JANUARY 14, 2014: I’m connected to the wall by only a small, sharp limestone undercling above my head. The air is still and slightly humid. Trusting a tiny smear for my left foot, I raise my right foot almost to my waist, and I lever off it to reach my left hand to a distant jug. Six hundred feet of smooth grey rock sweep away beneath my feet, ending in the Mexican desert far below. The town of Hidalgo bustles in the distance, a sprawling grid of roads and rough houses built around a giant cement factory. Up here, away from the honking horns and the rumbling diesel engines, I’m alone and focused. I grasp the jug, shift my weight over my left side and charge up the final stretch of blocky terrain to a ledge.
This was the end of the crux of the fifth pitch of El Sendero Luminoso, a fifteen-pitch 5.12+ in El Potrero Chico. It was by no means the hardest climbing on the route, but the stark simplicity of the moment has stayed with me. To me, that’s soloing at its finest: to be nearly disconnected from the wall with the air all around. There’s a certain purity to that kind of movement that can’t be found with a rope and gear. But despite my love of the simplicity, it’s not always simple to get to those positions.
For me, the willingness to solo a big wall requires just the right route–an impeccable mixture of challenge and aesthetics, something that’s rarely encountered. Sendero represented that combination: hard-enough climbing to demand total concentration and commitment on a perfect line of strength. Jagged fins of limestone jut out of the desert to form the cliffs of El Potrero Chico, and Sendero takes a direct route up the biggest one. It’s the Half Dome of the area–the most obvious objective that lords over everything.
I’d climbed it for the first time five years before, and I’d immediately fantasized about soloing it, but when I came back last winter to revisit the route, I realized that it would take a concentrated effort for me to feel comfortable. Sendero ascends a north-facing wall with a lot of vegetation, and since the climbing is sufficiently difficult to ward off the crowds, there’s not enough traffic to keep the route buffed clean. The holds were full of dirt and plants, and even though I could climb around them or avoid the particularly prickly cactuses, it’s hard to commit when in the back of your mind you’re wondering if there’s an easier way.
This winter, 2014, I returned with my friend Cedar Wright to spend a few days cleaning the route and rehearsing the moves. I didn’t know whether I would or could solo it, but I wanted at least to put in the work and see how it felt. And this is where the purity and beauty of soloing started to get messy: in order to have the magical experience of soloing one of the best limestone walls in North America, I was now bringing a partner, fixing lines and pulling out plants. Moreover, a film crew would come to shoot the solo–or at least make a movie about it after the fact–a project that would mean more people and more impact. Was a three-hour sublime experience worth all this?
OVER THE LAST FEW YEARS OF TRAVELING IN THE DEVELOPING WORLD, I’ve seen firsthand how little most people have. I’ve watched men cut bricks out of mud in the Chadian desert and boys endlessly haul buckets of well water for their goats. I’ve begun to think more about the inequalities in the world and the obligations that might come with privilege. Travel has also made me more mindful of my effect on the natural world. At first, I’d assumed that my environmental footprint would be much lower than that of the average American because I lived in a van and didn’t own many possessions. But as I read more, I realized that the amount of flying that I do still leaves me in the highest percentiles of impact–my climbing trips were resulting in tons of additional greenhouse-gas emissions per year.
My next thought was to buy carbon offsets. After I researched them, however, I decided it might be better to make more direct, personal choices about which environmental programs to support. There were vast differences in carbon accounting methods, and even bigger contrasts in the kinds of projects those programs supported, as well as in the quality of the resulting carbon offsets. Paying someone to plant trees in the first world seemed less beneficial to me than helping to provide solar lighting in the developing world. Although both actions could be considered to “offset carbon,” the second one not only reduces reliance on fossil fuel, but also improves standards of living for local residents. In some developing countries, low-income families without access to electricity spend up to 20 percent of their earnings on kerosene. Purchasing this fuel is an economic burden for them; burning it emits large amounts of carbon dioxide and soot into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. In addition, it causes serious health problems: using a kerosene lantern indoors for an hour is equivalent to smoking up to ten cigarettes.
