I blink and it’s morning.
My shoulder hurts so I roll over onto my other side.
I blink again and the sun has risen higher in the sky. I’m on my back. I look over to see Mike with his puffy jacket covering his face.
I pull the borrowed sleeping bag over my eyes. Seconds pass. I feel the sun rays against my finger tips.
My body has begun to wake up. The pain in my shoulder is too much to bear lying down. I feel hungover but I haven’t had anything to drink in months.
“Good morning.” I mumble as I roll over on the cold hard ledge and lay my head against Mikes shoulder. The familiar softness contrasting the unforgiving granite against my side.
“How did you sleep?” I ask to his armpit.
We are waking up to the 3rd morning on our 3 day ascent of the West Face of the Leaning Tower in Yosemite. We got to our ledge last night around 1 in the morning and passed out almost immediately. Exhaustion and the darkness didn’t allow for us to properly appreciate the view from the top of Leaning Tower, and as I rub away the sleep from my eyes with the heal of my hands I begin to take it all in.
We’re sitting on a ledge about as wide as your average honda civic. One side of us is an angled granite slab that doubles as a back rest, which we were currently laying at the base of. Years ago someone had bolted a slab of granite upright at our feet so the sleeping space was enclosed a bit more, and above and to our left was a pretty little bush. A few feet in front of me is the edge of the ledge, opening up into a beautiful view of the valley. It felt almost like the layout of someones new age high rise apartment in Vancouver rather than a naturally occurring feature.
Mike grumbles in my ear about a terrible nights sleep, but I’m starting to fully appreciate the view around us. I sit up. Mike groans and rolls over.
3 feet from my toes is the edge of our ledge. In a sense, it’s the edge of the world. I can see the curve of the wall we are on to the left, it peels out in a corner impossibly far down. My brain has to recalibrate the size of what I’m looking at as I see the tops of the trees below. It looks like a painting.
The only other time I’ve seen trees like this has been in a plane during take off. The valley below us stretches out in a mottled green wave towards the horizon. I can see a small waterfall on the opposing valley wall, from here everything looks small.
The swifts are out again. They’ve accompanied us all along our journey up the wall and this morning they continue their darting sweeping dance through the air. Tiny arrows cutting through the wind like blades given life. The sound they make as they curve by the wall is alternatively a soft, ‘swoosh’ and a repetitive ‘cheep-cheep’. It’s the music of the wall.
I desperately need coffee. And water. But first coffee.
As I move slowly around our ledge I can feel the full force of what we accomplished yesterday in my bones. Stiffness has a hold of my joints and muscles like a disease. Stretching as I wake feels heavenly. My shoulders, elbows, wrists and sternum cracking and popping in a wake up call to the rest of my body.
I start coffee on our ledge and rustle Mike.
“Babe, look at where we are.” He groans and blinks himself awake. He grabs his glasses, looks around and smiles at me. “Hell yeah.”
It’s easy for us to get excited about the day, we made it to the top! The achievement is almost better than coffee. Almost.
We give ourselves permission to wake up slowly, the party below us won’t be up here for at least another 4 or 5 hours and since we got in so late we want to enjoy our summit.
Coffee, selfies, oatmeal and protein powder, peeing off the edge of the ledge, laughter, more selfies, more oatmeal and protein powder. It’s close to 10:30 by the time we finally decide to pack up our bags and begin the descent.
Besides, getting to the top is only half the journey, we still have to get down.
Mike slept terribly and he’s moving slowly. I catch him once or twice forgetting to keep himself hooked into our fixed line, and when we finally set up the belay for the last pitch of climbing we really have to talk through the process of how I’m getting him off the ledge before we’re both on the same page.
“Sorry, I’m really spacey. I didn’t sleep well last night.” He tells me.
It’s ok. I feel good about being in charge of something. The night before I broke down and freaked out on the climb. The embarrassment left me feeling like I wasn’t any good at this and he would have been better off without me.
It felt good to be in charge and be able to take control when my partner was struggling.
He carried me when I couldn’t go on, and now it was my turn to carry him.
I’m not very good at aid climbing, but I am good at setting up the rappels. We rappel down the back side of the Leaning Tower, towards a gully on the right side of the feature into the ‘Leaning Tower Chimney’. It’s this epic looking corridor between two massive granite features that could function as a giants staircase. The grey granite slabs shooting up around you, massive ledges each a rope length away, the rappel stations sitting under house sized boulders that millennia before fell into place between the side of the Leaning Tower and the feature adjacent.
I make it to the bottom of the first slab and prepare to set up the next rap. Mike comes down behind me with the haul bag on his back. Fortunately the bag is much lighter now that we’ve drank almost all of our water and it’s manageable to wear.
At least it looks that way to me. I don’t have to wear the haul bag. I’m wearing our second bag on my back with the gear in it, Mike has our sleeping stuff and the remainder of our food and water.
I watch him, a giant green cylinder with a person below it, ambling slowly down the slab towards me.
Definitely a good time to pee.
