Many years ago, on a hot summer day, I was climbing with my friend Dan. I took off my shirt off before climbing.
Sorry, it happens.
“Dude,” Dan said, his eyes transfixed on my unimpressive pectoral region. “Your chest hair looks like the Bat Signal.”
“What?” I said. “Does not.”
“Yes, it does,” he said. “Look.”
He pointed at my heart, and began sketching the iconic insignia with his finger.
“Am not!” I said. No, no, NO! It can’t be! I’m not Batman. Spiderman, perhaps. But Batman? Too fucking kooky!
“I’d much rather be Batso,” I said, beginning to think a bit more clearly as I spattered a heavy coating of liquid chalk on my fingers.
“Um, hello? Batso … Warren Harding, bro. You know, first ascent of the Nose ’n shit. Drank a bottle of red wine every day, ran around with a gang of hot women and drove fast cars, and didn’t give a fuck about anything.”
These were the few facts I knew about Warren Harding, and to me, they were the only ones that mattered.
“That does sound like you,” Dan said. “Except for the fast cars, hot women, and first ascent of El Cap thing … now, are you going to climb, or what?”
A Cat and a Bat
There’s a story floating somewhere in the most sugary section of our collective unconscious about an old lady’s cat getting stuck in a tree, and the well-proportioned fireman who comes to the rescue, while all the neighbors applaud the moot heroism.
Obvi, the story is totes dumb since since cats can get out of trees just as surely as routes with permadraws will be climbed. … At least that’s what I thought, until a fateful trip to Rifle.
Dan and I were looking to sneak in one last pitch before an ominous-looking raincloud unleashed its fury. As I drove us up to the Anti-Phil wall, we noticed a shadowy figure running zigzag patterns on the road. It was our friend, “John.” He was wearing a women’s rain jacket, eggshell colored, form flattering and way too small.
He saw our car and started waving his arms like a maniac.
“Stop, stop! Call 911! Call the fire department!” John was hysterical.
“Wha happened?” I asked.
“Some crazy redneck tried to free solo out of the Skull Cave, and now he’s stuck on the wall,” he said, panting. His voice was jumping octaves like Indian pop music. It expressed a hint of genuine worry mixed mostly with the evil pleasure of being The One to tell us. “If this rain comes … Jesus, he might fucking die!”
“What can we do?”
John hopped into the back of the Sentromes, my 1996 Nissan multi-beast with 300,000 miles. We drove up canyon to find Elmer, the camp host whom we suspect hates climbers. Elmer was sitting in the hut and smoking fiendishly. John pleaded with him to call the fire department. It was obvious that Elmer wanted to deal with this as much as I did.
Dan shot me a look that said, This is serious bullshit. I responded with a look that said, Is there any other kind?
I was super anxious to go see what kind of “redneck” gets himself stuck on the wall beside the Skull Cave. I envisioned a hick dressed in a wifey and wearing a NASCAR hat, sitting in a little rocky hole, crying his eyes out and yelling like crazy for Jesus.
The speed at which Elmer, 400 pounds, was moving was killing me. Finally, he concluded his call to the fire department and we were off.
We returned to the scene and sure enough, there he was: a kid, no older than 20, in a red baseball hat, jeans and long-sleeved shirt, standing awkwardly and shoulder-scumming against a flake at a little stance.
He was probably only 15 feet off the ground, which sort of suddenly made John’s original depiction of the situation seem a little melodramatic to me.
“Dude, why don’t you just climb down?” I asked the kid.
But the scene of climbers that had gathered around him had already determined that this situation demanded a code red response. In addition to calling the authorities, I heard various folks tossing around archaic concepts of self-rescue that they had once read in Freedom of the Hills.
“If we can climb up to that ledge, I might be able to to rig a 3-to-1,” one guy said.
“Really, you think a 3-to-1’ll do it?” another guy asked. “What about a 5-to-1?”
“Fuck me, you might be right,” the first guy said. “Five to one it is.”
Meanwhile, the Redneck kid was laughing his ass off. He looked higher than a giraffe’s ass on stilts.
“What are you doing up there?” I asked the kid.
“I was tryin’ to get at them clippy things!” he said. “They’re so shiny.”
