The Only Blasphemy

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Cave Crack (Summer 2007)

Some of you long-time listeners might remember my escapade with Cave crack from Episode 10. That was a decent misadventure. I’ll spare you the recount of that in this one, but it fits right in. This episode is all about fucking up, contemplating life, and adjusting processes. Somewhere within the pages of OSHA regulations, it states that “Personnel and Hazardous chemicals may not be housed in the same space.” In the safety class, this seemed like a ludicrous statement. As the class guffawed at the absurdity of needing this rule, The instructor said something that’s stuck with me “These regulations are written in blood.” The reason we have rules is because of times we fucked up.

Some company tried to save a dime by putting staff quarters and life-threatening chemicals, and it didn’t end well. Now we have a rule about that. That escapade nearly didn’t end well, so I learned the lesson of knowing that you have to understand a route’s character before launching upward. Now I have a rule about that.

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Alpspitze (August 2008)

First, I’ve never told this story to my dad…. I’m really going to owe him an apology for sneaking about like this! (erm… sorry, dad! Maybe he doesn’t listen to the podcast, and I can get away with it? I’m sure I’ll hear about it soon if he does!) This story takes place in Germany. Dad worked overseas, due to tax brackets, he had a limited amount of days he could come home, or he’d face a crushing payment to the IRS at the end of the year. So somewhat paradoxically, it was cheaper to fly both of us to Germany and meet up there instead.

We had approached the “Adamplatte” of the Alpspitze in the Bavarian Alps near Garmisch-Partenkirchen by the via-ferrata route, having already gained a thousand feet of elevation from the tram station. Dad looked at the route and said “nope.” “Why nope,” I asked? “Because I’m an old man, and I’m tired.” Okay, can’t argue with that logic, but what does he want to do now? “I want to take a nap, head down to the cable car station, and have a beer.” Well, I did some quick calculus and reckoned I could make it to the top and back down in time for him to finish his beer, and I made a statement to that effect. The ol’ man’s quite good at taking a nap when he wants to! He tucked into a corner to sleep, and I scooted off towards the base of the route. “I’m just gonna look at it, since we’re here, ya know?”

I waited about fifteen minutes, busted out my point-and-shoot camera, verified that he was asleep, then started rocketing up the thousand-foot route. Hey, cut me some slack aright? I was 19. We were all stupid once. Some more than others, but we’ve all been there!

The climbing was mind-numbingly easy for the first couple hundred feet, and I rapidly escaped the broad ledge upon which the route began. Four hundred feet later that ledge was but a vague memory. Most of the climbing was along a slab with water grooves ranging from 5.0-5.5, though I knew there was a 5.8 crux pitch up high. The view of the village below was astounding, the houses even looked like ants, and then the world shifted. I clenched tightly with my right hand to counteract the sudden movement as my left pulled off a block the size of my head. I watched in horror as it tumbled down the slabs, and I couldn’t help but imagine a rag doll with my face taking the same tumble. Down, down, down it goes, bouncing off the wall, into the slab, five hundred feet back to the ledge. Maybe it stops there, or perhaps it keeps falling another thousand feet to the base of the wall, which itself is a few thousand feet above the valley. I was losing it. That was too much exposure to take in. I reached up and slapped myself in the face since no one was around to do it for me. It worked in the cartoons, so it seemed like a reasonable enough idea.

As soon as I composed myself, I panicked a second time. Dad. Napping. The route started about 100 yards to the left of his resting spot, then immediately jogged upward and leftward for a couple hundred feet. Wherever that block fell, he was safe.

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I paused to wonder how the cliff had become so wonderfully grooved for climbing, some of the channels cut were deep enough for hand-jams. Quickly enough the reason became apparent…. The grooves were carved by water runoff, and not just any water but snowmelt. That moisture sapped heat from my fingers, and they became numb to pain. Meanwhile, my feet had mostly lost any semblance of friction on the slick rock, but I was too committed to downclimb. At this point, I’d only been soloing for maybe six months, so I wasn’t terribly experienced with downclimbing. I just figured this would be no big deal, and threw myself at it. The only way off was up.

