Lightning and Inspiration

I’m back in Mazama, back on Prime Rib. The middle of the sixth pitch is exposed—stratified ledges, knobs, holds like window trim. It’s raining. Dark clouds seem close when you’re this high up. The Methow valley, a thousand feet below, is veiled in spattering mist. The route is getting drenched like it’s cotton. Half the holds I would normally use become dangerously slippery. Still, I climb without falling, clip two ropes—one yellow, one blue—through the quickdraws, yell “Off belay” when I reach the top.

While I’m belaying Henry and Karen up, I notice that the team below us is deciding to rappel. There are two teams above us also, but they must be only a few pitches from the summit by now. I wonder if they will descend on top of us or if they will keep climbing in the rain. I wonder if we will keep climbing. I know the decision is ultimately mine.

In the same instant that Karen clips into the anchor next to me, an operatic crash of thunder explodes from the sky. My decision is made easy. We are going down. Now.

An eerie blue flash like a strobe light silhouettes Henry as he arrives at the anchors soon after Karen. Not more than a few seconds later, a bass chord that would rupture the voice-coil of even the most powerful subwoofer reverberates through the valley. We’re captured in some terrible nightclub where the sound effects can kill you. I quickly set up the rappel, throw the rope down the wall, make sure Henry and Karen are hooked into the strands correctly, and bounce my way down the soggy face, the rope’s nylon threads nearly burning through my hand.

Three rope lengths later, Henry and I are standing in sunshine, looking up at the route, swearing. The clouds have moved south where they accumulate along the eastern Cascade slopes. The weather here is completely clear. From this early afternoon position, three rappels from the bottom, eight pitches to the top, there is no way we are going back up, but Henry and I entertain the idea anyway.

“Maybe if we had just waited it out up there…but that is an impossible decision to make. When there is lightning and thunder, you have to get down,” I say.

Henry completely agrees. He knows that if we had kept climbing the laws of bad luck would keep the clouds hanging over us. Those same laws have made the clouds disappear now that we are halfway done with the descent. In the end, it is better to be rappelling in sunshine than it is to be sitting on an exposed ledge in a thunderstorm. After all, we did six pitches of great climbing.

When the three of us safely arrive at the car, we are jubilant. It has been a solid day and we still have tomorrow.

**********

We wake up at 5am, ready for another climb. Oatmeal with cinnamon, pecans and bananas, coffee, hard-boiled eggs are fuel. We will need it for Methow Inspiration, which extends five long pitches from slopey base to knobby top and is rated 5.9+. My shoulders are still sore from yesterday’s climb, or maybe more from hauling two ropes all day, but I’m feeling fresh after a warm shower, a mug of pitchy coffee. Henry and Karen’s enormous white kuvasz, Gibson, whines, furrows his eyebrows as we leave the cabin. He deposits ivory strands of fur on my climbing pants as he brushes against my leg.

The approach is typical: talus fields, boulder hopping, spider webs. I am already warmed up when we reach the base of the climb. The first ugly bolt is hidden in angles of rock, but chains are visible above. I put on my harness, flake two ropes, rack my quickdraws, runners, lockers, and climb when Henry is on belay.

The first pitch, a 5.8+, goes smoothly. Too-loose shoe rubber smears well enough, sticks firmly to the verdant patina. A few weeks of climbing has made my body accustomed to the movements again. The climbing comes naturally, for two pitches at least.

On the third pitch, something unexpected happens; I fall. I’m a few feet above the second bolt when my foot accidentally slips off a sloped ledge and I scream, “Falling!” Things happen instantly when you’re waiting for the rope to catch. The next moment, I’m sitting in my harness ten feet below the bolt and I’m unscathed. Henry had left some slack in the rope because he obviously wasn’t expecting a fall, but he caught me in the end. I’m grateful.

After asking each other “Are you ok?” about a hundred times, I get back on the route and ascend it to the next set of anchors.

A short, awkward roof, steep faces with little knobs, long lengths between the bolts take us to the top. It feels good to climb the last 5.9+ pitch clean after falling on the easier section below. About half way through the last pitch I experience an overwhelming sense of euphoria. I feel high in more ways than one.

It is almost a better, more meaningful climb because I fell. We take our time to enjoy the view from the top, to untangle the nest of rope and set up the rappel. Heavy clouds that probably contain more afternoon thunder prevent us from dawdling too long.

Challenges, opportunities to learn and progress, make for rewarding climbing. Henry accidentally loses hold of his rappel device. It bounces a few times, pinging the rock, and is eventually caught in a crevice of weeds a rope length below. I hand him my ATC-Guide and tie the Munter hitch to my large pear-shaped carabiner. Coincidentally, I was practicing the Munter hitch a few days before and, although I have never used it, I am confident it is correct. Sure enough, it works like a charm and I retrieve Henry’s device without difficulty.

Firm handshakes are slightly painful on my sanded palms. The discomfort, however, is essentially validation. I would shake a thousands hands right now if I knew I would receive the same gratified look in the eye, and if I knew my own eyes would be displaying the same honest emotion.

Scrabble trails like scars in a hairline lead to the river. The earth’s clogging heat, the scree’s percussive collisions, my backpack’s soggy shoulder straps melt into my body, feel in-grown, but not like a toe nail. The contrast between muscle and load, between a hurdle and a fall, blurs. What I am left with is every single moment. Gibson’s long white strands have clung to my pant leg until now. A breeze brushes them off, carries them into the atmosphere, and I can do nothing except follow.

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