I was at the fifth pitch of Sons of Yesterday when the delirium took hold. It was mid-August in Yosemite, a thousand degrees in the shade and Leo and I were the only C-suckers out there climbing in the afternoon sun. We sizzled like suffering eggs on the white-hot granite frying pan, but pushed upward despite the overwhelming desiccation.
I had just met Leo, and didn’t know much about him other than he was Mexican. He appeared out of nowhere at my breakfast table that morning. Over coffee and through belabored communication, we immediately recognized a symbiosis that had all the makings for a great climbing team. I would put up the harder pitches, while Leo, by not knowing more than a few licks of English, would spare me the painful, mind-numbing banality of small talk.
We made it to one pitch below the top before I said I couldn’t go any further. Being Mexican, Leo was apparently used to climbing in such intolerable conditions and was no more stressed by the heat than a Zacatecan chuckwalla. My brain, however, was poached. Leo was accommodating and agreed to go down. I threaded the ropes to rappel.
I was about to unclip from the anchor when Leo grabbed my wrist and shook my hand away from the carabiner. Great skullet of Jason Kehl! I hadn’t clipped the ropes into my ATC! We looked at each other and laughed crazily.
A whack of adrenaline cleared my head, and I immediately got it together. While rapping down the line, I pondered the meaning of what had just happened. It was amazing in a sick sort of way. Leo had just saved me from falling 800 feet. Was he my guardian angel? I pictured his face, specifically his pedo-moustache. Though he had grabbed my wrist deliberately, it seemed too improbable that his action was part of some purposeful divine mission.
Perhaps Leo was just a fluke, an accidental thwarting of the universe’s attempt to purge itself of another cocky scourge. It was unsettling to be faced with the thought that maybe I was meant to die that day.
I was pondering these things so deeply that I rapped right off the ends of the rope. Just kidding … but that would’ve been ironic.
CLIMBERS ARE OBSESSED with some pretty petty ethical dilemmas. Whether a rope should be above or below you when placing bolts. If “improving” a crimper should be done before or after trundling 200 pounds of loose choss. How these things affect our sport’s progress. Chalk bag with carabiner or not?
No seasoned moralist worth his salt would bat an eyelash at these scruples, yet they have occupied center stage of climbing’s discourse for the last 30 years. Meanwhile, climbers have silently faced some truly thorny compunctions: namely, when you see someone doing something dumb, do you say something?
In my experience, personally and as an observer, the answer is often No. Rarely does anyone speak up when these future Darwin Award winners go down their bat-shit crazy warpaths of self-destruction.
As a beginner, I spent many hours roaming the base of the Trapps at the Gunks, teaching myself to build safe anchors and staring up at routes I hoped to climb. I wasn’t an expert by any measure even though, according to those magnanimous Brits, I could scrape up some Hard Very Severe routes in my knickers (if I owned any, of course). Still, I knew how the rope gets up thar.
One day I ambled up to a guy aid rope-soloing up a damp slab in a light spring drizzle. He stood in his etriers while ferreting through an El Cap-sized rack. I could see he was using a Soloist. Interested in how he was anchored, I scanned the base of the cliff and, holy Henry Barber’s moustache! He hadn’t tied his rope off to anything!
In fact, it appeared that the climber had simply clipped the Soloist to the rope above his knot. Meanwhile, the rope end sat in a flaked pile at the base of the climb.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I’m soloing,” he said. “See? I’ve got a Soloist on!”
He grabbed the Soloist, held it up and shook it thrice. In my memory, he was really smug about the whole thing, which made me doubt my understanding that if his top piece popped, he’d take a big, fat grounder.
Though right, I wasn’t then secure enough to tell the meat-wad he better pray to his own balls that he makes it to the anchor without screwing up. Silently I debated if speaking up would even help. Would he freak out and have an accident, or just bite off my head? Both outcomes frightened me. Besides, shouting across a distance of 50 vertical feet is no way to get into self-belay mechanics. I decided to leave him as I found him, blissfully ignorant, and go on my way.
Over the years, I’ve become a better, safer climber, yet I’m still stymied when these conundrums confront me. It has been as mild as watching a trad climber who doesn’t know how to clean a sport route take the big-wood flogging through a dense pine grove after swinging out from the first draw, to the seriousness of watching a gym-bred idiot try his hand at trad climbing on the “easy” grade of 5.10.
In this latter example, the climber and his two stooge friends had been spraying all week to everyone in Camp 4 about how nitro-amped they were dogging some anonymous 5.12 projects in Tuolumne. They then decided to try their hand at trad climbing with Moby Dick, “only” 5.10a. The du jour leader of this batch of undeveloped chromosomes grabbed the rack and jumped into the belly of the beast. When he tried to slot a #9 nut in a #3 Camalot crack, the piece dropped into the maw like a tic-tac into a whale’s mouth.
One member of the trio was a girl who was “stoneder” than a goat. She was fully deranged, too, laughing like a loon and yelling, “You’re gonna DIE!” The belayer had to shout over her hysterics about proper cam angles.
The climber finally finagled in a decent cam, but couldn’t fist jam to save his own life. He fell, the top cam held, but every other piece of gear zippered out of the crack like an exploding roman candle.
“You’re gonna DIE!” the girl squealed again, rolling around in peals of laughter. I silently left.
