Time Wave Zero

Posted on May 26, 2020

On the morning of February 19, 2020, I stood at the base of Time Wave Zero, a 700m route in El Potrero Chico, Mexico. It takes halfway-competent climbers the better part of a day to complete the ascent and descent. I had prepared the rope in a tidy package the night before so we could start climbing as soon as we got there, but I took the time to run the rope through my hands and restack it again anyway.

It was 4 a.m. I was trying to decide whether I was too warm from the hike up here or too cold as the weather app suggested. It forecasted 0.2mm of rain per hour but it might not apply to the microclimates these mountains commanded.

It was Patrick’s idea to do this with Brandon – a much more qualified climber – but he had had to drop out. I didn't agree to do it initially, remembering the last time I climbed a multi-pitch and swearing I would never do anything like that again. “This is work. I should be getting paid to do this,” a friend said as he crested over a ledge, his exasperation, regret, and exhaustion still rumbling through my mental box I labeled Climbing Wisdom. I had only done single-pitch routes since.

The route followed the left skyline

I couldn’t decide. I remembered to avoid multi-pitches but was tempted to forget why. The potency of my friend’s voice was fading, and I was at a point in my life where I needed a sense of achievement again. I needed something to work on, to look forward to. That desire had grown stronger than my fear of failure and pain.

“After a few weeks of contemplation, I think I’m open to the idea of doing 23 pitches.” I stared at the message for a minute before I sent it to Serena, Patrick’s girlfriend.

I met her a few days later. “I have already told Patrick that you’re doing Time Wave Zero with him,” she said with a congenial smile and a slight hint of malevolence. Someone needed to make the decision for me.

The custodian of Climbing Wisdom may have yielded, but it kept its hold on me. It dictated my climbing life for the next few months, making sure we had the best possible chance of not hurting ourselves. I climbed 24 routes in the gym a session to improve endurance, researched online comments other climbers left about the route, studied the photos, created an Excel spreadsheet detailing each pitch, and figured out what provisions to bring with us. What do we do if we had to poop, and we were not supposed to leave anything on the route? Use an empty Pringles can, of course.

We checked out the approach to the base of the climb the day before. The sun was out. It was warm. I worried I had tired myself out just scoping the approach, having sweated enough to soak a T-shirt for the first time in five months. We came to a fork and took a wrong turn but stumbled into an area with unabashedly bright ochre sand, a surprise after having gotten used to the more unassuming grayish limestone everywhere else in the park. We tried to take a shortcut across the slope towards the right direction but figured we’d wasted enough time and turned around instead. After getting back on the path and correcting our bearings, we arrived at the base of the climb.

There was something sobering about looking at the plaque that spelled out the name of the route. This was no longer just a project that we were planning for from 2,738km away. It was real, it was right here, and we were getting on it in a few hours. We weren’t going to greet it again in the same midday sun but in a cloak of darkness. Things are never quite the same as you picture them. All reading descriptions, researching comments, and studying photos did was create misleading abstract constructs. A plaque announcing the route’s existence turned a figment of imagination into a tangible structure. A lot of people had tried it. Some died. We were getting on it. And there was much more we still didn’t know about it.

No different than online dating.

That night, I stretched and self-massaged, popped in two ibuprofen pills, hoped all the fatigue and pain I accumulated on this trip fades over a short sleep.

“Are you excited?”

“I’m not sure. I try not to think too much about it.” I’ve prepared as much as I could. Whatever happens, happens.

The alarm went off at 3 a.m. We checked the weather — drizzling from 6 a.m. to 11 a.m. We thought we could manage. We made our way to the base in the dark, flawlessly this time. Patrick was keen to make a statement, determined to climb all 23 pitches without falling, and leading the hardest pitches. That made pitch sequencing easy, as I was all too happy to let him take on the most challenging parts of the route. He switched to his climbing shoes, tied into the rope, and began his ascent. I hastily started the stopwatch.

The first pitch was a 5.7 slab, which Patrick finished in a hurry. He continued past the anchors without much of a rest. His headlamp was getting smaller. Though I couldn’t read his mind, I think we were asking the same question: What is the second pitch like? It was the second hardest pitch in the whole route, and we were going to do it with three litres of water, all the food, without a proper warm up and in the dark. And, for him, dragging half a rope up as well.

