Thursday, December 11, 2014

Planting seeds

    Grasses by the creek in Zion NP, spring 2014.

A Buddhist scholar I know once explained to me that Westerners mistakenly think that Nirvana is what arrives when all your woe is behind you, and you have only bliss to look forward to. But, he said, that would not be Nirvana, because your bliss in the present would always be shadowed by the joy from the past. Nirvana, he said, is what you arrive at when you only have bliss to look forward to and find in what look like sorrows the seedlings of your joy. – Andrew Solomon. 

At the base of All Chalk and No Action in Little Cottonwood canyon I fumbled with getting a line fixed to the route's anchors to easily feed through my bottom ascender. It was an embarrassing site in front of a crowd of strangers gathering to climb nearby routes. I pushed up my top ascender easily, but the bottom one moved no more than an inch as I tried to encourage it up with my left hand and a raised knee. Damn. It. 

The rope twirled as I clumsily pushed up on the devices, a dysfunctional sort of tango, and I made the 360 degree turn around with it in a slow, pathetic struggle. I sighed heartily and took a rest on my daisy chain as I awkwardly dangled 6 inches off the ground.
I tried again and the same thing happened a second time. I began to wonder if I had made a grave mistake in agreeing to climb Moonlight Buttress in a single push with my friend, Dan, in exactly 4 days. I couldn't even figure out how to jug. I have had crass moments of ambition in the past, but this was beginning to feel like a whole new level of stupid. 

A few moments later, to my surprise, I figured it out somehow. I got into a quick rhythm with the aider attached to my bottom ascender and found my way easily up to the anchors, stopping to tie backup knots, without expending too much energy. 
A stranger below me yelled up to me.
"You look like a bird!" 
"Why's that?" 
"Your ladders! They make it look like you have a long tail! Like a little bird!" And I smiled back down at him and laughed like a loon.

Soon, if the weather held, I would be on my first desert big wall, a goal I added to my bucket list a couple years ago. And out of the blue, after I had nearly forgotten about the possibility, the opportunity presented itself during my lunch break at work last Friday like a winning lottery ticket. Sitting across from the table I said incredulously to Dan, "You realize I have never aid climbed, before right?" and he responded confidently with a smile, "Oh, you'll learn!" 

So, as instructed, I set out to learn in one week. Instead of studying sufficiently for a final exam (forgive me, future self), I poured over Freedom of the Hills, literature on big wall climbing, YouTube videos and various online forums. Finally I had made it out to LCC for my single day of practice.

At the top of All Chalk I hung on my daisy and felt the sun on my face. It was the warmest I had felt in weeks. In the wake of so many recent changes in my life, one bringing about an immeasurable amount of sadness, I dangled at the top of a cliff and looked across to the shaded, snow-dotted, north-facing side of the canyon. I prayed for something, anything. Relief, joy, excitement. I prayed for some sort of sign. I started up another silent plea, and then I sort of gave up mid-sentence. I looked at the towering white and lodge pole pines and cliffs streaked by water marks. I had been in this place so many times before and it still startled me out my thoughts. I took in its severe beauty for several moments, with my tail dangling below me, the shadow of an awkward girl-bird cast on the granite wall to my north. 

I spent the rest of the daylight hours slowly (painfully slowly) aid climbing up a route, grumbling about managing the cluster-fuck, while receiving a generous and patient belay from a smiley stranger. Somehow things started to feel like they were coming together as the sun was waning over the mountains to the west. 

I felt excited and I felt sad. I felt the weight of the unknowns of a large objective. I was in the middle of planting seeds for what's to come.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

After the fall

"To the stars on the wings of a pig... A lumbering soul but trying to fly... with not enough wingspread but plenty of intention.” -J.S.

We sat around the campfire at Indian Creek, the sun had set, the coolness beginning to deepen. We sat around with dogs and other tired ones. We kept our hands warm with bowls of chilli and stared transfixed at the flames. We passed around chocolates and a water bottle with a dry, potent substance in it that made the cold feel less harsh and our thoughts slow in ambivalence.

At the bottom of a second beer, I curled my toes in my shoes and breathed deep in and out, uncurled my toes. The conversations blurred around me. All I could think about was the passage of time. The desert and loneliness had become one in the same after countless nights combined sitting among cottonwoods and on top of red earth, staring out at towers and mesas which had stood before my entrance into this world and planned on standing long after I was gone. Acutely aware of the shakiness of my existence, if only for a moment, I began feeling desperate.

