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 jealous. I'd love to have a pair of those boots, for the
very type of climbing we're about to do. They have Vibram lug soles, big
rands and that famous red circle on the ankle. Jeez, this is old school from
a dude who never went! Crack me up.
We begin down and left from where the hordes typically start. This will
allow us an unobstructed line up the mountain. All of the climbing on this
pea is of similar quality and difficulty so it really doesn't matter where
we go. Paul isn't a rock climber in a real sense, so ticking off classic
pitches like the chimney is irrelevant. No matter the line it will be a
classic from his perspective.
I try to see things though his eyes. Here he is standing at the base of the
biggest piece of rock he has ever seriously contemplated climbing. He's with
a former co-worker, one who has a bit of a reputation at work as being one
of those crazy Californians. He knows me but doesn't know one way or another
how competent I am or how safe. He hasn't climbed jack shit in months. Yup,
I'm figgering the worm is turning pretty hard.
So, like, we do the climb. Recounting the details seems particularly
blasphemous. One doesn't discuss the goings on of a confessional once away
from the Cathedral, do they? Paul climbs with the deliberation and a slow,
easygoing style I've come to know and respect. Of course he's quiet. He only
responds to direct inquiries. So used to my monologues he has become that he
doesn't even bother to acknowledge them verbally.
His boots skitter all over the place. It's the only cloud on an otherwise
perfect climb. He would have been so much more secure with a real pair of
rock shoes , not these Vibram pieces of shit. But hell, when a man tells you
he's got rock shoes ya gotta respect his opinion. But next time I ask, "What
Somewhere high on the peak, 4th, maybe 5th pitch, Paul climbs up to a broad
apron of rock at the top of which I have set the belay. He's already done
some difficult climbing. I'm sure he's cranked harder at Ralph Stover or in
the gym, but this has got to be in a different league all together. The
entire Crystal Range is coming into view behind him. Budd Lake gleams in the
afternoon sun. The High Sierra has taken on that late day glow and it may be
a trick of light or something, but I see a definite halo of light around his
head, an aura if you will, as he climbs to my perch. But his grin says far
more than any of the 10 words he's uttered since this morning.
We cross paths with another party on the last pitch. The dude in the lead
has got to be all of 17 or 18. He's so jacked up and excited his eyes are
spinning in opposite directions. The kid is literally vibrating with joy and
excitement. When I get to his belay and casually throw in two nuts and half
hitch in, he eyes all of my procedures with intent. He notes the rope tug
signals I took the time to teach to Paul this morning, one less "Off Belay!"
in a chorus of "WHAT's???"
Turns out the kid is from Florida of all places. This is his first
multi-pitch climb ever. Says he hasn't even done much leading outside the
gym. As I belay Paul up my new friend hollers back and forth with his
partner down below. He voices some frustrations to me.
"My partner made a bunch of noise about how good a climber he is, and all
the experience he has. He's ten years older than me." Then his tone changes,
darkens, as he continues, "He was gonna lead me up this thing. He started to
lead the first pitch this morning and backed off." Again his tone changes,
lightens this time. "I've led every pitch! This is the most amazing thing I'
ve ever done in my life!"
I'm affected by his enthusiasm, his circumstance and his joy. Cathedral Peak
is nothing more than a romp to me, if you must know. A pleasant romp to be
sure, and it's only a romp cause I've paid my dues. So I tend to restrict
the terms in which I think of the climb. And here, 500 or more feet up the
cliff, an 18-year-old kid reminds me of what it is all about. I've been so
far within my zone as to be, um, bored isn't the right term, nor is lazy.
But I definitely feel like a sports car stuck in the slow lane.
The Kid, though, has been encountering and stepping through and beyond
barrier after barrier this day. He has come up against his own fears and
inhibitions and one by one dealt with them. Now he's one pitch from the top
and I become excited thinking about what that summit will become for him. It
literally gives me a whole new perspective and honestly, a much more mature
view of this peak and it's potential role in the life of a climber. I
reflect that it wasn't all that long ago when the prospect of climbing
Cathedral Peak secretly scared and thrilled me. This place really is a
cathedral of sorts, one that climbers would do well to remember as deserving
of it's classic status, difficulty notwithstanding.
