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The Weeping Wall: A Writer's Epiphany
How Climbing Frozen Waterfalls Helped Me Become A Writer
To the goggle-eyed tourists who gaped up from the valley floor, I must have looked like some exotic, north-born wasp inching its way up the thousand-foot slab of ice that towered above them.
Fifty stories up on that slab—wearing a borrowed blue and yellow wind suit—I felt anything but exotic. My limbs quivered from fear and fatigue as I probed the hoary surface, searching for soft pockets into which I could safely place the pick of a thin-bladed ice axe.
When both axes felt solid, I eased the front points of my left crampon out of the ice, lifted the mountaineering boot strapped to it, then kicked the points in a foot further up the face. I tested the purchase. Iffy, but it’ll have to do. I lifted my other boot, kicked in the points, then pulled gently on my axes and stood up.
Perched on four tapered steel toenails, hanging from two finger-sized picks—no point of contact gripping more than a half-inch of friable ice—I paused and sucked air into my lungs. I chanted reeee- on each in-breath, -laaax on the out. I forced myself not to look down.
When terror eased its bowel-threatening grip on my gut, I swung my axe again. Twang! Ice shards exploded into my face. The pick bounced back, glancing off my helmet. I tried again. Same thing. Panic nipped at my focus like a small, mean dog. My left arm cramped. Hang on, I told myself. Hang fucking on!
I drove my axe. Twang! Again. Twang! My biceps started to spasm. I swung hard. Thwok! Thank God. I hung from my right tool and shook the cramp out of my left arm. When the spasm eased, I reached high and drove my axe again.
Without warning, I was off the ice, yo-yoing on the end of the rope. Adrenaline roared through my system. My heart rammed against my ribs like a trapped animal desperate to escape the bars of its cage. My left hand was bare. Empty!
What? How? Stunned, I stared up at the frozen face of the mountain.
Ten feet above me—mocking my rookie mistake—a red nylon mitten gripped a well-placed ice axe. I’d broken the cardinal rule of ice climbing and levered my front points off their precious half-inch perch. Now, a half-inch rope and my harness were all that separated me from the toy cars shuffling back and forth along the Banff-Jasper highway below.
I wiped mucus from my mustache and let myself spin slowly as the rope untwisted itself. I burrowed my bare hand up under my jacket and fleece sweaters. Black-bottomed clouds shouldered their way in front of what watery sunlight had filtered through the overcast; the ice took on a somber, flat grey mien. My bowels spasmed ominously.
Trying to get myself under control, I thought of John Lauchlan, my friend and mentor. Back at his cabin, after a couple of bottles of Chianti, aphoristic injunctions like, “Go big or go home!” had sounded like revealed truth. But dangling from a thin, purple and yellow braid, just a few miles up the valley from where he had fallen to his death two weeks earlier, all I really felt like doing was lowering off the mountain, hitching home, then settling into a hot bath, and working my way through four fingers of Scotland’s best.
Below me, a horn blared, summoning the sightseers back to their bus. Above me, the rope snaked up the face and over a bulge, beyond which James would wonder why it had stopped.
Up? Or down?
A deep chill gripped me. I envied the tourists their temperature-controlled travel-cruiser. I longed for my snug cabin, a hot fire popping in the wood stove. I closed my eyes and willed myself to take twenty deep, slow breaths . . . .
Although I ran a mountaineering school in the Rockies, I’d always thought climbing frozen waterfalls was a cold, foolhardy way to spend winter. All my friends climbed, but I’d had no desire to join them on overblown icicles with names like Terminator or Nemesis.
I was two years past forty, twenty pounds overweight, and more than a decade beyond my athletic prime. I preferred good books and cozy fires to shivering half-frozen on some frigid sliver of near-vertical ice. Though I skied steep and hard, and bouldered on short rock faces, the theory of challenge excited me more than the further reaches of its practice.
