[Note to non-climbers: this piece contains explanations to help you understand the sport.]
I was attached by a climbing harness to a rope 250 feet above the valley floor, standing on a comfortable ledge of granite, gazing at the ever-majestic Long’s Peak. From the top of this first climb, the sheer beauty of the crags and the the mind-assaulting green of the valley stole my breath. Adrenaline rush! It had been a very successful ascent with a difficulty rating (5.7) right in my comfort zone — excellent to warm up on in a new place. I felt as confident as a beginning climber can feel when she doesn’t really have any technique down yet.
It was a rare 3-day break for me and it was time to get out of Moab where the highs have been in the triple digits for over a week. The Rocky Mountains were a no-brainer; my climbing buddy had plenty of experience on rock near Estes Park, Colorado. I’d never been; that’s where we would go. Besides, I’d get to check off one more national park from my see-’em-all list.
Ed selected “White Whale” (an easier route) from the climbing guidebook as it had been a while since I had been climbing, and we were not on sandstone any more but on metamorphic rock. It was also my very first multi-pitch climb, which means it takes more than one rope length to reach the top and therefore intermediate stops are required. This adds one more layer of drama as one must belay one’s partner (i.e., provide the safety rope from below or above as they climb) from a small ledge somewhere on the wall. It’s different from the more straightforward top-roping I had previously done, and I truly wanted to learn. Getting up high on the walls is exhilarating.
The hike to the cliff base took me by surprise. I was carrying about one-third of my body weight in rope and gear in a backpack, at higher elevation than I’ve been all year, and that 1.5 miles seemed interminable. What kept me going was the wildflowers, the conifer forest smells, the new birdsongs, the cloud formations, the wind whispers… and the thought of getting back on the rocks again.
Reaching the base, Ed unceremoniously dumped his huge pack upside down and began assembling his rack. He would climb the route first, pausing frequently to place protective gear into cracks, then clipping the rope on his harness into carabiners attached to the gear. If he were to fall, my belaying from below would stop him, and the nearest metal device in the crack would hold him suspended while he regained his footholds and handholds. The leader must, of necessity, carry a whole lot more gear than is needed, because you never know which piece will work in which small crack. It’s disconcerting when you must place protection and have nothing that fits.
My guide scrambled effortlessly up the first pitch, or first rope length, installing gear as he went. When he got to the top of it and pulled all remaining rope up to his level, tensioning me for safety, I put on my climbing shoes with sticky rubber soles that would help grip the rock. One deep breath, one heave-ho up to the first foothold, and I was on the wall. Learning how to trust one’s feet, learning how to wedge one’s fingers and hands and fists into cracks, are the first tasks when embracing this sport. My job was to clean (remove) each piece of gear as I went up, clipping it to a loop over my shoulder. Soon enough, I found myself on the small ledge next to Ed. I returned his gear, and we repeated the process two more times, reaching our destination in a couple of hours. After taking a few minutes to give high fives, coil our rope, and admire the views, we hiked down to our packs.
The White Whale had been bagged. I was much pleased. But… what would tomorrow hold?!?