Sunday, November 16, 2008

Edge of the Feather

printed in the Chico Enterprise Record, November 2008

Drops of sweat hang from my eyelashes and pool in the corners of my eyes. I blink to get a better view. In the guidebooks this 4.5-mile trail is labeled “easy” or “moderate" but beneath the crushing weight of ropes and oatmeal and I can’t remember what else, it doesn’t feel that way.

My sister trudges by me with Nico Gonzalez, a friend who's helping us carry in the mountain of rock climbing gear we’ll need to climb the cliff at Feather Falls.

“Let’s take a break,” I say. Nico says yes.

We emerge from a dense forest of madrones twisted with pines, uphill from a stream packed with golden leaves from surrounding alder and maple trees. The sweeping view of hills and canyons beyond culminates in Bald Rock Dome, the centerpiece of rock climbing in the area for more than 1,000 years, according to anthropologist Donald P. Jewell.

In his book Indians of the Feather River, Jewell writes that Concow Maidu, long inhabitants of these mountains, tested their wits on the giant granite cliff by climbing horizontally across the precipice. He tells the story of one Maidu boy who, without ropes, got stuck on the wall for hours before calming his nerves enough to finish the climb. We'll need to summon those same nerves before long.

We arrive at the overlook to Feather Falls as the sun sinks to the sky's edge. Shadows outline the cracks, ledges and protruding rocks we’re looking for on the wall. Like most dreams realized, scaling an unclimbed line requires a clear vision beforehand. That vision comes to me slowly as I squint through a small, inexpensive pair of binoculars: To the right of the falls an in-cut corner leads to a sheer, bulging headwall split by a solitary crack. It should be enough.

Early the next morning I get ready to rappel off the edge but can’t bring myself to lean back on the rope. The waterfall thunders to my left. Trees plunge sideways down cliffs behind me. I double-check my gear. The rope connects to a rappel device, connects to a carabiner, connects to a loop on my harness. I check every thread. I calm my nerves. Then I lean back.

The wall is one of the most dramatic locations I’ve ever been. It feels as if the world has upended and spills down a vacuous hole. Like standing on the shoulder of a wave or sky diving through open air, it feels like I’m viewing the earth again for the first time.

The work is slow. Unlike some outdoor sports, climbing is about taking a small piece of nature and getting to know it intimately. In the way my grandmother could tell you where every spring flower would bloom on the hills by her house in Oroville, I take the time to learn every crack in the rock, looking for something to hold onto, and something to hold onto me.

Further down, I dangle near the end of one rope, looking for a place to attach another. I see a ledge big enough to stand on and pendulum to it. Above it a fissure opens into a small pocket carved out by centuries of seeping water. I pull out a cam, a slender hunk of metal wedges and wires that doesn’t inspire much confidence except for its $60 price tag. I jam two of them in the crack and zip down another rope, still 200 feet from the base. With a twang the cams come loose and send me falling, arms agape, but the first rope, still attached, stretches low and stops my fall.

Two days later, we link all the moves for the first time. Climbing from the ground up, I carry a load of cams and a downgraded toothbrush to give a final dusting to each hold as I climb. Jen watches attentively as I pass the spot where my cams popped out. She’s anchored to the wall with four good pieces of gear. If my cam rips out, I’ll fall past her, 40 feet in all. The crack leads to a series of ridges, however, and I tiptoe up.

Near the top, the crack is packed with flowering bushes and butterflies to match. There’s no sign of the ladybugs that famously winter here but by next week they will be swarming on this very spot. I grab a fist-full of plant and pull myself onto flat ground. Again the sun is setting. Feather Falls has taken on an Edenic, silvery glow. We create a name for the climb that reflects how we feel: Mother Earth.