Alone on the Wall by Alex Honnold, excerpt from Chapter Three: Fear and Loving in Las Vegas
Stacey was in Dallas, but her nursing contract had been terminated early, so she was planning to move to Los Angeles. We hadn’t actually broken up, but I suspected she was getting into this other dude in Dallas. In Yosemite, I’d been hoping to climb something rad, but the weather was shitty, raining every day, everything wet. Meanwhile, I knew the weather was perfect in Las Vegas. So I thought I could try my luck at Red Rocks, the great massif of sandstone cliffs just a few miles west of the city.
Stacey and I had made vague plans to meet in Tucson, as she drove from Dallas to L.A. So for me, heading down to Vegas was a kind of move toward our rendezvous in Tucson and, I hoped, toward saving our relationship.
Because of the weather, I hadn’t been able to climb anything super-exciting in the Valley, so I’d done nothing but boulder. And if you boulder too much, the skin on your fingers gets raw and tender – worthless for sustained climbing. So I was in an angst-driven mood anyway, on top of the angst about Stacey.
I grew up reading climbing stories by Mark Twight, aka Doctor Doom. He was famous for dwelling on pain and heartbreak and existential suffering as the spurs that drove him to tackle more and more out-there routes. It’s not that he was suicidal – in fact, he called climbing “a tool to forestall suicide.” A whole generation of young climbers, myself included, was inspired by the essays in his collection, Kiss or Kill: Confessions of a Serial Climber. (If I reread it today, I suspect I’d see the affectation behind the carefully constructed persona of Doctor Doom.) But Twight also wrote Extreme Alpinism, the manifesto that pretty much defined the new style of light, fast, go-for-broke ascents.
Still, there’s a rich vein in mountaineering literature of climbers using dark thoughts and stormy moods to precipitate cutting-edge climbs, especially solos. Angst as a motivator. I think an old issue of Climbing magazine ran a long piece detailing how romantic breakups had prompted rad solo climbs. Nerve-racking tales about emotionally wrecked men risking it all in an effort to sort out their feelings.
It’s not necessarily suicidal. It’s about a guy suddenly losing the love of his life, caring a little less about danger, and so finally doing something that he’s always kept tucked in the back of his mind.
I’ve never felt suicidal myself. But trying to save my relationship with Stacey that April was stressing me out. I was definitely in a dark spell in my life.
Anyway, at first I envisioned a quick stop at Red Rocks for some mellow soloing in dry, warm conditions, then on to Tucson for the mission that was the real point of my trip. But I was also thinking about a great classic line, the Original Route on Rainbow Wall. In fact, it’s been called the finest of all the thousands of routes at Red Rocks. At the head of Juniper Canyon, the Original Route is fourteen pitches of sustained climbing up this massive, concave, amphitheaterlike face, lots of it on tiny holds, up to 5.12b in difficulty. And the crux comes high, on the tenth pitch.
The route was first climbed in 1973 with a fair amount of aid, and rated at 5.9 A2. (Traditional aid grades in the YDS system range from A0—easiest—to A5.) The first free ascent came in 1997 by Leo Henson and Dan McQuade. I’d onsighted the route three or four years before with Josh McCoy, but that was my only previous trip up the route, and I certainly didn’t have the moves dialed.
On the way to Vegas, I called up all the friends I could think of to ask if any of them wanted to do the Rainbow Wall. Nada. They were all busy with something or other. In my angst-driven mood, I made a snap decision: Fuck it, I’ll do it anyway.
All the way on the road from Yosemite across Nevada, I was preoccupied with thoughts about Stacey. But ever since I’d first seen the route, even before I climbed it, Rainbow Wall had been embedded in my consciousness. I’d dreamed for years about free soloing the Original Route.
So, on April 28, I found myself at the Pine Creek parking lot, the wall looming above me. My mind was jangling with a dozen interwoven streams of thought. The wind was blowing at close to gale force, and while that didn’t help my confidence, a rational part of my mind was grateful that my skin would stay dry and cool on the wall. Then, with perfect timing, Stacey called me on my cell phone. We had a very pleasant, if brief conversation. She tentatively reconfirmed our plan to meet in Tucson. Suddenly the desert morning seemed rosier, and I almost thought I could see a rainbow.
Even at the time, I knew that it probably wasn’t healthy to feel such euphoria over a girl. But I embraced the mood and harnessed it to my purpose, starting my hiking with determination and glee. Alone in the canyon, I listened to the various bird calls and the sound of water babbling through the boulder-strewn wash. Suddenly all those little things seemed so much more meaningful, and I was overcome with gratitude that I could be having such a great time in such a beautiful place.
I suppose I should have realized that I was becoming emotionally unhinged. But I wanted to maintain my elation as long as I could, maybe even to the top of the route. I focused on how exciting the climbing would be, how much I craved the challenge, how beautiful the whole region was. Behind all that sensory delight floated the real excitement, which was that maybe, just maybe, Stacey did actually care for me, and we might be able to make things work. My mind was layered like an onion, though I suppose at the core lay the deep sadness that things might be ending.
But I made it all the way to the base of the wall in my semi-blissful state, and once there my mind turned practical. Finally I could stop trying to control my mood and focus solely on the climbing. I knew that this would be where I really found peace, in the intricacies of 11+ stem corners and 12a liebacking. As usual, it took me a few pitches to find my groove, but once I got moving I really did feel peaceful. I flowed up pitch after pitch of perfect corners. The amazing flat edges that appeared from time to time were a delight to use, and I found my position on the cliff stunning.
