Harlan climbing Tahquitz Rock
Harlan peels a banana in the reserved, even reticent way he addresses all things. He chews it thoughtfully and thoroughly, and folds the peel into a plastic bag. As he eats, he speaks in a calm and even voice, and he talks about what he loves most in the world. It is rock climbing.
Climbing Tahquitz is very much like climbing El Capitan in Yosemite, with one difference: length.
“Twice,” he says, “I have completed a difficult pitch and stood up finally at the top and stretched out my arms and shouted for joy.” It is difficult to imagine. I have never heard Harlan raise his voice. Even when we are climbing, with one hundred feet of cliff and gully separating us, his words come down to me in conversational tones. “I can't walk past a boulder in a roadside park without wanting to go up to it and feel it, to think about possible routes on it, to try out handholds,” he continues.
I ask him if he prefers to lead on a climb or to follow. He says that he climbs better when he is leading, because he is conscious of always being on the edge, of always being tested, of always meeting the challenge. He mentions courage. “Is it courage or is it confidence?” I ask. Courage is not knowing the outcome and daring it anyway, which can be irresponsible in climbing. Confidence is feeling sure of your ability to make a difficult move successfully, of knowing and understanding the rock and your equipment and yourself. He agrees. The truth is, it is both things.
Author climbing. Ten years ago, climbing made no sense to me; then I started reading about it.
We are sitting on Lunch Ledge, a granite shelf five feet wide and ten feet long on the South Face of Tahquitz Rock in the San Jacinto Mountains. We are on one of the almost one hundred routes on what is actually Lily Rock, an outcropping of Tahquitz, but known to climbers as Tahquitz. A mile away, across Fern Valley, is Suicide Rock, which has another hundred routes. We are two hours’ drive from San Diego, at the finest climbing area in Southern California. A few hundred feet above us is the peak, at an altitude of 8000 feet. The hard part of our climb is over.
It had begun the day before, when we left San Diego after dinner. We arrived in Idyllwild at 10:00 p.m. and slept out next to the car. In the middle of the night I awoke and saw the Pleiades meteor shower. There were meteors streaking and flashing all over the sky, coming from the east. I wondered if they were inspiration for man’s fireworks. Some of them were intensely bright and left long lingering trails that faded as I drifted off to sleep again. We got up with the first light, pink pushing blue up in the sky, and drove to the Humber Park parking area. It was not yet seven o’clock and there were climbers still sleeping in tents and vans along the road. The air was thick and dark and the ground crunched under our feet.
Typical rock climbing shoes. On a steep rock face of Stonewall Peak in the Cuyamaca Mountains south of Julian, my instincts told me to lie flat and hug the rock; it is exactly the wrong thing to do.
By the time we had sorted out our climbing paraphernalia — ropes, carabiners (metal devices that function like giant safety pins to link various pieces of climbing apparatus), nylon slings, et cetera — other climbers were up and ready to go too. We followed the steep zigzag trail to the rockslide extending down from the center of Tahquitz. After forty minutes of steady slogging we had arrived at Lunch Rock, a large boulder from which all the climbs on the West Face can be seen. We were early but there were already several climbers visible on the rock above us. We hung a pack with water and extra clothing in a tree and continued around the base of the rock to reach the start of our climb.
Rock climbing harness. I don’t expect Harlan to fall at Tahquitz, but I am prepared to stop him if he does.
These mountains we are ascending, the San Jacinto Mountains, were created about 100 million years ago when subterranean pressure from shifting tectonic plates caused rock ninety miles below the earth’s surface to melt. As the molten rock, or magma, rose to the surface, it slowly cooled, forming the big crystals of granitic rock. Since that time, erosion has whittled down the mountains, although uplifting has kept them at about the same altitude. Eventually, some millions of years from now, they will look the way the White Mountains in Vermont do now: soft and rounded. The Sierra Mountains of Yosemite Valley are granitelike quartz diorite, like the San Jacintos. But glaciers carved Yosemite’s steep-walled canyons, domes, and cliffs; the steepness of the east side of Mt. San Jacinto is due to a large fault that parallels the San Andreas fault. Technically, climbing Tahquitz is very much like climbing El Capitan in Yosemite, with one difference: length. Tahquitz doesn’t have the long climbs that El Capitan does.
Strong grip required. While we were scrambling up a gully, I had accidentally kicked loose a small rock that hit Dave on the forehead.