Then the kid starts in on his partner again. He has some very negative
headspace about the misrepresentations and it is going to poison their
friendship. I can sense it. I offer the only advice that occurs to me.
"Dude, your friend down there is still your friend. Go easy on him man. He
came up against his fear today. Fear won out. Don't hold it against him. I
can't count the times I've run away from climbs. You will too someday. Just
hope the partner you let down is as understanding as you. Besides, you've
had the climb of a lifetime because of it." The kid looks at me for a couple
of minutes and then smiles.
"Ya know, yer right. He is my friend. I'll leave the attitude right here."
There was a time, perhaps not even that long ago, perhaps even earlier this
very day, when I would not have bothered butting into their business. I
would have soaked up that kid's negative vibe and not said a word. I might
have even cynically laughed at him, at his circumstance. Not now though.
Climbing with Paul has changed all that. Now that I see things through his
eyes I can also begin to appreciate the others on this rock. This "Father
knows best" mantle doesn't fit me well, to be sure. But at least for this
day, for this climb, I begin to see my own career reflected in the "about to
be's" of one team leader and the "never will be's" in the partner of
another. I gotta admit, most of the time I feel like a punter, an
underachiever who can't deal well with fear, anxiety or lofty goals.
Presently the kid's partner shows up. He doesn't look like a loser to me. He
is definitely moving very cautiously, like someone who is trying to move
directly in opposition to the gravity of fear. Been there, know that feeling
and can readily see it in others. The kid smiles at his partner and
encourages him, probably for the first time today. I guess my work is done
here. As the kid is leading the last pitch Paul reaches my belay, quiet as
And in a blink of an eye, all too soon in the life of a climber, the route
is over and we're all gathered on the summit platform. We shoot the shit for
a while, shoot some pictures, then rap off the blasphemous bolts that sully
that pristine summit. Muir didn't need no stinking bolts to get off this
mountain and neither do we. But after having watched Paul climb all day and
all things considered, I don't like the idea of asking my friend to down
climb that crack ropeless. So we rap, despite the fact I had recently argued
in favor of their removal! Ah well, the price of my hypocrisy is my friend,
safe and sound, at the bottom of the rope. That's a hypocrisy I'll gladly
take to my grave.
So we hike out and drive up to TPR for dinner. My guide's wages for the day
will be a dinner in keeping with the legendary quality of the climb. Sated
we head back to the Valley. We, or I should say, Paul is late; WAY late. He
told his wife to expect him late afternoon, not 11 PM. I later learn she was
both frantic and furious. Never got the pleasure of meeting her and I'm kind
of thinking that is a good thing!
That was it. Paul walked away in the darkness and I commenced the 3-hour
drive home. But I couldn't resist a quick stop in El Cap Meadows. I walked
out to the middle of the field, sat down in the darkness, sparked a fatty
and looked at the bivi lights on the big stone. I reflected on the day and
the climb. I wasn't gloating, but I was very pleased nevertheless. I took a
good friend to my church today. He came away smiling and without so much as
a scratch. I wanted to offer him a climbing memory to treasure and really,
it went off without a hitch.
It's been about a year since our climb. Not surprisingly, I've only spoken
to Paul once since and then only briefly. He said he had a great time. I
choose to take that as high praise. I'm glad we did it. Paul got his climb
and I learned a bit a long the way. I told my father years ago that my
religion involved mountains and my church was located there. I like to think
that at least in this one case, in climbing with Paul, I actually learned a
few of the lessons that might be taught in a more formal setting. I went to
church and came away with a new found respect for beginners, for barriers,
for kids and old farts and the roles we assume and those that are thrust
upon us. I recently climbed the peak again, in a more traditional Milktoast
fashion, in two long pitches with Angus Carbide. We of course encountered
the crowds, the unwashed masses. High on the peak, as we simul-climbed past
another Kid, I smiled and relaxed. This place really is a church and it
welcomes all who come to worship here.
By the way. the bolts are GONE! Good riddance. John Muir didn't need no
stinking bolts. Neither do we.