Between Stone and Air

By Audrey Camp

e squinted skyward, running our eyes up and over eight hundred vertical feet of stone, just before 8:00 a.m. Out came the sunscreen, the bug repellent, water bottles, and sunglasses. Legs slipped into harnesses. Chalk bags opened with white puffs. Our exhales hung before our faces, but the promise of a hot midsummer day was in the air.

 

Yosemite National Park welcomes hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world each year. They go to breathe the fresh air of the Sierras and feel the billowing mist at the base of Yosemite Falls. They go to tramp the miles of hiking trails and to see black bear and mule deer. But, mostly, they go to gape at the yawning granite cliffs and granite domes that are the park’s signature, remnants of an ice age.

 

Some go to scale those cliffs and domes with their bare hands.

 

One July Saturday, we stood at the base of Stately Pleasure Dome, a wide-open rock face at the eastern end of the park near Tuolumne Meadows and Tioga Pass. The dome boasts almost a dozen bolted climbing routes. Our mission was Hermaphrodite Flake, four pitches of glittering granite slab and dark, jagged cracks. There were seven of us: three experienced climbers, three beginners, and me, somewhere in the quasi-experienced middle.

 

I’d picked up climbing as a hobby when my husband Jonathan and I began dating in 2003. We joined a climbing gym and clambered up forty-foot walls covered with colorful, lumpy, plastic holds twice a week. Over time, while I gave in to the distractions of college graduation and the beginning of a career, Jonathan’s commitment to the sport only increased. He began to excel in the gym and, looking for more strenuous challenges, began outdoor climbing with some of our friends from the gym. At the end of each of those trips, he was sweaty, grimy, exhausted, and completely happy. I found myself wanting to feel that way too.

 

With Jonathan as my guide, I began climbing more than ever. We even took a weeklong road trip down the Eastern Sierras in 2009, from Yosemite’s eastern entrance through Bishop and Owens Gorge, all the way down to Joshua Tree National Park. Together, we tackled routes on all kinds of rock, just the two of us. Climbing is a sport that requires trust, optimism, and an adventurous spirit. It requires you to never say die. Our marriage began to take on those qualities as well.

 

Preparing to climb Hermaphrodite Flake a year later, I felt confident. It was a route I had completed once before with Jonathan, so I knew the rock would feel familiar under my palms and the sticky soles of my climbing shoes, but we were taking three beginning climbers up with us, and I could feel their apprehension.

 

While Jonathan, Brian, and Jeff, the strongest climbers in the group sorted the gear, I wound my fingers into my friend Cindy’s fine, curling hair and knotted it into a tight French braid. Cindy, her boyfriend Brad, and Jeff’s fiancée Amy had never before climbed a multi-pitch route. I smeared a layer of sunscreen over my shoulders and listened as Amy and Brad joked together about something, but I could hear the tremor in their voices, a thread of incredulity brought on by the towering run of rock beside us.

 

***

Around the campfire the night before, we’d talked about the basics again.

 

Multi-pitch climbing works best in teams of two moving in the simple, persistent style of an inch worm: Climber One is tied into the front of the rope and leading the climb, placing protection on his way, and then fixing the anchor at the top; Climber Two follows once the anchor is set, cleaning the route by removing the protection, and arriving in time to belay Climber One on his next pitch.

We talked about the dependability of our gear and the importance of double-checking knots. We talked about the way the exposure of several hundred feet can work on your psyche, can set your knees trembling. The firelight echoed yellow and gray across the circle of our faces. Talk can only prepare you so much for a climb.

 

There were seven of us, so we divided into two groups of two and a single group of three.

The next morning, as Jonathan and I scrambled up the two hundred unprotected feet from the road to set up the first belay station, I worried about my friends. My first time on a wall this size had been terrifying. Fear numbed my fingertips. I didn’t trust my feet. I was certain I would slip off the rock and plummet to the road. I didn’t. And as long as my friends kept their wits about them, it wouldn’t happen to them either.

 

Brian had reached a ledge level with mine and had lowered a rope down the rock for Cindy and Amy to hold as they walked up. It wasn’t protection, exactly, but it made them feel safer. Brad walked up behind them, tentative, but without holding the rope. Meanwhile, Jeff dug his toes into the granite and skipped up the ascent in strong, fearless bounds, even with a full rack of gear and a coiled rope over his shoulder. Nothing but air cushioned the space between him and the dark ribbon of the road to Tuolumne far below.

