Sycamore Canyon: an essay

  • Climbing area near Sycamore Canyon, Arizona.

    Luke Parsons

These rocks are warm to the touch under noonday sun. I strip my socks off sweaty feet and stand in unlaced boots in the shade of a juniper. Angie perches with her left foot wedged toe-first into a crevice above me, her right leg hanging free. She snaps a quickdraw onto a hanger bolted into the rock, calls down, "Clipping!" and I feed slack through the belay device as she slips the rope through the carabiner. She continues up, moving quickly, then, "Clipping!" and I feed slack through the belay device, feed slack as she climbs, and another few minutes pass, and then, "Clipping!" -- and this goes on for awhile, and there are other sounds, surely, but the canyon is quiet and still and breathless in a way that forces an awareness of my own persistent breath as it draws in and pushes out again and again. "Clipping!" Angie calls down again, and I feed slack through the belay device, feed slack as she climbs.

I think of this canyon's architecture -- the Precambrian granite thought to have been raised and fractured and layered with gneiss in the late Paleogene period, a subcategory of the Cenozoic, the era spanning from some 65 million years ago to today, connecting us to the demise of Dinosauria, the birth of the Himalayas, the fortuitous ascendency of mammals -- a span of time vast enough to temper even our grandest human ambitions, even, say, the passing on of our genes. Our genes, in fact, for we are expecting. We are expecting, but what even are the two -- soon to be three -- of us in relation to so much time, what are our beloved progeny but more interesting arrangements of carbon, sequent specks of mica in the dirt, handfuls of which amount to so little upon the landscape? Angie climbs, and we are expecting, and these rocks were formed at the near end of this latest geological era, yes, and have been shaped and weathered ever since, but the structure of this canyon is still millions of years old, a span of time vast enough to temper anyone's brass sense of triumph.

I kick a stone with my boot -- "Clipping!" -- and I feed slack through the belay device, feed slack as she climbs -- and I know it's possible that stone may not have moved like that in years, or weeks, or at least since the rains a few days ago. Then again, maybe someone else belayed a climber up this route and kicked that stone earlier this morning. There is no way to know, no easy way to gauge the changes happening all around us all the time, either out of sight or else so slowly they may as well not be happening. The world operates on such a vast scale of time, the clock may as well have stopped here, at least for me.

We move so fast through scenes like this it's easy to think the world is static, to not notice, and even when we pay attention we glimpse only a smidge of the whole, and it's no wonder we drain our aquifers and melt the ice caps and mine our mountains to rubble. We live only for these brief minutes we live within, and tomorrow is so obscure, so far from today.

I call my thoughts back. Angie hollers down, "Clipping!" and I feed slack through the belay device, feed slack as she climbs, and even the sun moving through the scene is so high that it seems not to move, and so what shadows there are do not move either. "Clipping!"--  and now she's topped out -- "Tension!" -- and I take the slack in. On belay, she glides down. We don't say much as I tie my knot, and then she pulls the slack as I climb.

As I climb, I talk, commenting on the temperature change between the sun and the shadow, how we can hear at times the wind scraping by, the distant dribble of water in the trough of the canyon, and feel these rocks, rough beneath our hands, occasionally breaking a small piece off -- big change here in the canyon! -- but we perceive this scene mainly through our eyes, by looking at it all, or at least trying to. Although there's plenty happening, we move so fast, we see almost nothing. As I climb, my words drizzle down.

Angie belays me to the top. I rappel down and feet on the ground, I ask, "Did you hear what I was saying?"

She nods, replies, "It's OK."

She says to me, "It's OK to be nervous."

She says, "You do what you can."

Craig Reinbold resides in Tucson with his wife, newborn baby, and their dog, Olive.

High Country News Classifieds