Zion National Park had always been a bit of a dream to me. When I was stuck in an apartment just outside New York City, I was often up late at night drooling over photos of its stark, orange walls. I watched countless videos of big-name climbers effortlessly gliding up routes like Moonlight Buttress, and was desperate to give up my sanitized yuppie life in order to become as badass and free as they seemed to be.
I got my start in the dirtbag lifestyle as a Montana river guide, but was determined to become the next Jimmy Chin as quick as I could. I believed it to be my destiny. So, after stumbling through my first whitewater season, I bought a van and made my way to one of America’s rock climbing meccas— Moab, Utah.
Roughly eight months after finding the courage to leave NYC, and a few weeks after learning the basics of climbing in Moab, a coworker invited me on a trip to Zion. I’d owned shoes, a harness and a chalk bag for a month. I kept a grip trainer in the cup holder of my van. I hadn’t been on anything more difficult than a 5.9 route, and had only done top rope climbing, but Mom had just bought me a brand new rope for Christmas. As far as I was concerned, my time to shine had come, and being invited to Zion was confirmation of the universe’s plan for me.
The trip leader told me we’d be climbing four pitches, most of it being slab, which meant rock angled in a way so that it wasn’t totally vertical. Easy-fucking-peasy. I could climb with minimal worry, and brag to all my new dirtbag friends about doing some multi-pitch in one of the country’s premier climbing destinations. And Instagram! My god, the potential for Instagram. I’d flood my feed with perfectly backlit pics— tying in at an anchor point, glistening with sweat, my bulge accentuated by an overtightened harness, or reaching for a hold, that one vein in my right bicep impressively swollen, with nothing but air and valley floor beneath me. Next time I visited home, the Jersey crew, who had never seen a mountain, would shower me in praise and questions about my daring lifestyle.
When the TL asked if I thought I was really ready for multi-pitch climbing, I snickered dismissively.
“For fucking suuuuuuuuuuure, dude.”
Visions of sponsorship deals, assignments from National Geographic and 300-plus likes on Instagram danced through my head as I hopped in my van to make the five-hour drive. A podcast featuring a retired mountain guide kept me entertained on the way. I gnawed on jerky and nodded along while he reflected on the unpredictability of the mountains, as if we were two contemporaries, both leading intense, high-altitude lives.
The night before the climb, our group of six drank round the fire, laughed and told stories about our most embarrassing moments.
I recalled the time I’d slid through goose shit while playing football at recess in elementary school. I was covered in green feces from hip to kneecap, and was shamed with an onslaught of giggles from my prepubescent peers. It got worse when I got to the nurse’s office and my mother couldn’t be reached to bring me a fresh pair of pants. The nurse had no option but to turn to the lost-and-found pile. I was handed a pair of forest green sweatpants that had clearly belonged to a kindergartener. I was in fourth grade.
While I was an adorable boy, I was also a bit chubby for my age. As if sliding in shit hadn’t been humiliating enough, I spent the rest of the school day squeezed into a pair of pants that were skin tight, and when wrapped around my meaty legs, looked more like capris. At the time, I had a serious crush on a girl. When we passed each other in the hallway, I was sure she had looked away because she could see the outline of my little schmeckle pressed tight against the crotch of the nightmare pants.
When the group’s giggles had subsided and I was done holding court, our trip leader tried to explain some of what we’d be doing the next day: girth hitches, prusiks, fireman’s belay, yadda, yadda, yadda. I sipped my whiskey and pretended to listen. My destiny was but a few hours away, and I wouldn’t waste time concerning myself with particulars.
As we slid into our sleeping bags, I beamed and swelled with confidence, hot bourbon simmering in my gut. I was about to crush my first multi-pitch climb. Not long after that, I’d probably conquer El Cap, and Jimmy Chin would come calling, asking me to collaborate on a project.
At the trailhead the next morning, we exchanged pleasantries with a family who had just hiked a portion of the trail. Their little girl stared at us with wide eyes and said “it was weally hard.”
All swagger, I hoisted my bright yellow North Face duffel over my shoulder, harness and quick draws tinkling inside, and winked at her as we strode past. I smiled, confident that in me, she saw some sort of mountain superhero.
We hiked through a wash and up steep pink sandstone. I was rapidly winded and drew ragged breaths as the trail grew steeper. Determined to maintain my hero façade, I ignored my struggling lungs and offered to carry the pack of one of the girls in our group. She shrugged, laughed in a suspiciously mocking tone, and accepted. I made a mental note to work on my cardio after the trip.
Despite my tortured respiratory system, I was as cocksure as I had been while half-drunk the night before, savoring what was just the beginning of an illustrious adventuring career. I was only anxious about my phone’s low battery level, as it would limit the number of photos I could collect and use to flex on my social media following.
We stopped for water on the saddle between two buttes. I lounged beneath the sun and lazily peeled an orange as everyone else geared up. “Meetcha there,” I called as they made their way to first anchor point.
