Saturday, June 22, 2013

My Saturn's Chandelier

The chandelier wires swung. The lights fell off months ago. I concentrated hard. My stomach growled. I was afraid to fart; I’d shit myself. I stared at the dome light wires in my Saturn station wagon. It was never a chandelier. I wondered how long I had lied to myself. In a few hours, the Ward Gulch Fire would consume my car, my problems, and me.

What was I doing with my life?

Four years ago, I drove my station wagon 17 hours to Colorado only to turn around a day before I was due to start an internship at Climbing magazine. What was I doing with my life? I took up residence in my twin brother’s laundry room. Matt got me a job running food at a bar and restaurant in Berkeley. I ran fast around the restaurant, dropping off pizza at the wrong tables and pouring beer down customer’s backs. After a few months, the manager sat me down. I expected a raise or a promotion.

"James," he crossed his legs. "Why are you here?"

I wanted to springboard myself into a corporate environment. That was what post college grads did. That’s what I told myself I was doing. I was spring boarding. Honestly, I just wanted to write and go climbing.

I paused long enough for him to add. "James, you walk without a sense of purpose."

I did not become a waiter. I got fired from that job and then a few more. What was I doing with my life?

Eventually, I picked up work writing a blog for some Bay area climbing gyms. I liked the work. It kept me writing and it let me climb. It kept me afloat. I wrote more. Climbing, Rock and Ice, and Alpinist published a few of my stories. Through some inventive hustling (read trimming hippie lettuce in Northern California), I put new tires on my station wagon and drove to crags across the US.

I anchored my life to free climbing long routes in Yosemite Valley. I met an awesome girl. I got more work. I climbed better.

I obsessed this spring. Kim and I ended our 3-year relationship. I invested all my energy into a 900-foot granite buttress, freeing a new route with my friend. I thought only of climbing. Then I finished the route. I felt aimless. Rather than wait for an existential crisis to hit me, I started driving.

I pointed my station wagon east. The Carbondale Mountain Fair held an annual pie-baking contest at the end of July. I had direction in my life. I would climb around Colorado and win the pie-baking contest. I left Yosemite and drove towards the sunrise.

In Tonopah, I took a wrong turn. I pulled over at the Area 51 gas station where the nearby Alien Brothel served Budweiser and gave free tours. The map showed Vegas an hour south. American adventure. I drove towards the bright lights, spent the night with friends, and proceeded to Maple Canyon the next day. I hiked straight to the Pipedream Cave.

I pulled the rope towards the carabiner. As the cord neared the second bolt, I slipped on the polished cobble. I fell. My belayer tried to take in rope and then tried to spot me. I fell anyway. The rope burned my right thigh and upper arm. I landed on my back, hitting a wood post on the tiered landing.

I climbed the route my second try but I felt like a horse had kicked me in the back. I drove to a friend’s house in the middle of Utah and sat on his couch for a day. A pair of Mormon boys came to the porch. I politely asked told them to come back later. Then I rudely told them to come back later. I barely slept that night; the burn on my leg woke me every hour. When the weekend came, I drove to Salt Lake City and baked a few pies. I couldn’t climb but I could train for the pie-baking contest. My back started to healed a little. I started to sleep through the night. With a few pies under my belt, I headed towards Rifle, closer to the pie-baking contest.

I struggled up the walls. My back still hurt. I ate dinner and tried to sleep but felt restless that night. When my eggs finished cooking on my camp stove, I puked. The diarrhea started a few hours later.

Lightning struck in the Ward Gulch. The fire ignited thousands of junipers and sage. The fire ravaged Colorado. The flames spread towards Rifle Mountain Park, where I had been climbing and camping. City officials evacuated the park. Rumors circulated that there was a 99% chance of the fire burning one of America’s premier sport climbing destinations.

I settled into the back of my station wagon and stared at the wires that had once held my dome light. My stomach quaked. I almost farted. The burns itched. My back hurt. I could feel the fire coming closer. Everything was burning. What was I doing with my life?

I pictured flickering lights shooting through glass and dancing across the ceiling. I pictured a thousand lights at the end of the wires. I focused. I created a chandelier in my station wagon.

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Final Frontier

I screamed at the granite wall.  The sound bounced off Yosemite’s Fifi Buttress and drowned into the roar of Bridalveil Falls.  I lowered to the belay, where Katie stood at a small stance.  I was six inches from a free ascent.  It felt like six miles.  I’d cleaned the route. Pulled out old gear.  Placed bolts.  Climbed on the pitches a ton.  I’d trained hard.  I stopped sleeping-  Would the work ever pan out? 
Mikey Schaefer photo of me climbing the penultimate arch pitch

Dan McDevitt established The Final Frontier, a Grade V 5.7 A3 route in 1999 with Sue McDevitt, Brittany Griffith and Sue’s sister Penny Black.  He climbed the route again with Jim Karn, the first American to win a World Cup in climbing and America’s best sport climber in the 80s.    While they were climbing, Jim Karn told Dan “It’ll go free.”
The Final Frontier on Fifi Buttress

