Writing from the edge of my seat
Winter is here. There are more sunny days on the way, but my first snowflakes of the season fell today.They came down in soft swirls, melting into silver-black granite boulders and orange leaves, slowly burying the ghosts of summer – the memories of my past that linger like drying sweat on the forehead. I’ve never spent a fall season in Yosemite. Before now it was always summer vacations between college semesters: blazing, hot chaos. Now it’s quiet in Camp 4. Maybe because the tent village residents, myself included, are piling into the lobby of the Yosemite Lodge to escape our soggy, dirty reality that smells like body odor and campfire smoke (I’m sure the front desk employees are thrilled). Even in the lobby, though, there’s a strange, silent sense that hovers over things. …October – the word itself makes me say, “Brrr.”I touched the world-renowned Half Dome for my first time yesterday and stood on its alien summit after climbing a technical route called “Snake Dike.” The route is easy, and I climbed it alone, which is to say no rope was involved. Only the friction of my rubber-soled feet carried me up the giant, rose-colored, backbone-like formation, high above the valley floor, seemingly just on the edge of the wind where the ravens hovered. No rope was needed. I simply savored the feeling of crackless granite sliding under my palms – up, up, up. Most of the people who summit Half Dome depend on steel drilled into the rock, particularly by a strenuous hiking route known as “the cables.” Not depending on such unnatural things filled me with a fluttering buzz of freedom; had the cables not been there, I would still be standing on the summit (though I would’ve had to down-climb the way I came up, which would add an extra full dose of fear to the affair).The look of confusion on some faces as I came strolling up, then barefoot, from the opposite direction is an image I will hold dear in my memory. It was the perfect example of how one reality is experienced simultaneously by very different perspectives. I even heard one Japanese couple mumbling behind me about the nutty American.I am nutty, and had been telling myself that in anger as I stomped up the beginning of the trail. Noon! Was I really the idiot dingbat who began a solo ascent of Half Dome at noon? I had no business. If I slipped on the route and died, the headlines would be full of references to the ignorant tourist who practically asked to be killed in a tragic accident.Yet it’s apparent my ignorance pales in comparison to many of the souls hell bent on summiting that great bald rock. How more of us don’t die stupid deaths every day might be proof enough that there’s a higher power giving us a more favorable footing on that edge of edges. Following my shadow away from the setting sun, I made my way to the cables. They looked like a roller coaster track, dropping out of sight at an imposing angle, and it surprised me how scary it was, even for me, a seasoned big wall climber. I gripped the cold steel tighter, sliding down, down, down. The thought of descending that in the dark made me shiver.Behind me, the fat Japanese couple leaned backwards on the slab, sliding awkwardly down the smooth, metal rope, inches at a time, death-gripped, as if they hadn’t considered the fact they’d be coming down the way they came. The tiny, empty water bottles and camera swinging from the man’s neck suggested they hadn’t. They didn’t even have jackets, which is a bold 18-mile day in my book.Below me an elderly couple scratched their way up the stone-stepped switchbacks. Their Leiki hiking poles slipped erratically on the rock as they hiked ever higher into the descending darkness. They were an hour from the top with even less daylight remaining, yet they were obviously not about to turn back. I stepped to the side of the trail and bid adieu to them in my mind, removing my hat. It made me think of suicide I recently heard about here, when an old man casually stepped over the side into whatever afterlife waited for him in the valley.The abyss does have a special pull up there, especially when ravens ride the updrafts so playfully – soundless, circling, not moving a wing with their black feet tucked under. I, too, want to float with them but fear the faith it takes to go for such a swim. I’ll settle for mere summits for now.Perhaps that’s also the draw for many of these poor souls, clawing their way to some long-imagined pinnacle, never minding the real situation they head for so blindly.Much farther down the trail I meet Ray, who is also one of these souls. Sweat streamed down his obese face. He huffed and puffed and coughed, setting one foot uphill of the other. The New Jersey man was not even close to tree line or any sort of view, but I marveled at his accomplishment, as it was obvious he’d been going like that all day. He’d smoked all his cigarettes and was still convinced he was “almost there.” I sat him down on a log.”Ray,” I said, “you’ll be fine either way, but as you go up, just keep in mind how much of the trail you’re willing to hike in the dark when you’re tired and cold and hungry.” This was a basic thing that had been in my head since my noon departure, but I saw the change in Ray’s face at the thought. There had also been a father and son with a single small backpack between them. I hinted about the big effort ahead of them. The dad waved me off, seemingly pissed that I would suggest a question to his judgment.But I might as well know nothing, as far as anyone out there is concerned. According to a Camp 4 maintenance man I met this morning, I’m only in these mountains to hide from myself.”You’re hiding from who you really are, man, that’s all you’re doing,” he said, trying to set me straight, knowing nothing about me beyond my appearance. All I could do was smile.Yeah, OK, I don’t know crap and you don’t, either. Snow is coming and we’ll all scatter in different directions when it falls. I feel like I know where an important edge is, though, so I might be just a little less blind than some others when the storm hits tonight. For the meantime, however, I’m following the stinky herd to the lobby of Yosemite Lodge to feed my face and wait out the weather until they force me back to my tent (hey, some ideas are just plain good). Derek Franz would like to vocalize his support for efforts to start a climbing program at Glenwood Springs High School and help some kids find an edge that matters in life. Questions regarding the program or Derek’s judgment can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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