I’m heading home on Sunday, pretty much on the go for the last six weeks - six weeks that feels like twelve. Going away is always good, but sometimes going home is better, this being one of the first trips where I’ve ever really felt homesick. Yes I know that’s disingenuous to a lifestyle that lets me get away more than most, but also a truth that perhaps what you’re looking for is right under your nose.
The first half of the trip was to good old Yosemite, a place that’s never let me down - something that’s perhaps not as good as it sounds, after all, nothing of any worth should be taken for granted, climbs, friendship, love - you name it. Anything of any value needs to be earned, anything of any worth, worth the effort to keep. Yet Yosemite has all the material needed for the motivated to come home a winner, so if winnings your thing I think it’s the place to go, a rock Disney: you can’t help but come back with a buzz. It was a great trip, finally doing a ten-day winter ascent of El Cap via the Nose, I got engaged at sunrise (I never saw myself as a romantic, but maybe I am… although a pragmatic romantic, popping the question with a ring made from 2mm cord). I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun on a trip, the only spoiler Cian breaking his collar bone. It’s hard to know what to say to someone who’s broken, maybe that it’s not fair to come off ten days on the Nose without a scratch, only to break yourself within fifteen minutes of strapping on a snowboard. It hurts to see someone so disappointed, a dream trip half complete, but then broken bones mend, such things for the unlucky just mud on a rugby shirt. Never the less it was sad dropping off the gang at SFO, a last-minute kiss, an “I wish I was going home with you” that was really an “I wish you could stay”.
After Yosemite I had thirteen nomadic days working my way across California to Las Vegas, working my way deep into new writing and books, my aim to get four out this year, one in the shops already. For me, writing is a slow business, but once the flame is lit it comes to alight soon enough. After a week in Las Vegas I met up with my mate Chuck, the two of us Zion bound, writing and books left behind. I can’t remember how Chuck got his name, not being a Chuck at all, only that he did, the moniker fitting well after a twenty-foot whipper off the Leaning Tower, earning the name Chuck the Whipper. For some, a fall like that, high up on a steep wall, is the end of it all, no will to continue when the ropes catch them down the line, while for others - once they know they are still breathing, and such falls aren’t so bad - it’s just the start, an aid fall just a little prick that comes without warning. I think about that fall Chuck was hooked (appropriate as he fell due to a hook popping).
I like Chuck, I guess we’re friends of more than just the rope, the raised voices only my mine, Chuck too well mannered to scream “Fucking watched it will you - you’re going to fucking kill me” as stones are knocked down by one of us on the other. I think I teach Chuck some things, and he teaches me other things in return, me having the key to something he wants, and him the holder of a key I’d like to know the shape of (so I can make a copy and see if it turns the locks of life). The other night I told him he was the most honest man I’ve ever met, which I intended at a compliment, but I think he thought I must surround myself with rouges.
Me and Chuck are very different in many, many ways, different sides of the tracks you’d say. For one thing, he is the tidiest person I’ve ever met - and I’ve known and lived with some seriously tidy people (although if you’re messy then everyone’s tidy). When I picked him up from the airport the first thing he said was ‘I think we need to find a bin as there’s a strange smell in the car’, which was not surprising, seeing as I’d been living in it for four weeks. My defence that ‘Oh that must be the shit tube, it’s a bit smelly’ was not really good defence (at least Chuck knew what I was talking about, that this wasn’t some Northern slang). ‘Oh it’s not that?’ said Chuck, having smelt said tube on routes up the Nose and Zodiac. “Oh maybe it’s the food in the back,” I said, a box of food scraps and tins from three weeks in the valley buried under two haul bags, “or maybe my socks, or boots, or underpants” I added, knowing there was much that was or could be constrained as smelly if you’re that way inclined, the whole back of the car piled high with the kit. “No” replied Chuck, looking around, making me feel a little grumpy, having actually spent an hour tidying the car at the airport, knowing full well he was annoyingly tidy. “I think maybe it’s all these cups, and that banana skin,” he said, pointing out half a dozen - well a dozen - empty (and half-empty) cups of tea, coffee, milkshakes (one stuck under the brake pedal… but it was squashy so no hindrance to breaking), oh and a blackened banana skin, the beverage wreckage filling up every cup holder, door pocket and cup slipped hole to be found. “Maybe,” I said, not having noticed them there until he pointed them out.
