Saturday, January 23, 2010


March 2009: I pace beneath Joshua Tree's Intersection rock, the 120-foot blob in the middle of the park. I look for the long, red bloodstains I left four and a half years ago, in winter 2004, but the wind, desert rain, and time have washed them from the stone. When my fingers and toes warm, I begin free-soloing the North Overhang. Just below the 5.9 crux, I stop to breathe and chalk. This time if I fall, I want to die -- I cannot deal with falling again.

His sequin jumpsuit reflected the flickering casino lights. The ice skates cut smooth lines in the ice, sounding like helicopter blades as he delivers my dinner of crackers.

It was two weeks after the fall before I realized the ice skater wasn’t real. I woke from my coma dreams to a numbing morphine drip, prone in the ICU at Desert Springs Memorial Hospital near Joshua Tree. I wanted to return to the coma. My dreams were better than the reality of the pain and failure. The doctors spoke stoically when they discussed the eight hours of operations thus far -- the damage to my occipital lobe, the spinal fusion, the compound fracture of my ulna. I couldn’t quite understand what they had done. As Arthur C. Clarke wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

I was Frankenstein’s monster, confused, angry, and sewn back together wrong. I tore the IV out of my arms -- I wanted to pull on my jeans and crawl to El Cap. My identical twin, Matt, held me down while a nurse sedated me.

Eventually, I calmed. The thick calluses of my hand were peeling away, I had shed 20 pounds. Long rods held my back together, plates supported my sad, destroyed left ankle, and pins cemented my elbow. Falling 100 feet had taken its toll. My body hurt.
The Stonemaster and writer John Long has described Joshua Tree as “a poor man's Patagonia.” It’s a raw, windy place, but also a winter sanctuary for dirtbag climbers, the old school-rock jocks who’d drop acid on Wednesday nights and run wide-eyed through the yuccas. I never liked the coarse quartz monzonite, the blob formations, or the wind, but the park had hardened the Stonemasters, and I wanted to emulate my heroes.

During my 2004 winter break from college in Santa Cruz, I ran around the busy Hidden Valley Campground, soloing a half-dozen moderates as I warmed up to redpoint
I moved fluidly up through a hand crack to a four-foot roof -- the crux. I reached out cautiously, felt the jams, sunk my hand around the roof’s lip, and pulled over. I neared the summit. I felt secure knowing I’d sent the crux, 100 feet of space swimming below me. Then I repositioned my feet, moving them underneath my body, a slight miscalculation. I started to barndoor, my balance suddenly gone.

I didn’t want to scream. I had too much pride. Death, however, was imminent, and there would never be a more appropriate time to cry for help. So I yelled. Seventy feet of air rushed by. A second later I hit a ledge. I was ecstatic and felt invincible. I started to sit up and promptly rolled off, striking the ground 30 feet below.

Trying to walk it off, I stumbled to my feet. But then a seizure bolted through me and I convulsed, crumpling to the ground. Nearby climbers ran to help, the crater I’d made beginning to fill with blood. I heard the faint thud of helicopter blades as I blacked out.
Imagine a world where others fulfill all your desires. They feed you. They dress you. They even wipe your ass. I was there and let me tell you, it was miserable. This was my world for 25 days at the ICU in Desert Springs, and then another 50 days after that, at a stroke and rehabilitation center near Santa Cruz.

John was a stroke victim and my first rehab roommate. He was a 60-year-old man who’d become helpless overnight. John’s family struggled with his transformation more than he did. He wore a diaper, and the room often smelled. One night, John left his bed and began to wander the room, mumbling about the bathroom and edging close to my bed.

“John, the bathroom’s in the corner,” I said. He ignored me.

I stabbed the callbox button, desperately beckoning the nurse. I was paralyzed, unable to leave the bed, and now John was going to crap on me. Eventually, the nurse responded. I was helpless; I was a 23 year old baby.

There was nothing inspirational about learning to walk again. It was painful, even though I stood during my first physical-therapy session. Seven seconds passed. I sat, rested, and then tried again. My legs wobbled precariously at five seconds. I felt uncertain at six. Would I fall? I fought through, watching the clock tick till 15 seconds. Later, I tried to spray to Matt about how walking made me feel excited, like I was climbing again. Sitting in my hospital room playing Fable on my Xbox -- a gift from my oldest brother, Chris -- Matt looked at me and asked, “How do I get the combat multiplier up for my hero?”

I progressed from a wheelchair, to a walker, to a cane. I hobbled back to school and began the spring quarter. A few more surgeries, and 381 days after the accident, I climbed again.

December 2005: A half-dozen Monkeys, climbers I knew from Yosemite, sat slandering by the fire in Joshua Tree. It was my first climbing trip since my accident. Even falling off routes I’d onsight-soloed, I was happy to be on rock again, to share J-Tree’s cold desert winds with friends. A couple of sloggers -- a pair of old Cascade climbers -- ambled up with a bottle of whiskey.