Last spring, Lucho Rivera freed Dan McDevitt’s Romulan Warbird, I climbed a few times while he was working on the first free ascent of the 5.12 route.  Gabe Mange, an El Portal climber, had ropes on the Final Frontier.  Mange wanted to repeat The Final Frontier and worked his way up the route 200 feet left of Romulan Warbird, fixing lines as he went.  One day, instead of climbing with Lucho, I jumared 600 feet up The Final Frontier.  Dan mentioned Jim’s comment to me.  The route looked like it would go but be a lot of work.
Nik works the 5.12+ Lower Corner Pitch. 
Nik finishes up the 5.13 traverse
“This route was a savior and a gift for me.” Nik Berry said.  In April, Nik and I started up the Dihedral Wall on El Capitan to scope a free ascent.  After 2 pitches, I scanned my phone and realized the wall was closed for peregrines.  We bailed.  Remembering the Final Frontier, Nik and I hiked to Fifi Buttress. Gabe’s lines still hung off the 900 foot wall.  We jumared the route and examined the free line.  Nik had an immense amount of psyche from listening to Katy Perry all morning and a limited amount of time in Yosemite.   “The next day, we started to put all our energy into this route with many hours of cleaning moss, weeds and sticks out of cracks and edges.” said Nik in his OR Blog.
Gabe Mange photo of me climbing on the 5.13b Upper Corner Pitch

Eric Bissel executes the cross move on the 5.13 traverse pitch
One of the first difficulties was connecting two thin crack systems.  McDevitt had aided up a thin seam and then pendulumed across the face.  Through the creative inspiration of “California Girls” across the wall, we found a few technical smears and spanned the gap between the crack features. 
Mason Earle linking the crack systems on the 5.13 traverse
“Within a few days, James and I had figured out where the free climbing should go, how to do the moves, and where the bolts should go. A week of bad weather came in and we were forced to boulder and climb at Jailhouse, which is always a nice change from Yosemite. This worked out well anyway since we needed to wait for our bolts to be delivered.” Nik wrote.

Nik and I on the summit.  You can see Ribbon Falls behind us.  Every day, we watched a rainbow form at the base of nearby Bridalveil Falls
After getting all the bolts in, Nik went for the redpoint, leading all the pitches. While he rested at the belays, I tightened the bolts he had placed the day before.  Nik freed the first corner and sent the traverse pitch.  On the upper corner, he climbed the thin crack but fell at the boulder problem near the top.  He tried again but fell.  The boulder problem involves tenuous smearing on polished granite.  He rested and  I toproped up to the boulder problem.  I grabbed a loose hold that broke off  and put a serious gash in my arm. We headed down to tend to my wound and Nik’s wounded ego.  A few days later, Nik managed to redpoint all the pitches and I toproped behind him.  Being on the summit was fun- Nik sent!  The route went free! A nagging feeling persisted as we descended.
Bronson on the last 5.12 pitch.  I removed a few heads, a pecker and pitons from this pitch and others on the route, replacing the fixed mank with bolts where necessary.  
It was rad watching Nik send the route.  He’s an exceptional climber and hard to keep up with.  ““After sending the final pitch, all the work and energy put into this route gave me an incredible feeling of accomplishment.”  Nik said in his OR Blog.  I knew what he meant but felt as though I was unfinished. 

A topo of the route.
Mason Earle climbs through a sea of knobs on the penultimate pitch
I returned to the route.  I took down all of Gabe’s fixed lines and placed my own.  I pulled all the heads and bad pins out.  I added bolts where there had been bad fixed gear.  I managed to send all the moves, then to send all the pitches.  I climbed the route one day with Walker Emerson but I fell on the upper corner pitch. 
When I got to my car, I found this ticket on my dash courtesy of Officer Smith
 I worked the upper corner pitch again with Aaron Smith.  I drove to Tuolumne to sleep at 9000 feet, hoping that the increased altitude would boost my red blood cell count and make the climbing easier.
Delicate smears and a difficult boulder problem cap the pumpy corner.  This proved to be the crux of the route. 

“You just have to let yourself do it,” Katie said as I rested at the belay below the corner.  After a long bit of pouting, wondering if The Final Frontier would be another mega project left undone, I started climbing back up the finger tips corner.  I reached the boulder problem and casually grabbed the crimp and threw to the jug hold.   
Mason flashing the crux pitch.  Mason made the 3rd ascent of the route.  Tobias Wolf made the 4th.  Katie Lambert and Ben Ditto returned to try the route and Will Stanhope and Brad Gobright climbed on it as well.  
The next pitch, which I had well rehearsed, went smoothily.  On the second to last arch pitch, I floundered a bit trying to get off the belay.  The moves felt hard.  I felt tired.  After a fall, I returned to the belay and then climbed to the top of the pitch. Katie followed solidly, climbing the entire route with no falls.
Gabe Mange picture of climbing sporty moves on the Upper Corner pitch

At the summit, I was psyched.  I beamed as Katie climbed the top.  I sent every pitch leading the entire route in a day. It was the hardest climb I’d ever done.  I’d had an amazing experience establishing the route with Nik and then climbing on it with other friends.  It was really fun.  I felt very proud of myself for investing so much into the route and I felt great about the successful ascent. 
Mikey Schaefer photo of me on the Penultimate Arch Pitch

That night, I slept well.