Geckos. Another green belly crawls over the planks of the patio – sparkling and blotted in vibrant red – and a nearby rooster cries cock-a-doodle-doo, totaling nine for the last two minutes. Solar rays are overbearing on Kauai – the Garden Isle – and the sound of crashing waves – barely a hundred yards off – torments me. Covid-19 confines me to the yard; quarantine is a bitch. Rick Foulks drags yet another surfboard from under the house, and his stash – or “quiver” – reveals no less than fifteen others. Rick and Diane Foulks have lived on this island for over a decade now, a consequence of Rick’s obsession with waves, and overt distaste for the consumerism and vanity that rules the mainland.
Isaiah: Dad, what’s the biggest wave that you’ve ever duck-dived under?
Dad furrows his brow and frantically evaluates the nearby trees for size, selecting one he calls a Halekoa.
Rick: Probably about twelve feet of white water. Anything after that, and you’re probably climbing your leash to get back up. I mean, you can hold your breath about thirty seconds, but after that you really start to get angry.
Dad goes on to pull out more surfboards from the house, and I recall his story from last night about watching surf-legend Jay Moriarty ride “way too deep” in the barrel of a fifty foot wave at mavericks, shooting out from the maw and carving one giant turn half way across the line-up to the uproar of a crowd, during a sunset of course.
I happen to surf (and frequently), but I am not a Surfer – the same way that rock climbers who top-rope once or twice a year are not Climbers. Such a title (for any sport) requires a certain level of spiritual investment that gains control over your life, and sacrifice. Even by my own standards, I struggle to call myself a Climber. I can lead many routes rated 5.10 in difficulty, but I would not call myself a 5.10 climber. To do so, I would have to be able to climb any route rated 5.10, on lead, of any style – whether it be a finger crack, face climb, or off-width – without falling or resorting to aid. This exact philosophy was actually told to me by a certain friend and former coworker of my father’s, who was ranked among a certain group of Yosemite Climbers known as the Stone Masters.
So am I a Climber? I’d say so, but only sparingly. Brad Gobright was a Climber. John Bachar was a Climber, as was John “Yabo” Yablonski, John Salathe, Warren Harding and countless other legends that have – or had – committed their lives to the sport, and pushed the boundaries of what anyone ever thought imaginable. Under their shadow, I am but a worm.
I lifted my head from my phone, and Alixandria continued to read from hers, “Yeah, they have bat caves!”
Pinnacles National Park sat right on the middle of the San Andreas Fault Line, barely thirty miles from Monterey, California. Despite me living so nearby for eight years, I had never been. Alixandria was about to ruin my life.
As we drove into this mysterious national park, oak trees gave way to digger pines, and brown rolling hills opened up to release the most bizarre of monoliths I had ever seen. Two cobbly giants – dead ahead – stood face to face while somewhere, a California Condor soared through a maroon maze of craggy towers unseen. Machete Ridge and it’s cohort, The Balconies left me confused.
“What kind of rock is this?” Alix and I stood by a sign at the trailhead, which explained the violent and tectonic origins of Volcanic Breccia. We digested the information for a moment. Then another placard caught my eye.
Alix didn’t seem as interested in this placard. She started down the trail, and I followed after her. Soon later, more towering curiosities commanded my head to turn this way and that. As we entered the tight canyon between Machete Ridge and the Balconies, and passed under an immense sphere known as Chockstone Dome that sits wedged between its walls, I couldn’t stop thinking about that placard.
“I can’t believe that’s allowed here. Lke, that’s legal?” I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
The next day, I wandered into Sanctuary Rock Gym, Monterey’s one and only, tiny little haven of adventurists, and asked for a membership.
It was only a matter of weeks before I was shaking hands with Mila Rich. If climbing is the all consuming vampirism that alters one’s life irrevocably, she might be called my sire. She told me that she was looking for a job, and I gathered that she knew an awful lot about rock climbing, so I offered to pay her to take me to Pinnacles, and teach me everything she could.
Three days. That’s how long it took for the transformation. Over the course of three days, spread over several weeks, she showed me how to belay a leader, how to lead, build anchors, rappel, and everything else a teacher could show a starving mind. All told, the three hundred dollars that I gave her might be the best – or worst – investment I have ever made.
“God, how I want to climb that thing.”
Gazing up the west face of Machete Ridge was always intimidating. All of the routes that ascended it were six-pitchers (six rope lengths), and scared the crap out of me.
“Got a route in mind?” Lizzy Parker looked at me, weighing my words for how serious I was as we hiked under The Machete on our way to a much smaller formation. The echoes of canyon wrens and swifts reverberated against the amphitheater of breccia and throughout the digger pines.
“Well, I’ve been looking at the Young Guide, and I think Machete Direct would be the one.” If Lizzy had handed me a pen and paper, I probably could have drawn the topo.
