From almost 100 feet below I heard Eric say what I had been thinking.
“You don’t have to make the move if you don’t want to,” he yelled up at me.
I was perched on a thin rock ledge about halfway up a pile of red granite called Moosedog Tower in Joshua Tree National Park. Eric was standing at the bottom of a steep slope feeding me rope. For several long minutes the rope hadn’t moved as I stared at the vertical wall of nearly featureless rock towering above me. Just in front of me was a small cave that ended at chest-level, above which rose two thin diagonal cracks forming a V. I was supposed to reach up and grab the crack rising to the right, pull myself up over the mouth of the cave and inch myself along the finger-wide fissure to the top of the tower. The route is called Tranquility, although I wasn’t feeling very tranquil myself at this moment.
I grabbed the only handhold I could find with both hands, put one foot on the edge of the cave and contemplated committing to the move. This is what climbers called the crux: the hardest part of any route, which is used to assign it a difficulty rating. This was the easiest route on Moosedog, rated a 5.6, a fairly undemanding grade. In my gym, where I climb in the respectable 5.11 range, I wouldn’t bother with a 5.6 route any sooner than I would use a ladder. In the gym you’d have to untie from the rope at the top of the climbing wall and jump down head first in order to hurt yourself.
On the way up we had run into two Australian climbers coming down from the same route. “Easy, mate,” one of them assured me when I asked about the crux.
Visualizing exactly what I would do on the move was somewhat difficult. Visualizing exactly what I would do if I failed was easy. I would fall.
I had placed a piece of protection in the bottom of the crack, which if it wasn’t pulled out by the fall would have caught my rope. Unfortunately, because of rope stretch and the fact that the move was just above a ledge that sloped down to the base of the climb I was probably going to hit rock. Hard.
Climbing is a sport with telling slang. Peeling is to fall. Decking and grounding are verbs that mean to fall back to your starting point, which is a very bad thing. The sharp end of the rope is the one that the lead climber ties into--so called because it’s the end that you can hurt yourself with.
I was the lead climber. Leading is a skill that is usually acquired after a long apprenticeship following an advanced climber and, well, learning the ropes as a second. I could count the number of months I had been seriously climbing on fingers of one hand.
“You’ve been pushing yourself pretty hard,” Eric said.
In the gym Eric is a better climber than I am. But outside I’m usually the one leading our climbs. Eric is also a lot smarter than I am.
I put my foot back firmly on the ledge and took my hands off the hold.
“Let’s get lunch,” Eric suggested from below. I unclipped the rope from the protection, which I cleaned from the crack and began climbing down.
We ate lunch at a picnic table in front of the tower as the Australian climbers started up a harder route, which has a 5.9 rating. Talking to them I had discovered that they had been on a climbing tour of the western U.S., which made me suspect that they knew what they were doing. Watching their rapid progress confirmed this: the leader scaled a wall, easily surmounted an overhanging ceiling and continued up to the V crack, taking the harder left-leaning diagonal with barely a pause.
Eric and I headed to Feudal Wall, a long massif of spires and buttresses that we had climbed before. I led a short route that followed a vertical crack to the top, jamming my left fist into the crack and turning it slightly to lock my arm into the rift and doing the same thing with my left foot. Grabbing a hold with my right hand I pulled myself off the ground, sticking my right hand and foot higher into the crack. Thus I forced myself up. Crack climbers have lousy manicures.
Near the apex, the crack had swallowed one arm to the elbow and the other to the wrist while my feet were slipping off the polished sides of the fracture as I desperately tried to scratch my way up with my shoes. Finally my right foot found enough fiction to nudge me up to where I could throw an arm around a knob and haul myself to the top. This route was rated a 5.7, harder than the one that had defeated me earlier but I still found the sting of failure more powerful than the thrill of success.
At least, I thought, I would be able to try to fail again.