Goats, Rocks, and Route Finding
We rolled out of bed and jammed breakfast down our throats with barely enough spare time to claim seats on the first boat of the day. Today was the day we were heading to Telendos, a small island off the coast of Kalymnos that is host to a number of highly recommended multipitch routes. The plan was to swing leads on the hardest multipitch of my climbing career: 9 pitches and 265 meters of rock at the proud grade of 6a+. I was vibrating with excitement as the boat pitched us toward the main village. Of course, that could have been from drinking too much “gourmet” instant coffee on a mostly empty stomach but I was going to take it as excitement so I could keep my nerves at bay.
Andy, my boyfriend and climbing partner, shot a big grin at me when we stepped onto Telendos. A far more experienced climber than me and with a significantly more padded multipitch resume that the one I’m touting, Andy was psyched to help me move my climbing to the next level and encouraged my desire to lead the crux pitch. He was also excited to make the 90 minute on foot approach to the base of the climb in lieu of paying the fisherman to take us around the island. Despite the growing heat, we really wanted to see as much of the island as possible before we started up the route.
The sun rose quickly and we tried to stay in the shade as much as possible as we (repeatedly) lost and regained the trail. I was carting the rope in backpack form and Andy was carrying our metal and we were both sweating bullets by 845am- not the best way to start the day since we were carrying 3 liters of water between the two of us and the temperature was rising steadily with the sun. I eventually had to roll my pants into capris and stuff my long-removed shirt between my back and the rope to keep it protected from my salty body juices. Our psych, however, did nothing but build as we crested the small ridge and the massive span of rock greeted us. It was magnificent. Our pace quickened against all logic.
As we drew closer to the base of a massive cave that frames on side of the route, I heard a sharp “baaaaaah!” and saw what looked like legs kicking up out of a sea of brush. I turned to Andy and said, “I think there’s a goat up there… and I think he might be stuck.”
What a strange concept- a creature as agile as a goat, stuck in the brush- I thought I must be experiencing some strange Greek Island- mirage. But as we drew closer, I could definitely see the outline of something hairy, and when I didn’t hear another peep from him, I began to really feel that something must be wrong. I tentatively veered off the trail toward him, passing a dead and ripely decomposing goat on the way.
I cautiously dropped the rope from my back and stood back as Andy, too, drew nearer. I knew I would fall to pieces if something was seriously wrong with this four legged friend. We didn’t have anyway of helping him if he were in really bad shape but neither of us could just walk away and leave him without at least seeing if we could do something. We had to at least see what kind of condition he was in.
Andy looked him over and discovered that he was alive and breathing but was firmly stuck by the horns, legs, and neck in thick, rooty brush. We quickly devised a plan to drag him out and release him from his prison. I stood back and pulled a particularly thick branch out of the way so Andy could better access his body. With a quick tug, Andy pulled him loose, scratching his hands on the porcupine-like brush.
The goat sprang up but fell back down almost immediately. For a split moment, my childish mind thought, “oh, that’s kind of funny, his leg has fallen asleep!”
And then he fell again and it hit me: his front right leg was broken.
In his panic to escape from us, his terrifying saviors, he stumbled rapidly away and fell off of a 4 foot cliff and onto the loose, rocky hillside below. My eyes quickly filled with tears and a sob sprang from my chest. I couldn’t bear to watch him tumble down the rest of the trail.
The goat was out of sight for a moment and the island became silent.
Then, as if we had been blessed by the gods of Greek goats, we heard movement and small rocks began to roll below us. After a minute, the goat drew himself into sight,carefully picking his way down each step of the trail on three legs.
“At least he’s through the worst of the trail,” Andy said, putting his arm around my shaking shoulders. “And we saved him from a long, horrible death lying up here in the sun.” I nodded and smiled, shaking my body back to life and trying to rattle the psych back into myself.
“Let’s get climbing!” I said, in an attempt at immediate cheerfulness. We grabbed our gear and started back up the trail. I glanced over my shoulder occasionally to check on our furry friend and was glad to see that he was still making his way down the path.
