The Climbing Life

Posted on: September 1, 2008

Dizzy Fingers

AT A BREAK IN THE FOREST, we slowed the car and I saw it, almost blinding against the darkness of moss-coated pines and damp boulders. El Cap. We lay in the Meadow for a while, my wheelchair empty in the grass, and watched the tiny bright specks move over the granite. I couldn't imagine it.

The next morning, lashed to a rucksack, I held onto Andy's neck as he hitched me onto his back, then began to stagger toward the base. I thought of myself thirty years ago, only six, standing not far from here on my own feet, looking up with Mum and Dad and declaring that I would climb El Cap one day. That was before I even knew what climbing was, before I'd become a climber, before the accident that had seemed to put an end to childish dreams of rock. High places had been my freedom, my escape. Since then I'd found new ways of enjoying all that climbing had once given me: hand biking across the Himalaya, kayaking the Inside Passage to Alaska, crossing Greenland in a sit-ski. I hadn't thought about climb

ing for a long time.

As the sun beat down and we sweated, I gripped on, peering over Andy's shoulder. Either of us could end up hurt with this outrageous piggy-back. Before he took each step, I studied the trail beneath his feet, playing a guessing game. I imagined, if it were my footsteps, where I'd place my soles. I liked it when Andy's feet went where I thought I'd place mine.

I'D BURIED ANY THREADS OF DESIRE to climb again long ago, with memories of windy Scottish summits, the sound of my crampons scraping on rock, the snapshot smiles of friends, sunburnt and exhausted in Alpine campsites. The idea of climbing El Cap had seemed beyond me then, so how did I think it was possible now, with only my arms and some rusty climbing skills to get me to the top?

I hid from the heat among the bags. The sun had barely crept onto the wall by the time Andy set off up Zodiac's curving, roofed crack.

"Safe," he shouted.

What a crazy word to use.

I could have said "no" like I should have fourteen years ago, when I began leading a route in Scotland I knew was too hard for me, moments before the salty cliff slipped from my fingers and I hit the rocks below. If I'd backed off instead, I'd still be walking. But I'd said "yes" then, and I said it again now.

I heard my brother's voice—"Please don't go, we've nearly lost you once before"—as I watched myself, strangely detached, strapping the mountain-bike body-armor onto my skinny legs, readying for the first pull-up. The part of me that pushes too far had put me in a wheelchair; the same part drove me now.

By pull-up number ten, I still hadn't left the ground: my jumars slid up but hauled only rope stretch. The helmet strap dug into my chin; the harness shoulder straps cut into my collarbones. Though I could only feel a little of my body, what was left hurt, and I hadn't even started.

By pull-up number fifteen, I felt lift off. "Wooohooo. Off the ground!"

By pull-up number twenty, I was a spectacular twenty centimeters up. I paused to look ahead: though I knew Andy couldn't be more than sixty meters above me, he appeared a marathon of pull-ups away.

After hundreds more pull-ups, I'd regraded the route from its official A2 5.7, which didn't mean anything to me, to PU4000+ (more than 4,000 pull-ups). I was nearly at the portaledge; sweat trickled into my ears and my collarbones were raw. I looked down and felt a long way up. But when I looked up, I felt a long, long way down.

The rest of the day clenched into a fist of tension and strain. Our five ropes were equally knotted, Andy and our two partners strung like spiders down the wall. By late afternoon, the sun hid behind the Nose. The stone fell into shadow. We'd be climbing in the dark.

Andy would exclaim how exciting a pitch had been, but it was all the same to me: we were just somewhere, lost on the wall. I noticed other things instead. Swifts swooped by my ears as they cliff-dived, fast black jets of color. Lightning-white forks of quartz split the face. A clean shadow line crept the day over the wall. Faint but acrid aromas of old urine wafted toward us. When a subtle breeze set my rope swaying, I wished I felt like a child on a swing, rather than a foolhardy adult clutching at a rope.

How much weight could one of those small metal bolts hold?

THE THIRD SUNSET: climbing parties were everywhere, their headlamp beams like Christmas lights strung across El Cap. I liked knowing we weren't alone.

