Thursday, November 1, 2012

The music of pure granite...

Eichorn Pinnacle


South Face of North Dome - September 2007.
With Chris Mrozowski.  Photos of me are by Chris; the rest by me.  Essay finished early in 2008. 

                                  Twenty-eight years ago Frank Zappa released the album Sheik Yerbouti, with the classical masterpiece “Yo’ Mama” on it, and I have no idea how many times I’ve played it. It has accompanied me through my long journey in the same manner as a few other works: Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony has never once failed to lift my spirits; I can never resist singing along to Don McLean’s “American Pie” when it comes through the radio; and Grieg’s “Solveig’s Song” from the Peer Gynt Suite, played on a fifty-year-old, heavily scratched piece of solid bakelite, always transports me to a simple and beautiful world of snowy mountains and pure, abstract sorrow. And there’s always Debussy, dancing with the fauns in the morning. 

Vernal Falls on the Merced

                                    “Yo’ Mama” begins and ends with some lyrics which are not so much silly as perfectly absurd; they follow the main melodic theme without giving you a single thing to think about, so their only point is to fill space with voice while the real music assembles and begins. The next ten minutes are all instrumental: electric guitar, trumpets, synthesizers, what have you - melody is developed slowly and patiently, with glorious non-jazz randomness, and builds to the sort of logical yet only slowly unveiled, complex climax I associate with Brahms, and, yes, Debussy. As far as I know this piece means little to music lovers in general; perhaps it is too quirky, too unique, too disconnected with any obvious tradition. I associate it with leaping into the gorgeous unknown, maybe into Petty’s Great Wide Open, on an aesthetic level. And maybe it’s just ear candy and I have na├»ve and simplistic tastes - I just don’t care. More highly refined aesthetes than myself may now leave the theatre and decamp to the nearest jazz coffee joint.

Highlands near Cathedral Peak

                                   Sometimes songs play themselves in my head when I am leading a fine climb, and they seem to connect to the climb thereafter. Only later, several weeks after having climbed the South Face of North Dome (in Yosemite, opposite Half Dome, for non-climbers) did “Yo’ Mama” suggest itself as the proper musical counterpart to this climb: beautiful, complex, long, but still accessible to the merely mortal man, if he is willing to listen hard and stay with it. Here’s how it goes: 

                                        We got up before dawn and drove the thirty-odd miles from the Valley floor to the Porcupine Flats trailhead on the road to Tuolumne; we saddled ourselves with ropes and gear and walked the well-worn trail about five miles, mostly fairly level, as the morning rose around us. Then we cut right, down the drainage to the west of the dome, following a faint but unmistakable climber trail that meandered down through dry, scratchy, grasping scrub, along the narrow and winding dry creekbed. This section had been advertised as really nasty bushwhacking. Well, I’ve done worse; compared to real Old Rag belly-crawling, nettle-stinging, bramble-scrambling, rattle-snake-annoying, poison-ivy-infested, wasp-filled rhododendron sweatfests, it wasn’t real bad. But the predominant bushes we had to whack through were very grabby indeed, and we had small packs, with most of our gear on our harnesses - not the best strategy. Hence the last half mile seemed endless, as we struggled down, craning our necks to the east to find the elusive traverse to the base of the clean granite slopes we craved.

From west slope of Half Dome, we see North Dome across the Valley.

                                          Finally the pointless lyrics cease and the pseudo-trumpets and the guitar, spangled with a few sequins synthesized from the ether, enter the clear morning air and begin building a graceful substructure in the sky. We flaked the beautiful new twin 60s, roped up at the base, with Half Dome’s NW face glaring at us like a Paleolithic god from directly across the Valley, and Chris led off up a winding line on moderate slopes, on variable friction and a pure and smooth layback to a tiny tree. Protection was sparse but adequate; there are no bolts anywhere on this climb. I led the second, another pure layback demanding care and patience despite the low rating, as the granite was polished, white, unforgiving. I belayed behind a bigger tree and Chris came up, looking ahead apprehensively to the routefinding crux of the entire climb. This involves finding a way rightwards up and over a gigantic overlap forming a vertical wall just to our right of ten to fifteen feet; the rest of the climb takes place on the outer layer of granite thus attained. Chris puzzled out the few words on the topo regarding this, and went up the dihedral a little way, crawled up onto a large sloping shelf, and did a creative crabwalk back down a few feet to a weird ramp whose surface was hidden from the belay station; zipped up the ramp and over the edge of the great overlap and disappeared altogether. He had negotiated peculiar chord and key changes and broken out into unknown new realms, perhaps, from my fixed point of view under the tree. Much rope ran out fairly quickly and to my surprise I could still hear him call ‘off belay’. Having seen him do it, I did it a bit differently and more easily; the whole difference between the known and the unknown; I envied him having done it virgin, so to speak.

Chris on the summit of Cathedral Peak.

                                       But my turn came very soon. After a short friction traverse though the suddenly fierce clear wind driving down the valley (we had been becalmed in the lee of the great side wall for the first two pitches) I climbed a long easy crack, many feet to the belay, and continued on through with little pause, leading up the fabulous fourth pitch.

Sisyphus in a rare moment of levity.  Of course what he really needs is levitation.

                                       This pitch is clear trumpets arcing through the clear sky, pure fourths and fifths easily understood by a stone; the crack continues at a mild angle, jumps over a small overlap and starts to narrow, gradually but inexorably, offering fewer placements, and not far ahead I could see where it narrows to the width of a small woman’s little finger, then to the small end of a chopstick, and then nothing; I put in a final small wire, a #1 DMM, totally solid, and then I had to, so to speak, step into an invisible coracle, out onto the trackless, holdless granite, and traverse right, out and up what seemed like a very long way, to get to the large ledge and clump of bushes, that looked like a hotel with a nice champagne bar from where I was crawling, my mouth so damned dry. Each foot placement, as you may well imagine, was the subject of careful scrutiny; but I had enough brain function left that I began to whisper a silly little mantra under my breath, and it seemed to smooth out the little bumps of fear that could conceivably disturb my concentration. The mantra was: “Stick like a fly, boy, stick like a fly.” And in good time I came to the prickly bushes and found a fine stance and set a fine anchor and drank some fine lukewarm water, and brought Chris up. 


                                     Suddenly the music gets gnarly and proud; deep bass lines grind low but cleanly, without weird distracting textures or complications. We are faced with a chimney. It is Chris’ lead; neither of us has led or followed a chimney for decades. After some discussion we decide to try it with our bullet packs hanging between our legs, dragging on the rock, rather than risk other weirdness by hauling them. The chimney rises some fifty feet to an abrupt end, beyond which we cannot see. It is a somewhat flaring, mixed-technique affair with a tantalizing outside edge that only sometimes offers assistance; not a straightforward heel-and-back-and-palms sort of deal - not agonizing if one has done a few chimneys recently. Chris made slow but steady progress for a while, though at one point he said, “I think I’ve done some damage.” I should have asked him what he meant, but did not. After a complicated struggle he exited the top of the chimney and disappeared into the ether again; a lot of rope went out as he did some classic 5.7 laybacking in a good sharp crack to another big ledge. I followed, starting with my back to the wall and my palms on the giant flake that formed the chimney, and at very much the same spot where Chris had mentioned doing damage, I did some damage as well: my left palm slipped out and down just a little bit, and I found that a nickel-sized patch of palm skin was now flapping, attached by a thread, and the underlying flesh, though not scored or bleeding, was naturally a bit sensitive to the prospect of any more friction chimneying. Well, ok, suck it up, ya crybaby. In a few feet I had a stance and I got some tape out of my pack and taped it up, and went on. At the belay I saw that Chris had exactly the same patch of skin missing on the same hand, but he had not taped it, so we did that.

