The Trip's Not Over: A Chongo Update


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A tent in the redwoods
Topic Author's Original Post - Dec 3, 2007 - 06:37pm PT

The last tendrils of light had fallen half an hour ago, dropping below the smaller basalt cliff across the lake. Faint headlights flickered across the bridge below as weekenders crept the Sierra foothills to back to their Monday morning jobs. Rob and I stayed late, pulling on headlamps so he could get “just one more” before we made the Sunday night commute back to Santa Cruz. As Rob finished his knot, a voice drifted up the talus.

“Where are you guys?” I paused, uncertain of my ears. Hadn’t everyone gone home? Maybe someone forgot something.

“It’s f*#king hot. I’m taking off my sweater. Where’s the trail?” It’s dark. Who’d hike up a cow trail to a sport crag in the dark?

Rob shrugged, pulling on his shoes, and finishing his bowline. He strapped a headlamp around his head and flicked it on. A strong beam of light shot onto the steep basalt cliff.

“Oh, there you are.”

Half a mile down the road is the Sierra Conservation Center, a forty year old state prison which trains and places inmates in a “Conservation Camp Program” (read chain gangs).

I pulled the rope into my gri-gri, looked at Rob’s knot, and said, “You’re on belay.”

Grumbles drifted closer to the cliff. “Who’s coming up?” I scratched my head. “They must be crazy.” I mumbled, wondering if an escaped convict had wandered down the road.

“Yeah James. Plus, they’re walking through all the poison oak.” Rob smiled as a dark figure bounced his watermelon stomach up to the cliff. “You’re in the oak man.”

“Mother f*#ker.” Maybe it was my imagination but the voice sounded vaguely familiar. “Try to come to a bitchin’ crag and end up lost.” A shrill laugh gave another clue.

“Chongo?” I guessed.

“Well who the f*#k did you think it’d be?”

Rob rolled his eyes and started climbing. I flicked on my headlamp to feed out slack as Rob moved to the first bolt. Whoa, Chongo at the sport crag.

“That’s a mega hike.” Chongo Chuck fluffed his dirty Sacramento Kings shirt, letting air onto his sweaty chest, and bouncing the lanyard, heavy with car keys and a flash drive, strapped around his neck. “Good thing I’m in great shape,” he panted. “I went to the doctor a week ago. You know what my blood pressure was?”

I didn’t hazard a guess, instead watching Rob’s headlamp dance up the steep rock.

“120 over 80. And my heart rate’s 72 beats per minute. “Chongo plopped down on a rock next to me, pulled a nubbin of squeezed paper from his sweat covered pocket, sparked the hippie lettuce, and took a long drag, gesturing the roach towards me. I shook my head; smoking with Chongo had all the similarities of swallowing battery acid: a strong sense of euphoria followed by a massive headache and hallucinations of elephant’s in tutus. Besides, seeing Chongo at the crag already had me tripping. Smoke putted out of Chongo’s lips as he coughed, then hacked, then coughed and hacked.

“Wow, this is some cliff.” He glanced up at the steep rock as Rob threw his heel into a large slot, ratcheting his body to an incut hold. “You’d be a big thing in the climbing gym. I know. Every morning I carry a hundred pound pack to the gym. By the time it’s open I’ve already worked out for the day.”

I nodded. “You got it man.” Rob twisted his body, hitting an arête and then bumping his hand to a basketball of basalt. His feet dangled for a second before swinging through and pressing onto the rock. He grunted, matching a small plate. Rob’s headlamp bounced in the darkness of the cave, illuminating his feet for a second before dancing back to his hands.

For years, Chongo sat, cemented in front of a lab top in the Yosemite Lodge, working on the definitive guide to big wall climbing, a, and then later on a graphic children’s story of murderous monkeys. We’d met five maybe six years ago when I’d first showed up in the Valley. We talked a fair amount. Well, he’d talk and I’d nod as he lectured me and anyone else in the cafeteria about quantum tunneling or the wave particle duality of light. I never expected him to leave the dented seat he’d made in the Yosemite cafeteria but the park rangers ran him out of town; they don’t like dirt bags in Yosemite. I hadn’t seen him in a year, probably two. The rumors pegged him as a literate troll, living under a bridge in Sacramento and translating the Homeless Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics into Spanish. Catching him outside of Yosemite, especially at Jailhouse, seemed like a hallucination.

“He’s a real cowardly chicken sh#t mother f*#ker. I can’t really deal with him man.” Chongo blabbed into his cell phone. I hadn’t even heard it ring. Hell, my cell phone didn’t even get reception at the crag. “Now there’s some badass mother f*#kers in the homeless community but this guy ain’t sh#t. Kevin, now Kevin he’s a weapon. He’s more cut than Rick Cashner. But this guy’s just out to make my life miserable. I’m staying out here for the night.” The voice on the other end of the line spoke a few words of acknowledgement.

I lowered Rob back to the talus as Chongo cut his call short. “I came up here to smoke some weed with you guys.” Chongo waved a roach in the air.

“Sure you don’t want some?” Rob declined and I shook my head again.

“Got to pack the stuff and get back to Santa Cruz, Chuck,” Rob untied from the rope and peeled off his rock boots, gathering his gear for the hike down.

“Okay, well I’ll see you later.” Chongo creaked out of his seat, standing and wobbling down the talus.

“Watch out for the poison oak man,” I shouted. Chongo mumbled, and swayed to the side dodging the thick branches of oak as he negotiated his way back to the road.

“That was a trip.” Rob said. I agreed, wondering if we’d see an elephant in a tutu passing us on the hike, taunting us with promises to flash our projects. “I didn’t know Chuck was around.” Rob grabbed the rope and stuffed it into his pack.

