12.27.2012

Awake

For all of the time I spend attempting to navigate this world, I don't feel that I'm any closer to understanding even a small piece of it. Maybe the problem is that I expect some sort of understanding in the first place, some kind of concrete proof that all the strange symbols parading around will be clear for even a moment, that the fog of obfuscation will somehow lift in some grand unveiling. This introspective nonsense is a game for fools and yet I put my chips in round after round. Under these rules, nothing can be taken at face value either for fear of misinterpretation or because of simple cynicism, a reluctance to accept anything without trying to know it in its entirety, at which point it has most likely vanished.

Make sense?

If that seems opaque, suffice it to say that I often feel out of phase with the world, somehow present but not participant. More specifically, I'm talking about the real world, the one in which we're all supposed to 'find our way', the world of media, commerce, progress and violence, the world in which things happen. This is not the same space in which we have time to reflect, where we do things to advance our own understanding as opposed to trying to fit into that of someone or something else. The world of experience and experiential learning has a sort of intrinsic continuity that I find much easier to synch with than the one where strip malls and subdivisions blanket the horizon. Alright, I'll admit that these aren't separate worlds per se; they exist on the same planet that's shooting through the void of space at 30km/s, in the same temporal dimension that appears to govern all that we are and all that we experience. Rather, at least for me, they are different spaces, constructs that somehow contain certain events and experiences, placing them in some semblance of a context.

If you haven't guessed by now, this is leading towards another climbing-related vignette, a meditation on why climbing is both definitive and ruinous. Like any good drug, it provides relief in its immediacy and yet demands participation at the expense of everything else. There is a balance, they say, to almost everything. Nothing can seem less balanced, then, than a life predicated on intermittent bursts of extreme effort, risk and personal success punctuated by lengthy frustration, ennui and horrid inertia. I claim no uniqueness in being such a slave to extremes, at a loss as to how to play mediator between the warring factions. But since, for aught I know, this is my life (and my blog), time shall be spent writing of it, perhaps overmuch. While the world often seems composed of tribulations and malevolence and I an infinitesimal grain of sentience parasitizing a void-battered mass of rock, whiling away it's existence in exile from all true meaning, it's difficult to remember that life is sprent with amazement and joy if one's eyes are open. Here are tales of how Joshua Tree National Park and rock climbing, two of my most favorite things in the universe, help me remember how to see.


Climbing is about exploration, both geographic and personal. The actual experience of climbing is, at best, deeply spiritual. The concepts of success and progress are products of egocentrism, endemic to many of our pursuits. Their inclusion, though perhaps mandatory, is best tempered by an understanding of why, in the first place, we choose to pursue some of these things that, like climbing, are only quantifiable in the most crude fashion: arbitration via a scale of difficulty in order to 'measure' the value of our experiences. Why this inexorable propensity toward quantization? Perhaps simply because we must compare ourselves each to the other in this inexorable game of primacy.


Scrambling and boulder hopping through the rugged terrain above Indian Cove, into the huge series of washes and canyons comprising Rattlesnake Canyon, the enormity of this ancient place once again gave me pause. After ten years of extended visits to Joshua Tree, I realized, there were still an almost infinite number of astonishing spaces within. Even in such a dry year as this one, water trickles from pool to pool in rock worn smooth by millenia of rushing streams, in runnels carved out of the immense batholith that comprises all of the weathered, time-worn rock formations in the vicinity. This particular area slopes sharply down to the desert floor near 29 Palms, providing a drainage for almost all of the north end of the Wonderland of Rocks, an immense conflagration of domes and outcrops stretching for miles. At times a raging maelstrom many feet deep, the perennial presence of at least some water is a boon for animals. It also creates a unique environment to explore.


We entered the canyon seeking a few particular climbing objectives, but the day was given more to hours of wandering through myriad different desert environments. Our path was via lush groves on hillsides, through intricate canyons and secret coves of rock. As with many such adventures, the actual objective is often of secondary importance until it's imminently close at hand.


After a long approach up vegetated hillsides above the canyons and finally down a steep, exposed and technical gully, we found our climbs, which reside on this impressive buttress of smooth patina:


They were more than worth the trek, adding punctuation to the journey and themselves comprising somewhat of a journey. Intimidated after all the blissful wandering, it was hard to gear up for the somewhat serious nature of rock climbing. After a couple of hours here, it was time to spend another couple of hours descending back to the car through another series of intricate, smooth-walled watercourses, boulder-strewn canyons and washes.


