DURING A HOT summer day, while climbing with my friend Dan, I took off my shirt. Sorry, it happens. The muzzle-loading firearm that is my pallid skin shot a round of the sun's white-hot reflection at everyone within range. There was an instant massacre of eyeballs and appetites. Say what you want. It was horrible, of course, but equally serendipitous. For that day I learned more about who I really am.
"Dude," Dan said, squinting at me through his fingers, "your chest hair looks like the Bat Signal."
"What?" I said. "Does not."
"Yes, it does," he said. "Look." He pointed his finger right at my heart, and began drawing in the air what I assumed was the iconic insignia. "See? You're Batman," he said.
"Am not," I said weakly.
No! It can't be. I'm not Batman. There's no way. Spiderman, perhaps. I certainly relate much better to a nerd given superpowers from a spider bite than a gadget-crazy closet homosexual with too much money. Anybody but Batman!
"I'd much rather be Batso," I said, beginning to think more clearly. I doused my mitts with a heavy coating of liquid chalk. "Yes. That's right. You meant to say Batso."
"Batso, man! Warren Harding! First ascent of the Nose, drank a bottle of red wine every day, ran around with hot women and drove fast cars, and didn't give a damn about anything." These were a few details I know about Warren Harding, and to me, the only ones that really mattered. Yes, indeed, I've always felt a special connection to Batso, the half-cocked pioneer of the absurd, built like a brick shithouse, and master of the irreverent. To me, Batso is the sport's only true hero or anti-hero. He single-handedly saved climbing from becoming another institution by showing that in climbing, fun and danger can co-exist, and that a keen ability to listen to your internal voice, dark and raw as it may be, is a rare type of freedom that will lead you up walls bigger and harder than anything you've ever imagined. To me, that attitude could save the world.
"That does kinda sound like you," Dan said. "Except you didn't make the first ascent of El Cap and you drive a 1996 Nissan Sentra. Otherwise, sure, you're a lot like Batso. Are you going to climb or what?"
"OK. You got me?"
"I got you Batman," he snuck in under his breath.
"Screw you, Dan," I said. "Watch me at the third bolt. I WILL fall there!"
In the most sugary section of our collective unconscious is a story about an old lady's cat getting stuck in a tree, and how a fireman rescues the cat as the entire neighborhood applauds the token heroism.
Of course, a cat needs help getting out of a tree like Dean Potter needs help putting his foot in his mouth, so the story doesn't really make sense, does it?
Recently, my friends Sam and Jen and I were looking to sneak in one last pitch at Rifle before the arrival of rain. I drove us up to the Anti-Phil wall in "the Sentromes," a multi-beast with 264,598 miles and a flimsy promise that it will never die. Up ahead, a shadowy figure was running up the road. He heard the quiet purr of the Sentromes, and the psycho started sprinting right at me! He was waving his arms and it looked as if this man was wearing a women's rain jacket, eggshell colored, form flattering and way too small. What? How come?
Turns out it was our friend Derek. That doesn't explain the rain jacket, and there was no time to find out.
"You've gotta stop! You've gotta call the fire department!" Derek wheezed, out of breath.
"Jesus, Derek, what's wrong?" I asked.
"Some crazy redneck soloed up 30, 35 feet and is stuck on a wall by the Skull Cave!" His voice was sloppy and out of control, jumping octaves like Indian pop music. It expressed a hint of genuine worry mixed mostly with the evil pleasure of being The One to tell us.
"We've done everything we can to get him down, but he's stuck on total choss. There are no anchors, it's raining, it's getting dark and - "
"OK, OK. What can we do? Do you want a ride somewhere?"
"Well, yes. Yes, that would be nice."
Derek hopped into the back of the Sentromes, jabbering on about the situation all over again. We drove up canyon to find Elmer, the camp host whom we suspect hates climbers. Elmer was sitting in the hut and smoking fiendishly. Derek pleaded with him to call the fire department. It was obvious that Elmer wanted to deal with this as much as I did.
