Climbing the Thumb

I was awake, eyes still closed. The warmth from the nascent sun slowly embraced my body, its fingertips inching across my sleeping bag as light preceded heat. The air in the bed of the truck was cold, empty; even a whisper would have echoed across the stillness. There’s something about waking up in the mountains, about knowing of the surrounding majesty, even buried in a dense pine forest with frost accumulating on the inside of a camper shell. The world is quiet. Life floods around me, through me, life that comes from feeling the crisp air sear my lungs and gazing across an expanse of landscape grander than anything I could ever imagine, landscape that makes me feel tiny, yet alive. More alive than I feel anywhere else.

I rocketed upright, nearly smacking my head on the top of the camper shell. I set an alarm, it was supposed to be an early morning, and here we were sleeping while the sun illuminated our private sanctuary. I wrenched my body around, grasping for my watch, clipped to my water bottle next to my pillow. A sigh of relief escaped my lips. Still ten minutes of pre-adventure rest left.

I lay back down, retreating to the fortress of my sleeping bag, but the rush of adrenaline had already conquered my body’s faculties for the near future. Joseph, lying next to me, opened his eyes in response to my sudden movements.

“Sorry, I thought we’d overslept,” I said through the thick down of my sleeping bag; His own was cinched tightly around his face, exposing a small oval containing his nose and the center portions of his eyes and mouth. He lay on his side, and when I turned to look at him, he smiled, that smile that lets me know he wouldn’t rather be anywhere else besides here, next to me; that smile that melts my heart and makes me look forward to a forever with many more of them.

“Good morning babe,” he murmured.

“Good morning.”

I was next to a man who, like me, knows what it’s like to be in the mountains.

We took advantage of the nearby toilets at the established campground where we had parked his truck in the dark the night before. No plumbing, but at least there was a door, and disposing of toilet paper didn’t require a trowel and forgiving dirt. Though it was May in New Mexico, the cold mountain air seemed to cut straight through our clothes and freeze our very bones.  Shivering, we deflated our sleeping pads and began the winding drive to the top of the Sandia Crest, in pursuit of sun and adventure.

At the summit parking lot, Joseph assembled his backpacking stove on the tailgate while I began pulling food for the day from the cooler in the cab. My hands shook and the cold drove tiny pinpricks all over my skin, until my fingers grew completely numb and I fumbled with Clif bars and apples as if I had only stumps attached to my shoulders. Even wrapped in layers of wool and fleece, I periodically escaped the truck’s shady spot at the edge of the lot to let the sun warm my body. Joseph handed me a mug of instant coffee, which morphed in my hands into an elixir of life as its warmth filled my insides and I felt my brain emerge from its cold, damp cave.

Joseph getting the gear ready in the early morning light.

As it did so, I felt my heart began to race, to climb from its proper spot in my chest up into my throat and send tingles of nervous anticipation to every corner of my body. It was a feeling beyond a caffeine high, beyond any kind of artificially induced reaction; it was pure adrenaline, an acute and terrifying awareness of my own mortality, the irony of knowing that my heart was pounding because I recognized the possibility that it might, today, cease to beat. And yet, even as I fought to keep from losing myself to this animalistic, potent desire to keep living, I knew that in the end, such existential awareness would only enrich the experience and its ultimate rewards.

I tried my best to hide my apprehensions, to display a façade of self-assurance to Joseph as he began to organize his many pounds and hundreds of dollars of climbing gear in the back of his truck. I wonder if you realize how much I trust you, I thought, watching the sun creep across the parking lot until it bounced off of his orange down jacket. He had followed a friend up this particular climb before, and this would be his first true alpine lead. Despite the heavy responsibility weighing on him during this trip, he carried himself with the poise of a man who knows where he’s headed. I marveled at his habit patterns, the way he meticulously arranged each cam and carabiner, the same as he had countless times before. The increased complexity, exposure, and danger of this climb made no difference to his preparation, which had developed over time in the anticipation of routes like this one. My fear lingered, but my confidence grew, as did my resolve to prove to both him and myself that I was capable of the mental and physical feat we were about to attempt.

