Six years on the road. When I say it out loud, it sounds a little crazy, but feels a lot normal. At this time last year, we were in the Pipe Dream in Maple Canyon, working on some of our hardest projects so far. Charlie was besting his own previous world record, and I was climbing another one of those routes I never thought I’d be able to do.
This summer, we won’t be in Maple. (I know…what?!) We’re coming full circle, in a sense, and returning to Wyoming to climb in the Octagon, where we spent the first three months of our retirement back in 2015. The last time we were here, The Octagon was a “locals’ secret,” invitation-only crag. Since, it’s been included in Mike Snyder’s Ten Sleep guidebook on Rakkup. Not surprisingly, however, it still hasn’t seen a huge influx of traffic. The Octagon is not for everyone; it’s for the small contingent of choss-immune lovers of cave-climbing among us. If glue is a problem for you, you’ll want to stay away. In addition, it’s stacked with hard moves, and hard grades that are hard for the grade. The routes are steep, with big pulls and throws off bad feet, campusing, cutting, and swinging. For us, it’s a place that somehow embraces our strengths while, at the same time, spotlighting our weaknesses.
After a winter spent hunkered down in Alabama recovering from our overexposure to humankind over the summer, we resurfaced in Hurricane, Utah. The late winter/early spring season at the Hurricave was good for us. By the time the desert started to heat up, we’d redpointed just one route each, but we’d also begun to lay the groundwork for our fall goals, compiling beta on limit projects. By late April, the inevitable change of seasons called for a change of venue.
We packed up the van (aka, The Cloud…for storage), hitched Alexander SuperScamp 2.0 to it, and set out on our leisurely way to Wyoming. Driving through the small, sparsely populated old western towns, I always find myself wondering how their inhabitants survive, and if the younger amongst them have ever known what it is to thrive.
One important component of our approach to a sustainable road life is that we’re not crag-hoppers. When we get somewhere, we assess the overall situation, and if the climbing and living seem viable, we stay. Not for two weeks, or a month, but usually anywhere from 6 weeks to 3 or 4 months. Staying put not only means having the ability to try hard projects, but it also makes good financial sense. The less we move, the less we spend. We pulled into the Ten Sleep Rock Ranch and said hello to our home for the next five months.
On the rainy Tuesday after we arrived, we geared up in Goretex and headed out to assess the condition of the trail, and make sure we could find it again easily, loaded down with gear, the next day. The junction from the main trail to begin switching back up into the draw the cave is situated in was never very obvious, and we expected for it to take a minute to find. We hiked quite a way until we agreed we’d gone too far and must have missed it, then backtracked to locate the still winter-bare mulberry bush that announces the start of the uphill portion of the approach. Not wanting to do that again, Charlie picked up a few rocks laying in the vicinity and stacked them in a neat cairn. To encourage consistency through the next section of trail, he did the same at two points about 30 feet apart further on.
Consistently good conditions have not yet hit Ten Sleep. We didn’t see a soul at the cliff on Wednesday and Friday, our next two climbing days. After a weekend of rest for Charlie (I climbed in the gym at the Rock Ranch on Sunday because the Monday forecast indicated a belay-only day for me), we headed back up. Charlie, in front of our human-canine-human crew, walked a few feet past the turn-off, then stopped and retreated. His pretty little balanced cairn had been reduced to a haphazard pile. The same with the next two. In the cave, there were a myriad of new footprints, along with a used hand warmer, an ink pen, and discarded food wrappers. So much for Leave no Trace.
This is, of course, the kind of place where we should expect people to kick over cairns. In the past year, proponents of “natural” climbs have bashed bolts and holds they don’t think should be there, and put big red padlocks on the first bolts of some routes as an indication that some of their holds are manufactured. A group of eighteen people who cite their combined years of climbing in the canyon (the math is not impressive) combatted what they perceive to be defacement of the rock with more defacement. The situation has demonstrated, once again, that destructive behavior rarely brings about positive results. The in-fighting in the climbing community brought the issue to the attention of the Forest Service, which is now formulating a climbing management plan for the Bighorn National Forest. They’ve closed some walls, instituted a moratorium on bolting, and are also enforcing the 14-day camping limit more closely. While these things aren’t yet the end of the world, they guarantee that climbers on this forest won’t be able to operate as freely as they have for many years. Small world-views result in big egos, and big ego behaviors bring undesired attention from the world outside our culture. If only the time and effort had been dedicated to building the climbing here rather than breaking it down.
As it turns out, our cairn-kicker happens to be a loud voice in the anti-glue-and-chipping contingent of the “local” community, but, ironically, loves climbing in the glue-reinforced chossy cave the trail our cairns lead to. In light of his hypocrisy. It’s easy to understand his reluctance to share the crag, although he may not realize his own true motivations. More likely, he feels he’s following some delusional code of “ethics” that tells him cairns are bad. But as Charlie is often heard paraphrasing Dougal Haston (as quoted in Will Steffen’s Himalayan Dreaming), “Ethics are like hard-ons: eventually they both deflate.”
“Ethics are like erections: No matter how well intentioned they might be they are prone to sudden deflation.” – Dougal Haston
We’re settling into a routine here. Yesterday, the hike felt old and familiar. Red-winged blackbirds perched weightless on last year’s marsh grasses on the oxbow bend of the creek. We waded through the dew-dampened, thigh high growth in the shade of the woods, breaking through to short sunny stretches straddling the creek. The water was high, our feet wet after crossing the rudimentary log bridge. The flat, even ground of the trail on the other side brings us to the first long switchback and the fourth class scramble that Lola (woof) needs a lift to get going on. Seven more switchbacks, then the sunny slog to cut across the final slope as the trail drifts rightward around the back side of the formation that houses The Octagon.
After just two burns on my project, I was completely trashed, powered down with my skin on fire. I know that I won’t climb my hardest grade here, but it will feel as though I’m doing exactly that. Watching Charlie boulder his way up the beginning of one of the approaches to the extension he’s chosen to work, all I can think is that we can’t help but get stronger here.
There is no one here to take photos, no one to share beta other than the two of us. With an enormous canyon stacked with classic routes on beautiful, bulletproof dolomite five miles away, it’s not hard to understand why most people would forgo the less-than-solid, not-quite-beautiful madison limestone of the cave. But the movement is spectacular, the landscape is gorgeous, the hike is meditative, and the quiet is sublime. It’s the perfect respite from the last few summers of Maple madness.
There’s a good probability that even after a summer of preparation, the project I chose back in the Hurricave will still be impossible. But I can’t write it off until I know for sure. It’s just not in my nature to do that. I’m an Alice in Wonderland six-impossible-things-before-breakfast kind of person. Sometimes just having the dream to begin with leads to making impossible things possible. Sometimes it just makes life more interesting. The important thing is not to make limiting assumptions or leash your aspirations. The important thing is to identify, trust, and act upon what you already know, and you’re likely to find that forces in the universe seem to join you and conspire to bring you success. What hangs many of us up and causes us to get in our own way is when that success comes, as it so often does, in a package that looks different than the one we so neatly envisioned and planned.
Arriving so early in the season, we’ve had only a few neighbors so far. We’ve been lucky that, for the most part, they’ve been people we might choose to be around had happenstance not made the choice for us. One person we’ve met and gotten to know a bit is the kind of person who brings out the best in others. I’m grateful for her gentle presence, wonderment, and appreciation of ordinary things. It’s a reminder that even after our six years of traveling, climbing, and living this simple existence, just stopping for a few minutes and looking around can be a magical experience.
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