The only things that matter are your breath, balance, and movement; muscles taught, hands sweaty stealing at chalk, the wind strong, abrading the skin. Again, your breath, fighting to control it as if the more controlled the breathing, the more controlled the body and mind. The more control, the bigger the foot chips become, the less strained your muscles become. Then movement controlled, calculated, reaching high, turning your head away to look down toward the ground in an effort to maximize the reach, and the ground…a long way down. Grasping for the crimp you think is there, contact, then the cold, biting friction of the melting granite.
This is why we are here. The wind blew hot and fast away from the storm as if fleeing. We had passed through the quaint farm towns, consisting of a few houses and a post office, or something official like that. Country music twanging slowly in the background…when in Idaho! The air then grew cooler and it became damp, and in the distance there were dark storm clouds and dark streaks fell from the clouds, the sun, setting now, caught the clouds in flame. We drove slowly, but finally made our way over a cattle grate and onto to a wet dirt road.
The City of Salt Lake
I woke to ringing bells, gaudy in their abrupt tone. I had arrived in Salt Lake City a few days prior, and wasn’t expecting to go to the City Of Rocks, but I was psyched when I found out. While in Salt Lake I was able to work with some friends on an organic farm which employs mostly high schools students to run it. My friends Hannah and Nico run the farming site and are essentially farming coaches and mentors to the high school aged student workers. They organize the students into a teams, and each team focuses on different farm tasks, but sometimes they all come together for the bigger tasks. It was such a great experience and the farm had such a good energy to it, partially just seeing my friends doing something meaningful, and then being able to get to know some of the kids who were working there. It was cool to see both my friends and the students working together on something that they are passionate about. The day’s farming finished early enough to give us time to go out to one of the numerous canyons that line Salt Lake City to climb!
The City of Rocks
As we drove along the wet dirt road it continued to rain, in a gentle way, like the storm had lost its will to fight, and you got the feeling it wouldn’t last much longer. We bumbled around looking for a campsite in the dark, most were already taken, but eventually we found one. We made dinner, scoped some lines on a nearby damp boulder, and then it was time for bed. I took shelter under the wooden camp table provided in the campsite.
Talk about luxury! I grabbed my sleeping bag the borrowed sleeping pad, and nestled into my temporary refuge, nodding off to sleep to the sound of soft, tapping rain. My butt is cold, was my next thought. My pad was flat. Great. It was raining harder now; apparently I had misjudged the storm’s determination. Additionally, there was a hole in the borrowed sleeping pad…I emerged, beast-like and wet, from my lair, grunting and cursing. The only viable solution was the truck: I ended up stacking up the climbing gear and backpacks up in the cab of the Tacoma, and then laid my pad over the pile and went into a deep hibernation. The morning had a crisp, fall feeling, even though it was mid-summer and the world seemed clean and refreshed. I didn’t feel clean or refreshed; the picnic table debacle had left me muddy, and sleeping on climbing gear had left me feeling a bit creaky, but its all part of the experience, “C’est la vie”.
We gathered our gear. Nico and I were traditionally boulderers, and in the past the thought of using a rope would make us cringe. In our youthful climber ignorance, we had never dabbled much in the rope business. Bouldering initially drew us in by its rawness. It’s you, some chalk, shoes and a rock. Getting to the top is up to you. I loved that about bouldering initially, and I still do. Additionally, we’d both claim to be experienced climbers, after 7 years of climbing even boulders will find themselves on a rope or two, but we’d never bothered to do any type of multi-pitch climbing.
It seemed we were always pushing our limits on boulders and some stout sport routes, and for a long time those things had taken up the majority of my climbing experience. So we did a little research. We started out, our field research beginning with Steinfell’s Dome. It’s the most prominent peak seen from the City Of Rocks: seven pitches of pretty cruiser, sloppy slab climbing, then one pitch of 5.8, where you climb and stem up a quartz spine. As I made my way up the spine, I began to hear a slight pshhhhhhh-ing sound. “What the hell is that?” Nico and I asked at the same time, “snake?”
I asked. Then the unmistakable smell. Beer! While Nico had been belaying he had managed to puncture one of the cans of beer and it was now hissing in this bag. We scrambled to get the beer out and drank it at the top of the 6th pitch. Once atop the Dome, research demanded that we crack some more beers and take in the view: grey granite seemed to sprout from the ground here, and as far as I could see; the farms outside the city patterned the landscape with green patches of corn, mingled with the brown of the wheat fields, with the hard, grey rock formations splattered through the whole scene. It was a romantic painting. Adding to the painting were the storm clouds swirling to the north. After being hit by two squalls, we decided to head down.
