Cows Created Craving for Climbing

I know, I know, the cows come first. Shoveling waist-high snowdrifts from my driveway for the umpteenth time I watch the cowboy drive past in the backhoe without even considering asking him to clear a path for me. Cows need to be fed first. 

This amount of snow is tough on cattle. Some are walking through drifts up to their bellies and dropping their calves, as best they can, out of the wind in open fields. The cowboy’s wife posted a picture of a handful of new baby calves in a shed under a heat lamp, all curled up on clean straw and alive. The best they can hope for, for a while, as the cowboy spends his days feeding. Sometimes I am tempted to ask if I can help. At least drive the truck as he feeds those big, almost 2000-pound hay blocks, requiring a backhoe to load onto a truck. But I don’t. I just watch and feel for him knowing how tired, achy and cold he is. I still miss the morning chore of feeding.

I started out feeding with smaller two-strand hay bales which weighed around 50-75 lbs.. Then bailers progressed to making three-strand bales of about 100lbs.. We sold our cattle before the real big bales got popular. Ripped my right shoulder rotator cuff trying to pull a three stand bale from a stack that got rained on during the day and then froze overnight.  The bale would not budge. But cows have to be fed, so I pulled harder, with all I had, and pulled my muscle off my bone. Spent the rest of the morning in the doctor’s office.

Empty Corrals – image: courtesy of Marie Johnson

After selling the cattle I missed feeding. Missed the real purpose of providing for another creature who depended on me. And over time I realized I even missed climbing the haystacks. So that was how I found myself just an average person, up about 15 feet in the air holding onto little color-coded plastic bits bolted onto a wall with only the tips of my fingers and toes saving my life. I remembered doing this differently from before. But at the top it was time to let go. And I did. 

Alex Hunnold, free soloist, I am not. My original climbing gear was a bulky insulated onesie. My climbing shoes were thick rubber-soled Rugged Outback boots with leather tops that tied above my ankles. My feeding gloves were stiff.  They retained the shape of my hands from the moisture seeped into them, looked like severed hands, in a relaxed curve, as they dried draped over a pipe by the furnace in the mudroom. Their thin leather was better to feel the bale strings I could not see as I pulled myself up a stack. And my curved hay hooks looked more like ice picks, than ice axes, still they easily punched through ice and crusted snow covering exposed hay bales.

Our haystacks were about 15 feet high.  To open one, and knock off top bales, I had to use a long metal pole with a sharp prong a few inches long on one end. The prong had a small metal rectangle plate about the size of a regular-sized chocolate bar at its base so it would not enter a bale too far. Since a regular person cannot climb a full unbroken stack unaided, the pole helped to push bales to the stack’s edge, letting them fall, to create hodge-podge stairs you could climb to reach other bales. Sometimes bales not poked or pushed would fall, and winds could topple a wobbly stack, so it was always interesting in the morning to see a stack and climb it. No matter what the cows had to be fed. 

Selling our cattle when I was about 60 allowed me free time yet I still wanted a full body workout like feeding, plus the thrill of reaching the top of a stack so I found myself at the Blue Granite Climbing gym at Lake Tahoe, again 15 feet in the air. This time with thin rubber soled shoes that look like a cowboy’s idea of a leather ballet slipper. There is a lot of toe work in rock climbing. I wore light stretchy fabric, not an insulated onesie, and a climbing harness around my legs and hips. No hay hooks.

I was terrified the first time I was up the wall and had to let go and trust the auto belay device to catch my fall. Even asked the nice lady at the front desk to try it first to prove to me it worked. She did, and encouraged me to drop a few times not too high up to test it myself, to learn to trust it. When I started climbing I did not know anyone with casual climbing ability who was free to climb during the day when the gym was not crowded. But eventually, I met other climbers and went often enough to get good enough to rip out my left shoulder rotator cuff sending a 5.10. That set me back a bit. (Most of the damage to the shoulder was done from my years of feeding, not the new climbing.) After waiting for, and recovering from shoulder surgery covid came and closed down the gyms. 

I was bemoaning my disappointment to not have a place to climb as I healed when a friend who worked in the ski industry asked if I had tried the Via Ferrata at Palisades. It was outdoors, done in small groups with large social distances. OK.

Italian Via Ferratas, Iron Ways were built during WWI in the Dolomites to get soldiers up and over the mountains. Now they are perfect for persons wanting to test their courage, and strength and have a great adventure with spectacular scenery. One is attached to a cable bolted to mountain rocks by a carabineer clipped to your climbing harness. You wear a helmet like regular outdoor climbing because rocks will fall and hopefully you won’t. Via Ferratas are not fail-safe and that makes them exciting, but are not as technical as pure rock climbing.

So I asked a friend to celebrate my 62nd birthday by climbing the Palisades’ Via Ferrata. Loved it so much I drove with another friend to climb one in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Now wanting to celebrate the big Medicare birthday this year I called around and looked online and found a wonderful travel agent who hooked me up with her friend who is willing to drive me around the Italian Dolomites, the Swiss and French Alps this fall to do long established, purposeful via Ferratas. It will be a grand adventure. It is motivating me to regularly visit the new climbing wall at the Gardnerville community center, which is building a small group of positive climbers.  And to drop a few pounds, and get into better shape by continually shoveling waist-high snowdrifts as I watch the cowboy pass with another truckload of hay.

Snow Berm by Corral. Drift Too High to Shut Gate – image: courtesy of Marie Johnson

Marie lives in the middle of a cattle ranch in Carson Valley. Semi-retired now she
spends time biking, hiking, swimming, skiing, rock climbing, traveling, and melting
glass. Born in Minnesota, raised in rural communities, she received a B.S. in
Agricultural Economics from the University of Minnesota. Met her husband while
scuba diving in Seattle and moved to his family ranch along the West Fork of the
Carson River in 1986. Immersed into ranching life with a lot to learn she wrote a monthly column for the local paper for 20 years about her experiences. However, regarding her two children she took Willie Nelson’s advice, one of her sons practices Law the other Medicine.

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