This is a special place. I have a temptation to hoard these experiences, but I'm no hoary dragon in its lair and this particular trove is there for anyone to go and have a look.


It's easy to feel the synchronicity of things when this is what I wake up to, morning after morning, until all blend together into a sort of trance. The harsh but wondrous landscape drives me into a state of constant awareness: a missed step in the boulders might mean broken bones or far worse; a moment of inattention might mean missing something incredible.


The organic, almost soothing appearance of the rock formations belie the often frightening intensity of the climbing played out upon their canvases. The cracks, so perfect and elegant from afar sometimes turn into flaring nightmares, seams of sharp-grained monzonite that take scant protection and require every ounce of technique and fortitude to climb. The faces, though often featured with countless huecos, patinas and inclusions, are just as often blank as a new page, climbed via the most bleak crystalline finger holds and a trust in shoe rubber that borders on the religious.


It was on one such stretch of rock, though featured with enough moguls and dimples to offer only a moderate challenge, that I found myself really waking up to climbing again, as though the rest of the trip my eyes had been merely half open. I left the ropes and harnesses at camp because I like the freedom of moving around without them on the rock. I never like to push things too far in this direction, but I do push them enough to enjoy the sense of responsibility and presence of mind that can only come from putting oneself somewhat on the edge. While others push this genre of climbing to mind-bending crescendos, walking razor-fine edges between experience and annihilation, I keep a good distance back from this edge and simply try to see what I can see from there. This reticence doesn't obviate the need for caution, nor does it reduce to zero the chance that something might happen, but life can never be so utterly sterilized and to approach it with such focused intent is sometimes a source of relative control and certainly of valuable insight. I climbed a route I have done a dozen times with a rope on. A chimney, cracks and a large flake system lead to an exhilarating dance up polished but well-featured slab to the top. The slab came into sharp focus as I approached the end of the secure flake. To climb something of this nature, even something relatively moderate, is to put trust entirely into one's footwork. A single slip often means losing control. To fall while tied into a rope, especially on this climb, is within reasonably safe bounds. Without a rope, no fall is acceptable and most will end in the same result after a certain point. I don't seek out such tenuous sections of rock for idle scrambling; for me something like this requires the utmost confidence and concentration in this context which is seldom something I can muster everyday. To leave the safety of the flake for the slab is to commit oneself to ones abilities and also to a variable amount of chance relative to those abilities. I committed myself halfway, feeling the edge of panic at pushing too far ahead without meaning to before retreating to the shelter of positive holds. I repeated the process several times and the panic ceased, changing to focus. I tried to time my commitment to the climbing carefully so that no one below was watching, reasoning that a person at a distance would mistake my hesitation for fear and complete abandonment of any sensibility when in fact it was the exact opposite, the building up of control and a real sense of confidence. I moved back up to the slab and stood up once, then twice. In my mind, I was committed and had done so as part of a conscious choice. To retreat, though possible, would likely have been more perilous than to advance. This, among other things, ran through my mind peripheral to my focus. I though about what a foot slipping from the well-worn holds would mean, the strange paradox of this sun-drenched stretch of granite, warm in the afternoon, dissolving into the yawning void that waits, without waiting, for all of us and for all things.


Then I climbed upward with precision and care. Every foot placement was made with all the expertise I could conjure and I trusted each implicitly. Each step was made with confidence, with a sense of coordinated motion flowing upwards towards the top. Then I was there among the windswept huecos. I thought of alternate timelines where I wasn't there at the top: where I had fallen to the ground; where I had survived the fall; where I hadn't; where I had chosen not to pursue that climb, with its friction-dependent finale, in the first place. These timelines radiate from us at every turn, vectors of causality receding into the unthinkably vast gulf of potential outcomes. Whether their moments of force alter our own paths retroactively or whether we are at the whim of some far greater momentum, I can't say. Free will is an enigma woven of these inexorable forces in the opacity of their machinations.

As the afternoon sun descended towards its nadir, I pondered things less grandiose: the times when a rope granted me a false sense of security while I tackled much harder climbing with equally dangerous outcomes; the strange euphoria wrought by the weathering of dangerous circumstance; the curious ability to compartmentalize fear, panic and doubt without ignoring their existence, so key to survival, without descending into the nihilism of mere unchecked bravado, without losing the ability to reason in a rush of epinephrine. Then I looked out at the familiar desert vistas and felt life course through me, almost new in its intensity and I felt an irrepressible grin spread across my face.