I sneak away into the bushes, abandoning my pack on the ledge and scramble down the scree covered hillside to find a place to pee. There are palm sized lizards skittering over the shale and loose rock all around me. They keep themselves in the periphery of your vision, doing little pushups and darting back into the shade when you get too close.
I hear Mike yell from somewhere behind me. My heart drops in my chest. I stand up and run back to where he is rappelling. “What! Are you ok?” I’m coming around the corner as I see him standing, unharmed, at the base of the granite slab.
“Yeah, I just forgot to untie the knot in the end of the rope.” He’s frustratedly pulling off the haul bag and trying to find a safe way to scramble up towards the end of the rope. If you forget to untie the knot at the end of your rope, it won’t be able to pass through the anchor chains at the top and you’ll be stranded at the end of your rope on rap.
I look up and see the knot, 25 feet up.
He must be tired.
I’m not much better, but I’m quicker on my feet and the excitement of making it to the top has me full of energy.
“Oh good, I thought something bad had happened.” We’re close enough to the knot that retrieving it won’t be that big of a deal. Mike easily scrambles up, unties the knot and scoots his way back down to the ledge. I start pulling the other end of the rope, and coiling it around my neck so I can carry the rope over to the next rap station.
Rapping down the giant chimney and to the ground is a familiar chore. Unlike the last two days, we’ve done this before. We don’t have to talk much to get things rolling and other than Mikes drowsiness, we make our transitions smoothly.
It’s quiet here. The giant granite cliffs invoke a kind of silence that is normally found in a church. I look around and feel as though I’m in a Tolkien novel. The greens and the grays in dramatic contrast with the blue of the sky and the opaque white clouds in the distance.
The wildflowers are shockingly pink and the abundance of small biting ants signals springtime in the mountains.
My hands are busy threading rope through the chains, tying off my prusik, lowering my aching body, etc. But my mind wanders, turning the last 48 hours over in my head.
Would I do this again?
God I hope so.
Should I do this again?
Emotionally I had not recovered from the day before. The exposure had rattled me so severely that I still twitched unpleasantly when I thought about swinging out into space. As if I could somehow shake off the memory like an unwanted fly.
I watched Mike’s body slowly lowering along the two ropes we had tied together for the final rappels. His orange helmet shrinking in the distance.
Was I a good partner?
The question hurt to think about. Rock climbing is a mentally, physically and emotionally demanding sport. You have to be physically strong to make it through hard moves, but also smart about how you place your feet and how to grab a hold. You need to know how to place good gear and asses dangerous situations on a case by case basis. Flexibility and intuition are equally valuable when climbing, which is why I’ve always felt like I was a good climber even if I wasn’t the strongest person in the room.
Why was this so much harder for me?
Excuses bubbled up to the surface of my self conscious mind. He’s taller which makes placing gear easier, he’s heavier which makes hauling easier, he’s got better aid gear which really helps… But they all just feel like excuses and offer me little comfort.
He’s just good at this, and I’m not.
I felt completely thrashed from the last 48 hours. And what disturbed me the most wasn’t that I was physically exhausted, it was that even though Mike and I had very similar levels of experience in aid climbing, he was leaving today feeling worked but ready to climb again, and I was leaving feeling defeated.
It wasn’t all bad however, the sense of accomplishment and giving it my all was still there. I had climbed my first big wall! Only 1 year after learning how to trad climb, that’s not nothing! Focusing on the accomplishment, the beautiful views, the camaraderie, and turning the systems over in my head again and again made me welcome the challenge of (one day) another big wall.
But when we got to the bottom and looked up at the leaning chunk of orange and white granite, the thought that snuck it’s way into my head was:
You only led 3 of those 10 pitches.
My accomplishment was tinged with shame. I could say I climbed a big wall with Mike, but when ever the words left my mouth they felt like half a lie.
I let these thoughts settle as my feet finally touched solid ground on the last rappel.
We collapsed at the base in the small bivvy clearing we had rested at 48 hours before. I remembered myself standing there just two days earlier. Dropping my bag, so excited to get started that I ran up ahead to check out the ‘catwalk’ like feature and the exposed fourth class climbing we would have to do in order to get to the true base of the climb. I could almost see myself run up the hill and away from the bivvy while Mike pulled off the massive haul bag to go to the bathroom in the bushes. I had been cleaner, more hydrated, less sore and completely unprepared for what I was about to get into.
We sat in the clearing for a while, trying to get our strength back before the final hike back to the road and to the blessed van.
There was a new layer to the exhaustion that hit me as I sat there. I just wanted to sit and stare at the trees. My mind, which normally races along at a healthy clip even when I’m tired, felt blank and unusable. I looked at the leaves on the tree in front of us. They were shiny and green, the blue sky peaking through behind them.
I didn’t want to sleep, I wasn’t that kind of tired, and I didn’t want to talk. I just wanted to stare at the trees blowing gently in the wind.
“We should probably get up and get going.” Mike sighs heavily and starts to stand.
He’s right though. We need water, we’re completely out. And we need more food, we’re also out of that. I want to change my underwear and jump in the river, the cold water cleansing me of the last 48 hours of grime.
