As California’s spring sun thawed me out of the winter freeze, I became more familiar with the power of presence. Here is a recollection of one of my favourite days out climbing alone. Somehow, I had the urge to put myself in these kind of situations where I had to present and silent in the mind. The fragrance of these moments was pure connectivity to myself, the landscape and aliveness down to every cell.
These glimpses of pure being injected me with more medicine but the mind still identified these moments I call Grace with the act of climbing itself and therefore created apparent dependency on it. I also had another ‘near miss’ two years previously when I was climbing fully with the ego but thankfully dodged another bullet! But unlike the same fear that arose and lingered whilst ice climbing, presence itself dissolved the memory leaving me only with the beautiful moment of that day.
I am still so full of Gratitude for this experience.
Normal text – April in California and June in England
Bold text – 2011, two years before in Squamish, Canada
26th April 2013, Idyllwild, California. Diana is busy working at camp so with no climbing partner, I am therefore left to my own devices for the day. Without a doubt it begins with a bucket of hot coffee. Next, I walk a few minutes out-of-town, to a cluster of trees for some private council on the days potential. The pine trees groan as their stiff and parched trunks sway softly in the cool morning breeze, their needles floating at will into the perfect blue yonder above. Looking up to the east, the splendid pinnacle of Tahquitz rock sits silently in its dominion over the valley, its golden white granite glowing fierce in the bright morning sun. It’s less than a week before I return to UK soil so I guess there isn’t really any question. I’m going climbing.
An hour later, I top out alone on Taquitz rock after climbing ‘The Trough’, a historic route (first climbed in 1936). It required some simple scrambling with a few fun jams*, turning out to be a pleasant warm up. Hiking down the backside, I return to the base of the west face once more where my thoughts turn to the main objective. White Maidens Buttress. The route on this feature is full of variations but can still stay moderate (5.6) for an experienced climber. All 800 ft of it. Sitting at the bottom and looking at the route, there’s no babble that invades my thoughts, only calm, as if my spirit already knows that I’m going to need a tranquil mind for the ascent. When enough time has passed, the usual check list is sorted. Strap up the rock boots, chalk bag* on. Mow down a Mars bar and chug some aqua. Good to go.
The initial flakes* and cracks are surprisingly vertical but perfect jam after jam keeps the flow strong. After two hundred feet I pass a large pedestal with a couple of guys chilling, eating their lunch. Excuse me, mind if I pass? Cheers. The angle then eases and the cracks stay juicy for the next few hundred. Never before had I felt so empowered to be alone and capable in that moment 500 feet up. Then came a moment I hoped would come since August 2011;
At this point in time, I had been traditional (crack) climbing for 2 months. Feeling good about progress, I felt like a low commitment day (as in not dedicating yourself to hours of battle on the big wall) and decided to go to the Smoke Bluffs, a crag in Squamish, Canada with an abundance of single pitch routes (a single rope length between 20 – 50m). By 4pm I had soloed some very easy ‘5 star’ beginner routes (5.7) alone and decided to finish with a route called ‘Burger & Fries’. All I can say is a series of very bad decisions shortly ensued.
Firstly, the route is about 25 meters and gets baked by pounding sunlight all day long, making the rock sweaty and slimy. Secondly, a lot of easy ‘classics’ have a tendency to be really polished from many ascents, and oh how it was. I started up anyhow in some kind of arrogant defiance to reach the top. Near the top, in front of me was the last feature, a polished, bulging slab*. Instead of down climbing like any sensible human being I reach my third and last crescendo. Groping a protruding pebble the size of a dime with two fingers and stepping off a small ledge of safety, my feet are now pasted on more squeaky pebbles. The dime is as smooth as marble and I freeze up quick, like a frozen spider. Oh No! Saying this out loud only exacerbated the rising tide of terror beginning to consume me to the core. Legs shaking and palms damp and slimy I fear the friction will not last and contemplate my absolute failure.
If I fall now I’ll probably shatter my pelvis on that boulder down there. I refuse to accept this!
In pure fight mode, I rouse my last ounce of what felt like survival climbing. With all my might, I reach up and slam my palms as hard as possible onto the slab, my feet desperately running in order to create some kind of momentum. In a few frantic moves I am at the top gasping for breath and feeling like an utter fool. My motives that almost led to my potential oblivion was the result of my ego assuming a 5.7 without a rope was a sure thing. I had to be more in touch with me, my essence. I never forgot that, but hoped that some day I would be able to solo again without that crippling image choking me with fear.
Back on Tahquitz, two years on, I reach the end of a friendly crack. At first I halt as the way directly up is out of the question but it seems I must traverse a section of slab down and left to reach the final corner* that winds its way up the ramp, all the way to the summit. Not long now. The moves look OK but a flash of that day at the Smoke Bluffs makes me take a breath. Instantly it dissolves. I am still and clear. Stepping down onto the slab I chalk my fingers and crimp the holds perfectly. One move at a time I go, looking down to focus on my feet with 500ft of silent space below. Still I breathe, the sound of air inflating my lungs is the only thing I register. Nothing else exists in that moment, only nothingness. Three moves in, I am in between the two cracks, completely exposed, standing on my fingers and toes. One more. I keep going slowly, mindful that I could reverse the moves if necessary. Finally, my fingers sink into the corner crack. Ahh. And then it clicked. At long last, I had found my centre and was free of the fear. The setting sun was beginning to stain the valley in orange and call it a day, as was I.
Sitting on the summit, all I could feel was immense gratitude to be alive. Existing. Every cell inside my body tingling with intense life. Although the climb is rated 5.6, which is not technically very hard, I had a revelation. You are not you from 2011, you are not what you would like to be, you are just you in this moment. It’s all relative, that’s the whole point. All you can do is be honest with yourself and make the right decision in that moment. This is most important. Back in town, every sound is crystal clear, every spectrum of colour is visible and the smell of food utterly delectable! I meet up with Diana and listen to her talk about her day. She appears to be glowing. The sound of her voice is like music. I recline in my chair and relax. Sublime, so sublime.
Two months later I’m sitting in mums garden in a little village called Wonersh. It’s located in Surrey, southern England. Many delightful qualities exist here; Twisting country lanes that lead to old pubs dating back to the 15th Century, old friends and of course family. The local Blackbirds and Robins sing their chorus of song as the bumblebees hunt for pollen across the flower beds of Honeysuckle, Lavender, Buddleia and Lilac. The wind chimes sing peacefully in the background. So much life here. So safe.
Two months. The longest I’ve gone without climbing for two years. On the contrary, I am the one who is wilting. I feel like I have been cryogenically frozen. It’s a hard thing to describe to people who do not live with the mountains in their lives, but this was why I started the blog in the first place I suppose. It’s funny how you think back to how amazing it all was or how awesome next month is going to be, but what about now?
As we create our own reality, it’s definitely important to put things in perspective, like making enough money to fund that expedition you’ve always wanted to do or to reconnect with family after all those epic adventures you’ve had. The legendary British philosopher Alan Watts once put forward a metaphor that the present is like a sailboat. The wake doesn’t drive the boat but are memories and experiences that ripple and melt into the sea of time, just depends on where you want to go.
I like that.
* ‘Jam’ is a term used when one slots in a body part such as a hand or arm and uses opposing pressure in the crack to hold oneself in the feature. When the body part is jammed, one can raise up their legs to continue up.
* Chalk is used to dry moisture and increase friction. It washes off in rain.
* A flake is a plate of rock that literally sticks out for you to pull on. Like when you open a bread roll.
* Slab denotes literally a flat slab of rock, less than vertical but with very small edges. Balancey.
* A corner looks like an open book.