Friday, January 10, 2014

Road trip wrap-up

The miles and adventures, setbacks and discoveries have built up over the weeks.  Jodi has found the climbing often difficult, mostly due to an on-going thyroid issue she is struggling to resolve, and now, for extra delight, she’s been battling a cold, lots of stuffed sinuses and general grog.  By mysterious chance I seem to have dodged her viral bullet.   I’ve been managing my injuries pretty well.  Mostly I’m just thankful to be spending so many days in beautiful places, soaking up the energy of the wild desert under a bright winter sun.  The night sky, too, has been intense with Jupiter on Orion’s flank glaring down upon us.  Once we pull out the binoculars and steady them sufficiently to make out four of the Jovian moons.  What a delight:  Our celestial bodies have celestial bodies!

We spent almost a weeek in Cochise Stronghold, an obscure outpost of granite domes and fins in the Arizona desert near the Mexican border.  Miles from anywhere, the place is supremely quiet.  Even most of the rock climbers seem to be staying away.  As we arrived, Jodi’s cold settled in to dampen our activities.  She slept most of the first day but rallied in the afternoon for a few climbs—all one-pitch affairs where the leader can lower to the ground.  A slow, lazy start to the day, we wandered over to the rocks from our camp about a quarter mile away.  We dropped the gear beneath a well-featured route, rated 5.7 for those familiar with climbing ratings.  This is a climb we’d done a couple of years before and a level of difficulty I’d been very comfortable with for over 30 years.  A cruise.  Django sniffed about the tough oaks along the base while Jodi and I opened the rope bag, racked gear, laced shoes, buckled harness, the rote rituals of ascending vertical terrain.  None of these actions is complicated or difficult to learn, but they must all be done correctly.  Forgetting to double back a harness buckle, not finishing a tie-in knot, these can have disastrous consequences.  We have a firm policy of parking egos and double checking.  Do. It. Right.  Recently, one of rock climbing’s most famous participants, author and expert climber John Long neglected to finish his tie-in knot while climbing at an in-door gym.  At the top of his climb, he let go for the ride…and got a lot more than he bargained for—a brutal compound fracture after a 30 ft. plunge to the mat.  Blood, groaning, paramedics, surgery, pins, sutures, months and months of rehab.  A severely damage ankle, especially for a man over 50?  No thank you.  I cinch down my knot, Jodi puts me on belay, and I head up into a dance with gravity.

Easy, smooth, exactly what I expect, the firm edges of weathered granite greet my fingers and toes.  It’s a “sport” climb, generously bolted for even timid leaders.  I clip each bolt with satisfaction, even relaxation, so different from the intensity of the Superstitions where bad or scarce protection can stress even hardened veterans.  The new, slinky rope trails down through the carabiners.  This is a delight.  A lark!  The climb is almost finished, two bolts and the anchor chains await.  Pop!  I am airborne, skittering at gravity’s whim.  “Whoa!” I yell and bounce to a stop a good ten feet below where I was an instant before.  “I fell!” I say, in shock.  How the hell did that happen?  Jodi held me easily, and she looks up with a grin.  The mighty Scotty has fallen—on a 5.7!  The part of the climb that spit me off was easy enough, although the rock a bit smooth.  Still, the holds were generous, at least for the hands.  I quickly take stock.  The butt of my left hand stings, a touch of blood where it abraded against the stone.  Potentially more worrisome, my left ankle smarts, no doubt twisted somehow on my rapid descent.  Nothing serious, I suspect.  A little shaken, I jump back on the rock and scamper up to the chains, astounded, humbled, a little embarrassed as other climbers have just come up to the parking area.

So what happened?  How did a climber with almost 37 years experience come off an easy climb, one he’d done before, a rating of difficulty he’d ascended hundreds, probably thousands of times?  On the very plus side, all the systems worked perfectly.  Modern climbing gear properly deployed is marvelous stuff.  The meaningful variable here is the leader, the monkey on the chain.  Me.  Perhaps it was that I hadn’t slept well the night before, but the more important cause was my less-than-focused attitude.  As I have always known, even easy climbs demand enormous respect and attention.  That was my sin, the sin of inattention.  Unlike Mr. Long, I had followed through with my knot; my belayer was on her game—bless the lass!—and all my equipment was in proper working order.  But like Mr. Long, I let my focus lapse at a critical moment, and the Earth wasted no time in trying to reclaim my lanky carcass for her own.

From one frame of reference, this was a non-event.  I finished the climb, Jodi led it, I re-climbed it a second time and went on to do two more routes, although my wrist and ankle are still complaining a little.  Every day, on crags around the world, climbers take countless falls.  Indeed, falling off climbs is now common for athletes striving to improve.  If you don’t push until you fall, you don’t know how hard you can climb.  But this minor fumble I view a little differently than someone working a route at his limit.  I was nowhere near my limit.  That’s the problem.  I didn’t fall because I could no longer hold on.  I fell because my head wasn’t screwed down.  For this I am grateful.  This was a low-cost gift from the climbing universe and the law of gravity, a true slap on the wrist to keep me on the righteous path where every hold counts, every knot matters, and every climb requires respect.  I’ll limp a little for the next week or so, but that’s a small price to pay for such a valuable lesson.

A gray sky stretched over southern Arizona, challenging our solar charging system.  Jodi’s cold lay down a homestead, staked out fencing, and planted a garden, a beast preparing to stay a while.  We took a leisurely hike through granite turrets and African-style grasslands, letting Django run free.  I winced now and then at my tender hoof.  We strolled to and fro, made it back to camp for lunch as a cool breeze kicked in and Jodi melted into a chair.  No climbing today, kids.  We read, ete, and lazied away a cloudy day with the ghosts of the Apache blowing through the rugged canyons and cliffs of pink granite.

After another couple of days, we worked our way home, and now we're back in the crib.  School is creeping up on me, a fanged and relentless creature that will not be ignored.  Overall, the trip was not without its challenges, but we rate it a success.  Now it is time to turn our minds to work and home and the life outside the flowing dreams of road trips.  Here are some last photos of the adventure....