Sue and I drove to Chinook Pass to meet Lisa. They went hiking 8 miles to Sheep Lake while I painted Lake Tipsoo in oils. It was my first oil painting of the year.
I’ve been missing my hand held ham radio for almost a year. It was sitting at the bottom of my oil painting backpack. I’d searched high and low for it. I’d looked in every box, shelf and backpack multiple times. But I’d never looked in the bottom of the oil painting backpack. I guess I must have brought radios to Paradise so Sue and I could communicate. Then, when that last oil painting bombed, I totally forgot that I’d left the $300 radio sitting in the pack.
My painting sucks, but I expected that after not using the medium for that long. Passages of the piece were fun to work on, but it needs a lot of work. Oils give you second chances and then some. There is a reason most serious painters work in oils.
I seem to be in a place with my art where I enjoy creating it, but lack the work ethic to polish it after the fact so it is sellable. I had such a strong work ethic before I retired. I was always pushing for excellence. But the steady pension checks have removed the need for the extra income from gallery sales. I like having the experience creating something on the blank canvas and living in the moment seems to be all I want to do.
Alex and I were talking about that at the gym recently. I said it’s like going climbing without a camera. I just want to have the experience of climbing. I don’t need to document it. The experience is enough. Painting is like that now…the act of creation is self fulfilling in and of itself. I still have a small desire to share my work. But social media seems so weak and ephemeral compared to face to face with friends or in a gallery.
We slept at the Buck Creek airport campground near Crystal Mountain Ski Area. It’s an awesome find. It’s free and there are tons of sites. It’s almost like Vantage, but with picnic tables at the spots. The next day we drove up to Sunrise fearing smoke…but lucked out with relatively clear weather. We were going to hike to Mt. Fremont but on the drive up I realized I wanted to be closer to the glaciers. And for that there is only one choice: Bouroughs Mountain.
I was fresh from standing at the easel all day at Tipsoo. Sue was sore from hiking 8 miles to Sheep Lake but she was game and we trudged up to second Bouroughs, which I determined was pretty enough. I painted another lame painting in Gouache and pen. My Sunrise paintings always bomb. The mountain goes into complete shade by 3pm. All the light is gone. Whereas on the South side (Paradise) it doesn’t lose the light until 6pm. I’ve been known to still be painting at 6 at Paradise.
But at Sunrise…the light is gone at 2. I must have done a dozen paintings up there over the decades…they all suck, without exception. I even did a dawn start there once. We camped in the meadow to be able to be on location at 8:30 AM. Total failure, the painting bombed. But the hike is super fun with dramatic false summits and views that open up like a curtain in a theater.
On the way down we saw a black fox and a family of 5 mountain goats, but the highlight of the day happened at Frozen Lake. We’d heard there was a large carnivore down there. As we approached within a few blocks of the lake, we saw a group of people gathered closely together. They were looking intently at something on the hillside, close to where we were hiking down.
As we got closer one of the guys started waving frantically and pointing. I slowed down and looked in the direction he was pointing. I saw a large, cow sized black back moving slowly just beyond a boulder. It was a full grown black bear, 60 feet away. Sue was just ahead and I told her to get out her iPhone. Mine was buried in my pack.
She quickly handed me her phone, saying: “Take some pictures!” then walked briskly down the trail to the relative safety of the group of 10 hikers watching the bear. I slowly raised the phone and began shooting video…watching carefully for signs of unease in the bears demeanor. I’m no bear expert…but it looked very happy, munching heather like a cow in high clover. Really snuffling it up. You can see it in the video. He has zero interest in me and is clearly used to people being around.
In hindsight though, it’s clear why women live longer than men. She handed me the camera and vamoosed! As we walked away, we both commented on the fact that the bear was the highlight of the trip…far out shining the two paintings. To see such a powerful apex predator ambling along eating grass and heather…completely at ease in nature. Wow! That was super cool to think this was his or her natural environment. We were the visitors, he or she lives here year long.
And this was no zoo, and we had no bear spray…and certainly no guns of any kind. We’d decided earlier that we: (1) never saw bears, and (2), they aren’t in attack mode if and when you do see one. My legs are sore from hiking, but I have a glow from the two paintings…and the bear encounter. We haven’t seen a bear in 15 years.
We ran into two young women a block further down the trail. We told them about the bear. They were worried.
“Should we be scared?” they asked.
I was like: “It’s ok to be scared. I was scared….he was 60 feet away….but he was too busy eating to pay me any mind.”
I’ve started in on my usual fall still life painting series. Just today the rain started falling for the first time since early June. I’ve been unicycling past this old retired ferry on the public bike path. It seemed like it might be paintable so I took my sketch pad down.
Fletch is back in Leavy for a few weeks and invited a dozen friends over to climb in the smoke. Five of us showed up. We climbed at R&D, Careno (his new routes), Parasol Rock and Classic Crack. By the last day I had warmed up and led Classic cleanly. This was a huge improvement over earlier in the summer when I hung on every cam. And this on a route I’ve been leading with 3 cams for 20 years.
Fletch and I are lucky to have a two pronged relationship. Not only do we climb together, we also both play and sing on the geetar. I brought some of my newly prepared sheet music over. Brian also plays, and Dave invited a friend out who knew the blues. A grand time was had by all. Nice to play the blues harp again, it’s been a while.
After a 3 year absence I finally got back to Squish. Though crossing the border was not without its drama. We had complied with all the arriveCAN headaches, which included uploading your vaccine proof via a photo, and scheduling your arrival time…basically making an appointment to cross the border. We also had to give them an address where we would be staying.
A Canadian address is problematic because we were dirt bagging it and in reality had no idea where we would end up finding room to camp. But I told them we were staying at the Chief, since it has a street address for the arriveCAN form and does not allow reservations…which simplified the paperwork.
We sailed through the border with no problems until the very last moment when the border guard said:
“You have been randomly selected to take a Covid Test. Here is your kit.”
“How is that going to work?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s super easy, you just follow the instructions and schedule a FedEx pickup. You have 24 hours to do it.”
We drove north with a growing sense of un-ease. Our first priority was to get a camp spot. It was Friday morning at a world famous climbing area in a perfect weather window with rain to either side of our 5 day stretch. Both the Chief and Mamquam were fully packed with climbers in all manner of vehicles from $200,000 Sprinters to beater rusted out Chevy vans, not to mention a few packed to the brim Subarus.
