than just drag his knuckles and climb full time.

Josh continued his speech. I thought he might cry. Affectionately known as Jewpac, Micah had a fond love for gangster rapper. He ranted feverently about the influence Tupac had on extreme alpinism. As Josh finished his words, I thought about Micah. I remembered his charm, his big nose, his loud voice, and his classic dirtbag antics. Mostly, I remembered that he was a monkey, a large part of the climbing community, and a good man. He will be missed.

Sunday, May 24, 2009


"So you want to go bouldering?" I shivered. The sun still hadn't hit Yosemite's Birdalveil parking lot. Sweeney smoked a cigarette by his pick up and shook his head.

I shouldered a pack full of ropes and gear and trudged towards the Wall of Ages, the yellow expanse of granite to the right of Bridalveil falls. Sweat dripped down my shirt, and the cotton stuck to my chest when we got to the base.

"You never sweat like this when you're bouldering." I told Sweeney.

Sweeney nodded. He rolled a cigarette, ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and then rolled another coffin nail. From the base, the 5.12 bombay chimney pitch loomed over us. The route looked wide, dirty, and heinous.

"Lucho onisghted the route. Then said it was awesome. You know what that means?" I asked. Sweeney coughed a cloud of smoke and peanut butter. "It means its totally scrappy, covered in lichen, and not worth doing. So you want to go bouldering?" I didn't wait for an answer. I shouldered my pack and stared heading back down to the car.

"Lucas!" Sweeney shouted. His eyes were wide, and his body coiled, ready to spring and tackle me to keep me from leaving. "I'll link the first two pitches. You won't have to lead the offwidth."

I dropped my pack, and set up to belay. Sweeney quickly dispatched the first pitch, which the topo claimed as solid 5.10 but felt more like 5.9. I followed, arriving at the belay to find that Sweeney hadn't linked the pitches.

"I thought there might be too much rope drag," he handed me a dozen over sized cams. "Looks wet too."

I climbed into the maw of the 5.10+ offwidth and thrashed inside of the eight inch crack for ten then twenty then thirty minutes. The sharp calcite deposits on the side of the granite wore enormous holes in the knees of my best pants. Strawberries sprung up around my kneecaps, and my skin shined a bright pink. I'd progressed five feet off the belay when I decided to retreat.

"You wanna go bouldering?" I handed Sweeney the rack, praying that he would get stuck inside the beast of the crack and want to retreat to an afternoon of cranking hard moves close to the ground. I had visions of sending V sickness and while working on tanning.

Instead Sweeney grunted up the outside of the crack, stacking his fists and pulling through the bulge of the wide crack. Fifteen minutes later, I followed him up, repeating the fist stack, and making the holes in my pants a little bit bigger.

I led the next pitch, which follows a crack, into a roof, and then encounters a difficult lip boulder problem. I chimneyed and stemmed up the crack. At the lip, I jammed my hand in a small constriction, skated my feet on the lichen, and tried to pull through five or six times. Finally I pulled harder, and then fell. I slammed in a cam and french freed through, then headed to the anchor. Sweeney followed the pitch, claiming that the 12c crux felt more like easy 5.12. I shrugged. Could be.

Sweeney headed up into the bombay chimney of the next pitch. His feet pedaled on the dirty rock and granite flakes showered on my head. He jammed his hands vertically in the crack, traversed, then pulled over the roof, continuing to the belay. I followed. The 5.12 felt more like easy 5.11.

The next pitch found me wandering up a thin crack covered in bushes and flakey granite. The 5.11+ rating felt easier but I was wandering into no man's land, wondering what the topo said, and hoping I went the right way.

"Where do I go?" I shouted down to Sweeney but I couldn't hear his directions over the roar of the falls. I stared at him while he pointed up then left and then right.

"We could still go bouldering," I screamed.

Sweeney lead the next two pitches, linking the two short bits with a lot of rope drag. Surprisingly, these two 5.11 pitches were hard. They had difficult boulder problems protected by bolts.

We summitted and rappelled the route. The topo we had said to leave the tag line anchored to the belay at the second pitch and rap from the fourth to it. We barely made the rap to the fourth pitch, employing some shenanigans.

The pitches on the route were short. The climbing was dirty and a little bit easier than the rating Jones had. A couple days later Honnold and Gleason made the fourth ascent. Alex said the route was probably 11+. That sounds about right.

