My Time on Planet Earth

Photo by Rachel Melville

In the middle of winter, I began calling the Virgin River Gorge (VRG) the “Twilight Zone.” According to Cambridge Dictionary, the Twilight Zone is an area where two different ways of life or states of existence meet.

This description came to me on a particularly cold and damp January afternoon. I was sitting on the slab perch beneath the Planet Earth Wall, at the base of Dirt Cowboy, preparing to climb. The temperature hovered around 42 degrees, but without a breeze, all of us were shedding layers as we climbed.

The VRG draws fame from its juxtaposition—the common refrain jokes that the cliff houses the best limestone in America, but in the worst location. Anyone who has spent time here understands that the VRG’s paradox only begins superficially with its freeway-adjacent location and mind-boggling weather patterns that vary minute-to-minute. In one way or another, the physical contradictions of the place infect your bloodstream and color your experience.

I found early on that there was an immediate contrast to my individual climbing days and how I viewed my season.

For me, the outcome of my time here felt both completely unimaginable yet altogether inevitable.

I’m almost ready to climb, but I take a moment to look down at the parking. I recognize cars as they pull in—my fellow troops coming from the South and the North, all lining up for battle.

It’s not surprising that many people claim that they do not like the VRG—it’s a very easy place to dislike. But a few of us love it. And I’ve always thought it’s better to be loved by a few than be generally liked by many. The most interesting experiences and people usually are.

The things I value most can rouse a raw, vicious anger. In another moment, they make me feel safe, calm, happy. I’ve noticed that these types of contradictory experiences, places, and people make me care.

I assign an insane level of significance to the smallest things—a subtle gesture, a single word, a minuscule centimeter of a high point, a breeze, or a smile. They’re enough to change everything about my hour, day, week, or month.

When I care, my world contracts.
Every random nuance, remark, or event pulling at my attention blurs into the background. What’s left are a few elements, crisp in my attention’s foreground. From here, I can imagine stories, possibilities, and even make dreams. Part of me knows that what I choose to focus on is arbitrary and artificial, some mix-up of chemicals in my head. Still, it’s enough for a good life.

Welcome to the Twilight Zone.

I pause my music—today it’s a classic, “Sandstorm” by Darude—and the roaring noise rushes back. I look at my belayer, and we share an unspoken understanding. I take a deep exhale and I’m off, into the void.

For me, simply entering the Twilight Zone was the most difficult part of the day.

Surely, my descent down I-15 was never elegant. About a half mile before the prominent hairpin, I begin to slow down the van to grandma-level speeds and switch on the right turn signal. I watch in the rear-view mirror as, one-by-one, frustrated vacationers in their Tacomas change lanes and race by me—precisely what I want.

When I get on the straightaway, it feels eerily like every time a pilot lands an airplane—i.e., crash it into the Earth and call it good. I back up immediately, nestle into my parking spot for the day, and feel fortunate that, thus far, I haven’t botched it.

Then comes the second most difficult part of the climbing day: exiting the vehicle.

The moment I open the van door, all five senses are affronted in ways that affirm the most reprehensible, consumer-centric, shallow aspects of humanity I find most tawdry and draining.

I can usually predict the first sensory overload. A quick look at the sparse desert vegetation tells me if it’s hurricane-level windy or eerily still. Once I prepare myself thoroughly for the predicted conditions (If it’s arctic: Put a beanie on and shove my climbing shoes beneath my jacket. If it’s still: Silently accept the fact that I have very little chance of sending, but that I’ll try anyway), I open the door, walk to the back of the van, and grab my rope. Along the way, I am greeted with at least three new pieces of trash, usually a parting gift from the Amazon deliverymen on their way to deliver your new product in record time.

The smells of the nearby and extremely polluted Virgin River, brake pads, urine, and flora all coalesce into one delightful aroma that sits underneath the I-15 bridge which separates the southbound parking from the cliff.

And then, of course, the noise begins. The white blanket of speedy movement and uneasy clunking sensations jolt my ears as cars pass overhead going 25 above the speed limit.

After weeks of returning to the VRG, it’s hard not to question why I am voluntarily exposing myself to abundant evidence that reaffirms my general disillusionment for society. I could be wandering in the wilderness near Zion, having a pleasant conversation at a friend’s house, enjoying a training session at the gym, climbing in the peaceful Utah Hills, or exploring for boulders or cliffs in the Mojave Desert surrounding me. Instead, I am crouching underneath a freeway bridge, trying to avoid stepping on dog shit, condom wrappers, needles, or Gatorade bottles filled with piss.

Yet, as I walk under the bridge, across the sand, and onto the slabs, the dials turn down slightly.

