I am sitting in gravel by the largest pool of Steamboat. The glassy surface of the river moves slowly and it is the end of summer so traffic on the road above is infrequent and the whoosh of an occasional car is indistinguishable in the combing breeze. I am looking at the white scar on the Elephant just as I had all those years ago after the dust settled, after the massive rock-fall of Seventy.
I was pregnant, eighteen and very pregnant, happy and fearful.
Rick had carried down my picnic: a low lawn chair which he anchored in shallow water so I could soak my feet, an ice chest next to it, my juice, my fruit, my “How to be a Mother” book on top. Spring.
It was like this:
“You going to be okay?” Rick asked. “Me and Sam will be right up there, a couple of hours I guess.”
“Go on, get. Climb Doom. My folks won’t be checking in till late.”
“Going to make you an honest woman tomorrow,” he said.
It didn’t happen. They got to straying so when that life split open, when a flank of Elephant calved, they were right under it. I can’t really say how loud. It has never fit into any other experience or dream. The sound was and remains so fully foreign that I only have amazement and a lingering sick humor.
I just climbed up to the road to Rick’s gold Corvair. It’d been such a fine day we’d kept the top down and when I got to it I saw the car was near full of river water, water splashed up from home-size boulders smacking the Merced and fish were flapping on the pavement and I remember thinking we could have used them for the wedding supper.
Pressured, I put Baby up for adoption. My folks were glad about that (Honey, it is for the best) but when I told them I wouldn’t be attending college, that I was moving to the Valley, well, it put a crimp on our communication. Soon as Baby was with the agency I ran to my Valley of Dreams.
“So you wouldn’t mind being a maid,” the Curry company man said.
“Will you keep me on over winter?”
“We’ll see, Sweetie.”
I shared a W.O.B. (room without bath) with a girl from Kansas. We didn’t become close. I said that she was a dope for going with a guy who hit her.
I climb, started when I was thirteen, a guided trip up Teewinot so my folks could have some “alone time.” It was grand but I didn’t like the guide who kept telling me that the peaks were named for tits.
In fact, I got Rick into climbing, but that is another story.
First day after work, three weeks after Baby dropped, I drove down there to face it. I parked at the Cookie, sat in the car, eating a baloney sandwich at the base of the Enigma before crossing road and river. I wove around and past the cleanest rocks, no lichen, bone white. The rocks seemed to glow but it was a hot afternoon and all was in direct sunlight, so they shone.
When I got to the base of the scar I turned, paced, explored for an escape from my anguish. I thought about Rick and Sam and Baby and why I had moved and my stone parents. I started to shake, tears near. In time, shade slipped in and a coolness came. Then I was drawn to a steep line hidden on the face of an open book. It was steep. Gosh, everything on the Elephant is steep. Up was a thin crack, but how thin? Shadows were messing with me. Was the edge sharp?
To find myself at the crack I was going to have to navigate many delicate moves, more than forty feet. It was harder than I could climb. I had a project. I started on the towering boulders, remnants of collapses past. I pieced together a traverse along the base, below my line. Over a month I puzzled out a hundred feet of traverse and pulled atop many boulders of the talus. My fingertips were toughening and through my soles I could feel moves.
My roomie said one night, “You know, you aren’t the first to lose somebody. And why don’t you cut your hair.”
I wasn’t sure if she was talking about Rick or Baby, but I didn’t feel like talking to find out. I grabbed my sleeping bag, a sheet of visqueen on which to lay and went to Climber’s Camp. I only returned to the W.O.B. to get the rest of my gear.
It was a stinking hot afternoon. I’d gotten saddled with three extra rooms that day and was sick with anger so I was just sitting at the table of my site when a guy came up and asked if I wanted to climb. He was French; I knew that.
Ropes and rack slung on backs we walked to Middle with the understanding we’d try Paradise Lost but when we got there he wanted a go at Gang Bang.
“Shit,” I thought, but agreed.
“It is more a girl’s climb, no?” His damn toothy smile.
He wanted the first pitch and I agreed, set the belay and in tights he gave at it. He fumbled, came off ten feet off the ground.
“Too greasy. Fucking heat.”
I could see he wasn’t going to get it, but stayed quiet until, on his fourth try and fall, he gave up.
“Let me try,” I said.
“No, it is too hard,” saying “too” too hard and long.
“Please. Come on. I didn’t walk here to hold your cord.”
We switched. I chalked my hands and started up. It was slick but not too if I kept my center and kept moving, resting where I could. I became that quiet place and his suggestions were just muffled background. In no time I clipped the chains and shouted down.
