The Place of Happiness

By Mayan Smith-Gobat.

Pitch Eleven (7c/7c+)

Fear surged through my veins. My muscles felt tense as coiled springs, ready to explode at the slightest touch, yet relaxing was vital – I fought desperately to slow my breathing and calm my mind. I clung tenuously to the dead vertical face, like one of the many small succulents which covered the wall and obscured the holds. I was six hundred metres above the ground, with the last bolt out of sight, at least ten metres below my feet, and I was still unable see anything above. Scenarios flashed through my mind – we had just heard that a member of the only other party to repeat this route had broken his leg during a fall.

Copyright:Frank Kretschmann
FRANK KRETSCHMANN PHOTO.

Best not to think… just concentrate and focus on the next move… you will be fine… one move at a time… don’t think about anything else!” This was the inner dialog constantly running on repeat through my brain.

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I kept climbing, yet there was still no trace of the next bolt and I was nearly out of rope. Finally, the angle eased a little and a fin of rock appeared; pulling up onto this rail I saw the anchor merely a few metres away. On clipping the chains I breathed a sigh of relief, yelling “On belay, Ben!” into the void below. As my body relaxed for the first time in what felt like hours, a surge of relief flooded though my veins and then slowly dissolved into a feeling of contented happiness that radiated from within.

The Journey

A day after arriving in Brazil, Ben and I found ourselves headed north, moving slowly from the insane busy streets of Rio to remote, rural countryside. At first, driving felt like a death wish. I was terrified most of the time while sitting in the the passenger seat. Trucks roared past, constantly threatening to run us off the road, motorbikes zig-zagged wildly though the thick, quickly moving traffic, honking constantly – this seemed to be the only road rule consistently adhered to in Brazil. Driving through the Brazilian countryside we experienced the extremes of life, from gruesome accidents to beautiful serene countryside. Midway through our epic drive we slowed down to pass a group of people gathered around an accident. With horror and disbelief I looked through the open window, unable to tear my gaze away. The road was soaked in blood and littered with pieces of motorcycle. A headless body lay sprawled across the road.

Speechlessly Ben and I glanced at each other as the terrible scene burned into our memories. Yet soon after, we experienced how beautiful people can be – our moods swung constantly between amazement and sheer terror.

Brazil has its own sense of time. Everything seemed to take at least twice as long as expected.

The 850km drive took us nearly 18 hours. After this epic drive, arriving at the small village of Sao Jose do Divino late at night was like a breath of fresh air. Beer flowed freely and we were immediately welcomed by everyone in town like part of the family. We all let out a sigh of relief, slowly relaxing and experiencing an incredible feeling of contentment being immersed in this relaxed, friendly culture. Here everyone seemed very content living on next to nothing and just enjoying every day. It was Tudo bem – ‘All good’… Soon we learned to just accept it and go with the flow.

Copyright:Frank Kretschmann
FRANK KRETSCHMANN PHOTO.

Waking up the next morning, to a loudspeaker blaring (supposedly football news) we found that Sao Jose was surrounded by a crazy amount of granite domes rising out of the lush green farmland all around. There is amazing potential everywhere, yet for this trip our goal was Stefan Glowacz’s route “The Place of Happiness,” a stunning 850-metre white arête on Pedra Riscada – the most prominent granite dome and definitely the most striking line.

First Attempt

Ben and I began climbing at 4:30 in the morning, simul-climbing the first six rope lengths of black slab in the dark. Finding the line was difficult with only the small circle of light from our headlamps: bolts blended perfectly into the knob-covered slab and I often only saw them as my feet passed them. At first light Ben led the first ‘dirt crack’ climbing through cactuses, unsure where to go – adventure climbing at its best. However, after this the climbing became much more difficult. After a week of travel and no exercise, I felt shaky and nervous leading up off the first crack pitch. It was thin, delicate climbing and in the last few metres my foot slipped.

Copyright:Frank Kretschmann
FRANK KRETSCHMANN PHOTO.

Cursing myself, I lowered back to the anchor, then we both dispatched this pitch and the next quickly and without further incident.

As we emerged out of the corner, the blazing sun hit us with full force – it was a balmy 40 degrees centigrade. Instantly our movements slowed and functioning normally became difficult, yet, the next two pitches were the ‘real deal.’ The rock burned our finger tips, crimping on sharp granite crystals was excruciatingly painful and though not extremely difficult the climbing was intense and mentally draining. On every pitch the run-outs between bolts went from big to huge, often the next bolt was not even visible and it was difficult to know where the route went. Clipping was a massive relief, yet each time it took immense courage to head off into the unknown again.

After several attempts we finally made it through the two crux (7c/7c+) pitches. Pitch eleven was a full 70 metres, with very few bolts, from the last bolt to the chains was a terrifying fifteen metres of delicate climbing through cactus-covered rock, which all looked the same. The sun was still brutally hot, we were mentally exhausted and parched, having already finished the last drops of our water. Even coiling a rope felt like a mammoth task. We slumped in our harnesses staring up at the wall looming above us, and after much debate we decided to retreat. Continuing on would have been a pure fight and a test of pain tolerance, however dehydration was a real risk. We decided to return with the chance to actually enjoy this beautiful route.

