Summer 2019. A series of crags collectively called The Island in the Shoshone Canyon just outside Cody, Wyoming. The route? “*itch On A Broomstick”, a 5.8 or 5.9 on the YDS. The sun is behind the crag, now, so the rock is beginning to cool. Granite. I don’t like my granite cooked… AJ ties in and leads to the top of the route, setting up a toprope anchor for me while I belay him and Emily takes photos. Emily’s getting particularly good at climbing photography, and could potentially have a career in it if she wanted to. Lucas couldn’t come because he’s guiding this time of year. That’s okay. Emily’s an indispensable member of our little climbing trio, especially with her camera skills.
Climbing helps all of us keep our minds off of the stresses of life in general. Today is all about the steep and life in the vertical world! This is my first climbing trip since the motor vehicle accident that messed up my left hand, thumb, and wrist eight months ago. I’ve been working on rehabilitating it in the gym, but haven’t been outdoors with it again yet. Until today. I begin to lower AJ after he gets the toprope anchor set up. He comes to an abrupt halt in the air as I pull back too far on the new GriGri model’s handle and the safety mechanism kicks in. “Sorry!” I yell up to him as he grunts and I resume lowering him. This time, he makes it the rest of the way smoothly to solid ground. “Still getting used to this thing,” I tell him as I give him copious amounts of slack and he gives the rope a good tug to relieve the tension on his harness. He gives me a frustrated look with his eyes while half-grinning and tells me it’s okay before asking for some Extra Strength Tylenol. I dig the dirty, scratched-up bottle out of my pack for him while he unties the rope from his harness and takes off his orange climbing helmet.
Emily dons her white climbing helmet and ties in. I belay her on toprope as a warm-up for her. Yes, 5.8 is a mere warm-up for her now. She moves smoothly and at a steady pace up the route, unclipping the rope from every draw and racking them on her gear loops as she comes to each of them. Emily has come so far in her climbing abilities! I’m so proud of her! I remember when she first walked into the old bouldering gym and didn’t have any friends there. I introduced myself and we were fast friends. Then I introduced her to Lucas, who was very interested in her – very obviously so, haha! They’ve been together for a couple of years now. Lucas’s mountain-guiding takes him away for five months at a time to Mount Ranier every year. Various climbing trips to other parts of the country take him away during other times. Oh, well. Emily seems to handle it alright and takes it in stride now. I watch her make short work of this route and I hear, “Dirt me!” loud and clear within minutes. I lower her much more smoothly than I had lowered AJ, who is ready to give me a catch on this route.
“Can I use your GriGri? I haven’t used one of the new ones yet.” I gladly hand over my GriGri and carabiner so that he can attach them to his harness and put me on belay. I tie in with a double figure-of-eight knot and a Yosemite finish. AJ doesn’t approve, so I retie my back-up into a double Fisherman’s knot. AJ has never trusted anything that might interfere with or alter the double figure-of-eight knot itself, so the Yosemite finish was definitely out. That’s okay with me. As long as I have a secure back-up knot and a partner that cares enough to say something, that’s all I need! Partner check. My harness is on properly and securely, I’m tied in properly, through both loops, 2-4-6-8, with a back-up knot, helmet on, climbing shoes on, check. AJ’s got the rope fed through the GriGri properly, carabiner’s locked, through the belay loop, double check, tug on the rope, GriGri catches, good to go. “On belay.” I take my first steps toward the rock and take a look at the route as I open my chalk bag to chalk up.
I dip my hands one at a time into my chalk bag, feeling the soft chalk coat them. I rub my hands together and find my start holds. It feels different with my left hand – the weaker of the two, now – than with my right hand. We’ll see how this goes. I haven’t lost a whole lot of weight since last summer, but I’ve lost a little. My calves are sure to burn and I know it. I find two footholds and pull onto the wall as I say, “Climbing!”
“Climb on!” AJ replies. I’ve found two jugs for handholds and two fairly decent footholds for starters. I’m already feeling the strain in my left hand, wrist, and thumb, but I’m not letting go. Not yet. I’ve only just begun. It isn’t pain that I’m feeling. It’s just strain on the ligaments and tendons that haven’t been on real rock in a long time. I move my right foot up and reach up with my left hand to the next hold, also a jug. I’m already sweating. Breathe, Chris, breathe. I’d been holding my breath. “Trust your feet, Chris,” AJ says reassuringly. Trust your feet. That’s right. Trust your feet. You’re good at this, Chris. You can do this and you love it. Enjoy it. Just breathe and find the next good foothold. I catch my next left foothold and stand up on my left leg, reaching high with my right hand and searching for a handhold. I’ve found a deep crimp. That’ll do. I bring my right foot up and find a good jug with my left hand. So far, so good. My left wrist and thumb are beginning to loosen up a bit and it feels good to have them stretched out. They’re weak, but my fingers and thumb are holding onto the jug just fine. I tell myself not to overgrip and focus on my feet. Trust your feet. I begin climbing a in a bit more relaxed manner, finding a good rest spot and chalking up. I take three good, deep breaths with powerful exhales to get oxygen into my system, then fire off the next few moves with explosive action. If I don’t fire this off now, I’ll never get any farther up the route. Lou taught me that trick about myself. He told me not to rest too long, then to be explosive in firing off those next moves to get going again and keep a pace, keep breathing.
It’s working so far. I’m halfway up and have found another good resting point – a ledge of sorts for my feet, a no-hands rest where I can shake out and chalk up against the wall. It’s cool there and I’m winded. My left wrist and thumb have about had it, but I’m not quitting yet. Let’s see how far I can make it. I’m going to the top! I fire off those next moves explosively and up, up, I climb… I feel the breeze against my hot, sweat-soaked t-shirt and the burn in my calves. My toes and arches are in excruciating pain, my lungs are filling to capacity, my forearms are so pumped that I can hardly grip… Sweat is dripping down into my eyes from my eyebrows and my climbing helmet is trapping the heat. I can see the anchor…just a few more moves…my grip is failing…can’t stop now…