As Long As Life Endures: A Climber Wedding by Sara Aranda

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“Life can be rugged and cold, or smooth and exciting. The climb these two have just performed today symbolizes life and all of its trials and excitements,” read our officiant.

“…All love is enclosed in our love: / all thirst ends in our embrace,” I read, starting an excerpt from “Ode and Burgeonings” by Pablo Neruda.

“Here we are at last face to face / we have met, we have lost nothing,” rang Patrick.

“We have felt each other lip to lip, / we have changed a thousand times / between us death and life…”

Shangri-La

  1. any earthly paradise, particularly a mythical Himalayan utopia first described by James Hilton in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon, a permanently happy land, isolated from the outside world.

The trail went from dirt to river crossing to steep to talus, a tunnel in a patch of dense trees, then back to endless switchbacks across old granite bones—all large fragments of time, now steps to the cathedral we were about to enter. “You know it’s big when it never gets bigger,” Cheyne Lempe let out between elevated breaths. The Hulk, despite our progress, yes, still seemed so far away. We were approaching 9,000´ in the Hoover Wilderness, and the wildflowers were in full bloom, California sun piercing our skin with harsh intention.

by Sara Aranda (photos by Cheyne Lempe) 

Drew Smith led the way up the trail, his large blue backpack disappearing and reappearing about the talus slopes. I met him in Camp 4 a few weeks prior at Climber’s Coffee, next to the legendary Midnight Lightning boulder. Cheyne, our videographer, had sent a message stating Drew was on board to be the last missing link in our wedding party: climbing photography aid and wedding officiant. Drew was part of Yosemite’s search-and-rescue team, yet I had no idea what he looked like, so when I happened upon a few team members sipping coffee that Sunday morning, I asked if Drew Smith was around. Across the small crowd, Drew raised an arm, a huge smile beaming beneath a hefty mustache.

Deep in the Sierra Nevada, waterfalls bounded off cliffs, and snowfields were carved in wavelike bands, thawed by the warmth of rock that traced them. We had stumbled upon an alpine jungle it seemed. I was wanting to hear animals wail and mist to billow up from the creek—it was Shangri-La, Patrick, my fiancé, joked, but it was true. And as we carefully kicked steps into the soft white breast of the canyon, the Incredible Hulk remained the centerpiece, her crystalline edges outlining an iconic, alluring face. I was drawn to addressing the Hulk as she, for she had been the siren of our dreams. She was a beacon, in essence and in light, the alpenglow like nothing I had ever witnessed. Her geometry stood out from her siblings, her beauty absolutely bewitching. I couldn’t believe we were finally there. We were told but could have never imagined the true beauty of this place.

There was where Patrick and I would be wed—way up there, on top of a quasi prism, a formation with so much history and life. From the depths of the earth she was born, and there she proudly loomed. It had been more than six months since I came up with the wedding idea, and after whiling away at an understaffed job for the sake of living in Yosemite National Park, I was so relieved that we were finally living it, contently staking our trekking poles into the snow to steady our shoes.

We set up camp a few hundred feet below the base, where the last remaining trees offered comfort from sun and wind. We gathered fresh water from melting snow and settled into warm clothes for the evening, lit up the Jetboil, threw in our ramen, cracked some eggs into the broth, and topped it all off with zucchini and spicy Expedition Sauce. We were after cheap luxury—thankfully our friend Rocky offered to hike in all our food. She and her fiancé, Brian Kimball, were the only close friends of ours who could attend our wedding, being that it entailed miles of hiking and several thousand feet of elevation to merely hang out at base camp. Thus, close to 9,900´, after six miles of heavy packs, we were all ready to relax under the comfort of a hot meal.

The first sunset was, of course, the most magical. It was hot iron right from the starry forge, the Hulk the knife-edge blade—an ode to her time spent as molten stone. The shadow of the mountain horizon, however, slow and silent, crept up her face in a matter of minutes. It was time to at least try to sleep.

Mountain, My Witness

She unsettled more than my consciousness. Months of stress regarding time away from work, of training enough and dealing with a foot injury that I still haven’t seen a doctor for left me with, more or less, a bit of uncertainty. I can’t fail, I repeated. But I also wanted to respect the mountain, remain a guest, and keep expectations wisely neutral. While we slept, I tossed from side to side. In the middle of the night I was startled from sleep by a yell—rather, a death-fearing scream. In my daze, I imagined someone falling, my eyes staring at the synthetic fabric of my tent, listening. It had come from Cheyne and Drew’s tent. Brian piped up, “Are you guys all right?” Cheyne casually answered something about Drew having a nightmare. Was this a warning? Was he dreaming of tomorrow?