These mortifying incidents don’t always have to be gear related, though they often are, nor are they always traumatic do-or-die moments. I’ve watched some friends begin to solo ever closer to their limits and others tumble toward that dead-end of anorexia. It is difficult, from the sidelines, to watch a friend take a self-destructive path.
At my local crag, I see one woman who always climbs solo, stick clipping up routes, feeling the holds and occasionally trying the moves. We laugh about the non-extreme stick clipping, but in fact, she is stronger than Joe Kinder and would be one of the burliest female climbers in the country … if she weren’t non compos mentis. She rides her bike, carrying all her gear including a rope, 10 miles straight uphill to the crag every day. I’ve heard stories about her pulling off 5.14 cruxes. She’s strong, lean and fit, but doesn’t have the presence of mind to put a whole route together. Say the wrong thing to her and you’ll spark a fit.
The problem is the elaborate system she somehow devised for rope soloing. It’s beautiful in its originality, but if you study what’s going on, you quickly realize that she’s only ever clipped into a single bolt. The fact that she hasn’t died yet is a testament to how infrequently bolts pull … yet, we know they do pull, which is what’s so frightening. This is a wholly sad story on many levels, especially as it feels as though little can be done.
JUST RECENTLY, FOR THE FIRST time in my climbing career, I was compelled to do something. There is a weight-lifting gym, which I won’t name, that also has a 30-foot climbing wall. One snowy Sunday, I walked into the facility and saw four Latino kids, between 16 and 20, playing around with the pre-strung top ropes. I didn’t think much of it until, great breasts of Bobbi Bensman! No one was wearing a harness!
I could tell by the body language of one kid that this hubris-bomb had convinced his friends he knew what he was doing. He took one rope end and wrapped it around his left thigh, then wrapped more slack around his waist, and finally tossed some wraps around his right thigh. He finished off this ersatz rig by tying a bowtie not fit for a birthday present.
The brave, doomed dumbass launched up the wall like a soldier. Even better was the half-baked belay set-up. You really need to picture what this looked like to appreciate the full insanity of this story.
The belayer pulled down slack and launched into a spastic tornado twirl to wrap the rope around his waist, like a human Yo-Yo being wound up.
The other patrons, though not climbers, could tell that whatever these kids were doing was not the approved beta. A nasty part of me wanted to yell at them, “What in the crap do you think you’re doing?
Huh? Do you have shit for brains?”
The climber had summitted, but he was so flogged that he crawled halfway over the top of the wall, draping his torso over the other side like a beach towel on a clothesline. I looked up at his punchy little legs searching around blindly for some purchase. It was funny, even though it wasn’t.
After some hesitation, I finally ran over and took the rope out of the belayer’s hands and said, “This isn’t safe!” He didn’t respond. “Here, this is how you do it,” and I showed him the hip belay.
“That’s better?” he asked.
“Yes,” I sighed. “Much better.” Lame, but this was all I could muster. The climber began his descent. He slid down the slab, partly being lowered by the unwinding Yo-Yo on the other end. The language barrier kept me from saying much more, and to be honest, I didn’t really want to.
In these dicey, dangerous situations, doing what’s right doesn’t come easily. We want to act righteously and bring goodness to our surroundings without being “the expert,” that guy who runs around imposing his ego on everyone by telling him or her how to act. In the latter instance, the gym kids would’ve been fine with or without me there—speaking up only made me feel worse.
Of course, most people would run out into the street to save a child from being hit by a bus, because there’s no time for second-guessing or ego to pervert the purity of the right action. It’s easy to be like Leo stopping me from unclipping at the belay because that’s when the self is forgotten and the moral course of action just takes place. It happens with no effort involved, like gravity directing an airborne object.
But those instances, especially in climbing, seem rare. More often, there’s no bus coming, just the specter of one. The danger unfolds more slowly—like waiting for the rope soloist at the Gunks to place another piece, or seeing if the gym kids would actually even make it to the top of the wall, or hoping my anorexic friend will start eating normally next week. The velocity at which it all unfolds allows your ego to enter and cloud the virtuous path, the one that allows you to deftly penetrate these emotionally charged situations by finding the right words and selfless actions that will have a positive effect.
Speaking up is hard. It immediately and inescapably intertwines you with the consequences of what happens. It can feel easier to live and let die.
Climbing, after all, is about freedom—of moving upward, but also, the freedom from responsibility. It is a game where you take your powerful instinct to stand on top of something vertical, and balance that with your tolerance for risk and your creativity for figuring out how to get up there. This has always been a teetering act, and many people who play this game too hard, too fast, have lost big. But some amazing things have also been accomplished, expanding what we know about human potential and ingenuity. Climbing is a great (the best?) way to explore what we’re able to endure and how high we’re willing to go. That needs to be preserved.
I’d like to say I wasn’t comfortable defining those boundaries for these kids, or the fool on Moby Dick, or the gumby at the Gunks, but only part of that is true. In reality, there was a moral sense that I ought to have acted as an educator to prevent disaster. But where does that start … or end? The intensity of the action must match the situation. Finding that right degree, the right speech and the right listener all need to come together, and I’m still not sure I understand how to achieve that balance.
But it seems like a good place to start would be learning Spanish.
Andrew Bisharat was once the world-ranking leader of doing dumb and dangerous things. Now he just writes about them.