The Climbing Life

Posted on: November 7, 2014


Steinway

Evans had tested the holds, putting all his weight on one arm, then the other. But the moment he pulled his knee up to chest height, surrendering all trust, the granite block began to shift and he knew instantly that it was coming all the way out. He was thinking about how to push and kick away from the thing so it wouldn't mangle him as it passed, but in that same moment the rope caught and severed and the space around him burst with the burning-air smell of singed perlon and rock on rock.

Fuck. Evans thought it quickly—half a syllable instead of the drawn-out way he was accustomed to, the way he or JB would say it to each other at the end of a pitch: fuuuuuu and never finish it. JB, down at the anchor, would be thinking the same thing. When Madsen had rappelled off the end of his rope 2,500 feet off the deck, he was heard yelling shhiittt all the way down by other, startled parties.

This wall was slightly overhung, and Evans took a certain satisfaction in knowing he'd be in one piece when he landed. As if it matters! He was thinking physics, thinking OK, 3,000 feet, thirty-two feet per second, one hundred seconds before he'd hit the ground. Longer than you'd think. He was looking around for the block but didn't know enough physics to figure out why they weren't together; they must have reached critical velocity at different points. Critical velocity, my ass! How many climbers had pulled on that block? The route had probably been done so many times no one was keeping track anymore. Nina was gonna be pissed, no doubt about it. Angry first, sad later. Or maybe the other way around.

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How big was the block, anyway? Other partners measured rockfall in either Bugs or Wagons—the world of rockfall according to Volkswagen. To JB it had always been Steinways, and it amused Evans at this moment to picture a cartoon in which grand pianos rained down from the heavens.

Evans would miss the piano. Nina's piano. Their piano. Nina playing it. Not a Steinway, of course, but a baby grand that had once belonged to her grandmother. He'd met the grandmother only once. She'd patted his arm and showed him her prized photograph of Nijinsky in "Danse Siamoise," Les Orientales. Nina playing the piano, particularly that little gap of silence between movements in a Schubert sonata, which you couldn't really call silence; then he wondered how many of the hundred seconds were left. Plus he had forgotten to look for JB, who had certainly seen him! They had done so many routes that they communicated all but telepathically when roped together. Evans imagined JB phoning Nina, his only flash of guilt: putting them in that moment. Guilt, but also . . . what? Jealousy? And JB was screwed too!

Ah, he'll figure something out.

Skyward: cloudless blue and for a moment it seemed that the sky was not receding, but that he was, in fact, rushing toward it. Better not to know when he'd hit. The air pushed at his ears with an ominous whirring he recognized from childhood fever dreams. The dream of falling—it began in midair and always ended before he landed. He was afraid his heart would stop if he dreamed of hitting the ground. Silly, Nina said, when he confided in her, and she had kissed him as one would kiss a child.

This was no dream, but uncannily familiar: no spinning, no cartwheeling. His pants fluttered. When Evans turned his head, his eyeballs felt as if they were being sucked from their sockets. The rope—four feet of it—trailed straight from his waist and whipped around as if attached to an invisible force.

Then: Zeno's paradox! Just keep dividing the distance in half and he'd never hit. Phuck fisics, JB used to write before he quit physics and college for the third and final time. Stop time now! No: stop time sitting with Nina at the piano bench, shoulder to shoulder, the glide of her fingers, the afternoon light holding dust motes, suspended. Nina would say: you never take anything seriously. They'd gone to Paris, and when Evans said he wanted to check out the train schedule to Chamonix, she had burst into tears.

He wished he could catch a draft. Like those skydivers. Those guys had control! Man, I'd cruise around, find the block. You know—I'd be standing on the block. Holding on to it. Or whatever. And it'd hit the ground and I'd step off, you know? Like when you're in an elevator and you're thinking what you'd do if the cable broke, and the thing is crashing down and right before it hits the bottom you just jump into the air. Yeah yeah yeah, how would you know when it was gonna hit and yeah yeah the thing'd be all disintegrated. I'm talking theoretically. I'm talking principle. Cut me some slack! In principle it's screwed up on like a hundred counts. But what about Nijinsky? You know? In the photograph you knew he had leapt, but you believed he floated. They say he could hold himself suspended in the air. To be Nijinsky. You know what I'm saying?

The block crashed into the talus, an exploding piano, or was it inside his head, a sound familiar from Evans' earliest remembered nightmares making sense for the first time and that ozone smell filled his nostrils and he thought of Nijinsky hovering above the boulder field. He thought of Nijinsky.

—David Stevenson, Normal, Illinois

[Photo] David Stevenson
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