“Whoa, I hope that was the crux,” Patrick said between his shallowing breaths. He hadn’t moved far past the anchors. I looked at the overhanging portion about 10m above him. I had been sure that was going to be the actual crux instead when we looked at the route yesterday.

“I hope so,” I said, more eager to believe in a lie of easy life than be proven correct.

Patrick’s breaths were getting louder. There were notes of desperation mired in chords of fatigue. He could very well fall at any time. But he persevered, found the anchors and clipped in.

“OK Wei, you can climb now.”

First pitch was easy enough. Even the part where Patrick first struggled on the second pitch felt fine, with a little layback and a little reach. But as I neared the crux, the holds were getting thinner, and soon my fingers were urging me to make quicker decisions. Where there had been many options to hold onto before, I could see only one now — one that looked too strenuous to reach.

“Uh, feel free to spray any beta at me,” I said, hoping Patrick’s experience could make my life a little bit easier by telling me precisely where to go. I tried to sound composed.

“Just grab the hold here. It’s a little dyno,” he pointed at the exact hold I eyed on but wanted to avoid.

I swung my body up to reach it, grabbed it, but couldn’t hold onto it. I found myself dangling on the rope, my legs pointing down towards the dark void. I took the chance to breathe normally again and reassessed my options.

“Well, we have 21 pitches to go.” I grabbed a quickdraw, pulled myself up, skipped that troublesome hold and finished our first two pitches. I clipped onto the anchors and hung out next to Patrick.

“I’m very happy I did the move,” he noted. “That means we shouldn’t have any problems with the rest of the route.”

I hope so.

The rain was picking up now. Tiny water droplets swirled in front of me like birds trying to find a home that no longer existed. Sprinkling of water had gathered on the carabiners, but the limestone, being porous, remained dry. I couldn’t see anything beyond the next bolt to clip in, and sometimes even that took a few neck-breaking glances to find. I had never learned to climb in the dark before, and I couldn’t ask for a better reason to start now.

I reach the next set of anchors. “OK Patrick! You can climb now!” I yelled out as hard as I could, hoping he could hear me. I was getting used to the idea of being a loud nuisance at 5 a.m. His light was nowhere to be seen, hidden behind cacti, shrubs, and the shroud of distance. I tried to feel the tension of the rope as I reeled him in, stacking it on a tiny ledge, and using my foot to keep it from falling off. When we trained, we timed our climbing speed to about eight minutes a pitch, which means we’d be standing strapped to the rock for about forty minutes every time we took turns belaying. I straddled my feet along the wall on the ledge as if I were posing for a fashion magazine, shuffling my feet every few minutes to stop my legs from going numb. Or bored.

With all that time and little to do, my mind began to wander. Should we turn around seeing that the rope might be getting wet from the drizzle? How much weaker is a wet rope? Will fatigue catch up with me as we get higher? This still beats being in bed! What if we manage to complete this? How will I feel? Why am I doing this?

Patrick arrived. I gave him the remaining quickdraws I had in exchange for the usual, mutually affirming pleasantries to keep our minds clear and our climbing safe. He continued. Soon, his light disappeared again. I didn’t realize a sport that required a partner could feel solitary. Trying to keep myself occupied, I wondered how I’d feel to be completely alone hanging off a mountain in the dark. I turned off my light and let my eyes adjust.

A picture emerged. Across the valley in the mountain where we were climbing two days ago, I started to make out the faint outline of a ridge, glowing on one side from the lights of the nearby town. The other side – total darkness. Morning mist rolled in through the valley. I saw movement but could hear nothing – not even the whisper of the wind to remind me that I wasn’t looking at a photograph. It wasn’t a lavish scene that conformed to the usual rules of good composition, yet I couldn’t help but be captivated by its quiet self-affirmation, comfortable in its subdued colours and unhurried eye-lines. I wanted to take a picture of it, but the camera was useless in this light. What I was looking at was going to be only for me, and only for a moment. And for Patrick too, if he decides to turn off his light midway through his climb and look to the right.

“WEI! YOU’RE ON BELAY!” I unhooked myself from the anchors and set off, hoping to remember the moment.

