*I'm crossposting this with the Bay Area Outsiders blog because this means so much to me. It is certainly a bit of a departure from my usual music-focused writing here, but is something that I am passionate about, and that really is what this site is about.*
Snap, clink... snap, clink... snap, clink... snap, clink...
The sounds are meditation to me by now, the slow, methodical jingle of cams and nuts and quickdraws racked piece by piece onto my harness, arranged meticulously the way I like them.
Nuts to the left with draws behind
Cams to the right, smallest first
Big boys on the back loop, out of the way
It is a quiet motion that has become familiar, that brings my mind into focus around the task ahead of me, the route in front of me, my own path up. It also brings back memories of every other route and the myriad reasons I prepare the way I do.
Shoes on, harness tight, tied in... It's all the same warm-up, but this time, a hint of something new.
I have never been the most experienced person on a route until now.
It is a peculiar mix of familiarity and the unknown. I, like most bay area climbers, spend most of my time in the gym, pulling on plastic and swinging in relative safety from bolted draws. The times I have made it outside - which by the way is where I would rather be climbing 100% of the time - have been with more experienced climbers. Breaking into outdoor climbing is difficult. There is gear to buy, in huge amounts if it's trad climbing rather than sport. There is local knowledge and small online forums to know about. There are particulars to know about gear placement, rope work, and anchors that are subtle, and if done incorrectly could mean the end of your life. It makes sense in a very self-preservation sort of way to be the least experienced person for a while. It is how you learn.
But this time, I find myself on the other side. It wasn't on purpose, planned out, like a debutante ball when I break out into leadership society, though that does sound fun. A grand ball on top of an alpine spire to celebrate! No, I'm just running up a short route in Joshua Tree, but have brought alone a climber friend who doesn't climb outdoors.
I rack up, get ready, talk us through the plan, and realize in a moment of poignancy that I am the leader that I used to look up to. I am taking responsibility for us, taking those first steps out onto the rock, and guiding us up and back to safety.
It's sobering. Yet, it feels perfectly mundane. It makes sense.
The climb itself goes easily, the anchor building is second nature, I belay up my follower, calling down encouragement as she goes. I know she is nervous, struggling with gear and the exposed route itself, and I remember being the same person, though a lot more dramatic, crying my way up an easy climb on my first trad follow, panicked and struggling too.
She arrives, we hug, we celebrate, we take so many photos and laugh and prepare to rappel and I find that this, usually the bane of my climbing career, feels, dare I say... comfortable. I risk painting myself as a complete crybaby by talking about all the tears (please still climb with me!), but I have been known to break down into sobs at the prospect of rappelling into the cloudy unknown. I'll climb and climb and climb but take my hands off the rock and suddenly I am a complete gumby again, clutching to anything I can grab and saying my last goodbyes.
Yet this time, as I talk through the rappel, say my words of encouragement, and begin to walk off the edge, I notice the harsh stab of fear is lessened. It's still there for sure, but this time, it is more about taking care of my second, bringing us both to the safety of the ground, and less about all of the what ifs that usually take over as I descend. My fears have become my experience.