Climbers are always trying to ascend a route in better style. The more courage and minimalism displayed the better. From a purist standpoint, even shoes and a rope are considered a degree of cheating. The ultimate ascent would be to climb a new route naked and ropeless. This is a tale of two chaps who did nearly that, perhaps due to the fact that their hubris was larger than their brains, though perhaps not quite as swollen as their livers after a night of heavy drinking.
"Pass me the whiskey," Tim said to Tom from across their smoky fire. It had been drizzling on the rim of Deep Canyon since sunset. The two men were depressed because their plans to climb a 2,000-foot crack up one of the biggest canyon walls might be dashed by the weather.
They had driven hours to reach the campground that was near the edge of the abysmal gorge. When Tom picked him up at his house, Tim felt nervous about trying a route dubbed "Liquid Guts." It had only been climbed once that anyone knew of, so there wasn't much information about it. All they knew was approximately where it started, where it finished, and that it entailed two difficult pitches of wide, overhanging crack climbing near the top.
Tim didn't have much experience climbing wide cracks. He usually avoided them. He'd climbed enough wide cracks to know that he wanted to puke his guts out whenever he jammed, squeezed and thrutched his way up anything that was more than four inches wide and longer than 20 feet. It bothered Tim to know that the first crux pitch was nicknamed "Too Much Coffee," and that the second crux pitch was even harder and bore the route's name, "Liquid Guts." He had a pretty good idea how he would feel after climbing them ... if he was able to climb them.
That was the other thing that bothered Tim – they had to get up the route one way or another. Deep Canyon could only be accessed by rappelling, or lowering themselves down their rope. There were no roads or trails that reached the bottom of the sheer walls. That meant that if the two men committed to the route, the only way out was to climb.
While Tim was apprehensive of the endeavor, Tom was eager. At 31 years old, he'd barely learned how to climb two years before. Once terribly afraid of heights and risk, the formerly conservative accountant found his wild side after a bad breakup with a younger, hellcat of a woman who had been cheating on him. It seemed like Tom was making up for 29 years of pent-up madness. People who knew him before and after the breakup noticed a glint in his eyes that wasn't there before. He was an animal in the darkness.
Ironically, climbing was a medicine and a poison for him: it allowed him to stuff himself back into his suit and tie every Monday, having satiated his thirst for excitement. Yet, over time, climbing was also making it more difficult – literally and figuratively – to fit into his professional outfit. For one thing, Tom's muscles were bulging and straining the buttons on his work shirts; he was looking more like a werewolf all the time. For another, his obsession with climbing was consuming his focus. The more he climbed, the more he wanted to climb, and going into the office every week was becoming more difficult. He craved the air under his feet, the gritty rock at his fingertips. He was known to take huge, horrendous falls, hollering with glee on the way down, as if some pressure inside him had been released. Thus, he was even sounding more like a wolf all the time: "WOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" His echoes were often heard rippling along the cliffs near sunset.
There was a friendly competitiveness between Tim and Tom, for Tim was also a talented climber who had been scratching his way up cliffs for most of his life. It irked him a little that Tom was surpassing him on the rock after so little experience. Meanwhile, Tom looked up to Tim, so the men were often engaged in an endless bout of one-upmanship.
"I'm only going to take one big cam to protect the wide cracks," Tom declared, grabbing the whiskey back.
"What?!" The drizzle hissed on the fiery logs the way Tom's statement penetrated Tim's imagination. "That's crazy," Tim said. "Why?"
"The weight, man. I figure most of my body will be wedged in the crack anyway. Don't want extra hunks of metal getting in my way or weighing me down."
This got Tim thinking. In his fear of sliding out of the overhanging slot, he was inclined to take several big camming devices that would anchor inside the crack and keep any falls much shorter than the horrific screamer he might face if he were to place but a single cam along the way. But now he pictured himself thrashing desperately to fit inside the crack while a sling of heavy, clinking devices tugged at his shoulders, pulling him backward into the void. "Yeah, you're right. Let's just take one big cam," he said.
When the whiskey bottle was empty, they had talked themselves into climbing the route without conventional harnesses, since those would also be too bulky for smooth progress inside the cracks. Not only that, but they decided that regular hiking boots would be better than the narrow, sticky-rubber climbing shoes they usually wore, because the hiking boots might allow their feet to jam into the crack more securely.
"I'm ditching my shirt, too," Tom said, stumbling around the truck, assembling his meager selection of gear for the day. The sun was just starting to rise. "It's cold and wet right now, but that canyon will be a furnace in a few hours. I hate a sweaty shirt sticking to my back."
"Hear, hear!" Tim said, removing his shirt as well. He was so cross-eyed at that moment that he forgot to put on the pants he was about to change into. Seeing this, Tom took it as a challenge.
"No pants, eh? I'll see you that and raise it to no shoes!" he said, but in his drunkenness it sounded more like, "Na PAHNS, eh? I'll swee-woo dat-an-MWHAN-aise-mo-DOOS!"
The pounding in Tim's head was too loud for him to hear any of that. He was already walking off toward the rim where they would rappel into the canyon.
A park ranger driving by on his rounds did a double-take at the sight of two climbers staggering across the road in boxer shorts, one of them barefoot with a rope coiled on his back and very little gear otherwise. The men were hunched over and – with their long, greasy hair sticking out in all directions – they looked more like Wookies that had been drugged, shaved and released. The ranger chose to look the other way in that moment. It had been a long shift, and the last thing he wanted was to deal with climbers. In his opinion, the climbing bums often were like crazed Wookies.
Tim and Tom didn't notice the ranger drive by. Every footstep demanded more concentration than what was natural, but they didn't notice that, either. Each man was too focused on the difficult climb they planned, and each privately tried to steel himself for the misery that must come with a route name like "Liquid Guts."
They were so drunk, they were lucky neither of them fell over the side as they searched for the rappel anchors, where they would thread their rope and descend into the abyss.
"Here it is!" Tim belched.
Tom came over, clipped into the bolts on the edge of the cliff, and bent down to uncoil the rope on his back. At that moment he felt a gurgle in his belly, just as he caught a glimpse of the huge river below that was so far away it looked like a thin, twisting white string at the bottom of the canyon. Suddenly everything around him seemed to sway in different directions like a boat in rough seas. Too off-balance to stand, he bent down for a closer look at the fearsome wall he was going to climb.
"Hey, I think I see the crux pitch," he started to say. Instead, it came out as, "Hey, I see the cru-h-u-h-uuuuuuu-BLAHHHHH!" A stream of vomit rained over the wall. Some of it splattered over his bare feet, but he didn't notice because he was already releasing the next torrent.
Standing right next to the sight and smell of his friend, Tim came uncorked as well. He'd been holding onto his churning insides for some time, and now they were uncoiling instead of the rope.
When it was all over – in more ways than one – the exhausted men flopped back onto the flat ground and passed out a few feet from the edge of the void. The ranger found them quite sunburned and unresponsive later that day.
Tim and Tom never went back, for they felt they had experienced the true nature of the route well enough. Truth is a funny thing among climbers at their campfires, however, and to this day, you may very well hear of the legendary men who climbed "Liquid Guts" in their boxer shorts with only a rope and a single cam between them, and how they were so spent from their incredible feat that they fell asleep almost as soon as they reached the top.
And you can still hear the wolf-man howling in the air at sunset, attesting to the reality of the tale: "WOOOOOOOOO!"