This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 207 (January 2013).
Two years ago, making my way cross country, I stopped to climb in Little Cottonwood Canyon near Salt Lake City. I had never been there, and really wanted to climb the striking white granite walls, but had no partner. I remedied the situation by heading out with a few pictures from the guidebook of routes I deemed easily solo-able.
I don’t recall now what route I climbed, only that at the end of it I was hungry for more. An interesting white slab, low-angled and featured with big gray knobs, looked well within my abilities, and so I set off.
After about a pitch, while trying to traverse off, I found myself suddenly committed. I had made a big tenuous step to a knob, and perched with no easy way to step down onto the next knob. Had I been on a rope, I could have jumped; without one, I couldn’t possibly commit to a dynamic move.
The only option I saw was a small protruding crystal to my left. I’ll pull on that, I thought, and smear my left foot for opposition.
OK. Here goes.
Somehow I pulled both too hard and just hard enough. As I started to lower, I felt the crystal break. Yet instead of flying backward to my death, I instantly stopped pulling on the crystal, and pushed the piece against the wall, while maintaining counter pressure with my foot. To my surprise nei- ther the crystal nor I had fallen.
My foot touched down on the knob, and I took my hand from the wall. I looked in amazement as the crystal clung, as if glued, to my fingertips.
For safekeeping, I thought, as I slipped it into my chalk bag. Then, as an afterthought: And as a reminder for next time.
Stupid, I told myself as I made my way down the rest of the wall on easier terrain, linking gray knob to gray knob like stepping stones in a white granite river.
Climbing always teaches you lessons. Every time you fall, there is something to take home. Focus energy in your heel, pull in more with your left arm, next time go thumbs up. If you are in the mountains, the weather can be your teacher as you run back to the parking lot, soaked, cowering like a dog. Or the mountain itself may be your professor, rebuking your best efforts and taking half your rack for good measure. All these lessons can be terrifying experiences at the time.
Last February, standing on a gendarme on top of a long ridge route in the Trinidad Valley in Cochamo, Chile, I came to realize that what is far more terrifying than the lessons you learn in climbing are the ones you don’t. To my left and right loomed tremendous drops. I had come too far and through terrain too difficult to retrace. Below me was a blank overhanging face, 45 or 50 feet tall.
So small compared to the enormity of this cirque, yet certainly big enough to maim. Nobody knew precisely where I was, and helicopter rescue would be a remote possibility, and slow even if it happened. The sun was no longer high in the sky, but fading out over the wide expanse of the Pacific that stretched beyond this valley. My only option—scratch that, my best option—was to down solo the 40-foot vertical fist crack that hung bottomless more than a thousand feet above the valley floor below, and step back beneath the gendarme.
As I stood considering my choices, I reached instinctively for the small flat worry stone I kept in my chalk bag. I had kept the little crystal of quartz since bringing it home from Little Cottonwood Canyon.
The stone was missing. That’s right, new chalk bag. After years with the same old bag, I had finally gotten an upgrade, and forgotten to transfer the worry stone. I had grown accustomed to its constant reminder every time I chalked up: Be careful, rocks break, climbers fall.
Even absent, it was still a reminder, but the message had changed. The scariest lessons in life are the ones you don’t learn.
That I am here to write this story is evidence that I made it down that day in Cochamo. Everything went fine. In fact, with falling being an utterly unacceptable option, fist jams never felt so good. Soon I was back on the ridge, fourth-classing my way back to camp. But by the time I made it back to my friends at the bivy boulder, I felt like I had used another one of my lives.
Now, months later and planning my next trip to Patagonia, I am filled with questions. Why has climbing become the focal point of my existence? Why do I feel so compelled by free soloing? What have I learned? What have I not? Will I ever quit? How many lives do I have left?
My mind fills with the names of many climbers greater than myself who lost their lives to the sport they loved. If it could happen to them, it could certainly happen to me. I go to the mountains to live fully, but the mountains can as easily take life. I have lost my worry stone, but not my worries. To those with similar questions, I have neither answers nor advice. The beauty of climbing is that you get to figure out the answers on your own.
Chris Kalman, 28 (at the time this was published) and originally from Northern Virginia, is living in a white Chevy Astro, traveling around the country looking for answers and good climbing.