Coming over the North Fork Skykomish the arms of the bridge form a gate and between those lintel posts, granite walls come tumbling out of the hillside and a glow blooms forth in my chest, not unlike that from a swig of gin. We pull over beside the quarried blocks that form a curb between 5th Street and Doolittle Park and get out to stretch our legs in the morning sun, fill our water jugs from a spigot signed “City of Index Water – Not Potable,” and use a bathroom with neither mirror nor soap. On the walls we can see this year’s projects still scrubbed and shining and behind us Index and Persis rise like a painted backdrop to the glory of the day; et en arcadia, there are cities hanging in the air.
So after weeks of TR soloing the line and sitting around the wagonwheel drinking beer and talking about the temps, Brian is finally leading his summer project, this viciously hard stem box with really difficult pro and Per, who is on about four different drugs at this point, two of which are powerful hallucinogens, is belaying him. Brian gets to the crux and places a piece, and then another about six inches up in another crack. He then goes to get another about a foot above there but the nuts won’t slot right so when he yanks on the biner to test them they just rocket out and he gets thrown all off balance and he finally tosses the whole set over his shoulder in disgust and blasts on up the dihedral. He’s making these small sort of dead-points with his feet and bracing off his palms as he gets higher and higher above his pro, and then there’s a jug, like honestly a little in-cut hold about two hands wide and deep as your second knuckle, and just as he goes for it his feet get overextended and he falls, ripping one of the pieces and letting loose a tremendous cheer from the crowd, mostly drunk, who came over here from the campground to see just such a thing.
Brian admits freely that the climb is beyond him, as it is beyond most of us, the mythic .11b, but the quality of the thing, that’s what strikes him. He’s a peerless aesthete, the rare climber that can begin to see the stone before the grade and appreciate them separately. I don’t think he was looking for a techy 5.11 tick; it really seemed like he was falling off the thing for the fun of it.
Way up past the part of the Inner Walls that people actually frequent, Ryan was whipping all over this 5.10a offwidth. Ryan’s strong but for all our road-tripping we’re North Cascades climbers at heart and offwidths are a bit of a mystery to us. We know the theory, we’ve seen all the WideBoyz and Pamela Pack videos, and we have the gear, there’s just not a lot of width here to work with. We’re using Chandler’s old-ass rope that’s all oval shaped and nearly coreshot in half a dozen places and this ledge we’re on, we got to it by hauling ourselves, hand over hand, up these mystery-ropes that were attached to the anchor at the base of the route. After he finally makes it over this roof and up the mossy goodness above he anchors off a tree and lowers and we take turns top-roping it.
With my limited knowledge of offwidth technique and even more limited fitness, I can’t get more than about 12 feet up the thing but Chandler does and when he finally makes it he’s more than a little pissed because Ryan apparently just clipped some preexistent mank around this tree and so we’ve been top-roping all this time on these scraps of god knows how old cord and webbing. I suspect it was a “devil you know” kind of situation.
It’s a sunny spring morning and we’re all hanging out at the mid wall, upwards of a dozen of us, but the rock is still quite damp so there’s not a lot we can productively climb. Kuba carried a case of beer all the way up the upper town wall trail so we’re drinking that, and Van has at least a six pack of Rolling Rock and someone, maybe Hannah, brought a fifth of whiskey. All we carried down were empties. I start up this awesome looking 5.10- finger crack and it’s just barely dry enough for me to climb the thing, I’m sewing it up and thrashing and just generally getting scared and then I finally reach the hand crack and it’s running with water, like there’s no joke a small stream inside it, but that’s the wonder of hand jams, I bore down and made it to an intermediate anchor after which the climb got completely choked with pine needles. Ryan ended up finished it up and rigged it to top rope a different neighboring climb.
About four months after I got lowered off the end of a rope and fractured a couple vertebrae I’m up kind of by the Cheeks with Danny to do my first lead since the Big Accident. I don’t own a piton hammer yet so we can’t do Golden Arch and he says we should just do the Incision instead because its only one pitch. This was apparently his first nail-up so why shouldn’t it be mine. The start of the thing is this nasty little scramble that apparently goes free at about 5.9, but part way up you can get gear in an expanding flake. When he does it he free climbs up about 15 feet and then steps straight onto a cam hook, which I, who have dislocated an ankle doing less sketchy nonsense than that, think is just quite simply a poor idea. When I get there I pound a lost arrow, my first ever, and then nervous about standing on it pound another above while still standing on a ledge. I step up onto the higher of the two and about halfway into pounding a third the one I’m on rotates downward 45 degrees. My voice goes up an octave or two and I clip my aider through the one I’ve just pounded quick like. By the time I get to the top of the route I can barely swing the hammer; I don’t know that I’ve ever been happier to clip a set of chains.
