Editor’s Note: Last year Sara Aranda and Patrick Hodge were married atop The Hulk in the Sierra. Aranda wrote about their journey for this most recent issue of The Zine, Volume 10, The Raw Issue. Below is an excerpt from her piece.
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?
by Sara Aranda (photos by Cheyne Lempe)
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.
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.
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.