At the bottom, laying in that rock bowl waiting for Darren, listening to the fixed lines clink in the breeze as if a ghost climbed, the whole world outside could’ve disappeared and I would’ve never known. Here I am, I am here now. Nothing but steep rock and tired limbs, a quiet, content mind. Monkey face, an ape head held high on a pedestal of rock, looms above me like some kind of ancient shrine, and all around me are the rock walls—a cathedral of stone, a home in the desert. Here I am, here’s where I came from, and now—you see, don’t you? Now I am here. That morning we get a late start, or later than intended, even though we wake up and almost immediately leave the cozy, contained world of the tent and start the short drive to Smith. The world is already awake on the drive over, cows dotting the fields that border the road, light glinting off every surface—every blade of grass, every twist of barbwire, is reflecting that bright star. We’re starting early to try and beat the sun, so we can climb in the shade, but as I squint, I’m not feeling optimistic. I lean my head against the window—we aren’t talking very much—and try to keep in my head that feeling of tranquility that starts dissipating the second we wake up, I try and stay focused on the task ahead.
We get out in a mostly empty parking lot, now suddenly plunged into a world of height and sharpened color, the tans of the looming pinnacles almost blinding in the sun. We have to fill up water before we can start and we check and recheck caps, make sure everything’s tight. The worst thing would be no water. And then we get started, hiking down into the canyon via a well-maintained trail, almost immediately realizing we forgot something—a pole from the tent Darren’s going to use on the bolt ladder—so we go into McGuiver mode, looking for anything to use in place of the tent pole. Eventually we craft a stick with a hook made from borrowed barbwire and my hair scrunchie, and call it good. It’s going to come in handy later, hopefully, when he’s hanging from a bolt on the sheer side of monkey face and stretching for all he’s worth to get a carabiner onto the next bolt, skipping the one that’s missing. Cross your fingers for him, ladies and gentleman, I’ll be at the bottom hoping it works.
The rest of the hike is fairly easy, some uphill and an uncomfortably steep scramble over Asterisk Pass—time for approach shoes, I tell Darren—as I test each foothold in my Nikes, hoping I don’t slip and break an ankle before we even start. Because this is the biggest climb I’ll have ever done, bigger by three or four times, and I’m a little uneasy—it’s all fine and good to push the limit, once it’s over and you know you can. But standing at the bottom of a six pitch climb is something different, an odd feeling of thinking you’ll be fine, you have to be able to do it, or else, but a shaky confidence that doesn’t quite believe yet.
We get ready pretty fast, and suddenly Darren’s doing it, going up carefully, ever sure-footed. I’m taking deep breaths, watching him. This first move is pretty committing he says, as he swings around a big flake, unable to see the next hold and only trusting that it will be there. Yeah, I say, and keep watching him intently so I can try and find the holds he used later, when I climb it. We settle into a nice rhythm, it’s a long pitch, me belaying, him placing protection and moving up. My head is buzzing though, unsure of where to settle, whether or not I’m nervous, what to think about. You need to prepare, I tell myself. You need to get ready. I make a mantra—strong, confident, powerful and say it over and over again, drowning everything else out. Every time I haven’t climbed well, every time I’ve been frustrated and beat by rock, is gone. Only strength here, and confidence and power. And when Darren gets to the top of the first pitch and hangs out there, building the anchor, until I feel the familiar tug on the knot at my harness and yell up at him, that’s me! And he says back—ok, you’re on belay! And then it’s time.
I start slow—despite being strong, confident and powerful, I get hung up on the first committing move, it’s tricky, it’s some business as Darren tells me when I get up there. And then a piece of gear gets stuck and I can’t get it out, despite wiggling and wiggling the cam, trying to get it to a loose spot. This bodes well, I yell up at him, but then it suddenly breaks free and I’m on my way. It was almost as if we got the kinks out of the way, the things that were going to derail the climb did, and now the route is crystal clear. Just climb—and so I do, my arms swift and steady, my feet are sure and confident where I stick them against the rock. I scale a crack so fast that even Darren notices—because I’m cruising, flowing so quickly over the rock he has to hurry the belay. I find the zone, the climbing zone, where it’s nothing but up, breathing hard and moving up, trusting the movement of limbs that no longer feel like my own. It’s a struggle, it’s hard, but at least it’s my struggle, and at least we’re getting somewhere.