An ex-academic, I’d learned to distance myself from the actual; to teach, not do. Even now, trying to reinvent myself as a writer, I spend more time reading how-to-write books than putting in miles on my laptop. It has to do with a fear of failing at what matters most.
When I’d left academia, I printed up business cards that claimed I was a “Consultant.” The Rocky Mountain Y hired me to restructure its fledgling adult climbing program. They wanted it to fit into their traditional, youth-oriented culture. And pay for itself. It was a tough gig. The pegs were too round, the holes too square. I spent most of my time focused on administrivia, keeping my cocky rock jocks away from the teenage camp counselors, teaching the theory parts of leadership courses. In between, I tried to sell enough courses to keep us afloat. I told myself I didn’t have time to climb. Or write.
In March of our first year, John, our Head Instructor died trying to solo a hard-ass, gnarly icicle known as Polar Circus. Soloing on ice pushes the edge of a climber’s skill and character. John liked that edge. He was the kind of man George Bernard Shaw must have had in mind when he wrote, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” No one had soloed Polar Circus. John wanted to be first.
He didn’t look impressive. Hanging less than 140 pounds of lean muscle and tightly-strung sinew off a slight, five-foot-eight frame, John peered out at the world wide-eyed from behind wire-framed coke bottle bottoms. Nonetheless, he lived his life with an intensity and power I’d but briefly glimpsed, an intensity I longed for yet recoiled from. Though more than ten years my junior, I looked up to John.
He was in his late teens when I met him; I was pushing thirty. On the advice of a friend with two months more climbing experience than I, I’d spent way-too-much money on far-too-stiff French mountaineering boots and headed out to a local crag that provided prime bouldering problems for hot shots and perfect practice routes for beginners like me.
I’d worked my five-pound Galibiers half way up a gentle slab when—in a voice way out of proportion to his size—a skinny teenager in soiled painter’s pants and worn rock shoes yelled up, “Yo, bozo! You can’t use those holds.”
“What holds?” I asked, flattening against the rock.
“The one’s you’re standing on,” he said. I looked down at the quarter inch ledge that the toes of my stiff-shanked Super Guide’s nibbled on.
“Why?” I asked.
“They make that route too easy, so we don’t use them.”
Though I knew zip about climbing protocol, I did know about gravity. Besides, I outweighed the shaggy-haired kid by fifty pounds.
“Screw you,” I said, “I like it easy.”
He looked at me like I’d wet myself in public then did a spider imitation up the overhanging limestone crag opposite me.
“Mouthy little prick,” I thought, as I plodded up the slab, careful now not to use the most obvious holds. Later, a bunch of us car-pooled to a bar in town. John and I got into a heated discussion about the lesser-known works of Herman Hesse. I’d liked him ever since.
Three days after he died, I stood alone in a crematorium viewing room. I wasn’t sure how to behave. I’d seen dead people before but they’d always been covered with make up, dressed up in good clothes, and laid out in an expensive silk-lined box. John’s waxy-pale body lay naked on a cold slab of stainless steel.
A thin saffron-colored cloth covered his lower half. Mary, his widow, wanted no funeral parlor pretensions; we were to see him as he was—broken and bruised, chest ripped open in a gaping-V during the autopsy, crudely sewn up with what looked like thick, brown butcher’s string. Perhaps she thought this would help her grasp the finality she needed. I wondered if she just wanted the rest of us to feel as badly as she did. I kept about four feet between the steel dolly and me.
As I spoke to what was left of John, and, I hoped, to his spirit, tears stung my eyes. I thought of our late night soul-searching sessions and how he’d goaded me to follow my path with heart.
“You should write up your leadership stuff,” he said one night. “It’s good.”
I laughed and mumbled about needing to be in the right mood.
“Don’t worry about screwing up,” he said, reading my mind. “Practice what you preach. Learn by doing. Just start; it’ll come.”
I picked up a climbing magazine, flipped through it, listening to the fire pop in the wood stove. “Ya think Louise Falls is ready?” I asked.
John laughed and shook his head.
