This is the most people I’ve ever seen on a climb before, which, granted, isn’t saying that much but today feels really busy. First, the parking lot is packed. There are two other guys climbing, long-haired crag rats—or trying to be—who sort their gear right outside the car and trade a lot of yeah mans. After further consideration I think they may be 30-somethings escaping their wives and pretending to each other that they’re still in the glory days. This seems more likely. Then a caravan of retro cars roll through, driven by an odd collection of people—one younger guy from South Carolina, an old lady and a young man who hop out and inspect a radiator immediately after parking, two aging bald men. The air is thick with non-DEQ approved emissions. It occurs to me that I would’ve never made it in the 50s. So much impure air. They must be on some kind of tour of the states, but I can’t quite figure out how that has led them to the Beacon Rock State Park parking lot. It’s beautiful though, huh! They congratulate each other and double park their cars. As Darren and I start loading up backpacks for the approach, a lady comes up to me (wearing an unironic headscarf) and asks if we’re going climbing. Darren says yes, and she looks right at me and says, half-giggling, You’re brave! I don’t know about that, I tell her. Enjoy your trip. At the base of the climb, after wending our way through mossy, leafy, fairy-tale undergrowth, there are two couples waiting to go on the route we’re trying to do, and another already on a back-up route. This is Disneyland and we need a fast pass, desperately. We end up waiting at the back-up route, and discover that we actually know these people. Or at least, Darren does, and I have met them once (maybe, I’m not convinced) at the gym. They seem nice—the girl is wearing a Smith Rock State Park tank top and I admire her Columbia hiking shorts. I, too, am wearing hiking shorts although I’m not sure if I like them or not yet. They are a little long and when I was trying them on in the store I asked everyone around me if they were too “butch”. Most people assured me they weren’t, but when I get to dinner later that night Rachelle asks me, where’d you get those shorts, and I tell her they’re my hiking shorts, and she says ah, that explains why they look so butch. So I immediately start re-questioning the people around me at the store, but then take heart in the fact that this other climber girl is also wearing shorts. I start feeling, then, a little like a fraud, for thinking so much about how my shorts look, here at the base of this core of volcano, waiting to start a six-pitch climb that may kill me. Strong, confident, powerful! I bark at myself, putting all thoughts of appearance aside, which works again until I get to dinner and everyone tells me I look haggard.
We end up climbing behind the couple from the gym the entire time, waiting at the top of each pitch with the girl while the guy leads. We encounter three other groups along the way, two of which are threesomes which I can’t really wrap my head around conceptually in terms of climbing, because it’s such a partnered thing. Apparently it can be done, but don’t ask me how. The first two sets we meet are at the top of the first pitch. There’s an asian guy who pops up in the middle of the traverse—he’s wearing a beanie on a blisteringly hot day—and talks to himself the entire time he sets up the anchor. I belay Darren and watch him, while also keeping an eye on this other team of three that has now appeared in a little break in the rock to the left. This route feels like a veritable highway to the top and it makes me nervous. They start to worry that the Asian guy is going to cut them in “line” (I go back to wishing for Fastpasses) and start the traverse, ducking around me to go in hard to the anchor I’m belaying Darren from. They’re a crew of younger-ish guys, one who insists on being shirtless although in my opinion he hasn’t earned it, who all have smoker hacks. The crux of this climb, the pitch I’m about to start while they get ready behind me, is right at the beginning, so I’ll have a nice audience going over it. If there’s one thing I hate, it’s other people watching me struggle. So I throw myself over this bulge with everything I’m worth, heaving onto the ledge above even though the effort almost kills me. I think they’re impressed though so I feel good about that, although I may now be a cripple and my knee is really bruised, although I can’t pinpoint when that happened.
Unfortunately, I didn’t bank on the burliest of the three following right behind me for the entire rest of the pitch. I was under the impression that I had left the audience behind, but alas—he was grunting along below me while I tried to focus on my own battle, holding onto a crack and smearing my feet for all I was worth. I get caught once and have to stop and figure out how to get out from under this weird roof—my earlier efforts had mostly left my arms cooked—and he helpfully offered from below, I’m in a great spot, don’t worry, take your time. Which was nice of him and I appreciated it, but it was also like—hey, I’ve been here for thirty seconds, you don’t know. Maybe I’m about to power through in the next ten and we’ll be out of here.
That wasn’t the case, but it could have been, so there. At the next ledge, once I finished the pitch with my new simu-climbing partner, Matt (I only know that because his friends wouldn’t stop yelling at him) we get a break at a nice spot—a beautiful view over the Gorge, the chance to see what the Oregon side looks like. Darren starts his climb and the other two guys in Matt’s crew get to the ledge. They start drinking beer. I try and disappear into the rock. Then another pitch, this one a scramble through varying terrain—some crack climbing, some bush whacking, lots of blackberries (proof that they are a weed). Matt and them break off after this, going to what they’ve described as a really sick ledge, bro, you should totally try it. Of course, this is all directed at Darren and not at me at all. No, it’s okay. I don’t want to go to your sick ledge anyway. Boys only, I get it. After they leave, it’s thirty seconds of quiet. And then a new group starts yelling at each other above us, and from the sounds of their voices, I think they’re very old. Like aged, sixty year olds climbing one last time who need a hearing aid tune-up—DAAAAAAAAVIIIIIIIID, DAVIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIID, I’M OFFFFFFFFFFF BELAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY. I can hear it now.
As it turns out, David was an Englishmen not much older than me. He’s with another guy and a girl, and while Darren climbs, I’m once again in the company of other people who I valiantly try to make small talk with but then just decide to pretend I’m not there. They eat tuna fish sandwiches. The guy who made them specifies they have microgreens on them “for added nutrition”. Okay pal. Do your thing. The next pitch is short, and goes quick, and then it’s just David and I at the next ledge once Darren heads out for the last pitch. Your rope is really tangled, David helpfully points out while I wrestle an 80 foot snake into submission. Yes, I say, yes it is.
But then I’m off and working on the last pitch, which is terrifying because I’m exhausted and also because I can’t really see where I’m going, but still, in a perverse way, fun. I am proud of myself, swinging out over the horizon, holding onto boulders three times my size, scampering up through trees and rocks and lots of dirt. And for all the people below, it’s just Darren and I at the top, standing sheltered by the trees. It’s quiet for a minute, and still—and my rage at David the unhelpful and my annoyance with Mike the misogynistic goes away, replaced by the normal euphoria that comes at the top, the happiness to be together, here, at the top.