At the base, I rubbed my worn knees, and brushed off the gray flakes of granite. This was adventure climbing. "We could have gone bouldering," I told Sweeney.

He lit another cigarette, smoked it. Then rolled and lit another one. He'd onsighted the route, climbing it casually.

"Yeah," he blew out a ring of smoke as a mass of dirt fell out of his hair, "we should have gone bouldering."

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Miss Diagnosis

"Where I come from men do not just take musical instruments off the wall and play them." The grey haired woman shifted in her bar seat, sipped her lager, and glared at the old man who hobbled away.

"He probably wanted to impress you," I responded, "Taking the guitar may have been inappropriate but it is sweet and romantic too." I imagined him as a thief who borrowed the guitar to steal her heart. I stood next to the door of Bar Clay, a pub on the Berkeley Oakland border, waiting for my friends to grab their jackets so we could head down the street to another bar.

"Actually," she brushed her hair back exposing the handsome lines around her eyes that spoke of her wisdom. "he's a professor. He has assburgers."

"Did you just say assburgers?" I shuddered picturing a heinous venereal disease afflicting geriatrics. I wanted to bolt from the room.

"No. I said Aspergers." Her cheeks turned crimson. "Google it. It's a form of autism that explains why they are so intelligent but so socially inept." She smiled. "Will you hang the guitar back up on the wall?"

I grabbed the instrument by its neck and hung it on the wall, annoyed that she had ignored the professor and then flirted with me. I pulled on the door to catch up with my friends who had passed me during our brief conversation. As I headed to the sidewalk I turned and said, "I will look it up. Thank you."

A few weeks later, I stood below a pink tower of rainbow holds, watching a chunky twelve year old struggle up the wall of the Berkeley Ironworks climbing gym. Leo skated his feet higher, aiming to for a ledge ten feet off the ground.

"That's good. I want to come down." He hung on the rope half way to the cave. Stretching, his toes dabbed the ground.

"Are you sure?" I asked. I wanted him to climb a little higher. He had pushed well past his previous high point of laying on the ground. I liked Leo. He said funny things at random times. When I was a kid, I did the same thing and had even been chunky like Leo. My mother told me I had broad shoulders and then we would buy my pants from the husky department of J.C. Penny's. I wanted Leo to succeed. He just needed to try a little.

"Yeah, that is okay. I am all done." Leo pointed to the ground and I lowered him.

"Maybe we can time ourselves running up to the cave instead?" He said.

I smiled, grabbed my stopwatch, and said, "Sure, Leo. Is that okay with you Adam?"

Adam, the other twelve year old in our small group, nodded and we passed my stopwatch around. Leo clocked 1 minute 54 seconds round trip. Adam whittled his time down from a little over 1 minute to a reasonable 45 seconds. I did it in 7 seconds. Everyone was pleased. At the end of the session, I took Leo to his nanny.

"Thanks-you are so good to him." She smiled at me.

"No problem." I shrugged. "He is fun to be around."

"Yeah," she sighed. "He's lucky to have someone like you. A lot of kids think he is a bit strange..."

I thought about the relationship Leo had with Adam, and then how he acted around me. Neither Adam nor I noticed anything wrong with him. I tilted my head.

"He does have Aspergers you know?" Her commented made me angry. Suddenly, I noticed the nanny had an odd pear shape to her body.

Leo seemed like a normal kid. Smart, awkward, fine. I turned out alright and I had been the same way. I watched him pull his sweat pants up to his breasts, look down at his exposed shoes, and awkwardly try to tie his laces, unable to quite bend over and reach his toes. I remembered being clumsy when I was his age and not being able to reach my feet. I had struggled to be normal and felt like a stranger in my body. Most people called it adolescence.

"Well," I grinned at Leo. "He's a good kid. I don't know what Aspergers is, but he seems alright to me." I suddenly wondered if everyone that was just alright really had Asperger's.

"Okay Leo," the pear shaped nanny said. "Let's go. Goodbye James and thank you."

"Bye James," Leo said. I waved back to Leo, gathered my belongings, and headed home.

I dodged land mines on the walk to the front door of my room in Berkeley. The anarchists I lived with organized book fairs, leftist protests, and group meetings on gender politics and theories on society as a spectacle. but they acted like true anarchists when it came to cleaning the dog shit off the walk way-no one did anything but let it rot.

