The Big Chill: In Which Things Are Calculated and Lamented

Original artwork by the peerless Lynn Suyeko Mandziuk.

Original artwork by the peerless Lynn Suyeko Mandziuk.

“It’s raining.” I squinted through sleepy eyes at the ceiling of Gravy Train, a frosty coating of condensation slowly melting and dripping as night gave way to morning.

“Lynn, look. It’s raining in the Gravy Train.” I traced my finger across a stripe of frost.

“Lynn?” Turning sideways in our tiny little sleeping area I saw that she was still asleep, her breath billowing away from me. All I could see was the back of her puffy hood, which she’d worn through the night, a sleeping bag and three blankets over that.

It’s raining every morning in the Gravy Train lately. Joe’s Valley, Utah has turned the corner and succumbed to the Polar Vortex, that raging meteorological asshole. Snow on the boulders. Blue steel skies ironing the land of its warmth. Christmas tree permit notices erected on the Left Fork. It is time to leave.

We’d arrived in Joe’s at the end of September, just ahead of the Rocktober horde. Unseasonable warmth brought the boulder fields to life with climbers from all over the world, celebrating the good temps with big sends during the day and blinking campfires throughout the nights. How happy we all were. Tee shirts and hoodies. I saw bro tanks.

And then, as Rocktober gave way to November, the guillotine came down, cleaving warmth and sun with the sound of a snapping icicle. The time change and high canyon walls truncated climbability to a slender window, the sun a little coward and flitting across the sky. Like scurrying mice the boulderers chased shallow pockets of warmth, some scuttling their projects in the Forks and heading off to the relative warmth and extended sunlight of New Joe’s. You can always find something to climb.

But not everyone jettisoned their projects in favor of a little thawing reprieve. Really, that which dictates one’s comfort threshold comes down to the brevity of one’s stay in a location. It’s a delicate calculus of available time and the desire to send a very specific line. It’s the arithmetic of suffering and it exists in every quadrant of the climbing universe. Astonishingly, even boulderers suffer.

The Brits, lean and very strong and with strange accents, we pass nearly every day on our way to the Food Ranch. We flee the ice box as they dive in. They’re in the States, over a broad ocean and through the sticky webbing of international travel, to climb at Joe’s Valley. For the Brits the Polar Vortex is…meaningless. It’s a base-layer under a tee shirt. A faster warm-up. It’s stocking caps over wild, unwashed hair.

The kids in the funny conversion vans and painted buses, the ones who spend weeks crushing boulders in the comparable mornings of their lives as you in your gloaming afternoon struggle through their warm-ups? They, too, don’t have time to wilt beneath a low-pressure system. Salivation dripping from their kiwi fuzz chins, the Polar Vortex means one of two things for young climbers on a road trip. One, it signifies crisp temps with good friction and reduced sun on crucial slopers. Two, what the fuck is the Polar Vortex? The arithmetic of suffering simply does not exist in any substantial way for these puerile crushers. They are here in Joe’s for a short time. The Polar Vortex is also here during that time. That is the extent of that.

Life on the road, however, brings certain aspects of comfort to light in a starker contrast than just a bit of life on the road. The arithmetic warps. The irresistible urge to reach the top of a boulder runs into resistance, as it were, when temps dip below a certain threshold permanently. A nice freezing cold day here and there foments an earnest desperation that we all charge into our projects looking for. It’s the jangling, unyielding madness that drives us to tease out the best we can accomplish on the rock, a madness given room to roam on those crisp, steel sky days.

Reprieve, however, is what finally converts the mathematics of suffering into a headlong retreat from the boulders. The Gravy Train has been parked deep in the Right Fork for two months now and I haven’t been completely warm for the last four weeks. The sun begrudges itself to rise late and breathlessly retires early. Many days find the clouds blotting out the sun altogether. Right now we don’t take showers to clean off the grime and chalk but rather to spend a half hour, stock still, curled beneath the blazing heat of the shower spigots at the Emery Aquatics Center. The Food Ranch is our warm nest. The Gravy Train our nightly frozen, raining purgatory.

Unrelenting cold sends an ice pick into the brain, twisting one’s ambitions into a gnarled, unrecognizable knot. The physical discomfort, an acceptable price to pay for traveling to a distant boulder field, increases as the temperature continues to plummet. Bundling up in puffies and fleece between goes becomes a burden. Watching one’s breath as it exits, the grim metronome of winter, begins to feel like a sentence of time rather than a break in time. Boiling water for coffee in freezing temps, sleeping in down jackets as snow weighs down the tent, wiggling numb toes in tight climbing shoes. Not so bad for a week. Pretty rough for a grip of months. Eventually the brain just can’t manufacture the steam with which to thaw the frost.

In a few days we’ll pack up the Gravy Train and putter off to Bishop and the comparative warmth of the volcanic tablelands. And here’s the catch. I’m going to miss Joe’s Valley, wondering what could have been had I just kept my mind strong enough to fend off the pretty casual discomfort of early winter. I’ll wish I could have suffered more. I’ll wish I’d had more grit.

But, you know, I don’t. I’m ready for a bro tank and some sun. Suns Out Guns Out. In the end, I’m okay with this retreat. After all, the arithmetic of suffering is better left up to the nimble minds of youngsters driving funny looking conversion vans.

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