It was on the warm up. I stood on tipped toes surveying behind a flake for a last cam before running it out on unprotectable slab. I never even suspected the flake. It popped loose, a boogie board of sharp stone. It hit me in the right thigh and rode me down. The rope caught me on the next cam, but the stone kept going. It pushed passed my legs, smashed my right foot against the slab and dropped to the ground. My trusty climbing partner, Alex, was okay. The rope was intact. I had a deep knot in my right thigh. I couldn't feel my toes. Maybe the numbness would subside and everything would be fine or maybe it was a mess under the cover of my pant leg and shoe. Alex eased me to the base. I gingerly removed my climbing slipper. Blood pricked from the corners of my darkened middle toes like drops of juice from bruised fruit.
It was my first climbing trip of the season, the first since February. There was novelty in the war story of the 5k bushwhack out from the WV jungle, then there was just atrophy of mind and body in summer.
We sat in the concentrated sun of my backyard. There was something on the grill and we were drinking beer. I hadn't seen my climbing friends in a while. First child rearing kept me away, then I was sidelined by that rock. I was happy to see them. I took a swig.
"Patagonia in December eh? " There was no way I could make it happen, but old ambitions stirred.
I listened to the story of Alex and Spencer's new route on a remote wall in Wyoming. I took another swig, the beer warm and sickly sweet.
By late August I could painfully don climbing shoes. I had planned on a trip to Yosemite in the Fall before I broke my toe, but now I wasn't sure. If I was going to take time away from family it had to be worth it, and here I had no plan, no partner and only six weeks to train.
"Man, so yeah, I could die," I said to myself sitting in the window seat on the airplane to California, reflecting on my progress leading to this moment, finally on route to the big stone.
Previous efforts uncovered new facets in the physical regime or diet. I looked inward to my motivations and fears and sought a new level of discipline on this one. Part of my daily effort was to meditate on the fact that death might come at any time, by traffic or cancer or plane crashing on my house--as it did for my dear colleague Marie--as inspiration to arrive in the moment with zeal and appreciation for what’s truly important, having examined my fears so as to control them rather than otherwise. Yet, I could not deny, if I die climbing it has a different meaning than a plane on my house. I chose this path even while I have such precious things to live for. The question of why always returns.
Climbing used to be my crusade. I would spend as much time as possible out there, stripping fears and supposed necessities, exploring adaptation to extremes. I sought to show the civilized how I could be so hardy as to leave it all, author my own survival. I adjusted and bought in to the usual vestiges of USA citizenry and have started to reap the rewards of work and family: the face of my son after a couple days away, his cracking jokes to get me to laugh, me laughing at his joke, but even more with happiness at his reaching out to me, and him, my son, laughing again, happy at my happiness.
I recalled a trail run long ago, breaking into a clearing to find 5 adolescents boys wearing bright, loose gym clothes and book bags with water bottles and accessory garments strapped to the sides. They were in the act of crossing a 12" caliper tree bridged over NW Branch Creek. Two had completed the crossing. One was mid-way, half crouched, clutching thick branches that obstructed his passage over the central trunk. One was tentatively beginning the traverse on the far end with a tall can of Monster energy drink in one hand. The last waited his turn.