It was ten years ago that I began hiking in these mountains. I used to look up at the dots of climbers on Tahquitz and Suicide and watch their slow, sometimes imperceptible progress up the rock. At that time climbing made no sense to me; then I started reading about it. What climbers have to say about the mountains reveals their passion and the absolutes of climbing: rock, weather, and man — his abilities, his dreams, his hope, his fate. Everyone knows about the challenge of the mountains; that they are there, that they are high, even that they are dangerous. But I wondered what it means to be at 25,000 feet and take three hours to move one hundred yards. What it is like to lose fingers or toes to frostbite in an ascent, and if that depends on whether one makes it to the top. Do climbers really believe if death comes in a climbing accident, it is bearable, even poetic? How many of us are willing to die at our jobs?
Agility at Tahquitz. A lot of climbers in Southern California could have been surfers, and in a way they do surf the rocks.
As I read, I visualized myself in Nepal, on the top of Mount Everest. What a view: to the east, Makalu; on the horizon, Kachenjunga: to the west, Cho Oyu; and stretching to the north, Tibet. Still standing might be a flagpole planted by other, earlier climbers; but their footsteps would be undetectable, long since blown away or filled with snow. With luck, the characteristic plume off Everest's peak that is often visible from miles away would not be present: the wispy white tail that indicates that winds of 100-200 miles an hour are whipping snow off the top. I would have time to take my own roof-of-the-world photographs and to think about the other humans, fewer than one hundred in all, who had stood where I stood now. At 29,028 feet above sea level, where there is only one-third of an atmosphere. Elation would replace exhaustion, though the exhaustion would come again later, and a body that deteriorates steadily above 22,000 feet would demand recuperation. I would feel totally alone, totally satisfied.
So after reading and thinking about climbing, I started to climb. On a steep rock face of Stonewall Peak in the Cuyamaca Mountains south of Julian, four years ago, my instincts told me to lie flat and hug the rock; it is exactly the wrong thing to do. Pressing the knees on the rock is not only bad form; it doesn't help. One has to try to stand as upright as possible, to keep one’s weight perpendicular to the rock, to take advantage of the gravitational pull instead of working against it. I understood the physics of it, I tried it — and was amazed to see that it worked. The same kind of revelation had occurred when I put on my first pair of hiking boots and suddenly my feet had fingers. What was impossible was now possible and enabled me to reach the next level of impossibility. And already I had a sense of why people climb. That first move up a rock that appears unclimbable, but isn’t, feels like a personal bit of magic, mysterious yet remarkably simple: a little knowledge, a little concentration, the desire to dare.
The routine of climbing becomes familiar — the preparation, the feel of the heavy, snakeskin-smooth rope as it is uncoiled, selection of a secure belay anchor (such as a rock, tree or one’s own body), — but every time is like starting anew because the outcome is unknown. As I looped a nylon sling around a sugar pine tree and snapped a carabiner onto the sling and then the rope into the carabiner, I remembered the day I learned to belay in a clearing near Julian. Belaying uses the climbing rope to provide security while climbing. Twice yearly members of the rock climbing section of the San Diego Sierra Club chapter offer belay practice at their lodge in the Cuyamacas. The day began with learning basic knots, tying into a climbing rope with a partner, and tugging back and forth at one another to simulate the action of one person falling and the other instantaneously reacting to stop the fall. The culmination of the practice, the ultimate test, was to belay a 140-pound concrete block dropped from a distance of thirty feet, stopping it before it hit the ground. In actual climbing, the climbers alternate belaying and being belayed: the leader is belayed from below, and belays his partner from above. The disadvantage of a belay from below is that, should one fall, the fall will be twice the distance to the belay before the slack in the rope is used up. For this reason a leader, or a solo climber, often sets up his own belays as he climbs, looping nylon slings around rock knobs or wedging metal chocks into crevices and tying temporarily onto them. If no secure anchor is available, a climber may be forced to rely on what is ironically referred to as a psychological belay, which may help — just as it is easy to walk a thin line on the ground but hard to walk a tightrope suspended in mid-air — but only to prevent a climber from falling; it doesn’t help if the climber actually falls.
I don’t expect Harlan to fall at Tahquitz, but I am prepared to stop him if he does. I sit leaning against the tree that I am anchored to, with my feet apart and braced against stationary rocks, and my “feeling hand’’ ready to feed one hundred feet of rope through my “braking hand.” Standing next to me, Harlan asks, “On belay?” I answer, “Belay on.” “Climbing.” “Climb.” He quickly disappears from view, but I can tell how the climbing is, and when he pauses to consider or to place additional protection for himself, by the pull and slack of the rope in my hands. While he climbs to the end of the first pitch (“Off belay.” “Belay off.”), and gets ready to belay me up to it, I think about rappeling.
