The teenage Federale slings his machine gun over his shoulder and bends toward my bag. Cocaine? he asks. Marijuana? I have a stash of weed stuffed in an ibuprofen container in the outside zipper of my backpack.
No, I say.
Josh stands behind me. He doesn’t know about the stash. This? the youth asks. He holds up a mess of quickdraws, locking carabiners, and a few cams.
by Matt Spohn (banner photo by the author)
This story is published in Volume 13, now available
Vamos a escalar en Basaseachi, I say, having rehearsed my only Spanish on the flight between Portland and El Paso.
Ah, sí. He smiles, opening the cooler and pulling out an apple. I’m sweating and tense, but no one notices. I’m the only one who knows about the weed.
The teen sniffs the apple and then searches through my bag of diabetic supplies, shooting some insulin out of a preloaded insulin pen and grinning—Esta?
Diabetes, Josh chimes.
His beige Sienna minivan is the only vehicle at the military checkpoint being searched. Other soldiers loiter, smoke cigarettes, and flag cars through. Cuántos horas a Basaseachi? Josh asks. He’s been making small talk and knows about as much Spanish as I do.
Siete, the youth says, standing up and adjusting the machine gun, which is polished and gleams in the early morning light. Esta bien.
The teen waves us back onto the highway, sweat blooming on his shirt, dark Rorschach blotches spreading from under his arms and across his chest, as if the heat of Mexico is a forewarning. He shouts after us, No conduzcas por la noche. A flock of birds flies overhead and disappears behind a low hill, beyond which the scorched brown desert stretches to the horizon.
Josh and I had made plans to climb in Yosemite Valley, but two weeks before this trip, a winter storm dumped several inches of snow and threatened more. “Valley is shit, dude. I’m still down with Vegas as plan B,” he emailed, “but I’m worried it might be too warm. What about Logical Progression.”
“Looks great,” I emailed back, knowing nothing of the climb or the pervasive crime of the Chihuahua state. What I did know was that if one of the best all-around climbers of our generation wants you to go on a climbing trip, then you don’t say no. It’s bound to be filled with excitement and palm-sweating moments. And so we found ourselves driving south through Ciudad Juárez and into a sun-soaked landscape.
Shit, that was close, I say to Josh.
I have a bunch of weed.
Well, fuck, he says. At least you kept your shit together.
He cracks the window and laughs. We continue driving deeper into the epicenter of Mexican drug trade, kidnappings, and murders—into a land filled with loss and men with guns.
We’ve come to try a route called Logical Progression in Basaseachi National Park. It’s a difficult route of mainly 5.12 climbing with three pitches of 5.13 and a few of 5.11. The wall is aptly named, El Gigante.
Doing some pretravel research, I found that the climb and area around it are shrouded in conflict: After the first ascent by Bert van Lint, Peter Baumeister, and Lucas Laeser, which took place after they rap-bolted the entire wall, the famous climbing duo of Alexander and Thomas Huber threatened to chop the route. Yet, after Arnaud Petit and Stefan Glowacz (among a few others) repeated the climb, they claimed it was one of the best big wall routes they’d done. The accusations against the first ascensionists of bad style as well as the threats of chopping the bolts off their route simply faded. Then, in 2010, Alex Honnold and Sonnie Trotter worked the route and climbed it in a day but not without trouble: “Our first attempt was hampered by a combination of technical climbing on complex volcanic tuff and a few broken holds, forcing us to bivy on Critter Ledge atop pitch eighteen before finishing the following day,” Sonnie wrote, adding small tidbits of info on his and Honnold’s fear of the drug traffickers and the armed farmers growing their crops deep in the canyon.
But, as we drive the main highway between Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua, passing a few military checkpoints where men holding machine guns in armored jeeps wait, and wondering how the black Escalades with tinted windows drive through these checkpoints without being stopped, the story at the forefront of our thoughts is Hayden Kennedy’s. “The Day We Sent Logical Progression” was published on Evening Sends, less than a month before he died. In it, he writes about climbing Logical Progression with three friends, two of which passed away in separate accidents not long after the group climbed the route.