Like me, he read voraciously and braced his arguments with quotes from philosophers. “Believe me!” he declaimed, invoking Nietzsche and waving a water glass of cheap red wine at me, “The secret of reaping the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment from life is to live dangerously!”
I laughed, clinked glasses with him and made a mental note to use the quote in my next seminar. But anxiety gnawed at me. Why, I wondered, when I found it so easy to urge others to follow the path of their own heart, was I so quick to retreat in fear from my own? “It’s different for you,” I said, tossing the magazine on a chair. “You don’t get scared.”
His eyes flared. He set his glass on the milk-crate-and-plank contraption that served his rustic cabin as a coffee table. “I get scared,” he said. He paused, moved the glass to another spot on the table, then moved it back. He spoke so softly I had to lean in until we were almost nose to nose. Tapping his chest in time with each distinctly spat syllable, he said, “Ev-ry-time-I-climb.” He sighed, then added, “But, I never let it stop me.” He drained his glass, set it softly on the table and fixed me with his gaze. “Never!”
I shuddered. Georgia O’Keefe had said the same thing about making art.
When the wine ran out, I crunched home over frost-stiff meadow grass and creeping juniper. A rising moon spilled luminous white light into the oval-shaped opening in the aspen forest that separated our cabins. I stopped, turned a circle. My breath hung motionless in the air.
At home, I searched my notebooks for the O’Keefe quote. Instead, I found this, from Joyce Carol Oates: “One must be pitiless about this matter of ‘mood’ … I have forced myself to begin writing when I’ve been utterly exhausted, when I’ve felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes… and somehow the activity of writing changes everything.”
I shoved the book into a drawer. I was drunk; I needed sleep not inspiration. But, in bed, I fought off dizziness and wondered if John’s climbing was more art than sport. I tried not to think about the lack of art in my own life.
Now, the empty shell of my friend lay on stainless steel in a musty smelling crematorium. I felt anger rise up from behind my sorrow. At God for snuffing out such fierce intensity. At Mary for forcing me, too, to face this terrible finality. Mostly, though, I was just plain pissed at John for dying with so much of his own path untrodden.
“You dumb fuck,” I blurted, waving my arms around like I had an audience. “You really went and did it this time, didn’t you?”
I edged closer and fingered the yellow cloth that covered his lower body. My emotions overwhelmed me. I leaned against the cold, steel table and wept. When the tears stopped, I reached down, brushed a lock of John’s sandy brown hair out of his forever-closed eyes and whispered, “See ya, buddy.”
On the way out, I barely nodded at the family members who stood stiffly in the waiting room. I walked straight out to my car and got in. Gut-wrenching sobs bent me over the steering wheel before I got the door closed.
Driving back to the mountains, I thought about what John’s friendship had meant to me. Trite as it sounds, I knew he’d died with integrity, doing what he loved. If it were me dead, I also knew people could not say the same about me. Integrity, not just courage, had formed the bedrock of John’s power. I let his words reach across the gap between the worlds.
“Live your own truth,” he said to me a week before he died living his. Was I, I asked myself, living my own truth? Did I even know what it was?
As the foothills floated by outside, I thought about what I’d say to the shaken climbing staff at our weekly meeting the next morning. I knew I had to give them—and myself—more than managerial pep talks and quote book platitudes. But what?
Back at the center, I stopped off at the office to pick up my mail and messages. Wayne Perkins, the down-east, summer camp director who’d been brought west to restructure the Rocky Mountain Y, got up from his desk and came out of his office to meet me. Although he’d initially opposed the climbing school, he’d become more supportive after he’d gotten to know John and Mary. As he came around the reception counter toward me, he looked like a little kid whose dog had been run over. After a few mumbled words of commiseration, he asked, “What’ll you do now? Will you all quit climbing? Will you close down the school?”
I was stunned. The school had been John’s dream. Closing it would be an act of sacrilege. I stared at Wayne, not knowing how to answer this stranger’s well-meaning questions. Then, not realizing I’d made a decision, I heard myself say, “No one’s gonna quit anything, Wayne. In fact, I’d like to take next week off so I can sign up for the Complete Ice course that John and James were scheduled to teach.”
