Love on the Rocks

Climbing in Gallatin Canyon.

Easing over a small roof, I mantle up onto an ice cream sandwich-sized ledge, some 300 feet above the Gallatin River. It's our fourth pitch, and I stand quickly, hips tight to the rock, and grasp for a small egg-sized pebble protruding from the rotten cliff face. I beg, plead with it to hold, to stay attached as it has for millennia prior. It doesn't. I accelerate, the wind whistles past my ears and I try to tell my belayer that I'm falling. What comes out is a Mariah Carey-like "AAAAAAHHH!" A ledge rapidly approaches and I calmly prepare for impact by wildly flailing my arms and screaming more. But I stop, not suddenly or hard but gently, easily. The rope has jammed into a crack and ground to a halt. "Not recommended by the rope manufacturer," I think aloud, giddy from another Moment of Death, Thwarted. "You need slack?" she shouts from below, barely audible over the roar of the Gallatin. "NO!" I yell desperately. I ascend the rope, free it from the crack and continue upward: tired, cold, way off route, and leading a climb that is way over my head; but determined not to die in front of this girl.

It was her idea, I remembered, to go rock climbing for a first date. Meeting in a bar, with the sundry other suitors pressing like wild hyenas, I quickly accepted. She had heard of a tough route deep in Gallatin Canyon that was rarely climbed and had a long hike in. Though completely awash in her green eyes and curly blonde locks, I got my wits about me and recalled some choice advice handed to me from one of my first climbing partners. "One of the key fundamentals in climbing with a partner who may be better than you," he had said, "is to lay the groundwork for an excuse, early. Simply stating that you haven't climbed for a while right before you flail and skid your way up the route won't work. You need to state something like a medical condition, and it's especially effective if it has some Latin in it."

"Sasparilla evictus," I had told her, "it flares up when I lead, so you'd better, then I'll follow." I should be safe from leading now, I figured; surely a young bartender at The Scoop Bar would not know Latin.

"You're on lead, there, Octavius," she had said, checking my knot and showing me that her carabiner was locked. It was a cool, early summer day with an ambulant breeze dancing through the treetops. The air had that earthy after-rain smell to it and I inhaled deeply, wiped my shoes off and set upward. "Climbing!" I started off strong, nailing footholds with precision and moving quickly up the route with little effort. Sometimes, when everything flows and you relax, the world around blurs. The thought to practice good footwork becomes involuntary, automatic. Fear becomes indistinct from exhilaration. At times like these, my arms feel powerful and I grab even the small finger crimps and minute slopers with certainty. I'm flying now, and only retreat from this uberworld to place cam or a nut after ridiculously long runouts.

"Thirty feet!" she yelled from far below, telling me I was near the end of my rope and needed to set up an anchor. I felt silly now for doubting myself, knowing I was capable of this grade. She followed, and with an occasional "yeeha" or "woohoo" filtering up from below, I knew she was having a similar experience. I knew she had found that elusive and addictive elation peculiar to pursuits like climbing. It's not the danger, but how your sanity and sinew ally in the face of danger and in the face of flame and wild blonde curls caprice in the wind. We exchanged gear, checked the anchor and I was off on an easy, but unprotected second pitch. The second and third pitches went by uneventfully, but with a notable degradation in rock quality and much longer runouts. Many of the holds were dirt filled or covered partially in lichen. In hindsight, I was clearly heading off route.

A storm had begun to set in. Subtle at first, surreptitiously pouring over the wooded hillside like a beautiful dark infantry, then gaining confidence, deputizing billowed sentinels high above. If it started to rain hard, we'd have to rappel off quickly. This is no comfort to me, back on the ledge now, with a decent hold in the pocket where the pebble had pulled out. But there are no other holds in sight. I consider the possibility of leaping upward in the hopes of seeing something while in the air, but vote it down immediately. "Downclimb?" I think, perhaps even aloud. My calf is at muscle failure now and shaking hard. Not a pretty sight really, me splayed against a dark-streaked cliff, one leg dangling in space, the other at max extension with just one arm holding a small pocket two feet over my head. And now the whole operation bouncing up and down like Elvis minus the rhinestones. Sometimes having no attractive options makes absolutely terrible options seem...well, not so bad. Panic, crystalline and pure. I lunge upward toward no man's land and skid my toe across and directly underneath me. In midflight, all limbs disconnected, the hold becomes obvious and for a second I'm frozen, going neither up nor down. I shove my hand in the crack and raise my foot up underneath me. Unreal.

The route begins to open up and holds materialize before me. I'm moving now – tenuous at first, then with renewed temerity, upward again, calculating strategy on the go like Patton in the desert. The answers begin to come. I look down but see no further than my feet. A smooth high-step brings my foot to waist level and sets it on a diminutive flint. Good enough. I'm up again, flying now, each movement a study in calculated weight transfer and grace. The gear goes in quickly, efficiently. To an onlooker, it looks rough, a bit jerky, but in my sphere it is the summation of a million possible variations applied to one synergistic motion. There is no faculty unemployed - 5.11, a book would call it. Moderate, others. But at that moment, when exactly the right piece of gear is picked for a dubious finger-sized crack and inside you scream in panic as your fingers begin to slip and from nowhere you summon the ballet-beautiful tiptoe through what appears impossible – and you live, yes, you live.

I top out through a large chimney and up a long unprotected slab to a set of old chains at the top of the route. Three yanks on the rope, a few minutes, then three yanks back: she's climbing now, far below. I imagine her tribulations, wonder if she'll stem through the chimney or lieback on the flake, if she'll find that beautiful undercling or struggle up the tiny crack. Occasional tugs on the rope mark where she's removing the gear I'd set and show her steady progress. Her falls are so slight with all the rope drag that I must fight complacency and remain focused. She tops out almost thirty minutes later, tired and blithe. We exchange looks of incredulous guilt – like we'd just seen something sublime and pure but were unable to share it. We sit tied into the anchors and watch the stream passing by far below, and clouds as they travel past us and gather over Bozeman like gardens of giant cauliflower. The rugged tip of Hyalite Peak is just visible to the East, still snow-packed and seductive. And for a moment, high atop the rock, I grasp at some essential axiom, something as simple as sunlight but as expansive and all-inclusive as the notion of god. But, it too passes as more pressing issues come to mind, like losing feeling in our feet from the shoes sized for prepubescent elves.

I pull a candy bar and a windbreaker out of my pack, offering her the jacket. We split the bar and wash it down with some water. Climbing this day would not be the best day we ever had, but would set a precedent as we moved through the dating enigma. Like so many parallels between life and relationships, engaging events like climbing seem very suitable to use as analogy. I think about how often I start things off strong and spirited but along the way become distracted and lose footing, perhaps even falling. But with strong intent and boldness focused through a prism of gratitude, it seems to works out. Relationships, too, seem kindred to this pattern. Each one opens up and discloses intricate and singular answers, perhaps seen just by you or your partner, but never thought possible from the ground.