Why do people climb?
Ranching is a lifetime sport like golfing, swimming, biking, hiking and rock climbing. Rock climbing, which I have done a few time now so I can speak about it knowledgeably like a mom putting a bandage on a skinned knee can talk about orthopedic surgery, is scary, thrilling and satisfying. It fills a void I have been experiencing since the spouse retired from his town job and took over the cattle chores.
Documentaries like Valley Uprising and Dawn Wall show the history of climbing in the United States. Alex Honnold, of Free Solo, gave a TED talk about courage and preparation regarding his rope-less 3,000-foot accent of El Capitan in Yosemite. But so far no one has interviewed any ranchers that I know of, who have been climbing slippery slabs of solid hay without ropes for years. Or was it just me?
Feeding hay is a process. The major event is the loading of hay on your truck, or dragging bales to the manger. Our hay is in three strand bales stacked under a pole barn. The stack is at least eight or 10 bales high. It looks much higher than the 12- or 15-feet it actually is when you are freezing in the morning and looking up at it.
You know there is a bunch of hungry cattle standing around in inches of snow nearby. You need to load quickly and get on your way. Sometimes you are lucky and the haystack has been broken open. Meaning someone has taken bales and created a stair step effect in the stack. You can climb low bales to get to top bales.
Sometimes you can climb on the truck bed to reach bales. Sometimes the stack is so high, the truck too low and you too short you need to use hay hooks, a metal spike curved like a fishhook, to grab bales off the top of the stack. Using them is sort of like pulling a boulder above your head down off a mountain. You need to get out of the way quickly as the bale rolls down hopefully onto the truck.
Then there were the days when the cattle lined the manger that edged the haystack. Since you walked to the haystack there is no truck to climb to help reach the top of the stack. There is a six-foot metal pole you can hold high and shove with all your might against top bales to get one to fall. Standing on this one fallen bale then can help you get leverage to push a second bale and soon you make your own hay ladder.
But there are days when snow has melted and refrozen. Your unbroken haystack is a solid cube of packed grass. Handholds limited. Cracks to put your fingers in for a grip are insecure, your grip can flake away as easy as straw from a bale. You look at the stack, plan your route. Work out the puzzle, as the climbing magazines call it.
You have zero backup plans, no ropes, no belay buddy. You climb, knees on bales, slippery hand holds of loose straw. Snow boots slip in cracks. And you climb. Don’t look down, only frozen ground below you. No camera crew filming your accent. Yet when you get to the top and look around you do feel kind of amazing. Like you accomplished something. So why do people climb? Simple, because it is a challenge and feels good when you get to the top. And the cattle are hungry.
Marie Johnson is a Carson Valley rancher