“Yeah. I saw him last night at Coiler’s. For a minute he was parked in the shed, plugged into his laptop, going off on his cell phone, and lecturing about quantum mechanics.” I thrust out my stomach, trying to give it a round, distended, appearance, and then wrapped my lips around my teeth, giving Rob a toothless Chongo smile. “The only thing I can really understand is quantum mechanics man. Everything is a light, your thoughts, the sun, everything.”

Rob smiled a little at my impression. “He doing okay?”

“Seems like it. He’s got a girlfriend, and a job.” His girlfriend was half his age and he’d been making a decent income. I didn’t have a girl or a job; Chongo was ballin’ in comparison. “He’s working out on a farm in Sac. Guess he just wanted to get away from his co-workers for a day or two. He’s living in a homeless community, which sucks I guess. You know what the problem with the homeless is? They’re all so f*#ked up. At least that’s what Chuck says.”

The rest of the hike passed quietly; we were sore and tired from climbing. Two cars were parked at the bottom of the road. One was a tiny red minivan, the bumper’s paint was chipped, and long Arizona pinstripes, scratch marks from sharp bushes, ran along the outside of the rig; Rob’s car. Next to the minivan was a 2004 Land Cruiser with a smooth silver paint job, leather interior, and a GPS on the dash above a six CD changer radio; Chongo’s car.

“Looks like the trip’s not over.” Rob pulled the keys out of his pack, nodding to Chongo, who sat next to the SUV smoking his never ending roach. He coughed, then hacked, then coughed and hacked. Rob cringed and I shrugged.

I opened the minivan’s passenger door, tossed my pack down, and pulled out some crackers, hungry from climbing. The garlic and herb crackers were a delicacy and I stared at the last four. When I looked up from the food, there was Chongo his palm up and extended to me.

“Can I get one of those?” Chongo surprised me. As a kid my siblings and I went to great lengths to scare the sh#t out of each other. My brother woke up an hour before school one morning, snuck into my room, and squeezed under my bed. When I woke, I swung my feet to the floor, and my brother grabbed my ankles, letting out a monster’s roar. I screamed and jumped, almost hitting my head on the ceiling. There’s not much that’s surprised me since. But Chuck, he surprised me. With his hand out it was like we were back at the Café, back when I had a job, back when I had a girlfriend, and back when I even had a little money. This was back when Chuck was just Chuck, a physicist who ate climber scraps. In a few years, our roles had reversed. I was a broke student, getting rides to the crag with Rob, and hungry all the time, while Chongo was living large. What a head trip. I held out the package of crackers and Chongo liberated me of the rest, smashing them into his toothless mouth. I curled my lips into a strained smile.

“Got to get back to Santa Cruz,” I said and Rob started the minivan.

“Later Chuck,” Rob put the van in gear and we pulled away. My crackers were gone but Chongo was still there, sitting next to his rig, coughing, and hacking, and then coughing and hacking.

Richard Heinrich photo

Sport climber
Lexington, KY
Dec 3, 2007 - 06:45pm PT

Moss Landing CA
Dec 3, 2007 - 06:52pm PT
No F-ing way James, Chongo is rolling in a Land Rover. HA! That is the best. Are you serious?

'Pass the Pitons' Pete

Big Wall climber
like Oakville, Ontario, Canada, eh?
Dec 3, 2007 - 06:55pm PT
Great story! Tell Chongo I say hi.

The photo of Chongo above is by Richard Heinrich = spike, and is published on my old profile at

A tent in the redwoods
Topic Author's Reply - Dec 3, 2007 - 06:55pm PT
I was green with envy man.

Dec 3, 2007 - 08:04pm PT
Loved every sentence James, you rock man.

Trad climber
room 100
Dec 3, 2007 - 08:10pm PT
excellent story! I think its a LandCruiser though, with disabled plates. That was an interesting day when he showed up. I can related to the tables turning.. he bummed off of me! I mean, I don't have sh#t to spare. c-you next time at the ranch.

A tent in the redwoods
Topic Author's Reply - Dec 4, 2007 - 06:14pm PT
Thanks Werner.

Trad climber
Dec 4, 2007 - 06:40pm PT
great read. thanks for posting

Dec 5, 2007 - 06:05pm PT
Some time ago it was either Peter or Tom who wrote describing what it was like to climb a crack. Incredible job. Now you have gone and done it describing how people construct a life. More people need to see your work. Just my opinion.

PT and I ran into what I think was the Conservation Corp. while we were trying to go from Tuolomne to Donner. We were running eight miles a day short and were leaning into the traces, to no visible effect. Met this guy who would not take no for an answer when he asked if we wanted to come to the camp and have a free soda. There were a few black people there. Not much water so everyone was a little dirty, like us, but all were smiling. We talked about what we were doing and the kids talked about what they were doing. Their eyes were shining.

I am naïve because I like being that way. On the way out, seemed to me some of those kids’ eyes were shining for the first time in their lives. I felt like I used to feel when my plowshare hit a big rock.

Unexpectedly, we had come upon something really big.

Big Wall climber
Satan's testicles
Dec 5, 2007 - 08:32pm PT
I am not impressed.
What kind of friend posts about friends breaking laws?
Someone who is no friend at all.

I wish Chuck the best, I hope you deck into talus.

Just another vulture feasting on the flesh of others.

someplace in-between
Dec 5, 2007 - 10:47pm PT
Wrathchild: Ha ha! Too late, that's some funny sh#t.

James: Word! Nice work dude. See you around.


Moss Landing CA
Dec 8, 2007 - 12:20am PT
HA!!!! still in disbelef.
Messages 1 - 13 of total 13 in this topic
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