I check my phone.
Giggles outside my door. Then raucous, braying laughter.
I open the door, fake a yawn, and rub my eyes. Like a caricature. Just for emphasis.
“Guys, I have to be up in an hour. Like an actual hour.”
Smiles, a sympathetic nod. No audible reduction in volume. Oh well, at least I tried. Back to bed for another fitful hour of pretend sleep. I’ll need to make the most of every moment of rest, actual or otherwise, before the coming day.
It’s beyond dark outside when my alarm goes off, but I’m filled with that strange energy manufactured just for the nervous and the tired. I go through the preparations I set up for myself last night: brew coffee, make sandwich, take a shit. That last one’s especially important. I can’t even imagine the woe experienced by the man, tied to a harness, hauled 100 feet up a wall of solid rock, who has the sudden urge to defecate.
I double, triple check my gear. I take pride in being prepared while out in the “wilderness.” You feel like James Bond’s Q, equipped with the right laser-shooting doohickey at just the right time. Though in this case, it can be as simple as a pack of playing cards or a flask of cheap whiskey.
I hurry to my car, already noting that I’ll be about 5 minutes late. Thankfully at this hour, there’s no traffic. No light either. It always seems particularly saddening to be up before the sun.
I check the speedometer.
That’s not too bad on Venice Boulevard, right? I wonder if there are more or less cops early in the morning. I then wonder how I always seem to find myself in this situation: racing against the clock, hitting deadlines, just racing from checkpoint to checkpoint. Philosophers argue whether we’re governed by free will or predetermination. With just one glance into any of our calendars, free will seems like a sweet, impossible fantasy. Like elephant hunting, or being able to someday own your own home.
I arrive at our meeting spot in good time to see Ryan and Micah. Ryan, tall and broad-shouldered, has the confidence of a man who has done this before and the enthusiasm of a boy who hasn’t. Micah, with long dark hair and a silver forelock and a trim goatee, looks like Lucifer’s cool, younger brother. The one who decided to smoke pot and take it easy, instead of becoming the sovereign of all evil. We are soon joined by Gopal, a young chiropractor. Skinny with earnest eyes, he’s biting on an apple when he greets us. It seems to make sense to me that a doctor would eat an apple a day. I guess it would be almost hypocritical if they didn’t.
We hit the road in Ryan’s SUV. The ride begins in relative silence.
I check my phone.
Idiot. Who’s going to be emailing you at 6:30AM on a Saturday morning? I put away my phone. The silence is punctuated by the occasional mandatory of first time small talk.
“So how long have you been in LA?”
“So how do you know Ryan?”
“So have you been here before?”
The conversation picks up as the sun brightens the sky evermore. The first joke of the day is cracked — something about a cheetah raping a camel. For some reason this comforts me greatly.
“Does anyone get carsick?”
Three heads shake.
The car begins to snake up rocky trails as we wend our way closer to Echo Cliffs. Clouds and a light rain have plagued us the entire drive in. If the conditions hold, the climb will be unsafe and our expedition simply a bumpy, early morning road trip to nowhere. Additionally, the clouds obscure what I’m told in the car is an amazing view of the ocean. Just my luck.
We pull into a dusty car park and see quite a few cars already there. There’s even a silver C-Class Benz, which strikes me as particularly un-outdoorsy. I guess that’s just LA. Ryan’s SUV pulls up next go a big pickup truck, belonging to Allen, Ryan’s partner in the adventure business. We unload, stretch, and greet the new members of our party. There’s Allen, tall and skinny with a hippie’s drawl and long blond hair. Next is Dave, the congenial Kiwi. There are two more who don’t come over immediately, Aleks and a German fellow whose name I can’t recall. Allen brings out a box of donuts and shares it with the group. I take this moment to sneak a piss by the side of the parking lot. I get the feeling we’ve crossed the point where it’s now not only acceptable but encouraged to void your waste out in the open.