Squamish in good weather is the place to be and any climber worth his salt within walking, driving or flying distance was already there…many for several month stretches. But I’ve been climbing there since 1978 and I know a few of the secret camping spots. Privacy concerns prevent me from sharing online…but I will say that we headed up towards Whistler and got lucky.
After putting up a tent, we headed for the Smoke Bluffs and the Black Zawn. I’d planned to deal with the Covid test in the evening…but of course we were far too tired after the long drive and a day of climbing. On the next day, we did a dawn start to get a parking spot at the Bluffs.
James cooked while I battled through the long process of navigating a very badly designed website to set up a Microsoft Teams meeting at 11 AM for the remote home Covid Self administered test. They want a nurse watching while you swab.
We climbed a few fun routes at Neat and Cool before I logged into Microsoft Teams. I wasn’t sure which log in to use. I have a backup account with another email address, but not the one I used for arriveCAN. I wasn’t sure how tightly the databases were integrated. Plus, I haven’t used Teams in 4 years. It sucked back then even on a computer. It was even worse on a smartphone. It’s the kind of thing that is supposed to be easy, even for a beginner…but it’s not.
By some miracle of the computing gods the nurse and I were able to see and hear each other. But it immediately became apparent that my extended Verizon Canada coverage plan was throttling my data. That would have been survivable, but her accent was very strong. They had clearly offshored the work to a place where people work for pennies and can barely speak English.
I had assumed that she would walk me though the whole process, starting with opening the sealed serial numbered box. But due to her strong Pakistani accent and the bad ‘FaceTime’ connection, she had to repeat every instruction several times. I was sitting on a ledge in climbing gear and didn’t know I needed a pen to write with. James had to hike over with my pen…which was fortunately on my key ring. I got a few lines penned in and she had to move on to her next appointment. They only schedule 15 minutes!
We went climbing after that up at Ronin’s corner…which, by the way, is still in the sun at 3! It was too hot to lead without incurring rivers of sweat. Our plan to escape the inland heat by climbing on the seashore at Squish had backfired. Not that I’m complaining. It was so lovely to be back on the exquisite Canadian granite.
We knocked off at 4, drove into town and I once again waded through the awful website to schedule another appointment for a home test. Despite a 4 bar signal the FaceTime experience was even worse. And his accent was abominable. I even asked him if there was anyone there who could speak English more clearly…because even when he slowed down and repeated his words multiple times, it was as if he was speaking gibberish. By that time James was in the car. Even with both of us guessing at his meaning we were getting zip.
Prior to this latest meeting I’d done some research and discovered that there is a $5000 fine if you don’t complete the test within 24 hours of crossing. Or maybe it’s by end of day the day after you arrive…I read conflicting reports. Either way, with our facetime crashing repeatedly, Verizon throttling my data, my RoboCall software intercepting his phone calls when FaceTime crashed, we were having a first class sh$tshow. I was looking at a $5000 fine with a deadline…plus he was running way over his 15 minutes of allowed time for our ‘appointment’. I think he even mentioned that we were out of time…but that he was going to make it work, even if he couldn’t see me.
I was like, you mean we can do this by phone…really? You don’t have to watch me on video?
So that’s how it ended. Despite all the communication nightmares, we managed to get a swab into the packaging and I dropped it off at Shoppers Drug Mart in Squamish. They were familiar with the border sh$tshow and had a form to accept my test kit.
My 24 hours of stress were finally over and we spent the rest of the trip enjoying ourselves. We spent a day at Octopus Garden, a day at and above Klahanie Crack, a day up at Chek and maybe somewhere else? My favorite lead was Edible Panties. And no, I don’t name these things. Climbers have a long history of ribald route names. It probably stems from the fact that these routes were put up back when women climbers were thin on the ground.
Sue and I would be out climbing with a bunch of sausages and she would literally be the only women in a crag filled with 20 guys. This used to happen all the time. It worked in my favor when I’d call my buddies to ask if they wanted to go climbing, they wanted to know if Sue was coming.
Sue joined me for my second ‘over 50’ rendezvous in Idaho. It was organized by Helen again, and about 8 of the same people came, plus as many as 10 new people. Simultaneously the super topo group was there at the Sisters. Jim has been going to that group for at least 5 years that I know of, maybe longer.
Because of the two groups there were a lot of gray and white haired climbers around. When we got there some of my friends from last year were camped down below, waiting for the group site to open up. Only Helen was up top, she was camped in 58, a walk in down by Carols Crack.
We had done the drive in two 6 hour days. For our midpoint we camped just past the crowded Emmigrant Springs at a campground called Hilgard Junction State Park. It was empty, $25 cheaper than Immigrant, and just a short 20 minute drive further South East.
On the second day Sue was on a quest to find an old school campfire percolating coffee pot. REI in Boise didn’t have it, nor did Cabellas. While in Boise I rode my Unicycle in a deserted parking lot. I also rode it every couple days in the gravel lot at the group camp. Gravel is really hard compared to pavement. It requires an aggressive forward lean that is very energy intensive.
Sue and I did Windance and Da Boyz on the first day after helping Helen set up her gazebo. Folks started rolling in over the next couple days. Cindy, Jill and I did Easy Corner on the back side of Breadloaves. On the rap down I saw a nice line of new bolts through a roof. It looked like a one move wonder at the roof.
It was just one move alright but it was a whopper. You clipped a few bolts and cams until you were standing under a 4 to 5 foot roof. Perfectly horizontal with a bolt out at the lip. The clip meant leaning way out behind your head, coming perilously close to falling over backwards. Once clipped I walked down the slab and reached up to the lip. Great jug at the lip, and with just a little stretch I could reach a super good left hand jug.
My chin was even with the lip jug. The move was to do a pull up on the left jug and put your foot by your chin. I was pulling so hard on that ultra sharp waco that I still have a painful scab two weeks later. Nothing like getting to bad bleeders on the first day. And no running water to keep the wounds clean. Plus they are right on the flexing joints of my first and third fingers.
After 8 falls and and two bleeding flappers I put a sling on the bolt and aided the move. Cindy followed it cleanly. The rest of the climb was barely 5.7. Cass showed up for a couple days. I climbed with her and a bunch of other friends old and new for the next 10 days. We checked out a new crag on the weekend called Geowatt. It’s out toward Stripe Rock on the right on the Geology trail. There was only one other party there so our crowd plan worked. I led a two sevens an eight and a nice sport nine with a couple falls. It was fun, but not worth the hike.
