April 19, 2012 Attentiveness mattered today. The friable, incut edges of desert varnish beckon for my out stretched hand. I reach cautiously upward, searching for the ones that look solid. Ones not plate like draw my attention and favor. I tap it and latch on, quickly shifting my gaze downward looking for the hidden footholds. The hidden ones, the ones in the rock are solid; the ones that look to be on the rock, they are suspect. A foothold breaking now would send me for a long fall. I slide my sticky rubber shoe onto the desired edge and give it a quick weight test. In this manner, searching, locating, tapping and weighting I slowly migrate upward, repeating the process for each appendage.
The sticks and leaves jammed in the cracks tell the story of infrequent ascents. The noticeable lack of chalk adorning the varnished chicken heads and white, slabby stone reinforce my heightened awareness. On well travelled routes, the chalk is ubiquitous, often giving me a clue as to what holds can be trusted. Today, not so much. I am on my own, only the occasional anti-chalk, the white “X” written on a block. The unwritten message is clear: stay away. Visions of an injured Carlyle on a ledge on in Patagonia stir and make their way to the forefront of my mind. I yell down to my partners to keep an eye out for the loose blocks and gingerly tip toe around them.
The usually accurate Handren guide shows the route trending left under the bush on this pitch. I reach the split and gaze up and left. Bushes are every which way and I wonder if I am in the right place. I search, locate, tap and weight as I move my way left before spying a a stack of dinner plate flakes, hollow, and arching out from the face. I gaze farther up, more of these death frisbees come to my attention. I step back down reversing my searching, locating, tapping and weighting I reassess my direction. On a little travelled route, the left crack looks even less travelled. Right goes straight into the oak, but seems cleaner. Left avoids the branches but seems looser. I stray right onto the face, searching, locating, tapping and weighting, the mantra interspersed in my head with regular breathing. The face offers no place for protection so I move upward.
Each move is accompanied by the thought of the fallen climber on Frogland a few days prior, momentarily unresponsive, lying on a ledge. I picture his lucky landing while peering at my gear far below. I know the consequences of getting off route and breaking a hold. It is much worse for me than it would be for him. I move right around the oak and cross a face void of chalked holds and protection, searching, locating, tapping and weighting.
Higher up I mantle on to a ten foot block. I remember another hold breaking and another fall. I picture Andy crashing onto the rocky ledge at my feet. My size eight feet and 149 pound frame are a far cry from his size 12 climbing shoe and 1/10th of a ton frame, yet I remember stabilizing his head and telling him not to move. I tell my students this story while fishing in a nut and then searching out the solid, incut footholds, thankful for my scrawny build. I try to move lightly and quickly.
Today I am more conservative, I place more gear, move slower. The mantra of the mountains and the remote is long since ingrained in my mind. The black varnished stone of the prior pitch has once again melted into the soft, white slabby sandstone of hematite knobs and varnished plates. Attentively I creep upwards, searching, locating, tapping and weighting.
Come to think of it, attentiveness matters everyday.