The Obed

I woke up early on Saturday morning. My two friends and I drove down that horrendous strip of I-40 West, through Knoxville and into the endless cliffs of the Wild and Scenic Obed River. I left behind all the stress of chemistry lab, and the maps of the cardiac system that tend to overwhelm, and all the shitty phone calls from doctors. We brought the dog, Rocket Girl Beer, a complete trad rack and too many ropes and instant coffee. We sailed down to into Tennessee with weak arms and all the dust that had collected on our climbing gear and so much excitement that I don't think I stopped talking, once, ever, the whole trip.
It's been forever since I've been on a climbing trip. I didn't realize that when I left Seattle, when I left Index and Leavenworth and the Exits and the Tieton and Squamish, Snow Creek Wall, Orbit and Outer Space and Heart of Gold and Total Soul and Infinite bliss and all of the rest, that I would quit climbing nearly completely. I never intended to do that, but I fell into other things. 

I sunk a lot of money into a mountain bike and I fell in love with the endless tangle of trails that are right down the road.  Then I fell in love with a redhead who claims to be afraid of heights, although I know that's just code for I'd-really-rather-kayak, and we got a house that needed to be skinned and gutted, and I went back to school, and I got a job, and I got a little lazy about meeting new climbing partners. 

I have a lot of excuses but I think it boils down to this: I let myself forget how purely and perfectly and I love to be outside on rocks, and the cool nights of woodsmoke and the sore, slow early mornings that follow. 

And then Rip moved to the Southeast. Rip, one of my best friends from Seattle, moved to Nashville two weeks ago, and now the Obed is directly between us.

So if you think about it, I didn't quit climbing. I just waited around until my favorite climbing partner to join me. And it took him just over a year.
Thankfully, Nell and Josh were in the same place as me- they'd taken a rest day that had lasted about a year, so we all struggled and fell and slowly made our way to the top of the some not-too-crazy routes. The woods were red and apple green, a mix of sweltering summer and new autumn, and the dog barked at every leaf that twirled down from the sky. 

I remember one glorious moment where Rip, belaying me from far below, said two words, some Arrested Development joke we used to say all the time, and I laughed so hard that I fell off.  I was leading, a foot above the bolt, and I landed halfway down the route. I have rope burns on my back from getting twisted up at the impact and all I was thinking is, "This must have been how Tina Fey felt when Amy Poehler joined SNL; 'My friend is here! My friend is here!'"  
That night we slept at Lily Pad campground with a lot of other climbers. Nell and I drank the Rocket Girls and then the marshmallow lover's hot chocolate with the little packs of freeze dried marshmallows. On the tin roof on top a the shed, a dog named Monster dropped tennis balls on our heads.

There was a crowd around the campfire but everyone was tired out, and sat at Rip's feet and tipped my head back, watching the white smoke turn into a fresh white spray of stars. The crickets were very loud, and in the shed behind us four musicians played Angel from Montgomery and House of the Rising Sun. Hometeam made a few discerning laps around the fire before choosing a young blonde man to curl up with for the the evening. When I went off to bed a few hours later and carried her with me, she was obviously angry at being pulled away from such a scene. 
Dave spent the weekend paddling the Gauley River in West Virginia. We got home at the same time on Sunday night, and used our last shred of energy to bike into West Asheville for dinner. Then we went back home and struggled to stay awake through one episode of Breaking Bad before that hard-won fatigue caught us in its jaws.  

I used to climb every weekend in Seattle. But this was the piece of the puzzle that I'd been missing for so long. I'd always been elated to leave the city on a Friday night and drive towards mountains and rivers and rocks. And I still am. But now on Sunday I'm elated to come home. And between the happy leaving and the happy return, I think that covers it all. 
For more photos of adventures, coffee & dog, follow @melinadream on Instagram

Cloud and Dazzle

The Northwest has been dazzling me lately. My God, what a place! Is it me? The light switch in my brain has been clicked back on and now I can truly see where I live? Is it spring, everything coming alive at once and bursting and buzzing, the fat fluffs of pollen that swirl in the air like snow?

It's none of these things. It's just this place.
For memorial day, rain threatened the entire state, but Rip and I and everyone we knew took our chances. By Saturday evening we were three pitches high on Castle Rock, surrounded by cool air, beneath silver clouds that had not yet broken open. Up there, overlooking the now-green Leavenworth and the white raging Tumwater, we talked about important things: dinner, and what type of cookie we might buy for the fire tonight, and whether or not marshmallows were in order.
The free campsite at mile 8 was brimming with people, completely overrun, but we snuck through the woods in the dark, Rip carrying me on his back over streams, and found our friends Molly and Chris and Max. They'd saved us a spot in a patch of lavender colored wildflowers, and built up a big fire. Rip played his guitar. Just a few feet away, down a deadly sharp bank, Icicle creek roared with its springs surge, molecules of water that were once deep snow on the sides of Stevens Pass, and I dreamt, somehow, about water. 
In the morning the rain came, so we hauled off to the Cafe down the road to wait it out and search through the books for routes that might possibly be dry. We waited and waited. The Portland boulderers gave up and went into town to drink beer. We refilled our coffee cups a fifth time. And then we went home. In Sultan we drove through a panoply of weather- a flurry of pollen, rain showers, sun bursts. The rocks in Index were drenched.  
That night, Will came home. And the rain kept up, and the Northwest continued to dazzle. For a kayaker living in the desert for the past year, Will did not complain about the rain. We walked outside for hours. We sat inside a crowded restaurant and drank white wine and saw a late showing of the Great Gatsby. 
The week wore on, Will was gone again, and the days marched by nearly as fantastical and color drenched as the Great Gatsby had been. Even sitting in my nearly empty apartment, mid week, working away on very dull tasks, I caught myself staring out the kitchen window, at the lime green leaves in my neighbor's driveway bowing under rain drops the size of pearls. I was having a hard time focusing, a little bit transfixed by the world.

