The friend you want along on every climb

Chris goofing around in the belay cave on Outside Corner, Big Cottonwood Canyon. It is about 45 degrees Fahrenheit and raining in this photo.

“We’re going to take a little drive down Wall Street and check it out.” This is my friend Chris telling me that I am going to lead one more pitch today, no matter what level my motivation is at this point.

It is late afternoon in Moab, and the wind has kicked up so much sand you can’t even see the La Sal Mountains from town. I am still knocking sand out of my ear from being woken up by 50 mph winds this morning in my bivy next to Looking Glass Rock. I have just eaten tater tots and onion rings from Milt’s Stop & Eat, and knocked out almost an entire chocolate milkshake by myself (Chris and his wife, Natalie, split one sitting next to me). I have washed my feet and hair in the Colorado River and filled up water bottles from the natural spring off River Road. Sure, I could lead one more climb. Or I could get a bag of Fritos at a gas station and slouch down in the passenger seat for the drive back to Salt Lake City. That’s how ambitious I’m feeling.

But I’m with Chris, and a few times this weekend, I may have mentioned that I “maybe wouldn’t mind taking a shot at” 30 Seconds Over Potash, which is as aesthetic as roadside desert climbs get, a red Navajo sandstone corner literally on the shoulder of Potash Road. It practically begs you to climb it. Unless you’re me, probably the worst crack climber in Colorado. I avoid hand jams everywhere I can, and have driven by the cliffs at Indian Creek at least 16 times without climbing there.  I hate jamming, even on slabby Boulder Canyon or Lumpy Ridge granite — if you put a vertical desert crack between my fridge and me, I would probably starve to death. There is no reason for me to think I could lead 30 Seconds Over Potash onsight, yet I am drawn to it.

We drive down Wall Street during the one 15-minute span of the entire year that no one is leading, toproping or even looking at 30 Seconds Over Potash. The windstorm scouring everything within 2 hours of Moab probably helps. And just like that, I am racking up and Chris is flaking the rope out. I mumble something about maybe he should lead it, too. Chris says, “I think I climbed this before. I might have led it.” Chris does not know, or remember grades of climbs. I like to know, maybe obsess over, grades and cruxes and beta. Chris will get on a climb without knowing the name or the grade, or whether he’s climbed anything like it before.

Chris doesn’t care — he just loves to climb, to move over rock. There are other things, like his banjo, and coffee, and gear, but climbing is it. He has a pure love of climbing, doesn’t care how it relates to the world, if it would make a good photo for his Facebook page, what you think about his climbing, anything. He is just happy to be out there, in the mountains, in the desert, doing it. He loves climbing like dogs love Frisbees.

Kelly Cordes wrote a “Local Hero” piece about his friend Scott for Alpinist magazine, saying, “Scotty reminds me, without a word, of simplicity: being outside is good; the mountains are good; climbing is good.” It reminds me of Chris. He does not talk you or goad you into getting excited to climb — his enthusiasm just spills out all over you.

I start up the corner on Wall Street, wishing it had something that looked like a face hold, anywhere. A dime super-glued to the wall would have been awesome. I plug in a small cam, then lock my fingers in the crack above it, then an upside-down hand jam above that. As I walk my hand up the crack above, it becomes apparent that I will be liebacking the entire next section with my feet on a smooth vertical wall. I reach down and plug in a No. 4 nut maybe 14 inches above the cam I placed, thinking I might be able to use the extra 2-3 feet of rope if/when I flopped out of the crack.

I am old, and out of shape, and probably not strong enough to pull the lieback moves, and I popped off the wall about 12 feet off the ground, whipping onto the No. 4 nut and stopping about 2 feet off the ground. There was really no question at all whether or not I was going to get back on it. Chris kept right on encouraging me, and I wondered if he was just always delusionally optimistic, or if he really thought I could lead it.

A few minutes later, I was clipping the chains at the top, 80 feet up. After I cleaned the gear on my way down and Natalie toproped the climb, I asked Chris if he wanted to lead the route or just toprope it and get the quickdraws off the top. No thanks, he would just toprope it. That’s not what our detour over to Wall Street was about, apparently. It was about me pushing myself, and not going home back to Denver without leading one of the desert cracks I hate so much, not letting myself down.

This is the same guy who, when I announced we didn’t have big enough gear to climb Kor’s Flake, insisted we do it, and yes, he would lead the off-width pitch. And the same guy who hiked up Glacier Gorge through 2 hours of rain with me, and when I suggested we go home that night and climb in Eldo the next day since the rock was going to be wet anyway, said, “Let’s wait 15 minutes under this tree. If it stops raining, we go up. If it doesn’t, we head home.” The rain let up after 14 minutes, and we climbed the North Buttress of Pagoda Mountain the next morning.

The day after we climbed in Moab, it was raining and cold in Salt Lake City. At the end of an auto tour of Little Cottonwood Canyon, we found the one piece of dry rock in SLC, Pete’s Rock, and did a low bouldering traverse. Because that’s what Chris does.

I hope everyone who does something in the outdoors has a friend like that.


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8 replies on “The friend you want along on every climb”
  1. Indeed, we all need friends like that. And way to take down your nemesis! The start of that thing is no joke, even if you DO spend a lot of time in the Creek!

  2. says: brendan

    Thanks, BJ! Glad to hear you say that the start is tough — I thought I was just a pathetic crack climber.

  3. says: SuzRocks

    Ha…I guess I’m set for life then. This pretty much sums up my husband. Every time I’m thinking, “Oh…it’s not too nice outside, it’s ____ fill in the blank,” he always has another idea, or route, or game plan.

    My game plans usually involve red vines and pringles.

  4. says: Kevin

    I started to retell this story to my GF who ‘doesn’t like climbing’… hey babe – remember that climb in Moab that we did… with the ambitious left facing lyback? “Oh yea”- she replies, “the one that I fell off of and you wouldn’t let me back down until I finished it.”

  5. says: Jon Carpenter

    Great article. I have had a similar experience with cross country skiing and a buddy of mine. The difference between his personality and doing almost anything outdoors is seamless and seems like breathing.

  6. says: Nick

    Great article. Got turned onto your site by Chris over at Enormocast, and have not been disappointed! Great vibes here man. Keep it up!

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