I looked in the mirror. Soul patch. Unibrow. Face either about to sneeze or cry. I said to my reflection, “Why do we climb?” then quickly turned away. This existential crisis was sheer torture!
I picked up Ed Whymper’s skull, which I had recently acquired in Chamonix. The Guide de Haute Montagne had organized an auction to raise the 4 billion euros that were needed to reconstruct the Bonatti Pillar on the Dru. The French guides were selling croissants, Eigerwand grappling hooks and Ed Whymper’s exhumed remains to help pay for the massive albeit totally necessary reconstruction. I was lucky and had gotten the skull—“Sold! To the man in the candy-apple Gore-Tex onesie!”—before Glen Plake could get his shit together and put up a bid.
Suddenly, the skull began speaking to me.
“Why we climb isn’t some unexplainable enigma too profound to articulate,” Ed Whymper said. “It’s simple. We climb to live, you idiot!”
Did Ed Whymper just call me ‘a idiot’? Whatever …
I returned to my candle-lit desk and placed Ed Whymper’s skull down between my MacBook Air and Nespresso. I sniffled a little bit. I fired up a shot, but had, apparently, loaded the Starbucks K-Cup wrong. Coffee splattered all over Ed.
I began typing:
Climbing has the power to take lives. The Steck-Salathé took Derek Hersey (36). Denali’s South Buttress swallowed Mugs Stump (42). Aiguille Noire de Peuterey crushed Chloé Graftiaux (23). Mount Foraker’s Infinite Ridge swept away Sue Nott (36) and Karen McNeill (37). Leaning Tower took Todd Skinner, four days before his 48th birthday.
Thousands of others have died too.
In a sport that basically invented the phrase “inherent risk,” death is an occurrence so common that it can begin to seem banal.
Yet for all the stories about lives lost to climbing, there are many, many more lives that have been saved by climbs.
This is a story about one of those lives and one of those climbs. This life isn’t particularly special, and the route isn’t hard or great. But through a set of circumstances that only seem pivotal in retrospect, Otto’s Route entered my life at a time when I needed it most.
Let me tell you about how I came face to face with the fearsome, beer-chugging Burt.
I was the poorest kid living in Aspen. This was an absolute, not relative, truth. It wasn’t like I was a “Mitt Romney” in a room full of “Bill Gates’s.” I was the guy with a broke-down Sentra and a demeaning restaurant job in a town of trust-funder ski bums, sex-crazed cougars and oil barons from Texa$. Yes, I had the rippled washboard abs of a desert commando, but I was also the dude renting literally the cheapest bed in town: $400/month for a 10’ x 10’ basement room with no windows. I spent a lot of time in the deficiently fenestrated quarters, watching Zoolander and drinking my way through a case of port wine that I’d obtained (legally) for free.
Sometimes I went out. When I rolled up in “da club” it was like this: matted climber-hair tousled like I don’t care, same prAna sweatshirt always on, head bobbing to music only I could hear in my head. People were all impressed, like, “Who is that inchoate Taoist?” Yet at the end of each lonesome whiskey-soaked night, the reality remained that I had no friends, no girlfriend, no direction; only the laconic swagger of an “Andrew Bisharat.”
OK, I had some friends. There was Chris, the bartender at a Mexican restaurant where, several nights a week, I ate my dirtbag dinner of complimentary chips and bean dip. Chris had a pixie cut of strawberry-blonde hair and the winsome face of a “girl next door.” Her gawky arms held a cocktail shaker over her head and she jiggled it. Holy shit, did she not shave her armpits? Turn on!
Was I lonely? I suppose. I guess I had a crush on her. I also had a crush on the following: any female nice enough to speak to me. Ever since graduating college, a year and a half earlier, my carnal senses had lain volcanically latent as I roamed this sexual wasteland called the American Climbing Circuit. In order to climb full-time like all of my heroes, I’d left a girl in Boston. She wasn’t a climber, which seemed like an irreconcilable flaw on her part. But only after spending enough time chaining it up with all the Lost Boys of Yosemite, I considered the possibility that I had made a mistake in leaving her. Is this what you robots would call “being in love”?
