This piece was written for my American Literature and the Environment Class, for our Place-Based Essay assignment.
It’s 8 AM in Sedona. Not early morning – the sun has already peaked over the buttes and towers and otherworldly spires. But it’s not yet afternoon – the angle is still low, the air still thin and crisp, the stretch of Highway 89A that runs through town is not yet congested with RV’s and ATV’s and passenger cars all the way back to Manzanita Campground. All of that will come later. Right now, everything is solidly, but not overly, awake. Shops are opening – I can see them as we drive through the small stretch of town – rolling up the metal gates that cover their glassy front windows, inviting the day’s quota of tourists to investigate the wonders that lie within.
I try as hard as I can not to let my inner Edward Abbey be deeply disgusted by “uptown Sedona.” What harm is there, after all, in allowing people to walk the streets, to shop for crystals and jewelry and T-Shirts, to reserve Pink Jeep tours? Is it not their right, just as much as it is mine, to enjoy the scenery, to look up at the red giants towering over the junipers and canyons? How am I to know for certain that none of them have actually hiked to the base of Courthouse Butte or the top of Bear Mountain? And even if they haven’t done so, haven’t they still enjoyed being in this place, even if it is from the inside of an abysmal machine and behind a layer of glass? Yet, despite my half-hearted attempts at fairness, in my mind there are still two Sedonas: This one that we’re driving through, the “fake” one, the congested, touristy, Gatlinburg-y one, and the “real” one: The one that only climbers and hikers get to see. The one that’s raw and chossy and red and terrifying, where I have spent countless hours hiking up to hidden arches and basking in the sun. The one where every trail, no matter how unassuming the Forest Service website description is, contains vaults of hidden beauty around every corner – creeks and oak trees mixed with yucca and prickly pear; arches perched high in a wall a hundred yards off trail; soaring cliff faces and undulating amphitheaters.
This Sedona is the one we’re driving to this morning. I’m with my friend Chris, who is visiting from Atlanta, and who is the person who first introduced me to rock climbing nearly four years ago. Though my relationship with the sport has been fitful and off-and-on since then – I’m terrified of falling, think too much, and have the world’s worst spatial awareness – it has changed my life for the better in so many ways, and I’m grateful to have been introduced to it. Considering this, I knew when Chris told me that he was coming to visit that I had to take him on this particular climb: Queen Victoria.
Named, like the similar formation at Bryce Canyon, for its silhouette that looks strikingly like that of said British monarch, Queen Vic is a short, mellow, classic 5.8 multipitch tower. From 89A it looks precarious and thin, with a wide base that tapers towards a slightly tilted summit. It looks, from far away, like you could extend a finger and gingerly poke the top of the tower, and the whole thing would come crashing down. I think about this every time I see it, and I both smile and shudder. I haven’t decided yet if rock climbing is an obnoxious, egotistical expression of humans’ stubborn belief in our permanence and prowess, or if it is a humble acknowledgement of the transience of all things; a quiet participation in the limits of mortality. Perhaps it’s both.
Having exited (or perhaps escaped?) the paved roads of Sedona proper, and having bounced and sped in Chris’s truck down the rocky terrain of Schnebly Hill Road, we find our parking spot, pack up, and start hiking on the Marg’s Draw trail, up a hill, and down and into a dry wash. Smooth pebbles and sand sink underfoot, as we walk through oscillating sun and shade in the strand of junipers that bow over the creek bed. I breathe deeply as I walk. Sedona has a very specific smell, and one that I struggle to describe. There is a sharp note of bark: not metallic, but crisp and clean. Then there is the smell of warmth, of afternoon sun on sandstone. Sometimes, when climbing in Sedona, I can’t help but put my face to the rock and breathe it in. It’s something like the smell of old books, but with the earthy tones of soil. And then there is the scent of juniper, a sweet, but not flowery, melody. They work in concert, lulling me forward, up and out of the wash, onto the trail again, and up another drainage to the Queen Vic climber’s trail.
The difference between established trails and approach trails cracks me up. “Real” trails in Sedona are, while sometimes rugged and rocky, carefully planned out; they make sense. They follow acceptable grades, walkable switchbacks, and a practical width. Climber’s trails, on the other hand, are single-minded and sometimes terrifying. Their goal: Get to the base of the climb as quickly as possible. Awkwardly, with my rope slung across the side of my backpack, I begin to scramble up the loose scree of a steep wash, taking massive steps between logs and huge stone blocks, stepping over branches, through trees, and precariously close to prickly pears and yuccas. I reach the slabby, pink rock drainage that I remember from before, and rush up it, putting as much of my soles as possible on the angled stone. Breathe. I navigate around another sandy choss pile, and begin the last part of the approach through a rather tricky field of pokey things: prickly pears, cholla, yucca, manzanita.