Same view, different vibe

Daylight was rushing in now as we reached pitch eight. There was a little trail we could walk on. The stopwatch read two hours. “Perhaps we can reach the top by 9 a.m. then!” I was ever the optimist. “Yeah, that would be… amazing,” Patrick entertained my delusion. “But we won’t be climbing at the same pace. It’s going to be harder from here.”

Being able to see the wall while climbing was taking a while to adjust to. Everything had been black and yellow, but it was now all awash in blue. We reached the palm tree belay, one of the better belays where we got to lean against a tree and relax. “This is a nice belay after so many hanging belays before it,” Patrick told me with a smile. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I had been able to stand on all my belays up to this point. Not palm tree level of comfort, but akin to a lounge chair compared to sitting on straps of nylon for forty minutes. Team unity took priority when it came to safety, I feared. I bit my tongue.

Things had a way of balancing out though. Patrick had had to endure uncomfortable belays below, but he now enjoyed the cozy ones, while I often found myself suspended on the harness. Though he agreed to lead the two hardest pitches, I was to lead the two next hardest. I was facing my first real challenge now after climbing for about five hours. The pitch I was to lead went horizontally before shooting back up behind a buttress. The rest of the route was blocked from view. I took a sip of water and started to punch my way through, being extra careful of the footwork. The last time I messed up a traverse like this my foot got caught in the rope and I flipped upside down when I fell.

Two days ago, we climbed Pitch Black with backpacks of similar weight to prepare for this route. There was a section that was rated as difficult as the one I was traversing now, and I had struggled to get through it. However, I felt a little more confident after spending more time warming up to this pitch. I had long since jettisoned any fear of falling after climbing endless runouts in earlier pitches.

I was now three metres from where I started, and the next bolt was another three metres away. If I continued and fell, I could swing into just about anything within a twelve-metre semicircle.

Wow, this is some spicy stuff. But I’m good. I’m used to this. I won’t fall. Another three metres doesn’t scare me. Clipping in is safe-r, but it’s safe either way since I’m not going to fall.

“Hey, you have a bolt right on your right knee, eh?” Patrick broke my soliloquy.

Oh. I clipped in and continued.

The mysterious upper section turned out to be an overhanging dihedral. After hours climbing on slabs, the change of angle was a welcomed one. It was more my style. A far reach here, a slight drop knee there, opposing forces over here, this ought to be good to hold on to – it was, some good crimps, and whoops – my forearms were getting tired. I’d better find a good rest spot very soon. My fall from pitch two replayed in my mind, but I stomped the thought out of existence and convinced myself that what I was dealing with now was easier. I reach for a hold and – voila, a resting stance. Crisis averted.

Patrick at the palm tree belay

We reached pitch 21 – the hardest pitch. I had tried routes this hard many times before but only twice had I completed them without falling. It was Patrick’s pitch, though he tried to pawn it off to me at the last minute without success. He looked relaxed in the beginning, but his pace slowed down dramatically as the angle of the rock changed. His moves were more deliberate, his stances more tenuous. He managed to grab onto a hold that looked impossible to grab onto but fell on a move after that.

He reached the anchors and clipped in. “Yeah, that was definitely a 12a.”

It was my turn. I was hoping that my successes in the last two hard pitches would give me a boost in confidence, but alas, it all vanished as soon as I touched The Impossible Hold. The whole section was white with chalk from all the attempts before us. I decided to contribute no more to that. I gave the crux one more earnest attempt, nodded in agreement with its grade, pulled a quickdraw, fell a few more times, and patted myself on the back when I got through it.

“Sorry for the delay, I had to switch shoes,” I told Patrick as I settled down next to him.

“You brought two pairs of shoes?”

“Yeah, I’m not leaving anything to chances.”

“I like how committed you are to this climb.”

I didn’t think I could face the disappointment had I failed here so close to the summit because I didn’t have the right shoes. All on top of letting him down.

The next two pitches were much easier. As I was climbing towards the end, I realized that the wall we had been facing for the past eight hours was coming to an end. Looking up, I could see the sky and nothing else. We really were finishing our project. Though the way up here felt like a fight, we had in fact been in a slumber with the mountain drawn over us like a curtain. It was time to wake up. As relentlessly as time marched forward, we pressed our way upward.