In my adjustment from my former life as a dirtbag rock climber, to one of a normal functioning member of society, I felt confused. I was a deer in head lights in the city of Berkeley. And then on the walk to the porch, I would slip on dog shit. The sliding around made me feel unnaturally clumsy. Further, I had been acting awkwardly, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong people. While the phenomenon mainly occurred around people I did not know well, it concerned me greatly. Was I really having identity issues or did everyone else just not know what to make of me?

I tried talking about my problems to my close friend Mandi, she said "James, I wish you could see a therapist sometimes." Then she ended our conversation.

My identical twin brother emailed me from Thai Land, where he was training as a kick boxer. He told me, "Just talk to more people. Find a girlfriend." He was closest to the truth.

They both told me I was a little weird. How could I disagree with them? They knew me so well. Without adequate funding I did not know what to do, so I looked to internet gurus for advice. I Google searched a few words that described myself.

"Intelligent, socially inept, clumsy." I hit the search key. A number of descriptions about nerds, and dorks popped up. And then in the middle of the page was a description of Asperger's Syndrome.

"Well," I said to myself. "I already know I am a nerd and act like a dork. There's nothing wrong with that but there seems to be something wrong with me. Maybe that's why I am really smart but say weird things all the time. Maybe that' why I feel like I have so much in common with the professor and Leo. Maybe that's why my friends think I am so weird." Confronted with so many maybes, I continued searching the internet. Suddenly, I realized the truth of it all. I had contracted a severe case of Asperger's.

In 1944, Hans Aspereger, an Austrian pediatrician, noticed a pattern among his young patients. The adolescents displayed abnormalities including verbosity, abrupt transitions, literal interpretations, and mis comprehension of nuance. They used metaphors meaningful only to themselves, they had formal or idiosyncratic speech, and they had oddities in loudness, pitch, intonation, and rhythm. Further they showed audio or visual abnormalities. They had an enhanced perception of small changes in patterns such as arrangements of objects or well-known images.

Whenever I tried to meet new people, I displayed symptoms of Asperger's. Though sometimes shy and reserved, I could be loud. I used idiosyncratic speech; I used expressions that only I understood. I talked about rock climbing with strangers and said phrases like "gnarly", "burly", and "jedi-enhanced drop knees". I noticed small changes in people, especially women I saw on a regular basis. When they wore different clothes, cut their hair, or just about anything, I could tell. I had visual abnormalities.

I stayed up late, pacing my room, rolling in the chair in front of my desk. What was wrong with me? Did I really honestly, have Asperger's? I read discussions about the syndrome, searching through internet forums. I had an uncanny ability to relate to other people with this problem. This suggested that I was part of the group.

I worked my fingers to the cuticle, pounding at the keyboard, searching the internet for answers, I found gurus like R. Kaan Ozbayrak, a doctor who had received his degreee in Turkey, worked in psychiatric wards for Massachusetts children, and had published volumes on Asperger's. The academic work sounded definitive, correct, and in many cases applicable to myself. I scrolled through stories of diagnosed children, like Elizabeth Andress, who had large vocabularies but lacked social skills. In elementary school, I was known for my large lexicon and total lack of friends. I related to the stories.

I stomped through my room, sat down in my chair, and then abruptly stood again. In a moment of panic, I shouted," Oh god! That's me. I do have Asperger's!"

"Shut up James!" An anarchist screamed through the thin walls.

"I can hear you talking to yourself." my house mate Lee yelled. "And it's three in the morning!"

Suddenly, she stood in my room. "And just to let you know, you do not have Asperger's. You are being an egotistical jackass, thinking you can diagnose yourself."

She stopped huffing, looked at me, and said, "Now, relax and go to bed."

The clock read

"God," I thought, "she was right."

