Tomorrow comes and it’s too cold. We don’t know this yet, but we’ll find out soon enough—the cozy circle of trees around our little site has proved to be excellent insulation against the worst of the mean weather we’re surrounded in, but it can’t keep us safe forever. We’re going to try Beckey’s Route again on Liberty Bell, which sounded better last night while we were sitting around the fire. Now, in the morning light, it’s sounding less and less romantic—in the let’s throw caution the wind! way—and more and more stubborn. This is dumb I think bitterly while I make coffee, but I don’t say it out loud because Darren’s hope is so fragile that we’ll be able to get up there. We did it yesterday though, remember? The struggle up the approach, the odious clouds of mountain goat smell, the frozen hands, the doomsday clouds rolling across the valley—how quickly we forget! At the trailhead, the temp is 45 degrees. It’s ten in the morning, at the top it’ll be ten or fifteen degrees cooler. We’re dumb, but thankfully, not stupid. So we leave, both bathed in our own waves of disappointment and frustration, but we take the advice of this guy we met on the trail yesterday, an old man winter sort who tells us Mazama is dry. Ton of sport climbing there! Everything’s bolted! We’d never heard of it, didn’t even really know where or what would be there (I do some musing on our way over—a town of wannabe climbers? A convention of geeky mountaineers?) but we know it’ll be dry. The guy said! And we’re desperate. So Darren throws the car in reverse and peels out of the trailhead parking lot and I almost laugh but don’t, because that’s a mean thing to do when your boyfriend’s a little huffy and his dream of summiting Liberty Bell has just been crushed. It is a bummer, I hear that. But a peel out kind of bummer? I’m not so sure. Sidenote: This reminds me of a book title I thought of, based on something my Mom told my cousin once during a particularly cloudy trip to Lake of the Woods. It would be called Grandma Can’t Change the Weather, and subtitled, And Other Tales of What Katie Wants. That’s catchy, admit it.
So we go to Mazama with the dubious instructions of drive fifteen miles from the trailhead and stop at the climbing shop in town—no really, you can’t miss it—and they’ll be able to tell you what crag will be good. I keep trying to get service to google whether or not this is actually a town founded by the Mazama Club. I never got service, but I did look it up later, and it’s not (thankfully). Mazama means mountain goat in a native language (couldn’t tell you which) but the aforementioned climbing store apparently knew that too, because it was called the Goat’s Beard Mountain Supply. We discover this after we wind our way past the Early Winter Spires—an appropriate name, don’t you think?—out the park and down into the valley, where suddenly everything is scrubbed white by the sun and field after golden field flies past our windows. Mile after glorious mile reveals more and more of this hot and sunny landscape, such a far cry from that cold mean world we left behind in the mountains, and we keep crowing, proudly, as if this were the plan all along—it’s so beautiful! The sun! Mazama is dry, indeed.
Goat’s Beard is tucked behind a store—the Mazama version of the Mercantile, but with a much better selection of merchandise—and across a flagstaff patio where an odd assortment of people have assembled. A handful of families (one child is playing in a half-empty planter box, he pops out like an organic jack in the box and scares us—mostly me—half to death), a few climbers (you can always tell), some middle-aged people on bikes (they look like they had all just been recently divorced, you can always tell) and one very old man. A wraparound porch beckons us into a lodge pole building, all dark corners and little squares of light from the windows dotting the outside, and the outdoor enthusiast’s gold mine tucked in between. We immediately start buying things I didn’t even know we needed, guidebooks and t-shirts, stickers, Nuun, and this endears us to the owner, a very kind and energetic woman named Mickey who came from Colorado to this middle of nowhere town, and who probably would’ve been kind and energetic (and still named Mickey) even if we hadn’t looked at a single thing in there. We realize, once she and Darren start talking, that they know some of the same people in the climbing community. This isn’t that rare—Darren knows someone everywhere if they’ve ever even thought about looking at a rock before. He’s good at talking to people, when they have this big, all consuming thing in common. Actually he’s good at talking to anyone. He knows my neighbors much better than I do.
