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Stephanie Manzo walking along the edge of the Upper Gorge, Smith Rock, Oregon

The Northern Point

In the middle of fall in 2003, Joel and I went out with a friend from work to get some last-light-of-the-year climbing-after-work style climbing.  When middle fall hits, it doesn't stay light out that long after 6:00.  Such a contrast to the end of Spring through Summer climbing.  The sun blazes on your back at 8:00 PM on some of those climbing nights, the sweat coming off of your hands and forearms as tributaries to the streams running down your back and draining off your calves.  When the season changes from summer to fall, you have very little time left, and you grab for them knowing how long it is going to be before you can start going out in the spring again.

None of us, at the time, had the ability to lead squat.  And what little we could lead wasn't led at a speed much greater than a constipated tortoise suffering from a combination of hemroids and gout.  Joel had told of us a mythical top-roping area over on...the other side of Smith Rock.  The Gorge.  The Basalt.  The Northern Point.  It was a place Joel had been trying to get me to go to, but I had balked.  There was something in the way he approached it with me indicating there was a catch.  Had there not been a catch he would have been all over about going there all the time.  But he only brought it up as an alternative to better things.  We had gone over it beforehand at work and decided to give it a go.  But, in the back of my mind, I was suspicious.

The Lower Gorge basalt of Smith Rock, Oregon

We got off work at The Evil Sign Shop and drove the fifteen minutes to Smith Rock taking the back parking lot to that far off world of the Upper and Lower Gorge.  You could climb at Smith Rock your whole life and not make it down to the basalt that lines both sides of the murky Crooked River.  The damnable part of it is, there are probably as many good moderate climbs in The Gorge as the entire rest of the park.  I hadn't ever climbed on the famed Smith basalt, only the welded tuft.  While the tuft can be a bit odd, it doesn't compare basalt. 

Climbing the rubble pile on the basault at Smith Rock, OregonJoel first told me he knew the exact path down, pointing out the student wall on the opposite side of The Gorge.  He had been putting the claim on this wall as one of his favorite.  It also held his glory climb, Fight Song.  A 5.10a basalt climb evidently unparalleled from any other climb in The Gorge.  To this day, I haven't taken a spin on this climb.  I came close once, on a hike back from a fantastic spring day at Koala Rock, but it rained out on me before we get on the climb.

We started hiking around the top with Joel looking for the path down to the bottom of the cliff-line we were walking along the top of.  This was the first little tick going off in the back of my paranoid little head.  Joel ended up looking for a while.  Once he found what he was looking for, he looked at me with chagrin and pointed down at a crack in the cliff at our feet.  It was a 40 foot drop with a rebar ladder descending into it.  I looked at him in disbelief.

"Are you serious?"  I asked.

"It's not that bad..."

"That's not a ladder!!!  That is bailing wire.  And how the hell do you even get on the ladder with our sixty pound packs on?"

Evidently, you hop onto the self-standing block of basalt, crawl backwards and dangle yourself off the end and hope to catch your foot on one of the bent, rusted rebar rungs, cling to the slick basalt and lower yourself praying that your pack doesn't pull you off backwards and taking a bit of a plummet.  For those who have no fear of heights, this entire maneuver isn't a big deal.  Those of us who have a healthy fear of distance between the ground and our ass don't have the same ease.  Joel aquiesced, letting me be a total pussy and find another way down.

The northern point at smith rock, oregonA bit further down the cliff we found a way down, a boulder scramble through a rubble pile past a large, downed tree.  The cliff's weren't very tall, about forty feet at the highest point, but it looked...interesting.  Some overhang, some crack, some blank faces, slots and crimpers.  The climbs we checked over in The Smith Rock Bible were all easy, nothing over 5.10.  I thought we could warm up and just climb our little hearts out without having to really struggle.  And since we didn't have much light, it was going to be the best bang for your buck. 

Joel setup the ropes at the top and rappelled down while Brian and I got our gear together and were ready to have a top-rope fest.  I got onto the first climb with Brian belaying and immediately fell off the rock.  I went sideways and slammed into the ground, hitting my funny bone something not-so-funny.  The rock wasn't...grippy.  It was slick, it was small with jagged edges.  It was like glass that someone spit on.

I think the first route was a 5.6 or something humiliating which should not be kicking my ass.  But there it was, bigger than Star Jones' old underwear, an ass-whoopin' on an easy route.  The second route was 5.7.  Both of them beat me harder than Liza Minelli on a bender with a new husband.  I kicked, I screamed, I puled and I whined.  It was a sad day in the annuls of climbing.  Horrific in it's sense of desperation and after-shave.  It's one thing to be a climbing poser, but it's quite another to be a bad poser.  Joel was dead in his rights to leave my crying ass at the base of those cliffs.  He didn't, which was nice, but I think I would have.

I left with a hung head, a disparaged spirit and a full body-throttling on stuff that should not have worked me.  Joel didn't speak.  He didn't need to.  I think this was what he had worried about.  Joel knows what a little baby I am and knew it was better to just keep his trap shut rather than approach me with a "Have a good time?"  I walked away hating the basalt.  Hates it!!!