By this point, the true nature of the situation was beginning to sink in for Jen, Sam and Me. We looked at each other, conversing silently with our eyes as only good friends can do:
Jen: How the hell did we become a part of this?
Sam: This is serious bullshit.
Me: Is there any other kind?
We felt the tangible, anxious desire to see the situation firsthand. I envisioned a grotesque hick "dressed" in a wifey and wearing a NASCAR hat, sitting in a little rocky hole, crying his eyes out and yelling like crazy for Jesus. The speed at which Elmer, 400 pounds, was moving was killing me. Finally, he concluded his call to the fire department and we were off.
As always, reality failed expectations. This person was just a kid, 17 at most, in a baseball hat, jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. He stood awkwardly on a little perch, his feet propped on a tiny tree for support. Despite what Derek had said, he was only 15 feet off the ground. I immediately hated everyone there, and I didn't know why.
On the ground, a group of climbers and the Redneck's friends mingled, staring up at him silently for the most part. No one knew anything at all. I could not have swung a dead cat without hitting a gumby - suddenly I felt like I was in El Potrero Chico.
"Just what is this?" Sam demanded. He was right. There was no reason whatsoever for such fuss. If the kid had climbed up there, he logically could've climbed down. It didn't look hard - maybe 5.4 or so and only a whopping 15 feet of it. I suppose the rock was wet, but that's not the point. The Redneck Kid could've jumped off his perch, aiming for the furrow of trees and taking care to miss the jagged talus, and escaped with nothing more serious than a broken ankle or wrist. What was the big deal?
"What are you doing, man?" I asked. "Why don't you just climb down?"
"No! That's not acceptable!" One of the by-standers hurtled toward me, waving his arms like an ump calling someone safe. "The rock is loose, and now it's wet. It's too hard and too dangerous. Believe me, we've tried everything. Just wait!" he commanded. "The fire department will be here soon enough."
I was astonished to the point of being bored by such fretfulness from a group of people who supposedly rock climb. They tossed around archaic concepts of self-rescue and pulley systems that they had once read about in Freedom of the Hills, for here, like a gift from the god of gumbydom, was a person who was worse at rock climbing than they were.
The gumbies were so happy to have stumbled upon this unsuspecting dumbass, they cooked up this code-red like a can of soup. Never mind that the kid, like any self-respecting cat, would've been able to get down had they not been there to trap him in a box of fear. Of course, the gumbies will tell you otherwise - that he wouldn't have been able to get down - but I don't believe it. When self-interests are at stake, everyone is a liar. Trust me, I'm an editor.
The Redneck Kid started laughing. The whole thing was a joke to him. He started talking quietly about his true intentions of trying to steal the "clippy things," though I pretended not to be listening.
I fought back an increasingly evil desire to berate the Redneck Kid with every foul slander I could conjure. How had Sam, Jen and I become a part of this? We'd missed the last pitch of the day - for this?
"I have to get out of here," I said.
"Yeah, me too," said Sam.
We left, sorry to skip the finale, but biting our tongues had become painful. I drove out of the canyon quickly. Up on the right, the Redneck Kid's girlfriend was standing by her car, smoking a cigarette. I didn't see her, however, and the Sentromes hit a muddy puddle like it was a giant cymbal. Water and mud crashed accoustically everywhere, soaking the poor girl to her core.
By the time we had stopped laughing and feeling sorry, we passed the distinctive flutter of lights that will always instill me with fear and anxiety - a cop car, fire truck, ambulance and Colorado state park ranger were streaming up canyon.
"Dude, we have to turn around to see this," Sam said.
Do we? I wondered. I paused on the side of the road, unsure and uneasy. For some reason, I considered what Batso would do. I reached up into my shirt and touched my chest hair - either my mark of Cain or my cross to bear; its nature was still unclear. Batso would never miss a party like this, I realized. I hit the pedal, and the Sentrometer went wild, spinning us around 180 degrees and fast. Luckily, the Officials had stopped at the entrance, stymied by where to go next.