12.11.2012

Against the Grain

It's no small wonder that opinions are divided (at least amongst rock climbers) about an area that boasts no route longer than three short pitches, rock that mostly resembles poorly consolidated cat litter except in areas where it is either worn smooth by skittering shoe rubber or covered with a varnished patina formed in the crucible of eons of scouring winds and the brutal punishment of the desert sun.

For those of us that choose to be disciples of this peculiar variety of rock, there is, however, endless joy in unraveling the impossibly intricate sequences on forty-foot rock climbs, the punishingly difficult movements and vertical friction slabs.

Two days ago I dropped a rope over what is certainly one of the most mind-numbingly difficult traditional pitches I've ever seen: Dihedron. Appropriately enough, Dihedron is a dihedral, a v-shaped inward corner in the rock. It is no more than sixty feet long and either vertical or overhung. It boasts the lofty grade of 5.14, making it one of the two most difficult pitches in the park, at least gradewise. Since this is three number grades harder than the hardest dihedral I've tried, I have no idea how to rate it. I know that with Minitraxions on full alert, I was able to complete all of the moves, some even linked in sequence. I also brought my left shoulder muscles close to catastrophic failure, core-shot my rope where it ran over the grainy topout despite my efforts to protect it and walked back through the silent rockpiles of the Wonderland feeling like I'd been beaten severely, which I had by a rather steep, obtuse cleft of large-grained monzonite granite.

I love Joshua Tree. It is idiosyncratic, cryptic, yet warm and oddly welcoming.

Every strange hijinx, either within line-of-sight of my own campsite or deep in the furthest reaches of the wildernesses of stone, cat claw and animal dung brings me newfound joy and a sense of accomplishment, even of exploration despite following, often enough, in the footsteps of others from decades before.

When I leave here my climbing fitness will not be at its zenith. I will not trounce difficult boulder problems with aplomb or gun my way up the steepest, proudest sport routes in good style. However, anywhere where grainy, scary slab climbs and sharp, poorly protected cracks soar forth thirty to sixty feet above the desert floor amongst oddly organic, rounded rock piles that look as though they would harbor naught else but the owls, bats and rodents of the desert, I will be well prepared.

12.03.2012

Rebuilding the Transmission

It's been a long while since I've gotten up on my soapbox here in the world of the 'net. Without much of note occurring there isn't much of note to write about, even in such a casual format. Usually I write about climbing, but there hasn't even been much of that until very recently. I'm midway through my yearly pilgrimage to Joshua Tree and have been surprised to find it much like last year; in fact, it's practically identical. In a lot of ways, this is a good thing. The park has been a much needed retreat for me for many years, a place for mental and physical regrouping and it's nice to see that this changes little from year to year.

Sometimes, though, it's hard to just experience it. The wheels start turning too much when there's nothing I'm supposed to be doing, no responsibility except to feed myself and enjoy the climbing I do almost every day. Despite feeling the fluency coming back into my climbing, there's still something unsatisfying about it although I can't figure out what that is. Sitting in the library, I watch as an older man apparently act out his obsessive-compulsiveness on the bookshelves, strangely measuring space between the books, moving them slightly until they suit some arbitrary, abstract concept of order, organizing without organizing; then it seemed that he indeed works here, that he indeed was itemizing the books and checking their shelving order. It's hard to concentrate on putting some sparse words to the page. There is little difference, sometimes, between our daily lives and a feedback loop of compulsive actions. There is so little time and we use it in such baffling, useless ways, attempting to store it for later or burning it so hot that we mortgage all that we have left.

On that note, I'll waste but a little time under the fluorescents of the library. A sunny December afternoon is far more appealing and a mere dozen footsteps away. Burned by the sun, my hands torn from climbing the grainy rock and the dirt staining my feet, how is it possible to feel discontent? Then again, that's all out there; the gearbox of my psyche grinds away unfettered, safe from any placation. But then, that's always the problem, I think, the feeling of necessity, the incessent pulse of progress beating at the doors of perception. What really is left, then, but the experience? If the processing is always done in such a refractory, ignorant manner, it's no fault of the world. In any case, that's all I have for today.