It’s the fifth pitch of the climb. Every move feels like my stomach is going to explode. To bring up my foot makes my stomach rumble and turn. I let out a screaming grunt. I’ve learned how to better manage my ulcerative colitis on the ground - frequent bathroom visits, longer breaks - but not hundreds of feet up.
It was the night before my attempt of Sendero Luminoso with my sister Maddy. It would be my second big wall, and definitely the hardest one I’d ever attempted. Looking up, there was just enough light to see the top of one of the largest climbable mountains I’ve ever experienced in my life – 1500 vertical feet.
I ducked my head into the two-person tent. Carefully avoiding Maddy as I worked my way into my sleeping bag, I lay in bed looking up at the concealed stars and brightness that comprise our universe. I thought about Brad. Luminoso, I had found out that night, was where his accident had occurred. I thought about what it must be like the night before you die. If he had known, how would it affect his decisions? Would it change the goals that he set himself throughout his life?
I led the first pitch. It had crack climbing on it. It was vertical. When I reached the top of the 130-foot pitch, I looked up. It was as if I had covered no distance at all – nearly 1400 feet to go. I set up a grigri and started yarding up our second, blue rope. As I flaked it left, then right, some of the coils fell, and I had to restart. Then, as I belayed Maddy on our red rope, I flaked it on top of the blue one. By the time she got to me, she was horrified.
“Jes, this is a mess!”
The blue and red ropes had started blending together, and they tangled as we pulled them apart.
“Give it to me, I’ll do it,” she said.
We continued onto the second pitch, this time a 12D with intricate moves up the vertical face. Just smears for feet. I got to the second anchor. It was already hour 2, and it looked like we had still barely moved on the massive wall. I started the flaking process. Blue, then as Maddy climbed, red, careful not to mix them this time.
It was better - but, once again, we had to untangle them. The clock was ticking.
We continued smearing, jamming, wiggling our way up the unrelenting giant stone. It took us a little over an hour to get through each pitch. The climbing was slow, but the hauling and rope management proved all the more time consuming.
By pitch 4, the inevitable happened. I had to go BOOM BOOM. Maybe it was my colitis, maybe it was all those bean tacos for the last 7 nights in a row. But there was nothing to do. A party was below us, waiting for their turn – for sure not wanting to be defecated on. On top of pitch 5 is a ledge where you can stop, not sit in your harness, and pack your fecal matter off the climb.
Pitch 5: one of the most painful and challenging 12A’s I’ve ever had to do. I really had to go!
I made it to the ledge. Shaking. Just barely making it. The sun already starting to make its decent. Maddy soon joined me on the ledge, also relieved for a chance at relief. We both looked up, longing to continue. But we didn’t have to say much to know what the smart choice was. We had a snack looking out across the city of Hidalgo and the mountains in the background and started packing.
I’m used to working at something until I’m able to do it. And the only thing that’s always kept me from succeeding is my physical ability. Luminoso was different. The reason I didn’t complete it was not because of my strength, but because I wasn’t fast enough, or experienced enough. I didn’t haul our pack correctly, and my ropes got tangled. That extra time pushed my stomach too far. I bailed because it was safer for me and my partner.
Sure, the climbing community hasn’t looked at coming down after getting half up a route as a success. But I’m learning more and more that a different kind of success is what I’m proud of. It was more of a test of my character to rappel off that climb than any 5.14 I’ve tried.
I went into the day wanting to onsight the hardest multipitch I’ve ever tried in my life. But it was feeling humbled, getting to spend time on the wall with my sister, and getting to try a new style of climbing that made that day worthwhile.
As I landed on the ground, I couldn’t help but think about Brad again. My fortunateness in being able to continue to dream and set goals.
I’m lucky to have more big walls in my future. For now, I’m proud to have onsighted the first five pitches, better learned my systems, and come out on the other side unscathed. And with clean pants - I’ll be back.
Photo: Gabe Dewitt