“Take. Take. TAKE TAKE TAKE TAKE!”
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.