“You want one of these?” I asked, holding out a Gu packet as Josie racked up for some shitty looking climbing. Around us, clouds and mist swirled. Small droplets, mistlets, if you will, pecked at my eyeballs as I squinted upward at our intended route.
“Uh. . . sure” she said, taking the proffered calorie packet and shoving it in her pocket. A quick check and then upward scrambling. “Well fuck. . .” is the last thing I heard before I watched her dive into the shrubbery. I saw hide nor hair of her for the next 45 minutes, just a slow feeding out of rope, a bunch of wiggling trees and the occasional whack of a hammer on something. She emerged higher, later, somewhat victorious, to a small ledge. She pounded in a bolt, gardened some mud, clipped in and went off belay.
My ensuing jug took me deep into the unmanicured bush, then up a pecker and shrubbery protected corner to a small stance. One glance reinforced what I had guessed from the bottom: I had my work cut out for me.
“Huh?! Woah! Falling!!” By the time I finished these three thoughts I had crash landed on the small ledge from which Josie is belaying me. My heel struck first, but it was my knee, dragging and banging down the rock that administered the brunt of the pain.
I am stopped by a purple/grey X4 offset camming device shoved thoughtfully into a muddy crack. I am eye to eye with Josie. “You okay?” I asked as we made eye contact.
“Yeah. . . Fuck that was unexpected. I guess the nut I was standing on wasn’t quite that good.” It is an understated statement of the obvious. I reached down and tethered into the anchor to reorganize myself and gather my wits.
I’d like to say that I uttered a curse, sucked down a Gu packet, went back up and sent the shit out of the vegetated crack above, slinging roots, grabbing twigs, and grappling like a monkey. But I can’t. Instead I sucked down the Gu packet, went back up and repeated the whole process. Twice. After three falls and much time, I finally managed to scrape my way 40 feet up the wet, moss infested corner, and into the growing dusk. Nothing of much use, despite 90 minutes of upward clawing and whimpering.
I lowered off a somewhat decent piece and we rapped to the ground, leaving our ropes fixed. A light mist fell as we made our way down the slippery, steep, machete hacked jungle trail to our high camp at Mirador de Puta de Wa Wa during which we stumbled over roots, logs, and sharpened bamboo spears in the fading light of the 10 PM darkness.
Again, I would like to say that I came back re-energized for the A-Tree, J3, jungle wrestling fest that would ensue, but I didn’t. I deferred in what ultimately cost us time and energy. I knew Josie’s aid climbing skills and instincts were far superior, so in that light, I offered it up. It was eight o’clock when we started jugging the lines the next morning. Clouds swirled and drops fell from an undecided sky.
The ledge I had repeatedly crash landed on yesterday was today’s belay perch. Above me Josie was slinging trees, hooking branches, and battling upwards. Next to me a fern twirled down from above, not unlike the helicopter seed pods that would fall off the willows of my childhood – it seemed a far distant memory, one of innocence, safety, life. It passed me by, but my eyes followed, its heavy, dense stem pulling it downward, its dying, orange leaves rotating, occasionally bouncing off the rock.
The disappointment was palpable. I had given in. I hadn’t stepped up to the plate. I told myself in the moment it is better, she has better instincts, will move quicker. This was true. But in that sentence, part of me had died, not because I am not good enough, but because I said it so easily. Scared of failing, of not being good enough melded with the other truth. Time though, did not exist for self-loathing or self-pity. Doing better now is what I needed to do. Jug fast. Do what I got to do.
Above, absorbed deep into the vegetation, Josie battled upward. She yelled down to tag up the #5. That was good news, that meant there was crack up there, not just vertical rainforest. All the sucking down moss and digging through detritus had granted her access to the base of a splitter 5.9 fist crack and higher, a heinous looking, gaping, off width.
The fist crack, which was quickly dispensed with, offered a modicum of fun and relief between what lay below and what was in store. The gash above was clean, not much loose rock, but protection proved scarce: a .75 behind a hollow flake, a tipped out #5 and a wiggly #3 Big Bro, all with plenty of space between. She tapped in a button head. The crack above was only slightly different, but it wasn’t quite big enough for the back cleaned Big Bro and just too big for the similarly acquired #5. Ooops. And our #6s were all stored neatly back in North America. Eventually, her mental energy spent, Josie lowered off and we traded places.
The morning’s mist and clouds had transitioned into late afternoon clearing as I pushed the route higher, simultaneously affirming the ever slight difference between the Big Bro and the Camalot. I moved up, getting in the last two of our tiny, 1/4 inch, coffin nail, button heads. Above there is no pro and the forty feet of off width grinned its toothy grin down on me. The cam clanged around uselessly while the tube smacked impotently at the cracks interior. From a good stance I wiggled upward. Then backed down. Again. The bolt was there, but above, there is nothing, only forty feet of known and who knows how much unknown. I reached out, brushing a prepubescent beard of fine, dry, lichen from from the face. Its divots and undulations could provide features and friction. It came back. I made lie back moves up the face, eventually cramming my leg deep into the crevice. Again, the tube and cam are futile, energy wasting efforts. I reversed the lie back to the stance. I wiggle upward once more. The moves will come. I can do it. I felt it, I knew it. The exposure, the runout taunted though: I am scared. I can’t handle it. Fuck, I am once again, not up to par, not good enough. I can’t hack the risk. I was letting her down. I felt the sickness return, felt the vomit coming and swallowed it back. I wanted to blame the gear, or lack there of, but if you’re good enough, you don’t need it. . . and here I was, back there again, not being the partner I wanted to be.
I swallowed once more, much more than just dry cottony, sticky saliva; “I don’t think I can do this. I’m not strong enough to stomach this runout. I’m sorry” I said as I looked down at her. “You want another crack at it?” I offer. The sadness and disappointment rushed full bore into my voice. I once again, have not upheld my end of the partnership today or even on this expedition for that matter. And it felt, and still feels, like shit.
“Fuck it” Josie said with resignation. It was 1730 and less than 1/3rd of the way up, we were turning around.
“I’m sorry. . .” is all I could muster.
Featured Image: Josie midway up pitch two on the Christmas Wall.