This was a world of ubiquitous impermanence and facsimiles of the “real thing” around every turn. Everything was replaceable, nothing meaningful. Has it always been that way? One time I actually got laid in that dark, depressing Aspen room. She was 42, married and had fake tits. I was 22. I did the math in my head. This is, like, the coolest thing that has ever happened to me, I thought. She had married a Texa$ oil baron, but swore she wasn’t happy. She was so hot! At 6 a.m., after a few hours of the kind of “Amazing Sex” that most women only get to read about in Cosmo, I drove this Real Cougar of Aspen back to her husband’s mansion. I wondered how we could both be so equally unhappy with our completely opposite lives. She gave me her number, crawled out of the window of my Sentra and I never saw her again.
My only real friend was Dave, my college roomie. Dave grew up in the nearby city of Grand Junction, and now lived in the adjoining farming town of Palisade, where, post college, he had become a winemaker. A most unusual twist, we all thought, but cool. Occasionally Dave came up from Drunktion to Ass-pen to party. When Dave rolled up into “da club,” he was like this: natty dandruff hair, same Champion sweatshirt always on, swaggering steps with arms flapping by his sides like he’s dribbling an imaginary basketball between his legs.
I was better at climbing than Dave, but Dave was better than me at everything else: skiing, running, biking, thinking. I mean, he taught himself enology (winemaking) in a matter of weeks. The only level playing field for our enduring but friendly rivalry was chugging beer.
One night Dave and I were at the Mexican bar, eating free bean dip and flirting with Chris by telling her how fast we could drink beer.
“You guys think you can drink fast?” Chris asked.
“Drink-fast is literally the only thing we’re good at,” Dave said. “Well, I am, anyway.”
“No one can beat me,” I said. “Especially not Dave.”
Chris pirouetted on a single foot, her commemorative “Never Forget 9/11” skirt twirling around her pencil-thin frame. She opened the fridge, excavated three bottles of Budweiser and said, “Follow me.” She jogged out the door.
“Don’t you need to stay here?” I called out, confused. But she was gone. The door was swinging shut and I heard her yell, “Hurry up!”
We ejected out of our stools and followed. Now we were outside in the chilly summer night and she was ahead of us, running across the street with the beers. I loved this woman! We hustled to catch up and, about a block away, entered a sketchy building. We went down some dark stairs. At the bottom, a bright restaurant opened up, with mostly empty tables. Standing behind a bar was a guy who was a dead ringer for Jaws (Richard Kiel), the 7’ 2” invincible henchman from the James Bond movies (Moonraker, The Spy Who Loved Me) who could bite through metal.
“Meet Burt,” Chris said. “He can drink faster than anyone I know. If you can beat him, I’ll be very impressed.”
“Pleased to meet ya,” Burt said. The blunt, ugly object that was his head/face opened its defining orifice in what I assumed was meant to be a smile. A pipe organ of copper-colored teeth protruded from his lower jaw.
The chance to impress Chris sent a jolt of electricity into my nuts. I wanted to win! But the freak with the frisbee-sized maw standing in front of me gave me pause. Would he drink the beer or just chew the bottle?
“OK, ready, set, go!” Chris said, chopping her pasty arm through the air.
The camera angle of this story suddenly becomes a horrifying first-person perspective of the beer flowing out of the bottle, something akin to riding Splash Mountain. We see the brown agitated water cascade rapidly out of a tunnel and suddenly drop into Burt’s tonsil-twitching gullet.
The deglutitive art of chugging beer isn’t just about “opening your throat,” as many noobs believe. In college Dave and I had shared our techniques and ideas about drink-fast in the kind of democratic, free-thinking environment that you’d expect of any prestigious liberal arts university—i.e., we were in a frat house with puke-covered floors and music blaring these lyrics:
You’s a big, fine woman, won’t you back that ass up?
Call me Big Daddy when you back that ass up.
Now the camera angle switches to an animated split-screen showing cross-sections of our three pharynxes amid their harried peristalses. The CG (computer graphics) animation, as critics unanimously agree, is doing a fantastic job of capturing the realistic flow of a frothy alcoholic tincture splashing down these three impressive human throats. The rendering clearly shows that Dave and I finished our beers at the exact same moment, but Burt had already won by a single epiglottal flap.
“Ohhhh, so close!” Chris said gleefully.
“That was pretty good!” Chris said. “OK. I’m impressed.”
