“Stick your hand in here,” Sean said, turning and thrusting his backside.
“Just do it.”
I plunged my hand into the chalk bag that dangled loosely from his harness, and instantly my fingers were enveloped by a soft, velvety texture.
“No way,” I breathed. It was as if my fingers were being caressed by the wind; there were no gritty particles, no blocky chunks, nothing to suggest my skin was making contact with anything inside Sean’s chalk bag. Yet it was. I withdrew and rubbed my thumb and forefinger together. Only the finest layer of white powder covered them and my fingertips slid between each other as silkily as satin bedsheets.
“I won it in a bouldering contest,” Sean said proudly.
“Does it work?”
“Only one way to find out.” He gestured to the rock in front of us. Dubiously, I pulled up onto a route and threw my right hand to a sloper. It stuck. I moved to a crimp and felt the friction under my fingertips.
“Hey, this stuff actually works!”
“Told you,” Sean replied smugly.
And I was sold. I needed to have the talcum powder chalk that Sean had, not because I’m competitive or because I’m a gear whore, but because the stuff felt like a little bit of heaven. The only problem was the chalk, called Bison, is only available in the States.
So on a misty Squamish day last week Geoff and I drove to REI in Bellingham, just for chalk. We cleared out the store’s stock by purchasing four 1-pound containers (each for $13), and made it back to Squamish by 10 o’clock at night. Like children on Christmas Day we ripped open the first container and plunged our hands into the silky powder. Our mouths formed little ohs and we breathed an audible sigh of relief. Thank goodness the chalk was as soft as we remembered Sean’s being or else we would have felt crazy for driving all the way to the States for it.
As we emptied our chalk bags over the porch and watched our old, gritty chalk fly away in the warm night breeze, I said, “I want to go climbing now.”
“Let’s do it,” Geoff replied. “Let’s go climb the Apron.”
“Now? At this time?”
“Yup. We can use headlamps.”
I paused. It was almost 11 o’clock. I’d driven all day. Did I really want to go do a multi-pitch at midnight?
“If you lead it all I’m in.”
Geoff’s face broke into the widest grin I’d ever seen. “Hell yeah!”
We spent the next seven minutes throwing gear into our packs and by 11:10 we were in my car driving to the parking lot, headlamps strapped smartly to our heads.
“Do you think we’re crazy?” I asked as we pulled on our harnesses and sorted out our gear. There was only one other car in the parking lot. No one was even on the highway.
Geoff grinned. “Who cares?” He strapped the rope to himself, rattling his collection of cams, and flicked on his headlamp. “This is going to be epic.”
I giggled. There is something about Geoff’s enthusiasm that I find infectious.
We hiked through the short wooded section at the end of the parking lot, all the while wondering how much longer the climb was going to take us. We’d done it a few weeks ago in just under two hours. Would it take us three tonight? Geoff had never climbed at night, let alone a multi-pitch, and I’d only climbed once in the dark and I had barely pulled myself up the route.
The problem with night climbing is, obviously, visibility. All the subtle nuances of the rock that can be seen by the light of the day become steeped in the shadow of a headlamp, and what might appear to be a bomber hold becomes nothing but a sloper – or a shift in the rock formation. Your ability to see the entire route diminishes and suddenly you find yourself living from hold to hold, without a chance to plan a move ahead. The grade of the route becomes harder because no matter how familiar you are with the rock ahead of time, you can easily get lost.
When we arrived at the bottom of Deidre, both of us were sweating. The air was warm, and sweet with the scent of early summer blooms. Geoff quickly shed his jacket, but I kept my hoody on. I didn’t want to be shivering at the belay stations.
“Ready?” Geoff dusted off his shoes. I knew he had to be nervous, but he didn’t look it at all. Instead, he flashed his boyish grin at me, pecked me on the forehead, and dipped his hands into his chalk bag. “Ah,” he sighed, feigning mock ecstasy. “See you up there.”
He began climbing, slow and steady. I instantly realized I could only look at either the rope being threaded through my ATC, or Geoff. I decided to trust my fingers, and watched as Geoff quietly reached the first place to put protection in. I found myself holding my breath because, unlike last time, all I could see was the light of his headlamp. I listened for the familiar click of a biner’s gate, and then I shouted “On belay!”. My voice resounded into the night air around us.
Within seconds Geoff rounded the corner of the flake and all I could see was the dot from his headlamp as it angled upward. I shifted nervously. Geoff is an extraordinarily strong climber and he could climb Deidre in his sleep, but somehow doing this at night seemed different. What if he went the wrong way and slipped off the slab before he could put any more protection in?
Finally I heard his voice from above. “I’m at the belay station. I’m secure.”
I watched as the rope slithered past me, and I put on my shoes. When I felt the familiar tug at my waist, I dipped my hands into the soft powder and grinned. Had this not been my idea?
The rock felt warm to my touch. Slowly I began to work my way upward and I quickly realized that instead of looking up at where my hands were going, I was looking down at my feet. I allowed my confidence in slab climbing to guide my hands, and I watched my feet, making sure I placed them on solid crystals.
By the time I reached Geoff I had begun to relax. After all, I was on top rope so I couldn’t possibly get lost.
“It’s nice up here, isn’t it?” Geoff clicked off his headlamp. I did the same and we both looked around. Below the ribbon of Highway 99 was just visible, as was the small dot of my car. Lights from around the spit twinkled into the calm water, and jutting up into the night sky was the proud outline of the peaks I’d seen so many times during the day. For a few seconds everything was silent. There was no hum of night insects, no whistle of the wind. It was just us, suspended from the towering rock, and the stillness of the night.
Geoff began the second pitch and I kept my headlamp off. There is something powerful about knowing that while everyone is asleep, you are awake. The world seems innocent and quiet. Possibilities seem endless. Your existence seems insignificant. All of that was amplified by the fact that I was moving up the face of a rock with only a headlamp and a rope to guide me. For me, this was about as pantheistic as I could get.
At the fourth belay station, we looked up and saw a blanket of clouds thickening and spreading over the stars. “We should keep moving,” Geoff said. “Rain on top of darkness is probably not a good idea.”
When we reached the top Geoff pulled out his phone. “You’re never going to believe what time it is. Guess.”
“One thirty?” It felt like we had moved quickly and efficiently but how can one judge time in darkness?
He laughed. “It’s just before one. We made it up here in an hour and a half. That’s faster than last time when we did it in the day.”
So there you go. Epic climbs can be had any time of the day. All you need is some magic dust and the desire to get out there and do it.
Because it’s never too late to climb.