I stare at the Facebook comment box, open but empty, from me to you. Have we met or are we strangers — I don’t know? Does it matter? I imagine you in that hospital bed — time passing at the speed of healing - skin and bone — how anything must be better than nothing, how anything is perhaps all you feel you now have — one step from nothing.
It’s shit to presume so much, but being a writer that’s my job - I presume.
These message boxes, the ones that pop up, often unwanted, do you know that thing they do, where you can tell someone is writing, sending you something? I like that. I like to know someone is about to say something, see those dots moving, back and forth. I like that - I like the anticipation. I guess that’s another thing about writing - good writing - it’s about anticipation - what comes next, what does it mean, what will be the point of all this. The best writing - for me - is the simple writing, where the message — the reason to write it down — is a simple one.
But these message boxes at the bottom of your screen: often what pops up in them is something that comes from a place of boredom, time-wasting tire kicking words, like “how are you doing” or “what’s up” or “what next?”. Other times it can be a spear point, into your heart, into your soul, something profound, heartfelt, honest and secret (that last word lets me off the hook at supplying an example). I’m sure - a woman like you - must have many such messages, more still since your fall, much more. You’re someone who people look to, to feel better about their lives — lives that are about not being afraid or feeling anxiety that they’re doing the wrong thing, living the wrong life, which of course IS a life full of fear and anxiety. People like yourself, you provide a service, you lift some of that burden from ‘ordinary’ lives in some small way, that if I can’t be brave enough to live a free life, then at least you are. And now, people can also see the cost. Part of this relationship with people we respect and admire, most often - in our tribe - those that choose less than us — is ‘reaching out’ by these messages in small boxes. It’s maybe some kind of absolution — for them and us — that when you send back some cheery message, that ‘you’re doing fine’ — you make them feel better - but not yourself. All fakery right, but then that’s what life is like for most people, all acting — us too — the great play, the great con trick - that we’re just as gripped about our lives as they are, of what we don’t have. But maybe that’s one thing that climbing teaches us, that up there can be no act, no con. It teaches us we are animals and we know it. Simplicity of ourselves — the mirror in the cliffs. Up on the walls and faces, there are only animal four states: fight, flight, posture and submit. To take human things up there, the fakery and the con, to make it a business, to break records, that’s perhaps where we come undone. The more animal we become - the more the act of being a human we can leave behind - the happier we become.
Anyway — what intrigues me the most, about this message boxes — is when I see the dots move, that fingers type far away — but then nothing appears, that someone began to write, but nothing was said, which is what I’m doing now.
“The glass is weaker at the edges,” says the glass repair guy, hands in his trouser pockets, the Las Vegas traffic thinner than usual - the morning after the shooting.
“We thought the little window would cheaper to repair,” I say, standing beside him, my hands also in pockets, feeling a little disrespectful — to the dead, no city - or human mind - able to accommodate so many — to be dealing with such a trivial thing today. But broken windows need to be mended.
“Nope,” says the man, “the small window is the most expensive to replace. It’s the one that never gets broken”.
“Ah, economies of scale,” I say, nodding, as if this should have been obvious to me at midnight, with a rock in my hand, breaking in, up some lonely off-road dessert track.
“Next time break the side window, they’re much cheaper,” he says, signalling with his chin towards the ‘side windows’ — just in case I didn’t know which ones they were and smashed in a sunroof instead, “the price of the window has nothing to do with the glass. That your blood?” He adds, pointing with an elbow, pointing at a black stain that ran down the door and over the fuel flap, like a flamboyant signature or work of minimalist art.
“Yep — but I don’t have aids or anything” I joke, wishing I’d washed it off. He doesn’t respond.
“Did you find your keys then?” He asks, now looking down at his feet, the steel in his toe caps showing where the leather had worn away by years of graft, this tough working man. “No, then we hiked back up for an hour in the dark and found them at the bottom of the wall”.
“Yep,” says the glass repair guy, the story no doubt fitting such a man as me, such a man — not a real man — who’d said ‘silver’ when asked what kind of car he had.
“I can replace it Tuesday morning if that works”.
These words I wrote a while back, but not being about climbing I had nowhere to put them. But seeing as this will be unsent I’ll park them here — maybe someone will read something into them, the irrelevant most often misidentified as being profound — a good writers trick. Do you like writing? If not you should start. The inner world, the one most go to towards late in life, when it’s too late, is as dizzying as any wall.
Now for the words, I meant to write.
I climb up into the Texas flake. I have done several hundred pitches on El Cap, many of which were dangerous, a few that were death, and yet, this one, easiest of them all, is still the one that scares me most.
