I glanced over my shoulder to see the sun turning the high horizon into a blurred flare of shadow-black winter trees and white hot fire. I let my gaze drop to the grassy meadow across the road. I could see the car through the trees. I had time.
I turned back to the green boulder and resumed scrubbing with the wire brush. Fifteen years will really lay on the carpet of moss! I remember the Witch’s Castle Boulder being nice and clean when I ran circuits at Emerald City ages before. I was a little sad all of my younger self’s development efforts were in vain. None of my old problems were climbable when I walked up to them on Sunday afternoon except the one really good problem on the Toto Boulder I had called Watto. It was 1999 and I had just watched the Phantom Menace. The low angle arête looked vaguely like the Toydarian character’s nose.
After my mini guide came out in Extremz magazine I had no less than three different people and ask to have their first ascent of that problem added to the guide. I had to keep telling people it was simply an oversight, that I had cleaned and climbed that problem long before my article on bouldering was published.
|Not only did I have a controversial bouldering article |
on the inside, but I also shot the cover photo!
Fifteen years later as I scrubbed moss away from hand and footholds I had to chuckle and acquiesce that maybe I wasn’t the FA of any of those problems. Except...back when I was a serious boulderer in the Red River Gorge very few people had ever attacked the smaller chunks of rock in the area in such a manner as me and my cousin and the small community of boulderers that were active at that time. Back then if you cleaned a problem of serious vegetation you were pretty safe to claim it as your own.
That can’t be said with any certainty anymore. I proved that to myself. Problems I had climbed literally hundreds of times looked pristine. Nature had reclaimed them more effectively than I would have ever believed. And so all of those concerns about the “destruction” wrought by boulderers is pretty moot. Now, there have been some impacts I’ve seen that went beyond simply moss and lichen eradication. But for the most part unearthing a few hand and footholds seems to have little lasting effects.
We came home from church Sunday afternoon, and I crawled into bed. I was partially tired from the big day before and partially trying to escape a cloud of depression. Mandy let me nap for a while and then was insistent I get up and go with her and the kids to the park to run. She was insistent but gentle. I dragged myself out of bed and put on the running clothes she laid out for me. All I wanted to do was crawl in a hole where no one would find me.
At the park I held back. She took off running and the kids ran off to the playground. I walked the track. I felt numb and detached from the world. There was little I wanted to do, and little I felt inclined to do. Eventually I found myself sitting on a picnic table watching the kids play and fiddling with my smartphone. Finally I put it down and fought the urge to lay my head down on the table.
“Just not motivated?” Mandy asked when she walked up, slightly out of breath after her run.
“Guess not,” I answered.
“Why don’t you take us home and then go out in the woods? Run a trail. Boulder. You’ve got plenty of daylight.”
Relief washed over me, but I was skeptical. I had been daydreaming a little about bouldering, but I feared a jaunt into the woods would end up turning into another pointless feedback loop that would only magnify my depression. I knew I couldn’t go hunting for new boulders to climb. I needed to go and climb something established that I wouldn’t have to think about and would have no excuse not to get on. I chose Emerald City.
In early 1999 my cousin Dustin and I began systematically cleaning and climbing everything we could find below the cliffs at Emerald City. We had bouldered from the beginning of our climbing days, but in ’99 I finally owned a crashpad and we set about looking for boulders for their own sake instead of some end-of-the-day consolation prize after failing at roped climbing.
In short order we had established a good number of quality problems and had a nice circuit. I would often go do two laps there and two laps of all of our established problems at Torrent Falls. It was a hopping place and I even frequently had people stop in Red River Outdoors to ask about specific problems or get better directions after my Extremz article came out.
I kept wondering what other climbers would think—and were thinking as I saw at least three parties of climbers leaving Lady Slipper as I wallered around on the boulders on Sunday—seeing some out of shape (in a literal sense) middle-aged climber scrubbing at moderate terrain and huffing his way up some obscure line on a boulder they had never noticed before. But then again I probably shouldn’t have been stemming up the problem Toto in my stretchy running shorts.
Watto fell easily. I had rated it V0+ so I assumed it would give me fits in my weakened state. Instead it only took a little bit of courage up high to make the committing reach for the summit jug. The hard moves had come right out of the gate at the sit start. Oddly, it was the mere V0 Toto that ultimately thwarted me. The commitment level at the top was pretty high and I had no spotter. Maybe I need to rethink the grades on those two.
After climbing out the Toto Boulder I meandered over to the Witch’s Castle in hopes of getting one or two more problems in before sunset. I was surprised how much cleaning the centerpiece problem there needed. It was obvious a few more yards further from the trail kept that boulder complex from getting any traffic. Toto sits right on the approach trail and was clean to climb for the most part.
I stood below the well featured My Sexy Cranberry (don’t ask about the name) and marveled at the thickness of the emerald carpet of moss. I cleaned it, but neglected to inspect the boulder downclimb. After foibling my way up the old favorite I discovered the downclimb was thick with damp greenery as well. I tapped into those years of climbing my way out of tight spots and managed to get down without breaking myself.
I then took the time to clean the downclimb which led to a cleaning of the topout along that face of the boulder and ultimately to the highball testpiece Sonsphear which we had originally rated V1, but then I went back and called it V3. Or vice versa. Regardless, it’s thin and committing with a low and a high crux over an angled landing. I shook my head remembering the energy and excitement of those days. We couldn’t get enough of finding and climbing new problems. A line like Sonsphear we worked until we had each climbed it once and then moved on. It fell off the circuit because you really needed a good spot, so I probably never climbed it again after the FA.
As I uncovered it’s beginning footholds I began recognizing them like the faces of old friends from childhood. I remember how the footholds were used, and how they felt under the hard thin rubber of my climbing shoes. It was like I was able to tap into that long gone time with a straw through the thick stone walls. I’ll never reclaim those experiences, but I can move forward and create new ones. I drank in the memories from that flood just beyond the walls of time, sucking desperately knowing I'd never get more than a trickle of data out of my rusty mind.
I hadn’t considered Sonsphear as a potential project in my bouldering reboot, but now I think I have to do it again, to honor those memories and those good times, and to prove to myself that I haven’t lost myself in the intervening years. It sounds hokey, but right now I am looking for a way to reconcile a lot of bad water. If I had it my way I would wipe the slate clean, maybe erase all of my memories even, and start over fresh. But none of us are able to do that as much as we might like. So I think maybe I’m trying to find a good restore point and work forward from that.
That evening I sat at the table eating my dinner and telling Mandy about the bouldering session and my observations. She was happy that my spirits were improved, and so was I. I was truly surprised that I had come out of the afternoon in a better state as many of my most recent bouldering sessions (going back as far as 2006) ended with me in dark places with poisoned thoughts. I’ve since realized that going off by myself to try and heal isn’t always the best strategy. But Sunday evening it seemed to be just the ticket. Slowly I feel like I’m coming back.