I think it was that night that Chris and Molly had a bonfire. I held on to the cool neck of a bottle of wine and leaned against the broad shoulders of my old friend Seth, who just today left me for Alaska. I got loopy on woodsmoke, mist and alcohol and spotted a boy through the smoke who I'd once treated pretty bad. Seth said I should apologize and I did. He said I should write about the apology, and I probably will. 
Too much water and woodsmoke, absolutely too much fresh air rolling off the sound (but unarguably the perfect amount to drink) even perhaps too many late night cherries (it's cherry season) but something made me wake up sluggish and slow and heavy in the head the next morning.   I was mostly worthless most of the day and this frustrated me to no end. It wasn't till late in the evening, around sunset, when I finally got a grip on myself and took the whining, restless dog to the beach. 

There, just me and the dog, I was treated, completely undeserving, to this sunset. 
We are so lucky to live here. I hope these weeks keep rolling in, wave after wave. 

(Welcome home, Molly and Chris!)

Statues in Ritzville and other fine things

(For Zen Ben, of course.)

When I was a teenager climbing in Vermont, my first partner was named Ben. Ben was a sweet, soft spoken boy from the town up the road. He drove a tiny rattle trap car, and together we would drive around the green mountains looking for new cliffs to explore. We'd bushwack to the base and he'd lead us, pitch after careful pitch, using a handful of silver iron nuts. Then we'd sit at the top and watch the sunk sink over our home state, and then pick up and figure out how to get down. I was fifteen and he was sixteen.

One day he told me about a bouldering spot he'd discovered in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. "It's like.....Shangri-la up there," he said shyly, eyes on the road. "Do you want to go with me?"

I'll never forget the revery in his voice as he said that. To a young Vermont climber, nothing held the promise like a seemingly endless field of boulders, deep in the splendid Whites, with nobody else around.

But I never made it to that field with Ben, and then he took a long fall in Colorado, about 800 feet, and he left us too early.

Whenever I find myself standing at a new crag, in a valley I've never been to before, I always think of Ben, driving down highway 89 whispering, "It's like Shangri-la."
Two weekends ago I found myself in such a place- Post Falls, Idaho on a misty day with Lisa, Amber, and Jake. There was a torrential, unrunable river to our right and to our left, a crooked path running past route after bolted route of beautiful, empty rock. We had the place to ourselves for the weekend, and with no one to fight over rocks with, we were lazy. In the mornings we slept in for hours, made coffee and drank it by the lake and cooked breakfast. So much better than the usual pop-tart-and-Via-coffee-now-go-stake-out-your-climb approach.
I led all the climbs that weekend. Jake's new, Amber's in an ankle cast and Lisa was in a grad school haze. So we'd agree on a route and I'd climb up, slowly, my mind blissfully empty, calculating only the very next move.

Jake Cooper Photo
I've had so many teachers in this sport, but for now there are no teachers. I don't mean that there is nothing more to learn- nothing could be farther than the truth. There will be more leaders, they always show up when you need them, they'll push you and take you much higher than you've ever been, and on walls so big and grand you never thought to even consider touching them, but lately it's just been me, not afraid and not crazy, climbing what I can and not thinking about the rest.
Amber Jackson Photo
That is, until I saw this project and I knew I'd fail, and fall, a lot, but at the same time I knew it was mine. My big, fun, swinging clean fall project of early summer. Nothing I could throw up the first time, but a very good reason to come back to Idaho. 
Amber Jackson Photo
Amber Jackson Photo
Amber Jackson Photo
We had big plans on Saturday night. Spokane has a redneck bar with a mechanical bull, I'd packed my cowgirl boots, and we'd also spoken of a fire right on the lake. We brought marshmallows in anticipation. But we were so tired after dinner, the climbing and the beer and the general laziness had rendered us completely useless, so we lay on one bed together, the four of us, and we drifted off to Jake's stories. 

The bull, the pile of driftwood on the beach, just more reasons to return. 
Amber Jackson Photo
This winter I struggled to find enjoyment doing anything. I tried. I pooled together the things I loved, I spread them around and then stood back and stared flatly, feeling nothing, wishing I could just go back to sleep. Apathy, the hallmark of depression, life is a long dull road that just keeps going. Winter in a dark and wet city. 

Now, at the dwindling end of May, I find I need very little to feel content. The other day Seth brought me coffee in the morning. The night before we'd had some wine perhaps, and I was sort of crawling around the house, searching for my wallet, and then giving up with my head on the kitchen table, the one I found on the roadside after my roommate took all the furniture. I called Seth and told him I'd pay him a million dollars if he brought me some coffee, and he did and now I owe him a million dollars. The first sip was so delicious I felt this overwhelming sense of joy, more joy than I'd felt for the past six or so months, and I almost burst at the seams. I was on a work call and had to mute the phone so the person on the other end wouldn't hear me laughing. 

Sometimes I find myself laughing when I'm doing the dishes, I don't know why, but it's better than being too serious I suppose. 

The weekend in Idaho was pure contentment. I felt like Ben in a field of boulders, smiling up at the sun, with no reason to hurry.
On the long ride home, we got a little lost and ended up in a ghost town. There were statues of people on the street, doing everyday things, waiting to cross the street, leaning against the library, conversing silently with other statues. But we were the only living people. Maybe a few months ago I would have sided with the statues- pretending, stiff, appearing like a whole person but on closer look, just an effigy. Those days are gone, for now, and after a half hour or so of wandering we all loaded back in the car and made a beeline for the highway, Jake bought us some marshmallow bars and we sang little mermaid songs all the way home.
That's right, we did. Listen, I'm not cool. I'm not one of those really cool outdoors people. I really don't fit in with the scene at all. But still, we have so much fun being here, doing what we do the way that we do it.

Pearly Gates

We had one final adventure before the good weather left, and a lot of other things went with it.

It was a few day's after Lisa's birthday, and we invited her and Colt to climb with us for the weekend in Leavenworth.

Andrew and I did a lot of secret preparations for this trip. We packed all these extravagant snacks and microbrews and whiskey and the good coffee, and a big card with a snail on it and overpriced shower gel in a colorful bottle as a birthday present. We debated over dessert options and settled on a big chocolate cake, and Andrew was very intent on their being candles. I remember thinking that this was good- having a boyfriend who was excited to find the right candles to put on my best friend's surprise birthday cake. This was a very good thing.
The weekend weather was beautiful, although the land around Leavenworth is on fire and so the valley was filled with a heavy bluish haze and the air was thick to breath. On Saturday we hiked a brutally steep, sandy approach to the Pearly Gates wall. Such a lovely name for a wall. Such a demoralizing hike.
The day was brisk with the unmistakable chill of early winter, and in the evening we found a free spot to camp off of the road, built a fire and pulled on down jackets and hats and gloves. Lisa cooked for us over the camp stove while we drank beer and laughed hysterically for an hour or two before launching into those conversations you can only have with your very closest people, and only by the side of the road around a campfire.

