Downward bound in Rifle Mountain Park | PostIndependent.com
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Downward bound in Rifle Mountain Park

Snowflakes, fat and wet, fell dreamily all around me. And I was falling with them.It was the first snow, and soft, white silence covered the canyon at Rifle Mountain Park like a sleeping babe.My climbing season was being put to bed. After today I wouldn’t be able to send (or complete) my projects – climb a route at the uppermost of my ability, after practicing the moves, without falling – until next season, and after so much hard work.But, to my surprise, it didn’t matter. The frustrated, ego-driven adolescent inside me was nowhere to be reached for comment. Sheltered from the wetness beneath a massively overhanging wall of limestone, my spirit merely began to dance in the fleeting present. An odd giddiness filled me as a forgotten snowsuit-clad toddler jumped into my psyche. It had only suddenly become this way, though. Despite the sun shining when I woke up that morning, gray clouds had swamped the sky and turned the day into cold soup within an hour. My ambitions were crushed – clinging to rock in that weather was out of the question. The hour-long drive convinced us to rope up anyway.Mike, my climbing partner, wasn’t 15 feet off the ground when flakes began to materialize. They were bigger when it was my turn to climb and I felt silly taking off my warm boots and socks to don climbing slippers. I elected to at least wear a thin pair of liner gloves for my hands, but it didn’t matter. My fingers froze anyway and the gloves made for a slippery grip. Plus, I couldn’t feel my toes. It seemed my definition of “fun” needed some rethinking for future reference. Back on the ground, blood began to refill the frozen capillaries of my fingertips – a throbbing burn consumed each digit like a matchstick. Ice climbers call the experience “fire fingers” and it’s reduced me to frozen tears more than once. But I wasn’t ice climbing! Whatever this was, it was wrong. Minutes passed and my face twisted as I tried to distract my thoughts from the burning, which always worsens right up to the end. I began to argue with myself. “That’s it, we’re going home,” I thought. “This is stupid. But wouldn’t that be a waste of gas, just to do one route? Wouldn’t it be a waste of fingers and toes to climb more?”I was crumpled in a silent ball of misery at the peak of madness (my standard procedure for dealing with “fire fingers”) when the flames diminished.A new warmth filled my body. Everything became beautiful. The snow piling up on green grass, silence falling around the bubbling creek, the whiteness perched atop water-streaked cliffs – the contrasts overwhelmed my senses. There was a certain joy to simply be there.Each moment had a way of melting into and becoming the next without my noticing. Before long it was getting dark and all the details from the day seemed like one memory: belaying Mike from the ground, watching his dark smudge disappear higher above me into a swirling mass of flecks that poured from an indefinite source; the pitter-patter of shattering hydrocrystals on my jacket; the feeling of movement and stillness at once. Now, as if it had all been leading to this one instance, I found myself taken by this incredible, surreal feeling of falling with snowflakes – a 20-foot ride on what would probably be a one-time-only perspective.It was a fall I took several times on the same route, and almost every time was like floating (I’m usually gripped on a fall that big).In the gray, fading daylight, I finally stuck the move and stayed attached to the crimpy little holds I’d fallen off all day. Swelling emotions erupted in a compulsive chuckle. “Ahh, yes! Yes! Yes!” was the feeling. I clipped the rope through the top anchors and returned to the ground. Apparently, each day really is what I choose to make of it.Derek Franz is a copy editor for the Post Independent.


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