After three days of RV touring in Wyoming and Montana with my family, and three days with very little tangible rock relief, we finally arrived at Canyon Village, Yellowstone. One more left turn, and a minute down the one-way loop road; we are there!
Not inspiration point, one of the most prominent pullouts in Yellowstone park. Nope. That was still waiting 100 yards down the road. We had arrived at the ‘Glacial Boulder’. This erratic was brought to its resting point by glaciers during some freakishly cold winter umpteen million years ago. This was all the inspiration I needed for the day.
I bolted out of the RV in such a rush that I did not hear what time my dad said he’d be back to pick me up. I must have circled the boulder 10 times before the pad hit the ground. When it did, my shoes were on with no thought or attention paid to the task; my entire conscious mind was confounded by the boulder. I could not believe it, this boulder had nothing on it. Zero holds. It was egg shaped just like many of the sandstone boulders I climbed back in Alabama, but this thing was granite! Where was the friction?
As I tried to warm up on an easy arete I was reminded of the vicinity in which I was bouldering, literally roadside. I topped out and was both interrupted by the uncomfortable looks of the adult drivers and reassured by the smiling faces of the children riding in the back seat. I decided to move to the backside of the boulder in order to acclimatize to the exposed atmosphere.
A nearly 25 foot slightly overhanging face stared right at me. Although the crimps up the most direct line looked hopeless to send in one day, there was a great layback on the right side that slithered its way to the top. Working this problem did not turn out to be a major physical problem, only mental. When I made it farther than I expected up and left, I decided to climb on past my pad. All that was left ahead was a flat, hard, dirt landing or easy climbing above. I kept my feet thinking and my hands pinching the layback extra hard. I gained the summit overjoyed by the thrills of high bouldering, and this time I was greeted with the smiling faces of stunned accomplishment from the onlookers in the cars.
Now I was confident. I moved to the front side of the boulder, where each car could see every move and every mistake I would make. I settled on a nice little boulder problem with a freakish lock off to a micro pocket and then a sketchy slab to the summit. Obviously interested, a man emerged from the woods wearing camouflaged clothing and a longtime beard. My mind flashed back to Eric Robert Rudolph, had they found him? Had I found him? I was scared only for a moment until I realized I must have looked just as ridiculous, sitting on a mattress with slippers and chalky white hands. His warm smile and first words solidified our connection.
“I am a climber too.”
Awesome. I asked for more. Although he was very interested in free climbing, and especially the problem I was on, he made it clear that his true occupation was a lineman; he climbed telephone poles. We began talking about his backpacking trip, the sport of climbing, and his family that was coming to pick him up soon; throughout, I was taking a number of falls on the project. Gaining a solid grip on the single-digit pocket and pulling off it was the crux. Right when our confidence in the climb started falling with me, he left to wait on his family by the road. The very next go I topped out to the sound of my new friend applauding from across the street.
Then, out of nowhere, his family showed up. I guess I didn’t understand fully what he meant by the extent of his backcountry adventure and what the arrival of his family would entail. Three cars carried five adults and at least six kids. They parked and got out right in front of the climb. Every one of the curious kids followed me around to the back of the boulder. The youngest started throwing pebbles at the rock as soon as he left his mother’s grip. The older kids were testing out the base of the boulder to see if they could scramble to the top and scare their moms. One kid, around 11 years old, just watched me as I put on my shoes back on, chalked up, and took my first long look at a new problem.
It started on small holds that were spaced far apart. I could imagine that with my feet smearing, I could complete a big throw to a small hold above. It was not going to be easy to stick. I hadn’t fallen but two times when the kid realized he could help. I chalked up and without any warning I heard a voice.
“C’mon, you can do it.”
It was then that I knew just that. When I stuck the move with the friction only a spotter can provide, the little dude kept pushing me on as I inched up to match the hold. Even on the slab to the top he congratulated my summit push to assure me the end was in sight. I sent that problem much earlier than expected with the help from a stranger who had no idea what to expect.
On the top I realized everyone had been watching us, even the little kid throwing rocks. When I got down, I thanked the kid for motivating me as if he was my regular climbing partner. Soon to follow were numerous questions about the sport. I answered quickly, trying to inspire future boulderers, as I always do. The one young spotter was really impressed. I couldn’t help but think that we may hear more about him climbing to new heights in the future.
By this point one of the older boys was getting annoyed and asked the little one why he was throwing pebbles at the boulder. He simply responded, “I’m trying to move it,” and then he ran full speed at the boulder and started pushing with all his might. Thinking back to what I read earlier in the Park guide (‘a 500-ton boulder’), I wasn’t worried about him actually pushing it onto the street. Maybe soon he too will learn to enjoy climbing along with, instead of pushing against the flow of nature.
Then, as quickly as they came, the whole family said their good-byes and were on their way.
Next on the agenda for surprise meetings probably scared me the most. I was looking at the impossible arete on the road side of the boulder, when a voice from behind screeched.
“What are you doing?”
A police car confirmed my worst fear.
“Climbing,” I responded.
As all Yellowstone officers have but one annoying yet important mandate, he asked, “You aren’t damaging the rock are you?” Using programmed responses my head had made up before I even heard the question I reassured him that I was in no way going to damage anything. The officer left tentatively, not sure whether he could make me stop or not. I felt better though. I knew for sure that he wouldn’t come back after deciding to let me continue once already.
A couple more classic problems, including a harsh mantle and a little overhang throw pushed me to the last plausible line of the day. I pulled onto the first couple of holds. Drop. It wasn’t hard, but I fell off anyway just as a clan bikers came by. They each looked at me as if I’d failed. I knew I hadn’t. After a quick water break I was back. I sent the problem and sat down on top of the boulder realizing this great day may be nearly over. Then with no warning the same bikers came back around the corner with smiling faces as they too realized I had made it to the summit. Each one gave me their classic biker-style acceptance wave and went roaring on as well.
With perfect timing to the end of a perfect day, my family’s RV was back to pick me up just as I was downclimbing. My dad stepped out and helped me pack. I threw my pad inside and found the meal they had gotten for me. It was while eating that food that I realized exactly how hungry I was and exactly what I had just experienced.
Coming into the day I just wanted to climb, but through numerous chance encounters I experienced something more. An epic epoch. A distillation and exaltation of what climbing has to offer. A truly exceptional sample from the lifetime of boulderer.
Today was not just a day. Today was classic.