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Climbing lessons

Chris enjoys a carefree day climbing the Royal Arches route with a trusted friend and climbing partner after the Yosemite climb
Christopher Tuffley recounts a suspenseful day’s climb with a Donald Trump-loving stranger in Yosemite National Park.

“Are you a Republican or a Democrat?”

The question comes out of nowhere as I’m racking gear to climb After Six, an easy multi-pitch route in Yosemite Valley. I look at my questioner for a moment before answering. He’s sitting on a log a couple of metres away: my climbing partner for the day, an arborist from the East Coast named Jake who’s on his first trip to Yosemite. We just met an hour or so ago in Camp 4. He has close-cropped hair and the muscled body of someone who works out; I’d guess he’s in his early 30s, so maybe 10 years younger than me. With the presidential election only a few weeks away, the last thing I want to do is talk Trump versus Clinton with a complete stranger. “I’m from New Zealand,” I answer. “We don’t have Republicans or Democrats.”

“I’m from a rural area and served two terms in the military. You can probably guess what I am.”

“I get the sense we may be at opposite ends of the political spectrum,” I say, then go back to racking gear, wondering what I’ve let myself in for.

It’s not so much the apparent difference in politics that has me questioning myself – although it strikes me as odd that he felt the need to ask. He’s friendly enough, and if we can’t reach across the aisle we’re in trouble, right? Rather, it’s the growing sense that I may be about to put my life in the hands of someone whose climbing nous doesn’t match his confident swagger.

We’d met around sunrise when I was waiting in line for a site at Camp 4. California had been home for nine years, and after 10 years back in New Zealand, I’d finally managed to return to Yosemite, near the tail-end of a three-month work trip to the States. The drive into the Valley yesterday had felt like dropping in on an old friend, with the evening sun painting El Cap and Half Dome a rosy red. But Yosemite isn’t the kind of old friend that can give you a bed for the night at short notice, and I’d ignored advice that if I wanted a site at Camp 4 I’d have to spend the night sleeping in line at the kiosk. The sign said there were 22 places available; surely I’d still get one if I camped at our traditional old Friday night spot just outside the park, as long as I came back early enough? But now there were 28 people ahead of me.

I was pondering giving up and leaving when Jake had come walking down the line asking “Anyone looking for a climbing partner?” I’d come to hike, but I had my shoes, harness and helmet with me, and I was keen to climb if the opportunity came up. I caught his eye as he went by. “I might be. What are you thinking of climbing?”

He’d named the Nutcracker, a Yosemite classic: a beautiful five-pitch 5.8 testpiece. I’d climbed it years ago, leading every pitch, and it was a route I’d love to climb again. But I was feeling rusty, and I remembered some moves that had challenged me then – the arching lieback on the first pitch, the awkward bulge on the third, and the infamous mantel on the last, where the price of failure could run to a broken ankle. I wasn’t feeling confident I could lead them now, and I was wary of jumping on a route I was unwilling to lead with a partner I’d only just met.

A couple of routes over though was After Six; with a 5.7 crux first pitch, and even easier after that, it’d be perfect for getting a sense of both my climbing and his before getting on something more committing. I put it to him: “What say we do After Six first, as a warm-up, see how that goes, and then we can climb the Nutcracker after?”

I was soon wondering what I was getting myself in to. His car was full of rubbish, instant noodle bowls, styrofoam coffee cups, a Yosemite no-no – just asking for a bear to break in, plus a ticket from a ranger. I made him stop at a dumpster to clear it out. Approaching the crag, I’d steered the conversation around to anchors and climbing calls, wanting to make sure we understood each other when we were at opposite ends of the rope. I’d thought he’d welcome the discussion, but he soon bristled. “When you see my rack, there will be no more questions,” he’d declared. “There will just be big happy smiles.”

And indeed, when he pulled it out of his pack there was much to smile about: lots of cams, with doubles in every size of Black Diamond Camalot. But there were puzzles, too. I didn’t see a set of nuts; his quickdraws were better suited for clipping bolts on a sport climb, rather than nuts and cams on a trad route; and was that his arborist’s work harness he was planning to climb in? It was thick and wide and heavy; I’d never seen anything like it. Finding some shoulder length slings in his pack, I’d set to converting his sport draws to ‘tricky tripled’ trad draws – and that’s when he’d popped the question of politics.

“Are you a Christian?” Another question out of nowhere. What is this, some kind of test? He’s standing a metre in front of me this time. “No”, I reply.

“What are you then? Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Sikh?” He rattles off a long list of faiths; I don’t catch all of them.

