Tales from the Road: Climbing 18 Pitch Flyboys in Mazama, Washington

The author 400’ feet up the route, after completing the airy traverse climbing in Mazama, WA.

The author 400’ feet up the route, after completing the airy traverse climbing in Mazama, WA.

It’s a cold Friday morning in Mazama, Washington; a small town in the Methow Valley tucked on the eastern slopes of the North Cascades where there are more dirt roads than paved ones. The sky is overcast and gray and my breath lingers in the early morning air. I blow into my hands, warming them, so I can finish tying my eight-knot to my climbing harness. My friend Ben is doing the same 10 feet away.

We’re just north of town at the base of “Flyboys”, a sport climbing route that meanders up through a conglomerate of dark grey, fractured sedimentary rock soaring 1,800 feet in the air. It’s the tallest thing either of us has attempted to climb. The enormous massif is encircled by rolling hills, an adjacent dried-up river bed and jagged alpine peaks in the distance.

The sun finally rises, and as first light hits, the reds and yellows of autumn begin to glow. Ben and I give each other a fist pump, he puts his hands on the cold rock and starts up. We’re off!

Seven months ago, in a concrete gym a thousand miles away, Ben and I made plans to one day meet up and climb some epic wall together, but back then there were a lot of unknowns. Life was about to deal each of us a new hand.

Ben looking up the route, half way done with Flyboys.

Ben looking up the route, half way done with Flyboys.

Ben was leaving San Diego, CA for Bellingham, WA in his pursuit of becoming a certified mountain guide; I was about to trade in the security of my job and apartment in order to realize my dream of living on the road and climbing full-time. Both of our lives were on the brink of transforming radically.

Pitch 1- 7:39 a.m.

Standing 18-pitches high, Flyboys is a test of our climbing endurance, our ability to work efficiently together and pure will. One vertical foot after the other, Ben and I take turns switching leads and move upwards. Despite some fumbling of ropes and some trial and error of how to manage them most efficiently, Ben finishes his pitch up a right facing corner. I move past an easy ramp to 15-foot block, mantle it onto a slab and continue to the chains on the top of the pitch. 2 pitches, 200 feet done, 35 minutes. Ben and I take a selfie. We swap leads. We keep moving. He works a steep face to ledges, ending at an exposed belay. We get to the chains. We take another selfie. We swap leads. We keep moving. Who says you can’t have fun while you climb.

Ben is one of those genuine, forever friends who keeps the stoke high. Standing, six feet three inches tall with a lean lumberjack meets GQ model build, he always has a ready smile that can easily light up any room he steps in.

This is our first time climbing together, so why not push it a little, we’re already having a blast. There are good holds everywhere and we move fluidly. The first three hundred feet go down easy.

Pitch 4 - 8:34 a.m.

Now we’re on a small ledge and for the first time on the route, I will be stepping onto a part of the wall that ascends upwards onto a sheer face, giving me a clear view of the ground floor. Far below, the ponderosa pines look miniature. Our cars in the distance look like Hot Wheels.

I step to the left from our secure platform and the airy exposure beneath my feet feels ghostly. My heart is light and rises to the top of my chest. My breath is cool and calm. I continue to move.

Thirty feet across this sidewalk in the sky, I pause. I take a moment to look at my hands, gripped gently on a good jug by my head, then with an assurance that I’m secure, I look down at my feet and see the world open below. I breathe deeply and a smile washes over my face. I’m having fun.

The view looking down at the valley floor as trees and cars get smaller and smaller.

The view looking down at the valley floor as trees and cars get smaller and smaller.

When climbing long sport routes, sometimes you’re solely focused on getting to the top. Looking for the holds, looking to see where the next bolt is, thinking about your body movement, thinking about controlling your energy. Your vision tunnels. It’s easy to forget what’s around you, where you are in the world and your place in it.