We stagger down the mountain, talking little. Mike with the haul bag, me with the rack and rope. My shoes have holes in the sides and every so often a rock stabs the corner of my foot as I navigate through the scree. If the pain is less than the work involved in moving my foot quickly, I just endure.
Walking is hard.
We make it through the boulder fields and the scree slope into the pine tree forrest. The pine needles covering the ground make an excellent cushion for our tired feet. We trudge up to the van like wounded soldiers. I drop my bag on the ground and wrap my arms around the tail light of Mikes white sprinter, so dubbed the ‘Hippie Hauler’ only a few months before.
He doesn’t have the energy to laugh at me, or he doesn’t think I’m funny. I choose to believe the former.
The cold metal on my cheek is a welcome feeling.
Mike and I are hobbling around the van, bags splayed out around us, not sure exactly what to do next.
“I really need to go to the bathroom.” He tells me. The look in his eyes lets me know it is a true emergency.
“Uh. Ok! We’re close to cathedral beach, lets go there!”
We throw our packs into the van, and drive around the loop towards cathedral beach. It feels so. good. to sit in a cushioned chair. The pain of the last two days seems to make me appreciate the smallest comforts with a greater depth. The warmth from the sunlight on my skin feels like a golden gift. The taste of the water from fern spring is the sweetest thing I’ve ever drank. The softness of the car seat feels like an unimaginable luxury.
We roll up to cathedral beach, bodies feeling somehow both sticky and greasy. The Merced river is only a few hundred feet away from us, a clear flat mirror of icy enticing water. Leaves float slowly on the surface down stream.
“We have to jump in.” I tell Mike.
“Oh yeah.” He replies.
A young couple has pulled up next to us in a shiny looking 4 door. As the boyfriend gets out of the car he makes eye contact with me and then instantly drops his iPhone. He fumbles to pick it up and stands up straight. His smile is awkward and polite. He says something to the tall brunette in a purple baseball cap that’s come out of the other side of the car and they walk away quickly, his hand on her waist as they walk towards the bank of the river.
The couple must be near our age, mid to late 20’s, although 4 people could not have looked more different. Her sneakers are white and new, shiny brown hair pulled into a ponytail that swings side to side as she walks. He’s wearing khaki shorts with matching socks and a light blue polo shirt, I can smell his cologne from here. They walk with the semi awkward gait of those unsure of how to be in nature but who are trying really hard to have a good time. They paid the $30 to get into this damn park, they are going to enjoy it.
I admire them and feel slightly guilty for how uncomfortable Mike and I are about to make them.
Sorry about this guys.
Mike and I grab the only towel we have between the two of us and run/limp to the sandy river bank. I can almost see the flies buzzing around our dirty bodies as we pass the lovely couple on their nature walk. More importantly, I can smell the water, I can hear the water, my body is tingling in anticipation.
“Sooo… are we just going to get naked?” He asks me as he pulls up his shirt over his head.
My pants are already off. I pull my yellow tank top and sports bra up over my head as I reply.
I don’t give him time to respond. I turn around, look to the deepest part of the river in front of me and run towards it.
Don’t wade in. Never wade in. Always jump.
I take a deep breath and dive in.
The cold water hits me in the chest like a sledge hammer. Every nerve instantly awake and firing. The cold gets under my fingernails, in my ears, behind my eyes, in my hair...
For a split second all is quiet. I float, suspended underwater, in silent icy space. It’s a different kind of void, and it holds me like a child. The suffering of the day is gone and the only thing left behind is the cold. Two heart beats.
My head breaks through the surface of the water and I gasp for breath. The world suddenly coming back to me with startling clarity.
“Pfffah!” I half shout half gasp as my body reacts to the cold. Now that I’ve done my dip into the Merced I just want to get dry and put on some pants.
“You gotta jump in! Just do it!” I shout shivering at Mike, laughing as I grab the towel and start to pat down my hair. He’s standing knee deep in the water unsure of weather or not to jump.
I turn my head and see the other couple awkwardly walking back to their car. Holding hands with stiff backs, determined to not look back towards the river where Mike and I have decided to take a revealing bath.
“Ahhhhh!” Mike dives head first in. I’m laughing at him. At the scene we’ve created. At just being alive.
“Whooo! Give me that towel! It’s cold!” He walks dripping out of the water towards me. Smiling, I know he can’t see me without his glasses on and I briefly consider running away with it, making him chase me naked through the park. But I bring him the towel anyway.
It is his towel.
Baptized in the Merced, naked as the day we were born, in one of the most beautiful places in the world, we feel human. There is water in his beard and in his hair and in my eyes, but he kisses me, smiling and grabs me around the waist. He pulls me into a hug and the comforting feeling of his chest against my chest is all I can think about. Behind us is half dome, standing as the only other witness to this quiet moment of happiness.
This is what it is to be alive. This is what it is to be human. To suffer, to try, to fail, to try again, and then to stand naked in a river with the full glorious sunshine on your back, making strangers uncomfortable, and to kiss and be kissed.