After 750 feet of climbing, approximately 1700ft above the base of the wall, I realized I was lost. I know, I know, I’m on the north face of the Alpspitze, but I didn’t know how to continue forward and get the hell off the wall, which is a surprisingly easy situation to get into it seems. I was onsighting the route, trusting in intuition, voodoo magic, and a palm-reading to get me through the proper sequences to the top, the climb mostly followed a massive slabbed dihedral up the wall. The climbing was primarily on the slab, but to my left was a vertical and heavily featured chunk of wall that jutted approximately 30ft higher before forming the base of a parallel slab with yet another route. I was faced with a decision, up ahead I could see that the low angled half of my corner disappeared into that vertical segment of wall where it intersected the adjacent buttress and stopped cold. The only other option was up and left through a very burly looking bulge in the rock split with a crack. Overhanging jams, high in outer space. Minutes crept past as I deliberated, contemplated my life choices, bargained with the almighty Bob, and decided that I really was a complete idiot. Finally, I sunk one finger in a bolt and leaned back as far as I could stomach to gain vantage and peer forward. With my head extended further than Adam Ondra’s, I was able to catch a glimpse of metal about a hundred feet further up the wall. The anchors for the next pitch glinted in the sun like that famed light at the end of the tunnel. Looks like I wasn’t headed for hell today.

The crux was a 5.8 traverse on vertical rock 50ft sideways like a ballet dance. Where my slab ended, I pulled onto that adjacent flat wall to traverse across open space to a slab running parallel but lower to mine. Toes pointed onto pebbles and edges, arms held at just the right angle to the rock to minimize fatigue. I flowed through the moves like the water running across the cliff, and I disappeared completely. There was no rock, there was no me, only the pure execution and complete focus. I never could remember the moves from that sequence, but I remember a profound sense of peace that never quite left me.

As I topped out on the wall, a couple guys were walking along the via-ferrata in the home stretch to the summit. They looked at me very hard. Then they glanced down, and then back to me. Down and back, down and back they craned their heads as hard as I had previously. They grabbed the cable of the via-ferrata to look further down to see where I’d come from. They looked back at me in startled confusion, and I explained (in German) “I’m from Texas, there is no other guy.”

“Oh.” They said and walked off like Texas explained everything. I really don’t know how that fuckin’ explained *anything* but the seemed satisfied.

After tagging the summit, I sprinted down the via-ferrata with one hand hovering over the safety cable “just in case,” swaying side to side in a headlong purposeful downhill crash like Jack Sparrow fleeing the British in the Caribbean. Just as I came within sight of the cable car station, I slowed to a walk so that I wouldn’t give away my haste, when I arrived at the table dad was enjoying the last sip of beer in his mug. Sometimes, things just work out.

On this day, I learned that a route can never be “only” 5.anything.

Fly on a Windshield (Spring Break 2011)

I was full of myself, and it was a glorious weekend. I had finished my 15th solo of the day on “Pro Sweat (5.9+).” It was a slab, and slabs supposed to be sketchy, but they were my strength as a climber back then, and I had felt incredibly solid. So I decided to up the ante to “Fly on a Windshield” (5.10a). I sauntered over to the base and pulled through the initial flakes rapidly to gain a precarious mantle, and then I just sat there. The holds I upon which I perched did not inspire confidence. The next sequence didn’t appear much better, worse, in fact. I had led the climb onsight only a week or two earlier, and I remembered how easy it had felt, but at that moment I couldn’t put my finger on what was different other than the fact that my foot seemed to be slipping very, very slowly.

That’s when I noticed the next bolt was above my head within arm’s reach. Apparently, when I led the route, those crux moves were accomplished with all the boldness of toprope. Splendid. No wonder I felt so damn solid back then.

Slipping…

Look. You have two choices, sit and think and splatter, or fucking go for it. Maybe, just maybe you’ll make it. I grabbed those awful crimps for dear life, re-situated my deteriorating foothold and flung myself up at the next good hold, a muffin-sloper. Time dilated and slowed to a standstill, what looked to the outside world to take only an instant took an eternity as my entire being became consumed with the effort required to make that one single move and pull back away from the event horizon from which not even light could escape. One move, that's the difference between life and death. SMACK! My hand connected as my feet blew out on me, and I mantled up onto a good ledge. Adrenaline surged through my body as I greeted life with a fresh outlook. But it wasn’t quite over yet, I had to climb another 100’ to the summit, mostly about 5.7, so I got back into the zone and continued trembling all the way to the top.

