As my brother disappeared over the lip of the rock 100 hundred feet above me, I started to worry.
We were climbing Prime Rib, an 11-pitch sport climb near Mazama, Washington. Although only rated 5.9, a relatively easy endeavor and well within both our physical abilities, the exposure upped the ante.
Sweeping views of the Methow River Valley in the east Cascades lay beneath us.
Placing my foot on a rock nubbin, I could see the world hanging below my heel. A visceral reminder of gravity.
My brother and I had done other multi-pitches, but nothing this high and nothing recently. I knew he didn’t feel confident. The exposure had gotten to him. In fact, we’d spent the last day or two debating whether to do the climb at all.
He wanted to push through his fear. But, at the same time he didn’t want to get in over his head. Finally, the night before, he’d decided to do it.
And now, he’d disappeared over a rock lip and the rope was beginning to run out.
A view from a multi-pitch climb in Mazama, Wash. (Eli Francovich)
For the last five years, my brother and I have lived together. We’ve adventured over the country and world. For one crammed year, we shared a one bedroom apartment – perhaps the greatest adventure of all.
We’ve learned to support each other. He knows my weaknesses. I know his.
Still, there is a brother dynamic at play. I’m the oldest. And I’m protective of him. Often to the detriment of our relationship. I take control in situations where I feel, right or not, that he needs my help.
This annoys him.
So, when he disappeared, and as the rope continued to feed up and out, I felt the familiar urge to fix the situation. Even though I didn’t know what the situation was.
It was a windy day, so verbal communication was useless. I couldn’t yell up to him. Our normal system of communication was a series of rope tugs. But those were situational based commands, and not good for transmitting open-ended questions mid-climb.
I started to imagine all the things that could go wrong. He could panic and freeze. He could run out of quick draws. He could lose the route, ending up on dirty-rotten rock that would crumble.
All those dire situations ending, of course, with a fall.
As I mentioned, the climb isn’t particularly hard or technical. It’s become known as a good beginning multi-pitch climb. And it’s unique in its length and easy access. It’s also a sport climb, an easier, safer type of climbing.
So, every weekend hordes of climbers (mostly from the west side) drive to the Mazama. On a sunny Saturday morning, there often is a line at the base of the climb.
Which doesn’t mean it isn’t dangerous. Three people have died climbing there in the last two years.
Knowing all that I started to get anxious. My heart beat faster. Suddenly the sweeping views didn’t seem so wonderful.
I wanted to fix the situation. To trade places with my brother. But of course, I couldn’t do that. So, I did the only thing I could. I kept belaying. Slowly feeding out rope, while anxiously eye-balling the disappearing pile at my feet.
Five minutes later, he stopped climbing just feet from the end of the rope. He gave a hard tug signaling he was anchored and no longer needed a belay. Then, a minute later, two hard tugs told me that he had me on belay and I should start climbing.
I was nervous. Something clearly had gone wrong. He’d climbed to the end of our 70-meter rope – about 230 feet. That wasn’t part of the plan.
I shouldered my backpack and started to climb slow and carefully, worried he wasn’t anchored properly. Not wanting to test it with a fall.
About midway up I passed the anchor points recommended in our guidebook. He’d inexplicably passed them.
I kept climbing.
And then 220 feet later, I pulled up over an edge and saw my brother, safely anchored and belaying me. I could have fallen and everything would have been fine.
My little brother (who is bigger than me) had made a mistake. He missed the anchors, instead combining two pitches into one very long climb. But, after making that mistake, while clinging to a wall high in the air, he’d improvised and made a potentially bad situation not a problem.
It wasn’t the first reminder, but perhaps the most dramatic. My brother doesn’t need my protection.
He can take care of himself.