Somewhere, what I was trying to get to, is worth it. At the top of the first pitch I look out over what we’ve just climbed. It’s maybe a 120 feet, but already the valley floor has spread out before us, laid open like a gift. The patchwork green of farm fields dance across the earth, the lazy Crooked River snakes across, and there—startling against the blue of the sky—are the white peaks of Mt. Jefferson, the Sisters, 3 finger Jack. The solid world of this morning feels far away, here where there is no ground.
We’re still racing the sun, the shadows growing ever shorter on our side, so we hurry the looking at the view, take in as much as we can in one gulp and keep going. He starts the next pitch and I get my head ready—repeating the mantra, shaking out my arms. Tired but still okay. Once he’s up there, I’m shivering a little in the breeze. We’re in the shade, and all the sweat I’ve made has dried while I wait for him to build the anchor. It seems like a long time. Time though, my fickle friend, I can’t tell if she’s weaving through this day slower or faster than normal--where we are in this day is hard to tell, the familiar tick of time is far away up here in the breeze.
Now it’s my turn, and I battle up the first part—a long, jumbled crack—until I get to where I can see Darren again. I’m way farther away from the second anchor than I thought and I wilt, feeling my arms deaden by the second. From the bottom it looked flat here, I thought maybe a big ledge to where we could traverse to the base of the next pitch, a sheer face that heads up into the monkey’s mouth. Instead, I see Darren another forty feet away, sitting on a much smaller ledge with two other people. I say hi to Darren, and we talk for a minute. The man sitting to the left says down to me, you have the cutest voice. I say, really? My plaintive little cry? He laughs. Strong confident powerful and still funny.
I muster whatever I have left, knowing that we’re only halfway through and not really knowing what’s to come, and keep climbing—this rock a different texture entirely now that we’re getting higher up. Bumpy, a funny slippery feeling that leaves me feeling unsure of whether I’m really holding on at all. But I get to the ledge and Darren is grinning at me, which is a good sign. Good work, he says as I get clipped in to the anchor. The four of us now—Darren and I, the man and the girl (Harlan and India—India is the daughter and it’s her birthday trip)—are waiting for another girl to finish the bolt ladder above us. She’s been a real problem—complaining and crying to the man belaying her, who keeps replying (super helpfully)—I told you this would be the most arduous climb of your life! I don’t point it out—everyone’s got their own fight—but technically what she’s on isn’t even really a climb. It’s a bolt ladder. Except the bolt ladder isn’t really a ladder, but a snaking line of bolts up an impossibly steep face—climbable, if you’re a spider monkey or tree frog—but for mere mortals it requires aide gear. So while Darren’s climbing, he’ll use a ladder made of webbing that he moves with him, and I use a jumar to jug up the rope and a sling for my foot to push off, and then a fifi to keep me close to the wall. We go over this while we sit, and we talk about the two pitches we just finished, and I find out that Darren combined pitch two and three, taking the direct route instead of making us traverse a sketchy ledge, which makes me so happy, because that means where I thought we had four pitches left, it’s really only three. And one of them is the gear pitch that we’re about to do. So really it’s only two—right?
The break while we wait for the other, the most arduous climb of your life girl, to finish, is nice—we’re huddled together on a ledge 200 feet above the ground, shaded by an incredible monolith bizarrely shaped like a monkey’s face, and the view from here is pretty unbeatable. We sit with our backs to the rock, letting some of the heat leach in through my tank top, and watch the sun start creeping up the wall, shadows growing shorter and shorter. Harlan gets going, after the girl finally finishes, then India follows him, so for awhile it’s just Darren and I on this ledge with the whole of the Bend valley spread out before us, laid out at our feet. I can’t tell you how incredible it is, I can’t put it into words. But don’t you already know this? I do it for the view.