Wayne’s eyebrows twitched. He hated to make quick decisions. As we stared at each other over the office counter, the look on his face appeared to be made up of a cross between incredulity and admiration. He let out a deep breath then nodded his head up then down, just once. “Okay,” he said.
“Thanks, Wayne,” I said, then headed back to my cabin.
“There are three basics rules in ice climbing,” James Blench told us on Day One. “First, keep your heels down. Second, make sure your tools are securely placed. And, third, keep your heels down!”
We started at The Junkyard, a gentle ice flow tucked into a ravine just east of the Banff Park boundary. Five men and one woman strapped crampons—stainless-steel plates with eight sharp metal points facing down, two facing forward—on to plastic mountaineering boots. Then, mimicking his exaggerated foot-lifting steps, we waddled across a flat slab of ice, following behind James like newly imprinted ducklings.
When we could walk on the flats without tripping, he handed out ice tools, two-foot long hammers, with down-curving steel picks shaped like a pterodactyl’s beak. Each tool weighs three pounds and is swung by reaching back behind your head, then up and into the ice, like you’re hammering or chopping.
To coordinate crampons and tools we pounded in our tools then front-pointed a few feet up on steeper ice. We worked back and forth practicing tool placement and front pointing.
Roped climbing started on short, easy slopes about as steep as stairs. Beyond seventy, each additional degree ups the climbing difficulty exponentially. Seventy-five seems vertical. Eighty feels like you’re leaning back. We started with fifty to seventy degree routes. By noon of Day Two we were getting cocky. "Piece of cake," I told myself.
For lunch we wolfed tuna sandwiches and chattered like kids at camp while James drove us east along the Trans-Canada highway. A half-hour tramp up Grotto Canyon brought us to twin, thirty-foot icicles—His and Hers—formed as water seeped out of cracks in the striated, rusty-yellow limestone wall. Almost overhanging, this drip was steeper than anything we’d seen.
Quiet now, we shuffled from foot to foot while James soloed up His and snapped a carabiner—a D-shaped metal ring with a spring-loaded gate through which to pass a rope—into a steel bolt fixed into the wall above the waterfall. He clipped the rope, wrapped both lengths around himself and lowered down. His thin lips slid back into a sly grin. “Who wants a go?” he said. “Eric?”
Eric, 29, was strong, a rock climber from back East who’d already perfected the taciturn, tight-lipped ways of experienced mountaineers. He tied into the rope, nodded at his belayer, then patiently worked his way up the icicle. He struggled only once at a small bulge just before the top. He touched the carabiner with his tool, fought off a smile, then leaned back on the rope and let his belayer lower him off.
Next up, Carmen, 36. What she gave way in strength she made up for in enthusiasm. But the bulge proved too much. She lowered off.
Fit and eager to show his stuff, Larry, 25, stormed up the first ten feet, then fatigued as the ice steepened. Trying to force his way over the little bulge, he flailed at the ice, fell. He tried again, fell. Then—chugging like the little train who thought he could—he powered his way to the top. Exhausted, he let himself be lowered off.
“All right!” said James. “Who’s next?”
My gut churned, but not wanting to go last, I said, “Me.”
I swallowed hard as I tied in. James had stressed that falls on steep ice could be bad. I had visions of a spiral fracture, a crampon biting into ice and my leg twisting around it. Worse, I feared not making the top.
Afternoon sun had warmed the ice. My tools sank into the bright, blue softness with reassuring “thwocks.” Ten feet up, the ice reared back to near vertical. I forced myself up to just below the “little” bulge that now seemed like an insurmountable overhang. My forearms cramped. My calves trembled. My shoulders felt like hot steel spikes had been driven into them. I risked a glance down, hoping for James’s blessing to lower off, but he just smiled and shouted, “Almost there!”