In the essay, he writes of the joy and adventure of climbing as well as its strange, uncanny nature, its irreversible attachment to death and loss: “I am still in the process of finding my own path, and I’d be lying if I said these deaths haven’t affected its direction. How does climbing fit into ‘real life’? If we only take the surface level experience—endlessly chasing the next hardest project, the next most futuristic alpine objective—then, in my opinion, climbing becomes too much of a selfish pursuit.”
I never knew Hayden. Josh knew him well. They were good friends who climbed peaks all over the world together, including one which earned Hayden and Kyle Dempster the Piolet d’Or. Josh was on the climb but was forced to stay at high camp, suffering from edema and fighting for his life.
I’d read Hayden’s story a week before his death and, as we drove, it had made me think about my friendship with Jade, a climbing partner who’d recently bailed on me and severed our friendship. “I don’t have time for you,” Jade had said. “I don’t have time for my climbing friends right now.”
My friendship had never before been defined like that, and I’d always believed (however naïvely) people were just friends, or not. How does one fit climbing into real-life friendships?
As Josh drove and the hours went by, I thought about Hayden and Jade—about Josh’s loss and my own. Hayden’s article reaffirmed my view that climbing creates deep bonds but that we can also do fucked-up things for the summit. It also made me think about another fact: How I like the intimacy of mountains, the knowing that if we stay, we will die and how this brings us together. But I know (because of this fact) that we can never remain in the mountains and that, when we get back home, we go our separate ways—that however intense the experience was, we will continue living our separate lives and moving along our individual paths.
It looks like Spain, Josh says, leaning forward to stretch his arms over the steering wheel.
It doesn’t look like I expected, I say. We’ve opted for back roads to avoid the large cities and somehow, without noticing, we’ve left the desert. Golden fields roll with hillsides, small flocks of birds pepper the sky, and clumps of pine trees shade grazing cows. We drive through a small, quaint town. Then the road curves toward distant green hills. There have been no other cars for over an hour. We’d expected more random checkpoints, military and police patrols, and tattooed gang members as we navigated deeper into Chihuahua (a place the US State Department says Americans “should reconsider travel” to), but we find nothing concerning. It’s a beautiful part of Mexico, and we forget the first few hours of travel where we were stopped at the checkpoint, pulled over by police, and forced to retrace two hours of our journey to get a travel permit. Even the sounds of gunfire and grenade explosions we’d been forced to listen to while bivying the previous night in our sleeping bags outside El Paso seem like a lifetime ago.
What’s your story? Josh asks.
We’ve climbed together briefly in Red Rocks and Cathedral, Utah, meeting through our friend Dave, but don’t really know each other. As we talk about our lives, sharing stories as if we were old friends, Josh and I settle into the drive. I crack the window and stick my hand into the crisp December air, letting the wind break through my fingers. Now all the calm in the world comes, and Josh reminisces on traveling and climbing through Spain a year ago, saying that Michelle, my wife, and I need to go.
A long bend in the road takes us past a large lake. We talk about mutual friends, and Jade comes up—for a year, Jade was one of my best friends and a go-to climbing partner. What happened? Josh asks after I tell him I don’t know what Jade is up to.
We don’t talk anymore, I say. Jade just disappeared, and this turns the conversation to our families.
Josh tells me about his brother, who has struggled with mental illness, and how the death of his mother when he was a kid pushed Josh to make specific decisions that steered him toward his successful climbing career. I tell Josh about my mother’s attempted suicides and about my sister who ran away when I was a kid. We talk for over an hour about our families, pull over to piss, then keep driving and talking. In a small town, we find a gas station, fill up, and buy snacks. Surreal quiet fills the town; trash blows across the near-empty streets; a man leans against a church wall and smokes a cigarette. The vibrantly painted buildings are crumbling, and electrical wires strung from polls are attached in makeshift ways to rusted boxes on rooftops. An Escalade drives by, its windows tinted, loud bass booming.
You think you two maybe cared about each other too much, Josh asks, referring to Jade.
Like love? I ask. We both laugh. No, yes—I think we used each other for our own specific reasons; I needed to find my sister, and Jade needed reassurance that she was really here, that someone saw her.
