Hindsight is Always 10a
A Trip report with Holly Yu Tung Chen
Holly Yu Tung Chen 〡 Sept 1st, 2022
The local climbers always had their sayings. Moab folks would say, "when the license plate turns green, you know it's fall." Montana climbers boasted about how happy they were to be out of the limelight; no one knew about their hidden little gem of a crag. Rifle climbers said, "the better you are at climbing, the more fun you will have." To that, I am in vehement disagreement. I was having just as much fun climbing on a 5.10a four years ago as I am on any of the harder Rifle Classics.
I stepped out of the car at the parking lot of the Ruckman Cave in Rifle Mountain Park; before I could switch the engine off, a song came on, Mary Jane's Last Dance—I was back, underneath the smooth granite dome of Little Baldy in the western Sierras. It was 2018, and I was twenty pitches into my new hobby of climbing silent, inanimate rock formations. Everything I wore was thrifted, while every piece of climbing gear I owned was brand new. The contrast of ragged cotton t-shirts next to shiny new Camelots was a perfect picture of the climbing world, a collision of legends and lore mixed with modernity.
Biking to the crag
The base of "Welcome to Little Baldy"
"Take the path of least resistance," my climbing partner Nick said in my memory. "Path of least resistance, my ass," I would scream from my prone position on the forest floor twenty minutes later. Nick, one switchback ahead, could only shrug. The faint climber's trail was overgrown and slippery. The cams on my harness caught at the low-hanging branches and yanked me back down to the ground. My breakfast was cold, left-over pizza from the night before, and it wasn't sitting great. We were behind schedule from the start. The estimated 15 minutes to the base took us three-quarters of an hour. Bush-wacking, falling, cursing, and my old Nalgene unclipped itself from my harness and smashed open on a boulder 20ft down the hill. Our water supply was now less than a liter. Nick had neglected to fill up his.
A buddy picture at the base. Nick Eberle (left), Holly Chen (right).
A friend had texted us the night before. Gungho and drunk of our confidence, we thought it would be an easy afternoon romp up the climb. It was only four pitches, and the hardest pitch was 5.10a. We'd be hiking to our backcountry campsite at Emerald Lake by 4 pm. Gear check, tied in, "on belay," and off we went. The sun still evaded us, but I could see it touch the wall on the pitches above. The crack system proved to be easy for Nick. He climbed, humming Bob Marley as he went. I joined him at the bolted anchors on the first pitch. "Last chance to bail," I joked, pointing at the steel hangers.
The first pitch sang like a song.
Clouds racked up and billowed across the sky, throwing us in and out of shade. I ignored how badly my hands were sweating when the clouds did part. The Nalgene hung off my harness, and I thought about the cooler filled with ice back in the car. We only had 0.3 liters of water left. The crack widened, and the wall kicked back. Nick took the lead and was climbing out of sight. I leaned back, trying to keep visual contact. I couldn't, and he disappeared, huffing and grunting. The sun was fully on us now in the upper sections of the climb. My hands sweated profusely, and my throat was parched, but I didn't allow myself to drink what was left of the water for the summit and hopefully quick descent.
When I joined Nick at the base of the final pitch, he was laughing, but his skin was pale. "That pitch got some wide hands," he said, looking at my tiny ones. "How did you do?" "I fell," I replied and showed him my bloody knuckles. Nick shuddered. "I almost got my knee stuck. Imagine having to call for rescue because you're stuck in a crack," he laughed to hide his anxiety. The rock's polished surface is interrupted only by the parallel half-finger crack, emerging from an even smaller slit to our left. Our anchor was the standard three pieces, a green, a purple, and green again. The stems and triggers stuck out, saluting us. We swapped gears, and Nick took the tiniest of tiny sips from our nearly depleted water supply. He grimaced with nervous apprehension, chalked up, clipped a Jesus piece to the shelf of the anchor, and went.
The crack was thin and lined with moss. Our anchor location meant Nick climbed directly above me. I could hear him grunting. Nick found a solid stance and began to clean mossy debris from the crack above his head for placement. Moss, dirt, and pebbles rained down on me. I turned my face down and leaned towards the wall; the debris bounced harmlessly off my helmet. Does my helmet have side-impact protection? The thought struck me suddenly. Nick's foot blew on the polished granite. He toppled sideways and let out a yell. I looked up to see him claw desperately at the finger crack before he started to fall. He hurtled straight towards me, our bodies slammed together, and I felt my head crack against the wall. I lost footing on the thin ledge, he fell past me and yanked me upwards into the anchor, The rope was slipping fast through my fingers. Nick was still falling. My gloveless hand clenched hard, and a burning sensation tore through my palm. Nick stopped, and I heard the dull thud as his plastic helmet shell crashed into the rock. I caught him 20ft below me. We both hung there, flailing in the wind. "Are you okay," I whispered. Would I hear a reply? Silence for a minute. The rock below me streaked with blood from Nick's hands and arms. "I'm fine. Nothing is broken, I think." It took a quarter of an hour to get Nick back up to the belay, where he pulled me into a hug so tight my eyes almost popped. "I'm sorry about your hands," he said. "You're welcome."
Maybe we were off-route. The finger crack did not feel 5.10a. That night, we hiked to our backcountry campsite six miles in by headlamp. I contemplated quitting climbing altogether. I didn't quit. I traded in my trad-rack for sixteen quickdraws and moved to Colorado. Nick moved up the California coast, where he found a job as a botanist. I tied in to warm up on Choss Family, a Rifle classic, a full letter grade and half harder than 5.10a. We'd compare our recent climbs when Nick and I caught up over the phone. No matter the grade or style, we'd ask each other the same question. "Was it harder than 5.10a?" The other would laugh and say, "in hindsight, I think it was."
"Contemplating quitting climbing"
Holly grew up in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Now she lives in Denver, where she reports, writes, and routesets. Beyond the Bellwether Journal, her writing has been published by Alpinist Magazine, Climbing Magazine, Climbing Business Journal, Sharp End Publishing, and more. Holly’s motto has always been: “keep it interesting.”