Then Andrew and I stepped away and put the sparkly 2 and and the sparkly 8 candles into the cake and lit them and came out singing. The four of us ate the entire thing and then crawled away towards our tents for the night. We fell asleep immediately in long underwear and fat down sleeping bags, the dog at our feet.
Sunday Morning in Leavenworth means one thing- the cafe on Icicle Road where every climber in a fifty mile radius begins their day. We went for coffee and breakfast and saw twenty five different friends from the city, all out to capture what could be the last dry weekend of the year.
The day turned out to be hot. Andrew wanted to climb everything. Lisa and Colt wanted to leave early and get margaritas. There were wasps on the rock. We took photos:
At the end of the day, Andrew and I climbed four pitches up what was probably the most technically fun piece of rock I've ever been on. It was face climbing and I felt like I flew up behind his ever strong and solids leads. The views from up there were stunning, hazy and golden, but the only picture we got was a victory shot of us when we finished, dirty and tired in waning light. As we descended in twilight the colors around us deepened, and the mountains and trail turned blue, then silver, then completely dark. The air tasted like a wood smoke.
I'm writing this all simply, because it was simple: the four of us, sitting exhausted in town drinking basil margaritas with rope-blackened hands, making plans for the next trip, Lisa already typing a grad school essay with her laptop on the corner of the table, my hand on Andrew's leg, mind wandering towards my new job, my new house. All of us happy, all of us going in a good direction. So simple.  
                                                    Happy birthday, Lisa love!!

Everything was illuminated

On the plane ride from Juneau to Seattle, eleven o'clock at night, the boy next to me, a beloved crew member, tells me that "I am the stuff that dreams are made out of." Then he throws up into a bag. The flight attendants think that I'm his girlfriend so they give me wet towels to wash his face with. I'm not his girlfriend. I wash his face anyway. After all, he just gave me a really nice compliment.
Andrew picks me up at the airport. He's covered in scratches and bruises and he's exhausted from the weekend's climbing epic. I put my arms around his neck and hang on him like a monkey. He smells incredibly clean. He's brought me cake from our favorite bakery.

I did not have much to drink when I was released on vacation from the M/V Safari Endeavour. Sometimes sailors get too drunk and are booted off the airplane and nothing, nothing, was going to stop me from getting home to Seattle and that wild, scratched up adventure boy waiting for me.

The airport bar in Juneau cut us off and said that if one of us got one more drink, we'd all be banned from the airplane. I was sipping on seltzer with lime and when they said that I grabbed my bag and ran through security.
The land of South East Alaska is rising. It's a phenomenon called Isostatic Rebound. The land sat for so many millions of year beneath the enormous weight of glacier and now that the glacier is receding, the earth is springing back, slowly, like a sponge expanding after a stone has been lifted.

I'm on vacation in Seattle and I feel this physical and mental expansion as the glacial weight of the M/V Safari Endeavour recedes into memory. I like life aboard the ship. I've gotten good at it. But it's heavy. And when I run away for a bit, I have my own isostatic rebound. I feel buoyant, and cheerful and up for anything, and everything makes me ridiculously overjoyed. Everything. An iced tea. A spider. A text message. Traffic. How does Jonathan Safron Foer put it? Everything is illuminated. So imagine what it must be like to be my companion when we're doing something that would be deemed incredible even during the most regular of times and I'm on complete sensory overload.

I'd imagine it's very uplifting. And entertaining. And exhausting.
On Saturday, Andrew and his friend Avi and I hike up to the cold blue-green waters of Rachel Lake. It's warm and wildflowery and on the whole hike, there and back, Andrew and I are talking, talking, talking. Telling stories, telling jokes, playing word games. Then we plunge into the lake and I get a little concerned about just how fond I've become of this wild and capable and exceptionally strong guy. But then, it could be the isostatic rebound talking. I'm off the boat- emotions are not to be trusted.

On Saturday we attempt this route in Index called Davis Holland/ Lovin Arms. It's actually two routes stacked on top of one another. I tell him, and our friend Kristin who is a climber of exceptional strength, that I'm not strong enough to do DHLA. I've been on the boat for too long walking circles around the 400 deck, turning down the covers of beds when I should be doing yoga or push ups or something, but since chef quit and the hotel manager quit and everybody quit, we've all had to pitch in and do everybody else's jobs, and therefore there is no time to exercise and sometimes I eat my lunch in the shower because there's not enough time to do both.

You see? I plead. I'm not strong enough for DHLA. It's a hard route. I tried it before we set sail and didn't make it up above pitch 3 and I was in the best shape ever. Always wearing the tight tank tops. Just being a big show off. 
We do DHLA. I'm not strong enough. I fall- a lot- hitting the ledge hard on one particular overhang. I'm pulling on ropes and gear just to make it up. "THIS ISN'T AS BAD AS IT LOOKS!" I shout to a guy watching me from another route as I dangle on the rope. "I LIVE ON A BOAT! I'M NOT STRONG ANYMORE!"  

He shouts back, after watching me attack the overhang again, after the third big fall, "I THINK YOU'RE DOING FANTASTIC!" 

High up on the upper town wall of Index, four pitches up, I fall in love with Washington all over again. I'm so totally in love with Washington and I have a huge crush on the boy leading the pitches and it doesn't matter that I've forgotten how to climb and that I'm chanting "Fuck this SHIT!" over and over as I scratch my way up the wall. I'm off the boat. And I'm climbing. I really really love climbing. I'm in paradise. 

And then, on the walk back to the car, to the Mexican restaurant in Sultan where we drink cold beers and devour huge plates of food before saying one word (we're hungry), and afterwards, the long drive back to Seattle where I demand we listen to songs about sea creatures on repeat (The Mollusk, Ween)....before all of this and the rest of the week continues and the rest of my life goes by, the god damned train passes.  
Washington- you're the stuff that dreams are made out of. And now, I'm going to throw up on you. 

