This story was published in Alpinist Magazine #51
October 2013, Salt Lake City, Utah
“I’m not sure I can go on,” Lisa says. She sits next to me in the dining area of our new home, a hundred-year-old brick house near the city center. A brownish-grey pall fouls the evening air, thick and tasting of car exhaust—you can see it in the streetlights. The Salt Lake City’s winter inversion has arrived early this year.
“It’s OK if you can’t,” I reply.
I tighten my grip on her hand. She squeezes mine.
“I want my life back, our life back.”
“I do, too,” I say. Of course, I do. In the corner lie bags packed for a climbing trip to Ouray, Colorado. They are just for me. Some fifteen years ago, Lisa started having problems with digestion, and then knee pain, elbow tendonitis and numb hands. Last year, her neck hurt so much that she had a two-level fusion. A long series of appointments offered no explanations for her symptoms, only more medications and more bills. Once, Lisa could do 100 kipping pull-ups in ten minutes. Now, she can barely walk around the park. At times, she forgets how to tie back into a harness after threading the rope through the anchors. Some days, her brain fog is so thick she can’t drive.
“Come with me,” I say. But I know the six hours of car travel would cause too much joint pain. Each day we spend here seems to lead us farther down a dark hole. I miss the smell of Ouray’s pines, the whisper of their branches in the breeze, the twisted forms of canyons leading to snow-covered peaks. Four years ago, unable to sell our Ouray house, we rented it out and moved to Flagstaff, and then to Salt Lake. We thought that we’d both get jobs in a design agency, that we’d find a more secure life in a city.
Instead, I became the sole breadwinner, and Lisa became sick. For exercise, I’ve resorted to running in circles around a city park. Between the streetlights, cars race by, and I choke on the exhaust. Through a veil of smog, the Wasatch Mountains rise in ramparts of bright granite and shadowed firs. Only rarely can I pull together the time to escape into the hills.
“Someone needs to be here for Zane,” Lisa says. Her son is finishing his last year of high school. He has taken to fire spinning as a hobby, creating swirling patterns of thin flames, intricate as a vanishing maze. I imagine him burning down the house.
Outside, a car passes. Without our voices, everything is audible: the steady ticking of the clocks, the metallic rattle of a shopping cart pushed down the sidewalk, the endless roar of traffic, vents, fans, voices, planes. The city groans and takes one step closer.
November 2013, Ouray, Colorado
Driving back to Ouray, I feel the familiar thrill. A sense of adventure arises around every ridge and arête. Striated bands of sandstone, quartzite and limestone ooze with ice amid the blue-white depths of winter. Somewhere in the many layers of brick-colored stone, the horizontal lines are broken by vertical faults and dark doorways, leading deep inside the earth to places only shadowy desires would take a man. I catch sight of a big piece of ice where it shouldn’t be, pouring from a mineshaft down a yellow fault line.
I steer into a pull-off and grab my binoculars. The ice is not quite touching the ground. Plastered to red rock, a series of small blobs lead to a large hanging sheet. I call my friend Marc Beverly, in town to train for the World Cup. The sun has dropped over Whitehouse Mountain. The 5,000-foot rise of the Sneffels Range makes for early sunsets and long dusks. The blue glow chills the canyon depths. The cold of a winter night begins to settle in. By the time I locate my crampons and axes, Marc has arrived. We hike up frozen tailing and clamber over car-sized chockstones, following thin frozen veins. A large steel-grey mass of ice hangs above.
But we’ve already used up our fading twilight. We rappel into darkness.
The next morning, Marc and I return with our friend Beth Goralski. The drippings of ice run out before I reach the curtain. Yellow mine dust coats the overhanging, stacked plates of red shale that block the way ahead. I remove my gloves in case I need to use my hands on the upper rock, and I place a small cam that seems to shift each time I glance away. Ten feet above, the suspended ice contacts the wall. As I stem between the icicle and the stone, my left foot releases piles of shale and dirt. I kick over and over, searching for something solid. The curtain groans. At the point where it fuses with the rock, I find only dry, aerated brittle ice. Above, the ice rises for twenty more free-hanging feet before reattaching. A knot forms in my stomach.
Fifty feet off the belay ledge, I wrap a bit of cord around the attachment point that seemed to promise protection from below. Up close, it offers no more than decoration, like an ornament on a Christmas tree. Marc and Beth give an occasional cheer of support. All three of us know that once you’re on a hanging icicle, the idea of safety is like a fable to help children sleep at night.
Each strike of the axe creates only tenuous placements in a glassy convex surface. My left crampon dislodges more stacks of red shale from beneath the yellow silt. My right crampon shears through layers of icicles. Again and again, I fight to keep the weight off of my exhausted arms. With every swing, chunks of ice fall. I duck and weave, blocking the blows with my helmet. An iridescent orange stains the ice. Soon, I realize that the orange is blood, and that the blood is mine.
August 2013, Salt Lake City
My phone vibrates. Lisa’s face illuminates the screen. “Hey, baby,” I say.
“Hey, love. I hate to bother you, but I just needed to hear your voice.”
“It’s OK,” I say. “Just trying to sort out some code.” She knows how bored I am.
“Your Alaska trip is coming up.” Lisa says.
“Yeah, I’ll be all right.”
“I locked myself out of the car again at the grocery store,” she says. “I had to walk home with the groceries. I probably shouldn’t have been driving.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
“No. I’m just going to go lie down for a while.”