Mickey tells us to go to Prospector Point—it’s less busy and won’t be too hot today, so we follow her directions (take this road out in front of the store for about 10 miles and it’ll be there on the left, no really you can’t miss it), and find ourselves on a dirt road, a pine forest spread out on either side of us. A small cairn peeks out from the side of a little trail leading up, and a collection of two or three other cars have wedged themselves onto the road near there. Darren looks at me, I look at him, we pull over and unload. This must be the place. One hellish hike up a gravelly, steep, switch backing son of a bitch trail and we’re at the bottom of an impressive cliff band, arching up and away over our heads and into the sun. The valley stretches out in either direction below us, a sweeping expanse of trees meeting sky, land rippling into more land, until it meets the horizon in a hazy glow of white. A fire had just been through here on the ridge over, a black and ashy swath of burned just barely visible amid the sea of green. Darren walks the edge of the rock, guidebook in hand, while I look, take in where we’ve gotten to. He squints into the sun every now and then, searching the face of the granite and then the guidebook—he’s looking for the glint of bolts, any identifying sign of where the route might be. Guidebooks are bibles in this world, sometimes the only thing you have to get you going the right way on the rock.
It happens in a second—we think we figure out which wall we’re looking at, and then the rope bag falls, or bounces really, off the little ledge we’re standing on and down the very steep slope we just came up. Darren immediately scrambles down and around the switchback, darting past a group who’ve stopped just past where we were standing. He disappears for a minute, then pops back up—did anyone see which way that went? Sad head shakes all around, because this could be disaster. We only have one rope and they don’t come cheap.
Twenty minutes later I’m still sitting on the pack, back to the rock and face to the sun, listening—hoping against hope, really—that I’ll hear a triumphant shout from somewhere down the hill. There’s only the soft crunch of gravel as his blond head comes into sight, bowed in defeat and probably heat stroke. Coming around the switchback, he holds out empty hands. No such luck. Guess I did want a new rope, he says. Come on, I say, getting up. Come on let’s just both go down and look—two sets of eyes are better than one. He gestures at the thick underbrush coating the mountain side—it’s in a green rope bag. It could be anywhere.
But we go back down anyway, looking for the shape of the thing and not the color, bush whacking our way off the path into the tangle of plants that have fought so hard to live on this sunburned, wind beaten ridge, until then—finally—there is the triumphant shout! It’s a little anticlimactic, because I don’t hear it at first, and then when I do, I don’t quite understand him, but finally we get it sorted out and meet back on the path, our somewhat ill-fated day back on track. Just one more hellish time back up to the cliff band, and then we’re finally ready to do some climbing. The cliff band is wide, and there are a few other groups out on the harder wall—I belay Darren mostly and listen to the groups around us, what they’re idle talk sounds like, try and see what they think when they climb.
Two girls next to us eat lunch high on a boulder, laughing every so often although I can’t hear what they’re saying. A girl next to me belays a guy—he must be her boyfriend—as he works his way up a steep arête, and she asks every so often how it is, and he says multiple times, you could totally do this! Each time she laughs. There’s another couple, right where the cliff takes a turn into the mountain, that have made the connection with an older guy that the apparently met in Telluride, or maybe Moab, I forget, but they were on their way out and left him beer while he was waiting for friends in a parking lot, and now they’re both here, in Mazama, Washington. They greet each other like old friends, although their encounter couldn’t have lasted more than a few minutes. Me, and Darren, and these other climbers, there’s a nice sense of camaraderie in places like these—where everyone is motivated by the same goal and the same weird, innate drive: to get to the top. To climb. And especially when you’re at a spot where there’s really no other reason to come than to climb, you’re connected in a way that in our daily lives you just aren’t.
Driving back to the campsite, we’re exhausted and we’re sweaty from the sun we’re leaving behind in the Valley, and we’re quiet, both mentally gearing up for our next adventure—late this afternoon we’re backpacking up to a lake, or at least that’s the plan. The way this trip has gone, and is going, who knows where we’ll actually end up.