Thursday, March 01, 2007

Marty and the Moment That Rocked The Wall

I have a big bag full of rock climbing stories I carry around in my head. It’s hard to forget those moments when you are confronted with an oddly configured crack overhang and you work out a sequence of moves and have the physicality to climb past it. Talk about a personal woohoohoo moment!

Trouble is, climbing stories are not very transferable. You either know what a thumb jamb is or you don’t. You either know the pain and pressure in a toe jamb, or you don’t. And even if you do, trying to describe a sequence of moves to someone and make it entertaining, takes beer and a day of climbing to put one in the mood.

Heck, I’m not even in the mood for that kind of tale.

But I was reminded of a dear old friend the other day, and this led me to think about climbing with him and this brought a lovely smile to my grizzly flu-stricken face, and I figured I’d enjoy telling the world wide web how absolutely embarrassed this man made me one time while sitting 350 feet off the ground on a small ledge chatting with my step-brother.

His name was Marty, and this was really a story about Marty and not so much about the big hunk of rock you see in the picture there.

Marty was born in England and moved to the states when he was about 17. He joined the US Navy and spent four years in Alaska. Marty was thin, a bit nerdy, and very bright, so the Navy put him in communications and he communicated very well. Marty loved to read, smoke a pipe, and fill his bookshelves with books. Marty also loved bicycles, and I met him while in high school because he worked at my Pops’ bike store.

Fast forward a decade. My younger step brother was now working for Marty in Marty’s landscaping business. Marty and my brother had developed an odd sort of mentor/student friendship, and Marty took this very seriously. Marty was an intellectual wannabe, and I suppose, my younger brother was as well. The two of them took weekend hiking and camping trips to cool places like Lassen, and they soon got into such intellectually adventurous sports as rock climbing and caving.

Trouble was, neither were very good at it. I mean, in the general sea of rock climbers. Marty read and dreamed big wall climbs, and never left the “bunny slopes” of the smaller rocks. You could say he had a bit of Calvin in him, reading and dreaming of 5.11 leads over multiple pitches (see where climbing stories lose people?), bivouacking overnight on immense granite walls while eating granola and hauling up large jugs of water, his hands taped and bloodied, the admiring world far below, staring up and pointing, the face sun burnt and hammered into a rugged crag that looked good wrapped in a bandana, the swooning girls all waiting for his valiant return.

That was Marty. Buy all the expensive gear. Read all of the expensive gear technical reports. Analyze the routes while at home, sitting in his recliner, puffing on his pipe. Marty climbed well four feet off the ground and was very fit and thin and of a perfect climbing build. He just didn’t have the hardness of personality, (I guess you could call it), to raise himself into the lofty world he so dreamed and talked about.

Now don’t get me wrong. He and my brother had traveled to this big wall shown and had climbed a three pitched route (A pitch is about 120 feet, plus or minus about ten feet. It is actually one length of rope length tied between two people.)

But they had only climbed the very easy bit of wall on the far left, the beginner‘s wall, and as my brother Jay told it Marty led the climb and put protection into the rock so often, that Jay felt like a maid removing the junk back out of the rock as he followed. In other words, Marty led this climb like he was afraid of falling off a ladder.

And then it was back to the small rocks and the big talk and the dreams of big Yosemite walls and the power and the glory. Marty could talk a great climbing talk. He had studied every technique for setting removable anchors and equalizing loads and turning your hands into cams for cracks and holes. Marty was Marty and he had gotten involved with my step brother Jay in the very intellectually satisfying sport of rock climbing and that was a good thing.

My brother Jay was actually a darn good climber. Tall and thin of build, he climbed spider-like. But he lacked a couple of traits that kept him off the “black diamond” routes that he so coveted. He lacked hand strength. Strength that turned each individual finger into a hook all its own. This hampered him on certain moves required on certain routes. He took up squeezing tennis balls to help with this.

Common sense. No amount of ball squeezing was going to award my brother with this basic climbing commodity.

And I like my brother, I really do, but he can’t simply look at a thing and see what it requires of him in many circumstances. This makes trusting him while climbing a bit dicey.

I wouldn’t trust him. Not after the first time I trusted him. Not at 500 feet off of the ground, that’s for sure. The problem was that Jay didn’t understand basic “direction of pull” issues. Force vectors. That sort of thing. Rope management was not his cup of cornflakes, and he knew this.

So Jay and Marty were happy dreaming of climbing, practicing on small rocks together, buying equipment, and elated when I came back into the area, and they could rope me in to their big ambitions.

Jay asked me if I wanted to go climbing and I said “sure”.

That’s kind of how I get into so much mischief-- that “sure” word-- and the first time we climbed together was a story all its own. Maybe someday.

So all of this lead up has led you to many stories. I am trying to tell you about Marty, so I will stick with Marty and the first real big wall climb Marty went on.

