By Henri Colt
Clunk. The small, red camping stove dropped onto the granite ledge between the climber’s feet, then rolled to sit upright against his right ankle. It was only a few inches wide and weighed less than a pound, but the sound was heard a hundred feet below.
Jack manteled his way onto an oven-size rock. He was proud of how stubbornly he could press his hands down onto its flat surface, then lift his knee to his chin before sliding his body onto the platform like a beaching whale. He looked up at his climbing partner, waiting at the anchor.
“Not elegant,” he said, catching his breath. “But effective, right?”
“That’s all that counts, dude, that’s all that counts.” Earl was an experienced mountain guide. He knew the importance of positive reinforcement for building confidence in younger climbers.
Jack hooked himself into a sling attached to the cams wedged in a crack, then doubled his protection by attaching another carabineer to a piton anchored to the rock face. He readjusted his harness before leaning back against the granite slab.
“Did you hear that sound?” he asked.
Earl was already flaking the rope into a neat pile at his feet. “I think the guy on the ledge up there dropped something.”
Jack eyeballed a lone, bare-chested climber crouching on another ledge about a hundred feet above. He had a small backpack, but no rope. “I don’t understand why anyone would climb without a rope,” he said. “It’s no different from stupid men challenging each other to a duel in the 18th century.”
“Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr weren’t exactly stupid.”
“What I mean is, there is no good justification for climbing without a rope. Magazines say it’s for the adrenaline rush of dying if you make a mistake.”
“That sounds about right,” his friend said.
“You mean you’ve free-soloed too?” Jack was torn between admiration and thinking Earl was a fool.
“I’ve never told anyone. It’s something I do sometimes, you know. There’s no epic or anything.”
“What if a hold broke off?”
“Then it would be the longest couple of seconds in my life.”
Jack took a few hexes from his friend and hung them on his gear loops. Next stop was the ledge where he had glimpsed the other climber.
“It’s an excuse for suicide, I say, no different from dueling or Russian roulette.”
Earl looked surprised. “Didn’t you ever climb a tree when you were a kid?” he said. “You did that without a rope, and your parents probably thought you were crazy.”
Jack shoved a partially crushed energy bar into his shirt pocket. “Yeah, maybe. But stupid is as stupid does.”
“Climbers aren’t stupid. We know what we can do—we trust our technique.”
“Well, it doesn’t matter how good you are. Just one unlucky break and you’re dead.” He tightened his figure-eight knot and prepared to climb.
A sky-splitting scream made him jerk his head around. Instinctively, he grabbed for the shadow of a bare-chested man cartwheeling past him, but there was only air.
Lots of silence.
Earl was hugging the granite rock face, one hand clenched on the anchor.
“He almost knocked me off the fuckin’ wall,” Earl yelled.
“You didn’t think you could catch him, Jack, did you?”
“I don’t know, for a minute, I thought. . .”
“There was nothing you could do.”
Jack noticed that his partner’s knuckles had turned white. Earl was grasping the anchor like he was holding on for dear life. “Jeez,” he said, “he just flew past us.”
“What do we do now?” Jack watched his friend pull a bandana from his back pocket. Earl had pissed on himself.
“His eyes were huge,” Earl stammered, “like he was surprised.”
Jack couldn’t look down. “I think he was holding something. Did you see it?”
“I saw everything, man, but it happened so fast. I’ll never forget it.”
“He dropped his stove.”
“That sound we heard—must have been his stove. Maybe he fell when he picked it up, or maybe he slipped.”
Jack shuddered. “I could have stopped him.” His throat was swollen, and his heart pounded inside his chest. He inhaled deeply to hold back tears—to keep his mind from going elsewhere.
“You couldn’t have stopped him,” Earl said, “I mean, you reached for him, I saw it, but it’s not like that scene in Cliffhanger. He would have pulled us both off. It’s that terminal velocity, 32-feet-a-second-squared thing. He was going forty miles an hour.”
Slivers of cirrus clouds lingered in the neon-blue sky. Jack saw people gathering far below, at the base of the cliff.
“We should go down,” he said. “I’m not sure I can climb anymore.”
“Chalk up, man. We’ll top out in two; then we can walk off. It’s safer for us to keep going.”
The sudden confidence in Earl’s voice made Jack reconsider. Rock climbing was a dangerous and unforgiving sport. Maybe that’s why he was addicted to it; to the way it made him face fears, he would have never known he had.
The two friends hugged.
“Are you ready?”
Jack watched as Earl double-checked their knots and verified the anchor’s strength. All the carabiners were locked. “Belay on,” he said.
“Climb ready.” Jack reached for a small jug.
The young man transferred his weight onto a dime-edged irregularity and pushed himself off the ledge.