Learning the ropes makes for a cluster
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Sometimes I get so frustrated at small things in life that I have to squeeze tension from my nerves by scaring the crap out of myself.
I must have looked ridiculous Friday afternoon. There I was, all alone, dangling in the sun 100 feet in the air at the end of a climbing rope. I was grappling my way to the top of a rock route called “Birdman” – and I was wearing a black “Korn” T-shirt that read, “Follow the Leader.” The irony was so fantastic I got off on my own joke a little bit.
My plan was to yard on whatever gear I could to reach the top, where I’d anchor my rope. Then, I’d rappel to the ground and free climb back to the top while the rope fed through a self-belay device. Translation: I would be reasonably safe at all times even though I would also be very scared and alone at all times. Birdman is a difficult route up exposed, overhanging limestone in Glenwood Canyon, towering on the mountainside above the No Name tunnel. I’d done the route several times before with a partner, so I had a pretty good idea what I was getting into. How well the rope would feed through my belay device, though – that was the unknown issue. However, at this particular moment, I was in the middle of another challenge. Hanging in my harness 10 feet from the top, I futzed with a purple tent pole. Loops of slings and carabiners blew to the side and around my face in the gusty breeze as I focused on the immediate task: Use the tent pole to clip my rope to a bolt that was too far above my reach. It wasn’t easy. The fiberglass pole wobbled like a hot-pink noodle and the rope kept falling off the end. The fumbly tent pole seemed to articulate how I’d been feeling all week for no apparent reason. I felt like an idiot flapping in the wind. Earlier in the work week I’d been cursing at myself, and now I cursed at my shoddy gear as I worked through the clutter of a tattered mind.
Why was my mind tattered? That time of the month, I guess. More than one person has told me facts about hormones that indicate men suffer PMS. Sure, OK. Whatever you want to call it when the phone seems to ring too often and there’s someplace you have to drive to but the car needs gas and you’re already late – then you wake up to the sound of your cell phone and realize you’re late to work and the car needs gas. Oh, and you also forgot to send the rent check. That feeling. The one where you know everything’s going to be fine, really, but you have this haunting tickle under the brain that says it’s all about to go over the edge and you have no idea where the edge might be. That’s why it seemed best to tie on a rope and dangle in the void for a while. While playing with the flimsy pole, I happened to rip the skin of my left index knuckle on sharp stone in a careless motion. “Gar#$@$!” I cursed some more but ultimately prevailed in Phase One. Next would be the really scary part.
Now, I’ve practiced rope soloing enough to know what I’m doing, but each time I find myself wondering a little, asking myself, “Why the hell am I doing this? This doesn’t feel fun!” But it is … somehow. Many people get the same release at the bowling alley, but one thing I do know about myself is that I’m a bit weird compared to quite a few others. Hence the Korn T-shirt humor.
Korn is a heavy metal band I loved in high school, by the way. The shirt depicts a little girl in a red dress playing hop-scotch off the edge of a precipice. I’d decided to wear it as I walked out the door of my apartment to follow after my pointless inspiration on Birdman. Thank God no one was following me up there, as I climbed up and up, and slack looped down and down below my waist before I could pause on a hand hold to coax the rope through the belay device.
Someone did follow in my steps, though. Not literally following me of course, but sure enough, a lone man carrying a bundle of gear came hiking up as I left. A combination lock and branch cutters even dangled from his bulging bag.
“Got yourself a project, huh?” I queried. He mumbled something and kept walking. He didn’t want me to know what he was up to and I could understand that. I can attest, it’s so much better to have privacy when I feel the urge to act like a dingbat. As Hunter Thompson so famously said, “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” It is my hope, however, that I can get better at living with that burden as I grow older.
Derek can be reached at email@example.com.
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