I was stuck 30 feet up. My fingers danced across the smooth granite looking for anything to grab. My feet were precariously balanced on a couple of stubs of rock less than an inch long, and they were slipping. There was no doubt about it now; I was going to fall. I began to sweat, then tremble, like the tiny movements before a major earthquake. As a timid neophyte, I had never fallen while rock climbing; my trust that the rope would hold had never been tested, and for my first climb of the season I wasn't interested in finding out.
I stretched my left arm to what looked like a sturdy hold. But I couldn't reach it without letting go of my inadequate right handhold. My feet were slipping. I had no choice. I lunged up to the left, grabbed the nub of rock, and immediately realized it wouldn't hold me. My hand slipped off. My right hand clawed at the rock, searching for my previous hold as my feet, as if in slow motion, went out from under me. For a moment I was free falling before the slack in the rope grabbed. By the time I stopped, five feet from where I'd started, I was breathing hard and sweating profusely.
I looked down at Bob, my belayer, as he clenched the rope and smiled up at me.
"Don't worry. I've got you," he said casually. He was a wiry, well-seasoned climber, with a mat of white hair and a big-toothed grin. Not only had Bob been my sporadic climbing partner for the past two years, he was also my climbing mentor. I'd never needed to trust his ability to tie knots, rig a harness, or hold on - not, at least, until now. As I looked down the steep cliff-face to the rocky jumble of boulders at the bottom (my landing pad), I was grateful everything had worked. I could trust Bob.
I found a few holds I had used earlier and reattached myself to the rock. But I was ready to come down.
"Bob," I said looking down like a kid with his hand caught in the cookie jar. "You can lower me. Why don't you come give it a try?"
"No. You can beat that rock. I know you can."
"I need to see you do it first," I said. This was the first top-rope climb I'd led. Typically, over our last half dozen outings together in Cheyenne Canyon, a 10-minute drive from Colorado Springs, Colo., Bob had scaled the cliffs first. He'd climbed them for years, and knew the rocks like a pair of old sneakers. I could get an idea of where to go by watching and remembering what route he took. Of course, those climbs had also been substantially easier than this one. Though I'd been challenged by these previous climbs and felt that nervous rush of adrenaline as I'd gotten to spots I thought I could never get past, I'd always managed to make it to the top without relying on the rope. Not this time. And it had shaken me enough to want off, perhaps for good.
Nothing I'd ever done scared me as much as climbing rocks. Perhaps it was because I'd gotten stuck on big rocks twice as a kid, once at 5 and then two years later. Both times the fire department had been called out to come and save me. I'd only been 10 to 15 feet off the ground, but it had felt like a mile, and since the last episode I'd never wanted to climb again. It took 30 years of friends extolling the joys of climbing to get me back on a rock. But as Bob lowered me back to the ground, I was still unconvinced.
"Come on," Bob said as I touched down. "You're not going to give up on this climb, are you?"
"No, I just want to see you do it first," I said without much conviction. "Then I'll try it again."
Bob tied in and set out up the rock. He was a gifted climber, and had been doing this sport for almost 40 years. Watching him gracefully move from hold to hold was almost like watching a dance, his arms moving back and forth across the rock, searching for holds, finding them, and then moving higher, up and across and sometimes back down, but constantly in motion. Seeing the artistry in it reminded me why I kept coming back. There was truly something magical about climbing. It was not just the thrill of making it to the top; it was the whole process.
When you initially looked up at a steep granite cliff, it looked impossible to scale, but when you got on it, holds began to materialize as if by magic. And eventually you found a series of holds, like a series of chess moves, that enabled you to continue upward until you checkmated the cliff by tapping the top anchor.
Even belaying was a joy to me. It gave me the chance to stand quietly and look up at a magnificent work of nature. I sometimes imagined that's what it must be like for artists as they sit all day painting a beautiful landscape. Rarely did I make time to just look at nature. Watching Bob climb and being attuned to my surroundings was rewarding in ways that were not apparently measurable, but I took home memories each time that resonated in my mind.
Finally, Bob got to the part where I'd fallen. I expected him to whiz right through, and I looked closely to see how he was going to beat that portion of the cliff. He tried several holds but each time retreated. Then he stretched for a far-off hold, perhaps the same one I'd tried. He got it, but was stretched out precariously across the rock, and eventually he began to shake.
"You got me?" he called calmly.
"You're all mine," I called back. And he fell. But instead of asking to be lowered, he got back on lower down and tried again. Bob tried for a full half-hour and was soaked with sweat before he finally gave in. His failure told me how tough the rock was, but his amazing perseverance made me want to try again. When he floated to the ground next to me on the rope, he wore a Cheshire Cat grin, and bubbled with excitement. "Wow," he said like a kid with a new toy. "That's some rock."
His enthusiasm was infectious, especially coming from a man more than 20 years my senior.
"I'm going back up," I said.
And I did. I got back to the impassable spot and fell again, and again, and again. I never did make it past that section, but I conquered my fear of falling. From that moment on, and for the rest of the summer, I never let a rock beat me so easily. It turned out that Bob had been more than a mentor - he'd been an inspiration.