The Climbing Life

Posted on: March 1, 2007

[Photo] Greg Von Doersten

Instructions for Surviving a Lightning Strike on Mt. Birdwood

Flop around for a few seconds before gradually regaining consciousness. It might take a half an hour to remember why you're lying on top of a mountain and who the hell this scruffy guy is, wide-eyed and mouth agape, ranting on about how impressed he was by the green flash and the rifle crack of thunder.

Once your climbing partner gets you oriented, proceed with a couple thousand feet of down climbing and rappelling, a few kilometers of marching, a barefoot wade across a flooded braidplain and another few kilometers of mountain biking, to arrive back at the car not too long after dark. Other than the baseball-bat-on-the-side-of-the-head sensation, you should start feeling pretty pleased with the day.

But don't make the mistake of calling your wife and telling her about the incident. She'll freak and threaten to call the Royal Canadian Mounted Police unless your climbing partner drives you home. Now he'll get upset: his visions of beer and a hot tub will vaporize as he spends the night driving you back to Calgary instead.

Once you're home (at 1 a.m.) pass out until your wife wakes you up and drags you to the Foothills Hospital. As the nurses and attendants rush you into the emergency room, hook you up to the ECG machine, put you on an IV, take huge volumes of blood samples and give you a tetanus shot, you can start feeling bad. After all, you've just found out that you're a Category 2 emergency (out of 5). Category 1 is reserved for those with sliced jugular veins and gunshot wounds to the forehead.

You'll have the opportunity to learn a lot of interesting things. For example, the laws of physics say that when lightning goes into something, it must also come out. In this case, it went into your head and came out your ass while you were sitting next to the summit register. The third-degree burn in your head isn't painful because everything has been cauterized. But the pencil hole in your left buttock is only a second-degree burn—and now that you think about it, it has a distinct sting.

Here's another fun fact: the number one cause of death from lightning is a heart attack at the time of the strike because of the disruption in the body's natural electrical currents. This obviously isn't relevant information given the five hours of extended effort it took you to get off the mountain. But here's something else you should find interesting: electrical charges pass through bodies where they are mostly water; in your dehydrated state this area is your muscle tissue. The residue of this destroyed tissue contains CK enzymes. Too many of these will plug up your kidney and shut it down. You're then toast (let's keep our metaphors consistent) in about three days. Typical CK values are 0-150; yours are 2,500. When values go over 10,000, you can forget the kidney and go straight for the dialysis machine.

So whip it out and start peeing, fast. The nurses will keep reloading the IVs—after four liters in four hours, every appendage and facial feature will be bloated with saltwater and your CK value will go down slightly. Now everyone's smiling. The stream of doctors and nurses passing down the corridor, pausing to point at you with hushed whispers, will begin to subside.

After nine hours the hospital staff will take a vote and send you home with instructions to keep drinking and peeing—pretty straightforward stuff. You can handle that. The burn specialist says just bathe daily. No problem: your wife makes you do that anyway.

There are several fundamental conclusions you can draw from this experience. First, always give your partner the honor of signing the summit register during electrical storms. Second, never, never golf, especially in Florida. More lightning strikes occur there than in any other state or province in North America, and many happen to golfers. Finally, always tell hospital staff you've just come directly from the incident scene. Never tell them you went home first to catch up on sleep. They'll think you're an idiot.

Dana Coffield, Calgary, Alberta

Her Rubber Slippers

She wears rubber slippers and she loves the tight toes and the wet-dirty-foot smell like red desert and peanut butter and all that adrenaline when her fingers burn after pinching and crimping and underclinging once twice three times with her hands chalk-white and bleeding and her feet with those knobby parts she's gotten from years of buying slippers too small and wearing them too long because she gets so focused and she just stares and stares and stares and memorizes left high-step right side-pull lieback to the jug until she can turn off her mind and just let the red rubber slippers take her up little narrow edges so that at the end of the day when she tries to take them off she keeps pulling from the inside where the stitching is coming loose and the lining peeling away in a flood of memories snowy sandstone red sky golden granite morning and that sensation that just roars inside her and could make her drop everything to feel it one more time but really she couldn't ever put that one thing before you because she doesn't know what it is but she knows that it's there as long as she keeps wearing those rubber slippers.

