The Price We Pay

Posted on: July 1, 2005


Climbers and odd jobs go together like peanut butter and broken glass. You can make a sandwich all right, but eating it's hellishly painful. Carpentry—a combination of brute toil and skull-cracking mental gymnastics guaranteed to break the stoutest spirit—pays my way right now. Just thinking about it makes my gums bleed.

It's 12:30 a.m. in a half-remodeled house, after a sixteen-hour day, and my paycheck still won't fund a climbing trip. We're out of beer and rolling papers, our film canister's empty, the pizza has fossilized and the toilet is broken. My buddy's passed out on a scrap of carpet still wearing his Carhartts, boots and baseball hat. When he wakes up, it'll be my turn for a power nap. Within minutes, I won't even hear his chopsaw howling.

Today our punch list has grown faster than we can tick off the items: trim the bathroom, set the tub, fix the leaking sink and toilet, then crawl under this crumbling hovel and rewire the place so it doesn't burn down when we finally turn the heat on. On and on the list stretches, down a length of drywall tape, written in carpenter's pencil like a life sentence scrawled by a drunken judge.

We've spent three mad weeks beating ourselves against this house. We've lost tools, shed blood, butchered half a forest and slung around enough caulk, glue, foam sealant and wood putty to develop a generic term for the viscous camouflage needed to disguise bad joints: liquid housing. They could have repaired the Titanic with less, and this house is still nowhere near seaworthy—you could throw a cat through some of the gaps. Every fixture we've installed has leaked—new stuff, right from the hardware store. Yet both sinks now have buckets under them and the tub's sprawled in the living room like road kill with its legs in the air. It's doa without a special order part that you can't get anymore.

If we had any brains, we'd roll up our tools, drive off the job site and disappear for a couple of weeks until the boss called off the manhunt. We won't, though—we've given our word. The house will be done by the time the renters arrive if it kills us.

There's only one reason we have the strength to continue. Yesterday, in a fit of desperation, we stole three hours to climb at a cave overlooking Lake Tahoe's sapphire expanse. Shirtless, feet propped up and faces to the sun, we basked like lizards in the crisp December air. Nobody mentioned work, and the whole wretched mess just faded away, erased by the steady movement of limestone against skin. Every minute felt as if the gods had reached down through the clouds and handed us a golden reward for all the suffering—Job's children finally given their due.

It's amazing the price we'll pay. For just a few hours lost in climbing's reverie, we'll sell the one thing we can never replace: our time—our finite, irrecoverable lives.

Life sold and moral delivered, I've gotta get back to work. There's a pound of sawdust to be eaten between now and my trip to Kings Canyon this summer.

—Kevin Swift, Lake Tahoe, California

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