“No, I don’t want this,” he yelled.
He untied and started storming at the base, wildly waving arms, shouting French.
I lowered myself and at the base, when I was down, he said, “A girl’s climb. I came here for the cracks.”
On the way back he said I was pretty and asked if I wanted to jump in the river.
“I’d rather not,” I said and continued.
“Can’t keep you on, Honey,” Curry man said. “Want to waitress? Girls like you do well with tips.”
“Would I get my own room?”
“Maybe. I’ll see, but you’d owe me.”
I smiled sweetly.
It wasn’t good. He was right though; tips were good but, God, if only they’d all just had been quiet, eaten in silence.
A guy hosting a big table, “What’s with your hands , girl. They’re tore up.” He in his cowboy hat worn high on his brow.
And when climbers took a table of ten.
“You take them, Honey. You’re one of them,” said the hostess.
Bread rolls tossed at me as I walked away with their order of ten coffees and five dinner salads. Lots of laughs.
“Those get in the way of your climbing?” asked a kid in a soiled down jacket, salad dressing smears like badges.
“What?” I said while balancing my tray.
“Jugs,” another joker shouted.
I quit, went back to cleaning rooms after what Curry man would say was a serious talk.
I’d gotten ten feet from the base of the crack. I’d seen how it started thin, like the bottom of a knife wound where the tip slips out from the arc of a downward slash, and although it seemed at peace, I knew there was violence there.
Then it was early winter, the time that drives the regulars down the throat of the canyon. They must have seen the Corvair parked there often. I pulled up and there was Mickey’s van, big mouth Mickey. After the trudge, I found him and Jerry at the base.
“Hey, Jugs,” cried Mickey. Jerr was in his shorts, his tube socks, his wife beater, his dubbie.
“Can’t you find something else?” I said and sat.
“Free country,” said Mickey.
“Sure,” I said.
They had tried to gain the crack but the run-out or the moves thwarted them. A three day rain had washed the chalk clues I’d laid down in my solo sojourns.
“Want a go?’ asked Jerr.
“How far have you gotten?” I asked.
“Enough to know it needs a bolt.”
“No, I don’t think so,”
Something about the way Jerry was laying back so easy got me to say, “Think I’ll try.”
I was in still in my Curry garb, loose black pants, loose brown shirt and when my EBs, the tops of which I’d cut off, were on my feet I felt, I knew I’d reach the crack. Thoughtlessly I did not pay attention to my protection.
“Got me?” I asked, Mick.
“For whatever good it will do, yeah,” he answered.
The first twenty feet were embossed on my heart. I knew how fifteen feet up I had only two fingers to pull an awkward under-cling, knew when to flatten my left foot to smear to extend right.
Then it was all new and bright. I was dancing to mind music, delicate fingering, hips turning to align the ballet of foot placements, all in an upward tide. I was warm and ascending and then the edge of the crack; then like a bird of prey set a talon, leaned back , took a high step, a finger lock and I yarded up.
I unclipped a small stopper from my harness, slotted it in a place it was born to and was secure.
“Hell of go, Honey,” shouted Mickey.
I didn’t have enough gear to continue, not enough to set a good belay so I lowered off that single piece wedged in the crack. On ground I quickly untied and pulled down the rope.
“You could have let us work it with a top rope,” whined Jerry.
“No,” I said. “This baby deserves better.”
The next day word had leaked out like a drop of water on a freshly printed page. At the turnout were two new cars plus Mickey’s van, big mouth Mickey. One of the new cars sported Colorado plates. Shit. From the car I could see someone at my stopper, belaying: a team of two. I pulled a U-turn and went back to camp. I couldn’t bear to watch, but camp afforded no peace, too loud with boasts and posturing. I went to the meadow below Sentinel and cried till the stars came out.
Maxine found me the next morning in the cafeteria. I was at a table for two. Max was one of the climbing rangers, always wore shorts, always kept her blond hair in a tight bun under her flat brimmed range hat. And she climbed the Big Walls of the Park, tossing off her partners after every summit, leaving them with only stories.
“When you off?” she asked, towering above me.
My oatmeal was now a hard fist of gruel that I poked at with a cheap spoon. “Noon, maybe.”
“I’m going. I know what you’re doing. Bring your full rack; we’ll use my ropes.” She turned to go but then twisted around and said, “Toughen up girl,” and left.
Turned out the boys hadn’t gotten it.