"I'm leading Way Rambo tomorrow. Don't let me talk myself out of it, guys," the full-strength beer was giving me courage and making me feel a little more callous to the idea of getting shut down.

Sam chuckled, a little surprised,"Fine. I'll be racking you up while you're saying no tomorrow." I smiled at the ludicrousness of leading 5.12 at the Creek when I'd never even put up a 5.11. I smiled like someone might after knowingly telling a really, really bad joke.

I looked at the ones around me. Dirty puffy jackets, pants with holes in them, hands with holes in them. We ate a ton of thanksgiving leftovers, stared at the flames, and talked about our lives until the night dwindled and we scattered to sleep under a cold, clear, starry sky.

The next morning I woke up in a borrowed tent. I had been dreaming of flying away from something that had died when a dog bark broke it all up. I heard car doors slam, muffled Good Mornings. There was a certain shade of grey, a soft breeze rustling the grass and few remaining leaves in the cottonwood trees nearby. A familiar sadness, brought on by a clear sober head. God, I thought, why so grim? This is the best place on earth, after all. My back ached. I repeated the same lines in my head I'd been repeating to myself religiously for weeks, "Get up now, Laura. To the stars on the wings of a pig." The weirdest mantra I've employed in my life. Thank you for the borrow, John Steinbeck.

Hunched in stiffness, I walked over to my car and started the water on the jet boil. Lacking the companionship I was used to I felt a little awkward. These people were new, but the climbing was the same. The scene was the same. I made oatmeal and stood around Sam and Tom and Tyler. I felt comforted knowing in the way they laughed and shuffled their feet around in the sand and offered up pieces of pie that they wouldn't feel like strangers for too much longer. People come into your life at the right time for the right reasons, and here the new ones were.

We headed to Way Rambo wall together, my little lima bean Toyota Corolla trailing a Toyota Tundra. I blasted through large puddles I wasn't certain I'd clear through, but lima bean earned her keep. I patted the old steering wheel affectionately and realized I had a few things in common with the Lima Bean.

Standing at the base of Way Rambo, Sam coaxed me on. "So, what do you think?" I grumbled,"I think it's cold. And it's windy, " I paused. "I guess I'm doing this."

I racked up and started up the climb. It felt pumpy way sooner than I remembered it would. I took. I started up again. I took again. For some reason I found the experience sort of funny. I thought of loss and forgot about it quickly as I started up again. I kept up to the .75s section and promptly remembered I had no clue how to do proper ring locks. The crack was off-set and slightly right- leaning. I plugged two cams grunted up through it, and I fell.

I jugged up the rope past several pieces, and I started up again. I climbed above my gear and realized I didn't know how to get into a stance to place more gear. And I fell again.

I tried laybacking on an inch of space and slightly rounded edges of the crack. I let out a whimper. I fell a third time.

I fell through the .75s section and I fell through the traverse. Over and over again. I fell so goddamned much I forgot I was ever afraid to fall above gear in the first place. I fell so much I forgot I hadn't even taken real falls on gear before this climb. I fell so much I forgot I was once convinced I was afraid to climb because I was afraid to fall.

When I made it to the anchor I was tired; the day was done for me. I thanked Sam for a patient belay, and I laughed at myself. If only I'd known how easy the fall would have been, and how much I'd end up okay, I'd taken it a long, long time ago.

Eh, I suppose you learn things when you learn them. 

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

When the bottom falls out

The loneliest feeling in the world was being on the skin track headed up Mill D towards aspens, skinning over, couldn't have been much more, than a foot of snow. The greyest of early winter days. The wettest snow you'd ever encounter in the Wasatch range.

"It's too damn early for this," I moaned to Mitzi. "There's not enough coverage."

"Well, keep a goin'. This is nice. It feels good to move." Mitzi was unshakable in her good mood. Meanwhile, I dipped in and out of the lowest of lows.

So we kept working our way up, through the large pines, contouring the edge of the gulley.

I let the memories flood over me like a hot shower, one you choose to remain in even after your skin starts to turn pink and irritated. I came to this place, in part, to work towards making it my own. But still the memories of a lost love who showed me the way hit me, and even though I'd been here half a dozen times before, I still felt like a newcomer in these woods.