“Yes!” Burt said, belching loudly. “I am the king! I will chug you faster than you can say, ‘Jim Bridwell Does the Dance of the Woo-Li Masters!’”
“Jim Bridwell Does the Dance of the Wool-Li Masters!” I said as fast as I could, but Burt had already finished another beer.
“See?” Burt said, wiping his mouth with a beach towel. “Told you.”
“Whatever,” Dave said, then turned to me. “This guy’s a douche. You wanna hit up da club?”
Suddenly, hip-hop music that only we could hear came on in each of our heads and we bobbed off into the night in super-sweet slow mo.
We never went back to see Burt about a rematch. I never saw Chris again either. In fact, not long after that night I packed up my Sentra and left Aspen for good, thinking I’d head back to Yosemite.
Never Never Land.
If all else fails, you can always go live and climb in Yosemite. Forever. And that’s just what I had planned to do.
But I never made it past Grand Junction.
Dave’s 4Runner kicked up a dust cloud as it ground to a halt. The graffiti on the red sandstone boulder in front of us read “Bang dat ass.” I experienced that moment when you first see the familiar white patterns of chalk on whatever random piece of rock you’ve driven to. Only then do you become certain that this is the right place to be.
We stepped onto a dirt parking containing broken glass, bullet shells and other interesting artifacts of ancient human existence. We pulled crash pads and beer out of the truck while Maggie, Dave’s submissive black labrador, did some circles and licked her lips.
“The bouldering here sucks,” Dave said. Dave always qualified the exact degree of radness you can expect of any person or place. He did it to make sure that I know that he knows that this isn’t any good so that I don’t think that he thinks that it is.
In order to gain access to these bullet-riddled roadside rocks at the outskirts of Grand Junction, we had had to watch a video, similar to the one Maria, the Texas State Park Ranger, makes you watch before you can get into Hueco Tanks. The narrator of the video began:
“Just south of Grand Junction lies one of the most important natural asylums for the homeless and meth-addled. This anonymous collection of boulders create a unique, natural architecture perfect for collecting rain water, hiding stashes of Mormon pornography, and shooting up”—the video shows a hobo injecting liquid Quaaludes into her arm—“and shooting up” the narrator says, using the annoying tone of voice one uses when making a pun; simultaneously, a guy with a mullet, cut-off shorts and Oakley blades fires a .45 hand gun.
“Today,” the narrator continues, “climbers from all over the Grand Valley are adding their marks … their tick marks”—again with the fucking pun voice!—“to this important cultural and historical resource.”
Now the video—uncannily—shows me and Dave sitting on our crashpads beneath a 45-degree boulder riddled in jugs, as if we’ve always been there, as if we always will be there, as if our story is the story of all climbers. We are struggling to finagle our fingers into the pull tabs of our climbing shoes. We’re both wearing our token sweatshirts with the hoods up, our heads bobbing as if hip-hop is playing somewhere but only we can hear it.
“Dude, what are you even doing with your life?” Dave asks. “Climbing?”
“I’m going, going, back, back, to Yosemite,” I say, invoking the lyrics of Biggie Smalls, my hand scratching an invisible record.
“You should work with me at the winery,” Dave says. “Stay with me at the house in the vineyard.” The imaginary music stops and the camera shifts to a close up of my face. I raise a single eyebrow.
“Sounds kinda hawt,” I say. “Whatever.”
“Do you think that you can climb this problem, pull a beer out of your pocket, open the can and chug it all while hanging from just one arm from the lip of the boulder?”
The video climaxes with a sweeping panoramic shot of me hanging by one chiseled arm from the finishing jug, shirt off, beanie on, abs rippled, lats flexed, and I am totally chugging from a can of PBR in the glorious, golden light. Music crescendoes. The camera sweeps past the boulder and pans out to Independence Monument, a free-standing 400-foot tower of sandstone that’s home to Otto’s Route (5.8), which is, coincidentally, the site of this discursive narrative’s shocking denouement. We see some climbers standing on the summit, high-fiving like in Top Gun, the sun etching their silhouettes violet.
The scene dissolves in a blinding white light.
SuperGuide to Otto’s Route
WHAT: Independence Monument is a 400-foot sandstone tower that, weirdly enough, has some of the same characteristics of a fish—head on, it looks paper thin, but from the side, you are surprised to see it actually has a wide, broad body.
