The Wall of Hate

Posted on: March 1, 2007

[Illustration] Sean McCabe

"But what if you had some kind of amnesia, absolutely no memory. Would you still be an alpine climber?"

I could tell by the way Charlie's brow furrowed and his eyes narrowed behind his wire-rimmed glasses that I was drunk. We were in the loft of the Chocolateria: Paul, Kramer, Dave, Charlie and I—bent over a worn llenga table. A battery of those slender, one-liter beer bottles you only find outside of the US stood empty between us. The cheery din of summer tourists from Buenos Aires echoed off the corrugated metal roof. The winds howled, though the air was dry. A quarter moon showed nothing except a barricade of clouds where the spires once stood. The wall of hate, climbers call it.

"What I mean is, a lot of the time, when you're up there, you just want to get it done and get down.... The pieces don't really come together until later. Retrospective pleasure—right? What if there was no recollection of any of the climbs, the mountains, your partners, nothing. Would you still have come here?"

Charlie poured the last of his bottle into a heavy glass mug. I imagined the weight of his experience—decades spent in cold, high places—bearing down on me.

"Rock climbing, sure, it feels good. But this...." We all waited, but Charlie nodded slightly in the direction of the mountains, then shrugged.

"What about imagination?" I knew I sounded like an asshole, going on like this at the beginning of Charlie's trip. "Would you go up on a mountain if you couldn't visualize yourself climbing it in the first place? Sometimes it feels like the hardest part is before. Don't you have to be able to get up something in your head before you can get up it with your body?"

"I don't know."

Charlie leaned forward over his elbows. He stared at his beer, the half-empty mug cradled between his folded hands. The dark liquid seemed to absorb all the light. It held his attention, but reflected nothing back at the rest of us.

The door below the staircase opened, and a new group staggered in: shouting and laughter and cries for more Quilmes! and then more laughter crescendoed in a warm rush of sound. Across from the loft, hanging from the rafters, a bicycle swayed. It was a funny thing: beaten up and not very fancy, not anything you would call antique or classic. The wheel spokes cast a web of shadows on the ceiling. I suddenly wished I could get up and join the merriment below, but something haunted me, and I tried another question instead.

"What's the longest you ever went without climbing? Did you ever quit?"

"Sometimes I didn't climb.... But it's always on my mind, even when I'm not in the mountains." A furtive smile crossed Charlie's face, and he shook it away. "The truth is I still think about the mountains, every day."

It's the last day of our trip, and we should know better. All night the rain continued; now a thick cloud curls through the Torre Valley. Dave's soft form moves past our talus bivy and turns into a shadow lost in the acres of mist and granite. He stoops to top off the water bottles and then carefully begins to coil our rope.

The last seven weeks have passed in a blur of hiking, camping, waiting. Each day we reimagined the line until we began to believe in our vision.

The cloud parts a little: Desmochada rises into the shrouded sky. Its cold, heavy stone seems to turn in my abdomen. The climb is there, inside of us. We shoulder our packs and begin upward.

"That was Frank's bike last night in the Chocolateria, by the way," Kramer told me over coffee the next morning. We were hunched together in a leaky, floorless kitchen tent lashed to a stand of trees. Beyond the door, a group of trekkers passed by, clutching their cameras.

"He used to work there, but he died on the Supercanaleta a couple of years ago." Kramer's sharp gaze locked on mine. I thought about the forlorn bike, hung from the roof of a dirty bar to remind the busy bartenders and waitresses of their lost friend. What happened on Frank's final climb? I imagined an epic struggle, a split-second decision, a falling stone.

Kramer told me all Frank's friends knew was that one day he went to the mountains and never returned.

Another group of trekkers passed by, following a tour guide. But the wall was there, and we knew there wouldn't be anything to see.

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