“Did you send it???”
My text message whooshes into the vast internet netherworld. Seconds later, I’m greeted by the familiar dancing ellipsis, and the anticipation builds as I wait for my friend Pat to tell me if he’s finally sent Sonic Youth, a route described on Mountain Project as “one of Clear Creek’s best climbs.”
“Fell from the chains,” he replies.
Damn. We make plans to meet up at the local watering hole, where Pat will regale us with move-by-move beta. Coming from most people, I’d find this level of detail annoying, or at least uninteresting, but Pat’s infectious enthusiasm makes me feel like I, too, am a hard climber, though 5.13a is so far out of my league, we’re not even playing the same game.
The first time I met Pat, we were both pretty jetlagged. He’d just caravanned cross-country with his good friend, Bix—who was to be our boss that summer, though that’s another story—and I’d arrived something like twelve hours earlier from Anchorage, where I’d just finished an aimless first year of graduate school.
We stumbled out of our respective Subarus into the dusty parking lot, ready-as-we’d-ever-be to begin training as instructors for an overnight experiential camp in the foothills, and introduced ourselves. As the weeks wore on and our staff grew closer, Pat and I bonded over our mutual hobbies, including mercilessly pranking one another—I taught a group of twelve-year-olds a clever chant about his inability to grow a mustache; he left a terrifying clown marionette in my tent—and making fun of our boss (to whom, if you’ll recall, I am now married).
It’s easy to tease Pat. He always just laughs. Once, at our dirtbag Teton base camp on the outskirts of Jackson, Pat wandered into the willows for a constitutional, only to be startled by a grizzly bear with the same intention.
“Nothing like the possible presence of a griz to add zest to an otherwise routine chore,” wrote Ed Abbey, though he, unlike Pat, actually hoped one might come across him as he shat. I’ve never been able to shake the image of Pat staggering back to camp, drained of color if not of shit, his pants around his ankles, only to collapse in a fit of hysterical cackling—a sight to behold.
It was Pat who belayed me as I led my very first sport climb in Sinks Canyon that summer. For a guy who warms up on the 5.12 adjacent to his latest project, watching me feebly make my way up a demure 5.6 must’ve been pretty tedious—but if he felt that way, he didn’t show it. I was practically glowing by the time I reached the chains, and when he’d lowered me back to earth, Pat high-fived me as earnestly as if I’d just freed the Nose.
I’ve climbed with Pat a lot since that day in Lander, and I can almost never do much more than toprope his warm-ups and give a solid belay. Pat and his girlfriend, Kristin—they also met that summer at camp; something in the water, perhaps?—are forever instigating a trip to Shelf Road, and they spend plenty of Saturdays up Clear Creek Canyon, home of Sonic Youth.
This time of year, Sonic Youth gets sunlight between 11 am and 1 pm. I know this because Pat knows this—he knows every ounce of beta, every minute detail, because he’s actually climbed the route dozens of times. He’s done all the moves, resting or having his belayer pick up the slack in the rope so he can hang for a minute after clipping a bolt, occasionally climbing until he falls because he’s too tired to continue. Pat’s not just looking to get up it; it has to be clean. Sequenced. Perfect.
You can’t miss the route as you drive up the Canyon on US-6: streaked with generations’ worth of spring runoff, the New River Wall rises directly from Clear Creek, which, even in its dormant winter state, leaves the belay beach nearly underwater—it takes some creativity on the belayer’s part to avoid lowering a climber right into the creek from the overhung top of the climb. If you fell near the bottom, even a vigilant partner couldn’t take up enough slack in time to keep you from hitting the ground. It’s steep as shit, you guys. The wall looks totally blank. Picture Peter Parker clinging to the ceiling, equipped only with the microscopic hairs on the pads of his fingers. That’s Pat. Pat is Spider-Man. People gather in the pullout to watch when they see someone on Sonic Youth.
Pat’s been talking about this route pretty much as long as I’ve known him. He’s racked up plenty of impressive and formidable climbs in the intervening years, lots of them graded harder than this one, but it always comes back to Sonic Youth.
“I’m gonna be climbing 5.14 before I finally send it,” he used to joke. He’ll get the route in his craw for awhile and be out there every chance he gets, then pull a muscle or sprain an ankle or get jazzed on some über-classic desert tower and give it a rest. It ebbs and flows, but it’s always there.
There’s something so appealing about that narrative: protagonist has a goal, works hard at it, accomplishes it. Lots of people do this. Hell, I do this. But it’s a more engaging story when it’s about someone you’re really rooting for—and who’s really rooting for you. Pat’s approachable, to say the least—he’s always got this goofy grin on his face, framed by a shock of curly red hair, including, for the first six months or so I knew him, a truly hideous rat tail—but it’s more than that. He’s genuinely interested in whatever it is you’re doing, and he wants to celebrate it with you. Probably over a beer. Or a day at the crag. Preferably both.
A few weekends ago, Pat arrived at the crag just in time for its daily dose of mid-winter sun. He’d fallen from the last move—lots of people get here and call it good, but Pat isn’t most people—on his most recent attempt.
When Bix and I re-entered cell service after skiing that morning, he turned on his phone. There was a text from Pat.
“Guess what?” it read.
I don’t know what Pat’s next project will be. Whatever it is, it’ll be the sort of climb I literally cannot even dream about—I’ll never be a 5.14 climber. But it doesn’t matter. I’m just as excited to watch as Pat dances his way up those hard routes as he was to see me lead a modest 5.6 for the first time.
That’s a pretty good quality in a friend.