I’ve tried to approach environmentalism the same way I do climbing: by setting small, concrete goals that build on each other and by paying close attention to potential consequences. In 2012 I started a foundation with the goal of donating money to clean-energy causes. I also worked on smaller projects, installing solar panels at my mother’s house and giving up meat. In some ways, it might seem silly to make the effort when the environmental problems facing our world are much bigger than any one person’s actions–and when experts’ predictions are now filled with apocalyptic visions of calving glaciers, rising seas and savage storms. But some walls also seem so huge and impossible that it appears pointless to work toward them. And climbing sometimes requires the acceptance of failure. The beauty has always been found in the process.
JANUARY 9-13: On this climb, not all of the process was beautiful. Cedar and I wound up spending four days climbing, fixing and cleaning the route. Each day, we worked from sunrise to sunset. Though we were always in the shade of the wall, we’d watch the shadows track across the valley below, before they finally swallowed everything in the murk of evening. The more vegetation we pulled off the upper pitches, the more dirt rained down on the lower ones. The more big plants we removed from the route, the more the small ones stood out. Once we started, we couldn’t stop until we saw a perfectly clean slab of limestone. Some of the plants were particularly tough to get out, adapted as they are to rugged conditions. I had thorns growing out of my hands for a week after I returned to the States. One of the first ascentionists, Jeff Jackson, wrote in an email about Sendero, “God smiles every time you uproot a lechuguilla.” We knew that plants would grow back and that the wall would eventually revert to a hanging garden. But as Cedar and I swung around plucking cactuses and ticking holds, I didn’t know what the long-term effects on the cliff ecosystem might be. I just had a vague sense of unease that we were putting so much work into something that was supposed to be pure and simple.
At the end of the fourth day of work, however, as we rapped down across the smooth face, I couldn’t help feeling a giddy excitement. At some point, a switch had flipped from, Maybe I’ll solo it eventually…to, So psyched! Must solo immediately! I have no idea what flipped that switch, though the climbing did look more inviting without the dirt and plants obscuring the holds. The burnished grey wall was completely clean, save for tiny constellations of chalk. It had taken on the look of a classic–the kind of elegant line you walk up to and know you have to try. A shining path, like its name. I knew I was ready, and I knew that I would solo it the next morning, if the conditions allowed.
It had rained two days before, starting a pattern of morning humidity, and moistening the bottom of the route where the crux was. The climbing follows small runnels and pockets, both of which are prone to collecting water, so everything had to dry. Meanwhile, Renan Ozturk, a good friend from many past expeditions, had arrived with his girlfriend to film Sendero for our mutual sponsor. He’d also arranged for a drone-helicopter company from Boulder, Colorado, to shoot aerial images in an effort to capture the scale and exposure. That meant five more people who’d flown down and who were now waiting for me to solo a big wall. And despite everyone’s assurances that I should only do what I felt comfortable with, and that they could film any other, easier route if I changed my mind, it was hard not to feel a little pressure.
JANUARY 14: I opened my eyes lazily and gazed from the pile of jackets I was using as a pillow. Through the worn, faded blinds, the tops of the mountains were just catching the pale morning sun. Our casita sat atop a hill, overlooking the shadowed plains. From the sofa I used as a bed, I could easily see Sendero weaving its way up the wall. I’d made up my mind; there was no way of escaping the decision. I followed my normal sequence: cereal poured into the yogurt tub, news on my phone. But I lingered, trying to stay patient and let the morning humidity burn off. I focused with artificial intensity on my phone, using it to ignore the cameras and questions of the people around me, but not really understanding what I was reading. The only thing that mattered was Sendero, just coming into the light.
Finally, I made the fifteen-minute stroll over to the base of the route, weaving through scrubby, prickly bushes and struggling up a loose scree slope. My light backpack made me feel buoyant. The shoes, chalk bag, bars and water inside it seemed weightless compared to the 600 feet of static line and the full rack that we’d been carrying the past few days.
One of my favorite aspects of soloing is the way that pain ceases to exist. The previous long days of climbing had worn out my fingers and toes, but as I pulled on to the first few holds, I felt none of the soreness. Each edge appeared crisp and flawless; each finger lock was like an anchor. Foot jams that had been hideously painful the afternoon before now felt completely solid. Hold after hold, I worked my way up the wall, smoothly and precisely.
