I felt my knees buckling beneath me as the sun began to sink below the ridge line. It was Thursday and I’d jugged the first two fixed pitches and climbed, cleaned, and hauled to the fourth. The party of climbers I’d been sharing a small ledge with decided to descend before it got too dark. They hollered a goodbye as they rapped beneath me, leaving me alone at the Halfway Ledge. It was almost completely dark.
A calm sensation washed over me as I turned on my headlamp, determined to make it to the bivy ledge. With Angel’s Landing looming across the canyon, stars started appearing in the night sky and I kept chugging along. I fell into a rhythm, placing pieces and yanking hard on them before clipping and stepping into my etrier. It felt a little heady with no more natural light, but I moved fast, feeling more confident than I had the first day.
I’d returned to the ground on Wednesday feeling discouraged, having only had made it to the top of the second pitch. Originally, I thought I’d have the first three pitches fixed but the two aid pitches proved to be much harder than I’d anticipated. At least I’d remembered a makeshift stick clip this time, falling short at almost every single bolt and drilled piton. With some trickery involved, I made it through the first two pitches but including hauling, it still took nearly half a day.
I also took my first unexpected fall on a gold BD stopper. Top-stepping in order to place as high as I could, I poked what I thought was a decent nut in and gently weighted it before transferring full weight over to it. When I stepped into my etrier, it popped out of the crack without any warning and downward I sailed.
I let out a quick yelp and caught my breath when I stopped falling. The actual fall wasn’t very far, and the fact that I stopped as quickly as I’d started falling offered some comfort. What a peculiar thing, having fallen and then nothing—no cheers, no yip yap yells, no fanfare. It was the silence that came afterward that left me with a spooky feeling—that’s when I realized I was really all alone.
After that nut had popped, I kept a closer eye on all of the gear that I placed. Beyond exhausted, I rallied to the ledge and set up my haul. I cleaned the gear by headlamp, excited to get back to the top and heat up some packaged Indian curry and rice and crash. I gave the Jetboil a stir and lamented over how quickly things got botched and how much time was wasted over horrifyingly stupid decisions. I tend to prefer learning from other people’s mistakes, but this was something I had to be faced with on my own. The fact that there was nobody there to blame my problems on meant that there was nobody there to fix them, either.
Sophocles, Greek poet and playwright, said,
“It is a painful thing to look at your own trouble and know that you yourself and no one else has made it.”
So much of my life has been spent unintentionally blaming everything and everyone under the sun for things that haven’t gone right. Maybe it wasn’t always so obvious, but excuses for why I couldn’t accomplish something, why I wasn’t living a healthier life, why I wasn’t more successful, why I wasn’t where I wanted to be financially, why I didn’t feel fulfilled—it was always somebody else’s fault. I never outright blamed anybody, but I wasn’t taking responsibility either.
I was alone on a wall and out of excuses. Every decision I made was the cause of reward or consequence, and I would be the only one responsible for making it to the summit or not. All of my choices impacted whether or not the wall would be a success.
It was incredibly intimidating, but I couldn’t sit with those thoughts for long. I was more than halfway there and could have bailed at any point. But I had put in the work and told myself that I had to keep putting it in a little bit longer. Like everything in life, big goals require work and focus.
On Friday morning, I forced myself to eat as much oatmeal as I could for calories. After a cup of instant coffee, I racked up and continued onward, leaving the haul bag behind for the last several pitches. I became more comfortable leap frogging my gear and back cleaning, having brought a triple rack of hand sized pieces and down. I skimped on the threes and fours because of the weight. There were moments I was clearly aware that I’d put myself in several “no fall” scenarios, having back cleaned much of my gear from the sandy crack I was scuttling up.
At one point, I thought breathlessly to myself, “I’m going to make it to the top.” It was both a wild and forlorn feeling, thinking that I would make it to the summit alone. Sure, I had summited climbs before on big walls (bigger than this one, for sure) but this was completely different. Just like my fall on the second pitch, I would be all alone. There would be no one there to congratulate me, nobody to high-five or shout war-like cries of victory at the top. In a way, having somebody with me on all of my climbs prior to this one felt validating. Would I feel that same validation?
I reached the summit of Touchstone by noon. Heinous rope drag threatened to pull me off the slabby rock, but I groveled and grimaced my way to the top anchor. After setting up my rappel, I immediately took my harness off and let out the loudest Peter Pan crow that I could muster. I sat at the summit for nearly half an hour. No high-fives, no summit beers, no victory cries but my own.
I cried. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve cried actual tears of happiness, and this was one of them. I tasted my salty tears dribble down my face and wiped away the snot with gloveless hands, bloodstained and deeply blackened. I don’t know if I was truly expecting to have some profound thoughts at the top, but Jesus I was just so tired and relieved and happy to be sitting exactly where I was. Doing my first solo big wall did not erase the failure of my last one, but failure is what pushed me to the top. I knew that I could have bailed at any given point, but I also knew that I wasn’t going to let failure be an option this time. I sniffled once more and said to the clouds, to myself, “I did it.”
I was told before I left for my big wall in 2016 that big objectives have a tendency of making you realize what’s truly important in your life. So I did a big wall. I had big questions before going up and many of them have gone unanswered since having come back down. There were some severely defeating moments on that rig but I had some equally triumphant ones as well. I wasn’t necessarily changed when I stumbled back to my car that day. I don’t even think I was expecting to be or feel differently, about life or myself.
Truthfully, it has taken me some time to figure out that all life really is are the strings of bad patches and good times. The beat downs and the wins. Once I realized that all of these moments are about how I choose to experience them, it’s become easier to accept and enjoy or endure when they do happen. What continues to change over the years is what I consider to be beautiful and how my own experiences inform the way I will appreciate that beauty.
It’s just one more part of being ushered into adulthood. On the one hand, it can be full of insignificant things like paying bills, dealing with all types of bullshit people around you bring on, and having the strength not to drop your hands and cry when things feel like they’re falling apart around you. The great thing is, that with all of the bad, there really does seem to come with it a balance of good. It can be in long stretches or is sometimes fewer and farther between than you’d like it to be, but when it’s good, it’s oh so good.
Before my year long road trip, I was often told, “I hope that you find what you are looking for.” I don’t know what I was looking for atop that big old stone. I don’t know what any of us climbers are searching for. Maybe that day, I needed redemption or validation or both. And I didn’t want to admit it, but maybe I was still searching for a missing piece of myself. That day, it suddenly occurred to me that in order to start searching, in a way, you already have to be found.