“Hey Dane do you mind if Kyle and I climb a few pitches?” I ask as Dane descends from the Morning Glory Wall with a gaggle of students. The sun is quickly dipping behind the towers of the Smith Rock Group, casting castellated shadows across the golden tuff.
“No not at all. You guys should go for it” he responds, pausing by the river before making the trek upstream and back to camp. “You need gear?” he asks.
“Naw, we’re set” I answer quickly as Kyle and I set off back up the hill, intent on some sport routes.
“I guess the vehicle situation makes it difficult to go climbing eh?” Dane asks as Mitch and I discuss the possibility.
“Yeah, but I want to be prepared just in case” I respond, shoving a rope into my pack and tossing some draws to Mitch. We march down the hill, downstream and across the bridge but don’t run into Kyle until the parking lot “Hrmmmph” I grunt. “Lots more walking now. Whadaya think Mitch?” I ask, unsure myself.
“Y’all should run into the Lower Gorge and climb Cruel Sister” Dane puts in. I am eyeing the sun dropping lower in the western sky and envision a shady, cold gorge. “Splitter crack” he adds. My vision shifts to splitter basalt cracks and quickly deduce that we will need cams.
“Are you in Mitch?” I ask as I start my search for more gear.
“Sure” he replies, “what do we need?”
We jet down to the basalt rim and drop into the gorge, racing the waning daylight to the base, nabbing one last pitch after work.
I am like a kid in a candy shop. All the climbing is new. All the climbing is good. The classics are still unclimbed and the onsights are there for the taking. I wander around in awe, thumb aimlessly through the guidebook mentally filing away the four star classics. I note first ascencionists, history, aspect, ethics, trying to take in all of it. So much to do, so little time: cracks, face, boulders.
The tuff’s steep faces filled with crimps, edges, and pockets play to my strengths. The parallel sided cracks of the basalt ring tunes reminiscent of Indian Creek. The pockets of the tuff, the jugs and cheese grater friction are seemingly molded from the bighorn dolomite of Sinks Canyon. Frost laced pinyon and juniper trees, trails winding through head high sage, and the cold morning/warm day combination take me back to the Colorado Plateau. It is the seamless nature of the climbing, crack blending with face, sport blending with trad, the fluid combination of nature, recreation, education and beauty that calls out to me, beckons me to work, to play, to return again and again.
I first flirted with Smith Rock on spring break in 1999 with Todd. We drove over from Missoula and mixed climbing with a couple days of skiing. Spiderman, Lycopodophydta and my first 5.9 trad lead, Moonshine Dihedral. Then again in 2002 with Kevin and Sarah. Whippers and broken rock on Wartley’s Revenge, a posse on the Pioneer Route on Monkey Face and vague memories of good times before heading south for a winter in UT. I didn’t feel an attraction though; I didn’t recognize the place for what it was. I was a crack snob and in love with the Colorado Plateau and the Utah desert.
Now so many years later work has brought me back. I have the opportunity to discover a new place, a place I am lucky enough to work and my students are lucky enough to have as a playground as they learn the ins and outs of climbing.
I feel the pull to stay, for a couple of weeks, a month, or more. When, that is the question and the answer is uncertain. Smith is a new love, something that begs to be explored, something fresh and exciting. The joy of discovery and anticipation coupled with the fear of rejection. Will I measure up, will my skills be enough? The thrill of learning her intricacies and how my body works in relation to hers is intoxicating, refreshing, and all to unfamiliar. It is a fleeting glimpse of that rare suspense I once thought made the world go round. A suspense that for years my ego feared and today my soul craves. And much like a beautiful woman, it is hard to walk away from her. Realizing that I need to leave knowing we have at least danced a little, I survey the scene and assess student needs. Satisfied I grab a rope and a rack and find Dane. “Mind if I lead something around the corner?”Thanks to James McMurtry for the inspiration and words.