It was getting dark, and I was wedged hot dog–style in a two-man tent between two college boys who hadn’t seen soap and water together in six days.
As the January night in Zion National Park grew colder, I thought about how we’d been beaten back by a storm earlier that day. Having climbed the first three pitches of the classic trade route Spaceshot, the weather turned, and it started to snow. Big, wet flakes forced us to the ground, and we headed to the Bumbleberry restaurant in Springdale to eat the lumberjack breakfast special and wait, sopping wet, for the wall to dry.
Sitting there in a puddle on the vinyl booth, it occurred to me that my companions looked a lot like the early misfits/heroes from the naissance of wall climbing, reminiscent of the stuff of legend. It seems like these characters bear mentioning because as a nineteen-year-old girl from the Midwest who found climbing through plastic indoor gym walls, all I seem to hear are tales of the good ol’ days, when men had the cajónes for drunken night solos, and the women were, well, somewhere else.
But then I realized that I’d just called my mom, and the exchange went something akin to saying you’ve run off with the circus and plan to do some incredible stunt with your newfound family:
“Yeah, Mom, I’m in Zion with Scary, Ben, and Fingers.”
“No, we’re at the Bumbleberry right now.”
“Yeah, we’re gonna do Spaceshot.”
“Scary” was a twenty-five-year-old college dropout who was currently living on Ben’s couch. He had no income but managed to stay with friends until just before they asked him to leave—like he had a squatter’s sixth sense. His moniker came from his long, perpetually greasy jet-black hair, mangy beard, pale green eyes, and multiple piercings in each ear. He looked like the pirate captain Black Beard—save for his 1988 Pabst Blue Ribbon sunglasses from a thrift store.
Fingers’s real name was John, but we had resurrected his sixth-grade band-class nickname upon learning that he used to put trumpet oil between his fingers to make them fast on the trumpet keys for his speedy and technical solos of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” We thought it fitting that he was a climber with that name, and occasionally he’d even earn the title “Magic Fingers” on a crimpy test piece.
Ben was left alone with the nickname abuse. However, because there are several Bens in our group, he was sometimes referred to as “Little Ben” to avoid confusion. Oddly, he’s one of the tallest of the group at six feet, with a giant wingspan and had that common climber posture that made him look vaguely like a gorilla—hardly little. We hadn’t admitted it to one another yet, but we’d spent the previous handful of months spending more time together than not, awkwardly circling the concept of a romantic relationship at various hanging belays, moonlight ascents of desert towers, and found ourselves more often camping as a duo instead of with our larger friend group.
Needless to say, regarding the trip with this misfit group, I was like the furniture in a porn film—utterly forgettable compared to the main action—but I was happy to be along for the ride. Some folks in the older generations of climbing hem and haw about the unforgettable characters from their so-called Golden Age, but I had a pirate, an ape, and ten “magic fingers” with me.
Eventually the climb dried up, and the next day we happily launched upward again in the perfect winter sunlight. Ben and I went first, and behind us Fingers and Scary learned as fast as they could. When the limp winter sunlight began to really wane, I grinned that we were going to be off the wall before dark. Finally going to have a big climb done with good style in a timely manner! As novice big wall climbers, our early attempts had been punctuated by minor misadventure, poor planning, and half-baked decisions that teenagers on big(ger) routes tend to make. (See: headlamp-battery death, water-consumption-calculation error, physical-performance malfunction due to zero sleep and too much caffeine, etc.) But Ben and I had done enough aiding together that we’d begun to hone our nascent skills and made a good team. Ben pushed the pace so that we would top out around four, with plenty of time to find the rappel station and get back to camp before dark.
As I jimmied with an uncooperative piece of gear, a realization clicked in my mind, and I looked at Scary and Fingers four pitches below me, struggling with gear, ropes, and the fatigue of new systems. They were diligent in their progress, but the learning curve was steep; Scary had never been higher than a four-pitch route, Fingers had spent the autumn cragging in Eldo, and here they were launching into an unknown world of new elevation and new aid climbing. Theirs was the burden made by that classic mix of young men, boldness, and naïveté: common, not life threatening, but a little tiring. The route in general was a well-traveled trade route and a great place to develop one’s big wall skills, but it’s a respectable challenge to attempt as a one-day push on a very short winter day for relative novices. I thought proudly of how well we were all doing but then remembered they needed our ropes to get down too. Ben and I would have to wait for them. Suddenly, my down coat didn’t seem so warm, and the Pop-Tart I’d had a few hours ago seemed too meager. I felt that vague sick feeling that one gets when you know you’re going to survive the impending situation, but it’s not gonna be fun.