Prior to the climb, I never actually questioned whether I had the physical capability to complete it. I had run a marathon a few months prior, and continued to train for endurance triathlons; my stamina rivaled any standard of fitness, and I knew it would be enough to withstand a full day of alpine climbing Our planned route up the Thumb, a prominent feature of the Sandia Mountains overlooking the sprawling Albuquerque metropolis, while longer than anything I had ever attempted, was on the easy side of moderate in technical difficulty. There would be few moves that would test my skill as a climber, and plenty of chances for rest in between stints of white-knuckled death grips on holds as we moved steadily upward. Beyond all of this, I knew Joseph wouldn’t lead me up a route beyond my ability. The consequences of bailing halfway up were dangerous, exhausting, and expensive, more so for him than for me. And in the end, we both wanted to complete this experience with our bodies and relationship intact.

What made my heart race that morning as we divided gear between backpacks and prepared to start down the trail was the mental test I knew I was about to endure. For six hours we would climb, each of the six roped pitches leaving us more exposed to the elements and to the dangers of a fall. The possibility of freezing, of allowing my mind to overcome my body and simply leave me helpless, haunted me. In the weeks leading up to the trip, I had felt nervously confident; now, the morning when it all became real, waves of nausea swept over me, as if time and distance had been the dam that held them back. I forced my concentration to the beauty surrounding me and to the company of the man I loved, trying to ignore the creeping doubt punctuated by moments of pure panic that threatened to envelop me.

“Ready to go?” Joseph slung his yellow pack onto his back, the rope that had been transformed over time from bright blue to deep navy by gear grime and dirt draped over the top. I swallowed, nodded. Lifted my own backpack onto my shoulders. Took a deep breath.

Like many alpine climbs, the bottom of the Thumb lay at the end of a two-hour hike, which provided ample chance for us to warm our numbed extremities and for me to fall into the familiar rhythm of walking through the mountains. I breathed in the alpine air, letting the faint, crisp smell of pines and cold fill my nostrils, hoping the familiarity would calm me in the midst of this completely foreign experience. We hiked in the shade down the west side of the range, talking about our varied college experiences, our parents, black coffee, anything to remove my thoughts from the daunting task ahead. The trail began at the same altitude as the top of the climb itself and switchbacked downward towards the bottom of the ridge. We would cover this same vertical distance four times that day, twice by trail, once on the roped ascent, and once during the scramble down the backside of the Thumb. We anticipated the mild temperatures and dry weather of late spring in New Mexico, giving us at least twelve hours of daylight to reach our goal.

I followed Joseph downhill, taking comfort in the low rumble of his voice as we walked. We drew nearer to the bottom of the trail, turned a corner, and through a break in the trees . . . there it was. The sun was already painting the Thumb’s summit, its brush beginning at the top and sweeping steadily downward as the sun rose and conquered the shadows cast by the surrounding mountains. It was huge, intimidating, looming there in the distance and taunting me, making my heart race anew at the mere thought of climbing the knife edge of a ridge armed with only our skill and what we carried on our backs.

The Thumb, with an iPhone . . . On a related note, if anyone would like to follow me around and be my life photographer, the position is open.

Joseph stopped in front of me.

“Looks pretty cool, doesn’t it?” he asked. I smiled and nodded, awed by its jagged edges and the way it seemed to shoot straight up out of the forest. Despite my fear, I was absolutely in love with this place, with this feeling.

We resumed our march towards that gleaming tower of rock. “It looks so big from here,” Joseph said, gazing towards the Thumb. “Isn’t it funny how much scarier things look from far away?”

I thought about life, about the towers that loomed in my future, about starting a new job, getting married, having children, or not having children, finding meaning. How scary it all looks, from a distance. How scary it had all looked before, going to college, relocating alone, finding love. Yet one day, one step, one pitch at a time, and in the end, none of it was as insurmountable as it seemed. And neither will this be, this climb, or tomorrow’s, the ones that last for six hours on an alpine ridge, or the ones that last for decades in a world riddled with heartache and uncertainty. A soft smile spread across my face.

Another hour of hiking passed as the sun began to illuminate the trail beneath our feet, and suddenly, we rounded a corner and emerged at the bottom of a cliff with two options: climb up, or turn around. My disquietude at our impending endeavor had increased with every step towards the beginning, and my shallow breathing echoed through the silence of the canyon as we unloaded gear from our backpacks and began to cinch our harnesses against our bodies. I clipped an empty carbineer to each side of my harness, along with a tool used for dislodging particularly stubborn nuts from cracks in the rock (given the original name “nut tool”), and fastened my chalk bag around my waist. Joseph loaded his own harness with various tiny pieces of highly engineered metal, most of which he would wedge into the rock as he climbed to protect himself in the case of a fall. With practiced hands he tied one end of the rope into his harness and directed me to do the same before attaching it to my belay device. He built an anchor at the base of the first pitch, to prevent an early fall on his part from dragging us both over the cliff below.

