Dorks in the Meadows part 2



For Part 1 click HERE


Sandbagging has many forms – sometimes it can be seen a mile away, others the climber has to come home after bailing and read online forum boards to find out just  how badly he was lied to by the guy at the gear shop.


While in the car I had convinced Keith of many things.  It was a good idea to start hiking towards Cathedral at 2.  There wouldn’t be crowds this late in the day. The climbing is not exposed and will not be difficult for him.

Classic sandbagging.

A quick mantle and I was on top of the last few summit boulders with the rest of the horde.  I had sandbagged myself and was dragging a really tired dude up to a cramped tiny summit.

I had to get him up and off, but with several parties on top of the dinner-table sized summit I had to invent something else beside the classic strategy of building an anchor and bringing him up to me on top.  

Just below the leaning blocks that make the tippy-top was a small ledge.  My partner was surprisingly slow, despite moving quickly lower on the route and on the approach hike.  I casually brought in slack as other parties began Queuing up above.  There are many variations that all lead to the inevitable bottle neck, and here our intrepid adventurer’s who had been out of sight gathered tightly along the little blocks.  Armed with armloads of slack and a furrowed brow they stared at each other, hoping to scorn themselves ahead of the traffic jam to join the glorious summit disco.

It was a fun thing to watch, just out of peripheral but within earshot. The slack started to build up below me and stacking it on my foot in a crack wasn’t cutting it.  A slight stance adjustment and I could lean out and talk to the rest of the group above.

Now, before I discuss why my advice was not appreciably received, let me explain something about classic easy routes in Yosemite on a Saturday.  Every important life-altering event a climber has to go through, each major epic that gets shared on Facebook and earns a book deal – these events all happen on Cathedral Peak on weekends.  The shell-shocked look on the faces of the summit crowd as they noticed me perched below wasn’t unlike the look I had myself, six years earlier.  Later in the day, losing sunlight with my Mom on my very first alpine route… I had that look myself.  I am not casting judgement so much as wondering at the weirdness it is, the Cathedral Peak Epic.  The CPE fears no one.

Needless to say not a single Alpinist agreed to rappel a single line to the trail, below the talus and fourth class and exposed slabs.  Despite my re-assurance that it would expedite the log jam if people rode my 10 millimeter line down 180 feet to 2nd class talus and armed with the information that they each had been leading on thinner ropes all day there were no takers.  No matter, we’ll take the ride ourselves. 

Besides, it’s common to get your rope stuck on a flake on loose 5th on alpine rappels, and Keith fixed it before I down-climbed to him anyway.  Totally a safe method, right?

We hiked casually back to the car in the beautiful fading daylight to hollers of “Off Belay” and “WHAT?”  That whole time I couldn’t help but remember the last time I had hiked this trail while it was dark.  Back in 2007, with my Mom in tow, I felt real stress.  Like those other parties, not wanting to make the decisions they knew they had to make.  I hadn’t felt that up in Tuolumne for a little while, and wondered if I might get some of that humbling tomorrow, on Crescent Arch.

Sandbagged again.


I’ll walk  you with me, bulging eyeballs and all, in Part 3.  The Library is closing… 🙂


Dorks in Meadows



I don’t know why Keith thinks I can’t hear him, 20 feet below stuffed in a tight flare.

“Gotcha, Bud.”  I make sure to verbally reassure him as I cinch up a few more inches.  “Just, like, stuff your feet in and stand up. Or something.”

I hadn’t a clue how to get past that section, either, yet somehow I made it to the top of the third pitch of Crescent Arch in Tuolumne. The route, a right-leaning corner system on Daff dome, stares you in the face as you round a corner on highway 120 – “why haven’t you climbed me yet?”

The climb is considered “old school” 5.9+.  “Old School” is a little oversaturated in our modern vernacular and can be used to describe old hip hop or a tweed coat.  In climbing, “Old School” means an ass kicking, and we were in the thick of it.

Present-day climbers have advantages pioneers of the sport couldn’t dream of, like sticky rubber and internet beta.  If these tools give old-timers yearning for the golden era of the 1960’s it should be noted that no matter how sophisticated climbing gyms and new fangled protection get there’s no replicating the funk that real rock can come up with.

Halfway up a 5.9 hand crack a few minutes ago I was squirming and squeaking so violently through a bulge that a party waiting at the base thought I must have diarrhea.  A rack of shiny new cams were hardly a consoling shoulder to cry on.

Arriving at the belay I was kicking myself for dragging poor Keith up behind.  Twelve years into my climbing career and I had barely scratched up the last few pitches. With only a handful of crack climbs under his belt, and I had to guess very few in a flaring corner, my accomplice was having a hell of a time getting up the thing.