After the Snake Dike.  "From here we walk."

                                       Okay, kids! Got the nasty chimney out of the way! And it’s my lead! What have you got for me, North Dome? I’m ready! Oh, crap - another chimney, weirder than the last one. Chord changes upside down and backward. Have to start back to the wall and then switch around at some point. And on and on. Began laybacking, and the foot friction turned to polished porcelain. I remember putting in a piece from a very weird position and making a note to apologize to Chris for it later. It was a good medium-small tricam. As before, the pitch seemed to end abruptly at a turn in the crack into blue sky, about 130 feet out, perhaps; but when I got there, having had a brief reprieve from the slickness with a patch of good friction, I found that it just kept going. Not knowing from the wonderful Supertopo that most people set a hanging belay here, just before the 5.8 technical crux of the climb, (listed in Meyer's 1982 guide at 5.7, though) I just kept on plugging, thinking, this is harder and harder, and WTF as the kids all say. It also got slicker; the layback holds grew more rounded, and farther apart, much of the crack being invaded by vegetation. Some decisions made in haste and anger: what do I need more right now in this spot, a piece or a hold - choose one and choose it fast. The music working its way through problems and obstacles, toward an ecstatic idea, a connected and meaningful resolution, a place where much that had been obscure and gestating is now visible and takes a noble shape, something like truth. And here I am at a small overlap, still laybacking like a maniac, almost at the end of my 60 meters. 

p.1 of “Darth Vader’s Revenge”, 5.10a at Low Profile Dome.

                                       I set a hanging belay with two good medium cams and two questionable small cams for backup, and began belaying Chris up, thinking black thoughts about the hard last pitch that I thought was still ahead of me. I had wasted many long minutes all day on my sloth-like caution on lead, and now the sun is planning to set on its usual schedule, and no one can persuade it to wait even a half hour. We still have sunlight, but how much? At least I am sure that Chris will lead the crux successfully. The last few days have hardened him up, as he and I both harken back to our youth, and we set our faces against the menace of the granite and we just go on ahead regardless - which one must so often do, in this world.

Heading down the long punishing trail to our camp on the Upper Merced.

                                  He is halfway up, still out of my sight, and I am gazing eastward at the sky, over the great curving slope of North Dome, and a bird flashes up, soaring, a raptor, grey, wings bent in the characteristic shape of the peregrine falcon, and it curves in a perfect arc outward and back down and out of sight, and I don’t see it again. My black thoughts are gone as if they had never existed. Is there somewhere in the world right now that I would rather be? Is there something better than this - better than being young (sort of) and strong (enough) and at the summit of the sublime as defined by this moment alone? Certainly, there are equally wonderful things in the world, of various kinds. But they are all either in the past, having only a shadowy, pale glory, or in the future, having no substance but probability. This moment alone; this is all I have and it is enough, and much more than enough. We are soaring; every day we soar but most days we don’t know it. The gift of consciousness is to soar and know it, to ride the infinite wave of music and thought on the frail surfboards of our finite lives. Yes, just for a little while, but that is not important. The important thing is to fling your hand up onto a marginal hold, just gambling, make it stick, lock it off, and soar up the rock moment by moment. 

Looking west down the Valley from high on North Dome.

                                       Chris came up and we puzzled out the topo, saw that the rest was fairly easy, and he cast off and ran it out to the angle of incline where walking is feasible. We took pictures as the sun hung two or three diameters above the horizon, and walked up to the real summit and took some more. We had run out of water, but felt fairly good. At the summit we found three young men all dressed in enigmatic black turtlenecks; they volunteered nothing of why they were lighting a small bonfire up there, and we did not ask. 

                                       The five mile hike back to the car was not extremely painful; the stars came out and eventually the Milky Way and all the others shone as usual through the tall trees. The last half mile was not good to me; try as I would I could not keep up with Chris, and he was just walking normally. But we drove to Curry Village that night just in time to get a beer at the pizza joint before it closed; I was hobbling from a blister or two, and our palms bore the identical mark of the coin we had to pay to enter those realms; but that beer was very sweet. My brain was guttering like a candle, and I proposed a toast: “To not being dead!” But we were tired enough to feel within spitting distance of dead.

"No matter where you go, there you are." - Buckaroo Banzai.

                                       It was a good day. Is there something, really, truly better than this kind of thing, this life lived in the sky, on the earth, swimming in the clear stream of time?
                                       No: there isn’t.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Leading on the Wissahickon Schist

                                             This is a controversial topic among Mather Gorge climbers, and one of rather specialized interest; perhaps my store of experience in this area could be helpful to younger trad climbers, first, in deciding whether to even do it at all, and second, to approach it with knowledge that will make it safer and more enjoyable. Of course, when I was younger, safety was not the top item on my list, and the opinions of experienced climbers held little interest for me. Go jump off a cliff, you fusty old farts! What kept me alive while leading a fairly long list of Mather Gorge climbs was fear of death, plenty of cautious preparation, decent ability in placing traditional gear, and good familiarity with the peculiar rock of this area gained through much bouldering and toproping. And, I freely admit, my share of luck, when I made some foolish bets at the Life and Death Casino and barely squeaked by the house odds.

The beautiful polished crag Spitzbergen, where teenage boys leap off into the great, grey, greasy Potomac River and emerge as young men.  Stupid young men, but still... Several fine, hard  5.10s are here, including the AAU Crack, starting on the water, which could certainly be led by a skilled and determined individual.

                                             Leading in the Gorge has a bad reputation. The quality of the rock is unusual: it is semi-metamorphosed, half-melted, very hard and often very smooth, with random quartz inclusions, weird incuts here and there, and some cracks that are rough and nasty while others are parallel and polished. The classic true story that illustrates the apparent danger is well-known: a climber attempted to lead the short but muscular overhanging 5.9 dihedral called Armbuster, fell near the top, had at least one cam fail in flaking rock, and cratered. He was seriously injured, and gave up climbing, according to accounts. It was this very incident that caused me to consider the problem of leading here, and I then continued to lead occasionally whenever I thought a climb would go, and sometimes when I wasn’t as sure as I ought to have been. Such is youth. However, with the perspective of more than a quarter century, I feel qualified to bombastically pontificate as to which climbs can be safely led and which should not be attempted except by stronger and crazier climbers than myself. Take that as a total disclaimer: I am no more an ‘authority’ than anyone else; you must be your own authority in the end, as with all climbing. 