“There” was the carabiner at the top through which my rope passed before it headed down to my belayer who would stop me if I fell. Or, when? Clinging to the icicle, I rested my helmet against its wrinkled surface and tried to remember why I was there. After a long pause, I reached past the pain and fear and planted an axe. Then another. I shuffled my front points a few inches up the icicle. I rested for three or four breaths, then planted my tools and shuffled my feet again. I don’t know how many times I did this, but I got a rhythm going and, suddenly, there was nothing above me but rock—and the D-ring. I was there!
Stunned, I hung from the rope to catch my breath.
“Good climbing!” James yelled. “Want to lower off?”
“No,” I said, showboating now, “I’ll downclimb it.”
At the base, James tried to shake my hand, but I couldn’t drop my tools. My fingers were rigid claws, cramped so tightly to the shafts he had to pry them off one by one. Spent, yet relieved, I sat on my pack and watched the others while I massaged feeling back into my fingers. Neither Randy, 28, nor Allen, 30, made it above the bulge. I grinned. I can do this.
I strutted through the next two days.
Day Three we learned to build the belay systems that hold the rope and hopefully the climbers to the mountain. The belayer attaches self and rope to an anchor at the base then runs the rope through an arresting device attached to his harness. The leader ties into the other end of the rope then starts to climb. A dozen feet up, he places an ice screw into the ice then clips the rope into a carabiner attached to it.
Placing screws is a kind of one-handed ballet in which you perch on front points and hang from one tool while you pound or screw a hollow, foot-long titanium tube into the almost-vertical ice. Then, still hanging, you clip a carabiner into the screw’s eye-hole, attach the nylon sling you’ve been holding in your teeth to that carabiner, attach another ‘biner to the other end of the sling, then clip your rope into the second ‘biner—all while heavily gloved, with your other tool dangling from your wrist. Drop anything and it pings off down the ice into eternity.
At the end of a rope length (+/-150 feet) the leader builds a new anchor, pulls up the slack, and then signals the second to climb. The second “cleans” the route by removing all the gear and lugging it up to the leader. Leaders take the most risk. When a leader climbs above an ice screw, he risks falling as far past that screw as he has climbed above it. Assuming the screw holds, that is. If it pulls or breaks, well… lead climbers try extremely hard not to fall.
Day Four dawned, a free gift from the universe. Under the cloudless, curved bowl of a cerulean sky, we headed for our first multi-pitch climb. At the base of Cascade Falls, a smooth, undulating slab suddenly rears up into a fierce pillar of frozen kinetic energy. The morning sun scattered a prismatic spray of colour across its crystal blue surface. I trembled in awe and anticipation, excited and wildly happy just to be in such a fiercely beautiful place.
The climb went without a hitch, except for when I punched an eighteen-inch square hole through the ice and discovered that only two inches separated me from a torrent of rushing water. I scrambled to the edge where the ice thickened and pushed on. At the top, Eric lifted his water bottle in a toast, “To success.”
“Nothin’ to it,” I said, touching his bottle with mine.
Albi, our guide, shook his head and chuckled. “We’re not done yet, lads,” he said in his gruff British brogue. “More die going down than going up.”
4: The BIg Climb
Later that night, my confidence bubble shattered when James flashed a slide of our final objective on the screen. Smeared savagely across the black flank of Cirrus Mountain, the Weeping Wall is a 300-foot-wide slab of rough, drip-formed ice that soars a thousand vertical feet in two steep tiers. Our goal—the bottom tier, 450 feet of sustained Grade 4 or 5 ice—made Cascade look like a gentle, snow-covered staircase. I swallowed hard trying to get moisture into my mouth. My breath came in short, shallow gasps.
“No way,” I wailed to myself, “that’s too big. I can’t climb that. I won’t.”
After the briefing, I stumbled off to bed, but couldn’t sleep. Visions of vertical ice walls loomed over me. My mind spun trying to figure an honorable way out of what I now thought was an insane commitment. The only other time I remember being so terrified was the first day of kindergarten when my mother left me with twenty strange kids and a huge madwoman who tried to make me dance in front of those jeering strangers. Thirty-seven years later I wanted to do what I’d done then—sneak out and run home.
