I exhaled a long, slow sigh of relief. I didn’t try to hide it. Weddings are supposed to be joyful, no?
Leading the first 40 feet of offwidth wasn’t out of the question but doing it with any semblance of style certainly would be. I’d talked a big game about placing gear on Fine Jade, a three pitch desert tower – a masterpiece of varied crack climbing – on the Rectory just outside Castle Valley, UT. I’d also been bouldering almost exclusively for a year on the road. We all had. There was no way I could lead this rig with a confident mind. I hadn’t stood on anything more than 35 feet tall in ages and, at any rate, 5.11 had always challenged the limits of my crack leading abilities.
The anguish of a traditional lead is something that percolates in a boulderer’s deepest being. It’s a fear that when unbridled runs free and wild, leaving pitted hoof prints all over the lizard brain.
Scottish Trevor, I don’t think, knows what a lizard brain is. He doesn’t worry about heady leads. He doesn’t worry about utility bills or the time of day he makes breakfast. He doesn’t worry about impending nuptials. He is the Anguish Whisperer.
Ever solid, he launched up the offwidth as Lana Banana, his bride to be, belayed him. The remaining seven in our climbing-cum-wedding party shed layers after the brutal hike and splayed ourselves on the red rocks, heat waving off like a dream. We examined our options. Although it was early, we simply didn’t have the efficient crack climbing skills to make quick work of Fine Jade. The sun would fall before we’d even begin rappels. Leading was out of the question.
We’d all been so cocky. During late night fires we’d spoken of our crack climbing resumes. Lynn, my girlfriend, had honed her skills while living a year in Yosemite. Kyler, one of my best friends, had climbed towers and cracks all over the West. Scottish Trevor and Lana Banana, no worries. I am a shitty trad climber but, after the fear reduces itself to a hissing broth, in the ballpark of competent. But everyone else, I had no idea how to judge their competence. Most of us had all just met on the road, over the past year of climbing from Colorado to California. We’d come together as a band of wanderers, clinging to a mysterious group dynamic that had forged friendships over the long miles of driving and sketchy top-outs and endless jokes.
To say we knew a lot about each other’s climbing history would be to stretch the truth to breaking. We’d seen Jer-Bear trying to figure-four his way up boulder problems, which was worrisome. Ginger Josh had trad gear stowed in his Vanagon and that was a good thing. But he also had two mountain bikes, a set of bocce balls and a much loved Settlers of Catan board game. The only thing I’d never seen him using was the trad gear. Uncle Brian was an ace at drunken slam poetry, guzzled Canadian Hunter whiskey and bouldered like a leaf floating on the breeze. Beyond that, we couldn’t be sure of much. Sarah, I think, had climbed Castleton a long time ago.
We’d lived in the present for so long that a discourse on the past or future had seemed pointless. The days and months on the road had unspooled before us and we’d simply followed the thread. But the bobbin was empty now. Scottish Trevor and Lana were headed to Colorado for the summer, as were Lynn, Kyler and I. Uncle Brian and Ginger Josh had jobs in the Rockies for a month but then it was back to Seattle. Sarah would continue on and lord only knows what Jer-Bear would get up to. Fine Jade would be the last cumulative “now” we shared, the final adventure we’d have as a group. At least on this trip. Maybe ever.
Parties veered off behind us to take on Castleton, a 400-foot finger of Wingate Sandstone separated from the Rectory by a saddle of dust and stone. We had the route to ourselves. After some consideration we opted to set up a top rope belay station above each pitch. Lana Banana would tag a line as she followed Scottish Trevor’s lead, thereby fixing a toprope for the next party. That would be Kyler and myself, who would also tag a line. And then Lynn and Sarah. And then Uncle Brian and Ginger Josh and Jer-Bear. Gumby style, for sure, but whatever. If a gumby can excel at one thing and one thing only, it’s dipshit ingenuity.
Scottish Trevor led pitch one with elegance and speed. Securing himself to the first belay, he bellowed down, “Alex Honnold freesoloed this thing in 8 minutes and 10 seconds,” and chuckled in his rolling, honking way. You don’t realize how terrifying this idea is—freesoloing—until you’re staring the climb down, considering your own ascent. Envisioning yourself up there, exposed and cordless, was enough to shake me out of even a desire to lead the three pitches. Thankfully, we didn’t have to worry about leading anymore.
Lana Banana followed quickly and surely, maybe cursing a bit on that first 40 feet, a slightly overhung, flaring wide crack. We all cursed through that first 40. Kyler and I launched up next, fists to thin hands to fingers and finally to the ledge. Standing there barefoot and sunbaked, Lana Banana craned her neck up to Scottish Trevor, out of sight and booking through the 5.11a bulging finger crack above. After Kyler and I set up our rope Lynn and Sarah began dancing with those fists down below. And so it went.
