It was that first drop that I never got used to. That freefall of maybe six to eighteen inches as the safety clamps released on the way to sending fifty to a hundred men roughly 1800 feet underground. The spools of wire rope, on a three-way redundant safety system, were always pre-stretched and dynamic. Any climber knows that dynamic is good, static is bad. Dynamic means that when you fall, as all climbers do at some point in their careers, when you hit the end of the line at 9.8 meters per second squared, rather than break every single bone in your body, the line stretches and accommodates your mass, slowing your fall before it stops it.
We were climbing one bright spring day in 2003 in the Sierra Nevada’s on an unnamed route just North of Lake Tahoe on the California side. My climbing partner was perhaps, no definitely, a bit over eager. She was an experienced climber, and a bit arrogant about it. I think that anyone who routinely offers their life up to a multitude of uncontrollable circumstances tends to be a bit arrogant, until that day. When you realize that you are indeed, vulnerable, and yes, you can be hurt, badly, and sometimes, that is worse than death.
This day, we were climbing an unbolted route. Which means that our protection was based on placing nuts, cams and other climbing devices into crevasses, vugs, cracks and other breaks in an otherwise unblemished face of granite to protect ourselves in case of a fall. The rock was super textured and the day was gorgeous. Despite the chill, we had stripped down to our base layers and were concentrated on speed. I was on the lead, as this was a relatively easy portion of the climb. I had climbed probably twenty feet or so since my last cam, but I was unworried. Lake Tahoe glistened in the sun to my left, resembling a giant blue diamond – maybe one that has been bought, but not yet picked up by the customer, who is now scrambling to put together the money to make good on his attempt to impress the gorgeous woman to his left at the diamond auction.
Maybe it was the thought of the gorgeous woman. Maybe it was a slight mental hesitation. For whatever the reason, I fell. Sometimes, you know you are going to fall when you are climbing. Most of the time. You can feel it, a hesitation, a lack of concentration, a fatigue…you can warn your partner, and most of the time, the fall is harmless. This time, I just fell. No warning shout, no mental lead on the fall, just off into space. If you’ve climbed twenty feet out from your last piece of protection, then you fall forty feet. Do the math. I twisted as I fell, wanting to shout to my partner, but she knew. As I fell towards her, I saw that she was impossibly setting a new cam and roping into it as a fourth catch on her belay. Then the last cam that I set popped out. I experienced a brief hesitation in my flight, and then continued down another twenty feet.
I obviously didn’t die that day, nor did my partner. Her belay held, and, nerves shot, we rappelled down to safety and flat ground. I never really wanted to climb again. Top roping, sure…a little mountaineering, yes. Climbing, no.
The same holds true for coal mining. As I said before, I never got used to that drop. We would load onto the cage, equipped with a grated floor that allowed you to actually see the drop into which you were descending, along with chains overhead to hang onto to help with balance, and begin our ride into the depths of the mountain. Freefalling your first six inches of 1800 feet is no way to begin a shift, in my opinion. Nobody liked it. Some men would pray, loudly, for God to protect us during the course of work, which of course is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Others would crack the most foul jokes I have ever heard. Some, like myself, would distance themselves and get ready for the descent. One young engineer actually fainted.
It was here, in this most inhospitable environment, that I met my first foodie. A grim, scary, giant scarred grey-bearded hulk of a man. If I had called him a foodie, a term that likely had not been coined at that time, he would have likely broken my nose and that would have ended our relationship. With a booming voice and an unmatched knack for leading men, he could have a team assembled and divert disaster in a moment’s notice. He once fired a young engineering intern for “Breathing up good air.” You could be a “Waste of blood, an embarrassment to your mother, a pisshole in the snow.” He had thousands of insults, which he reserved for those that he referred to as – Lazy. If you worked hard, jumped to his commands and put your heart on the line, then he would respect you. Otherwise, you went to another team.
It was this scary mammoth of a man who introduced me to the fact that men can also be cooks, and be proud of it. In my family, my mother cooked. The women cooked. The men did not. I grew up cooking with my mother and my grandmothers, but sadly, at that time in my life I had started to shy away from it. This man reinforced that it was cool to cook. He was a farmer, a butcher, a slow food advocate, hated fast food with all his soul and grew, slaughtered and butchered probably 98% of what he ate. Long since divorced and a self-proclaimed bachelor for life, he kept an airtight case in his locker underground with cooking utensils. A cast iron skillet, a dutch oven, tongs, a razor sharp knife and aluminum foil.
He could wax poetic about the tender cuts of meat encountered while butchering, which he would chop and eat raw, with eggs and chives. He would bring in sweetbreads and wrap them in aluminum foil with garlic and duck fat and let them roast in the diesel engines of our equipment for a decadent treat. He was largely regarded as crazy by his superiors, but we, his followers, worshipped him.
The best, though, was when his tomatoes ripened. Oh, my God. He grew heirloom tomatoes every year, started from his own seeds. My mother baked the best sourdough bread that mankind has ever experienced, and the marriage of those two items was heavenly. We would thickly slice the bread; slather it with mayo, and then top with cheese, thick slices of home-cured ham and then big, thick, juicy slices of tomato. Glistening and colorful, in yellow, red, green, purple and deep, dark red, they would shine in our headlights like jewels. Then we would place that great cast iron skillet on the screamingly hot engine manifold of the diesel engine, melt a little lard, and fry the single best sandwich I have ever eaten.
So, along with broken ribs, toes, welders flash, a broken nose and a bit of black lung, I carried from that place a renewed resolve to cook, and to always, no matter the environment, eat well. My mining hat is off to you, you crazy throwback to an age in which men were men and were not ashamed of it. Thank you.