Trip ReportCity of Rocks: The Broken Glass, A Tale of Two Climbers
DAY 1 HONEYMOON
“God damn it, what are you doing? You dropped a piece of my gear!”
I looked down at my belayer, a man I met an hour ago. His face snarled in disgust.
“Sorry,” I said. “I’m climbing with your rack, I’m just not used to it.” A nut had fallen off a biner when I placed a piece.
“OK. I caught it. Look, you don’t know who you’re dealing with.”
“You don’t know who you’re dealing with either,” I said, telegraphing a flash of anger down the rope. Since he caught the nut, what was the problem?
Getting to the belay, I set four cams. “Belay is on,” I yelled.
“Climbing.” In 30 seconds I heard him swearing and cursing.
“You over-cammed the first piece!” It took him 15 seconds to remove the .75 Camalot which protected my potential fall into the gully on either side of the boulder.
“Sorry. I’m really sorry.”
I wished for a different beginning for a week’s climbing trip to City of Rocks. My Squamish plans had been derailed by two climbing partners cancelling at the last minute, and the weather going to crap. A partner post on MountainProject yielded several possibilities, with a phone call to Tim cementing the deal to go to the City. We started on a classic 5.7 crack which was a perfect size, finger to hand. Eagerly, I led the pitch and felt psyched after getting to the top.
He reached the belay and inspected my pieces.
“OK. I’m down climbing,” he said. The descent was tricky fourth-class.
I preferred to rappel and traversed over to the nearby Bloody Fingers anchors where a toproping family let me ride down their rope. Tim and I then climbed a 5.8 reminiscent of Joshua Tree before taking a break.
The first of our long lunches in the middle of the day, Tim called it “the siesta.” I used the time to get to know him. His green eyes against his tanned angular face and blonde-grayish hair fascinated me. A Montana man about 45 years old, he had powerful hands and a long gash on his left shin from a 30-foot leader fall off a 5.11. He lived in his truck in the state of “permanent dysfunction,” having no work as a carpenter in Bozeman. A dirtbag yes, but this Boulder gal thought things could be worse.
He spoke in riddles, trying to keep the power in our nascent relationship. Through a series of cryptic answers to my routine questions, I pieced together the milestones of his life. He told me about seeing his toys floating in the living room when he was six years old, because his father had plugged up all the drains in the house and flooded it. Why, I asked. To destroy the house, of course. Dad pulled a gun on him when he was 19. The old man died five years ago and Tim didn’t go to his funeral, a decision he now regretted. His sister recently died of cancer. He had been to Hell, which he defined as vacuuming her house twice a day. His mom was sick. He planned to go back to this Hell in the Midwest to take care of her. He often referred himself as the Devil.
“Wow. I have issues with my father, too. I went to therapy for a couple of years to figure them out. At least I’m aware of the choices I’m making.“ My Boulder sensibilities dictated that all psychological issues had a solution, it was simply a matter of finding the right therapy.
“Therapy?!” He spat the word out like rat poison. I backed off.
At his urging, I picked the next route, an obscure three-star 5.7 crack. Subtly he wrested the lead from me, asserting that it would be hard to protect. Mindful of the morning’s experience I agreed, not wanting to drop his gear or get cursed at. With plenty of pro and chickenheads along the crack, the climb turned out to be barely 5.6. No matter. I was glad to be climbing and on vacation.
As we finished the day on an old-school 5.8 at Parking Lot Rock, sexual tension between us emerged. Tim hadn’t had a date since “dinosaurs walked the earth.” He had been turned down by women from every country, apparently female tourists who flocked to the resort towns he frequented. He had been married once and didn’t want to talk about it. Well, I had met plenty of guys like him in my climbing career, he didn’t scare me. Intrigued and wary, I looked forward to the next day.
DAY 2 TRUTH
His mountain bike was money; it went uphill almost by itself. Tim said I could ride it whenever I wanted, as long as he stayed. I rode to the Breadloaves, practiced yoga and relaxed while he fiddled with his gear, drank coffee and wasted time. I suggested four or five routes, none of them cracks, and waited to see what would happen.
“Tribal Boundaries. That’s my final offer,” I told him. We hiked in that direction though I had no idea where we would end up. We stopped at Tribal--I love that climb and happily followed it without falling. Afterward, our conversation veered uncomfortably toward sucking on toes, smelling dirty panties and the like. Tim revealed that he smoked pot, though his ever-present Seagrams 7 ditty bag had tipped me off as well as the lingering aroma.
We took a siesta break on the Tribal ledge.
“Tim,” I said, “You have a very dark side.”
“What do you mean,” he said. “As opposed to light?”
“Maybe. You have a lot of pain, anger and frustration. I see and feel it.”