I was delusional, thinking I could diagnosis myself by reading about it on the internet. I calmly laid in my bed, slowing my thoughts. Why did I believe I could answer my own questions? I inhaled. Why did I constantly think I was right? I exhaled. Was I a self centered asshole? I breathed. I was. I sometimes told girls that I was kind of a big deal and then acted like a jerk to impress them. I rose from my bed, walked to my chair in front of my desk, and I typed a few words about my enormous ego. I wanted help. I hit the search button on Google. Suddenly, I realized the truth of it all. I was a perfectly normal single male. I was a megalomaniac.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Zodiac

I sat on a plank of rock high on the right side of Yosemite's El Capitan, letting my heels dangle and kick the granite wall. My climbing partner, Jamie, handed me half of a sandwhich. I spread the bread and examined the contents. There was chicken, lettuce, and cheese. I began folding it all back together when I noticed one important detail. Jamie and I rested on Peanut Ledge; sixteen hundred feet of sheer rock, and twenty hours of non-stop work sat below us. My focus shifted back to the side of El Capitan and the meal in my lap. Delirious from climbing through the night, I suddenly had a moment of clarity. The sandwhich had mayonaisse. I hate mayonaisse.

My climbing career began at Vermont Academy. After a fall of riding the bench on the football team, and a winter slogging through the snow on a pair of cross-country skis, I joined the students and partipated in the climbing club.

The club spent half of our time behind the gym in a small room filled with mattreses, dust, and a ceiling of climbing holds. We fought to swing around on the holds in the room, excitedly taking turns. A third of the time, we climbed the wall of plastic holds in the gym. Occasionally, on our best days, we got to take trips to the Keene Bridge, Rumney, and the other local crags to climb outside.

The twelve passenger van filled with an assortment of helmets, ropes, harnesses, and students. We bounced over the hills east to New Hampshire. The bluffs of granite seemed unnaturally large when I climbed them. I was terrified whenever I set foot on the rock during these trips. While I shook like an autumn leaf on the grey stone, the other students sat below eating their sandwhiches and talking casually about their classes. When I finished and began eating my lunch, they smoothly ascended the rock.

The naturally talented Grayson Holden showed the rest of us how to climb. He flowed up the rock, confident, and relaxed. He exmplified the ideal student of Vermont Academy-intelligent, modest, and an outstanding athlete in snowboarding, and rock climbing.

While the academic aspect of high school came easily to me, the social aspect did not. I held students like Grayson in high regard for their ability to mold both. They held their ideals close to them, and then made smart and cool descision when under pressure. I graduated from Vermont Academy and made a half-hearted attempt to attend the University of Vermont. I felt lost in college, out of place, and not ready despite my high school preparation. I left Vermont and headed to Yosemite California, hoping to find the same confidence that Grayson and the other Vermont Academy students had.

In Yosemite, I worked a menial job making beds at a tourist lodge. I climbed the granite walls, learning to be comfortable with who I was. I climbed before work. I climbed after work. I climbed on my days off. Soon, the nervous shaking I had experienced while a student disappeared. The small crags turned into larger cliffs and then into entire walls. While the physical challenges of rock climbing were hard, I approached the climbing with the academic rigor I had been taught at Vermont Academy. I tackled the smallest and easiest subjects first and progressively learned how to deal with the harder bits until a fall day in the late afternoon, I found myself at the base of the Zodiac, an 1800 hundred foot route up the side of El Capitan.

I led the first section, hanging the rope for the initial eight hundred feet. I yarded my way up the rock, clipping pitons, and placing gear into the rock. Jamie followed behind me, climbing the rope. When the sun fell, when we were 800 feet off the ground, Jamie took over and began leading. I followed him through the dark. After midnight my head fell against the granite wall, bouncing against the rock as I fell asleep then woke from the thunk of my skull hitting the rock. With a late afternoon start the majority of our climbing was done in the night; we had little sense of exposure.

Then the sun rose and a sea of granite swept up below us. Jamie hung beneath a large roof, his feet kicked in space as he reached up and placed a camming device into the rock clipped into it and stepped a little higher. He placed another piece three feet higher and continued the crawl. This was we had moved all night, like caterpillars ascending a few feet at a time. When Jamie reached a ledge, he established an anchor and clipped in our climbing rope.

I fixed my jumars to the rope and ascended the line. I found Jamie laying on his back and muttering when I joined him at Peanut Ledge. I nodded to him. I understood. He could barely move from exhausation. We exchanged gear so that I could led us through the next hundred feet. I sat down for a moment of rest and Jamie opened our small daypack, handing me the sandwhich.