Someone on the rock nearby hollered for some casual conversation, “AHOY! I used to solo a bit too back in my day! Just never on slabs though. I always found them way too sketchy.” I thought to myself: Yeah, me too! Instead, I said, “well, everybody has their own style, ya know?” And worked my hardest to avoid breathing hard and belie my panic over the events of the past thirty seconds.

On this day I learned it’s a known fact that Ego is the most difficult terrain to protect in all of climbing and that you can’t chance a solo if you weren’t contemplating soloing the route when you climbed it last. You need that contemplation to perform a proper pre-flight inspection.

The Nose of Looking Glass (December 2013)

“It's no big deal,” I said. “It’s only 5.8,” I said. “It’s a slab, that’s what you’re good at,” I said. “You’re well acclimated to Granite,” I said. And so I pointed my faithful Frontier down the gravel roads into the Pisgah wilderness aiming for “The Nose” at Looking Glass Rock.

Staring up at the route, it was far from intimidating. Sure, it’s a hold-less sea of polished granite, but those weird eyebrow features seemed inviting. We didn’t have features like that at Enchanted Rock, we just had a bunch of nickel and dime-edges. In my limited experience at the time, features were good, features inspired confidence. I began the process of making mantels up the wall, this rock was certifiably weird. You call this 5.6!? I thought, and perhaps that should’ve been my first warning.

At the bolted belay for the first pitch, I stopped and contemplated life. The next section looked steeper, so I checked mountainproject on my phone. Yes, I was standing on the route, hands-free, flipping through the internet on my handheld internet box. Anyhow, from photos, I could tell I was on-route, and this gave me hope. I considered down-climbing and decided it would be too awkward to be worth the trouble, and that should’ve been my final warning. I pushed onward, deeper into abysmal folly.

The wall wasn’t exactly blank, but everything was terribly rounded. Unlike Enchanted Rock, there were no crisp edges on the slab to be found, the next move would require me to commit myself entirely to a tiny greasy dimple on the rock. There were no hand-holds to use if I slipped, there were no additional footholds to shore up my balance, I had to trust my life to that foot.

I couldn’t trust my life to that foot.

I tried to ease in, too sketchy. I decided to downclimb and found that my stupid self had performed a somewhat irreversible mantle maneuver to get into my current predicament. Dangling my foot down, I couldn’t find the previous toe hold to lower my bodyweight. A bulge hid it from view.

I was stuck, but it hadn’t sunk in yet. I climbed up, then down, oscillating in a 15x15ft box on the rock. I couldn’t find any way to escape intact, every possible way out appeared to have odds below 50%. Up, Down, Left, Right, no direction looked acceptable. Finally, even though I had a half decent no-hands rest, I broke down.

I thought about my friends, my family, everyone that had ever loved me or cared for me. I thought of all the things I had wanted to see in the world. I thought of the goals I once had in a previous life that had apparently ended 30 minutes earlier when I was too stupid to notice that it had passed when I was too hell-bent on climbing upward to recognize that I was inexcusably committed to going forward. Once again my thoughts drifted back to my friends, and the folly of my situation hit me like a ton of bricks for the first time. Could there possibly be any greater sin than willfully jeopardizing one’s own life for no discernible purpose? Standing there, perched on one foot 150 feet off the ground, uncontrollably sobbing softly to myself, I finally understood The Only Blasphemy. There may be greater sins, but at that moment I couldn't think of any.

I spotted some climbers at the base of the route, and they began moving upward with painstaking slowness. I stood on that small sloping ledge for what seemed like an eternity before the leader caught up to me and passed me a sling to use as a makeshift harness. I couldn’t look him in the eye.

The next weekend I went to onsight-solo at Tennessee Wall and didn’t top out on a single route. I kept climbing half-way up and realizing it would be an awkward spot to reverse. That meant it was time to back off. Still, half of eight 100’ routes still equates 400’ of climbing at a beautiful place, not a bad day at all. I had learned that you can’t let belief in your strengths lead you past the warning signs of commitment. Onsight soloing requires redundancy. Up, Down, Left, and Right. At any point in time, you *must* have two of these available if you are to proceed safely. This is absolutely essential to assure that you have a way out. And you do need a way out when facing the completely unknown.

