Climbers Are the Only Animals that Self-Deprecate, You Know

Day Five

I hang from the rope, kicking my toes against the rock. Half laughing, half-furious I yell "I hate climbing!" at the rock, at Karl, and Todd above me, at Yosemite in general. I am staring into the maw of yet another off-width crack. I had planned to have a special off-width day during our time with Karl but of course, Yosemite is not arranged as conveniently as that. Instead I've been fed a steady diet of cracks, ranging in size from fine to hopeless, throughout the trip. Now on day five, our last day with Karl, I despair of ever "getting" it.

A beta shower falls. I can never hang from the rope for long. My competitive nature demands to know now what the outcome of the next battle will be. At Karl's suggestion I put the other side of my body into the crack. I place my outside foot against the face as Todd recommends. I remember the beta from Sacherer Cracker and move my inside arm down so that I can palm against the rock.

Push, press, wedge, stand up. I am two inches higher . Push, press, wedge, stand up. Again. Push, press, wedge, stand up. Slip. Precious inches lost, paid for in blood. I knew my foot wouldn't stick to that tiny crystal. Everything here is so damned slippery. Push, press, wedge, stand up, but carefully this time. Another twenty or thirty repetitions and I'll be through this, I think, but it's not as bad as all that. I gain the juggy knobs at the top of Bong's Away Center (5.10a) and stop there.

"Are you going to do it again?" Todd asks me. I nod, resigned. Karl lowers me to the start of the wide section and I begin inching my way up it again. I slip on the same damned nubbin and am caught by a combination of friction and the rope.

"You did it," Karl congratulates me as I reach the belay, but I just shake my head.

"I think the rope caught me when I slipped," I tell him. "Why do climbers do that?" Karl asks. He's gone back to a question that's been on his mind recently: Why are climbers so quick to talk themselves down?

"You don't hear rock stars doing that," Karl said earlier in the week. "They say 'What a great gig' not 'I blew that one bar.' But with climbers it's always 'It was just TR' or 'I had to hang' or 'It's soft for 5.11.'"

For now I only smile at him, but I think I know why. It's frustration. You want so much to simply say "I did this" but you never can. It's always there - in your head, in the re-telling, in the log book, in the trip report - the dreaded footnote. "Tainted" they call those ascents. Tainted. What a horrible word.

Today is my day. Todd is doing more watching than climbing. Yesterday I rested while he climbed. Armed with one of Karl's two-way radios I wandered about Yosemite Village, luxuriating in the feel of sneakers on my feet and a waistline free of webbing.

I passed a young couple. "She's a climber," I heard the woman say to the man as they walked by. What gave me away, I wondered. Was it the biner the radio was hanging from? The clothes I was wearing, the tape residue on my hands? Or was it the suspicious way I was eyeing the brown tube they were carrying towards the restrooms?

Later I had the opposite experience. Seeing Todd and Karl top out on Sons of Yesterday from the Ahwahnee parking lot, I headed back up to the base of Serenity Crack.

"You made it up," a belayer congratulated me as I finished the scramble to the ledge. I smiled weakly, too worried about making it back down with a pack on to treat the scramble lightly. I sat on the sun-baked rock next to him and made desultory conversation about the heat.

"Do you know anything about the sport of climbing?" he asked finally, no doubt confused about my continued presence there. "

I should have told him I was just waiting for them to finish with the route so I could solo it in my tennis shoes," I told Todd and Karl later, but at the time I only explained that I was a climber waiting for friends.

It turns out that Karl knows the leader, Dan, who we run into again on Todd's rest day. Karl and I have just rapped down from Lunatic Fringe (5.10c) when Dan and a different partner show up to do laps on it.

"Make sure you tell that guy from yesterday that the woman he thought wasn't a climber flashed Lunatic Fringe," Karl says. It's on the tip of my tongue to add "on TR." I know what Karl would say if I did: "Why do climbers do that?"

But I think I know why. It's fear. I've seen the flames on Rec.Climbing when someone gets "caught". I decided awhile ago that I would never claim an onsight of anything. Even if I travel to a foreign country and am brought blindfolded to solo a route whose name and rating I don't know, someone will argue that it's not an onsight because I was led to the base of the route. "Full disclosure," I think, worrying that Dan will be misled by Karl's innocent words. "It's the only way to go."

Day Three

We're at the base of El Cap where I've led Pine Line (5.7), climbed Moby Dick Center (5.10a) cleanly, and nearly made myself a fixture on Moby Dick, Ahab (5.10b), squealing, squirming, grunting and groaning, but not gaining an inch of height. Now our goal is to get me up a 5.11. I've never climbed a 5.11 cleanly. Last night Karl had a brainstorm."

Short but Thin (5.11b). It'll be perfect for your small hands. Oh, but the crux is height dependant. Well, we'll figure it out."

He sets it up on TR and climbs it first, running through the beta. "You just have to power through this part." "Here's a jug." "Rest here. The crux is next." He worries through the crux, trying to find a short person's version. Finally, he has it. "One more thin part here and then easy face climbing to the top."

I'm nervous. The plan is for me to work the route for as long as it takes to get it clean, but I don't want to waste the whole day on it. I figure I'll see if I can do the moves at all, then think about trying to link them. I power through the first moves, end up shifting into a layback, pretty sure Karl didn't layback here, feeling desperate just as he reminds me of the jug by my right hand. I grab it and I'm safe. Now the crux. With my smaller hands I can get just enough of a finger lock in the disappearing crack to wrestle through the combination layback/back step that Karl has choreographed. I'm through the crux and on to the last hard part. The tension is mounting. I tell myself to slow down, not to rush it, not to think about getting my first 5.11, to just think about the moves. The moves. The anchors. I'm done. My first 5.11.

