John Long: Mountains of Trouble
The cement-bucket drop test, swami belts and the beginning of the end of a fabled climbing club.
I needed an exercise fix one recent Sunday morning, but my fingers were too sore to rope up, so I hopped on my mountain bike and peddled for the Santa Monica mountains. Two hours later, panting at a clearing known as The Hub, where 10 trails converge on a ridgetop, a woman, 40ish, fetching, hale and vaguely familiar, rolled up, gave me the once over and said, “Don’t I know you?”
“Probably not,” I said, “but you should.”
“Oh, I think I do,” she said, extending her gloved hand. “My name’s Molly.”
It’s been almost 30 years since “Danny” (who I’d recruited from my high school baseball team) and I took that first climbing seminar, with the fabled Rock Climbing Section of the John Muir Club. The RCS had launched several generations of America’s finest—from John Mendenhal to Chuck Wilts—but by the time my cohorts and I jumped on board, it was a leaking ship. I wouldn’t say we scuttled the whole works—it seemed doomed before we were born, once the original hardcore had given way to fussy, tyrannical old farts with their felt hats, military protocols and silly regulations. But I’m confident the local chapter never recovered from the participation of our band of truants and knuckleheads who signed on for their Rock One seminar.
Orientation took place in a cavernous auditorium in Riverside, California. We paid 10 dollars, filled out a sheaf of documents, got a work book thick and arid as Kant’s Collected Works, pasted our name tags onto our t-shirts and took chairs.
Then the seminar leader, whom we came to call Major Guff, goose-stepped onto the stage and introduced a desiccated relic in Lowa triple boots and pressed khakis. “Uncle Abe,” as we later styled him, tromped over to the podium and embarked on a magnificent performance. While Uncle Abe bore a faint resemblance to Abraham Lincoln, he had the outrageous routine of dramatically modulating his speech and body lingo, like one of those televangelists you see when surfing late-night cable.
Anyhow, Uncle Abe instructed us to thumb into our 1,200-page workbook of rules and regulations, to review the “10 essentials,” which to Sierra Clubbers were what the Commandments were to the Apostles.
The 10 essentials were actually more like 20 essentials. I can’t recall all of them. Several items didn’t seem especially germane to rock climbing, such as the tin cup and the mirror, though the other stuff (waterproof matches, a signaling device, freeze-dried rations, a sextant and astrolabe) seemed like pretty standard tackle — if you were casting off for the North Pole. We were made to understand that these essentials were to be carried by everyone on every RCS outing, no matter how small or ambitious.
Eventually, Uncle Abe broke out the Goldline rope and a rack of pitons and launched into a demonstration so rare, so theatrical, so entirely screwy we could only watch and wonder if the old boy hadn’t been poisoned. He began by lashing the Goldline around his waist and having Major Guff’s daughter (one Molly, a curvy article of 18) “anchor” herself to the mike stand and pay out the “lead line” as Uncle Abe “climbed” across the stage on hands and knees. Every few yards Uncle Abe would clasp a piton and feign driving it into the wooden floor; then he’d clip it off with a carabiner and grovel on, looking like Doug Scott crawling off the Ogre with two broken legs.
Uncle Abe’s “horizontal climbing” exhibition went on until he’d covered most all the basics, and he kept on about nothing in particular until, around midnight, Major Guff fairly dragged him off the stage.
The next weekend, we met at Mount Roubidoux, just outside Riverside, for our first taste of real climbing. Mount Roubidoux is no mountain, but rather a sprawling, 400-foot-high knoll flecked with huge boulders and tumbleweeds. The ramshackle community of Roubidoux — notorious for wife-beating, cheap wine and street gangs — spills off the Western flanks of the “mountain” and is a blight on the face of the earth.
The RCS class met on a road below Mount Roubidoux’s dusty eastern ramparts and we went through a check-in and got name tags. And a guy with a foot-long beard made sure we had our 50 essentials. This seemed a bit much, since a dozen liquor stores were in eyeshot from any place on the mountain, but rules were rules. Major Guff actually had a topo map spread over the hood of his Land Cruiser, and was plotting his course up the paved road leading to a big cross on top of Mount Roubidoux, an expedition of roughly a quarter mile.
Since the orientation meeting five days before, I’d recruited two other hometown charlatans, “Hal” and “Hank,” along with my friend Danny. Hal and Hank went on to glory days in Yosemite and beyond, with hundreds of first ascents between them. Danny never took to climbing (he later became a software tycoon, of all things), but he was there with us on that first day at Roubidoux, and in exceptional form at that. Danny had struck up a friendship with Molly after the orientation class and got her to sneak the two unregistered novices, Hal and Hank, into the class.
We joined the long queue and humped up the road to a cluster of towering boulders by the 60-foot high cross planted on the summit of Mount Roubidoux. I have no idea why we couldn’t just drive up, but the road was closed to all but several RCS support jeeps that had powered to the top with gear and provisions.
We spent several hours learning how to tie the swami belt and then how to tie into the “lead line.” After you thought you had it down cold, you were blindfolded and made to perform the whole business in front of one of the dozen or so instructors, smug as they were daffy, whose shirts were covered with patches and merit badges.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to us, Hal had thieved his way into the supply jeep and was wolfing down various pies and chicken buckets and had drifted through the bulk of it before getting nabbed by one of the instructor’s wives, “Daisy,” who had somehow stuffed most of her 200 pounds into some undersized leiderhosen, and who proceeded to tell the entire staff about Hal’s crime.