Final Notes:

In the intervening years between these instances and current thinking, I’ve come up with a bit of a “pre-flight calculus” that keeps me from doing anything monumentally stupid. Not that any of it can be argued as particularly smart, but it’s my idea of a good time, and it keeps me laughing if I do it right. And that’s the key thing: climbing should be fun, and it has to be done right. Gravity is unforgiving in that respect. I figure if I ever stop laughing, it’s probably time for me to quit the whole thing outright.

That encounter with “The Nose” was approximately my 75th pitch soloed, and I’ve done another several hundred since without any frightening incidents such as the one detailed. It seems I’ve learned my lesson well, and I can only hope that it sticks. Nowadays, as soon as a route stops being incredibly fun, I’m out long before it reaches the threshold of “dangerous.” I suppose in a way it helps that nowadays I know what “dangerous” actually feels like.

Every now and again someone will ask me if I feel fear, and I think the above should make it very clear that I do. I’ve been asked if I value my life and understand what I’m doing, and I think I do more than most people. You folks with the ropes out there have the option to remain ignorant in such positions as these. If you sport climb, you can trick yourself into believing that your safety was someone else’s job when they installed the bolts. Right up until you stare at a bolt that’s rusted like the Titanic.

I’m no different from most, and I’ve done some idiotic things in my time, but the key thing is that I learned deeply from my mistakes. I had a short conversation with a crane operator on a cell site one day that sums it up:

“Holy SHIT! So you do it for the rush!?”

-No, can’t say I do

“Well, why not? I mean, the adrenaline has got to be intense!”

-No, I can’t say it is

“Well, why not?”

-Because there is no adrenaline, there is no rush.

“How does that work out? Don’t you get scared?”

-Oh yeah, loads of times, usually when I have a rope, and I’m pushing it. See, the thing is, a person only feels adrenalized or gets a rush when they truly, deeply believe they are in danger. And I don’t like to do the dangerous thing.”

I’ve done the dangerous thing already. It wasn't intentional, and it wasn't pleasant. If you climb for the rush, or for adrenaline, then you’re an idiot, and you’re going to die. It's that simple.

If I feel that rush of adrenaline, I know I need to sit down and have a long talk with myself.

Some folks get all excited about the things I’ve soloed, but these days I think you’d be more amazed at all the things that I haven’t.

And that’s why this isn’t Big Climbing. Naw my friends, this has absolutely nothing to do with the #blessed, 5.15, V-Gnarsty, 8a.nu daily training video world of Big Climbing. You could be Climbing a cell phone tower that’s so skinny at the top you can wrap your arms around it so that you can bring LTE coverage to the denizens of the great city of Nashville Tennessee, and you notice something which suspiciously looks like a pee bottle wedged in-between the existing signal cables coming up the tower. That’s DANK NASTY! Looks like it’s been up here since they made 3G 10 years ago! So you try to ignore it while you hoist a new cable up the tower. The cable gets snagged, and it puts pressure on the existing lines. You stare down the inside of the tower with your tongue sticking out because you’re thinking so hard, wondering where your hoisting rope got snagged and then BOOM HEADSHOT! That 10-year-old crusty ass pre-existing piss bottle just blew up so hard in your fucking face from 18 inches away that you fucking TASTED IT!

And you STILL wouldn’t be as far away from big climbing as this is!

Remember folks, do try to be safe out there. But if you’re like me, and find yourself constitutionally incapable of being safe because you’re absolutely bat-shit insane: Be Careful. Somber contemplation is absolutely essential in this wild world of ours because life indeed is an inherently dangerous sport.

When I tell you I love life, it’s because I know what it’s like to have a brain that that hates yourself, but you never know how much you actually love life like that moment 150ft off the deck when your foot slips. When I say I don’t like danger, it’s because I really and truly know what danger is. When I say I don’t wanna die, it’s because I’ve been confronted by it from sources both internal and external. I’ve sat for hours and read stories about checking into a hospital while staring at the website for the suicide hotline, and I’ve seen that your life isn’t what flashes before your eye but rather everyone you’ve ever loved after making the most grave of mistakes.

I can think of a few folks straight off the top of my head who were my peers in college that have died young in the intervening years between then and now. It's no secret that fate has had plenty of chance to call my number instead of theirs, but I'm still here. Not even the ones who've played it safe are immune to the ravages of time and chance. It seems we're all just living off borrowed time, as they say. You've only got one shot on this dustball. Make it a good one!

Austin HowellComment