Monkeyfinger IV 5.12b
Trip ReportMonkeyfinger, Zion NP, March 2012
As I stemmed, jammed, smeared, and oozed my way up the sustained corner, my mind and body began to drift apart. Sweat poured out of my helmet, soaking the fleece vest I forgot I was wearing. With it poured out more than just vital fluids and electrolytes, my will was leaking too. Forty feet from the belay, feet skated, forearms, back, and abs began to cramp, and mental processing slowed to a crawl. Reaching the belay, it took every ounce of concentration and willpower to build an anchor and set up a belay. My thoughts drifted to the water bottle and energy bars 120 feet below me, untouched in the last 4 hours. I had bonked, and we were done.
When does giving up become the right decision? Certainly the first moments of struggle and feelings of failure do not warrant abandoning a goal, but at some point it is wise to cut your losses, right? Decisions to press on or give up face everyone who pursues climbing. Bailing can be the right decision, and a life-saving one, but what can we gain by enduring?
For Eric and I, the line was ambitious, but well within reason. 900 feet of vertical weather-hardened sandstone broken into 9 pitches, all but one requiring at least 5.10 climbing. Monkeyfinger… an innocent sounding name, like perhaps Olevsky, the first ascentionist, let a kid name it. The morning began in an unusually civilized fashion. Our friends Darren and Angela had pulled their new trailer to Zion for the weekend, the maiden voyage of this home-away-from home for the comfortable weekend warrior. I, lacking a sleeping partner, and hence, the claim to a proper bed, forfeit my place within the trailer to Eric and his wife Evin and on waking arose from my place next to the trailer. Restless in the first light, and feeling somewhere between a family pet sleeping on the doorstep and a wound-up Saturday morning onesie-clad child, I occupied myself as long as I could before taking my chances and waking my climbing partner, still in bed with his wife. A dangerous way to start the day, I know, but we had to start sometime!
A quick breakfast, a short drive, and some pre-climb meditation in the park bathroom passed by quickly, and we began the approach towards our objective. Five minutes later we found ourselves at the base of the route (Where else but Zion do 1000 foot faces have such short approaches?). We climbed pitches one and two quickly and found ourselves staring up at the ominous Black Corner, the first true test of our confidence, footwork, and our cuticles. Scissors had cut paper 100 feet below, putting Eric on the sharp end for the dark dihedral above. He cast off, placing pencil-width cams in the dark glossy sandstone, testing the quality of the rock in a few places when a sequence was misread or the friction of rubber and varnish failed and Eric found himself falling. Studious attention and creative body positioning unlocked thin blank sections and he reached the belay.
I followed, losing myself in the feel of my soft Miuras on tiny nubs and improbable smears, the coarse sandstone biting into my fingers and palms in a thousand tiny grains. I reached the belay and impatiently racked up, all the while looking at the thin roof traverse hanging above. Minutes later I found myself hunched over in an awkward stem, placing gear behind my head, and performing two entire 360’s in the process of placing the perfect gear to protect the roof, and then untangling myself from said perfect gear. Two tough moves on undercling fingerlocks supported by tiny footholds lay between me and the corner above the roof. My thoughts drifted, then zeroed in on the rubber impregnating each and every pore of the sloping cherry-pit footholds and I was off. Unwavering feet and trust carried me up and over the roof and brought me not only to the thin corner above, but for the first time that day, into direct sun. I stemmed, jammed, sweated, and oozed, reached the belay, and found myself expended, physically and mentally. How could this have happened, only four pitches up, not even half way?
The impatience, neglecting to look at the time, eat, drink, or consider the effects the sun-induced fluid loss. I had watched my diet carefully in the several days prior, wanting to lose a couple pounds and feel light for the weekend. This unwise caloric restriction may have left my reserve tanks empty for this anticipated climb. In any case I was useless, and fortunate to have safely belayed Eric up to me. When he came into sight, joined me at the hanging belay (did I mention it was a full hanging belay?), and saw the look on my face, the joy of climbing quickly turned into concern.
“Are you ok? What happened to you?”