We finally reached the base of the climb only to find it shrouded in a swarm of these crazy-looking red-bodied bee things. I laughed a little. Andy did not.
“It’s a good thing you’re leading the first pitch,” I jested. Andy hates bees more than anyone I know and these creatures are particularly terrifying to look at. We swiftly organized our gear and Andy started up the pitch, climbing as fast as I’ve ever seen him climb.
Belaying attentively, I stole occasional glances at the Aegean, enjoyed the feel of the light breeze, and relished in the pleasant feel of toes free from climbing shoes. I had only brought my La Sportiva Muiras on this trip and I was not excited about wearing them for much of the afternoon.
When it was my turn to climb, I took a deep breath and touched the rock. It felt good. Really, really good. I felt a rush of gratitude that we were able to take breaks from our lives back in Portland to travel to this amazing island to go sport climbing. What an amazing life we lead (that can be taken literally, I guess).
The first four pitches went smoothly- I got a little sketched out in a corner but as we hit the crux pitch, I felt warmed up and mentally ready- not to mention incredibly excited to lead the way over the roof we saw a few bolts up!
As I started up the pitch, I took a moment to gather my thoughts- it looked intimidating from the anchor but I’d been onsighting grades much harder than this pitch during this trip and knew I had it in me to pull the roof and hit the anchor in style. Moving smoothly up the slabby start to the roof, I took deep, calming breaths and pumped myself up, yes, climbing is fun! you love climbing! and this pitch is the best! you’re going to send and it will be so sweet!, I thought to myself, smiling inside. I reached up and clipped the last bolt before the perceived crux, looking ahead for the jug I knew would be there- it is only 6a+, after all!
My heart sank- there was no jug. There. Was. No. Jug.
I frantically looked around for some reasonable-looking hold and found myself staring at a few tiny nubbins and a small ledge about 3” out of reach.
I retreated to the rest below and felt my eyes fill with tears. “I can’t do this,” I mumbled down at Andy. “I’m not strong enough to pull this move. I can’t lead this pitch.”
“Yes, you can,” he replied, calmly, “take a minute to breathe and then try again.”
My crying intensified. How can he believe I can do it?! He can’t even see the holds I’m looking at. He’s not up here! I told myself, frustrated at his faith in my ability. There is nowhere for me to go.
Knowing that I needed to try again, at least just to humor my partner, I took a deep breath, pulled myself out of the rest, and took another attempt at the roof. Heel hooking through the move was an impossibility with the jacked hip flexor I’d been dealing with for the last week and my left hand had nothing to pull on aside from a tiny nubbin of a crimp to the left of my already-clipped bolt. Frantically I began trying to palm my way over the roof without even the tiniest amount of success.
A deep sob escaped my throat, “You can take. I can’t do this and I want to come down.”
Andy, knowing better than to argue with me when I was crying, reluctantly followed my request and lowered me back to the anchor. I clove-hitched myself back in and let loose. All of the tears, all of the anger I’d been fighting to hold in when I was up there began pouring out of me.
It was 6a+! I should be able to do this pitch! This was going to be our grand outing as a team during this trip and here I was, as usual, blowing it because I’m not the strong climber I aspire to be. All of the training down the drain. I was just a failure crying on a ledge 5 pitches off the ground with my poor helpless climbing partner rubbing my back and trying to comfort me.
“How about this?” Andy began tentatively. “Let’s eat some food and we’ll take a minute to look at the pitch together and you can try again.”
I glared up at him through my tears. I did NOT want to try again.
But the little spark of “be better” inside of me knew I needed to so I begrudgingly nodded my head at him. We pulled the rope, ate some food, and after some time chatting through the possibilities, I started back up, full of PB&J inspired- confidence. I reached up above the roof, clipped the draw and looked around hopefully.
There was no jug.
I kicked and screamed and, as if a faucet had been turned on inside my chest, cried some more.
And then I found a bomber jug- a big, beautiful jug made of nylon and I pulled on that sucker until I was through the roof.