When we do get going, Darren gets up pretty easily—I belay him, leaning against the wall, and watch my shins start to burn in the sun that’s now made its way to the ledge. Halfway through the pitch I hear a shout and snap out of the little reverie I’m in, but relax when he reports back that the McGuiver stick clip we made worked beautifully. All in all, the day is going pretty smoothly, as long as I can get up this pitch without any technical issues. For some reason, this part doesn’t scare me, even though it’s the most exposed piece of climbing I’ve ever attempted, which means there isn’t any safety of rock around me, it’s all air. But when I start going—moving the jumar up, pulling down my self belay, pushing off my foot in the sling, fifi into the bolt, tighten, grab the karabiner, unclip the fifi, move the jumar up—it’s a nice rhythm. It’s exhausting, but I find that when you make yourself do the same thing over and over again you start to forget that you’re tired or your hands are blistering or that your fifi is stuck, because it’s a rhythm. You just keep moving through it, rote in action though still alert. When I get to the top is the only panic moment I have, because I get onto my elbows on the edge of the monkey’s mouth—like I’m getting out of a pool—and let go of the self-belay and forget, momentarily, that Darren is also belaying me, so for a second it feels like the only thing keeping me on the ledge are my hands, my feet, so precariously balanced against the rock. And then it is sheer, unadulterated panic, waves of adrenaline, until Darren says relax, you’re on me, kind of confused, because he’s a very methodical climber and wouldn’t put us in a position where I would ever be unattached. Remember? Oh yeah, I say. And relax.
Then we’re in the mouth of the monkey. I expected faint whiffs of banana breath but alas—nothing but white patches of bird droppings and age-old cave funk. It’s a smooth inner level, dark after the brightness of what we just got up. Out one side of the mouth is the valley, still spectacular, color even sharper contrasted against the cool dark interior of our little cave. The other looks out over Smith, a hot desert landscape. People walk down the ridge and point at us but I don’t think about them. I take my shoes off and have to lean against my harness because they keep slipping, sweaty from the last pitch. Darren is busy setting up the system for the next pitch, and I slip into a daze, looking out into the heat. We’re in the mouth of the monkey, I tell him. We’re in the mouth! I picture it in my mind’s eye, how we would look from the outside. I can see it—kind of, we’re high. Ant people on the wall, an ant for someone watching us from below. You know I’ve seen a lot of ants on rock walls and thought how tiny they were, if they even knew. Now I’m one of them, but I don’t feel small. I don’t think they do either. But here we are, tiny to all those below.
Darren swings easily over Panic Point, an appropriate moniker for the edge of the mouth onto the fourth pitch. He disappears, I’ll disappear too in a minute, if I can make myself do it. I mean, I know I’ll have to. But I don’t like the idea. While in the mouth, I kept asking Darren what the other side looked like. It’s a short pitch, he says. It’s only a couple of bolts—I think. I wish, wistfully, that I knew what to expect. When I feel the tug—you’re on me—I disassemble the anchor, clip it onto myself, and peer out around the mouth. It’s carved out in a way that makes it really tough to see around, I find out. I look again and step back into the safety of the cave. In my head is nothing—but not a full, content nothing, a dead nothing. A dull nothing. A no energy, not even fear, nothing. The opposite of something—that’s me on Panic Point. Come on, I think, willing myself to do better, even be afraid. I reach out around the edge a few more times, retreating each time, until once, I just do it. And there I am, on the side of the monkey face, just below the nose. I still have to climb though—I tell Darren my arms feel painted on—because it’s so hot on this side, we’re in the sun now. We didn’t beat it. And I am dead tired. I slowly work my way up to him, with a couple of assists, until I’m there, standing next to the nose. And then I have a little energy, a little more something. Last pitch, he says, let’s hurry. My feet are burning, I tuck them under the coils of rope to try and find shade—the rubber soles of my shoes making me feet fire, a stinging hot that I can only stand on for a few seconds at a time. The whole time Darren climbs, I’m shifting back and forth from foot to foot, trying to escape the pressure for a second at a time. This rock is the same slippery, bumpy rock that was below, little holes and divots marking every inch where there isn’t a lump or chicken head. Then that tug, and I know with a swell in my heart, that Darren is standing on top of that monkey head right now, and I will be soon too.
The first part of the last pitch is fine, up and over the monkey nose. But there, in between the nose and the rest of the face (an eyehole, I suppose) is deep crevasse. Stem over it, Darren says. I don’t think I can, I tell him. My legs are too short. Yes you can, he says, matter-of-factly. Just get to that diving board piece. I’m in the middle of telling him why I can’t, slowly creeping down the wall and leaning out with a toe to hit the other side, when I do. Oh, I say. Okay I’m coming. I’m coming right now.
How do I tell you how it feels to get there? The blisters on my hands from the rope are popping, the rock—burning, but there we are topping out, on top of the monkey head. We climbed the monkey face I tell Darren, we did it! We hug for a minute and I do a dance, repeating we climbed the monkey face! Because here’s what we wanted—to stand on top of something together and look out over a valley. What we wanted was to climb, what we wanted was to be here and hold hands, and look a mountain in the eye. And here we are, the Cascades rippling out at our feet, a valley all to ourselves, now we’re here.
