Sunday, April 24, 2011

Vantage: Halo

I love the music of climbing, its satisfying symphony of sounds: clicks and snaps and bings, iridescent silver and hot gold and cherry colored quick draws glinting in the sun as you clip them onto your harness. Metal against metal, metal against rock, the hiss of a rope flaked out, the stretch of fingers bending against stiff white medical tape. And then you turn and face the rock, and put your hands on it, feel its pleasant warmth or biting cold, you step off the ground and into the vertical world, and all the other sounds of the world fade away. Birds, crickets, sirens, chatter, car stereos, boys whistling (if you've ever climbed in South America you know what I mean)- all gone. Wind, heart beat, the tinny rattle of cams and draws, and your breath is all that's left. And nothing- really, nothing- sounds as good as the first click of rope snapping into place on the first bolt.

Now falling- falling has its own set of sounds- the frantic scrape of rubber soles against rock, loose gravel giving way beneath your fingers, and as you pop off the wall all those worldly sounds come roaring back, gaining in volume until you land with a bounce and a thud of knee cap or ankle against hard granite or limestone or quartz.  Once- only once- I heard the hard, painful, revolting, nauseating, unsettling, disorienting PING of an entire bolt yanked out of the wall, and the subsequent scream of the climber as he went swinging off into the sky. But that was years ago, and it was the result of user error.

Nick holding the bold that ripped out of the wall while he was leading an overhang. Leavenworth, Washingon
Alright, so- everything I just described? That's mostly the way I've heard other people describe it. Testaments of friends and climbing buddies and strangers at the crag. I've sat through dozens of obnoxious documentaries showcasing the sinewy, underfed mountaineer sitting in his mountain home with a tiny cup of espresso, waxing poetic with some European accent:  "Yah, I can not hear when I'm climbing, you know???? Eet eezz like...meditation....eet eez just me and the rock. I am su-preme-ly focused."

Bully for them. But things are a little different inside this blond, slightly over sized head. The sounds from earth do melt away, sure. I can't hear anything that's going on down there. I can't hear anything at all. Because? Because of a fear-coping mechanism I invented-on accident- when I was 17 and I started leading harder stuff.
Can you find me? On The Virgin Wall at Portreto Chico, Mexico, 2002
It began one sunny day in New Zealand, nine years ago. It just happened; I suddenly found myself repeating a bar- one, single, solitary bar- of a song, over and over again, like a record skipping or my Ipod stuck on replay, replay.

I used to climb with a head full of  little chattering gremlins, reminding me how precariously far up I was, how soon the next fall would be, how run-out the climb was. I began playing music in my head to silence those little voices, and it worked.  But it also drove me nuts. I forget what the first song was, but I know it lasted for months.

The best thing is- that clever brain of mine!- I only hear songs that hold some sort of punny relevance to climbing. Father and Son By Cat Stevens was popular for a spell in 2004. “Take your time, think a lot, think of everything you got.”  This line, over and over and over. To my credit, it was an overall positive message to have ringing between my ears when I was a few feet above the bolt and seemingly out of things to grab. Certainly it was more soothing than my previously popular chorus of “You’re going to fall and it’s going to really hurt! You’re going to fall and it’s going to really hurt! Here! You! Go!"

So on this particular day, this warm, sunny day in Vantage on a harmless, simple wall, I was treated to a stereo rendition of  Halo, by Beyonce. Just the chorus. How special. It went like this: I can see you halo! Halo! Halo! I can see your halo! Halo! Halo! And then, and anyone who is familiar with this song knows this, things really heat up: HALO! HALO! HALO! I can see  your HALO! HALO HALOOOO!

God, it really sucked.

But hey- it could have been worse, right?

I didn't understand how this tune held any connection with the sport until I slunk off into the sage to be alone,  finish the damn song in my head and get it out of my brain. Strangers who passed would have seen a short, sunburnt girl, balanced on a steep hill overlooking the valley, head resting on her knees, humming Beyonce like a disturbed mosquito. But check this out- the last verse: I swear I'd never fall again- but this don't even feel like falling- gravity can't begin- to pull me back to the ground again..." Crazy relevant, right?

