Outer Space is a classic rock climbing route outside of Leavenworth, Washington. It’s a hefty five mile hike in, so it only has climbers lined up at the base to try it on weekends, but it helps to climb it during the off season.
I climbed the route in about 1984, with my favorite climbing partner, an animated troll doll named Russell. This description may seem cruel, but it’s not intended to be. He had very tightly curled blond hair, which he trimmed with his swiss army knife, a pug nose, he was built like a brick shit house, and never told me the ratings of the routes we climbed.
I first met Russell at a Mountaineers picnic in Seattle. I was finishing school, rock climbing, working at The North Face, and dating a rather dreadful fellow that my friends all referred to as the Lurker. I also happened to be working and bouldering with several climbers cum writers who now have bylines in Outside, Jon Krakauer among them.
Another climber/writer who shall be nameless was also at the picnic. We’ll call him, oh, John, also, just for convenience’s sake. I lit into him once at the store for flirting with every female who walked in. He was handsome, and more than plentifully full of himself. He also generally made my hair stand up with irritation.
We were all standing around, talking, at the picnic, when Russell walked up. I had never met him, but he was barefoot, wearing shorts and nothing else, holding a piece of cake in one hand, eating it with the fingers of the other. When snooty John walked up, Russ transferred the cake from his right had to his left, shook hands, and then calmly went back to eating cake. Snotty climber writer guy looked at his now rather sticky hand, back at Russell, raised his eyebrows, and then realized all the rest of us were watching in glee. The only time I’d ever seen him at a loss for words. Everyone else in the crowd stifled giggles, and I thought to myself, I have to get to know this cake-eating guy.
So we started climbing together.
We had traveled to Leavenworth, planning to boulder and climb whatever presented itself, and he said one morning, “Hey, let’s go climb Outer Space.” With no clue what I was getting into, I heartily agreed.
Russ failed to mention the five mile schlep in, uphill, with rope, two 40 pound racks of hardware, and other sundries. He also failed to mention that the crux was about the hardest, and most dangerous thing I had climbed up to that point.
We geared up. Harnesses, chalk bags hanging from our behinds full of white powdery gymnastic chalk, tight climbing shoes coated with sticky rubber, water bottles, and gear slings. The first pitch was a grubby 5.3 scramble, up what mostly resembled a seasonal waterfall, full of moss, slime, dirt, and various critters.
On the second pitch, I started to understand why this route was such a classic. The main route was a crack climb, the vertical crack ranging from finger width to narrow chimney - sometimes we were actually climbing inside the crack, other times outside, using the variations in the crack for placing pro and getting hand and footholds. Outside of the crack were “chickenheads”, rocky prominences sticking out from the main face of the granite. These look like nothing so much as a series of hand and footholds that have been glued on for the convenience of climbers, and range from about fingertip or egg-sized to the size of a large, thick dinner plate.
Russell asked me if I wanted to lead the next pitch. I was game, although my experience placing pro was pretty limited.
It was perfect. On each pitch, we’d run the rope out about 135 to 140 meters (with a 150 meter rope) then there’d be a ledge. If gods live, and they design places for a specific use, this place was designed with climbers in mind. The ledges were reasonably wide, comfortable, with really solid places to hook up and belay, and look out at the outrageous view. The climbing was great, with not one other single person on the route. Five pitches total, some of the best climbing I’ve ever done.
I got hooked on rock climbing, because it takes a more intense focus
than anything else I’ve ever done. I’m what the psychologists call outer-directed – I’m easily distracted
, easily sidetracked
, often (always!) trying to pay attention to more than one thing. In a bar, I try not to sit where there’s a TV in my line of sight, because it distracts me from the conversation in front of me.
Rock climbing, everything extraneous falls away. It’s just me and the rock. The cities could burn, elephants could walk by, and I wouldn’t notice. It creates an intensity of focus that I’ve never experienced anywhere else, except possibly when I was trying to push Tessie out. Rock climbing, mountain climbing and labor all have similarities.
So on to the penultimate
pitch. Russell led, then got set up to belay. About a third of the way up was, unbeknownst to me, the crux
of the whole route. A vicious
step to the right, with a horizontal
jog in the crack. There was really nothing for my feet, only the horizontal space, and in order to get a decent fist jam
, I had to stick my arm in up to about mid-arm. If you had huge man-hooks
on the end of your arms, with a fist about 6 inches wide, it was probably not all that bad, but even with my hands that are big for a girl, it was not an easy move to face. It also meant that if I peeled, I could look forward to climbing the rest of the route with a broken forearm, neatly wrapped over the sharp lower edge of the crack by my body weight. I whimper
ed. Loudly. And then wept
Tried to step over several times, each time backing away. Finally, cussing at Russell under my breath, tears rolling down my face, sweating hands, I dipped both hands in the chalk one more time, and committed.
I heard a loud crack.
I wrapped my left foot around behind my right, caught my foot on a tiny invisible bump in the granite, reached across with my left hand, then released the fist.
A small fragment of glass came out with my right arm. I had jammed my fist so hard up against the granite that I had shattered the crystal in my watch.
I finished the rest of the pitch in good time, cleaning pro as I went, and topped out, laughing and crying at the same time. I said, “Russell, why didn’t you TELL me?”
“Candy Girl, you always climb better when you don’t know the ratings.”