John Long: On the Road
And you thought your last climbing trip was tough.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 127 (September 2003).
During my 1,000 or so road trips over the past 30 years, I’ve endured bullet holes in my dad’s Lincoln, fisticuffs and flying spears with Papuan coppers, and eight days in a Tennessee lockup. But for sheer grief and frustration, from start to finish, nothing can rival my trip to Mexico’s Throne with the graceful “Rose,” fellow member of the University of La Verne Outdoor Recreation Club.
Only Melvin, from Duluth, Minnesota, joined the rec club to shoot arrows into hay bails, kayak in the local mud hole, and toprope out at Stoney Point. For the rest of us guys, the pressing recreation was of the horizontal variety, with the dozens of smashing hotties, excluding Rose, who’s father— a husky mountaineer and volunteer outing director — said he’d crush the skull of anyone who tried to sack his daughter.
Anyhow, during one Memorial Day weekend, I decided to skip the annual club slog up Mount Baldy and instead planned a climbing trip to El Gran Trono Blanco (the Great White Throne), down in Baja. Then at the last moment, my partners fell out. For over a year I’d schemed to take Rose climbing, hoping she’d rip the lederhosen right off me and keep her yap shut about the whole affair, and her chance had finally come. I jogged over to the girls’ dorm and found her reading Sylvia Plath and listening to Bartok. I spelled out my plan in shorthand, and just as I’d hoped, she loved the sound of a Mexican adventure. Early the next morning we loaded up my VW bug and headed for the border.
Rolling south I tried to cut the figure of the cool and dashing rock stallion who would guide Rose up an exotic big wall in nothing flat. Every time she inquired about what part of the Mexican continent we were heading for, and what we were actually planing to do, I’d toss out an offhand reply and Rose would tell me she trusted that I knew best, and then she’d settle back and say nothing for 10 or 15 miles. Slowly, these lingering silences started working on me. After another empty mile I asked Rose what was wrong. “Nothing worth mentioning,” she insisted. I pressed her — friends could be frank with each other, surely — and Rose lauded my maturity. As it happened, there were a few small concerns.
I hadn’t vacuumed or washed my car in a year (the whole rig stank of smoke). Nor had I shaved in a few days, and my clothes were “eccentric.” And it didn’t make sense that an athlete like myself should smoke cigarettes. With every passing mile Rose found another vice or foible, all mentioned with a coy little smile, as a sort of courtesy. By the time we crossed the border at Tijuana, I was defending my right to be alive. I felt put upon, in fact, so in El Hongo, just shy of the dirt turnoff for the Throne, I dropped into a bodega and snagged a quart bottle of mescal, a fierce and hazardous Latin “shine” leeched from agave cactus and old tractor batteries.
I drank the whole bottle, and probably the worm in the bottom, and for the first and last time in my life that night’s debaucheries were a total blank the following morning. Who knows how we got to the desert campsite, 40 miles down a maze of crisscrossing dirt roads, in the middle of Baja.
I came to around dawn the next morning, face down in a creosote bush, with a gyre of ravens circling above and Rose pouring water over my head. It had taken her half an hour to track me down, but in 10 seconds she announced how poorly I’d behaved the previous night and how, fearing for her honor, she’d locked herself in the car.
I suggested a rest day to organize gear and give Rose a chance to acclimatize. She said that if I felt losing a day would help us climb our mountain, then we should probably rest, which sounded ludicrous when she put it that way. “Rose,” I slurred out, “I’m still liquored up. Can’t you see that?” Rose pulled a book from her daypack and started reading, turning a page every so often, never looking up. This pathetic opera went on for another few minutes.
“Okay, screw it all,” I finally said. “Get your stuff. We’re going.”
“You better drink some coffee,” said Rose, who’d brewed a pot. I tossed off a few cups, shouldered the haul bag and started wobbling across slabs towards the gully spilling to the base of the south face and the start of the climb.
Now Rose cheered up, sure we were heading for a magnificent adventure, confident she was in the hands of a certified expert, cha, cha, cha. Then we started down the Gully from Hell, formed by the slanting base of the Throne on the left, and a trashy granite bastion on the right.
It was choked with thorny branches swarming with fire ants, and we took three hours to bash down to a huge pool at the base of the climb, where I took a header deep into barbed thicket and emerged looking as if a kodiak bear had clawed my face. Rose reached into her daypack and withdrew a queer herbal potion and dabbed some onto my grill. I screamed.
“Quit acting like a baby,” she said. Then she harnessed up, uncoiled the lead and haul lines and sat while I dove into the spring and tried to snap into leading shape. It didn’t work. My head felt like a meteor. Rose simply sat there, the acme of patience, waiting for me to rope up and lead us to the clouds.
“Rose, we’re gonna die,” I said. She told me to leave off with the foolishness—the wall was only 75 degrees, and barely 1,000 feet high, by her reckoning. Rose said that with my vast Yosemite experience, the only way I could squeeze a challenge out of this route was to climb blindfolded. “Or drunk,” I said. I geared up, tied in and said, “I hate you, Rose.”
“I know you do,” she said. I cast off.
Sketchy as I felt, we drifted up the wall without pause, Rose following on jumars, except for the seventh pitch, leading to a huge ledge, which Rose tackled at 5.6. The next pitch had the only aid, 40 feet of it, so I fixed that bit and rapped to the big ledge.
Fifty foot square and flat as a tabletop, aside from a few rodents and prickly pear cacti, the ledge afforded a perfect bivy site. We even gathered brush enough to start a little fire. I rooted out some food —filched from the college cafeteria — and stuffed myself, then sucked a half-gallon water bottle dry. Rose applauded a spectacular day. As night crept over the dreary desert wasteland, far below, I started feeling like myself again.