Under the bridge and onto the slabs

Save for some thirty-second lulls in traffic, the noise never abates. But eventually I get close enough to the crag to hear the high-pitched yelps of Oso, my favorite crag dog, greeting me with irrational levels of excitement. I see permadraws whipping in the wind and investigate which new wet patches emerged after last night’s rain and which miraculously dried out. I look around for familiar faces and wave to anyone who I recognize walking over to the Blasphemy wall. 

And, finally, I feel my skin nestle into the rock.

For about three seconds.

Then, I just numb out.

The 5G

After a spring, summer, and fall frequenting some logistically demanding crags (by sport climbing standards)—the 5G outside of Las Vegas, Acephale in Canmore, and the Fortress of Solitude near Rifle, I craved the convenience of a roadside crag. I also wanted to be somewhere that offered simple conditions for solo vanlife.

Also, in the summer and fall, something happened. I felt totally overlooked, maybe even betrayed. The shock and confusion felt like someone poured cement into my body. Every action became slower, more tiring. I had carefully built up beliefs over the last few years, and slowly gave myself to them. Suddenly, these ideas felt totally foolish, based on a deep and, as I learned, totally flawed assumption. I felt like an imbecile, and also was totally desperate. I would have given literally anything to discard the desire and impulse to interpret.

I needed to go somewhere where I could be alone and where making decisions wasn’t difficult.

Saint George, UT called to me, arguably the most convenient place in the United States to live in a van in the winter. Accessible, basically free bivies, a relatively chill town, nearby cragging, and a climbing gym—it’s an easy place to live.

Plus, after leaving the VRG, just south of St. George, in 2020, I knew I’d wanted to return. Now felt as good a time as any.

I’ve always been intrigued by Planet Earth, the namesake route of the Planet Earth wall in the VRG. The shape of the route caught my eye—the slightly overhung face rises above the slab of Dirt Cowboy, daring you to climb it. It looked badass, with sparse features, a magnetic history, a mysterious vibe—you rarely saw anyone on it.

True to the Twilight Zone, contradiction was built into the route. Each move was challenging, but also offered solutions that catered to my skillset. Enormous spans between pockets did not immediately fit my 5’4 frame. Yet, I could use my admittedly advanced hip mobility to perch on high feet and get through. At first, I had a hard time using the wide pinches in the upper crux, but eventually I found my way.

I was absolutely gaga over the movement and loved how the route forced me to climb. I had to be fierce, and I had to be precise. Incremental pulses of deliberately calculated tension and release would get me through each move. Be aware of the energy you’re making and direct it.

Grab the left sidepull and walk the feet through. Left foot to the high stem, transfer the tension, cross the right hand, and release.

Photo by Rachel Melville

Tension back in the arms. Clip. Sag on the good right foot as hard as you can. Relax. Be aware of your heartrate. Look up briefly at the dish. Shake and chalk the left hand. Deliberate exhales. Direct the energy again. Tighten up like a ball, left hand open hand to begin with, build the feet and then fully crimp as you culminate to the highest two feet. Quickly switch the right hand from back three to front three. Release the tension and explode, but precisely hit the dish with a front three drag. Adjust the left hand position if needed so you’re pulling as straight down as possible.

The first crux move. Photo by Rachel Melville

Pull down with the left hand, whip the left foot across the wall and backflag hard to shift your body weight below the dish. Grab the tiny pocket next to the dish. High right foot at an angle, to get the right hip in as tight to the wall as possible. Open the hips, glue to the wall. Tension throughout everything. Don’t relax. Tight as you possibly can.

Pause on the intermediate. Don’t stop pulling down. Press into the right toe.

Precision climbing at its best. Photo by Rachel Melville

Take a moment to aim. Then, a perfectly timed release, one quick shake of your left arm. And repeat.

Of course, I would melt off somewhere along the way.

Releasing too early. Photo by Rachel Melville.

Outside of the Twilight Zone, I had my selection of bivies. Weighted pull ups and core, then dinner. I found pleasure in my own ways. Reading novel after novel. Writing. I re-watched Seinfeld. Then, on a friend’s recommendation, Mare of Eastwood. Finally, Veep.

Still, away from climbing, there didn’t seem to be two states of existence, just one.

It got really bad when I began to wonder if I could ever not feel this way: a little bit orphaned, a little bit pissed off.

My skin wore thin, I wondered where anyone was when, after I stuck my neck out, I needed a hand. For everyone else involved, the subject had changed.
They had made their peace. And I hadn’t.

I would sit in my van and listen to music. My loneliness and confusion felt significant, no matter how frivolously I passed my time.