 

***

 

With each of Jonathan’s movements, a corresponding blur of rope followed him up the wall, winding through my belay device; the friction warmed my palms.

 

Every ten to fifteen feet, Jonathan would stop, find a secure position with his feet, and place protection in the rock with his free hand. We trust these bits of “protection”—aluminum and wire Camelots (or “cams”), nuts and hexes, ropes, cords, webbing, and quickdraws—in case we fall. They will catch us and absorb the initial force on the rope; our partner holding us on belay at the anchor below will handle the rest.

 

At the flake, the crux of the route, Jonathan heaved himself over the mantle and climbed up the left side of the feature. That move was particularly tough for me the first time I attempted it the year before, so I decided to try something else. Digging my fingertips under the knife edge of the right side of the flake, I pulled against my locked knuckles and walked up sideways, running my hands along the crack until they were above my shoulders and then leaning away and following with my feet.

 

The move is more exposed that way but as the second climber in the team, I am better protected. While Jonathan as the leader brings the rope up behind him, relying on the placement of gear to protect him in the event of a fall, I follow once an anchor has been built above me. If I fall, Jonathan’s belay will have me within a few inches. If Jonathan slips on his climb, he will fall twice the distance between his feet and last piece of protection in the rock before my belay catches him from below.

 

On routes like Hermaphrodite Flake, there are permanent, bolted belay stations located every fifty to one hundred feet, the length of a single pitch. Over the years I’ve become more and more comfortable being clipped into those bolts by only my two daisy chains. If there is someplace to sit or stand, I use it. If not, I lean back eighteen inches and pull the daisies taut, my feet flat to the vertical face of the rock, locking my knees. When my ankles begin to cramp, I shake out one leg and then the other, swaying from side to side, hundreds of feet of stone and air falling away beneath me.

 

At the third belay station, I had a ledge to stand on. Jonathan was mastering the fourth pitch several meters above, and Brian, the leader of our second group, had pulled himself up next to me. He reached out and clipped his own daisy into the bolts before relaxing his shoulders and letting out a massive exhale.

 

I peered back down the rock to see Brad and Cindy standing atop the big flake above the second pitch. Brad held the other end of the rope secured to Brian’s harness.

 

“Off belay!” Brian called to them.

 

“You’re off belay!” Brad’s answer filtered up to us.

 

When climbing, this level of communication is necessary. Everything must be confirmed. The unhooking of a belay before a climber is secure is probably the most dangerous mistake a team of climbers can make.

 

“How are they doing?” I asked.

 

Brian unclipped his water bottle from his harness, unscrewed the top, took a gulp, and then gestured down with the bottle in his right hand.

 

“They’re doing great.”

 

I looked down again. Cindy had begun climbing up to us, with Brad belaying. She wore a pink drawstring pack with nylon straps over her shoulders, completely inappropriate for such an excursion, but it was all she had to haul their lunch and water. Her gray-green eyes searched the rock for her next move. She seemed suddenly and overwhelmingly vulnerable to me. My heart made an anxious leap. What if her harness wasn’t secure? What if she had tied the wrong knot?

 

As if reading my mind, Brian said, “They’ve got everything under control.”

 

Far below them, cars had lined up and parked along the edge of Tenaya Lake at the base of the wall. People were exiting their vehicles and staring up, saluting against the sun. Their hands fluttered, index fingers brushing exclamation points in the air. They had spotted us on the rock: colorful daredevils, our blue, green, silver, white, and pink helmets catching the late morning light.

 

***

 

Just after 10:00 a.m., I crawled up and past the last anchor. Jonathan smiled at me from within a lazy tangle of green rope. I crawled over the boulders at the summit to give him a kiss. Sweat crusted and curled the hair at his temples.

 

The rest of our group was on the wall below, hours from topping out. The light was still streaming in from the east, so Jonathan decided to fix an anchor and lower himself off to the right hand side of the route and take pictures of our friends climbing up.

 

Controlling his own descent with two hands, Jonathan took a step or two down over the edge; our camera swung behind him from its strap over his shoulder. He jerked his chin at me, blue eyes glinting like the water in Tenaya Lake, like the Yosemite sky at noon, like clean denim, and disappeared.

