Four months after I learned to climb at Garden of the Gods, I was hanging onto a vertical slice of granite called the Fin with my fingertips and the toes of my climbing shoes. I was about twenty-five feet off the ground, forty feet from the top, on a route called the Edge of Time. If I slid over to my right and peered around the rock, I would have a beautiful view of the Diamond on the east face of Longs Peak, five miles away as the crow flies. I couldn’t see that view, however, because I was about to fall.
I was a few feet above the first bolt on the route, climbing above my ability. In addition, I was not mentally prepared to try this route, a sandbagged 5.9 climb in an area where I’d never climbed before. The handholds and footholds I relied on were tiny, sloped, barely helpful nubs sticking out of the rock. The next move I made could send me peeling off the wall. No one could do anything to help me.
I went for it, upsetting the delicate balance of friction I had with my left hand and my two feet. I fell, mostly straight down, crashing through a pine tree, bashing my elbow on the rock. My throat sucked in a scream as I flew free.
Nick tried to hold the rope and prevent me from hitting the ground, but he was sucked into the wall himself, and I fell a couple more feet.
Then I stopped falling, with my heels about six inches off the ground. Nick and I ended up right next to each other, two guys coursing adrenaline, looking at a wall, both scared and relieved.
“Holy shit,” he said after a second.
My elbow was bleeding, staining my long-sleeve shirt. My pants were ripped where a tree branch caught them and took a three-inch long gash out of my ass cheek. Both stung. But I didn’t hit the ground.
We talked about what happened and decided Nick should try to lead the rest of the route, since the first bolt was already clipped. I anchored myself to a small tree, and he roped up and started climbing, making it past the tough part where I’d peeled off.
About fifty feet off the ground, almost at the fourth bolt, he started to get fatigued, badly, to the point where he didn’t think he could hang on. I told him to start climbing down, because he was easily eight feet above the third bolt, which meant if he fell, he’d fall sixteen feet before the rope stopped him. He tried to downclimb and got almost four feet closer to the third bolt before he sailed off the rock in an arc, away and to the left, slamming into the wall with his hip as the rope caught him and stopped his descent.
I could see that this was the most scared Nick had been in his entire life. For a second, he thought he was going to die. Neither Nick nor I knew how to properly fall while climbing.
I lowered him down to the ground, shaken. Then I gave the route one more shot, not thinking I’d make it very far. I made it past the spot where I’d fallen, then past the second and third bolts, when I really started to panic. I was easily forty feet off the ground. I had no reason to believe that every part of the system wouldn’t work—the rope, my harness, the bolts, the quickdraws holding the rope to the bolts, Nick and his belay, and the anchor holding Nick to the tree—but I was still hyperventilating. Shit shit shit.
The fifth bolt was a piton, hammered into the rock God knows how many years ago, and what, about a fifty-fifty chance it was worth a shit and would actually hold a fall or rip out of the rock and let me free-fall another thirty feet? Looks solid. I guess it looks solid. I don’t really know.
I slowly crept up the wall. The climbing wasn’t hard, just high and airy. I tried to breathe deep, yoga style. I clipped the piton and took a deep breath. Twelve more feet to the top.
Easy climbing again, but still frightening. I slowly made moves, shifting my feet to the next hold only when completely sure I could make it. A fall from there would only drop me ten or fifteen feet, but it would still be fifty feet off the ground. If the piton actually held the weight of the fall, that is. It could be a thirty-footer if it didn’t.
At the top, I clipped in to the rappel bolts, and my butt unclenched. “I’m off,” I yelled down to Nick. I ran the rope through the rappel bolts, and he lowered me to the ground. My heart glowed with adrenaline, and I laughed.
There is nothing else when you’re climbing. There isn’t room for the mind to wander. No bills, no angry boss, no girlfriend, no debt, no depression, no heartbreak, no expectations, no questioning your life choices or career, no success and no failure; there is just staying on that rock and concentrating on safe, upward movement.
On the rock, I’m still an addict, but I don’t crave a beer or a cigarette, not even at the top. I want to push myself to the top, then back down, then climb more—a tougher route, a tougher one, until my calves cramp up and my fingers are too weak to tug on my shoelaces.
This was it.
“Be careful,” my mother always says when I mention climbing. She never said that before I went on a drinking binge. Is it more foolish to risk your life or risk wasting your life?