Climbing With Paul
Armchair mountaineer: such a condescending thing to say, so dismissive, so
arrogant. Yet that's exactly how Paul described himself when we met. I had
been roaming the cube-maze wasteland of modern corporate America, looking
for a programmer with the answers to my questions (I still believed such a
person existed back then). I noticed some mountaineering posters on a wall
and dropped back for a look-see.
Paul is on the short side, with very long hippy hair, black going gray. He
wears hiking boots to work, just like a good programmer should. I knocked
and introduced myself. I learned that he had in fact done a bit of peak
bagging, some caving and rock scrambling. Even been to a gym a few times
(DARE say!). He's had a life long interest in the science of climbing and
pursues it when he can. But for Paul, life's other commitments have always
outweighed his need to be afraid. So climbing, for Paul, is probably a
distant hobby, not a life long obsession as it is for me.
We always promised or threatened to go climbing together. Me to go with him
to Ralph Stover or some other "local" Philly spot where our company was HQ'
d, him to come out west and do some "real climbing" with me in California.
My promise was never fulfilled. I was always too busy or our schedules too
inflexible for me to go top roping with him during my few trips east. Then
our company was sold and I moved on.
I'd all but forgotten about the other half of the promise; till I got an
email from Paul that is. His family was about to commence their long planned
Yosemite trip (well over two years in the making; budgeting, scheduling,
etc.). If I was still game he had blocked out one day to go climbing.
I was honored! I'm serious. Here is a guy taking his family to one of
America's most famous vacation spots. He's planned every last detail a
couple of years in advance. When and where they will camp, reservations
complete and cold 18 months before arrival. Hiking trips and family
excursions to Glacier Point carefully choreographed well in advance. Setting
aside a day of a 2-week "vacation of a lifetime" says more about Paul's
opinion of our friendship than any words he ever uttered in my presence. I
very much wished to do something memorable. I was grateful for the
opportunity to demonstrate some Californian hospitality and to hopefully
contribute to a great Yosemite vacation.
In the days and weeks preceding our climb I pondered our goal. What to
climb? I didn't want to do anything too hard and make Paul miserable. I wasn
't out to burn a climbing buddy on a fun sandbag. But I didn't want to do
just any old route, climbing some pile of dung amidst the golden granite of
Yosemite. I was mindful of Paul's mountaineering heritage and his lack of
substantial rock climbing experience. I had a definite route in mind. It
would mean a lot more driving than any sane climber standing on the Valley
floor would consider. It would make for a very long day for yours truly.
But I hoped it would also make the "climb of a lifetime" for a "vacation of
a lifetime." Tall order, eh? I took the responsibility very seriously!
I asked some friends, explained the situation. The recommendations came
pouring in. Ironically, or probably not, the picks pretty much lined up with
those I had considered. Without much exception the routes reflected some of
the climbing history of Yosemite, some of the aesthetics of the granite
wilderness, most of the pleasures and not a lot of the pains of the sport. I
only had to narrow the field to one. I knew all along which route was best
suited for Paul. I had only to allow myself to consider the broader world to
know I had it right from the start.
I have to get up early to make this work; very early. Several cups of coffee
and a bit of predawn driving allows me to do the 7 am pickup at Curry
Village. I'm late, but only by a few minutes. And there is Paul, right where
he said he would be, pack in hand and programmer shoes, er, I mean, hiking
boots on his feet.
Paul hasn't changed much since we last saw each other. Neither have I. Do
we ever? He has perhaps a bit more salt than pepper, long hair still
streaming down his back. He's still as quiet as ever. This is in itself a
remarkable circumstance. I'm quite talkative with people I know, running on
in a constant stream of commentary and discussion, often oblivious to my
partner's need for quiet and solitude. Paul is silent to the point of
distraction; a man of few words and fewer reactions. Paul does not wear his
emotion on his sleeve or anywhere else in public view. A slight smile might
be taken for a guffaw; a slight frown; burning rage. A quick handshake;
consider that a long heartfelt hug between two old friends. A diminutive
"hello" the only word spoken for the first 5 minutes!