It occurs to me, as I somehow become entrapped between a very large, very healthy prickly pear and an equally impressive pale green yucca, how much clumsier I am in this environment than everything around me. These plants, perched on the side of this sloping drainage, take no issue with the scree, the angle of the hill on which they reside, the intense sun, or the dryness. They are evolved to be here, right here on the side of this formation. The wide paddles of the prickly pear look so confident, branching outwards from the ground, from other paddles, in all directions, a symphonic chaos of spines and green. I, on the other hand, am a tourist. I am not naturally cut out for this place. Stumbling, with my rope and backpack and extreme lack of awareness of where my body is in space, I feel like a fool compared to the cacti.
Chris, at the top of the hill already, sees – or rather hears – me struggling. “What are you doing?” he asks, incredulously.
“Oh, shut up,” I say, but I’m cracking up. “I got stuck in a prickly pear.” Derp. I toss my rope up to him and attempt to extricate myself from the precarious situation, but not before my right calf gets the full force of a spiny paddle. Several more minutes and expletives later, I am finally at the top of the hill and at the base of Queen Vic, pulling spines out of my leg, while my climbing partner shakes his head at my utter lack of grace. He’s known me for seven years now, though. He expects nothing less.
Cactus, 1. Sarahmarie, 0. Already humbled, and I’m not even on the climb yet.
Spines removed, harnesses on, and gear at the ready, we take one last drink of water and walk up to the base of the tower. I’m always stunned at the contrast between the scope of a climb from far away and its actual size close up. From the Midgley Bridge, it looks like a precarious, delicately balanced totem pole, but from here, the Queen is impressively wide. Up close, too, the faraway conception of Sedona’s formations as smooth, polished rocks falls away quickly: there are seams, dihedrals, snaking cracks, huge chocks, and columns of red rock coming out in every direction. From here, feet away from the rock, it’s easy to see why the name “Sandona” has been lovingly applied to this environment. It’s a total choss-fest. The route itself has been climbed enough that most of the loose scree has fallen away. But still, the first time I climbed Queen Vic, at the top of the first pitch I was the recipient of a falling shower of rocks – luckily, I had my helmet on. Trad is rad.
There’s something special to me about the moment before a climb begins – the tie-in, the gear check, the send-off. I love the smell of a climbing rope. Well used, and well cared for, a rope bears the memory of every rock it has ever touched. It smells like dirt and chalk; it smells like juniper and sunshine. I flake out the smooth 9.5mm coil, and tie a figure 8 with the long end, the other attached in a bowline to Chris. I unclip my GriGri, place the rope, and twist it shut to my belay loop.
“Belay’s on,” I declare, clicking the gate to prove I’m locked.
“Alright,” Chris says, already climbing, much less concerned with formalities. “See you at the top.”
The first pitch is well protected, and shaded, following a clean chimney with good feet to a comfy belay station and anchor. It’s also the easiest pitch, so before I can really register that I’m belaying, Chris is at the top, pulling up rope.
“That’s me,” I shout up to my now invisible climbing partner, when the tension reaches my figure 8. I slide on my shoes and lace them up. When he gives me the all clear to start climbing, I dip my hand into my chalk bag, smear the white powder between my palms, crack my wrists, and yell, “Climbing!”
This is the first multipitch I’ve done in months, and I haven’t climbed sandstone in well over a year. I’m savoring every minute. The rock is pleasantly cool in the shade – not the cold, unbearable brand of chill that limestone has when it’s not in the sun, but a smoother, slightly more comfortable temperature. Still, my hands are chilly as I advance upwards, and I stop periodically to blow on them or tuck them under my arms for a few seconds. I come to the first piece – a small cam – and squeeze its trigger, wedging it out of the wall, and clip it to my harness. The carabiner shuts with a satisfying click. The pitch continues, as I place my chilled fingers on solid ledges, my feet on periodic footholds or stemmed across the chimney.
