“Wow, that was the best pitch yet” Liz exclaims as she mantles onto to the white, rounded sandstone at the top of a varnished finger crack. “That crack was beautiful. Nice lead” she adds. The sixth pitch of the Red Rock Canyon’s Mountain Beast is indeed a beautiful, mostly gear protected line. While the thin winding crack appears beautiful from below and felt wonderful to her, the process of ascending the line was anything but for me.
Fear, the beast within, reared its ugly head this day. Somehow it weaved it’s way to the forefront of my mind, elbowing into my normally logical and clear headed thought processes. “Wimps live longer” and “fear, it is what keeps us alive,” are idioms that I tend to espouse. I believe in these ideas when they are based on well grounded possibilities. I don’t believe in these ideas when the fear is based on things that are unlikely to happen or an inaccurate perception of my abilities. Fear does not play a big role in my climbing. I am usually quite able to push aside and ignore unbased fears that make their way into my thoughts. This day was different though.
Mountain Beast first came to my attention several years ago when Emily Isaacs and i were walking out of Oak Creek Canyon after some desert adventure. We ran into Greg Barnes whose partner had injured an ankle high up on the side of Rainbow Mountain. He was hiking out to the parking lot and looking for a cell phone with reception. He mentioned in passing that they had been up on Mountain Beast and had replace all the original bolts. Then years later, while finishing a link up of Johnny Vegas, Solar Slab and the Rainbow Buttress my partner and I chose to climb the hollow flake riddled last pitch of Mountain Beast versus the sparsely protected corner. Finally this year I floated the idea to my friend Anna as we planned to meet up in Vegas and do some climbing. She said that it didn’t get great reviews on Mountain Project, so we made alternate plans. Our friends Daren and Jake climbed it however and at the end of their stay Daren proclaimed it the best he had done that week. I took that as a solid recommendation so Liz Schmoll and I ventured up there the next day.
I had no reason to think that the darkly varnished incut edges would break. On the first three pitches we had experienced only solid rock and fun climbing. Launching up the thin cracks that adorn the third pitch’s face however, I couldn’t help but think about the positive edges crumbling in my hand and cracking underfoot. Tentatively I would reach for a hold and go for a move, only to second guess myself. Stepping back down I would search again in vain for a fissure in which to fiddle in a stopper or a small camming device, wanting whatever scant mental protection it offered. Sewing it up wasn’t easy, in fact it wore me out quicker. Somewhere inside, the gear made me feel safer. The visions of cracking footholds or crumbling edges didn’t abate nor did the thoughts of cratering onto the ledge below. When I am climbing fear makes me sweat more and my movement less fluid. My hand became slippery and I began to be more hesitant, with increased second guessing of my movement and strategy. What should have been solid crimps or stable smears started feeling unacceptable. I would feel around for other, better options. The guidebook description of “a scary bulge” kept replaying in my mind. In the end, unlike on the second pitch, I didn’t give in to the fear and french free, but it had taken hold.
As I followed the next pitch, a steep face well protected with bolts, I couldn’t help but feel glad that I wasn’t leading the pitch. I had watched Liz dance up the face, her smooth movement not at all affected by the fear slowly welling in me. As I stemmed, smeared, reached and crimped I began to feel that out of place feeling. The feeling of not wanting to be somewhere, the feeling of not having fun, of being out of my element. I tried to rationalize and subdue these thoughts with facts and perspective: beautiful day, enough time, bolted anchors, safe partner, fuck dude — you climbed Fitz Roy and didn’t feel like this up there… and so on. Reaching the upper part of pitch five, just below the belay I encountered a blank, varnished face. “I got a little nervous when I reached here, but it turned out OK” Liz says from her perch ten feet above. I looked at the smooth, black face and felt the doubt swell again. “Nice lead” I responded as I reassessed one hand hold after another, any efficiency of upward progress lost in my second guessing. I quietly gained the belay ledge and peered up at the short corner and thin soaring finger crack above.
Fear is a powerful thing. It makes me acutely focused and precise. It is always present for me, in climbing it is what makes me put on a rope and have a belay. In driving it is what makes me wear a seatbelt. It is always present in manageable, appropriate doses. I don’t know why on this day, looking up at that short corner and patina covered face above caused my stomach to churn and have an “I don’t want to be here” attitude, but it sure wasn’t helpful. It slowed me down, decreased the fun factor, and made me doubt myself. Maybe all of that served a purpose I will never be or am yet to be aware of, but to not know why it came is challenging. Learning to work through it is important. Finding a way to make it not return is even more important.