Forget what you’ve heard about the ‘special relationship’ or the cheeky little fling between Bush and Blair or even the lover’s tiff currently occupying headlines involving Lord Obama Saviour of the Free World and Gordon Brown. The truth is a whole lot more sinister………America HATES Britain. They hate us under the guise of the oft-quoted ‘system’, the mysterious controlling force that seeks to allow ordinary, decent Americans to sleep at night……without fear…….and under control. The hate that we have encountered so far on our pilgrimage has manifested itself through, and assumed the persona of, those involved with cars.
We got a lift into town from a seemingly mute Russian dude, which passed in silence (on his part) and excited jabbering (on ours) until roles were reversed upon arrival at our rather salubrious hotel in the red light district. Turns out we had to buy his silence (echoes of a bygone Soviet-era maybe??) with a ree-dick-a-you-larse ‘tip’…..the thieving bastard! After squeezing the 3 of us into a TWO-bedded THREE-person room (go figure) lovingly prepared by the gay bell-boy……no jokes please…..a relative calm followed, as we prepared for a full-on day of van-hunting. The first van we saw ended up being the van we bought…..but only after we made sure we really wanted it by spending a day and a half trapsing across the city looking at every, single van in the bastard place……it’s a nice place though, Berkeley’s cool, Antioch isn’t. The first day was a killer and meant we missed the chance to get our room back for the night, not normally a problem i guess for a city famed for hospitality (made that bit up but it’s probably true?!?), however EVERYTHING we owned was in the secure room in the hotel, which was meant to have been collected within an absolute maximum of 24 hours later……whoops. Being the high-fliers we are we booked ourselves a suite at the Hilton down the road……..$200 for a shitty little bed in a room the size of a broom cupboard allowed us an insight into how it must feel to be captured by a rebel army…..it’s not pretty. We got ourselves out of there and back to the original hotel to face the music of a very pissed off queen….he was not impressed. We soothed him with our loving tones and promised him we would be back in an hour to collect our stuff in our new van……ahem.
Smith is ACE!! It’s got a very unique uniqueness about it, very high first bolts, very dodgy bolts in places, spinning hangers, heady run-outs, dinky holds, no feet, popular as hell. We’d never had to queue for routes before…..something that being Brits you’d think we’d be good at…..wrong…..it sucks when you have to wait for things only to then get people wrist watching and tutting at why a 5.10 slab is taking you so long. So as i’ve already touched on Smith is world famous for its sport climbing with America’s hardest routes being put up there in succession, names like To Bolt or Not To Be, Scarface and Just Do It being synonymous with the sports’ progression. Bollocks to that thought we as we racked up below the imposing Picnic Lunch wall for some old-fashioned trad multi-pitch. We’re so RAD. The route we chose was called Free Lunch (wish we’d put 2 and 2 together and thought “there’s no such thing as a………….”) at the reasonable grade of 5.10a (about E1), surely a walk over for us cos we’re………RAD. No hold on the crux first pitch felt like it would be there when, and indeed if, the next person tried to pull on it…….i loved it though, 30m of pebble-pinching traversing with the ubiquitous non-feet that Smith is all about. Dave and Ben were not as impressed. When we saw the next pitch we were all even less impressed! A dodgy traverse followed by a hike up over a crumbly pinnacle and subsequent downclimb (toproped for the leader following a handy bolt placement……suicide for the second as you are effectively on lead for the downclimb) needless to say Dave, leading, loved it, I, second of three, enjoyed it, and Ben, tail-ending, died. The pitch after, once we were all safely on the spacious bird-shit ledge followed a (guidebooks own words) ‘rotten crack until tricky stemming up an overhanging alcove allowed a fist crack to be reached….’ umm nah you’re alright mate. So ended the class trip up Picnic Lunch wall…….’no-one goes up there’ said one local…….we didn’t need to wonder why.
Our ulterior motive for being there was to meet with my good mate Dom (of Squamish fame) and his good lady Laura who was due to come down from his place in Washington state for the weekend to join with us in a team crushing session the likes of which Smith has probably seen many times before. With a little bit of local knowledge we were soon giving it boar. We spent a lot of time up in Cocaine Gully, so called cos of all the stones and debris that comes shooting down from higher up through a feature called ‘the nostril’. This place was home to some classic Smith lines that followed Tuolomne-style water streaks up small chicken head knobs.It was good to gauge of how well we were all climbing, resulting in some spectacular feats of crush and some rather embarrassing displays of infantile weakness. Between us we got through some good’uns like Toxic (5.11b), Heresey (5.11d) and Five Easy Gallons (5.12a) along with lobbing ourselves off some test-pieces like Heinous Cling (5.12a – i HAVE to do this climb), Crack Babies (5.12b) and Chain Reaction (5.12c). Dom crushed as you always does and made some stylish, no fuss repeats of routes to put the draws up for us to flail on.
We left Smith keen to go back, it’s surely one of the nicest places you’ll ever climb at, surrounded on 3 sides by a fast flowing river, which is in turn ringed by the Cascade mountains, all within a semi-desert setting. There’s a ton to get back to so if we have the time, which i’m sure we will, we’ll no doubt be making the drive back up that way because we want to, no because we have to.
We spent the night in a town called Weed (hoho) in Northern California in the hope of getting to a DMV to finally get the van registered, no luck again, so we boosted over to Mount Shasta, home of the Black Bear Diner (employer of my wife-to-be, the beautiful Brenda), and finally, yes finally, got some lovely little license plates to feel like the normal, fearing, controlled Americans that we so desperately want to be. The final bill for ‘The Duchess’?? Well let’s break it down…….$1200 for the van, $900 for insurance and a pant-filling $1500 for a couple of pieces of tin to stick on the front and back of our beautiful home……i wonder how long they’ll last.
In Santa Cruz now…..home of our Lord Sharma….staying with Shannon in her trailer (true), got accosted by a crazy old lady looking for her cat (true) and in some of the heaviest rain seen this year in California (true). The pilgrimage can now properly begin. My goal is to make Katie Brown my wife and Chris Sharma my best man. Yosemite and Tuolomne next. Will our luck change i wonder?
P.S. All photos from the incredibly awesome David Gill Esq. of www.steepmedia.com