Four years ago Eli and I stepped into Eldorado Canyon for a day of climbing. Our destination: the classic and typically cryptic Eldo 5.11, Vertigo. I threw the pack that coupled as my schoolbag over my shoulders, grabbed the rope and we started hiking. My legs burned as we progressed along the endless stairway of rocks that meanders west along the Redgarden Wall. I stared at my feet and plodded along while red rock flashed by in the corner of my eye, remembering with fondness giving belays from the hood of my car at Wall Street the entire summer.
I lived 15 minutes down the road but was a tourist in this new place. Finally, at a seemingly arbitrary point along the trail, we dumped our packs and stared up the crown of Tower One. Eli pointed out the line and I threw some gear on my harness. With a huge breath, adrenaline overtook the weariness in my legs. I gripped the rock and started skyward. I struggled leading the awkward first pitch and had no idea where to stop. At a random stance I spent a few minutes trying to fish in enough good gear for an anchor before giving up, pulling through another ten feet and setting up shop on a decent ledge. Everything felt so poorly defined compared to Shelf Road sport climbing and Moab’s desert splitters.
Eli then onsighted the crux dihedral with enough struggle to keep me from blinking. After being spit off several times, I crawled to the anchor, turned around and sat on a big ledge below the last pitch, a massive roof 500 feet above the streambed. My senses seemed magnified as I peered through the crimson canyon. The breeze became the canyon’s breath, foreboding and slow. The 5.11 cracks that litter the canyon’s walls became veins, alive and pulsing with possibility while hidden behind a skin I still couldn’t cut. Far below, the creek carved the next micrometer of depth that millions of years from now may be part of a massive tower known as the lower Redgarden Wall.
Eli jarred me from my anchored peace, “You ready for the next pitch?” My heart snapped into my lungs. He expected me to lead the roof. More specifically, he thought I was ready to traverse out over nothingness and tackle a 5.11 roof with only the metal jingling on my belt like chimes in the wind to keep me alive.
“I don’t know, man. How do you feel about leading it?”
He wasn’t going to let me off so easily and pressed me to go for it.
“You can do this, man. You’re a strong climber and I’ve got you.”
Holding the rock with the care I use to pour PBR and the force I would summon to fist fight Voldemort I crept out along the ledge, established on the roof and plugged a cam. The great hand jams and jugs gave way to a short section with poor feet and I rested on another perfect cam.
Reaching over the roof, my palm read the hidden landscape. No, no…no, YES! I found an amazing, if somewhat sideways ledge. It was plenty to yard over the lip and deposit me on the summit. The pure thrill of finishing such a challenge mixed with a tinge of regret for my gripped reticence when the climbing turned tough.
My nerves were shot, my body was tired and my tongue cried out for cold beer, but when Eli suggested we climb another route, I couldn’t say no.
We made our way back to the beginning of the Redgarden Trail and started up toward Tower Two. As we caught a switchback we heard rock fall from above echoing off the Bastille. I looked up to witness a baseball-sized widow maker tumbling down the Redgarden, skipping past another pair of climbers. The rock caught a ledge that sprung it off the cliff face, directly at me. Like a batter who can distinguish seams spiraling in a curveball, I could see the rock spinning end over end as it flew toward my head. At the last instant, I ducked left and the rock glanced off my right shoulder. As if I needed a reminder, in some omnipresent third person tense, Eldo was letting me know that Eldo is boss.
When we arrived cliffside, a couple older gentlemen were rapping down from a line they had just completed. We didn’t have a guidebook and asked them about the route. One of them gave me a perfect description that I didn’t understand whatsoever. Though he had mentioned a few bolts, the routefinding Eldo requires seemed daunting. Soaked in beta, I stared up at the blank panel and pictured my leg shaking like a dog getting the perfect belly rub, as I searched in vein for the next pro.
That vision of doom didn’t stop me from hopping on. At 60 feet I reached the base of the blank face and spotted an eye-level anchor accessible by a squeeze chimney ramp. I slithered over to the friendly bolts, set an anchor and proclaimed my mission accomplished.
Which brings me to this week and the reason I’m reminiscing about a random day years ago in Eldo. On Tuesday Tyler and I took advantage of a sliver of nice weather and climbed for a couple hours. We returned to Tower Two, glanced in the guidebook and Tyler led Touch and Go. The 140 foot 5.9 requires two rappels. When we arrived at the lower anchor, the same one I bailed to four years prior, I realized that the intriguing bolted line off to the right was the same one I just hadn’t been able to comprehend. We had planned on climbing a harder line, but the sun dying over the rim of the south canyon walls no longer reached the ground. Freezing in the afternoon shade to tick something off my list suddenly seemed less compelling. So I traversed down the ramp, clipped the first bolt and enjoyed the thought provoking 5.10 climbing on Bolting for Glory.
When we got home, Tyler described the day to a friend as being “casual.” During another winter escape a couple months ago, we negotiated cold and 50 mile per hour winds in an awesome return to Vertigo.
I remember my early days climbing as though I was a different person. It’s easy to measure physical progress. But mental leaps are much harder to gauge. Somewhere along the line, Vertigo no longer seemed imposing. Bolting for Glory became something we could shrug our shoulders about, grab a few draws and climb. Experiences like I had on Vertigo years ago may not make one significantly stronger, or result in the mastering of some new, vital technique. But they can mold a climber. Becoming stronger and technically better will only get you so far in this sport. Winning the mental battles is what changes personality and perception.
Climbing is fun and friends. It is breathing fresh air and peering down at the treetops. It is music around the campfire and stories around the coals. It is seeing the milky way smeared across the clear night sky and waking to jokes and hot chocolate. It is focused effort and effortless focus. It is forming memories as razor sharp as the holds and it can give the ability to work hard without confusing identity with job.
But climbing is also struggle and without that struggle the rest of it might be replaced by television and a couch. Climbers thrive on that struggle. They seek it. It gives them perspective.
When I pulled myself over the Vertigo roof the first time I wasn’t thinking about money or work or a broken down car. When I went to the office the following Monday, a bad day wasn’t going to stick with me and a good day wasn’t going to send me to the streets clicking my heels. I had been reminded of balance on a larger scale.
Climbing is a very different pursuit for an aspiring 5.7 climber compared to a veteran pushing 5.14. But in many ways climbing is the same for everyone. The gains from rising to an intense challenge can be attained by anyone. You only have to reach.