Each day I'd watched the other climbers' progress, happy when we moved at a similar pace, disappointed if we made less ground.

"You see that Korean guy fall off earlier?" Andy asked.

"Luckily, no." I spooned cold ravioli into his mouth as he lay exhausted on the ledge.

Bats squealed, and a mouse poked its head out from behind a flake. I'd never seen Andy look so wasted, his eyes deadened by effort, his hair gelled with sweat.

"He got up it in the end. He was on the crux. Iron Hawk. It's a hard route." He swigged his end-of-day treat, a can of Coke. He said the fizz helped revive him. Tomato stains seeped from the corners of his mouth, making red blotches on his drained, pale face. He liked to push himself to this state of exhaustion, to simplify life to this game of staying alive.

Once, so had I.

"MOTHERFUCKING ROPES!" I screamed into space.

The wind ripped my hair. My hair whipped my face.

I was spinning. Dizzy. Disoriented. Above, all I could see were twisted ropes, purple, green, blue.

I slid my jumar up but it jammed.

I was dangling in a void beneath a massive overhang. The wind roared up the wall. A storm front moved our way.

"Fucking haulbags!" I heard myself shout, my voice weak with anguish. I watched myself lose it.

I was 700 meters above the ground, way out from the illusory comfort of the face, spinning, stuck, wrapped around the haulbag line.

"Unclip your safety line," Andy shouted from way above.

I hated him for saying it because I knew it was what I had to do: it was the first step to untangling the mess. But I didn't want to do it. "Just do it, Karen," I talked to myself.

I couldn't. I let the tears spill the sweat and dirt down my face, tasted them. I felt ashamed to be crying, to be losing it, to be weak. I was aware the others must have been looking down, willing me to get it together.

I unclipped my safety line.

I swung to untangle it.

It was quiet above. I knew they knew just to leave me alone.

Finally my jumar was free to slide upward again. I focused on it, and on my blistered fingers, torn cuticles, gripping tight on yellow rubber. I noticed every movement.

Slide, pull, breathe, wipe tears.

The world of El Cap had centrifuged into my dizzy fingers.

THE WIND DIED WITH THE SUN. The sky, salmon and slate, turned to jet as night fell. The cold bit into the tender skin of my fingers. It was silent on our ledge except for our breathing and fidgeting for warmth, as we waited for Andy to finish running the last two pitches together. Far, far below the traffic hummed like electric interference in the otherwise quiet night.

A shooting star fell.

"Safe!" echoed through the blackness. This time it was almost true.

My stomach did a sickly lurch as I slipped over the lip of the ledge and swung into space one last time. I began to pull: the final pitch of PU4000+. It wasn't so scary in the dark. There was no up, no down, no yesterday, no tomorrow. There was just a yellow pull-up bar, with the perlon pattern passing through the jumar.

The purple rope ran forever upward, chasing Andy's voice into the heavens. Grit fell into my eyes. I closed them and kept pulling. My arms were exhausted and bloody, grating against the rock with each pull-up—but they weren't as tired as my mind. Fine threads of tension, suspended in every synapse, were tearing, ready to break. I needed Zodiac to end.

At last my rope ran out, but I was still hanging, my body rammed against the final rim, El Capitan unwilling to let me go. I was bound in ropes. Whichever way I rolled, my hips or knees were caught beneath the summit lip. I rested my cheek on the cold, coarse granite, then belly-flopped over the cusp of the prize.

I didn't cry. I didn't shout. I didn't even kiss the top. I just hugged the edge, closed my eyes, and waited for Andy to come and remove my shackles.

It began to snow.

I SHIVERED INSIDE THE BILLOW of my sleeping bag, Andy snoring beside me, a damp, gray tarp wrapped around us, the snow making a deeper and deeper shroud. Tomorrow would be a mammoth piggy-back down to the valley. I wiggled deeper into my bag, the cold seeping through me, and put my hands in my armpits to cuddle myself warm.