                                              The basic knock on the schist is that cams will skate out of the hard, parallel cracks; some say the teeth can’t bite on the surface of the rock, and others that the intense forces of a lead fall can cause the surface of the rock just under the teeth to become powder, thus allowing an instant Astro-Glide right out of the crack. I can't be sure which of these theories is correct, but I am forced to accept the possibility and allow for it in my placement strategy. When the locals at Wingate tell you to get yourself two sets of fat cams, you'd better just do it. But if cams are totally suspect at Mather Gorge, you need to go retro, and use only nuts, and, if you know how to use them, Tri-Cams. (Advanced gear-heads have been known to use the weird and exotic Ballnutz to good effect.) As it happens there are many excellent placements to be found on some of the more classic lines, and when you slot a perfect nut, properly oriented to the appropriate force vector and tugged to be snug, there is no reason that the schist will spit out the piece any sooner than in any other type of rock.

These equalized Tri-Cams form a directional anchor at the base of Armbuster.  I wanged the sling up, down, sideways and every which way with enthusiasm, and they didn't budge.  

                                                   Reasoning thusly, I went down to Armbuster one day and led it on a few excellent Tri-Cam and nut placements and one totally bomber medium wired nut just before the crux at the top. Although I was in good shape, I was not so strong that I was absolutely sure of making that last move. But in this instance I did not fall, and my placements were not tested.

A perfect nut crack, not far up Armbuster...

...and another one; both of which can take several sizes.

                                             This is a safe lead, assuming as always that you size and place the Tri-Cams properly, so that the point cannot skate out, and that you remember to stem the dihedral's middle section so that you won't be painfully hanging on a jam, wasting grip, while trying to get the gear just right. In the Gorge I am not a true trad purist; I had already toproped all my leads at least once, and before embarking I usually examined them closely on rappel to plan the whole gear sequence.

The last good placement before the desperate final push.  This one is strong...

...but this smaller one, equally strong, leaves more room on this key hold for your hand to grasp it.

                                                    By the way – if you have just arrived from Latvia, local custom forbids the placing of bolts or the use of pitons. One or two feeble attempts to establish bolting have happened in past years, but they were quickly suppressed with a heavy hand. The rock is just too limited in scope, and valuable in its original configuration. It is true that the climb Lost Arrow/Terrapin Station was originally made possible by pin scars, but no one has proposed that that would justify any piton use now. Sometimes aimless talk arises of the parks installing bolt anchors for toproping, for safety and to spare the trees, but nothing seems to come of it. Most of the climbs have healthy tree anchors readily available as well as opportunities for good gear anchors in cracks. For detailed blathering about proper toprope anchors at Great Falls, consult the 2001 edition of the Climber's Guide to the Great Falls of the Potomac, page 17. What a crusty old Victorian relic the writer of that essay must have been! I can see him in knickers and nailed boots, carrying a piolet about four feet long and wearing a bowler. Nevertheless his pithy advice is reasonably accurate. 

                                                    I have not yet fallen on lead in the Gorge, nor will I, as I've done all the nice leads within my ability range. So my placements have not been tested by fire; but I've fallen often enough elsewhere, and they've held up; and I've learned better placements, more patient craftsmanship, from those embarrassing incidents over the years when pieces spontaneously fell out. The worst of these is probably the time I led the short, pretty 5.9 called Possibilities on the lower tier of the Juliet's Balcony area.

A #2 DMM nut in a fairly good placement on the climb Possibilities, but only good for a downward pull.  Notice just above a flake with a shell in it; you could remove the shell and slot a nut very snugly behind the flake.  This is a death trap; the flake will fail.  Listen to what I'm saying to you.

A medium-sized DMM nut in a seductively-good-looking-but-treacherous placement.  It is inserted in a triangular hole and the upper end set behind an overhanging projection.  If you have nothing better, use it, but don't trust it; and in fact, on this short a climb, just don't use it.  Self-deception kills.

Another strong nut for downward pull only.
                                              I had an anchor at the lip and had scoped the pro with intense concentration on rappel; I then led it without falls or hangs on about 5 small to small-ish nuts, all of them satisfying placements, clipped the rope into the toprope anchor to be lowered, and of course, when my belayer tightened up, he being just a few feet out from the base, all the pieces zippered instantly and slid onto his belay device. I had neglected the most basic tenet of trad leading: get a good directional at the bottom. If you wish to lead this climb, do not skip that step! It would not be good to just have the belayer directly underneath, either, as this climb demands strong fingers and some ingenuity almost right off the deck.

                                               It is quite possible to learn trad leading in the Gorge, but I do not recommend the system I employed in 1980 with a couple of partners hardly any more experienced than myself. We (out in Washington State) would go out and fiddle around as much as we dared, using slipshod research, mostly avoiding too much bravado and risk, experiencing trial and error in the typical pattern. Much better, regardless of the rock you have to learn on, is to work with an experienced leader, practice as much as you can at a level that is quite easy physically for you, get real expertise to answer your questions, and if you like have a toprope backup so you can really test your techniques. Here are a few excellent practice leads for those who find 5.8 toproping reliably easy:

Epigone. 5.6. Short, easy, good hand jamming. As much pro as you want. Rough texture.

Romeo's Ladder. 5.6 with nice vertical finish. Takes large pieces in quantity; teaches one not to place gear in the best jams at the top. More strenuous when led, like many climbs. One thing that toproping doesn't necessarily teach is finding rest stances from which to place gear.

Last Exit, 5.6. Wanders enough to help teach rope-drag management through sling lengths. Take a full set of nuts.

Snowflake, 5.6. Gobbles up large and medium nuts; good practice for setting a multiple-piece equalized hanging belay just before the end if desired. 

When those seem simplistic, go on to Bird's Nest (seriously sidewinds, can be used to teach double rope techniques as well as dealing with rope drag), 5.7.

                                                            When you've mastered hand jamming and can easily toprope 5.9, try leading Backslider, an unusually stiff 5.7. 

This #8 DMM nut on Backslider would hold an elephant, or at the very least a hippopotamus.

                                               But proceed with great caution at the start, where the crack is very smooth and somewhat flaring, and the first move peculiar; a great place to sprain an ankle, or worse. Crack takes large stuff and often needs gardening and cleaning beforehand due to the high water of winter filling it with sticks and whatnot. 

Another large and perfect nut on Backslider. If you don't trust this one then maybe the trad leading game is not for you.

                                                     Now that your nerve is a bit stronger, lead Cornice, the king of 5.7s. The start is slightly run out; be patient setting a good piece for the first crux down low, through the tiny chimney. Then just below the main overhang you have plenty of time to set large Tri-Cams and other pieces in a fine equalized anchor in the center crack before moving left a few feet to pull the hang.  There is also a horizontal placement available a couple of feet to the left, a bit harder to place.  Don't make the slings too short, of course, or the rope might bind against the lip as you are climbing above it. Resist the temptation to crouch on the ledge out to the right; setting pro from there is very awkward. Above the hang there are nice medium/small placements to protect the exit, and if your follower agrees, you can set a good nut anchor at the top to belay him up. Pretend there are no trees, and get a good strong anchor in the little vertical crack or farther up around boulders.

                                                    There are good leads across the river at this level, especially on the Knob, with variants, and Rock and Roll, 5.7, at the north end of the Rocky Islands. Creative moves and placements on the Knob on exceptionally polished rock, but lesser physical stress; Rock and Roll is thin jamming, fairly steep, a rough crack that takes gear well; here give care to anchoring the belayer as needed, just as anywhere along the river if the base is chaotic in conformation.  The base is best accessed by rappel or by boat; there is a rather nervy and non-obvious downclimb, with a handy deathfall for the suicidal.