I was fighting back an increasingly evil desire to climb up to the Redneck, grab him by the belt loop, and hurl his dumb ass down into a bush. I knew the cops were coming, and all I could see was a dreaded headline in tomorrow’s paper.
Mayor Shuts Down Climbing After Drug-Addled Climber Needs Rescue
“Why don’t you just jump?” I suggested, seriously.
“No! Unacceptable!” cried out one of the climbers leading the code-red. “The rock is loose, and now it’s wet. It’s too hard and too dangerous. If you think you know how to rig a 5-to-1, then by all means, go right ahead. Problem is, I don’t think you do!“ He jabbed me in the chest with his finger.
“Bitch, I’ll rig a 10-to-1 in your face!” That’s what I wanted to say, anyway. I didn’t say that.
“I’ve got to get out of here,” is what I actually said to Dan.
I was astonished to the point of being bored by such fretfulness from a group of people who supposedly rock climb.
We drove out of the canyon for about one second when we passed the distinctive flutter of lights that have always caused me fear and panic—one cop car, one fire truck, an ambulance and the park ranger were streaming up canyon.
“OK, we have to turn around to see this,” Dan said.
Do we? I wondered. I paused on the side of the road, unsure and uneasy. For some reason, I considered what Batso would do. I reached up into my shirt and touched my chest hair—either my mark of Cain or my cross to bear. Batso would never miss a fuck-fest like this, I realized. I took a whack of some L-Glutamine powder, hit the pedal, and the Sentrometer went wild, spinning us around 180 degrees and fast.
We quickly caught up with the Authorities, who had stopped at the canyon entrance, stymied by where to go. I pulled up to the front of the parade and rolled down my window to talk to the lead cop.
“Do you need my assistance?” I asked.
“Do you need my assistance?” he responded.
I nodded. “Follow me if you want to live!”
My heart jumped into my throat, and I felt a jolt of electricity run through my balls. I looked into the rearview mirror at the acid-kaleidoscope of flashing lights. I hit the hazard lights on my 1996 Nissan Sentra and revved the lawn-mower engine to the max
“I am Batso!” I screamed, accelerating forward. Dan deserved to know the full truth. We were in this together, and he should be ready for whatever might come next.
“I thought you were Batman?“ he said.
“Don’t argue with me,” I said. “I was in a hammock on El Cap way before people like you were climbing 5.13’s. Ha ha!”
We reached the Skull Cave. It only took a minute. The Authorities jumped out of their trucks. Eight firefighters, two cops, three EMT workers and the park ranger ran around pulling levers and cocking rifles.
The fire crew had brought one 24-foot ladder, which they assumed was inadequate due to gumby disinformation. Apparently, in Gumbyland, 15 feet really means 30 feet. That makes sense on some level, doesn’t it?
“He’s only 15 feet off the ground!” I shouted. “Trust me, I’m Batso!”
“Can you stop saying that?” Dan said. I agreed that maybe it was time to lay low. There were cops around, after all, and I was out of my element, far from the high lonesome of El Cap’s perfect stone and nowhere near my beloved red wine.
Once the fire crew got into the Skull Cave, they immediately recognized the Redneck stuck on the cliff.
“Oh, hi, Billy,” the fire chief. “You get yourself stuck up there?”
“Is this gonna cost a lot?” Billy asked.
“Oh, just a couple hundred bucks,” said the chief, who sported a mean rat-tail that snaked out of his hard hat like a dead worm. “That won’t be a problem, will it?” he said, laughing crazily.
The EMT workers brought Billy down to the ambulance, where they stuck a steel catheter up his penis while he howled like a dog. Meanwhile, the police were writing up tickets for a few minor violations: a first-degree BAD (Being A Dumbass) as well as third-degree RRPP (Reckless Redneckin’ in a Public Park). I demanded that the cops slap on a premeditated STCT (Stealing the Clippy Things), as I have had three draws stolen in the last month alone. Alas, a climber’s needs are not a priority for Johnny Q. Law.
My friends and I left, surprised again by how consistently Darwin’s theories are foiled by the modern machinations of humanity. A sudden wave of exhaustion washed over me. It is an incredible thing to realize your true identity and just how deeply rooted climbing is in the absurd.
A version this article originally appeared in Rock and Ice magazine many years ago.