Like a brother, Josh says.
Maybe, I say. We both needed someone close.
The truth is, I don’t really know though. The depression I felt after Jade told me on the phone that she didn’t want to hang out anymore was stemmed from confusion: had I done something wrong? I reached out to her to try to find out, and this only made matters worse. “Hey, you wanna go climb?” I texted. “Hey, Smith Rock looks nice this weekend.” “Hey, hope you’re well. Would you be up for Mount Stuart?” “Did I do anything wrong???”
Almost a year had passed since Jade stopped talking to me, but this conversation brought it up. Hayden’s article brought it up. Jade and I had climbed in South America together, set training goals, planned to redpoint local projects, and hung out. We were both in need of company and stressed with work and school. We used to walk through the woods above the town we lived in, the sheen of the sun coming between hundred-year-old branches. Sometimes she’d have mint tea in the silver thermos she used, and we’d sip that, deciding where to climb next. For my part, we are as we were—sharing our pleasures and disappointments. I can still hear her laughter. We were happy, but also lonely. We listened to what was perfectly distorted about each other’s lives and held on to the grainy distinctness of imagining another climb together—it was our way to escape. “I have nothing to give you,” she texted me one day. “I don’t want to hang out anymore.” It hurt, and it was the kind of rejection that ruins whatever special connection exists.
But you found out you never dealt with your sister, Josh adds, and now you’re dealing with it. That’s rad. He smiles.
I guess so.
My sister, who I’d been close with my entire childhood, and who I often climbed with as a teen, ran away when I was sixteen. She was eighteen. Through the odd phone call, I found out she was living in Las Vegas, pregnant, and quite possibly working as a prostitute. I told myself I didn’t care. She’d left, she’d forced my mom to start drinking heavily again, and she’d caused grief and worry throughout my family. I just don’t care, I told my brother. The truth is, I did care. I was angry. I was sad. I had lost a friend and climbing partner, but I went on like nothing had happened, burying every thought and memory of her. Climbing filled the hole or put a screen in front of it.
I believed I could find peace with Jade’s decision to end our friendship too. In a way, I did, but the wound was there. My sister was there. Loss is a thing that climbing teaches us about by making it more profound. I had told Jade many of my deepest secrets, and she had told me some of hers. It’s what you do when you’re shivering on a mountain. The sharing is easy when you’re holding the rope. But this is the thing: when we get back home from a climb, we’re just regular people living separate lives. It’s the enigma of climbing—these deep bonds and friendships forged in the mountains, but the knowing we can’t stay in the mountains. The mountains, though beautiful, cannot maintain us. They’re not the complete world, and if we believe they are, then we are going down that selfish path Hayden talked about—someplace dark.
It’s late afternoon. Where do you want to bivy tonight? Josh asks. We’ve arrived in the distant hills. Gnarled rock walls and reddish-tan rock towers rise out of the pine forests.
Anywhere, I say. We find a spot off the highway, driving down an old dirt road. We arrive at an old loggers’ camp. A cow skeleton glows against the dark forest in twilight. There’s trash and the remnants of old fire pits—tin cans, a shoe, juice bottles. Josh asks to use my phone to call home, and I hear him joke with his daughter and compliment her on a finished homework assignment. He asks his wife, Erin, how everything is and finds out that she has strep throat. When he hands me back my phone, I can tell he is concerned. There’s nothing I can do from Mexico. He sighs. He’s not afraid to admit that there are significant sacrifices made in order to be a great climber. This honesty is what opens me up.
I think of Jade, when we were climbing in South America: If I had to sleep here, I would die, she jokes, lips cracked and breathing hard. We sit together on a ledge at an altitude of cloud and snow. There’s a thousand more feet of rock to go. She wears four jackets and three hoods; her windburned cheeks have turned lavender. There’s ghostly movement in the rope that leads out of sight to where Herold fixes an anchor. I watch the reflection in Jade’s eyes of a mountain across the high valley. It spills avalanches and moves night upward with its shadow. She moves closer, and I feel her shiver. She dips her swollen fingers into chalk red from blood. Dark clouds roll over Pyramid Peak. I want to say, We’re not gonna die, but I like her head resting on my shoulder. I like this close friendship. I like the intimacy of mountains—knowing that if we stay, we will die and how this brings us together and allows us to share what’s in our hearts. Slowly, the snow begins falling on Jade and me like tiny stars coming to Earth. The rope pulls tight. I watch her climb up and out of sight.