If I hadn’t decided to follow through with my dream, I wouldn’t be here in this moment. I would be in an office, on a phone, my fingers endlessly typing emails, while my mind wandered to what could have been. I could be dreaming about places like this. But I’m actually here instead. I feel proud of myself, and incredibly grateful to be sharing the rope with Ben who, against all odds, is making his dreams a reality too.

I slowly regain my focus on the climb. I reach the chains and look out on the valley. Ben follows up after me. We take another picture, and we continue climbing, single-minded in our pursuit.

Pitch after pitch, we move upwards; our energy ebbs and flows, our fingers and toes throb as we search out holds in the rock.

Pitch 7 - 9:41 a.m.

We’re 600 feet up the route now; it’s been 2 hours and 16 minutes since our feet last touched solid ground. Ben starts up a stemming corner that leads to wild face moves into a crack. He floats up the corner with ease, then slowly moves out left towards the face which requires a step around a bulge with minimal hand and feet holds.

Ben’s left-hand reaches for a spot in the rock that is downward slanted right, an awkward hold at best, but the only feature that looks good enough to grab onto. He hesitates, steps back to the previously secured perch, let’s go of his left hand and shakes out.

“Get it, dude, you got it! Stick with it,” I call out from fifteen feet below.

He goes again. Ben reaches far left, latches the hold and shifts his weight onto his left foot. Then his foot slips. He falls, but his hand catches him. Now he’s dead hanging. He matches both hands next to each other and, with no feet holds, does a pull up in order to grab another hold further up and left; bringing himself onto a ledge, secure.

“Thanks, dude,” he calls out.

Ben keeps moving and finishes the pitch which leads to a large ledge. I follow behind, take a deep breath and meet him where he is now standing, 700 feet up the route. Our bodies are slowing down, but our minds are still sharp. I’m getting hungry, Ben agrees he is too. We sit down, I remove a peanut butter Clif Bar from my pack and we eat silently.

I was choosing the unknown over routine, and discomfort over predictability, and by exposing myself to adversity my mind was becoming stronger.

Throughout the day, between pitches and usually after a picture or two, Ben and I catch up on life. We chat about family, about girls, about what we ate last night, and about life on the road. We share tales of struggle and triumph and the unpredictability of it all.

I tell him about the first day on the road—how I felt so alone. I should have been excited, I was living out my dream, but I was overcome with loneliness. I was in a new city where I didn’t know anyone. Everyone I loved was hundreds of miles away. Everything I owned was stuffed in the back of my Subaru. I felt isolated and started  to second guess my decision.

But in those deep moments, I reminded myself that being on the road for me wasn’t about having all the answers, or even knowing what was going to happen next. It was about challenging myself. I was choosing the unknown over routine, and discomfort over predictability, and by exposing myself to adversity my mind was becoming stronger.

There will always be times when we will be tested and when we rise to the occasion  the results can be rewarding. It’s a growth mindset and I’m grateful to be a part of a patient and understanding community of climbers, strangers and friends that can relate. As Ben and I chat, we look out at distant glaciers and confide in each other.

To get here, Ben and I, and many others, have climbed mountains that don’t involve rock. And neither of us would trade the experience for the world. How grateful we are to have the opportunity to do it.

Pitch 10 - 11:37 a.m.

Ben (left) and the author (right) snap a photo with their homes on wheels in Mazama, WA.

Ben (left) and the author (right) snap a photo with their homes on wheels in Mazama, WA.

We pack up and continue climbing, but as the day drags on, so do we. We’re four and a half hours in and 900 feet up the route.

I scramble up and to the right of a tree for the start of the next pitch. I follow good jugs on really exposed face as I continue climbing upwards. I mistakenly pass an anchor and end up linking pitches 10 and 11 with minimal protection, I’m just glad we’re safe, now at 1,100 feet. We take another photo.

Ben continues the momentum. He climbs, using a few steep face moves to link pitches 12 and 13. The mid-day sun is high in the sky, warming us up a bit. We’re now 1,300 feet above the ground. Six hours in and we still have 500 feet of climbing left. We’re both beat.

My mind is tired, my arms and legs feel like there are 30-pound weights attached to them. I just want to push to the top but the next pitch looks menacing and it’s my lead.

