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1997: Homecoming

[This Mountain Profile essay first appeared in Alpinist 65, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Be sure to pick up Alpinist 65 for all the goodness!–Ed.]

Amanda Tarr Forrest tops out on Hallucinogen Wall. [Photo] Courtesy Amanda Tarr Forrest

Amanda Tarr Forrest tops out on Hallucinogen Wall. [Photo] Courtesy Amanda Tarr Forrest

DOWN IN THE GASH, where I’m swallowed by dark stone and shadows, all I can see of the sky is a cold strip of stars so very far away. The river crashes through the canyon, chewing away at the layer that geologists call basement rock. It’s the bottom of the world here, a place choked by poison ivy vines and jagged rubble. As far as I know, I’m alone in the chasm, the only person within its miles of steep stone.

I feel small and unimportant, forgotten.

In the morning, hours ago, I registered my ascent plan with the rangers. They offered pancakes and help getting my gear down the gully and over to the base of the Hallucinogen Wall. The extra hands and camaraderie eased the nervous ache in the base of my skull. I feel so unqualified to be in this place. I’ve heard rumors of eighty-foot falls and unprotectable offwidths. Although I was born nearby, in the Gunnison Valley, I’ve since moved to Boulder. My programming career has kept me inside too much, confined within a grid of streets, away from the sun and wind, and from the childhood places and people who once gave me a sense of belonging. Even with other climbers, I’m nervous, now, and I don’t know how to forge new partnerships. Over the last couple of years, I’ve taught myself the systems I need to climb solo. But nothing like this. Nothing so isolated and harsh.

Midmorning, with a wave and well wishes, Ranger Jason left me, and he began the long slog back out of the canyon. In the hours since, I’ve fought against rope tangles and brush-filled cracks. My arms and legs ache from the ordeal of getting my stuffed haulbag over the initial slabs. I turned upside down in my harness to drag it upward: my arms pulled on the rope while my feet paddled against the stone above my head. It took me all day to climb and haul just two pitches.

So deep in the chasm, having worked so hard for so little progress, I wonder whether I’ve stretched myself too far.

IT’S SUMMER, NEAR THE SOLSTICE, and dawn comes early. Cliff swallows dive, but I can’t hear their calls over the river. Day means movement, stone under my hands and feet. I struggle with the rope when my self-belay locks up or feeds too fast during the free pitches. A pendulum stops me cold. No matter how hard I run back and forth, I can’t get enough momentum to grab hold of the pedestal I need to reach.

I switch back to free-climbing shoes, swing hard and catch my fingertips on crumbling flakes long enough to set a hook on an edge. On a tension traverse, I almost snatch the pedestal when a thin plate peels from the wall and sends me spinning.

Tourists look down from Chasm View on the South Rim. When I look up and over my shoulder, I see them at the railing. They crowd close and stare–so far away as to be in another universe. Unbeknownst to me, the rangers placed a spotting scope on the rim. My mom commutes an hour and a half from Gunnison every day to watch me. She climbed when she was younger, yet her stories from the past are brief. Maybe it’s mostly a forgotten time for her. A life before children. I know she once took a fall while ski mountaineering and was caught out in a lightning storm, her leg trapped between boulders. Her partners had fled the electric sky, leaving her to escape alone by levering a heavy rock off an injured ankle.

The summer before my senior year of high school, Mom took me to Europe where we made guided ascents of the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc. She laughed at my first hangover. We smirked together at a summit photo where we’re standing on the rope in our crampons. I asked her if she could teach me how to lead, but she said her knowledge had become too out of date, no longer relevant.

As I finally clamber onto the pedestal, the sun bakes my shoulders and sweat runs beneath my kneepads. A leaf of poison ivy touched the back of my right knee on the approach. The seeping blisters are just starting to form.

At midday, the wall is nearly too hot to touch. The heat soaks through my kneepads and the soles of my shoes as I search out the copperheads and rivets that mark the way. Doubt grabs at my heels, and I have to keep moving to avoid being caught.

DAYS BLUR AND NIGHTS are too short a respite. On the crux pitch, I take the wrong line through fragile flakes of stone. A decomposing edge gives way, and I’m flying. Sky and rock wheel across my view as time slows, and then the rope comes tight, caught on a Screamer clipped through an old bolt. I’d scarcely gotten started with the pitch, and the stop was a harsh snap. It takes pliers to unlock the welded clove-hitch self-belay, plus a few long minutes after that to gather the courage to try again.

The pitch requires focus and a refusal to look down at the long, empty stretch of stone between me and any points of protection. I’m afraid to commit to each move even though I know I can’t retreat. Every fragile edge looks ready to crumble. But stray currents of air carry the pungent fragrance of juniper from the rim. I smell sunbaked lichen and mica-rich dust. These are the scents of home, of the place where my love for climbing began. I remember the tears as I groveled up my first route, a chimney at a local crag in nearby Taylor Canyon. I was nearly immobilized by a fear of heights, goaded on by boys from my high school. Nausea filled my throat as I touched the carabiners at the top of the climb, and my hands trembled when I finally returned to the ground. Yet when I returned home that night, greeted at the door by my parents who wanted to hear about the day, my face hurt from grinning. I’d succeeded, and I felt full of light, shining.

Hook placements, fixed gear and a scattering of bolts now pass beneath me. I’m relieved to clip the anchor. In a sloping ledge of dark stone, the cracks hold just enough dust for a tuft of parched grass to take root. I set up for the night, careful not to step on this little piece of life as I share its sanctuary.

WHEN I CLIMB HIGHER, I feel as if I’m moving through a surreal realm. A vertical cactus garden grows in bulbous mounds from the wall, as though micro-fissures in the stone have blown clusters of prickly bubbles. Bolts hang by bent sleeves so fragile it seems impossible they haven’t broken, and wild pegmatite leans far over the base of the wall.

At night, I talk to my gear. Sometimes the words come out in German, a language I learned when I was young and haven’t had a chance to practice in years.

The final nights are peaceful, the stars closer, the sounds from the river a low hush. An old pair of black and blue nylon aiders hangs with the rest of my gear–they were my mom’s during the part of her life I know so little about. Pitons mushroomed by long-ago blows of her rock hammer hang on the small pin rack I’ve brought with me. These mementoes had been stored away in our basement closet for a quarter century. Now they dangle in the empty air where bats squeak as night falls on the wall.

If I belong anywhere, perhaps it’s here with the tumbling river and dark cliffs and a legacy passed from mother to daughter.

IT’S LATE AFTERNOON when I lay a hand on the rim and drag myself out of a chimney eerily similar to that first climb where I’d shed so many tears. My mom is waiting on the rim with cookies. It’s a long drive from the South to North Rim, a couple of hours to travel less than a quarter mile in straight-line distance, but she wanted to be here to meet me. She snaps photos as she has at my childhood birthday parties, my high school graduation. Then she sets the camera aside and rushes forward to help me unload my chest harness. Gear passes through her hands, the knuckles just starting to thicken with arthritis. She holds onto the small rack of pitons for a moment, and watches with a smile as a ranger hands me a cigar.

A climb in the Black Canyon starts with a plunge into a shadowy crack in the earth where a long-ago river carved the most unlikely path. The descent begins a journey through what can seem a dark and angry place. It can feel more as if the task is to escape rather than ascend.

But it can also feel like home.

[This Mountain Profile essay first appeared in Alpinist 65, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Be sure to pick up Alpinist 65 for all the goodness!–Ed.]