WHERE: This formation is the main attraction in the Colorado National Monument, a beautiful canyon of towers, buttes, buttresses, and more desert flora and fauna than you can shake a stickbug at. It is located just south of Grand Junction.
SEASON: Spring, Fall, Summer, Winter. Basically, year-round, but you should expect the inevitability that there are days in which it’s not a good idea to come here.
8A.NU COMMENTS: Poor/mainly chipped. Piss Easy. Second Go.
EVEN YOU CAN DO IT: Otto’s Route is perhaps the easiest, most moderate climb to the summit of a desert tower in the world. How is it so easy? Because it’s completely manufactured, dummy!
A long time ago, people could chip holds and alter the rock without the fear that there would be some spineless local covertly shooting videos of them and selling it to the Internet’s highest bidder with the lowest standards.
And before that, before the days of anonymous cowards on the Internet, before sponsored 11-year-old children, before sport climbing, before the Stonemasters, and even before the rules of modern climbing had been developed—basically, before everything that you know about climbing ever existed—climbers were free to define the activity for themselves in any way they chose.
WHY DO WE CLIMB?: Climbing was originally about getting to the top to see the view. But in doing so, people discovered that the real purpose of climbing was that it offered the best view for them to see what’s inside themselves.
THE FIRST ASCENT: When John Otto moved to Grand Junction in 1906, he discovered he loved three things: America, building trails, and the red-rock canyons just south of town. In 1907, he wrote:
“I came here last year and found these canyons, and they feel like the heart of the world to me. I’m going to stay and build trails and promote this place, because it should be a national park.”
Otto was part lonely recluse, part eccentric visionary. He collected petitions, raised funds, and sent an endless stream of letters to Washington to have his beloved canyons protected as National Parks. His enthusiasm was contagious, inspiring others to send letters, too. When he rolled up into Monument canyon, he was like this: fat mustache, pick-axe in hand, making trails like a bastard. Newspapers called him “The Trail Builder” and the “Hermit of Monument Park” and sometimes the “Hizzmit of Monument Pizzark.” He lived in the canyon full-time with his burros, Foxie and Cookie, and gave all the towers patriotic names.
After spending so much time looking up at these walls, he began thinking the thoughts of a climber. Can you stand on top of the “impossible” Independence Monument? It would be a few more years before he’d find out.
1911 was, perhaps, the most significant year in John Otto’ s life. On May 24th, Otto’s multi-year efforts to protect these canyons were rewarded when President Taft signed a proclamation that established the Colorado National Monument. Otto was hired, for a salary of $1 per month, as the park’s first custodian.
On June 20th, John Otto married Beatrice Farnham, a Boston-based artist. Their ceremony took place on a large flat rock in the shadow of Independence Monument.
Meanwhile, Otto had been working toward a first ascent of Independence Monument. Devising his own solutions for how to scale something so sheer, tall and intimidating, Otto drilled holes and banged in pieces of pipe to use for hand- and footholds. Wrapping his legs around the lower pipe and maintaining a precarious balance, he’d drill overhead. In some places, he simply chopped steps into the slick rock. (The pipe is long gone, and today free climbers use the remnant boreholes.)
The Grand Junction Daily News reported on his efforts:
“Inch by inch, foot by foot, daring intrepid John Otto, creeping up the giant sides of Independence Monument, the highest and most noble eminence of rock in all Monument Canyon. It is a perilous piece of work he is doing and he should receive great recognition for his feat when he reaches the summit. He is calm about his work and takes it easily, never rushing, just keeping at it steadily, ceaselessly, working toward his goal. He will be the first man, white, red, or black, ever to set foot on the great obelisk, and it is doubtful if many will ever venture to the summit, even when the ladderway is completed. The view from the top will undoubtedly be awe-inspiring and somewhat terrifying.”
As Otto toiled away building the most important trail of his life, Beatrice bided her time by diligently carving the Declaration of Independence into the large flat rock in the shadow of Independence Monument. (These people really, really loved America.)
Fittingly, on July 4, 1911—Independence Day—John Otto made his summit bid. During his ascent, he climbed without a belay, only occasionally anchoring himself to a pipe with a short hemp rope. Near the top, in one overhanging section, a pipe pulled out nearly causing him to plummet to his death, but he held on, recomposed and forged ahead. He reached the summit and erected an an American Flag. I would imagine it was by far the greatest moment of his life.