Tulin says she has to pee. Had she been a dude she could have just peed standing there. Had she been a dude I would have told her to hold it for another hour while I finished the pitch. My inner chauvinist really shines through at times like these. The real problem is that I’m not sure I can finish the pitch. I’m hanging on this kind of ok green alien and the crack ahead is just nothing but shallow, flaring, awfulness. I’m pretty sure this is also her first lead belay. She’s got a grigri, but still, I don’t want to whip onto my daisy on this cam. It’s not far back to another good piece but the ground isn’t that far away either. I’m a good 15 pieces up but the damn thing traverses farther than it ascends. She’s getting impatient. If she’s going to suffer like this she wants to at least see some movement, some sign of hope, and I’ve been standing there for probably 20 minutes, fiddling with one cam after another. Most of them rip with a determined tug, the others with a couple stomps in the aider. “This, my dear, is why we bounce test,” I tell her. I get weird on aid leads sometimes. I sung a Steeleye Span song to myself most of the way up Green Drag-on, all in Scots English, likely getting one out of every three words correct. I sung that Walk The Moon song from the radio most of the way up Golden Arch: “She said shut up and dance with me!” It was kind of appropriate come to think of it. When Danny was trying to talk me into leading the Incision he had his phone playing spotify and in succession it produced The Decemberists, The Mountain Goats, and then Vesuvius by Sufjan Stevens. It was a sign, I was just sure of it.
The day I met the Index pot fairy I was sitting in my van, wasting away the afternoon heat, getting weirded out by David Foster Wallace, and this bro in a silver chevy pickup pulls up and jumps out, leaving his motor running, and asks me if I have a lighter. I do, as it turns out, but as he informs me, he would gladly have used my two-burner Coleman stove. He proceeds to light the most loaded pipe I have ever seen, toking deeply and then offering it to me. We pass it back and forth a couple times until I turn it down, afraid that I’m getting uncomfortably stoned for how early in the day it is. He then jumps back in his truck, drives another 30 feet down the parking lot, and repeats the entire procedure, this time concluding the transaction by trading a sizable quantity of pot for a lighter. Another time this dude from Boeing that hangs out sometimes plops down at the wagon wheel table and gets out this little black bag that looks not unlike Vincent Vega’s heroin kit from Pulp Fiction, except that what he’s into is this unscheduled Canadian research drug that he bought off the internet. He offers some to any who will take it and couple of us decide to try it out. I’ve just had lunch so it takes awhile to set in, meanwhile Derek, who hasn’t eaten since breakfast, is tripping balls. He’s staggering around the parking lot, crying, laughing, blabbering on about all the shit he’s seeing, eventually it hit the rest of us too but not like it hit him. That was one of the drugs Per was on when he caught Brian’s whipper.
So Per climbed this route and called it Dyke Fight. There might have been a dike feature on the thing. Apparently there was a lesbian couple having very public relationship drama in the parking lot when they got back. There was a facebook group where we all posted our granite porn and climbing partner requests and did the lost and found gear dance, he wrote something about it on there.
Someone took offense and someone took offense at the offense and the whole thing spiraled into this snowball of hatred and condescension and willful ignorance. There’s a tradition in climbing, you climb a route and you get to name it whatever you want. Brad Driscoll Outnumbered His Guests But A Good Time Was Had By All. A Strange Boar, A Mysteries of Frenchwomen, A Ship Called Blackrock, And A Catch. Brad Driscoll Outnumbered His Guests But A Good Time Was Had By All (II). There’s this other tradition where there’s only guys are around so you call it something bro-y and crass. Cunning Stunt. Who Put The Purr In My Pussy. Dr. Sniff And The Tuna Boaters. We were all taught as kids to express our true selves and not worry about what other people thought of us. The rhetoric was formulated for puritanical old conservatives. It was supposed to make us all sex-positive and socially progressive. People taking offense used to be upset about interracial marriage and public nudity and non-closeted homosexuality, but now those people have grown skins as thick as crocodiles or moved to compounds in Idaho and the whole thing has turned on its head. It’s like maybe wild, fuck-you, liberalism took the revolution as far as it could but now what we need again is some respect, some rules and some reverence.
