Five gallons. Frozen solid. The jug responded to my foot with a solid thud, and I gave it a determined look as numb fingers lit my first cigarette of the day. The icy desert sunrise began its languid march over the snow-capped ridge to the east, and the dawn air bit hard. Breakfast – and more importantly, coffee – would be a while.
Something stirred in the 4-Runner. Rumble and click. The back popped open and Elliott Robinson slithered out of his sleeping bag through the open hatch, fully clothed. His dusty cheeks boasted a happy good-morning smile, and I handed him a freshly lit cigarette.
“Jug’s frozen solid.” I said, staring at the frosted hillside.
“Oh?” Elliott’s eyes lazily surveyed the ragged horizon.
“Got the hammer?” I needed it to dig a hole.
“Morning constitutional!” Elliott smirked as he handed me the tool I needed, and I wandered off through cacti and stone.
Wild and free. I could shit anywhere I pleased, king of my six inch pit, and commander of the wide expanse of rugged wilderness before my perch. No orderlies. No cameras. No white fucking linens or backless gowns. Good morning Isaiah, it’s time for your medication. I still had my pills, but at least out here there was no one barging into my tent every fifteen minutes to make sure I hadn’t killed myself in the night, and – as far as I was aware – there weren’t any cameras watching me poop anymore.
Only three days had passed since my release from Garden Pavillion. Five days in the hole, my shortest stint thus far. After ten years clean of episodes, my bipolar disorder had made a ravenous comeback, and in the throes of mania I abruptly quit my job as captain for Discovery Whale Watch in favor of moving back to Yosemite. After a decade of dedication to the sea and the beasts that dwell therein, rock climbing was all that mattered to me now. This is what you want, this is what you get.
Wild and free, the frozen morning breeze invaded camp and as the sun began to creep along encrusted mountains, we savored what little warmth it held. Another kick of the jug reported that we’d have to be patient. Elliott pulled a large duffel bag out of the truck, and dumped its contents right onto the sand.
The iconic jingle of carabiners, cams, nuts, and bolts clanked upon the soil as Elliott and I sorted our gear for the day. Our objective was a 500 foot wall, hidden in a maze of sharp canyons, carving through the remote southern California desert. Amongst the handful of climbers that even knew the place existed, only one team had established a route thus far. Elliott had been privy to the secret crag, and knew of a crack system that might go. A first ascent, and I had been charitably invited to help. At the heart of it all, our excursion was one of desert therapy. Mischevious and wise, Elliott Robinson was known for selecting troubled souls and cajoling them into grande, fucked up adventures – journeys that remind us that we are alive, and that life is worth living. The world is a wild place. Never forget.
At long last, the frozen jug relented to thaw and warm coffee filled us with renewed vigor. Sweet caffeine. Time to march.
Every climber knows the rhythmic crunch of soil underfoot as gravel and grains give way to intrepid feet, and every step is a reminder that something special is about to happen. The heavy packs and the jangling hardware serve as marching drums as we set off to do battle with ourselves. Stepping into shadow, we zipped up our jackets as the canyons swallowed us whole. I carefully noted each junction as various ravines branched off this way and that; it would be easy to get lost in such a maze.
One hour later, we scrambled down a pile of boulders in a narrow slot, around a bend, and found ourselves gazing up at our target: a crack system running up the middle of the wall, leading to a narrow chimney 200 feet up. If we could get to the chimney, we could shimmy up it and reach another crack system that might lead us to the top.
“Let’s smoke a bowl,” Elliott said as he dumped all the gear from his backpack onto a flat section of rock. Selecting the appropriate paraphernalia, he casually lit up, took a lung filling puff, and offered me the pipe.
“No thanks.” I waved off his offer as I surveyed our surroundings, admiring the browns, the tans, and the silence. With a deep sigh, smoke billowed from Elliott’s lungs and the smell of earth gave way to that old nostalgic scent – the smell of my youth – and finally back to dirt. Somewhere in the canyon, a distant bird released a crescendo of warning. The monkeys have come.
Satisfied with his pow-wow, Elliott merely started racking up, surveying the terrain overhead for what gear might be needed. Above, the crack rose for twenty feet, before jutting left, around a corner, and up into a left facing dihedral that rose another 180 feet to the chimney. In addition to the standard gear normally required for an average outing, Elliott also had to carry a selection of bolts, a hammer, and a power drill. Such a cumbersome load added an additional eight or ten pounds to his harness. Undeterred, he stuck his hands into the crack, and set off.
“Rock!” Elliott called down as a flake of rock – the size of a dinner plate – shattered like a grenade as it crashed into the earth. I huddled against the cliff as the next plate landed a bit closer.
Then another. And another. Between grunts and sighs, every move required Elliott to mine the rock for the most stable handholds. Rocks the size of apples and ping pong balls rained down for over half an hour – bouncing fragments up into the air – as Elliott tenuously made his way up a difficult and awkward corner. By the time he was 100 feet up, he had easily shaved some 200 pounds from the mountain.