“Are you ready?” He looked at me and smiled, comfortable, poised and prepared to take the next logical step, which was to begin the climb. I briefly wondered if I could truthfully answer yes when in reality I had no concept of the depth of the adventure I was undertaking.

I put on my brave face, hoping my shaking hands didn’t belie my pretense of confidence. “Ready as I’ll ever be,” I said, and he began the climb. We chatted as he moved through the first fifteen feet of the route, him celebrating with each skillful placement of protection, me willing his comfort to be contagious.

Joseph starting the first pitch.

And then . . . he was gone. The route moved around the edge of the spire at whose base I stood, and I lost sight of him as he continued his journey upward. It was surreal, feeding slack to him as he moved further away, the only evidence of his presence the slight pressure on the rope. I took in the view, down into the canyon and over the northern end of Albuquerque, an area that many saw, but I from an angle only accessible to climbers. The shadow of the rock left my belay spot chilled, a feeling magnified by my solitude, and I inched as near to the sun as I dared before my fear of the edge defeated my desire to be warm.

KATIE . . . OFF . . . . BELAY! The sound echoed off the mountains, like rain falling on me from every direction. It didn’t even sound human, though it clearly came from Joseph, safely positioned at a belay station above me.

“JOSEPH . . . BELAY . . . OFF!” I replied, wondering if he would hear me from my ensconced position at the base of the rock.

Hands trembling from a combination of cold and sheer terror, I disconnected my belay device, tied my climbing shoes, and stuffed my fleece in my backpack. As if pulled by God himself, the rope at my feet began to travel upwards, until it reached the end tied to my harness. “THAT’S ME!” I yelled. A few seconds later, KATIE . . . BELAY . . . ON! reached my ears. I began undoing the anchors, trusting my life to the disembodied voice somewhere above me on this rock tower.

I imagined Joseph’s encouragement as if he were next to me. Okay, pretty girl. You got this. Come on, pretty girl. You can do it. Without the support of another human, I began whispering to myself, harnessing the hundreds of divergent thoughts inside my overactive brain towards on goal: hand over hand, foot over foot. One step, one pitch at a time. It’s so much scarier from far away.

Upward I moved, through the crack where Joseph started, and around the corner, where my body hung above a sheer drop. My breath caught in my throat, but I kept moving. The west-facing mountain had yet to see the sun, and my hands burned with cold at each touch of the rock. As I climbed, I removed the protection Joseph had placed in the rock and hooked it to my harness. Though I moved easily, I felt fear like a battering ram threatening to break down my walls. I pushed it aside, concentrated on this one moment, on the moves necessary to lead me to Joseph and to where I would stand upright at the belay station.

And then, there he was, just a short scramble above me. More than ever, I fought to keep my resolve, concentrating on every movement even though all I wanted in that moment was to scramble as quickly as I could to the top and firmly anchor myself to a rock. He smiled and called encouragement to me, his positive attention strengthening my resolve to not look like a flailing, scared child as I moved upwards. To my great amazement, I smiled back.

Once I had clipped myself safely to the anchors he had built, we began transferring gear piece by piece from my harness to his. By then end, he was laden with cams and nuts of all shapes and sizes, runners draped like sashes across his chest. I struggled to unzip my backpack, intending to wrap myself in my fleece as we stood once again in the shadows. Joseph noticed my shaking hands.

“Are you cold?”

I nodded. “Cold . . . and slightly terrified.” His brow furrowed a bit, and I quickly added, ”But good. It’s beautiful here.” Our view had only improved from our last perch; we were truly isolated here, above the city, above the trail. Below us, we could see hikers as small as ants, hear their voices as the thin mountain air carried them far beyond their normal range. Physically close, yet practically so far away, the evidence of their presence made our isolation that much more obvious, that much more palpable. A cliff fell behind us; after a steep drop, the forest resumed its sweep of the landscape, and through the saddle in which we sat, for the first time we could see all of Albuquerque in the distance.

