To Prophesy Wall: A Story of Life, Death, & Climbing
First published in the Utah Adventure Journal in the summer of 2013.
The forecast was calling for rain. “Damnit,” I said to myself. It had been sunny and nice all week and the one day we had plans to go climbing the weather was going to be crumby. Not only that, Todd Goss had invited us to go. It was a big deal. Todd didn’t invite anyone to go climbing, he charged people to go climbing. I had only been climbing a couple of times, but I loved it and looked forward to getting out again. I prayed to the climbing God that the meteorologist would be wrong; heck, they were wrong 50% of the time so it wasn’t asking much. To my chagrin, I woke to discover that my prayers had not been answered. Dark purple-gray clouds were hanging low on the mountains. As I peered out the window not a shred of blue sky or bright sunlight could be seen. “Maybe it will clear up by 2pm,” I despairingly thought. “Hopefully Todd won’t cancel.”
Todd Goss is as much a legend in this community for his curmudgeon-like demeanor as he is for bolting many of the climbing routes and for his guide book. My first introduction to Todd was as a barista at Starbucks where I got his customary stony stare and barely audible thank you. It wasn’t until I started bringing my boys to his bouldering gym that he warmed up and started being friendly at the window, to the amazement and angst of the other still ignored baristas. I liked him a lot. As Melville said, “He’s a good man. Not a pious good man, but a swearing good man.” As two o’clock rolled around and Todd had not cancelled, I figured we were still on and layered up for the cold weather; long Johns and a beanie being a must. Luckily it had not rained and I predicted that if it would hold out through the afternoon we might end up with a good day of climbing after all.
As we pulled into the parking area I saw Todd digging in the back of his Subaru. He turned when we pulled in, a beanie on his head too. One of his buddies and my old boss, the philosopher, was supposed to be meeting us there, but he was late and Todd wasn’t one to wait around, so with three little boys in tow we made our approach to the base of Prophesy Wall. Even though it was cold and windy, it was beautiful. It felt like everything within the stock-still valley and under the brooding sky had ceased to exist but the six of us sheltered in the umbrella-like protection of the wall. The wall and the surrounding watchful mountains were all ours; at least for the moment.
I watched Todd put on his harness and his shoes. While he did this he started talking about climbing. While we stood around and watched, he started to climb the lead of a route. By the time he was coming down, the philosopher had shown up. “Hey,” “what’s up,” and acknowledging nods were made around the circle and then Todd turned to me. “You ready?” “Yep,” I replied. “Where are my toes shoes?” I said looking at my husband. He just looked at me, “Toe shoes?” I raised my eyebrows, not sure why this wasn’t registering with him until he said it again. “Oh, that’s funny. Toe shoes are ballet shoes,” I explained. “Huh, I thought you had come up with a new name for climbing shoes,” he said. It was a slip, but it wasn’t too far off. Watching a good climber is similar to watching a ballerina. There is grace, poise, and beauty in the movements of the body, the rhythm of the ascent, and the gravity defying toe stepping. As I strapped on my shoes it dawned on me that I had only felt the way I do about climbing with one other thing in my life: dancing. This thought creaked through my mind like an old lady making her way across a rickety floor. I stood up and walked toward Todd who was waiting to attach the rope to my harness. He showed me a figure eight on a bight, which I forgot the moment he told me I was good to go. As I started my ascent I thought, maybe if I had discovered climbing in high school I wouldn’t have felt so bad about ballet. Then all faded away except my hands, my feet, and the wall.
My interest in climbing started as a soft whisper. I was at Veyo Pool camping when I heard it. I was in the shade of some cottonwood trees reading. A gold blur periodically flashed in my peripheral vision so I turned to see what it was. From my chair I could see that it was some sort of golden sign attached to the canyon wall that would light up when the leaves moved in the breeze and allowed the sunlight to shine directly on its surface. When I got close enough to read it I saw a weathered brass plaque that read: Paradigm Shift 5.12b. As my eyes followed the wall, more little gold plaques appeared. I walked along the wall reading names like Hypocrisy Wall, Flytrap, and Butt Monkey Buttress and wondered if they described the route or if the person naming them was describing an experience or an inside joke.
I returned to Paradigm Shift and snapped a photo of the plaque. I looked up at the jagged rocks and wondered if I could climb it. I wanted to say, “Someday I will climb Paradigm Shift,” but I couldn’t bring myself to utter the words. To utter the words was to speak something into existence, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to open that box. Hell, I didn’t even know if I wanted try rock climbing, let alone if I would like it, and accepting this challenge would require me to try. On the drive home, Paradigm Shift glowed in my mind, softly beckoning. I pictured myself climbing rock walls and wondered what it was like. I wondered if it produced a deeper relationship with the land, and subsequently, a deeper understanding of what it means to be human. I wondered if it would change me somehow, and if so, how?
When I finished my rappel back down Todd asked me, “When did you stop hearing us?” “What?” I asked puzzled. “When you were climbing, at what point did the sound of our voices stop registering; when did you stop hearing us?” I thought for a minute. My last memory was looking back at Todd on belay and then it fades to a blank slate where brief flashes of rock, line, and my hands appear. Most climbers I talk to, who really love it, will agree that climbing is a form of mediation that takes place while performing a very physically challenging act. For me, to climb is to taste the eternal. As I belayed my eight year old son who was climbing the route I had just finished, I thought, “This is a perfect day.” Through the process of climbing I experience freedom from time; I get to experience what I imagine immortality feels like; but in the community of climbers I taste what it is to live, to love, and to enjoy. It is being both the root and the swaying leaves; it is being grounded while being set free. Climbing is the ultimate paradox.