In case the cactus incident wasn’t a clue, I’m not a graceful person. I don’t move smoothly from place to place, or from hold to hold. Maybe this is lack of experience, or maybe it’s just physics. My climbing isn’t always rhythmic or pretty. But on this first pitch, I start to remember the movements. Find a foot, push, reach up. Match hands. Left foot, left hand up, pull. Right foot. Push. On a climb like this, a mellow, lovely climb like this, I can’t help but smile as I move. There’s a bit of a breeze, and as I climb I listen to the way it whistles through the cracks in the rock on the sides of the chimney. It raises in pitch as the wind picks up, and then tapers off as it dies out. I look out to my right and can see down to the highway, 89A. It’s starting to get busier now – there’s not quite a full backup yet, but more people are headed into town. On the streets of Sedona, folks will be browsing the crystal shops, trying on T-shirts, and reserving Pink Jeep tours. There will be noise, and conversation, and exchange of currency, and traffic.
But here, there’s just the wind, just my breath, just the periodic take-up of slack as I move progressively higher. One place isn’t better than any other. But I like where I am right now.
Having flailed, failed, and beached-whaled myself all the way to the top of the notorious pitch 2 offwidth, I plop down dramatically next to Chris at the belay. He’s leading all three pitches of course, because I haven’t led anything in months, my gear placement is abysmal, and because this tower is a walk in the park for his collected skills from twelve-plus years of climbing. The second pitch is awkward at best, and sketchy without a #4 or #5 cam for the offwidth crack. Chris brought neither, but he managed to find a smaller, bomber horizontal placement at the top of the first limestone band. I was shaking in my boots at the belay, but he, of course, was smooth and confident. My turn climbing wasn’t quite as pretty, but I still made it up, and that, in my book, is what matters.
“Well, that was fun,” I say, smiling and exhausted. And I mean it. Every moment that my hands and feet (and sometimes even my face) are in contact with rock, no matter how hard the pitch is or how much I struggle, is a good moment. I am in reverent awe of the smooth kiss of limestone and sandstone against my chalky skin, the sharp whip of the wind against my neck, the seeping warmth of the sun overhead. Bruised and sore though I may be, at the end of every day of climbing I will forget all of the frustration, the awkwardness, and the pain, and will ultimately remember only how satisfying it is to be in literal physical contact with the natural world.
The belay at the top of this pitch is massive. From the end of the second offwidth, a limestone ledge extends three feet outward to a tree. Further back from this band, on the tower itself, there’s a sandy, level space of about ten feet by ten feet. The sum total of this area is that it feels like we’re practically on a prairie. We’re clove-hitched into the anchor, of course, but we leave a long length of rope so we can move around. For once, there isn’t a line of climbers waiting at the bottom of the tower, so we decide that we’re not in a rush. Moving away from the edge, we sit with our backs against the sandstone wall and look out onto Sedona. To what I think is the northeast, there is a massive, domed sandstone formation with an impressively exposed south-facing wall. The sun is shining directly on this part of the rock, and it looks almost like it’s glowing. The real magic of Sedona, I decide, is the color contrast. In the afternoon, with the sun at an angle, the already-impressive orange-red of the rocks lifts off into another plane. Against the electric blue of the sky, the warm, burning orange seems so alive it almost hums. If I close my eyes, I think I can hear it: the beating, coursing heat of the rock.
On the same formation, the west-facing side is now totally in the shadows. A week ago it snowed, and there are spatterings of white all around the sloping base of the butte. The play of the light and the shadows, like the red rock against the blue sky, provides an interesting contrast. I imagine climbing that exposed wall – bathed in melting, buttery sunlight, perhaps it would be too hot. And it would have to be a sport climb, I think; there’s no crack to speak of, at least not that I can see. It doesn’t look like a route that I could climb. But then again, you never can tell until you get on the rock. Then I think about climbing in the shadows, how cold, windy, and miserable it would be right now. How much all of the negative things about climbing would come out: cold hands, the misery of being unable to send, frustration. Yet, in these shadows and in this cold, despite the darkness, it’s sometimes easier to hold on than the palm-sweating brightness of day. How much difference the sun makes. In one place, there can be so many different temperatures and feelings. All it takes is being on a different side of the rock.
My thoughts are broken by the call of two crows overhead – I think they’re crows, at least. Or perhaps ravens? I never learned how to tell the difference. Their smooth, shiny bodies glitter and swoop in the lazy rays of afternoon light. The wind is picking up a little bit now, and one of them catches a gust and turns upward, wings totally outstretched, before turning downward again, pointed beak piercing the breezy air. Then, for the next five minutes, the two of them circle just above the summit, which we can see now, cawing occasionally, but mostly silent, hanging and gliding on the wind.
Chris is watching them too, his pale blue eyes trained on the matching sky. “Wow,” he says. “They must think we’re so dumb.”
I smile. “What, you mean like, ‘Pathetic humans, having to use all their gear. Look how easily we can fly’?”