The group begins to march out the lot and towards the trail; I scurry to join the tail end. It’s only a slight uphill hike on a dusty trail, but almost immediately I find myself short of breath. Conversation breaks out in pairs as we walk single-file. I try and focus on my breathing. My answers are monosyllabic at best. Every now and then there’s a break in the foliage and we look out onto a sea of gray clouds. Just another memorable landscape blotted out by clouds. I would have my fair share of breathtaking views to come though.
“It’s OK if you need to use your hands.”
This is where the scrambling began. Scrambling is simply precarious walking. Though easier than climbing, it seems a lot more dangerous. The loose sandy stones and ominous dips off the rock wall seem to invite disaster all too easily. Near the back of the line, I observe the others as they crawl, shimmy, and hop the rocky path. Boots skid on loose gravel. I decide to not even attempt to imitate some of the more advanced members and be as ungraceful as need be. Butt slides, baby steps, and tree branches.
About 15 minutes in, we hit a small descent. A handful of iron rungs are wedged into the rock, along with a knotted rope. We take turns descending one by one. I am suddenly struck by how much more adventurous this suddenly became. Before, it was just a walk along a trail attached to a parking lot, the most mundane and suburban of human endeavors. Now we were crossing over. To a place that wasn’t as inviting and accessible as we’ve made the rest of the world. To be here, you had to want to be here. This wasn’t passing through. There were no escalators, elevators, or moving walk ways. There were only three iron rungs, a dirty rope, and an unspoken warning: enter if you dare. My turn. I grabbed hold of the rope and swung my heavy booted foot onto the first iron rung.
Another 15 minutes in and we reach our climbing spot: a rock face cleft in two by a scar of a watermark and pockmarked with chalk acne. Ryan consults the guide book: the route we will be climbing is named “Righteous Babe.” It’s a relatively easy route with an inviting name. Which is good because I haven’t climbed in a while and I’m sure to be rusty at best. Aleks and the German take off on their own almost immediately, borrowing a few pieces of gear from Allen. I hope sincerely they are not items we will be needing when clinging to rock a couple of hours in the future.
We suit up as Righteous Babe gets dolled up and decent for her date with three nervous newcomers. Gopal, Micah, and I take turns make warm-up climbs as Ryan, Allen, and Dave belay. Occasional bursts of encouragement punctuate the early morning still.
Nice is to climbing what bravo is to opera.
After a few runs, we start to belay each other. I climb Righteous Babe as Gopal belays me, with help and instruction from Ryan. The distance is manageable, but because of the exertion, and the excitement, I’m quickly out of breath from the climb. Good thing we have a lunch break coming up soon.
As soon as my tightly-bound feet touch the ground, an idea started to circulate amongst the group.
“Let’s climb the second pitch!”
Ryan and Allen discuss the idea while the rest of us mill about. The idea begins to gain traction with the experienced climbers, and they begin hammering out the logistics of hauling our newbie asses up 180 feet of crumbly rock. With the plan in place, Allen climbs up the first pitch of Righteous Babe so he can top belay the rest of us up to the first shelf.
I’m up first. I pull on a fleece, pack my pockets full of Ricola, and start climbing up. Having practiced on this portion of the route a few times already, I make it up in decent time. Reaching the top, Allen buckles me to a system of cords attached to the anchors. They form a snug V over my chest and I christen my lifesaving device as “The Baby Harness.” Dangling my feet contentedly, I look down as the next climber, Micah, ascends. Once he reaches the shelf, Allen attaches him to the anchor he himself is attached to. Micah then squeezes onto the tiny shelf I had been nesting on. It’s tight, and only getting tighter. Gopal climbs next and gets anchored to my right, clipped off The Baby Harness. Ryan climbs next, followed by Dave with a bag full of gear, including my camera.
With the whole gang here, clustered on a tiny shelf nearly 100 feet into the air on a vertical rock face, I imagine we must be quite a sight. Six grown, clearly uncomfortable, men huddled on the side of a cliff, like ambitious and reckless goats who don’t know how to quit. People really go where they don’t belong. No matter how uninviting an environment. Or absolutely difficult. Or utterly life threatening. People seem to have this point that they need desperately proven that they can go wherever they please. That nature is no detriment to will power. But man oh man, what a sight. Copses of trees miniaturized to diorama decorations and clouds and blue sky beyond.