Midway through the trip we were all invited to have Pizza at Kim’s house. He has a lovely log vacation home overlooking the City of Rocks. I don’t know him personally but I’ve heard he is a long time climber who simply likes giving back to the community. He was very gracious and welcoming to all of us unwashed climbers showing up to eat many, many boxes of pizza. My friend Jim knows him from way back due to his association with the super topo group.
Sue, Jim, Keith, Jay and I hiked out to Lost World and climbed a bunch of the chill sevens and eights. They were also at Geowatt, along with Mark and family.
After Dara left, I followed Cory up Skyline, Scream Cheese and Swiss Cheese. I led Private Idaho 5.9 but the sun was baking Cory by the time he had to clean. We zombied out in the shade at camp for a few hours before Mark and I led one of the two new bolted Pogue routes on Bath Rock.
That’s our trip in a nutshell. Since returning I’ve been to Index with Christine and have returned to regularly scheduled programming on the unicycle. Riding tennis courts is problematic due to the annoying appearance of tennis players. Who knew that was a thing?
I just recently discovered a skate park in a huge abandoned parking lot by a stadium. It’s all asphalt, much larger than any tennis court and weirdos with helmets and kneepads are expected. I’ve found my unicycle Shangri-La!
Dave and I headed south mid January towards St. George. I’m putting the photos gallery first, while the more narrative storytelling is below the gallery.
Along the way we met Fletch, Sam, Garret, Anni and Brian. I’m of the ‘more is merrier’ way of thinking. As long as everyone can lead and is vaccinated, it usually works out. It’ll be funny to read this in ten years when we’ve all forgotten about Covid.
Our first stop after the 26 hour drive was a 10 minute walk to a cliff in downtown St. George, right above a soccer field. We were so close we could hear the children kicking the balls. Dave led Wide Boy and Deface Crack. The rock quality was surprisingly close to Indian Creek. We felt lucky to have nailed the warm weather after that long drive. I struggled from jet lag, but it would be fun to go back when I’m warmed up.
We crashed on BLM land near Prophesy Wall for the next few nights. It was deserted up there with only a herd of cows wandering around. I was woken at dawn by an odd rhythmic sound, realizing later it was cows grazing next to our truck. We only saw one other van and Dave left his tent up with no problem.
Snow Canyon is shady in the morning so we climbed a 5.8 crack on the sunny side then at noon followed the sun to the three pitch 5.8 Just Deserts and a couple other harder lines. Pictured below is me rapping off Dave’s sketchy 5.10a. The route went up the left arete above the huge cave. The moves felt like stepping on air. By the third morning the sun was gone and the weather was overcast. We woke up, looked around and bailed for Vegas.
When we got to Vegas we had enough of an afternoon left to climb Physical Graffiti and the first pitch of the 5.9 sport route Big Bad Wolf. Someday I want to lead the top two pitches on that one, they look great.
We slept at Skid Row and rose at dawn to climb the 5.8 six pitch Purblind Pillar. Dave really stepped up to the plate to cover my weak leading skills. I only led two of the six pitches this time. For some weird reason I was ‘off my feed’ for the first week of this almost 3 week trip. With a few exceptions, I was climbing so badly I didn’t even recognize myself. I knew there was a real climber inside my head somewhere…but I couldn’t make him come out to play. It was only after we got to Jtree that I started to climb normally.
After finishing Purblind in the dark we decided I was too slow for long alpine routes in winter. Dave had wanted to do another long one the next day…but after thinking it over we decided to bail for Joshua Tree. It was a good excuse to do some night driving instead of sitting around the propane campfire. Simultaneously I had heard that our Indian Creek friend Sam was in Red Rocks. I regretted not calling her because she told me later that she had been climbing with boulderers and would have enjoyed some multipitch trad. If you don’t know bouldering…it’s rock climbing, but without ropes. And yes, it’s as dangerous as it sounds.
We crashed in the desert on the way to Josh. There is a ton of BLM land coming into 29 Bombs from the North. In the early morning we parked at Intersection Rock and did “the walk” around the full campground, making friends and admiring all the fancy rigs. Not finding a campspot, we decided to cook breakfast.
Dave (hereafter called Chef) appointed me sous-chef and began teaching me how to prepare Egg McMuffins. He denies ever working at McDonalds.
Chef starts by toasting the English muffins
Once brown, set those aside in a warming pan
Crack 4 eggs and drop them separately in the skillet
Break open the yokes so the yellow spreads a bit for flavor
Peel off 4 double slices of salami and put them in the pan on the sides
Slice half an onion and put the onion rings next to the salami
Once the eggs are ready to flip, cut them apart into four separate eggs
Flip the eggs (this was my job…as sous-chef)
Put the pre-sliced cheese on the eggs, cover pan
While all this is going on, keep flipping the muffin halves
When cheese is almost soft, lift eggs onto muffin bottom – sous chef assists
Add fried salami and onions to egg, which melts the cheese to perfection
Add the top muffin and…Bob’s Your Uncle!
By the end of the trip…I was almost ready to cook these alone. Chef kept promising a promotion…but the budget was tight…I’m still hoping. With full bellys we climbed a few easy things like Toe Jam, Double Cross and Mikes Books. Dave top roped the crux on Watershute and got it third try.
After Dave led Sexy Grandma we noticed a guy having trouble on Double Cross. He froze on the upper half after running out of big gear. I quietly asked his belayer if he would be able to finish the route, and when he said no, we hung around, watching in case he needed help. Either Dave or I could have easily led it to get his gear off.
Finally we left, knowing there would likely be people around if they really needed a rescue. While we were hanging out he mentioned that they were leaving site 27 in the morning…and we said we’d stop by since we were staying in BLM and needed a campsite.
Fletch showed up that night around 8 from Santa Barbara with a guitar and some Mikes and we played our usual set under the desert stars. We’ve been jamming together for 14 years, he is one of my oldest friends. In the morning we drove up and checked in on our friends in 27. Sure enough they were packing up and seemed thankful that we had offered to help the previous night when things were going south. Dave asked if he could put his tent up while they were getting ready to leave. They concurred and we became the lucky owner of a rare campsite.
