Sunday, November 18, 2001: It is 9 am. Yesterday morning I was in bed at the Old Climber's Home in Oakland, California, snoring peacefully. A marathon driving session has made today a different story. Greg Opland and Bill Wright just pulled up behind me at the parking area for the Mace, near Sedona, Arizona.
Greg and Bill, having climbed the Mace before, (Greg has climbed it 15 times) assemble a skanty rack and then stand patiently while I find my dentures, set up my titanium walker, and try to remember what I did with my harness. Finally Em comes to the rescue, pointing out that I am already wearing it. Em will remain on the ground for this climb, nursing an injured shoulder.
Soon all is ready, and Greg and Bill vanish up the trail as Em holds my elbow and assists my slow stumbling. Eventually we all reach the base of the Mace, where we find two fellows already working their way up the first pitch.
Now there's one thing you need to understand about Bill Wright. Although he claims to enjoy all the other facets of climbing as well as the next average joe, Bill likes to move FAST. His trip reports are heavily laced with pitches-per-day totals, and route times recorded in minutes and seconds. He recently co-authored (with Hans Florine) a book on speed climbing.
When Em and I met Bill for the first time, we were struggling down the Falls Trail in Yosemite Valley under enormous loads, having set a new record for the most time anyone had ever spent on Muir Wall. Bill on the other hand was sprinting down the Falls Trail, having just climbed Lost Arrow Tip that day as a party of FOUR, and it was only 2 in the afternoon. That was a rest day for Bill, and included the round trip hike up the Falls trail from the Valley floor. The previously day he had climbed 10 domes up in Tuolumne with Hans Florine, and the following day he would climb Steck-Salathe' on the Sentinel.
The day prior to my Mace adventure, Bill and Greg had climbed uncounted pitches, stopping only well after dark. I was clearly out of my league climbing with these two, but happy that they had consented to guide my sorry flab up the Mace.
As we wait for the two fellows to finish the first pitch, Bill begins quivering with tension like a purebred greyhound dreaming of rabbits. I swear I can even hear him gnashing his teeth. Greg and I relax and discuss his fee for guiding me up this climb, and reminisce about our only other climbing adventure together, Steck-Salathe' in Yosemite Valley years ago, a climb that ended on the summit at midnight.
We debate who gets what pitch, and I opt for the first, not knowing the difficulty of any of them, but thinking that the first 20 feet above me look pretty mellow. I wait for 45 minutes to give the fellows above a little breathing room, then start, the few pieces of protection we have brought dangling forlornly from my waist. Eventually, I scamper up the easy chimney section to the crux of the first pitch: an overhanging roof split by a thin crack. There I struggle and flail, but finally hoist myself up the steep section, regretting every ounce of flab that pads my 20-pound spare-tire waist. That section dispatched, I soon reach the anchors, (having spent very little time placing what little protection I had) to find the upper team still working through the second pitch. I bring up Greg, with Bill simul-climbing closely behind. And we wait.
The start of the next pitch is a steep 5.9 hand crack right off the ledge. As the second man of the upper team falls onto my head, Bill begins to talk with him about letting us pass at the next belay. By the third fall, (I have moved out from under him by this time-- I'm slow, but I CAN be trained) Bill has him convinced. As the fellow pulls on a stuck cam, we assure him we will clean his piece and return it him when we pass.
Eventually the upper team is established atop pitch two, with Bill arriving about 45 seconds behind them. By the time I get there, Bill has passed them and led the third pitch (having talked one member of the other team into belaying him-- Bill could talk a dalmation out of its spots) and has placed me on belay to follow. Feeling like a sprinter at the hundred yard line, who has just been informed that the race has been suddenly extended to two hundred yards, I cling across the fingertip traverse and then dive up the offwidth with very little style, arriving at the third belay quivering with fatigue, our spare rope tangling around my knees, gear a-jumble and puffing like a steam engine. Soon Greg arrives and our passing maneuver is complete, having cost the slower party about a 20-minute delay.
As I begin to lead the fourth pitch, I notice that it seems to be the crux. A slightly overhanging offwidth snakes up through the sandstone to end in a horizontal roof. I nervously slot in a #2 camalot as Greg's voice drifts up: "What's Brutus doing placing a piece THERE? He'll need that higher!"
Ignoring the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach and the running commentary from my two companions below, I slowly ooze up the crack, combining heel-toe and knee-jumar yoga with my more recently-perfected flab-stacks to propel me where other techniques would never suffice. Eventually I flop onto the huge ledge at the end of the pitch and lay there in the sun, a huge mound of pale blubber twitching in unendurable fatigue. Greg's voice again floats up: "If you're through admiring yourself, we would appreciate it if you could belay us up there too."
I stumble to the anchors, and faster than I can haul in rope, Greg and Bill fly up the pitch.
Greg leads us on the fabulous step-across to the summit of the Mace, pausing mid-stride while Em takes a photo from 400 feet below. We take a very short break, leafing through the register noticing names like Allen Steck, Gary Clark, Inez Drixelius, Frank Stock, and the ubiquitous Greg Opland.
The 4-foot gap between the Mace and the adjacent formation is traditionally descended by a jump across, but I decline out of respect for how long it takes old folks like myself to heal from sprained ankles and bruised heels. Instead, we all rappel and step back across the gap, using the summit register box as our sole rappel anchor.
All too soon we are back at the base of the Mace, Greg and Bill speed off to meet Bill's wife in town while Em and I make our way back to the car at a more leisurely pace, sipping brews. By 2 pm, we are re-united at a Mexican restaraunt with a distinct decor theme of psychadelic toucans. There, in addition to Greg and Bill, we meet Bill's two hyperactive children and his highly energetic wife. Soon the family of four departs, speeding west, due in San Diego the next morning. Greg, Em, and I stay awhile longer, finishing our meals, and planning for our next adventure.
"So I was sitting in my cubicle today, and I realized, ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it. So that means that every single day that you see me, that's on the worst day of my life."
--Peter Gibbons (Office Space)