Why We Love the Tombstone

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I started living in Moab almost exactly 12 years ago. Since I was still living in my truck, and Dean was living in a Ford van, and we were sometimes but not always living together, Moab welcomed us like a kindly relative.

Free camping was (and still is) everywhere. We spent many nights and days in the big dirt parking corral at the mouth of Kane Creek Canyon, a few hundred yards from the base of the Tombstone. All my favorite running trails start in Kane Creek. This beautiful canyon turns off into the desert above the Colorado River. Potash Road sits across the water, and the Tombstone marks the first bend in the dirt road with a curved, red presence. It never occurred to either of us to climb the thing at that time….there was just an aid route which strikingly split its center, but seemed kind of daunting even for aid climbing with its thin, thin steep cracks and loose rock. We just liked being near it. There are certain places, and certain stones, that are beyond special to me, that seem to be a part of me somehow. The Diamond is one, Half Dome, Rifle Canyon, the top of El Cap, the Royal Arches, Castleton, Poincinot and Fitzroy. And as intimate to me as a sibling is the Tombstone.
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Several years later, we moved out of vehicles and started living in a little neighborhood (the original uranium miners’ community, the oldest neighborhood in Moab, cozily laid out with single-wides, double-wides, and brick ranch houses) three miles away from the Tombstone. Living in a double-wide makes you feel a little abashed somehow, even if it’s so comfortable and pretty that visitors have no idea it’s not a “real house.” But more importantly, we were and still are blissfully content knowing the Tombstone was close by, essentially our own backyard—I still think we have the perfect home. To me, simplicity is everything. Low overhead equals more freedom. (We even still have dial-up! So you have to excuse me if sometimes a few days go by between blog postings….)

Dean started trying to free the aid line, and soon enough we were spending sunny winter mornings up there together, taking turns trying to free climb the steep, thin corner while the other person lounged, lizard-like on the flat, sunny ledge a hundred feet off the ground. We love that ledge. It’s as wonderful as Long Ledge, on El Cap, in a different way.

We ended up freeing the route together, which was kind of a weird thing for two such fiercely independent climbers, but nice as well. The only sad thing was that after that we quit spending so much time on the Tombstone. The route was hard enough for us that repeating it isn’t exactly something we’re doing all the time. Usually when Dean or I pick a big project, we partially just enjoy being in that place, spending our days with that stone, and are actually kind of sad when that special life ends when the project gets “completed.” I still got to run below the Tombstone after we were finished on the free climb project, on my favorite running loop, so at least I could be near it almost every day. Seeing the Tombstone and being close to it makes me feel happy, like you feel when you are with an old friend. Running the end of the Amasa Back loop, passing just below the Tombstone, is always a peaceful feeling.
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Dean started BASE jumping about five years ago, and as it turns out, the Tombstone is the best BASE jump in Moab. Not very surprising! ……I admit, that about 90% of my motivation for learning to BASE jump this year was the realization that I could hike up to the top of the Tombstone and jump off it EVERY DAY if I wanted to! I figured if the only thing I ever did as a BASE jumper was jump off the Tombstone every morning, I would be a happy jumper.
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And of course, the Tombstone was my first cliff jump. I have learned so much, from the constant repetition of jumping this cliff day after day. I have gained lots of good experience from the other cliffs I have jumped, but for me and the way I learn, there is nothing like returning to the same place over and over, learning small new things each time in the context of a completely familiar setting.

Very early on in my BASE progression, I made a rule for myself that I would only add one new thing on each BASE jump–for example, landing in an alternate landing area OR taking a longer delay before throwing my pilot, but never both on the same jump. This has been a very good rule for me. It’s amazing how hard it is to do just one simple thing well in a sport (?) where things happen so fast. Doing two different simple things at once is just too much. And BASE jumping, like free soloing, is so compelling because the margins for error are very slim. Baby steps are the way.
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In the morning, if it is not windy, Dean and I put Fletcher in the car and drive the three miles down Kane Creek road to the Tombstone, which has to be one of the loveliest drives in the world, along the Colorado River. Fletcher has become a terrible passenger with age (this, from a dog who spent her entire life traveling in my truck?), and needs to be held on Dean’s lap so she doesn’t shake uncontrollably. This is rather annoying in my opinion, but fortunately Dean thinks it’s cute.
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We plant our wind flag–a flat, thin nylon pennant attached to a tent pole–let Fletcher ramble around a bit, and then start walking up around the back of the Tombstone, up a beautiful desert canyon, past a petroglyph museum, and up the rock slabs. I love seeing this landscape change every day, through spring, fall and winter.
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At the very end of the swirled, petrified-sand-dune mounds, there is a very exposed fourth-class move, where if you slip and fall, you would tumble all the way down a slab, four hundred feet into Pritchett Canyon. This morning it was so coated with fresh snow, we actually didn’t think we could do it in our Five Tennies, with bulky BASE rigs on our backs. Finally Dean braced himself on a little stance, and I climbed up his shins and knees between him and the short bulge until I could belly flop onto the next snowy, slabby shelf and claw my way to near-horizontalness. From just five feet below, Dean looked up at me, startled. “I don’t think I can come up. If I slip here, I’ll die. You should go jump and I’ll just go down.” I’ve almost never heard Dean say he can’t come up something, ever. We looked at each other for a minute. I wanted him to get to jump too, so I felt this was a lame idea. But, dying was definitely a possibility if he tried to scramble over the ledge and slipped down the snowy slab. Suddenly Dean pulled his scarf off, and made a square knot on the sleeve of his flannel shirt. “Here, brace yourself a little and hold the end. I’ll use it as a handline.”

