Chasing the Drag-on

This year has been a bit of a drag for me in many ways, as I've subtly suggested numerous times in earlier posts on this blog. Plagued by climbing injuries and general health quandaries, my confidence in my well-worn ability to just 'get through it' has wavered somewhat. Surprised by my own disbelief at the fact that things actually change over time, I've been forced to reinvent my approach in some ways and, yes, even change my expectations! Zounds! It has been hard to accept this new baseline, as it were, but it's probably something most of us have dealt with recently and that all of us must deal with at some point.

Suffice it to say, then, that being able to climb is a welcome distraction from the miasma of life goal assessment, health care debacle and general despair. Now of course, I never feel as fit as those halcyon days of yore (in my mid twenties) and perhaps this attitude has become somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, I have felt a little more honed lately and decided it was time to turn up the dial a little at the crag. Despite a few aches and pains, my sprained finger is nominally functional and I finally deemed it ready for a route on the Upper Town Wall of Index, which which a few exceptions tends to be far more crimpy and finger-intensive than the more physical cracks of the Lower Town Wall. Jeanna and I went up to recon the free Green Drag-on and maybe even go for a clean free ascent. My goal, of course, was to try to onsight it and it seemed reasonable enough. We had both been saving the route for a day when both of us were ready to crush it under our heels. Well, yesterday was sort of that day and sort of...not:

The weather has always been a bit of a crucial element in harder face climbing at Index. Barring some superhuman level of climbing technique or perhaps a mystical new shoe rubber compound, a hot day can make anything over 5.11 into a downright miserable experience; foot agony, shredded fingertip skin and a solid shitkicking of one's ego are the usual results of attempting harder climbs in sunny summer weather. That's why, of course, we decided to climb something that has a 5.12d/.13a face crux right at the top: the pitch would probably be in full sun for the few hours it takes to get to it, thereby providing a more fulfilling challenge in its completion. Yesterday, clouds seemed to be numerous enough that perhaps we would get a chance at climbing in comfort; all the more reason to cast off onto the five pitch big-wall experience that is climbing on the Upper Town Wall!

The first pitch (.11a) is a finger crack that tapers out at the end into a devious little crux. No problems here, really: with some slight misreading of the moves, Jeanna tried pretty hard to fall off the crux when she was following but persevered nonetheless. Footwork checkpoint passed!

The second pitch (.12a) is a long, devious corner with a couple of potent cruxes. The first is a series of funky stemming moves over a bulge at the beginning and the second is a magic high-step foot commitment shoulder scum move higher up. Flared gear placements in the upper part keep the excitement level high but not excessive. In avoiding one hideous hanging belay, I combined this with another easier (.11a) but frighteningly unstable pitch to belay at an even more excruciating non-stance under the large roof 3/4 of the way up. Not the best choice! The loose blocks on the .11a section are pretty much just waiting to fall off the wall and they are not much smaller in mass than the average-sized car. Jeanna gave the lower crux a good shot but fell a couple of times. Definitely not the most straightforward climbing, with a pretty specific hit or miss series of moves in that section. By now, the sun was uninhibited by cloud cover, which didn't bode well for the rest of the climbing. Ignorance is bliss, however and I did my very best to effect just that very state.

After liquefying my kidneys for a while at the belay (though the view is spectacular), I led a short (.10c, 30 feet) pitch over the roof to belay on a small stance underneath the free climbing variation. Though not a 'real' belay, this is far more comfortable than hanging under the roof and allows the belayer to see and hear the climber while they climb the first hard face moves. The only real problems are that the belay is kind of minimal (one bolt and one cam, poorly equalized) and that a fall from the hardest move might land the climber on the belayer. Fortunately, I didn't test this theory and made it past the first (.12c) face crux with little fanfare, welding some seriously awful crimps to the wall and thugging my way through to success and an assured future of arthritic fingers and NSAIDS.

Above this are two options: belay again at a semi-hanging stance or just keep plugging through the supposed (.13a) crux. I opted for the latter and, assured of my success, continued up the slab. After ten minutes of hesitation at a good stance I finally committed to the hard climbing. Exhaustion, thirst and the agony in my toes built to a crescendo and I fell off mid crux. My focus evaporated into a pointless but brief little tirade. Tired and dejected, I hammered away at the move several more times with a decreasing level of success. The sun and the hot rock beneath its rays became pretty hard to ignore as I watched my feet skate off the small but positive footholds again and again. At C0, the pitch was extremely easy to cheat through and I was at the top in less than 15 minutes. Rather than playing the dedicated rockstar climber and waiting for better temperatures and another redpoint burn, I opted for plan b: rappel and bemoan my failure on yet another route on the UTW. Thwarted by rain on the crux free pitch of Town Crier, I had now been thwarted by the antithesis on Green Drag-On at just about the exact same level on the wall.