The next day, we arrive in Basaseachi and quickly find Rancho San Lorenzo, a travel lodge on a sprawling meadow below forested hills. From the side road leading in, there are several cabins and an enormous dining hall. The well-kept lawn is dotted with bushes and pines. There are decorative old wagons. Pulling through the gate, we park in front of the dining hall. Beer cans are strewn about, cigarettes, a bag of trash. Hola, Josh says to a middle-aged lady cleaning up.
Hola, she says.
Donde es Fernando? Josh asks.
Fernando has been our contact and is the owner of San Lorenzo. I had chatted with him on the phone after emailing questions about accommodating us—Hayden had mentioned him and a man named Rafael as the go-to people to make arrangements. Let me call him, the lady says in broken English. Who are you?
We tell her that Fernando is expecting us and that we are here to climb El Gigante. She smiles. Ten minutes later, Fernando arrives in a white pickup truck, wearing a large Stetson and carrying a black-handled pistol tucked into the back of his jeans. He tells us we can sleep on the lawn, shower in the cabins, use the bathrooms in the dining hall. He tells us there is climbing behind his house—which is actually two houses, with a large flowering garden.
Would you like to come see my house? You can park there while you climb for the day. Josh and I are jonesing to climb and take him up on the invite. As he shows us around his house, we meet Saul, who is helping build a giant bathroom, complete with an enormous Jacuzzi. My family and I ran a logging business, Fernando says, noticing our disbelief and inquiring eyes. I was an airplane pilot for them. He hands us a card that says, “Fernando Dominguez, Pilot.” I learned my English while in aviation school in San Diego. He speaks perfectly.
We climb all afternoon in the canyon behind Fernando’s house. Years ago, a French Western was filmed here, and Josh and I come across old, mossy set props that look like something from Raiders of the Lost Ark—large totems, Styrofoam boulders, Olmec-like heads. The climbing is good, and the rock climbs like limestone—pocketed andesite and rhyolite walls with large huecos.
That night, Fernando comes to our camp. Is everything good?
Yes, we say.
Why are you here? The question makes Josh and I squirm. Do you like Trump?
No, no, we say in unison. We dislike him very much.
Sí, he is not a good man.
We agree, saying, Many Americans want him out.
It’s late, and frost has begun to form on the van and our stove. Our breath is visible.
Fernando waits a moment and then says, Papaya trees are down in the canyon, waiting to be picked. I imagine the fruit, pink and orange, hanging above turquoise water deep in Basaseachi Canyon.
They’re ripe? I ask Fernando.
He leans against his truck, adjusts his white Stetson. Yes, he says, and good as finding an angel. He places his hand on the pistol’s grip. Pines branches catch the wind, click-clack, and dogs bark in the distance. It’s a long way down, he says.
Earlier that evening, Josh and I had looked three thousand feet down the canyon’s andesite walls to a thin blade of river twisting and cutting through boulders. Campfires from marijuana and poppy farms had already begun to speckle the jungle orange. The fields seemed foreboding and dangerous compared to the Starbucksesque dispensaries back in Oregon where well-dressed employees guide you through the different varieties of marijuana and explain the differences like sommeliers. Evening-pink smoke rose.
Now, Fernando lights a match and places it to the cigarette that hangs from his mouth. I pull out my ibuprofen container and papers and begin to roll a joint. But be careful, he says. There are men down there who care nothing for fruit. I nod to his waist; the gun shines in moonlight. The next moment is always dark, he says, putting on his jacket. It’s why we must care about papayas, he says, then chuckles, inhaling from his cigarette. Mind your business, and you’ll be fine.
The next day, trying to find the sport climbing near the entrance to Basaseachi Falls, we get lost. I want to hate Jade, I tell Josh.
