“I’m sorry, Mom,” I muttered to myself.
“Did you say something?” my climbing partner Mico called from the belay station 20 feet to my right.
“Not really,” I shouted so I was clearly audible above the wind buffeting the cliff face. It was an uncomfortably cold day for climbing. I tightened my grip on the frigid rock I was using to hold myself on the wall as my body was racked by a shiver.
I thought back to the day before when we’d loaded up the car, and I’d said goodbye to my parents. Lately, I’d noticed that my mom’s parting words whenever I left for a climbing trip were “be safe.” Like most adjectives, the word “safe” is a relative term. One person’s safe is another person’s insane. And if safe means the absence of all risk, then few people in modern America are truly safe. Most of us get in cars. Leaving the house assumes a certain level of risk.
Where do you draw the line between what is safe and what is not? My mom never dropped me off at high school soccer games with the parting words “be safe,” even though I sprained my ankle more times than I could count playing the sport. Then again, soccer does not involve hanging from a rope several hundred feet above the ground. People don’t usually die playing soccer.
“You’re shaking your head,” Mico observed. He sounded amused.
I was shaking my head because of what lay before me. I hadn’t moved since our last exchange. I’d been taking turns resting my increasingly frozen fingers on the warm back of my neck in an effort to regain feeling. Mico says this is a temporary fix, but even if it provided little more than passing relief, I was grateful.
I’d traversed 20 feet from the belay station on moderately sized holds and was still another 10 feet below the first bolt on the climb. I had yet to find a crack or pocket in which I could place gear. We were on the third and hardest pitch of a four pitch trad climb titled “Risky Business.” Originally, I’d assumed the person who’d developed the route was a Tom Cruise fan, but now I was beginning to suspect they’d been entirely unaware of the 1983 film when they christened the route.
Back on the ground before we’d started, Mico’d volunteered to lead the first two pitches. I was initially grateful, until I realized it meant I’d be leading the 5.10c pitch, the route’s crux and, coincidentally, tied for the hardest trad lead I’d ever attempted.
“Are you sure?” Mico had asked. I think he was a little surprised by my willingness.
Of course,” I’d said, wanting to appear brave. Going into the trip, Mico’d asked if I had any climbing goals. I’d told him I wanted to climb things that would give me street cred, so I could efficiently shut down men who second guessed my climbing ability.
200 feet above the ground, I was cursing my petty, perennial desire to impress others, a desire that seemed to dictate my whole life. On a warmer day, when I could feel my fingers, face climbing on 10c-sized holds would have been a task I could accomplish with minimal effort. Though the holds were the same size as they would have been in warmer weather, they seemed to vanish beneath my numb fingertips. This, combined with the pitch’s sparse protection, kept me immobile with fear.
I was between a rock and a hard place, a hackneyed phrase which Google seems to believe originated in the Odyssey when Odysseus had to pass between the giant whirlpool Charybdis and the cliff-dwelling monster Scylla. I choose to believe that the phrase originated with the crazy climbers who seem to enjoy working themselves into rocky hard places. I’d climbed to a point on the pitch where it would be difficult to return to the belay station (crossing the Rubicon–it’s amazing how many cliches come to mind while you’re busy losing your shit on a rock face) and was not happy about it.
Returning to the belay station would involve some down climbing. I wasn’t confident I’d be able to do the moves I’d just done in reverse without falling. Falling was a bad option, especially because of the traverse I’d just made. There was a fair amount of rope out, which meant I’d fall a ways. Additionally, because I’d moved mostly laterally from the belay station, I would not only fall but swing, penduluming into the column on top of which Mico was belaying. If I continued toward the first bolt, Mico would need to feed out more rope, so I’d risk falling even farther. Another bad option, as I’d smash into the same column but with the added force of a longer fall (sometimes I wish I’d skipped high school physics). However, I couldn’t stay where I was, trading hands on the back of my neck. My energy was slowly dissipating. Eventually, I’d be too weak to continue clinging to the holds and would end up smashing into the same column.
I’m not sure how Odysseus made his decision, but I opted to continue climbing. Another 10 feet of rope out wouldn’t kill me, I hoped. Plus, sniveling my way back to the belay ledge would be embarrassing. Caught between a rock and my ego was perhaps a more apt phrase for my situation.
I clawed my way to the first bolt on frozen talons. Clipping it, I felt my body relax. I placed a hand on the back of my neck and looked up to see where I was headed. Nowhere good. The next bolt was separated from me by another 30 feet of edgy face climbing. No cracks or pockets were visible. Why hadn’t we taken more time to read the route description? This alleged trad route was more akin to runout face climbing, and life was too short to risk falling 60 feet.
I’d alway told myself that I wasn’t one of those climbers who was in it for the adrenalin rush. I liked pulling challenging, athletic moves where if I fell, it was a clean fall. I didn’t like feeling like I was going to die. Yet recently, I’d spent more and more time trad climbing, trusting gear that would blow on me if not placed with a fair amount of precision, climbing longer routes that got me even higher above the ground, climbing runout routes where I was looking at 60 foot falls instead of 6 foot ones. Why?
It probably has something to do with the respect trad earns you in the climbing community. You’re not just a dabbler. I like the reactions I get from the people who assume I’m a gym rat and are forced recalibrate their view of me because I can lead 5.10 trad. Or maybe I like trad because it makes everything else feel easy and safe. It’s helped me overcome a fear of falling on sport climbs, and it’s given me a point of comparison for non-climbing endeavors as well. Real world things that might have seemed really hard and scary (like interacting with strangers or starting something new or expressing myself honestly) feel possible now that I have a new point of reference for what is scary and extreme.
It should have been telling that “I’m sorry, Mom” was the thought that kept coming to mind, rather than “I’m sorry, Ceri.” I hadn’t considered apologizing to myself because, though my life was the one on the line, I was satisfied with the way I was risking it. My guilt stemmed from the effect my untimely demise would have on my family.
I wished I’d been nicer to my family before I left for the trip. It’s not that I’d fought with my mom or anything like that. I’d been perfectly nice, but not especially nice. I wanted the last time I saw my family to be special, something they could discuss smiling, tears in their eyes as they sat by my bed, holding my hand, gazing into my comatose face. Next time, and there would almost certainly be a next time, I’d tell them I loved them before heading out. I might also draw up a will. My mom would definitely get my car. But who would I leave my newly purchased trad rack to?
I shivered as I was buffeted by another gust of wind. My exposed ankles had turned a mottled purple, and I could no longer feel my toes. Mico must be equally cold if not colder because he wasn’t climbing. I needed to pick up the pace so we could get off this shady, windswept rock. I took a deep breath and committed to climbing rather than thinking about possible demises. As long as I took full advantage of rest opportunities, making time to locate the hand and foot placements I’d use to reach the next rest stance, and didn’t panic, I’d be fine. Everything would be fine.
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