I resigned myself back to my task and jugged upward. Coming to a narrow, sloping ledge, I saw that I’d have to crawl about thirty feet to the right to get to the next piece. Here’s where fatigue and general laziness combined, and the idea occurred to me that instead of creeping slowly rightward on the tiny ledge, I could just unweight the rope, remove the cam above me, and gently pendulum to where I needed to be. I could just ease up, unclip, and have a fun little swing. I leaned back and peered to my right, scoping along the rounded ledge until it swept out of sight. It looked safe. It seemed safe. It was for sure safe. Definitely. I yelled up to Ben to let him know what I was up to, and his white helmet and two buggy eyes popped over the ledge with a look of concern.
“You’re sure it’s safe?”
“Mmmm…” Long pause. “Yeah. It’s solid.” My laziness and ignorance helped me feign confidence.
I let fly. The swing was a lot longer than expected. The hand of gravity disappeared from my guts as I dropped in a long arc and began to spin despite my best efforts. As I hollered and came to a stop, I saw Fingers far below me. He hadn’t moved beyond the section he was struggling with. I sighed again and looked above. Gravity returned, and my stomach dropped eight pitches to the ground.
Fifteen feet above my hands was a conspicuous blue line running along a sandstone edge. It looked like someone had carefully run a crayon along the corner. I knew instantly that it was melted nylon and followed the trail to its source. The rope was frayed. From my vantage point, I knew it was holding me, but couldn’t see by how much. For a moment, my forehead rested on the rope as I hung there nine hundred feet above the ground, gently spinning in the large amphitheater created by the ledge I had refused to crawl across. I sighed shakily, pushing up my ascenders, and cursed at each movement’s jarring motion on the rope. Finally at eye level with my mistake, I saw that the cord still had a considerable amount of core left, the workhorse of the rope, but wasn’t relieved until my ascenders were above the cut. I finished cleaning the pitch in a numb haze.
Pulling myself onto the final ledge of the route, I didn’t feel much enthusiasm for the imminent wait or the averted accident. I just showed Ben the rope and sat down in an exhausted heap, sniffling meekly. I wiped tears away with a dirty, blistered hand while Ben fed me the last of the Pop-Tarts as we watched the sun disappear behind the west side of the canyon.
We tried halfheartedly to find the rappel anchors in the waning twilight, but the slabs and gullies were covered in snow and ice, and it just became more futile and dangerous to wander around in the dark. So, resigned to the long night ahead, we found a fairly flat area on the rock slabs and huddled behind some meager shrubs to wait for the other boys to join the party.
We had a small haul bag with the necessities for a day climb: half a jar of peanut butter, a space blanket, water, a first aid kit, and some not-warm-enough clothing. We dug into the Skippy with a nut tool and mustered enough restraint to save some for the others, to welcome their arrival. I sat in a lump, feeling everything get colder as the light waned. It wasn’t all bad though, because it was a good excuse to huddle closer to Ben. His big arms almost wrapped around me twice as I buried my face in his coat. He’d always been a great climbing partner, but over the years he’d become more important than that, staying solid through life’s proverbial cruxes. It would still be another month before we admitted our feelings frankly to each other, but our partnership already bled beyond tying in to the same rope together. We talked little and began to feel the ache from the day’s hard work settle in. Our postures slumped in the darkness.
A few hours later, John’s stuttering lisp swept up the wall informing us that he just didn’t have it in him to lead the last bit of aiding. Ben threw a rope down, and the duo joined us. They looked like demons emerging from the deep: wild looking, wide-eyed, and loud, still full of adrenaline from the climbing. We showed them to camp and rearranged everything, divvying up every possible insulating thing we had. Ben and I were left with the space blanket, while Scary put as much of his body in the haul bag as possible, and Fingers flaked the ropes out onto the slabby rock to sleep on and under them. We laughed at our situation, enjoying the new company, until the other boys started to get cold too. Everything quieted down, and we watched Orion emerge in the sky as the breeze picked up.
Hours passed in that kind zombie half-sleep you experience on long plane flights. You’re so exhausted that you have to sleep, can’t keep your lids up. But everything is so damn uncomfortable you’re cursed in a physiological Purgatory. Orion made his rounds oh so slowly, and his pace along the sky seemed far too relaxed for my taste.