He laughs in response. “Yeah. Climbing is pretty dumb when you think about it. I mean, look at all this shit we have to bring up just to get to the top, and get back down again.” He jangles his collection of cams in demonstration.
While the crows (ravens?) probably don’t think this, our blatant anthropomorphism strikes me, like my earlier experience with the cacti on the approach, as a metaphor for climbing – or, perhaps more accurately, a metaphor for the reason people climb. The spaces where we go to climb are teeming with life that is adapted for its environment: prickly pears and yuccas that can survive in the harsh sun and dryness; birds that thrive on the wind and ride gusts in graceful arcs. And then there’s us: bipedal, hunking creatures, all bones and flesh and hair. We’ve invented our way into these wild spaces, relying on gear developed in a lab and tested repeatedly for acceptable levels of safety. We carry pounds and pounds of metal, fabric, heavily engineered fibers, shoes encased in rubber – all for the challenge of becoming as close, as unified a part of the environment as we can. The birds, the cacti – they’re residents here. They contribute to the environment, work with it, are integral parts of it. We, on the other hand, are tourists. Much as climbers and hikers – myself included – might like to think of ourselves as somehow different, more special or more real than the tourists in uptown Sedona, we are no more and no less perfect.
Climbing occupies a paradoxical space: on the one hand, it shows us how close we can be to the natural world. No, more than that – it reminds us that we are part of the natural world. Up on a climb, hands jammed in a crack, fingers finding crimps, feet searching for holds, there is very little division between that which surrounds us and that which we are. Yet, at the same time, we can only be in that crack, on that rock, because of the means we have produced to get there. Even free-soloists wear climbing shoes and use chalk. Even they have to train, practice, dial in their abilities. For some people, climbing may be “natural” or an extension of abilities they were born with. But for most people, it’s something that takes work, money, time, and relentless effort (too much effort, I think sometimes). And besides this, the routes we climb are completely arbitrary. Outdoors, we find things that look climbable – it’s not like someone set the routes or dictated where we should go. It’s a human application of a vision to the natural world. Nothing tells us we have to go a certain way or follow a certain route, and yet that is what climbers do. We look at rock formations like puzzles waiting to be found, and then waiting to be solved. We have an itching that comes from someplace deeper than our shiny trad racks and fancy ropes: a need, an instinct to be part of the world in a very specific way.
Perhaps, then, climbing is one manifestation of the powerful, deeply held human desire to stop being tourists of the world, and start being residents. Despite – or perhaps because of – all of the gear we need, all of the effort we expend, all of the technology we develop, we keep trying to climb because we want to know that we belong.
We made it to the summit. The third pitch was a struggle – it’s not exactly hard, but it’s an awkward dihedral stem with very few feet, and while the hand holds are good, they’re a challenge for a short, uncoordinated climber like me. On top of that, the wind kicked in on this exposed pitch, tossing the rope this way and that, blowing my hair in every direction, and stressing me out. But I made it – still flailing, still struggling, I made it.
I hobble over the last few yards’ worth of scrambling, pulling up the rope I had been hauling, and meet Chris at the summit.
“Hey,” he says, looking bemused at all of the noises I had made on the last pitch, and also very cold. It has become really windy and he doesn’t have a jacket. “You did it.” He smiles. “Now let’s get off this rock.”
The wind – and the fact that we’re using two ropes – makes the rappel a challenge. On the second rappel ledge we have to toss the ropes through a notch in the rock, at the top of which I can see growing – you guessed it – a prickly pear. After much delicate finagling, I get the rope over the rock where it needs to be, and I gingerly step over the edge, hand on my prusik, suspiciously eyeing the cactus. Its confident roost there on the rock stands in contrast to my uncertain wobbling rappel – one last reminder of the power of this plant’s adaptation, and the belonging to the space that it occupies.
But as I descend, now fully in the shadow of the tower as the sun begins to dip lower, towards evening, I start to feel that specific kind of peace that can only settle in right after a climb. Even in the wind, the tiredness, it’s there. It’s like a sigh: a great task has been accomplished, an adventure has been had, and now it’s time to rappel down, pack up, and go find dinner. But right now, at this moment, suspended in the air, I’m not desperate to get down, but I’m not dreading it either. I’m simply there. Passing the first pitch, I look to my right again, and see the highway once more – still busy, but less congested, the sun’s rays long and low over the bridge. We’ll be back on that road soon, heading north, participating in the great, inevitable passing of time. I look back to the rock, up to the birds, up to the cactus. And I feel something akin to being at home.