The Yosemite deli had coated the bread with a pink cranberry goo. Delirious, I fixated on the mayonnaise. Should I or shouldn't I? The question drove my mind from the cliff towards something more real and more important on a daily basis. It was an important moment. I hated mayonaisse and was on the verge of freaking out on the side of El Capitan. I recalled Grayson and the other students at Vermont Academy, how they remained poised and true to themselves. With my blackened hands, I grabbed a piton from our rack, and scrapped the sandwhich clean, leaving a trail of metal, but removing all the mayonaise. I decided to keep my ideals and stay away from mayo. I ate the sandwhich, iron and all. We headed to the summit and topped out the noramlly five day adventure in a 21 1/2 hour sprint.

Sunday, February 22, 2009


I have a question for you. I do not want you to tell me the truth. I want you to tell me what you think I want to hear. Here is the question: Am I fat?

Rob Miller and I stood on the top of Private Property, a crag outside of the Tioga Pass gate to Yosemite National Park. From nine that morning until five that evening, we climbed at the steep granite sport cliff. The routes featured some of the best rock in the Sierras. We stuffed ourselves first with the quality of the climbing and then we over loaded on quantity. At the parking lot, I sat with the sliding door open in Rob's mini-van, packing my face full of junk food, trying to satiate my appetite. I was tired, hungry, and I desperately needed to stuff myself.

Rob's calves are hearts, his biceps bulge through his shirt, and when he is not establishing new hard free routes in Yosemite, he works as a personal trainer at his own Crossfit gym in Santa Cruz. Rob is a dictionary; he has definition. He carefully cracked a 16 ounce can of imported Japanese beer, grabbed two pieces of low-fat string cheese, and tore open a bag of organic nuts.

Rob poured some macadamias into his hand. He counted them, plucked three from his palm, and returned them to the bag.

"How many macadamias do you eat Rob?" I jammed a fistful of cheese poofs into my mouth.

"Well James," his eyes scanned me. "I eat ten but you, since you are a little," he paused and his cheeks ballooned, "you would only want to eat seven."

I spit out my Cheetos.

A year later, Rob and I stopped at Inn & Out burger in Manteca. We regularly stopped on the drive back from Jailhouse, the steep Sonora crag we climbed at. This was our twentieth time getting dinner there. Occasionally, I would buy Rob's burger or he would buy mine.

We walked in and behind the counter was Stacy, the beautiful Inn & Out girl. Flush with the pride of having sent my climbing project, I sauntered up to the counter.

"I have the Inn & Out urge." I told her. She tilted her head.

"I would like a double-double," I said. "I really like the two meat patties on the sandwhich."

She punched the keyboard.

"And can I have it animal style?" I smiled. Stacy tilted her head again. I turned to Rob and nodded, indicating that I would buy his meal. Stacy stared at me then looked at Rob, who began his order.

"We are together," Rob said, looking at the menu.

Suddenly, I became aware of what had just happened. I had told her that I had the in and out urge, that I wanted something with extra meat between the buns, that I liked it animal style, and then Rob told her we were together, like we were not climbing partners but partner partners. My mind stutterred. She probably thought I was a complete freak. I had just blown it with the fast food woman of my dreams. I needed to recover and so I blurted out, "We are not really together. He just tells me I am fat sometimes."

Rob and then Stacy both stared at me. Rob shook his head and ordered the protein burger, the double-double without the bun. Stacy batted her eyes at Rob and stared at his muscular frame. I inspected the color of my shoe laces, and thought that perhaps I should have gotten a protein burger. Maybe if I cut out the exrta buns, I would not be so fat.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Did I Kill Raleigh Collins?

In the winter of 2004, I escaped my duties as a student and headed down to Joshua Tree National Park, the long time haunt of many of my friends. They spent most of their time running around the blobs in the park, climbing ropelessly. That was the game in Joshua Tree and I followed suit. On December 18th, I stretched and headed around hidden Valley Campground, looking for routes to warm up on. My friend Dave and his buddy Raleigh booted up at the base of Double Cross, a moderate 5.7. I followed the pair up the climb and we talked and laughed about the day.

When we finished, I soloed Tabby Litter, a 5.8 on the other side of the formation. Raleigh suggested it. It was a good route albeit short. Dave went back to camp and Raleigh and I bouldered a little. We climbed up and down on the Pyramid Boulder. I was getting worked and wanted to solo more. Raleigh asked me if I wanted to go climb Baby Apes with him on the Bachar Toprope wall. I shook my head and said I would rather go off on my own.