How Weather Works in Paradise

Our first day back was so long awaited. We spent the season inhaling chalk dust and ripping up our fingers on gritty, neon plastic holds, lying on our backs at the Seattle Bouldering Project and daydreaming about the day we could be released from our winter confinement. About the day the rain would stop, and the sun would beat down on the rocks throughout Washington and we could once again spend every hour of daylight inching up their warm, dry faces. I live in a city that is wet for six months out of the year, and by the end of that sixth month, the idea of dry anything feels like pure fantasy. The concept of dry, sun-warmed rock seems so remote it's almost cruel.
Then the weather flipped upside down onto its head, and all of a sudden I was sitting at the base of the Lower Town Wall in Index with Andrew, hiding from the sun, and we were both covered in sweat and completely shell shocked. What is that thing in the sky? Why is it burning my skin? Why am I so thirsty?
In my rain daze, I'd forgotten that sunny weather isn't all pleasantly warm rock and gentle breezes. We were a few pitches up on the sun-exposed face, just above the shady, sheltering pine trees, and that burning orb in the sky was scorching the strength right out of me. After we rapped back to earth we slunk around for a while, looking for the next route, eventually retreating to the base of the rock where there was a slice of shadow and refrigerated air leaking from the cracks. Why is that bright thing making me feel sleepy?

Oh my God, in this city and its monotonous climate I've forgotten how weather works.
Our first day back was the beginning of April. It was cold in the shade but the rock was dry. We climbed a three pitch classic called Rattletale. On the second pitch, I discovered something new about myself. I don't actually know how to climb crack. I've been climbing now for 16 years so I just assumed I could catch on, but crack climbing is completely different than everything else. It's like a different sport.  When I daydream about climbing, I think about clean faces, catching a tiny lace-thin protrusion for your toe, gripping little chips with your fingers. Either that or giant, pumpy overhangs with holds like buckets. But not crack.
Smith Rock Face: Daydream Material
Not this junk show of jamming and and locking twisting and wrenching, tape and dirt and blood and skinned hands. I don't physically know how to do this, I realized, which is a bit alarming when you're already two pitches up. I scratched my head and thought about what to do next.  Then I lay-backed the whole thing, which is essentially like looking at a big, beautiful, bouncy rapid and deciding to take the exhausting, rocky sneak route on the left and hope that nobody sees you. (Which I'm also really good at doing.)
Layback Technique, aka Not crack climbing.
But Andrew caught me. And the next weekend we were back at Index, doing laps on the easy crack at lower town wall as he patiently showed me, move by move, the proper crack climbing technique. Because our plans before I go to Alaska involve cramming a summer's worth of big wall and trad into a few short weeks, and there's only so much lay back and sneak routes and faking it a girl can do before she needs to nut up and learn how to jam.
I'd like to point out, just for the record, that after the sun fell behind the cliffs and the day cooled around us, we started to function again. Andrew put up the most inspired lead I've ever seen, a really effing hard route called Zoom, and I was able to follow him, and we were redeemed. And on the walk back to the car on the train tracks, in a tunnel of trees and their new, light-green leaves, I was reminded that we live in Paradise. There are many places of Paradise around the world and this is one of them. And so was the hole in the wall Mexican place we found on the way home.
Then again, maybe Paradise has less to do with where you are and what you're doing, and everything to do with who you're with. Who knows? I don't know such things.

Reel Rock Film Festival

I'm emceeing this sucker for the second year in a row, so you know it's going to be good.....

This Thursday, the Egyptian Theater in Seattle's Capitol Hill at 7pm: The Reel Rock Film Festival. 

Get your tickets at 2nd Ascent in Ballard, Feathered Friends downtown or The North Face. (Vertical world is sold out.)

This will sell out! So buy your tickets now. I saw the movies- they are...well...part insanity, and part genius. 

It's going to be a fantastic night. For more information click here.

Get Away from Me, April

Out here on the left coast, May is showing some signs of developmental delays. May is acting a whole lot like April. Now it's almost June, and it's too late for a spring, so we're just holding our breaths for a summer. Although really, I'm a bit detached, since I'm jumping ship in a few weeks and going back to New England.
This past weekend, Memorial day, was one of my last excursions in the Northwest until August. Here are some images from the long weekend in North Bend, 40 miles outside of Seattle, where living has officially become an underwater experience. 

It was a freezing few days, rain heavy, watery and slick. We sought out semi-dry lines that zig-zagged between waterfalls; at night we lay side by side in the smokey orange light of a roomy moutaineering tent. The rain's constant tap-tap on the walls muddled us into a trance, until all conversation was replaced by long stares and distant comments. The whole weekend went by like this: a deep, vivid, aquatic trance. I'm not sure this will make sense to you, but it was an elegant few days. I saw a lot of turquoise. 

Leading climbs was luxurious. I could feel the blurry inside me begin to crystallize. Do you know what I'm saying? It means I stopped thinking about general shit and I only think about the shit that's going to get me to the next bolt.

 So, that's all I'm going to think about from now on. Deciding what the next bolt is going to be, and getting there.

The Cinnamon Slab

I'm sleeping in Southern Oregon, alone in my little Mountain Hardwear Sprite. It's a solo tent, one I just glowingly reviewed for a Backpacking magazine. I wrote a cool 2,000 words praising its clever design, a snappy fusion of minimalism and space. (Magazines love the word fusion.) I bought the thing two years ago when I was faced with the prospect of third wheeling it all summer. I know my coupled friends really miss those days, when I would crawl into their tent in the evening with a friendly, "Hey guys! Got room for me? Say, who here likes UNO!" I really kept things lively for them, thrashing between them all night, zipping and unzipping the tent for my multiple bathroom breaks.  And I miss those days too, guys, but it's important for me to have my own space, especially because I'm such a light sleeper. You understand.

My life on these trips is perfectly tailored. My sleeping bag zips up tightly around me, the solitary beam of my headlamp illuminates the pages of the books I've brought to read.  My little stove, which packs to the size of a carton of cigarettes, boils exactly enough water for one french press of coffee, which I drink all by myself. When I get married I'll have to buy everything new, or slice myself in half.

I lie there cozily in the rain after a long day of climbing, admiring myself. It's supposed to really storm tonight but right now the rain is just pattering down, soothing. I hope it storms. I hope it rages. This tent will stand the test, just like it's done before. My body, sore from two days on the cliffs, feels like its being pulled down by magnets to the floor.  I really love this life. I love my tent, my individual pod where I'm dry and safe. Should I ever go homeless, I think as I gaze up into the skylight, I'll just move into this tent. I could do it.