 

The broad, bald mountain offered no relief from the sun. I crawled all over the top before finding a single, squat yellow pine jutting from the rock. Its trunk curved up toward the sky, and its base was ringed with cordelettes in all colors, left behind by climbers on their descent. This was the rappel tree.

 

I crouched at the precipice, my raw palm resting on the rough bark of the tree for security. The golden-gray slabs rolled down and away from me like a waterfall, striped with sparkling mineral deposits in white and rust. A Rufous Hummingbird zipped up and paused in the air, her invisible wings beating hundreds of times per second as she hovered, considering me. Sunlight set the iridescent copper patch at her throat ablaze.

 

Suddenly, my shoe lost traction on the rock. My foot kicked forward a few inches. With a gasp, I caught hold of the tree. Tiny bits of granite and dirt rolled helplessly down and over the edge into the wind.

 

***

 

On the rock, confidence is important, but caution is essential. Not everyone takes that to heart, of course. Some climbers are in it for the strength training. Others climb for the love of solving puzzles. Many climb solely for the rush of adrenaline.

 

The morning before the rest of our group joined us in the park, Jonathan and I had undertaken a six-pitch slab route called Zee Tree on Pywiack Dome, only a mile or so down the road from Stately Pleasure Dome. After two and a half hours of slab climbing, smearing our toes and scraping for invisible finger holds on the sparkling surface of the rock, leaning forward until our ankles burned under the strain, we topped out.

 

A river of black thunderclouds tumbled in from the west, gathering speed and losing stability in the thin air of the high country. It split down the middle above us, parting like the Red Sea around a stalwart Moses. One stormy tributary headed north and the other south of our lonely knob. Blue sky continued to sparkle above Jonathan and me, even as lightning popped and thunder pounded in the canyons. I pulled off my helmet and whipped my dark brown hair from its ponytail to flutter in the wind.

 

To the southeast I could see the elegant face of Cathedral Peak and its jagged ridge, and just below that the gnarled finger of Eichorn Pinnacle stabbing at the sky. The famous peak and its neighboring spire are unmistakable; the latter, in particular, is a striking rock feature, unadorned and sharp in a land of granite domes, and a favorite spot for climbers.

 

On that Friday in July, as I sat on the warm stone and watched the storm begin, another young woman was falling.

 

Christina Chan, a 31-year-old doctoral candidate at Stanford and a highly experienced climber, had completed her free solo attempt on Eichorn Pinnacle. No gear, no ropes; just muscles, chalk, and desire. As the storm swarmed over Cathedral Peak, Eichorn stuck out like a lightning rod. Chan and her climbing partner, Jim Castelaz, began their descent.

 

Then a piece of rotted rock crumbled under her fingers. Or dust kicked up off the ledges and into her eyes. Or the angry wind caught her lithe torso like a sail and blew her from the face. Fate or a mistake. No one will ever know.

 

Castelaz didn’t see Chan slip; he heard a sound and, from his cruelly helpless vantage point above, watched his friend fall out of sight.

 

A recovery team later found her body almost four hundred feet below the summit.

 

***

 

Clinging to the rappel tree atop Stately Pleasure Dome the next morning, crab-walking back away from the edge to a secure spot in the shade, I knew nothing of Christina Chan’s broken body. And if anyone had asked me why I was almost a thousand feet up, sitting under the last yellow pine on an infinite brow of gray rock, or why I’d finished my breakfast of oatmeal and decided to move upward rather than outward into the day, I would have said that, for me, climbing is about relationships: my relationship with my husband, my friends, myself, and even nature, merciless, beautiful, and omnipresent.

 

I pulled a paperback from my backpack and flipped open to the folded-down page.

 

“Isn’t this just the best place to read?”

 

Startled, I closed my book and turned. Three men were tipping and toeing down the rock face behind me, approaching the rappel tree fast. Their helmets were tilted back, and sweat trickled down and around their sunburned noses.

 

“Must be one helluva book,” one of them said to me with a smile.

 

“I’m enjoying it,” I said. “What’d you come up on?”

 

“Great White Book,” answered another, referring to a route just to the right of Hermaphrodite Flake.

