"I'm not coming up this weekend. My friend's baby shower is on
Sunday, so I've been counting on this weekend for life maintenance for
over a month."
"Well, take Friday off, and come to Tuolumne with me."
"I can't. I need to save my climbing days off for walls. Besides, I
need to spend some time on the pile of no-fun grown-up chores that's
been building up."
"Well, just come out for Saturday then. You know you want to."
Oh, no! Not the look. Yes, I'm getting the look.
Resolve waning, "I really shouldn't."
Within seconds I'd talked myself out of responsibility and into going
climbing, realizing, of course, that if J. was hard up for a partner
that I'd probably be able to coerce him into dragging me up something
"If I come up for just Saturday, can I pick the route?"
"If you come up for just Saturday then you can climb anything that you
"The South Face of the Column."
"Whatever you want that is in the shade."
"How about Steck-Salathe?"
"Um, it's not that I think you can't do it...I just don't want to set
us up for an epic. .How about the Rostrum?"
He sounds serious. "Why not Astroman?" I sound sarcastic.
"How about the Kor-Beck?"
"No." If he wants me to come up for one day, he's going to have to go
bigger than the Kor-Beck, which I could probably climb without him,
thank you very much.
"How about the North Butress?"
"Jo and Bob are aleady doing it Saturday."
"I think you'd like the Kor-Beck."
"How about Ho Chi Minh?"
"Mwah-hah-hah!!!" What? Did I just suggest that we free climb the
nose? "How about the E. Buttress?"
"DNB or life-maintenance. That's my final offer. I want to learn to
"Have you ever chimneyed before?"
"Just that day when I TRed the first pitch with Hans, but I didn't
fall." I keep the part about the wheezing, the groveling, the leaden
arms, and thrashed knees to myself.
"OK. The DNB it is. Let's go at 7:00. If we can make a half-hour
per pitch that will get up to the Powell-Reid ledges by noon. If we
take an hour per pitch from there to the top and two and half to
descend, we'll be down by dark. But if we don't make the ledge by
noon, then we should bail on to Kor-Beck."
"What is it with you and the Kor-Beck?" I ask, realizing that he
doesn't think that I'll be able to move that fast for that long. I
also note that the Supertopo calls most of the lower pitches 5.10 and
the upper pitches are mostly 5.6-5.8. I wonder if he's putting the
time restrictions on the 5.10 pitches to really hedge all bets away
from me creating an epic in my gumby exhuberance or if he really
thinks that the "easier" pitches which are also the chimney pitches
will be the show-stoppers.
"I just like the Kor-Beck. But let's do the DNB. It will be fun."
OK, now I'm in trouble. Middle Cathedral has been a scarey place for
me this season...a lot of bad juju going on over there. But of all of
the routes, the DNB is probably the scariest. The anchor failure of a
fellow climber and neuroscientist there is something that has haunted
me every time I've considered climbing at Middle. The recent rock
fall on the DNB and in the descent gulley have further bolstered my
resolve to find other places to climb when possible. But on a 98
degree day, it's hard to find willing accomplices to any of the south
facing grade V's in the valley.
Apart from my fear of the objective hazards, I know that I'll have
cover some serious distance doing a type of climbing that I've
essentially never done before. I know that J. doubts my ability to
keep up. I really wanted to climb my best and prove his doubts
groundless. I also know that if I fail to do so, I'll have a hard
time convincing him to agree to any of the other epics that I am
hoping to create over the coming months.
J. leaves the ground at 7:40. I'm having a hard time imagining
keeping all of the lower pitches under 30 minutes a piece as we will
now need to do to arrive at the top of pitch ten by noon.
He links the first two pitches, and I have to simul behind him for a
few feet to get him to the anchor. The first couple of moves are
essentially fourth class, but with every step I wonder when he'll get
to the anchor and if it will be before I am committed to starting the
gaping chimney just a few feet away from me.
He gets to the anchor and puts me on belay just in time for me to
start my first pre-chimney dance. The pre-chimney dance looks like
this. Move most of your stuff to the left side, but leave a few
things on the right side that you think won't get in the way. Stick
your right side in the chimney. Realize that the belay device pinned
between your butt and the wall is not going to work. Extract self
from chimney before moving upward. Move everything to left side.
Reinsert right side in chimney. Decide that left side in chimney
would work better. Move everything to right side. Repeat several
times. Contemplate heaving your approach shoes to the base. Give up,
and try climbing anyway.
Eventually I arrive at the final step of the pre-chimney dance and try
moving upwards. It's only 5.7, right? The thing feels like a
treadmill, and I'm really worried that if I don't get it together a
little better, we'll have to bail. I feel like my pride is really on
the line over this climb for some reason, so I am elated when I
finally started to get the hang of it after many initial false starts.
My climbing is shakey, but I feel like I am having one of those rare
and precious quantum moments, like the instant when I went from not
being able to keep my bike upright to cruising a wobbly path all the
way to the end of the driveway.
We get through the initial chimney and set out on the 5.10 face
pitches. This type of climbing is much more familiar to me, and even
though there is a fall here and "watch me" there, I am able to keep
our pace, and I even manage to get back some of the time lost to our
The rock through these pitches is really amazing to me, providing a
circuitous route on abundant features. I remark to J. that it feels
like the rock wants us to climb it. He likes that I say this because
it tells him that I am sharing in the sense of belonging that he often
goes up the Cathedrals to find.
We manage to get to the top of the tenth pitch pretty close to our
noon deadline, so we push for the top. I know that hundreds of feet
of sustained chimneying lie ahead of me. It's early, but a night
hunkering down on a ledge is still not out of the question.
I do the pre-chimney dance a few times and then start finding my
groove again. The groove lasts until I have to stop the
counterpressured chimneying motions for some reason. Then I have to
do the dance all over again and find a good started foot to get going
again. I curse my approach shoes openly.
A few pitches into the upper pitches and it's clear that I'm getting
tired in such as way as to make my climbing much more difficult than
it needs to be. The liter of water that I'd brought with me is a
distant memory, but at least the bottle isn't in my way anymore. I
get to one point where I'm having a difficult time getting started up
the next chimney section, and I'm falling a lot. After several
unfruitful rounds with the pre-chimney dance, I find that my only
recourse is to bitch about the shoes.
J. suggests that I pull down a bight of rope and clip the shoes in
above me. Since it doesn't seem like they'd hang up in this wide
section or that they'd trundle loose rock on my noggin, I decide to
rig them up there. This pitch that I climb without my shoes on my
harness feels like pure bliss. I decide that I'll descend barefoot in
snow if I have to, but I'll never come on another chimney climb with
big approach shoes again.
We get to the final pitch, a long 5.8 chimney, and something magical
happens. There is no pre-chimney dance...just chimney. I execute the
same small move over and over, smoothly, as it is supposed to be, and
I ender that almost trance-like peaceful state that I find in this
type of elegant physical repetition...my crack-climbing analog to a
Over the course of this long day but crystallized in this moment, I
realize that I have learned a beautiful new dance and experienced a
new kind of terrain that wants me to climb it. So often over the past
summer I have heard Middle Cathedral telling me to stay away. But
today, with her wide chimneys open like a mothers arms, she told me
that I belong.