After several hours, we had had enough catnapping to be more awake, but sadly, not any more refreshed or comfortable. Scary shifted the bag around and grunted. I rearranged the space blanket around our legs and felt it tear, again. Finally, the discomfort got Fingers up out of his rope envelope, and I heard him stumble off into the dark. I remember feebly reminding him to be careful of the icy edges and hoped he wouldn’t fall into the abyss trying to take a pee.
I reiterated the same conversation Ben and I had had since about midnight.
“You awake?” I’d sniffle.
“Yeah. You cold?” was the response.
“Can’t feel my feet.”
We heard cursing and a rustling behind us, followed by a chuckle. Fingers’s headlamp shined on a chapped, crooked smile and a huge armful of wood. Now, I have faith in my friend, but we’re talking about a guy who got a number two Camalot stuck in his mouth during the ride to the park; I didn’t know what he had in mind. I alternately wondered and worried about what he was up to. I didn’t have to wait long for a response. It came when John dumped his load almost on our feet and started rooting around for the matches. Scary rose from his spot, and we all got excited about the prospect of a fire, park regulations be damned.
Several futile attempts later, we were disheartened, even desperate. The clear night was frigid, and even movement didn’t warm us up since we’d run out of food. Finally, Fingers got out his crisp, brand-new guidebook (that he’d seen fit to haul all the way up the route, an odd but not completely bizarre move in 2004) and began thumbing through it. In the end, he concluded that introductions, prefaces, dedications, and indexes were totally superfluous. They all got ripped out, page by page, and used as kindling.
The fire, made with the last match we had, was wonderful. Spectacular, tropical, sublime. I was enjoying the warmth, standing up and rotating like I was on a rotisserie spit, letting the aches melt away, and feeling my mind go with them. But, before long, as boys will do, as if commanded by some primordial instinct, they stoked the fire ever larger. The heat became uncomfortable, and I moved, sweating, farther from my original post, vaguely aware that my synthetic clothing would incinerate at close range.
Finally, the raging fire tempered, exhaustion brought some sounder sleep, and a few hours later, dawn began to fizzle out the night’s cold. We packed up slowly, in no rush to reawaken our aching muscles. As we shouldered the last of the gear and headed out, I glanced back at our little spot, wondering if I’d be back and feeling relief to be going. The views of the soft-pink dawn breaking on the surrounding clifftops glazed in ice and snow were magical, but our focus was already leveled at the shaded valley floor and how we were going to get there.
Following the minimal instruction from Fingers’s guidebook on how to find the rappel anchors, we picked our way carefully, carefully down the slabs, moving from one dry spot or patch of trees to another, avoiding as best we could the bulletproof sheets of ice clinging to the rock. They were impossible to avoid though. The rappel anchors were a long way down the gullies, and it seemed like even the most circuitous route ended up at an ice rink. We walked single file, with Ben bent under the weight of the haul bag, testing each suspect step with a twist of his foot before he put his considerable weight down upon his treadless old approach shoes. After a while, we settled into a quiet rhythm, too tired to do anything but make the occasional comment and try to walk carefully.
It’s odd how I struggle to remember that walk before it happened. But from the moment Ben put his foot down and it slipped, everything moved very clearly, as translucent as the ice he fell on.
He put his left foot down gingerly and twisted it, hearing the reassuring sound of sandstone grit. As he lifted and set his right foot, there was no sound. The black ice took him and pulled his whole weight, haul bag and all, down the slab. We were frozen, watching him sliding down the progressively steep rollers, seeing the situation get more and more desperate, but unable to do a thing.
Maybe Fingers yelled out to him—I don’t know. I only felt the blood rush to my face in paralyzing fear as I watched Ben pinned under the weight of the haul bag, sliding faster down the tiered slabs and trying in vain to snatch at bushes and shrubs with his bleeding hands, pressing his face and body against the rock in a vain attempt to slow the accelerating descent. I saw him try for the first bush and miss it, then he plowed right past the clump of small trees. His movements during those brief moments got more and more desperate as our paralysis stiffened watching him, literally, fight for his life.