The turnout again was again full when I got there: Maxine’s VW bug, Mick’s Van and the Colorado plates. I pulled my rack and threaded the familiar trek up the talus. On the way I could hear those above, voices that saddened me. I wanted to be alone and wondered why I was here, not up a cool secluded spot where sounds of diving cliff swallows cut the air.
When I got to the base everyone was gathered around in a clump. The conversations were subdued, but one voice would jump loud then quiet.
Someone had fallen.
“I think it’s broken. I heard it,” said one in painter pants. He was shirtless, tan, muscular, one of the Coloradans.
“Cut up this sleeping pad and splint it; we got tape,” said Maxine. “You can walk out with help, can’t you?” she added.
The injured climber was pale but he nodded.
“What happened?” I asked.
“He grounded, came off just before the crack,” said Jerry. “Just like I said yesterday; it needs a bolt.”
The boys were gone in minutes, helping Jim, the injured one, to their car. Before they left, Mickey came to me and said, “Don’t you do something stupid. This place has some bad juju.”
“Maxine, still up for this?”
“Of course, but you lead. I’m not up for cratering,” she said with a laugh.
I led, heard the same song in my head, followed holds that whispered sequences, gained the crack, clipped the stopper and called to Max, “I going to keep going.”
Max called, “Find a place; you’re running out of rope.”
Once settled into my butt bag, I brought her up.
“Nice,” she said.
The crack was getting wide, the edges were still sharp but the facial features, the texture of the rock was becoming ever more smooth and the stone was now infused with hues of yellow and gold.
“Not sure if the rack has enough wide,” said Maxine. “I’m going to have to horde the big pieces.”
Max took a swig of water and started up. She is thoughtful as she moves, careful, something learned from being high on walls where rescues are major. She keeps her body away from the rock, respectfully distant and her fluidity inspires confidence. When I followed I was amazed; she’d made it look casual.
“We’re going to have to bail,” said Max.
“No, no, we can’t. They’ll take it tomorrow or the next.” I was on the edge.
“We don’t have the gear. It’s getting wide and going toward overhanging.”
“But I want it so much,” I said.
“That’s not enough. Important, but not enough.”
On our descent a gust of wind blew my hair into my rappel rig. I couldn’t move, stuck.
“Cut it,” Max yelled down.
Without pause I made that small sacrifice and was able to continue.
Again I was alone in the meadow below Sentinel, this time by the river. I can hear cars looping the valley floor. I can see the lights through the windows of the rooms I clean each and every day. I can feel my heart squeeze and relax, squeeze and relax. My breath fogs in the night air. Maxine cannot climb for a week because of her duties. I am alone.
The next day I drove Jim, the guy who’d busted his ankle, to the Elephant and from the pullout we saw his partner and Nick the Scott complete the climb, follow our chalk trail to gain the obvious. They called the climb White Elephant. I had no claim to name it.
“My fiancé is buried there in the talus,” I pointed.
“Yeah, I heard,” he said. “That’s tough.”
He told me of hitch-hiking the week before, how the driver came onto him.
“Couldn’t he see I wasn’t into it?” he said.
“My world,” I said.
“Girls hit on you?”
That night was a big party in the Mountain Room bar, and the guys drank wildly. I dressed up for that night, looked good. Nick the Scott hit on me, wanted me to join him in his tent. I left. But before I left Maxine asked if I was done with climbing.
“Never. This is part of it all.”
Then she asked if I was going to cut my hair. I tossed my ponytail with flourish and said.
“What do you think?”
It’s not written, but Max and I got the first female ascent. She says she doesn’t care about that and neither do I but I do.
I am sitting in gravel by the largest pool of Steamboat, waiting for my partner, a young woman, eager and strong. She’s younger than Baby.
I went to college after that winter of climbing and work. My parents were happy and we could talk. After college I traveled, teaching English in Peru, Nepal, Thailand and Morocco. I spent six years in Switzerland as an au pair nested in the Alps.
I have returned, retired in a home I bought in Bishop. It has tall cottonwoods and a view of the leaping Sierra. I see a geologist who knows land. He talks about the magma below us, the tectonic plates, how they lift us. And when we get away up high to meadows he measures, takes readings to figure it all out, while I play on the abundant rock.
I hear my partner steaming down the embankment in running shorts and a tee-shirt that shows her off.
“Hey, Honey, I’m sorry I’m late. I stopped to buy something for after the climb. I scored four Tuskers. We can put them in the river and drink them later.”
“Better not. They’ll be found and drunk. Carry them up; they’ll be warm but at least they’ll be ours.”
I raised myself to climb again.
Honey Turnagine is a writer.