“You guys hear the story about the kid who fell off the North Overhang?” asked one, a 50-year-old pharmacist from Seattle.

My Monkey friends cackled, and then stabbed their fingers at me and screamed, “That's the guy!”

“What the f--k’s the matter with you? You get hit in the head with a hammer or something?” the pharmacist asked.

From my tent the next morning, I heard the pharmacist going off in his campsite. “What an idiot,” he said of me. “The Old Dads used to get that stuff wired before they soloed it.”

I felt a knife stab my heart. His words touched on a belief I’d long held: that I was a failure. Soloing had forced me to step into the void, to confront my insecurities and become confident. Now, I only had the notoriety of my failure to keep me company… and the $500,000 in hospital bills, the surgeries, the pain, and my slow return to climbing. Still, my fall had not crushed me. I decided to invent something better for myself.

Over the months that followed, I ignored the nerve damage -- the loss of movement in my foot, the stunted left arm -- and the trepidation. I obsessed over climbing and convinced myself I’d been rebuilt harder, better, faster, stronger. In the spring, I moved into a tent in the woods behind UC Santa Cruz, funneling my rent money (from student loans) to climbing trips. I spent more time at the crag than in the classroom. During breaks, I went to Smith Rock, Indian Creek, Zion, Squamish Tuolumne, Red Rock, and Hueco Tanks. I stacked my classes two consecutive days a week, enduring marathon days of economics and accounting principles that then left me four uninterrupted days in the Valley. I wanted to be a real rock climber: I imagined it and I became it.

March 2009: I drive into Joshua Tree by night, sleeping restlessly. I am a better climber than when I fell. I have the physical ability, but wonder about the emotional control.

I finish chalking my hands, inhale once, and then swing out above the void. At North Overang’s crux, I rock onto my foot, jam my hand, and pull through. The climbing is over quickly --. I wonder how I ever fell. Standing on the summit, I can imagine I’ve undone my failure -- that I never took that fall.

For a moment, I forget about the haunting dreams, the lingering pain, and the scars. I am normal again. This is what I worked so hard for. The desert wind blows, chilling the titanium rods in my back and the metal plate in my ankle. My fingers trace the foot-long scar that runs down my spine. I realize the scars will never fade. And then the moment is gone.

Published in Climbing Dec 2009

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Hipster Handbook

We rolled past the gawking tourists and the gear-laden climbers, the hoards who hobbled up to the roadside vistas and bunny-slope routes. My pickup eeked into the parking lot of the Tuolumne store and I swaggered out. Why shouldn’t I feel proud? I’d just kept it in neutral for the entire twelve-mile drive down the pass.

But as Max and I told each other, we were more than a pair of dirtbags coasting through the summer, getting by with no money and living out of a beat-up pickup. The Hipster Handbook, the little blue Bible I kept on my truck’s dashboard, pegged us as “deck”: hipster lingo for cool. We followed its words religiously, shunning and reducing to kitsch anything held dear by the mainstream tourists, thru-hikers, and regular rock climbers. (Although we’d stolen the book from the tent of a New York employee- a Neo-crunch, a new wave hippy.) We slandered weekend climbing trips, families, and careers as trappings of an overworked middle class.

A dozen climbers lurked outside the store, spraying about epic ascents on the regular routes of every major dome. I glared at their shorts and long underwear and frowned. I would never be a tragically dressed gumbie again. I might end up as a tragic gumbie, but never one with poor fashion sense. The Hipster Handbook had taught me that much. Instead of zip-up pants and high-tech polyester shirts, I wore working-class denim jeans and pink T-shirts made for menopausal women with catch phrases like, “They’re not hot Flashes—They’re power surges!”

I glanced in the truck’s side view mirror. For the past week, as the book recommended, I slept on my side to maximize my cowlick. The tourist may have seen a climber with unwashed hair but I knew better. I looked good.

“What is hip about repeating routes?” I asked. An over-sized Eagle Scout thumped his guidebook on the tire of his Hummer and ranted about having to share a top-rope anchor with a group of NOLS students.

Max rolled a cigarette, smoked it, then ground out the tobacco and tossed the tiny paper in his pocket. His eyes shifted from the finished coffin nail to the open meadow beyond the parking lot. He stared blankly for a moment then responded, “Nothing.”

We coasted my truck down the road to the hillside fortress of Phobos Deimos. One of the only true cliffs in Tuolumne, this formation features perfect granite, and an excellent opportunity for first ascents—mostly because of the horrendous hike to the cliff. We pounded up the steep trail whittling our bodies down to the ideal hipster body fat of 2%. The right side of the cliff boasts steep classic cracks, the kind routes that attract Semper Fi climbers and the hardy Eagle Scouts. But we stared at the cliff’s far left side, at a black-streaked corner buried underneath decades of dirt and moss and lichen.

