I’m wedged between two sides of a rocky face, a hundred feet up, like an ungainly blemish.
My knuckles are bleeding.
Every muscle is taught like a rubber band about to snap.
My heart could be the jackhammer into the rock that starts an avalanche.
For one fleeting, terrifying thought I realize I could die, and yet there’s no question of not making it to the top.
I surpassed the vertical face out of the craggy cave, nearly dislocating my shoulder, pulling pieces of equipment and clipping them to my harness as I follow my brother up this trad multi-pitch.
I don’t really know what that is. I can’t remember the names of these pieces of equipment. All I know is the rock biting into my flesh, and that there’s an anchor somewhere above me.
A cloud palms our mountain. Everywhere else the sky is blue, but it begins to rain on us, like I’m Eeyore trying to be a mountain goat. Somehow the drops dodge my sunglasses and hit me in the eye.
Suddenly a lime-green helmet pops up below me as another climber gains on my ascent.
Eeyore meets a real mountain goat.
He plants his first anchor and scouts his route before asking if he can go up behind me.
“Sure,” I say, and joke, “feel free to use me as a foothold.”
I can hardly feel more awkward as he nimbles over me and places a bolt.
“Is my rope okay there?” he asks, as it drags along my neck.
“Yep. No problem. I’ll let you know if it lacerates my jugular.”
He doesn’t hear, already moving up the crag.
My feet are falling asleep, my toes throbbing like screws are embedded beneath the nails, and I think vaguely that this must be what ballerinas go through.
Dawson hollers down. On belay.
I unclip from my anchor and harness the rope. Pull the cams and nut; start the second climb.
The rain has stopped, but this portion is smooth and round with fewer holds. I have to get creative with my positioning and my limbs scream their protest. In my shaking fingers, the second cam slips from its Carabiner–shit!
It drops a hundred and thirty feet out of sight.
“I owe you 70 bucks!” I yell up to my brother.
He responds with encouragement.
That’s when I notice the clouds above him. Sun rays break so silvery the cloud could be edged in tinfoil.
In a moment of wonder longer than my moment of terror I imagine the light descends in a staircase that takes me into heaven.
I’m coming to you, I tell him.
Not so easy in the physical as the spiritual, apparently. There’s a crack I have to follow to the next cam that is too wide to jam my arm and too smooth to grip.
More slipping, pendulum-swinging, swearing.
Finally I shift my body to the right, holding onto the edge of the crack, and brace my feet opposite. I wrench myself forward-up with a bellow that reverberates in the canyon.
(The meat-heads at the gym would be impressed.)
Catching the horn of a boulder, I crest the mountaintop just as the sun dispels the clouds and wakes me to his presence.
I collapse in tears as his delight washes over me in wind and warmth. I love you. I’m proud of you.
How strange to have conquered the most difficult and frightening feat in my life and find myself moved by the pleasure in his voice.
And yet, maybe not strange.
I bet he remembers placing each of those rocks.
I bet it is pure joy to watch his daughter grapple with the greatness of his handiwork and stand up greater.
There will always be greater mountains to climb. I think that’s why I love it. Before I leave Colorado, maybe I will climb three pitches…
The steady reassurance of his gaze follows me as I rappel down the mountain.
Coming to him will always be the first and last thing I do.