We racked up to Steel Crazy, a four pitch 5.9 route on the spine of the Fortress, at just about two in the afternoon; not an entirely appropriate start for a party of four on long route none of us had done before. Clare and I would start the route, and the boys would come up behind us. I’m willing to sacrifice some dignity and admit that I was all psyched for the route, decided that being the most experienced climber in the group meant I should be the first to lead off the pitch, and got up a measly twenty-five feet before facing the crux of the climb, where I was shut down. Some people will probably disagree with me, but I think the hardest part of a climb is when you’re hanging on at your physical limit, you can still see what your next move should be but don’t know what will happen in the move after that. This isn’t just a climbing thing; this is a test of how we deal with all the hard stuff in our lives. The hardest part is trusting that you’ll figure it out when you get there. I did not trust this at all. My next move involved grappling a little bulge above my head and attempting to thrust all my weight over it, and this part I could do, but I couldn’t see what to hold on to after the leap. Instead, I hung from my arms looking for the next hold until my arms turned to jelly. And then I came down.
The other hard part of climbing: getting your ego smashed in front of boys. One of the guys lead the pitch and popped right over the spot where I struggled; maybe some of it was that he’s six foot four and I’m five foot three, but most of it was that he’s fearless. On the drive up the mountain, we were talking about fun routes we’d done before, and he related some stories about getting in over his head leading on harder climbs; I asked why he didn’t just back off of those situations, and he said it just hadn’t occurred to him. In some ways I was envious; climbing for me includes the task of constantly sorting out the real dangers from the stomach flips. For him the guidelines were clear, and the stomach flips were no big deal. On my second attempt I got over the crux just fine.
View from the first belay
The best part of climbing (again at least in my opinion) is the exposure and the view, and by these criteria the belay station on top of the first pitch of Steel Crazy is superb. Clare and I sat on top of a little pinnacle, looking out at the jagged front range and on toward Tucson. On the horizon we could see the outlines of Mount Wrightson and Baboquivari Peak. Behind us was an alcove where the boys were starting the second pitch. Clare really wanted to lead this part; she had climbed harder but had little leading experience. The second pitch is a steep headwall that requires balance on little crystals everywhere, and as we watched the leader dance up the face, he whistled and occasionally sang the chorus of a song stuck in his head, and Clare got nervous. She said he always whistles when the climbing is hard.
Clare got to the second bolt of the second pitch, and then told me she wanted to come down. I said okay, but instead of asking me to take up the slack, she took another step, and then another. She was silent the rest of the way up, until she was at the anchors eighty-five feet later. She told me not to tell the boys about her momentarily lost confidence, but I thought she deserved a shout out anyway; hopefully they don’t read many blogs. I think I know just how she felt. After you push past that point of fear there’s a delicious sense of focus; it’s like the part of your brain that’s dwelling on falling gets drowned out by the part that wants to hang on. The second and third pitches of Steel Crazy are like that: you’re balancing on almost vertical rock on small holds, and after nearly every move it seems like there’s nothing left to move to, until you find something that seems impossibly small and you realize you can make it work. It’s an accumulation of tiny steps, and every step is an accomplishment and a celebration that you’re still hanging on.
Clare at the summit
We ended the climb exactly at sunset. So exact, in fact, that as I was pulling up from the shade of the rock to the summit I planted my hands in a bright swath of pink light. We sat at the top coiling our ropes, eating dried mango and candied ginger and watching the colors change, sinking down over the Tucson Mountains. We hiked out in the dark, headlamps like fireflies among the trees.
Sunset on the descent