The Big Bite
by Duane Raleigh
I smelled Mark's shoes as he fell past the belay. Hot E.B. rubber smells like burning car tires. An acrid lingering in the nostrils that settles onto your tongue. It was the longest fall, somewhere around 100 feet, I had ever held. And still is.
I really thought Mark had made it up The Big Bite, a glassy stretch of granite immediately left of Quartz Mountain's popular S-Wall. He hiked the crux, a run-out stretch of dish smearing and single-digit crimping that had stopped power meister Jon Frank (he took a sweet 50-foot slider) that same season. But that section was nothing to Mark, and, I was a bit disappointed that he so easily dispatched what had given me the shakes the year before. "Can't he snivel, even a little bit?" I thought at the belay. Nope.
The last time I looked up to check, Mark's shoes were disappearing over the crest of the wall 60 feet above. "He's got the good edges on top," I told myself, then settled onto the belay bolts anticipating a cruiser top-rope run.
There was a scraping sound, then the shoes got big. And there was Herndie, skidding down the face, slow at first, then full bore. I've always admired the way he fell. Upright and in control. No scream. No whimper. Like a stone. He later told me he just popped off, started sliding, tried to catch himself on an edge but grazed it, and went on falling.
Forty feet into the fall and 10 feet above the belay Mark caught air where the wall steepens. There wasn't anything for me to do but to reel in arm loads of slack and try to keep him off of the lower knobs that would break James Dixon's ankle some five years later.
Mark hit the wall below the belay and resumed his grinding slide. There was surprisingly little jerk when the rope came taut -- skin and rubber make effective brake pads. By the time Mark stopped, his shoes needed a resole and wet strips of skin flapped off the palms of both hands. It looked like someone had taken a cheese grater to his butt.
I lowered Mark to the ground, then rapped off and drove us around in my old beat-up VW bug to Brent Choate's trailer, tucked in the cottonwoods at the other end of Quartz. I figured Brent had just what was needed for some quick pain relief. Mark wrapped his hands around a cool Bud, then off we went to my parent's house in Weatherford, 60 miles to the north.
That evening I had the pleasure of watching my mother pick lichen and grit out of Mark's butt and thigh. That probably smarted, but all I could think about was the smell of those stinking shoes.
Duane Raleigh was the leading force in pioneering many of Oklahoma's most difficult rock climbs in the Wichita Mountains during the late 70's and early 80's. Here, he recounts the now famous tale of Mark Herndon's 1981 attempt to repeat the still desperate "Big Bite" at Quartz Mountain. Duane is now Group Publisher for Rock and Ice Magazine and resides in Marble, Colorado.