                                                     The best practice for multi-pitch technique in the region is the Ducks Traverse running along below Cow Hoof; not feasible if the river is unusually high. A fine three-pitch traverse at varying heights, teaches technique such as protecting the follower; the finish is a vertical, often dirty climb up into the woods, which has fewer good placements than you would want. One can also continue traversing downstream if that section is too dicey-looking. Supposedly 5.7 but a pretty nervy enterprise, especially turning a sharp corner after crossing a sort of garage-door alcove; weird move tosses people into the river here. Now you're starting to get a bit of genuine adventure in the tame old Gorge. I once found an old hard-shaft Friend deep in a crack here; after manufacturing a retrieval hook with wire I got it out, but never used it. Even then I was prejudiced against using an expensive all-purpose piece that can walk itself into trouble, but which seductively invites you to just shove it in quickly and carelessly. I do like some of the newer designs, (Omega Pacific Link Cams for example) but I just cadge their use from my friends.
                                                    When you start getting into the 5.8 leading level, you need to refine your placement skill, your equalization strategy and your overall judgment. For example, the River Wall at Purple Horse is a wandering small-hold and small-crack slab climb on a very smooth and very hard face, and demands creativity, strong fingers, precise footwork and nerve; but I consider it safe for anyone with these skills. But I once led the Seclusion Face, a thin 5.8 with good friction, which I had checked out for protection possibilities, but carelessly, with arrogance in my heart, because after all I had soloed it a couple of times. On a cold day I got to the crux under the little overhang with a questionable small nut probably 8 or 10 feet below me, and I had no protection worth mentioning at the hang, and spent so long fiddling hopelessly with a shallow, flaring little crack that would not have held a chihuahua on a leash, that I ended up almost running out of strength and just went up and did it, faking my way into the death zone like a moron. Well, these things happen, and we either learn from them and strengthen our characters, and correct our mistakes every so gradually, or, eventually the House wins, as we repeat our mistakes once too often.

                                                    Another climb much like that is the Dancing Climb at Boucher Rocks (now seemingly off limits) which is a very pleasant 5.8 friction/face slab toprope. DO NOT LEAD THIS CLIMB. If your particular mental disorder demands that you solo it, do so, but don't pretend to yourself, as I once did, that you are leading it as you fake your way up with three or four tiny, worthless wires. Just to the right of it, by the way, is the excellent 5.8 corner-crack called Long Corner, which is a fine and safe lead. Note: arrogant rich landowners above claim that this stretch of river is theirs, although the 'flood plain', as I understand it, is actually public property. They have a point, because unfortunately this has long been a party spot for yahoos to crap up. But perhaps it will open up again someday. If so be warned that the poison ivy is extremely menacing there.

                                                   Other 5.8s I have led: Center Ring is unexpectedly good for leading, small Tri-Cams useful, as they so often are; and it would not be considered cowardly by any means if a strong piece were to be set into the Rock and Roll crack just to the right at the higher crux.  Caliban is moderately strenuous but straightforward, mostly medium and large (check for yellow jackets on top beforehand); and The Man's Route is short but steep and hard in the first half; this kind of climb demands that you work out your first and second placements before really committing yourself, if possible by a short up-and-down recon. No law says you can't climb three feet, place a good piece and immediately climb back down and think about it some more. The law just says you can't hang on it. In extreme cases like this I have been known to clip the first piece to a sling and onto the rope at my waist, and hold the piece in my teeth until I'm ready to drop it in. The second half of the climb is easier but runout, so step carefully. 

                                                 Getting into the 5.9 arena we are accepting more risk and using more skill and strength, not to mention nerve; but the only reason that these might be considered more dangerous than 5.9s elsewhere is that they are short. You don't have the luxury of having several good pieces in the first thirty feet of moderate climbing, so that you have a nice cushion of rope and space if you fall, as, for example, you do on the perfect granite of Strawberry Jam at Old Rag. Instead you are already burning too much grip ten feet up with a piece at your feet and you'd better have a plan for getting that second piece in PDQ, as we old farts say without embarrassment. I've already talked about Armbuster; for that it's best if you can do ten pullups, know how to jam, layback and stem, and have the final piece already on a sling and easy to grab when you drop it in the beautiful slot. You still don't have any rest there, but at least you can blast for the giant finishing bucket with the last of your grip without crapping your pants about the pro. 

                                               Sickle's Edge is a very nice 5.9 that is completely different; the upper section is classic smooth friction and face climbing, not quite vertical, well protected by a few very specific pockets; the faster you solve the tricky little cruxes the less strenuous it will be. When you master the footwork for this climb (hint: work on Butterfly and Merv's at Carderock to tune up the toes) you will find friction work elsewhere on real granite to be laughably easy.

                                              Pocket Pussy is a safe but nerve-racking vertical lead; the angled, jagged first half takes a couple of big pieces, like Romeo's, but then you are in a mini-cave looking awkwardly up at a smooth bit of crack with a couple of tough pocket-jams; you can't put your pro in those jams, remember.

                                             Rock and Roll is an exciting lead with an overhang crux near the base, with some real oddball pro setups; check this one out very carefully before committing to it.  I recently visited it (Rocky Islands North is one of the prettiest areas on the river) and was sobered to read in my PATC guidebook that, although it is listed at 5.9-, I had revised it for myself as 5.8.  This is a clear incidence of arrogance and self-deception, done when I was much stronger; my partner toproped it and we are convinced that it is harder than 5.8, though easier than some 5.9s on the river.  The lesson is obvious and well-known: subjectivity can creep in anywhere, even into well-done guidebooks at times.  It is up to the climber to apply a safety-margin adjustment tailored to his or her circumstances.  In addition there is the problem of the unreliability of memory itself.  Over and over, as I revisit climbs last done (by me) in decades past, I find that the climb is very different from whatever tags I had placed on it in my head. 

                                               F.I.S.T. at Cow Hoof is one of my favorite leads on the river. Strong, awkward vertical hand jamming at the start is protected by a couple of well-set big Tri-Cams (3 to 5); fight through that, taking care not to dislodge your pieces as you go, and then rest as long as you like on the large grassy ledge, looking at the intermittent finger crack that splits the Hoof above you.  It's nice because from here you can walk off if you don't feel like doing the scary final moves.

Large Tri-Cams protect the start of F.I.S.T.

                                                  You will be able to set more than one excellent nut here; slot your left fingers in the spot with the blade in the bottom, chalk like an addict and go high with the right to small face holds and then to the lip. A classic lead move.

                                                  I am now assuming that my readers at this level will employ good craftsmanship with setting and equalizing nuts. I once watched a stronger climber than I lead Lunging Ledges, patiently setting and equalizing two small nuts in the small flaky cracks. I didn't follow, but I am pretty sure that was a safe lead even though the climb was easy for this guy. If you can pull the climb on toprope ten times out of ten, rap down and look closely at those flakes, and you might find it worth doing. 

