Josh Hurst on The Mercy.

MERCY is a loaded word. It is a plea for when THE PAIN MUST STOP, a whisper akin to folding. It is submission, collapse, accepting defeat.

But it is also benevolence, forgiveness and grace. It just depends which side of MERCY you are on.

At 7:15 this morning I met Ryan Stefiuk at the base of Cathedral for a pre-work climbing session. It was nearly 40 degrees and the sun was barely up. Melting snow was streaming down the cliff, but where we were headed we weren’t worried about the state of the ice. The Cathedral Cave has over the last five years become one of my favorite sanctuaries. It’s sheltered no matter the weather, and it has a handful of longterm projects that keep me coming back season after season. One of those is The Mercy.

The first time I saw someone climb The Mercy was probably five years ago, I was living in Portland at the time, as was my good friend Josh. I’d taken a bit of a break from climbing but was coming back to it with a passion, and Josh was looking for partners to go mixed climbing. Despite a lack of experience I agreed, and soon we were making weekly trips to the Cave.

Now, mixed is a bit of a misnomer for the Cave. There isn’t really any ice to climb, so really it’s just drytooling, but to someone who was used to Dracula and Pegasus the Cave was like visiting the ocean floor. The closest thing to mixed I’d done was four moves on The Black Dike. This was a whole other level.

I started working The Devil Made Me Dog It that year, the start to the much harder Work of the Devil, which continues past The Devil‘s chains to the lip and Cathedral Direct. Josh, meanwhile, was working The Mercy, an impossible looking line through rotten rock, and an extension that took it to the lip as well. “That is impossible,” I thought as I watched him work his way out the roof, his feet cutting back and forth in wild arcs. “No one can hold on that long.”

But Josh did. Somehow he managed to follow our friend Jim’s sage advice on how to succeed in climbing: “Just don’t let go.” I watched his elegant dance of steel against stone and I knew I was watching the impossible. It was a humbling experience as I worked my way out the four bolts of The Devil.

Today, five years later, I tied into my harness with my own draws dotting the ocean floor. Ryan looked at me. “Knot good?” he said. I looked down. “All set,” I said. “Go get it,” he replied.

I left the ground breathing deep, thinking back to my solos a few days before. “Forget the climbing,” I thought, “just listen to your breath.” My tools slotted into hook after hook as I made my way to the first bolt. “Smooth,” I thought, “just breathe.”

The first few moves on The Mercy are the same as The Devil, moves I’ve done literally 100 times. I reached the third bolt, a high clip, and pulled air to the bottom of my lungs. “OK,” I thought, “just climb.”

I lunged for the first slopey edge knowing the technical crux was connecting the next five moves. I pulled my feet high and exhaled, forcing the routemap in my mind out of my head. “Breathe,” I thought, “breathe.” I swung left into a steinpull, then back right onto an edge and then up to the good hook that marked the transition into the steep climbing. “Breathe,” I thought, ignoring the fact that I’d passed the technical crux and now just had to hang on.

But as I started moving left my feet cut, ripping out pebbles of rotten granite. I squeezed my tools as my body twisted, fighting gravity to get my crampons back on the rock. “You got it!” Ryan shouted. I wasn’t so sure. I could feel my grip failing and my hands uncurling from my tools. I kicked my feet up hard, pressing them into the rock and pulling my hips in. “BREATHE,” I thought, half closing my eyes, trying to fight my failing hands, the fall, the rock around me. “Breathe.”

I pushed my hips even closer to the rock and leaned my shoulders out, methodically shaking one hand, then the other, struggling with every ounce of strength left in me. If either foot cut again I wouldn’t have the strength to hold on. I felt myself losing the fight, I felt myself letting go. Mercy, I thought. I give up. I can’t feel my hands. I submit, I give in. Mercy.

I pulled in one last breath and exhaled, my hands deteriorating. As the air left my body I gave in. I gave up caring whether I summited or failed, whether I topped out or fell. I gave up thinking about the climb. I gave up thinking. I opened my eyes, my mind blank, and twisted my shoulders. My hips followed in tight rotation, and I started moving upward. MERCY, I thought, giving in to whatever the route offered. My breath came slow and steady, my tools gliding between hooks. My feet swung side to side in wild arcs, and I clipped bolts with failing hands. MERCY, I thought, move after move. Mercy. I submit. I give up.

I clipped the chains with my left hand as my right unwrapped from the pommel. The rope fell into the carabiner just in time for my left to grab the upper grip. One second longer and I would have launched into space, but instead I rearranged my feet and looked down at Ryan. “You can take,” I said, unsure of what just happened. Mercy, I thought as I collapsed into the rope. MERCY.

Evening celebration.

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