You can make of yourself a blade, slice the top off the world spinning, gain speed by traveling light or become axe, hack your way out of whatever it is you need to be free of. It is the extremities that return us to ourselves, which is why we hunger for them. To fill up on that is which is molecular, discover the elemental, taste something new, thoroughly. In focus lies the full power of the human mind and body united, what we were literally born for.
In 2009 I nearly died of descending necrotizing media stinitis- basically, flesh eating bacteria on my chest wall. That was ten years ago this summer. I am fifty now. I remember lying in ICU, wishing for the strength to get out of bed by myself, run the dog, take a shower. Wanting again what I had taken so easily for granted, motor control of my own body, how easily we can lose it, the power of knowing that. This is how I find myself with a migraine in Vantage, Washington, in a van full of women I barely know on our way to basalt towers, a good place to discover something new. The only things that get me out of my head right now are climbing lessons and this year’s lover, all eyes and spine, who takes up more than returned mind share, and who would be perhaps startled to know that. The body is extraordinary in its demands, what it requires for satisfaction, relentless. This is true of all climbers I have known, that pushing. It is easy to get lost in it. I am grateful to have a new way to move in full concentration, something to learn, that gets me out of my head and moves me the way his body against mine does, that shuts down news cycle, email and social media. Requires and meets whatever I bring it, returns me to my breath and cells.
When I moved to Washington State, my now ex-husband was already friends with some well-known climbers, one of whom we lost at a high altitude on an early May day. I had delivered triplets that November, was told while pregnant that a mother-to-be’s metabolism revved as much as a high altitude climber, and in this way and because I was carrying three babies, an extreme, and being around the expedition’s prep work and travel plans, the submerged hurt feelings of the wives staying home, the resentments and difficulty with permits, I felt ancillary to the climb, tied in to it. When calls came from that high place to Seattle, we watched someone we love not make it back. The babies kept nursing.
Him dying up there, part of a story that soon after that evening (and still) seems to fascinate the world was the first time I had lost a person close in age to me, older yes but not so much older. And it is because of almost dying, and not having the chance to climb those many years home with five children, and because I am afraid of heights and my heart is aching, I am here on this late September morning.
The road from Tacoma where we meet at the climbing gym climbs through the I-90 pass and into Vantage, “Frenchman Coulee,” a basin just north of Echo, to climb on the basalt columns of desert rimrock. Our guides (friendly, professional AF), keep us engaged on the bus. I have borrowed a helmet, wearing yoga pants in lieu of climbing gear, feeling half cliché, half badass. My arms are strong but I’m tired, tossed all night, listening to coyotes, playing Jeff Buckley. It feels like the right time to tie my own climbing shoes on, having borne witness to the climbing community for so long. My job requires me to be on Instagram, my feed is filled with climbers, names of faces and ranges I have heard of over the years. It is a different thing, though, to find myself roped and off the ground. The air here is different than the marine air around Seattle. Sage is in every memory of these Western places to me, how it flavors the air, the dry dust and red dirt.
The past few years have been difficult, and beautiful, the way everything is. A suicidal family member who finds his way back every day. Salmon returning to spawn in some rivers. What is happening in Zimbabwe, Chile, at US borders. My mother lonely for her husband, father who died on my birthday. People marching for justice. Children growing up and moving on. The world on fire. Reknowing how hot I too can burn. Running my hands through my first chalk bag, clipping the harness, casting the incantation “belay on,” fingers plunged into rock. A place of deep and physical joy, how good and how privileged it is to be here. There are a thousand ways to flex that joy muscle, the one that brings you back into your heart rate, back into to the simplicity of grip, weight, feet, stretch, reach, push, repeat.
In one of the last videos shot of my friend who died up high all those years ago, which I watch sometimes on YouTube because it is good to see his smile, he says, “…my mission statement would be to turn people onto the mountains.” Taking what I have been learning in the bouldering gym onto the rock and into the wind, the fear and the rising above it, all breath and pull, the canyon from a fresh angle, torn hands and shaking arms I send him a nod in thanks, turned on to the mountains in a new way, all heartbeat, discovering something in myself again, pushing further, this human mystery of seeking, how strong it runs, how it keeps beating.
(Thank you, SF. We know where your body lies as it returns to earth, your spirit remains in all of the places. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FeZ9-IhPE-8&t=1s see .47 secs in : )