In Thanks

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In Thanks

Hey Kamps,

The herds of climbers in Tuolumne have dynamited whatever selfish hope I had for sanctuary in the Meadows. Man, you can't even steal a shower at the Tuolumne Lodge without hearing from the adjoining stall an announcement of the newest line. Bunches of Valley climbers and a frenzy of L.A. youth have shot through the place . . . remember seeing them in the Meadows store with hardware on? Vern Clevenger's loose leaf bundle of routes looks like an underground journal, a cauliflower ballooning in the rough. God. As many new routes in two years as in the previous twenty!

Now and then I deride myself for my blatant self-interest. But then I wonder how any climbers—never mind me—can ever again hope to find that rush of loneliness amid the quiet space of high Tuolumne rock.

For all my complaining, only one young lion has homed in on the greatest wall in Tuolumne, the west face of Fairview. Clevenger did the left-facing arch system-remember?—on the right margin of the west face. Get the name—"Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. "

Now, he and I are going to try to complete the west face route you and I started in 1968, the direct line in the center of the face. We've been to the high point where you and I retreated, though by three more clean and direct pitches than those you and I originally did. Since then, impatient soul that he is, Clevenger recruited Bob Harrington and together they climbed the sixty-foot smooth headwall above our 1968 highpoint. They took all day, trading leads on ten-foot sections to get the bolts in. Neither Vern nor Bob made all the moves, and at one point a bolt served as aid to get another in. So, we'll see if it all goes free.

If we get the entire route, it will be the finest on Fairview, if not in Tuolumne; better than Mr. Toad's says Clevenger, and better than the other nearby giant, Fairest of All, which hooks too wildly right in the middle to be the grandest west face line.

This will be my finale in the Meadows... last hurrah ... piece de resistance. There just don't seem to be more good lines between lines between lines between lines in Tuolumne. Pratt steals away some summers to a secret rock palace which leaves his eyes sparkling most of the fall... got to pry it out of him somehow.

Bob, the years I've spent climbing in Tuolumne were pure nourishment to me. How about you? The Meadows always made the regular, flat world bearable, and the flat world made the meadows a sanctuary. It was the pull between the two which nourished. School and work without the mountains would have been deadly. The mountains without the nervous struggling down below would have been limbo, not heaven.

Well, man, as if you didn't know, you were like a father to me for those summers, modeling a conniving, effortless style, clever protection, and witty love for those soaring virgin walls. So, I'II say thanks and thanks also to Tuolumne for holding us like a mother might between deep blue and granite folds in the warmth of the Meadows sun....


Bob Kamps

Bob Harrington is kind enough to carry an enormous sack of gear to the base of the wall at seven in the morning. We will begin perhaps 100 yards uphill from Fairest of All. I ask him if he's sure he doesn't want to come along, thinking of the work he put into the route thus far. No, he says, simply and without a trace of envy, he must be in the Valley later in the day. Clevenger takes off at the first lead; it is his third time over the pitch and my second. There is one short section of 5.9. Then we begin the haul. In the sack are an embarrassing assortment of goods, including two sleeping bags, two hammocks, probably thirty bolts, ten drills, food, water, chalk, and no less than three pairs of shoes in addition to those already on our feet! High on the proposed line is an enormous, leaning arch which promises difficult crack climbing; so we carry crack shoes as well as the face-climbing shoes we are wearing.

Even this ballast tank of brazen aids fails to quell all our fears. Vern claims his bowels are bubbling. Mine are jumbled too, probably because I didn't sleep most of the night, too fearful and excited about the sweep of this wall.

The next pitch is sweet and simple, straight up over the golden glaze of undulations so characteristic of Tuolumne rock. Above, blue begins to steep the gray morning sky. Again we haul Santa's sack. As Vern leads the next pitch, again 5.9, I hang, butt out, in the belay seat, looking down on the 70-degrec rock, goosebumps flaring up over my head and neck. Ten fewer knobs and we might not even be here!

Soon we join the beginning of the last pitch Kamps and I had managed to climb in 1968. He and I had arrived at this point from several erratically weaving pitches over poorer rock, coming up far to the right of our present line. Vern leads it, remarking again how solid is the 5.10. In following, I smirk to myself at the thought that we were climbing such things eight years ago.

We stand on a dike at the end of the pitch and look around. I recall that the dike runs intermittently left all the way to the regular route, several hundred yards away. A girdle traverse crosses my mind!

Looking up, I see Clevenger and Harrington have created the most remarkable pitch to date in all of Tuolumne. There are no cracks or knobs for forty feet, only scattered, sharp edges the width of pencil lead, with perhaps a few the width of a pencil itself. Most of the seven bolls protecting the sixty-fool pitch clearly were placed in the middle of 5.8 or 5.9 moves.

I am reminded of the many Tuolumne first ascents Kamps and I did where we stood below an improbable section nervously talking until we pushed the climbing into the realm of possibility. How alone, if not adolescent, we seemed then, thrilled and jangled by the thought of no one to see or help us, only the domes standing witness, their polish gleaming like the eyes of cold and riveted fathers. We moved gingerly under the stare, and the Meadows gave us, together or with others, glorious routes: Chartres, Vision, Sweet Jesus, Lucky Streaks, Fairest of All, and more. Why, I wonder, were there just enough holds to allow us to climb, as if the rock were fashioned by benevolent beings?

