J. Arthur Blyth
Shiprock; Tse’ Bit’a’i’
We parked the poor truck in an arroyo, abandoning it to be scoured by the wind or worse. We thought it might be the price of admission, but the insurance was paid. Cold fingers in a shaded cave weren’t happy with the first few overhung feet, but the gully’s curves opened up and we wandered convoluted lines upwards to a notch. Left a bit of rope hanging on the rappel gully for the return, just like it said to do in Fifty Classics--a vertical Ariadna’s thread. The route forward a condensation of all our previous days spent on rock: climb up, to rap down, to climb up, to rap down, to climb up again. Without understanding why it was important, I mislead the traverse pitch: angled too high, backed up, traversed all over again. Three in one I suppose. Then the little tricky bit and the double overhang took us up to the exposed moves of the lizard’s face on the horn. The wind started to blow just below the summit, while we were eating apples and cheese brought from some other world to this Navajo Nation.
Even in 1997 the summit register was scant, though some of the names felt sacred. Something else was sacred to us, sitting up there on the topmast, but perhaps we did not enunciate our reverence and awe well enough. We two trespassers who left no incense on that altar, save our own names scribbled in pencil on a pad, rolled in a tube, and shoved in a crack.
To our surprise new bolts seemed to show a rappel route that went straight down a crumbling face; Beyer beware we thought, but clipped in and rapped down anyway. After half a length the wind picked up the ropes hanging below me and floated them in long streams above me, so I choose to stop on a ridge off to the side. I wanted to retrace my steps back down and avoid the unknown wall below or I was afraid the rope would catch when we tried to retrieve it. It had happened to us before, descents came with snags.
So I told you to do it. You pulled the rope when you found the anchors that I had passed in order to get to the comfort of the ledge. Together we stood, not twenty feet apart, yet you could not throw the ropes to me, and I could not climb back over to you, nor could you climb back up above me alone.
Perhaps our apprenticeship was insufficient, maybe there was something that we missed, but either way the cord came untied. I stood alone on a ridge still ridiculously harnessed, and you were roped into a dubious way down. We were divided by the edge, while the coils of rope kept ballooning out backwards over our heads, untouchable for me, uncontrollable for you: rock with wings. The light went out while we raged in timeless, fruitless, repetitive motion trying to reconnect: throw the ropes, blast of wind, throw the ropes, blast of wind.
I began to understand my earlier error. I would go down the way I had come up. If I could commit to this singular course of action I would sweep my steps in the darkness with the rock my only witness. Humility would lead me to the ground again.
We decided to part. I would go down west. You would go down east. We agreed that whoever got down first would wait--(would wait how long exactly?)--and then go for help to those very homes we had slipped silently past without asking. You disappeared over the edge.
I paused at the double overhang, the ground, hidden by the night, didn’t seem so far below. I felt enveloped by the curves, the air settled, the mountain relaxed. And because of my earlier error while leading the traverse, I knew I could avoid down climbing the little tricky bit and instead scrambled up in order to angle back across to the gully. Where I was glad to find our rope still hanging, and hand over hand scuffed my way up. I took the rope back instead of leaving it fixed, even though we had decreed it to be trash while standing on top. Which forethought got me entirely down, as the last thirty feet into the cave wouldn’t yield holds for my feet just then. So maybe the rope did stay behind after all. Can’t remember truthfully, and unfortunately things such as these become less clear when you’re back on the ground. But I cannot forget how you made it down too by your own navigation of the night sky, or how we embraced in the dark there at the base.
I drove through the Navajo Nation again in 2007. In southern Colorado, while leaving Cortez, suddenly the sand blistered the rented sedan with the thrown weight of the wind. Visibility was measured in yards for miles. The mountain kept itself hidden until it was too close for me to sneak up on. In fact it frightened me a little when it finally did show itself, and I lingered in its shadow only for a short time before driving back into the sandstorm. In another thirty miles the wind died down completely, stopping as suddenly as it had started.
When I was twenty-six I climbed Shiprock. I did not ask permission, but crept in like a thief. At thirty-six now I would not ask permission, but I have learned that it is good that there are places where we cannot go. I will not climb Tse’ Bit’a’i’, but I am well pleased that once I swept my footsteps from its wings.