Joseph pulled me close and rubbed my arms, attempting to warm my chilled body, and perhaps my nerves as well. “Are you doing okay? Is this all right?” I pulled my head from his chest, where it rested comfortably against his tall frame, and looked up. Smiled.

“Yes. It’s scary, but good scary. And amazing.”

He smiled back. “Okay. Let’s get moving then. The next pitch is the longest, around 150 feet.”

We moved once again through our routine, attaching gear and double-checking harnesses  Knowing what to expect increased my comfort with the process, and I felt my fear recede slightly. Before long, Joseph began the second pitch.

This time, though, Joseph struggled. The ease of movement that had characterized his first climb was gone. I listened as his breathing became labored, watched as he muscled his body up through a crack that seemed to claw against him and prevent forward progress. The moves looked difficult, and though he never fell, it was clear the route was stretching his comfort level as a climber. The more he struggled, the more nervous I became, knowing that his skills far outstripped mine. Even attached to a secure rope, logical or not, the idea of falling terrified me. I felt my body begin to shake once more as Joseph finally reached the top of the first steep section. He paused to rest.

“Oh, Katie, I’m sorry,” he said as he looked down over the other side of the rock. “I made this way harder than it needed to be.” I waited as he looked at the path of lesser resistance that was more exposed but technically less difficult than the crack he had chosen. Finally, he said, “Okay, we have two choices. You can lower me back down from here and I can lead up the easier part, or you can just follow up this harder section.”

“Well . . . how hard is it?” I felt two halves of myself fighting a cutthroat battle within me. One side wanted desperately to be tough, to not be a wimp, and certainly to not make Joseph redo part of the climb simply because I was apprehensive about something of greater difficulty than originally intended. Nothing bothered me more than being a liability. The other side, however, was simply terrified, and cold, and high above the ground on a steep mountain. The idea of tiny holds and difficult moves was the last thing I wanted.

“Oh, maybe a 5.8,” he said, which was still well within my abilities for a gym climb or artificially protected rock. But this? This was exposed, this was real.

“I mean, do you think I can do it?”

“Yeah, I think you can, if you’re comfortable with it.”

I paused for another second, until stubbornness won out. “Okay, just . . . when I start, keep me tight, okay?”

“Of course I will.” With that, he disappeared from the top of the tower and continued his ascent.

I pushed myself against the rock below his route, poised on a much narrower ledge than the first belay station. The rock formed a little alcove that seemed to trap the cold air, and I began to shiver again. I marveled at the view, tried to keep my heartbeat in check, and watched the rope slowly disappear from the pile at my feet. The nerd in me emerged, and I comforted myself with simple math problems in my head, mostly dealing with climbing safety: if the rope is seventy meters long, and the pitch is 150 feet tall, there should be about sixty feet of rope left when he reaches the top. But as I slowly fed slack up to him, I began to wonder if he had missed the station. I suppose this could be sixty feet still, I thought, then, No, this is definitely more like thirty, and with ten feet left, I began to wonder what I would do if he had reached the end of the rope without finding a safe place to stop and belay me. The slack in the rope ran out, and I was holding tight to the brake end of the rope, my hand between my belay device and my harness with only a few inches of rope on either side. He was at the other end, doing . . . what? Looking for a place to climb down, without being able to tell me what was next? Stuck at the top of a ledge? I hadn’t heard any calls, which had carried through the canyon so easily last time. I waited, holding the rope tight, feeling that eventually he would execute his plan, whatever that might be, and I would simply figure it out, as long as I kept the rope tight and didn’t let him fall.

The city. I could see the city! Surely, surely my cell phone would work up here. He may not be able to hear his, or answer, and using a telephone in the wilderness seemed a bit like cheating, but I had reached a point of desperation at which I would try anything. Careful to keep one hand firmly clasped around the rope in case I was still his only protection against a fall, I unzipped my backpack and dialed Joseph’s number.

“Hello?” I had never felt such a rush of relief to hear his voice on the other end of the line. He was alive, and we were talking, and we would figure out this minor fiasco. No more leaning against this cold rock wondering what was next.

“Well hey . . . what’s going on up there?” I asked, barely able to contain the laughter in my voice.

“I was just about to ask you the same thing.”

“Are you at the belay station?”

“Yeah. I called off belay, and was waiting for you to climb.”

“Oh . . . I never heard you. I thought you’d missed it and reached the end of the rope.”

He laughed. “Nope, you’re on belay, and can climb when ready..”