Climbing from station to station, party reaching party, each of Fine Jade’s three pitches accounted for, something like a terribly faulty communication network began to assemble itself. Scottish Trevor was naked on top, running around. Jer-Bear was starting up the second pitch! Uncle Brian decided not to climb; he freaked. We had little idea what our friends were up to above and below. The wind stole our shouts and, at any rate, four separate parties on the same desert tower makes for a muddy social grapevine. It’s not until you reach the top that the mess is sorted out, the truth of each party’s adventure revealed.
The final climbers, Uncle Brian and Ginger Josh, eventually popped into view on top of the Rectory, Castleton looming behind, a few hours after our ascent began. Jer-Bear, the 18-year-old we’d folded into our much older crew, had actually been the one to opt out after jugging the first pitch on ascenders. He’d grown nauseous clipping into the anchors, swirly-headed. Jer-Bear quickly acknowledged he wasn’t quite ready for desert tower climbing. Resigned to humiliation, he’d bailed and was now sunning himself on the rocks below, slowly turning lobster red and waving each time we poked our heads over the edge of the Rectory. But he found no humiliation. He had tried and that’s all that counts in this game. There’s no shame in backing down, especially when you’re an 18-year-old novice boulderer who launched an endless road trip driving a broke down, fender mangled, convertible Mazda Miata. Really, that’s shame enough.
The eight of us spun into action atop the vast patio of the Rectory. Scottish Trevor slipped on a kilt, a tuxedo tee shirt and a bulbous brown party afro. Transformed from dirtbag climber to dirtbag groom, he sat on a ledge and tinkered with his vows, whispering to himself and scribbling down a future he saw fit to promise. Lana Banana donned a frilly white onesie and pink tutu. The girls slipped flowers into her hair, a stunning acid-trip bride.
Sarah unfurled a python-sized blue boa and draped it over her shoulders. Kyler took off his flannel and knotted it backwards around his waist, an impromptu kilt. Uncle Brian did the same, after sliding a tuxedo vest over his tanned torso and draping a platinum blond wig above his bearded face.
My kilt was a plaid pillowcase, wrapped around my waist and bound by an oval carabiner. I pulled on a white tee shirt which I’d fashioned while Scottish Trevor flew up the first pitch. Scrawled across the front was “Dirtbag Ministry Co-Op.” I’d dropped $40 online a few weeks before and by some mystifying legality had become an ordained minister.
“Shouldn’t we have had, like, a rehearsal or something?” asked Lana Banana. She was right, of course. The excitement of the adventure had sabotaged the little pragmatism we possessed. We were totally unprepared for her wedding day.
“I think this is the rehearsal,” said Sarah, her boa shedding feathers atop the Rectory.
Relying on memories of weddings attended, we arranged ourselves accordingly, Scottish Trevor still worrying over his vows and Ginger Josh pulling up the “Here Comes the Bride” processional on his iPhone. Scottish Trevor would stand next to me on my pulpit, a slight outcropping of pink sandstone. Kyler, Best Man and Wedding Photographer, and Sarah would follow down the aisle. Next came Lynn, the Maid of Honor, and Ginger Josh. Finally, Uncle Brian, his platinum mane shimmering in the afternoon sun, would escort Lana Banana down the aisle, arm in arm.
Satisfied, we queued up. Scottish Trevor stood next to me, his vows tucked into his afro. I tried my best to look official, picking at my tape gloves and silently going over the ceremony speech. The procession began, kilted and boa-wrapped attendees slow walking down the rocky aisle and finding their places literally feet from the void. Ginger Josh flipped on “Here Comes the Bride,” Uncle Brian wiped away a fake tear, and Lana Banana and Scottish Trevor entered into marriage atop one of the finest desert towers on the planet, the views endless and uncapped.
I nearly cried as I read from my wedding speech (but, I must note, did not), relying heavily on what I’d come to think of as Dirtbag Theology: religious theory interpreted through climbing, sustained by migration, fomented by love, drawing breath amongst the rocks, conventional only because it is. Lynn’s chin quivered. Scottish Trevor honked his laughter and Lana Banana giggled as she pulled her vows from her cleavage. Someone told Ginger Josh to turn off the processional music already. A rogue boa feather leapt into the abyss and Kyler, his ass hanging out from his knotted “kilt,” bent in close for a photograph.
It’s funny how this life uncoils before you. The nine of us knew little of each other but shared everything, from blurry bottles of cheap whiskey to bouldering above sketchy landings to this final reliance upon one another to get up a few pitches and see to it that our friends got hitched in style. Love had brought Lana Banana and Scottish Trevor together, while climbing had affixed us one to the other in their wake. Dirtbag Theology in motion, in its finest incarnations, looks something like this. With climbing the strange masonry of our friendship was made possible. With climbing and the road, huddled around campfires, together, anything was possible.
Photos: Kyler Deutmeyer