After the initial snake bite at Burning Man, the impending transformation lay dormant for a couple of months, mainly because I was enjoying the thrill, fun and amazing adventures on and off the rock during my recent reunion with my girlfriend Diana. The first tremor of major insight was surrounding intense fear. Below I describe my revelation after a thrilling climb on a tower of rock and a heartstopping car ride the next day.
* – Indicates a climbing term. If you want an explanation, see below
November 2013, Joshua Tree, California;
We stride in the fading light through this familiar labyrinth that we have come to love but happen to be lost in. This place goes by the name ‘The Wonderland’ for the reason none other than to describe the feeling you possess when you’re playing in this maze, climbing over gigantic sugar cubes like a victorious ant or walking up enormous slabs of granite the size of London’s ‘Millenium Dome’ or maybe you’re a giant looking upon a vista of breadcrumbs…either way it’s a pretty nutty landscape. Precious and beautiful. One of a kind. That being said, Diana and I weren’t focused on this aspect as we trampled through the tenements of orange rock, dodging spikes of cactus and other such plants that grow out of inconceivable crevices.
The reason for this excursion in the dimming daylight? We were looking for a climb. A rather famous one actually but one with a reputation for it’s seemingly immense exposure or sense of…well, a massive fall should your fingers peel off the match box edges, dotted all over this intimidating shield of rock. I have to admit at this stage, that it was largely to do with my crusade to climb all the best 5.10’s* in the area. With the ecstatic onsight* of ‘Clean & Jerk’, ‘Run for your Life’ (Yes, kinda scary too) and the redpoint* of ‘O’Kelley’s Crack’ in my arsenal, I felt that this would be the proverbial icing on the cake to end our session in Joshua Tree, California before heading to Asia for the winter. I agreed when Diana suggested we climb it. We were in for quite the climax. (I say, with an element of sarcasm).
Approaching the bottom of the formation known as Astrodome which hosts the climb, we take off our packs to cool down. Another couple is just finishing the first pitch* of three, about 250ft. (We did it in two). It’s nice to catch our breath but when it’s time to climb we note that we have an hour or so until the sun sets. “Let’s get on it then”
To be honest, I love climbs that require complete focus or shall we say, presence but this just looked plain scary to me at the time. I knew it had a big reputation and my hard man friends say the old line of “Oh you’ll be fine, it’s not that bad”..Well, that was not helpful to me…Derek! (I laugh in hindsight). Since the wall is north facing it’s almost always in the shade, so in the gathering darkness it was hard to locate the bolts*, adding to my already brimming apprehension but the first one is seen. Let’s start with that. Off we go!
From the base, the first twenty feet is completely blank so you walk up a slope to the left and traverse straight right on a ledge, half the width of your foot, sometimes larger. The exposure feels pretty immediate. I was already scared of ‘that fall’ looming up ahead. Funny how we have such fearful thoughts for something that hasn’t even appeared yet. I reach up on my tippie toes to clip the rope into the first bolt, 25 ft of open rope leading all the way to the bone crushing ground and I’m in. Only, my adrenaline is juiced already. Where’s that run out* again?, Where’s the next bolt? I can’t see it!
The futility of minds quest for security in such times. That’s why we are here though isn’t it, to focus on Now.
Ok let’s climb! Upward upon the shield of orange rock there really is a trail of positive edges to latch your fingers around and stick your big toes onto. (Thanks be to my ‘Indian big toe and my climbing shoes) The dance is quite spectacular! Stretching up one delicious, athletic move after another until I’m four spacious bolts up the vertical. My heart mind you, is still beating ferociously as I force my shallow breathes to delve deeper into my lungs, my tense muscles drinking in oxygen with relief as I rest on a bucket size hold.
