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Rock and Ramblings 2: Getting off the Ground

Jamie Lynn Miller's picture

For me, climbing is about camaraderie. It’s one of those sports that require another person. Sometimes that’s a love-hate thing, great when you can find someone to head out, frustrating when you can’t and you really want to go climbing. There’s always bouldering, but I feel better bouldering with someone else around to spot me in case I roll off the bouldering pad in the heat of the missed-the-hand-hold –here-comes-the- ground moment; bouldering seems like an easy ankle twister sometimes.

Friendship at the BaseFriendship at the Base

Besides, bouldering doesn’t take you high enough. On some of the best days, climbing is about air and hovering over the world and broadening your perspective by looking down at your old point of view.
The first time I climbed multi-pitch, I was about a year into climbing and in the midst of a guided course. It was just me and my guide, Heidi; it was a holiday weekend and no one else had signed up, so she and I took off on a three-day adventure to Unaweep Canyon, outside of Grand Junction, and onto Colorado National Monument just outside of Fruita, if so inclined.

We set out to do the three or so pitches on Sweet Sunday Serenade, a fun moderate classic route in Unaweep. Heidi belayed me up and helped me anchor in. Then she told me to lean back. It was my first hanging belay and it scared the hell out of me. I didn’t lean back. She said I couldn’t take her word for it; I had to feel the tension of the rope and I had to I trust the belay in order for us to head up any higher. I didn’t want to. She waited for me to decide. I scrunched up my face, closed my eyes and leaned back. I was still on the wall. Good times. I opened my eyes and she climbed higher and higher, as I nervously looked around and up and eventually, straight down.

Heidi’s super mellow, super old cattle dog was waiting at the base of the climb and I could make out her curled-up little body next to the shrubbery. I cleaned our anchor and headed up the pitch, to where Heidi was now anchored just that much higher than before. There was another party ahead of us and she’d been watching them. She commented that they seemed a little off-route and we’d maybe have to wait a bit before we continued. She asked how I was doing. I hesitated, then told her I thought maybe I’d had enough for the moment: the hanging belay, the challenging climbing for my level at the time, the heat and all the new stimuli; it was sensory overload and I opted that we head down and take a break.

She nodded, said it was good to trust my instinct and started to set up the rappel. Suddenly, I heard “Rock!” from up above. The guys ahead of us were indeed off route and they’d knocked loose a gargantuan piece of rock. I sucked myself into the wall, all instinct and adrenaline, as the chunk went whizzing over my head past my back and split itself in two, hitting the ground below with a big thud. At our current height, Heidi’s dog was within earshot and she yelled at it to get out of the way; the dog looked up and scurried to the side as the rock shards landed where it had been sleeping, just moments before.

We reached the ground safely if a bit shaken up. The pup slinked over to Heidi and she clutched her close to her chest. Heidi thanked me for trusting my instinct; she said because I didn’t feel totally right and therefore decided we should head down, she was able to yell at her dog in time to escape the biggest rock fall she’d ever seen, in all her years of climbing.

Heidi asked if I wanted to head home and if so, it was totally understandable; it was scary for a relative beginner, even for an experienced climber who’d been hanging off a lot of walls. Maybe I felt empowered by our good decision making or I figured the odds of that happening twice in one weekend were slim to none, but I didn’t want to go home. I wanted to go rock climbing.

We headed to Colorado National Monument and climbed the famous Otto’s Route and before the kind of airy, kind of challenging final pitch, Heidi asked if I was OK and if I was up for summiting. I was OK actually. My dad was always morbidly afraid of heights but I could handle them, it seemed. So far, they were part of the sport and for some reason I’m still trying to understand looking down while climbing scares me less than looking up. We reached the top and sat down to savor the insanely scenic panorama. I looked across the landscape and saw a Jeep parked on a cliff band, at roughly the same height. I knew the driver could see us waving at him.

It looked like a car commercial, where the viewer’s meant to feel the ruggedness of being able to drive out in the middle of nowhere and park at the top of the world. Or she could climb there, instead.

In memory of Heidi Kloos.

A Higher PowerA Higher Power