I was furious when I heard about Hayden, he says. The people we care about leave, and the question—why?—is a puncture in our throat the wind keeps traveling through. It’s no one’s fault. We are all living equally intricate lives, wonderful to ourselves, and if we’re lucky, others. Josh and I walk around a long time before finding the crag, Arroyo el Duranzo. It’s down in a canyon where a small, quiet river flows between water-polished boulders. The water is low, and we jump rocks to cross. Trash and tires litter the riverbed, the leaves on the trees still bright yellow, the rock striped red and black.
Everyone is still alive, I want to say, if not here, then in memory or in the dirt that nourishes roots. I don’t believe in heaven. I believe in memories. I don’t know what comes after—definitely wind and the sound of water, landslides that uncover those who were lost long ago, sometimes still holding each other. Every story is apocalyptic. Every story is beautiful. That’s what I’ve learned from climbing—we have to hold on until it’s impossible to hold on any longer.
Some people use up love, consume every bright smile, so at the end, there’s nothing left but splinters—I don’t believe this. My mom tried to kill herself, twice, I tell Josh. She keeps a beautiful garden, and from the front of her house, you can smell the jasmine thriving in her backyard. There’s an intricacy to climbing. Maybe it’s the delicacy and strength of our ropes—they hold us on our falls, and sometimes they break.
At the crag, we climb an iconic-looking line of two square-cut roofs. Clean, pocketed rock, new bolts, spectacular movement. Midway up the route, I’m confronted with the crux: a big hairy spider nestled in the web it has built on the bolt. What do I do? I shout down to Josh. He laughs. I’m on a good hold, but it’s overhanging, and I’m getting a little pumped. I take my toothbrush out of my chalk bag and flick the spider, looking to where I think it has gone but see nothing. Looking back, I find that I’ve not flicked hard enough, and the spider is swinging angrily from its thread, lowering toward my arm. I shriek like a little boy. Josh laughs again. I flick once more and this time make direct contact. The spider is large enough that I watch it fall to the ground and hear it land in the leaves. I gather myself and keep climbing, but I’m drained and punt off a large dyno over the final roof. Josh floats the route with ease—but only because I cleaned it for you, I joke.
Josh’s laughter is inviting. Then he coughs and coughs. Maybe I have what Erin has?
The next day, we are ready to go to El Gigante. Ice covers our gear; we sip coffee and wait for Rafael, who Fernando has arranged to take us to the summit so we can rappel the route and stash gear on the way down in order to make hauling easier. Rafael drives us across rivers, up steep switchbacks, over and around large boulders. He has a friend in tow to help schlepp our load to the summit. When we arrive, we sort gear, fill our haul bags, and begin to rappel. Josh takes the lead and finds each rappel without a hitch. There is no chalk on the route, and our decision to rappel will make route-finding more straightforward when we begin to climb. With our topo out, we go slow as we pass the cruxes, inspecting them before continuing downward. On one of the ledges, Josh finds an old bottle of water and takes a swig. Seconds later, he’s convulsing and coughing. Then he stops, turns to me with an amused grin. This water tastes like it’s been here for years.
It probably has, I say, refusing to try it.
One hard rappel goes straight right. Josh disappears around a corner. I follow, death-gripping the rope, believing I will pendulum into space and be left dangling if I lose my footing. Nothing happens, and when I turn the corner, Josh is on another ledge a hundred feet farther down. Below him, a few more pitches, is the base of the wall. It takes us almost six hours to rappel the entire wall.
That night, we camp in a freshly harvested field of marijuana. El Gigante looms above us. Strange birds sing from the dense jungle that borders the small pasture. Though we find cookware and a small fire ring, there’s no one else around. It’s peaceful, and I light a joint. I watch the pink in the sky slowly turn to gray. The stars come out—an infinite number of white flowers blooming out of eternal darkness. I stub out my joint and get into my sleeping bag. The wind is crisp and fresh. The river nearby plays through the canyon.
Watch out for the hairy spiders and vampire bats, Josh says.
It’s okay, I say. I put all the food next to you. Good night.