I wanted Keith the best start in climbing.  Our first few times roping up together were on Tahquitz Rock in Southern California, an area with a notoriously steep learning curve and “Old School” routes with deep flaring cracks and featureless slabs.  At 23 years old he didn’t know when to turn down my half-baked ideas.  He might have to start incorporating that into his routine.

We met the day before in the town of Bishop, an hour and change South of the rolling meadows of Yosemite’s high country. He met me cooking a potato stir-fry breakfast in the Von’s parking lot, driving all the way from San Diego.  I was in the middle of summer unemployment and had eschewed any sort of responsibility to be Peter Pan looking for Lost Boys to join in adventures.

Jumping in my cavalier and playing human Tetris at the crowded gas station on the Indian Reservation saw us on our way. One thing that really drew me to Keith is his brutal honesty.  Nothing is off the table.  On the short drive up we covered family, girlfriends, growing up a little shit… it was one of those conversations where a lack of barriers allowed unfiltered subconscious to leak out into the open.  That type of kinship makes it easy to see what is slowing life down or where to let go.

Inevitably I would change the subject to food or pubic hair.  I guess that’s where my subconscious was dwelling, but we hit some good points along the way.

Driving along highway 120 as it branched off the Old 395 towards the entrance to Yosemite ignited memories with light bouncing off ridges and scents filling the car.  I was pointing out ridges as Keith told stories of rafting the Kern with his grandpa and we felt a bit like giddy children on the way to Disneyland, remembering the thrilling rides and tasty churros.

Speaking of Disneyland, for some reason I landed on CathedralPeak as a good introduction.  On a Friday afternoon mid-season.  At noon.  The reason I chose the peak – location, aesthetics, rock quality – were the same reasons hundreds of other budding mountaineers trudged up the slabs to it’s base every week.  No matter, as I’d done the route enough times to feel confident that variations could get us past the bottle necks.  A little unprotected climbing and loose rock never hurt anyone, right?

Speed is about efficiency, not strength. Leaving the car at 2pm without headlamps or food made us ‘speed climbers’ by default – either that, or hungry and cold climbers.  I had convinced him it would be under 5 hours round-trip.

I put off things like “Keith has never simul climbed” and “Keith drove from Sea Level” as we marched upward to glory. The gear was draped about our shoulders and dinner, a pack of gum, stuffed into my pocket along with a camera and the car keys.

Ignoring the little things has always been a bit of a downfall of mine, at least when it came to realizing goals.  It might even be a weird skill-set that puts me back in the fray again and again, making the same mistakes but loving every minute of it.

As soon as the face came into view I realized there was no ignoring the problems – no less than six teams were strewn about the Southeast Buttress route, creating a virtual topo map of our intended climb.

Once we hit the base I went into overdrive – rack, rope, run.  Stringing the pitches together, putting in protection once keith reached a crux simul-climbing below, the beautiful rock gave us passage to the summit.  Threading past Weekenders from San Francisco and grumpy guides begrudgingly hauling up clients allotted little more than a “Hi! Bye!”, and before too long we were on top of the formations tiny summit – along with a half dozen other people.


Tahquitz Lookout after a Storm


It was early May in Idyllwild. I had left my job at a gear shop near the sunny beaches of San Diego a few weeks ago to work at the climbing shop in town, during the pacific crest trail hiker season. 30 years of outfitting hikers taught me some lessons, namely right around mothers day every year a cold front comes by and the temperatures drop as moisture level rises.

A day or two of this off-and-on drizzlefest brought the daytime high’s in town to the low 40’s. The snow level couldn’t have been much higher than 7,500′, though the clouds above the shop obscured the sharp ridges of the narrow valley where Idyllwild sits. Just as happens every year, a flood of hikers who mailed their rain gear ahead of them to the ‘real’ mountains of the high sierra were stuck in town, soaked to their base layers, unprepared for a tall peak after two weeks of hiking through the desert.

Hikers were stuck wandering between the little boutiques and bistro’s that make the little village a quaint summer getaway for local Southern Californians. Luckily for everyone, Idyllwild makes a great rest day and most were happy to hang out and visit for a few hours while booking rooms in town for showers.

Closing a bit late due to the deluge of happy dirty hippies, I wasn’t too sure I could sneak one quick run in on the hill. I’d been meaning to check out the Tahquitz Lookout, an ancient structure manned during busy summer weekends to keep the tinderbox below safe from errant camp fires and lightning strikes. It shouldn’t take more than two hours, and with the long days there was enough time to be up and out before the sun dropped behind the hill into the desert.