An alternative to downclimbing, rappeling is a rapid way to descend a rock. There are several rappel techniques; I learned a few on a trip to the Sierras with Dave, a Texan who taught himself to climb from a book in the Fifties, when no one in Texas was climbing, and who lived to help other would-be climbers. The dulfersitz is the simplest: the climber straddles the rope while facing the anchor, and passes the rope around one hip, across the chest, over the opposite shoulder, and down the back, holding it in the braking hand on the same side as the wrapped hip. The friction of the rope around the body acts as a brake to control the speed of descent; it also chafes. A more comfortable system utilizes a seat sling, passing the rope through a carabiner which absorbs a lot of the friction. Dave prefers to put up with the friction, however, because it is less wearing on the rope. Facing uphill on this Sierras trip, I pushed off backwards, keeping my feet perpendicular to the slope. Rappeling is fun, I thought: the rope holds you up and you have the illusion of standing firmly on a vertical slope as you walk down backwards — unless you get out of control and start pendulumming sideways; or lean too far back and turn upside down; or go too fast and get burned by the rope. I felt perfectly safe relying on the rope that Dave had securely anchored; and there was a second belaying rope attached to my climbing harness, so that if I should come unwrapped from my climbing rope, I still would not fall. Dave later told me that a lot of people have difficulty taking that first step into the air; they are reluctant to relinquish the sense of control they have with both feet on the ground.
Earlier that day, while we were scrambling up a gully, I had accidentally kicked loose a small rock that hit Dave on the forehead. I was appalled by the possible consequences of my misstep but he calmly shrugged off the incident. He normally wears a climbing helmet, but that day he was not using his because I didn’t have one. Later, he told me that when his second child was born, he decided to give up serious climbing.
Risk is a factor in climbing that cannot always be reckoned or avoided; indeed, it sometimes enhances the thrill of the attempt and the success. It is part of the spirit of high adventure, of confronting the unknown and mastering it. That is one aspect of climbing. Another is the opportunity to experience the natural world on a more elemental and more rewarding level than usual. For me, who lived as a child in New York City where trees grow surrounded by concrete, and where my mother always put me on a blanket in Central Park so I wouldn’t get dirty, there is particular pleasure in learning to expand my awareness and ability out of doors.
I find the enclosed space of chimneys, which are cracks in the rock large enough for the body to fit into, comforting. One scrooches upward, using back and rear and elbows and knees as well as hands and feet, applying outward pressure against both walls of the crack. Surrounded by all that rock, I feel assured that I will not fall, although it is only the constant pushing that keeps me up. On the other hand, climbing on exposed slabs, almost smooth rocks with almost no holds, is intimidating to me. One must try to smear the soles of the feet against as much of the rock as possible, and push downward with the palms of the hands, for maximum friction. Balance and a sense of confidence are requisite; one moves up trying not to shift one’s balance, and trusts that the tentative holds will suffice.
Early one summer at Mt. Woodson, near Poway, a group of us climbed over a fence to reach the best climbing boulders in the metropolitan San Diego area. Once there, we took turns on lie-backs,, which are vertical or more-than-vertical cracks too small for the body to fit into. Like chimneys, they call for counterforce — two. forces in opposition to each other. With arms and legs nearly parallel to one another and as fully extended as possible at approximately right angles to the body, the hands in the crack pull the body toward the rock while the legs push away. The resulting friction allows one to walk up faces that are too steep to approach in a straightforward way. The arms tire quickly in this position, and one thinks longingly of sloths. One lie-back was gratifyingly easy for me; I felt well-balanced and confident and swung rhythmically along until I reached a ledge I could stand on. Bob, another beginning climber, had trouble maintaining an equilibrium, and his feet kept slipping off the rock. In the end he used his arms to pull himself up and out of the lie-back, muscling it rather than climbing it.
The second pitch of our climb at Tahquitz begins with a corner lie-back. I am not able to do it; my feet keep slipping. I finally decide to bypass it by going out on the face, where Harlan says there are lots of handholds. I immediately regret the decision. I can find nothing but knobby smooth handholds and slightly rough depressed footholds. Lying on the rock, I look at the lie-back, wishing I were strong enough to muscle my way out of it. But I have to trust the tentative holds on the face. After a series of slow balanced pullups, of keeping the body perfectly still while moving one hand or one foot weightlessly up to the next tentative hold, I am off the face and on a ledge wide enough to stand comfortably.