                                                  I'll finish up this essay with three climbs that have more complex issues, climbs that perhaps I should not even have attempted. I led Eagle's Nest, 5.9+, on a hot and humid day. Getting to the alcove with a few more-or-less good nuts was not too bad, but the crux of course is traversing left, out, around and up on a weird boulder problem, which I had done only once, years before. AND protection at that point is not nearly as good as what you might like. A fall there will slam you back down on the right wall of the dihedral, too.  I spent a long time just finding a funny contorted rest stance, and then a long time putting in some bullshit, and then even longer whipping my nerve into a froth so I could start the move. My belayer was sorry he agreed to belay me, and the whole experience was bogus, let us say, even though I ticked it. But we do get bored sometimes after a couple of decades at the Gorge, and want some new and stupid sensation.

                                                  Then there was the time I decided I could lead Bridge Too Far, a lovely one-move 5.10a. I used a whole group of shaky rationalizations to justify this one little move, and I succeeded in leading it, but I can't justify it, and I don't recommend it. The crux is fairly low down, but not a place you want to fall from, and it is protected by one rather tiny wire in a very smooth little crack. I instructed my belayer to stand to one side and be instantly ready to yard in one arm's length of rope if I fell, perhaps to reduce some of the acceleration as the wire pulled out. The move is smooth and weird. The rest of the climb is easy and well-protected. But don't lead it, it ain't worth it.

                                                 Years before that I led Two Lane, the classic 5.10-. I still regard it as one of my best leads ever, in spite of certain flaws. My preliminary examination was a little too cursory, and when I arrived at the last rest stance before the strenuous exit sequence, I found that the peculiar flaring crack I had assumed would be fine for a nut was not. It was pure creepy geometric hell. I finally nested two nuts in some ridiculous way and went for it. I knew very well that I would not have the strength to stop and put in a piece in the final finger crack, and that if I peeled off, those two nuts would snap out of there, and I'd fly a fair ways farther before my next piece, a strong one, would catch me. It is a very vertical climb, but I did not want to fall, and I also did not want to admit that I'd really like to be rescued with a rope from above, thank you very much, so I went for the finish with everything I had, in fear and trembling, but with all my power and what skill I had way back then, and I made it. I felt both triumphant and a little shamed: I had taken the risk and won my bid, but was it really worth it? Lying to yourself saps the true enjoyment of your triumphs; if you don't learn better, things just end up hollowed out.

Where is the hard truth, behind the cluttered screen of emotion, under the smooth and perfect surface of the river?

                                                As with all the rest of these climbs, but especially with Two Lane, I strongly recommend that the climber know what the hell he is doing before he starts. But life is never perfect; our control, our judgment and power and skill are always flawed; we just have to do the best we can with what we have, taking full responsibility for ourselves as individuals. That's what climbing is. It isn't a sporty club activity with a safety code and a merit badge. It's you and your life, and me and my life. We watch out for each other, but still we each have to watch out for ourselves, which is the trickiest thing of all. Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the coolest climber of us all? The mirror can and does lie. 

                                                I did a nice lead of Sciolist, 5.10+, once, not too many years ago. It is short and bouldery, and the only reason I don't call it a tick is because the last piece, which I needed, had to go in a finger-lock which I also needed, and being in there as I used the hold, it made the move somewhat easier. But you can't relax for a moment even on this short a climb, because if your pro is crap and you crater, you will bounce off the ledge you started from and go another nasty twenty feet down to the river's edge. Two craters for the price of one.

The Treacherous Potomac River which drowns several incautious people per year.  It should be ashamed of itself.
                                                        At the far other end of the scale, Peg's Progress is a very nice and dramatic 5.4 that makes a fun beginner lead.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Meaning and the Sidewinder

This essay begun in the fall of 2010, and victory declared in the spring of 2012.
Text and photos copyright 2012 by David Warren Rockwell.
None of the images has been manipulated, and no snakes were annoyed in the filming of this epic. 

The copperhead snakes found along the Potomac River are generally shy and unaggressive, and they often freeze. motionless, among the dry leaves, branches and bark from the sycamore, rendering them nearly invisible. Thus when your primitive brain finally reports their proximity, the sudden sense of meaning is amplified, and may override all else for a time, until you move your hand or foot sufficiently far away.

               While wandering the golden sands of Joshua Tree National Park I made this chance remark to my friend Chris: “Meaning is the real drug.” His reply was, “I think you’re on to something.” I don't remember, now, anything of the context of the conversation in which that remark materialized.

Landscape invariably carries meaning, unless you belong to a species not evolved on a planet. But each individual may manufacture his own meanings for each landscape. This one makes me want to run, hard, to the left, faster and faster veering rightwards down the slope, until I lift off and shoot down the valley, riding the thin air above the clouds, accelerating towards Escape Velocity.

               What is meaning, anyway? Webster sez, something like: content, denotation, drift, import, intent, intention, purport, sense, significance, signification. Not a particularly satisfying definition. But in any case it is humorously tautological to bloviate meaningfully about the meaning of meaning. So off we go!

The sun rises. Our eyes open. The world swiftly unfolds and expands in all directions in the early morning light. Our thought follows the expanding world like a peregrine falcon diving after a fast-flying swallow. The world and the thought share a piercing, unbounded clarity.

                     Meaning and consciousness are so mutually interdependent as to be hardly distinguishable. And defining consciousness is notoriously problematic – yet, as with art, we know it when we see it. For my own personal satisfaction I might define meaning as a quality of information that exists when an assemblage of perceptions is synthesized into ideas that are somehow useful to the mental world of the conscious entity doing the synthesizing. The perceptions may be faulty and the person's idea of usefulness completely idiosyncratic and solipsistic, but nevertheless the drug of meaning has been distilled and ingested. Garbage in, garbage out – but really tasty, addictive garbage!

In the apparently blank desert there is always a path, however faint. We have little choice but to follow it up into the hills, toward an unknown destiny; sitting down and complaining about the heat or the meaninglessness will gain us nothing.

                  We are born into a desert of meaning. Or so I assert. Luckily we have packed with us a whole camel-train of useful possessions with which to assemble and re-create the meanings we inherit, and then to create new ones as needed. These meanings are partially innate, arising from our biological heritage, and partly presented to us by our society as eternal, self-evident verities, not to be questioned.


What would this image mean to a geologist? What would it mean to a mystic? What would Van Gogh make of it? The world appears to be crammed with mysteries of this order. In my collision with these mysteries I am no different than the first Neolithic Polynesian to see these things.

                      Edgar Rice Burroughs, in order to create an essentially Romantic fantasy hero, specified that a baby is orphaned in the African jungle, adopted by apes, grows to boyhood in a pure state of nature and then chances upon the cabin of his birth and a trove of lovely, magical picture books that eventually, after long study all alone, teach him English without the physical speech, and that he is not, apparently, an ape. Later he becomes so adept under various civilized tutors that he can not only function well in human society, but can also carry the burden of Burroughs' nature-worship and a sort of shallow contempt for civilization in general. (If Burroughs did not originate the phrase “thin veneer of civilization”, he certainly beat it to death.) Tarzan thinks of himself as a dominant ape, and has not the slightest qualm in that regard; the meanings imparted by his biological being and 'natural' upbringing are always treated as paramount and also morally superior to the meanings carried by human culture. And I, as a boy just as spongy as any other, and avid for a meaningful framework to my life, sucked this up like ambrosia, even while understanding the basic silliness of the setup as presented. It was a useful part of my individuation, giving me permission to ignore my parents' meaning-schemes and create my own. Like most people, I was shown the pretty picture books and jabbered at by many teachers, and then I went somewhat sideways, as all individuals should.