“I’m an atheist,” I say, then somehow feel compelled to add that my mother grew up going to church, but as an adult she had questions that a priest failed to adequately answer. “I have questions too,” he says, “But I still believe there’s a God above.”

Okay; glad we got that sorted. Then he tells me that there was a wrong answer, and it’s a good thing I haven’t given it. So it was a test then? It gives me little comfort that I seem to have scraped by with a pass. I finish racking the gear, and as I’m putting the slings from his sport draws back in his pack I spot a carabiner of nuts. He does have some! There’s only half a set, and mostly larger sizes, but they’re coming with us. I add them to the rack.

We’re ready to climb now, and he offers to lead the first pitch. I guess I haven’t exactly sold my climbing confidence. I’m not bothered though; I accept, and he starts upwards.

“God-damn!” A shout from above and a tug on my harness from the rope running through my belay device. He’s fallen on a short smooth lieback section about five metres up. There’s some blood. “Are you okay?” He tries again, and falls a second time; visibly shaken, he calls down to me. “Do you want to lead?”

I lower him to the ground. The backs of his knuckles are torn and bloody, but he seems unconcerned and just wipes them on the front of his shirt, leaving long streaks of red. I take the rack and start climbing. As I leave the ground, my mind goes back to the first time I led this pitch, on an August day so hot you couldn’t palm the rock without burning your hand. Today it’s still cool, the October sun having only just reached the base of the wall. That day I was climbing with Dorothy, and I remember her firm view that you should never climb with strangers. I can’t help wondering what she’d think of me today.

I reach the base of the lieback. The cam he fell on is too small for the crack it’s placed in. The lobes are almost completely open; he’s lucky it held. As I’m inspecting it, he calls up to me. “Everything okay?”

“It’s a bit open, I’m going to replace it with a larger one.”

“They can move, you know that right?” Yes, cams can walk, but I don’t think that was the issue here. I clip off the new placement, then move easily through the lieback. I sense he’s put out that I didn’t have any trouble. It was in the shade when he climbed it, and I suggest it’s the warmth of the sun that has made the difference, improving the friction between the rock and our sticky rubber climbing shoes. In truth, it’s probably more a matter of what you’re used to: it’s been years, but I’m still on home turf. I reach the top, anchor, and put him on belay.

He joins me at the anchor. “You like your nut placements, don’t you?” The shoulder-length slings are hanging in long loops from his harness, and I show him how to re-triple them for racking, then un-triple them to clip a piece long to reduce rope drag.

We finish re-racking, then he leads the second pitch. It’s a short easy one, and before long I’m following him up. Maybe this is going to turn out alright after all.

A surprise is waiting for me when I reach him: he’s clipped into the anchor, but he’s untied from the rope. I don’t get it. What possible reason could he have to untie? Multipitch 101 says you stay tied in until you finish the climb, and the way he’d talked I hadn’t expected to be giving him any climbing lessons. “Do me a favour and stay tied in until we reach the top, will you?”

Then a shock: when he goes to put me on belay he starts by undoing the clove hitch tethering me to the anchor. For a brief moment, a misstep on my part could cost me an enormous fall. “Hey, put me on belay before you take me off the anchor!” Sure, it’s a huge ledge, and I agree I’m hardly about to fall, but let’s follow good practice here, I say.

His phone rings a couple of times, and he checks it but doesn’t answer; someone who wants to contract him for some tree work, it seems. “Don’t they know I’m on vacay?!” he says, putting it away again.

The third pitch is longer, easy, but still fun, and I use almost the whole rope length before anchoring on a ledge in a small alcove. The sun’s higher now and the view’s opening beneath us of the pine trees, meadows and high walls of the Valley. It’s great to be back.

He’s out of sight beneath me and as he comes into view around the curve of the face, I see he’s trailing a second rope. What’s going on now? It belongs to a party that got caught by darkness yesterday, who have come up looking for some gear they left behind; they’ve asked him to bring it up so they don’t have to lead the pitch. Amid some tugs on it from below, and some frantic calls of “Do not climb!” in response, we get them on belay – then finally understand their muffled shouts that they want us to fix it to our anchor so they can ascend it directly. We re-rig the rope and give them the all clear to climb.

He chats away happily as he re-racks, placing cams and runners on a small sandy ledge as he sorts them, instead of clipping them straight to his harness where there’s no risk of dropping them. Another puzzle. Okay, it’s not actively dangerous, but it’s slow, and he takes an age to re-rack. Not that it matters much: with another party using our anchor we’re going to be held up here for a while anyway.