On October 27th 2012 my husband sent me a Facebook link. I clicked on the link and read, “Lyle Dale Hurd III, 49, of Santa Clara, died Friday afternoon, after taking a fall while climbing in Zion National Park.” I had never met Lyle, but I knew who he was because I am good friends with his sister, Gwen. The news of his death sank like a stone in my stomach and tears involuntarily came to my eyes. Lyle’s death was the first for the local climbing community here and it reverberated through it like a crashing cymbal. As everyone came together to grapple with the reality of his loss and the reverberations subsided, a hush seemed to fall over St. George. Everyone wanted to know what had happened, and how it happened to a climber such as Lyle.
In the cocoon-like safety of Gwen and Jeff’s house, a large and grieving portion of the climbing community gathered to take shelter from the harsh world and find comfort amongst friends and comrades. They gathered in a place where it was safe to let walls and barriers down, where pain could be shown, and where tears could be shed. It was the first night of a weeklong funeral. I said hello to Gwen when we arrived and then told her how I had never gotten the chance to meet Lyle. “Well, he wasn’t the easiest person to get to know,” she said with a slight smile. “It’s too bad you never got to climb with him, he was a great teacher.” My brush with Lyle was like a passing train that left an earthshattering blur of sound, wind, and light in its wake. What I learned of him through stories told in laughter and tears made me feel like I did know him in a small way, and because everyone was so raw and real and felt no need to white-wash Lyle into a saint posthumously I was able to get a sense of the complex man that he was; the three dimensional man that was true to himself, who was working out his demons on the rocks, and who died while doing it. Since I had only been climbing a few times before his death the paradox was stark.
Gwen hugged me and broke down. “I keep expecting him to walk through the door,” she cried into my shoulder, “I can’t believe he’s gone.” I had no idea what to say or do, so I just held her. I watched her do this half a dozen more times throughout the night and admired her ability to embrace pain and not be afraid to show it. I saw some familiar faces and many unfamiliar, all gathered in this one place because they knew Lyle, but it was Mark I wanted to hear from. Mark was Lyle’s climbing partner who had sat by his side and watched him die; Mark, the ICU nurse who could do nothing to save his friend. He was quiet and somber as he walked up with beer in hand. I thought any slight movement might cause him to break, he looked so shaken and fragile. In a voice barely above a whisper he recounted the story, telling it as though he was hearing it for the first time himself.
He explained how he watched Lyle fall 40 feet and bounce when he landed on the ledge after his protection came out. He revealed that when he got to Lyle he found him awake, coherent, and alert. Mark half cried half laughed when he explained how, in true Lyle fashion, Lyle had argued with him about where his phone was. He explained how he called 911 and then waited for the cavalry to show up. Two other climbers in the four member group set up a top rope for the rescue team and waited. When the SAR team had not arrived three hours later, the rescue became a recovery, and Lyle was gone. Mark stated that had he known Lyle was going to die he wouldn’t have wasted time trying to save him, but would have just held him and told him he loved him. A lump formed in my throat as I watched Mark hopelessly mill over the events of the day and plot how they could have turned out differently. It was heart wrenching to watch and raised uncomfortable questions in my mind. Questions about my own life, how I was spending my time, and what it would be like to lose someone dear to me. I thought of my three boys and the short time I have with them and wondered if I was doing it right, or if I would tragically realize one day that I had squandered my time with them; time that I could never get back.
The week wore on with climbs done in Lyle’s honor, trips to Snow Canyon and Joshua Tree were made, and ended with a final farewell at the base of Island in the Sky. Over that week I watched a community of climbers celebrate life as much as they remembered and celebrated Lyle. They dealt with the pain in an open and honest way; a way that was admirable and healthy and left me believing would help them move on. What I found then, and still continue to find, is a community that is open, fun, and that resembles a large family. It is a place where how well you climb doesn’t matter; only if you climb. It is a community where all things are equal, where the rock is the great leveler; where status doesn’t make you a better climber, where money is nice but it isn’t everything, where you can’t tell who is a professional and who is a professional dirt bag; where children are loved and supported in their climbing attempts, where skill is admired and celebrated, and where attempting a problem gets you just as much beer as breaking it. It is a community of people cheering on other people and it felt good to be a part of it.
I strapped my toe shoes on for the last climb of the day; the first pitch of The Visionaries. Dusk was closing in and the wind was picking back up. I was sure it would rain. I made the 145 foot ascent one foot and one hand at a time. Everything faded away and I was dancing. When I reached the end of the route and started to descend, I descended to the cheers of my children echoing off the walls. I got comments of “well done” and nods of approval from my husband, Todd, and the philosopher. I went home spent and exhausted. Since then I have already witnessed this life change echo in the life of my son. He worked on a problem at the bouldering gym for weeks, sometimes 20 or more times a night, to no avail. Through the process he experienced great drive and great frustration, but in the end he learned that he was not a failure, that all attempts were worthy endeavors, and when he succeeded in breaking the problem, he did it to the cheers of a community of climbers there to support him. I have come to believe that climbing, like life, is not a means to an end, but an end unto itself. It is not where you end up, but how you got there that matters. At the end of my afternoon on Prophesy Wall all the tension drained from my body and when I climbed into my warm bed that night, the sound of rain could be heard hitting the windows. I guess the climbing God knew what she was doing when she didn’t answer my prayer the night before. It had not only been a great day of climbing; it had been an epic day of living.
Posted on January 28, 2014, in Connecting to Community and tagged climbing, Climbs of the Southwest, desert, island in the sky, prophesy wall, rock climbs of southwest utah and the arizona strip, southern utah, Todd Goss, veyo pool, yvon chiounard, zion national park. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.