"You flashed it," Karl cheers."

Super-beta flash on TR," I qualify. "Besides, it must be a pretty soft 5.11."

"Why do climber's do that?" Karl says mournfully.

But I think I know why. It's rationalization. If I can climb a 5.11 then there must be extenuating circumstances, someone must have helped me, it must not be 5.11. Because if I can climb this 5.11 then maybe I can climb other 5.11s, maybe pretty soon I'll be expecting to climb 5.11, maybe I'll be disappointed when I can't. And maybe if I can climb 5.11, then I should be leading 5.9, and if I try to lead 5.9 then maybe I'll die. So maybe I didn't climb 5.11 after all.

The wide part at the top of Sacherer Cracker (5.10a) stumps me. You see? I can't even climb 5.10.

Day Seven

"Just do the move, Dawn," Todd says impatiently. I move my foot up, not for the first time, and test the hold. It'll never stick. The rock looks bumpy but feels like glass. I'm tired of this slick Yosemite granite.

"It'll hurt," I say.

"You're on top-rope," he says. It's true. The first bolt of Movin' to Montana (5.8) is over my head.

But even short falls hurt on slabs, I think. I don't want to fall. I keep looking for the 5.8 move. I know it must be around here somewhere. There isn't a 5.8 move I can't do. Well, maybe off-width 5.8, but this is my kind of climbing - slabby face. Todd says I can step on holds that aren't even there, but I can't step on this.

"It's not going to stick," I tell him.

This is our last day at Yosemite. I don't want to back off this route, walk away with that taste in my mouth.

"So try the move and take the fall," he says.

I remember those words. I said them to myself before my long fall on Honky Tonk Woman at the Gunks. "Take the fall," I told myself. "Then you can come down." I've learned since then: sometimes you don't want to take the fall. But this isn't one of those times. Still…

"Dawn," Todd says in his best Daddy-is-speaking-to-you-now voice, "do the move."

So I play sullen child to his stern adult. I'm sobbing as I step up, per orders, onto the foot that won't hold. Even as I'm moving I'm halfway through the words "I don't know why you want me to get hurt," the unfair accusation of a child who isn't getting her way. My weight is on my right foot, my left is hovering an inch above the ledge, yet I'm not falling. I stand up, ever so slowly. Somewhere during the move I stop talking but I'm still crying, shaking, out of control. Blindly, through the tears, I fight to find a place for my left foot. I move the right foot up again.

"You're over the bolt now," Todd warns me.

"I know," I say, my tone blaming him for putting me there. But I am calming now. If the first move is 5.8, the next move is 5.7 and the next is 5.6. With the second bolt clipped all difficulties are behind me and I sail out of sight to the anchor.

I belay Todd automatically, hot and thirsty and uncomfortable in the stance I've arranged. The low-angle rock at the top of the route is causing a mountain of rope drag. Todd climbs quickly, yelling "up rope" at one point. It's hard to feel him through all this drag but he hates it when the rope is too tight.

"The move," I think when he stops. I feel a sharp tug on the rope and feed him slack, then more when he keeps tugging. Suddenly I realize that the pull is strong and steady and I lock him off. Did Todd fall? I hear him yell something that sounds like "slack." The rope is no longer taut so I give him more. I wonder why he'd bother to downclimb from the hands-free stance below the first bolt. Oh well, he's back up to the bolt now.

It's a long time before he pulls through the move and joins me at the belay.

"Did you fall?" I ask him.

"Maybe," he says, sticking his tongue out at me.

"The move was hard, wasn't it?" I say.

"I never said it wasn't," he replies.

"Say you're sorry you were mean to me," I say.

"Say 'I'm glad you made me do the move'," he counters.

Ultimately we compromise. I say I'm glad I did the move and he says he's sorry he was impatient with me.

"I don't like this place," Todd says. "Do you want to move somewhere else or do you want to call it a day?"

"Oh, I'm done," I answer. I'm glad I led the route, glad I pulled through a move I didn't think I could make, no matter how benign the situation was, glad I didn't back off. All right. I'll say it. I'm glad he made me do the move. It's a perfect end for me. I need no more.

We spend the afternoon splashing in a pool part way down a waterfall. It's been a year since my first trip to Yosemite and the initial passion of my love affair with climbing has faded. I no longer make the hour round-trip to the gym to fit in fifteen minutes of bouldering between other obligations. Sometimes when it rains on the weekend I'm actually glad to waste the day on the couch watching football. And I can be content to spend an afternoon in Yosemite halfway down a waterfall, dangling my feet in the water and soaking up the sun like any other tourist.

My relationship with climbing has had its bad moments, but it's a growing thing. I'm working on it, not running from it as I have in the past with other things when they got harder or less novel. I think of it that way sometimes, as a relationship. We have fights, climbing and I, but we always make up. Climbing is there for me, changing but solid. I'd like to grow old with it.

"I guess we're officially wimps today," Todd says.

Why do climbers do that? I think I know why. It's honesty. A relationship needs honesty to survive, needs examination to grow. Improvement doesn't happen without motivation and the motivation to improve comes from the belief that something even better can be had.

The untainted ascent. It's reachable. I just have to keep climbing toward it.

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Dawn Starting Reed's Direct
Dawn on Rixon's Pinnacle
Dawn on Lunatic Fringe
Todd on Stoner's Highway
Dawn leading Pineline
Todd enjoying his "rest day" on top of Reed's Direct
Todd on Rixon's Pinnacle
Dawn leading the"adventurous" tunnel through on Reed's Regular Route Pitch 3.
Dawn on Serenity Crack in 1999
Dawn on Serenity Crack in 1999