We reached a fork in the skin track. I stopped. I remembered stopping here before last winter, I remember asking if I was going the right way, and all he said was, "keep going."

So I kept going, out of respect for the ghost and respect for myself. I'll figure all this out soon enough, I thought to myself.

The trail became obvious after awhile. Mitzi and I kept going up until we reached the spot I knew. Soon we took our skins off, and skied down through the aspens, taking careful measures to avoid the logs. Sure it was early, but it worked fine. I had found the way.

Later that night, I bought my first Indian Creek guide book. I bought a 5 gallon water jug. A case of Sierra Nevada beer. I made friends with the man working the front desk at IME. It was all so foreign, this life I was claiming on my own. The desert awaited. More memories to face. I filled up the gas tank to the car. This time I'd be making the trip down there solo. And didn't it feel right this time? I didn't know for sure, but I kept going.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

By trail or cliff, I'm still on a freaking glorious mountain

    I had a grand plan in the works for last Friday night. Mel was getting off work for the season (the best feeling in the world after a trying forest fire season--- I can attest to it) and I was awaiting her arrival in the Dan's parking lot in Millcreek. For days I had been planning an evening ascent of the west slabs of Mt. Olympus; headlamps, cold rock and all. It seemed like a way to bump up the excitement level of 10 pitches of 5.5, to take a simple climb to the next level by ticking it off in the dark. It was going to be noteworthy, for certain. Good blogging material, in the very least. 

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Every day, every season

 I got out of bed yesterday morning just before the sun had risen, bare feet on the floor, and it was officially cold again. And at 7 o'clock, it was still pitch black outside. I could hear the sounds of cars swishing by the house, city people headed to work on a Monday. All I could hope for at this melancholy dawn hour was for everything to slow the hell down; for autumn to remain forever; for winter to wait another year to arrive; for 3 hours of coffee time instead of 20 minutes, and a whole day of climbing instead of heading to the hospital for work. Upside-down smile. And then I headed to the kitchen to make my coffee, my only beacon of hope.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

What the river will do

"A journey is a person itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policies and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us." John Steinbeck

I think I had been gearing up for change for months without fully realizing it, but the river has a way of expediting things. Maybe it's the speed of the water that gives rise to a sense of urgency. Or divine admonitions of a river god delivered through the current that you just can't ignore. All I know is once you're on the river, especially if you're committed to a stretch of it for six straight days, you start thinking differently. Things start to make more sense.

I was invited to go on a trip down the Main Salmon in Idaho. It was free for me, thanks to my boyfriend and his brother, and I was looking forward to stealing away from the city and my increasingly annoying receptionist job at the clinic. I hurriedly packed a bag of bare minimums the morning of our departure, went to work for a few hours, and we hit the road by early afternoon.

The drive felt long. Southern Idaho has a way of making time slow to a crawl, and cumulative fatigue and bad attitudes from the work week behind me left me feeling the worst kind of groggy. When we pulled into Salmon River Challenge's boat ramp at 11 at night I was silent as a mouse. Matt was already making plans to go to the Seven Devils Bar with his former coworkers and I was annoyed (I hate bars and lately when I'm tired, I simply hate fun).

We were having a beer with Dennis, the owner and a friend of Matt's, when then the rest of the guides including Matt's brother (general manager of Orange Torpedo Trips out of Oregon) rolled in from a completed trip on the Lower stretch of the Salmon River. Energetic, those ones. They got to chatting and I wanted to curl up into a ball and die I was so tired.  I squished myself up against one of the rafts and prayed for a good night's sleep before a week I figured would be hell-bent on heavy drinking, late nights and possibly life-threatening river swims.

If you hadn't guessed yet, I tend to fall in the lowest percentiles for partying aptitude. Right up there with nuns and infants, just so you know. Also, I have a more-than-slight fear of drowning. I was keeping my hopes high that everything would go well, but my mind had already wandered to all the worst-case scenarios.

1. All the guides and guests will figure out I'm lame as I try to keep my 9:00 bedtime on the river.
2. I'll drown.

On the plus side there were only two I could think of.

Not two days later I was on the first day of our six day stretch in my own inflatable kayak barreling down the Salmon river. Our group traveled in a formation similar to a mamma duck with her baby ducklings, with the guides in the blue boats out front, and the guests fumbling awkwardly but earnestly behind in a line.