Any idiot could tell you what this image means: life springs from the infinite black wall of death, no matter how small the crack. And it doesn't just spring, it explodes, silver sword upraised, with that ferocious exuberance we all recognize.

                  Where is a fixed, reliable reference point, to provide us with a foundation for 'real' meaning? Archimedes asserted that such a point in physical space would confer unlimited mechanical advantage; it follows from this that the lack of any such point means that our control of the physical world is limited. Normal sanity accepts this as a ground condition of our existence; but normal sanity does not accept any similar limitation in the mental realm. We desperately want our feeling of meaning to be grounded in something unquestionably real, but we don't ever get our wish.

Color carries meaning, and so pervasively that it inevitably drives a primary dimension of metaphor. What does the colorblind organism see in this landscape? And is it really different in kind than what the color-seeing organism sees? I can't see it otherwise, but I can't prove a thing.

                      Thinkers have searched incessantly for the fixed reference point in the mental world – that thing that would guarantee true and immutable meaning, or at least provide a fulcrum for the questing mind to leverage its vast power against. The mind craves the process, the ingestion of the drug, the pleasure of experiencing meaning; having an ultimate, final meaning would, in our fantasy, end forever the craving with complete satiety, and logically enough, probably turn us into some sort of godlike beings. A short philosophical reflection quickly determines that such a final satiety would resemble death, in that we cannot imagine it and thus cannot really find it interesting; in any case it would be motionless and hence worthless. But that reflection does not necessarily mitigate our addiction to meaning. This thirst is never fully slaked while we live. Clearly the process of assembling meaning, for good or ill, is integral to consciousness.

Mountains are felt to be sacred, partly because they mingle with the superior realm of the sky, and strange visions drift among them. When a rainbow is seen below us, rather than above, we are driven to find a meaning in the inexplicable, the weird.

                     We still adamantly search for the philosopher's stone, for the ultimate mind we could call God, for a meaning in death or nothingness – for the imaginary transcendent, in whatever form, that we would run from in horror, or perhaps turn away in boredom, if we ever truly came face to face with it.

Long ago a great army came marching through a pass, with all their elephants and their ballistae, their archers and their armored cavalry. Below to the south the Empire awaited
them, rich beyond dreaming. But a purple mist, the vagary of history, drifted through the pass, and left behind nothing but a battlefield of frozen agony.

                      The habitual, incessant and lifelong construction of meaning creates a constant craving for an absolute reference point that would reduce or eliminate uncertainty; amidst uncertainty lurks the distinct possibility that we will be unable to meet the challenges of life, and immediately death becomes visible in the rear-view mirror of the mind, always trained fixedly on the unconscious. But no such absolute certainty can be established and defended rationally; if it were possible, such an absolute would long ago have been universally acknowledged, after the strenuous efforts of all the remarkably strong thinkers our species has engendered. Many competing absolute certainties have been proposed and continue to compete for validity in the form of 'followers'; the numbers of the followers provide no measure of relative validity, for we are looking for an absolute: only one god may give the feeling of total security. Hence the ongoing competition between these claims to the Truth invalidates them all. If reason could demonstrate an absolute reality, in any form, the human world would be unimaginably different, and I will make no other assertions regarding it.

The horizon is not a boundary or a limit, but a mark of the infinite nature of the world; it mirrors the unbounded field of consciousness as we feel it.

Among mountains and deserts it is possible to stop moving altogether and look out at the world, letting the silence gather and intensify. In that silence the remaining sound carries primitive meaning, the background meaning that we know in the womb: our own heartbeat; the slight sound of air drifting over the cactus; a small bee that is the only other animate being in sight. One might almost imagine hearing the heartbeat of the world itself, deep and very slow. It is a pity to forget to do this when we can.

                       Each 'free' individual mind (one not content to passively accept the meaning-scheme handed to him by his society) constructs a more-or-less arbitrary, relativistic frame of reference in the desert of meaning and builds around that, necessarily haphazardly, with any materials at hand and under the urgent pressure of necessity. Such individuals, myself among them, consider this personal meaning-scheme to be the bedrock of one's subjective life, and the source of an ongoing richness in life that is its own motivation for more exploration. This can be considered as an addiction, just as food or sex can be. But the mind is far more protean than the stomach or the genitals; when a person attempts to 'simplify' their mentation – to focus their reading, to seek less entertainment and meditate more – the mind simply shifts its meaning-generating activity into different channels. The attempt to 'quiet' the mind with sensory deprivation, or asceticism, or for that matter with an overload of input, is doomed to failure, because consciousness is a durable flame that may burn underground for long periods, but can never be extinguished in a healthy human brain. Consciousness is that famous river that you can never step into twice in the same way, and it never stops flowing. No dam can hold it for long; no channel can constrain it in a single direction for any great length of time.

Huge buttresses guard the east face of the great west wall of Haleakala. Standing at the foot of one of them I found myself in a large fan of boulders, rocks and pebbles fallen from that tortured igneous mass. To my ignorant eye each stone seemed unique and partaking of a tremendous variety. The halls of Haphaestus are vast, and he is never bored.

                          I might propose an evolutionary explanation for this universal human craving. Meaning, simply defined as an assembly of information into larger and more useful elements, is a brain-tool predating human consciousness, arising from the absolutely necessary elements of spatial and temporal perception, the need to hunt/gather, and to reproduce.  There is an inherent logic in the sequence of events needed to secure territory, food and mates.  Meaning then evolves in feedback loops.  The brain expands exponentially in conjunction with manual dexterity, tool use and language, and causes the feedback to accelerate.  Meaning becomes a comprehensive medium of its own, in which all perceived phenomena must participate as potential elements in a meaning-scheme. The human mind having now become the perfect tool for the construction of meaning, there exists a constant hunger, a pressure for meaning; hence the mind perceives an existential threat when there is any kind of interruption or sudden change in the flow of meaning.  Meaning is a commodity as essential as air or water, without which an individual or a society quickly becomes unstable and even deathly ill, suicidal or chaotic.   In a physical emergency a meaning-scheme can be quickly truncated or altered for survival (and may thereafter be modified permanently as a result). However, if there is a serious loss of meaning, air and water and food and other people may all take a back seat in the priority list of the mind.

In the desert we find shape emerging, projecting pure mathematical meanings, echoing the innate spherical trigonometry that is the birthright of chordates. Beauty is not a meaning but a side effect, reinforcing, confirming our harmony with the physical world.

                         Another obvious first principle: a meaning can be demonstrably wrong in the relativistic context of multiple minds (society or even two persons who disagree) but will still seem right to the individual, who will often require strenuous convincing to change his meaning-scheme, if it can be done at all.  Furthermore, science, reason and logic, powerful tools though they are, cannot definitively overcome the addicted mind’s attachment to its own meaning-scheme.  If they could so overcome, we would long ago have established a reasonable and conscious utopia in the human world.  (This is analogous to the argument that alien beings must not exist because they have not contacted us despite having had plenty of time to do so.  Objections to this are also analogously valid: perhaps not enough time has passed for evolution to strengthen logic/reason enough to overcome meaning-addiction.)

