The valley is an endless sunlit
chasm far below. I cower on a muddy,
grassy hummock in the middle of a
smooth slab and briefly consider my
options. Far away, nearly halfway
down the wall, a team is working on
the pendulum pitch. Waiting for them to
catch up and lead this last pitch may
take up to four hours. Another
option is to bail from the climb. I
look again at the 80 feet of slab
between me and the beckoning forest
at the rim.
The penji pitch should have provided
warning. After the pendulum, the
supposed-4th-class traverse was in
the middle of a 4" sheet waterfall. the
clear, shockingly cold water
churned over my arms as I clawed
beneath the current for holds. My
climbing shoes instantly filled with
water. Each move was a struggle both
against gravity, and against the
atrociously poor adhesion that the
streaming sheets of liquid provided.
Eighty feet: Eighty feet between
where I stand, and an easy stroll
down the descent.
How hard? 5.4? 5.6?
The rock here is completely covered
with, and shimmers beneath, a thin
veneer of running water.
Each rugosity of the smooth slab,
every wrinkle and rough spot, has
provided a substrate for scum and
algae growth. The south-facing
exposure of this slab has provided
sunlight, the minerals from the
warm water draining over the rim have
provided nourishment, and the result
is a surface similar in quality and
appearance to a playground slide
coated with rancid bacon grease.
The third option is one on which I
do not dwell. Imagination all-to-
vividly provides a stop-motion
strobe-lit image of a body
accelerating down the slick rock,
past trees and soil just out of
arm's reach, blurring streak of color
hurtling out into space, out of
control, all options gone, forever,
ruining the afternoon for everyone
on the climb below me.
Chalk hands. Oh-so-carefully lift
each foot, dry the sole of each
Kaukulator, chalk the rubber,
replace the foot on
the slime-covered rock.
Left foot moves. Focused attention
to the minutiae. Scrape a hold with
wet high-tech rubber to clear off
the slick algae. Lift the foot,
carefully balancing, and cake chalk
onto the sole. Transfer chalk to the
hold. The result is a hold that, for
30 seconds or so until water creeps
back into its territory, will
support my terrified being above the
hungry sunlit void as I scrape the
next hold and chalk, pants getting
too muddy to dry the shoes palms
slicking across the greasy granite
sunlit space stop-motion-strobe-lit-
Dry stretch of rock, one foot square,
with an accomodating wrinkle. Halfway there.
Ahead is a thin undercling flake and
more wet rock, (but less algae,) the
forest closer than ever before,
individual grains of soil visible;
chest clenched in a giant fist,
relax, breathe, no mistakes now...
I step down on to the dirt and pine
needles of the forest floor. Sob.
Laugh. Shout. Take another deep breath,
walk up to the spring and get a
drink. Look back over the slab, turn
my back, and start the descent,
tucking climbing shoes and chalkbag
into the daypack. Casual.
Notes: an account of the last 80 feet of a solo of
Royal Arches in wet conditions