It would be extremely remiss of me to fail to mention at this point the skill, dedication, and general loveliness of our four river guides.

There was Billy, a middle aged gentleman who'd accumulated decades of experience on the river between boating and fishing guiding. He rowed the gear boat, kept mostly quiet, but when he did talk he was as salty as you'd expect an old fisherman to be. He quipped teasing remarks at everyone in a way that I found strangely endearing, and had an eye for spotting wildlife.

Billy felt like a lifelong friend to me from the start. Usually I avoid approaching people I don't know too well, but I always found a spot near Billy when I could when we were hanging on the beaches. I'd pull my chair up next to his and have him tell me about hunting and fishing. Despite his gruffness, Billy didn't mind speaking candidly about his life. Biggest regret: losing his first wife. Didn't regret: losing his second; she was a bitch. And for the first year in many, a soda replaced a beer. He enjoyed his life by the season; rowing boats in the summer, taking folks out fishing in the fall. He'd hunt early winter, and then take a month off to travel to a tropical place around January. Back to the river when it warmed up. The man seemed to have it all figured out.

Then there was Mike. Dear Mike. On this trip, excluding Billy, Mike was a man among boys (sorry Matt). He had a serious guide persona, one that made you want to follow him everywhere he went (so much so that two guests actually started fighting over who could boat directly behind him in line), and an impressively large repertoire of bad jokes. He made offensively weak coffee, but he's Mormon so you can't exactly blame him. Matt stepped in to help with that.

Matt and Ben were great, too. I will note that Matt did fall in more than I did, which put him at 2 and me at 0. That will go on record, for the record. Ben was loveable. Young and friendly and nicely browned by the sun. I believe one of the 20-year old guests may have fallen in love with him. Maybe it was mutual, I don't know. Just a suspicion, possibly reinforced by close sleeping quarters on small beaches.

With the guidance of the aforementioned gentlemen, we traveled 80 miles down the Main Salmon in 6 days. There was varying weather. There were the most beautiful night skies you could imagine. A feeling of comfort by being boxed in both sides by the deep river canyon. The smell of the forest fire, and scarred hillsides from burns. Numerous sightings of ospreys and bighorn sheep. And the more miles we floated, the more rapids we traveled through, the stronger the tug for change within me became.

Day after day I watched and learned from the guides, I tried to channel the way they seemed to regard life, which is to say, enjoy the one you have. And as cliché as it may sound, the river and that beautiful canyon started to change my heart. Feelings (my goodness, I have so many.) came to the surface. The ones I had been keeping at bay for months. Feelings about my job, admitting to myself that I truly needed to change gears. The desire to write. Focusing on what makes me happy now instead of what I think will make me happy 3 decades from now. Shaking the feeling of being overwhelmed by the unknown and feeling stuck in a rut. Respecting the advent of each day as it comes.

I think back to the day before the river trip when I was in the Seven Devils bar in Riggins with all the guides. Matt's brother, Erik, gave me a piece of advice that I carried with me throughout the trip and still do. He said, you've got to allow yourself to do the exact opposite of picturing worst-case scenarios, Laura. On the river, he said, you've got to be thinking Best Case Scenario every time.

On Monday morning, I went to the job I'd been hating this time feeling fine about it. I'm not gonna be here for much longer, I realized. Best case scenario, I'm still headed in the right direction. This is exactly where I'm suppose to be right now.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Promise of School Room (or why my own ego nearly ruined my love for climbing)

Me, Indian Creek, and the Indian Creek guidebook. Fall 2013.
Three years ago, I was three pitches up a climb called School Room (5.6), in Little Cottonwood Canyon, when I made a decision that would impact me for years. My then boyfriend was belaying me up over a small bulge and I was struggling with the moves. I'd palm the seemingly featureless granite without paying any mind to the position of my feet or the (now obvious) crack, grunt and try and slap my way up, and then fall. This happened about three times until he said in an annoyed tone, "just grab the piece above you and pull up on it." Feeling defeated, I did so. When I made my way over the bulge and saw him at the belay, he looked at me and looked down at his feet. I got quiet for most of the rest of the climb, and so did he. I remember having the thought while we were rapping the route that this would be our last climb together, that he'd dump me, and I weirdly assumed it was because I just wasn't measuring up as a climbing partner.

