What the fuck is it about the desert, and why do I feel so drawn to it?
Zion National Park is kind of like a rock climber’s Disney World, so Chris Spratta and I have been surprised to see so few climbers here this week. We’ve split up our time between a few longer routes and some fun, hard sport climbing in the St. George area. It was really nice to check out the limestone caves in the Utah Hills. I met Tyler Shillig in the New River Gorge, and he now lives in Utah with his wife, who introduced us to the Chuckawalla wall, Navajo tacos, and the best fudge brownies west of the Mississippi.
Climbing limestone after a week of sandstone has been like a dream—the really sharp kind that tears off the tips of your fingers instead of rubbing the backs of your hands raw.
It was honestly a nice break from crack climbing. My hands are WORKED so I’m sitting in a coffee shop with a bottomless cup of coffee as I try to recover. I used to scoff at taking rest days but I’m learning pretty quickly how crucial real rest is.
Rico invited Chris and I to stay with him in Cedar City, an hour outside of Zion. Rico and I have known each other for over twenty years. I wrote my first love letter to him in the first grade, and while we both found climbing separately, it was actually what that brought us back together after high school.
I love climbing with Rico, even though he claims he isn’t a climber anymore. Do you know that feeling you get when you’re leading up something, look down and see your belayer who is casually chatting with his neighbor, and you want to scream out: “HEY PAY ATTENTION TO ME I COULD DIE”? That may be a little dramatic, but only a little.
Rico hasn’t climbed in almost three years, he tells me. He’s now ex-military and spent many months training and overseas in Afghanistan being brave in all of the ways I admire and wish I could be. When he gave Spratta a belay on Pain Drops (5.12b) and caught me on the cave route, his energy just hit the roof and moved me so much to try my hardest to get to the top. I never felt like I had to wonder where Rico was, because the entire time, he was with me. His eyes and focus never shifted from me, and his calming tone of voice helped me get to the top.
Chris Spratta is one of the best ice climbers I know and nails hard, so I knew I asked the right partner for long routes in the park. We tackled Iron Messiah (5.10) and Monkey Finger (5.12), and I couldn’t have asked for a better multi-pitch partner.
On Monkey Finger, the crack through the roof was tiny. I worked my way through and before I could pull through it, I simply ran out of gas and popped off. Chris called up to me, “Mountain Project said this is the crux pitch if you aid the Black Corner crack.”
Well, fuck. I thought I was giving Chris all of the crux pitches.
I was prepared to give it one more try before I was ready to pass it off, but I was relieved to pull the roof on my next go. I chugged along, placing gear and working my way up the mostly sustained fingers and occasionally a funky, flared hand jam. I kept thinking how much Chris might hate certain sections and how we were BOTH going on a finger diet before we left for the Creek. Out of breath, I stared at the next few moves and it was like everything in me shut down simultaneously. My body, my brain—I just didn’t want to move anymore. This is where I come off again.
And then I felt something reboot inside of my brain as I reached for a red X4. I kept punching it until I made it to the world’s worst hanging belay.
We thought the hard pitches were over, but it turns out every pitch is hard when you’re tired. I was honestly about ready to suggest we bail and head down after Chris made it up the fifth pitch. I was feeling ragged and hungry and my lips were dry because we had been baking in the sun for several hours at this point. We didn’t bail, though. Pitch six climbed like an offwidth but didn’t take gear like an offwidth. Thank god for a ledge belay and the best ham and cheese sandwich either Chris and I have EVER had. I was refueled, and a few clementines later, we continued on to a summit and a VERY happy Kathy. We even made it back into town in time for burritos.
At the end of a climb, at the top of any summit, there is only air and maybe a few sprinkling of stars and the clinking of the final gear clean up. But these are the things that tell me that there is absolutely nothing in this life that you can’t have for free. All of the best things cost us nothing.
Rico told me the next morning over coffee: “When we went on missions in Afghanistan, my team leader told us to take a ten minute breaks. Go, sit, smoke a few cigarettes, and just enjoy the view. At first, I thought it felt wrong. I thought we were supposed to keep moving. We were on a mission. But then I realized how nice it is not to have to worry about things—life, danger—even if it’s only for five minutes. Sometimes, you have to hunt for the good things. Other times, all you have to do is sit still, and they will come to you.”