The first moves once felt hard: awkward, impossible, an appetiser of sorts: overhung off-width full of dubious chockstones, handholds rattly rocks, the protection a tangle of old slings — just joke pro — good for nothing, neither for pulling on or protection. The first time, getting up this slot had felt hard, the ledge below, no easy landing, not like the big air on most pitches. That first time I’d flailed away in stupid aiders, squeezing out the inches by dint of cams jammed between looseness, and by whimpering lurch. Sometimes, when engaged in such tussles with the rock, you can gain a small advantage by the out of body viewing of the comedy of your climbing, how silly you sound and look, something that works well in everyday life too, the comedy in your chaotic fuckery.
As a climber of the Texas flake I’ve matured, now it goes free boys, the footholds known (look for them on the right), and climbed in style.
Through this narrow gap, I enter the flake proper, from one gap to another, climbing between the palms of a giant. Inside it’s dark and murky, a little cool haunted alleyway, the walls slick and crushing — but not so crushing to hold you tight, only enough to intimidate. Here, inside, if you had a crowd and not just silverfish and mice, there would be a hush.
“Climb to the bolt and go straight up”.
“Don’t clip the bolt and go up at the right-hand side”.
“Face in; there are some holds”.
“Face out; the friction is better”.
“It’s death on a stick”.
I look up, high, to a strip of light, my way out, escape and see the single bolt, placed at leg breaking height but not heigh enough to protect you from a fall from the top. Maybe it’s a joke. At these times I think about the people who fell off what could not be fall-off-able, who were broken, who needed plucking from here, from this graveyard.
“It’ only 5.8,” I tell myself — “Valley 5.8” — perhaps the most climbed chimney in the world.
I feel as scared now as ever.
I can smell your blood.
I chalk up and move my chalk bag around to my front, my only rack one quick draw, one locker and a belay sling and biners, nothing that will hinder my soft and fragile body from staying stuck.
I squirm around and face out, focusing on that one good hold - a flat edge, like a mantlepiece, between me and the less than the halfway bolt. I begin.
The first moves are like a cripple walking again, the reality I can move anywhere seemingly improbable: knees braced, palms down, arms locked, fleet flat behind and under me. I imagine I’m laying flat on my back, the mountain on top of me - me pushing it off like some superman.
It’s only 5.8
I move an inch, then another, that hospital hallway shuffle. I’m moving!
My knees hurt, my feet feel insecure, my body held in check my locked arms.
Part of you is here. I can feel it. You are haunting this place.
I shuffle on, moving one shoulder at a time, a game of inches. I look down the distance perhaps just a rattling fall, nothing broken on the jagged stones if I was lucky. I look up at the edge, the mantelpiece, and the bolt, but no further. “Get the edge, mantle up, clip the bolt”.
I squeeze and shuffle and wedge up, the giant’s hands opening a little, playing a giants trick. One foot skates off under me and swings like a hangman’s charge, everything else taking up the slack as my heart beats a little harder.
My knees no longer bridge the gap, the off-chimney. I look down and think of my ground bones. I press harder. I move harder. The edge is at my face, but to grab it I must become unwedged. I squeeze harder and make the grab, one hand then the other, the sharpness of it a relief, like a leaking lifeboat. I jump aboard and pull up, in with some small desperate move get one foot onto the edge, then the other and do a shuffle stand.
The bolt is there, before my eyes, and I clip it with a locker and not a quick draw, my reason being the story of a climber falling higher on just touching the jagged rocks below on rope stretch. In a former life I met many men and women with busted spines, from motorbikes, parachutes and rock climbs, the fallen, and what you realise is very often what stands between you and - well never standing again, pissing through a catheter, see your legs turn to winter branches - can be measured in centimetres.
The rope clipped I turn around and face the Captain, face its polish yes - but also face a trail of possibility.
I shuffle left, emboldened for just a while by the bolt, but knowing I’ll soon be heart-poundingly high. I moved left and reached a staircase of edges, each stair smaller than the last.
The first stair is easy, and the next, body shuffling, technical, sequency in a 5.8 chimney way. My pace seems slow, the top no nearer, and yet the bolt is now down there in the gloom, way over to the right. I’m free soloing. I wonder if my belayer would volunteer to jump off the Captain to yard in the slack if I fell.
I moved up again, the stair turning to a rung, beyond that the stairs again, only dollhouse stairs — fine, in rock boots — but not holds to tap dance up.
“I need to climb more chimneys,” I think - as I always think at this point, a thought no more valid or true as “I need to get kicked in the balls more”.
I take my time. I take it so slowly that I come to a stop. I breathe. I don’t want to look up, so I look down.
I see your blood. I see it on the rocks. I see the cord from your rescue, yellow, where the helicopter lifted you. There is your rope too, the end that you’d tied into that morning, lifeline, cut short and discarded. I see your karabiners two, one black, one silver. I stare at your blood, my misshapen mind dwelling on that and not this, the marvel of life, the brutal symbolism of it, that not long ago that was pumping through your heart, that mark - your mark - a mark of a climb never to be finished, forever unsent.
