Mazama Rock

Tyler returned from Ecuador just a few days before I persuaded him to come to Mazama. The forecast was bright that week and our ambitions were high. It had been a long time since either of us had been rock climbing. Late last summer I spent a few days in Leavenworth sanding calluses and leaving soft rubber on sharp stone. Since then, I had been mountaineering and backpacking endlessly, but the feeling of moving my feet onto tiny nubbins, crimping my digits on edges, clipping a carabiner over the rope had become unfamiliar from disuse. Our trip to Mazama, and the longest moderate sport route in America, would change all that.

Prime Rib (Grade III+, 5.9) is 11 pitches long and includes a 30-minute approach up unstable talus fields that are rough on weak ankles like mine. I was glad I wore my boots.

We park the car beneath Goat Wall, a massive conglomeration of butter-colored stone that protrudes from the Methow River valley. It is 8:45am when we find the ancient road that is the beginning of the approach. Dark grey, melon-sized rocks precariously balance on one another, are dislodged by our boots, make clunking sounds until they are caught in another crevice, balanced there again.

A rushing white waterfall is on our left, the first bolt on our right. The guidebook calls this section low 5th-class, so we decide to solo up to more difficult rock. We carry one pack between us, which is filled with water bottles, tuna fish sandwiches, energy bars, a camera, an extra layer each. The second always carries the pack. Tyler scrambles up behind me to the first set of anchors, clips in.

I lead the first pitch. The 5.8 crux is a blocky arête of meta-volcanic rock. Move the feet piece-by-piece, lean left for the best angle on handholds, rest with arms outstretched, chalk, clip, continue. The rhythm is initially awkward, but the holds are solid, my soles sticky, and the protection abundant. Soon, I see the next anchors and clip in, call “Off belay,” hear Tyler’s response. Now we are really climbing and, like a reunion with an old lover, awkwardness transforms into natural interaction. My body remembers the motions better than I do. Everything feels right.

We swap the lead back and forth, Tyler climbing the more moderate sections while I tackle the juggy overhanging cruxes. Our systems work smoothly, the rope never leaving our harnesses, the quickdraw exchange instantaneous; the climbing goes on forever.

At the top of the 7th pitch we stop for lunch. Tuna fish sandwiches with almonds and apple taste so much better when you’re perched on a ledge, clove hitched to a wall that drops a thousands feet to the river below you. We enjoy this rare flavor, enjoy the delicate warmth of the sun as it is tempered by the diurnal breeze.

“I feel so lucky,” says Tyler, “to be doing exactly what we love to do.”
“I know. It is amazing up here. Not many people get to experience something like this,” I say.
“Not only that, but climbing is what we love. Some people spend their lives only dreaming of doing what they truly love.”
“It’s challenging too. I feel like the last seven pitches have taught me a lot.”
“For sure. This is just unbelievable.”
“Isn’t it just incredible.”

We are in agreement. We would spend the rest of the day enjoying the view from that ledge if it weren’t for how cold the night will become. We have four more pitches to go, and who knows how many rappels. We continue climbing.

The last pitch is the overall crux, a slightly overhanging, blocky corner that leads to an exposed, knobby arête. I try to psyche myself up for the sharp end, breathe deeply as I move beneath the route, clip the first bolt. My toes feel bruised. My fingertips are raw. But the sensation disappears as I climb. Focus outweighs pain. The moment is like deep meditation.

You have felt it before, maybe playing sports, maybe dancing, maybe having sex. It happens when your mind is no longer thinking, just reacting, when your body is controlled instinctually by a force that seems separate from yourself. Within that moment it is impossible to notice your own state of being. You have no perspective of the past or future. You are living completely in the moment and there is nothing beyond that. The moment might last only a split second.

For me, it lasts for the length of the final pitch. And when I reach the top and clip into the anchors, a sense of serene calm, undisturbed contentedness brings a smile to my face.

A few minutes later, Tyler is sharing my emotions. Words are unnecessary. We enjoy the view, the height, the cloudless afternoon in relative silence. Then, it is time to rappel.

Prime Rib is not a difficult climb from the perspective of a “professional,” but for us, the grade and length combine for an altogether challenging yet reachable goal. There is one thing that makes the climb a bit more challenging: the descent.

We are rappelling forever. There are more rappels than there are pitches. Now it is impossible not to notice the soreness in my feet, the fatigue in my hands. Tyler and I watch each other like birds of prey. “You’ll wanna clip in now buddy,” we say, or “Make sure to tie knots in both ends of rope.” Our system works efficiently though and we cruise down the wall, pushing off rock, gliding past overhangs and slabs.

Reaching the gully where the climb started, we tear off our climbing shoes and bask in the sun for a moment, our aching toes and fingers begging us to stop. Hiking boots feel better, but going downhill on loose talus doesn’t help.

It is 7:30pm when we reach the car. After 10 hours and 30 minutes of climbing we are absolutely spent. “Jump in the river?” suggests Tyler. If there is one thing that will restore enough energy to cook dinner before sleep, this is probably it. We leave our backpacks in the parking lot, scurry down the slope towards the rushing Methow. Tyler searches for a spot to jump. I find a small clearing in the bush, a short sandy shore that leads to a rushing eddy. I strip the chalky clothing from my body, take two steps in ankle deep water, then plunge headfirst into the freezing rush, rise screaming after a moment, plant my feet on the slimy river-rock, and wonder if I will ever feel more alive.

(Check back soon for pictures of the climb. I will be posting them shortly)

One comment

  1. Hi Leif,
    My name is Jane and I'm with Dwellable.
    I was looking for blogs about Mazama to share on our site and I came across your post…If you're open to it, shoot me an email at jane(at)dwellable(dot)com.
    Hope to hear from you soon!


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