In case you don’t know, getting a site at this first come first served campground can seem impossible. Each site gets two parking spots and there are often two or more cars in. every. single. site. The rangers never take down the FULL sign. Oddly though, if you know how to play the game, getting a site only takes a couple days.
I love Joshua Tree for many reasons, but the most important thing is the quantity of easy climbs on good rock. Doesn’t matter how rusty you are, you can find climbs to lead comfortably. Many people prefer to top rope until they warm up. This is actually the norm. But I’ve observed over the decades that this TR practice leads to overcrowding on popular routes.
I’m in the minority on this opinion, but I feel that if a climb is too hard to lead, I’ll hike farther until I find something easier that I *can* lead. This frustrates some of my stronger partners, but, we’ve all got our little quirks. I like to say: “I’ve never met an easy climb I didn’t like.”
My first good lead of the trip was the 5.8 Hands Off. It’s a lovely stem box problem that eats gear the whole way up. Any time there is a crux you can place a cam above you. It’s basically top roping…but without the top rope. Because of the stem you get lots of rests to reflect on your poor life choices. There is also a great belay stance at the top that allows you to photograph your followers. Dave scrambled up to the top to get this photo:
We roamed far and wide over the next two weeks, climbing all the classics plus a few new ones. We were in true hidden valley for Fisticuffs, Tumbling Rainbow and Illusion Dweller; at Echo for Tim’s Valentine, F8, Popes Crack, Penny Lane and Touch & Go; up Steve Canyon for Deflowered, Grand Theft Avacado; up in the Wonderland for High Strung and Hex Marks the Poot; plus all the standard campground climbs like Toe Jam, Overhang Bypass, Damper and Dandelion.
Our hardest climbs were Illusion Dweller, Loose Lady, Bird on a Wire, Dandelion and Fistifuffs. I was surprised how hard Loose Lady seemed. It’s a mix of face and slab on thin edges. Sue and I used to love it, but pulling hard on those crimpers seems to aggravate my 68 year old hands. Even my feet were complaining. Maybe it was just near the end of the trip and I was getting tired? I hope it isn’t one of those climbs that I have to cross off the list ’cause I got too old. While we were packing up a young couple came up and sent it effortlessly…just like we used to do in our twenties. We all get our chance to be young, strong and pretty.
Nights at Joshua Tree in the winter are long and cold. Once the sun goes down you have three choices: (1.) Go to bed early, (2.) shiver around a campfire, or (3.) go night hiking. For those in the know, there is a classic series of night hikes around Hidden Valley. I met the legendary aid climber Ammon McNeely thru a mutual friend in 2011. He taught me how to navigate through the park using landmarks that are visible even without moonlight. One of his guiding principles is that you can’t do it sober…simply not allowed. This led to some interesting shenanigans the first night he took us out, but that is another story.
No one at our site had done the night tour so I volunteered to lead. We visited the Iron Door cave and the Hobbit Hole, a grand time was had by all. It’s fun to bring a good camera out there for night exposures. I had my full frame Canon 6D.
Eventually all our friends left and it was just me and Dave breaking into the third week of steady climbing. I had done a good painting and led Fistifcuffs, while he had led Illusion Dweller. Those are both proud sends so we’d kind of accomplished everything we’d come down for. I followed him up Overhang Bypass, which has a scary traverse for both the leader and follower. It’s only 5.7 but it’s one of those climbs that seems to never feel easy or safe. On the summit, I broached the subject of heading for home. Sue was getting lonely…and I sort of needed another rest day…maybe we should head North? Dave concurred and we packed up.
He taught me a cool trick on the road trip home. I was ready to crash in my usual noisy rest area or truck stop. He suggested taking an exit where there was a long stretch of blackness…as in, no houses or towns. His working theory is to take the exit, then look at a map. Look for roads that fork out like the roots of a tree…getting smaller and smaller…with no houses at the ends. Typically this may mean an open farm field, or old logging road. It worked great, and was far quieter than a parking lot full of rumbling diesel trucks.
I love going on these climbing trips, but it’s equally fun to come home and see my family. Absence doth makes the heart grow fonder.
I’ve been off Facebook for a few months now. My account isn’t dead, it’s suspended…like a leave of absence. I shut it down after they were called before congress by a whistleblower. She said they were choosing profit over kindness.
In addition to this blog I’ve long been a fan of online forums about climbing. It used to be, and still can be, a way to meet climbing partners. We also share stories about our trips, discuss what gear is good or bad, read news stories of concern to climbers.
There have been many forums over the years. The first one I hung out at was cascadeclimbers.com, and that was back at the start of this century. There have been others, but the most current one is mountainproject.com. It has turned into a multipurpose website. You can also download it onto your phone and it functions as a gps enabled guidebook, no cell service required.
It’s a very robust app. You can make comments on a route while you are climbing that later get uploaded to the cloud. There is a tick list function for how well and when you have climbed something, and all that gets uploaded and shared.
As with most online forums there are a lot of angry keyboard warriors, but there are also kind and generous souls looking for like minded people to have a discussion about matters of consequence.
Recently there was a 12 page thread where the original poster (OP) asked a sincere question about whether climbing wrecked marriages. His marriage was failing so the post was written from the heart and many people responded in kind. I read about 8 pages before deciding to offer my viewpoint.
Before I get into my online response, I do sometimes wonder how rare it is that we both come from families where divorce is so rare. All 4 children of my grandma had lifetime marriages, as did she, and her parents. Of my 13 cousins, there have been 3 that have been divorced. The rest have lifetime marriages…well, at least so far, but we are all in our 60s. My brothers kids, and my kids seem normal and happily married. My sister’s kids have just started getting married.
So what is it? Is there a thread of relationship integrity that flows down through the family? Some super gene that makes us kinder than the average Joe? I’m certainly not perfect. I can get moody and mean for no reason whatsoever. Sue is usually the only one that sees it. I think/hope she has learned to live with my occasional bursts of rudeness.
I guess you could say, like any married couple, we have arguments occasionally…probably mostly because I’m being a d$ck. Like I say, not a perfect human being. Still, 90 percent of the time we get a long quite well and see eye to eye. We have different passions, but also many in common. I don’t want to hex myself by saying this…but at times it even seems the romance is still alive…well, maybe that’s going too far.
I could link to the post directly…but you can find it easily enough if you are curious.