Suddenly, I feel Vern and I should stop. I feel the rock has given enough, that we are rich enough, that I have grown up enough with the help of this place, that we should thank the wall, give it a pat and rappel. How much can we be expected to find, enjoy, or learn? As I look down, I imagine a balance swinging, our lives in one pan and in the other an ever-increasing stack of weights, each equaling another moment of risk taking. And when our moments are enough to bring down the pan . . . ? I nearly say all this to Vern, as he fiddles with his anchor, getting set for the possibility of an avalanche of falls. Only then do I realize I am bewitched. The pitch has not been climbed in its entirety, nor has the wall above been climbed. We are yet young. There is more here for the taking. The maiden is befuddling me! With that thought, a familiar lust wells up, and in the next moment I feel something like rage.

I clamp over holds past the first bolt to the second. The move by the second is a high step up on pencil lead to a pencil. It's 5.10. The next move, where aid was used to place the next bolt, is all on pencil lead. It's solid 5.10. The next, the next, the next... all are 5.10. Is this 5.11?

Sample Image

Vern Clevenger About To Follow Crux Pitch 

Midway through the pitch, it begins to seem dumb. The rage ebbs. Each contortion hurts and staggers me. Then I find a knob and begin hopping from one foot to another, thinking this will rest my calves. The motion reminds me of a badly burned insect, fluttering and flopping before death.

Soon, there is a brain whisper, all jumbled like bearings scattered off a shop table. "Do. Go. Wrong foot, but do. Why have I …… ?" The whispering is me but not me. It is like a possession. "Just do. Fall up. Something. Try that. Do. Do." Outside myself, I watch a fool near my shoulder I'm catapulting over little sections, prying and foaming, a little crying sound bubbling out. "Lovely horrible. Lovely horrible." It's a veritable ricochet of thought bits, not passion, not tactic, but a precious drop of madness. "It goes. Lovely horrible goes. Bitch! Sweet bitch! Foot flake. Nail hold. Enough. Go! There! Go!" Finally, there is a platform for most of my foot. With rest, the fire fades and logic returns. The last move to a belay ledge, again 5.10, becomes mere geometry compared to the exorcism below. I pinch the underside of a rock nostril, stem left to a down sloping, button-sized hold, ease onto it and cascade onto the belay ledge.

Sample Image

Clevenger Nearing End Of Crux Pitch 

Vern follows with beautiful care and control, but, at one place, suddenly and sharply falls and snaps flat against the rock, proof positive it is a pitch for schizophrenics. Back on the rock, Vern machines through the sequence of moves, his hair a great giggle. We sit down and laugh like cowboys. There is no pitch like this as far as the eye can see. It is a threshold between the standards of 1968 and those of 1974, a gate between exacting skill and a touch of madness. I tell Vern that he and Harrington have devised a masterful pitch, but God save us from another like it above! We speculate that if benevolent beings created the pitch, they knew nothing entrances us like torture.

As Vern zooms off to link up with a long, handsome, right-curving arch, I imagine Poppa Kamps climbing along with us, feet splayed out sideways, edging in his distinctive, duck-like style. Bob's climbing has always been sane, I think, utterly sane. How would he do here? The pitch is sanely protected, but madly difficult. My mind wanders to Frank Sacherer, who reportedly and supposedly thrived on unprotected leads. I think of him throwing himself at a pitch in Yosemite, risking all, I suppose, in hopes of finding all. What a contrast to Kamps, tediously protecting every difficulty, risking little, not aiming for the big bang. How fitting that Bob caught Sacherer's eighty-foot plunge on Lower Rock in Yosemite, held and single-handedly rescued him, unconscious for half the descent. And that Sacherer has, apparently, all but left rock climbing while Bob, in his mid-forties, climbs on.

But if Bob is sane, he is also wry, too damn wry for me to have ever been able to thank for my introduction to climbing and this place. So, I turn to the imaginary figure climbing the pitch with us, wait until he's exhausted and say, "Hey, thanks."

Vern calls on belay from his perch. He juts out from the leaning arch like a gargoyle. Following, I find the lieback an arching 5.9. My pitch involves a skittering, rock-slapping, 5.10 flaring jam. Vern's lead—ending the arch—is again 5.10, this time an awful undercling over slightly decomposed rock. The rock crinkles under his feet as he jigs across. A hilarious flopping around on my part gets us over the arch at its thinnest portion. Again, there are just enough knobs. From here, one traversing pitch to the left and three more straight up, none over 5.8, gain the top. Over each pitch, we exhaustedly yank the dead walrus along, its nose diving under roofs, its fat flanks melting around every knob in its path. How fitting, I think, that we should be obliged to drag our armory, half of which we didn't use.

On top at dusk, Vern and I shake hands a little awkwardly. There is no question that we have created the finest route in Tuolumne. Nevertheless, our friendship is precarious, me enmeshed in the work-a-day world and Vern the rebel, defiant of the world below.

As Vern begins down, I stay for a moment, thinking of Tuolumne as my femme fatale. Here, years ago, I touched the rock like a boy might first touch a nubile girl, gingerly, unsurely. I went sleepless, turning and re-turning the thought of the next day's rendezvous. I sometimes whistled, like a rowdy, at the billowing shape of the tall, round domes. In the midst of it all, as with a lover, I felt lustful, whole, godly, as well as small and angered. How frequently the nubile youth became harsh mistress, whimsical and demanding, though gorgeous still. Often she rewarded us only after we backed away to try again to please her. We were learning and she was teaching. But in the end, she smiled on us like a mother who rewards a certain goodness, so that at the close of recent seasons, I could step from the car on the return drive, look across treetops crisply held in fall air to Fairview, the queen herself, and feel full of thanks.

Below, Vern is a wispy shadow on the gradual slabs. He cannot know how, for me, this splendid route is a virtual consecration of so many walls, days, evening fires, night skies, and a special friendship. Before me, bathing the dome in pale silver, rises the slow moon. Now, in gladness, I finally may say goodbye. 

Piece de Resistance - Center Area

Ascent, Sierra Club, 1975/1976