There was a comment about how we were all rushing to the defense of everything good and right and bromative in the world. It was a great line but it pissed me off more than anything else said. This was right when I was coming to grips with the fact that I’m not the straightest dude around and I was like, fuck you, you don’t know us, just because we don’t agree with you right now doesn’t mean that we’re the pillars of hetero-normativity.
Toward the end of it all Laurel said something like, it’s kind of a bummer to have seen you guys out there so many times and now to know what you think of us, and it kind of drew me up short because here was someone that I did know, by face and name at least, and that I had been looking up to since I first started rock climbing, and she probably thought I was a piece of shit, but I told myself then, I see her all over the place, I’ll have a chance to explain and apologize, to make it right.
A long time before most of these little anecdotes I’m embellishing we were just finishing up our day in The Country, climbing some sport routes and all, and it was getting dark, and down the trail came Per and Rich and some kid Rich picked up at the gym. He was probably in his late teens and Ryan and I both, separately, thought he bore a weird resemblance to Loras Tyrell. So Per decided he wanted to run a lap on Spooner, on which we still had a top rope set up. So he ran his lap and it was fully dark by this time and he was quite drunk and he decided he wants to lead it. Being that it’s bolted this wasn’t really a problem. This was the first time I met Per and I’m not happy to admit it but he kind of bugged the shit out of me. I’ve since amended my opinion, since while I’m still largely an ill-tempered, judgmental, asshole, I have chilled out a little in the intervening years.
So Per fell on the opening campus moves maybe five or six times before he pulled through, and we all had our flashlights pointed at the route, and Michal was yelling some truly exacting beta, taking him step by step through this climb but he still fell somewhere around the third or fourth bolt. I was all set to leave then, and quite cold in my ridiculous vintage lycra tights, but he just lowered and pulled the rope and tried again, I can’t remember how many times, until like nine or ten at night when he got the send.
Fucking townies, man, even their dogs look clean. They’re got this weight, this pillowy, fleshy, sagginess, you can tell the second they step out of their cars that they couldn’t climb a rock to escape the second flood.
One of the first times I spent a couple days at what would become the wagon wheel I wandered by one of the larger sites and saw two chubby teenagers fighting each other with nunchuks. This was bizarre enough but somewhat more harmless than, say, the creepers with the sheet-ringed encampments or the car trunks full of saws and rope. At Lookout Point they sometimes wander past trying to find the trail to the flag pole. One dude in an oversized Slayer tank top wanted us, and probably more importantly his girlfriend, to know that he was only lost because some asshole had given him the wrong directions.
It’s somewhere in there, the dark underbelly that becomes the whole. We come to define ourselves through opposition, intoxicated on our own viciousness. If there is an answer, somewhere in our joy, I often cannot find it. Places like this function as a magnifier, whatever our gifts or sins here they are amplified into unreal proportions: the sublime and the terrible in equal and opposing measure.
When I saw that the sky was lightening and realized that I wasn’t going to sleep that night I half sat up and traced my fingertip over the tattoo on her forearm. At her sleeping face on my pillow I could only softly laugh: the quiet wonderment, Vonnegut’s inverted mirth. I laughed because the only other choice was to cry.
I had built this bed rather emphatically for one person, I now realized, and these blankets I brought, also only enough for one. If I had believed this night to be within the realm of possibility, as I had claimed that I did (shouted it as my own aure entuluva with a smoking axe), wouldn’t I have constructed my home differently? The strength of the despair with which I am occasionally visited astounds me. A small wall-rack’s worth of pitons laid out and ready and I once stayed in bed all day, afraid and hating my fear and ashamed of the impotence of my hatred. My hope is a quiet thing, I built my van for one but I never sold those pins.
And then a day came upon me like a wave rising high above the valley and I trembled as I stood at its crest, all my fears met not quite with bravery, but with some Nietzschean overcoming, as of the child to the lion. I laughed and said yes and she asked me why I was laughing. Kneeling in the sand on the floor of her tent I couldn’t answer except to say that I was laughing at my life.
Shaking knees and gobied hands and barely driven beaks, beer in the river and bare limbs in the gun club – this is it, people, the living bread, the word made flesh. This is all we need. Index provides, yo!
This will probably be my last update on this blog for awhile. Over the last few months I’ve ran through almost a year of accumulated projects, most of which I had some vague ambitions of getting published somewhere real but either got turned down or decided against it. On the off chance that any publishers are reading this and liking it, take note – the spirit is willing but the body is weak. I am a coward but not a disinterested one.