I took to climbing the way that Tour De France guy took to the New York marathon. I got pretty good pretty fast. The ropes thing made perfect sense to me, and Marty’s tutelage there brought me up to speed pretty fast. A couple months into the sport and I was climbing all over that big wall on the weekends, dragging my brother up with me, meeting people who were looking for climbing partners, just having one good climb after another. I was now “leading” all climbs with my brother, setting ropes and handling the safety factor, and my brother was a bit relieved and happy to let me take this role. He had pride, but he knew himself, and knew he almost killed us both by screwing up this very basic enterprise.

While talking with Marty and Jay one night, it was decided that the three of us would go up and do a threesome on the rock together, and Marty would pick the route. As hard a route as he wanted to try, it was his call.

The man leading a climb is truly the only one in any danger if you manage your ropes correctly, and then, most of the danger is in falling a ways and then swinging on the rope and hitting the rock funny, not hitting the ground (if, again, ropes are handled correctly).

The man who seconds can’t fall at all. The rope is above him. If he falls, he simply slumps into the rope and hangs there. Grab the rock and start again.

With three people, the third man is roped from above as well. You can’t fall. All you can do is hang on the rope instead of the rock. You cannot fall. Simple as that. Falling is not part of the exercise.

Marty picked the route. It had a level of difficulty label right at the top of where Marty was at, but he knew the rope/can’t fall scenario, and figured now was his chance for a big wall climb epic adventure of substance and lore. This was gonna be a climb he’d brag about when he got old. This was a big wall climb that famous climbers of yesteryear had done. This was a “classic” route, and Marty so loved reading the classics.

We packed. We left on a Friday night. We arrived at a campground in Strawberry late-- on a busy weekend at the rock-- and we all slept in my van and Marty dreamt and talked of the big day coming.

I could turn this into pages of description about how we got to the wall, how the climb went, the various little nuances of the climb. Some might find it interesting. I’m not sure. Tell me if you think you might find that interesting. I have my doubts.

The climb. The first pitch is easy. I scrambled up 120 feet, not setting very many pieces (the replacement for rock marring pitons of old) and then Jay scrambled up and then Marty climbed up, and the three of us were now 120 feet off of the ground and sitting on a ledge just big enough for the three of us.

The second pitch was a little harder, but still pretty easy. I climbed a bit more carefully, setting attachment points into the rock and then clipping my rope into them. Jay came up behind me and took the pieces out, collecting them on a strap around his shoulder. He was safe because I held the rope from above, pulling in slack as he climbed, the rope run through a device that pinched the rope to a stop if one fell on it, and that deice was attached to both me and the rock in three places. All cool.

Marty climbed with a rope above him, with nothing to do but climb. He fell a couple of times, and he hung on the rope to rest a couple of times, but he made it up the second pitch, and now we were on to the hard one, the one that gave this route its “classic” feel and that made it a joy to climb.

That said, let me just tell you that this was a popular climbing spot, and this was a busy weekend. Like Yosemite, there were climbers on every popular route, and on this route, we had let two experienced climbers climb past us on the first pitch. This was a route a good climber could climb swiftly but with much enjoyment. You were high in the air, the holds were small but they were all there. The hardest climbing was done over three hundred feet off of the ground.

The cliff this weekend was brightly colored and had all sorts of levels of aficionados having a go at a big rock. And like all sports, there is etiquette to be observed, like letting a faster party go ahead. Other things too. The main one was that you simply be cool. You know, a cool dude. A cool chick. Cool. Climbing was for the cool. And you wanted to not blow the image.

I climbed the third pitch with gusto and enjoyment. There were times when I was looking at a thirty foot swing, but not for long, as I quickly covered my ass with more pieces sown into tiny fissures, and then came Jay. The stopping place for the third pitch was on a ledge back off the main plane of the wall a bit, and I couldn’t see how my brother was faring. All I could do was take in all the slack in the rope as he created it by climbing toward me, and listen.

Jay took a bit longer than I had to climb the route, but he climbed up next to me and anchored in, and he was happy and elated to be heer.

“Did you mark the route with a few pieces?” I asked him.


“Oh fuck. You forgot. Well, I hope Marty has the sense to stay on route.”

Marty didn’t have the sense. And my knuckleheaded brother didn’t have the sense to manage the ropes properly.

Crap! This wasn’t brain surgery boys, and you read all the books!

Here is what the problem was. Where Jay and I had anchored ourselves and our “belaying” devices, was not inline with the route that we climbed. It wasn’t overhead. It was off to one side a bit. Well, maybe by fifty feet or so. What this means is that instead of just falling a foot and hanging, if Marty fell he would swing fifty feet in a big pendulous arc, as gravity turned even the best of us into a plumb bob when loosed upon the end of a fixed rope. Weight will want to align itself directly beneath the point it is suspended from. That’s those force vector thingies I was referring to. Common sense, right? I mean, everybody knows that if you tie a washer to a string this happens, right?