As I'm thinking this, literally as the thoughts are chugging through my mind, there is a loud POP as the front pole snaps in half and the whole shelter collapses on top of me. I'm at the bottom of a heap of mesh and nylon. The whole thing is kaput.  I can think of gentler ways that the world could have reminded me not to get too high on myself, but that's not the way life works now, is it.

I'm too tired to get up and now it is pouring rain. There's nothing to do about it anyhow. The pole was already broken in one place, so the one pole fixing cylinder that came with the tent was already in use.

I should have stayed at the Mecca camp tonight, I think as I squeeze my eyes shut and try to ward off the growing clausterphobia.  I should have asked John and Diana to leave me behind at Mecca with that boy I saw at the bathrooms.

Mecca is the word I use to refer to Smith Rocks. Now, I've always found the over used, worn out sports equals religion metaphor to be totally lame, but there is something unarguably holy about Smith. It is the original- the birth place of sport climbing. And, with its endless rows of jagged peaks and winding, meticulous staircases, it looks like a Gaudi-designed cathedral, like the Sagrada Familia.
Photo by Diana Lee Meeks

 If the park is a cathedral, then the people who drive long distances through the night are pilgrims. We drove out of Seattle at 7:30pm, left the highway for a state route at Salem, and by 1:30am were climbing cautiously over the Cascades. The wilderness that engulfed us in those mountain was thick and cold and dangerous looking.  Diana kept me awake by telling stories from her remote fire fighting days, true horror stories of mad men and yetis. I thought I might have to jump into their tent and sleep between them that night if we didn't motor far away from that black forest. The few towns we passed through were curious- half abandoned, yet they gave off the image of being antonymous, shut off from the outside.

We arrived at our camp site at 3:00am. I ate a mint Oreo for comfort and slept tightly sealed in the back of my car. 

Our first morning at Smith was glorious.

We climbed all day on a wall called The Cinnamon Slab. The holds were tiny and crimpy, and required massive finger strength and strong legs. For once, my head was completely quiet as I led, rising above each bolt with pure concentration. Face climbs are my favorite, because a fall on lead would generally be pretty clean- no walls to smash into. My legs shook hard with the strain, but I felt powerful and precise on the tiny chips of rock. 

Then I sat back and watched John lead some ridiculously bouldery 5.11d I named The Tough One. If you're not down with the lingo, then good. Stay that way. Climbing lingo is really obnoxious, a fusion (there it is again) of computer techie with total stoner: 'Dude, that micro-crimp was surprisingly positive! Sweet!' But, for your edification at this time, 5.11 is about when routes start to really heat up. 5.5-5.10 is gateway drug material. 5.11 is the beginning of the really hard shit.
 John battled The Tough One for over an hour, as I wore out the shutter in my camera and Diana, at the other end of the rope, went numb in the legs.

Now, you may be tempted to look at the pictures below and think again of that terrifically cliched bit about climbing and religion. We may or may not look like members of the devout, draped in our traditional Moonstone and Prana garments, performing the sacred rituals of the righteous.

Please, stop. Stop that right now. We were simply bored (uproariously supportive of John, of course, but bored) on the ground, and we met a new friend named Jordan who entertained us by doing headstands. 

John was on The Tough One for so long, in fact, that evening fell.

He really, really wanted to reach those chains. Look how close he came!

But alas, something had to bring us back for round two....
 It was the end of a perfect day. The weather was stunning. The climbs were solid and endless, as were the snacks. My tent had not yet caved in. The storm was still far off.

This climbing life is addicting. We were as happy as can be. 

Vantage: Halo

I love the music of climbing, its satisfying symphony of sounds: clicks and snaps and bings, iridescent silver and hot gold and cherry colored quick draws glinting in the sun as you clip them onto your harness. Metal against metal, metal against rock, the hiss of a rope flaked out, the stretch of fingers bending against stiff white medical tape. And then you turn and face the rock, and put your hands on it, feel its pleasant warmth or biting cold, you step off the ground and into the vertical world, and all the other sounds of the world fade away. Birds, crickets, sirens, chatter, car stereos, boys whistling (if you've ever climbed in South America you know what I mean)- all gone. Wind, heart beat, the tinny rattle of cams and draws, and your breath is all that's left. And nothing- really, nothing- sounds as good as the first click of rope snapping into place on the first bolt.

Now falling- falling has its own set of sounds- the frantic scrape of rubber soles against rock, loose gravel giving way beneath your fingers, and as you pop off the wall all those worldly sounds come roaring back, gaining in volume until you land with a bounce and a thud of knee cap or ankle against hard granite or limestone or quartz.  Once- only once- I heard the hard, painful, revolting, nauseating, unsettling, disorienting PING of an entire bolt yanked out of the wall, and the subsequent scream of the climber as he went swinging off into the sky. But that was years ago, and it was the result of user error.

Nick holding the bold that ripped out of the wall while he was leading an overhang. Leavenworth, Washingon
Alright, so- everything I just described? That's mostly the way I've heard other people describe it. Testaments of friends and climbing buddies and strangers at the crag. I've sat through dozens of obnoxious documentaries showcasing the sinewy, underfed mountaineer sitting in his mountain home with a tiny cup of espresso, waxing poetic with some European accent:  "Yah, I can not hear when I'm climbing, you know???? Eet eezz like...meditation....eet eez just me and the rock. I am su-preme-ly focused."

Bully for them. But things are a little different inside this blond, slightly over sized head. The sounds from earth do melt away, sure. I can't hear anything that's going on down there. I can't hear anything at all. Because? Because of a fear-coping mechanism I invented-on accident- when I was 17 and I started leading harder stuff.
Can you find me? On The Virgin Wall at Portreto Chico, Mexico, 2002
It began one sunny day in New Zealand, nine years ago. It just happened; I suddenly found myself repeating a bar- one, single, solitary bar- of a song, over and over again, like a record skipping or my Ipod stuck on replay, replay.

I used to climb with a head full of  little chattering gremlins, reminding me how precariously far up I was, how soon the next fall would be, how run-out the climb was. I began playing music in my head to silence those little voices, and it worked.  But it also drove me nuts. I forget what the first song was, but I know it lasted for months.