“What are you doing Thursday?” Lizzy grinned at me. She was excited to find out just how serious I was.
“Okay, when you get to the bolt, clip this sling to the quickdraw, stand in it, and pull to clip your belay loop to the doo-hicky to the thing-a-mah-bob.” Lizzy’s words devolved into Chinese as I looked up from the starting tree. Seven hundred feet above, Machete’s Middle Tower loomed like a god.
“Okay.” I nodded, pretending to understand.
Lizzy gave me a rather mischievous smile, a nod, and started climbing the tree. Fifteen feet up, she leaned out, and grabbed the first hold of the day. To the left, a crumbling crack ran diagonally upwards, and ended at the base of the first bolt ladder.
“Watch me here.” After climbing past the three bolts, she committed to a free move. Free, as in that no trickery could get her any higher. If she wanted to get to the next bolt, she would have to use only the cobbles and knobs with her hands and feet, which she tried.
“Falling!” Lizzy peeled off the wall, and soared through the air. Eight feet down, she came to a lofty stop as the rope snapped tight.
“Fuck,” I whispered to myself.
“Damn,” Lizzy laughed unperturbed, “I thought this was supposed to be 5.8!” She hung for a moment, climbed up, and fell again.
“Fuck,” I whispered louder.
“Jesus!” Lizzy laughed, “What the fuck is this?”
I knew we were ruined. If Lizzy couldn’t climb it, there was no way I’d follow.
“You wanna give this a shot?” Lizzy looked down at me with a curious smile.
“Um, yeah, maybe. Wanna try one more time?” I said, masking my terror.
“Okay, yeah. I’m going to go one more time. Watch me good!” Lizzy pulled up on the first cobble she could. Then the next, and the next. Her feet shook ever so slightly as her hands alternated between strain and force.
“Got it!” Lizzy had made it past the hard section. Two more moves brought her to two bolts, side by side – the first anchor.
Relieved, I sighed as quietly as I could. My turn.
“On belay, Zay!” Lizzy announced that I was finally safe to follow.
As I rehearsed her tree climbing antics, I shuddered against the gap between the branches and the crumbling wall. Falling from here on lead would not have been pretty. I reached out, turned left, and traversed to the bolt ladder.
“You got me?” I called up to Lizzy.
“Yeah, just remember to clip the bobbly-gook to the jack-o-lanter!”
“Okay.” I wondered what the hell she was talking about.
Aid climbing is very easy, under the right circumstances. Not mine. By using the slings and quickdraws we had, I was given a rather tenuous crash course in the martial art of Aid, having to derive assistance from gear that I barely understood. Pseudo one-arm pullups, stepping in slings, and a lots of grunting took me five long minutes to reach the next bolt.
“Jeeze, this is hard,” I called up to Lizzy, panting.
“Only until you figure it out,” She smiled. She wasn’t wrong.
Fifteen endless minutes later, I finally reached her at the belay.
“My turn, I guess.” I forced a smile as she handed me all the gear I needed for the next pitch – three quickdraws. To climb Machete Direct, we had opted to do something called “swinging leads” where each climber alternates leading pitches. In some ways, it’s the “fairest” way to share the burden of overcoming obstacles both physical and mental. My lead, the second pitch, stretch up a vertical wall for 120 feet over terrain that was rated 5.7 in difficulty. Not too hard for my experience thus far. The only problems for me, were the gaps in protection. One hundred and twenty feet, with only three quickdraws, meant that I would be looking at some rather healthy distances between bolts. Potentially, I had the chance to fall upwards of sixty feet.
“It’s only 5.7.” Lizzy smiled again. I began to think she was the devil.
With nothing more than a nod, I started up. Up a bit higher, and higher still, I felt that the terrain was in fact quite easy. Then I looked down. Lizzy was twenty feet below me, and the babbling creek below was another hundred feet. Above me – only two moves away – was my first bolt.
“Shut the fuck up brain. Now is not a good time to lose it.” I said to myself, silently, trying to forget about Pinnacles’s famously loose rock. After clipping the bolt, this dialogue repeated itself again, and again once more, until the angle of the wall eased back a bit, and a final easy run-out to the anchor meant that I had just done the gnarliest thing I had ever done.
“Off belay!” I called down to Lizzy. Truly sweet words indeed.
Minutes later, Lizzy danced her way up the wall, took some gear from my harness, and danced her way out right on lead.
“Off belay!” She called over all too quickly.
The third pitch was easy to follow: a mellow traverse over nervously loose stone. Though easy, I was still glad that I didn’t lead it.
“Okay, you’re up.” Lizzy seemed a bit more serious this time, as she handed me some gear, and set me off on the fourth lead.
I reached up, clipped the bolt, and executed yet another awkward move of Aid – this time on lead – and reached for a large block overhead.