We climbed as much as we could over the next few days: mostly sport routes, although I was able to jump on a boulder. It was the hottest day thus far, relief only came when the breeze picked up, or in the sparse shade. Nico and I had planned to do the morning glory spire later that day. Going at about 250 feet of sustained 5.10 climbing we were pretty psyched, to say the least. But before we did that we decided to go hang out and watch some friends climb. Our friends Danny, Reggie, and Lisa were leading a 5.9 and had gotten stuck about 3 bolts up, so I offered to run up and set a top rope, but Lisa was pretty confident she could do it. She hadn’t led in over a year, and again I offered to climb it, but she insisted. She made her way up past the first 3 bolts; the point at which the others had been stopped. I had walked back a bit from the wall to catch some shade, and when I turned around I cringed.
Lisa had made here way into the crux, but where the rope was placed caused me concern. It was taut across her lower legs, but she had already committed to the move. I yelled up, told her to watch the rope behind her legs but it was too late: she was committed and there wasn’t much that could be done. Her foot slipped, and she slid down the slab, then the rope caught her legs, flipped her over and backward into the rock. Luckily, she was smart enough to have put on a helmet, and that helmet smacked into the rock. Nico and I ran back, expecting the worst, but thankfully she was okay and just had a scratch, and mild whiplash.
Nico and I glanced at each other with raised eye brows: this definitely gave us pause. We were experienced climbers, but the sport is inherently very dangerous, and I, at least, had to kind of talk myself through it: why it had happened to her and why that wouldn’t happen to me. Earlier in the trip Nico had asked if he needed a helmet, and I had responded, “you don’t need one till you do.” So after talking over the situation we just witnessed with Lisa, and trying to forget her ugly fall, we turned our focus back to the Morning Glory Spire. After a quick approach to the base, flaking out the rope, and loading up on fruit snacks and water, we made our way up the ‘slabby’ first pitch. Helmets strapped tight to our skulls. Nico took the first technical pitch. After I followed him up I gathered my mind to focus on the next 5.10d pitch. And although I had tried to put Lisa’s fall from my mind it kept wandering back into it.
There is such a duality to climbing, and I always knew it was there. It has come more into focus recently. After putting so much passion into climbing it has morphed into so many different things for me. Take a boulder. A boulder is a boulder to the average person. Not much significance in the big scheme of things but, to some, that boulder is so much more. For me, at least, there is a draw to interact with that boulder. Some might say to conquer it, as if the boulder is an opponent…which it actually does feel like most of the time. But there’s also the whole aspect of respect. I use strong language to insult boulders… all the time… and I get creative. Mostly because that boulder is just sitting there smirking like, “Yeah, try me Bro, whatcha got?” But really there is a respect, no matter how much grief is given either way.
There’s that draw to interact with this boulder for the most minute blip of time. When I climb nothing matters; bills, lost friends, rocky relationships, and politics are all suspended from my mind in that brief blip. I’m pushing my body to achieve this mental fix. As I climb, I feel like I enter a meditative state, where my thoughts just briefly pass by and instinct, muscle memory, grit, and pure drive take over to accomplish the set goal.
In my mind, climbing may seem insane, useless or egotistical, but it is deeply spiritual. As long as we’re still climbing then “good on us.” That’s something we can smile at, that we can stare at in awe; it’s something your parents and grandparents can shake their heads and then tell you a three hour ‘Well-back-in-my-day’ story…which you should listen to anyway because it’s probably a great story. But what it really is, is something that causes us to grow in ways we never even considered, and most importantly allows us to cast our light out into the universe and say, “Hey, this blip right here! Yeah, this is me! How you like them apples?” And I like to think that whoever is watching just sees those moments and treats them how we treat shooting stars, that moment of magical wonder, our attention is drawn to the sky and to the stars and it humbles us. In my mind, those moments, those blips, make up the faith, the drive, or the soul inside of me.
That drive is what allowed me to move past the uncertainty I had before the second pitch on the Morning Glory Spire; it allowed me to push the image of Lisa’s fall, earlier in the day, out of my mind to focus on the moment: to let myself move back to my breath and let my muscles become what’s in control, and to let the thoughts that enter my mind just pass by.
We made our way up the Spire without any problems but had no beers with us this time, after taking some pictures from the top, we rapped off the spire and made our way back to the car. The drive back to Salt Lake was quick and we were in high spirits. We pushed ourselves into something new and came out of it successful. Its trips like these that really inspire me. I recently heard someone say, “climbing is for conquerors of the irrelevant.” Does something that teaches you and allows you to master your body and mind irrelevant? Perhaps it is the most important and relevant thing a person can do. So go out there, climb a rock, surf a wave, take a trip, get inspired, and see what happens.
– Nick Burnett • Mesa Rim Front Desk Team