By the time the first member of the other party has ascended their rope, a grey-haired Finn has joined us too and is already belaying his partner up. The alcove is getting crowded. Jake’s in no rush, chatting happily to all and sundry, but finally starts leading the fourth pitch, a mixture of easy crack and face moves to a large bushy ledge. I’m surprised to see it’s already well past noon. Where has the time gone? At the same time, I’m relieved. There’s no way I’m climbing the

Nutcracker with him, and now I won’t have to manufacture an excuse: we simply won’t have time.

“Off belay!” comes the call from above, then a little later: “Are you tied in?”

It’s finally too much. Didn’t we discuss this already? “I never untie!” I yell back.

The Finn is unimpressed, fed-up and grumbling about the delays and Jake’s constant chatter. He wants to overtake us, but right now it’ll just add to the traffic jam. There are still two pitches to go. I promise him that we’ll be faster, trying to distance myself from Jake as I do so.

When I reach him he finally seems to have realised I’m unhappy with his climbing. “Am I a safe climber?” he asks worriedly. “Do you enjoy climbing with me?”

I try to soft-pedal my reply: “If you want to climb a long route you’re going to have to get faster on the changeovers at the anchors.” But then my tongue keeps going, and my views on his safety practises come spilling out. He hasn’t realised how late it is either and is testy when I say we won’t be climbing the Nutcracker. “Why, have you got someplace else you need to be?”

There’s a tense silence as we complete the changeover.

A pitch later, he’s back to his usual talkative self; more macho banter that doesn’t interest me much. In fairness, I doubt I’m the kind of person he’d usually choose to spend the day with, either. I’m feeling more relaxed as well – perhaps getting a few things off my chest did some good. I’m curious about his politics – I’ve never met a real live Trump supporter; can he really be one? I want to ask, but hold myself back – best to wait until we’re safely on the ground.

He leads the final pitch, I follow, and then we’re at the top, united at last in triumph. Tension and safety concerns aside, it’s been a fun climb. I snap his picture with his phone, then we pack up and prepare to head down. He looks for the rappel anchors and is surprised when I tell him the descent is a walk-off. I feel bad. My approach shoes are clipped to my harness; I could have said something when I saw him leaving his behind, but I’d assumed he’d made an informed choice. He ignores the descent trail on his way down, plunging instead straight down the steep gully in his climbing shoes.

At the base of the crag once more we watch a climber on After Seven, an alternate start to After Six. It’s a beautiful line, a long 5.7 crack system leading to a 5.8 crux, face moves up and right to gain another crack. I find myself itching to lead it. It seems I haven’t quite learnt my lesson yet, because the temptation finally overcomes my apprehension about climbing another route with Jake. One more pitch can’t hurt, right? Hand jams lower down turn to finger locks higher up, my fingers stacked and curled in the crack as it narrows towards the crux. I’ve missed this. The crack runs out and I stretch up and right to an obvious hold, thinking I’ll make it easily through the crux on the strength of my height alone. No – the hold is not the jug I thought it’d be, and it’s several more tenuous moves until I’m safely in the second crack system. Made it! The moves ahead are steeper but look much easier; I can relax.

I look down and am horrified. He’s standing several metres back from the base of the wall as he belays, the rope running through my first piece of gear at a sharp angle. A fall now would put an outward force on the gear that’s supposed to catch me, potentially yanking it out. “Stand at the base of the wall when you’re belaying!” I yell. “You could pull my gear out if I fall!”

“I’ve got to see my climber!” he yells back. No; no, you don’t. That’s it, I’m done. I’m not climbing with him again.

Once we’ve finished the climb and rappelled back down, it’s late afternoon. We pack up and head back to the car. On the way, I finally let my curiosity get the better of me and ask about his politics. He’s a Trump supporter, alright: “If he can do half the things he says he will, it’ll be great for this country.”

“But do you really think he can?”

We find little common ground, but it’s a cordial conversation and we agree to disagree. Perhaps I needn’t have worried earlier.

We reach Camp 4 and shake hands, thanking each other for the day. “I learnt some things from you today,” he tells me. “That tripling thing? I’m going to use that.” It’s the least significant thing I’ve told him.

As we go our separate ways, I can’t help hoping it’s not the only thing I’ve taught him. The biggest climbing lesson of the day though has been mine: a shock course in the perils of climbing with strangers. Tomorrow, I’m going hiking instead.

–  This article won the 2018 Magazine Article category in the Wilderness-sponsored NZ Mountain Film Festival’s Mountain Book competition.