Can you help me get the duct tape off?”
I gazed ruminatively at the enthusiastically applied tape holding the waterproof sheet, used to enable a post-surgery shower, around his bandages.
“Did you shave your leg before putting that on?”
Having no patience with neediness, I had found the constant, and I do mean constant, barrage of “Can I have a cup of tea/a water bottle filled/help getting up/down/attaching passive exercise machine/clothes on/clothes off/pillows/a book/the computer/phone/I’ve dropped my crutch/Now I’ve dropped the other crutch” extremely wearing. The rewards of nursing are few, but taking off this tape would be one.
It is four years since I wrote in this magazine about the Very Serious Climber in my house, and VSC is still a serious climber. He is older, with a rebuilt knee, the product of three surgeries and the fault of a new boulder problem, Battle at Wounded Knee (aka No Country for Old Men), V4, no stars. A scruffy little boulder problem in Harvey Gap, it just happened to be close to home.
I have erased as much as I can of those times from my memory. After a hideous recovery from his first surgery, during which I discovered that I have no Nurturing Nursing Genes and VSC rediscovered his love affair with Percocet, VSC gaily sallied forth on the new knee to scout new routes. The knee immediately failed on a scree slope. The crawl down through the snow in Rifle Mountain Park, while not quite on a par with Joe Simpson’s experience on Siula Grande, left VSC traumatized with the fear he’d never climb again.
“How many Percocet did they give you this time?” I asked after surgery number two.
“Ninety,” he said blissfully.
We have also, in the meantime, moved to new property, shaving 3 minutes 19 seconds from the commute to Rifle. We purchased an old farmhouse and outbuildings, one of which appeared perfect for a guest suite.
“Won’t this be fantastic?” I mused. “I can sand down the floors and we can reclaim the log walls and vaulted ceiling. I can put in a wood stove and ... Are you listening?”
“I have a much better idea,”
The Cabin, as we call it, is now a climbing wall and training facility that absolutely ensures that VSC will be at peak performance at all times. A fiercely overhanging wave wall, “The Tsunami,” 20 feet long and 15 feet tall, goes from 55 degrees to 20 degrees across the east wall. It arches over the roof space linking to the 40-degree overhanging system board on the west wall. An arete moves you smoothly past the window and onto the blank north wall. The south wall is entirely taken up by a campus board of teeny bars scribed at 1-inch intervals. The definition of “strong” is going from rungs 1-4-7, or so VSC says.
For eight months, VSC worked tirelessly in The Cabin. During that time I remodeled the kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and living area.
He claimed, “I will be so much more productive! I will train harder and smarter and then all I have to do is warm up here and then go out to Rifle, send my project and be home with plenty of time left to work.” VSC is a guidebook publisher.
The flaw in his cunning plan turned out to be a lack of climbing partners prepared to hold VSC’s rope for 30 minutes while he stormed to glory, only to leave with a cheery, “That was great, thanks,” as he loaded his car to return home. To his great surprise and my undisguised irritation, The Cabin created no extra time for work, just longer training sessions.
Years ago, when I first started dating VSC, the successful redpoint of The Project—any project—was the be-all to end-all of his life. The Project attained such magnitude, such power, that I became terrified to belay him on his redpoint attempts. If he didn’t send, it was the end of the world. All that training! All that screaming! All that energy expended for … nothing.
While a fairly experienced trad climber, I was then a novice to the world of very hard sport redpoints, and had no idea that belaying on a hard route was different. Instead of a sticht plate, there was a Grigri. Instead of ensuring that your partner couldn’t fall more than two feet, you had to make the fall soft, yet not so long as to put a quickdraw out of reach; you had to allow a dyno, yet avoid the ledge .... The constant vigilance required made double-rope trad belaying seem easy.