I’m time wasting.
I look ahead. I move up. The top is closer. I can feel the furnace heat of it, but know the closer it gets, the smaller the holds, the bigger the fall
“It’s only 5.8.”
“It’s only 5.8.”
“It’s only 5.8.”
“It’s only 5.8.”
I look at the toe of my TC Pros, embedded and each blessed by his Holiness Tommy Caldwell, the patron saint of granite.
“They cannot fail,” I say aloud.
I see the last hold, not a hold hold, more a rough spot, a giants dimple, maybe the single 5.8 move on the Texas flake, but also the one — the un-fall-offable one.
I look down at your blood. You are not dead, not even from a hundred and thirty-foot fall. Can you believe in luck and miracles, that you are alive - that your blood that stayed now runs still through your beating heart? When I saw the messages when you fell, saw what people wrote, the get wells, and you’re hardcore for not being dead, I wondered if people got it, or were just being willfully naive. That when you fall that far and hit the earth, you never stop falling. You never walk away.
I look at the dimple, a hold I’ve pressed my boots into before, a hold that didn’t let me down then, so why know. My heart in my mouth I press like Superman, wiggle my back just a little, and make like I’m not going to fall and con myself that I’ll never fall.
I feel the sun.
That night it rained hard, but knowing it was coming, we’d fixed down from the bottom of the Grey Bands back to El Cap tower, back below the Texas Flake. The following day, the air fresher than it had been for months, we went back up our two fixed ropes, one after the other, up the Texas flake, then the Boot, ready to do one two rope haul. As I reached the top of the Texas flake, I looked down at where you had lain, laid until your miracle. I saw that the rain had washed your blood away — not away — but down deep into the rock, into El Cap itself. Now the only part of the fall was the yellow rescue cord, your rope end, and two biners. As I swung off the top of the flake, about to jug to the boot belay, I felt an urge I did not fully grasp nor understand — and still, don’t, and maybe that’s why I wanted to message you — not that I ever did. But instead of going up to them, I went down instead to you, where part of your spirit was trapped — well that’s how I word it now, only then, it was more human than that, like a pile of dead flowers and faded card beside some freeway, only this was in reverse. I reached the spot where you’d laid and taking out my knife I cut away the ropes and threw from the wall. Then, like the climber I am — like any climber, like the climber you are and will always be — I took your biners and continued on my way.
“In Texas if you’re gay you need to keep it a secret, but once you leave Texas you only have to hide the fact you’re a Texan” said the repair guy, the first real thing he’d said to me, wiping his hands on a dirty cloth as I signed my name on the credit card slip. I was unsure where the joke had come from for a second, or if it was even a joke. Then I realised he’d made a jump from my story about how in the US I always drew a penis instead of a signature, and how no one seemed even to care - both a funny story and something deeper - maybe - like most stories. “I’ve been thinking of getting out of here,” he says, the conversation going further off the road, “where do you live?”. “Ireland, Dublin” I reply, unsure if he just wants to know or wants to move in, or even if he’d know where that was, more than one person thinking Ireland was in Scotland. “I need to get out of here,” he says again. “That’s funny, we were thinking of moving to Las Vegas,” I say, adding “why do you want to leave?”. “The people,” he says, and for a second I have the urge to tell him I thought he was ‘the people’. Instead, I ask “Have you heard of the philosophy stoicism?”, which he hadn’t. “Imagine your homeless, hungry, sleeping out in the rain in a piss soaked blanket,” I say. “Go on,” he asks, his face hard to read. “Instead of wanting more imagine you have no blanket. Think about what life can take away, not what I can give”. He thinks for a second, then stands up, rips off a large receipt for the work and hands it to me. “That was a very costly mistake, breaking that window,” he says, adding “how would you square that?” “Easy, I reply, for the price of a window I got to talk to you now, and I also found out something that’s both practical and also maybe profound”. “And that is?” He asks, smiling for the first time since I’d met him, this stranger who fixed broken car windows, who’s hand I shake in just a moment, a handshake that was more than just formality. “That the glass is weaker at the edges”.
If somehow this lost message finds you, unsent as in the end I didn’t know what to say, well all I wanted to say was that if one day you want your karabiners back I’ve got them safe.
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Andrew Kirkpatrick is a British mountaineer, author, motivational speaker and monologist. He is best known as a big wall climber, having scaled Yosemite's El Capitan 30+ times, including five solo ascents, and two one day ascents, as well as climbing in Patagonia, Africa, Alaska, Antarctica and the Alps.Follow @ Instagram