And I wondered if anything, my goal of making someone genuinely laugh once a day, a sprint down a trail, a perfect moment on the rock, would ever calm the undertow inside me.

The anger grew, fed by a sense of righteousness and injustice. The exact events manifesting this pain were one thing. But mostly I was afraid, because I couldn’t see a way out of this blinding anger. I didn’t really know what to do. I lost sleep.

Yet, climbing on Planet Earth felt like an easy decision to make.

Some days the VRG would throw me off for no reason—as it does—and other days I’d just mess up—as we do.

I was genuinely enjoying the process, but part of me kept waiting for the pendulum to swing in the other direction.

The tension between feeling exhilarated and frustrated by hard routes is part of their attraction. The imbalance between my expectations and reality creates a low-level feeling of anxiety and intrigue. I internalize that tension and become emotionally invested.

At the VRG, I always felt that the tension was sharper than normal—provoking pronounced highs, and deep lows. I fell into the whirlpool in 2020, when Don’t Call Me Dude, a classic on the Blasphemy Wall, chewed my ego up and spit it out. I’d seen it happen to dozens of others—openly and emotionally discussing the peculiar difficulties of the place was a common conversation.

Yet, on Planet Earth, the pendulum never budged. I was so swept up in the middle of the plot to really care about the ending. I didn’t want to read the final paragraph to know how it ended. The story was just too damn good for me to do that to myself, for me to spoil the experience.

The ending is obvious: I successfully finished Planet Earth.

Writing that line down now, saying it aloud—I find it encapsulates nearly nothing of my experience.

I could describe the route intimately. I could detail the ~25 continuous moves that make up the meat of the hard climbing. I could calculate the exact number of tries it took me to complete the route. I could discuss the grade. But none of those aspects come close to telling the story that I care about. The best parts of the process were the small moments, on and off the route, the subplots that combine to create a richer narrative.

I remember, somewhere in the middle of the process, how I began to listen to music that mimicked the route profile. A rising but predictable beginning. A deliberate, difficult concerto of tension and release.

I remember the day that Sarah Fenoglio, a climber from Las Vegas, sent King of Beers when the conditions were miserable and the rest of us were flailing around just trying to match our highpoints.

I remember when I showed up with Donn Goodhew to find the entire crag seeping wet. I remember standing on the slabs below and watching Dirt Cowboy turn from black, to gray, back to its usual dark brown. I had a great go at the end of that day.

I remember when the biblical levels of rains kept pouring over the desert. Donn and I found a window to climb together. At the end of the day, I lowered him off of his route, both of us miserable and rugged and raw after we fought like hell to climb hard in humid, gross, cold conditions. It would be easy to be annoyed. But, when I pointed out a Blue Heron on the banks of the Virgin River, Donn’s eyes lit up like I had shown him the Holy Grail. 

I remember throwing pretzels at Rosie’s dog, Oso, while I ranted to her about some of the things keeping me up at night.

The fight on Captain Fantastic (aka “Spantastic”) comes to mind—a surprise victory, a quick send, an injection of confidence. I felt strong and capable.

I can still feel the butterflies in my stomach when I arrived at the crux for the first time, and knew that I really had a chance. I’d never felt like that on a route before.

And they call this the “short beta.” Captain Spantastic . Photo by Rachel Melville

Still, there was one day that stood out, and it requires some details.

The crux of Planet Earth revolves around moving between a pocket and sloping dish to another pocket. They feel miles apart. You have your selection of feet and crappy intermediates, but no matter where you fit, you’re in for a tough boulder.

I’d been doing decently with a variation of the beta that leveraged one of my key skills—an ability to bring my hips close to the wall with very high feet. Still, even after 20 or so attempts, and a few one hangs starting below the crux, the beta never felt quite right.

More than a dozen times, I’d spend entire sessions trying different permutations of the few feet and hand holds available, trying to master this 10ft section of rock. Every time, I would lower and tell my partner “I just need to stick to this beta.” But I kept trying to prove myself wrong, well aware that my stubbornness can be both an asset and a weakness. Deciding when to stick with the beta, to move from experimentation to execution, requires skill and experience.

One day, it happened differently. I fell again, went in straight. Looked at the same gray rock I’ve been staring at for weeks. Yelling down to my belayer was literally pointless. The white noise of the traffic morphed for me in that moment to offer something different—a temporary portal, somewhere to hide and think.

I wondered how I could make the work a little bit easier for my hips. A lightbulb went on and I thought of something different. I got into a new position, and immediately felt comfortable, like I found a perfect Jasna-sized box.

A tenuous backflag allowed me to use a neglected, very small hold. This new hand position aligned my hips better so I could more easily reach a high, good foot. Then, I had to stand off the high perch and execute two precise bumps.

