A fragment I'm working on as I think of the past, and the future. Like many of the things I post here, it's an idea, a speculation, a seed. Above, I'm desending from the flank of El Capitan in December, 1996. Photo by Chiu Liang Kuo.
Acres of glaze ice slid off the summit slopes of El Capitan, two thousand feet above our two-foot wide perch. White flakes launched gracefully into the frigid morning sky, expanding as they twirled down at us. Chiu yelled “Ice!” and I shouted an expletive as I pressed myself to the metal-cold granite wall, squeezing in my shoulders and trying to hide under my puny helmet. My gloved hands death-gripped the sling connecting my climbing harness to a bolt imbedded in the rock. Slabs of ice rained past us with the sound of immense whirling blades. Jet-engine whooshes sucked at my innards.
We were 1,200 feet up the vertical cliff. Chiu started arranging his rappel and I helped in a frenzy of clipping and unclipping, tying knots and backups. Without a word Chiu stepped backwards and disappeared over the edge. The purple and red ropes went taut as cable as his full weight was applied. A moment later I side-stepped to clip myself to his anchors and when I did a suitcase-sized ice slab exploded on the ledge where I’d just stood. I squeezed my eyes shut and held Chiu’s ropes, waiting for them to slacken and tell me he’d reached the next ledge, 160 feet below. When they did I clipped a heavy cargo bag to my harness and scrambled clumsily over the edge, crashing backwards down the rock wall, trusting everything to the two, half-inch diameter ropes. Between my dangling legs I could see the broccoli mosaic of trees over a thousand feet below. Sliding jerkily down the ropes I envisioned an ice chunk shearing the bolt from the rock and the free fall that would follow, the tangle of recoiling ropes and my body and the cargo bag tumbling through the air. I envisioned the clean granite ledge sawing through the ropes. The heavy bag pulled at my harness straps, cutting like hot knives into the tendons joining my thighs and crotch. I was sure permanent damage was being done but I kept sliding down the ropes, desperate to get away from the cascade of ice.
Three hours later we landed at the pines at the base of the cliff. Crusty snow covered the forest floor, the trees were hard as ice and there was no pine scent. We shook with cold and fright, staggering stiffly through uneven snow patches. When we reached camp we collapsed on the ground, laughing hysterically, gulping air and hooting, shaking our heads.
“That was too close!”
“Well, we made it.”
“Yeah. We made it.”
At the bar I sank deep into a plush leather seat and ordered beer after beer without a though for the bill. The fact of money was gloriously irrelevant. We were alive, electrified and exhausted, more spirits than men. We had achieved transcendence. I didn’t know, then, that there were many paths to this euphoric state of peace and self-realization. Some reached it through meditation or contemplation, some through drugs or sex or running marathons or building cathedrals from matchsticks or painting or singing. For Chiu and me the path had to wind through a wilderness bristling with mortal dangers, a path laid by belief in the redemption of Adventure, of pitting oneself against the unknown—which we could best find outdoors—and finding what lay there, and what it did to us. We had to know that we’d come close to extinction. It could be argued that this was unreasonable, but, as explorer Ted Edwards once wrote, “Reasonableness is not a charge that has been successfully leveled at me.” We did what we had to do; it was our path, as natural and irresistible and gravid to us as the downhill flow of water.
The taste of transcendence didn’t last long; maybe a day, or a week at most would pass before we had to move beyond the street and market and computer and library again, so we laid our plans and went back up into the mountains.
And so for ten years Chiu and I hunted transcendence, sometimes skillfully, most often clumsily. We couldn’t have put words to our quest, then. Our minds were crude and simple; we sought a feeling which we devoured with little contemplation.
Although I no longer climb, I'm starting to find the words: and when I smell snow, or stop on a street corner to feel the rasp of a granite building block against my fingers, I know better what we were after. Lightness, freedom, gravity, seriousness, awareness; the knowledge that we were extracting all we could from our brief and precious moment of consciousness.
Today there are other ways to achieve it; peering into the mysteries of dark, bubble-specked Arctic ice; feeling my paraglider inflate and draw me into the air; feeling the thrum of heavy rope through my neoprene glove as I drop into dark water; spending a moment with someone I love or a moment with the thought of someone I love as I sink heavily into an airliner seat when the jet surges up off the runway.
(c) 2007 Cameron McPherson Smith