“Okay, see you in a bit.”

Laughing to myself, realizing we had just spent a half hour playing long-distance tug-of-war on an alpine rock climb, I began to prepare my gear for the climb. Backpack positioned, shoes tied, here we go. But . . . the anchor that Joseph had placed at his head height while standing on the ledge was out of my reach. I would have to climb to the left, outside of the crack, to retrieve the cam and then traverse back to the right to follow the crack, and the rope line, to the top. Okay, no big deal, I can do this, I thought.

Retrieving the cam was simple; I clipped it to my harness and began scouting my next move, the one that would realign me with the rope inside the crack. What I didn’t see from the bottom, what I couldn’t have known, was that a five-foot gap separated me from my desired position, devoid of any footholds to aid my traverse. With Joseph out of shouting distance, I couldn’t ask for slack in the rope to climb back down to start again. Though Joseph kept the rope taught above me as promised, I was stuck next to a gap that dropped for thousands of feet. Looking behind me I could see down to the parking lots at the bottom of the mountain range, cars that looked to be the size of a fingernail winding on the roads below. Falling, or even just leaning some extra weight on the rope to facilitate the first couple of steps, had almost no consequences or danger associated with it, but alone on the rock and out of sight of my belayer, I couldn’t convince my feet to move. Just take a tiny risk, I told myself. You can do it, and if you screw it up, Joseph will catch you. For the first time all day, I could not convince my body to obey. The longer I held onto the rock, the colder my hands became, and I began to doubt my ability to climb up the crack once I slid myself into the bottom of it. Ten minutes of paralyzing fear passed, this feeling that made me want to cry and scream and just be done with this whole experience . . .

But in the end, those things were not options. Sure, I could lose control, freak out as much as I wanted, and more than likely, nobody would even hear me. But could I be done? At that point, no. It was either climb, or hang there forever. My body took a deep breath, and I forced the equivalent action within my own brain. I willed my nerves to steady, finally, leaned heavily on the rope, and moved to the bottom of the crack. As I climbed, the much more familiar terror and race against muscle fatigue surfaced as I pulled myself through the moves that had challenged Joseph. I attempted to keep his advice in mind, climbing with my body away from the crack rather than succumbing to the instinct to wedge myself as far inside it as possible. I looked behind me for foot and handholds and used friction to propel myself upward, inch by inch, until finally, I emerged at the top of the spire and disconnected the last piece of protection. I looked at the path ahead of me, and felt my face fall when I saw a long traverse, not steep, but in a steady diagonal climb across the mountain. When a leader climbs straight up a face, as he moves further above the last piece of protection he set, he increases the severity of the whipper he will take if he falls. For a follower, a fall will result in a slight stretching of the rope, but overall it is a very benign experience. Traverses change the dynamic of following, where the consequences of a fall for both climbers are very similar, and thus become just as mentally taxing for the follower as the leader. I stared at the route ahead of me, trying to slow my breathing, knowing that panic causes hurry, hurry causes mistakes, and mistakes cause falls. Eliminate the panic, I told myself, and concentrate. With each piece of protection I removed, I tried to ignore the distance to the next one, the distance I would pendulum if I fell at that moment. It’s so much scarier from far away.

I reached the end of the traverse, pulled myself over a ledge, and found myself a mere five feet from where Joseph sat waiting. I didn’t even attempt a smile, but instead let out a few expletives, and crawled up next to him.

“That was terrifying,” I said, doubled over, leaning my hands on my knees. “Holy (insert favorite curse word here).”

He moved towards me and murmured words of encouragement, his voice ever calm and collected. Just being there with him relieved all the feelings of helplessness I had felt at the bottom, sitting at the end of a slackless rope, or hanging at the bottom of a route to which I simply could not find a solution. Though he was just another human with a rope and some pieces of metal, he was Joseph, he was next to me, and it would be okay, with us there together.

“Just take a minute,” he said, “have some food, take a break.”

I leaned against the rock, shaking from a combination of fear and cold as I pulled a Clif bar from my pack. Joseph rubbed my shoulders, hoping to warm me with the friction as I choked a few calories down into my nervous stomach. Two pitches down, four to go, and a scramble to the top . . . the thought turned my heart into a caffeinated tap dancer inside my chest. I tried to slow my breathing as I pulled my rain jacket on over my fleece, hoping to block some of the mountain wind.

