He stared blankly at the rope inching like a snake through the leaves at his feet. His neck ached from looking up and he was sick to his stomach. His palms were actually sweating.
He was having a heart attack! Certainly that was a good enough reason to back out. But at 14 years old, it was hardly likely.
Both bored and frightened, he became gratefully engrossed in the insect life teeming on the tree beside him. The endless waves of footsteps marking the journey of a centipede, the sinister loping of spiders, all seemed to hold some great meaning. About an abandoned crumb from some ancient sandwich, a swarming mass of ants became a great black sponge absorbing his thoughts.
Suddenly the rope snapped taut at his waist. Words dropped to him like falling bodies.
“FRANK! YOU’RE ON BELAY!”
“CLIMBING!” Did he say that? What had he gotten himself into? And all because he was too chicken to fight Jack Murphy.
Frankie took a deep breath, flexed his fingers, and gave the earth one last loving look.
Everybody had heard him agree to meet Murphy after school.
And everybody knew he didn’t show.
Frankie became acutely aware of the distinct odors of
things: the leaves, the rock, the rope, as if he were noticing his sense of smell for the first time.
It was at the Wednesday night scout meeting that he’d seen his shot at redemption when Mr. G, in classic Mr. G attire: scout shirt tucked into jogging pants, asked if anyone wanted to go climbing with him and his daughter Mary. He periodically asked the question. Nobody ever did. Who was that crazy? But as he sized up Mary, her blue eyes and matching ribbons like accusations against his manhood, he realized this was the only way he could save himself. Besides, Saturday was two full days off…anything might happen.
The sun-dappled patterns of leaves swaying on the cliff made him dizzy, like the whole world was tilting off kilter.
Before he realized it he was ten feet off the ground. A strange thrill surged through him as his fingers and toes
searched out tiny grooves and imperfections in the rock. He watched his hands as if they were not his own…searching, hesitating, gaining certainty and moving on.
The few feet of rock in front of his nose became the world. It never occurred to him to look down. There was only up. Only handholds and footholds and that few feet of bare rock. Each move was like a math problem, absorbing and without physical consequence. “This will never hold me…oh, it did, move on to the next.”
About twenty feet up Frankie came to the first piece of protection placed by Mr. G. A metal wedge with a wire hanger called a chock, it was jammed into a v-shaped crack. A day-glow-green, nylon sling was clipped from the wire to the rope by carabiners.
“You’ll clean the first pitch.” Frankie could see Mr. G in the church basement after the meeting, one tail of his scout shirt now dangling absurdly over his jogging pants. “Mary will go second and back clip her rope through the protection. The next pitch Mary will clean and you can belay.” Mary had smiled at him each time her name was mentioned. Her teeth were unbelievably straight and the bridge of freckles across her nose made the word “cute” bob in his mind like a beach ball you are trying to push under water. There was still time to back out. In fact, right now after having volunteered, it was just possible
no one would even know he hadn’t gone through with it. Frankie remained silent, nodding at Mr. G’s words.
He studied the piece for a moment carefully checking his hand and footholds before letting go with one hand to tug upward on the sling.
It slid out easily and Frankie clipped it to his harness as nonchalantly as though he’d been climbing for years.
A few feet up he pulled back the spring loaded levers of a a mechanical camming device known as a Friend, and watched it fall into his hands. His cockiness grew. He began humming “Stairway to Heaven,” visions of Everest taking shape in his head.
He was pure motion. A wave moving across sand, gliding over hand and footholds as smoothly as the shadows of the swaying trees.
Suddenly he couldn’t move. His first thought was that his shirt was caught. He tried tugging harder but this only made him teeter on the verge of coming off. He began to panic, think absurd thoughts; some kind of animal had him, a bear trap, a booby trap. Finally he summoned the presence to look down. He had somehow climbed past a piece of protection. He was bound to the rock by a three foot loop of pink nylon.
He pulled himself together and checked his footing. Slowly he began to reach down between his legs twisting grotesquely in the effort to stay on the rock, his fingers stretching, trembling. It…was…just…out…of…reach. Fingers…just…touching…it, the nylon tickling the tips. There! He had it! Just pull…just pull…Yank…”Ow!!!” It was in solid. Like trying to haul up a truck.
Frankie tugged, grunted, and twisted. He had to switch hands with each try. Sweat poured off of him and his fingertips ached. It was no use. Soon he would be unable to hang on. He couldn’t get a rest. His feet were almost level with his hands and his fingers were turning to rubber. The rope tugging at his waist would not let him stand up straight.
There was nothing left to do but climb down to get below it. But going up was one thing; down, quite another. What he glided past on his way up he now gave back in
agonizing inches, all the time marveling at what he had trusted his feet to. Every move was awkward. While in motion he was convinced nothing would hold him. When he found a good hold, he hated to give it up.
The rope was tight, nagging at his waist. He knew the tighter the rope the shorter the fall, but each time it jerked at him, stopping his progress, his nerves were pulled equally tight. When he yelled for slack it took all his might to make his voice more than a mouse-like whimper.