Well, my brother forgot. He was having so much fun climbing, he forgot to think about the number three guy, Marty, and how he was going to feel climbing with a rope way off center above him with a pendulous swing looming if he fell. At three hundred feet in the air, some people just don’t have the uh, personality for those swings (I loved them myself), and Marty, it turns out, was one of those.

Marty knew better, but claims he was busy enjoying his perch and the view and was not watching Jay. (I think he was saying the Holy Mother of God’s and trying to keep it together, myself, but I’ll never know.)

Jay anchored in, I shook my head, all the slack was pulled up and Marty started climbing. Marty instinctually climbed toward the direction of the rope anchor, which got him off route and out into unknown and unclimbed territory.

I told Jay to keep the rope slackless and he did, but we couldn’t see Marty, and the few things he yelled out direction-wise, we followed (it was usually for Jay to keep all of the slack out of the rope. Marty was afraid of the swing he could see coming, and he wanted the rope as taught as possible above him.)

Let me make this clear. Marty was in no danger. The swing Marty could take was actually fun. The main thing was to keep from banging an elbow or a knee. Other than that, you were on a giant swing three hundred feet in the air and that was all. You yelled Woohoohoo! You yelled Weeee! It was FUN!

Marty had turned this third pitch into his epic. Marty had turned this third pitch into his life’s most intense series of moments. Marty was down below us, climbing for his life, agonizing over every hold, every moved toe, every stretch and grab. To Marty, a fall meant a big deadly swing. To Marty, his life depended on him NOT falling.

Above, Jay and I had drifted into a conversation about lunch. Should we go to town? Did we bring enough? Do you think those mayonaise packets in the ashtray are still good?

Climbers were doing their thing on both sides of us up and down the rock. It was a glorious day. The wind was warm. Our feet dangled over 300 feet of empty air.

And then we heard it.

It sounded like a wounded animal a bit. A bit like a balloon leaking air. A bit like the last notes of a song.


It was Marty. Marty was yelling. He was down there somewhere below us, clinging to the rock face, his very existence dependant on the fingernails that held him there and the strained contortions his chiseled craggy face in a bandana was making. And my God was he uncool!


If I had more room, I’d add more letters. It was the kind of yell that is both pathetic and humorous at the same time. To Marty, it was sheer terror vocalized. To Jay it was funny and confusing. To me, it was strictly embarrassing.

And over and over he yelled it too.


Oh Marty….

Each HELP he yelled echoed back and forth across the canyon. All climbing stopped and all eyes were on us. The three amigo big wall climbers.

Oh Jeez.

“What should we do?” Jay asked.


“Shut him up.” I said. I mean, talk about uncool and embarrassing.

I reached over and grabbed a hold of the rope Jay was belaying Marty with. I grabbed a handful of it and started pulling it up like I was pulling in a big fish.

“You’re gonna…” Jay started to say.

…Pull Marty off the rock. Yes. That was my plan. And that’s what happened. Marty fell. He fell maybe eight feet down (the rope I had) and then he made the big swing while in the middle of one of his big yells. As he spun, he reverberated and then Marty settled beneath where we were and he was fine, just scared shitless and trying to control his shaking while he was safely suspended by a rope designed to hold 6,000 pounds.

Now we had Marty too scared to climb, hanging eighty feet below us. We couldn’t lower him to the ground because we were too high up. It would take some doing to get him down.

Yes. A real epic adventure. Wanna hear what happened?


Hammer said...

Jeez, that sport is defintely not my cup of tea. Exciting story. I'm wanting to hear the rest.

I had a rock climbing mishap, in the dark with no ropes because I was a dumbass that followed a couple of other dumbasses who assured me they knew the way down. Guess I'll have to write an entry about it.

Jean said...

Wanna hear what happened???

Tammie Jean said...

Oh my... I'm afraid of heights to begin with...

Cheesy said...

Yes I do!! Strawberry?? As in Praire City? LOL one more Climbing phrase I adore... Metalica Leg! Afriad I had a huge case of those on my first attempt on Red Rock at Smith...

Please do go on......

Jeannie said...


I think I'd have been good at rock climbingin my youth - lean and well-muscled but now I'm just fat.
Opportunity lost.

Nikky said...

Ok, let's hear it!! I hate suspense, just end it, will ya!?

Scott from Oregon said...

Well, we all made it, and Marty moved to Oregon, though I have no clue where or what happened to him.

But I will write the end of the tale. Starting now...

Jocelyn said...

I hope you're writing the end but fast, as I need to know. You, um, left us hanging there.

I love a good climbing story--have you been to the Banff Film Festival (it tours around the country)? What great climbing tales can be seen in that!