Dawn was still two hours away when I went to breakfast. I forced tasteless granola into my mouth and chewed mechanically. I nodded at Eric, asked how he’d slept. He squeezed his bushy eyebrows together and spat, “Didn’t.” That helped, but I still prayed for a last minute phone call from the governor.
But there was to be no reprieve. After breakfast, I listened numbly as James went over last minute instructions. When he’d finished, I clambered into the dark cave of the van and claimed the back seat. The doors slammed and we started away. Strangely, as I tried to make myself comfortable on the brittle vinyl seat—no choice now but to surrender to my fate—I felt my fear dissolve. A spark of excitement began to glow in its place. Surprised, yet relaxed, I drifted off and slept until we parked below Cirrus Mountain.
The Weeping Wall rose so steeply that, when I looked up at it, my helmet dug painfully into the back of my neck. The urge to run gripped me, but, when James pointed out our routes, they looked almost manageable. One team would climb Sniveling Gully. Another would try the moderate left-hand edge of the wall. Farther to the right though, where our route lay, the ice steepened so quickly the first bulge hid most of it. “Jeez-us!” Eric muttered. I cinched my helmet strap a couple of notches tighter.
We hefted our bulky, gear-stuffed packs and crunched up a frozen creek-bed through a resin-scented alpine fir forest. No one talked, but as a weak dawn worked its way through the overcast, my spirits edged upward.
James led. I belayed. Eric sat on his pack and watched. My terror had transformed into a stomach-tingling urge to get on with it. Still, when it was my turn to start up the wall, my hands shook so badly I had trouble picking up my tools. Once again, I swallowed hard, trying to get moisture into my mouth.
Steeper than Cascade but not as strenuous as the icicle I’d climbed in Grotto Canyon, the first pitch went slowly, but without great difficulty. I joined James on the belay stance, then brought Eric up. We leaned back on our anchor slings and chatted until James pointed out that we were running late.
A third of the way up the second pitch I reached too high, forced myself up on tip toes and broke the first and third of James’s rules. My front points popped out and down I plunged, like a dropped rock.
After the fall, it took a while to pull myself together, but as I turned slow circles on the rope, the shock gradually wore off. My deep breathing had smoothed the adrenaline spike into the mellow but dangerous drift of noradrenalin suppression.
Now, shivering, limbs stiff, worried it was getting late, I tried again to think of John. This time I saw see his fierce eyes flash and imagined him saying something like, “Paul Tillich claims we become truly human only at the moment of decision.”
Below, the tourist bus pulled out, headed no doubt for happy hour at some fancy hotel bar. I imagined the slow burn of single malt in my belly.
Climb? Or, go home?
As pondered my dilemma, I heard a low, croaking squawk and turned toward it. A huge raven, coal black against the snow below, floated lazy circles on a rising thermal, its wing tips flared like outstretched fingers. As the ebony trickster drifted past a few feet from where I hung, I breathed in the sweet balm of alpine fir in its wake.
And, that quickly my mood shifted.
I realized that there was no way I’d trade places with the tourists. I was right where I wanted to be. The bands of tension cinching my chest fell away. A frisson of excitement rippled up my spine. I heard my own clear voice echo John’s advice. Just start. I drove my tool into the ice, dug my spare tool out of its holster on the back of my harness, then started up to retrieve my errant mitten. Behind me the clouds lifted. Flashes of blue and hints of green phosphorescence flickered in the ice.
The rest of that pitch and the next went well. But Eric and I climbed so slowly that, by the time I hauled myself onto the eighteen-inch wide, snow-covered ledge at the top of the route, dark shadows had sucked most of the light out of the day. To get off the mountain, we still had to get Eric up, cross a hundred feet of down-sloping ledge, and make three one hundred and fifty-foot rappels down Sniveling Gully. Albi’s caution about descending resounded in my mind.
