(This article first appeared in Rock and Ice Magazine, Issue #179)
I hoped that my best friend would fall. Not just my climbing partner but my best friend. We were both working on an unclimbed route at The Columns, our local climbing area in Eugene, Oregon, and I wanted the first ascent. My friend wasn’t leading yet, but I didn’t even want him to get the toprope. I wanted to toprope first and lead first. To win. So instead of wishing him success, I willed his feet to slip.
Another climber once said to me, “I hope my climbing partner fails. Every time. I belay him safely, carefully, while rooting for him to fail. I don’t ever like to lose.” He leaned in as if he was talking about drugs. “Sometimes I even whisper, ‘Fall, fall,’ while he climbs.”
I understand that. There are dark recesses in our minds.
As an excuse, I try to blame my Viking blood.
I say to my wife, “I want to be sent to Valhalla.”
“What?” she says. It’s early morning.
“You know,” I say, “I don’t care about gold or maidens. I want glory. I want to be burned on a boat set adrift on the ocean.”
She looks below my belt and takes a big drink of coffee. “Are you gonna zip up your fly before or after I burn you on a boat on the ocean.”
I ride my bike every day to the high school where I teach English. I recycle my used paper, plastic, aluminum and cardboard, and I nod along with coworkers as they discuss permaculture and global warming. I rant to my captive student audience about excessive packaging. Then I drive 1,100 round-trip miles to Camp 4 to try Midnight Lightning over a weekend.
And when a French climber sends the route right after I’ve fallen off for the 43rd time, I say out loud, “I hate France. It’s a stupid country.” I’m joking, but I drink beer and flex my chest anyway. It’s all I have.
I practice dirtbagging in my daily life. I eat free food. Often unwanted and sometimes out of the garbage.
My wife explains to me that a Ziploc bag is not a can. That’s what she says, “A Ziploc bag is not a can, Peter.”
“What?” I ask, proud of my hardiness.
“It’s not a can,” she says. “And after nine hours in your backpack, pesto pasta with chicken might not be good.”
“Nine hours?” I say. “Maybe more like nine days. Do you know what Warren Harding ate when he was snowed in on El Cap?” I pause dramatically. I don’t know what Warren Harding ate when he was snowed in on El Cap. I’m not even sure that Warren Harding ever was snowed in on El Cap. But I nod confidently and eat the whole lukewarm bag of pesto pasta in the kitchen, with my bare hands.
Like many dirtbags, I’ll drink any kind of coffee or alcohol, a practice that has gotten me into trouble on numerous occasions. I’ve learned that Steel Reserve doesn’t mix with whiskey and repeats of the Yosemite V4 boulder problem Bachar Cracker. A cup of cold, three-times-strength Folgers induces retching rather than an amped send of the Pinch Overhang, the classic V5 at Horsetooth Resevoir, Colorado. And there’s a reason why apple-flavored boxed wine isn’t a top seller in the convenience store near Lover’s Leap. I think this experiential learning somehow makes me more ready to climb my first 5.14a. But I’m not sure why.
With the same logic, I wear only free clothes. I point this out to my students. I point out my free shirt, free pants, free belt and free shoes. “Look,” I say, “I got them out of the school’s lost-and-found.”
A smart boy raises his hand. “Is your underwear from the lost and found too?”
I say, “Explain the use of iambic pentameter in the choral introduction to Romeo and Juliet,” and shut Smart Boy down like handing him the lead to the big offwidth on pitch 13.
I lie to myself too. I say I hate spraying.
There is a guy who comes to The Columns five or six times a week and never climbs. All he does is spray. He says, “Looks like you’re getting worked. I always use a thumb-up jam there. Now cross through. Great trad climbers push while they pull. That reminds me of what Alan Watts used to say about me …”
I make fun of him, quote and mimic. But as soon as he leaves, I start spraying, too.
I tell myself that I’m helping a struggling climber when I say, “Use that incut. Good. Now put your left hand in that slot there. That’s it. Now trust it.”
I keep talking until he reaches the top.
Worse, I pre-spray. I brag about a send I might do in the future.
I start talking while holding a cup of dark Sanka. “I think I’ll go to Smith this weekend and do Chain and Churning in the Wake and Rude Boys.” I smile like a satisfied cat, eyes half closed.
The truth is that I won’t send these famous routes this weekend. I may not even try these famous routes. To be completely honest, I may not even go to Smith. I might be tired on Saturday. I might need to go to Home Depot. There might be a football game on TV.
When Andrew Todhunter wrote that Dan Osman climbed with “simian-like strength” I got jealous. Scary jealous. I practiced dynos and deadpoints for a month. I did pull-ups on every doorjamb I encountered. I snapped the wainscoting off in my bathroom.
A climber thinks about his first all-jibs 5.12a on the gym’s slab wall. If he keeps thinking about it before he goes to sleep, about every hold, every move, every single sequence, eventually he’ll get it. But he’ll have lost sleep over a series of tiny plastic holds screwed in an arbitrary pattern up a plywood wall.
And I’m no better. None of us are. We climbers get like this. We’re unhealthy. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard two people at the gym argue about whether or not one climber’s foot “brushed” a foothold that was “off.”
There must be something more important than this. I know some people climb for fun. Some people are able to control themselves. They don’t laugh when they beat their friends to a redpoint.
I read that Dave Graham and his Northeastern crew always said: “Never think you’re that cool. You’re still just climbing rocks in the woods with bugs, and everyone thinks you’re crazy.” He said, “We humbled ourselves with this logic.”
I’m thinking about that as I set up the belay at the end of pitch 2, Serenity to Sons of Yesterday, the classic 5.10 link-up in Yosemite. My stolen Ahwahnee coffee is still buzzing inside me and the sun is bright on the white rock. The day is perfect. Then a terrible free-soloist appears out of nowhere and jams past me into the crux. He’s wobbly and pumped, bad footwork and bad tattoos as he crosses fingerlocks on the 5.10d pin-scars.
I shake my head and think, ‘I’m not gonna wreck this day with a rescue. It’s sunny and perfect, and I’m climbing. So gumby soloer can deal.’
But I sigh. As much as I want to allow for natural consequences and natural selection and eventually The Darwin Awards, I don’t really want this guy to fall. I don’t want anyone to fall if it’s going to kill him.
I look up at the climber above me. He’s shaking badly. Both of his arms are bent. His right leg is pumping like a sewing machine and his left foot is slipping continually. He short-arms each cross-through, extended, barely able to reach, but somehow continuing to move up.
And I begin to root for him. I don’t want him to struggle. I don’t want him to slip. I don’t want him to fall. Instead, I want him to send. I want him to get the sequence right. I want his hands to stick.
I don’t even know his name but I’m wishing him perfection.
Peter Brown Hoffmeister is a writer and teacher in Eugene, Oregon, where he lives with his wife, Jennie, and two daughters.