 

They wasted no time passing me and descending, taking turns rappelling down the rope their leader set up through one of the residual “rap rings” hanging at the base of the tree. When the last climber took hold of the tree and stepped down into his rappel stance, he released the trunk and winced as several dozen needles loosed themselves from its nearly bare branches and dropped into the brown pile of them at the base.

 

“Poor tree,” I said. “And he’s the very last one up here. Believe me. I checked.”

 

The climber looked from me to the tree, inhaling through his nose, and said, “Well, we need him to stay here. I feel like we should thank him. Like we should all pour out our water bottles over his roots before we leave.”

 

“An homage,” I agreed.

 

“Exactly.”

 

And he was gone.

 

***

 

The shadow of the tree had begun stretching eastward by the time I heard Brian and Brad coming over the top. Soon the whole group had gathered around me. I tossed Jonathan’s sandwich up to him.

 

A smear of blood adorned Amy’s ankle, casualty of the crux move at the flake.

 

One by one we took our turns rappelling down the mountain. We could only use one rope at a time, so the process took hours. Eventually, we found ourselves at the base again, walking the black horizontal road back toward our parked cars and the shore of Tenaya Lake.

 

We waded in up to our ankles and splashed at each other from hunkered sitting positions on the piles of boulders there, a manmade retaining wall that ran all along the north shore of the lake. The boys pulled off their shirts and exposed their blank-white backs and chests, dark, damp curling hair, stark against the fertile brown of their necks, faces, and arms. They whooped and skipped small stones. Soon enough, though, the adrenaline of successful conquest fueled a need to up the ante.

Bracing their legs against the gravel embankment of the road, they hunched and squatted and strained against one of the large boulders.

 

“It moved!” Amy said.

 

Howling, the boys focused all their energy on pushing until the big, gray stone rolled from its spot on the wall into lake with an enormous, throaty splash.

 

I watched my six friends, hands branded black by the friction of the ropes on rappel, breathing deeply through open mouths. For Cindy, Brad, and Amy, this had been the scariest, strongest feat they’d ever accomplished. For Jonathan, Brian, and Jeff, there had been the added stress of safely taking three beginners to the top.

 

For me, the hardest part of the climb would come that evening when we would hear the report of Christina Chan’s death by word-of-mouth at the campground general store.

 

Afterward, the six of us would take a reverent walk from the darkening campground across the two-lane road, into the glow and hum of Tuolumne Meadows at dusk. The translucent wings of a recent hatch of insects would flutter around us, saturated by the refracted light of the solemn face of the moon. We would find the perfect flat, gray boulder in the field and lean against it to steady our cameras as we took lowlight shots of the night sky.

 

A group of teenagers in skinny jeans and shaggy haircuts would stream into the meadow. They would cry out and slap the mosquitoes away from their faces.

 

“We were there. Right there!” one would say, pointing to the black silhouette of a peak to the north.

 

“Oh my god,” another would answer. “No way!”

 

Open palms would collide in the darkness.

 

A girl would giggle, feigning blindness so that one of her companions would sling his skinny bicep over her shoulders and lead her gaze to the peak with his fingers, hot breath on her collarbone.

And because we are in our late twenties, Cindy, Amy, and I would roll our eyes at each other and mimic them in whispers. Oh. My. God. No way! and Show me how high up we were!

 

Yet, soon enough we would be bunched up and sitting on our single flat boulder, just the three of us, our sunburned cheeks radiating heat, our foreheads and temples touching. We would pull each other close in the dark and hold on.

 

We would be unable to stop ourselves from thinking, Climbing is dangerous.

 

But in the early afternoon, as we plunged our sore feet deep into the lake water, we thought nothing like that. Far above, other climbers inched up the granite in their own colorful tandems. We pulled beers from coolers and drank. We blew whistles across the tops of the bottles and cheered our own ascent. We celebrated our strength, our perseverance, our teamwork, and I held Jonathan’s hand.

 

We were victorious. We were alive.

 

 

——————–

I am a freelance writer and American expat living in Oslo, Norway. I earned my bachelor’s degree in English from the University of California and am currently working toward a master’s of fine arts in creative writing from Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. I am an avid rock climber and I enjoy hiking and cross-country skiing throughout the Norwegian countryside.  My work has previously appeared in CAIRN: The St. Andrews Review and Foliate Oak Literary Magazine.


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