Little Lady Leader Learners’ Multi-Pitching Day Out

As we drove into Yosemite Valley, Jacob recounted a gruesome scene from a premium cable zombie show depicting a traumatic zombie birth, reminding me of the equally traumatic vampire birth scene from Twilight. As the morning’s hippie speedball took full effect, I picked up this thread and began yammering about the effects of birth control pills on mating habits. The conversation continued in this vein until Jacob and Jamie dropped Summer and I off at Manure Pile Buttress and left to climb Super Slide.

In a rapid manifestation of this disturbing reproduction discussion, there appeared a small herd of families at the base of After Seven, Summer’s and my chosen route for Little Lady Leader Learners’ Multi-Pitching Day Out. The giggling toddlers lent a festive air to the overcast morning as I racked up.

The crux of the climb, on the first pitch, consisted of a brief runout of 5.8 face. I remembered following this climb on a hot June day, on my first proper climbing trip to the Valley. It had taken the guy who led it a while to psych himself to climb this crux. But then, not two weeks later, he climbed the Nose. Should I be more scared, because the crux of this climb appeared to have given pause to someone who had shortly after climbed the Nose? I am always trying to decide in advance how scared to be. Then I am reminded that my body will decide for me at the appropriate time.

There was already a rope on the first pitch and some guy was bringing up his girlfriend. I was once exclusively and still often am this girl, or friend. But as I watched another too-clean be-Spandexed female follow the rope, my need to lead reasserted itself, no matter how scared I might sometimes be. I wasn’t born to follow.

As I finished my knot, I looked up and saw three little girls perched atop a nearby boulder. I thought, bizarrely, of the havoc children could wreak on one’s body and lifestyle–especially if they were zombies or vampires. If any of these even apparently human children were mine, I wondered, would I still be tied to this end of the rope? A storm front of worry about all of that met up with the existing light fog of fear about the climb itself.

The ensuing weather system of neuroses and societal pressures evaporated as I nodded in the direction of Summer’s belay device and slotted my hand into the crack. That was why I did this, every time. It quieted the voices. Even, paradoxically, the voices about it.

But as I approached crux, one of the babies at the base started fussing. Not just fussing, but issuing that distinctive wail of airplane and restaurant torture. The “Staying Alive” section of the SuperTopo warns us of sudden squalls in Yosemite–but this was not the kind of squall I had anticipated.

I looked down at Summer, who looked up at me encouragingly, then slumped back into belayer boredom now compounded by the type of screaming some of my friends with children refer to as, “Baby Gitmo.”

“Doin’ great!” she shouted.

“The soundtrack’s a little rugged,” I said, summoning an approximation of the attitude of irreverent calm I have always admired in others.

Right below the crux, I saw that there was indeed a good placement at eye-level for a yellow Alien, as the previous leader had pointed out to me during our brief shout-chat. But I had been waiting for the Aliens to go on sale again, and, now that we were off the co-ed/gearhead reservation, there were no other nearby racks to raid. The closest size I had–my beloved, bootied HB–would only fit at my ankle, extending the runout by another body length. I placed, yanked, feared, fiddled, yanked, confirmed, and clipped.

The baby screamed louder. Was this some kind of metaphor? Mental challenge? Message from the universe? Was I escaping babies? Or did I need to relate more to the baby, since, in climbing, I myself am like a baby, stumbling, falling, trying, failing, learning, growing, being continually reborn? Was I the baby? How would I know when–if ever–it was time to have babies? Would my body decide for me at the appropriate time? Would I know just like I would know when it was time to make the next move?

This was the sort of unsolvable life crux best avoided by focusing instead on the climbing crux. It wasn’t bad at all, but like every crux on the short list I have led, in the middle of it I experienced some mix of obliterating fear and the total calm that is accessible only through the coexistence with–and willful obliteration of–obliterating fear. As usual, I had every possible thought during those twenty feet. “I will fall, the piece will pull, I will deck, I will die, the gear is good, I am safe, I will not fall, I will not die, I will live, I am alive, I want to live, hand goes THERE! Foot goes THERE! I’m pulling UP! Now pushing DOWN! I can do it! I am doing it! This is the BEST! This is the only! THIS! THIS! THIS! ALWAYS! FOREVER!”

Yet, in another way, I was only thinking, breathe and up.

I was soon(ishly) anchored to a tree and bringing Summer up. Having been trapped closer to the screaming baby and for longer, Summer was in a foul mood that registered as adorably aggro by the time she arrived at the belay.

All the dads are going to climb this now,” she hissed. “I hate climbing this shitty stuff. Where families come.”

“I know, it’s not that great. But it is the longest multi-pitch we can swing leads on today. What would you like to lead?”

“Stuff like Outer Limits.” Outer Limits is a glorious, classic finger crack our hard-climbing friend had put up the previous weekend. Summer, typically, had followed it gracefully. I then hangdogged it doggedly through the entirety of the golden hour while enjoying breathtaking views of the river before finally topping out. It had been my third attempt at even hangdogging that pitch, and my first time topping it out.

“Did you climb it clean?”

“I fell once.”

“You should lead that.”

“I am going to toprope Outer Limits one more time and then I’m going to lead it,” growled Summer.

“Great! I can’t wait. You will crush it. How about you lead this next pitch, though, since we’re here?”

I have a plan to dissolve Summer’s reluctance to lead that has so far has worked perfectly in both Joshua Tree and Yosemite. I drag her to the base of one of the ridiculously easy climbs I can rope gun, promising to lead the entire thing. Then I get us one pitch off the ground and give her all the gear.

One of the dads was approaching our belay.

“Do you guys need to pass us?” Summer asked, in a tone somehow both defeated and confrontational.

“Nope, just setting a toprope,” the dad said evenly, and began slinging the tree, politely avoiding our anchor. A slightly pissed-off random chick at the top of the one pitch he might climb today was probably no match for the screaming baby and tired baby-mama back at the base.

After he lowered off, Summer said, “Do you know what they were talking about down there? Low amniotic fluid levels.

“Ew,” I said. “That’s on the list of things I never even thought to worry about. That baby was screaming the whole time I was cruxing. There is only one solution. We must fully dial our lead heads and multi-pitching skills and then lead better, harder stuff. Off you go!”

Summer stomped up to the 5.7 hand crack, placed minimal gear and veritably ran up to the next belay. We then decided to link the next two pitches, but misread the topo and so I tried to climb 210 feet with one 60-meter rope length. I duly came to the end of my rope exactly 10 feet below the multiple manzanitas I was meant to sling.

“I am at the end of my rope!” I thought with amusement. “Like, literally! Now it’s more exciting.”

All 200—or apparently, 210—feet of the two pitches had been extremely cruiser. I had had my first experience of genuinely wishing the climb were harder. Now it was.

I was in the process of building what I thought was a very creative belay that included a slung chockstone, looking longingly at the trees so close yet so far away, when a brilliant idea came to me. I couldn’t reach the trees, but maybe I could throw my cordalette around one tree to lasso and then girth-hitch it. Then I could use my two double-length slings to lasso the other tree in the same manner, and then equalize the two of them to make an extended anchor that I could also reach from where I was.

As I lunged to sling the tree, pulling on the last bit of rope stretch, I felt my harness begin crushing my innards. Maybe it would crush my uterus and I would never have to hear a screaming baby I would be biologically bound to soothe, nor face the complications of zombie birth, vampire birth, or this new problem that had just come to light, about the low amniotic fluid. My plan worked (the anchor plan, not, thankfully, the uterus-crushing plan) and I created a bomber anchor that extended the ten feet from the actual belay to my person.

We hiked up the rest of the climb, our mood and efficiency improving with each quieter, screaming baby-free pitch. We topped out, now euphoric. No matter how easy, moderate, or noise-polluted your climb may have been, as soon as you top out you feel like a total badass, and it is all worth it, and all better. But then as soon as you come down, you have to go back up again to feel that, which is why you have to live in a van, down by the river.

Summer popped the Torpedo and began coiling the rope. I got out the pouch and started rolling. “Now this is teamwork,” I grinned.

It was the golden hour. We passed the beer and smoke between us and watched Half Dome go from gray to white to yellow to pink. Summer loaned her phone to two nerdy engineer types who were trying to call a friend. We called Jacob and Jamie and arranged for a parking lot pickup in half an hour. We took a summit photo. We had been planning to take a naked summit photo, but the two nerdy engineer types were still there.

“Oh, well,” said Summer. “Maybe next time.”

But she had already shown me how to sling my shoes around my neck by hanging them from two quickdraws and clip my chalk bag to my belay loop to chastely cover my baby-making bits, “so, you know, you can put it on the internet or whatever.”

“No way, man!” I protested. “We got our shoes on quickdraws and everything! We are so totally taking a naked summit picture.”

I explained our situation to the two nerdy engineer types. “So, you can look or not look as you see fit. But now you have advance warning. About the nudity.”

They said that they would be happy to leave us to it, but they were waiting for the guy in the party below them to top out and return to them a #2 cam they had loaned him.

“Oh, we should so totally be naked when he gets up here!” I exclaimed. “That would be an act of public service!” (Public service? Or sexual harassment? The two are so often mixed in our culture.)

My logic was this: if this man with the #2 cam were a heterosexual, as he was statistically 95% likely to be, and he topped out and found two naked chicks, he would be motivated for the rest of his climbing career by the slim possibility of this ever happening again.

I had once heard Alex Honnold say in an interview that he sometimes imagined there were “pretty girls” at the top of his epic solos. If Honnold was motivated by the mere thought of girls, what might it do for this weekend warrior to see actual, naked ones? This was a karmic opportunity.

Just then, the guy with the #2 cam appeared while we were still fully clothed, missing out on a lifetime of motivation. We repeated our Approaching Brief Nudity warning to him.

“Ok, fine,” he said wearily, engaged in rope management.

We rapidly stripped and hit the self-timer. Getting naked at the top was a new and fantastic feeling. The sun dipped behind the Valley wall.

“Hope we didn’t scare you too much,” said Summer politely to the rest of the climbers, as we walked off toward the walkoff.

We started our descent, laughing at the idea that after a whole day of climbing, it was the two girls who shared their beer and phone and then took off all their clothes that scared those guys. And yet they did look somewhat scared. I myself had been scared at the crux and scared again when I ran out of rope, but now I was simply content. It was scary to think about what scarier things we might try to do next. And yet, as we happily scrambled down in the last of the light, I had the arresting thought that lately, it was life on the ground that scared me even more.

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