Suddenly the crude sexual innuendos stopped. I realized later that this was the moment Tim decided not to hit on me because this Boulder chick had called him on his sh#t. We hiked back to my car as Tim informed me of his opinion of women.
“Well, I don’t really care about them one way or another. And women climbers, I don’t trust them. They just don’t go for it. Yeah, I’ve climbed with some women climbers, but they just aren’t that good.“
I couldn’t believe what he said. I felt he tossed my 30-year climbing career in the trash. I’ve proved myself in Tuolumne, the South Platte, on the Diamond, in Rocky Mountain Park. What about Lynn Hill or Steph Davis? I was sure nothing I could say would change his mind, especially after our first climb. Then I realized, why did it matter? He could say whatever he wanted. I knew what I had accomplished.
Returning to my car, I noticed that the left rear tire was almost flat. The shops in Almo were closed that afternoon so we drove 20 miles to Malta to get it fixed. Tim called his mom and other partners to set up future plans while we sat at the road construction delays.
“If you told me 20 years ago I’d be calling my mom three or four times a week, I’d be calling you a liar,” he said.
After dinner, I walked alone through the maze of roads weaving through the campground. Peace surrounded me, peace that was worth a ten-hour drive on I-80. Few places are like City of Rocks, perhaps the closest is Joshua Tree. I could be happy sitting on a rock and overlooking the granite sea all day.
DAY 3 MOMENTS OF DOUBT
The hottest day so far, we went to a 5.9 on the shady side of Bath Rock. Tim started racking up.
“No, I’m going to lead this,” I said.
He looked at me in disbelief. I led it, he led it. Sweat ran down his face as he announced he couldn’t do another route. Before we left, he chatted up a German family climbing next to us. I drove into Almo to take a shower and couldn’t convince him to come along.
Driving back up the road, I wondered if I was in danger from this man. I suspected he had a rap sheet. He made some random comments about mass murder. He didn’t like the heat, women or women climbers. Why was he at City of Rocks with me? I drove to the Twin Sisters formation on the way back and sat there. He kept saying he might leave. Maybe if I took a while, he’d be gone when I returned.
I pondered the alternatives. I had paid for my campsite for a week, moving to another site wouldn’t change anything. Not knowing him, I was unsure what he would do if I said I didn’t want to climb with him. Going back to Boulder was not an option. I wanted to climb and I had a partner so I resolved to make the best of it. When I got back, his beat-up truck with the pink breast cancer decal was still there.
We finished the day with a couple 5.10 pitches in the shade at Elephant Rock. I had trouble with the crux on one of them and had to batman up the rope a few feet to grab the key hold.
Once I arrived back on the ground, Tim said, “Any idiot knows that they should take a sling with them so if they can’t do the move, they can clip the sling and stand on it.”
Great. He called me an idiot. If I stepped on a sling or pulled on the rope, it was all the same to me. Nevertheless, I took a sling on every climb after that.
The evening sky showcased the annual August meteor shower. Tim and I counted the number of shooting stars, satellites and planes in the night sky. The Milky Way lit up the City. We noticed headlamps bobbing up and down on Jackson’s Thumb a mile or two away. It had to be the Canadian guys camped next to us as they raced out of camp at sunset. I headed for my tent as they started the rappels.
DAY 4 THE CRUX
The morning ritual took longer every day. I rode his bike, did yoga and waited for him to smoke out and get motivated. After passing on a few moderate routes which featured ground-fall potential off every bolt, we regrouped on a shady rock.
“I’ve been thinking,” Tim said. “I’m the kind of person who views the glass half full. You’re the kind of person who sees it as half empty.”
“What? Tim, I totally disagree. I think it’s just the opposite. I have dealt with every issue that has come up in a positive way. Look at my trip out here. I salvaged my climbing vacation.” I couldn’t believe what he was saying. Maybe the heat had made him delirious.
Despite the scorching sun, we went to Castle Rock. A death march to the cliff left me strung out with heat exhaustion. Tim pulled out his pot pipe for the tenth time that day.
“Hey Tim, you said you were trying to cut back.”
“Well, I might, if not for your smart-ass remark,” he shot back.
“Gee, I was just making conversation.” Guess I hit a raw nerve.
We climbed a 5.9, our interaction becoming increasingly forced.
“Thanks for the belay.”
“Do you want to climb the toprope?”
“Yes. Thank you.”
I launched up the toprope, muscling my way through an iron-cross maneuver which involved putting my right foot at hand level, rocking up and getting my left foot up next to my left hand.
“That was hard,” I said. “Tim, you’ll be able to show me the easy way to do it.”
“See, there you go again, being negative. That’s what I mean, the glass is half empty.”