On top of this giant pile of rock is another—a cairn for those of us who made it to the top, and I find two small stones, placing them gently next to one another. Darren! From across the ridge we hear it again—Darren! Smile! We turn to see Harlan and India climbing out of the bottom—so we turn and wave, thumbs held high up in the air. He shouts again—I’ll send them to the gym! A few days later—I don’t know this yet—I’ll be sitting at my desk at work and find the forwarded e-mail from Darren in my inbox, our little shapes outlined dark against the bright blue of the sky. It will be a moment of instant transportation back to how that felt, there on top of the monkey face, that ebullient feeling of doing it, of getting to the top. There we were—how wonderful that was!
The sun is not forgiving, however, not even for us and now it’s getting late in the day. Darren sets up the short rappel down to the second to last anchor, and from there it’s all the way down to the ground. I go first, feeling with my feet down the rock until I bump down to the ledge, avoiding that hot rock as much as I can. Then the second rappel once Darren gets down to me, this one requiring two ropes tied together. Remember we need to pull the orange rope when we get down there, he tells me, and I nod. ROPE, he yells once, ROPE he yells twice, dropping it over the edge. I’m ready to go. So I start lowering myself, slowly at first, getting away from the rock and then faster once it’s just me, leaning back into air. I dangle, slowly spinning, from a giant monkey face, so what I see is a kaleidoscope of desert and valley, a white peak appearing here and there. Then the ground rises up to meet me, six hundred feet below and I stumble when I hit the solidness of all that horizontalness. Darren follows a few minutes later, landing a few feet away from now where I’m sitting. He pulls the orange rope without asking, and I scramble away so I don’t get whipped by 120 feet of rope slicing through the air. We hug again at the bottom, then high five, then drink a lot of water—now that we know the worst is over. Sitting in the bowl at the bottom of Monkey Face, surrounded by the high ridges of rock that make up this little oasis, knees touching and foreheads close, we figure out the rest of what we have to do. We have to go get our bag, we have to get back to the car, another couple of miles of hiking. Every so often someone comes down the trail behind us and asks what we’re doing. We just climbed Monkey Face, Darren tells them each time. One person breaks out in applause. Another gives us a double thumbs up, saying nice work. Each makes me smile through tired muscles, every muscle is tired, and say thanks, have a good hike.
Darren leaves to scramble around the base of Monkey Face to go get our bag on the other side, where we started this morning, so long ago, in that glinting sunlight. Then it is just me, here. Here I am, looking up and around, trying to find the shapes of animals in the chaotic ridges around me. I close my eyes for a minute—slow, so that the world appears as a slice of dark tan rock and too bright sky—and that’s really when I am here, here I am, tired but satisfied. We did it. Whatever comes this way again, I did it. I was braver than I have ever been and I did it.
When he comes back, we stay for awhile longer, lazy in our post-climb effort. I show him the crocodile and squirrel head I found in the rock, he points out what looks like a giant dough boy with stunted legs. That’s good, I say, that’s creative, and then we decide to gamble on the hike back—going around the opposite way we came, down Misery Ridge, in the hopes that it will be in the shade. This side isn’t, not really, we’re only in one cool spot. We have to hike up to get back down, and so we do, trudging—but both of the same breed, the not complaining type, the bear it type. It feels impossible, doesn’t it, when you start? But once you’re up there, it’s not so bad—the view is still good, and the heat is gentle compared to what you came from. Even better when we get there and find Misery Ridge, the most famous trail in the whole park, shaded. It’s a steep downhill, and every joint protests the catch. But we go slow and pick out climbs we’d want to do, passing the Red Wall. Darren likes cracks. I like things I can hold onto, big, blocky climbs. Red Wall has both, we decide to come back, someday, maybe this summer, maybe this fall. We’ll come back.
Here we are now though. Here we are, and at the bottom of the ridge is a miracle—put there for us alone, a sprinkler watering an out of place lawn. Dark green and manicured amid dust, we jog toward it, backpacks beating a steady rhythm against our bodies until we shed them and run. Laughing into the water we go, salt streaming off our red burnt faces, and there isn’t anything but that moment, not for us. In that moment we are infinite—here we are, only here, only now, we are here.