Nothing quite perks us my sense of adventure like climbing yet to try and explain it to a non-climber so often results in falling woefully shy. It’s like trying to use words to explain the magical feeling of hearing a live orchestra play something like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring… it’s just not going to connect like the actual experience. Yet just like when we discover a wonderful restaurant, we inherently want to share or “turn others on” to the elation experienced. I was reflecting upon this the other day during an early morning climb in Southern Utah’s Snow Canyon on a climb named “Living on the Edge” as well as reflecting upon the historical development of climbing and the milestones that have been achieved in the past 35 years since I first let my fingers on the stone.
All of a sudden my partner, Chris Howard yells up at me, “hey you’re not wearing your normal climbing pants, did you forget them today?” “No, but does my butt look big in these?” I jokingly replied. Being a middle aged guy has its disadvantages.
There was a slight chill to the air of the morning with the sweet fragrance of sage wafting through the still air. The moon was just getting ready to depart over the crimson skyline. I was grateful for the commitment of my friend and climbing partner, Chris Howard, meeting up prior to the first light of the morning in order to beat the heat which can climb upwards of 100 degrees in the summer. Today’s agenda was to climb the first two pitches of Living on the Edge and string them together with a fixed line in order to run some self-belayed laps on this amazing climb.
Although it’s not hard by today’s standards at 5.10c, it delivers a mix of radical exposure and intricate, chess-like moves climbing just above an overhanging arch for the first pitch then venturing out through a sustained face that is all about air as you pass over a roof on the second pitch. I’ve always wanted to fix a line in order to climb both pitches continuously so we did just that.
I dreamt of establishing routes like this years ago but our generation insisted upon placing hand-drilled bolts only on the lead and without the aid of hooks or coming down from the top on rappel which became know as sport climbing. Years ago I spied out an incredible overhanging face climb in Red Rock’s Icebox canyon and thought it would be really cool to bring some hooks and “set” a free climb up where there was no hope of standing upon one’s feet alone and drilling. Intent upon doing so but hesitant about other local climber’s opinions about this style I discussed it with my good friend Randy Grandstaff (RIP) who had a strong distain for such an impure style so I decided to not pursue it.
As the years progressed, climbers in France started employing such tactics and even rappelled down from above to place bolts on severely overhanging routes. This opened up the floodgates of modern standards of climbing boosting the ceiling of what had been climbed, 5.12 at that time, to now over 5.15 with each increment being likened to an earthquake’s Richter scale as the successive grades are substantially more difficult that it’s predecessor.
Upon climbing the first two pitches and fixing the lines Christine Rutherford, who was visiting from the Midwest on vacation, approached us and was beaming with excitement about getting to do her first “outdoor” climb with her son Cam being guided by a local service. Her enthusiasm was infectious and it brought me back to my roots of how cool climbing is. John Long, a Yosemite legend, once exclaimed that “rock climbing is the king of all sports.” Sadly many modern climbers don’t get the incredible experience of connecting with the beauty of creation as they are only exposed to climbing gyms. Personally that’s part of the main attraction to me. It’s like getting to follow a book by Braille as each natural hold opens up the passage through the sea of stone that surrounds you as you tread where you really don’t belong and get to experience things from an elevated perspective.
Climbing has a way of gently pushing out all the thoughts and worries of the day and puts one in contact with the present like nothing else. When you’re climbing on the stone you tend to focus on your immediate surroundings in a primitive way. Fear must be dealt with and literally put in its place, a very useful skill in all aspects of life which if not dealt with can snuff out dreams and kill ambition. No wonder St. John proclaimed that “perfect love casts out fear.” Life is just better when we focus on love and the task at hand rather then dwelling in the dark caverns of fear. The natural high of endorphins rises above the perceived comfort of a restful, sedentary lifestyle that can often lead to depression for many.
Reflecting back on the changes of climbing styles throughout the past 35 years I can’t help but be impressed with each successive generation’s achievements and the building blocks that help stem the void of improbable to the reality of possible. I’m 53 and for me both as an observer of the knarly and a participant of the mediocre, it’s a testimony of the incredible tapped and untapped gifts that God has given us each to use. The creativity and physical training keeps my mind always looking forward to possibilities that I can’t comprehend presently. I’m so grateful for getting a glimpse of this ever-evolving sport and the Creator’s vertical riddles that evoke awe and wonder in all those that participate. I soon realize that it’s ok if my butt looks big in my new attire, it’s almost 10am and it’s time to go to work for a living.
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