Copyright:Frank Kretschmann
FRANK KRETSCHMANN PHOTO.

A day of rest and rehydration felt far too short; we packed our gear feeling far from ready, but psyched to try again.

The Final Push

Climbing the slabs was like Groundhog Day. We were feeling slow and far worse than on the previous attempt. However, once we started up the cracks everything began to flow – this second push was where the magic occurred. Having only climbed two big walls before, Ben had needed a day to relax into this wild exposure. Now he climbed with smooth precision and we slipped into a perfect partnership, swinging leads and both executing each pitch perfectly, without hesitation or falls. We climbed efficiently and with the inner confidence necessary. This was one of the rare times that wonderful feeling of pure flow was reached, when everything apart from the movement of climbing ceases to exist. Always an incredible feeling, yet experiencing it as part of a team was truly special.

We arrived at our previous high-point around midday feeling so much better that we actually questioned whether we were on the same route. After a short break and Clif Bar, Ben led us into the unknown once again, climbing into a maze of steep vertical knobs – everything looked the same, every move involved touching a dozen different knobs to find a useable one and they often crumbled under our feet. Once again it was rare to see the next bolt until right in front of you.

Copyright:Frank Kretschmann
FRANK KRETSCHMANN PHOTO.

Apparently, the main difficulties were over, yet as time passed we became gradually more tired and dehydrated and the next few pitches took everything we had. Pitch thirteen, though graded easier, was the most demanding for me.

I desperately tried to shake some blood back into my solid forearms, while tightly gripping two tiny nubbins of rock. The last bolt was far below my feet, my arms were ready to give out and feet excruciatingly painful from wearing tight rock shoes all day. A mere two metres to my left, the next bolt taunted me, yet a section of blank rock separated me from it. However, there were no other options. Gathering all my remaining strength I dug my fingers into a tiny crimp, stepped far to the left, crossed to a hold which was merely a vertical piece of rock and committing fully, lunged to the next hold with every piece of willpower I had left. Miraculously, it worked, I stuck the hold, quickly clipped the bolt and tried to gather myself to continue up the technical arête.

Finally clipping the chains I slumped into my harness, exhausted yet extremely happy – sheer determination and the knowledge that this was my only chance, were all that got me through.

That moment felt incredible. Ben and I were a perfect team, crushing a stunning route in a surreal landscape – 700 metres of rock stretching out below us, cactuses growing on the vertical wall all around and countless domes rising up far below. It was a moment of true happiness.

As Ben joined me a tropical rainstorm rolled over us. We hung in our harness like limp rag-dolls, bodies quickly becoming stiff and lifeless, watching waterfalls gush down the slabs below and willing the rain to pass soon… Ten minutes gradually turned into half an hour and we knew daylight was running short. So, as soon as the rain eased a little Ben took the sharp end, heading up the damp rock, once again it was a terrifying pitch. Yet slipping back into the flow, Ben climbed with assurance and soon the seemingly endless face eased into a slab.

In the last rays of light, I headed up the last pitch of grade-five slab, climbing carefully without seeing a bolt. Several times merely touching golfball-sized knobs sent them bouncing down the slab around Ben. I pushed fear out of my mind and kept almost crawling up the low angle slab…

Twenty metres turned into thirty, then forty and I still had not found a bolt, anchor or anything.

Darkness was creeping in rapidly, there was no defined line to follow and from experience on the lower slab, I knew that finding bolts was near impossible, only a metre away and they became invisible. It was a starless night and we could just make out low rain-filled clouds rolling over the top of Pedra Riscada. Ben and I were in a dangerous situation – one wrong move would send me plummeting 60 metres past the anchor and the threat of rain cried out… “Disaster!”

So, when I found a horn to sling, Ben and I decided that the risk of climbing the last fifty to sixty metres of very easy, yet dangerous slab was not worth the gain of clipping the chains. The consequences of not finding anything on the slab were simply too great. We were both extremely happy with our day, having climbed every pitch in the best style possible and did not want to ruin this or risk potential injury or death by trying to force our way to the anchor.

Even though we had not clipped the chains, we felt content that we had climbed the route, finding flow and happiness in the process.

Yet in the days after there came doubt, which threatened to ruin this special achievement… “Had we really climbed this route?” Not clipping the chains meant we had technically ‘not’ climbed “The Place of Happiness.” Yet we had – we simply got lost on a slab which we could practically walk up. This was no sport route. Big wall climbing is entirely different; our lives were at stake.

Questions kept us awake at night. “Where is the balance between being prideful and wanting to tell our friends over a beer that we crushed the route, and stupidity?” And, “Do we really climb for personal happiness, or because we want to tell the world about our achievements?”

Copyright:Frank Kretschmann
FRANK KRETSCHMANN PHOTO.

Finally we concluded that throughout life we are constantly searching for happiness. Climbing is the avenue that Ben and I have found to pursue this goal and stretch our boundaries. “The Place of Happiness” was a climb which caused us to look within, to learn about ourselves and each other, to face fears and grow as people, and through this process create our own place of happiness within.

Looking back, it is always the journey to the chains that matters more than the simple act of clipping the chains. We had an amazing journey – so in my mind we succeeded.

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