VSC once told me to be careful not to short rope him at a certain point on a then Project. Taking him at his word, I fed out lots of slack. When he, inevitably, came off, I had to throw myself on the ground to avoid being hit. I shall never forget the naked terror on VSC’s face as he pendulumed in from the lip of a horizontal roof, scrambling to lift his feet high enough to prevent the bones being pulverized.
I gave up climbing two years ago to take up horse breeding. But last autumn, VSC, “coming back” from his knee surgeries, keen to prove to himself that he could climb 5.13d, and unable to find someone to belay him at precisely 9:07 a.m. (when humidity and temperature were optimal after he warmed up in The Cabin), begged me to suffer a trip out to Rifle.
The Grigri felt alien. Heavy. Cold. Stubbornly unwilling to run the rope smoothly. Suddenly it came back to me. I had to squeeze the thing with one hand and pull rope through with the other. Yes! I knew how to do this. When the jerk for slack came, I was ready and yanked out a great swath. The brand-new thin rope zipped out like water.
I’m not sure who was more shocked: VSC, who landed on his tippy toes three feet away after falling from the crux 50 feet up, or me, who had no idea he’d even fallen.
“What the fuck was that?” he yelled. I burst into tears of shock at realizing that I had nearly killed him through my lack of practice.
“We shall go home now and never speak of this again,” he said.
“I need a drink,” is what I said. I have been excused from belaying duties ever since.
The Cabin is a never-ending source of happiness to VSC. The joy when he sent Mr. Hanky was outstripped only by his send of Underpants Gnomes, 160 feet of 5.12 climbing with three V7 cruxes. All in the space of your average double garage. The bitter blow, though, is that neither Mr. Hanky nor Underpants Gnomes can be posted to 8a.nu.
8a.nu is a website where any VSC can record his or her ascents and thus be given a World Ranking. Age is calculated on birth year, not birth date. What this means in practice for VSC is both fresh motivation as he sees his best friends redpointing their projects, and a bitterly fought contest in the over-35 age group culminating in a screaming fit that Chris Weidner was ahead of him but Chris wasn’t 35 until August.
The culmination of VSC’s year is a boys’ annual trip to the Red River Gorge. A sausage party of hard-climbing middle-aged married men, they rent a car and a cabin and stop at a luxury wine store on the way. Whereas in previous years a hedonistic two weeks of drinking and eating ensured a good time for all, in today’s world the all-important 8a.nu ranking ensures that none of them actually enjoy themselves anymore. They subsist on grapefruit juice and carrot sticks, allow themselves one glass of wine before a rest day, and hurry to bed by 10 p.m. after updating their scorecards. This year, VSC’s meteoric rise on the screen is eased by the fact that Chris W is in Russia with no WiFi for four months.
On the latest trip VSC took an extra week in the New River Gorge to get completely spanked. He returned exhausted and hollow-eyed, sated, determined to rest his battered body and really get down to serious work on the guidebooks.
Yet as I write, days later, The Cabin is the scene of frenzied construction.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m just retooling the wall. I’ve decided that I really need to start training hard. Look at this!” VSC proudly displays the latest in training technology, an iPhone training app. All is recorded: times, intervals, weights hanging from body, size of rung, hand position, you name it. His whole life is mapped out at the touch of a screen. Anyone who knows VSC, though, also knows that he is hopeless at keeping track of his possessions. He now can’t train without his iPhone, but he can never find it (until he turns the house upside-down).
The glimpse of mortality, of a life without climbing, that his surgeries afforded him has left VSC with the nagging feeling that he will have failed if he doesn’t find out what his body is capable of enduring. To which end he pursues ever more demanding training regimes.
“Why can’t you just climb
on your wall?” I ask in a fit of exasperation.
“Because climbing isn’t training!” he screams. “What’s that going to do for my 8a score?”
Fiona Lloyd lives in Western Colorado, where she breeds horses and tries to explain to guests why they have to sleep in tents in the garden. See www.rockandice.com for the full saga of life with a VSC, presented in three parts.