James was calm, but I could see in the set of his jaw that our situation was serious. “I’ll belay Eric,” he said, “You clip into this rope then work your way to the gully and set up a belay stance.”
“OK,” I said and flicked on my headlamp.
At the top of the gully, I clipped a purple sling into a fixed bolt that held the deteriorating remains of previous climbers’ rappel systems. Wondering if those systems had held, I set up my own. When James pronounced it safe, I backed over the edge and dropped into the gloom. I felt totally alone. A hundred and fifty feet down, I set up a new anchor while Eric descended. James came last and pulled the rope down. Then we did it again.
The gully was dead dark as I descended to the last stance. The others called up to us, but the pinpricks of their headlamps provided neither light nor solace. “We’re fine,” I shouted down. But, shivering from cold and nerves I took too long to set up the final anchor. “Hurry,” Eric nagged.
When James dropped out of the dark tunnel above us, I was surprised to see a full-faced grin had replaced his tight-jawed grimace. “Hey guys!” he said, “One more rap and we’re on the ground.” His voice cracked as he hugged us, “You guys did great today. Thanks for the climb.”
I swallowed, wiped snot off my nose and forced out a feeble, “Thank you.” Then I was on the rope, descending into the darkness. A tear froze on my cheek.
When I reached the bottom, the rest of the crew stood forty feet below the mouth of the gully, clapping and cheering wildly. I unclipped from the rope, loosened my helmet strap, and yelled up to James that I was secure.
As I started down the slope toward my waiting friends, I was almost overcome with pride. My ice axes lay holstered like long-barreled Colts on either side of my harness. My crampons crunched solidly into the ice. My helmet, strap undone now, sat loosely on my head. Spot-lit by headlamps and flashlights, I felt like one of the gunfighters strolling back from the OK Corral.
As I strode out of the gully, the moonlit bulk of the Wall loomed above me. I paused to let what I’d done sink in. I climbed the Weeping Wall. I actually did it! That I might someday own my own heart now seemed less remote. Swelling with self-satisfaction, barely able to keep from blubbering with joy, I swaggered down the last few feet to the others.
My friends crowded round, shook my hand, slapped my back, and handed me tea. I sucked up their praise and warmed my hands on the hot metal mug. Then I sat on my pack, content to savor the glow of triumph and wait for the others.
As I unstrapped my crampons, the thrill of victory took on more reasonable proportions. I was proud that I’d pushed myself, happy that I’d tested my self-imposed limits, and knew that I would do so again. But, sitting there, sipping my tea, I realized that climbing would not be my arena for living dangerously. John’s truth was not my truth. However, what completing the climb had helped me realize was that, like the poet Walt Whitman, I too was “large;” I too could “contain multitudes.” Living with my own contradictions, I thought, would be easier from here on out.
Tired, deeply satisfied, and feeling a touch melancholic, I leaned back against a tree trunk and began to mentally outline the leadership piece I’d been so afraid to tackle. As I did, I caught a whiff of cheap Italian red and heard a familiar voice whisper, “All-right, buddy! Way to go!”
When the others arrived, we gathered up our gear then walked stiffly but contentedly down through the sweet-smelling forest to the van. I took a last look up at the route. Although, in the deepening gloom, it was not possible to make out much of it, the whole of it shone fiercely in my mind.
On the drive home, I grabbed the back seat again. While others chattered on about their day or dropped off to sleep, I sat alone and let my mind roam back to that moment when I was hanging from the rope and the raven floated past me, the moment I’d decided to go big. I couldn’t help wondering how the rest of my life would unfold if I lived it with the intensity and focus I’d put into the past week.
As the ghostly, moonlit ridge and serrated peaks of the mountain that killed John floated by outside my window, another of his aphorisms came clear to me. “The only failure,” he’d tried to tell me, “is not to try.”
I pressed my face to the cold window glass, and tried to imagine the challenges I'd have to face if was serious about becoming a writer.
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