I run my suggestions by Paul one after the other. We'd discussed briefly by
email the various choices that presented themselves. Other than confirming
my suspicions about his climbing goals and motivations, Paul intends to
leave the big decision in my hands. All well and good, but as my regular
partners will attest, I refuse to make up other people's minds for them.
Paul is a partner on this trip and as such will have an equal voice in any
decision to be made whether he likes it or not! I outline both our options
and the weather report.
I suggest a climb and why. Paul readily agrees. So we're off to Tuolumne
Meadows. Why are we going to the Meadows when we're already in the Valley,
center of the known granite universe? Well, it's going to be about 100
degrees today for starters. Also, there are very few lower grade routes in
the Valley that yield the classic "Yosemite experience." Climbing some out
of the way 5.7 on an obscure wall would be an insult. No, I believe it's
better to seek out a classic elsewhere.
On the way out I point out some of the more famous lines. I avoid the
opportunity to spray about the routes I have managed. He won't remember them
or won't appreciate them in any meaningful way and I'm guessing the worm is
already turning in his stomach. He doesn't need to hear a bunch of "There I
was" stories from me.
Conversation is all over the place (and mostly coming from me), but we both
seem to avoid talking about work. Could be Paul is uncomfortable about how
the new management team treated my division. Could be that neither of us is
so crass as to discuss vocation during vacation. Or more likely Paul is
respectful of the fact that I just signed with a major competitor and that
all of my questions about the old gang take on a new and sinister
connotations. Probably all those things.
I do discuss a few of my more colorful climbing partners on our ride up to
the Meadows. We're not really pressed for time and in fact I'm actually
tying to kill some. We need a crack of noon start for our route to avoid the
crowds. That says, "breakfast" in the clearest of terms. As we pull into the
sack bar I've been spinning some yarns about the exploits of my pals. And
there, sitting in lawn chairs in the parking lot next to their VW bus are
Wild Bill and his girlfriend. He calls me a good for nothing SOB as we give
each other a hug. Paul looks on with bemusement as two other old friends
hail "Wassup Dingus?" as we make our way into the deli. Inside I'm laughing.
Just because all four of the climbers I actually know are up here this
weekend is total coincidence. I'm such a poser.
The John Manure trailhead is crowded as usual. Packing goes quickly. I'll
carry the bulk of our stuff in deference to Paul's lowland heritage. We take
lots of water, extra clothing and I sneak two headlamps into my pack without
comment. No need to alarm the natives. Up the trail we go. Paul seems to be
doing fine. I stress slow movement. I tell him there is plenty of time to do
the route. Rushing will only make him feel sick. So slowly but surely we
approach our chosen climb. And there it is, proudly jutting from the ridge
Of course I keep up my running commentary on the state of the universe
through out the approach. I regale Paul with the tales of the first ascent,
how John Muir climbed this peak alone, a million miles from civilization,
with a lump of bread in his coat pocket and a large sack of courage
elsewhere. I describe the summit platform and the incredible granite. I
point to some large feldspar crystals sticking out of a boulder and relate
this to the "Crystal Range."
"Most of the route is done by climbing on crystals just like this." For the
lack of anything more substantial to say, Paul responds with, "Cool." We are
going to church today, just as Muir did so long ago. And our church is of
course the same one he attended, Cathedral Peak. We intend to climb the
broad southeast buttress, first ascended by Chuck Wilts and Spencer Austin
in 1945. This is one of the classic High Sierra peak climbs, as evidenced by
the praise it has received in not one but several guidebooks. Maybe that's
why it's always crowded?
The base of the peak is littered with packs. Each one offers mute testimony
to the number of climbers on the mountain above us. I give up counting after
10. I suggest to Paul our tactics: we climb in pitches with me leading the
whole route. I'll turn the rack over to him at any point he wishes, but will
assume that unless he asks, I'll be doing the leading. I estimate 5 to 6
pitches, but I'm not really sure. Yes, I have climbed this route before.
This will be the first time however, that I've bothered to belay it in such
a conventional fashion.
Paul pulls out his climbing boots. I'm blown away. He has an old pair of
Boreal wall boots, fashioned on a Fire last. "Hah! Where'd ya get THOSE
things?" Paul tells me he picked them up at a Philly Replay Sports for five
bucks. Secretly I'm
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