“Rose,” I asked, “what exactly did I do last night?” The color fell off her face and she drew the sleeping bag up around her neck. “Well, you started off singing along with the Ranchero tunes blaring on the car radio,” she said, continuing with a long list of grievances. I’d tried to get chummy with her, forcing her to climb a boulder to safety. After circling the boulder for awhile, I’d started blathering about my dear grandmother, God rest her soul, then I fell to the ground and started pawing the dirt like a dog with the fever, whence Rose dashed to the VW and locked herself inside. With each disturbing detail, Rose slithered deeper into her bag until all I could see were here eyes. I mumbled out a “Goodnight, Rose,” and slunk over to the fire on the far side of the ledge.
I passed out, then snapped awake when gusting winds blew an ember onto my bag that melted through to my thigh. I frantically doffed the bag, which unfurled in the wind like a spinnaker and instantly was ripped from my mitts and blown into oblivion. The bag belonged to the outdoor rec club, and I’d just bought it. I jammed my legs in the haulbag and pulled my sweatshirt over my head, but the wind slashed at me like 10,000 daggers and I shivered the whole night. Things calmed around sunrise, but just as I started sawing some honest firewood Rose kicked me in the ribs. The fire had gone out. And she couldn’t find the water. And she had never heard man nor beast snore so loud.
“We’re off this thing in three hours,” I said, furiously stuffing the haul bag. On the penultimate pitch, however, the lead rope jammed in the back of a flare. I tried yanking it free, but only further set it. Finally, I rigged an anchor and rapped to the snag and for several hours tried everything. Eventually, I led off on the haul line, brought Rose up, rapped down to attach the bag to the line, climbed the damn thing again with a prussik belay, and then hauled the pig to the top, abandoning the lead line to the cruel winds.
We gained the summit as the sun dove into the western skyline. Setting off in a sprint, we got halfway back to the car and had to pull another bivy when we couldn’t see 10 feet for the darkness and I fell into a hole and nearly broke my ankle joint.
“Rose,” I said, rubbing my gigantic ankle, “we gotta share your sleeping bag. Mine blew away last night.” She glared at me as though I’d asked Mother Teresa for a lap dance. “Take it easy,” I said. “We’ll just unzip the thing and pull it over us.”
She backpedaled a few feet and said, “You can have it.”
“Just keep it!” I said, and hobbled off, looking for a windblock. Another sleepless night.
Early the next morning we regained the car, which would not start. Dead battery. I spent hours trying to push-start it in the sand until my ankle swelled to the size of a fire hydrant. I lay back in the dirt, totally gassed. “We’re out of water,” said Rose, holding up an empty gallon container. She looked dejectedly across the lone and level sands and asked, “What will become of us?”
“God hates me,” I said, “and I hate Him.” From afternoon until night I hobbled back to the Gully from Hell, filled the water bottles in the spring, and limped back out to the campsite. Rose was asleep in the VW, swaddled in the only sleeping bag. I started a fire, propped up my swollen foot and shivered until daybreak.
“I was thinking maybe if you could push the car up on this slab,” Rose said the next morning, pointing to a bit of flat rock 20 yards off the dirt road. “The tires might find better purchase than in the sand.”
“Probably would,” I said, wondering why I hadn’t thought of that. Rose’s idea worked perfectly and a minute later we motored down the dirt road toward the highway. By now my ankle hurt so badly I could barely depress the clutch, but the pain was the only thing keeping me awake. Over the next four or five hours I dealt with two flat tires, a red-hot oil leak and two Mexican cops who fleeced me. In early evening, we pulled up to the mile-long queue of gringos backed up on the Tijuana border, streaming back into the States. I looked frightful—my shirt and pants splattered with oil and ripped from the blasted thorns in the gully, my unshaven face scribed by savage lesions, my ankle black and huge, my eyes bloodshot. The border guard took one look at me and waved us into a fenced area overlooked by a machine-gun nest and half a dozen toughs in flak jackets. A guy with a pencil moustache ordered us out of the car, then a slavering dog was led in and unleashed. It sprang into the car and pawed rabidly at the seats, sniffling at the doors and about the floor.
“Someone’s been smoking marijuana inside this vehicle,” declared the officer with the pencil stash. “It ain’t dope that cur smells,” I said, “but my sister’s weenie dog.” The guard wasn’t buying it, but after doing everything short of dissecting the car with a cutting torch, and turning up not so much as a seed, he had to let us go.
Flat broke, I had to beg money from Rose for food and gas, and I still recall the agonizing process of Rose slowly withdrawing a coin purse from her pack and peeling off three 10-dollar bills, and handing them over. I gassed up, powered down a few burgers and booted it for home. Around midnight we pulled into the parking lot at my dorm. They say that misery acquaints strange bedfellows, and I was still hoping for a little strange, but Rose simply thanked me for a “wonderful experience,” gathered her belongings and left for her dorm.
Somewhere lived the man who could be in lust and be wise at the same time—and then there was me. My face required plastic surgery, my ankle was twisted, my car needed two new tires and an oil pump, my only lead rope was flapping in the breeze down in Mexico, I owed the outdoor rec club $130 for that sleeping bag, and another $30 to Rose for food and gas.
I limped up to my dorm room and collapsed on my bed. My first climbing partner, Richard Harrison, used to say a wall was never over till you were standing in the shower, but I was too fagged to even undress.
Longtime Rock and Ice contributor John Long, one of the original Stonemasters, is perhaps best known for his first free ascent of Astroman and first one day ascent of the Nose of El Capitan. He is the author or editor of over 30 books and the recipient of the American Alpine Club Literary Award.
Also read John Long: Legends of the Mind