This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 119 (November 2002).
The late, great Steve Edwards and I motored an hour along Pacific Coast Highway, veered north into the Santa Monica Mountains and parked at the Sandstone Peak trailhead and the start of one of a dozen or so trails criss-crossing our local rock-climbing area, know loosely as “Echo Cliffs.” The plan was to scour the countryside for potential new climbs. If we were merely out for a trail run or a hike, I wouldn’t last an hour, but throw in the chance of finding new rock to climb and I’d jog to hell and gone. (Steve would slog to Ecuador for the fun of it.) We threw on light packs, laced up, and cast off.
Sandstone Peak Trail, the most popular in the entire range, is basically two miles of zigzagging up an old fire trail steep as the back side of Half Dome. It took me eight trips spread over two months before I broke 30 minutes to the actual “peak,” which is not an actual peak, but a clearing with a big sandstone boulder a ways off. One local climber claimed to have covered this ground in 16 minutes and change and I’m calling that a prodigious lie. Steve and I gained the “peak” in 32 minutes and started jogging out a rolling fire road leading south, hoping to find the next El Capitan.
A couple of miles down the fire road we passed a rusting reservoir tower and the stone and cement foundation of an old house. We weren’t exactly in Timbuktu, but 70 or 80 years ago (long before the area was designated as a State park), around when these digs first went up, the place was thirty miles off the budding grid. Strange what you stumble across out in the toolies, and stranger still to imagine the folks who’d packed cement, steel pipe, etc., up that fire road. There was nothing more than a few mortared rocks and fragments of a cement slab to remind us that people had once lived here and now they were gone. What had they thought or felt or said when they gazed into the night sky? I’ll never know.
The fire road ended and we huffed out a thin trail. Then Steve wrenched his ankle in a chuck hole but was too proud to admit it. Fine by me, and I hoped it swelled up like a beach ball, which was my only chance of keeping pace with him. Better yet I hoped the ankle was broken in 10 places because Steve, a regular cardio animal, had repeatedly run me into the ground, and I relished the one chance I had of returning the favor.
Steve had spotted a few small cliffs on an earlier recon and we ran (or rather I ran and he hobbled) cross country toward a sweeping rock buttress. Over the last few hundred yards, a troublesome heath of sticker bushes separated us from the stone, but in my lust to burn Steve off I blindly churned on, my feet moving like bee’s wings till I collapsed onto a big flat boulder a few yards shy of the buttress. I looked down at my slashed legs and moaned, then started picking quills from my hide. Meanwhile Steve had pulled up 50 yards away, eyeballing the surrounding thicket.
“Yo, I think you just ran through a patch of poison oak,” he yelled out.
“No, man, it just looks like oak,” I yelled back. It wasn’t the job or responsibility of Steve, that vain cripple, to question the leader’s route. Everyone knows there are countless plants that look like poison oak. “And since when does oak have thorns?” I added.
“Not the brambles, you fool,” he yelled. “The other stuff. And it is oak.”
Meanwhile I’d studied the rock wall for about three seconds and realized it was more of a vertical dirt clod than another El Cap. I backtracked to Steve and we carried on toward another promising outcrop — a spectacular-looking monolith that would bring us fame and glory, if we could only find it. And finding it would be a task since we didn’t need no stinking map and were exploring by dead-reckoning the twisting terrain and guessing our route toward an unseen goal.
The thin trail grew fiendishly overgrown, forcing us to stoop under low-hanging branches covering the path like trellis mesh. If we were to ever get a look at that superb cliff we’d spotted from below, this was the one and only way. We were certain of that much. Soon we were groveling on all fours.
Then my pack hung up on branch, and angered, I plowed on till the limb twanged loose and whip-sawed Steve right in the grill.
“You goddamn idiot,” Steve yelled, pawing at his face. Now that he was half blind, in addition to one-legged, I liked my chances of him crying Uncle … in about five or six hours.
Finally the trail opened up. Hugging the left side of a steep slab, we tottered out a crumbling ledge, which out right plunged 2000 feet into a vast green expanse rolling gently into the blue Pacific a dozen miles away. In every direction, the view was satisfactory.
Two hours later, after circling around the middle of Borneo for a mile or two, we realized we were in the wrong canyon and would never find the mystery wall that would make us rich and famous. We kicked back on a slab and drank up. I noticed Steve’s shiner and the pot roast he’d tucked into his sock just above his left running shoe.
“You really are a sorry looking specimen,” I said.
“Just a flesh wound,” said Steve. Then the maniac got to his feet and suggested trotting over to a prominent, 200-foot high minaret on the far side of the valley, perhaps five miles away. There was no trail leading over there, but at least we could see the thing, towering in burnished glory. And the landscape between us looked pretty clear.
