“This stillness to which all returns, this is reality, and soul and sanity have no more meaning here than a gust of snow…[mountains] serve as a mirror to one’s own true being, utterly still, utterly clear, a void, an Emptiness without life or sound that carries in Itself all life, all sound. Yet as long as I remain an “I” who is conscious of the void and stands apart from it, there will remain a snow mist on the mirror.”
-Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard
Springtime and footloose, on the road again, Tucker and I hitting our stride. After two days of hard crack climbing in Zion we rally west to Red Rocks, Nevada and leave the car on a cool evening with rack and bivy gear, bound for the Rainbow Wall. After an hour of scrambling up a boulder-choked gulley and schwacking through copses of tough manzanita we emerge at a clean slab split in two by a silver knife: a thin veneer of water trickling down the sandstone, glimmering with the shine of another world. The trickle passes up into darkness, then beyond to the towering walls of the Rainbow Mountain cirque, our destination, looming stoic beneath a wan quarter moon.
In these moments we perceive the earth in the vastness of its form. Two small self-regulating sacks of ninety-eight degree blood and sinew and dreams alone in the indifferent terrain of this planet: deep gulleys and sheer walls of stone that climb straight into the infinite sky. A lot to behold; the unfettered space can feel overwhelming, but just as quickly I breathe the cool air, feel the sweat soaking my back under my wet shirt, and revel in the beauty of the place. Then nothing to do but shoulder the pack and begin scrambling up the smooth slab, all attention focused on tiny nuances for foot smears and hand holds. We spread sleeping bags under a boulder, drink a beer, cook a simple meal, and fall asleep with the dome of stars cut in half by the dark bulk of the Rainbow Wall.
We wake in the early morning to fierce winds buffeting our sleeping bags. Violent gusts whirl up the canyon in some invisible vortex, unceasing through the graying hours into the dawn. We peek outside our boulder bivy and the wall looms grey and menacing under a leaden sky. Tucker is almost knocked over by a gust as he takes a piss. Maybe this foul weather is an excuse to descend back to car, camp, and comfort. Sheltering the stove in the back of the cave we make oat porridge and coffee; we sip the bitter brew watching the canyon wake up beneath the fits and tantrums of an angry sky. Eventually we shoulder the rope and rack and begin walking up the slabs towards the wall. Might as well check it out. We zip our jackets tight and steady ourselves as whirling gusts blast our bodies.
It turns out, by some miracle of aerodynamics, the vertex of the Rainbow Wall is sheltered from the harrying wind. We’re at the base of one of the country’s finest 5.12 free climbs with a small selection of nuts and cams, a dozen quickdraws, one rope, a few Cliff bars and a quart and a half of water. These are the moments we try so hard and make so many sacrifices to create. It’s on.
The corner continues unceasingly toward the sky. The bullet-hard rock offers just enough imperfections for upward passage: an edge here, a slivered crack there, a mottled texture to press on. At times the features seem to peter out completely and the leader pauses, breathing, stemmed in position and trying to read the puzzle. Every time, subtle features emerge offering exquisite movement. The gear is solid, but well spread, keeping us always in calm focus on the sharp end.
There is a curious relationship between the difficulty of climbing moves and the analytical engagement of our mind. On easy terrain, the mind is free to sit back and enjoy the simple sensation of movement. As difficulty increases, the mind engages, reading the rock and indentifying discrete moves. Harder still, the mind scans the next twenty feet, analyzing incredible subtleties of angle, texture and size, formulating a complex sequence of moves while the body waits, breathing, poised at the stance, ready to pounce. The mental engagement increases toward a crescendo of analysis as the holds thin out to the limit of our ability to read the moves, and in these cruxes we are locked into an iron focus where nothing else gets in. These are great climbs.
What happens when the holds thin out a little more, beyond the threshold of what we can read into moves? Stemmed into a tenuous stance on the sharp end, searching, looking, analyzing in vain, what happens when we can’t visualize the way forward? For years this was my stopping point. I would take and aid, or try a desperate throw that I knew was pointless and fall. I could not move upward into the realm beyond my perception.
High in the upper dihedral of the Rainbow Wall I’m stemmed below a smooth bulge, breathing and searching, asking for holds which I know aren’t there. Every feature within reach appears useless, too small to pull on. Five feet higher there’s a jug. It’s my onsight attempt; my mind is churning with information and speculation at a nauseating rate. I’m judging the fall distance (short), the holds (useless), the move (can’t see it), how much I want to onsight this pitch (a LOT, my ego is on board and cheering). I make a desperate attempt to crimp on nothings and fall with a grunt.
Dangling above the void, the wheel of my fevered brain gradually slows down. I notice the cool wind, what a blessing it feels on my sweaty neck. A raptor glides beneath us in perfect repose, searching for prey with keen eyes. The rock itself is captivating, deep maroon with crimson blotches, dappled with green lichen. This whole cliff is just the aggregate collection of billions of sand grains, heaped up long ago in sinusoidal dunes by driving winds in the blistering heat of a vast Jurassic desert. Buried beneath the ground for eons, these solitary grains were compacted and glued together into something more solid, and as our continent slowly rose again in its unfathomable cycles of bulging and sagging, the earth has been carved away by the incessant grinding of snows and rivers to reveal this exquisite memory of an ancient desert.
My pulse has calmed to its regular steady rhythm. I pull back up to the bolt and stem up to my high point again. Having already tried to solve this puzzle with my brain, I simply look at the rock, the subtle features, the jug above, and accept. This is reality. There is nothing more. Accepting this, my mind lets go with a great sigh. In the vacuum left by its absence, beautiful silence rushes in. A hawk cry pierces the air, the wind rustles my hair. There is no more “I”. There is stone and texture and breath. Pressing with both palms I make an improbable step, another stem, another press, all on the “nothings” of before, and thus poised like a spring I look up and fix a soft gaze on the jug. The bottom of my mind drops out into the silence everywhere; I am empty, clean, a piece of the wind. Three limbs press, the stone presses back, and outstretched fingers close on the jug.