In the morning, after we brew coffee and eat a couple bars, we walk to the base of the wall. The first third of the route climbs sporty 5.11 on basaltesque columned rock. Shallow corners and blocky edges lead us past enormous pink flowers with green fronds. Our goal is to onsight the wall. The first day is the easiest, and we cruise up to the Tower of Power. We’d planned for the climbing to take us longer and have to pass the rest of the day on a narrow, couch-sized ledge. We eat, we play Pass the Pigs, we climb the 12+ pitch above and fix it. There’s still a lot of day left, so we climb the pitch again to kill time. Night finally comes, and we watch the smoke from grow ops rise toward the top of the canyon walls. I think of Jade: I revisit a memory of when we climbed summer-lit rock. She dabbed my eye with the edge of her shirt to remove a speck of dirt and brought her face close to mine. Hold still! The granite walls of Index towered above us, water-streaked and ancient. The rusted railroad tracks wove through the forest and moved with the river’s curve. Tonight, on the edge of a cliff, happiness empties me—I got it! she said, holding the piece of moss on the tip of her finger. The luxury of the moment rising again. Now the wind pushing down canyon, receding into the depths of trees. Night stretching out and settling under new foliage.
The next day, we climb amazing pitch after amazing pitch; an overhanging 13-, the techy corner 13b crux pitch and several amazing 5.12 pitches, including a massive 50-meter dihedral, as well as an overhanging arête with almost 2,000 feet of air below our feet. Josh and I use a Mini Traxion setup to climb efficiently up the wall. It allows the leader to haul while the second can climb, unbelayed but attached to the rope. He teaches me a unique foot-hauling method to bring our gear up quickly, and I take over the leading. The rock is solid. The world drops away. We arrive at the appropriately named Critter Bivy and set up camp with mice, spiders, and bats.
On the other side of the canyon, the black streak of a dry waterfall drops several thousand feet. The sky’s blue deepens and transforms into a circus of crazy-hued lenticular clouds. It is one of the most amazing sunsets I have ever seen. We make instant coffee, using Starbucks VIA mochas. It tastes funny, and we realize it’s expired by three years. Wanting to get rid of the sour taste, we cook dinner. Josh has brought freeze-dried meals, but they all have bacon. I’m a vegetarian, but I forgot to tell him, so I eat them. It’s all we have. Whether it was the bacon or the expired mocha mix we’d been drinking, I pass the night with my butt hanging over the ledge, evacuating the entirety of my body into the abyss. Morning comes with a smell, and I realize there was a bush at the lip of the ledge holding on to every ounce I lost.
Dude, you’re disgusting. Josh laughs, sidestepping across the ledge to avoid a piece of TP that had been blown into some grass. Josh takes the first lead, a crazy 12c that ends with a mono match on a slab. I barely send it, my stomach still churning. I look up, and Josh is taking pictures, laughing at my pale face. I let out a toxic fart, and he scrunches his nose. We’ll have to rename that bivy Toxic Bivy, I say.
Nearing the summit, we reach the final crux—a delicate and crimpy 13a. No stress, Josh says. You could be the first to flash El Gigante. All you have to do is…not fall. I climb through a band of rotten rock and break a few holds but somehow stay on. I fight higher, pulling on small edges, matching feet on a sharp nipple point, then I’m off, sailing through the air. I don’t yell or scream, Fuck! I’m surprisingly calm. All I had wanted to do was flash a big wall, and I fell after 25 pitches. I think I jinxed you, Josh says.
I laugh. No way, man. This is way too fun to be jinxed. Josh takes the lead, and we swap the rest of the way to the top. There’s one final 5.12 that ascends a steep, overhanging arête. It’s a beautiful pitch that moves dynamically between pockets.
At the summit, there’s a knoll of breaking rock and thorny shrubs I mistakenly lean against. Three days to climb this beast of a wall and we’re greeted by fresh cow patties. I guess there’s always an easier way to the top, I say. Josh laughs, coiling the ropes, and I charge my phone with a small solar panel.
Across the canyon, small plumes of smoke rise from illegal farms. Josh just says it—I can’t believe he’s gone. Goddamn best American climber of our generation.