“Watch me here, I guess!” Though nervous, I was pretty stoked to be doing whatever I was about to do. Dangling in space, I pulled hard on the block, swinging my feet upwards, and cranked my arms to reach for the next hold, free.
“Boom, baby!” I was ecstatic. Beyond the singing birds and the running creek below, nothing existed between outside of me and Lizzy.
“Nice!” She hooted to reflect the stoke. After a few minutes of me pinching knob after cobble, she quickly followed my lead again. Obviously, whatever we were doing wasn’t that hard.
“Another bolt ladder.” I said, unenthused as I looked up the next pitch. Thank god Lizzy was leading it.
“Yeah, but at least it’s the last one!” She wasn’t wrong. After that, only one more pitch would be between us and Middle Tower – the summit.
Let’s just say that it took me over half an hour to follow the five bolts of aid to reach the free section, and that when I was done, I thought I’d never aid climb again. Lizzy’s relentless encouragement was crucial in pushing our progress thus far. After some crying, some groaning, and a little bit of free climbing, I clipped into the anchor with Lizzy.
“How are you feeling?” Lizzy asked a lot with that question. I was supposed to lead the next – last – pitch, but was concerned about the protection. As easy as the climbing was rated, it required the placement of cams to protect the lead. Thus far, I had barely even held a cam. I knew how they worked – I was pretty sure – but I had never placed one on lead.
“Probably better if you lead this one, honestly.” I shook my head, looking up at Middle Tower.
“No problem” Lizzy said, but there was something about the way she said it… I couldn’t put my finger on it.
She started removing the cams from my harness, and one by one, clipping them to hers. Tiny morsels of shame slowly morphed from doubt into surety as a certain mantra welled up inside my head. One misses one hundred per cent of the shots that they never take.
Lizzy looked at me. She already knew.
“I have to do this.” I sighed, terrified.
“Okay.” Was all she had to say. Her devilish smile said everything else.
I clipped those cams to my harness like an all-too-young man about to be dropped on Vietnam. The blue one, the yellow one, the red and all the rest slowly added to the sag of my harness.
“You ready?” Lizzy graciously hid her smile.
“Let’s do this.”
What followed next, was probably the most bad-fucking-ass 5.4 slab any climber had ever seen, until it wasn’t. I looked down again. The canyon’s base was now 650 feet beneath me, the trees looked like scrub brush, and the sky was just-too-big. Above me, Middle Tower’s southern faced lead out as if to fall right on top of me. At the base of the tower, was a long crack that ran upwards as the low-angle slab traced the base of the tower to the summit. Looking at my harness, I chose a cam. Taking it off the gear loop, I slotted it into the crack, and gave it a tug to test it. The cam exploded out of the crack in a burst of loose flakes.
“Um,” is all that came out of my mouth. I tried a different cam, and watched as it sank into the walls of the crack as if the rock were a sponge. I looked down again. The only bolt that would have been there for me in a fall, was about thirty feet down, and I was all too aware of just how far I’d go if I peeled.
“Um,” was all I knew how to say. I looked up some more. Was the crack better there? I thought so.
“I guess I’ll keep going.” I barely mouthed the words. Three moves up, I tried another cam. This one worked – I thought – as it passed my yank-test, so I clipped the rope to it, and kept climbing.
The next fifty feet were all pretty much the same. I placed a couple of more cams, hoping they were good, and crept up the slab along the base of Middle Towers domineering overhang. I could hear angels singing some foreboding song – some ominous melody – as the sky grew bigger and bigger and the color blue dominated my field of vision beneath a blinding sun. Almost there…
“Yee-HOW-wee!” Was the only language I spoke – and spoke it loud – when I pulled over the summit of Machete Direct.
“Off belay!” I shouted down, savoring the words.
Lizzy’s face appeared from under the bulge – ten minutes later – and her eyes locked on mine as fast as they could. This time, her smile was admonishing, and she shook her head.
“We really need to work on your cam placements.”
Descending Machete Ridge and its lengthy gullys requires a storyteller far better than I, but I will say that is a small adventure of its own – reminiscent of the North Dome Gully of Yosemite National Park. When we finally reached solid ground, we found that the trail back to the car was covered in about twelve inches of running water. Normally, we were supposed to turn left, and scramble through the Balconies Caves – essentially a giant pile of gigantic boulders who host a colony of bats (the same bats that drove me here) – but a large metal gate stood in the way.
“Closed for flooding.” One of us read it with a sigh.
We looked to the right. The long way around was, well, the long way around. Lizzy and I looked at each other like teenagers with their first cigarette. Who could resist a little, harmless mischief?
We scaled the gate, barefoot, and roaring waterfalls held me in silence in the darkness as we scrambled into the caves – my eyes, absorbing everything – ever watchful, for bats.