A skull carries unavoidable meaning both in its perfection of unconscious design and in our fascination for the mysterious scaffolding of life, the body that carries our fire and works our will as best it can until our last day. Which always, always arrives too soon.

                         This is easily observed in the give-and-take of any general discussion in an open forum such as America.  Impassible disagreements inevitably arise because no there is no widely shared agreement on first principles of mind, meaning and existence.  Is such an agreement even possible? Unknown.  But (my own mind automatically searching for larger context, a more interesting meaning-scheme-drug) it is certainly worth thinking about.

As the day wanes, growing shadows reveal the hidden texture of existence. A climber will see the tiny, subtle variations in the obdurate and silent stone, and see his way to finish the climb that had baffled him. Later at camp he will make tea in the swiftly cooling evening and think of each move on that wonderful face.

                         How can we respond to the basic assertion of nihilism?  No abstract, absolute, unquestionable reference point exists in the trackless, unmappable desert of meaning outside our consciousness.  If we create each our own fulcrum, what shared validity, external to ourselves, can it have? To the individual creator it can be entirely sufficient; but we are not alone, and the other person out there questions our reference point and can argue cogently against it.  Must we respond?  Only if we wish to extend our personal meaning-scheme, to calm our primitive fear that it will be invalidated along with our own existence.  Meaning is thus conflated with the existence of the self.  We are our beliefs - the body is secondary.

In a moment it changes, and in another moment it is gone.

                     Much of human life can be analyzed under this scheme.  Jim Jones, for example.  He had established a meaning-scheme entirely controlled by his own persona, and his followers submerged theirs in his.  When the visit of an outside person threatened to crack the protective dome of his meaning-scheme, simply by letting in the possibility of another point of view (that might have been forced by legal action or other scrutiny from society at large) he felt forced to protect his meaning-scheme through the absolute action of ending it as was, before it could fail, including of course the ending of all the people who had invested in it, even including their children.  The universal obedience of the cult becomes its own validation.  Whether he actually believed in an afterlife or any of the other elements of his ideology is irrelevant to the addiction they all shared, which superseded mere physical survival.

                       Like many other such events, the Jonestown incident challenges our existential verities, whatever they may be.  Most of us, not under such intense domination by a meaning-scheme, feel instinctive revulsion that anyone would kill their own children for any reason, for after all it contravenes the primal and universal mandate of genetic survival that is a universally acknowledged keystone in most peoples' meaning-scheme, as well as, I would argue, the prime directive underlying the turbulent energy of the unconscious.

Like a high wind that never ceases,” said the old man, or, if you like, Yeats' conception:
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.” Human consciousness as a permanent cauldron of cross-currents; meaning flickering like flames over the water.

The Sidewinder, 5.10b****.  Joshua Tree N.P., Steve Canyon area. Climbed October 2010.

                       A very beautiful and varied climb, which serves as a framework or touchstone for high and noble meaning in my own psyche.  From an objective point of view, it is purely abstract and arbitrary - a random sequence of actions utilizing an unrelated random sequence of features in the peculiar granite. As with any climb, the intersection of these two sequences overlaid on the capabilities and feelings of the human being engenders the work of art – a performance art of pure solipsism, owned entirely by the climber.

Planes, angles and curves that Henry Moore would have killed to be able to have imagined. The hand rises and demands to caress these forms and textures – to fit itself to the real.

                         The climb began easily in a short, simple layback crack, less than twenty feet.  When it faded to blank rock, I placed a medium-sized anchor near the top of the crack, and stood up on sloping surfaces and tiny edges to clip the first bolt.  The face here is smooth and concave, hence steepening gradually just beyond what the shoes will stick to.  Later, when I was perhaps twenty-five feet higher, my friends below told me that a tarantula had emerged from the layback crack shortly after I had passed by.  I laughed, for this feeds one of my special personal illusions: that there is a harmony pervading the world, invisible and nearly imperceptible, except to eyes whose contextual knowledge is also in harmony, from long absorption of the world.  I feel, quite without foundation, that I am ‘lucky’; that I walk in harmony through danger, much of the time; that my love for the world is returned impartially and unconsciously by the things of the world; I try not to fight with the world, and in return it treats me well; treats me to a tolerable existence, beyond any particular meaning - the pure joy of life and consciousness.  I fail to disturb tarantulas and rattlesnakes, because I don’t classify them as my enemies, and I don’t search the land for them as I walk.  But this is pure fantasy; stepping over or walking obliviously past a half-dozen rattlesnakes over the course of thirty-five years proves nothing.  I also have spurious proofs through the negative side: I perceive the worst agonies of my life to have been incurred my weaknesses, my lack of harmony, a willful fault of honesty.  In splitting my own reality, I became vulnerable to disharmony in others, and blind to hollowness, rot, disorder.  It is easy to harmonize with rattlesnakes.  It is hard to harmonize with a human being.  But again, this is only an imposed, perhaps arbitrary, meaning-scheme – useful to me, but no more objectively valid than any other.

The world as a set of crystalline translucent spheres, all moving in different directions and at different rates; mysteriously they often appear to harmonize, but we can never be sure that this is not just an illusion, an artifact of the nature of consciousness.

                          At the bolt I examined the first crux: very thin face climbing without any obvious direction, a few scattered tiny footholds, an exit bucket well out of reach up and right, no possibility of leaping for it.  Standing on the main rectangle, fingers and toes shifting, distributing weight round and round while feeding the elements of the problem into the black box, discarding false leads and blind alleys, conserving energy.  The true solution appeared like a triangle floating up in a magic 8-ball: “Certainly True”.  And I did the move smoothly, with little strain, and great delight, because it had seemed impossible at first.  This was an example of harmony between body and mind: using consciousness to manage the Triad: a horse with two riders, and the second one is not sane or sound.  The horse is strong but might be influenced by either rider.  The unconscious rider has all the real skill, but sees through a shattered lens, and needs the conscious rider to interpret, direct, flow the energy.  Harmonizing with one’s unconscious is never more than partially feasible; it will always carry risk, chaos, the unknown, by definition; but only through that can works of art, great or humble, be born.

Red sky at morning, climber take warning. I didn't ever remember seeing any dawn this dire, and soon fragments of storms, broken streamers of rain clouds, came flying westward, and sprinkled us, sent us off to town for bacon and eggs at the Country Kitch'n.

                             The third segment of the climb is a weird leftward traverse under a roof; a good piece to start off with, and a long sling to reduce drag, and a few oddball moves got me to a small overhang.  Here, having a decent stance, I had the luxury of soothing fear, and spent a large wired nut in a somewhat questionable placement, although I was confident that the small overhang was quite easy.  A bit of a stylistic blunder, perhaps, but not a real mistake; another long sling, because above the overhang is a short vertical crack.  Somewhat 'physical' (requires a bit of grunting) and easily protected with one piece, it leads to a sort of rounded gutter-ledge that rises gradually to the left again, for many feet.  Great care is required to stand up here in balance, at the top of the crack, and clip the last bolt, the last protection, of the climb.

