Bill Kendall scales Rodeo Wall "on lead" to set my belay rope at the peak.
Wednesday, June 23, 1999, Jackson Hole, Wyoming - "I can't see it. I just can't freaking see it," I say - I nearly cry - to Bill Kendall. By "it" I mean a handhold, an edge, a scrap of rock that I can put my finger on, that I can wedge enough of even a single digit into, so that I can haul my sorry self up just a little higher, And I've been stuck on this spot for what seems like hours. You don't understand, see, of course you don't, because I am too frustrated to start this story from the beginning, but I'm in a real mess, here - if I were only six inches higher. Please, give me six more inches... please, give me a scrap of rock to hold onto!
I am not afraid. Sure, I'm 50 feet up a rock wall, and the ground below me is even more rock, and a plunge off my perch would do far worse than kill me; it would take that delicate series of bones and nerves called my spinal cord, and make it look like a train wreck. But I am not afraid, because Bill Kendall has my life in his hands. He has me on belay, which means he has complete control of the rope which leads to the top of this rock, runs through a solid brace, and then down to a harness tightly wrapped around my loin. I will not fall, as long as Kendall - who is a lawyer - keeps hold of the rope, and he will keep hold, because if I fall, the only thing between the cold hard rock and my dressed 200 pounds, is him, and I will crush him.
I am not afraid, because Kendall is an accomplished climber - he has even seen this world from the peak of that highest of Tetons. He has earned his stripes by climbing the "Grand" and he even had the chutzpah to begin his attack on that peak after a full day at work. He even scaled this sucker, called the "Rodeo Queen" climb by the people who name these things, just moments before me, and he did it without a belay line to cling to. His wife, April Kendall, climbed after he did, so if I have any fear, it is a fear of failure, of being the only one on the bus ride home who couldn't make it to the top. My fingers are raw, my muscles are beat, my calves are burning and I am about to get "Elvis leg" where my leg will wobble uncontrollably like I'm some cheap, lounge singer.
"Just shake it out, Mark," Kendall says. "Take a rest and shake it out." I let go of what little grip I have and fall back, my toes against the wall, and dead weight on the line. Kendall braces himself against my mass, clutching the line, which is fed through a "Grigri" braking device. I shake my hands to get life back in them, and I take a greater look at the wall, renewing my spirit. "Trust your feet," he tells me. "Your feet are what gets you up the rock." Easy for him to say, but I hate working my feet - I can't see the darned things. I can easily look where my hands are and I concentrate too much on them. I seem to want to climb this entire face using only my hands, pulling myself to the top, legs practically dangling, and friends, that is all wrong. I am such an amateur! Climbers must develop a sense of touch with their feet, so they can seek out toeholds and edges with their eyes closed, and work them, like a dog scratching his ear.
Not that I should be embarrassed riding back to the Teton High Adventure Camp with the Kendalls' if I don't conquer this lousy rock. They are both good climbers and great sports, and though this climb is only rated a 5.8, it is a bugger. There are two dead spots in it, where there is no mercy; nothing to get you past them, or so it seems. What actually keeps me going is the fact that, since rock climbing is not usually a competitive sport, and since your only goal is to finish, the only way you can lose is if you quit. I remember Kendall telling me why he enjoys rock climbing; "It's the only thing I do where it's the only thing I think about," he told me at the base. "It's just me and the rock."
Right now I'd like it to be just me and a cold beer, but I'm stuck on this blasted outcrop and, by gum, I am not going to quit. Even though I can't find a handhold on this sheer rockface to save my life. I am determined that the only way down right now, is to go straight up. "It's just me and the rock..." I need to focus. I need to stop joking with the Kendalls - who are great fun, and easy to befriend - and I need to focus. This sucker can be climbed - it is possible - I just saw two people practically walk up it, and dammit, I am next.
I look around, decide on another approach, and crab to the right, like a window washer swinging to a new pane. It doesn't look much better over here, but I have a new attitude. That place to my left was a dead-end, it was all about failure, and it was about to be all about quitting. Now I'm on new ground, with a fresh start. I rosin up my hands, and I focus on the rock before me, tuning out everything else. This still is not easy, and it takes me several minutes to find a single, feeble hold. I hug the wall as if I had some weird affection for the thing, and I run my fingers over the face, feeling for a crack, or a node - just a small knot in the rock. I manage to get each hand onto some small purchase, and I begin a search with my feet. My climbing shoes hurt like Hell, but they have sharp, solid edges and can - will - give me the grip I need.
I manage to find some edges here and there, but nothing that will lift me. There is no single point on this wall on which I can balance, no single place that will give me enough edge, and help me push myself up another measly, rotten six inches. That's all I need, just half a foot, and I can dig my claws into a handhold the size of Texas. It is right up there, a gaping hole in the shape of a smile - no, a sneer - and it is taunting me to take it, to muckle my clammy paw inside it and pull, to either pull myself up with it, or pull it and this entire, crazy, million year-old jungle gym down to earth - whatever I choose - because if I ever reach that muther, this rock is mine.
"Climbing a mountain is mostly mental, Mark," Kendall tells me. "It's like a vertical chess game." After a good ten minutes of trying to place a pawn, I do find four fairly good holds, and into the equation jumps a strange variable. I have a slight grip with each of my hands, and my feet are somewhere, holding onto scraps of something. Separately, these holds are useless, but using everything I have, I work this out. I wedge myself between my four little friends, and I squeeze myself upward. I'm not lifting, so much as I am flowing upward, like toothpaste out of a tube. I don't get too far this way, but far enough. My knuckles are just a few inches south of the greatest handhold on this rock, and I make a lunge for it.
I nearly dig my fingernails into the sandstone, leaving a few scratches and even a trace of blood for climbers after me, but I make it. I grab this handhold tightly and pull myself up. I get my right foot into a decent crevice and I stand right up. The peak is still several feet away, but the ride up from here is a cinch. I nearly scramble to the top, and I kiss the stupid stone. The view is incredible, and a terrific reward! I sure am glad I didn't quit, and I take a short break to relish my success. Kendall lowers me down, and he and April climb this thing a second time - just for fun. We pack up and head for the Vanagon, and the ride back to camp is more than enjoyable, and the air smells nicely of success.
My hosts for the high adventure challenge of the Cable Traverse:
Vic Rowberry, Mert Redmond, Pablo Belt, Shirlene Hopper, Me,
Jared Toney, Jason Currie, Tessa, Dave Jacobson, Amy Davis, Sam Page.
(Afterward, Director Rowberry asked me if I had been afraid while up on the wire,
and I realized that these guys had impressed me so much with their safety precautions,
that fear of a 35-foot fall just hadn't occurred to me.)
Return to our MAIN page