“Hey, can you take photos with your phone?” I yell down from the belay to my pal Lee, as he works his way up the last 50 feet of the third pitch of Kor’s Flake.
“Yeah, why?” he says, as he cleans a cam and clips it to his harness.
“I set mine down on the ground.”
“When we started?”
“No, just now.” I point out into the 300-some feet of air below the belay. Lee starts laughing.
Kor’s Flake has a notorious offwidth on the third pitch, that you should ideally climb with two No. 6 Camalots if you want to actually protect it as you climb. I had led it, walking and leapfrogging a No. 4 and a No. 5 over each other, hating life inside the slick granite gap, at different points getting my helmet, chest and crotch stuck and having to un-jam those parts by climbing down slightly.Â I had tossed and turned most of the previous night, wondering what it would feel like if I popped out of the offwidth at a bad spot. But I made it up without incident, and after I finished the offwidth above a tipped-out No.4 and No. 5, the moves were pure cruising, but exposed. I built a belay and blindly unclipped the carabiner holding my Metolius PAS to the back of my harness.
I heard a quick thump behind me, and thought, “Did I just drop my chalk bag?” Then I realized I had unclipped my point-and-shoot camera and let it drop, and it was probably sitting on the ground at the base of Sundance Buttress, smashed into a million pieces inside the soft case. I just shook my head and laughed. As I pulled in rope, I rehearsed what I was going to say to Lee when he got to the belay.
The conversation between Lee and I, at the expense of my camera, is how we talk when we climb: Keeping it light with sarcasm, bad jokes, gallows humor and profanity. I’m sure this is very similar to what lots of climbers experience with their partners. In fact, I hope so. If you can’t crack a decent joke while you’re hundreds of feet off the ground, I don’t want to climb with you. Until you can.
Early in my climbing career, I was getting ready to start up a route with my friend Nick, and we had been talking about how thin the first few moves looked, and how the route might be a little bit over our heads. I chalked up, and said, “Got me on belay?”
“On belay,” Nick said.
“Not for long,” Nick said.
This is what I’m talking about. Despite Nick, I got up the route without falling. I would like my partners to believe in me, but it’s not entirely necessary, I guess. Sometimes I like to talk shit to them as they follow a pitch, handing out bad or fake advice, such as:
- “If you can, I recommend using gription on this part.”
- “You can do it. If not, it’s easy terrain from here, so I can just cut the rope and solo off this thing.”
- “Maybe you should take your shirt off for the crux.”
- “You can pull on that piece of gear if you can’t get the moves. Remember, there’s no cheating in climbing — only lying.”
- or, an old classic from Tom Hanson: “Try using the strength of ten men. If that doesn’t work, try eleven.”
I don’t climb a lot of sport routes, or boulder too much, which has meant for me that people don’t usually cheer you on and give encouragement as you battle your way up a route. Maybe it’s because on multipitch trad routes, you can often be trying to punch through the crux when you’re separated by a corner, a roof, or 15o feet of rope, and you’re too far away to hear any encouragement your partner might offer. When I am close enough to hear every curse word and hyperventilation as my partner battles through some tough move, I just watch and hope they don’t fall. Then when they do get through it and yell something like, “I can’t believe I didn’t peel off right there!” I like to yell back,
“It’s good that you didn’t, because I just now put you on belay. Nice job.”
A lot of the popular routes here in the Front Range are pretty heavily traveled, and over the years gear gets stuck in them — cams, nuts, and sometimes old pitons that are just fixed, and no one’s getting out. I religiously clip fixed gear like that when I lead, partly because I want to believe that if it’s been there for 10 years, it will hold me. The other part is because I like to wait until my partner gets to the next belay and ask if they cleaned that specific piece of gear, especially if it was mangled beyond belief.
“Did you get my piton out?”
“Whoa, where’s my orange TCU? You didn’t get it stuck, did you?”
I tend to gravitate towards “classics” here as well, which usually means the route was first climbed by some badass in the 50s or 60s, using far inferior gear, and far superior courage. This sometimes surfaces when I’m leading a scary-for-me pitch, and my partner will say something like
“You know, Harvey Carter led this in hobnail boots and pitons in 1954.”
To which I will reply,
“Yeah, I read somewhere that he also used giant balls. Which I seem to have forgotten today.”
It’s important to keep things from getting too serious from the get-go — beginning with the planning of the climbing day, which begins via e-mail. If I search my e-mail correspondence with my friend Lee, I find lots of shit-talking, many times about what kind of rack we’re going to bring. He usually insists on bringing three things that I don’t like to climb with: Tri-Cams, hexes, and HB Offset nuts. Sometimes I say things like, “You bring the rope, I’ll bring the rack. The rack is one #1 Camalot and one #2 Camalot.” And it goes on. Sometimes like this:
On Tue, May 31, 2011 at 1:05 PM, Brendan Leonard <XXXXXX@gmail.com> wrote:
How about I do the hard pitches on Kor’s Flake (3, 4, and 5), and you let me lead a couple of the ones on White Whale? And then we can paper-rock-scissors for the first pitch on Enema Syringe — it’s got a semi-scary, kind-of-runout slab move above a flake.
On Tue, May 31, 2011 at 2:06 PM, Lee Smith <XXXXXX@gmail.com> wrote:
How ’bout you lead everything and I sip mint juleps while I belay?
On Tue, May 31, 2011 at 2:11 PM, Brendan Leonard <XXXXXX@gmail.com> wrote:
I will agree to this if you bring 2 Hostess Donettes for every pitch I lead and hand them to me at the top of each one. I would prefer as close to 1/2 powdered and 1/2 chocolate as possible.
The important thing to remember is that climbing is not serious, until it gets serious. If your partner can handle it, sometimes a little shit talking can be way better than words of encouragement. Although, you can do both at the same time.