As with any big send, though, the glory was ephemeral. Shortly thereafter, just a few weeks after being married, Beatrice left John. He was a climber and a real dirtbag, which seemed to her like an irreconcilable flaw. She wrote: “I tried hard to live his way, but I could not do it; I could not live with a man to whom even a cabin was an encumbrance.”
Otto eventually made his way to California where he put his chipping skills to use by becoming a miner. He died a pauper’s death on June 19, 1952, at the age of 81.
REST-DAY ACTIVITIES: Four-wheeling in your oversized vroom-vroom. Visit the Dinosaur Museum. Or, treat yourself to a winery tour in nearby Palisade.
In college, Dave and I used to go bouldering every Friday during fall semester. I’d cut class, and we drove from Boston down to Lincoln Woods. We knew of a quaint little place that sold Red Bulls—OK, it was a gas station, but it was a very “New England-y” gas station—and we stopped there to get a few cans because, despite inducing forehead sweats and kidney luminescence, Red Bull actually works.
Then we’d walk around Lincoln Woods in our velvet Puma track suits, crash pads on our backs, Red Bulls in our fists, fury in our hearts. We had no guidebook. We’d just make shit up because we had no idea where we were or what we were doing. We made many mistakes, but ultimately, we enjoyed the freedom that only comes when you’re a complete beginner and you get to define climbing on your own terms until there’s no skin left.
Everything back then was all about intensity. How much? How many? How big? How fast? Those were the only questions that mattered. Ditching school on Friday continued into the winter. Alpine starts. Three hours north to Mount Washington in New Hampshire. Ice climb Huntington’s. Ski Tuckerman’s. All day. Then back to Boston.
Dave would drive. He’d tell me that I “needed” to chug three (or however many) beers before we crossed the Massachusetts border, usually when we were only five miles from it. So, I’d have about five minutes to do it and, yeah, I did it, whatever. Then we’d get back to campus and party all night. This was 24-hour single-push college-style. Total commitment. On the nights you were lucky enough to hook up with a girl—which really just amounted to being the guy who stayed conscious longer than everyone else and was, by default, the only option left—and you got to end that interminable frenzy of driving, climbing, and drinking with some, any, physically intimate experience … Those were the days when you felt like a real-life hero.
Of course, “real life” doesn’t work that way. When I emerged from college, I felt sharp, critical and hungry. But it was painful to discover that none of that cultivated knowledge was, in any way, advantageous in developing the meaningful connections of adulthood, which I didn’t know I was even looking for, but deep down desperately needed. In the absence of that defining academic mania, I just roamed the country from New Hampshire to Yosemite, trying to be nothing more than a “real” rock climber but finding little comfort in that lifestyle’s inherent singularity.
Whatever that means.
You’ve seen the “Real Housewives of Orange County.” Now, Bravo TV has done it again with the “Real Rock Climbers of Yosemite,” only by Bravo!
Rock and Ice “editor at large” Andrew Bisharat (AB) is on the scene to get the down-low on the new hit show.
AB: What is it about this discursive narrative that you’ve enjoyed so far?
REAL ROCK CLIMBER: I like how it’s making me feel like I’m on drugs. There have been parts where I feel like I’m on acid amid an A4 run-out on the Captain. Basically I’m trying to say that this story has been as mind-numbingly boring as aid climbing. But other parts have been totally bitchin’. I liked Burt. I really wish you guys had beaten him! And I mean that in a really sincere kind of way. All the apropos descriptions have been a pleasure to read. Like I didn’t even know it, but I’m an incoherent Taoist too!
But what I like most is that, it’s not just about the climbing, ya know? People get all caught up in trying to be bitchin’ climbers. You gotta remember: bitchin’ is a state of mind, climbing is secondary.
AB: That’s easy for you to say. You climb all the time, right?
REAL ROCK CLIMBER: Yeah, I’m always climbing. Always climbing, dude. ALWAYS! Like today, I went to the Lodge Cafe and laid waste to this guy from Or-e-gon who though that it’d be a good idea to bring pitons up on the Zo-di-ac. I had to drop some heavy knowledge on this fool. I was like, “Bro. Zodiac is a free climb now. You can’t be slamming home iron just so you can get your 8a.nu tick or whatever. That’s not bitchin’. That’s chipping!”
