Friday, August 4, 2017

Crossing the Big Country

Haha!  For long time readers this will be a funny.  Recently I climbed Big Country with Becky.  Becky and I went to school together though she’s a couple of years older than me.  She’s also on Wolfe County Search and Rescue, and we end up running into each other frequently around the Gorge area.  We have a lot of friends and acquaintances in common and a few months ago climbed together at Dip Wall.
Becky had come across the route description for Big Country in the current climbing guidebook.  She posted a photo of the page and I commented that I had been present at most of the incidents described, if not all of them.  Mandy said we could take her to do the route some time and she was game.
A few years ago, I went and climbed it with the Crash Test Librarian.  Mark and I turned it into an all day adventure by riding our bikes from Stanton, climbing the route, and riding back.  I struggled to get up the route that day, and my body was already in decline from overuse and poor health habits.  Obviously, this was all pre-acupuncture. 
I was anxious for another return to Big Country when it came up last week to see how my joints and muscles would respond to being in the vertical realm again.  For the ascent it ended up being just Becky and I striking out after work this past Tuesday.  The temps weren’t as hot as the week before, but it was still the first of August in Kentucky.
The hike up is stout.  Long Wall is guarded by a long and steep hike.  Then you hike along the wall until the climber trail peters out.  Yes, we were going to a rock climb.  Big Country has never been a trade route.  In fact, years ago when I first ventured out to find it I couldn’t find a single other climber that had ever been on it, or knew where to locate the start.  So I bushwhacked to the top of Long Wall, walked all the way to the top of the Shield where the route is located, and rappelled the last pitch and top-rope-soloed it.
I went back a few weeks later with my regular climbing partner and cousin Dustin and a friend from school—Neil—and we did the same thing, but we also rappelled on to the ground and I finally figured out the entire route from the ground up.  I didn’t revisit Big Country for a couple of years after that, but when some friends were looking for a fun route to climb under a full moon Big Country came to mind.  I went up a few days before the next full moon and pruned a lot of undergrowth off the route, threw some old deadfall into the forest below, brushed off a lot of holds (I was a hard core boulderer at that time too) and added rappel bolts and chains at the top of the second pitch.
The little bit of work opened up the route for more traffic.  I then wrote an article about the route for a now defunct outdoor adventure magazine called Extremz.  The rag was one of the only good print sources of information on the goings on in the Gorge in 1999 and 2000.  My article got a lot of attention and people started climbing what was to become my favorite route for a long time and also the route I was nicknamed after for my heyday climbing years.  That was my original long term internet handle (I gave it up after too many flame wars on the forums of too.  Our friends referred to Mandy and I as “the Countrys” instead of “the Chainrings” for long after we stopped climbing regularly.
View from the middle of the last pitch of an aptly named route, 2014
At the time I also dragged countless friends and casual climbing partners up the route, usually after a long day of climbing elsewhere as a cherry on top of the day.  Man, I was in so much better shape then!
Anyway, I recounted a lot of the adventures I’d had with Mandy and other friends as Becky and I climbed the route.  I struggled at the unprotected crux (harder than 5.5 and more serious than “R” rated) but found that my body responded well to climbing again.  My new knees did well high stepping and pressing out the moves. 
It doesn’t look like many people do the route these days, but there were telltale signs of infrequent climber traffic.  The anchor bolts I placed seventeen years earlier still seem solid.  I remembered most of the gear placements, but found myself trying to activate muscle memory instead of just reading the rock on the fly.  Most of the time I could unlock long forgotten sequences that reflect the most efficient way to move up Big Country.  This was a route I once knew move for move and could race up like a steep hill on a jog in the park. 
The whole outing reinforced my newfound health.  I’m not old and decrepit like I thought.  Becky chided me for being old (43 to her 45!) and when I groaned trying to get off the second belay starting up the third pitch she called me fat.  Haha!  I had to laugh because for the first time in a long time I realized I don’t feel that way, and it was just funny.  She later said she was joking (we both joshed about our respective ages to be fair), and I knew she was, but that was another telling moment for me.  My mental health has drastically improved.  I’m still solidly standing on a block of confidence, and improved body image, and physical energy.
Contentedly re-racking for the last pitch
photo by B. Brewer
I wish I knew exactly what had been holding me back for so long.  Night before last Mandy and I were talking deep about life—again as we have been wont to do lately—and when I said something about knowing that the depression was still somewhere out there waiting to ambush me (even though I don’t have anxiety about that anymore) she said: “But you went climbing yesterday!  And you’ve been riding your bike, and running, and you do so many great things!”  She pointed out all of the things I’ve accomplished this past year.  She really is my biggest fan, though I don’t know what I did to deserve it.  That sentiment isn’t coming from a place of doubt for once.
If I can ever tell this whole story in the full light of day it’ll be important to stress how important and crucial Mandy has been in leading me out of the darkness.  For years, she has been telling me how handsome I am, how smart I am, and how great I am at life.  I’ve failed to believe her because of my own crippling self-doubt, but we were finally able to shove the doubt down into a hole and it’s been cowering there for two months now.  I feel like a new person.  I feel like I’m the person I always wanted to be…the person I wanted to grow into when I was a kid.
It’s fitting that Big Country is part of this transitional story.
Big Country takes the skyline of the obvious formation known as The Shield.
Becky and I walked off the top of Long Wall.  I suggested it.  The walkoff is actually a really great hike in and of itself.  The views are some of the best in the Gorge, and the top of Long Wall provides a spectacular position high above the treetops and the river.
In my newfound contentment I’m not chomping at the bit to go right back and do the route again.  I used to overconsume great experiences.  I think this memory will hang with me for a while.  I’m not saying I won’t go back and do Big Country again soon, but I think I’m ready to move on from this point and start finding out who I want to be during the second half of my life.

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