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Metro Pulse Going Up

A keyboard-softened writer finds rock climbing is just one simple decision after another.

By Zak Weisfeld

OCTOBER 26, 1998:  Sean has just pulled himself to the top of our first route, a 5.8 rated climb called Rocking Chair. I belay him down and he unties the rope from his harness. This was a pretty easy climb for Sean, who used to climb competitively. He went powerfully, if not gracefully, up the rock. And he never fell.

Now it's my turn. There are a lot of differences between Sean and me—the most obvious to anyone out at the Lilly Buttress this morning is that he is a strong, experienced climber; the others are completely unimportant. Nonetheless, and for the first time in years, I am going to climb.

As a kid I often climbed the jumbled volcanic rock of the Taos Gorge in New Mexico. My friends and I scrambled over boulders and up cliff faces in shorts and running shoes, clinging to the slick black rock that in the white sun days of July and August got hot enough to blister skin. We climbed without ropes, trusting to our strength and luck, our hormonal invulnerability, to keep us from crashing to the boulder strewn earth beneath us. For most of us it worked. But as I moved farther and farther away from my native rock and my adolescence, I climbed less and less, until finally I stopped completely. Until today. Today I needed to climb.

When Ishmael found himself ready to just start punching, he took to sea; when Thoreau was fed up with the suburban rat-race of 19th century Massachusetts, he took to the woods. For most millennial Americans the options have been substantially reduced. As our failures, failings, and frustrations mount, we generally head either to the therapist or the bar. I, as a rule, choose the latter. But today is different, today I've chosen the binary elegance of the rock. Climb or fall. Get to the top or not. No time limit, no competition—a simple, though not easy, task.

I was to meet Sean at the Oak Ridge Kroger which, as near as I could tell from my 7:30 a.m. Saturday reconnaissance, is a mecca for the early-rising and outwardly mobile. While I sat nursing the trailing edge of a margarita hangover, the parking lot bustled with activity. Minivans loaded with families, Toyotas topped with kayaks, and Dodge Rams towing gleaming bass boats pulled into the parking lot and disgorged their occupants into the giant store.

After a few minutes Sean arrived in a battered Isuzu Trooper and we headed for the Lilly Buttress and a day, or as much of a day as we could stand, on the rock. Neither of us are in bad shape, but nor have we been climbing, or training to climb, in a long time. And climbing is unforgiving. Unlike golf, or football, or almost any other physical activity, climbing demands, not requests, that you exert yourself. There is a very simple reason behind this—climbing is the only sport that takes place on the vertical plane. It seems like a simple idea, but in truth, it changes everything.

There is no true rest in climbing, no strolling over to the huddle, or settling back into the cart. When one is on the rock, there are only two options—climb, or fall. Standing around on a vertical face means keeping fingers wound around tiny bumps in the rock and toes perched on the edge of quarter-inch shelves, which takes nearly as much energy as actually going up. Every moment frozen on the face is wasted.

The drive to the Buttress took us northwest up Highway 62 towards the Cumberland Plateau. Just beyond the unfortunately named Wartburg, 62 becomes 27 and then we turned off onto Ridge Road. A narrow two-lane, Ridge Road follows the curving banks of Clear Creek before coming to the Lilly Bridge. On the other side of the bridge is a small gravel parking area, which is empty except for a green Forerunner. We will not be first on the rock this morning.

There have been climbers in East Tennessee for years and the sport is growing quickly, but it has never had the popularity here that it does in the West. For one thing, the South lacks the grand exposed faces of Yosemite or the stark, desert beauty of Joshua Tree. The other problem is that the South is humid, or greasy, as climbers say. Humidity makes everything about climbing harder—shoes don't stick, hands are slippery, and it's hard to rub sweat from your brow when you're clinging to the rock. Finally, all the water means that the rocks are far more likely to have things living in them and growing on them than the sunbleached rocks of the Western deserts.

What East Tennessee does have is a lot of rock. From the Lilly Buttress and the Obed River system on the Cumberland Plateau to the Tennessee Wall and Sunset Rock of Chattanooga and even the Cherokee Bluffs right here in Knoxville, the area is rich in climbing sites—most of them uncrowded (something that can't be said of the West) and some of them still unclimbed.

Out of the car, I breathe in the dry smell of the forest still waiting for rain. It's early but the heat is already welling up off the blacktop and through the soles of my shoes. The trail to the rock is just across the road and is as well-kept as a suburban backyard. Stone steps lead into the cool shadows of rhododendron bushes and tall pines. A few hundred feet up the trail, the rock looms out of the mulchy hillside, a long, gray, sandstone wall curving around like the battlement of some prehistoric fortress. This is the Lilly Buttress.

