Most people who drive out to the west end of Boulder Canyon to Castle Rock aren’t going there to climb Cussin’ Crack. Most people would rather have fun. If they do climb it, most aren’t going to tell you they enjoyed it. They will use words like “awkward,” “slippery” and “old school,” maybe even “sandbagged” at 5.7. I am certain that I am the only person to ever fall in love on the route. And fall out of love.
Cussin’ Crack was put up in the early 1950s, and to get up the second pitch, the actual crack where the cussing will take place, you need to know how to set a solid knee bar across the dihedral, and arguably a No. 4 Camalot. In the ’50s, they didn’t have cams, but knew how to set knee bars. Now, we have cams, but no knowledge of knee bars.
That summer, I was a new trad leader, but went after climbs that were 40 years old or older, for a reason that I can’t remember now. Stephanie was a friend of a friend, five years younger than me and six years younger than my wife. She had brown eyes, long dark hair that she wore in a long braid that hung out of her climbing helmet and in front of one shoulder. She smiled all the time and was obsessed with experiencing it all. She got excited about road trips and talked about all the time she’d spent in Ecuador and South Africa. She was years from settling down.
Steph climbed, and my wife did not. Emily had paralyzing acrophobia, and we were not doing well. All I wanted to do was climb, and she wanted a house, a garden and a dog soon, and kids soon after. By early summer, our marriage was a dead oak tree that we were working up the courage to cut down.
Emily withdrew, staying in to study every weekend, and I fled to the rock, dragging anyone up multi-pitch routes. I didn’t really care if you even knew how to belay; I’d teach you at the base of the climb. Steph and I climbed together a few times, and although I thought she was the most beautiful woman who had ever tied a figure eight, I didn’t think my wife would notice, what with my desperation to climb with anyone willing.
Steph and I kept it appropriate. Maybe I wondered what it would be like to put my arms around her precipitously curving hips, but the closest I ever got was unclipping cams from her harness while she flaked the rope at the belay. I was married. Maybe not for much longer, but married nonetheless.
At the end of the first pitch, you clip a worthless buttonhead and pull over a mantle that is within reach if you’re 5’9” or taller. I pulled through it, sure that Steph, at 5’5”, wouldn’t make it. I built a belay, considered our bail options and started taking in rope as Steph followed. At the mantle, she paused, unable to reach the ledge. When she bit her lip and clawed over on nothing but friction, I was in awe of this woman who climbed. For a half-second, I imagined what it would be like to have a girlfriend who enjoyed climbing, especially one with long dark hair and brown eyes … she said something to me as she made the last moves to the belay, and I hoped my face didn’t reveal anything.
At the base of the Cussin’ Crack itself, first ascensionist Harold Walton would probably tell you to set that knee bar, do a thumb-down palm smear with your right hand, walk your knee bar up a few inches, and repeat. Had my climb with Steph been some sort of date, and were I the type of man who could impress my attractive female climbing partner with my skill, poise and dry armpits, that’s exactly what I would have done. Instead, I flailed, trying to face climb the right side of the much-maligned V-slot. I was sure Steph stood below me, slowly paying out rope and cringing, waiting for me to peel. I wondered what would happen to my ankles when I decked. My palms
became slick, and that house, garden, dog and kids, and settling for something imperfect for the rest of my life didn’t seem that bad.
But I didn’t peel. Fear kept me stuck to that polished granite inside the V-slot, and I slapped my way up and out, coloring the air around me with the proper epithets.
At the last belay, I sat exhausted on a rock bench, took in rope and watched the pines on the canyon’s south wall calmly rock in the breeze. Steph pulled over the last move to the ledge and gave me a look of relief, and I looked directly into her eyes and knew I was in trouble. Here was a woman who loved what I loved, and I was not in love with my wife any more.
Steph clipped into the anchor and sat next to me. I tried to not wish she was sitting closer and tried to not wish she was holding my hand. I busied myself piling the rope at my feet instead of putting my arm around her.
Steph went to Mexico for the summer. I came back from a trip to the Tetons and Emily was sleeping on the couch. We filed no-contest divorce papers, and I did my first free solo the morning after. Steph and I wrote letters and e-mails, never quite saying what we were thinking about each other. I stayed away from my tiny post-split studio apartment by attacking as many new routes as possible, with a sad and angry ferocity that I haven’t since matched. Steph returned just as winter hit Denver, and I eventually got to put my arms around those hips of hers. I feel a lot less tension when I unclip cams from her harness now.
Denver resident Brendan Leonard is the Gazette’s Media Editor.