The Climbing Life

Posted on: July 1, 2006

[Photo] Heinz Zak

Twenty Years in Twenty Hours

A scream, and I snap awake. Something big thumps the ground nearby and gets louder in its approach. My chest tightens; my ragged breaths come slowly and only when necessary. Bob starts prattling within my mind.

"It was a scream—a woman's scream," I tell him.

"Don't be ridiculous, Michael. You were dreaming," he says in his rich baritone.

"Not this time. I'd know that sound anywhere."

"Yes, you would, but that was the past."

The car crash, twenty years ago: crumpling metal and a burst of flames. The scream of a woman dying.

Another thump.

Latchkey kids create imaginary friends to fill a void. When most of them grow up, those friends disappear. Not in my case. Bob showed up one day after I fell out of a tree. I was hanging upside down in the fork of a branch, high off the ground, enjoying life from a perspective that only a ten-year-old would understand. The branch snapped and a pile of sand waiting to be turned into cement saved me. As I lay there, unable to move, a voice rich with Bahamian enunciations spoke.

"You need to open your eyes," said Bob.

"I can't. I'm afraid."

"There are times to be scared, but this is not one of them," he said with a matter-of-fact calm.

"It's going to hurt," I whimpered.

"Yes, because you are alive."

He's been a pain in the ass ever since.

A thump explodes next to my ear. Time to move or die. With false courage, I squirm, twist, wiggle, rip myself from the bivy sack and jump into gladiator position. I am Spartacus.

Nothing. Not even a cricket. Bob laughs to the beat of my pounding heart.

I hate my imagination.

A breeze touches my sweat; goose bumps lick my skin. I straighten up, step on a pinecone and slam my butt into a pile of sap-covered needles. I'm a grown man, and all I want to do is cry. Instead, I pick at my nether regions like a bored monkey; the sap grabs a few hairs for keepsakes.

"Nice wax job," the baritone laughs. "Your wife will appreciate it."

"Fuck off, Bob."

His laughter trails away as he moves on. Twenty-five years of insults; we don't bother with pleasantries anymore. At 10,000 feet the altitude makes the sky clear. The Seven Sisters form a tiny cup filled with brilliance. I'm brimming with nervous energy. It's time to climb.

My pants stick to the sap each time I step over another chunk of talus. Step, rip, step, rip, step, rip.

"Wax job's getting smoother by the minute," Bob chuckles.

"Bite me," I growl back.

I reach the base of Dark Star, one of the most intimidating routes in the Sierras, and chalk my hands thoroughly—front, back, front, back, front, back—with the occasional sweep between the fingers to ensure every nook is covered to perfection.

Bob and I are the only two who know how far I can push: anything is possible. I lean into the rock and take a deep breath. Each place has a unique scent. Gym climbs are pungent with the urban thickness of tar, smog and synthetics, while popular sport crags carry the pheromone waste of salty ammonia. Temple Crag, home to Dark Star, is clean and earthy, like a freshly uprooted potato or a sugar-snap pea nibbled in the garden. This rock is cool to the touch and the opening fingerlock is perfect. Bob escapes into the depths of my mind. I escape deep into the night.

The first hundred feet go without a hitch, and before long I settle into the meditative rhythm of my own breathing. A dot of red appears on my finger. The blood creates a rusty smear on my pack, like misplaced lipstick. I never even knew the crash victim's name. I chalk up to keep from thinking—front, back, front, back, once between the fingers—and I'm off.

Two more hours pass. Something vibrates at the base of my spine. I convince myself it's a chilly response to the rising sun and continue. A block shifts when I place my body weight on it; bile fills my throat. I keep moving until I find myself straddled on a small ledge with vast drops on either side.

"This is not good," says Bob.

"Shhhh," I whisper.

"We should not be here." He's stuttering now.

He's never been nervous before. I'm lost. Two thousand feet below my right foot is camp. Below my left is a formation I don't recognize. Somehow the highest point of the mountain is in front of me, but camp should be on my left. It doesn't make sense. My hands are twitching. Four hours of constant pushing....

I find a seat and take out an apple. The first bite is always the best. The fleshy meat, the sugary juice; even my hands grow still. I close my eyes. Something rumbles in the distance. It sounds like a small car being crumpled under a truck, an angry, insistent echo across space and time.

Two decades ago, late at night, I was driving alone on the Interstate in Denver. A small beat-up Tercel passed me on the left, a big rig on my right. The Tercel suddenly lurched in front of me and hit the front wheels of the big rig. Sparks flew into my windshield as I slammed on the brakes. Seconds felt like hours while the three of us screeched to a halt. I hopped out of my car and ran to the trashed Tercel stuck underneath the rig. The older woman inside, eyes squeezed shut in pain, looked as worn as her car. Alcohol permeated the air; her bright lipstick glowed. I reached out to the door when something heavy slammed into my side. A rib cracked. Heat and light erupted. The doctors told me the truck driver saved my life by shoving his body into mine as the car burst into flames. I only remember a woman's voice screaming.

