Best of Phoenix

The Rock Gods

click to enlarge CRAIG LAROTONDA
Craig LaRotonda

See all of Best of Phoenix 2017 here.

I was putting on my climbing shoes at the base of a cliff when I noticed a dark-red blood spot on my left ankle.

It was smaller than a dime, yet uncomfortably large. What the hell?, I thought, staring at it for a second like a rookie medic. I tried to recall — did I scrape myself, or bang into a rock? That was the usual source of minor injury on this sort of outing. But I felt no pain.

I wiped the blood off and was surprised to see unblemished skin. Another blood spot then appeared on my calf. I realized what was happening and looked straight up 60 feet of granite to the overhanging top of the route.

“Mike, you’re bleeding on me!” I yelled.

My friend had led the route, taking the rope to secure at the top. He’d struggled on the tough climb and cut himself without even knowing it. A second or two passed.

“Damn, you’re right!” he shouted down at me. “The rock gods will be pleased!”

It wasn’t the first time we’d spoken of these strange deities.

This was in the early 1990s, two or three years after I’d started climbing. We were book-taught “trad” climbers, and created the concept of the rock gods organically, in the midst of a wonderful exploration of the art of climbing. We spent our weekends and vacations surviving adventure after adventure.

My climbing friends and I all happen to be atheists and agnostics — the very last people you’d expect to be talking about any sort of gods. But it seemed natural, and I wasn’t surprised to find out that other climbers talked about rock or mountain gods, too.

Superstition and risk-taking go hand-in-hand, and not just in climbing. (Nor just because Arizona is home to the Superstition Mountains.) Anyone faced with the possibility of imminent death may cling to an irrational belief — something that’s expected to control the one thing they have no control over: luck.

For most climbers I know, that irrational belief is usually manifested as a belief in self. You will make the next move, however risky, because you can, because you’re you. That’s what Jon Krakauer is talking about in the book Eiger Dreams, when he says a successful climb might be “held together with little more than chutzpah, not the most reliable adhesive.”

Still, my friends and I did indeed talk of something else at work.

Our mythology grew around the idea that the rock gods need a small blood sacrifice in order to be truly happy and ensure everyone’s safety. Of course, we didn’t really believe in such gods. The idea was an entertaining fantasy set in the context of a chosen activity in which scratches and “bloody flappers” on hands and fingers are common, and some climbs are rated PG, R, or X for their potential to kill or maim you.

We must have left enough blood for these fictional deities over the years, because something sure helped out my dad the day he almost lost his life during a climb with me.

My father’s in his late 70s and looks like a former athlete. He’s in good shape for his demographic, but he has to limit his cardio exercise, because a long time ago, before he moved his young family to Arizona, his lungs were seared by chemicals and smoke as a New York City firefighter. I’d persuaded him to climb with me as a Saturday lark, picking a classic route I knew he could handle. We’d been to a local rock-climbing gym together once or twice.

Before his firefighting days, he was in the Navy. He’s an ex-boxer, spear-fisherman, and sailboat owner.
He was psyched about the day’s adventure, a climb up the Praying Monk on Camelback Mountain. The Monk is a free-standing, fat pillar of pink sandstone about 100 feet high. The route is called the East Face — I’ve climbed it 30 or more times. It’s easy and fun, but always a thrill. In several spots, the hand- and footholds are not at all obvious.

As the name indicates, it’s a face climb. It’s not 90 degrees vertical, but to give a frame of reference, climbing the flat plane of the outside of a skyscraper would be a face climb.

The route’s first known ascent was made in 1951 by Gary Driggs, who was 17 at the time and already an accomplished local climber. Before he did it, locals — who didn’t have modern, rubber-soled climbing shoes — spoke of the “Impossible Monk,” and considered it unprotectable and just too sketchy to be climbed safely. Driggs took a memorable lunge about halfway up, risking his life for the glory of being first.

To get to the Monk, you first have to ascend a lower climbing area called the Headwall. That was Dad’s first outdoor rock-climb, and the Monk — far more technically difficult — would be his second. In retrospect, I should have spent a little more time on instruction, considering what we were about to do. But fathers usually do the instruction — it’s tough to instruct one. Mine, anyway.

Typically, when I take a newbie out to the Monk, there are at least three people involved. That’s helpful because climbers at the top can’t see those at the base. In other words, I, the leader and only one with experience, would not rope in my father before his climb and double-check his harness before he started up this no-BS route.

No problem, we agreed. He felt confident he knew what to do. He would belay me as I climbed up first.

“After I set up the anchor on top, I’ll pull up the slack in the rope,” I told him. “Tell me to stop pulling it up when there’s about 20 feet left, then tie yourself in. Tie the double-figure-eight knot into your harness. Then I’ll have you on belay and I’ll let you know when you can start climbing.”

“Got it.”

“Tie a double-figure-eight knot.”

He confirmed he would. I had extra anxiety as I led the route, climbing higher and higher above him. He would have to do everything right, because he’d have to, I thought. Of course he would.

I couldn’t banish the worry entirely — it was standard practice to check your partner’s knot, no matter the experience levels, and I hadn’t done that.

I attained the summit, slung the chain-anchors, and called down to Dad, “On belay!”

“Climbing!” he called back. As expected, I couldn’t see him 100 feet below because of an overhang of rock. I slowly pulled up the rope as he climbed. Usually, the climber on top rope is in no danger at all. If Dad slipped off the rock face at any point, he wouldn’t fall. He would find himself suddenly dangling on the belayed rope, like the fish he used to catch on his boat.

The route was well within his ability, and he climbed smoothly up the first 30 to 40 feet. Soon, I was relieved to see his face appear on the moonscape of rock below, then his whole body, the rope clearly running from his harness up the face to my hands. I pulled methodically as he kept climbing. He was smiling and having fun. He got to the blank spot where Driggs had lunged, and without knowing about Driggs, he saw a chance to show off. He sprung off his footholds, launching himself straight up, his hands outstretched. His fingers grabbed a lip of rock well above him and locked tight. Then he hauled himself up to the next good footholds.

“Awesome!” I yelled.

He was beaming as he made the last few moves and joined me at the small summit for the amazing, 360-degree view of Echo Canyon Park. I took in the last few feet of slack from the rope, Dad now seated beside me. That’s when I heard him say, “Oh. Look.”

He was looking down at his own harness. I stared at it. The horrible reality came at me in a rush. Instead of the double-figure-eight he had only recently learned, he’d chosen instead to tie a standard sailor’s knot — the bowline.

Useful as the bowline is, in climbing it’s notorious for coming undone. As his bowline had, somewhere on the climb. The end of the rope hung loosely overlapped through the harness. It would not have held his weight for even a second if he had slipped on his climb. He had scaled the Monk unprotected. My insides churned.

“And you did that lunge move.”

If Dad had missed his handhold on that totally unnecessary lunge move about 60 feet off the deck, he would have died. Little question about that.

I’ve had a few close calls in climbing myself. But it’s easier to process my own risk-taking. Even years later, no climbing memory fills me with as much dread as the thought of what could have happened to my dad that day, and how I would have been responsible for it.

There’s no good explanation for why he stuck the move. Sure, he’s my dad — the one who gave me my adventure gene. He can do things like that. But I’m also glad for all my scratches and scrapes over the years — and the blood offerings left on boulders and cactus needles across Arizona.

Just in case.