“Can you believe it’s almost June in Albuquerque?” Joseph asked, zipping his down jacket higher on his neck. The sun felt like a hug, like a drink of hot cocoa in the middle of winter. The overwhelming anxiety stemming from the last pitch began to give way to the surrounding beauty, the feeling of insignificance and complete awe in the face of such grandeur. The cliff dropped off below us, straight down to the trail with the tiny multi-colored people whose voices floated up the canyon, the sound loud enough to hear but just faint enough to make the words unintelligible.

“So how are you feeling? Ready?”

A small, evil voice whispered to me, tempted me to tell him no, that I was cold and scared and dubious about my ability to make it to the top. But despite the extreme leap out of my comfort zone that this climb was turning out to be, I wanted to finish it, to prove to Joseph and myself that I was capable of this, and of so much more. On the surface, discomfort and stress seem negative, something to be avoided in favor of relaxation, a sort of sipping-mai-tais-on-the-beach kind of lifestyle. But in the midst of it, buried in the effort that brought sweat to my brow even on such a cold day, there is a thirst to conquer. I knew that every piece of my being – my body, brain, and soul – was absorbed in completing the very immediate, very existential task of climbing this rock, and thus every ounce of energy I had was aimed towards succeeding.

“Yeah, let’s do this.” We tied our shoes, cinched our backpacks down, and I watched Joseph climb the first twenty feet before disappearing once again around the edge of the ridge.

The belay station above the abyss.

The belay station above the abyss.

While the events of the previous pitch had set my nerves on edge, the fact that it was over and we were continuing upward gave me a renewed confidence as we resumed our climb. I segmented the rest of the route into smaller pieces, this one pitch, this one move, this one nut that I had to remove from a particularly tight spot. I drew confidence from the slightly overhung crack I negotiated skillfully, from my increased comfort with cleaning the route, from Joseph’s face perched twenty feet above me, smiling. It looks so much scarier from far away.

At the top of the sixth pitch, with Albuquerque stretching for miles below us until it eventually faded into the dusty desert, the rock’s incline began to shallow. Joseph explained our next moves, outlining our choice to rope up for the rest of the climb, which would be a Class 3-4 scramble. For climbers, anything below a Class 5 route typically does not require a rope, though insurance against a fall is certainly comforting. We could continue upwards as we had been, with one of us belaying as the other climbed; we could simul-climb, meaning we would be roped together with pieces of protection placed between us to guard against a fall, but otherwise climbing concurrently; or we could simply scramble, unroped and carefully, to the top. It was my first lesson in balancing danger and speed in climbing. Negotiating the route one pitch at a time with roped protection might do the most to prevent a fatal fall, but the increased duration of the climb brings with it its own perils, including late-afternoon storms or the possibility of getting stuck on the mountain after dark (known as being “benighted”).

“If you’re uncomfortable, we’ll rope up,” Joseph said. Despite his very genuine expression of this sentiment, I felt my own reputation at stake. Not with him, necessarily, with his depth of patience and unwavering desire for me to enjoy this thing he loved so much, but with myself. Could I look back on a decision to continue with ropes and be content with my choice of immediate comfort above overall safety?   Would I feel defeated by my own fears, my own inability to overcome self-doubt, if I made that choice? I trusted Joseph to know what was wise, and to keep me safe; was that enough to grit my teeth and proceed, hands shaking and heart pounding, up the rest of this rock without a rope?

“Okay, let’s just scramble without a rope, if you think that’s best,” I heard myself say. It was a voice occupying a parallel universe to my quaking nerves, which screamed for immediate physical safety. Breathe. Try to think of something else. You can do this.

Joseph smiled. “Okay, cool. There are a lot of exposed parts, but the climbing isn’t difficult, and when the climbing gets harder, it’s less exposed, so it’s a good beginner scramble. You’ll do great.” I tried to match his optimism, tried to soak in the comfort he exuded, which helped me more than his words ever could. But still, doubt cut through my shell of confidence even as the wind penetrated my clothes and chilled my insides.

My heart beat rapidly inside my chest as we started upward, making my own mortality obvious and undeniable. I spend the majority of my days at a desk, safe, able to rest with reasonable certainty knowing that I will probably see tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that. Some days, I leave that desk to pilot an aircraft, to become the only line of defense against my soft body’s high-speed collision with the earth amongst a mess of metal and gasoline-fueled inferno. Yet the existential threat does not seem so immediate; perhaps it’s the metal structure surrounding me, or the firm aircraft floor beneath my feet, or knowing that even physical or mental miscalculations are rarely so grave as to result in quick and unavoidable death. It is certainly dangerous, but I feel removed from that danger, and in greater control of my own fate.

