Donny pulled up late Friday afternoon in his tan Mitsubishi. Some might say that the car has character (in fact, I believe that it may have been T-boned at one time). The driver’s door doesn’t open from the outside, the back door opens with an enormous crack!, not to mention there is a car-sized dent on the left side. It boasts no air conditioning, drips oil faster than a healthy heart beats, lacks tuneage (even radio), and it perhaps hasn’t seen a vacuum since the last solar eclipse. But, like Donny, it’s a faithful comrade with lots of adventures under its belt(s).
I began tetris-packing all of our gear in the tiny car: stove and food, sleeping pads, cooler, gear bags, ropes, everything necessary for a long holiday weekend of both trad and sport climbing. Sam was already setting up tents in a horse camp on the western edge of South Dakota for the four of us – the last in our party, Brent, was due home from work any minute. Before dinnertime we were hightailing it to The Needles.
We bounced into the dirt road to camp at 4am, promptly passed out, and woke up early to make eggs and get on some rock.
A view from Little Devil’s Tower [3.1 mile hike through Custer State Park]
The geology of the Black Hills is sharp. Large granite posits form large spires and mounds that look remarkably similar to eagles with jetpacks. Excavated mines in the area around Harney Peak reveal mineral deposits of large crystals of black tourmaline, feldspar and quartz. The ground sparkles. You can walk up to walls and flip through a micro-book of mica schist, still embedded within the granite. Unsurprisingly, the climbing of the Black Hills is also sharp (evidenced by my climbing pants, which now have a ninety degree rip in the petoot).
For me, the highlight of the weekend, was summiting the smart 5.8 sport route aptly named Pointy Little Devil; it is a sustained, sandbagged slab spire with micro-quartz holds and invisible feet.
The route requires delicate climbing on the face of arête leading up to a small summit. I enjoy the minutiae that climbing slab demands. Yes, if you fall while leading you will cheesegrate your hands, elbows, and legs against the quartz crystals.
But if you don’t, you will gently balance a thin line leading hundreds of feet up to a vista for the birds.
Pointy Little Devil came to me as a dance. There were three specific points that I felt utterly lost – blank – where I was clinging to tiny textures and standing on thin air. Those are the times your mind starts screaming. Those are also the opportunities to practice mindfulness. It is terribly difficult to be aware and experiencing the present moment when you know that a breath in the wrong direction will buck you from the rock.
But that’s the game. That is the climbers’ addiction, I think: pushing your mind to those moments of absolute derogatory, explicative fear and then peacefully, calmly resolving it.
It’d be nice to end there, but that wouldn’t be the whole truth.
The crux of a climb refers to the most challenging move. It is also an anatomical part of the heart as well as the part of a literary passage that is difficult to determine.
The very next day, I led up a route [Damn the Torpedoes 5.8] that was not as steep, nor as prolonged, nor as challenging. And I bailed at the crux (for non-climbers, a 5.8 route is typically like quitting a half-marathon. It’s like quitting before you’ve had the chance to really go for it).
I was taught that faith is believing what you are not sure of, certain of what you cannot see. As I approached the unassuming roof (it is barely more than a fat bulge that prevents your eyes from keeping track of your feet) I felt the opposite: panic. I awkwardly hugged the rock as my feet stood on texture and my fingers stretched for holds outside of my reach. Suddenly, I knew I was going to fall.
Again, similar to ultrarunning: if you think you can’t, you can’t.
I started to downclimb and meekly called to my belayer, “bring me home.” With a last hard swallow, I felt that shame of failure wash over me like red curtains closing at the finale. Once I was below my last bolt, I released the rock and sank against the rope. Even a prudent climber feels the disappointment of not completing a route.
Perhaps it was wise, and I could certainly justify it in many ways (we climbed all weekend, the route was made by a taller person, it was the last climb of the day, etc.) but that’s not what climbers do. We attribute both our summits and our whips to our own muscles, our own breath, our own mindgame.
There are times to risk the crux, and there are times not to. I think that part of aging might be learning to distinguish between. Not all feelings of failure are legitimate, and perhaps there is a great freedom in discerning that.
It may not be the shaky-legged freedom of standing on a spire with outstretched arms, but not all meaningful feelings must be emotional. Perhaps you can find faith in many crevices and crimps.