AB: And then you went climbing?
REAL ROCK CLIMBER: Well, no. Then I went to the El Cap Bridge. Tom was there. Ivo was there. Then … oh, shit! Alex Honnold was there! I was like, this is so bitchin’ because Honnold is, like, a real-life hero to me. I was like, “Yo Hondo! Why you wearing a harness, bro? You’re the fuckin’ free-solo Jedi Knight, man! You can do whatever you want! Anytime you wanna go do Snake Dike Jedi-style, hit me up!” It was so cool!
AB: So, then you free-soloed Snake Dike with Alex Honnold?
REAL ROCK CLIMBER: Actually, no. It’s crazy but I went back over to Camp 4 and there was Ceedy, Bullwinkle and Ammon, and they were having the most bitchin’ game of Bike Wars, and I was all like, “I’m in!” Because slacklining isn’t that cool anymore. Did you know that? Yeah. Now there are slacklining companies, and slacklining competitions, and it’s on the goddamn Super Bowl Half Time Show. When you’re on the Super Bowl Half Time Show, your shit is over.
AB: What’s the secret to perpetuating your simple, disambiguated existence?
REAL ROCK CLIMBER: I’m glad you asked that. Being a Real Rock Climber is a lot tougher than you think. It’s not all spliffs and splitters. The rangers make it super difficult to be free. They’re like parents, or something.
Just the other day, I came back to my spot in Camp 4 and all my shit was gone. So I went over to the ranger kiosk and was like, “Where’s my shit, man?” And they were like, “Come with us,” and these two rangers took me back to the station. At this point I’m totally freakin’ out! They said I’d surpassed the two-week limit by over two years, which seemed like a bit of a hyperbole, but whatever. But then I thought about it and I was like, “Holy shit! Have I really been here for two years? Whatever …”
The rangers said that I could have my shit back if I wrote “Jim Bridwell Does the Dance of the Woo-Li Masters” 725 times on a chalkboard, one time for each day I’d been camping illegally. And so I was like, “OK, I’ll do it, but only if I can get stoned first.”
AB: What is your idea of freedom?
REAL ROCK CLIMBER: Dean Potter in a wing suit. To me, that’s the ultimate symbol of freedom. If I’m stressin’ about the rangers, or gettin’ scared because I’m thinkin’ about one day being run-out, or I’m just feelin’ lonely while hangin’ from the mini-Trax’ and touchin’ all the holds on the Teflon Corner, then I just close my eyes, breathe and conjure up the image of Dean Potter in a wing suit. He’s like this magic human raven. And it totally works, too! “Dean Potter in a wing suit” instantly makes me feel centered and free.
AB: Why do you climb?
REAL ROCK CLIMBER: Because life is too short to not be bitchin’!
Palisade is a place where things grow. Interestingly enough, it’s rocks—particularly, their location, size and constitution—that make this area so nourishing.
“The rockier the soil, the better the grapes,” Dave explained. He sipped a beer. “Typically, the more the vines are stressed, the better the fruit. You want the vines to have to work to find water. There are vines in Portugal hundreds of years old that are so deeply entrenched that no one is certain how deep they go.”
We were sitting outside the old farmhouse where Dave had been living during his tenure as head winemaker. Vineyards stretched pacifically before us; we watched the sun set and drank beer. The brown and yellow sandstone of Mount Garfield isn’t much to look at in the harsh mid-day light, but at dusk, this once subaqueous massif is outrageously beautiful, a hallucinogenic canvas for all the vibrance of a desert sun at its brief and bewitching western nadir.
The Colorado River runs west through the narrow Debeque Canyon until suddenly, dramatically, a vista opens up of pale and tawny colors—coffees, russets and caramels. There are now unobstructed desert views all the way into Utah. Palisade is located right at the narrow, verdant mouth of this region. This little farming region is flanked by the Book Cliffs of Mount Garfield to the north, Debeque Canyon to the northeast, and the massive Grand Mesa to the east. These lithic uprisings trap sun to create a microclimate that, in conjunction with an irrigated Colorado River, make Palisade a fertile oasis in a high-altitude desert.