Free soloing this route after only one previous roped ascent of it — and that several years earlier — amounted to the polar opposite of the kind of superpreparation I had applied to Moonlight Buttress a little more than a year before. In some sense, I had no idea what I was doing up there on Rainbow Wall. Some people might call this crazy. I prefer to think of it as badass. It definitely amped up the adventure. This time, it felt like I was onsighting again — only without a rope. I remembered the odd move here and there, but most of it felt like I was discovering the sequences for the first time. There’s no question, though, that my impulsive push on Rainbow Wall had everything to do with what was going on with Stacey.
About halfway up the route, there’s a stretch of easy pitches, ranging from 5.4 to 5.8, that wanders up and to the right through ramps to a cozy perch on Over the Rainbow Ledge. Here, my mind turned back to “real” life, with all the angst I had carried with me from the Valley, but fortunately, that “down” interlude was fleeting. Soon enough, I was facing the crux tenth pitch.
I was about 750 feet off the ground. I was palming and stem- ming up this corner on really small ripples in the sandstone. All of a sudden, I realized what the crux required. You’d have to get your feet as high as you could, then jump to grab a jug. A true “dyno” move, but not such a big deal if you were roped and had placed some solid pro nearby. Maybe that’s why I didn’t remember it from my previous ascent. But now I got there, looked at the jug out of reach, imagined jumping for it, and said to myself, Hell, no!
I could still have downclimbed to Over the Rainbow Ledge, traversed right, and finished the wall by the indirect Swainbow variation, which is only 5.10. But in the mood I was in, I wanted to finish what I’d set out to do. Four or five times I climbed up those ripples, surveyed the situation, and climbed back down. It was simply out of the question to jump for the jug. If you don’t catch the hold, you’re off and down . . . and dead.
Slowly an alternative dawned on me. Just in reach from the ripples was a tiny divot, a natural hole in the stone caused by a black iron-oxide intrusion. I could sink only about a third of the first digit of my left index finger into the divot, then stack my middle finger and my thumb on top of it. It would be the ultimate crimp, and I’m sure the divot had never been used before. Finally, I committed my whole weight to the jammed tip of my finger, smeared an opposing foot against the corner, and pulled. My finger in the divot held, and I grabbed the jug with my other hand. Strangely, instead of fear, I felt complete serenity as I made the move.
The next pitch was a 5.12 lieback. I thought it would be a lot easier than the pitch before, but it was pretty gnarly in its own right. Wait, I thought, this shouldn’t be so hard. And now I had no option of downclimbing, because there was no way I would ever reverse that crimp on the divot. But I kept it together and finished the lieback.
The last two pitches flew by in a blur. I finally felt completely warmed up and climbed with ease. But as soon as I topped out on the summit, the driving wind nearly knocked me over. On the wall, I’d been protected from the gusts, but here I was fully exposed to the brunt of the gale. When you’re free soloing, of course, rappelling the route isn’t an option, since you don’t have a rope. Now I cowered in a little hole and changed out of my rock shoes into approach shoes that I’d carried in a small backpack, along with a little food and water.
The descents from Moonlight Buttress and Half Dome had been pretty routine, down trails that scores of hikers trod every day, and it wasn’t a strain to go down barefoot. The descent from Rainbow Wall, on the other hand, was heinous. It’s a series of technical scrambles on slick sandstone slabs, all the way back to the limestone mountains west of Red Rocks, to gain the upper drainage of Oak Creek Canyon. Then all the way down Oak Creek as you circle the peak of which Rainbow Wall is the northeast face. The whole descent is a bit of a bear, really heavy on the scrambling.
Then, hiking the flat desert back to my van, I felt like I was on a death march — no food or water. Just endless walking.
And now, in an instant, the sense of peace that had carried me up the climb vanished. Away from the tranquillity of the wall, my psyche started to fray. I was exultant at having soloed the wall but suddenly much less optimistic about my “real” life. As I thrashed my way down, I wondered if I really would be able to salvage my relationship with Stacey, and whether or not it was even worth the effort. As the canyon drew out in front of me and the afternoon heat bore down harder on me, the world seemed so much less beautiful than it had on the hike in. By the time I’d reached the flat desert and started circling back toward my van, I was much less pleased with my performance and fairly sure I would soon be single. My mind sank as low as it had gone high, and I seemed powerless to keep it under control. The whole experience had left me a little raw. The constant howl of wind, the crushing heat of the sun, hunger, thirst, mental fatigue — they all left me feeling vulnerable.
As soon as I reached the van, my first thought was to check my phone to see if Stacey had called. I think we’d made some vague agreement to chat later. I hoped she had left a message. But I knew that she hadn’t. Unsurprisingly, no call, which I took to mean that Stacey just wasn’t very psyched about “us.”
The sandwiches I made helped ease my disappointment. I planned on soloing another route in the afternoon, just so I could finish all my business at Red Rocks in one day and keep on driving toward my real goal — Tucson.
Excerpted from Alone on the Wall by Alex Honnold with David Roberts. Copyright (c) 2016 by Alex Honnold and David Roberts. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.