April 4, 2016
Driving through Oregon is both mystical and magical. Mystical primarily because it feels as if the ever-plentiful pine trees should be moving and talking like the Ents of Lord of the Rings and magical because as I drove through the snow, ice and forests on my way to Smith Rocks I nearly expected the trees to become animated. The trees jut up from the earth so tightly knit that I could scarcely spot a gap in the nautical dawn dark. The fog being dense and heavy seemed to add to the weightiness and possibility of this otherworldly experience. Eventually the sun perched itself on top of the horizon, somehow persuading the thick forest to let its light permeate and attack the fog head on. It worked, of course. The fog reluctantly retreated daring not to admit defeat to the sun. Yet, the sun perpetually penetrated the darkness of the night, welcoming the day and I was snapped back into reality.
I am driving to Smith Rocks. Before my Thanksgiving trip to visit family in Southern Oregon I did a simple scanning of Mountain Project and found a trusty climbing partner for Smith Rocks – at least I am hoping he is trusty. To be honest I am nervous about my yet-to-be-acquainted climbing partner, Kevin. We briefly talked on the phone before our trip, the conversation leaving me less than inspired. He seemed shocked that I had my eye on upper end 12’s and low end 13’s for a mere 3 day trip. He assured me that he was a solid 5.11 climber and had been climbing the grade for years. My mind drifted into images of those old-school trad climbers that have been short roping and giving rock hard catches for 35 years. The last thing I want is a belayer who is more scared of me taking a fall than I am. The situation reeked of gumby. Well, maybe I am exaggerating a bit.
In any case, I will not be deterred – I am going to Smith Rocks. Simply saying “Smith Rocks” gets my heart beating. Home of To Bolt or Not to Be, a classic 14a that just so happens to be the first 14a in the country. Rumor is that the biggest hold on this vertical, blank sheet of rock is a 1 inch rounded crimp at the ninth bolt – 100 feet off the deck. Obviously, I am intrigued. But. Not yet. At least not this trip. No, I do not climb 14a, but that has never stopped me before. One glimpse, way back when, and automatically this climb was on the life list. So. The pressure is on. How well will I climb at this notoriously stout crag? If I cannot climb well at Smith, how will I ever climb the classic crimpy testpiece To Bolt or Not to Be? This pressure combined with the uncertainty of my unknown climbing partner has my already cracked fingertips sweating.
Okay. I am finally parked at Smith and ready to go. I meet Kevin and his girlfriend Haley. Within a matter of minutes all of my doubts are relieved. This guy knows how to climb. Clearly he was sandbagging me. What he meant by 5.11 climber was that there is not a single 5.11 in the country that could stymie him. Nevertheless I am careful and cautious. As a precaution I jump on a 5.10 for the first climb – a grade I know I will not fall on. As I climb I watch Kevin and his grigri. All is well. This means it is time to see how I can perform on harder grades.
After Kevin walks up the 5.10 he points out a 12a just to the left. I jump on and onsight, but not without some effort. Kevin (the supposed 5.11 climber) onsights as well and we decide to dart to the classic line Heinous Cling. It seemed to be the perfect option due to the fact of there being a first anchor that checks in at 12a and an extension going at 12c. The full line is 35 meters of vertical to slightly overhanging perfection. I am psyched.
30 minutes or so later I come down with my heart racing from the 20+ foot run out to the chains. However, I am ecstatic and beaming from ear to ear because I have just onsighted one of the best lines I have ever climbed. Surprisingly, the 12c did not feel hard, giving me confidence to head for the bigger leagues. Immediately to the left of Heinous Cling is the aptly named line Darkness at Noon (it sees shade from noon onward), a 5 star 13a. It is on the same wall as Heinous sharing similar features as well angle and style. Perfect. I have never onsighted 13a, but if there were ever a 13a that I could onsight, this would be the one.
Unfortunately, the onsight go yielded nothing more than numb hands and a mild version of the screaming barfies. As Kevin lowers me from the chains I stop at various spots, running through sequences to make sure they are dialed. The sequences are intricate and delicate, but I am confident Darkness will go down second go. By the time I get to the ground it is 4:30 and the sun is saying its cordial goodbyes – we decide to call it a day.
The next day comes around. The night was cold and the day betrayed us with even more cold. Despite climbing in the sun, it is still only 23 degrees. After warming up on a few climbs I am ready to get back on Darkness. This time I make it through the low crux before I numb out, but the ensuing crimps manage to finish off the job. I scratch my way through the next 5.11 moves, reaching the perfect rest where I can surely resuscitate my hands. After resting here for about 15 minutes the numbness merely receded to an annoying sting – I must press on regardless. I look up and realize I have a good 20 meters of climbing left. Can I keep the numbness at bay for that long? I cannot be too sure.
At about 30 meters I find myself magically still on the wall pulling the last crux move. It goes with ease. This is it. I take the next few moves slow, locking them off and using every free moment to warm my hands on the back of my neck. A couple more moves and then I’ll have it in the bag. All the while telling myself, “Just stay calm” as my foot slips. I’m off the wall and pissed. I somehow contain myself saying something to the effect of “bummer.” Okay. I didn’t send second go, but surely third go will be no problem. I have the beta dialed and the moves are easy, there is no chance of getting spit off again. As you would guess, third go I valiantly fight the cold, only to have the numbness win the battle. Sadly, I do not contain myself this time. Mid air I am already throwing a massive wobbler that leaves me utterly embarrassed.
I know I can climb this line casually, but cannot currently defeat the cold. I am obviously upset so Kevin lowers me to the ground where I sulk for a moment. Shortly thereafter, I decide to accept that I will not send this climb on this trip. But. In all reality, what am I so upset about? A piece of rock that chose to live in a cold place? Wow. Big deal. I remind myself how insignificant climbing is in the grand scheme and even if climbing somehow was so important as to be the hinge upon which we exist, I know on a warmer day I can climb this line casually. This puts me at ease.
Meanwhile the day is quickly coming to an end and before I know it we are packing up. I take one last glance at Smith, in particular at To Bolt realizing that even though I did not climb well on the bigger leagues, one day I will be back for the big leagues. To Bolt might not be on the ticklist the next trip, or even the following trip after that, but I know that eventually we will tango and I plan on wearing my finest shoes. Bye for now Smith Rocks – I will be back.