Later, of course, I came to a more balanced conclusion: who really cares? I put some ridiculous demands on myself with this constant expectation of success that I often miss the forest for the trees, or [insert other relevant cliched metaphor here]. It's a difficult lesson that, for me, must be learned repeatedly before it starts to truly gel. Yesterday was, in retrospect, an enjoyable if thirsty foray onto some really cool climbing features. I tried hard and almost climbed the route with no falls. The route will still be there next week when it's not baking in direct sunlight and maybe we'll get the timing right. As for the rest of life's tribulations: if only they, too, always came down to single hard moves on hot granite things would be far more manageable.



Left hand to sidepull. Step the feet through and move right hand to edge. Left hand to edge. Left foot up and cross-body tension move right hand to edge. Left hand to crimpcharles. Feet high and press right hand to gastondercling block thing. Left foot up and cross through to big undercling. Grab jug. I am completing what must be my 40th or 50th redpoint of Chronic at Little Si. The deja-vu is palpable, the grade has dropped consistently and somehow I am still climbing on this route after perhaps ten years of climbing in the Northwest. Why seek adventure when you can pedantically perfect one single route?

Words are wind. That seemed at first parse some wonderful if slightly campy shred of wisdom I'd heard somewhere shaking some cobwebs off nearby neurons and making a cameo. It's really a phrase from George R. R. Martin's 'A Song of Ice and Fire' series and I suppose that needn't necessarily disqualify it as wisdom. Cliche perhaps, but then so many of those pesky little phrases-of-ill-repute hold little kernels of truth in their overused shells.

The wind blows strong through this blog, of course. It tends to reave sentence and paragraph of any purpose, leaving naught but the underpinnings of intent. Of course, what purpose inherent might there be in the bandying of words here? While some bloggers clearly effect both thematic precision and seamless continuity, I find it bewildering to do so here. Often enough there is precious little continuity to be had and if there is it's in little pockets of quietude in the midst of the tempest. Life is never simple enough for me to feel that having a streamlined 'climbing' blog, as I often like to envision, is improbable and even dishonest; climbing, despite being the alpha and omega and a lot of the in between in my life, still can't comprise the whole. It's fun to be immersed, even for a week or two, in the climbing aesthetic but it doesn't complete the balance in my life. What actually does, I can only continue to guess at this point; climbing well comes far more easily to me than living well as a whole and I continue to suffer for it. Perhaps there are others who find themselves in this same limbo, this dissatisfying area 'in-between' stability and limitless free time (but scarcity of resources). For those of us who dwell on the issue ceaselessly but fail to take action for one reason or another, I imagine the feeling of imbalance is more acute.

What sort of balance is in question here? Not the balance proposed by this kind of bullshit quackery, of course; a far less esoteric but still elusive lifestyle balance is what I'm thinking about, but what exactly is at the root of being athwart this type of harmony? I pondered this yesterday as I plodded my way up Chronic. I wasn't really thinking about it while I was climbing, but as I talk to more and more people and have to answer the same dreaded question, the one where they ask me "What are you doing these days?" (pertaining, apparently, to work, life, etc), it becomes more clear that I don't have the compelling answer that they want to hear and that I would be happy to give them. It would be easy to say that I just rock climb if that were true; if I had truly stripped my existence down to the bare essentials required to live a life on the road and climb I probably wouldn't be fielding this same question as often. The real mismatch here is maintaining a life in the city with no real impetus for being here other than habit and perceived convenience. It doesn't really make a whole lot of sense.

Back at Little Si, I take an end of the day lap up Extended Illness and pump out at the end of the crux, whipping daintily to the end of the rope and chuckle to myself. I have had this exact day at least twice or thrice before, with almost this exact order of routes climbed: a warmup on Technorigine that feels overly ambitious but strangely comfortable; a muscle memory fitness check on Chronic (.11d?); a couple of other outlying routes; one final 'to failure' burn on something harder. It all makes sense, I think to myself as I pull the rope through the fixed azure permadraws, sweating in the strangely oppressive humidity of the Cascade foothills at twilight.

Earlier this year this constant sameness culminated in what seemed like a simple choice: change. Yet I find myself in the same place again with a much murkier outlook. What was so clear before was made so by overcoming a lame self-imposed inertia. How is it so hard to break? I haven't found the answers. I do know that I'm well chuffed at being able to climb at all and doing a few classics at Si for the first time in a year is better still. Paradoxically, this silly repetition might even be an answer of sorts to some of these life quandaries: when the level of similitude reaches such a critical point, one iota of change seems an adventure in itself.