[Photo] Heinz Zak

The ground vibrates again, and Bob's yelling, "Move!" I do as I'm told, quickly grabbing anything I can. Below me, the apple core and the rock I had straddled tumble deep into the ravine. My backpack is still wedged into the spot I placed it, undisturbed. Maybe I would have been too.

"You live in a make-believe world, my friend," Bob says.

"I must, if I keep taking these stupid risks," I say. "Maybe I should stop, go home, rest."

"You will soon enough, but then you'll need another fix," he says in a tranquil voice.

"Is that what you are? A fix?"

"No. I'm your salvation."

My pulse calms. Images of the old woman fade. The Irish whiskey reserved for the top is safe and warm in my pack.

"We've had some adventures together," I say.

"And there are plenty more to come."

Bob and I laugh helplessly, watching the destruction below. Sparks combine with the metallic smell of sulfur as the granite continues into the deep. Silence marks the finish. A dust cloud rises, then settles thickly to bury the damage.

"So now what?" I ask, but Bob has already moved on.

I sit there for a while, shoes off, toes twinkling over the vast expanse. The sun lazily moves upward. Everything comes back into focus. I see the route ahead of me, and I move toward it. For the moment, this is all I can do.

—Michael Reardon, Oak Park, California


Our cheap Las Vegas hotel was set to be demolished in three months. The air conditioner sounded like a blender, and the carpets and walls were the color and smell of burned tobacco. But even before 5 a.m., when I left my room in search of coffee, drunken men and women filled its craps and blackjack tables, loudly trying to change their luck. At the bar a woman with blonde hair, stiletto heels and a black cocktail dress idly played video poker while waiting for a drink. Her cheeks were soft and dotted with freckles. When her drink arrived, she ordered my coffee. She was shocked to learn that I was there to climb and not to gamble. She'd never heard of Red Rocks.

"The groom wants to know if you'll marry him next weekend instead. He totally forgot he had a climbing trip this weekend." [Illustration] Jerry King

"Who'd you come to Vegas with?" she asked.

"My climbing partner," I said.

"Have you got separate rooms?"

"No, we're sharing one."

"Well, that's too bad. How do you expect to have any fun at night?" She stared at my soft shell and approach shoes with disgust. I noticed the creases on the back of her hands as she continued to press the poker button, her painted nails tapping against the plastic. Then she left to work another corner of the room.

An hour later my partner and I were at a dusty trailhead at the end of a broken track. Sandstone formations ran for twenty miles on our left through an empty federal conservation area. I kept scanning the ridgelines for signs of bighorn. They live in the canyons of this wilderness, and I was hoping, just this once, to get close enough for a photograph. But they are elusive and I knew my odds of seeing one were long.

Instead, as we sorted ropes and gear, the black cocktail dress haunted me: mascara and the curve of a form overpowered the desert solitude, and the echo of long fingernails clicked rhythmically in my mind. Lately I'd had too much of the city. Trying to forget, I shouldered my pack and threaded my way through stands of Mojave yucca and cholla cactus and up a series of broken switchbacks. The sun began to rise, and the sandstone glowed a deep red.

At the base of Whiskey Peak, we consulted the topo. My partner decided he wanted the crux. That left the R-rated pitch for me. During the runout to the summit, I stopped and turned to the north. The climb would soon end. I wanted to savor the desert while it lasted. A series of arroyos ran down between the formations and spilled across the dust. The vegetation was thicker here with the promise of more water. Nothing moved. Only my breathing filled the space above the landscape.

On the descent we ambled slowly to the south, down a series of unconnected ledges, slabs and ramps, to a scree-filled canyon. Just as we were about to join the main trail, a sound like a small bit of rockfall off to my right broke the stillness. I turned; less than 100 yards away stood about ten desert bighorn sheep. Holding my breath, I slowly pulled out my camera. The largest male, the one with the most curl in his horns, was careful to keep the other animals between us. When I turned back, the string of casinos appeared small in the distance. I looked hard and thought I could see the desert lapping up in gentle waves, against the concrete and asphalt at the city's edge.

—James McNally, Austin, Texas

Fake Rocks

With a small trowel, I cut across the wet concrete, parting it into a sharp edge and a smooth side. I rotate the trowel slightly to create a corner and then, turning it flat-side down, a triangular pocket, either a handhold or a foothold. When finished and painted, this will be a climbing boulder, cautiously designed and built for safety, climbability and aesthetics. I'll use a fake sea sponge to make it look like granite. The size of a Volkswagen, it will travel to a playground outside a rec center, spending its existence in a place conforming to code and potential litigation.

