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Dancing with the DNB


by Melissa Michelitsch

August 20, 2002

“I’m not coming up this weekend. My friend’s baby shower is on Sunday, so I’ve been counting on this weekend for life maintenance for over a month.”

“Well, take Friday off, and come to Tuolumne with me.”

“I can’t. I need to save my climbing days off for walls. Besides, I need to spend some time on the pile of no-fun grown-up chores that’s been building up.”

“Well, just come out for Saturday then. You know you want to.”

Oh, no! Not the look. Yes, I’m getting the look.

Resolve waning, “I really shouldn’t.”

Within seconds I talk myself out of responsibility and into going climbing, realizing, of course, that if J. was hard up for a partner that I’d probably be able to coerce him into dragging me up something substantial.

“If I come up for just Saturday, can I pick the route?”

“If you come up for just Saturday then you can climb anything that you want.”

“The South Face of the Column.”

“Whatever you want that is in the shade.”

“How about Steck-Salathe?”

“Um, it’s not that I think you can’t do it…I just don’t want to set us up for an epic. How about the Rostrum?” He sounds serious.

“Why not Astroman?” I sound sarcastic.

“How about the Kor-Beck?”

“No.” If he wants me to come up for one day, he’s going to have to go bigger than the Kor-Beck, which I could probably climb without him, thank you very much.

“How about the North Buttress?”

“Jo and Bob are already doing it Saturday.”


“I think you’d like the Kor-Beck.”

“How about Ho Chi Minh?”

“Mwah-hah-hah!!!” What? Did I just suggest that we free climb the nose? “How about the E. Buttress?”

“DNB or life-maintenance. That’s my final offer. I want to learn to chimney.”

“Have you ever chimneyed before?”

“Just that day when I TRed the first pitch with Hans, but I didn’t fall.” I keep the part about the wheezing, the groveling, the leaden arms, and thrashed knees to myself.

“OK. The DNB it is. Let’s go at 7:00. If we can make a half-hour per pitch that will get up to the Powell-Reid ledges by noon. If we take an hour per pitch from there to the top and two and half to descend, we’ll be down by dark. But if we don’t make the ledge by noon, then we should bail on to Kor-Beck.”

“What is it with you and the Kor-Beck?” I ask, realizing that he doesn’t think that I’ll be able to move that fast for that long. I also note that the Supertopo calls most of the lower pitches 5.10 and the upper pitches are mostly 5.6-5.8. I wonder if he’s putting the time restrictions on the 5.10 pitches to really hedge all bets away from me creating an epic in my gumby exuberance or if he really thinks that the “easier” pitches, which are also the chimney pitches, will be the showstoppers.

“I just like the Kor-Beck. But let’s do the DNB. It will be fun.”

OK, now I’m in trouble. Middle Cathedral has been a scary place for me this season…a lot of bad juju going on over there. But of all of the routes, the DNB is probably the scariest. The anchor failure of a fellow climber and neuroscientist there is something that has haunted me every time I’ve considered climbing at Middle. The recent rock fall on the DNB and in the descent gully have further bolstered my resolve to find other places to climb when possible. But on a 98-degree day, it’s hard to find willing accomplices to any of the south facing grade V’s in the valley.

Apart from my fear of the objective hazards, I know that I’ll have cover some serious distance doing a type of climbing that I’ve essentially never done before. I know that J. doubts my ability to keep up. I really wanted to climb my best and prove his doubts groundless. I also know that if I fail to do so, I’ll have a hard time convincing him to agree to any of the other epics that I am hoping to create over the coming months.

J. leaves the ground at 7:40. I’m having a hard time imagining keeping all of the lower pitches under 30 minutes a piece as we will now need to do to arrive at the top of pitch ten by noon.

He links the first two pitches, and I have to simul behind him for a few feet to get him to the anchor. The first couple of moves are essentially fourth class, but with every step I wonder when he’ll get to the anchor and if it will be before I am committed to starting the gaping chimney just a few feet away from me.

He gets to the anchor and puts me on belay just in time for me to start my first pre-chimney dance. The pre-chimney dance looks like this. Move most of your stuff to the left side, but leave a few things on the right side that you think won’t get in the way. Stick your right side in the chimney. Realize that the belay device pinned between your butt and the wall is not going to work. Extract self from chimney before moving upward. Move everything to left side. Reinsert right side in chimney. Decide that left side in chimney would work better. Move everything to right side. Repeat several times. Contemplate heaving your approach shoes to the base. Give up, and try climbing anyway.

Eventually I arrive at the final step of the pre-chimney dance and try moving upwards. It’s only 5.7, right? The thing feels like a treadmill, and I’m really worried that if I don’t get it together a little better, we’ll have to bail. I feel like my pride is really on the line over this climb for some reason, so I am elated when I finally started to get the hang of it after many initial false starts. My climbing is shaky, but I feel like I am having one of those rare and precious quantum moments, like the instant when I went from not being able to keep my bike upright to cruising a wobbly path all the way to the end of the driveway.

We get through the initial chimney and set out on the 5.10 face pitches. This type of climbing is much more familiar to me, and even though there is a fall here and “watch me” there, I am able to keep our pace, and I even manage to get back some of the time lost to our late start.

The rock through these pitches is really amazing to me, providing a circuitous route on abundant features. I remark to J. that it feels like the rock wants us to climb it. He likes that I say this because it tells him that I am sharing in the sense of belonging that he often goes up the Cathedrals to find.

We manage to get to the top of the tenth pitch pretty close to our noon deadline, so we push for the top. I know that hundreds of feet of sustained chimneying lie ahead of me. It’s early, but a night hunkering down on a ledge is still not out of the question.

I do the pre-chimney dance a few times and then start finding my groove again. The groove lasts until I have to stop the counter pressured chimneying motions for some reason. Then I have to do the dance all over again and find a good starter foot to get going again. I curse my approach shoes openly.

A few pitches into the upper pitches and it’s clear that I’m getting tired in such as way as to make my climbing much more difficult than it needs to be. The liter of water that I’d brought with me is a distant memory, but at least the bottle isn’t in my way anymore. I get to one point where I’m having a difficult time getting started up the next chimney section, and I’m falling a lot. After several unfruitful rounds with the pre-chimney dance, I find that my only recourse is to bitch about the shoes.

J. suggests that I pull down a bight of rope and clip the shoes in above me. Since it doesn’t seem like they’d hang up in this wide section or that they’d trundle loose rock on my noggin, I decide to rig them up there. This pitch that I climb without my shoes on my harness feels like pure bliss. I decide that I’ll descend barefoot in snow if I have to, but I’ll never come on another chimney climb with big approach shoes again.

We get to the final pitch, a long 5.8 chimney, and something magical happens. There is no pre-chimney dance…just chimney. I execute the same small move over and over, smoothly, as it is supposed to be, and I ender that almost trance-like peaceful state that I find in this type of elegant physical repetition…my crack-climbing analog to a runners high.

Over the course of this long day but crystallized in this moment, I realize that I have learned a beautiful new dance and experienced a new kind of terrain that wants me to climb it. So often over the past summer I have heard Middle Cathedral telling me to stay away. But today, with her wide chimneys open like a mothers arms, she told me that I belong.

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