Rock Climbing: Mt. Lemmon, Arizona
January 2002

When I saw the one-armed teenage kid on a bicycle I naturally thought of the movie Quick Change. When the hard luck bandits witness a back alley joust on bicycles with brooms, Randy Quaid's character solemnly intones "It's bad luck just seeing a thing like that."

I was going rock climbing again. I was scared, but excited. I didn't need bad omens. Not that I believed in them.

But there was the 5 year old kid in the coffeeshop wearing an oversized plastic Green Bay Packers helmet. "He gets like this in the post-season." his mother explained to one bystander. I could relate. I'm into helmets.

I met my guide Jeff and we set off for the day of climbing on Mt. Lemmon, just outside Tucson. We were headed halfway up, to Windy Point, where there are some 2-3 pitch routes that look out over the whole valley. The exposure seems greater than it actually is. It was almost exactly what I wanted. I would have preferred something longer than 3 pitches, but the approach would have been longer, so I opted for more time on the rock.

I had arrived in Tucson to find this delicious bouldering wall at the airport.
I almost broke out my climbing shoes, but an impending civil war between the
national guard and traffic cops made me more interested in being able to run away quickly.

There is over 25 miles of climbing on Mt. Lemmon. The rock is spectacular. It varies a bit, but is mostly solid and quite abrasive. Great for the combination of smearing and edging, termed "smedging". Trust your feet would become my mantra. This wasn't easy, because it was they who betrayed me. You just can't climb here without smedging. It's also my weakest skill.

It's the airy feeling. The feeling that you could go at anytime. Your foot is only in contact with the rock on the ball and toes. You drop your heels to maximize the pressure. Sometimes both feet are like this. Sometimes you only have one foot on the rock, and it's like this.

I ascended nearly 60 feet of a dihedral (an open book-like shape of rock faces at 90 degree angles) like this. No hands. No feet. Just smedging and the counter-pressure of my arms and weight. It was terrifying, and satisfying. It's like learning a magic trick by learning how to work magic, instead of learning a "trick".

My fear was in check. There, but not overly so. Jeff had me on 5.8s to start. I suppose he wanted to know if I was candid about that being my following limit. That I did OK here with a new technique suggests I could do better. I still don't think I'll ever follow 10s, but 9s look a lot better now.

Mind you, I couldn't make the roof move on one of the 8s. After the dihedral magic, I had to lieback a section to just under a roof. The move was right and up and over. I had to clean gear in the middle of this. The face was vertical and I had one hand in a side-cling with both feet in full smear (no edge). I couldn't hold it. But even this had a silver lining. I'm following. I can rest on the rope. I'm not a purist in climbing. I climb for fun and the unique experience, not points. I sometimes have to remind myself to cheat when it's most appropriate. Ultimately, it doesn't matter.

After a couple 8s and lunch we did a 7. Here it was. The fear was in full swing. I was nervous and shaky. I'd talk to myself. Why am I so frightened? The sound of my voice admitting the fear helped some. That cheesy line from Dune kept running through my mind: Fear is the mind-killer... At the time I was more concerned with my knees and face, should I come unstuck and slide down this sharp surface.

Even amidst this mental circus, I noticed I was climbing better. I was using the tips Jeff gave me and my technique was improved. Counterpressure wasn't a novelty in my climbing. I'd actually place the smedge more readily. Even though I was afraid, my body was working through it. And well.

I think I was more afraid because the climb was easier. I had no ego bailout about climbing hard while afraid. But this is precisely what I need. Not only to improve so that the fear is lessened, but to experience the fear and assimilate it.

The day was beautiful. At the base of the crags, in the shade, it was in the 50s. At the top the wind whips and it's quite chilly. On the rock you get the sun. Jeff made mention of the heat. I didn't have the heart to tell him that was my fear radiating in all directions.

Jeff had a couple specials for me. We ended with a half-pitch climb on a huge boulder at the very top of the cliff. The book route was 5.4, but we used a 7 move to start. I quickly got in trouble after that. All I had to do was step around a small corner, but I felt sketched. My Dune mantra morphed into the Yoda admonition about fear leading to anger and suffering. Luckily Jeff was there to point out the obvious.

As part of the approach for that scramble, we leapt over a chasm. Well, Jeff leapt over it. I followed, on belay. I knew it was easy when I saw him do it. Still, looking down gave me pause. The landing was sloping downward at about a 40 degree angle. My landing would have to stick. In other words, I'd have to trust my feet. I did. I felt almost whole.

What is the sound of one Dan climbing?

Jeff Fassett was my guide.