We climbed Moonlight Buttress the next day, spending a night on the wall and a night on the top, Chuck leading every pitch. It’s fun just belaying, letting someone push up the ropes, haul the bags, while you just chill and shout up stupid or loaded questions like “How’s it going” or “Can you see the belay”. It’s funny when you belay someone on such a route (Chuck was aiding most of it, as 90% of people tend to do), in that no matter how scared they are (sandstone can be very scary), you just think ‘whatevs’ as they jibber above you.
One thing that makes me laugh about me and Chuck is how opposite we are in terms of organisation. Chuck loves stuff sacks and if you ask him for something he’ll say “it’s in the red stuff sack, inside the blue stuff sack, inside the net stuff sack, inside the dry bag”, where I’d just say ‘it’s somewhere in the haul bag or ‘it’s on the floor. One day watching Chuck sort through Russian dolls worth of stuff stacks an old but much-beloved word came to mind, one I’d not heard or thought for years, that Chuck was a ‘faffalotamus’, that word coming to my mind each and overtime he faffed on, so as to be something I looked forward too. Chuck on his part told me that maybe in life I’d do better if I organised my affairs in stuff sacks. Too true!
It was funny topping out again on the Moonlight Buttress, the last time I was there being with Alex Jones in 2014, the summit a circus of TV crew and hangers-on. I read the other day on a forum how I’d dragged Alex up the wall, which is unfair, in that she’d jugged and cleaned every pitch, plus second the 1st and second pitches free on a tight rope, plus had two nights in a portaledge (Alex had never climbed before). Not bad for a girl scared of heights. It was February (I think), and bitter cold, and although at the start she was just a TV person, by the top I had a lot of respect for her. Climbers can be elitist assholes sometimes, but in the end, we raised £2.5 million, which is pretty good for a few days of climbing and little impact on Zion.
One thing people are often surprised about after they ask ‘Do you keep in touch with Alex’, was that within a few minutes of getting to the top after Alex gave me a hug, she was gone, and I never heard or saw her again. Having no words of thanks may seem strange but often in life you give all you’ve got to someone, to makes dreams come alive, (getting a non-climber up a 1000 foot wall is not easy), but get nothing back in return, sometimes far less than nothing. It used to trouble me, that in the past I know people took advantage of me, that it tied me in knots, but then I was just naive. I thought everyone else thought like me, about helping others, when really I think a lot of people only ever think about themselves. But then such things are karmic, you should not ask for reward, but do them with an honest heart - a poets heart - for the beauty of that moment, not the glint of silver or gold, the warmth of Alex, the relief at having made it, to be part of something interesting, payment enough. My motto these days to such outcomes the simple but all-encompassing “It is what it is”.
Anyway topping out just me and Chuck were nice.
In the past I was always keen to get down from the top of a wall, that place you’ve put so much effort into, packing up and running off as fast as your heavily loaded legs would take you. But of late I’ve made a point of not running but staying, of spending the last night on the top. The reason for this is that all too often people seem to be in a rush to move on, go from now to next, not wait a while. Even when there are no roses there’s often something to smell, see or touch, maybe even the lack of anything reason to stay. It is something they feel the pause. The silence. You expend so much blood and treasure to reach the top, why squander it by a crazy dark stumble back to what you were escaping from? For those who have yet to climb a big wall, the bigger the longer the better, there is an incredible delight of taking off your harness - letting it drop to your feet - of throwing your gear around, demob happy from the steep. Yes, the return to the flat world is something precious indeed, and should be savoured, but not yet, not too quickly. To sit in the flat sand and dunk shared biscuits into tea without fear of dropping either is a treat no fancy coffee shop latte. Oh, and there is something special about being woken at three in the morning and seeing the moon shining down on you on top of the Moonlight Buttress.
In the morning I listened to Chuck ring home on his fancy satellite phone, a man who rings home every day, often twice, knowing that what we ourselves take as fun others know it as the only worry. For most of my life, I’ve been a crap boyfriend - I know it now, and a worse husband. I just didn’t know how to do it, perhaps thought a good heart, one full of love, would be enough to make all that other stuff transparent, the stuff that ruins it all. But I was wrong, sometimes you need to show it, to tell someone how it feels to be theirs, to be their one, not take it for granted they know. And so while Chuck disappeared to check out the way off I did just that.
