I’m not sure how I agreed to this. I’m actually not sure if I did agreed to this. But I’m pretty sure Ken, the third wheel in our adventure, is thinking the same thing. He’s behind me and all I can hear is the thump of his boots and the jangling of chocks and carabiners. My boyfriend, John, is leading. As I follow the path and carefully place my steps, I watch his muscular calves power over the uneven boulders. We bump and clang our way along the rocky trail until we reach the base of a modest granite wall.
Hiking out of camp this morning, John explained that we would start with something easy, a rock most guys use for bouldering. That’s when I caught Ken rolling his eyes. Can’t say I blame him. Weekends in the Sierras are a rarified thing, and who wants to spend theirs dragging another guy’s girlfriend on her first climb?
I tie on my rented climbing shoes and step into a borrowed harness. John yanks the harness straps so forcefully I nearly topple over. He ties a stained bandana onto his bald head, and I neatly tuck my hair into a crisp new one. John shows me how to attach the rope to my harness and gives me another unbalancing tug. Ken is quietly and mechanically preparing his own equipment. He signals he’s ready when he throws his rack, a looped rope adorned with variously shaped aluminum pieces, bandoleer-style across his body.
Ken flies up the rock first, making it clear that for him this is a Sunday stroll. Both guys are lean, but Ken is lanky, and his long limbs seem custom built for this sport. As I watch him navigate the angles of granite, I enjoy the view and appreciate that climbing is done with minimal clothing – just t-shirt and shorts. Then there’s the added benefit of the harness accentuating the interesting parts.
When Ken is in position on a ledge part way up the rock, John sends me up and slowly lets out the lower rope. He’s loudly talking me through every move.
“Right hand, reach over to two o’clock. Grab that handhold.”
I reach. And grab.
“Press down with your left leg and step up with your right to that ledge on the other side of the crack.”
I press. And step.
“I think you can reach that hold right above you with your left hand, and pull…”
I reach again. And pull.
I’m about half way up the rock and starting to get the hang of it. I can spot handholds by the shadows they cast, and John no longer has to play puppet-master. But the next moment I find myself plastered against the rock face like a bug on a windshield. I’m completely out of options. I look around, and there’s nowhere to make my next move. The gray granite around me just looks smooth and flat. I can feel cramps building in my fingers. I don’t know what to say. I just let out a little whimper.
John’s voice is encouraging from below, “Don’t worry, you’re on the rope. Make a move.”
He points out what he’s calling a huge ledge that’s about half an inch wide and a significant reach away. “Swing your foot over. Use that ledge!”
Now I’m acutely aware that my body type isn’t ideal for this kind of pursuit. I’m more of a homebody than an athlete, and as long as I’ve been tailoring my own wardrobe I’ve known that my limbs are a bit short for my body. That understanding is crystal clear, but not all that helpful in my search for something to grab onto.
My knees are starting to shake, so I make my move. I lose my grip, and I scream – a loud, girly scream that reverberates off the surrounding rock. But the rope has me and the wedgie from my harness is an odd comfort. I’ve fallen no more than a foot, the aluminum chocks Ken wedged into the rock did their job, and John is laughing. He’s laughing!
“Good!” he says. “It’s your first fall. You’re fine. Check yourself out and keep going.” Blood is oozing from scrapes on my elbow and my knee, but he’s right. I survived. And I feel tougher. The rest of the rock is a breeze. Ken doesn’t say anything, but I’ve decided to label him the strong silent type.
Day two and we’re standing at the base of Lover’s Leap. Groups of climbers are positioned all along this impressive vertical slab as it casts a long shadow across the valley. I try not to be too conspicuous since I had heard from some of the other climbers the night before. “Was that you screaming? It sure did echo across the valley! Everybody heard it.” Great. Everybody.
John yanks my harness pulling me back to today. I look straight up.
“How high?” I ask.
“400 feet? What’s up there?”
John’s wearing a sly smile. “The top,” he says.
The top, yes. And that should be enough for me. The chance to say I did it. I’m as ready as I’ll be, and I realize the reason I believe I can do this is because John believes it. This is the guy who announced on a Wednesday that he had signed me up for a 2-mile open water swim the following Saturday. And, yes, the same guy who took me along on a butt-busting 100 kilometer bike ride through the hills and windy passes of Altemont.
We start to climb. One of the guys is always above, and one below. I’m in the middle where they can give me help when I need it. A couple times they just give me a hoist when I have a hard time reaching the next hold. At first I’m too fearful to look past my feet. As I get higher I make quick glances down into the valley. It looks like a landscape from a meticulously groomed diorama. The tight little village of campsites is completely deserted. Everyone is on the rock. There’s nothing else to do here but climb.
