Roadtrip Part 1: Leaving Home, Climbing at Smith Rocks

Leaving Port Townsend with a loaded car and roof rack.  
Our Hoopla 4 set up near Smith Rocks.

Climbing is scary. Climbing hurts. Climbing is hard. The first few days of this month-long road trip have served as an excellent reminder. The pads of my fingers are sore. My hips and shoulders ache. My toes feel like they’ve been squished in a vice. One is torn and bloody. I haven’t rock climbed, really rock climbed, since August 2010. Feeling comfortable and smooth is a year old memory, faded and strange.

I read somewhere that the joy of climbing should come from the challenge and thus from the opportunity to learn, improve, grow stronger. If that is the case then Freya and I are having a blast. And we are, without question, enjoying ourselves very much.

Looking at Smith Rocks from the climbers trail near the river.
Climber setting up a rappel on Rope-de-Dope.

The trip began with a night in Seattle, where we attended Nanda’s acrobatic and invigorating performance, titled “The Jacket.” Afterwards, we had drinks and fusion food with a troupe of friends at a Capitol Hill bar. Danny toasted to adventures. I toasted to followed dreams. Salty pho contrasted sweet pilsner. The newest Star Trek film was playing on a flat-screen above the shadowy bar. Freya tried to motivate everyone to go dancing at a nearby club, but when Danny went to investigate he found it filled with square-jawed Russians and miniskirts. Not our scene. We didn’t leave our table until 1am. The streets were frosted and the sidewalks begged for walking. Freya and I followed Joss to his car, ten blacks away. A pair of locals passed in the opposite direction. One wore a Superman costume, the other a bunny suit. They cawed like crows and we cawed back, filling the crisp air with sharp noise that ricocheted off skyscrapers. Freya sat on Sam’s lap while I drove empty streets through Freemont, the U District, Magnuson Park. We fell asleep on Joss’s floor, a recently vacuumed carpet for a bed, the first of many impromptu arrangements to come.

Lake Washington reflected morning sunlight through the windows, waking us before the headaches wore off. Joss concocted espresso while Freya chugged water. I made a toad-in-the-hole, topping it with white cheddar and tomato. We chatted lazily and chuckled easily. Energy from the coffee and food slowly built up in our bodies. It was 11am when we left Seattle, heading south on I-5 towards freedom, sunshine and Smith Rocks.

Asterisk Pass in afternoon light.
Washing the chalk off my hands.

Detouring through cool farmland near Chehalis, we drove to Freya’s grandma’s house, a single-story home nestled amongst open fields and dilapidated barns. Freya’s aunt, Sue, greeted us at the door and welcomed us inside. Grandma Idelia was resting in a chair at the kitchen table. Her 96 year-old eyes shimmered when she saw Freya, laughing inside. I wondered what those eyes had seen, what memories she had hidden away in her gracious mind. Imagine the things she could teach us, about what matters after so much life.

Following tradition, Freya munched on summer sausage and the four of us played a game of Pitch, which Freya and I won, miraculously. Idelia chuckled at Freya’s jokes and acted as if she couldn’t keep up with the game, although she clearly could. A few hours passed before it was time to get back on the road. Idelia grasped my shoulder with her papery hands when I hugged her goodbye. She was glad we had stopped by and so were we all. We promised to come back soon and Sue gave us ice cream sandwiches for the road. I caught a glimpse of Idelia through the front window as we drove away, still sitting at the kitchen table, wearing a smile.

Now we were on the road, saying goodbye to familiarity and embracing the unknown. Freya said she didn’t feel like the trip had really begun until now. She hadn’t felt truly unattached until this moment. Our roots were pulled up. We were gone and it felt incredible.

Hip-hop beats synced with passing signs. We crossed the fritter-smooth Columbia and skirted Portland’s eastern suburbs, making stops along the way to fill our cooler with fresh vegetables and our stomachs with spicy Thai food. Miles disappeared as Mt. Hood captured the evening’s final light, pink and lingering. Darkness soon covered the South Cascades and I focused my attention on the pavement in front of my high beams. I rarely make plans further ahead than that.

We arrived at Smith Rocks at about 10pm and set up a hasty camp under the enormous harvest moon. What would sunrise reveal?

Our Yurtini set up at the climber’s camp at Smith Rocks.
I don’t want to get up!

Rocks. Orange, yellow, massive, intimidating. People hovered on tiny toes and sharp fingers. Belayers stood at the base of every dihedral. Routes were bolted right next to each other, an intricate game of Chutes and Ladders. All the easy ones were taken. We hiked along the base of the rocks, identifying climbs with our ancient guidebook. We found a route that looked moderate enough, although we didn’t know the rating. I tied into the sharp end and Freya put me on belay. I was shaking uncontrollably by the time I reached the second bolt. People were chatting nearby and their conversations were running through my head. I wasn’t used to climbing with people watching. I wasn’t used to rock climbing in general. I lost my focus. Freya took in the slack and I sat on the rope. She asked if I wanted her to lead, which only made me angry, a good motivation. I felt weak. I was afraid to fall and, as a result, I put too much energy into my movements. I overgripped all the holds. I made it to the anchors on my second attempt, but it felt clunky and awkward. I lacked style, technique, and strength, but most of all I lacked mental toughness. I had no edge. Where had it gone? Where had I lost it? Did I ever have it? We climbed three more routes and I never really felt comfortable. I didn’t fall again, but I didn’t flow either. I know how it feels to climb well and this wasn’t it. Still, it had been a good first day. We ate spaghetti and Advil for dinner. Bedtime coincided with darkness. I knew I would sleep well that night.

Standing with rope bag in front of Smith Rocks.
Stretching out the kinks one morning.

Morning was clear and cold. Freya woke before sunrise to take pictures. I made a toad-in-the-hole with white cheddar and tomato. Instant coffee and hot cocoa was the perfect pick-me-up. We hiked to Asterisk Pass before we found a route that was unoccupied. The crux was at the third bolt on questionable rock. I fidgeted my way to the top and took in the view from the anchors. A dark green river wove between the jagged spires. The sky was blue and empty. I was hanging on an arête with hundreds of feet of exposure on either side. I felt the feeling I knew I would feel, discomfort and fear, but as I sit here writing this I am relishing the memory. I am learning to embrace my discomfort. I am growing. When I am 96 years old, will I remember this specific route? Probably not, but I will certainly remember how it felt to be afraid and to keep moving up.

Sunrise in paradise.

2 comments

  1. smith rocks is my favorite leif! check out the mesa verde wall on the back side, there are four moderate awesome climbs right next to each other! have fun guys!

    Like

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