The other side of the tracks we maybe, but one thing me and Chuck share (we actually share quite a bit), is we are pretty motivated, and so after two days off we headed up again to climb Spaceshot. Now I’ve wanted to climb Spaceshot for about 20 years, ever since seeing it on a Black Diamond catalogue, the image beautiful, almost abstract, a single climber and haul bag demonstrating it was real. The route also makes it into Fred Becky’s top 50 climbs in North America, which is no mean feat! The route is usually climbed over two or three days, fixing to pitch three (all free climbing), then blasting up the overhanging wall for five pitches. You’d be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about an eight-pitch climb, but Zion is like Scottish winter climbing, it has a habit of making the very small seem much bigger.
The grade 5.9 C2 hides the adventurous nature of Zion climbing, the rock going from hardish sandstone like grit, to stuff that looks like high-grade sand, placements from bomber cracks to rounded holes that look like they’ve been made by someone hitting the wall with their fist! I didn’t start out well, an easy pitch, followed by a 5.7 pitch crack, then for some reason, in a rush of short fixing, I quested up off route, ending up about twenty metres up the above next pitch, looking down at the belay, requiring a pendulum over. Then the aiding began. To be honest, I’m quite good at this aid climbing lark, but even I found it way more heads up than I was expecting, placing a totem cam on two lobes, multiple tiny crappy offsets, placing a blind nut on the end of a stiff draw. If you hammered in pegs it would be easy, any peg of any size easily going in anywhere, even straight into the rock - but that’s not the aim is it.
Having done a slow wall, this one was going to be fast, Chuck almost out of time, so we got the first shuttle bus in and starting at the bottom at 8:30 am and climbed to the top - which we did, making it to the last belay (like most belays, two baby angles hammered into a drilled hole!) at 7:30. I lead all but the last pitch, a crazy A0 pitch over a bulge, the whole wall under your toes, a single hook move threw in to give it some spice. I seemed Chuck deserved a piece of the action, plus I guessed there was no such thing as A0 in Zion, a line of old pegs sticking way out of crack and holes proof of that.
The descent was a little complex, negotiating sloping cactus gardens to five abseils in the dark. Feeling tired we watched the last shuttle bus drive past, meaning we’d have a six-mile walk out of the park for pudding. It was what it was. Chuck said I’d not shook his hand at the top as we had on Moonlight, or twice on El Cap, but for me, you’re not up until you’re safe, even if that means down sometimes. This proved fitting when on the second to last rap the rope got stuck up in the dark. In no mood for jugging up it belayed by a length of 7mm Dyneema I had to solo up as high as I could and cut the rope, salvaging about forty metres of rope for the last rap of unknown height (the topo said we needed 60’s). Now if I’m good at anything it’s the epic retreat, having a bag of tricks that can and often have saved the bacon. Rapping down I set the 7mm rope through the anchor, letting me allow this to slide through the anchor once close to the end of the cut rope, allowing us to reach the ground as the red one slid through the belay device. Two minutes later we found a wooden fence that led to the tourist viewing platform, a minute later the road, five minutes after that we were walking home.
Often when things don’t turn out as planned, a climb, expectations, a life, you can curse your misfortune. If I’d have climbed the last pitch, not Chuck we’d have got the bus, instead, we were walking down a dead silent road, no chance of a lift insight, our feet and bodies pretty knackered. But what a privilege, just me and chuck, alone, the moonlight lighting up some of the most beautiful walls and mountains I’d ever seen, talking about Plato’s Republic. We even came across a tarantula.
Four miles in, kind of staggering, but not caring, going home soon anyway, it seemed like a fitting end to the trip, a not too hard route done in good style, with just the whiff of an epic. Passing the Zion lodge we knew that a few cars would pass us in the dark, which they did, but non stopped for two smelly climbers. “I don’t want any cars to stop Chuck” I said, “this is a privilege, to have the whole night to ourselves. We’ll never forget this walk”. I didn’t mean it of course, my body feeling like I’d just had frantic sex with a sand dune, but I hoped that the Karmic angels may be listening, as I think they do, listen and look into the human heart, all they needed to know, that any blessing was not asked for, only given freely.
A minute later a pick-up truck passed our outstretched thumbs and slowed to a stop.