Cold gravel crunched beneath my feet. The air bit my lips. Smoked emerged when I exhaled. I used the bathroom and scrambled back to my sleeping bag, my car, my home. It wasn’t raining yet. Maybe there would be climbing when the sun rose and warmed the park.
An hour later, I heard the familiar tapping on the glass. Drip drip drop. I groaned. I tried to go back to sleep. By 8 all the rocks in Smith were wet. By 9, the ground under the trees was too. I sat up in the back of my Saturn station wagon and stared. There would be no climbing today. I would sit and stare out the car window all day, wishing it was nice outside, wishing I was climbing, maybe even wishing I had a normal job with a house, a girlfriend, and a real life. Drip drip drop. But that’s only wishing. Right now, I am living out of my car, traveling wherever I want with no responsibilities. I am living the dream. Drip drip drop. There were days when I wish the dream would end.
I should have known I was out of my element when I stopped just north of Shasta. I tried to pump my own gas. The attendant stopped me immediately, assuring me that it was his job to fill my gas tank. “That’s why they pay me the big bucks,” he said as put $38.00 of regular unleaded into the tank. I gave him a look of pure Californian suspicion. Why was the gas cheaper than in Cali? Why was he really filling my tank? Who were these sneaky sneaky Oregonians with their half truths?
“I love this climb. You can just scamper up it,” Darryn said as she lowered down from Wedding Day, a 5.10b arête at the Dihedrals. I crimped through the classic climb, grunting, thrutching and desperately fighting my way to the anchors. I pulled out every trick in the book. I didn’t come close to “scampering.” As I lowered, I looked at the route next to it, a short 5.12a called Flat Earth. “It’s a stroll,” said super local, Ian Caldwell as he sunk a mono and drop knee back stepped through the crux. It’s a local sandbag, I thought to myself.
The climbing in Smith is tuff. Alan Watts, established many of the routes on rappel. Bolting the chossy faces from the top down revolutionized American rock climbing. By climbing on preplaced gear, bolts, the climbing standards rose quickly. “Sport climbing” arrived in the United States. The standards of the 80s were far different than those of today. The bolts are miles apart by today’s standards. It’s not sport climbing in Smith. It’s 80s face climbing. And it’s SCARY.
I can’t crimp. I can’t high step. I get terrified when I’m ½ an inch off the ground and more than ¼ an inch away from a bolt. There were a hundred reasons why the climbing in Smith would be especially hard for me- I took everyone as a reason to go. It’s easy to get better at things you’re already good at but working your weaknesses- that will make you a better climber.
The Full Heinous climbs a steep gently overhanging section of the Dihedrals area at Smith. The route originally had 3 bolts and required widgets to protect. Watts retrobolted the route and placed twice as many bolts! Twice as many! That’s incredible- until you realize how far apart the bolts still are. To stick clip the first bolt, you need to stand on someone’s shoulders with a stick clip.
I found an extendable pole in the boulders of Camp 4. Duct tape held two brushes to the metal telescoping pole. I ripped the tape off, grabbed some supplies, and with my own duct tape, created a Stick clip. This would surely get me up any route I wanted to try in Smith. That’s what I thought when I showed up.
Perhaps it was his half Billy Ray Cyrus, half George Michaels good looks. Maybe it was the stained long underwear he wore under his filthy shorts. “It’s like you said James,” a cloud of dust hung around Portlandianer Alex Baker. “You got to look good to climb good.” The mullet, the dirty costume, the 5 day old beard, and the dirty costume, somehow got Alex a send of Vicious Fish, a difficult 5.13c arête at the Morning Glory Wall. It also got him a girlfriend. Weird. Baker was also on his way to get a job at Black Diamond in Salt Lake City. Oregon is a strange place with strange people. While Baker was an out of the ordinary bone crusher, the weirdest people were the “Super Locals.”