After what might have been days, Frankie descended the
necessary three or four feet, and stood squarely in front of the defiant piece. The steepness of the rock thrust tiny pink strands of frayed nylon into his face, tickling his nostrils. It was another wedge-shaped chock, but because of all the twisting and tugging it had set tight in the crack. Frankie unclipped the nut tool from his harness, a hooked metal device shaped like a shelving bracket with holes. He began jabbing and thrusting at
the chock in a curious parody of fencing. Soon he was lost once more in concentration, and after a few moments of battle, the chock surrendered. Frankie clipped it like a scalp to his harness, and started up again.
The victory, following so closely on the heels of panic, fueled his adrenaline. He was once more on cruise control, working up and right into a crevice with large holds on both sides, a natural ladder.
He gained height quickly, but shielded in the gully he was unaware of the growing proportions of the view.
At the top of the chute Frankie was greeted by a smiling Mr. G, who sat tethered to a tree on a ledge about three feet wide. Next to him was Mary, her legs crossed, grinning widely. She had on a rust-colored bandanna from which her tangled curls spilled like foaming root beer.
Beyond her the valley exploded in a dizzying panorama.
Frankie grabbed instinctively at the tree. Panic rose from an icy tingle in his toes to a roaring avalanche of fear engulfing his body and erasing all reason.
It was his turn to belay and climb second. In a dream he heard Mr. G’s instructions as detached sounds with no meaning, saw the rope threading through the braking device at his waist.
“Climb.” The voice was someone else’s, the hands feeding rope not his own.
He belayed for an eternity of fear. Mary was talking. He responded, but understood nothing of what was said. He stared at the rock. Marbled bands of orange and black. White and gray stripes. He felt the great weight of geologic time, of gravity…Millions of tons of rock above and below him…every ounce of it straining against…against what? What was holding it up?…Nothing…Then…
“You’re on belay! Climb when ready!” Finally.
Frankie raced up the second pitch like the hundred yard dash, hardly pausing to tear the protection out. He didn’t dare look anywhere but those few feet of rock before his face. Driven by fear, it didn’t occur to him, nor would it matter if it had, that going more slowly was safer.
He was panting when he reached the belay ledge and shrugged, smiling weakly when Mr. G said, “You didn’t have to run.”
Then Frankie did what he feared most. Looked around. His heart dropped the 200 feet down the cliff-face as he realized that, not only was this ledge half the size of the last and twice as high, but there wasn’t even a wall separating them from the abyss.
There he sat, tied to a tree…a small tree…a very small tree…feet dangling into space two hundred feet from the ground. Below the tiny specks that were a flock of swans disturbed the glassy stillness of a miniature lake, set like a mirror in the hills. Above, three vultures were circling. “Fitting,” he thought.
“That was fun!” Mary climbed onto the ledge. The sounds she made were unearthly, void of meaning.
“It’s beautiful up here.” She giggled, kicking her feet over the edge as though she were sitting on the hood of a car.
The world was a giant hole there was no escape from falling into. Frankie desperately wanted to grab onto something, but there was nothing…nothing but Mary chattering like a strange bird at home in its high perch.
“Oh look, that’s where I live, over there, in one of those tiny dots.” His mind erased by a numbing, glassy fear, Frankie unconsciously obeyed. He could see the town ten miles off in the distance. It had been reduced to a meaningless patchwork beyond which he could see the curve of the earth.
Mary readied her equipment with the swift ease of tying shoes, and Frankie was glad it was her turn to belay. He never looked at Mr. G. as he made his way up a crack and around a corner, but hung on white-knuckled to his tiny perch, refusing to even think about what lay ahead.
Then the world began to shake. At first he thought it was his own trembling, but it grew unmistakably till the ledge hummed like the vibrating strings of a guitar. “Earthquake!” The word was huge, filling him and blotting out everything. Blind with fear, he barely registered three great shapes taking form in the void before him. They filled the valley with a massive presence, moving with the deliberate, lumbering slowness of planets turning. Their size was magnified by their inappropriateness –
three military transport planes flying in Vee formation.
Frankie didn’t know if he was going to puke or scream. Mary was shouting something, her voice the whine of a mosquito in a hurricane. Above, Mr. G. emerged from behind the blocky corner and was laughing and pointing at the planes. The roar grew till he couldn’t distinguish the buzz in his chest from the vibration of the mountain. Then quite suddenly, his fear lifted as if it were a shirt he had pulled over his head and tossed away.
The sky was unbelievably blue, the valley a quilt of glowing fall colors. The dizzying height became a painted background across which the planes glided with uncanny grace. There was something smooth and silent in their passage despite their noise, and Frankie marvelled that something so big did not simply drop out of the sky.
“Were you scared?” Mary’s voice reached him as the noise subsided. She was giggling, and Frankie noticed her eyes were the clear blue of the sky.
“A little.” He was laughing himself, both at the double meaning of this exchange, and at the uncontrollable thrill the fear had left in its place.
“They must be practicing how to fly below radar.” Frankie pointed off in the direction of the planes, noting to himself how calmly he let go of the rock, trusting himself to the equipment. He had no idea what he was talking about and was stunned by the assurance he sensed in his own voice. His hands felt good, fingers gritty and tingling from the touch of the rock. There was something almost mystical about looking out at the world from this
In the valley the swans rose from the lake like a single being. Above, the vultures were still circling. The air tasted like a fresh drink of water. And Frankie, strangely at home on this tiny ledge, eyed the next pitch, already working out the moves that would carry him through the crack and around the corner.