Fruit grows well here, particularly peaches. There might not be anything more delicious than a ripe Palisade peach. Less than a few decades ago, though, local farmers began diversifying their crops and started growing grapes and making wine (i.e., making money). This is not an uncommon transition. Napa Valley also used to be a poor fruit-growing region before it became the uppity wine-making epicenter of the New World. Napa is everything that Palisade wants to be but never will be. Palisade wants the renown of producing the best grapes, but without all the pretentious bullshit that, for some reason, is inexorably rooted in the culture of wine.
“Why do people swirl a glass of wine, shove their noses in it and say stuff like, Ooooh, so barnyard?” I asked, using a mock adenoidal voice. It was the busy harvest season. Instead of heading to Yosemite, I had decided to take a minimum-wage job working for Dave. I had moved into in the dilapidated farmhouse with my old college roomie and my only rent was buying coffee and keeping the fridge stocked with beer.
“Most people do it because they’re pretentious dicks,” Dave explained in his very even-tempered, emotionless tone. “But there is actual science to swirling wine in the glass. Wine needs to oxidize. That means add oxygen. Too much oxygen will turn the wine into vinegar. But the right amount of oxygen brings out different notes of taste and smell.”
“So, because of oxygen, there’s a brief, shining moment where the wine becomes the best-tasting, best-smelling wine that it’s ever going to be?” I asked. “But then … it dies?”
“Basically. That’s the reason we traditionally use corks. For example, French wine is typically made from shitty grapes with low sugar content, which means the product initially bottled is undrinkable. French wine, though, gets better over time because bottle’s cork allow for a slow oxidization. But we don’t need any of that shit here. We grow great, big, plump, juicy grapes in ‘Merica. Most of this shit is ready to drink the year it’s made, which is why corks are a complete waste of money. But all the idiots who drink wine think that if the bottle doesn’t come with a real cork, then the wine is cheap and therefore doesn’t taste good.”
“Do you think that the same thing is true for people?” I asked. “Like, we breathe oxygen; it’s what gives us life. But is it also the very thing that’s slowly aging us, killing us.”
“Totally. That’s why people are all into anti-oxidants. They think it’ll make them live forever.”
“What if you just hold your breath?”
“That could work. You should try it.”
“And the grape vines. The harder they have to work, the more fruit they produce. The more stressed they are, the stronger they become. I think that we’re like that, too. Don’t you?”
“You mean ‘hard work’ like this?” Dave made a tight fist with his right hand and a little hole with his left hand. Then he strenuously forced the first through the hole, grunting and acting as if it was the most painful, grueling, uncomfortable thing in the world. This, of course, was the international hand symbol for shoving a wine bottle, bottom end first, up your own ass.
This was our latest joke. That it would be easier to shove a wine bottle, fat end first, up your ass than do many of the frustrating, taxing jobs that making wine demands.
We made this hand signal about dozen times a day, usually right after the boss showed up and casually charged us with some backbreaking duty. He’d say something like, “Can you guys just go empty those wine barrels real quick? They need to be filled with the cabernet this week. That would be greeeeaaaaat. Thaaaaaaanks guuuuuuuys.” He was like the boss from Office Space, only a bit cooler and more inebriated.
When barrels aren’t filled with wine, they need to be filled with water so that the wood doesn’t shrink and warp. The barrels are always sitting on metal stands that allow the barrels to be stacked on top of each other and moved around with forklifts. A full barrel weighs about 600 pounds. To empty water out of the barrel’s hole, though, the barrel has to be spun around on its stand so the hole is facing the ground.
Here’s the trick for doing that: there is no trick. It takes brute fucking strength. You have to get down into a squat position, crimp the sides of the barrel with your climber-honed grip, and deadlift/spin the barrel in one quick Olympic-caliber clean.
It took every bit of strength to perform this task just once, but you’d have to do it, like, 150 times for all the barrels. So now you can see why we thought it’d be easier to shove a wine bottle up our own asses than do whatever the boss had asked us to do.
As hard as some of those days were, we still made time, after every shift, to climb. Again, it was still all about speed, quantity and intensity. Run three miles into the Monument to climb Otto’s Route, car to car, as fast as we could go.
