“Can you get your foot onto that ledge? It’s by your knee, or somewhere around there…” he trails off. I look down, slowly—carefully. Ok. There is a little cut in the rock, although I’d say calling it a ledge is a bit optimistic. Below, beyond the ledge, is a big twist of cliff, a rush of rock to the ground. I look up. Further to go than I’ve gone, which isn’t saying much—I’ve been struggling up 30 or 40 feet for what feels like forever. A sheer flake moves up to where Darren is above me, hanging from the anchor, above a real ledge, spotted with lichen and water stains. Even higher above him, what he’ll go on to climb, is a dark red rock, undulating into the top of the cliff band. The sky is white, we haven’t been able to escape the omnipresent Portland cloud cover, but still, we’re outside. Darren is silhouetted against the sky from where I’m looking up, framed in a kind of halo of maple leaves where the branches fan out at the top of the tree—that’s beautiful, I think for a minute, before turning back to my somewhat desperate situation. Not every day is like this—there have been a lot of climbs that I feel strong, days when I’m able to move confidently up the wall. Holds come easy, my feet stick and I feel animal in my ability to master something so strong. Those are the climbs where there’s nothing in my head but the rock, my body and movement—I think of nothing. That’s remarkable for me, that stillness, a peace that comes from uniting your mind and your muscle into one fluid motion. Those are the days that body doesn’t equate burden, that I don’t think so wistfully about what it would be like to be unconfined by this awkward human form we’re saddled with. Those are the days when the rock wall is a solace, a source of comfort, always a new challenge but at the same time, an old friend.
This day was not like that, but as with most experiences that prove to be trying, it, at the very least, made me appreciate how perfect it is when all those pieces do align and you have a good climbing day. When I got off work and hopped in Darren’s car, and we passed all those commuters who weren’t headed outside, I was downright smug in my conviction that we were invincible and strong and connected to a world that all these people on the highway couldn’t touch.
Later, when I’m panic breathing on the rock—you know, that shattered kind of breath that comes when you’re experiencing real fear—clinging to the edge of the wall, too afraid to let go but too afraid to move, I hated myself, the rock, the mosquitoes that were unbelievably thick this high up, this route, the rock again, my skin for being so soft, the commuters, all of it. Nothing positive and here’s the most maddening thing—the rock doesn’t care. It’s impassive. Give me something I want to scream, give me anything! I’ve kicked and punched, thrown a goddamn fit, and still—nothing. Like a patient parent, it’s there—silent, still—until I quiet down and keep moving, figure it out. I do that less now. Angry isn’t useful, but you’ll have to forgive me. It was a trying day.
Finally, through a combination of pulley system, hauling, some tears and maybe even a little climbing, I get to the anchor where Darren is and get hooked up. And then I’m laughing, and that’s the thing that always makes it worth it. That euphoria at the top, that feeling of incredulity that you’re up there, looking down on the trees—is worth it. Even if the view is just across the river to the development that they built on the Washington side, it still is incredible that you’re seeing it from here—from this rock face, clipped in impossibly high, where humans maybe weren’t meant to be.
Darren keeps going up, working on leading a project he hasn’t quite made it up yet. To me, there aren’t very many things as cool as watching him climb, moving across the rock in a delicate dance of brute force and incredible balance. He really is animal, he really does move inhumanly when he gets on things like this. While I’m there, my back up against a big round of rock and my feet planted firmly onto a real ledge, I see a tiny ant move across the face of the rock I’m against. I wonder where he came from, and if he knows where he is—he and I, tiny against all this geography, both looking over the edge. Only maybe just one of us has the perspective to appreciate it. The planes are taking off over the river, and I watch a couple float through the clouds—another impossible feat. Darren takes a fall and I swing over to the other side of the ledge, pulled by his weight, but he’s okay and so am I. He gets to the top, he’s proud, he beat that rock better than I did, I’ll tell you what.
When we’re done, back on the ground, it’s almost as if it didn’t happen at all—all that sweat and struggle got left up back on the rock, left back up in that world that only we can get to. Me, and D, and the view have that world of challenge that no one and nothing else can touch. But then again, it happened. I can close my eyes and feel it now, that feeling at the top, the same way I can close my eyes and feel the wind on top of a ridge above the John Day River or I can feel running in the heat of New Orleans. It’s all there for me, all mine, all there forever.