Friday, January 27, 2012


Baldy is one of the highest points between the Rockies and
the Alps. Death Crevice is on the opposite side of this image.
(We once climbed down the steep front face of Baldy; we
have never climbed up from that side.)
A few nights ago I put in a DVD and settled in to watch “127 Hours,” a true-life saga that – like everyone who sees it – I already knew the ending of: Canyoneer Aron Ralston, trapped by the untimely slippage of a boulder while exploring a red rock crevice in Utah, is driven to free himself by amputating his own right arm.

As the movie progressed, I became more and more tense until, just as Ralston came to the full realization of his predicament, I had to turn it off. I stopped watching not so much because I dreaded the anatomical gore that was to come, but because an existential, organic tingle started to radiate through my body – a kind of physical memory – reminding me of the cliffs and crevices of my youth, and of the various boulders that hung lodged in them, who knows how precariously.  And it’s not that I remembered how frightened I was in those situations – but that I, in fact, was having the time of my life. Like Ralston.

I was never the taut, conditioned, or skillful rock-climber depicted in the film, but I am ever grateful for the fact that, from the time I was twelve years old, when my family moved to the Black Hills, I have had rocks to climb. My cinematic cold feet were caused by the sixty-five-year-old me looking back on the literally carefree exploits of the twelve- and seventeen- and twenty-year-old me and… well, sort of watching a movie of myself descending into a crevice.

Which is not to say that those days are behind me. “Carefree” has perhaps been replaced by “careful,” (and “decrepit?”), but there are still rocks in my life – and even crevices. Like Death Crevice.

Baldy Mountain, a grand granite dome in the middle of the Black Hills, is laced with crevices. When you’re nineteen or twenty, as Jeff and I were then, you’ve got to try them all. You just plunge in and see where they lead – at least Jeff does, and so here I come, too. The final, upper reach of Baldy's summit -- after an initial approach up more gradual flanks -- thrusts almost straight up out of a grassy, alpine-like valley floor. We looked up the sheer but slightly rounded wall and spotted a ledge about forty feet up that was interrupted by a vertical crevice continuing up toward the top of the dome. To get to the crevice we had to get to the ledge; to get to the ledge we took a short running leap from the valley floor and used momentum and a few scattered, knobby holds, and the soles of our tennis shoes (we hadn’t yet discovered the wonder of Vibram), to scramble up the forty feet of granite. At least Jeff did – so here I come, too. The ledge was so narrow that the shallow crevice we leaned into felt like safe harbor. It was just deep enough, and angled enough, that it was a pretty easy knee-and-toe ascent to its upper reaches, where it opened onto an intersection with another crevice – actually a gap where one slab of mountain leaned against another – criss-crossing at a right angle. To continue upward (always upward!), it was necessary to leap or step across this gap and throw ourselves into the waiting maw of another crevice which continued up – now steeper and deeper – on the other side. A crevice we knew not the ending of.

Now, dear reader, you can join me in my imaginative remembering of this venture.  Go to the nearest wall and stand about four or five feet away from it. Keeping your feet together, lean toward the wall with your outstretched arms. When you make contact, step across the intervening space with one foot, then bring the other over. Then do the exercise again, this time, when you are leaning across the space with your hands against the wall, look down at the carpet and imagine that instead it is blue sky. You will likely come to two conclusions: One, this step is no big deal; two, if you don’t successfully make this easy step you could – you just could – plummet to your death.  Thus was born, in our breathless, adrenaline-fueled excitement, the name “Death Crevice.” The first time we leaned across, no doubt in mid-step, one of us probably said, “You know, a guy could die here.” I’m surprised that our sophomoric wit didn’t come up with “Theoretical Death Crevice.”

Jeff, emerging from Death Crevice, 1992
The crevice we entered on the other side of the gap is probably the most fun and just-challenging-enough climb of the dozens that Jeff and I have taken together over the years: the perfect dimensions for shouldering in some places, spanning from one’s back to the  tips of ones toes in others. Although once one was jammed in the crevice a fall wouldn’t mean death, you would get pretty banged up as you slid down, stopping just short of that blue-sky opening at the bottom. (Death Crevice has been known to dislocate joints.) It’s always fun, and that initial step-across-nothing is always a thrill.

To our delight, Death Crevice opened onto one more ledge, one more (easier) crevice, and the top of Baldy! Since that initial ascent, we have led many friends up Death Crevice. We've climbed it with our wives and kids. I look forward to doing it again soon. Well, let me clarify: Jeff takes them up Death Crevice, I volunteer to lead others up another one of our discoveries, a route we have named “Life Affirming Crevice.” No 127 Hours in there.
(What made me shudder at watching the movie was not recalling my climbs with Jeff – it was recalling the few times when, like the film’s hero, I tried it alone.)


Jesse said...

While I have not watched 127 Hours, I have stepped across Death Crevice, with Jeff's assistance. Without his and my dad's help, both physically and mentally, the blue sky and tiny trees I saw while looking into the crevice would have sent me scrambling for a safer, but less exilerating path. As a very risk-averse person, I am thankful for the Jeffs and Chads (and now Heathers and Teagues, with Nia taking more after me) of the world.

Anonymous said...

No post since January? Have you got writers' block? I miss your wisdom. Bill Gable

Richard Jorgensen said...

Bill: Not writer's block, exactly, but Lent in a Pastor's life. (And my wife actually thinks I should give priority to painting the bedroom over blog-writing.) I have a backlog of "thoughts" waiting to escape. Thanks for the encouragement; your commentary means a lot to me. Dick