‘I’ve been here before.’ I think to myself, as I sit and stare at the kind of sunset that will warm you for all your days – all the way up until the final shuteye, and a darkness that might not end.
by Chris Kalman, Senior Contributor
It only happens when nobody else is around. I hear little beyond the blood pulsing in my veins. The wind has settled down, gusts sporadically in tiny breaths. Daytime’s fauna have closed up shop. Night creatures are blinking awake sleepy eyes, and do not stir more muscles than those. Everything is still. My mind, lured in by the inert tranquility, considers foolish thoughts.
‘Maybe I’ll just stay here tonight.’ I think to myself as I lean out over the precipice and stare down the void beside the mountain I’ve just climbed. ‘It won’t get too, too cold, and these peaks will keep me company.’
A tiny zephyr blows up along the cliff, and something calls me home. I don’t know where it comes from, and it has no voice, but I hear it clearly. It says, “Ok, Chris, time to go.”
So I do. This time, like the times before. I break that perfect stillness and walk like the careless awkward beast that a human is – away from the mountains, back to the car, to drive home. Amid classical music coming in scratchy on the FM band, I plot another adventure. ‘Next time I’ll tag the farther East one, too. Bring a rope for that one part, and a straw to suck water from that trickle beneath the scree. I should buy one of those wind shirts for the chill; that will be good. I wonder if I could do the whole thing in approach shoes. No chalk. I bet Muir could have; bet he would have.’ All the way home, my mind races this way.
Back in the world, I return to mixed reviews of my particular form of prayer. The climbing is fine; people don’t seem to mind that. But without a rope? Is it selfish or just foolish? A death wish? Still, I remain my own harshest critic. My mind echoes the misguided enthusiasm and apprehensions my soloing brings (both of which miss the mark), and responds dubiously. “Man, that must be such a rush!” Am I an adrenaline junkie? “It’s just selfish. Plain and simple.” Do I only care about myself? “It sounds so rad – you should write about it!” Am I doing this so I can brag about it? “Dude, that must have been sick!” Am I sick?
How can I begin to describe the feeling of free solo rock climbing to someone who has never set foot upon vertical stone? How do you explain that so high off the ground, you can’t help but look over your shoulder to take in the view – between your legs to gawk at the exposure? There is something intrinsically pacifying about the experience. Knowing that perfection alone can deliver you from death makes perfection come easily. There is a centeredness, a deep, heart-thumping rhythm. There is a perfect moment, alone with only air and stone, that I am unable to find anywhere else in this world. For better or worse, I am never more ‘here’ than when I am there.
I must admit, the thought of intentionally falling – of letting go – has never crossed my mind during the actual climb. The feeling of holding on, of moving so perfectly, is too good for such a notion to ever gain footing in the creases of the mind. And yet, once up top and looking over the edge at all that air with the climb tucked away neatly behind me – the void draws my attention with an indefatigable magnetism. Standing up there that way, I am perpetually awed by the ultimate of all freedoms: the freedom to take your life, and chuck it into the abyss. It is not that I am compelled to actually do it, but that I am compelled by the fact that I could.
That voice always comes to me when I stare down over the edge, and I always come back home. But it is a remarkable feeling, just knowing I could, knowing the only thing in the world stopping me is myself. In that moment, I experience a reaffirmation of all that is good in this world. I beat oblivion in a staring contest. That feels pretty good.
Sometimes you find yourself walking in someone else’s footsteps. A series of depressions in the night-crisped snow, a single dirt track through a meadow, the topside decomposition of the log one uses to cross the creek. You know you are following someone else, but you don’t know who, and you kind of like it that way. Then you break out onto granite slabs, and all the tracks disappear. If a tree falls in the forest…yeah, you know that one. Well if a human walks across perfect tablets of stone, and leaves no trace, was the human there at all? The absence of signs of previous passage heightens your awareness. Though you know someone has come before you, you proceed as if nobody has.
I have been to places likes these before: places that I am certain beyond a doubt that no human has ever been. I’ve taken stones from those places, and built cairns. I’ve written about them, took pictures, made maps for others to follow. I have left my mark upon, and illumined, parts of this world that the human-consciousness-map previously had not known. I feel a mixture of pride and shame for that. Pride for having found a piece of perfection in this world, and sharing that perfection with others of my own species. Shame for removing beyond a doubt that profound sense of mystery that comes from wondering, “Was the human there at all?”
I have also been lucky enough to think I was in a place never before visited by my kin, only to find a summit register upon closer inspection. It had been a foolish assumption to make, only a few miles from a major trail in the High Sierra, but the state of the register confirmed the difficulty of the trek to get there. The most recent name on the register was from twenty-five years prior, and there were a mere handful of names above that for the hundred years before. That summit register made me proud of this overthinking ape called human. Holding that little notebook in my hands, I felt that I was sharing the time and place with those who came before – and though I find it to be a rarity, in this case, the company heightened the spirituality of the experience. I left there a haiku that came to me, taking up more room than I probably should have, but leaving still more room than will likely ever be filled.
Torn between conflicting ethics, I am not sure which side of the coin to stand upon. “Leave No Trace” has become the mantra of outdoor enthusiasts everywhere, and for good reason. Some of my fondest memories have come from being alone in the wild, in a place completely untouched by human wandering. To leave the places I go in such a state – that, I think, should be the goal. Yet one can’t help but notice that leaving no trace effectively removes the story of our passage from the environment altogether. To rub out the path we’ve left behind, the pile of stones we laid upon the summit – doesn’t that somehow remove us from the perfection?
Down the River
I cannot imagine an end to my wanderings in the sacred mountains of this world. The voice that beckons me out there, and the voice that brings me home are one and the same. At my best, I follow that voice innocently, and accept it as my guide. I try not to question it. For every time it takes me away from home, there is another time it brings me back. Somewhere, be it here or there, or in between, I will sigh out of this world. That thought used to haunt me. I feared not the inevitable undertaker that faced me, but the possibility that I might die poorly – tail tucked between my legs, wishing I’d done more with this one precious life. Nowadays, I am far more concerned with how I live than how I’ll die.
I free solo a good bit less now than I used to. I can’t fully blame that on my loved ones, nor can I exonerate them. I suppose neither is necessary. Sometimes I wonder if I am getting soft. I caution my friends about the dangers of places I once dreamed of going myself, and advise them to consider a more thorough cost-benefit analysis. I have woken up at night in a cold sweat, recalling some horribly terrifying place I have been. Other nights, I have nightmares of wandering loud and vile city streets in a downpour, cold and wet, with mountains nowhere in sight. I am not sure which nightmare is worse: the one in which I am completely alone, or the one in which I can find no solitude.
More and more, I believe that it is my mission to follow my life like a tiny passenger upon a magnolia leaf boat, floating down a river backwards. All that I can see is what is behind me, and I am powerless to control where I go. Every once in a while, I peek over my shoulder at what is to come, and wonder when the river will end. But most of the time, I do my best just to enjoy the ride, taking in the view, and reveling in the glory of the mountains this river comes from.
This piece was originally published in The Climbing Zine Volume 7.
Chris Kalman has been climbing, writing, and praising the mountains this river comes from for 15 years. He has been published in Climbing, Rock and Ice, and the Alpinist, and currently resides on the Eastern Shore, as far from climbing as anywhere in the United States. You can read more of Kalman’s work at his blog, Fringes Folly: www.fringesfolly.com.
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