The best thing is- that clever brain of mine!- I only hear songs that hold some sort of punny relevance to climbing. Father and Son By Cat Stevens was popular for a spell in 2004. “Take your time, think a lot, think of everything you got.”  This line, over and over and over. To my credit, it was an overall positive message to have ringing between my ears when I was a few feet above the bolt and seemingly out of things to grab. Certainly it was more soothing than my previously popular chorus of “You’re going to fall and it’s going to really hurt! You’re going to fall and it’s going to really hurt! Here! You! Go!"

So on this particular day, this warm, sunny day in Vantage on a harmless, simple wall, I was treated to a stereo rendition of  Halo, by Beyonce. Just the chorus. How special. It went like this: I can see you halo! Halo! Halo! I can see your halo! Halo! Halo! And then, and anyone who is familiar with this song knows this, things really heat up: HALO! HALO! HALO! I can see  your HALO! HALO HALOOOO!

God, it really sucked.

But hey- it could have been worse, right?

I didn't understand how this tune held any connection with the sport until I slunk off into the sage to be alone,  finish the damn song in my head and get it out of my brain. Strangers who passed would have seen a short, sunburnt girl, balanced on a steep hill overlooking the valley, head resting on her knees, humming Beyonce like a disturbed mosquito. But check this out- the last verse: I swear I'd never fall again- but this don't even feel like falling- gravity can't begin- to pull me back to the ground again..." Crazy relevant, right?

All neurosis and mind game aside (man, I wish I could approach relationships like that, le sigh,) we were out there, and it was glorious. We were climbing our routes, eating our sandwiches, chatting it up with the tattooed climbing boys on the ropes next to us. Drinking some beers, some waters, watching John cruise up the bouldery start that we couldn't begin to figure out, taking deep breaths of dry air.

That's another thing I love about climbing:  the abundance of oxygen. There's just so much to be had. You climb from thick, rich air on the ground into the pure blue sky. Even if things go terribly wrong, you can still (generally) breathe. Which is different than certain other sports I can think of.

A few years of water up the nose, water down the throat, water in the ear drums, hydraulics, holes, disorienting depth and underwater caves taught me to really appreciate this one small thing. Breathing.

Deep breath. It was the first day of the outside season and we felt like little baby birds leaving the rainy winter gym, craning our necks and losing our feathers. We had decided on the drive out that this inaugural trip would be "kinky"- as in, full of kinks. And we were right. We didn't have nearly enough quick draws and had to creatively relay back and forth between bolts on each climb. We didn't bring a rope bag, or nearly enough cook wear, or salt, or anything to scrub dishes with. We fought about pots and pans and who would clean the routes. I didn't have enough lockers and had to do a mighty innovative job on the anchors, but I still deemed them quite safe.

We made a list of all the things we'd need to bring next time, as well as a self-congratulatory list of all the good things we did bring: pure Vermont maple syrup. The good beer. Daisy chains, webbing, black rubber climbing shoes, chalk, Patagonia Down Sweater Jackets With hood in Aqua, and the miraculous lululemon tank tops that really are Gods Gift to (straight) man.

The arching sky and warm desert air felt as big and dreamy as birthday balloons. Lower Sunshine Wall was as crowded as the South East expressway, and we kept seeing friends from the gym walking by, and dogs, and the dogs barked hello. Ahh, the casual camaraderie of climbing. Just like the sloppy, hyper camaraderie of drunk girls in the lady's room at a bar off Broadway, but without the barfing. I sat back, basking like a turtle, and watched Lisa tie into the sharp end.  Lisa, a few months into climbing and already leading outside. These next few months, hell- the next few years, at least- were feeling full of promise.

Remember those walls we built? Well baby, they are crumbling down. They didn't even put a fight! They didn't even make a sound.

Vantage Photobook: American Pie

It was not a long, long time ago, but thinking of that windy day does make me smile. As always, we had one chance to make that weekend count, and we knew if we could do it right we'd end up dancing in the desert, and certainly we'd be happy for a while.

February and its shivers were gone, thank you very much, and any bad news we left behind in the city on the doorstep with the paper. I'm not going to say that anybody cried when we woke up that morning, underneath the cliffs, but something touched us all that day, the day we ran around like rock n' roll in the canyon and we knew- we could feel it - that winter had died for another three seasons.

So bye bye to the tremendous gales of Vantage and our plans of climbing. Trying to evade the hurricane, we drove the Subarus down the highway and through a winding canyon road, but the windstorm followed closely behind. We drank whiskey and coffee and sang: this might be the day that we die, this might actually be the day we all get blown away.

Now, for three hours, we made breakfast. Jesters, all of us, trying to mix bisquick and fry plantains in that weather. And once, while I was looking down, John's coffee was blown all over me. I'm not sure, in retrospect, why we powered through, and why we cooked so many different things. The cereal lept out of the box. The beans flew out of the pan. It was an animated meal for sure. But we pressed on, and ate a four course breakfast, and nobody was singing any blues as we watched winter get blown away. 

Did you read the book of love? How about the weather report? Do you have faith in rock and river, can sunshine give your rained-out soul a break? We all kicked off our shoes and John taught us how to walk real slow through the wilderness. We were lonely teenage broncin' bucks, desert sage and not exactly out of luck. And if we'd had a pick up truck, why, we'd have been even better off.

We ran down into the canyon, helter skelter in a spring air, birds flying up around us, eight miles in and running fast. We played tracking games and learned to hunt one another through the silvery trees. We blindfolded ourselves and tried to grab things from under our noses, and I was on the sideline, mostly, with my camera. 

We went river-crossing; nothing says spring more than the first sting of ice water rushing past knees and ankles. Whatever the city weather says, spring is out here somewhere. Bye bye February, and January, this is the time of year when you die.

When night came, there we were, all in one place, a  generation just kicking it, with time enough for every thing. John started a fire for us- nimbly, quickly- using only two pieces of wood and twine. Fire is the devil's only friend but we sure enjoyed it that night. 

And as I watched the flames climb high into the night, my hands unclenched and we sang songs about angels born in hell breaking Satan's spell. The cool, night time air was sweet perfume, and John played Mason Jennings songs on his guitar. And you'd better believe we were drinking whiskey and rye. All throughout the campsite, most of the people were dreaming, we may have kept them up, but not a word was spoken from them, and the tent lights were flickering out for the night.