Then, the world opened in all directions. There was nothing around me other than the rock I just climbed below me. The cloud enveloped the summit, depriving our chance to admire just how high up we have climbed. The weather had kept other climbers away and the route free of traffic, but it also denied us the satisfaction of taking in the view of the world from the top of the mountain.

We scrambled up the final pitch and reached a clearing. We could go no higher. We took as many pictures as we could, hoping people would believe that we reached the summit despite the lack of a corroborating background.

The final pitch

We climbed nine hours for this view

“I think we should stay here for a while, seeing as we spent so much time to get up there.”

“Oh yeah, of course.” I answered, forgetting what prompted Patrick to say that.

We paced around the clearing, often standing on opposite sides, sharing but a few bad jokes and short chuckles in between long silences. Sometimes, I even forgot he was there. I stared into the mist knowing there were mountains beyond and mused the idea of being able to see them.

I looked at my phone. Twenty minutes had passed. As if by cosmic synchronicity, we started to walk back together. It was time to return to the great unknown.

I had feared this moment. I should be happy, but it wasn’t exactly how I felt. There was a sense of loss as the thing that kept me going for the past few months had, in fact, found greener pastures. I was adrift in the middle of a sea, losing sight of land once again. I followed Patrick down the scramble and began the arduous task of descending the mountain. Going through the most dangerous part of climbing was no time to fall trapped in a web of existential questions.

Getting down was as much of an adventure as getting up. We got our ropes stuck, got lost, and had to fight lateral forces as we traversed across the cliff. The trip became monotonous. It was hard to stay focused and safe when interest waned.

“Hey Wei, look behind you.”

I turned my head around and saw sun streaks breaking through the clouds, illuminating a distant plain. I wondered what it would look like if I could get over the ridge and see the whole thing. Or stand at the end of the rays and look up at the cliff, possibly at more routes.

Yay! Mist is gone!

We reached the base at just past 6 p.m. and hiked down the trail. I felt true relief when we reached the valley floor. It was strange to walk on pavement again after standing on uneven terrain for fourteen hours. We no longer needed to think where the feet might slide or twist the wrong way. We neared the house we had rented and saw four familiar silhouettes within shouting distance walking away from us. Is that…

“Serena!” Patrick didn’t hesitate.

“Oh my god! Did you guys finish?”

“Yes! We did!”

We sat around a table in a restaurant and shared our day. The rest of the crew had a great day too, completing Estrellita, encountering their share of skirmishes with nature and attaining new personal records. I sat there amongst the chatter, half participating, half aware that the question I had been running away from would inevitably catch up. I felt a little helpless, even though what I did should’ve felt empowering.

“You look tired,” a friend noted. I don’t remember who.

“Yeah, I suppose I am.”

“What was the most memorable moment on the route?”

Reaching the top? The scary scramble near the summit? The rain spray in the dark? Accidentally pulling off a cactus whilst untangling the rope, feeling double the guilt as I had water but couldn’t reach it?

“I was belaying Patrick in the dark when I turned off the light. I saw the gentle ridgeline on the mountain across the valley and the mist rolled in below. I thought that was pretty.”

Maybe I was mumbling; no one prodded further. Maybe my answer was unexpected. We all returned to our food and shared a moment of silence. I stepped away from the restaurant and returned to that ledge, in the dark, where the living photograph kept me company. Where I told myself to remember the moment because it was important. I wasn’t sure why. Maybe it showed me who I was more than the climbing did. It handed me a folded note to put into the Climbing Wisdom box. I was to read it when the time is right, at a point in my life when I can understand what was written on it.

And at that moment, I found something new to look forward to.


Many thanks to Patricia Drake for editing.

Different dish, similar vibe.

A little story here. We hitched a ride to a nearby town and met this guy in the van. We mentioned doing Time Wave Zero. “We’re doing that tomorrow too, and we'll be simul-belaying,” he said. “We’ll probably use your draws on the way up,” confident that they’d pass us since they’d be using a faster method. But they started late and only caught up with us midway through the route as we were descending. We had to wait for them to pass.