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Posted on: April 24, 2008

Grover Shipman

The slick rock below the waterfall is warm and slanted like a lounger. The heat of the stone soothes my sore muscles as I gaze upstream. Fowler Creek speaks. The waterfall pours over a forty-foot basaltic cliff and crashes into a blue pool misting my burnt face with Mt Shasta’s melt. An alpine breeze occasionally stirs the canyon causing pines to sway and dapple the long-cooled lava banks with sunlight. Aquatic flowers quiver just this side of the pool that catches the fall’s water, and small thatches of green grass spring from cracks between polished rocks. I’m exhausted. The descent following the North American Wall was brutal. Being dumped by my girlfriend on my return was hard, and the twenty-four hour shift in the Shasta Emergency Department was busy. The warm rocks and roaring falls offer solace and advice.

Maybe it was passage in Siddhartha that made me start listening to rivers speak, though I remember “The Springs” behind my house as a young boy in the Ozarks having a lot to say to my grandfather and I. Creeks and small brooks say the most and are the more magical, while mighty rivers speak in thunderous booming or, like the Mississippi, with a great silence.

Last week I heard the mountain’s song again. We climbed for several days and nights before I felt that I had escaped horizontal life. The Captain spoke, but it had been so long that I had forgotten the language of the mountains. As the river speaks through the earth’s pull on water rushing through gorges and over rocks, oddly, the mountain does not does not speak with its gravity. El Cap spoke with its animals and light and wind.

Frogs, thousands of feet up seem to cross my path every other pitch. One in particular was camped in the pin scar that I needed to continue up. He was delaying my already snail-like pace, but I was unwilling to squash him nonchalantly or prod him out with a tool. I must have spent thirty minutes second-stepped on a hook, coaxing him gently from his cozy bivy. He finally, trustingly hopped into my gloved hands, allowing me to deposit him on a tiny ledge fifteen hundred feet up. I felt a tinge of guilt nevertheless. I thought I’d displaced him from his only point of safety. As I made several more moves upward I looked down and did not see my orange bellied friend below. I was racked by guilt thinking he’d already plunged to the deck. My eyes rolled up the vertical horizon to my right to see him deftly climbing up the ninety degree granite. He eventually moved up and past me agilely executing a four-point-dyno. My guilt was erased.

Birds of many flavors accompany our ascent. My partner spotted a peregrine falcon lazily making circles a hundred feet out from our belay. Too, curious humming birds investigate our sunshine-yellow haul bag or our red portaledge. Yet they seemed most fascinated by our purple lead line. Tasting it, I’m sure they were instantly discouraged. They’d flown so high only to taste aluminum dust and rock grime. Our most constant companions on the wall were small sparrow-like birds: black with a bright yellow breast. They dove past us negotiating the undulating granite at phenomenal speeds. Only once did I see one light on the cliff near us. It was just below my partner on an ugly looking traverse to the right. I couldn’t help but wonder if he’d paused only to view what could be a spectacular pendulous fall.

The play of light and dark was transfixing. As I was exiting the “Black Cave” to rejoin my partner above, the shift in light and sound was uncannily contrasting. The darkness of the overhanging cavern and stillness of the air was divided by a single move out of the dripping dim. Simultaneously, all was alive. The light was blinding and the wind whipped the rope and my aiders as if they were weightless. My partner above yelled for me to look up for a picture. It was a brilliant azure sky, with dark grey granite below. The wind howled and blew my partners bright red jacket like a flag in a hurricane. It was like seeing Technicolor for the first time.

It is not until now, sitting by Fowler Creek, that I can recall the language of the mountains. I heard it then, but did not comprehend the words. The roaring winds, the clanking gear, the animals and the sky are the telegrams of the mountains. Nepalis know this, writing their prayers on strips of multicolored cloth. The flags beat out a Morse code of the mountains, delivering the people’s hopes and dreams aloft.

We returned to the floor via the East Ledges. I was exhausted. My partner left me in the parking lot of the Manure Pile Buttress to retrieve the truck. It was a dark moonless sky. Chilled as my sweat dried on my back, I crumpled at a picnic table. Somewhere between dream and waking, I heard footsteps but couldn’t raise my head. I dreamt I was still walking down, down, down. The steps shuffled closer. Emerging from my dream of the infinite descent, I raised my head and opened my eyes to the half-light. Two strides away, stood a yearling black bear sniffing the air. The light of the night highlighted his fur blue. He was very close. We stared at each other in the dark.

The sun is setting now at Fowler Creek. My muscles are chilled, and my emotions about my breakup are overtaking me again. Soon I’ll rise from the slick warm rock and hobble up the dusty trail to my real life. As my remembering comes to a close I think of that sniffing bear again. I imagine it as El Cap’s “Goodbye” and “Come back to visit.”

Rising from the dust, I mumble, “Thanks, I will.”