I put a couple hours into crafting a carefully worded response. I’m posting it here to be sure it gets preserved. I have total control over this website…whereas mountainproject may or may not stand the test of time. Here are the words from my post:
Sorry to hear about the relationship challenges. I’m no marriage counselor, but I did marry my best climbing partner in 1979…and we’re still climbing together…with two grandkids now.
Having a significant other who climbs is the gold standard. Nothing beats seeing those warm eyes looking at you from the other side of the ledge. I’ve got some great climbing buddies, but it’s not the same as ‘friends with benefits’.
I remember a time about 7 years in when I was not real happy in our marriage. She was perfect: smart, fit, strong, funny, a perfect climber babe…but something was off kilter in my head. For some dumb reason I was ready to bail. But Thursday rolled around and I was like: “Dang, I need a partner this weekend. Maybe I can put up with her for a few more days.”
On Saturday we were half way up a multipitch route, sitting on a fat ledge and not saying much. I was racking for the next pitch and happened to look over at her. Something clicked into place in my brain and I realized I was on a ledge with a very beautiful woman…and she was my woman. Climbing basically saved my marriage, over and over.
Things got harder for us when we had kids. But we were lucky to have my mom and dad nearby. They’d come on our climbing trips to babysit in the campsite. Both sets of parents were always happy to babysit for day trips. She and I would climb all day…then come back to the kids.
We had a few partners (team of 3) who could tolerate children and managed to still take our long climbing road trips together. I knew one guy who paid his 17 year old baby sitter to come to Yosemite for a week in the station wagon so he and his wife could still climb together.
When the kids were toddlers I cut back on climbing and did a lot of windsurfing. It was almost as fun, and didn’t require a partner. The kids liked playing on the beach…and she and I could take turns sailing.
When the kids were older, we would do compromise trips where we would climb at Smith for 4 days. The kids would play at the base of the cliff, chasing lizards and stuff. Then we’d head out to the coast. She and the kids hiked or played in the surf while I painted landscapes. We each got what we wanted…and we were together as a family.
Now that we are in our sixties, she’s cut back on hard climbing due to some back and hand problems. Poor old body is wearing out. But she still cruises 5.9 friction and loves jtree.
I still love the dirtbag life style and take several 3 week road trips each year, plus a lot of weekends. She often flies in to join me for the last week. Again, it seems that marriage is about compromise.
She loves puttering around the yard, doing her fitness walks, and helping to babysit our two grandkids. That’s sort of a family tradition at this point. But she starts to miss me after a few weeks…as I do her.
So that’s my story. I have no easy answers…other than that climbing didn’t hurt my marriage, it saved it.
/////*** A few people thanked me for writing, they were very kind. I responded as shown below **//////
To those who commented, thanks. I’ve been incredibly lucky. I sometimes wonder if it helped that my parents, and grandparents all had lifetime marriages. My wife’s family is the same way. We may have absorbed some relationship skills growing up?
Not to say you can’t learn that stuff elsewhere, from books, therapy, life…hell, I don’t know. It’s been sad watching so many marriages fall apart around us. We often know both people. And they’re usually both super smart and kind…good climbers too. Divorce seems to be the norm, and often for the best. We’ve seen many people hook up with new partners and be stronger than ever.
I didn’t mention that we also backcountry ski together, since day one. So we have both a summer and a winter sport we love to do together. She loves to hike, which I find pointless, but she’ll lure me with the promise of a good view, so I bring my easel. It’s something else we can do together.
I drove to Smith Wednesday. Traffic was horrible passing Fort Lewis and I getting tired by the time I reached Mt. Hood. I pulled in at a snowy trail head with a single Sprinter van parked in the quiet moonlight thinking it would be a nice calm nights sleep. I was wrong.
I drink coffee and Red Bulls to keep awake. I know it’s not wise…but it seems to be the only way to do long solo drives. Problems come when I push late into the night, trying to reach a destination…in this case, a crash spot down out of the snow…or even Smith itself.
I’d just had my last Red Bull half an hour before realizing it wasn’t helping anymore. My tiredness had overcome the caffeine. At that point I encounter something I joke about called: “Managing your pharmaceuticals”. The situation is this: You finally pull over, too tired to drive safely anymore. Sometimes I can sleep despite the caffeine. But this night I decided a shot of whiskey as a nite cap might help me sleep.
Now, I could have left that parking lot and driven further…but the tiredness and the shot of whiskey made it unwise. I was stuck. The only solution I can see is to leave in the morning. That was my original plan, but we had family over at noon and I like hanging out with the kids.
Anyway, there I was, sitting in the back of my cozy truck until 2 in the morning watching a constant stream of jacked up 4 wheel drive’s drifting donuts in the 8 inches of un-plowed snow. When that got boring, they’d plow thru the two foot berm and hotdog around on the snow covered lawn back by the cement outhouse. There was also a snowed in road out to a campground for the more adventurous.
There were so many of them that it must be a thing. I can imagine these self centered idiots gathering in a nearby tavern talking excitedly about this one plowed trailhead up by Mt. Hood where there is an open outhouse, lots of snow and no law enforcement.
That was a lesson learned. Earlier, on the way up past Sandy, before the snow I had driven past at least 3 normal campgrounds…all dark, calm and quiet looking. I’d hoped I could get over the snowy pass down to some quiet pull outs before Warm Springs…but it was not to be.
I met Dave and Danni at the Overflow Lot at Smith the next morning. We hiked down and climbed the red arête to the right of Purple Headed Warrior…which we also climbed. Then we “did the walk” along the base and got lucky with 5 Gallon Buckets. Someone had led it, top roped a few friends and walked away from the rope, leaving it hanging. It’s typical behavior these days at Smith.
But, to their credit, they kindly offered to pull their rope if I would rescue their draws…since their only leader in the party of 6 was leading a hard ten nearby. That worked out great for us. Danni and I both led it while Dave followed in street shoes. He has a new rule: Everything I lead he follows in street shoes. What’s ironic is I did that with Kena on some trips this summer. Street shoes are more comfortable…and what goes around comes around.
I don’t remember all the routes we did but a few stand out. We did Fridays Jinx, rapping down Pack Animal in the dark. I led the second pitch…feeling tentative but solid. I tried to hand it off to Dave, who had led the more dangerous first pitch.
“Dave, I know you haven’t led this before. If you really want the lead I will happily hand it off. You’re a good partner and I wanna’ keep you happy.”