What I consider the crux of the route came at the top of the second pitch, maybe eighty meters above the ground. The standard sequence involves opposing side-pulls with small and slippery footholds, but I’d found a two-finger pocket off to the side that seemed slightly more secure. As I chalked up, I felt a little nervous. Or maybe just excited. Or maybe my awareness was merely heightened. It’s hard to untangle the various feelings, but I definitely felt alive. I knew that this was the only moment on the route where I’d have to try really hard. And that’s what I did, completing the sequence exactly as I needed.
Once I calmed down a little and stopped over-gripping, I knew I’d finish the route, even though there were still thirteen pitches to go. From there to the top, I climbed easily, trusting my feet more with each step. I used new sequences on a few pitches, trusting myself to find the easiest way through the blank-looking sea of limestone. On the midway ledge, I popped my shoes off, and again five pitches higher, just to let my toes relax. The desert glowed orange below me–it was heating up to be a pleasant day in the valley–but my attention was focused on the dim and seemingly endless rock above. I’d found exactly the experience I was looking for: I was only a small dot on a vast, uncaring wall, but for those few hours, I got to taste perfection.
SENDERO TOPS OUT ON A SOMEWHAT INDISTINCT TOWER, separated from the main mountain, El Toro, by a narrow saddle and another thousand feet of wall. Cedar and I had climbed that wall a few days before to make sure that I’d be able to continue to the top and connect with the trail down. Someone had been there before us and had added a few bolts. Instead of the loose, jungle-like bushwhack we’d expected, we found a surprisingly good line up a tube-like chimney. So when I summited the Sendero tower, I knew that the real climbing experience was over. I’d soon be going back to work.
Cedar had led the remote-control helicopter crew to the top of El Toro. As I climbed the jumbled blocks that made up the final ridge, they’d start trying to capture some scenic aerials, and once I reached the true summit, we’d pose for shots until they ran out of batteries. I just hoped that someone had brought me food and water. Fortunately, they had. We spent the next three days re-climbing and shooting various pitches. It’s anticlimactic to go back up a route to pose all over it. The triumph of the actual achievement gets lost in what follows. But as I slithered in and out of my harness on various ledges, climbing different sections for the camera and clipping into anchors in between, I tried to remind myself that I wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to experience a wall like this one. At the end of our last day of filming, the only thing that remained was for Cedar to redpoint the route, since he’d sacrificed his own attempts to support mine. Although it was dark and our flight home would leave the next morning, Cedar decided to give the climb one last good try.
The full moon rose as he started the first pitch, casting a pale glow across the whole wall. There’s something eerily calm about moonlight. I left my headlamp off, and I fed out slack in the darkness, pondering the last week. Had it been worth it? What had we really done? For the first five pitches, Cedar moved steadily up the wall, the silence punctured only by the occasional, “I’m off belay. Line’s fixed!”–my cue to start jugging as fast as I could. That way, Cedar could conserve the energy he would have wasted on belaying and rope management.
While he struggled through the intricate slabs, I couldn’t help wondering whether making such a big production out of climbing went against all the environmental principles I wanted to stand for. Can RC helicopter shots and minimalism really go together? What did it mean to fly a whole crew down to Mexico for me to enjoy one three-hour climb? Instead of answering the same media questions about fear and risk again and again, could I use those interviews and videos to speak about climate change and energy poverty? Do I have to be traveling all the time? Or soloing walls? Climbers like to talk about transcendence, about those sublime moments when it seems as though we’ve escaped the rest of existence. But can we ever really transcend the world around us? Don’t we always have an impact, despite our best intentions? Somehow, I thought, it must all come down to balance. The circle of Cedar’s headlamp drifted slowly away, leaving me alone in the moonlight to swim with my questions.
And then, when we were halfway up the wall, a mariachi band started playing loudly just down the road from the cliff, filling the still desert night with the blaring sounds of horns and accordions. We couldn’t help laughing. I told Cedar they were rooting for him. The moon tracked across the sky as I jugged to the rhythm of live music. At the belay, I pulled my hood tighter against the cool night air. The summit loomed hundreds of feet above, silhouetted against the starry blackness. Though it seemed impossibly far off, there was nothing to do but carry on. Cedar continued tiptoeing up into the night, savoring the voyage.