The first pitch complete, it was time to ascend the second. Dave belays for Allen as he leads the more difficult portion of the climb. We wait on the shelf, toes and legs losing feeling fast. Allen reaches the top and sets himself up to belay the first climber. Whoever climbs next will have to clean the route and pick up all the quickdraws used by Allen on his way up. Micah volunteers for the task, and Ryan outfits him with a nylon loop to clip the quickdraws to. Micah crosses over Gopal, Dave, and myself to get in position to begin his climb. There’s a shuffle as safety measures are exchanged: an anchor for a rope. Dave double checks Micah before he makes his first move.
Figure 8, check.
And away he goes. Encouragement rains down from Allen as Micah shadows the more difficult route Allen just climbed to reach each of the bolts. I crane my neck to watch Micah at work, but a slight bulge right above the shelf makes observation a difficult task. At least from the safety and comfort of The Baby Harness. I resign myself to watching the majesty of unblemished nature instead.
Once Micah reaches the top and descends back to our shelf, I’m up next. I volunteer to stay up top with Allen so I can snap a few photos of the rest of the crew as they climb up. Once we’ve exchanged safety clip for ropes, I begin the climb. Despite being the same route, this pitch of the climb is significantly more difficult than before. Maybe the Righteous Babe is bipolar. I reach the top of the climb and settle onto the more generous shelf up here. Allen clips me to the anchor up top. It’s safe, but it’s no Baby Harness. I feel exposed, and suddenly very very high up. I push that out of my mind and try to find a comfortable stance on the rocks. I have a feeling I’ll be holding that pose for a while.
Gopal climbs next, and he makes quick work of it. With quick and deliberate moves, he joins us on the shelf long enough to take a couple of photos and breathe this rarified air. Allen belays him back down to the first shelf. Ryan then completes his journey by belaying him down the lower half of the cliff.
Dave comes up next. With the leisurely movements of a spider taking a Sunday stroll, Dave ascends up to where Allen and I are perched.
“Oh, just look at that view!”
Indeed. At this point, I realize I’ve been frozen in the same exact pose for what must have been an hour. My legs are simmering in resentment, and I’m ready to go down. But wait, one more: Ryan.
Ryan tidies up some of the rope at the lower shelf, then makes his way up top. Thankfully, I’ve got my camera in hand, which gives me something to do and not focus on the dizzying height which I’m periodically made aware of.
For some reason, a sick fantasy worms its way into my mind every now and then. What would it be like to fall from a height like this? I once attempted a high dive at a swimming pool, and I distinctly remember the feeling. Your body gives you the first half second of free fall: we anticipated this. It’s part of the plan. But after that half second and you still find yourself in mid-air, your body instinctually screams. It screams through your limbs, screams through your glands, and occasionally screams out your mouth. In an octave far higher than what you’d hope of yourself.
I focus on the viewfinder and snap another photo of Ryan hoisting himself over the rock. I pop a Ricola in my mouth. When you’re strapped to a rock high in the sky, the littlest treats count for so much. A piece of chocolate. A gummy bear. A swiss cough drop.
“Hey, do you want a Ricola?”
“Oh man, I love those!”
“Well, I’ll give you one when you get up to the top.”
Once Ryan makes it to the top, I hand him a Ricola.
With Ryan safely lowered to the bottom shelf, Allen begins to belay me down. It’s jerky at first — the system we’re using, the Gri-Gri, is auto-locking, and therefore safer, but can be a little clunkier. As I take my shaky steps down the cliff, I’m struck by how entirely foolhardy this situation is. Here I am, suspended a good 180 feet in the air, my life literally in the hands of a man I’d just met. And the human trust issue aside, what about the gear? Each piece in the puzzle was a point of potential failure. The rope — who knows how old? — could fray and snap on any of the jagged rocks it was stretched taut over. The bolt we were anchored to — how long had it been there? Who placed it? Was it just starting to shudder and shake loose, like a rotten molar? From the harnesses, to the belay device, to my own knot, there were a million things that could go wrong. At any moment.
