One of the coolest things about writing this blog is the responses. I get a few comments, but more and more I’m getting emails, texts and Facebook messages from people who connect with the stories. This is a platform where I can get my thoughts out, but it is also an avenue for people to reach out. From the first day I’ve heard from people, some I’ve never met, some I know and have never been close to, some I’ve been close to but never that close. Most gratifying, however, have been the notes from friends and climbing partners I haven’t kept up with as well as I should — Matt, Jay, Griffin, Rachel, Pat and others.
Last night one of those partners reached out. She said she was enjoying my writing as well as following my climbing. It was a nice note, it made me smile. At the bottom was a link to something — an essay I’d written more than a decade ago as 19-year-old kid. It was 2001, and I yearned to be a climber. I’d thruhiked the Appalachian Trial the year before, and a few months later I bailed on my first attempt at college. That winter I led my first ice climb, Elephant Head Gully. I’m not sure I placed a decent piece. I was hanging my way up 5.9, and my rack was more nuts than cams. I was arrogant and driven (far more so than now), determined to become an alpinist and disappointed I wasn’t one yet. I was in the midst of my second stab at college (also destined to fail) in Colorado when I wrote the essay for a class. I sent it to her on April 23.
Far above my last piece of protection I reached for a hold. My hand landed on a flake, square and sharp. The day was cool, and the wind worked to push me across the rock face. I made several more moves, feeling confident, advancing higher. Looking above I saw a large roof; if I continued on my present course I would have to climb through it. I reached forward, grabbing another handhold. There was a grinding sound, and the rock shifted. I felt the blood drain from my face as a knot of fear grew in my stomach. I was going to fall.
I awoke with a start. It was dark; the blinds blocked out the streetlight I knew was outside the window. My girlfriend put her hand on my shoulder and asked if I was all right. “My god, I was scared,” I said.
She knew what I was talking about. We had been climbing earlier in the day. It had been cool, cold enough to snow. The wind had whipped the ropes. This was not good climbing weather, not a time to be outside. It was a time for movies and hot cocoa. It was a time for sitting next to the woodstove and playing poker. But we only had a week to climb. A week before she would be going home to Boston. So we climbed.
We had spent thirty minutes driving washed out dirt roads to the 400-foot face, and 20 minutes lugging our climbing gear straight up hill to the base of the cliff. Tied in, doubled back, locked, helmets on, and ready to go. I began climbing, and shot up the first 40 feet to a right-facing dihedral. I placed a piece of protection and continued upward. Following the dihedral for the next 60 feet, situating myself directly below a large roof. I looked up, trying to remember the route description: “Take crack to right of large roof.” Or was it left? Either way, I would have to get to the roof before making any decisions. I reached up, grabbing a handhold. I felt the individual grains digging into my hand. I moved past it, onto a small ledge. I began the upward traverse across to the bottom of the roof and reached out, grabbing a flake. I heard the grinding of two rough surfaces, the sound of a car bottoming on a speed bump. I felt my center of gravity shift, and my head swung back. I shot my other hand forward, groping for a piece of granite to hold onto, a desperate attempt to stabilize myself. Thoughts flashed through my head: from my protection, to my belayer, to the rope, to the zipper effect, to the rock quality, to the strength ratings of gear, to the value of a single human life. I prepared to die.
I may have screamed, I may have cried; this moment, I have discovered, I will never remember. But I will never forget.
The moment passed. I did not fall. I found my other handhold and stabilized myself. I cringed, then I told a joke to my girlfriend 100 feet below. The climbing continued, until halfway up snow and high winds forced us to retreat. The day was over, it was time to head home.
The story could have ended there. I could have gone home and never thought about that aborted ascent again. But fear is too deeply rooted in the human mind, the survival instinct too powerful a force. I relived the climb, the day, as I fell asleep. Everything was a little better in the dream than it had been in real life: the sun warmer, the wind calm, the climbing easier. My mind was setting me up. My subconscious was going to teach me something about climbing, something I was never consciously going to accept. If I was not going to quit climbing after the events of the day, my brain decided, I would get more convincing that night. I climbed. I reached for the handhold. It moved. And I fell.
“Remember this,” my mind said.
Almost 12 years have passed since I wrote that piece. It was just a paper for a class, at the time I never would have guessed I’d make a living in words. I didn’t remember that day, but as I read the essay it came flooding back. I remember the cliff — Davis Face outside Buena Vista. We were climbing on the right side. I found an old slung hex buried in the crack. We had a borrowed Honda CRV. It was red. I remember the sound of the rock grinding, the feeling of losing my balance, the thought that I was going to die. And I remember shaking awake that night, airborne in the darkness.
I don’t have much more to add, other than, “What a decade.” And thanks to everyone who has (or is going to) reached out.
[Author’s Note: I did do some editing on the original piece. I figure I’m entitled, it is my essay…]