As the final edge of the slabs came into view, somehow, he just…stopped. Grabbed something, stuck to something, stopped moving toward the end. I don’t remember how close he came, maybe fifty feet, maybe five. Close enough. The details blur here. I think someone yelled. If there’s something in a person that turns on when our loved ones are threatened, it clicked in me. Fingers started shouting to Ben, and I hissed at him to shush up—Ben was saying something from below. He was far enough below us that we had to shout back and forth. Our exchange was frantic, Ben was muttering and mumbling constantly, but he managed to relay he wasn’t hurt. The guys strained to hear what he was saying, but I realized his words were coming out like the blood on his palms: quick and scattered. His thoughts and his pants were in the same condition: shredded and fragmented.
It didn’t take long to assess the situation after he stopped. He was okay, talking constantly and nonsensically, and we had to get down to him. I remember my livid response when the boys decided my idea to put one another on belay was unnecessary and silly. My female survivor mode vetoed their idea. We crept, rope length by rope length, down to Ben. During the half hour or more that it took us to descend what Ben slid down in a matter of seconds, his jabbering was almost constant. His usually quiet demeanor was in a kind of processing overdrive, and to this day, I know he’s only really concerned about the situation, be it in the mountains or anywhere else, if he starts to talk a lot.
In some weird twist of fate, when we reached the point where Ben’s slide had stopped, we found the first rappel anchors almost exactly level with that spot. Those before us had determined that elevation to be the terminus of safe, unroped descent. They obviously hadn’t undertaken that slab descent in winter. As he came toward us, Ben’s speech oscillated between rapid-fire mumbling and wide-eyed silence. Overwhelmed, I didn’t know whether to hold his whole body or avoid touching him, so I just leaned up against his back and felt each gently shaking heave of breath while we rigged the first rappel.
The rappels, happily, were uneventful. It was a strange and quick transition from life-threatening mistake to talking about buying ice cream and taking showers. The boys seemed to process everything so quickly, while I dutifully completed each rappel in succession, feeling jaded, but somehow giddy. By the time we dropped the eight hundred or so feet, touching real, soggy ground, we were all elated. But the morning sun was heating up, and as we walked up the bank onto the road, exhaustion hit me like August heat in Georgia, like a sweaty hug from a drunk uncle. Basically, it was unavoidable and oppressive. Seeing my intrepid partners’ heroine-addict eyes, blood-shot and darkened, I knew they felt pretty whipped too.
As we walked farther toward our vehicle, an old man, sitting in a vinyl lawn chair next to his camper, welcomed us back to Earth. He’d been watching our progress during the day before and saw the glow of our fire from below that night. As he asked about the details of the climb and the adventurous descent, he offered coffee from a blue tin cup. We all revived from our various states of fatigue and perked up into story mode.
He showed us the sketch he did of us on the wall, and we all told him about the crux pitches, my stupid pendulum, and Ben’s slide. He talked about his life on the road, camping and hiking, and we talked about our long night out and our lives back in Colorado. Finally, the coffee gone and the sun overhead, he offered to take our photo. Like an “after shot” with no discernable “before.” Looking at the picture on the tiny camera screen, I was reminded of a famous photo of Jim Bridwell, John Long, and Billy Westbay, in various triumphant poses and bizarre-fashion ensembles, after their first one-day ascent of The Nose in Yosemite. It was going to look good in a frame.
The photo never made it out of that beat-up old digital camera though. I accidentally deleted it fumbling with the memory card. So there’s no record of our triumphant completion of a fine sandstone wall. No picture to remind us of our Golden Age. I found out recently, however, that both Scary and Fingers each have a lobe of an old fixed cam they dislodged from the route that day on their keychains as a memento sixteen years later. And Ben and I just celebrated our twelve-year anniversary.
It’s true that many climbs have been done that weren’t before, and it is absolutely a fact that it’s harder than ever to get off the beaten path these days. But, to those who say the adventure is gone, well, with all due respect to the pioneers of climbing, I say: bullshit. Every route I do is a first ascent, because it’s the first time I’ve touched it, even with all the beta and #superdetailedtotallyaccuratefounditontheinternet information, you can’t really know a climb until you’re there. I think those who lament the loss of a better time in climbing, those who reminisce about the greatness of climbing’s former Golden Age, are condemning the adventurers of today to having nothing left to do. But when you think of it in terms of internal exploration, discovery of oneself and one’s friends, and doing what may have been done before, but better, faster, cleaner, and with more panache, well, then the Golden Age of this thing we love has never ended and (hopefully) never will.
Amanda Kiessel is an emergency medicine physician assistant who likes to climb, surf, ski, and mountain bike, and she can’t remember when or why she originally wrote this piece but found it on a computer under the bed.