The trail meets the rock towards the south end of the crag where it rises highest out of hillside, towering 80 feet into the tree obscured sky. At this lower section, no climbs are set and there are few of the telltale white handprints that indicate climbers have gone up these faces. Another 100 feet up the trail, though, and the hard sandstone becomes a maze of routes, each marked out by bolts drilled into the rock and the white splotches of climbing chalk.

For Sean and me this means we've found our recreation for the day; for others these kind of permanent route settings are the bane of climbing.

There are at least two major styles of outdoor climbing—traditional, or trad, and sport climbing. In trad, the lead climber goes up a face and every six feet or so places a piece of protection—a hex nut, a cam, or some other tiny, angular metal device—into a crack in the rock and then clips the rope to it by means of carabiner. The idea being that when the climber falls he will only drop the few feet to the piece of protection he last set, and it will hold.

The problem with trad climbing is that it's hard. A climber has to carry more gear, be more skilled (not only hold himself onto the rock but also manage to select the right piece of gear and attach it, all without falling) and take more risks. It is climbing for purists and, unlike sport climbing, it leaves no permanent mark on the rock.

But this is, after all, America and there's a lot to be said for the convenience of a bolted route, which is what we were preparing to climb. In sport climbing, dedicated climbers go out and set their climbs permanently by drilling metal anchors right into the rock at regular intervals. The advantages are obvious. In sport climbing the lead climber only has to carry carabiners to clip directly to the bolts. The problems are just as obvious—the crystalline face of the rock now looks like a teenager ready for a second round of orthodonture.

For all their laid-back style and easy camaraderie, climbers take these conflicts seriously—and the differences between the traditionalists and the sport climbers is a major one in the climbing community. It also reveals what is so remarkable about climbing. It is one of those rare sports whose code of ethics is determined, not by some external governing body, but by climbers themselves. In general, the rule on routes is that whoever climbs them first (the greatest achievement in climbing is the first ascent) gets to decide whether they'll be trad or sport, and, for the most part, the first climber's decision is respected.

At the moment, however, the grander conflicts in the rock climbing world are the least of my worries. My immediate concern is tying a good, solid figure-eight knot in the rope that connects my harness to the belay plate on Sean's harness. It is not a complicated knot but it is an important one—the most important one. And it is a pleasure to have my concentration focused on such a concrete task, running the smooth nylon rope over and around itself, drawing it tight, a rune of safety against injury and death.

I reach behind me and dip my already sweating hands into the chalk bag. The white powder dries them and I step up to the rock. Edging my foot onto a small lip at the base of the cliff, I reach up and grab the first hold. Near the bottom, the holds are big and obvious and I climb the first 10 feet or so with no problem. Above 10 feet the rock bulges out making it harder to see where to put my hands, and the footholds seem to be pushing me off balance. I pause, trying to find out where to move.

From the ground Sean guides me, pointing out the holds. Already, after only a few minutes on the rock, the muscles in my wrists are swell-ing, starting to tire. It is time to move.

A lot of the challenge of climbing hinges on that terrible gulf between decision and action. And it is the mark of the really great climbers that this gulf is erased. For me it looms large. First, I have to wrestle with the decision of where to put my hand or foot, then I have to actually do it, and commit to it wholly. But it is hard to give up the position I hold on the rock, even if it is shaky and getting worse. The greatest risk of falling is in the transition from one hold to the next, but the alternative is to stand frozen and fall anyway.

After a vigorous internal argument, and some external mumbling, I do it. I stretch out onto my toes and reach for the hold that is up to my left, then struggle to get my feet under me. I fail, and then I fall, and I learn that I did indeed tie my figure-eight correctly.

After hanging from the rope for a minute, I swing back into the rock just a few feet below where I fell. My shin is bleeding from banging it against the sharp edge of a foothold, and the skin on my keyboard-softened hands is shredded. Settling in, I reach back into the dry chalk, take a breath, and start to climb.

Sean is talking to me, coaching me. "Reach up high right, there's a little shelf." "Get your right foot on that edge." His advice is good, but I have a lot of problems. I don't climb with my feet enough, I'm not using my big muscle groups, I'm off balance. But at this point these are my only worries. I'm not at all concerned about my inability to keep a relationship going, the unfinished projects at work, or my unfulfilled dreams of novels and screenplays. For 10 perfect minutes, I am completely inside my body, struggling against the weakness of tendon, the softness of flesh, the hardness of rock, struggling to finish, to reach the top.

Struggling not to fall.

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