Out here, life is different, more fragile, and more precious. When the wind blows, it knocks my body off balance; when my fingers sweat, they slip off the rock and lose the only grip holding me above a certain fall to my death. There are no safeguards, no emergency checklists, no backup crewmembers to salvage a poorly placed foot or sloppy reach for the next hold. I am, unquestionably, facing my own death with every inch I move upwards. There is no upper-level mathematics or deep philosophical thinking on the rock, yet my brain is sharp, focused, channeling its extreme fear of falling into the perfect placement of each hand, each foot.

The exposed scramble.

The exposed scramble.

Joseph with the Thumb in the background, in between the roped and unroped sections.

Joseph with the Thumb in the background, in between the roped and unroped sections.

And so I followed Joseph upward, covering a thousand vertical feet, sometimes crawling, sometimes climbing with him above me. I felt thirst, hunger, and fatigue sneaking up behind me, threatening to outstrip my body before my I reached the top. Knowing that the day’s exertion was taking its toll forced me to channel my concentration into staying safe through these final feet to the summit. The ridgeline dropped steeply to either side of us, allowing a full view of the tiny stones our feet kicked loose as they tumbled downward and eventually shrank to nothing. Above us, the clouds had begun to build, later than usual for mountains in the summertime, but looking more ominous every second. As I put each difficult move behind me and watched the clouds growing taller and darker in the sky, I was proud and grateful that we had chosen in favor of a faster but more frightening scramble rather than continue our conservative but tedious roped ascent. I zipped my fleece up to the top of my neck as Joseph climbed ahead of me in his down jacket. The wind began to cut through my layers, chilling me even through the blanket of physical exertion I wore through the last part of the climb.

And then . . . there we were. The top, the goal, the tiny patch of flat ground that had been our motivation throughout this adrenaline-charged, terrifying, exhilarating day. A small metal summit marker adorned the top, along with a jar containing signatures of those who had accomplished the same feat in recent history. One man wrote of his solo, unroped climb up the entire route, a feat that I would never dream of. Another shared the triumph of his first alpine lead with all the strangers who would find this notebook. The most recent date we found was a week prior, and I was struck anew by our solitude, despite being in full view of the largest city in New Mexico. Even hauling gear on a twenty-mile hike into the backcountry of the Rockies won’t guarantee the isolation that comes with an alpine climb. The demographic possessing the skills, gear, and sheer teeth-gritting willpower to battle one’s way up terrain clearly not meant for humans is small enough that those who do reap their solitary rewards.

I slid my hand into Joseph’s and gazed around, knowing I was drinking in a view that, despite this particular climb’s relative popularity, would still only fall under the gaze of a small number of people throughout the years. We had done this, together, me conquering the hurdle of my first exposed and extended alpine climb, and him tackling the challenge of shepherding me on his first true alpine lead. And at the end of it all, we stood on the summit together, content to be in the mountains, and knowing the other felt the same way. There is no pressure here, no worry between two people who can know beyond a doubt that the other person’s silence is filled with the same overwhelmed reverence as one’s own. There is unity that comes without words, that goes beyond words, that courses from the mountains up through our boots and into our veins, across our intertwined fingers and penetrates our hearts. Our one heart, the heart that we find, here, in this place. We know that these mountains are not ours to conquer; we are here at their invitation, and we will continue to soak in their majesty only so long as they extend their mercy to us.

Summit Selfie.

Summit Selfie.

Receiving that mercy entails great responsibility, and as the storms continued to swell, Joseph and I took our last summit snapshots and began readying our gear and bodies for the hike down. Over the backside of the ridge was a non-technical path down, with some exposed scrambling early on followed by a short talus field that would lead us back to the trail. Joseph started down ahead of me, and as I gazed at the route I would take, I found myself frozen, staring down a cliff thousands of feet high, the only way around it requiring confidence that I could execute easy but critical moves. And I didn’t think I could do it. Joseph pointed to the holds, pointed to where I was to put my feet, yet every time I attempted the sequence, my foot just barely wouldn’t reach, or the hold felt just barely less than stable. Over and over I began to move, and over and over I crawled back up to my safe spot huddled against a sturdy rock.