No, I finally decided, I won’t let it be. And when Patrick and I both awoke sometime later with the need to pee, we sleepily rose and waddled about the stones. The canyon was surprisingly lit. I glanced up and was immediately transfixed by the purple hues and glowing dust clouds backlit by the darkest of wombs. Then it was all about her, as it was hard not to stare at the Hulk too. Her presence demanded my thoughts.

And as the night wheeled toward dawn, the stars rotated around her, and the moon rested light upon her silent face. She continued to haunt my dreams and remained in shadow all morning. After oatmeal and caffeine, we geared up, taped our hands. I donned a short veil and a garter for my leg. I also so desperately hoped that the rock wouldn’t be frozen. I tried to avoid a morning mantra with the words “screaming barfies” in it—this wedding is going to happen, dammit, my gut chided.

The plan was for Drew to ropegun the route for Cheyne so that Cheyne could focus on documenting our ascent and ceremony for friends and family. Brian, with his telephoto lens, planned to set up near basecamp and shoot from afar. Rocky, unfortunately, had to return to Yosemite Valley to work a day shift. She had left shortly after arriving the previous night, sad but grateful for sharing our hike in. Our morning was not without a breeze, and wearing all that we needed, including a simple wedding dress wrapped carefully in our pack, we set off to hike more talus to the base.

She was cold and inanimate when we first touched her, but we were enthralled with giddy desire. We sought safe passage in the calm morning light, and she eventually let us dance into the crawling path of the sun. The wind howled and hissed as we placed hand and foot. Time lost meaning. We were without need, only want: to be there, and forever change ourselves.

Patrick and I were offering one to the other, entirely, confirming life together, as all weddings do, but I wanted something more than just committing words. Our lives and passion for climbing is not just a theme, it is a hard and dirty lifestyle, and I wanted my wedding to reflect that. Patrick told me he would give the climb everything he had, leave nothing to fear. The symbolism of adaptation, of union, was key—how our bodies and the rock have small but intimate dialogues; how the sounds of breath and metallic things echo in the mind; how we are left with gray fingers from flinty rope, its smell; and all the horizons of black holes that climbing takes us to. Unfathomably, through it all, we still find love, even in such times of utter chaos and distress. So we felt the art and experience of trad climbing went hand in hand with what marriage meant to us, such as the complete and unconditional trust that is required of your partner alone, and the stacked menagerie of wild transfigurations that ensues once the journey starts. We strove to overcome obstacles, one pitch at a time, and grow through this line of life, together. And to make things even more interesting, we were doing the Red Dihedral route for the very first time.

We shivered at the belays. Yet the cold was manageable—maybe it was the excitement that kept me warm in the end. I led the first two pitches, and Patrick took over for the crux. He hid it well but later confided that he was fighting a dizzying nausea. The large red dihedral served as a temporary wind block, but I could still hear its sound, like that of crinkling grocery bags, or windbreaker jackets, or the clothing of a falling person (a grim fact in my memory)—it all would come suddenly, almost violently. I kept looking around, frantic, for the source of these strange sounds, expecting things (or forbid, people) to be plummeting down, but they were just invisible sweeps, all crashing, twirling, lashing, diving off one ledge to another in pure abandonment. Was she toying with us? I couldn’t help but feed off of that energy and inevitably smile at the effervescent uncertainty that surrounded us.

Patrick made the end crux move look effortless; he was so focused. His foot came up, and he placed it gently. But I watched his foot bring with it the nut he had set to protect that very move, the blue sling draped over his left shoe. I froze. If he fell, he was looking at a forty-foot plunge into a corner, and I would have to undergo a potentially violent catch at my semihanging gear belay. I didn’t have much area to move, so I breathed slow for him, kept quiet. He held his head straight, placed a shitty piece for mental ease, gingerly reached down to his foot, grabbed the nut and replaced it into a crack at his chest. Bomber. When he finally traversed over to where the unknowing Cheyne and Drew were, I heard him laughing and energetically explaining what he narrowly avoided.

I rounded the corner of the dihedral for my next lead and stepped out into the sun for the first time. I wandered from ledge to ledge and checked my topo constantly as I linked pitches. There were moments where I felt truly alone despite the context of the whole situation. But it was solitude that only brought empowerment. Our two parties were the only ones on the route. There were several other climbers but each pair on a different line. It was great luck. My breath was sure, and my mind read the rock with ease, reading the stories of her fissures. But I approached each speculation with care, remained without expectation as much as I could in order to be present for every movement. A meditation, at last, just me there ringing those metal sounds, pulling rope from an abyss, this mountain, my only witness. And that was symbolic of marriage, too. To be alone but far from afraid, secure in myself and confronted with decisions that would potentially affect both of us.