Over by the big boulder, we were finishing going over the complexities of belaying, and the first students were being marshaled through the “drop test,” a torturous RCS convention reaching back to the dawn of American climbing. Tied to the business end of the rope, a 100-pound bucket of cement was hauled 10 feet above a bolt 15 feet off the ground, then dropped through mid-air. The student-cum-belayer on the other end of the line was counted on to arrest the plunging concrete bomb using the hip belay, a procedure that seared the back of the first student (a young woman named Jill) with galley-slave type lesions. She burst into tears and Danny elbowed me in the ribs, thrusting his chin toward several instructors snickering at the greenhorn. I could almost hear the gears turning in Danny’s head, scheming up some payback. Hours later it was my turn, and even though I weighed 180 pounds, that blasted bucket still wrenched me off my feet and I barely held onto the cord.
When Hank’s turn came around, Buddy hoisted the bucket an extra yard for good measure, then cut it loose and watched in horror as Hank dropped the belay rope and the bucket slammed into the deck and exploded into 1000 pieces. Instructors streamed in from all angles and glared at the remains of the bucket, and then at Hank, as though he’d just dynamited the Arc of the Covenant. The hallowed bucket had tested the likes of Norman Clyde, Warren Harding, Yvon Choinard and Elvis Presley for all we knew, and now it was just a pile of rubble.
“For Christ’s sake,” Major Guff bellowed at Hank, “Why’d you drop it?”
“I got scared,” Hank chuckled.
“You got scared?!” the Major shot back, and kept on about Hank not having the making of a mountaineer and that if every belayer got scared and dropped the line they’re be a hundred dead leaders a week and so on and so forth. Then several instructors got down on hands and knees and gathered up the remains of the concrete bucket with the deliberation of archeologists at a sacred dig.
Meanwhile, while taking a leak behind some shrubs, Hank found a ghastly “fur” magazine showing naked adults performing atrocities on one another, and he proceeded to slip the magazine in the top of Buddy’s pack. Hank filled us in on the gag and after “lunch” was over our little gang followed Buddy over to a 30- foot slab where we were to do our first top-rope climbing.
At the base of the wall, Buddy dumped out his pack, and out tumbled the fur magazine in all its wretched splendor. Buddy snatched up the magazine with a “What’s this?” look on his face.
Hank straightaway plucked the mag from his hands and said, “You’re a bad man, Buddy …” and Buddy immediately came back with, “That’s not mine!” But the crowd of perhaps 15 novice climbers was glaring at Buddy, and now Hal was thumbing through the rag.
“Hell and devils,” cracked Danny, peering over Hal’s shoulder. “Anyone who can hold that position deserves one of them merit badges of yours, Buddy.”
Buddy ripped the rag from Hal’s hands, crammed it into his pack, and flew into a rage, claiming he’d been framed and was victim of a wicket practical joke.
“Sort of like Jill and that bucket-drop horse manure,” Danny said.
That was really the start of the curtain falling on us and the entire RCS. Buddy and Hank got in a shoving match; Major Guff came over with several other instructors and went off on one of his harangues.
The last straw was when Daisy caught Danny fornicating with Major Guff’s daughter, Molly, in a grotto near the big cross. We actually had to run for it at that point, Molly included, with half of the Riverside Chapter of the RCS chasing us down the mountainside and squealing after us in cars. It wasn’t until we were out past Cucamonga, 20 miles west, that we finally ditched the last Jeep, with Major Guff’s hideous red face sticking several feet out the driver’s side window.
That’s when I discovered Molly was in the back seat of my dad’s Lincoln. I must have know she was there, but hadn’t realized the thickness of our jam until we’d ditched the Major. Danny told me to quit sweating — Molly seemed to be taking the thing in stride — and to just drop them both off at his pad, which I did. Though I played baseball with Danny for two more years, he never mentioned how he resolved the predicament and I never asked, though when I thought about it over the years, I surely wondered.
Now, basically three decades after the fact, I would find out from Molly herself, leaning on her mountain bike and squeezing out a tube of Gu.
“Of course I remember,” Molly said, when I mentioned the scandal at Mount Roubidoux. She washed down the Gu with a squirt from a squeeze bottle, then cleared up an intrigue that had worked me for decades.
As it happens, a few months before our enrollment in the RCS seminar, Molly’s folks had split and she and the Major weren’t faring so well. Following our narrow escape off Mount Roubidoux, when Molly returned home, there was a great rhubarb, of course, but she and the Major had little but each other, and they’d patched things up somehow. The Major had been a climber, and a good one, in his day, and that summer he and Molly went to the Valley and climbed for a month — with Danny joining them the last week.
Her tryst with Danny was a flash in the pan, but Danny and the Major sort of fell in together.
“Go figure,” I said. “Danny wasn’t at my 20th high school reunion, but somebody there said he’d made a fortune in computer software.”
“Yeah, with dad’s company,” said Molly. “They’ve got a branch in Hong Kong and Danny’s run that office for a decade now. Dad got a hip replacement a couple of years ago, and that’s slowed him down some, but about five years back, he and Danny hiked almost the whole length of China’s Great Wall. Took them nearly four months.”
Then she looked at me and said, “And what have you been up to for all these years.”
“Not too much,” I said. “Just trying to stay out of trouble.”
“That’s a lie,” she said, and threw her head back and laughed.
John Long, one of Yosemite’s original “Stonemasters,” is the author of over 30 books, including the best-selling How to Rock Climb series. This was his first column for Rock and Ice.