When you tell the story later, you are a little less descriptive of the moment you experience pure dread and barely-controllable fear. You say things like “I was totally pissing my pants.” If you even talk about being scared at all.
We had assumed the finger crack was part of the route, or some route on Symmetry Spire, at least. I love mellow mountaineering routes with vague descriptions like “pick the easiest line,” because then you can just romp and follow your nose, no beta needed. Brian and I had climbed two pitches of 5.6/5.7, and I built a belay at the end of the second pitch, at the base of this crack. Brian took a shot at it, placing a cam a couple feet underneath a fixed piton, then clipping the piton and climbing above it. It was steep, and searching for handholds, he had stick his hand in a small crack, dusting broken pebbles out of it. Under the roof, Brian decided to lower off.
I figured it maybe just seemed a little steep to Brian on his third alpine rock lead ever, that we were still on the original Durrance Ridge, 5.6, and that maybe it was sandbagged because it was put up in 1936, when the hardest climb in America was 5.8. I told myself it was probably a short steep section and then would relax. It was a little spooky, halfway up the ridge, 3,000 feet of loose gully down to the lake and then two miles back to the van, not knowing what was above.
I climb to Brian’s high point, breaking more loose rock out of some holds, then through the roof. I stand on two marginal knobs, look above me and realize I’m in the worst position I’ve ever been in as a climber. No protection above me for the 15 feet of rock I can see, questionable, steep, and I’m 10 feet above my last piece, a piton placed in who-knows-what-year. If I fell, I would fly through 20-some feet of air, and would definitely hit Brian, perched on a small ledge at the semi-hanging belay.
There is not enough chalk in the world to dry my hands. I pull an alpine draw from my harness, tie a slip knot in it as I let out shuddering exhale breaths and try to tell my heart to stop jackhammering because if I so much as bump the wall with my chest I’m going to go flying. A chickenhead the size of a can of soup sticks out of the rock three feet to my right, and if I can lean over just enough to lasso it, it might might might hold a short fall even though the top is sloping downward a little, but the hell with it, because I got nothing else now.
I am on a window ledge a thousand feet above the street, I am about to step onto a highwire with no net, I am trying to not make any noise as I hide in a closet from the bad guys. I want to scream, cry, call my mom, get the hell off this ledge what the hell am I doing out here I am never going climbing again not this high not in the Tetons not on a long route like this goddammit just give me a fucking handhold one single jug and I will pull myself out of here on pure adrenaline.
Calm. The fuck. Down.
I chalk up my left hand, hold onto a sidepull, work my fingers in further, further, reach out to my right with the sling in my hand, focusing on the chickenhead like it is the 8 ball in a million-dollar pool tournament. I sling it, clip another draw to the sling, and clip the rope. I am not going to die. Yes I am. Look at that thing, the sling is going to slide right off it if I fall. Jesus.
I plug a .75 cam into a horrible crack at my waist, two lobes barely far enough in, the other two completely tipped out and touching nothing. Brian will later call the cam “worthless” and tell me that he pulled it out without even touching the trigger.
I make one move up, stepping a few inches higher, and if I stand there one more second I’m going to fall, so I make a quick move up, and I find a single halfway decent handhold. How do I get my leg to stop shaking so my foot doesn’t walk right off this foothold. I will try humor. I say to Brian,
“If this thing is 5.6, my dick is a fuckin pumpkin.” Brian does not laugh. Later he says he thinks the pitch is 5.9.
I move up on marginal holds. Two feet above is a jug, both hands fit on it, and I am happier than a dog in a kiddie pool full of T-bone steaks. The angle eases, and I ramble up, 40 more feet to a ledge where I build an anchor and sit down.
Six hours later, on flat ground, I still don’t know what to do with it. The weekend before, my friend Chris and I had talked about the scariest moment each of us had ever had while climbing—whipping on a tiny C3 from 15 feet up, climbing the 25 feet of unprotected slab at the start of Pear Buttress or The Bulge in Eldo. That was last weekend.
Most of us don’t talk so much about fear. We talk about great moves, speed, views, big air, powder days, good times, fun. But really, don’t you get scared sometimes? Before a big race, a big jump, a big move on a climbing route, a big drop, hell, even a big presentation at work?
One of the biggest reasons I do anything in the outdoors is the fear that accompanies it, and how I deal with it. Hell yes I’m scared. Scared of getting lost in the woods, getting caught in a storm up high, getting on a route I’m not strong enough to climb, falling, getting hit by rockfall, running out of water, twisting an ankle five miles down a trail, avalanches, bears, mountain lions, altitude sickness, sharks, falling ice, the list goes on and on. People say sometimes they don’t climb because they’re scared of heights, and I just say Me too.
Sometimes I wonder if it’s better to run from it or run into it.