Andy must have wanted me to experience what he had on El Cap, eleven times before: that feeling of being free and strong, high on the summit, amid the fanfare of the peaks and towers below. And it had been amazing to climb again, to untie stubborn knots, to dangle my feet in marvelous space, to live once more a snapshot of a climber's life. But instead of feeling the way Andy wanted me to feel, I wanted to run away. Climbing again was like stepping back down into the tomb where I'd laid my walking-self to rest. Now I saw clearly why I go hand-cycling for miles and miles, why I can never turn around until I've reached the end of the road, why I push myself past the day's end into the darkness.

I wanted to be back in my wheelchair, to be able to move on my own, in my own direction. As long as I kept moving, I wouldn't have to sit vigil by that tomb.

Karen Darke,

Inverness, Scotland


A whoomp and the snow lurched. Damon thought of Erika's face. The night before, the smooth skin at the corners of her mouth had wrinkled and slid after she found him drinking amid piles of gear.

Just now he'd been in a shallow alley, the only constriction of the ascent, when his track undercut the slab. His climbing skins that slid so easily forward were clumsy to turn, impossible to slide backward. The rock seemed to rise; the snow resolved into a grid of faint crevasses. As the snow began to move toward him, too slow to be a menace, he shouted back to his partner, but the surface he stood on was moving too. He lost his balance and went down. His arm swept through loose hoar, pushing down on nothing, weighted by his pack. The snow came over him, in layers, like sunroofs sliding into place, darker over dark.

Now we're into something hard, he thought. It was the sort of thing Erika would say. Then one boot pulled off; his other ski caught and twisted, and the snow solidified into concrete.

He squirmed, belatedly, pushing with one hand while his other arm was cast. The rough glove scratched against his nose. He thought of his partner and turned his eyes away from an imagined probe point, but that motion jolted pain behind his kneecaps and the small of his neck and he swore and his mouth filled with snow.

The silence around him was haunted with the absence of sound: no steady creak of bindings, no clacking heels on riser plates. How far had he traveled? He spat and remembered his uptrack winding into the mountain, into the gully. Every step was a choice.

"You drink harder than you climb now," Erika had said.

She had beautiful shoulder-length black hair. When people saw her hair, they assumed she was satisfied. But her eyes were dark and still, a little eerie, unreadable. That was the first thing he'd noticed.

She'd walked smoothly into the climbing gym, a natural athlete. Damon couldn't figure out what he didn't like about her.

"It's your head," he called up, when she got stuck on a move.

She twisted her neck, looking over a tanned shoulder. "I can't reach."

"Kick your free leg out the other way."

"My foot is turning on nothing!"

"You have to find the fulcrum, the point of rest between balance and counterbalance. It isn't seen so much as felt."

She gave up. After being lowered, she stepped back, without looking, and her hair washed his face, and then in a moment he couldn't take his attention away. He hadn't expected that.

"What are you afraid of? Falling?" He laughed at her.

"Getting hurt."

"So hang your butt out so high your fall won't hurt."

"You mean because I'll die."

"I mean not hurt." He grinned.

She cast down that flat gaze.

Why had he ever convinced her to move with him to the old lumber town in the mountains? He liked watching her walk, detested her timidity, loved the unconscious twitching of her mouth, felt repulsed by her breath. She'd brought a huge pile of clothes. Like our relationship, she laughed: a snowball growing.

Her clothes pile would reappear in the bedroom closet after each big fight. At first he thought she was cleaning, mentally making a new start.

Snowflakes pile up, form layers, until one more lands and hinges the whole mass down. Which one? he thought. It seemed important.

SOMEWHERE ABOVE HIM huge footsteps thumped, went away, started, stopped. Damon yelled. The sound was empty. For an instant it felt as though there were no walls around, as though he were floating, naked and numb. He panicked and tried again to move. His lower arm, encased at a harsh angle, ached. He thought of prisoners held in stress positions: within moments he knew he would answer anything.

He wanted to scream, It was Erika—not the routes, not the drinks.

The crystals stung his neck, a phalanx of sharp spears, a million snowflakes, each different, each arrayed around him: flat daggers, thin needles, flaring scimitars—a Lilliputian army. How did an avalanche flow like liquid when it was made of such rough grains?

His throat was gritty with the burnt-water taste of snowmelt.

He wanted a drink.

