September 16th, 2007

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Bloody knuckles and rock stars

Sunday, September 16th, 2007

Some days are very normal, basic, routine. Today was not one of those days. And actually, it deserves a long, thorough blog. We’re pretty good friends by now – I hope you’ll read until the end.

This morning at 5am, my dad, our dear friend Dan Clader, and I left for Mt. Sneffels (elevation 14,150 feet) in the San Juan mountain range of Colorado. Our mission? To walk/climb/scramble our way to the very top.

Now, I consider myself as being in good shape. I exercise daily, eat the right sorts of things, and when it comes to cardio activity, can keep up with most anyone. However, Dan and Dad are not just “anyone.” These men are mountaineers, highly experienced climbers, who have climbed every one of the 54 peaks over 14,000′ in Colorado. Still, they were excited to have me along as such an eager participant – especially since I spent the majority of my childhood as lazy,

Still, Colorado mountain climbing is a whole different animal than hiking the smooth trail on Mt. Si in the Washington Cascades. The Rockies are rough, rugged, and demanding. I have spent the past 7 years at glorious sea level, breathing loads of delicious oxygen. Could I really keep up on an expedition beginning above tree line?

I’m so glad that you asked. My friends, do read on.


For the first 2 hours, I proved myself to be a worthy climber. Quick and strong, with plenty of endurance, I raced up switchbacks, scrambled through rock fields, and maneuvered up and over huge boulders. I continually scraped my hands on sharp rocks, and the blood soon crusted into my the creases of my knuckles. The terrain was complicated, and our big dog Rowdy was having a rough go at times; Dan and Dad fashioned a harness for him, and together they lifted/pulled/heaved his poor, terrified bulk through the cliffs and crags. Nevertheless, all in all, we were making good time.


But then, everything changed. Suddenly, the ground rose rapidly, and my feet were no longer a reliable source of balance; my body was forced to double over at the waist to grab hold of the rocks. The scramble turned into a full-on rock climb, sans ropes, ascending stone walls with open air all around us. Dan led the way, and coached me on where to put my right hand, right foot, left hand, left foot. This worked for awhile, but ultimately, his help and encouragement could not stop my inextinguishable fear of heights. “Uncomfortable” turned to “frustrated,” and then, without warning, “frustrated” turned to “terrified.”


And in an instant, I felt as though a huge piece of soggy bread was stuck in my throat. “I can’t breathe,” I gasped, and hugged the side of the cliff. In the same way that the wind was whipping over the mountain face, I sucked for breath, air over gravel. Dad and Dan spoke calming words, that I could do it, that I couldn’t stop here – but alas, the panic had set in, and refused to give up its foothold. The tears welled in my eyes, and when I squeezed them shut, huge droplets appeared on my cheeks. I clasped the precipice, face to the rock, and willed myself to flee the situation I was in.

– – – – – – – –

It is the summer before 4th grade, and I stand atop a bluff, my back to the drop-off. My camp counselor assures me that I am harnessed in, that I cannot fall, that I am safe. But it cannot be true – I cannot possibly stand with my heels hanging over the edge, trust the rope, and lean backwards. I cannot rappel to the flat ground below. Tears overflow, I cannot breathe. I will not make it off this cliff alive. But, wonder of wonders, I lean back, and find myself staring straight up at the blue sky, suspended with my feet against the rock wall by nothing but a rope and a belay. I rappel. And I survive.

I am 14, and clinging to the top of the “Power Pole,” part of the ropes’ course on a group retreat. Hand over hand, I have climbed the 23 feet to the top – now, all that I need to do is to place my feet on the tiny surface on top of the pillar, raise myself to an upright position, balance with nothing to hold onto, rotate 180 degrees, and then leap to a trapeze suspended 8 feet away. That’s all. Instead, I wrap my arms and legs around the pole and cry. I cannot breathe. I cannot possibly do what is required of me. But, wonder of wonders, I tentatively place one foot, then both feet, on top of the wooden post, swiftly push my body up, swivel to face the trapeze, and jump. And I live.

– – – – – – – –

I open my eyes. I have been clinging to the cliff face for 20 seconds. I blink rapidly – once, twice, three times – willing myself to see clearly again. I take a few deep, calming breaths, and remind myself that I have felt this way before, and I have lived to tell the tale. I envision myself gathering my courage, cupping my hands and drawing every ounce of available gallantry to myself. And wonder of wonders, I move my hand, move my foot. I continue with the climb.


We summitted at 10am, and each of us had tears – this time, from the sheer thrill of success, of victory, of the triumph over fear. We stayed on the freezing crown of Sneffels for about 12 minutes before the weather started to roll in, then it was time to scramble down the mountain. With lightning illuminating the sky all around us and corn snow pelting us in the faces, we ran for the last 1/2 mile to the car, and collapsed into the Durango exhausted and wet, weary and elated. We were victors, surviving grueling physical exertion, emotional trauma, and extreme weather.


Then I came home and ate a hamburger and watched “Blades of Glory.”