A tighter hand position allowed me to use my feet better and maintain tension. Photo by Rachel Melville

I did the crux a few times and then got as close as ever to sticking the final hold from the ground. A clarity white and raw hit me, unlike anything I’d ever known in climbing: This was the fucking way, and I had fucking found it.

The shock wore off and beneath it I found thunder. I was ecstatic in a way that seemed totally unwarranted by the circumstances—I didn’t do the crux from the ground, I just felt more solid. I looked around for anyone I recognized—Rosie, Nic, Donn—because they’d get it, I thought. They’d understand what the hell just happened. 

I was so elated that I didn’t even really consider the implications of another discovery: A critical hold higher on the route began to seep from the significant rains we kept inheriting from California.

At the end of the day, I walked towards my van, threw the rope in the back, and slid in. I was alone, and suddenly untethered and unbound by the societal norms governing basic human behavior. AKA: It’s generally frowned upon if you just randomly lose your shit. The noise muted, my face red from whipping winds, my hands cold.

A grin from ear-to-ear.

Out of nowhere, I allow myself to react exactly as I wanted to. I jumped up and down, and over again. I could climb 10 more pitches if I had to. I felt remade.

I never want to forget how I could manifest that energy myself.

After that day, my world contracted even more.

The confidence and mental high granted me a blissful, incandescent amnesia. I became less angry at night. I knew that this silly route wouldn’t solve my problems, that these feelings would return. Still, I let this moment envelop me whole in a way that was more straightforward than I could have ever imagined.

And that’s the story of Planet Earth, it gave me those few weeks of total freedom. Of discarding everything else, including the desire to think and interpret. The best medicine I’d had in months.

A few weeks passed, and the wet hold dried.

Eventually, my redpoint attempts came down to how wet this left-hand pocket was. Photo by Rachel Melville

I felt keyed up the morning I sent Planet Earth. The warmup felt as easy as walking, and I felt ready, primed. I put on my music, and allowed the rising energy swell, to remind myself I still had it. Then, I pushed down the emotions and, as I’d been doing so well for the last few weeks, went through the motions. Deaf to the thoughts and the expectations—I reminded myself that everything about today, tomorrow, last week, was nothing more than how it presented itself.

It was the sweetest flow state that I remember—the kind I experience maybe once a year, or even once every few years. It makes for a bad story, though, because I can’t recall anything specific about the climbing before the moment I latched the final crux hold and entered the runout 5.12 section.

Clipping the chains felt simultaneously monumental and inconsequential. I found myself in the space between those two feelings. Donn was good not to lower me immediately.

After a few minutes, I gave the hand signal to lower, brushed my ticks off the rock, and was back on the ground.  The whole ascent probably lasted less than fifteen minutes.

I’d never seen anyone so happy for me as Donn was in that moment. He even looked happier than when he saw the Blue Heron. Rosie wondered aloud why I wasn’t screaming in joy at the top. I gave her a hug and Oso freaked out, wanting in on the excitement. Nic sent his quintessential triple cactus emoji text to say congratulations.

Then, I wandered around the rest of the day like a lost puppy.

Weeks later, I’m sitting in my van in Hueco Tanks, Texas. The weather has been grim, regulations confusing, my climbing disappointing. My time with close friends always enjoyable and light. Yet, I can’t help but feel somewhat out of place, with everyone around me trying to be the next Steven Spielberg, fighting for that perfect goPro angle for their send footy. I feel crochety, old, and easily annoyed. A few days ago, I tweaked my hamstring on an aggressive left heel hook. Today, my friends left early, over the weather.

I could easily let these small things get to me, and I have. Though this essay may suggest otherwise, I try to avoid assigning meaning to climbs. Otherwise, I get too worked up when things don’t work out well. I often fail in these efforts, but the intention keeps me in check.

Still, I revisit my time at the VRG often, not to shine and admire a badge of honor, but as a proof of concept that the climbing process can really feel that good.

Now I wonder how I can conclude the story, wrap up the narrative, and tie it neatly with a bow.

The climb certainly didn’t fulfill the clichés I see in climbing media. It didn’t “make me a better person” or “expose my limits.” Planet Earth did absolutely nothing to change me, and it didn’t teach me anything new. Instead, Planet Earth just showed me what was already there. To me, that feels like the most generous of gifts.

The magic of the VRG has dulled. Thinking of it now, the experience feels like a muted dream, some moment in the universe that I so luckily stumbled inside, to find something so unexpected, so necessary, so good.

All I can do now is try to map that uncharted territory and learn it by heart, so I can revisit it whenever I can, whenever I need.

On the 5.12 outro. Photo by Rachel Melville

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