Danni observed this little exchange: “I call that BS. Uncle Mark is scared of the pitch!”
“I’m 70 percent sure I can lead it…but the 30 percent that says I can’t is making a lot of noise. Alright, I’ll lead it…but you’ll rescue me if I chicken out, right Dave?”
A little of my skill from Indian Creek was still in play, helping me stay focused on the excellent layback and stem moves that keep the grade at 7+. When Dave topped out in the twilight I was surprised to see he wasn’t towing a rope for Danni. She had wisely decided to bail. Dave and I put on our headlamps and walked over to the Pack Animal rappel where Danni was waiting at the bottom to make sure we got off ok.
Dave was interested in multipitch so on the next day we took a trip up White Satin. I’ve done it with Richard and Marty (may he rest in peace), so this was my third trip up. I’ve never got it clean but it’s always exciting with enough exposure to make your knees weak. The hardest move comes right at the end of the third pitch which is an overhanging 5.9 open book. You can get up it with good stem technique but I’m usually so terrified by that point that I’ve forgotten how to climb. The stem foot holds are often on completely vertical smears that don’t look like they’d stick.
But stepping on these vertical smears in the overhanging open book is the only way up. The jams at the crux vanish for a 3 foot section. There is a blue #3 handjam…and a rattly finger jam, but those are out of reach. I think I had to layback on a flaring pod, stembox off to the left then step up on the concealed rail off to the right. That gained me a couple crucial feet.
I pulled Dave’s blue cam out of the hand jam, stuck my left hand in there and underclinged the rattly fingers to gain access to the sandy grapefruit sized knob off to the right. I pulled on the knob and lunged up for a flaring handjam on the left…which ended the crux just as all my power drained away and Dave came into view at the belay…grinning like a banshee. What a climb!
I hate to say it but the best climb of the trip was the newish sport climb: Voyage of the Cow Dog. It starts level with the top of the 600 foot tall Ship Rock and it’s a long approach. By the time you get to the third pitch you are climbing above the massive Picnic Lunch Wall.
I led the first pitch. It got increasingly steep on some of the most uninspiring frozen mud climbing I’ve ever seen. It looked like a vertical wall of cow sh$t got dried out and petrified. Every bolt I checked seemed solid…despite the ugly rock. Even for Smith it’s odd because there are very few embedded stones. It’s not conglomerate like Bunny Face. And despite just being an eight, some of the moves are thin, I had to hang once because stepping on a half inch edge of frozen mud seemed so improbable. After a rest I was able to “commit to the fall”. The bolt was just below my feet…assuming it was good.
This is why I’m not a huge fan of sport climbing. You have to put your life in the hands of the kind strangers who drill the bolts. Obviously we all owe a huge debt to the climbers who put up routes. But this doesn’t mean you should put complete faith in bolts found out in the wild.
Imagine if amusement park rides were put up by average Joe’s who taught themselves welding and engineering. There is no training of the workers, no government inspections, no guarantee it’s safe. Your only comfort is that lots of people have gone before you and found the bolts to be good.
The last pitch on Cow Dog takes you to the rim on an arete with 600 feet of exposure above Picnic Lunch wall. Dave had led it and made it look easy. Following it I found the moves were all there, but you had to move right at both bulges…and right meant moving out to the edge where the exposure was unnerving. I think I can lead it next time…just have to exercise some serious mind control. But you need to get up early for Cow Dog…it’s super popular.
You can often get on trad lines when the sport is crowded. One of my Smith favorites is Lions Jaw 5.7. I told Dave and Danni that it used to be the second route past the bridge. You’d turn left after the foot bridge and the first route you came to was Zebra Zion. Lions Jaw was second. There was nothing else. Now there are at least 40 sport routes before you get to Lion’s Jaw. It’s all ancient history now…but it’s weird to have all those memories…like ghosts in my mind of past trips down there when we were young and pretty. Lions Jaw is a super fun route. You can still lead it with all passive gear.
The full story is below the photos if you like a written narrative. I like to write about these trips so I can look back in the fullness of time and more clearly remember all the great adventures.
On Sunday October 24th I left for Moab. It’s all hazy now, but I think I slept in one of those truck stops that aren’t quite of the Love’s category. But they can still be good, simple gravel lots with big trucks idling all around in back of a remote gas station somewhere south of Yakima. Those guys are professional drivers and parking near them usually feels safe…as opposed to sleeping on wide spots near freeway exits. It seems like it would be pretty random to have a weirdo encounter. I mean, sure, the odds are there, but low.
The next day a huge ‘atmospheric river’ hit the freeway north of Salt Lake City. I got caught up in it while looking for a crash spot in the evening. I try not to drive at night…especially in heavy rain but all the exits said ‘no service’. It was some of the worst, scariest driving I’ve ever done. Nowhere to stop but too tired to drive. At one point I was following a semi truck and another semi passed on the left. The two of them were throwing up huge sheets of water as we all flew down the freeway at 60. I was totally blinded, might as well have not had wipers. As the big truck passed I couldn’t see any signs of the road…just rain smeared red lights. I swerved to the middle of the red glows…hoping that was the road, and that no crazy person was tail ending the trucks.
They passed, I slowed to 40 and took the next exit. Luck was with me and there was a wide turn around on a side road where I could park and sleep. It poured all night. The next day I managed to drive to Moab, camping in free BLM pland a few miles north of town.
Grand County, UT
Chad caught up to me at 10 that night, and we met Cole the next day. I’ve known Cole a couple years after hooking up at Squamish and Vegas. We stocked up on food and drove down to Indian Creek. We did a few routes that evening and lucked out with a good camp spot about halfway to Beef Basin.
We rolled in to Donnelly at 10AM. As we were packing up I noticed a solo girl sitting on her tailgate. I knew that look, having been solo many, many times back when the kids were little. Sue would babysit while I walked around with a rack and a rope hoping for a party of three that needed a 4th.
I walked near her car as I headed up to the crag.
“Morning! How’s your day going?”
“Not bad, how about you?”
“Oh, we’re headed up to get humbled.”
“Yeah, I heard you guys talking about doing some moderates. Uh, you wouldn’t happen to mind if I tagged along would you? I don’t have a partner, but I do have a rack and a rope…”
“Uhh sure, we’d be happy to have you join us.” Sam turned out to a great climber…better than me actually, especially on the smaller hand sizes. She ended up rescuing me on Generic Crack when I ran out of juice halfway up. She is the second partner I’ve met this season while climbing with parties of 3. I also met Dave in July while climbing with Fletch and Kena. Come to think of it, I met Chad while climbing in a party of 3. You can never have too many partners!
