Is This Climber's Hell?

Here is an unhappy story for you. Three days ago the bouldering heaven of Joe’s Valley, Utah, basked in sunlight, to the tune of 73 degrees—17 degrees above the average. Our band of traveling climbers chased the shade, bouldered in shorts, drank warm beers. With great joviality. The following day, the temperature dropped to 44 degrees—12 below average—and the skies opened with a whipping white fuselage. My tent collapsed, smothered and pitiable beneath several inches of snow, for the first time in a continuous year on the road. No one has smiled in several days.

There are many rings of hell in the Climber’s Inferno. For example, the First Circle, which Dante called Limbo, is a six -hour drive on Highway 50, the “Loneliest Highway in America,” through Nevada on the way to, say, Bishop, Calif. This is where alien abductions happen. Somewhere near the Sixth Circle, Heresy for Dante, we find spray lords trapped under flaming boulders, mandibles snapping and snarling. Chippers and cheaters and liars, waist deep in ice, flail and bawl in the Ninth Circle, for Dante the very center of the Inferno, Treachery. 

I’m currently interested in the relatively banal Second Circle of Climber’s Inferno, which Dante called Lust. You see, it’s snowing today in Joe’s Valley. It snowed yesterday and the day before that, too. It is forecasted to snow tomorrow. After the dinosaur museum and driving up to the reservoir (and walking around a little and sort of looking at stuff), there’s really only one thing to do on a forced rest day in Joe’s Valley. You stuff everything possible into your backpack and head on into Orangeville, a teensy tiny town blinking in and out of existence on the banks of Cottonwood Creek. Population 1,400, more or less. And, really, all Orangeville has is the Food Ranch. That’s where you go on snowy days like today, your heart lusting for the rock but the rock wet and fragile and white.

Luckily, the Food Ranch is probably the greatest place ever. It’s a privately-owned grocery store (Drew is the owner and he smiles a lot and wears a green smock). The Ranch offers transcendent donuts, hot deli, salad bar, racquetball court, BB guns that look like sniper rifles, climbing chalk, and a cafeteria-like rest area upstairs. This is the Spartan Den–namedfor the Emery Spartans, the county’s high school mascot. The Spartan Den is regularly full of climbers, especially late in the afternoons and on rainy/snowy days.

The Spartan Den is ground zero for the Second Circle of Climber’s Inferno. Nothing brings road-tripping climbers together like a three-day snowstorm. The dirtbags buy their donuts and onion rings and plug in their computers and sometimes they even talk to each other. Mostly about the weather. And climbing, of course. The possibility of climbing despite the weather is a recent conversational highlight. And they—we—stare out the windows, lusting for sun, for wind, for a break in the clouds.

I was at the Spartan Den all day today, one of many disgruntled boulderers. Here is a snippet of a minute-by-minute tour through the Second Circle of Climber’s Inferno, by way of the Food Ranch in Orangeville, UT.

11:05 a.m.  15 climbers sit in the Spartan Den. Locals come in to eat and have to squeeze in amongst us. I can’t smell climber stank anymore, so I’m not sure what the locals are thinking.

11:08 a.m.  There is discussion about when the snow will stop. A couple fellows argue about what tomorrow holds. NOAA, Weather Underground, Climbing Weather; all websites accounted for. My friend Nick is a real bummer because he says you need to wait to climb on sandstone. You need to wait until it dries. He lectures us on broken holds and lost climbs. I note that there are plenty of boulder problems I’d love to ruin. This is a comical moment and for a brief flash I am elevated to fame in the Spartan Den.

11:37 a.m.  15 climbers remain.

12:02 p.m.  Our friend Josh arrives and tells people it is “dumping” outside. Looks of dissatisfaction swell through the climbers. There is grumbling. Nick sighs heavily.

12:30 p.m.  A professional climber is talking to two foreign climbers about directions to a certain area. She tells them to go there and enjoy the sunshine. I’m doubtful there is sunshine anywhere anymore. I am feeling very doubtful about the sun.

12:58 p.m.  Josh throws something into the waste bin and then goes downstairs. No one can be sure what he is doing.

12:59 p.m.  I look over my friend Kyler’s shoulder as he peruses Instagram. I am, by proxy, now also looking at Instagram. This causes a tiny existential blip on my radar.

1:00 p.m.  The professional climber is saying goodbye to the foreign climbers. There is talk of possibly seeing one another again. “When I go on sport climbing trips I see certain people and when I go on bouldering trips I see others,” she says. I silently chew on this thoughtful token.

1:01 p.m.  Nick tells the Spartan Den (15 climbers and two locals, both with moustaches) that he is depressed. He’s asked if he wants to go sledding. He declines and says that he couldn’t possibly sled properly because he is now unable to smile and any good sledder knows that one must smile as one sleds.

1:02 p.m.  The mystery has been unraveled. Josh returns and announces that he has brought Settlers of Catan. He plops it down on my table. I don’t want it on my table, but there it is.

1:03 p.m.  Eight climbers and no locals.

1:04 p.m. I learn from my streaming baseball game that Yadier Molina bobble head day arrives in St. Louis this Saturday. “Distractions from climbing and weather are very welcome,” I write in my notebook.

1:07 p.m.  I spend a moment liking the Climbing Narc’s Facebook posting about the new Star Wars teaser. He likes my “YES YES” comment. I decide it’s a perfect time to watch the teaser again. This is currently my sixth viewing of Teaser #2 and third of Teaser #1. I briefly wonder about 40-year-old Star Wars fans and urgently push the thought from my mind.

1:11 p.m.  “Some of the snowflakes are an inch in diameter,” says Nick. “An inch, Nick?” I retort, sarcastically. “An inch. You should actually go look. It’s scary.” I walk downstairs to look. Although the mission was to debunk Nick’s hyperbole, I am disappointed to verify his observations. The flakes are wet, fat and nearly an inch in diameter. Anger and frustration build to a slight gale in my head.

1:12 p.m. Yadier Molina (bobble head Saturday) smacks a liner for a base hit.

1:20 p.m.  My table. I should mention my table.  Atop the laminate faux-wood rests a Nalgene approximately one-sixth full of water, a 44 oz. diet Mountain Dew with around 19 oz. remaining, a computer, a book, a DVD, a Harvest Energy Power Bar, a notebook, my phone, two iPhone cords, my car keys and the damn Settlers game. I am told we will play Settlers today. I said I had work to do. I am obviously not working.

1:26 p.m.  11 climbers remain in the Spartan Den. Let’s get the gender disparity out of the way. Three girls, eight guys. Two of us are bald. One is a ginger, which is Josh.

1:27 p.m.  A bearded fellow in glasses has arrived and is now talking to Josh. They are discussing the weather. Another dirtbag briefly joins the conversation because the weather determines everything. There is talk of a “sick photo.”

1:28 p.m.  The new fellow is named Brian. He says he recognizes me. Josh says, “Bishop.” Brian nods. It was a polite and exciting interaction but now it is over.

1:33 p.m.  A Facebook message has just blipped on my screen. My friend Lana is asking if I will get ordained and marry her and her fiancé, Scottish Trevor, atop Fine Jade (5.11a), one of Utah’s finest desert towers. I spill the request to the 11 remaining climbers and much discussion follows. Now everyone is talking.

1:40 p.m. I begin my ministry ordination process on the Universal Life Church Monastery website. I am pondering the mysterious legality of it all while staring out the window. It is still snowing.

2:24 p.m.  Not quite a fully ordained minister, I watch the Star Wars Teaser #2 again…