I started at theDevil’s slide trailhead around 7, with a light hoodie and a permit in my back pocket. It was damp, not raining any longer but reminding you that it had been for quite some time. I was working hard to stay warm, alternating hiking up steep terrain and obstacles while running more reasonable slopes. In my head was my high school cross country coach saying “Five quick steps!” as I cresting ridges and short hills. Looking back over fifteen years of running, I’ve found new and special reasons to run – but my roots can’t be ignored, and as the Devils Slide trail joined the larger massif of San Jacinto Peak there was a feeling of flow, just as in a long race or training run.

Just as I was arriving at the saddle junction, two things happened. The forest duff was powdered with 1/2″ of fresh snow, and Two, the clouds hadn’t the muster for the elevation gain and were sitting just inside the Strawberry and Fern Valleys on either side of the Devils Slide.

The trail flattened and I could finally start to motor. Despite being on the PCT in early May I was the only one in sight and my footsteps were fresh tracks on a trail I had to ‘feel’ to know where it went. Running tight along the ridge, as the trail curved East towards the next junction, light started to pop through the taller pines and spill into the valley below. Lit up yellow and coated in white they looked more like Christmas trees than short pines at nine thousand feet. Some snow would spindrift on top of boulders and create taller patches, and I’d scoop up a handful and suck on it like an ice cube. I was careful not to eat too much snow to cool my core, but found little handfuls every few minutes was sufficient.

Suddenly I hit the saddle and banked right, 5 quick steps over the hill, and pounded across the most beautiful scene I had come across on the mountain in the ten years I’d been on it. Just as I was making fresh tracks, I was in a world split in two. I had left the frosted mountain buttresses, their western faces wearing white armor against the clouds buffering the upper ramparts. The yellow sun shone through, though the translucent clouds hid its location, as a general driving his ethereal soldiers on.

Wispy and powerful, frail yet eternal, the western front buffeted against the unbreakable will of the high granite spires. Pines and brush alike were coated white, covered yet holding strong. Again and again the wind drove it’s moisture soaked battallion into the wall, and as the sun waned and began to set low in the Western Sky it’s forces drew back, accepting defeat as the mountains basked in a snow dusted sunset.

I tagged the summit and ran by once more, the mountains having won the battle were washed orange and pink in victory.


The Problem


Today I went to solve a Problem.

The Problem wasn’t something I knew how to solve.  I would approach it anxious and stressed over what might become of me through the process.

Hiking up the hill there was little else to think of.  Seeing it for the first time there was a line of weaknesses on the face.  Gingerly I handled them as I was repulsed by them.  

There was no way these holds would bear my weight.  There has to be something else.  Scrubbing with a brush can reveal slight indentations on The Problem’s crux holds, perhaps a clue to it’s Answer.  Feeling the smooth knobs and razor-sharp credit card edges was not re-assuring; it seemed The Problem was not going to go that way.  There had to be something else.

Here, there, there were other distractions to focus on.  I tried hard to grapple with them, to own them as truths.  Pasting feet delicately on their crumbling bodies, they bore no weight – these were not Truths, this was not The Answer, and no amount of smearing could be held on their crumbly surface.  No one had used these before, I must have known, yet I wanted badly for them to work for me.

Ask a friend and they might tell you The Answer.  Hell, you might even listen, but that isn’t getting you up and over the obstacle standing monolithic in your periphery. Indeed, even unsolicited beta might be the key to unlocking The Problem.  It also might throw the key away as I’m stuck criss-crossed and sideways on someone else’s advice.

Perspective.  See the whole picture.

I remember walking up to The Problem the first time, before there was time to think about the consequences of failure. I went back to the sharp edges and rounded bumps, intent on moving past them.

So much of my focus was spent looking for a way to skirt what I deemed insufficient, ignoring the face in front of me.  Dead center, this was what needed to be dealt with. Not around to the left, not below and to the right, the way up this impossible issue was tackling it head on and giving it all of my strength.

The fingers slid off so easily.  Soon skin cracked and blood seeped from weary skin, unable to take the stress of sharp truth.  That was The Problem, and always had been.  The Ego said it was anything else but lack of ability or flaw of character.

Walking away isn’t failure but acceptance.  At best there was something from The Problem I could take with me, some small truth about the way a weakness needed to be tread.  There will always be Problems, and If looking deeply enough to see the flaws of my own strength isn’t possible then once I need to call on it I won’t know where to muster. 

I am not strong enough.  That is The Answer.  That is what I went out to find.