I was not proud of myself for my forgoing my climbing ethics but, I had stopped enjoying myself in that moment and I wanted to get through the pitch so I could move on to bigger and better things- this was supposed to be an amazing climb, right? I kept climbing and vowed to keep my hands off of holds made by Black Diamond during the remainder of the pitch.
And then I came to another roof with no jug. Once again, I cried until I found the beautiful BD jug. Hating myself, I cried all the way to the anchors, put Andy on belay, and tried to enjoy the view through freely- flowing tears.
I was done.
I asked Andy to lead the remaining pitches since I no longer felt emotionally balanced enough to lead anything harder than 5c. I simply wanted to have fun now- no more scary roofs, no more pushing my limit on the hardest multipitch I’d ever attempted. I simply wanted to climb.
He strolled up each pitch, put me on belay, and I tried to get myself back into a space where I could enjoy the sound of the Aegean rolling around behind me and the feel of the rock underneath my tired hands and feet. My feet were screaming, my arms were raw and scratched from my battle at the roof, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to ruin the rest of the climb with a sour attitude.
Tired as I was, I had nearly reached that point when we hit the final belay.
It was a hanging belay 230 meters off the ground with a tiny sea of crimps I could place my screaming toes on. In my exhausted state, my ability to manage my fear had dwindled to the point that I became so flustered and repeatedly tied in with a munter until Andy intervened and safely tied me in with a clove hitch. I eventually managed to put him on belay and determinedly did not look down or let my mind wander to the mutilation going on inside my climbing shoes. I was shaking with fear, pain, and exhaustion at that point. I watched him move gracefully from one edge to the next (there really were a LOT of holds) until he was out of sight. I heard him shout “off belay!” and went through the motions of making sure I was safely able to follow him up the pitch once he put me on. I carefully eased myself, too tired to shed more fear-driven tears, onto the wall, coaxing my once- responsive feet up the rock.
Eventually, I relaxed into the climbing (my feet were still protesting), and found a calm rhythm through the final pitch, eventually climbing past Andy’s belay to the top.
Sweating, I carefully peeled my shoes/delivers-of-pain off my feet and looked around me.
The sea was becoming tinged with pink from the slowly setting sun and the sky was incredibly clear as I belayed Andy up to me. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, thinking back on how difficult the day had been and trying to figure out exactly why I had been so shut down on the crux pitch.
“Hey,” Andy said behind me. “There’s a summit register over here… and it looks like we may not have climbed Wild Country…”
“What?” I asked, confused.
“Yeah, people are calling it “Wild Eterna.” We may have ended up on a route called “Eterna” that goes at 6b+.”
Something clicked in my brain. I had remembered seeing another set of anchors on a ledge and hadn’t thought anything of it. A sigh of relief passed over me; I had never even attempted to onsight 6b+ and although it was only just above my current climbing ability, the fact that it had felt so impossible made so much more sense now.
I wasn’t a weak, blubbering failure. I was a blossoming climber who had just hit the chains on her first 6b+ after swinging leads on three pitches in the heat of the day. I may have grabbed a few nylon jugs but I had managed to live through the whole ordeal. And that alone felt like an accomplishment.
I am definitely more scared than most climbers and am certainly more scared than any climber I know who has been climbing for 5 years. I get irrationally terrified when I know a route or a boulder is “beyond” my current ability but I have certainly been known to cruise through the cruxy sections when I have no idea what the grade is.
Had I known that I was setting out to lead my first 6b+ on the longest multipitch I’d attempted, I would have tied myself to the anchor and refused to move. However, our little misadventure had once again proven that I am a far more capable climber than I give myself credit for.
And that alone was worth the hours of sweating in the sun; the shredded toes and grated skin; the intense fear and balls-out pulling on a crimpy roof just to try to get to the next bolt. I had proven to myself, without anyone’s knowledge, that I can climb harder than I think I can and that I am as capable of facing my fears as any other climber out there- I just might need to stop having to go off-route in order to do it in the future.