Tears welled up in my eyes and ran down my cheeks. My guard came crumbling down; I could no longer ignore his remarks. In my quest to be positive, I wanted to compliment him on his excellent slab climbing ability. He had misunderstood me or did not want to understand. I finished the climb and he lowered me down.
“Are you OK?” he asked.
“No, I’m not OK. I tried to give you a compliment and you totally ripped on me. I don’t cry easily and I am not OK.” We sat in silence. I couldn’t let him keep me down. I had to say something.
“Tim, the best thing I can say at the moment is that you have beautiful green eyes.”
“What, that’s the only nice thing you can say about me?”
“That is not what I said. You have twisted my words again.”
We did two more pitches. At the very least I was going to get some climbing in. We hiked silently back to my car, both of us exhausted by the heat. I pounded a beer and put on angry, loud rap music as we drove back to camp.
We ate at our respective hangs, me at the picnic table, Tim at his truck. I passed him as I went for my solitary evening walk. Upon my return, I stopped and asked him what he had for dinner. I knew he was running low on food.
“Pancakes and stovetop stuffing. Filling.”
“Great. Tim, you know why I’m here? I am at peace. This is the most peaceful and beautiful place I know.”
DAY 5 AN OFFERING
I woke up exhausted. Tim ambled over to my picnic table with his coffee.
“It’s a new day, Tim.”
“Do you want to climb today?”
He wandered away. The next time I saw him, he was towing our new neighbors who hailed from Idaho Falls over to Practice Rock to give them an anchor tutorial. Fine with me as I could barely move. Rest day.
A few hours later, he reappeared.
“There’s a route in Eldorado called Office Girls Walk the Plank,” I said. “I never understood what it meant until now.”
He stared at me uncomprehendingly.
“I’m adrift at sea, Tim. This office girl has walked the plank.”
I lounged around for most of the day until I seized upon a mission. Tim had mentioned BLTs were a favorite of his, and I wanted to see if I could pull it off. He wasn’t making a move toward leaving, so maybe we could at least eat a pleasant dinner together. A trip to the store in Almo got me everything I needed for $20.
Back at camp, I said, “I would like to invite you to dinner, Tim. I’m serving BLTs.”
During the day, a front moved in and a fierce wind blew from the west. We had to anchor our lettuce, tomatoes, mayo and bread. After we each ate a half a pound of bacon plus the accessories, I didn’t give up. I couldn’t give up. I figured I had bought Tim’s attention for at least 30 minutes.
“Tim, we are going to sit in your truck and talk.” I asked him about any climbing epics he had. He said he had been struck by lightning three times. I told him about my close calls: Stuck ropes, lightning, rappelling mistakes. I wanted him to know I that I was as experienced as he was, though I didn’t expect him to change his opinion of me.
I finally asked him: “Why are you here, Tim?” He had no answer. I guessed that he had nowhere else to go. The clouds and wind eliminated any meteor shower watching. I remanded to my tent.
DAY 6 TRUCE
The morning dragged on as Tim took an extended bike ride. I sat on the tailgate of his truck, looking at the guidebook. As he rode up, I said, “Here comes that wonderful bike.”
“Along with the shithead who owns it,” he replied.
“You said that, Tim, I didn’t.” The man knew how to puncture any bubble. His glass wasn’t half empty, it was broken.
We finally got out of camp at mid-afternoon on a Saturday. Tim vetoed my idea of hiking to remote routes. All climbs we aimed for had people in line, the easier climbs with two or three parties sporting stick clips. We climbed three pitches and I called it good. He led them all as my desire to lead anything died a couple days ago.
On my evening walk, I thought about the climbs we had done. I loved the moves, the wonderful rock, the people I met, the fact that the weather had cooled off. I had come to the City to climb and I had accomplished the goal.
ON THE SEVENTH DAY, SHE RESTED
Being the Boulderite and positive person that I am, I had to leave on an uplifting note and acknowledge who he was and who I was. During my last ride on his bike, I reached deep into my heart and staged my exit.
Buddhists hold that life is suffering. I had suffered to climb with a man who hated himself and had a hole in his heart big enough to drive a truck through. It couldn’t be filled by climbing, drugs or love. I had taken on some of his burden, and could only hope that this would help him or a person he cared for somewhere down the line.
I returned to the campsite. Both of us were packed and pacing around our vehicles. I removed my hat and sunglasses, looked directly at him, placed my hands in the prayer position and said, “Tim, I am going to leave you with a blessing. The light and darkness in me honors and respects the light and darkness in you. May you find peace. Namaste.” I bowed deeply, expecting him to laugh or make some wiseass remark.
Instead, he said, “Thanks. I might be in the Front Range some time soon.”
By this time, I wasn’t surprised by anything that he said.
“Oh, give me a call,” I said. I jumped in my car and took off. I know I will never answer it.
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