“Tension,” I shout to my brother Tom as he works the belay rope forty-five feet below.
His movements vibrate through the nylon rope which tightens around my waist and upper thighs. Tom literally holds my life in his hands. His hands slip; I plunge from the rockface.
Despite the clear sky and bright morning light, I see shadows of trees, and the granite horn I cling to is a muted gray, camouflaging vertical handholds. I use a shoulder to rub stinging sweat and dust from my eyes, then strain them to sharpen my blurred vision. Stress triggers the worst flashbacks of the accident that took my sight, though the memories are reels on continuous play in my mind.
Before long, I’ll be blind. I squint and let out a determined grunt. I stretch my right arm three feet up and over. My fingers wedge into a cool, sharp crevice I use to steady myself. The toes of my stealth shoes bear my weight on small protrusions. The rest of my body points away from the rock in a vertical downward-facing dog.
The Duchess Right route on Indian Cove’s Feudal Wall—my favorite warm-up climb route in California’s Joshua Tree National Park. I allow my left arm to rest dangling before I reach into the chalk bag on my waistband. The silky chalk soothes my fingers and dries the sweat off. I quickly hook a quickdraw carabiner to a safety bolt drilled into the rock in front of me. I then thread the rope through the remaining carabiner on the opposite end of the device and tug on it to ensure the rope will stop me should I fall. I’m satisfied and grateful for the lack of give on the rope.
“OK, Tom, bolt’s clipped. I’m on to the next,” I say.
“Take your time, Jake. Don’t rush it. There’s nothing to prove.”
“Says who?” I counter. I tilt my head back then to the left and right so that portions of my remaining vision find low angles of the morning sun on the rock. Eventually, I find subtle shadows that indicate my path up the rock.
After swinging my left leg up and out, I transfer my weight to a new toehold found through tentative sweeps of my foot. My left hand caresses the rock for an edge or a bump in the rock. Cracks and protrusion under my fingernails aid my climb. My handholds stabilize me. My legs find toeholds; I shift my weight, rise up the rockface. I grunt for several minutes on my way up, sounding like a caveman.
“Hey, where are ya’ headed, bro?”
Tom’s voice is tinny, so very far away.
“Stop! Come back right five feet.”
I pause. I blink several times and focus on the rock. I run my left palm across the granite. It feels polished. There are no more holds. I alternate hands. Nothing above my head.
I realize that only a move to the right is possible. My toehold flakes away causing a minor landslide of rock and sand. My stomach flips; my head swirls dizzily as the loud rockfall echoes across the valley. I quickly shift all my weight to my left foot and grapple with my handholds. The last bolt that will break my fall is ten feet down. If I let go, I’ll bounce hard against the rock before the bolt jerks my rope to a sudden, painful halt. I force myself to ignore it.
“Tension,” I yell, my heart thumping.
Tom is already yanking the rope hard before the word leaves my lips.
“Relax, Jake. You know this rock like the back of your hand.”
Beads of sweat tickle my eyes again, and I tap my helmet against a shoulder. My left leg tires. Spasms hold me in place. Then, the whisper of an early autumn breeze rustling the leaves of the Mojave yucca flowers, the blossoms of the barrel cacti, and other brush fill my ears.
Tom’s right. I know this rock, having logged more than twenty ascents. I pause, taking a calming breath before I close my eyes. My body relaxes.
Eyes closed, I let my fingers and toes explore my old friend Duchess Right, finding dozens of small indentations and nubs. I go right, and up to the next bolt another twelve feet up where I clip on with a loud, triumphant click of a carabiner.
This rock is like the Braille I am learning. The patterns and spaces of both have much to show me and can take me to new heights if I simply reach out and feel. No, this will not be my last climb. I may be losing my vision, but I can see more clearly than ever.
I scale the rest of the way and hoist myself over the cliff top. Both my arms and legs are tired. Cupping my hands around my mouth, I bellow, “Woo-hoo.” The high desert has never been more beautiful.
The canyon echoes, woo-hoooo, woo-hoooo.
My cell phone rings. I unclip it from the harness at the small of my back.
“Way to go,” Tom cheers. “Stay there. I’ll hike around the back and meet you.”
“No way, man.” I pull gloves from my rear pocket. “I’m rappelling down.”