Pitch 14 - 1:16 p.m.

I get my gear together and take my first steps up the wall. My feet and hands are moving heavily, not typically what you would want in climbing. I move up a slaby face until I reach the underside of a Volkswagen-Bug-sized chockstone lodged into a chimney.

“Hey, hey watch me here man,” I call out shakily.

My rope jerks tighter, pulling on my harness. I exhale. Every muscle holding me up is burning. I’m thirsty. Birds are gliding through the sky below us. I’m procrastinating, and my mind is starting to wander. Maybe it’s the fatigue.

“Dude, just go for it,” Ben calls up, snapping me out of my daydream.

I shake the tension out of my right hand and commit. In a rush, I throw my heel upwards, plant my right foot against an opposing wall, drop my knee and toss my right hand skyward. It happens so quick. My hand catches. I pull from my arms upwards, grunt loudly and mount the block.

“Woohoo!” Ben shouts up, his loud voice echoing against distant valley walls.

I’m breathing heavily but I also feel a much needed jolt of energy. We still got this. We’re pushing each other to the top.  

I’m grateful for good friends. Not only Ben, but all my climbing partners. Climbing symbolizes a bond that is unlike any other. On any multi-pitch, when you tie in, you are bound to your partner, linked hip to hip and your life is quite literally in the other person's hands. Together you’re pushing your bodies to their absolute limit and finding a reserve of strength and mental endurance you never knew existed.

Pitches 15 – 17 - 2:02 p.m.

Pitches 15, 16 and 17 pass in an exhilarating blur. Ben and I are re-energized and gunning for the summit. We move fluidly, clipping bolts one after another.

We climb through holdless low angled smooth slab, we move right and step across an exposed corner of the rock and follow up a jug ladder, scrambling past a lone pine tree. We know the summit is close. I take off and start pitch 17 up over a beginning bouldery move  then continue out to a series of mellow face moves. I clip the chains, pull the anchor and bring Ben up. We crush 300 feet of climbing in an hour and two minutes. We take one last photo before the summit.

Ben and the author yell at the summit of Flyboys.

Ben and the author yell at the summit of Flyboys.

The Final Pitch - 3:03 p.m.

We’re at the final stretch. It’s come to this and Ben and I are teeming with excitement. The clouds above us look heavy; last night’s forecast predicted a 40% chance of rain but we have been lucky up to this point. The ground floor below lays silent. We haven’t seen another soul on this whole route all day. Eight and a half hours of climbing has brought us to the last 100 feet of “Flyboys.”

Ben takes the final lead: a steep headwall with three bouldery cruxes guarding the summit. My hands unintentionally vibrate the rope—not from the cold like earlier in the day—this time it’s from excitement.

I hear grunts from above as Ben moves through the crux moves one at a time.

Then I watch his legs top out and suddenly he’s out of view. Moments later, I hear a ‘whoo-hoo’.

He’s reached the summit, I’m excited and start moving upwards again. Surprisingly, I feel very in sync with the wall. Despite the hours and hours of climbing behind us, the hundreds of intricate face moves, placing my feet delicately on nickel-sized nubs, controlling my breathing as my hands scanned the wall for small indents in rock, my muscles feel brand new.

I push off burning calves and pull on cracked fingertips. My skin is salty with dry sweat. I move with precision and conserve energy. I push through the crux moves one after the other, after the other, and before I know it, I’m five feet from the top.

I can hear Ben say, “get up here dude,” and my cheeks start to pull upwards in a smile. I know how bad I want this. I pull on the ledge with both arms and collapse in a heap. I can see the sky above. I look up and meet Ben’s excited smile. I get to my feet and we let out yells that echo across the valley.

We laugh, cheer and take a ton of photos. We are 1,800 feet higher than we started this morning.

These are the small moments that I will always remember from my time on the road.

The moments of struggle, pure joy, the bond of the rope and the friendship that ensues.

We’re here. We’re living the dream.

The sky’s the limit.