On September 2, Albert Benson and I climbed for the first time in Smugglers’ Notch. We started on The Diagonal, a two-pitch climb, then did three of the four pitches on the classic Quartz Crack. We’ve both been climbing for eight months — much of that together — and practicing all of the skills we needed up there, but these were our first multipitch climbs (climbing more than one rope-length up the wall).
It was terrifying, of course, to be 200-plus feet off the ground. It was a beautiful day with almost no wind and mostly clear skies, but even one stiff breeze was enough to make my stomach cinch into a knot. The way we were climbing, the risk of falling was more psychological than practical; we had a belayer anchored into the wall on two bolts and placed more protection (cams and nuts stuck into cracks and other openings in the rock) than we needed. A fall would stretch the rope between us, but our safety systems meant the rope and the protection would catch the climber before the fall went from bad to worse.
The conditions were great (more loose rock than we are used to from climbing at the higher-traffic Bolton crags, but nothing terrifying along the routes themselves) and we both climbed well. After we finished The Diagonal, we rappelled down and — probably a bit too stoked — started right up the four-pitch Quartz Crack without stopping for lunch. Albert led the first pitch, and I ate half of a Clif bar as fast as I could while he was setting up the belay. Then up we went.
Turning around on the belay ledge two pitches off the ground, a few thoughts came to mind:
Holy shit this is really high.
El Capitan is thirty pitches?!
This might be the rarest view I’ve ever seen.
The thoughts mixed together into a feeling that’s almost impossible to describe. Gratitude for everything that’s led me to have the means and ability to spend a day climbing; awe and inspiration at the much bigger, much harder climbs I’ve read about. But also this deep, elusive, intense joy — so intense I could almost feel my body humming with the energy of it. It’s the joy that comes with those rare days that you know you’ll remember, even as they happen.
At the top of pitch three, we faced a rightward traverse under a huge roof. It was the longest and hardest pitch of the route, and wasn’t the kind of pitch you can back off of once you’re on it. My nerves were fraying from spending so much time trying to ignore my instinct to be terrified, and I wasn’t ready to lead that route. Albert was on a roll after leading the first three pitches and I didn’t want to tap the brakes, but the more I looked at the climbing ahead, the more I wanted to call it a day and retreat.
We stood there for a couple minutes, then Albert suggested we go down. I tried not to sound to eager in my agreement.
Getting to the bottom brought almost as many feelings as the high point. When my feet hit the packed dirt at the base of Quartz Crack, I knew I could text my wife Tori and let her know that I’m okay and her fears weren’t realized.
Like many reasonable people, Tori is afraid of heights. When I started climbing, it quickly became clear that this would be a me activity rather than an us activity. Even hearing about an exposed move or the height of a climb makes her shudder. I can tell she’s imagining how many bones might break from that high up.
Learning to climb and embrace fear and calculate risk over the past eight months has been one of the most fun and rewarding things I’ve ever done. The extra weight in her voice when I say goodbye before a climb — and the happiness and comfort I get to come home to — is enough to keep me focused on the safety systems and willing to back off a climb if it doesn’t feel right.
The result is a pull toward something that’s evaded me for most of my life: Balance.