At heart, I think I am not strong enough to be a climber. I think so on the way down from our climb when I watch a climber on an unnamed route on the South Face of Tahquitz, between Ski Tracks and Innominate. He is young, blond, and tan, in shorts and no shirt. He is standing on a vertical wall, on a ledge perhaps one- sixteenth of an inch deep. His hands are spread-eagled on the rock, relying on friction to provide a grip. Above him, beyond reach, stretches a vertical row of rusty bolts placed permanently in the rock for protection and assistance. Despite his precarious position, he seems relaxed and at ease, with no sign of sewing machine leg — that uncontrollable quiver that comes from physical and nervous fatigue and rapidly leads to exhaustion. After a long and unsuccessful search for the next hold, he calls down to his partner that he is going to try a dyna (dynamic) move. He does a deep knee bend and leaps up, six or eight inches, and with the fingertips of his up-stretched left arm finds something, holds on, and pulls himself up to it. With his strength, superlative technique, and great aplomb, he is flowing up the rock. There are a lot of climbers like him in Southern California; they could have been surfers, and in a way they do surf the rocks. Like surfers, they are totally dedicated to their sport and their life is their sport. Between climbs, they talk about the hard moves, and they practice doing pullups with two fingers of one hand.
It is young climbers like the dyna mover who have done amazing things the last few years, pushing the upper limits of climbing higher and farther. Their bodies are flexible and not yet heavy; their minds are reckless and free of psychological barriers, perhaps because they still think they are immortal, perhaps because, in a way, they are. On long expeditions, with alpine climbing conditions, where will power and psychological as well as physical stamina can count more than climbing ability, it is the thirty-five to forty-five-year-old climbers who have the edge. But in the California sun, on clean dry rock, teen-agers are doing some of the finest climbing in the world today.
The members of the rock climbing section of the Sierra Club in San Diego, like Harlan, are city people with full-time jobs or studies. During the week, they practice bouldering at Mission Gorge or Mt. Woodson; on the weekend, they go to Tahquitz; once or twice a year they go to the Sierras, or the Wind River Range in Wyoming. One autumn day I went bouldering at Mt. Woodson with John, a Sierra Club member who often volunteers to lead beginning and intermediate climbs. The sky was gray, a fine rain covered us and the rock, and a cold wind whisked the warmth from our bodies. I stared at my hands, watching them flex without feeling. I hooked my fingers over a narrow ledge and pressed them hard against the rock, trying to find pain, sharpness, or any other sensation. There was nothing, and I doubted that they would support my weight. I tested them gingerly, suspending myself from them as I moved up the rock. Even though they were stiff and insensitive, they still worked.
It was John who told me that strength doesn’t matter. “Brute strength will take you over a hard spot,” he said, “but technique will get you there too. And strength is sometimes a poor substitute for technique. It’s a lot safer to be able to climb yourself out of a difficult spot than to have to rely on physical strength to pull or force your way out. A woman who is not as strong as a man can be a better climber because her balance is better. ’ ’ A woman’s center of gravity is lower relative to a man’s because of her wider pelvic area, and so women have an inherent edge in situations where balance is important.
Different physiologies have their advantages and disadvantages for climbing. A tall climber can get by with fewer, farther apart holds; a short climber can maneuver more easily in a tight space, such as under an overhang. A big person can jam his body into a crack that a small person would slip through; but a small person can put an entire foot securely into a space that will only accommodate a big big toe. The ideal climber’s physique, if there is such a thing, is rather tall and closely knit. Uli has it.
Three years ago he went to the Pamirs in Russia and climbed most of a 21,000-foot mountain, Piz Lenin. He jokes about the experience but his disappointment is evident. Near the top, he . had to pause for six breaths after each step. His climbing partner did not have the will to continue. They argued about giving up until finally, the other climber took off his pack, threw it down the mountain, and proceeded to follow it. The two climbers were not roped together; they had unroped when they hit a long walking stretch and were too exhausted to take the trouble to tie in again when they should have. Alone Uli dared not go on and so he too turned back, less than a thousand feet from the top. “I wasn’t in better shape than he was,” said Uli, “but I wanted to get to the top. He didn’t.”
Climbers come in almost all shapes and sizes, and with as many different reasons for climbing. One common denominator is the sense of achievement after a particularly elegant move or an especially challenging climb, when one has summoned the determination to go past the point of fun, where it’s no longer easy, perhaps where it’s not quite safe. There is a state of euphoria that is intense and satisfying, as are all phenomena associated with physical exertion: the second wind, the rush of adrenalin that enables a “superhuman” effort, the well-being that comes when physical exhaustion is following by complete relaxation.
