Toward The Sun
In the fall of 1996 I found myself fighting off the Elvis leg. I was in my third year of trusting my feet on the smallest of holds, so this took me by surprise. The Elvis leg happens to climbers when they don't trust their footing and start to hold most of their weight with the upper body. This is very inefficient as lactic acid floods the muscles and one feels immediately very weak. My first mistake was thinking that the shadows my head lamp was creating above me on the limestone, were holds I could use. The day before my guide/ belay nicknamed Bear, and Kent, another caver/climber friend, had entered Tumbling Rock Cave in Alabama. After an hour and a half of crawling through and climbing on breakdown, hiking across big rooms and following small streams, we popped up through a hole in the ceiling and found ourselves standing at the base of Kings' Shower looking up into the blackness as far as the head lamps would allow. The local cavers had never found the upper entrance on the mountain which can often be a small one that a rock could shift and block, and apparently two American teams had failed on their first ascent attempts of this solution dome/vertical cave created by water washing out the soft stuff. In fact, a small stream of water was splashing beside us as we stood there watching it appear at the end of our lights in the blackness above. Bear immediately pointed to the spot he figured I should start our climb. I nervously harnessed up, got my gear together and tag lining my Hilti drill, I climbed about thirty feet of relatively easy, slightly off vertical fins, serrated by water flow and time. Imagine a fine, wet sandpaper surface (100% humidity 58 degrees F) and relatively clean. The target was a large, mud lined horizontal that circled the room. When I got there I found a good stance to haul up the drill and bang in a belay station. After clipping in I made a couple moves up and managed to get a bolt in about ten feet above the belay and just a little below what appeared to be a crack like, almost vertical feature on a beautiful wall. Fast forward to the Elvis leg, I am now just a couple moves from another mud lined horizontal, only I'm tired, probably thirty feet above that last bolt with no protection because there was no crack. It was a lay back flake. You know it's true. If you train mentally and physically hard enough it actually does click in when you need it most. After making those last two moves I dead pointed to what appeared to be a hopelessly muddy hold but it was actually a totally clean, imagine an ashtray type hold with a lip. The second my hand touched it I felt a surge of tension leave my body, a few more moves up and to the right and I was standing on a perfect little balcony. A casual switch hand rest. You know you're truly happy when the mud on the tag line tastes good as you one hand to mouth it up, bringing the drill to the high point and finally protection. King's Shower turned out to be about four hundred and fifty feet tall and challenged me like no other first ascent. As I drilled the last two anchors for the five hundred foot caving rope to bail on, the stoop passage to the left of me meandered to the right and disappeared thirty feet away around the corner. Rope fixed, I turned my head lamp off and watched the lights of my partner Valerie, who had joined us on summit day, and Bear, become smaller and smaller as they rappelled from the four hundred foot level below me.The last fifty feet had been overhanging out the cathedral like dome ceiling. Once they arrived at the bottom the room was now very quiet and I became aware of the sound of water dripping, reverberating in a smaller room somewhere down that stoop passage to my left. I often wish I had taken the time to explore that passage but Bears' core temperature had become dangerously low at the hanging belay and he had to get down. I needed him to guide us out so I bailed hoping now that there was a brand new caving rope fixed, that the caving community would respond and explore that passage. It never happened and that spring the high water trashed the rope. Horse to water. For my eyes only. For now, I prefer to climb toward the sun. Cheers. t
p.s. special thanks to my friend Larry Caldwell who was part of this first ascent…but that's another story.
(Terry Christenson) 2014 - special thanks to Bob Harley for steel guitar, Rick Capreol for guitar and harmony vocals, Shawn Maguire for mandolin, Chris Arrideane for bass and Jon McCann for drums.