Thursday, May 8, 2014

Technocamping With A Manhattanite

Annunaki, 5.11+, Optimator Wall, photo by Braden Gunem
“So what’s the showering situation like out there?” my brother asked.

            Clint was visiting from New York City and we were headed towards Indian Creek, his first time to the red rock desert of Utah. I informed him he wouldn’t be showering for a few days.

            “I’ve never gone three days without showering,” Clint replied. “It will be a new record.”

            I’m relieved my brother is okay with the lack of access to showering, and then I fill him in on more of the standard practices of desert camping.

            Two days in he’s enjoying the time in the desert as much as I am, but it’s new to him, so maybe he’s enjoying it even more.  I’m reveling in the fact that there’s no access to email out here, technocamping, it’s called as I recently learned on Urban Dictionary; getting away from technology for a while.
            So we technocamp, and climb, and don’t shower for a couple days, and the sun in shining and life is simple and perfect like it always is when the sky is blue and the desert is green. Aside from a late night incident when a random dude from Jackson Hole doused our fire with a bottle of gasoline, sending flames directly in our faces, everything is going fine.

On our third day, our last in the desert, we decide to climb the South Six Shooter, a tower. It’s also my friend Chad’s birthday, the big 30. Two other friends tag along as well, a professional photographer and another climbing buddy who has never climbed a tower. “I want to drink beers on the summit,” Chad declared.

Chad rapping off the South Six Shooter
            I don’t usually drink beer on the top of a rock tower, but when I do it is with Chad. It’s a weird tradition he started a few years back, and it’s actually quite enjoyable. Beer tastes better on top of a rock, who would have known? Though the last time we did it Chad’s dog decided to take off, and it got lost for three days in the desert. We decide we’ll keep a better eye on the dog this time.

            Chad has seen a lot in his 30 years, he’s a veteran who got his leg blown off in Iraq. You don’t meet too many climbers who are missing a leg, but Chad seems to get by just fine. He’s got a foot designed specifically for climbing, and an attitude of improvisation. He faces many unique challenges in climbing, one of which is: don’t drop your foot.

            After navigating our vehicles through some minor four-wheel driving we arrived at the trailhead. Some Europeans show up just after us and check out the scene. You can always tell Euro climbers apart from Americans. With this group it’s the large man who is wearing nothing but purple underwear and smoking a cigarette. The group mumbles some comment to us, and then takes off in the rental car. Too crowded, they must have been thinking.

            So with that, the entire group: six people and two dogs start hiking up the trail. We stop often to hoist the dogs up in sections they can’t climb. Braden, the photographer, is always stopping, trying to get that perfect angle for that perfect photo. Like Chad, Braden possesses an internal creativity for improvisation to get what he needs. Once, to get the right lighting in a photo he suggested we light a mini-Molotov cocktail and hang it outside of my car. We did, and he got the photo. It was awesome.

            At a large flat area just before the talus cone up to the tower we leave the dogs with Chad’s girlfriend, who is more psyched to chill than climb. Then the five of us march up the talus cone to the tower.

            We devise a system for our party of five to climb on two ropes. We progress up the tower nicely. I’m leading and feel the responsibilities of a guide. Plus, my brother’s life is in my hands, and if anything happens to him there are two women who might kill me: his wife and our mother.

            I vicariously experience the tower through his movements and expressions, the thrutching the rational fear that accompanies climbing. I’m perfectly at home in this environment, but to him it’s the complete opposite of his everyday life in New York City.

            Soon we hear another party behind us, yelling and cracking jokes like most climbers do. And it sounds like a large group, maybe four people. Chad’s dream for a beer drinking party on the summit may be larger than he imagined.

            We arrive on the summit, with a view fit for a king on a Monday. Tips of several mountain ranges emerge, with more towers and canyons of red rock in every direction. The beer does taste better. I am enjoying myself, but I’m also in guide mode, and responsible for my brother’s life. I stop drinking after a few celebratory sips.

            The party behind us finally catches up, and we coordinate plans to slowly wind down the celebration so they can enjoy the summit themselves. The leader of the group even agrees to build an anchor for my brother as I lower him from the summit to a ledge, strangers helping strangers.

Yours truly hucking the ropes. Photo by Braden Gunem
            I rappel down to my brother, double check his safety and then start chatting with the nearby party. Two of them have reached the top now, and we are sharing a ledge with the other two. I find out they are from Jackson Hole. And then it hits me: the leader of the party is the same guy who threw the bottle of gasoline in our fire two nights before!

            My other friends rappel down from the summit, and I share this information with them. Back on the ground, we talk about the incident some more, “You know that guy was really reckless with that gasoline, we should mess with him.”

            Without further comment Braden grabs three large rocks and gently stuffs them inside the largest pack, the one we assume to be his because he has all the gear. And, with that gesture, we quickly sneak away down the trail, back to the car, and then back to Durango, for some much needed showers. 

This article was published in last week's Durango Telegraph. 

My two books are called: The Great American Dirtbags and Climbing Out of Bed. Click on the titles to view them on Amazon. 

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