I feel close to euphoria on Lunch Ledge, where I can look down on the crux of our climb. It is another lie-back, not as steep as the first, but far more exposed; the rock below the crack bulges out over an 800 foot drop, with no holds below to recover from a fall. I realized that this was the difficult move when I got to it but I ignored the exposure and just concentrated on the feel of my fingers pulling out against a narrow jagged edge, of feeling the tension shift as I lifted one hand after the other and set it down to the left as I sidled left with my feet. Halfway across, I was irritated to have to break my concentration to remove a sling looped around a small gnarled tree growing out of the rock; since I was last, I had to clean the pitch of the protection Harlan had placed. I continued on again and as I got to the end Harlan cheered. He was doing more than his share of waiting on this climb.
A lot of climbing is waiting. When two people climb together, alternating leads, each one spends half the time waiting for the other. If the weather is fine and the waiting position comfortable, one doesn’t mind so much, but often waiting means getting numb with cramp or chill.
In its essence, climbing is a natural activity, an interaction between a person and a geological formation. In fact, technology has become a part of modem climbing, and the state of the art has been changed many times by advances in climbing equipment. Not too many people climb barefooted now; or in smooth-soled leather shoes or hobnail boots, which were once commonplace. Heavy hiking boots are still seen on rock (and, of course, on snow and ice), and they have their advantages — they can be jammed tightly into a crack, which makes one feel one is standing on air; or they can support one’s entire weight on their tips if the soles are rigid enough, which does allow one to stand mostly on air. But today, most rock climbers wear soft-sided and soft-soled climbing shoes, which allow for maximum contact with the rock. A tight-to-the-point-of-hurting fit prevents any slipping inside the shoe. Climbers no longer have to depend on natural fiber ropes tied around their waists. Synthetic ropes are stronger and absorb the shock of a fall far better; and while the optimum climbing harness has yet to be developed, there are combination chest and hip harnesses that enable a climber to land upright instead of upside down after a fall, and to dangle for as long as necessary without being squeezed to death by the climbing rope. Manufacturers of outdoor apparel and personal camping gear have lightened the climber’s pack and prevented hypothermia and frostbite from sudden storms or emergency overnight bivouacs.
Perhaps the most radical development in modem climbing has been that of climbing hardware. Pitons — metal spikes hammered into rock cracks for protection or climbing aid — and expansion bolts — which require that a hole be drilled in the rock to provide an anchor — have made many impossible climbs possible; but also have scarred and chipped and eroded the slopes; and rock never heals. Some climbs are disappearing from the damage; others have been corrupted by too many climbers substituting hardware for skill and technique.
Just as many climbs that were once thought impossible no longer are, so too have many “aid climbs” gone free, as someone has successfully climbed them without artificial aid. Pitons once revolutionized climbing, and rock hammers dangled from most climbing harnesses; in recent years, a backlash of opinion has sent more and more climbers upward without any pitons or rock hammers at all. Climbing ethics and ecological conscience, as well as aesthetics, stress the minimum use of hardware and the joy of free climbing, based on the first ascent principle: once a climb has been done without direct aid, or with ten chocks instead of twenty, other climbers should not climb it less well.
Once an unclimbable rock has been climbed, it becomes easier to climb it again — and less challenging. The summit of Everest has been reached without the use of oxygen, an achievement that was previously thought impossible. Future climbers will continue to use oxygen, no doubt, and yet they will share the knowledge of what can be done, they will climb better because of it, and they will search for the next summit that has never been reached or a way to the top that has never been tried.
Other climbers from various routes are converging on Lunch Ledge or passing by to the east and west. The faces of some who have already completed their climbs and are back down at Lunch Rock are upturned, watching those of us still on the rock. From Lunch Ledge we will have an easy climb to the top, and a quick scramble down the other side of the mountain.
I still don’t know what it’s like to climb at 25,000 feet. But one doesn’t have to climb very high to feel the lure of the mountains. It is the chance to overcome the limits of one’s self and the world. Often, during a climb, a climber can look down and see birds flying. To be above a bird, that symbol of freedom, is almost to be able to fly oneself. There is still envy and awe at the effortlessness that birds have, and sadness that the grace that is theirs by instinct comes so slowly to man; but there one is, above the birds. Weighted down with thirty pounds of climbing gear, thirsty and sweating, unable to free a hand to scratch an itch, and having a wonderful time.