We ended up camping and climbing together for a few days. Sam is good people and blessed with small hands. I envy people with hands that size. They have access to small cracks, whereas people with big hands don’t. We did see an old guy my age down there who had huge mitts like mine. He was climbing red #1 cracks no problem…so I guess there’s hope.
Chad, Cole, Sam and I climbed at Donnelly for a couple days, doing Binou’s, Generic, Chocolate Corner, Cave Route and a couple others.
I was able to haul my big camera since we had a strong team to help carry the Creek rack. My buddy Fletch back in T-town had recently upgraded to new ultralight cams. He was kind enough to loan me a bunch of his older cams. With everyone’s rack pooled, we had 12 each of yellows and blues, 7 reds, 5 greens, four big #4’s, two 5’s and a #9 valley giant.
When we walked into the Cave Route tunnel there was a party going on with a loud boom box. It was a bunch of 20 somethings rocking out, climbing and smoking wacky tabacky. Fortunately their iPhone playlist was surprisingly good music and we hung around until they cleared out. Sam loaded up with a bunch of reds and led the 10D, followed by Chad, who flashed it effortlessly. Watching Chad was frustrating because his hands are not much smaller than mine. He can climb blue cracks and red cracks…the man is a crack wizard.
I had zero chance of leading it so took the top rope for the punishment factor. As expected, I couldn’t get either hands or feet in the crack. I’m simply too big. It’s perfect reds…about and inch and an eighth. (1.125″). I could get a painful ring lock and a foot smear but that was it. With Chad hauling and me grunting up a storm I made it to the anchor. The secret to climbing reds continues to elude me.
We went to Power wall on the third day. We did Batteries not Included and the Unnamed 9+, plus one other mellow 9 off to the right. Fletch and I had spotted the 9+ in the spring, so it was super fun to get on it and find that it’s totally climbable.
Full Disclosure: I didn’t get many climbs clean this trip. After 4 trips I’ve realized that hang dogging routes at Indian Creek is just how you get up stuff. Unless you are a local…or a wizard like Chad…taking rests on long splitters is sort of normal down there.
After Cole and Sam left, Chad and I took a rest day. I painted while he drove to town for provisions. I explored a long dirt road out towards Bridger Jacks. The sun angle cooperated for a few hours and I did a fun Monotone oil painting using mainly Iron Oxide brown.
I also got stung by something bad. It was inside my shirt and bit me twice while I was driving. I never saw it but some locals told me it might have been a scorpion. I swelled up huge and started to worry that I might need an Epipen. Fortunately my inReach allowed me to text my daughter. She consulted her nursing book, and or the internet and told me what to watch out for. I was an hour from a hospital…and it never did more than swell up and blister….but it was ugly for about a week. It’s a month later now and I still have a pea sized lump at the site of the bite.
The day after the bite I tried to lead Chocolate Corner. I’d got it clean in the spring…but hung all over it this time. It was like someone had stolen my brain. I couldn’t find the smears on the right. I don’t know if it was bad shoes or the infection from the scorpion bite.
At the anchors I was wheezing like an old horse, trying to get a full breath of air. The cowboy on the route to my right looked over at me:
“Dude, nice work on that!”
“I didn’t get it clean, not a real proud send.”
“Oh, man, don’t worry about it. Anyone who can walk up to a route at the creek, especially 67 years old, and get up it…you did great man!”
That was nice to hear. Climbers at the creek are kind. The place can be humbling. Chad and I had some great evenings around the propane campfire. He used to be a professional drummer and gave me some tips on how to improve the guitar part on Blackbird. He picked up the guitar a couple years ago and has quite a gift for complex picking patterns.
We went back to Donnelly and led Incredible Hand Crack, Twin Cracks, Triple Jeopardy, Pringles and Super Crack.
I was shocked to lead IHC clean this time. I sailed up to the crux with no problem…placed a yellow and a blue in the overhang, then down climbed about 10 feet to a no hands rest. At no time did I weight the rope…so I’m calling it clean.
Once I committed to the roof moves it was surprisingly solid. There is practically a shelf in the overhanging crack for your feet as you commit. I was glad I’d taped, hands fit perfectly. There is about a body length of overhanging jamming before the crack tapers a bit. I found a perfect wrist lock bone jam there. Plenty good for a rest and to walk up a yellow. A few more moves led to a nice foot stem rest on the left. After that it backs down to vertical 5.7 hand jamming…cakewalk!
Chad led Supercrack later that day at Twilight. I chose not to follow it as I’d led it in the Spring with Cole and found it to be an endurofest. Fun at first…but it’s just so long you run out of juice halfway up. Or maybe that’s just me being so darn old and weak.
I led “Where’s Carruthers” next door, finding it fun but harder than 5 years ago when Daphne and I were here.
We took another rest day after that…sleeping in and driving up to Moab. The next day we climbed at Wall Street right in town. Chad led Bad Moki Roof:
I was nervous following it but the undercling was very positive and helped by a decent foot rail. I think I’ll try leading it next visit. We found some slab climbing a few blocks to the left and did a few routes but the Friday crowds were showing up so we bailed.
I drove to Vegas and picked up Sue. It was so nice to see my little lady standing at Arrivals after two weeks apart. We camped at Lovell which is 40 minutes out of Vegas but very quiet on BLM land. The next day Sue and I climbed everything on Panti Wall. I love those closely bolted face climbs. There are at least 5 routes 5.8 and under. Super fun sport climbing. Sadly though, her thumb was not liking it so we bailed South West toward Joshua Tree where there is more leaning over friction.
On the way across we stopped at an old historic inn on Route 66: Roy’s Motel and Cafe. It’s not open anymore…but it’s weirdly preserved as a sort of museum. We bought a couple coffees from the cafe guy. We’d slept in BLM land just to the North, so it was cool to be back in civilization if only for a short while on the long drive down empty desert roads.
We drove up to Josh at 10 in the morning and did the walk around the campground. We couldn’t believe our luck when we stumbled upon an empty site just uphill from Bearded Cabbage. It was a Monday morning but still, that is real beginners luck to get a Hidden Valley campsite first try.