“That is our first ascent,” I told Max. That is our glory. That is the Hipster Handbook.”

“Looks dirty,” Max said. He loved to state the obvious.

“We just need to clean it,” I laughed. Sincerity is the new irony.

Max rolled another cigarette, letting the long strands of Bali Shag hang from the end. He stuffed his hands in his pockets while he smoked. “Cleaning huh?”

For a week, we were proletariat, rappelling from the top of the cliff with over-sized goggles, dust masks, and an arsenal of wire brushes, posing as heroes of socialism.

Max swung on the rope next to the crack, holding a thick wire brush. “What is the opposite of deck?” he asked.

“Fin.” I packed a medium wire stopper with hippie lettuce, lit it, and inhaled deeply, trying my best not to burn my lips and still get high. Hipsters are resourceful.

Crud covered Max’s face. “That is what this is.” Soot crept into his nostrils, and lichen streaked his black hair grey. “This is fin.”

I hid underneath a rock, safe from the waterfall of debris, and the scrubbing. I’d suddenly remembered that hipsters abhor the antiquated notion of work. I shouted to Max, hoping to distract him from the labor. “Just think of the tassels.”

Max paused, stared at the rock, and loosened his grip around the wire brush. Obviously, he had been neglecting the Hipster Handbook's glossary.

“The tassels: the girls. Ladies love a first ascentionist. We will be famous,” I lied. Max returned to scrubbing with a new vigor.

When the cleaning was done, we started climbing. On the first pitch a television-sized block detached from the wall and fell onto Max’s chest. The block pressed onto him as he jammed his hand deeper into the crack. With a casual shrug, the block left Max’s sternum and flew between his feet to the ground.

“Watch out!” he yelled.

I stepped two feet to the side as the granite block crashed into the rock where I had stood. If I’d been hit, it could have killed me or worse, maimed me and tossed me into a mindless job, sulking over my injuries in a cubicle. I watched the shrapnel fly through the air.

“Nice Max,” I said, checking to make sure my hair still had a perfect cowlick, then bobbing my shoulders with a nonchalant shrug.

Max quivered for a moment then he too shook it off. Hipsters never lose their calm. He continued to a sloping ledge. From there a widening crack split open the granite book of the climb.

We had scrubbed the rock so a waxing moon butted the straight line of the crack. I fought through 5.10 moss before hitting a strip of actual rock and finally some splitter granite. For five feet, I was in heaven. Then the crack opened and my foot, my ankle, and my leg sunk into the gaping hole. I struggled up the dirty offwidth, imagining myself in purgatory. (delete then) I banished this thought as a regression: The Hipster Handbook had replaced my dog-eared paperback copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy, an along with it, my all-black outfits and forced Italian accent.

Toward the top of the pitch, I jammed my paw into the rock and tried to crank through a roof section. The granite bit into my skin as I yarded on the fist jam. I did not manage to pull the move but I did manage to pull off quit a bit of skin.

Before our next try, we scrubbed more so that the moon next to the crack was close to full and the climbing was almost clean. With little difficulty, Max dispatched the overhanging crux combining the fierce fist jam and a small crimp. I followed but my bloody fist ooozed out of the jam.

I never managed to climb the route. Max thought it was 10c. I thought it was 11a. We called it 10c.

“It will be better downgraded anyway,” I said. “Hipsters always sandbag.”

We hiked the ropes, the brushes, the goggles, and the dust masks down to the truck. In the week we had hung at the base, we had seen no one. Just the rock and open Sierra sky, that heavenly stillness and calm light. Just that feeling that came over us, at times, when everything we did, even climbing, seemed like a game. (edited) The YOSAR climbers were too busy pretending they worked, the weekend warriors were slaving in their cubicles, and even the guides never hiked that far.

Max and I fell into my pick-up.

Unfortunately, there was no coasting back to the store; it was uphill and we had to push. We arrived in the parking lot tired and worn.

“That was deck.” I glanced in my truck’s side view mirror. Sweat and dirt cemented my hair. The pomp of my cowlick had disappeared. The work, the grime, and the effort of the Hipster Handbook had transformed me. Now, I could not even pass as a proletariat in an old Soviet Film. I looked square. I looked midtown. I looked mainstream.

“Yup.” Max hacked up a black ball of lichen. “That was deck.”

The line never made it into the Tuolumne guidebook, despite our efforts to convince the mainstream how rad the Hipster Handbook was. The guys at the Tuolumne SAR site claimed the route had already been climbed. The mountaineering guides claimed it had never been touched, and for good reason.

I do not know if we made a first ascent or not and it does not matter because, after all, Max and I had escaped the confines of the ordinary. For a summer Max and I were the only hipsters in Tuolumne. We were kids who spent all our time out in the wild. All we had was miles of granite and a compulsion to be better men than we yet knew.

The last time I looked at the line, it was covered in moss again.

The Hipster Handbook 10c FA Max Hasson and James Lucas