Under Pressure

Climbing's dirty little secret. 

Climbing has no shortage of challenges to overcome. Weather, fragile rock, sketchy protection, route logistics, and physical and mental limitations combine to make climbing what it is: an adventure. On one particular summer day I had exceptional physical limitations indeed.

Sunlight warmed the rock and softened my demeanor that afternoon. Even in summer, overnight cold snaps can make climbing uncomfortable in Montana. The rock is frigid and saps precious strength from straining fingers. Belaying can be miserable as inactivity and boredom stiffen body and mind. Not this day.

I was belaying as Chris worked his way up a cruxy sport lead, slowly and steadily advancing in his naturally smooth and deliberate style. Lingering snow patches flecked the slopes across the canyon; I couldn’t be more content with the day and our spectacular surroundings. Until I heard it.

Without warning, a call echoed through the mountains, reverberating wall to wall. The call of nature, loud and unmistakable. In a moment, I was sweating more than Chris, who teetered 50 feet above on a precarious flake. A gurgle from dark unmentionable places confirmed my fears. I had to go. Past the crux, Chris still hung 40 feet and several moderate moves from the chains, and I was perched on a small belay station above a scree field. There was no escape.

The rhythmic pulsing of the rope passing through my ATC, tugging ever so slightly at my diaphragm as Chris advanced, worsened my deteriorating condition. It became difficult to focus on the climb. “Give…GIVE…are you paying attention down there?” he yelled. I fed him rope as the pressure built. There was a kid building a baking soda volcano in my abdomen.

I thought that perhaps if I could hold it off long enough, it would subside and give me time to, ahem, evacuate. And so I pretended to ignore the gurgles, twitches, and spasms. Chris had no inkling of the drama unfolding below and continued plodding slowly upward, one sure move after another. I wished he would hurry the hell up.

He stopped.

He looked picturesquely into the distance.

I could’ve killed him.

He yelled down, “The views are amazing up here; you can see to end of the valley. Wow! TAKE, so I can get the camera out of my pocket…”

I quivered and sweat, red as Russia, exhaling loudly through my mouth. “JUST CLIMB CHRIS,” I managed, barely containing my agony. He looked down, confused, just as I whimpered loudly. He offered, “Are you okay man?” but didn’t wait for an answer before grabbing the arête. I guess I just looked that bad. He climbed on, a bit faster now, looking down occasionally, as if concerned that I would leave him hanging. It was too much to handle. I didn’t think I could do it. Then he reached the chains, clipped his sling, and before he could say “Off belay,” I was gone.

Chris was rappelling down when I rounded the corner again. My color had returned to less passionate shades. The whimpering had ceased. I was okay. Hitting the ground, Chris grinned broadly before cracking up. I was so relieved, I didn’t even mind. We climbed a few more routes and called it a day before fatigue overtook us. We had a great time, in spite of my distresses.

Our route was originally called “the Move,” but I think that maybe it should be changed to “the Movement.”