The Pony Express Trail was a mail and news delivery route. It ran between St. Joseph, Missouri and Sacramento, California in 1860 and 1861. It was a chain of horseback riders delivering mail by running relays with a leather satchel of letters and newspapers. Each rider hauled ass day-and-night in dangerous conditions (socially and nature-wise) to meet up with the next horse and rider. Through Missouri, Colorado Rocky Mountains, Utah badlands, Sierra Nevada … ten days, people. It took ten days to get something from one end to the other, and just preceding the telegraph, it was the fastest way to do so at the time. There were 120 relay riders, aged 11-40s; 184 stations, about ten miles apart (about as far as a horse likes to gallop at a stretch). Horses were traded out at each of the stations. Riders did about 75 miles per shift, and you can imagine there was a complex system of alerts, preparation, feeding, caring, and housing of horses and riders. These dudes were bad.
If you camp at Lovers Leap Campground, on Highway 50, just west of South Lake Tahoe, you will walk along a section of the Pony Express Trail to get to the rock climbing and bouldering routes near and on the face of Lovers Leap. It’s hard, picky walking over rocks the size of bowling balls. If you stop and look up at the cliff, you can see figures hanging in harnesses, calling to each other, climbing, waiting, fussing with ropes and devices. Watching one figure up there through field glasses, I saw him fall to his next piece of protection in the wall, about ten feet.
You are probably more safe laced into your climbing partner via ropes and harnesses and protection devices, than you are finishing up the climb and trotting back to base camp, with thirty pounds of rope around your waist, where, cavalier and high from your adventure, you slip on a tiny amount of gravel, scattered over the smooth granite and with few places to catch with your hands, head into a somersault and snowball your way to a broken leg. The statistics have it that more people injure themselves on the “walk off.” Thanks to my kind friends, who told me about this subtlety, it never happened to me.
Bouldering means monkeying around on lower rocks with a pile of foam mattresses on the ground to catch your fall. But like snorkeling is to Scuba diving, there’s more freedom to bouldering, more communication among climbers, no rope, no gear, just shoes and a mattress called a crashpad, which you carry to the site on your back, looking like a playing card from Alice In Wonderland.
Picking over the babyhead sized rocks and stepping from smooth surface to smooth surface up the Pony Express Trail, with Lovers Leap looming 300 feet high right across the talus field, gave me chills, more for its history than the danger for the weekend rock climbers. (That’s week end, not weakened. These folks are bad, too. )This trail running alongside the American River was the path of least resistance at the time, from which Highway 50 later took its direction. It seemed no place for ten miles of galloping in rain, snow, heat, boulders, and bears. Alone with your horse, Paiute Indians waiting to take you down. Once, a horse bearing the mail arrived to a station alone, its rider having been shot down.
This is my first time witnessing Real Live Rock Climbing outside of a gym, though there was a little bit of technical stuff in the Dolomites last summer, in harnesses and helmets, clipped via carabiner to fixed cables in the rock, I got curious about how rock climbing worked. Do you leapfrog each other? What happens to the “protection,” the stuff you hang your rope from along the way, that you set into the rock? Do you collect the pieces as you go past? What is the first climber’s source of protection? What happens to the rope? etc.
This trip, I was most fascinated by the guidebooks. In language singing the stoked radness of bad assery, you are advised which boulders are what difficulty, where each one is in a field of other boulders of various features and toothiness, offering something tiny to hang the rubber edge of your too-small climbing shoe on. Each boulder is not just identified in place, and described, but named. The lingo of course was a source of scoffery and funpoking for me, with a ranking-number labeling every route. Conversations among the climbers I camped with were indecipherable and laced with these numbers, plus fun words like crimping, traversing, slopers and scorching out.
I enjoyed the bouldering most, which meant a pile of crash pads, and each climber getting stoked up by everyone else as they tried to find a way up the side of a rock that seemed to have nothing but little crystals sticking out, nothing significant to hold on to. After failing, each would stand back and study the surface, as if to see what of nothing at all could have thrown them off. My conclusion is that they are using leverage more than gravity, squeezing the rock, hugging it to stay on it. Even pushing it apart, the way you climb up a doorway. Once when everyone was done trying one particularly challenging “boulder problem,” I walked up to it, just to see what it must be like to stand under its rock overhang, and even placed my fingertips on the first ledge and hung there, trying a pull-up from this. Imagine throwing a foot above your head and to the side to get more purchase.
And the stories, each telling of a climbing experience using their hands which they use like hangers, the bones of their fingers stopping their fall by simply spinning in a crack enough to stop gravity’s force. Simply hanging by their fingertips in a tiny crevice in rock. Their finger bones mechanically supporting their weight. Mid-story a climber will hold his hands up in a dance-like gesture, with the first knuckle of his fingers bent, and you know their relationship to rock, to their hands. They sculpt their transport over the rock with will, minds, and a fuckload of forearm and bicep strength. But most climbers will tell you their minds are doing most of the work. They don’t let fear, nor disbelief stop them. I laughed at the description of one boulder problem, how the first few steps were very carefully illustrated, but once you were a few steps in, if you’d gotten that far, my own guidebook, if I wrote one, would conclude, “finish by climbing the rest of the fucking rock.” The look of fun and accomplishment following the look of sheer grit and determination as a climber would top out and waltz back down to the ground sold me not on rock climbing –too late– but on doing anything hard, with focus, mindfulness, fearlessness, and turning off the shameless noise of the brain.
I sit at the bottom of a rock wall, watching Brian’s butt in a harness as he slowly ascends, removing very expensive devices of cable and metal every ten feet or so as he goes up the near-vertical rock face, communicating with Nik above on a walkie talkie, whom I watched ascending freely, inserting “protection devices” as he went, making sure they’d be easy for Brian to remove while hanging, standing, and leaning on very little. And all the while, I am sitting quietly and with gentle focus in the Sierra Nevada. Letting the day creep on, letting an hour pass while I look at rock. I peer through my field glasses at the Pyramid Peak, backed up to Desolation Wilderness, where we had ascended 2000 feet the day before in a blissful day of raging river views, oldgrowth trees, and vertical hiking in shade and redwood duff. Later, I scramble up the gentle slope of the backside of the same rock Nik and Brian are climbing to meet them at the top. We meet up with the other four climbers and Michael, Nik’s Dad. To cool off we all walk the Pony Express Trail to where it meets Highway 50. A bridge crosses the American River and it widens to a shallow slippery water slide of open granite, a perfect slope, and freezing cold water. No one’s rushing to get in, but I know it must happen, and at thirty years older than the youngest among us, my mojo determines it’s up to me to be first; so as the men modestly get down to SmartWool boyshorts my full kit of skirt and white buttondown fall away and I am naked and sliding into the freezing water to join a small rattle snake that I am glad I hadn’t noticed until I get out. I watch from the water’s edge as Nik rescues it with a long stick and places it on the warm dry rock and it gathers its baby rattle snake nerves and winds off into some dark place. I lay shivering under the Sierra Nevada sun, my bare skin baking back to life on the benevolent bed of smooth granite. Taste of Summer.
— Strawberry, CA. Summer Solstice, June 21, 2016.