“Are you serious?” I thought he had to be kidding. He wanted me to “brace myself” on a down-sloping snowy slab, and hold a scarf square-knotted to a shirt, so he could hand over hand it???? If that’s not sketchy enough, I weigh eighty pounds less! I got momentarily less scared when I realized that the square knot would come out before I would get pulled down on top of him. Then that made me get more scared.

We were both pretty excited as I leaned back on the sloping shelf above him, wiggling my backside through the snow into the more friction-y sandstone beneath it, with the scarf wrapped around my wrist while Dean gingerly hand-over-handed the scarf-shirt rope, trying not to slip, until he made it past the knot to the scarf, and then over the bulge and onto the relative safety of the snowy slab with me. Nice! We made it! This is a section that takes about two seconds to scamper up when it’s just dry rock……I love how snow can make the simplest terrain into a death-defying escapade.
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Today I wanted to be aware of my exit run, with a strong launch off the edge and a good, head-high, arched body position, but mostly I wanted to focus on taking a slightly longer delay before throwing my pilot chute. Usually I run off the edge, wait for about a second, and then throw the pilot chute to deploy my canopy. I wanted to wait for two seconds. This is harder than it seems like it would be! I think I had a solid second and a quarter delay today 🙂
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But that’s the beauty of the Tombstone, and of learning through repetition and gradual advancement. With every jump, I can add one new thing. This is also part of why I love BASE jumping so much. It suits my style of learning perfectly—methodical, meticulous, with a hint of spice, taking on one new element with each experience. It’s unbelievably engaging, and completely the opposite of an adrenaline-fueled, testosterone-ridden pursuit. Rather, jumping is about meticulous, retentive preparation and knowledge, accompanied by extreme self-possession, reaction and mind control.

At the top of the cliff, you have to slow down, take deep breaths, check your rig to make sure it’s packed correctly, spit down the wall to make sure the wind is calm, run your mind through the sequence of events that will happen in the four seconds after you decide to run straight off the edge of a cliff.
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Every element of the exit sequence is precise and perfectable. How many steps back do you start to get your run, how do you push off the edge with your feet as you leave the cliff, how do you arch your body and squirrel-leap out straight forward, while at the same time tipping your head up, how do you count the seconds before you reach back to grab and throw the pilot chute, how do you reach back and remain stable, in order to grab the steering lines even before they come out of the packed rig……and then it’s time to fly your canopy, and you must change your mindset from perfect rehearsal of known sequences to a phase of reacting to the unknown as quickly and calmly as possible, in order to fly where you need to be and land without hurting yourself, which is somehow different every time because of where you are, and how the wind is….. and all of this is happening in the space of fourteen seconds, yet it feels precise, organized, and ponderable even as it is happening. These short Moab jumps are unbelievably cerebral, beautiful and engaging, and they make me incredibly happy. What I crave most in life is simplicity and daily practice–BASE jumping and climbing give me that.

And as a jumper, now I get to be on the Tombstone every day, living with it from the top down instead of the bottom up.

Usually before we hike the thirty seconds up out of the low, creekside landing meadow, Dean picks the biggest log he can carry from the cut-and-burn piles that the town makes down there in the winter, and brings it home so he can cut it up for the woodstove.
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The Tombstone even keeps us warm in the winter. There are some rocks in the world, like some people, that have become a part of me.
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  • lsakdjf

    Beautiful essay. I think your writing about your sports is totally riveting, and I’m not even a climber (or a BASE jumper).

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  • Edmundo

    Steph
    I am from Mexico and have been climbing for 33 years now and I have read many articles and book about the sport, but now I find myself checking your blog everyday, I love that you find the time and energy to write about what you do and about your emotions, thank you.
    By the way you are also very pretty
    Saludos desde mexico

  • Zirkel

    Nice entry, Steph. Your story really reveals how, if we look hard enough, we can find wilderness experiences in our own backyards. Of course, your blessed that yours just happens to be Moab.

    What I’d really like to know is how I can get on your list of house sitters! (smile)

  • mike

    Steph,
    Tomby is one of my favorites too. If you hike the lower trail that runs next to the creekbed, it starts at the road and meets up with the Petroglyph trail at the narrow climb where you have to squeeze through, there is a big flat rock just in the beginning on the left with a dinosaur footprint on it. It’s a 3 toe print ( maybe velociraptor ) Have fun jumping.

  • Katiti

    Steph, thank you again for your time and inspiration, on the rock and at the keyboard. This piece on Tombstone, like your book, is what climbing literature/essays/etc. should be – poetic, well written, creative, introspective, and unique. Most of what I read about climbing, except for great magazines like Alpinist, is trite, re-hashing, testosterone gibberish with lots of “shout outs” to sponsors.

    I have not been a big blog checker until now. I check your site a few times a week. You seem to put a lot of love and care into this blog. It stands out among a bevy of homogeneity.

    This post reminds me of living in the West. I lived in Jackson Hole for a couple of years and now in San Francisco. Daily, I miss the wide open space, the “backyard” of cool features and outdoor playgrounds like the Tetons or even Snow King. You captured the essence of what I miss about my friends in Jackson too. Their desire for simplicity and low overhead and love of cerebral physical pursuits. As my friend Melinda once said, “If you HAD to pick a city, it should be San Francisco.” I agree with her, but nothing beats the beauty of small places in the west like Moab (I’ve heard) and Jackson Hole.

    Again, thank you and I hope to read another post soon!

    Katiti

  • joseph

    Wow! I am so jelous. It’s like I keep wanting to climb these awsome lines and base jump too, and I keep getting stuck in an intermedate stage of begenning partener or parteners that climb to hard to follow. So I solo on the rope. I wish I could get money,but nobody wants to higher a climbing bagger drop out. Your jumping shots are insperational though.
    Thats really awsome. Please recomand me a trustworthy jump school.

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