Up high I’m crouching on a narrow ledge, and I feel my toes curling in an instinctive but futile attempt to get some sort of grip. I’m taking only shallow breaths, afraid that inhaling might blow me right off the rock. My fingers are continually searching, searching for a better handhold. Ken is next to me belaying the rope as John makes his way from below. I have time to watch the different climbing pairs who are arrayed across the sheer face. They’re making deliberate vertical progress with a pace that is methodical and consistent. Then a more rapid movement catches my eye.
“Hey Ken, check out that guy over there. He’s climbing without ropes.”
Ken doesn’t look. He only mutters, “No, he’s not.”
I want to inform Ken that I’ve gotten the message loud and clear that he isn’t thrilled to have me here. I begin to wonder how many other girlfriends John’s brought along on climbs. I’m obviously just in the way and slowing things down. But hey, that guy over there is scrambling straight up the rock with an unencumbered fluidity that’s at once elegant and terrifying.
I persist, “No, really, he doesn’t have any ropes.”
Ken finally turns to look. “Whoa. You’re right.”
You have to have a lot of guts to be a climber, but you also need to know your limits. That free climber guy is crazy. But everyone on the rock is pretty impressed nonetheless.
It’s a long climb and I know exactly who’s keeping us from a nap and dinner. Okay, so I’m holding us back, but I never advertised myself as anything but a complete novice. Meanwhile, the guy doing the free climb makes at least three ascents, running down the mountain to come around and start up again.
As we near the top, I’m looking forward to celebrating. The beginning is far, far below, and the finish is right over that last ledge. Ken’s the first to make it. When he’s in position, I start my final ascent. I’m ready to be done for the day. In order to get over the top ledge, I need to hug the rock and swing my leg up and over. This is a little awkward and a lot scary. I push my fear far into my gut and focus only on the details of the rock right in front of my face. No looking down now. I’m nearly there, so I give a tug on the lower rope to free up enough to get me to my destination. It doesn’t come easily. I pull some more. The rope seems stuck, but I manage to get just enough to pull myself over the side. Success.
Ken doesn’t look thrilled. “Why did you do that?” He’s glaring at me.
“The rope wouldn’t come.”
“It’s stuck.” By the look on his face I realize this is serious. “We can’t get John up here safely with it jammed like that.”
Oh. That may be the most he’s said to me all day, and his sharp tone stings.
Deflated, I sink to the ground and hug my knees. Ken leans over the edge of the cliff and ignores me as he begins to strategize with John. If John attempts that last pitch with a stuck rope, it’s like not having a rope at all. John knows that free climber is crazy, and he’s not crazy. He has his limits. He also realizes he’s not going to be able to free the rope from where he is. They decide the only option is to have Ken rappel from the top to loosen the rope.
Ken’s obviously nervous at the prospect of stepping over the edge of a 400 foot cliff. I become the silent one as he makes sure the rope is tight in his harness and sets up for a rappel. He checks and double checks, arranging and re-arranging the rope. I wonder about John who is quietly hanging onto the side of the granite wall waiting for rescue. He’s not known for his patience, but the next move is in Ken’s hands now. And I’m just the girlfriend in the way.
Ken finally stands, ready to step backward off the edge.
I’ve been watching his preparation, and suddenly my nerve endings tingle with a shock of realization. I speak to him calmly but firmly, “Wait. You’re not tied into anything.”
He stops and looks at me. All the fussing he’s done with the rope, and he has neglected to secure it to anything. That step backward, if he had taken it, would have been his last. He takes two steps forward, back onto the security of the broad stone platform.
I’m not relieved, I’m horrified. Horrified to imagine what could have happened if I hadn’t said something, if I hadn’t stopped him. Horrified that it was me who had gotten the rope stuck, and if I hadn’t been so eager, we wouldn’t be in this predicament at all.
Ken says nothing as he secures the rope for his rappel, I can’t look at him. I look at the ground, moving small stones around and making tiny cairns. I only glance up occasionally to see him laying the rope out carefully in order to follow it to its end, tying it to both a tree and a rock outcrop. Then he gives it a hard pull before disappearing over the side.
I hear but don’t watch as Ken and John work to loosen the rope. Once that task is complete it doesn’t take long before they’re both at the top, wrapping up their ropes and sorting gear. The walk back to the base is silent and when we return to camp, Ken disappears inside his one-man tent. John and I don’t talk about what happened at the top, and I’m not sure he really knows.
Since that day, I’ve bragged a lot about climbing that 400 foot cliff. I’ve got some pretty amazing photos to show friends. But I always leave out the part about risking, then saving, Ken’s life. It still haunts me.
Copyright Liz Behlke – 2015