Now, the climb traverses straight right, on good holds, but still, a good fifteen – twenty feet. Waaa..Diana’s words of encouragement waft upward into whispers that barely permeate my frightened and exhilarated brain. Next, is another good rest by the bolt. I can see the anchor! Don’t look down too long and don’t think it’s over yet, the couple before us made it sound like it’s exciting at the end…
Scanning over the last section, there looks to be a round dish, smooth but impressed into the rock like a depressed disk. Not much for feet but to press and pray for friction. Ugh, tired. After some hesitant and increasingly frantic glances later, I realise that an amazing hidden hold will not show up and this is it, the scary part! Only time for action! Right hand goes in the left side of the disk, left hand crossed over to the other side..Transfer of balance and my right hand flies out to the round bulbous ledge below the anchor. Oh God, I can’t feel my right hand..it’s sliding!..Must be this solidified bird crap that littered and pressed into the rock. Not helping my swollen arms at all…
In this moment, I fear that I will fall and take the big whip into the yawning abyss. You’ll be fine, people have taken the air time plenty of times and lived. Go for it! Focusing on where my left hand has got to go I let go and slap the hold with all the precision I can muster. Got it! Mantle! Still nothing for feet at this point, so it’s time to climb out of that swimming pool like you’ve never done before. Heaving upward, I try to move, abs trembling, triceps failing. A mental image of the void wrapping around my legs and dragging me downward becomes more and more vivid. Still can’t feel my hands. Heave! No thoughts anymore though, gone like a switch just pure presence and focus. Do It. Slowly, face to the rock, my gasping breath blowing microscopic pebbles into the back of my throat, I slowly rock over the point of balance required. Nice!
Feet follow afterwards as I stand up gingerly on the ledge, carefully rigging the anchor, feeling tender as hell, like a feather could knock me off balance, sending me into space like a catapult. Anchor set, clipped in. ‘Oooffff’. A sunken slouch of relief allows the residual adrenaline to surge and explode into a ‘Yeeewww!’ against the canyon walls that echo my screams of triumph for miles around. Poor Diana, witnessing this display of complete terror from me probably did not fill her with the kind of stoke a more confident leader would perhaps emanate. But I speculate. Having climbing it without falling, I am happy to have done this legendary climb but am surprised the fear was so strong. Just the very idea of ‘that fall’ was enough to feed that petulant child called fear. Just a thought, that’s all yet it’s enough to make you do silly things and serve it with fries.
Diana does a great job following but isn’t up for leading the next pitch in the now dark. The next pitch has bigger holds to my utter joy and after ten feet the first bolt is clipped. I charge on, Diana’s faithful headlamp glows in the dim as I climb on ten, twenty, thirty feet. Fuck sake, am I off route? there’s no protection around. The fatigue of the first pitch still lingers as I go 40 feet above my last piece to a ledge. It’s an easier mantle but still an 80 foot fall would not be appreciated in our current situation and condition.
A few cams* go into the corner on the ledge and shortly after we are both at the top. The stars are out and I take one last look at this magic realm I’ve come to love so much, even if the climbs demand so much effort, maybe becuase of that actually. We both rappel to the ground safely, still a little shaken from the fright fest and begin to manoeuvre our way through the nocturnal jumble of chaotic rocks, leaving behind the brooding hulk, darker than the night sky itself and exit The Wonderland an hour or so later, thanks to Diana who knows it like the back of her hand.
The next day, we’re having breakfast with friends, recuperating from last nights adventure and after a belly full of seasoned potatoes and eggs with tortilla wraps, we head to L.A so I can catch my flight to Bangkok.
Somewhere around halfway we are cruising in the relaxing morning air, enjoying each others company until BAM! A car bumper or something to that effect blows across the road and under the car. A couple of seconds later the undesirable occurs… ‘duh duh duh duh duh duh’ “Yup, we got a flat tire”. Shit my flight is in two and a half hours…
Again, thanks to Diana, her insurance can send a tow truck that will meet us on the shoulder of the road in twenty minutes. I sit twiddling my thumbs, jerking my feet, chewing on the thought of ‘I could miss my flight’. Diana’s perspective of ‘well this is happening, let’s do our best with what we’ve got’ is of course a healthier view but it doesn’t help my worried mind. She’s right though, so I sit with it. The guy shows up right on time and puts a dummy tire on the car and we’re off like a bullet.
90 minutes to go as we approach east L.A. The whole time my heart is back to the thumping state. Two details concern me. First is the flight, which wasn’t that cheap and my visa. This day is the last day allotted before it expires, so I’m back to being worried. Which, I note, is a shame because it’s the end of my road trip with Diana which has been a blast. A wonder filled adventure with brush strokes of beauty that paint the tapestry of our road trip. I go in and out of focus from inane worry for something that hasn’t even happened yet to appreciating the purity of the moment here, in the car that I’ve come to know so well, travelling with her, a special being in my life.
Somehow she navigates the traffic and finds roads less packed then the others as we approach LAX. At departures, I only have time for a quick kiss, goodbye and see you soon as I run to the check in, which is in the process of closing. The attendant, thank goodness checks me in and I walk straight onto the plane for Thailand.
Sitting on the plane, I think back in hindsight about these two electric scenarios. So intense. And it occurs to me, that the fear is so much worse than the actuality itself. How profound.