We probably did Otto’s Route over 50 times that fall, always trying to best our previous times. Dave, the better runner, would carry the rope and forge up the trail. I, the better climber, would take the crux pitch of the route. We eventually dialed the four-pitch route down to two pitches with a modicum of free-soloing, and we pared down our rack to just one #9 nut, six draws and one 60-meter rope, which from the second rap station, actually isn’t exactly long enough to get you down to the ground.
I’d rap first, reach a ledge about 15 feet off the ground, and down climb. That way, I could get my shoes on and start running. Dave would rap second. At about 15 feet off the ground, just as he was reaching the rope ends, Dave would hold one side of the rope, and just let himself fall the rest of the way to the ground. This technique had the double benefit of pulling the rope through the anchor perfectly; Dave coiled it and easily caught up to me halfway down the trail.
Again, those old questions—How much? How many? How big? How fast?—had reappeared in our lives. Or perhaps they’d never left. But during that season of daily missions to do Otto’s Route, all after a grueling day of work at the winery, they took on a transformative dimension.
The Shocking Denouement
I ran into Monument Canyon, my recently awakened palate tasting the salt of my sweating brow, the salt of the desert stone. I could hear Dave right behind me, his energy urging me onward up the trail.
The slender, familiar prow of Independence Monument came into view. Faster, faster. We reached the base, put on our climbing shoes without even struggling to get our fingers into the pull tabs. We soloed up through a chimney that is the first pitch of the route. At a little ledge, I put Dave on belay. He climbed to the part where he placed our single #9 nut, then ran it out to the next anchor in the “Time Tunnel”—a third-class ledge that is the belly of Independence Monument. I raced up as second, and swung into the lead.
Soon I emerged from the belly of this monolith and launched up its thorax, climbing its exposed, slender spine. I had come to know these manufactured holds so well. I could just move steadily and without thought, like a Taoist, like a real rock climber. I felt light and it was all so easy.
We reached the summit at eventide and slapped hands like in Top Gun, the sun etching our silhouettes violet, the camera circling around us at this apogee. The scene cuts to a long shot that shows the full grandeur of the desert tower, and you can just barely make out two figures sliding in tandem down their ropes.
I reached the base, put on my shoes and started running; Dave would rap, coil the rope and catch up. I only ran about 100 yards, though, because out on the large flat rock where Beatrice Farnham Otto had once bided her time inscribing the Declaration of Independence, I saw a ghost . He was holding a long pickaxe in both hands, standing in the piolet en canard position of a mountaineer. I approached the mustachioed specter cautiously.
“Congratulations,” the ghost said. “You are well on your way to achieving the car-to-car speed record of my route. It has been a pleasure for me to watch your process.”
“Um, thanks,” I said. “Who are you?”
“Why, I am the Hizzmit of Monument Pizzark!” the ghost said. “It’s me! It’s John Otto!”
“This place is very special to me, and I’m super stoker that you and Dave have been brought together by my climb. I myself had so many good memories of being in these canyons, working to climb this route. It was the brightest moment of my life—as bright and floral as a perfectly oxidized glass of wine. Through climbing I got to see what’s inside of me, and from all that, everything else became simple. You have to stay true to what was inside.”
“All I’ve ever wanted was to be a real rock climber,” I said. “But I’ve realized that I’ve been using other people’s definitions for being real. I am beginning to see that I need to define climbing for myself, and learn how to connect with other people. Friends are ultimately what matter most.”
John Otto smiled an ancient smile.
“Well, thanks for the route,” I said. “It’s been fun.” I started swaggering down the trail, bobbing my head only … there was no imaginary hip hop music!
“Wait, Mr. Otto!” I said. The ghost turned to me. “Why isn’t the hip hop music that only I can hear playing in my head right now?”
“You’re learning to become an adult,” the ghost said. “The first sign of adulthood is that you no longer hear imaginary hip-hop music every time you think you’re doing something badass. You’re not being a badass, you’re being a dumbass.”
Did John Otto just call me a dumbass?
Suddenly I heard Dave yelling, “Go! Go! Go!” I turned back to the large flat rock, but the ghost was gone. I started running. I ran as fast and as hard as I could. And this time, the only sound in my head was the tintinnabulation of my live, beating heart.
This story originally appeared in ASCENT magazine 2013.