“I bonked…. I have never felt this terrible climbing”
He opened up the pack and handed me my water and a clif bar, and I choked down a bit of water, organic oats, and soy.
“Does this anchor look alright? It took every ounce of my concentration to build it” I asked as I attempted to manage our lead line, pack, and haul line.
“It looks fine, but do you think you are okay to belay me up this next pitch….”
While my reserves felt depleted, both physically and mentally, Eric was straining at the end of his daisy chain, eager to climb. I wanted down, and I wanted beer, and I wanted to be done.
“I think I can safely belay you up… but I don’t know about making it up this thing”
I reluctantly committed after looking up at the steep crack looming above, summoning what was left of my mental fortitude, preparing to hold his life in my exhausted hands.
Eric climbed high off the belay, settled into a stance and placed his first cam, smoothly pulling the rope up to clip the piece until…..
“CLIPPING”….. the rope drew taut. I battled my gri-gri, pulling as hard as I could to feed him some rope.
“CLIPPING!” he shouted louder.
I couldn’t reply… intent on solving this problem, I looked down and saw the lead line wrapped around a leg….my leg.
The thin loops of webbing on my harness had completely cut blood flow to my legs, and they were numb dead weight, tangled in the rope and tethering Eric on a short leash. One hand free from the belay, I threw my useless lower limbs back and forth, freeing the rope. Eric finally had the slack to clip his first piece.
“I thought you were ok to belay!?”
“I’m good, just a little rope management”
Eric led the next few pitches as I struggled up with gasping breaths, cramping muscles, and a weak will to continue. At each belay, Eric asked
“Can you safely belay me?” and “Do you think you can keep going?”
“Probably” and “I’ll try one more pitch” I replied each time, while really thinking “I sure hope so” and “No, I can’t keep going”
We persevered one pitch at a time, re-evaluating at each belay, while my body failed me and my mind rebelled against me. Beneath an imposing offwidth, Eric asked me again if I could belay and if I wanted to keep going.
“We can’t go down Eric, we are having too damn much fun” I replied, wanting only to stop. As the words left my mouth, a half-smile replaced them, then a full grin, and I began to shake with laughter. For the first time in hours, I was able to comprehend where we were and what we were doing. Scores of people milled below at a popular trail along the river…scores of people who would never have the opportunity or ability to be where I was. This is what I live for, I thought as Eric grunted and powered his way up the wide maw above. The sheer wall, the stream bubbling far below, the beating sun, and the bond between climbing partners….this is what I am here for.
A shout of “On belay” came from above and brought me into action, but didn’t break the trance of revelry in that which is climbing. The powerful offwidth allowed me a gentler path, revealing small crimps and footholds that made my progress quick and smooth. As I pulled over the ledge and into view, re-energized and smiling, Eric’s jaw dropped.
“I thought that pitch would wreck you” He admitted.
We rested in the shade, finishing the last of our food and water and for the first time agreed…. “We can finish this thing, we can top out!”
After a short pitch, I took the lead, eager to test myself and my recovery. I made my way past star-drives and half-driven pitons, relaxed and savoring the sensation of sand grains wedging in the valleys of my fingerprints and digging micrometers into the soft rubber of my shoes. I was back… feeling confident, moving fluidly, and living in the moment…. We were back, and we were going to finish. Eric took the lead for the final pitch standing between us and the summit, a steep but crumbling chimney.
Against the odds, despite both of us knowing just a few pitches ago that we wouldn’t make it, we reached the summit. The wind was whipping at the top, and we quickly rigged for the first in a series of rappels. The route passed by our eyes in high-speed rewind as we gave in slowly to gravity’s unrelenting will drawing us back to the ground. Wide grins stretched our sunburnt and windblown faces as we descended, and came into earshot of the rest of the crew at the base. The party had started mid-afternoon, and they had driven up to watch us finish and drive us back to camp. The night flew by as we told our story, refueled, celebrated the birthday of a friend, and also celebrated the moments that make climbing so captivating.
The grit of sandstone on skin worn thin, the lines drawing our eyes upward, the choice to persevere when both body and mind have given up, and the encouragement and camaraderie of a trusted partner, these… these things are worth enduring for.
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