“Im glad I can climb harder so I can climb easier routes,” said Mark Postel, a tall, lanky climber Smith Rocks climber of over a decade. “A lot of the easier routes aren’t that well bolted and often are quite hard.”
Located directly across from the Smith Rocks campground, the Postel’s humble abode is as close as you can get to Smith Rocks without tripping. The small building Postel called home could barely contain the big man. Postel refuses to admit he’s six foot two inches. “I’m 5’14”. Postel works as a guide in Nepal or Patagonia or Anartica- wherever the yak riding Sherpas with Britney Spears ring tones on their fake iPhones live. He returned from dragging a couple clients to some mountain called ImmaDaBomb to hike all the routes on the front side of Smith Rocks. There’s people out there who are close to living the dream. They own houses and climb at the rocks outside their house. They are super locals, and Postel is one.
Max shaved chocolate into a mug ¾ full of hot water. By the time he added the bourbon, the hot liquid almost boiled over. He played the new Chromeo album, placing his iPhone into a cup so that the sound was amplified through his home, a Toyota Previa vansion. Max had finally made it.
“When the dashboard battery light comes on, it might not be your battery,” Max called me from Goldendale Washington, a small town somewhere between Leavenworth and Smith. “It could be your alternator. Did you know that your car won’t drive without it?”
Max walked to the library and spent most of the day trying to find something to do while he waited for a new alternator to arrive in Goldendale. That’s called living the dream. After a day’s delay and a few hundred bucks, Max arrived in Smith. He spent most of his five day stint getting flash pumped and then leaving to find some boulders. Did you know that there are a number of boulder problems at Smith? I didn’t. Nor did I care. Max did. And he cared enough to climb them, dragging me out to a surprisingly cool chunk of rock below the campground. Though Max has climbed the Compressor Route on Cerro Torre, climbed El Capitan, established new free routes in Alaska, he is primarily a boulderer at heart. Not only did Max crush some V gnar, but he put on a rope and fought his way up the classic Chain Reaction, falling at the redpoint crux a number of times. On his last day before leaving for a business trip to Japan, Max stuck the dyno at the top of the route. Boom!
I climbed towards the first bolt. My legs shook for 15 minutes as I stared down the crimps to the first bolt. If I could only make it there, I could be safe. The exposure was overwhelming. Panic. Panic. Panic had set in. I over gripped then when I couldn’t hold on any longer, I fell. I plummeted a solid 12 inches to the ground. It was an enormous fall. I thought I was sport climbing. I tried to clip the first bolt but my stick wouldn’t reach. The bolt was too high for my stick clip. I didn’t need a stick clip- I needed a rope gun. Thank God Kate was around.
Kate Rutherford is quiet. I met her 7 or 8 years ago in Indian Creek. She was atypically clean for Indian Creek. I didn’t know it then, but now I do. It wasn’t abnormal. Kate always manages to look put together. It’s impressive. I’m not sure how she pulls it off but she does. It probably comes from her well put together life. Kate works as a part time jeweler, part time Patagonia Ambassador, and full time bone crusher. She lives most of the year with her boyfriend, Mikey Schaefer, inside a black Sprinter, a regular McVansion. She’s living the dream. While at Smith, she totally took advantage of the look good climb good phenomenon. She hiked The Full Heinous, Darkness at Noon, Doritos, and a ton of other “moderate” 5.12 “warm-ups.” She wasn’t the only one hiking at the sport crag.
“Someone’s on the proj Kate,” from the Morning Glory Wall, I watched a pink shirt dance up the runout climbing of the Full Heinous, a 5.12cR route at the Dihedrals. When I walked over, I saw a bespectacled man and a couple of young kids. The dad seemed intent on toproping the Full Heinous all day. I groaned, wondering who had put the rope up for this dad. I looked around. Kid, kid, fat parent, kid. It wasn’t making sense. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a pink shirt bursting from beneath a skinny 12 year olds oversized down jacket. I stared at him. A few minutes of conversation revealed the culprit. Drew Ruana onsighted Kate and I’s project as a warm up. My ego was the Hindenberg. Crashing. Burning. No Survivors.
