Bite Your Tongue
My alarm woke me up at 5:45 in the morning. As I lay in my stiff-mattressed bed, I took a moment to let my eyes adjust and let my thoughts drift to the schedule ahead. I had 15 minutes to shake the sleep off, do a quick personal groom, and gently wake one of the two climbing partners bunking with me before heading out of the room and across the property to the building that houses the community kitchen.
It was quite early in the morning. The night attendant had a few pots of water boiling for coffee on the gas burners. There was only one other pair of climbers at breakfast, a Canadian couple. I made my way to the refrigerator, and extracted a plastic bag from the multitude of other plastic bags and food containers crowded into the fridge from other climbers staying at La Posada. I turned on a couple of the many available stove-top burners provided by La Posada and began cooking up ingredients. Fresh bacon and eggs, avocados, and quesadillas made with flour tortillas and delicious Queso Oaxaca. Perfect fuel for 15 pitches of vertical limestone on a wall known as The Scrutinizer.
I felt a tap on my shoulder. No doubt it was my climbing partner for the day, Matt, coming to sit down for a quick breakfast so we could walk to the base of the climb at first light and get cranking. Matt had bad news. He'd done something to his lower back and woke up with pain that was preventing him from doing the climb. Not to worry though. He'd woken up Michael (our other bunk mate) and offered him up as climbing partner for the day instead. No worries, we sat down to breakfast and 15 minutes later, we were out the door headed to the crag.
Michael had rented a car for the week so we took advantage and drove up the grueling, fully paved, 8 minute walk (3 minute car ride) to the base of The Scrutinizer. On the way, we passed 3 other local friends on their way to do Space Boys which was just to the right of our route. We parked and walked to the trunk and began unpacking gear. My first instinct was to grab my pack and walk the 100 feet or so that were left to the start of our proposed line and get ready. Michael however, was already putting on his harness and racking quickdraws right there by trunk of the car. In the twilight, there was just enough light to see by that we didn't need headlamps but at 5 minutes to 7, climbable daylight was fast approaching. Still, besides the other trio who had now reached the base of Space Boys, there was no one else around and rather than leave a bunch of gear at the base of the climb, I opted to get ready at the car as well so we could pack the extras back in the trunk.
At what I'm sure was 7 a.m. on the dot, we were both fully racked up, rope in hand and ready to go. As we stepped away from the car, a pair of women were but a few steps ahead of us heading in the same direction. We fell in step, Michael behind them, me behind Michael, and we walked towards the route. The ladies stopped right in front of our climb and dropped their gear. They exchanged a few words among themselves which I could not hear but I did hear Michael ask which route they were planning to do. I definitely heard the reply, Yankee Clipper.
This posed an obvious problem of "who was there first" but, in my opinion, wasn't that hard to figure out. Yes, they had reached the base of the route first and their gear was at the foot of the route, but the pair was not ready to climb. They had neither harnesses on, gear racked, or rope flaked. Michael and I were 100% ready to go on the other hand. In the past issues like these have been resolved by determining each party's plans and which party will likely be faster so as to decide who has the right of way. Our lady friends were having none of that. One of them sternly spoke up that they had reached the route first and therefore had right of way and furthermore, had no desire to climb underneath another party. Now, I should say that this could be a valid concern at a place like Potrero where rock fall from the pitches above is no joke, so I could see her point to an extent. So I interjected and asked if they had plans to link pitches on the route to gauge the speed at which they'd be climbing and assess whether it was worth it to wait. After all, they looked experienced so if they moved at a good pace and didn't dislodge any rocks on us, we didn't mind climbing under them. The reply I received was as stern as her partner's. They were going to move at their own pace and did not want to have any sort of pressure from other parties. On top of that, one of them apologized that we had not reached the climb first and that they had in fact beat us to the rock.