We hiked over to Penny Lane at Echo in the morning. It has close bolts to start but then becomes a bit run out for that last two bolts to the anchor. It’s standard fare at Josh to have run outs on friction…but that’s not to say I was used to it. Next we did the 8 in Echo Cove before deciding it was time for a shower.
We parked the truck on a dirt road up past Barker Dam. There wasn’t much traffic so we just showered under the solar tube at the back of the truck…one keeping watch while the other showered. Over the next couple of days Sue and I cruised up some of the standards: Toe Jam, Double Cross, Sexy Grandma, etc. It was fun and relaxing climbing, and super fun hanging out with Sue, my oldest climbing partner dating back to 1977. She’s still got the moves.
By Thursday I was looking at 18 days of climbing and decided I’d had enough. Plus the weekenders were crowding into Josh and it just wasn’t as fun as it should have been. I probly needed a rest day…but Sue had commitments at home so it made sense to start the long drive home a little early.
I like climbing in November. I think it might have some advantages over December…mainly being more moderate temps and less crowded.
Since I wrote last I’ve been on two, week long road trips and numerous day trips to Index. James and I spent 5 days at Index climbing moderates. And just two days ago I returned from a solo trip to the City where I met 10 new ‘over 50’ partners in a Mountain Project event. It was a week long event and I had a great time climbing with new friends, some in their mid seventies.
I led all the standard moderates, both trad and sport. Highlights were Sinocranium with a party of grey and white haired folks. Who needs young people?
My best lead was the run out 5.9 Mystery Bolter route down at Flaming Rock. I also got to dance up Rain Dance, in the rain.
Tuesday I painted the mountain with Sue. She always drags me out hiking the minute I get back from a road trip. I’ll be suffering major jetlag from the drive and she’ll be like:
“Let’s go hiking, you can bring your paints!”
I was hiking with a major bad attitude up there, cursing life in general. But the mountain worked it’s magic. The Red Bull that I hauled up didn’t hurt either. First time I’ve tried to paint after one of those nasty brews.
I was really shocked to see the painting coming to life. We got a late start, so I had to rush the pen work, making copious structural errors. I finished most of it from 2:30 to 4:30. It’s not bad for a 2 hour rush job.
Fleeing from a wildfire while climbing on Washington Pass
Sue and I used to alpine climb in the early eighties but gave it up after some near miss epics and the tragic loss of some close friends. I’ve been hearing how great Washington Pass was becoming. It’s even got a glossy guidebook and has been described as: “Like Castle Rock, but with a 2 hour approach”. I figured, hell, I haven’t used crampons and an ice ax in 36 years, time to get back on the horse.
Kena and I met our new friend D. at noon at the Silverstar Mountain, Wine Spires trailhead, 3 miles east of Liberty Bell. Four hours later after 2500 vertical feet of the worlds worst climber trail we arrived at the mosquito infested Bench Camp. It was flat, with a nice water supply and would have been idyllic if not for the bugs.
Remembering my shiver bivys of the 1980’s I’d brought a down coat with a space blanket for my legs. It was hot until 1 AM, at which point I was too tired to unfold the space blanket. Seriously, has anyone ever tried to unfold one of those half asleep and freezing?
We left high camp at 6 AM and arrived at Burgundy Col a couple hours and 1400 vertical feet later. I didn’t think the trail could get any worse…but it did. At the Col, Kena put on crampons for the first time, while I put on my son’s crampons.
D. belayed us both down the couloir with his 7.5mm 60 meter twin. We roped up glacier style for the rest of the ascent up to the base of the climb, passing several 60 foot cliff bands. Kena was a natural on snow, and it gradually started to feel familiar to me as well.
We climbed two pitches of the East Face of Chablis before bailing around 2:30. Kena and I were worried about the long descent to high camp. Plus the fire below was getting much bigger despite the efforts of a fleet of water bombers and helicopters.
Much of what was slowing me down was caution. There’s no cell service up there. If there had been an accident, someone would have had to rappel and then hike solo across steep snow and bad trails for at least 7 hours to reach a car. Then it’s 17 miles to cell service. It’s a far cry from a casual day at Index.
After a couple hours of up and down ‘glacier travel’, we arrived at Burgundy Col where we could unrope and take off our crampons. As an amusing side note, we were passed on the steep snow by an unroped one legged guy who was descending from a successful ascent of a 10B climb called Rebel Yell. He had both legs, but one was metal from the hip down. The dude was freaking amazing!
In the twilight we could see huge bright orange California style flames racing up the mountain side below us. They were on a ridge coming down off of Silver Star…which was adjacent to Chablis Spire. It looked like a wind change could have the fire on top of us long before we could reach the car.
We guessed that the fire wouldn’t cross to our side of the ridge and started down the awful trail towards high camp. We were dead tired when we reached our tent at 10:30 PM, but right there on the main trail was a brand new sign. The rangers had hiked 2500 vertical feet up from the road to post it: “Leave immediately, do not delay! There is an uncontrolled fire approaching Burgundy Col. The road will close soon, you could be trapped.”
We discussed maybe sleeping until the fire arrived, then running for a nearby boulder field where there weren’t any trees. Common sense prevailed. We packed up and stumbled down, getting lost multiple times where trees had fallen over the trail and arriving at the road at 2:30 in the morning. It appears that alpine climbing hasn’t gotten any safer over the intervening decades.
I was recently at Vantage with a friend. We are old friends going back 14 years, but she prefers to climb with women. We met a really nice climbing couple by Air Guitar. The girl was burly strong and super fit so my friend asked if she ever climbed with other partners. She mentioned that she usually climbs with women.
Then she glanced at me and said: “Well, except for Mark here, but he’s almost a girl anyway, so he doesn’t count.”
“That’s going in the trip report!” I said with a chuckle.
Fletch and I were talking about growing older at the gym and I remembered this old poem.
Again this morning, in a cold wind from the future, I walked all the way to the end of the long bridge of my life, having a look at its cables, its rods and rivets, its perforated metal flooring through which I could see whitecaps slamming the pylons. Then I turned and came back, inspecting it all from the other direction, fretting about every hex nut and bolt though they seem sound enough to hold things together. I ought to give the long bridge of my life a little rest, but every day it seems I’m walking from past to possibility and back to past with my brush and aluminum paint, hiding the rust, the deepening cracks, dabbing a shine here and there. ~ Ted Kooser, November