27 February, 2013

The Only Blasphemy

The Only Blasphemy

John Long

At speeds beyond 80 mph, the cops jail you. I cruise at a prudent 79. Tobin drove 100 - did so till his Datsun blew. It came as no surprise when he perished attempting to solo the North Face of Mt. Alberta. Tobin never drew the line. His rapacious motivation and a boundless fear threshold enamored him of soloing.

I charge towards Joshua Tree National Monument, where two weeks prior, another pal had tweeked while soloing. After his fall, I inspected the base of the route, wincing at the grisly blood stains, the grated flesh and tufts of matted hair: soloing is unforgiving. Yet I mull these calamities like a salty dog, considering them avoidable. Soloing is OK I think; you just have to be realistic, not some knave abetted by peer pressure or ego. At 85, Joshua Tree comes quickly, but the stark night drags.

The morning sun peers over the flat horizon, gilding the countless rocks that bespeckle the desert carpet. The biggest stones are little more than 150ft. high. I hook up with John Bachar, probably the world's premier free-climber. John lives at that climbing area featuring the most sun. He has been at Joshua for two months and his soloing feats astonish everyone. it is winter, when school checks my climbing to weekends, so my motivation is fabulous, but my fitness only so-so. Bachar suggests a Half Dome day which translates as: Half Dome is 2,000ft. high, or about twenty pitches. Hence, we must climb twenty pitches to get our Half Dome day. In a wink, Bachar is shod and cinching his waist sling from which his chalk bag hangs. "Ready?" Only now do I realize he intends to climb all 2,000ft. solo. To save face, I agree, thinking: Well, if he suggests something too asinine, I'll just draw the line.

We embark on familiar ground, twisting feet and jamming hands into vertical cracks; smearing the toes of our skin tight boots onto tenuous bumps; pulling over roofs on bulbous holds; palming off rough rock and marvelling at it all. We're soloing: no rope. A little voice sometimes asks how good a quarter-inch, pliable hold can be. If you're tight, you set an aquiline hand or pointed toe on that quarter-incher and push or pull perfunctorily.

After three hours, we've disposed with a dozen pitches, feel invincible. We up the ante to 5.10. We slow considerably, but by 2:30, we've climbed twenty pitches. As a finale, Bachar suggests soloing a 5.11, which is pretty much my wintertime limit... when I'm fresh and sharp. But now I am thrashed and stolid from the past 2,000ft., having cruised the last four or five pitches on rhythm and momentum. Regardless, we trot over to Intersection Rock, the 'hang' for local climbers; also, the local for Bachar's final solo.

He wastes no time and scores of milling climbers freeze like salt statues when he begins. He moves with dauntless precision, plugging fingertips into shallow pockets in the 105 degree wall. I scrutinize his moves, taking mental notes on the sequence. He pauses at 50ft. level, directly beneath the crux bulge. Splaying out his left foot onto a slanting rugosity, he pinches a minute wafer and pulls through to a gigantic bucket hold. He walks over the last 100ft. which is only dead vertical.

By virtue of boots, chalk bag, location and reputation, the crowd, with its heartless avarice, has already committed me. All eyes pan to me, as if to say: Well?! He did make it look trivial, I think, stepping up for a crack.

I draw several audible breaths, as if to convince myself if nobody else. A body length of easy moves, then those incipient pockets which I finger adroitly before yarding with maximum might. 50ft. passes quickly, unconsciously. Then, as I splay my left foot out onto that slanting rugosity, the chilling realization comes that, in my haste, I have bungled the sequence, that my hands are too low on that puny wafer which I'm now pinching with waning power, my foot vibrating, and I'm desperate, wondering if and when my body will seize and plummet before those heartless salt statues, cutting the air like a swift. A montage of abysmal images flood my brain.

I glance beneath my legs and my gut churns at the thought of a hideous free fall onto the gilded boulders. That 'little' voice is bellowing: "Do something! Pronto!" My breathing is frenzied while my arms, trashed from the previous 2,000ft., feel like titanium beef steaks. Pinching that little wafer, I suck my feet up so as to extend my arm and jam my hand in the bottoming crack above; the crack is too shallow, will accept only a third of my hand. I'm stuck, terrified, and my whole existence is focused down to a pinpoint which sears my everything like the torrid amber dot from a magnifying glass. Shamefully I understand the only blasphemy: to willfully jeopardize my own existence, which I've done, and this sickens me. I know that wasted seconds could ... then a flash, the world stops, or is it preservation instincts booting my brain into hyper gear? In the time it takes a hummingbird to wave its wings - once - I've realized my implacable desire to live, not die!; but my regrets cannot alter my situation: arms shot, legs wobbling, head ablaze. My fear has devoured itself, leaving me hollow and mortified. To concede, to quit would be easy. Another little voice calmly intones: "At least die trying ..." I agree and again punch my tremulous hand into the bottoming crack. If only I can execute this one crux move, I'll get an incut jug-hold, can rest on it before the final section. I'm afraid to eyeball my crimped hand, jokingly jammed in the shallow crack. It  must  hold my 190lbs, on an overhanging wall, and this seems ludicrous, impossible.

My body has jittered in this spot for millennium, but that hummingbird has moved but one centimeter. My jammed hand says "NO WAY!," but that other little voice adds "might as well try it." I pull up slowly - my left foot is still pasted to that sloping edge - and that big bucket hold is right there ... I almost have it," I do!,"  and simultaneously my right hand rips from the crack and my left foot flies off that rugosity; all my weight hangs from an enfeebled left arm. Adrenalin rockets me atop that Thank God hold when I press my chest to the wall, get that 190lbs over my feet and start quaking like no metaphor can depict.

That hummingbird is halfway to Rio before I consider pushing on. I would rather extract my wisdom teeth with vice grips. Dancing black orbs dot my vision when I finally claw over the summit. "Looked a little shaky," Bachar croons, flashing that candid, disarming snicker.

That night, I drove into town and got a bottle, and Sunday, while Bachar went for an El Capitan day (3,000ft.), I listlessly wandered through dark desert corridors, scouting for turtles, making garlands from wild flowers, relishing the skyscape, doing all those things a person does on borrowed time.

Mountain 83, 1982


26 February, 2013


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15 February, 2013

Bond cars

these started out as just illustrations of the hero cars, but turned into something a bit more comprehensive...

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