I pulled up to the front of the pack to speak to what I assumed was a human operating the cop car.
"Follow me," I said to the cop. "I know where to go."
"Sure, yep. Go'n," the human said.
There was no denying that we were now fully immersed in this most absurd mission. So what? Deep meaning can be found in the absurd Batso knew this from being a humanist, and I know this from being a climber. The realization struck me hard. This was my calling. My heart momentarily jumped into my throat and a shock of electricity ran through my nuts. I am Batso.
Yes! Of course! How could I not have seen it before? I fired some L-glutamine into my mouth and quickly put the car in gear. I looked in my rearview mirror, no longer afraid of anything at all. The fear and anxiety had dissipated at this incredible realization that I am the incarnate of climbing's most irreverent soul. They would need me. Oh yes, they would because I am Batso, and they are Not.
The acid-kaleidoscope of emergency lights was flashing in my rearview mirror and directly into my eyes, making them red and crazy looking. If I were going to be the anti-leader of this non-rescue, I would need flashy things too. In a nugatory gesture that I found demonically funny, I hit the hazard lights on the Sentromes to lead the parade.
"I am Batso!" I screamed, accelerating forward. Jen and Sam deserved to know the truth. We were in this together, and they should be ready for whatever danger driving with a wild El Cap hand-driller would bring.
"What are you talking about?" Jen said.
"Don't argue," I said. "I was in a hammock on El Cap way before people like you were climbing 5.13's. Ha ha!"
We reached the Skull Cave - it only took a minute. The Fighters jumped out of their trucks. Eight firefighters, two cops, three EMT workers and the park ranger ran amok. They shone their flashlights, loaded their guns and spoke to each other using some kind of strange monkey-language laden with numbers and acronyms. The only thing missing was a pack of dogs and a clown.
The fire crew had brought one 24-foot ladder, which they assumed was inadequate due to gumby disinformation. Apparently, in Gumbyland, 15 feet really means 30 feet. That makes sense on some level, doesn't it?
"He's only 15 feet off the ground!" I shouted. "Trust me, I'm Batso!"
"Will you stop saying that?" Jen said. I agreed that maybe it was time to lay off the sauce. There were cops around and I was out of my element, far from the high lonesome of El Cap's perfect stone and nowhere near my beloved red wine. Finally, someone listened to me and brought the perfectly adequate ladder into the Skull Cave so the Redneck Kid could walk down it.
"Hi Billy," the fire chief said to the Kid. Apparently, the Law knew him. "Stuck, eh?"
"Is this gonna cost a lot"? Billy said in his thick hillbilly accent.
"Oh, just a couple hundred bucks," said the chief, who sported a mean rat-tail that snaked out of his hard hat like a dead worm. "That won't be a problem, will it?" he said, laughing awfully. I walked over to the scene and started snapping photos.
"Hey, hey!" said Billy. "Whaddayoudoin?"
"Say cheese, Billy boy!" I wanted to say. But I didn't. I felt euphoric and in love with everyone - the gumbies, Elmer, the police and firefighters, and even Billy the Redneck Kid. They had made the climbing day special and stupid, and that, I think, is something that Warren Harding would have appreciated.
The EMT workers brought Billy down to the ambulance, where they stuck a steel catheter up his penis whi
e he howled like a dog. Meanwhile, the police were writing up tickets for a few minor violations: a first-degree BAD (Being A Dumbass) as well as third-degree RRPP (Reckless Redneckin' in a Public Park). I demanded that the cops slap on a premeditated SCT (Stealing the Clippy Things), as I have had three draws stolen in the last month alone. Alas, a climber's needs are not a priority for Johnny Q. Law.
My friends and I left, surprised again by how consistently Darwin's theories are foiled by the modern machinations of humanity. A sudden wave of exhaustion washed over me. It is an incredible thing to realize your true identity and just how deeply rooted climbing is in the absurd.
Andrew Bisharat promises that he will never shave his chest hair as long as he lives.