All neurosis and mind game aside (man, I wish I could approach relationships like that, le sigh,) we were out there, and it was glorious. We were climbing our routes, eating our sandwiches, chatting it up with the tattooed climbing boys on the ropes next to us. Drinking some beers, some waters, watching John cruise up the bouldery start that we couldn't begin to figure out, taking deep breaths of dry air.

That's another thing I love about climbing:  the abundance of oxygen. There's just so much to be had. You climb from thick, rich air on the ground into the pure blue sky. Even if things go terribly wrong, you can still (generally) breathe. Which is different than certain other sports I can think of.

A few years of water up the nose, water down the throat, water in the ear drums, hydraulics, holes, disorienting depth and underwater caves taught me to really appreciate this one small thing. Breathing.

Deep breath. It was the first day of the outside season and we felt like little baby birds leaving the rainy winter gym, craning our necks and losing our feathers. We had decided on the drive out that this inaugural trip would be "kinky"- as in, full of kinks. And we were right. We didn't have nearly enough quick draws and had to creatively relay back and forth between bolts on each climb. We didn't bring a rope bag, or nearly enough cook wear, or salt, or anything to scrub dishes with. We fought about pots and pans and who would clean the routes. I didn't have enough lockers and had to do a mighty innovative job on the anchors, but I still deemed them quite safe.

We made a list of all the things we'd need to bring next time, as well as a self-congratulatory list of all the good things we did bring: pure Vermont maple syrup. The good beer. Daisy chains, webbing, black rubber climbing shoes, chalk, Patagonia Down Sweater Jackets With hood in Aqua, and the miraculous lululemon tank tops that really are Gods Gift to (straight) man.

The arching sky and warm desert air felt as big and dreamy as birthday balloons. Lower Sunshine Wall was as crowded as the South East expressway, and we kept seeing friends from the gym walking by, and dogs, and the dogs barked hello. Ahh, the casual camaraderie of climbing. Just like the sloppy, hyper camaraderie of drunk girls in the lady's room at a bar off Broadway, but without the barfing. I sat back, basking like a turtle, and watched Lisa tie into the sharp end.  Lisa, a few months into climbing and already leading outside. These next few months, hell- the next few years, at least- were feeling full of promise.

Remember those walls we built? Well baby, they are crumbling down. They didn't even put a fight! They didn't even make a sound.


Anonymous said...

Holy shit Melina tell me that's you in the kayak???


Melina said...

Ha, hey Teej yeah that's me....about the height of my career right there. Las Leonas falls in Chile. Never really did completely warm up to the sport...

Adriana Iris said...

Melina I am so impressed with you. First climbing scares me... but you look beautiful in all the images and so strong. TY for sharing... I am in awe.

Bryan McLellan said...

On a recent trip back home to the country I caught up with a friend from elementary school whom I had not seen in twenty years.

She had realized that the 'infinite' number of options available to her were easier to handle once she made the decision to spend some life closer to her parents. The possibilities were still infinite, but a smaller amount of infinite, she says.

One of the topics we've been writing about has been spring. I miss spring. Seattle doesn't have it, or fall. There is the long dreary winter, and then one day it is sunny and warm and it is summer. Both spring and fall are so wonderful and unique in the northeast, so I lament the lack of them in here. Spring, in particular, is fresh. The rains bring new life and herald the end of the cold snowy winter. You can taste spring in your breath and it is exciting.

SODO in Seattle is flat with a couple exceptions. A few are the bridges over the Argo train yard. As I ride my bicycle to or from work and cross these, I look out over the area. There are trucks and ships, scrap yards and factories, smokestacks and the noise of work. When I breathe in, here in particular, it is heavy. Not necessarily the pollution. It is like the weight of the city, of the worry and deadlines, comes in with every breath.

Right then, every day, I miss the forests of home.

Anonymous said...

so envious of your multitude of adventures! Keep writing!

Melina said...

@Bryan- I understand exactly what you mean about the 'weight' of the city....

@Adriana- such kind words! Thank yoU!

Kelle said...

This most is thrilling, and your adventures and the way you describe them are inspiring. You go girl!

Jessica said...

Melina: I love reading your accounts of adventure. It seems just yesterday your adventures were water and waterfall based, now it's air and rock. I love them, keep them coming!