I went to Intersection Rock and fell a hundred feet soloing the North Overhang. I laid in a pool of blood at the base. I felt destroyed. My friends came and helped me. My family flew from across the continent to be by my side.

I came out of the hospital and recovered substantially, going on to becoming a more successful man and climber. My story became well known in the climbing community. I am sure Raleigh heard it.

In March of 2006, Raleigh Collins ran off the top of Sports Challenge Rock and dove into the boulders below. He died taking a smaller fall than I.

I did not know Raleigh well but I often wonder if I set a bad precedence. If he thought that he too could stand up from a disaster, and have his friends, his family, and strangers rush to his side. I set an example. Now I sometimes think to myself, "Did I kill Raleigh Collins?"

I do not know. I only wish we had climbed Baby Apes that day. Maybe we could have helped each other. At the least we could have laughed about something.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


As a teenager in church, Arthur stood next to me. I hung out a lot with him and his younger brother Jordan when I lieved in Vermont. Arthur sold me his old pick-up which went to Rifle, and Vegas, and served as a dirtbag climbing rig for years. Anyway, Arthur Adams lives in San Francisco. When he is not busy playing as a robot in the Oakland based band the Phenomenonauts, he front mans a band called Blammos! This is by far Arthur's best musical work. Here's a little story about how he came up with the name as related to DJ Fog on Pirate radio.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Stand-Up Show At the Barn

Life has given me quite a few lemons in the past week or so. I have been trying to stay afloat. I watched this to make myself feel better. It's me performing Stand-up at the Barn Theater Santa Cruz. I am not sure whether to smile or to cringe.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Bar Fly

Every hour the doormen switch from the back gate to the front door. The majority of patrons come in through the front entrance on Shattuck while the waiters, runners, and bartenders go for their cigarette breaks out towards the back alley of Allston. While the Jupiters employees neurotically inhale coffin nails, I play solatiare on my Ipod. I shuffle through most of the deals, only accepting a quarter. An ace or two with an even mix of black and red cards must show up before I start; if you're gonna play with yourself you better have a good hand.

At 1:30 Matt, or one of the other black shirted bartenders, will emerge from the bar, step out to the patio, and shout, "Last call for alcohol!" The other doorman and I lock the gates, close the windows, and pick up random pint glasses. By quarter of two, most of the patrons have left. Those that haven't get a second warning, "You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here."

My twin brother closes the bar down a couple nights a week, and Monday night, after I'd turned off the patio lights, he poured me a Racer 5 while he finished stacking the glasses.

"I'll be graduating in the spring Matt, with an Economics and Business Management degree. After that, I'm gonna have to get a job, a house, a car. I'll be slaving away to repay my student loans, my medical bills, and a fucking mortgage. I'll gain twenty pounds and won't ever climb again."

"No complaining at the bar," Matt started wiping down the wood counter.

"That old man sobbed earlier."

"The guy at the end of the bar? Phil, the human walrus? He's been coming here for years. You could wring a pint of Red Spot out of his mustache." The upstairs lights were shut off and the bar darkened. "I wasn't listening to him. He was ordering a beer and got teary cause the keg of Red Spot was dry. Besides, I'd cut my shoulder off before I'd let him cry on it."

"Oh. But what am I gonna do? I suck as a climber, and there's no way I could write for a living."

Matt snatched my glass, tilting his swollen nose down at me. Two days prior he'd been in a Muay Thai fight. Though he'd fought well, he'd received a TKO; he'd been bleeding profusely from a small cut on his nose. It was a bad decision by the referee. "Life's a disappointment," He placed two beers on the bar and drank with me. "And in the morning it's a hangover. Let's go see if the Pasand Lounge is still open.

Fortunately, the other bar hadn't closed yet. The bar stool swayed uncontrollably as I climbed on to it. There was a small karaoke stage and a pale thirty year old relived his glory days in the corner, singing the Cure. A head fell onto my shoulder, and an arm caressed my bicep.

"Looks like someone likes you James," Matt smiled. The Asian girl next to me was barely on her stool.

"Hey?" my mind shuffled through a series of bad pickup lines. "If I told you you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?"