At that moment I was pretty furious about the whole exchange and the seemingly unwilling attitude to work something out. There were all sorts of things I wanted to do that weren't very nice, one of them being the act of just tying in while they were busy talking and getting ready and going ahead with the first pitch anyway. That was probably the nicest of the mean things I was coming up with at the moment. I detected a level of incredulity in Michael's facial expressions but beyond that, I couldn't really tell what else could be going through his mind. Being the nice guy I know Michael to be, I didn't want to put him in an uncomfortable position so I held back from jumping on the rock. I tried to hold back the contempt in my voice and asked Michael to wait for a few minutes to see how fast they'd move and maybe we'd get in line behind them.
I have to admit that it was getting really hard to contain my irritation while I waited there watching them get ready, conversing, and trying their best to pretend like we weren't there waiting and ready to go right beside them. I also know that I have a temper when I feel like people are being unreasonable jerks and I also know it takes a lot of self control to not act impulsively when I feel like that so I was looking for anything that could help me defuse the internal volcano within. After a few minutes more, one of them finally started up the first pitch, carefully picking her way up the greyish-white limestone streak. They had not taken the time to flake their rope and within a few bolts, the belayer was having to constantly stoop down to shake coiled bunches loose in order to feed out slack to her climber. Good, I thought. That's what you get! And then I could feel those bad thoughts rising up again and I thought, I'd quickly better do something nice before I do something mean. I was so pissed at that moment for waking up at 5:45, eating a quick breakfast and getting out there at first light only to get snaked on a technicality. I could feel the bad intentions building so I did the only nice thing that occurred to me at the moment and I walked up to the belayer, reached down, and flaked her entire rope for her so she wouldn't have to stoop, or risk short roping her slow-moving friend during her lead. Then, I picked up our rope and walked over to Michael, who unbeknownst to me, was almost as equally annoyed but had left to talk to our other friends who were getting ready for Space Boys.
After a brief discussion, we agreed to climb the 9 pitch route called Black Cat Bone. By this time it was full daylight out and in the short time it took us to make a decision, Yankee clipper had two parties lined up willing to wait and climb behind our surly friends. I heard one of them call down to the other, "really, after all that shit talking?", presumably referring to our decision to abandon Yankee Clipper in favor of another route. Another party was possibly interested in Space Boys and so we thought we'd better get on something before we had to wait in line for any of the popular multipitches on The Scrutinizer.
I don't really care about who was right or wrong, who was actually there first or who had the right of way. What really stands out for me about that morning were 2 things: how rare it is for me to encounter difficult attitudes in climbing, and the progress I've made in my ability to not behave impulsively in disagreeable situations. I've had so few interactions like this one in climbing that a discourteous attitude really takes me by surprise and leaves quite a lasting impression. So much so that it did take a while for me stop revisiting the encounter in my head. I had to focus to stop it from spoiling our backup climb. Though I usually try to see the other person's side, I had quite a bit of difficulty with this one because I feel like there wasn't even a bit of effort on their part to consider ours. Not only were they not nice, but I got the sense that they felt we were jerks for even suggesting that we might have the right of way.
In the end, my experience on Black Cat Bone with my buddy Michael redeemed the morning's encounter. I watched amazed as my friend Michael on-sighted a very technical 10c crux pitch. We crushed the route in just a few hours, summitted at circa 1000 ft and had so much fun at Michael's expense as he grabbed every single thorny plant on the climb, including sitting next to one on the summit. Each time Michael would cry out "OUCH, these plants are inhospitable!" and that became a regular SW/AG saying for the rest of the trip. On our rappel, we happily crowded an anchor with the same Canadians from breakfast and had a pleasant exchange dangling from ropes some 700 feet in the air. On our final rap, out of nowhere just resting on the ledge, I had a very heartfelt conversation with Michael about change and appreciation for the important relationships in our lives and I thought, how fortunate I was to have friends so close we can converse about serious subjects in harnesses 100 feet above perfectly solid ground in the middle of the Mexican desert. With a day like that, it wasn't hard to let go of the morning's unpleasantness and it was much easier for me look back on that exchange and feel good about keeping control of my emotions. In this way, I don't have to look back on the memory with regret for any petty actions. Instead, I now have a memory of discipline in personal growth and of connection with friends that make a difference in my life.