Life balances so delicately, between the freezing shadow and the burning light, between floods of brilliant experience and terrible droughts of love that might as well be interstellar space. Finding a perfect spot to camp, just northwest of a small but solid boulder is not a bad strategy.

                           The rounded ledge serves as a nice metaphor in itself, for the subtle complexity of consciousness, and human life, or, anything else you like.  (Rockwell’s Dictum #29: Anything can serve as a metaphor for anything else if you put your mind to it.)  The damned thing is perfectly set between Scylla and Charybdis.  You can’t walk across it in balance; you can’t hand-traverse below it; you can’t sit on it and protoplasmically hump your gluteus maximi along like a couple of giant slugs.  At first glance you imagine that nothing could be simpler.  You begin to sidle with your toes as far out as you dare, and with your heels over the void, to move your center of balance just that half-inch closer to the face; and you suddenly know that you need something on that smooth face to hold you in, because you didn’t lose those ten pounds off your posterior a priori the trip.  Only a little force is needed to keep you in, as your face slides along the rock, and your fingers explore quickly and widely for edges, no matter how small.  A few items show up, but become diabolically smaller and fewer, as your tiny, hesitant baby steps progress along the ledge.  Not far ahead the ledge widens: but it might as well be a mile away.  The mind frays on its tether, but the computation, the pressure to solve the problem and seize the meaning, continues, even as a feeling of thin, high background screaming seems to shut out whole sections of the world; large segments of normal mentation are off-line, kaput, gesphincto.  Existence itself hinges on a postage-stamp flake with a rough edge, two fingernails scraping at it, and on the effort to lift the left foot and move it another few inches into the wider section, without plunging into the void.  Perhaps some part of the conscious mind is thinking about that fall, the horrible slow moment when this delicate balance drains away and is lost, the swinging down and back, the rubbing of the rope along that rough granite edge, and the probability of hitting the various protrusions down below; but the two riders are now, briefly, blessedly, one being, one centaur, entirely focused on one action.  Just for this one lucky day I am allowed to be whole, uncracked, for a moment in true harmony; on my own terms, in my own world, I’m no longer split into the observer and the observed. No desire. No fear. No suffering. No past, no future.  Just granite brushing my fingertips.

Oh, to heck with it. It's all just drifting water vapor. Right?

                          Suddenly I was wrapping it up, happy and talking to the guys below.  I walked onto the broad summit and rigged a long anchor from a big boulder, and sat on the lip and talked to Chris a bit, whom I could not see, as he followed.  His experience of the traverse was also intense, similar to mine; but when Tomek followed, he was relatively unfazed, for he has a remarkable confidence in his shoes.  Or at least that is one explanation.  Another might be that short people have an infinitesimal advantage in the balance, being able to lean inward at a slightly greater angle from the vertical on the traverse; Tomek is both short and light. As Chris was belaying him up, I took my shirt off and lay down on the granite, in the sunlight, with my legs cool in the shade of a boulder, and the sun warm on my chest and red through my closed eyelids.  Like the Jack of Shadows, I absorbed dark magical strength from the shadow of the boulder, and like Superman, I was made invulnerable and omnipotent by the yellow rays of Sol. I drifted into a half-sleep, as if floating in amniotic fluid.  The great blue arch above me was without flaw, without judgment or praise.  Time itself seemed viscous and slow – the greatest luxury of all. I offer these observations as proof that the world is one flawless entity, knowing that I’ve proven exactly nothing to you, the other.  What do I mean by ‘entity’?  Nothing supernatural, certainly; nothing separate from us; perhaps really only a strong suspicion about existence.  What more can we really expect?  And what more do we need?

 The world expands to fit my swiftly exploding sphere of consciousness; still plenty of windy space in there though.

                       Under these rare and weird circumstances the endless craving for meaning, the incessant desire of the mind, is granted a short hiatus, and there is a fine bit of silence. I might define this moment as real meaning – for myself. The invisible fulcrum between existence and the void, perhaps. Language can only suggest rather than elucidate these matters.

Someone had laid out a sunburst facing east; after repairing it I sent my energy streaming to the southwest. Why? The compass of the mind crazily circles the pole, never rests. Round and round we goes; where we stops nobody knows.

                           Some ideas regarding the Sidewinder metaphor itself: the journey of life is not straight or logical or preordained. It takes erratic turns, and requires unknown skills and resources of the traveler when it does so. It might trend upward overall, but the summit is unknown; rarely is a moment of true repose awarded to the pilgrim. More interesting is the pattern of motion left by the Sidewinder as it crosses the yielding, blank sand, and the elusive, changing image of the calculus itself, the fractal impulse that approaches the limits of a function, that describes or circumscribes the infinite quality of curving space, implied by the snake's silhouette crossing the four dimensions. For some, the feeling of absolute meaning, a reliable reality beyond all this uncertainty we see and feel, is found in mathematics, and of course, no one can prove or refute this purely subjective assertion. This faith is not logically different than any other faith, whether a belief in a god, or 'nothingness', or any other meaning-scheme.

These wise men have taken much mescaline and they can tell you whatever you want to know. But they cannot guarantee that you will understand it, or like it.

                            So let's get down to the nitty-gritty. What, then is the meaning of death? Sure, it's the death of meaning, and no commentary is useful about death itself. Objectivity gains no purchase, in the sense that if (a damned big if) we could be objective, we would be forced to accept our deaths, as the end of all meaning. But this is both unimaginable to the meaning-generating brain, and unacceptable to the meaning-addicted brain; our emotions do not allow us to accept death, ending, lack of all meaning, as meaningful. Hence in order to live with some reasonable measure of happiness, we are forced to invent meaning-schemes, often tremendously elaborate (in order to bolster their apparent validity) and subtle (in order to make a successful end run around that powerful hammer called Reason). Those of us who recognize this activity and accept it are condemned to various degrees of conscious 'hollowness' – knowing that the meaning we enjoy in our life is limited, no matter how intense and satisfying it may feel. We imagine our children and grandchildren living on, extending the meaning of our own lives a little way. But we don't imagine our names resounding down through the ages, or an infinite afterlife, or the other fantasies prompted by our innate and powerful gene-survival drive. Even the mad King of Kings, Xerxes of Persia, was suddenly struck with existential dread, with his famous realization, as he surveyed his immense army, that in a hundred years not one man of them would remain alive. There are those who think about this more and more, until it swamps all other mental activity; the conflict cannot be resolved, and the individual sinks in the quicksand. Again, I am a lucky man; when I feel myself sinking gradually into that morass, something in the physical world invariably comes along and rescues me, gives me trouble, pain and work to do, and soon I feel much more in harmony. Yeah, that's right: Be Here Now. What else is there?

Oh yeah, we did – we saw the Rainbow Bridge to Valhalla, the upcurving road among the clouds. But we still had climbs to do here, and earthly women to kiss. So we turned it down.

I saw the gentle magpie birds
In dusky yester-eve.
One brought sorrow and one brought joy
And sooner than soon did leave.

- Donovan Leitch

Shantih, shantih, three times shantih!



About Me

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He clasps the crag with crooked hands; Close to the sun in lonely lands, Ring'd with the azure world, he stands. The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls; He watches from his mountain walls, And like a thunderbolt he falls.