And then, early in the morning after singing The Gambler and telling our rambling stories, the four people I admire most found their way into their own sleeping bags and caught the last train into sleep. Goodnight, good old boys and good old girls, goodnight.

Vantage: Wind and Ecstasy

How much does it cost to get out of here? Gas, obviously. Gas is expensive. But there are three of us in the car to split the tank: myself, Lisa, and Nick. Everything else we bring from home. The Subaru is crammed to the gills with all the tools of the weekend warrior: tents and down sleeping bags for the still-frosted night, coiled ropes and racks of gear, a coffee press, a stove, fuel, spices, pale ales, one amber tinted bottle of whiskey, camera gear, layers of jewel toned polypropylene.

It's downpouring as we merge from 1-5 onto I-90 East; the heavy, wet rain makes it seem as if the city is whimpering. Even at 9:30 at night, the traffic is chaotic. My psyche has completely unraveled. I did the neurotic packing thing, the gleeful excitement thing, the last minute what-if-we-go-hungry-seizure in the grocery store thing, the hysterical, uncontrollable laughter while driving thing, and completely depleted my personal reserve of energy before leaving the city limits. I generally become a bit unhinged when granted a weekend pass to the wilderness, but this particular occasion was made considerably more manic because I just- no less than 24 hours ago- returned home from Vermont, via a long and uncomfortable plane ride against headwinds. I think the changes in time and climate were throwing me.

We stop in Rainier Valley to pick up Lisa's forgotten sleeping bag. I traipse inside to say hello to her roommates, enjoy a little tumbler of bourbon, one ice cube, and fork over my keys to Nick.  He takes them and tucks me nicely in the back seat where I fold up, seat belt fastened, between two gear bags and a fuel canister. Jetlagged and booze warm, I begin to gently melt away.

I know enough about night driving to know this: it's one of the few times that physics is evaded. Time and space lose their stronghold on reality as you press forward in the dark at 70mph. This is even more true when you're a passenger, and I'm not often a passenger, least of all in my own car. I'm like a tourist back there. I don't really know where I am and I only sort of know where I'm going. The last time I went to Vantage was eight and a half years ago, when I was a freshman in college, and I seemed to arrive there by magic. I asked fewer questions when I was 17, and packed lighter. I just remember falling asleep in the back of someone's car and waking up in the desert.

As we leave the city behind, darkness deepens but the rain keeps slashing down. Rough road conditions make the car rumble, and it's very warm inside, and dry, like this little protected bubble rolling down the pass. And then Nick, he may as well have fed me a tranquilizer: he puts Rusted Root on the CD player. African drum trip, Ecstasy, Send me on my way.  This was the first Cassette Tape I ever owned. I wore the film strip down to threads, playing it over and over on my Walkman as I ran, alone, through the overgrown logging roads on my property, miles from anyone, flat chested, twelve years old, a happy kid but an isolated one, and impatient. I was decidedly blessed with a wild and free childhood but I knew- knew- that my grown up self would run even wilder and I could not wait to get there.

The interior of the car is ecstasy. The only thing keeping me awake- barely awake- are the statistics of traffic mortality. Inclement weather and tricky roads and the facade of immunity that can overcome a driver- dad studies these things for a living and has made me acutely aware of this- the ubiquitous terror of automobiles. Furthermore, it feels like 3am in my mixed up brain, and I'm convinced that it really is 3am, so every twenty minutes I'll startle myself awake, horrified that Nick has fallen asleep at the wheel and we're all dead.

He's not asleep, of course. It's only midnight, Lisa and Nick are talking in the front seat. I can only make out the sharp S sounds from their conversation. Lisa says, "Lina, calm down, we're awake." She takes my hand in hers and its warmth pushes me over the precipice and into sleep. Real sleep.

I wake up in the desert. The crowded camping area below the Feathers are quiet, curled in their tents and trucks, gearing up for one of the first days of the outdoor season. John and Diana have waited up for us; we find them nearly passed out in camp chairs around the glowing red fire pit. I fumble for the door handle and fall out of the car onto the dust. As usual, I become instantly awake and chirpy when I get a breath of fresh air. "So sorry to keep you waiting." I stand up, brush off my legs. "We left the city a bit later than planned."

The others set up their tent and I arrange myself in the back of the car with the seats laid flat. I with my head on the pillow, I can just press my toes against the back windshield.  It's 1 in the morning in the desert, early April, and I sleep like a champion. In fact, I'm the only one out of the five of us who can sleep. As I'm dreaming (warm rocks, silver bolts, espresso shots and Hometeam) a wind storms bellows into the gorge like a silver Amtrak Passenger train. It whips out of nowhere and wrecks havoc on John and Diana's tent, pressing the fabric walls against their faces.  They give up quickly and bed down in their Impreza. (Picture trying to find a suitable sleeping position inside a large snail. I speak from experience.)

Nick's tent, impossibly well-rigged (NOLS training, don'cha know) stays afloat but rattles like canvas sails on a doomed ship. Meanwhile, safe inside metal and fogged glass, I am rocked lightly back and forth. I sort of remember clambering out to pee in the early morning and nearly getting launched off of the earth and spit into orbit, but that could be merely a fantasy.

Lisa wakes me up in the morning when she jumps onto my head, fighting against the wind to pull the car door shut. "OH My GOD."  She rakes the tangled hair out of her eyes. "This is ridiculous! Can we even climb in this?" "Oh sure." I say, veteran that I am. "If it's not raining, we can climb in anything."

Then I look out the back windshield and see John in his puff-ball coat, tumbling away as he tries to reach the safety of my car.

"Well, never mind." I tell her. "Not in this."

We are five people cramped into the back of a car, too stubborn to return to the city, watching tumbleweeds zoom around like angry, truncated snowmen. The simplest things become excruciatingly difficult. Example; Lisa getting dressed:


Regardless, we're here for two days, we want to climb, we really do, and we're starting to get hungry. What would you do?

Tuesdays are my Holy Days

(For Katie Paulson, who is one mother-trucking bad-ass woman.)