Matt's eyes rolled as the girl grabbed my arm tighter to keep from falling off the barstool. The bartender stared at her.

"I think you've had enough," he took her beer from her and placed it behind the bar.

Suddenly, there was serious Asian fury. "You, you can't take that!" The drunk girl grabbed an empty pint glass and threw it with Nolan Ryan speed at the mirror behind the bar. Glass sprayed across the room. The girl swiped her hand on the counter top, knocking a few more glasses over.

"Get the fuck out of my bar!" The bartender stared at the shards of glass strewn through the room. A bouncer ran up, grabbed the girl, and dragged her to the street. as the bartender picked up glass.

Matt plucked a piece of shrapnel from his beer, and downed the rest. "You couldn't afford a condom anyway. Let's go, there's a couple of pale ales back at the house." He tossed an extra bill to the bartender. "Be thankful this shit doesn't happy at Jupiters."

I stumbled behind, happy that, at least for a moment, life was exciting.

First Published with graphic in the Lattice Journal Novemeber 2007,

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Panic At the Disco

“My favorite color is Shiny,” Ralph Wiggim

On the weekdays hummingbirds buzz between California fuchsias, pollinating the brightly colored flowers. A dozen turkey vultures circle the nearby jail, scanning for road kill. Small hawks and crows soar by, swarms of cliff swallows rush about, while osprey and blue herons fish in the waters of Tulloch Lake.

On the weekends, there are no birds. There is no beauty. The steep cave above Tulloch lake transforms from an aviary of the Sierra foothils into an outdoor disco of rock climbers. Dozens of manoxeric body builders, skinny little tough guys, swarm Jailhouse to tackle their climbing projects, random lines of basalt holds that dance up the wall. They bring electronic barometers to remind themselves that 62 degrees fahrenheit and 25% humidity means they have a 57% chance of success. They lug twenty pound car batteries to charge their portable vaporizers and fuel their marijuana addictions. They wear Ipods, t-shirts with curry stains, funny hats, and their favorite pair of underwear. They do anything to bring themselves luck as they prance about the base. Sometimes the spandex glad dancers even bring climbing gear.

The blocky, overhanging rock of the cliff, the Jailhouse demands that the sport climbing afficiando wear sticky rubber thigh pads, commonly known as Colorado etriers. Rectangles of sticky rubber are adhered to neoprene pads to help the sport climbers stick their knees to the rock so that they can rest on their abdominal muscles and rest their tired fore arms. While some of the climbers use adhesive spray to keep their pads in place, the majority of the sport climbers wrap the top of the pad with duct tape. After each attempt, the tape is peeled off the leg, wadded, and carried out of the crag at the end of the day. With an average of seven pitches climbed during the day and a wrap for each leg on every pitch, the duct tape adds up quickly. I sentenced myself to forty three days at Jailhouse, which translated into a large amount of duct tape to carry out. In an effort to consolidate my trash, I started to make a ball. Eventually, the tiny bits of duct tape snowballed into something bigger, something to cheer up the crag, something to reflect a little light into the dreary bits of the obsessive work of Jailhouse. The duct tape ball transformed into something else, something like a disco ball.

“We need to wrap it tighter,” Rob Miller laid his strips on the basalt talus, then placed them over the ball, pulling the mass of tape into a spherical shape. “We do not need fluff. We need density.”

I nodded. The blonde tough guy belayed me half of the time I went to the crag. As a good friend, and climbing mentor, he saw the fun I was having bringing the ball together and wanted to join in. Rob wove a cradle for the ball out of the cut end from my climbing rope, and strapped more tape around the ball, suddenly turning the ball of trash into a mace.

With a cord now attached, we were able to attach the ball to our harnessed and climb Soap on a Rope, a popular testpiece in the center of the cave. It was fun. We guessed about the weight of the ball at the base.

“Twenty pounds!” said, Matt Pound.

“Maybe more like ten,” responded Steph Ko.

“It’s at least fifteen,” scoffed Rob.

The climbers passed the ball around the base, each person tugging on it a little, giving it a weighted look, and imagining a scale in their minds
Pete Chasse hefted the ball into the air.

“It is a little heavy,” he said. “You both climbed it with the duct tape ball?”
Rob nodded.

“Even I did it Pete,” I pointed at myself and gave a crooked smile.