It began to rain. I knew the longer I waited, the slipperier the rock would grow, and the worse our situation would become. I had to come down eventually, and this was the way . . . There was no other option, no easier route that would allow my brain to start thinking about ice cream cones and a feathery sleeping bag. I hesitated there, terrified into complete inaction as Joseph coached me from just a few feet below. I wanted to survive this moment, and exposing my body to the drop with only my exhausted fingertips and toes between me and a tragic fall wasn’t simply scary; it was impossible. I didn’t know what else to do, but I knew that I couldn’t do it this way, couldn’t trust my hands and my feet to keep me from that unspeakable end. As I grew more panicked, Joseph grew calmer, encouraging me to try this way, that way, put your foot here or grab that bit of rock there.

His words breathed warm life through my frozen skin. Finally, some foot sequence, some simple weight shift, some tipping of the scales in favor of movement over growing colder and wetter against this rock allowed me to accomplish the move and crawl around the cliff to the forest on the other side. Safe, intact, pride slightly wounded, but alive and moving forward. I had lacked the confidence in my own physical ability to complete that move safely, but in the end had attempted it anyway, and succeeded. It looked scary, poised there above it, so far away from the end, but that moment, and every moment of fear that I have conquered and from which I have moved forward, forced me to grow, to push towards bigger and better things, even if the steps in between each are so small as to be hardly noticeable. As long as I’m moving, as long as I’m growing, as long as I’m reaching for that next hold or tying that next knot, I’m living. The mountains in their infinite wisdom taught me that that day.

We dragged our gear and our bodies down the talus field, trying to ignore the vertical distance we covered downhill and not think about having to walk back to the top once we reached the trail. The rain stiffened, grew from a slight trickle to a steady, frigid curtain, not pounding, but gradually soaking our clothes and backpacks with its persistence. We paused on the trail, donned rain gear, and pushed our exhausted bodies upward once more. The higher we climbed, the colder the air became, and the rain slowly changed to sleet, and then snow. I fell into step behind Joseph and cinched my hood against the snow. We trudged in silence, steadily, as the clouds closed around us, shrouding us in a blanket of cold, quiet solitude. The rustling of my hood against my head filled my ears, barely allowing the faint crunch of Joseph’s shoes on the frozen rock to penetrate this hypnotic world in which we found ourselves. Every time we rounded a corner on the trail, where we once could see the Thumb looming in the distance, now rested only clouds, as if the trail dropped off to the end of the earth and beyond was the unknown, a white abyss that might contain a hundred worlds, or might contain nothing in its purest form. And we had it, all of it, the pine trees and the snow and the majesty of the invisible but ever-present mountains, all to ourselves.

At the top of the trail in the snow-coated parking lot Joseph’s truck awaited us, a fortress of food and heat and protection from the elements that welcomed us into its arms as we dragged our drained bodies inside. My rain jacket had soaked through and I peeled my layers off, piling dry clothes on instead, while we let our fingers regain blood and feeling. We had done it, flirted with all the danger the mountains have in stock, and they had deemed us worthy to emerge even more alive than we entered. Nothing but the mountains can both ask and answer the existential questions we encountered that day. Nothing can fill us up so much and yet still leave us aching for that next taste. Fear had nearly swallowed me whole, but I had pushed through and found life so much brighter on the other side. Things look so much scarier from far away.

Joseph looked at me, grinning, happy with the knowledge that despite the fear that suffocated me at times, I had fallen in love with the experience, and would be back for more, with him. We drove down the winding mountain road, recounting the day’s adventures and reveling in our accomplished exhaustion. Sensation returned to our limbs as we watched the rain pelt against the windshield from inside the warm cab of the truck. A thousand possibilities filled my head for future adventures, future challenges to be dreamed about, taken on, and overcome. Life held so much, on this side of a beautiful, terrifying, roller coaster of a day. With the world ahead of us, I wondered where our next piece of life would begin.

We rounded a corner, and a sign appeared: “ICE CREAM – TURN RIGHT NOW.”

There might be more mountains, more climbs, more moments of fear so intense it carries with it its own backbreaking weight. But in that moment, in the rain with the man I loved, I found life’s next adventure.

Katie at the summit IMG_1466

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One response to “Climbing the Thumb

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