Tara M. Kramer, Dubuque, Iowa

To: Couches, Their Dwellers and Their Owners

North Conway, New Hampshire, March 2004

Snow and darkness insulate the Mt. Washington Valley as I turn into the driveway. Hundred-year-old hardwood trees, their branches heavy with snow, protect and threaten the rambling Victorian house. Cathedral and Whitehorse ledges must be striped gray and black with ice.

It's too late to find out now. Everyone's asleep. I'm sneaking around, tracking snow on the carpet. Someone is crashed out on one of the couches. I take my shoes off, throw my sleeping bag on the other one and dig my toothbrush out of my fleece pocket. I can't find the bathroom light, so I scrub in the dark.

[Illustration] Tami Knight

As I lie down, I bury my face in my mom's vintage 1972 bag—a mix of old nylon and dust. I close my eyes and I'm driving again. Huge, wet flakes fly at me from a black vortex ten feet in front of the windshield. I'm steady at twenty miles an hour on turny, New Hampshire Route 25.

The other couch-dweller stirs. I open my eyes. "I'm Pete," he says and props himself up on one elbow. Through the dim light, the outline of his hair sticks up, jagged.

"I'm Emily. Sorry to wake you."

"That's fine," he mumbles, his voice scratchy with sleep.

An introduction in the dark. Like getting to a trailhead after a long drive and seeing only the shadows and silhouettes of peaks. Tomorrow, I'll wake to the sound of clinking carabiners and ice screws at 5:30 a.m., and drink muddy coffee with friends who had no idea I was coming.

Emily Stifler, Bozeman, Montana

The Roof

I crawled off the concrete arete onto the top of Kmart. "No one can see us up here?" I asked Trevor. He'd lived on the roof all summer.

Trevor sat cross-legged, holding a knife and a long maple branch. "Nobody looks up," he said.

I looked up. "Check out the stars," I said.

Trevor kept whittling shavings into his fire pit, a scorched patch of concrete and sooty cinder blocks. "Where've you been?"

"Doing homework. You should have rescued me."

Trevor passed his curry. The parking lot's fluorescent light revealed drops of peanut sauce in his beard. "It's Friday night, for Christ'sake. You should have rescued yourself." He leaned forward with his lighter, then laughed as the small mound of wood flared up. "Chickenshit."

TREVOR WAS A BURNOUT. He gave in to serious drugs and gave up on school years ago. Kicked out of his family's cabin, he became a freelance carpenter. He was the only good-hearted bad person I'd ever gotten to know and the only close friend whose advice I consistently ignored. We climbed every weekend.

"Why Kmart?" I asked him.

"Why not?" The fire had settled into its embers. I scraped my plastic fork across the take-out tin.

I told Trevor I'd considered living in a tent instead of paying for a stuffy dorm room. He asked, "Why wouldn't you?"

"Where would I put my computer?" I said. "What about my books?"

"Don't need that stuff if you just do it," Trevor said, but I never moved out. I just adopted his rooftop as my weekend home instead.

ONE FRIDAY MORNING IN NOVEMBER, I awoke to persistent knuckles rapping on my dorm window. It was Trevor. Trevor never came to campus. I rolled out of bed and opened the window.

"It's freezing. What time—"

"Six thirty. Let's go."

"Where?" I asked.


"I have a test."

"I have a job. It's the last weekend of the season." Trevor walked back to his rusty pickup. I rummaged for my warmest clothes.

Trevor called in sick as he drove, expertly hacking up fake phlegm for his foreman.

"Thanks for ruining my calculus grade," I said, secretly ecstatic.

"Shove it. I'll probably get fired."

"Good point," I said. "Although, your performance was stellar."

That morning we roped up for a climb called Chinese Water Torture, but there was nothing slow and mind-numbing about the climb until I took the sharp end. Groan. Runout. Groan. Fall. I flailed at the spot Trevor had danced up, on his first lead of the day.

"How did you climb this?" I called down.

"Just add more power," he mumbled, a pita in his mouth.

"How about something more...," I lost the word. "Quantitative."


[Photo] Randy Wenzel

"So how in bejesus did you climb this?" I asked again, but I already knew the answer. When Trevor escapes the ground, he hates returning. He only looks down to see his feet. His commitment is terrifying.

After he lowered me, I ripped off my slippers. "Next time," Trevor said.