Josh and I talk through the smoke rising from our campfire on the summit of El Gigante. He tosses in the shirt he’s been hacking into for nearly a week. The shirt burns for almost an hour.
The sheer three-thousand-foot wall we’ve just climbed is already a memory: fists jammed in cracks, razor-edged rocks pressed with cold finger tips, pulling up water, food, toilet paper, hauling it all. I can imagine Hayden laughing about that bad bivy, Josh says. All night, our legs had dangled off the ledge, shadows of bats cutting the night, spiders creeping over us.
Our laughter falls over into Basaseachi Canyon, comes back. I light a joint as Josh tells me about finding Hayden, puking from food poisoning in Pakistan, then suffering on the summit push when Josh was back at high camp, altitude sick, head swollen, spitting up blood, but saying, It’s okay, get ’er done, and so Hayden went on, leaving him, but not.
Tonight, we’re lying on bedrolls deep in narcoland, sleeping near fields of marijuana and poppies. Josh throws a stone into the bushes, watches me jerk upright. Do you think Rafael will show? It’s five and getting dark. Rafael dropped us off five days ago, and we’d told him in broken Spanish to pick us back up tonight.
Moonlight comes against the red canyon walls; the jungle glows—it’s hard to watch things illuminated the way death does it. Hayden climbed this wall a few years ago, slept at this campfire ring, told stories like us, laughed. He listened to these strange birds flying against the pitch black.
I don’t think Rafael is coming, I say.
Hayden would love that. Josh laughs. Us lost in the jungle, trying to find our way back, running into drug smugglers. The campfire dwindles. Wind traces stunted pines hanging on to ridgelines, disappears beyond the mountaintop, beyond this strange ceiling of physical existence. We zip into our sleeping bags, the last embers casting warm shadows across the night.
That’s one of the best damn routes I’ve ever climbed, Josh says. And it is, but I’ve already forgotten the moves, and the difficulty of the pitches has faded. It’s the company, the laughter, and my friend that I remember.
The next morning, Rafael comes walking through the woods with a young boy. They’ve downed trees, he says, and we can’t drive the truck close. We’ll have to hike. Josh and I never figure out who they are, but when we arrive at Rafael’s truck, there are downed trees and a huge trench has been dug across the road. Rafael shrugs and tosses a rope into the bed of the truck. We pile the rest of our gear in and begin driving back to Fernando’s ranch.
Two days after summiting Logical Progression, we go back to the sport-climbing crag near Basaseachi Falls. There’s a small cave we’d found on our last visit with four exceptional-looking routes. They all look hard, I say to Josh, standing beneath them. We choose the one on the far right to warm up on, and it’s nails hard. I fight my way, bolt to bolt, and then there’s a loud dink of metal snapping. I fall, stopping upside down just feet above a boulder.
Holy shit, man. What happened? We’re confused and think the bolt busted, but then Josh finds the remnants of carabiner on the ground. Was the nose hooked on the bolt? Josh asks.
I don’t think so, I say, but I don’t really know.
I’m shaken and decide I’m done climbing for the trip. There’s only a day left anyway. I think of death; it takes the way wind takes, always moving someplace else. I don’t want to be angry at Jade anymore, though I know our friendship will never again be alive.
Back home, I ask Michelle if I should text Jade, and she says sure. We’re at the hospital, and Michelle’s grandfather is dying. Jade is a doctor. I text, “Hey, are you around? We’re here with Michy’s grandpa and I thought I’d say hi if you are.”
“Nope,” she responds, “in Cali with fam. You guys okay?”
I send her some long text about what’s going on, say happy New Year, and then ask, “How r you?”
The evening light transforms the city outside the windows of the hospital; the headlights of cars cross the bridge over the river far below. Jade never responds, and I’m okay. Maybe, Hayden wrote, maybe the most genuine aspects of any tale are the silences, the acknowledgments of failure, the glimmerings in the dark.
Matt Spohn is receiving his MFA in poetry from Pacific University and lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife Michelle and their climbing Chihuahua, Zoozoo. Matt has freed El Cap, rapped El Cap, bailed off of El Cap, and had a bag of poo tossed on him on El Cap. He has also freed other big walls around the world.
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