I like it when it rains hard on a Saturday night because everyone is running through the streets. I love it when someone smashes a coffee mug on accident and the whole jabbering cafe gets silent for a moment.  When Billy Jean is Not My Lover is piped in over the loudspeaker at Stone Gardens, I take a joy lap, pushing my way through the throngs just to see everybody singing along and dancing in place as they belay. It's like living in a music video (which, by the way, is my ultimate goal). Pardon me for the epic (EPIC) cliche, but little things that bring strangers together, for an instant or an evening, are my favorite flippin' things on the planet. It still kills me that I was not present for the legendary (but true) audible-fart-that-caused-pandemonium-in-the-ultra-quiet-Suzallo-reading-room-during-finals-week incident in 2005. My friend Will was there. I see him a few times a year and every time, I make him retell me that story.

Anyway. Nothing brings people together like dirt cheap tacos. And that is why Taco Tuesday is my holy day. 

Until the sun decides to forgive us for whatever we did to make it quit, we're in a holding tank. The rocks are wet and cold and painful and dangerous. But when spring springs, everyone will go bursting forth into the world, scattering in all cardinal directions towards different summits and slabs of rock, pinnacles and columns, basking in sunshine and lactic acid and multi pitches. In a week, we'll be thoroughly diffused between Squamish, Index, Vantage, Cascades, the Olympics and the Exits.

But for now, in the crap-tastic weather of mid winter, here we are, all of us, jammed together on weekday evenings, cowboys in the same brodeo. 

I'm twitchy for spring to get here so I can wear my sundresses, but I do love gym season. Because nowhere else is bouldering so much like performance art, with a red-hot, real live audience watching your every foothold and commenting on your grip.

On Tuesdays, there are many of us present at Stone Gardens who are climbing for a higher purpose: to earn our tacos. Because up the street, open till late, the Tin Hat serves 69 cent tacos and absurdly cheap beer. 

And we work extra, extra, extra hard, so that we can go nuts and still have a shred of self worth the next morning.

(Ian, who had shoulder surgery on Friday, climbed for three hours straight on one arm.)

Sometimes, it can be difficult for some to leave the competitive determination at the gym. Which is how Katie and I found ourselves engaged in battle, matching each other taco for taco, each refusing to be the first to quit, stick it, stick it- you got it, go for it go go go yeah! still ringing in our ears. We couldn't talk, we could barely swallow our beers, we just kept eating and ordering, counting the crumbs left on the others plate. Friends, witnesses and waitresses shook their heads and pulled their hair in distress.

"Why? Why?" They asked us.

We gazed down at our plates with summit-drunk smiles, and responded "because it is there."

You are my Everest.  How I wish I could quit you:

In the midst of the feeding frenzy, Katie had a moment of clarity. Somehow, somehow she surfaced from the salt and the crunch to wave her arms in the air like a ref. "This is absurd!" She says. "This stops NOW."

A relieved onlooker snapped a photo of this miracle moment, when we vowed to leave the aggression at the door and never again compete gastronomically. By this point, we were personally responsible for the slaughter of sixteen tacos. Each.

There is nothing we love better than sharing our table with people from the gym who we don't really know. Stone Garden friendships (like all friendships in Seattle, home of the world famous SOCIAL FREEZE) are extremely slow to evolve. You brush elbows a few times while standing on the mats, eyeing a problem on the same wall.  Weeks go by. You begin to faintly recognize one another. More weeks go by. Then, one of you says something while the other is on the wall. Something like, "You got it, bro." Or, more often, "Yeah!" or just, "Yeah" sans exclamation.

That's a big day. But remember, it's a long process. Weeks go by. Little comments about single moves turn to longer discourses involving full sequences. More weeks go by. One of you gets injured and isn't at the gym for a month or so, delaying the process considerably. And then, there comes a day- a big day- where you finish a problem, and your new stranger-friend gives you the First Bump of Acceptance.

You've done it. You've made yourself a gym-friend.

Of course, I like to just steam-roll right through all that head for the friendship express lanes: an invitation to my stranger friend to join us at Taco Tuesday. More often than not, they don't come. But on the occasion that they're a brave, willing, or hungry soul, we welcome them with open arms into our booth. We toast them, physically surround them, fire bomb them with questions about their life. Usually, in particular if they are a Seattlite, our forwardness and unabashed eagerness to become friends scares the pants off of them.  And that is the most fun.

 Thank you oh Lord, for rocks, chalks, tacos, and the people who read this.

My life as a bat

Small Melina on her first Lead Climb Evah
I ate eleven tacos tonight. That's Eleven Tacos, son! I only wanted ten but I pushed on to eleven in honor of the 5.11d I climbed today: my first 5.11d ever. Boys and girls, I think I'm actually getting better at this. It sure has taken a decidedly long time: I mean, I started getting on rocks when I was just a wee one (in fact, I was eleven.) Hell yeah, eleven.

And since we're discussing new records: post-climbing Taco Tuesday saw higher numbers than ever before,  with all of us squeezed into the booth, and folding chairs brought out for the rest. We raised our beer glasses every few minutes for a new toast:

Here's to Ian! He's getting up at 2:30am tomorrow to go skiing and he still came out with us!
Here's to Melina! She knows what AT stands for!
Here's to Jeremy! He...did something cool involving ice and tools!
Here's to Lisa! She climbed her first 5.10 today!
Here's to Katie, she looks really good in that halter top and she was on campus 15 hours today!
Here's to Brian! He's a guide on the gauley woah dangerous and he's had shingles before! AAAAHH!!

That's how it started, pretty soon we were raising foaming glasses to anything that was said that we found funny, which was woah, everything, we're hilarious all of a sudden! I didn't even hear what you just said and I'm still laughing! Yeah, we were that table, constantly clinking and hollering, and tacos kept magically appearing and disappearing, and the beer was amber and pretty and instantly refilled. Don't worry, I brought my camera. But for those of you tired of seeing photos of the inside of the climbing gym and the inside of different eating and drinking establishments in Seattle, wince not, because I forgot the camera battery.

Ah, but that's life in this rainy city, isn't it, in this season: inside and warm with plenty of friends, plastic molded rocks and drinks named after famous ships. Beats the hell out of what it's been like in the past.

It's all very exciting, this climbing thing, and it keeps me very happy and energized....although apparently not all the time? Check out this photo that Koko took of me, I appear to be upside down on my very favorite train for-the-roof problem, fast asleep: