The hot shower makes me suddenly aware of the cuts, bruises, scrapes and general bloody spots I've accumulated over the last two days. I have no clear recollection of how I came by them, not even the major ones. Only at the end of a route do I occasionally attain realisation – dark red drops appearing suddenly on shoes or on the rope as I untie, or a partner's comment, “Left a sacrifice for the rock gods huh?”
I have mixed feelings about showering at the end of a climbing trip. The heat soothes away the soreness and muscle aches – most acquired not from a heroic climb up some horrendously strenuous and unrelenting crack but from sitting cramped and huddled for hours in a van strewn with gear or wedged awkwardly in a car on the ride home. The flow of warm water is a comfort, but it with regret that watch the slightly grey water –sometimes muddy brown– flow off my body, washing away the rock, sloughing off the entire weekend experience as it carries away the little bits of sand or gravel that have been trapped in my hair for days. I have become accustomed to the dirt and rock-dust insulating me from … my own imagination? Perhaps, but in any case I am loathe to come out of this shell and re-enter whatever real world I happen to inhabit.
This smell on me, not just sweat –stale or fresh– but the smell of the earth on me. A while back, when I would return from climbing trips, my ex-cat (ex-girlfriend's cat?) wold sniff my fingers and lick them, then sprawl on the mess of climbing gear spilled on the living room floor, purring and happily sniffing the metallic, rusty rock smell on stoppers and webbing, her nose on my climbing shoes, pink tongue parting her jet black face to tentatively flick over the leather. Her favorite rocks –sensed remotely in this way– were the pink gneiss of Little Falls and the pegmatite of the Gunks. She didn't care much for the Adirondacks, too licheny I suppose, and her probable love for the plentiful smell of blood (from jamming forgotten-to-tape-too-late-now fingers into cracks lined with sharp quartz crystals) was insufficient to overcome her dislike for the vegetation.
Lovers, even those whose profiles mandated “daily showers and fresh scents”, have reveled in these rock-smells on me, welcomed me to Sunday night bed with warm naked bodies, postponing my shower till the next morning. Non-climbers themselves, perhaps their bodies desired at that moment not just me but some long-forgotten connection with the earth, vicarious though it might have been. Can a protective carapace sometimes be flypaper?
Two days ago, I'd left during a period of tension, my lover and I both in need of a break from each other. That much had been clear, but not much else besides. I needed to think, to be alone, and where else can one be alone but on the sharp end of a rope – the feeling of mastery, the complete control, before the whole world explodes into understanding as the rope sings you to a stop, the slamming crescendo of stoppers, hexes and carabiners. In the brief void following the fall, my empty mind would have its epiphany.
However, as with most other climbing trips, this one too has been bereft of any clarifying visions; there were no moments of comprehension, no resolution of problems greater than that of the next move.
… At this point forty feet up, the crack flares sharply, as if a corner on one side has fallen off, and six inches deep, narrows to a parallel sided hand crack. There are no edges or holds on the face that I can use. Past a bulge a few feet above me, I see some big bucket holds, the angle eases there, more features have been carved out of the rock – pockets, larger edges etc. But to get there …
I am on “Fantasy”, a one pitch trad route at the New, not hard, but very aesthetic, a beautiful hand crack in yellow sandstone tinged with red. It starts starts with a right-facing dihedral off the ground. Comfortable stems, made easier because of some edges for fingers and outer-foot placements, get get me a few feet up this till I am under a half-roof topping the dihedral, split by the crack. Leaning out on a right hand jammed vertically up under the roof, I step left onto the arete, and using an in-cut edge off on the face for my left hand, I work my feet up till I can reach with my right hand over the roof and back into the crack. Standing above the roof in a half-stem, half-jam, my foot starts hurting, the pain causing it to shake a bit, but at least I don't get full-on “sewing machine leg”. I take too much time placing pro – I've lost my eye for sizes after half a season pulling on plastic – I fumble and drop a set of three or four hexes before I get something in. I've never dropped anything before, and for a few seconds I worry about whether I'll need them higher up. Then, as I did with the hexes, I drop the worry, without fumbling this time.
The next few moves are bomber hand eating crack, but the section is short. I discover an edge inside the crack which allows me to layback the crack up to a finger lock and then I reach a stance on edges formed by the weathered outer crust of the sandstone. It would be desert varnish but this is West Virginia. With a friend in place where I could have used one of my dropped hexes, I contemplate the next few moves. At this point the crack flares sharply, as if a corner on one side has fallen off, and six inches deep, it narrows to a thin hand crack. Shimmering my fingers across the smooth contours of the rockfaces on either side, searching for a hold, I can feel the warm graininess of the rock gently abrading my skin. I fail to find anything – not even a quarter-thin sidepull nor a tiny nubbin. Past a bulge, a few feet above me I see some big bucket holds, and see that the angle eases there, with more features carved out of the rock – big pockets and large edges.
But to get there – the only way is the crack. Off a low two-finger lock with my left hand, I reach up and slide my right into the crack, thumb-up. The crack is parallel, and slightly wider than my flat palm. As I pull my thumb back, into my palm, the mound at the base of my palm widens, jamming me solidly in. I walk my feet up in the crack, unconscious of the immediate pain that must have been in my stacked and twisted toes, with my full weight on them. I savor my position for a few moments. The hand-jam is comfortable; secured by the pulled-back thumb, I sit back, weight on my feet, dangle and shake my left hand awhile, and then dip it into my chalk-bag. On this day, on this rock, the chalk is superfluous, force of habit only. The air is warm and dry, and unlike the granite-like ancient Tuscarora sandstone at Seneca, the hard sandstone here breathes and absorbs moisture off my palms.
Standing up, right hand low, I secure another jam with my left. This one, for some reason, is thumb down, and therefore I will not be able to reach up high over it. But that doesn't matter now. Leaning awkwardly, almost barndooring – swinging shut as if I were poorly hung – since all three points of contact are in the straight line of the crack, I fit my right hand not far above my left, reach over it with my left to the big jug and clamber to the narrow ledge. Above this the crack widens, I get sideways fist jams, feeling the forearm muscles contract and bulge as I clench my fist. Replaying the climb while setting up the belay, I am pleased that I have not worked my biceps so much as my shoulders and back muscles.
Later, on the ground, my legs are tired from the long day climbing, and I have a map of the crack in the loose, tension-free aches in my upper back, in the bloodied knuckles and in the bruises flowering on
the back of my hands.
Returning home late, I look forward to sprawling alone, unhampered by the confining comfort of my sleeping bag. Not between clean fresh sheets though (Who has time to do laundry and make beds before a climbing trip?) but with my head on a pillow that has long strands of golden-brown hair on it, and lying between sheets stained with my lover's anchovies and ripe-brie, hint of rust wetness, inhaling the sheets, sniffing for a missed connection.
I will call her, tomorrow.