I hazard a glance below.
Oh yes. Still a long ways to go.
Finally, after what seems like half an eternity, I reach the lower shelf. Ryan greets me.
On shaky legs, I try and balance myself on the shelf as we undergo the transferring procedure, where I tie myself to Ryan’s rope and off of Allen’s, while clipping into an anchor as a go-between. With a few tugs on the rope, a few clips of some carabiners, I’m all set. Once again, it’s trust fall time as I lower myself backward, butt-first, into the void.
This would be such an embarrassing way to die.
Ground, at last. Two things surface immediately to my mind. The first: get these fucking shoes off my feet. I collapse onto one of the makeshift benches and gingerly remove my suede leather foot bindings. My feet are starting to swell a bit, which is natural. They’re just making use of all this newfound freedom. Now onto the second thought: whiskey. I rummage in my pack and pull out my flask filled with Old Crow. I take a swig then offer it to the guys. Micah and Gopal take a pull off the flask. Once Allen and Ryan are safely on the ground again, Dave takes a swig, then passes it to Ryan, who knocks back three big swigs.
“Congratulations, guys! You guys did great!”
“And thank you for bringing us!”
“—and not letting us die.”
In the midst of all the self congratulatory catharsis, Dave chimes in.
“Not over yet.”
Shit. The hike. And the scramble. I could sense that exhaustion was about to plow into me, but I didn’t have a clear sense of when that would hit. I felt like a one-eyed man trying to cross the freeway.
We pack up our gear and start off down the trail. As we begin the hike, we see the sun’s already gone past the horizon. Now a race was on between exhaustion and darkness: which would hit first?
Of course neither nature, or your body, care for ultimatums, and in just a few minutes, both crashed down upon me. As we reached the ramshackle iron ladder, light had just about left the sky, while my hobbled movements made me look like a drunk Asimo. We scrambled in darkness, feeling loose gravel move underfoot. My steps were comical and exaggerated, like a marionette’s. It’s the best I could manage. Each bend in the path offered the mirage of an end, but there was just more and more path.
Just how long was our march in? This has easily been two, three times as long.
At a certain point, I give up trying to anticipate when our voyage might end. I suppose this is what runners refer to as The Wall. I never hit my second wind, but I just kept pace with the rest of the guys as best I could. I didn’t want to be the one who cried “uncle.” In any case, I didn’t have the breath in me to cry “uncle” even if I wanted to.
A light! Sweet salvation. The parking lot.
We arrive at the cars and take a load off. Allen breaks out some celebratory beers he kept in a cooler and we hungrily drink it down. Except for Gopal.
“Actually, I really need to shit. So I’d rather not… put anything else in my body.”
It seems the journey isn’t over for some. Rather than have Gopal hold it in, we decide to move the party to the next lot over, where there’s an outhouse.
At the next lot, we stand in a circle, bathed in the glow of a full moon while Gopal relieves himself. When he returns, Allen hands him a beer, and his demeanor is visibly improved. Everyone toasts in the moonlight, to a day well done. Then Allen cuts in:
“Gopal? More like Gopoo!”
“Haha oh no!”
“Oh, that’s your Mountain Name now!”
Everyone laughs, then sips on their beer.
We bid Allen and Dave goodbye and settle into Ryan’s SUV. Sitting has never been sweeter.
As we merge onto the 101, and towards the ever-brightening glow of civilization, I wonder: why do we do this? What do you actually gain from leaving comfort behind? From rousing yourself out of bed at an unmentionable hour, then very distinctly putting yourself in harm’s way?
A minivan pulls up alongside us. The children in the back sit mesmerized by the built-in DVD player.
When you leave comfort behind, you’re forced to find new comfort. And you will find comfort, whether on a tiny rock ledge 180 feet in the air, or on the blemished seat of a parking lot toilet. And knowing that you’re able to find comfort elsewhere — anywhere — gives you a peace and understanding and a sense of calm. It’ll be alright. Everything will be alright. At least for now.
I check my phone.