"WE LIVE ON A GIGANTIC BALL OF ROCK," I said that evening, waiting for our blackened tins of pad thai to rewarm above the campfire. "How great is that?" But Trevor didn't say anything; he was still climbing in his head, out of the vertical tunnel.

Erik Lambert, Jackson, Wyoming

High Camp

I wake with ice-glazed eyelashes, frozen breath clinging to the tent walls. A scratchy throat and my forehead's dull ache remind me of my thirst. Reaching into my sleeping bag, I dig through sunscreen, contact solution, camera, and eventually find a plastic water bottle.

I've spent the last four days staring at rip-stop nylon, listening to the hiss of wind-driven snow and debating whether to eat noodles or rice. Twelve time zones separate me from my girlfriend—I haven't heard her voice in four weeks. There's maybe $200 left in my bank account, and no job waits for me back home. But this morning I hear nothing except a ringing in my ears. It's time to make my summit bid, and I too am silent.

The frosted eyelets of my heavy double boots stare back at me while I struggle out of the sleeping bag. Their laces are frozen into slick contorted loops protruding sideways from the plastic shell. My bare fingers stick to the metal grommets. I peer into the liner and imagine the pool of frigid air awaiting my toes. No sensible person desires such misery.

As I unzip the tent door, my spit bounces off the ice, and heat escapes from my socks in swirls of steam. Straining against the rigid plastic, I twist, tweak, yank and wrench my feet into the boots that only a few hours ago had been so comfortable. Periodically my fingers turn useless, so I shove them into my armpits and fantasize about warm water—taking hot showers and washing dishes by hand.

[Illustration] Jeremy Collins

Finally I stand up and stomp each numb foot decisively. I turn my sunburned, stubbly face upward.

Three thousand feet above, a quiet summit, black against the predawn light, waits with the remaining stars.

Adam Clark, Whitefish, Montana

The Light

As Barry and I kept batting the bottle of grocery-store pinot noir back and forth across the table, the dining room faded a little, and I began to imagine the pieces of his shattered kneecap floating in the space between us. He'd been attempting a route on an unclimbed granite formation in the Sierra Madre. At our age, rehabilitation was proving to be slow and painful.

It was the summer before I turned fifty. I had just gotten back from climbing a wall in Yosemite, and my wife, Joanne, and I had decided to try again after a brief separation. That evening, while we drove to have dinner with Barry and Beth, the oak shadows spilled across the county highway like so much ink, and we sat in silence. When Barry and I began swapping climbing stories in earnest, Joanne turned away. I heard her suggest, with a practiced nonchalance that sounded new to me, that she and Beth leave us alone.

Mostly, the stories were about our screwups: the day I was saved from an epic on Washington Column by discovering an abandoned water jug; the time Barry bailed off Dolt Tower after an attempt on the Nose. Soon enough, we started listing routes we still wanted to climb. I poured more wine; he found the Yosemite guidebook. His inactivity over the past months had added a few pounds to his frame, but it did little else to dampen his enthusiasm. Barry thumbed through the big-wall topos, his blue eyes burning between his unruly gray hair and beard. He began talking about a certain pitch on an El Cap route and then suddenly thrust the book across the table.

"I can't make this out. Take a look and tell me if the double cracks are on the sixteenth pitch."

I couldn't tell where the sixteenth pitch started, much less whether there were any double cracks. "Barry, I can't read this thing. The print's too small."

"Nah," he responded. "Look at that chandelier. Only one bulb works." I hadn't noticed before, but now the buttery softness of the light appeared to complement the wine. "Let's go in the other room," he said.

I followed him into the living room where the women were talking easily about the angst and humor of life with teenage sons. Here the light from a reading lamp was vibrant and more focused, but the topo was still a glut of squiggles. I tried holding the page at arm's length. Joanne and Beth began laughing. Finally, as if in a fit of pity, Joanne tossed us her reading glasses.

Later, as we walked out to the car, the wine seemed to add a certain warmth to the night. In the steely blue glow of a streetlamp, Joanne's forehead still looked ivory smooth, her gaze sharp and bright, and I wondered how long she had carried reading glasses. On the drive home, we replayed the evening's banter, softly, careful with each other, and I thought I had a brief glimpse of the future.

James McNally, Austin, Texas

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