As I drove the incessant reaches of I-5 through central Oregon last week, I thought about the countless time I have spent on said highway in the last 12 years. A significant part of my life has most certainly slipped by via the hundreds of gallons of gas combusted, the countless engine cycles completed, the mathematically computable but still almost unfathomable number of tire rotations that have pulled my car and me foot by foot up and down that highway perhaps two dozen times or more. Ever since I started climbing I've spent an almost ludicrous amount of time pounding asphalt in search of adventure, escape, redemption, fulfillment; whatever the overarching question, the answer was and still is, simply, to go.

But that 'going' isn't always entirely pleasurable for a multitude of reasons and inevitably a long drive will have its low points. Though not quite so soul-wrenching as the endless swath of highway through central California, which exists in its own special universe that lacks a temporal dimension, Oregon has its own idiosyncrasies, at least for someone who has driven through it an excessive number of times. I remember little of the Oregon portion of my recent journey. 'Autopilot' would be an accurate description of my driving style at that point; even though my car lacks such sophisticated technologies as cruise control, losing myself in the monotony of the act of driving the vehicle was still accomplished with ease. Time inverted to a sort of non-time, a limbo where action and thought became negligible. Scenery was unimportant. Even my geographical location, often of such initial importance on car trips, was lost in the repetition of the car moving through space at such a constant rate, any perceptible change lost a host of competing minutiae.

The philosopher Paul Virilio has opined that the speed at which we move and communicate in the modern world alters our sense of geography so as to polarize us. Essentially the entire world is reduced to one point on the globe when geography is no longer a hindrance to movement for many of us; a trip to Europe is measured in hours rather than months and there are few places on Earth that are truly unreachable by people. This is the same world in which, for Virilio, war becomes dominated by logistics rather than tactics; no longer is terrain the dominant factor in battle, nor is it necessarily among the most valuable spoils of victory. Speed, instead, is the motivator and the enabler. In a nuclear world, we live not only with a continuous flood tide of war, a state of 'pure war', but also with the reality that the potential for war is now instantaneous. Despite the obvious latitude we have for physical movement via travel, the overall result of speed as a dominant force is to polarize, to eliminate geography as we are accustomed to perceiving it.

Is it this sense of approaching singularity, this polarization that drives some of us, including myself, to seek solace in ponderous automobile journeys? Will I soon be undertaking interstate travel via horse and buggy to further slow the process in an attempt to restore my faith in geography? Probably the answer is no on both counts. I'm pretty convinced that my penchant for escapism is born in the cold ashes of a pervasive ennui, an all-encompassing lassitude both progenitor and beneficiary of decades of indecisiveness and lack of focused intent. This might be slightly more self-effacing than I should be at 31 and possibly slightly untrue. What about adventure? Certainly that has some stake in all of this. The open road holds the sacred promise of the unknown, the allure of the unformed and the inchoate, the pure essence of free will and possibility. This all, of course, contrasts sharply with the rather conformist and confining aspects of highways when considered literally, but the point still stands. All those destinations waiting there in the night become possible with a mere turn of the key and some nostalgic art rock in the stereo (and you think I'm joking; I have eight Rush albums on my Ipod).

Maybe the world seems to have lost its flavor because I'm back home and the novelty drug of traveling to such exotic locales as can be had via twelve hours in the car has already worn off. Withdrawal from the dynamics of travel is sometimes like this, where the familiar seems even paler than before. This, of course, is the exact opposite of the intent of travel which is usually to inform and enrich one's experience in a way that is moveable and generally applicable towards a betterment of self. Well, there comes to mind a rather wretched but apropos cliche, so odious that its mere utterance is reminiscent of a mouthful of bile. It goes to the tune of "no matter where you go, there you are". Such a naively infuriating thread of dribble, the phrase still begs attention as it describes with such poignancy the absolute inertia against which I now battle from sunup to sundown and sometimes even in the in-between times. There is no escape, only a constant battle to swim away from the gathering gloom, the event horizon of frustration and helplessness that can only come of chronic unemployment and noncommittal tendencies. Cue the violins and standby the tissue boxes.

In this obsessive-compulsive melodrama wherein I see the incongruous behavior but am powerless to change it, I do what any sensible person would do: run away and come back only to repeatedly face the same status quo in a cyclical fashion almost ritualistic in its adherence to replicating itself flawlessly each time. Recognition of this pattern is of course no medicine for it; little is accomplished by palliating symptoms aside from momentary relief. If there is a cure for wallowing in self pity there is probably also a cure for overly florid language. If I find them both I will be a much happier, more effective person and this blog will be far more incisive and far less booched up with naughty syllables. Less is more, they say.

Since I know full well that there is nothing more compelling than 'glass is half full' ranting, which I imagine runs rampant these days, I will end with this: to me, at this juncture in time, the glass is half full of salt water! So there! Thank you for reading. Maybe the next entry will be about climbing or something.