And the higher we went, the looser she became. Chockstones as big as cars wedged delicately. “For an alpine route, it’s pretty darn solid,” Cheyne commented as we met up at a belay ledge. Patrick led the way to the notch, a false summit, and it was there that we decided to hold the ceremony, seven and a half hours in. I changed into my knee-length dress and scrambled barefoot to our sublime overlook. The wind was cold, but we found refuge in the sun.

And so it began.

“This is a celebration of love, commitment, of friendship, family, and two people who are truly in it forever,” Drew read from our script. Patrick and I cited a poem by Pablo Neruda. We said our I dos, read our vows. “Our entire lives have brought us to this very moment,” I wrote for mine, “These mountains echo our truths, forever change us, and will now bond us beautifully.”

The canyon below was stunning. Two long alpine lakes glistened a dark turquoise. The wind played with my veil. I would squeeze Patrick’s hands to keep warm. I could barely make out a red dot, Cheyne’s tent, from the patch of green trees. Granite blocks balanced in seemingly gravity-defying ways and the sky was so bright and blue.

After changing back into our climbing gear, we finished the final pitch to the summit of the route, where we signed the register as a married couple, more or less at 11,300´. Patrick and I stood, raised our hands, and cheered several times. Our voices echoed loudly off all the surrounding walls and then faded into the sky, forever one with the air we breathe.

Aspen Songs

Having to descend, in the midst of our euphoria, we had to remain aware and calm. The sun was beginning to ride the westerly ridgeline. It took us about nine hours, including the ceremony, to finish the route, and Patrick and I had only consumed five hundred calories each, at most, during that time. And as we rappelled and unharnessed for the “hike” down the enormous scree gully, I was really starting to feel hunger pangs. Our feet slid with every step, and mini rockslides echoed as shattered stones do. Occasionally, I’d send a football-sized chunk rolling down, and I’d stop to watch it tumble toward Patrick, but they’d never catch up to him, so I eventually relaxed, let my feet glide as if ice skating.

Then sunset happened, and it was just as fiery as before. We were still close to the base of the Hulk, so I watched the light burn away what we’d all just climbed, almost in ritual, as if cleansing herself to remain pure for the morning. She was now an ode to the transience of life, already moving on, and so were we.

Back at basecamp, I noticed someone hiding behind a bush. It was Rocky. She spontaneously came up with the idea to drive back out after her shift and hike in with beer and pie. Even Brian was surprised. Her smile and gifts were absolutely the icing on the cake for us that day. We feasted and savored the starry night. Someone even brought up Drew’s nightmare, and he explained that he was trying to escape an enormous bear trap, rusty metal teeth and all. We laughed and eventually fell asleep, our bellies warm and hearts full of all the good things to be had.

“It didn’t erode; it arrived,” Brian and Patrick concluded that first day. The Incredible Hulk is more than her name; she has come to represent something absolute, a tangible thing, place, experience—yet, she is elusive again, as memory. But we did it. It was more than we could have ever asked for. And this is only the beginning for us, a glimpse to what raw and beautiful experiences Patrick and I will witness in our lives.

We hiked out on day three, after a windless, mosquito-infested morning. Hours in descent, across stone and trail, back to the aspen grove, where the leaves clapped and the grasses whispered their content. Patrick and I sat among them for a little while, as Cheyne gathered some audio for our short film. We couldn’t help but smile and giggle, lost to the music of this wild, happy place and these happy little aspen songs. Shangri-La, I kept thinking. Just beyond the sawtooth. A paradise manifested from our motions, our psych, and our love.

Broader than the earth that could not lead us astray, / eternal as the fire that will burn / as long as life endures. —Pablo Neruda

This story is published in Volume 10, The Raw Issue, available in print and on Kindle. 

Sara Aranda somehow took a liking to writing at a young age, composing terrible stories about mermaids, love in the Wild West, and portals to alternate happy-land dimensions. She eventually pursued a degree in creative writing, with an emphasis in poetry, at the University of California Riverside, which is also where she discovered trail running, climbing, and ultimately the great wild world of everything outdoors. She also really likes peanut M&M’S and baby sloths. You can read about other adventures and musings at www.bivytales.com.

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About us: The Climbing Zine was started in 2010 by Al Smith III and Luke Mehall. It continues to the day with the mission of representing the true essence of climbing. Our crown jewel is our printed version, but we also do the interweb thing, and Kindle

We have also published four books: Graduating From College MeAmerican ClimberThe Great American Dirtbags and Climbing Out of Bed, written by publisher, Luke Mehall. 

Check out our film, Last Thoughts on The Dirtbag, made with Cairns Film. 

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