I dragged on my harness and sauntered over. Then the approach grew steeper. What had been flat beneath me grew round and sloping. The rock became more exposed and my legs trembled.
When I finally reached the anchor, half the group had already started to ascend. I clutched the rock and dug my shoulder blades into it as I slid over to the trip leader and his girlfriend.
They noticed how crazed my breathing had become and suggested I clip into the anchor until we were ready to start. I frantically did so, and looked down. There were a few hundred feet of rock, curved like a salad bowl, and what looked like a few thousand feet of air beneath that. It did NOT look this dangerous on YouTube. This was too much.
The trip leader assured me I’d be safe, that he’d climbed this route before, and I just needed to trust the equipment. I looked at him, bewildered and terrified, as if he were asking me to rob a bank.
His girlfriend relayed techniques that she often used to calm her own nerves. “Just visualize all of the anxiety being pushed out of your skull,” she suggested. Instead, I visualized my skull busting open on a rock as I tumbled off the mountain into the abyss.
I looked up at the first group and my stomach twisted. I realized I’d never bothered to ask the trip leader how long the route was.
“I think 800 feet or so. Something like that.”
EIGHT. HUNDRED. FEET.
No. NO. There was no way. Cinderella’s Castle in Disney world is only 183 feet tall, and watching Tinkerbell zip line off the top during the fireworks show used to make my butthole pucker up. This was unsafe and irresponsible. Imprudent and foolish.
I looked left and there was air. I looked right and there was air. I looked down and there was a bit of white rock, then more air. This was stupid. Everything spun in circles and I began to hyperventilate.
I’d die. Fuck Jimmy Chin. I’d definitely fucking die, bro.
As I frantically swallowed oxygen, our trip leader suggested that he start climbing, and I could make a decision once he completed the first pitch. I agreed. I was letting my anxiety get the best of me. I shouldn’t have cursed Mr. Chin like that. I wanted to do this. This was my destiny. I needed to do this. If not for myself, then at least for my followers.
As the TL started climbing, two cute girls from a separate group rappelled down. We casually muttered hellos as I tried to keep from crying or urinating all over myself.
I couldn’t openly quit in front of them. This was childish and irrational. If they could do it, I could do it. And who knew? Maybe we’d see each other afterwards, I’d invite them back to our campsite, and we’d compare our two harrowing adventures over cocoa and s’mores. I decided I was climbing.
But then, as they began to gather up all their gear, I eavesdropped on their conversation, and heard something about wet rock and holds that felt crumbly.
I looked down again. My poor mother. She didn’t deserve this. To have to be notified over the phone that her son had died careening off some giant rock in the desert? That was selfish, and I wouldn’t do that to her. I was done.
I told the trip leader’s girlfriend, unclipped from the anchor, and slowly slid away, like a shameful slug. I was humiliated. But at least I was alive.
Searing embarrassment made me stop and reconsider again though. We had all the necessary ropes and gear. The TL was right. I needed to trust the equipment and just do it. No fear.
Then, as if on cue, the Nalgene bottle I’d clipped to my harness came loose and tumbled off the cliff face. End over end, it plunked its way down the rock and out of sight. I froze. What felt like a minute passed, then I heard a faint, final plunk.
That was definitely a thousand feet. Probably two. I dry heaved.
What happened to my Nalgene would certainly happen to me. I visualized myself tumbling down the rock face, hitting a few bumps, snapping a couple vertebrae on one, maybe popping an eye out its socket on another. I’d get caught on an outcrop, leaving me dead and dangling, a permanent Christmas ornament on the side of a mountain in the middle of Utah, suspended from a rope my own mother had purchased.
I pressed my palms into the rock in front of me and slid down the slope on my butt. Inch by inch I went, like a dog sheepishly dragging his excrement covered ass across the carpet. I wish someone would’ve grabbed a spray bottle or rolled-up newspaper and shamed me.
When I got to level ground, I sat crisscross applesauce and exhaled. I was alive. I was safe. The mountain would not claim me. Gradually my breathing steadied, my heart stopped thumping, and all was right with the world.
I looked up just in time to see the trip leader and his girlfriend catching up to our first group.
What fools. I wished I could’ve talked some sense into them. I began to think of what I’d say when I called their mothers with the bad news.
The first group couldn’t see me and called down to the TL “Wait, is EIC not with you guys?”
“He, uh…opted out.”
A few giggles.
“Who wants his beer?!”
I groaned, laid back, and covered my face with my hat. They were all going to meet each other on the summit, hug, and celebrate the completion of such an exhilarating feat. They’d look out at the vast expanse before them, then there’d be the triumphant pop and hiss of lukewarm PBRs being pried open, and selfies galore.
While they embraced each other, and had their celebratory toast, I’d be lying on my back, counting the minutes till I’d have to explain why I bailed. A new form of humiliation slithered its way round my chest. I would have given anything to be covered in geese shit or wearing those stupid, skin-tight green pants again.
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