As the light was getting low we exchanged few words, he coiled the rope and organized his gear, and I haphazardly stuffed things into my backpack. I peered over the beautiful cliffs and gullies, the way the pines dotted the perfect white granite, and instead of appreciating the beauty and adventures that lay ahead with my newly-found hobby, I looked him square on and made a silent promise to myself, "One day in the future, when we're broken up, I will be a badass climber and you'll be sorry you abandoned us."

No joking. And I hung on that promise to myself for years, well after we were through.

Not long after the mountain man did, inevitably, dump me, I started pursuing rock climbing in a hard, emotionally-reckless way. I finagled an old, dear friend from high school into a nearly two-month-long climbing trip in the southern California desert. We slept in his van together out in J Tree and woke up to frost covering the car in January. I'd push us out before the sun hit the car, our fingers freezing as we fiddled with the two burner and filling up water bottles for the day. Sam would be moaning about the cold as I created a tick list for the day, but my good-natured friend would eventually put up nearly every route I demanded of him. I didn't bother leading any easy climbs yet myself; I was too caught up in being able to follow higher grades fast, so that when I did start placing gear myself I'd be leading in a grade I found to be acceptable.

If there were days we weren't climbing, I was generally annoyed. I could tell Sam was a little annoyed at times, too. It's hard to appreciate time with another person when someone is so singularly focused on achieving their own objectives. When I got on that plane to go home after our adventure, Sam was gracious and gave me a big bear hug and we made plans to see each other again. How he decided to remain friends with me is still a bit of a mystery.

A few months after the J Tree trip, I began to not care about the mountain man ex-boyfriend. I climbed for the rest of the spring frequently but without such a big ego, as I stopped caring quite as much about being an exceptional climber as much as simply enjoying the sport. I was physically very strong, and my lead head got a lot better. It was just about being outside and enjoying the moves and feeling mentally relaxed while having fun. I accumulated gear, and was happy to go to the mountains whenever I found an opportunity to do so.

But enter in the following climbing season, when I met another mountain man who I admired (and still do), and the ego came back with a vengeance. Though our relationship grew and grew, our climbing relationship began to develop weird neurotic quirks. Matt would enjoy his climbing as he always did, but I began to enjoy it less. I felt this enormous pressure to perform well, to be far better than I was, and I would get angry. Not only did my climbing start to go downhill, my lead head dove to an abysmally low level. I'd stare up at a route and start to get anxious from the get go. I'd start up and feel like a fool, then I'd start to doubt my ability, and then I'd get terrified and ask to be lowered. Matt's mood would then sour, too. On and on this pattern went.

It continued on like this for over a year. It wasn't until one spring day in Indian Creek that I was climbing with friends (Matt was working back in Salt Lake City that weekend) that I remembered how much I love climbing. I found myself two-thirds of the way up a route I was leading on the Second Meats wall, in an offwidth, grunting up inch by inch and camming my body after every half foot of progress for a rest, and loving every second.

Huh, that's weird, this is fun again, I thought. I realized it was because I didn't give a shit about whether my friends thought I climbed hard or not. I was climbing because we were in the desert and it was beautiful and the routes there are compelling. I wasn't distracted by thoughts of not measuring up.

Not two weekends after that, Matt and I were in Indian Creek alone together at Way Rambo wall and I was upset again. He'd offer to put up routes and I'd let him, and I'd feel worse and worse about not feeling confident enough to just believe in myself and go for it. All day I sulked at the wall until I stared up at a route I had asked Matt to lower me off of months prior, and decided I needed to climb it.

Depressed as hell with the memory of blaming myself for a breakup years ago because I wasn't brave enough, strong enough, or good enough, I began to rack up for Blue Sun. Half way up I started to tear up. I'll never be good enough, I thought. I'm a coward, and I'll never be good at anything. How could anyone love such a coward?

I told Matt to take up, and I hung on a number 3 blue camalot. I took some deep breaths. I felt the warm sun on my back. I heard the wind brushing the valley below us. Ravens flew overhead. I found a comfortable fist jam, yelled Climbing!, and pushed up with my jammed feet. One blue camalot after the next protected my fall on a sun-cast wall. Beautiful blue sun, I repeated in my head over and over until I made it to the anchor with a smile on my face. I remembered, this is why I climb.