Wringing It Out

Posted on: July 17, 2020


[This story originally appeared in The Climbing Life section of Alpinist 70, which is now available on some newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 70 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

A storm settles over the Cirque of the Towers, Wind River Range, Wyoming. [Photo] Derek FranzA storm settles over the Cirque of the Towers, Wind River Range, Wyoming. [Photo] Derek Franz

EVIDENTLY I HAD killed my friend Tyson.

Several pitches up the sharp arete of a quartzite fin, I was on lead when a July rainstorm came rolling through, imperturbable as a tide.

As usual, first came the wind. I heard the drops hit my helmet before I felt them on my bare arms. Pausing ninety feet out from the belay, I listened for thunder. Nothing.

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"I'll link the last pitch and we can rap off the side!" I yelled back down to Tyson. I could barely hear myself through the wind and rain. The final pitch had bucket holds and easy feet. Wet or dry, it was a romp. But the storm still demanded a surge of focus. In a way, the rain made the climbing better.

At the final anchor, I had just enough rope left to rig a belay. "Belay on!" I bellowed, knowing no one could hear me. I tugged hard on the taut rope several times, transmitting the same words down the nylon to Tyson, who was out of sight.

By then, the rain had intensified into a downpour, and I was drenched. Water pooled in my shoes. I scrunched myself into the smallest surface area possible, knees crowding my chin. It was too hot to worry about hypothermia, but I wondered idly if humans couldn't liquefy at the right saturation point.

The rope didn't move. I wouldn't start climbing in this waterfall either, I thought.

I tugged five more times to confirm the belay. Still no movement. A long wait. Finally, the air started to clear. As a wide rainbow shimmered across the valley, the rope went slack. The midsummer buzz of insects returned. I started hauling in.

Tyson was new to climbing outdoors, and I was impressed by how quickly he was moving. He was cleaning the route so fast that he wasn't even pausing. I guess I would be hustling, too, to warm up, I thought. "Yeah, man!" I yelled in encouragement.

By the time I reached the last fifty feet of rope to pull in, I knew something was wrong.

There was no tension. I couldn't feel a body on the other end. With rising dread, I yanked in armfuls of slack. The angle of the rock fin limited my view to the last few meters. Tyson's end of the rope suddenly appeared, snaking toward me like a slithery sign of doom. No Tyson.

Thoughts rushed in to caption the image of a plummeting body. The rope must have cut on a sharp edge I overlooked. Why didn't I hear a yell? Did I hear a yell? It was raining, you idiot. Did he tie in wrong? Didn't I check? Did I? Maybe acid rain can corrode a knot. I thought we solved acid rain. Was the rope too old?

An image of the rope bathing in battery acid in my car trunk. A marmot chewing through it. Edward Scissorhands snickering in a hueco.

Seized by everything wrong about your partner disappearing without a trace, I finally grasped the end of the rope and examined it closely. It was the original end, the factory tape still attached, unfrayed, no nicks.

What the fuck?

Over the next two hours, I rappelled slowly down the fin, anxiously straddling the wet arete to avoid a wild pendulum across the face. I tapped out wedged nuts, stopping mid-rappel to grip slick, unforgiving edges. My recovered rack started to weigh me down. All the while, bulges on the fin blocked the view below me.

And then there he was. Two hundred feet off the deck, Tyson was calmly perched where I'd last seen him—ropeless, rackless and unperturbed—still attached to the anchor by a sling. He looked like someone who had been waiting a long time at a bus stop.

Angry and baffled that he had untied, I yelled something unmemorable. He replied, almost beatifically, "I thought you weren't supposed to climb in the rain."

—Spencer Gray, Portland, Oregon

[This story originally appeared in The Climbing Life section of Alpinist 70, which is now available on some newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 70 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

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