SOON AFTER THEY'D ARRIVED in the mountains, Damon got his first shot at some real alpine. A new climbing partner had dragged him up the Shooting Gallery. He loved the solid thunk of his axe in the plastic ice at the bottom, as if he were sticking it into the bones of the route, but higher up, the chute was rock-scoured and brittle and he couldn't rest on his frontpoints. He'd never felt or imagined such pain. He offered up a lot on those yards: prayers, sacrifices, promises.

Down at the car, thirst raging, he went from water to cola to whiskey in his mind long before he arrived home. Once there, door locked, floor horizontal and chair beneath, he drank until his legs wobbled and his eyes stung, playing the climb over and over in his mind. Three days later he still wondered at the memory of it: the couloir knifing straight up, the quartzite's blocky, detached needles.

After more drinks, he recalled other moments—the little piton he'd climbed past, the rock chipped all around, and the vivid red sling that flapped about, tattered. Alcohol became his translator of the experience, a quiet theater where he could replay the route until it seemed to make sense. He'd been thirsty ever since; he wanted to gulp down all the tastes of life and risk all the effects.

Their first night in the new apartment, they'd poured drinks to celebrate on the balcony. Damon pointed out routes and traced his finger straight up to each summit.

"You make it look easy," Erika said with a smirk.

Damon shrugged. "It's pointless, I know, but you come down as a different person."

"Why can't you just come cragging with me, have a beer afterward?" she said, a new concern in her voice.

"Beer and crags don't interest me," he answered. He wanted the harder drinks, the bigger routes, the ones that through fear and pain could make him look at everything clearly.

HE DESPERATELY WANTED A DRINK NOW, to dilute the ice around him in a gut-hot glow. The pain in his arm faded, as did the rough cold. He wondered if he was suffocating. It was more a numbing pleasure, like making love to Erika: warm and surrounding, drawing him in with each breath. Each bit deeper felt better.

He needed a slap to stay conscious, so he imagined her anger. The night before she'd shouted, "Jones, no horseshit, no matter how many times you go up you aren't changing."

Afterward, he'd found her pile of clothes in the closet again, grown smaller, with only her favorite items. He realized then that she was doing what any alpinist would do before a serious route: stripping away gear until she was as light as she could be, the better to move fast, to commit.

She should have left him. She'd asked him about moving back to the city, to better jobs and better friends. The wonder was that she hadn't left him yet.

He tried to imagine how she would look single again. And then he saw her under the pale florescence, in her cashier's apron and sweater, and he thought she wasn't attractive. The light made her skin pale, her lips a faint mauve, her skin tinged blue. In his mind he moved from the paint to the electrical aisle and saw her face-on, the stab of her hair, the flash of her glance. He watched her as a stranger would. When she smiled, her face was all geometric shadows: triangles under cheekbones, ovals of light under eyes, a square beneath her lower lip, the cold gorgeous darkness of her mouth—and he was captured again, as unexpectedly as the first time he saw her.

There were two things, he thought, looking at her under the fluorescence, against the white shelves like a winter day with a high overcast. There were those crystalline structures, metals and plastics, that are hard and have sharp edges; and then there are those blotchy cells that are crushed and feel pain. Those two things existed, and also the pivots between them, like liquor, like love.

He played his life with Erika in the dark theater, everything sudden and fast, expanding out to her friends and family. All those lives now entangled in the mess of his. That thought brought him back under the snow. If he could only look up through the detritus, he ought to be able to see the place where his track had been knocked away by some irresistible event.

Then he knew: there had never been a straight track; our lives are not plotted courses, but sweep from one big slide to the next.

HE MUST HAVE HIBERNATED, slowed into stasis by the cold. He was ice now, and could withstand all the hungers of life. Lights appeared before him, tiny ones like the way a field of snow sparkles, like fireflies. He could see all that now, the myriad facets: air and water, whiskey and crystal, mixing, like voices.

But the voices were babbling; they made no sense. Alcohol wasn't the translator. It had merely counterbalanced his reaching in ways he hadn't anticipated. Everything had relied on that one thing in the middle, the fulcrum, barely felt, rarely seen.

He thought of Erika's eyes—small points of release.

Jerry Auld, Canmore, Alberta, Canada

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