According to Susan Schwartz in “Into the Unknown,” her biography of Hans Kraus, it was Kraus who persuaded Jim McCarthy (my first climbing hero) not to become a climbing bum, but instead to go to law school. McCarthy went on to become a successful New York litigator and President of the American Alpine Club. Schwartz writes about this episode as another of Kraus’ many fine achievements. But, when I read about it, I wasn’t so sure he gave Jim the right advice.
Like McCarthy, I climbed at the Gunks in the 60s. Unlike him, I wasn’t very good at all. While he was putting in new 5.10s, I was falling off Moonlight; it’s a 5.6, thank you. Also like McCarthy, I went to law school. I did a lot of litigation, married Lois (the best bear), own the house in the burbs and three (old) cars, and raised two terrific young women, Valerie and Karen. Climbing got lost along the way, returning to my life only in the summer of 2006 (see “Return to Easy O” under December on this blog). But I never quite shook an idea that had snuck into my head at some point between 1965 and 1970: it would be cool to be a climbing bum.
In the late 70s (before kids) Lois and I talked about taking a year off from jobs and driving down the Pan American Highway. We got the idea from an old article in the American Alpine Journal written, if memory serves, by Yvon Chouinard and entitled “The First Annual Fun Hog Expedition to Patagonia.” Chouinard and three other climbers (I think Tom Frost may have been one) loaded up a Red VW Micro Bus (was there any other possible vehicle in the 60s?) with all their “play” gear and drove from California to the tip of South America, “hogging as much fun as possible” along the way. Once at the tip, they spent a month playing cards in a Patagonian ice cave waiting for a break in the weather. When it came, they ran up some jutting tooth of shear rock in a couple of days, packed up their stuff and drove home, hogging still more fun. Lois and I were never up to climbing one of those rock fangs in Patagonia, but the idea of skiing, swimming, biking, climbing and sightseeing all the way down and back appealed to us greatly. We even bought a big, brown Chevy van and built a bed and closets into it in anticipation of the trip. We called her “Sweet Rotunda” after a Song of that name by Tom Rush (“Sweet Rotunda, you haul your ashes, Babe, and I’ll haul mine”).
But there never seemed to be a good time to quit our jobs. The trip was postponed and finally abandoned. Rotunda sat in our suburban car port decaying from disuse. We finally had to give her to a fellow who did some work on our house in return for his hauling her away. I don’t think he ever did get her running.
It seems, however, that my desire to be a climbing bum, or at least to travel around in a van and go climbing, didn’t die with Rotunda. Now that I have retired, the little monster has poked his head up again. And, why not? Karen and Valerie are on their own, Lois is supportive (but her job prevents her coming), and I have time. I even have a van, or at least a mini-van. Her name is Esmeralda (“Ezzie” to her friends) and she is 12 years old. She took us on family vacations. Each of my daughters learned to drive in her, and each used her for transportation in high school. When they went to college, I converted her into the tow vehicle for my race car. Now she is about to begin yet another new life.
I think it was Richard, a very experienced Gunks hard man, who first suggested climbing at Red Rock. He said that, although the rock is sandstone, the climbing is in some ways similar to the Gunks, but with much longer moderate routes. My friends Jean and Annie also spoke of climbing there and seemed to have liked it. In any event, as the weather in the Northeast got cold and snowy, I began to think of making a trip to some warmer place. (I also thought about doing some ice climbing, but that's another story.) I investigated Red Rock and learned that the temperatures, while not really warm, appear quite climbable in February. There are a lot of multi-pitch trad routes in the 5.6 to 5.8 range. I’ve worked my way up to leading 5.7 at Seneca and the Gunks, so there should be stuff I can do. I was sold!
Now, I suppose that to be a real climbing bum, I should just throw gear and some clothes into a pack (it would have to be an old-style external frame deal; I don’t have one of the new, spiffy ones I see at the Gunks these days), walk out to the D.C. Beltway (I-495) and stick out my thumb. I did hitch to Yosemite back in the day. But I am not ready to be that authentic. So instead, I am going to build a small bed into Esmeralda and outfit her with a couple of sleeping bags, my old propane stove, some cooking gear purloined from the kitchen, and other odds and ends. Starting about February 10th, I’ll head for Las Vegas and the Red Rock Canyons, planning to climb there from February 16th through March 2nd.
I’ve acquired a couple of guidebooks, including the apparently encyclopedic new Handren guide. I’ve picked out some routes that look good. They get sun most of the day so they should be reasonably warm, are multi-pitch and look to be easy enough for me to handle.
My regular climbing partners all have to work for a living (bummer for them), so I will be going alone. I’ve read that Red Rocks can be a tough place to meet partners on the spur of the moment. So, I’ve been working the internet to find some folks to climb with. If you asked me what is the biggest difference between climbing in the 60s and climbing now, I would say the internet as a means of finding climbers. It is wonderful. Since starting up climbing again, I’ve connected through the internet with at least ten climbing partners and in each instance the experience has been excellent. Three folks have already agreed to climb with me at Red Rocks, and another very kind climber has offered to let me stay for a bit at his house.
Ezzie and I are also going to camp for some of the time at 13 mile campground. We’ve been warned it is very windy, so we’ll tie everything down. My first climb, if all goes well, will be Johnny Vegas on February 16th. Everything I read abut it makes it sound like an ideal place to start: short approach, sun, moderate, fun climbing.
On re-reading the last couple of paragraphs, it occurs to me that there is more planning going on here than is suitable for a real climbing bum. But hey. Cut me a little slack. I’ve been a lawyer for 35 years; planning is the name of the game in litigation. Give me a little time to ease into this bumming thing.
I have arranged to borrow a lap top with a wireless connection from my daughter Valerie. Using it, my digital camera and the wireless connection I hear is free at Desert Rock Sports, I hope to be able to post reports and pictures of my trip to this blog. Look for them starting the second week of February.