After a few miles of jogging over gravelly ground I noticed Steve settling into a fluid rhythm. His shiner looked worse and his ankle was hideous but the guy was striding out like a deer — and I was starting to fall off the pace.
Months before I had devised a tactic to close the gap when Steve started stretching it out. I’d take it easy on the uphill bits and then sprint on level ground and literally fly down the inclines, and after that the hell with it. He’s still just as far ahead because he’s doing the exact same thing, except he’s flying uphill as well.
I finally staggered up to the minaret some minutes after Steve, feeling like Humphrey Bogart at the end of High Sierra. Steve looked upset. The minaret was a climber’s dream, providing said climber had plumber’s helpers for hands.
The wall averaged about 120 degrees steep and didn’t have a hold on it.
Steve grew expansive, and gazing over the bald expanse, wondered out loud what it all meant. I remember Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, saying, “I wish for the superfluous, for the useless, for too much, for that which is not good for anything.” Valjean would have been proud of us just then, sucking wind under that holdless wall.
Steve suggested dashing off for another far flung crag, miles distant, but I had to get some calories down, or die. I dug out a few energy bars from my pack. For years I’ve gagged down the newest and greatest and have never exactly figured out which bars work as advertised and which ones are hype. The ones with all the good stuff listed on the label taste like drywall and are so tough you need teeth in your anus just to pass them. And the designer models seem like Mars Bars rolled in Fruit Loops. This time I’d lugged along half a dozen articles laced with caffeine. I ate five of them and 10 minutes later was ready to wrestle an alligator. But I wasn’t ready to keep up with Steve, whose dust I ate for next three hours as we jogged in a wide arc, over hill and dale, through thorn bushes and sage and cacti with felt-like quills I’m still trying to evict from my legs, passing every single rock outcrop in the whole range, not one of which offered the fame and glory we so desperately sought.
There was one last cliff we hadn’t scoped up close, and we had just enough daylight to trop over to it and then dash back to the car. Steve opened up about a mile lead on me and it’s a good thing because he stomped over a wasp’s nest or beehive or something and got stung repeatedly about the calves and thighs. When I eventually jogged alongside his convulsing form he looked as bad as I felt. His run-in with that branch had nearly closed his left eye; his ankle was simply huge; he’d forgotten to apply sunscreen and after a dozen hours bootlegging about the Santa Monicas his face, neck, and shoulders were the color of Jesus’ breechcloth in Ruben’s “The Entombment.” And now his entire body was spangled with flapjack-sized welts.
“I’d read you your last rites,” I said, “but I don’t know what they are.”
“I could stand a burger or two,” he said. The caffeine had worn off several hundred miles before and I realized how hungry I was.
We never made it to that last crag, and instead bolted for the Sandstone Peak trail and the steep descent to the trailhead and the car. Steve got there just as the sun set—later he was quick to point out that fact—and had to sit tight while I battled down the last few jags of the trail in the pitch darkness. We’d been going for 13 hours.
It was cheeseburger night at McDonalds, and we bought several dozen on our way home. We’d throw down two or three, then Steve would toss a burger over his shoulder toward the back of his van, where his mutt, Napoleon, was hunkered down. This was clearly a well-practiced routine. The mutt was stationed just right and simply opened its hatch and the burger, perfectly tossed, would sail straight into its gullet — no swallowing, no chewing, just right into its tripe. It was amazing.
Back at the pad, I crawled out of Steve’s van and directly into bed — with my clothes on. I woke up in the wee hours, rabidly pawing at my legs and groin. I’d meant to douse myself with various anti-oak solvents the moment I got home … Two days later, Steve swung by. His shiner was gone, his ankle looked fine, the sunburn had turned into a golden tan, and the bee stings were the merest red dots. On the other hand, my entire body was covered in ghastly weeping lesions.
“Geez, “ said Steve, “you look like the Michelin man—after he caught fire.”
“What do you want?” I asked.
“Remember that last crag we never made it to,” he asked.
“What about it?”
“I was thinking it might be the one thing that really pans out,” he said.
“Sort of like El Capitan, but smaller,” I said.
“I figure it’s worth a look anyway,” said Steve.
Two weeks later, we were right back where we’d started, searching for fame and glory, and knowing we’d find nothing but trouble.
Longtime Rock and Ice contributor John Long, one of the original Stonemasters, is perhaps best known for his first free ascent of Astroman and first one day ascent of the Nose of El Capitan. He is the author or editor of over 30 books and the recipient of the American Alpine Club Literary Award.
Also read John Long: The Only Blasphemy