“Okay. I’ll try it,” he clipped the ball onto his harness and started up Soap on a Rope. The crowd giggled as the ball pendulumed.

“Oh god! It’s gonna hit someone,” said Matt, worrying about the safety of the others around him. “Watch out Lidija!”
Pete’s belayer carefully stepped out of the way.

“Oh my gawd!” she yelled. “Peete! Peeete! Be careful Peete!”

“It’ll stay on,” responded Rob. “I climbed it twice with the ball.”

“This is classic,” Matt pulled out his phone camera and snapped away as the Jailhouse hardman danced his way up the steep route with the grey disco ball.

With every passing visit, the duct tape ball grew. We stopped fixated on sending our climbing routes. Instead we thought about the steady growth of the duct tape ball. Visiting the crag became less about successful ascents and more about the continual growth of the ball. The ball gained historical value. After Tommy Caldwell completed the second ascent of Tower of Power, the cliff’s hardest rock climb, he contributed to the duct tape ball. Ethan Pringle added his tape after doing some crazy toe hooking bat hangs. The duct tape ball helped Jailhouse become a fun and silly place. I pranced around the crag showing off the enormity of the duct tape ball, swinging it over my head, and hoping that everyone was contributing. The ball was almost ready for the sequins and glitter.

“We need to hang it,” Rob, the blonde tough guy, grabbed a bit of thin cord and some nuts from Coiler’s tiny wood shop at the farm we stayed at in nearby on Chinese Camp.

“We should make it a disco ball,” I said.

“Let’s hang it while we have the time.” The veins in Rob’s forehead protruded.

“I am not sure when I am coming back.”

. For the duct tape ball to be more than a pile of trash hanging from the cliff, there would have to be a little more creativity and a little more effort. Sparkles, sequins, and glue needed to be brought to the crag and a small mess needed to be made and cleaned. For it to be truly worthy, would require effort. With some self doubt, I acquiesced and gave up my project to a more demanding man.

Rob climbed high onto the wall, clipped into a bolt, then reached over and girth hitched the ball to a 3/8” stud between Alcatraz and Cell Block. The ball dangled ominously in a small alcove of steep basalt.

“It does look like a piece of trash” Karl, a clowning local asked. “Are you sure it’s well placed?”

“Well,” I responded, “there’s a better chance of the start to a popular 5.13- falling off then the ball hitting someone. Plus there’s history.”

“If the ball is well attached and not just shoestring that is cool. We want the basalt ballast ball to be solid if it’s going to keystone the wall together.”

I smiled and reiterated the diligence Rob had applied in fixing it to the wall.

“Okay,” Karl said. “I guess I do like the idea of Rob climbing up there to hang his duct tape.”

“What’s that?” A group of hikers came to the cliff and noticed the ball right away.

To the casual observer, the duct tape ball obviously had a purpose, or at the least a story. The hanging grey spore, appeared more like a trashy trophy then a sparkling disco ball. Obviously, there was history there but it was not the best kind. In the whirlwind of the creation, I had neglected my own needs and desires. I neglected to stay true to myself, I neglected to remember that my favorite color is shiny, and I had to give up reality for my imagination.

Eventually, Mikey Chaffin, a Bay area nurse, climbed to the upper reaches of the cave, swung over, and unclipped the ball. I ran into him in the darkness of Camp 4 after he removed the ball.

“I almost died!” he said. “I swung around and clipped into the ball. I almost took myself down with it,” He put his arm around my shoulder. “I hope you do not mind that it was taken down but some random hikers asked about it.”

Removing the ball helped some of the obsessed climbers at the crag. For them it swung about ominously, hanging over their heads, and preventing them from sending their projects. They gave the duct tape ball a power over them so the ball’s removal was cathartic, they were able to do a little better on their projects because the curse was removed. Rob felt angry to see the symbol of his hard work removed. The ball had given him purpose a reason to return when he could climb no better, it gave him a reason to return to the Jailhouse when he saw no progress on his climbing projects. The idea to keystone the crag worked initially but then it all fell apart.

For a few days, as the herons fished, as the swallows rushed by, as the vultures lurked above the jail, and as the hummingbirds buzzed, the duct tape ball swung in that high corner. Whenever the light hit it, I saw a disco ball.

Thursday, January 8, 2009