“Tell that kid of yours to stop flashing my projects,” I said to his dad, hoping to salvage some of my destroyed dignity.
“He’s been doing that to me since he was 9…” said Rudy, a bridge architect in Seattle who was well aware of the reality of having a young crusher around. “O took away his playstation, just to be a dick!”
I tried to ignore my defeated attitude and went up the route. One move before a bolt, high on the wall, I fell, whipping well past the first set of chains. Yup. Smith is scary. Yup. Little kids send your projects. Yup. Living the dreams means living with a constantly broken ego.
This summer I spent a month in Rifle, which was a fun place. The limestone there is ok. There’s a large concentration of good or okay routes, which makes the 2 mile canyon pretty good as a sport climbing destination. A few years ago, I went to the Red River Gorge for 23 days in November. The climbing was fun but robotic. I don’t remember any different routes there. There was a lot of sandstone, the south east culture is super fun, but that place- meh. Red Rocks, Mesquite, Sonora, Rumney, little crags like Little Si, Chekamus, Trinity Aretes…meh. Smith may be the best sport climbing in the United States. The style of climbing there, vertical, crimpy rock, isn’t in vogue though and even the locals don’t take advantage of the offensively large amount of basalt in the gorge.
“Chicken pot pie- my three favorite things.” Greg Garretson. I met Greg in the Red a few years ago. The brief encounter ended up turning into a lucrative opportunity when Garretson hooked me up with an amazing job.
The movie closed the entire Morning Glory crag, 5 Gallon Buckets, and many of the best climbs on the front side of Smith Rocks. Disney productions hired Mario Lopez and Flipper’s grandson son, a dolphin named Flopper, to star in River Dolphin, the story of a retarded football player and his redemption with a smart alec river Dolphin. The movie gave me an opportunity to cash in on some costume designs. Mario Lopez got a nice Ducks shirt with a fake string of saliva on it. Boy, Lopez looked better than when he did the Slater Dance.
I put glitter around Flopper’s blow hole. That’s right. Lots and lots of glitter.
Disney will be releasing the movie later this spring. I’m looking forward to its arrival. Maybe I’ll get more costume designing jobs out of the production. That’d be sweet!
Five or maybe six years ago, Drew “The Iceman” Rollins set a toprope on Dreamin for me. The crux of the route is low and well protected but the run out 80 degree wall above keeps away the crowds. I tried for a minute to stick clip the first bolt. Then I tried the initial moves. Then I figured out how to clip the bolt. With a few weeks of tuff under my feet, I monoed and grab the pockets just right, surmounting the roof and heading up the long section technical section. I tried not to be scared but I was. The park was quiet. I felt alone between the bolts. It was a Wednesday or Friday or maybe even a Monday afternoon. I don’t know. I was just focusing on the rock climbing. I was living the dream.
My fingers numbed out below the roof. I fought through the stemming in the middle to the redpoint crux at the pen ultimate bolt. High on the red wall of Kings Of Rap, I crimped a hold and locked off to grab a small pocket. I couldn’t feel anything and fell.
My next try, I wore a buff, another shirt, I put hand warmers in my chalk bag, I ran to the bathroom and back to warm up, and I sprinted through the intial difficulties, ignoring the pump and fighting the biting cold. I was successful.
That night, it snowed three inches. Snow covered the car. I woke up two, three, maybe four times during the night because the cold froze my nose and lips, the parts of my body not buried into my sleeping bag. The sun rose eventually. The snow stayed. It was time for me to leave.
I began driving slowly, very slowly down the 97 south towards warmer and better weather. A semi, a chevy van, a pick-up, were all on the side of the road. I focused on the ice and keeping the Saturn on the road. Kate sent me a message that the crags were sunny by the afternoon. I wondered why I left. I wondered if I should just turn around. I wondered mostly what part of living the dream this was.