“I’m gonna place an anchor here!” Elliott called down. Balancing on two tiny foot holds, his calves trembled as he lifted the power drill above his head, and started drilling. The device cried loudly, reverberating throughout the canyon and scattering birds from their brush. Normally, a power drill on rock will create a sufficient hole within ten or fifteen seconds. An entire minute went by, and Elliott was still drilling. What the fuck is taking him so long? I wondered as the cold crept into my layers. After five minutes, he shouted, “Okay, one more to go!” And started drilling the second bolt. Jesus, I muttered to myself. I was getting cold.
Finally, Elliott clipped into the shiny new bolts, pulled up the rope, and shouted, “Belay on!”
Twenty feet up, the perfect hand crack jutted left, and I grunted through the burley
traverse that morphed into a stemming corner. Right away, I was struck by Elliott’s boldness. While the moves were fun – and strenuous – the rock was shit, and the cams that he had placed for protection looked dubious at best. By the time I caught up to him – having barely stayed on the wall without falling – I felt sick to my stomach, imagining myself leading the pitch instead of Elliott. We agreed to rate the pitch 5.10c, and started racking up for the second pitch.
My lead. Above us, the wall was dead vertical and essentially devoid of holds. This we had anticipated. Bolts would get us to the chimney by way of aid: a bolt ladder. Elliott handed me the drill, and I held it up to investigate it. Why did it take so long to drill those bolts? Then I looked at the toggle switch.
“Elliott, it’s on lefty loosey.” I chuckled.
“Shows what I know!” His smile was contagious.
With a bump of the fist, I set up the wall. Standing in my ladders, straining to drill as high as possible, I gained a special appreciation for the rock pioneers who have and still use hand drills. After placing and ascending six bolts, a crack appeared in the wall, about as wide as my pinky. Drilling a bolt next to such a usable crack would be bad form, so I retrieved the smallest cam from my harness, reached up, slotted it in, and clipped my ladder to it. After transferring my weight onto the ladder, I climbed up as high as I could, hooked my waist to the cam, and then top-stepped to reach as high as possible with the drill. Lactic acid swirled in my core as I leaned out, drilling up and to the left, when suddenly there was a “Ping!” and I was flying through the air.
“Falling!” I shouted instinctively. Because of the way I was leaning when the gear blew, I was spun outwards and facing away from the wall, treating me to a disorienting view of the whole world rushing up to meet me as my stomach lifted into my diaphragm. When is he going to catch me? I had enough time to wonder until the rope suddenly snapped tight, arresting my fall with life-saving elasticity.
“Whew!” I howled, admiring my sudden change of perspective.
“Nice job, and you’re still holding the drill!” Elliott chuckled.
I lifted my right hand and – sure as shit – the drill was still there. Kicking off the wall, I spun around and looked up the cliff. The bolt – my bolt – that had caught my fall was about fifteen feet above me. Considering that I was at least five feet above it when the cam popped, I had fallen at least 20 feet. Nothing for a true hardman, but still an exciting ride.
Climbing back up revealed that the rock itself had blown out, and the crack was no longer usable. Hence, I got to drill another bolt. Thank god. Only two bolts higher and I found myself staring up into a narrow chimney.
Astonishingly, Elliott opted to climb up to our new high point all free, foregoing any jumars or ladders that would otherwise allow him to “cheat” his way up the wall as I had. This had been his plan all along: using aid techniques to establish a free route, a common strategy at the harder grades, where drilling from stance becomes impossible.
Regardless, Elliott strained his way up the corner on delicate, microscopic edges and – with only a couple of falls – made it up to the chimney without resorting to aid.
“Five-eleven plus.” Elliott grunted with a smile.
Seizing the gear, he stuck his head into the chimney, then his arms, and wriggled up. Eighty feet higher, he drilled two bolts for an anchor. Otherwise, he had not placed any gear on the lead. When I finally caught up to him, we decided to rate 5.8 R. Runout, but you know how chimneys are. Hard to fall out of.
From there, the difficulties eased considerably, with the exception of a 5.9 offwidth that – you guessed it – Elliott led. Six feet up said offwidth, Elliott reached for a handhold which promptly blew out of the wall, sending him to land flat on his ass on the ledge. Three pitches higher – totalling six – the angle of the wall rolled back, and we stood on its nondescript summit.
No one has ever climbed this. Elliott and I celebrated with water, cigarettes, and a nice sit. Five hundred feet below, a stream ran through the narrow canyon from which we had just escaped, affording a little green in a land that was otherwise rugged and brown. Out from the shadows, we had crawled into the sun at last, and savored its rays like bearded dragons. All around, pinnacles, boulders, peaks and canyons carved out an alien world, devoid of human life and left to the wilder things.
“What planet is this?” I joked, looking down the immense valley to the north. Ice and snow frosted every hillside that faced my way. Elliott took a long drag from his pipe, and that familiar smell from my younger days tickled my nostrils once again.
“The world is a wild place.”