The concrete yields under my trowel to re-created memories. Undulations reveal a side-pull, then a smear; thin fracture lines diminish to tiny crimps like those on which I once stemmed wide and shook out flaming arms. The urban landscape fades and I'm high on the Chief, climbing the soaring arc of a dihedral. I dig moss from a V-shaped flare, worry a nut into it, then chalk up for the thin moves above. Drifting now into the Coast Range, I near a summit: a tuft of tenacious phacelia grows from a crack in a granite spike. Behind it is only the infinite blue of the sky.

But I'm still in a small workshop on the harbor foreshore, in the light-industrial zone of a major city. I can no longer spend much time in the wilderness, without neglecting children, house, garden, bills, taxes and the cat. Low to middle income, with two jobs plus whatever else I can get my hands on, I've become one of the billions of people for whom travel is not financially possible.

And that's fine.

If the theater of the wilderness can be held in memory and revisited in tiny places, then a mountaineering experience from twenty years ago can be captured in a turn of the trowel and the pat of a sponge on wet concrete. Three pitches from the top of Mt. Slesse's northeast buttress, fat raindrops splotched around me as I traversed around a small roof with a shitty pin for protection. Reach, jam, pull, step up, and I looked to the thunderhead and realized it wasn't coming toward us. The rain was simply being blown from it. All this I'll sculpt into a few holds.

Soon an eight-year-old girl clad in shorts, T-shirt and flip-flops will climb my boulder without the shitty pin, thunderstorm or 3,000 feet of air beneath her little feet. Two more kids will clamber up. They'll play King of the Castle, then yawp for picnic treats to share on the summit.

"Hold on- I think my guardian angel is dry heaving." [Photo] Jamie Givens

Later on, the sun will set, the little kids will leave, and teenagers will prowl the park. In darkness they'll laugh as they climb, pushing one another from the structure. They'll join in a cluster atop the thing and spark a fatty. Night will crowd in on them, and the stars, light years away, will shine on urban and wilderness landscape alike.

—Tami Knight, Vancouver, Canada


The moon rose over the misty bayou as we drove back to our camp. It was my favorite time of the day—twenty minutes alone in the bed of a rusty truck, the warm Gulf breeze on my cheeks. I examined my chapped hands, the rings of blood surrounding my fingernails, the long, shallow scratches along my forearms. It was as if I'd been cragging.

But instead of negotiating a classic Adirondack crack, our tree crew had tackled old-growth live oaks, ponderosa pines and magnolias in Mississippi. The jobs involved delicate tree climbing, usually with a chainsaw over one shoulder. That afternoon we drove across town to Miss Edna's. As the rest of the crew began to break the seals on vegetarian MREs, I climbed the trunk of the grandfather oak and found a resting place on a solid limb beneath the one in question. Tiny wilted leaf buds poked out from the branches, scratching my arms. Their old leaves had been whipped away in 150-mile-per-hour winds.

If we didn't pull the limb just right, it would crash through her roof. I heal-hooked around the trunk of the tree to try to get a better look at the hanging branch. How could we make it fall? If someone could climb up to it and get a rope around it, we could pull it off to the side. But the higher I went, the smoother the bark became, until finally I realized that I didn't have a rope or any tools and I wasn't going to be able to fix anything. I'd been mindlessly climbing the tree, with no focus other than the splintered branch. I studied the crux, still fifteen feet above. As a solid stream of salty air pushed me closer to the bark, I realized how far away the ground was, and backed off.

Miss Edna came out of her FEMA-appointed trailer and offered the group iced tea. She had been watching us all day through a small circular window.

"Just be careful," she said. "Just don't hit our house." And then she started to cry, covering her face with the sleeves of a hot-pink sweater.

No one wanted to climb to the branch, and we couldn't find a way to saw it. We left it hanging there and promised to return another day with bigger equipment. The crew looked defeated. But everyone living on the Gulf Coast was accustomed to a heightened sense of chaos.

On the ride home we passed cars hanging in trees and houses turned upside down. Every other lot was a lonely, vacant site where everything had been washed away. The remaining structures soaked in standing water. There was a rawness to the day—the body exposed to finicky bark, prickling sun, tears.

As the truck made its final turn west, the moon sunk below the tops of the magnolias. I breathed the salty air, contemplating the various meanings of exposure. I hadn't realized the force with which life would strike me.

Now, back in the Adirondacks, it's easy to lose myself in an overhanging crack, a friend offering encouragement, the maple leaves falling with a ruffle. Yet sometimes Mississippi returns to me with all the vividness of that tree crux. I'll be driving through Keene Valley and have to pull over in a flood of endless memories: piles of debris; snapped, dangling branches; the stench of standing water; Miss Edna's hot-pink sweater. Sometimes it's comforting to know we don't lose our experiences and adventures—and sometimes it's not. z

—Laura Woltag, Big Moose Lake, New York

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