Eyes full of water, I turn the music back up. I attempt to find my place in the labyrinth of screen equations. Lisa has just received a white envelope with the results of a Western Blot test. Somewhere in the lines of code, a message revealed that she is positive for Lyme disease. Because it wasn’t treated, the bacterial infection invaded joints, organs and eventually her brain and spine—along with a variety of viruses, co-infections and parasites. Our insurance company has informed us that the funding has run out, and we’ll be losing coverage. My Alaska trip expenses will be covered by my sponsors. As guilty as I feel for leaving her, I know my presence won’t heal her either. She needs her space.
Until the very end of me/ until the very end of you. Reznor’s words feel heavy in my chest. Shadows chase their way up the adjacent building’s stone façade.
January 2014, Ouray
The Ouray Ice Festival is tomorrow. I’ll be one of the first climbers to compete. From my experience, the early competitors rarely win. Maybe it’s the cold air and untraveled ice, or maybe it’s that the energy of the crowd isn’t there.
This time, Lisa has made the journey to support me and to see old friends. The Ice Festival was always our favorite party of the year. We stand in the kitchen of our old Ouray house. The smell of smoke drifts from the woodstove. She looks away. I ask her, again, how she’s feeling. Without insurance, she has been poring through books and articles about Lyme disease, genetic mutation, cellular processes, trying to find some buried clue to make her body work again.
“How can you go climbing so much when we have no money?” she says.
“I have invoices out; I’m just waiting to be paid.”
“We have no savings left. What are we going to do when we can’t pay our bills?”
“I’m trying to make things happen.”
“I just need to take care of myself,” Lisa says. Her once-muscular body has grown thinner, as if she’s beginning to vanish.
I have a recurring dream that Lisa is gone. I enter rooms that are dark and empty. A hint of sunshine comes through the windows, as if it’s late afternoon. There is no furniture, and nothing hangs on the walls. It seems to be an apartment in some nameless city. Out of my body, hovering above the room, I see my face turn vacant with confusion.
I was finishing art school when Lisa and I met in Castlewood Canyon. An engineer at a telecommunications company, she was going through a divorce and had given birth to Zane only two years prior. We joked that our relationship was only supposed to be a fling, but we kept traveling and climbing together. We got married. One winter, we lived in El Potrero Chico. In the mornings, Lisa and I would get up early and simul-climb 700-foot routes and then hurry back down to home-school Zane. Near the end of our stay, we raced up the twenty-four pitch Timewave Zero in five hours. I remember the grey limestone, cool and sharp as it passed beneath my hands. The palm trees rustled in the breeze, and the turkey vultures soared on thermals. A sense of joy thrilled through us, and we dreamed of bigger, future climbs.
When we returned to Ouray, Zane’s freethinking and worldliness alienated him from the other kids, who bullied him and called him gay. He lost his one social activity, tutoring fourth-grade students in math, because of the school board’s misconceptions about his Asperger’s diagnosis. Lisa began to feel alone. The long twilights of the canyon never seemed to end.
Now my phone alarm wakes me up, once more, to that dim, snowy world. Mountain guides walk the gorge rim of the Ouray Ice Park, mysterious figures in bright colors. Ropes slide down the ice like serpents. On my first warm-up climb, my feet skate repeatedly. My swings feel forced, and my knuckles bash into a fresh coating of ice. After lowering, I lean over a dark opening in the ice-covered Uncompahgre River. The vomit washes away in the swift water. A lingering taste of bile burns my mouth.
I keep my head down as I lace my boots. Kyle Dempster climbs above me. I’m not supposed to watch him—competition rules try to preserve an equal experience for every entrant. It’s just as well: I don’t want to make eye contact with anyone. The rope goes taut. Kyle has fallen.
The route begins up a buttress of ice and rock. I move slowly, nervously, and after several minutes, I emerge into the sunshine. The upper portion is a manmade climbing wall, a three-sided structure hanging fifteen feet over the void. I swing my axe into a hanging log with calculated force. My aim is perfect, just beneath the out of bounds line. With half a breath, I kick into a figure four. I’ve done it just right. But then I’m accelerating, falling, and all I see is sky, then darkness. I’m back in the shadows of the gorge.
Lisa waits for me on the rim bundled in shiny layers of down coats and scarfs, a patchwork of brightly hued blue, pink and green. [Maybe say what the colors are? I realized “bright colors” got used earlier in this section.] I’m out of breath from hiking up the steep hill toward her. “Let’s just forget about our conversation last night,” she says. I hold her tight, and for a moment all that exists are the two of us embracing in the late-morning sun.
November 2013, Ouray
Time bends like the distorted reflections in the ice. It feels as if this struggle has gone on forever. Blood rolls down my fingers to pool at the tips. I shake my hands to relieve the fatigue, sending red droplets adrift. As they collide with the ice, they spatter and fade to orange, trickling down the crystalline surface to freeze into place.
I fear the past. I fear the present. I fear the future. I fear everything.
My life is threatened by so much and by so little: an icicle dangling in the air, a sickness pulling us apart. But I’ve chosen this climb. A selfish desire to become lost in the moment has led me here. Lisa’s suffering is involuntary. My swings grow weaker. Ninety feet below, the ground waits. I ignore it and continue.
The climbing eases to vertical where the ice rejoins the rock. Gasping, I twist in a screw. There’s no 100 percent chance that it will hold—there never is—but it gives me the belief that everything is going to be all right, if even just for this instant. The crux is below me; now, it’s only a matter of gathering the remaining stamina to reach the top.
Several days later, Vince Anderson calls me. “I saw you climbed Quid No Pro.”
“What?” I say. I’d never heard of that name.
“The route over by Rotary Park.” Vince had seen my car below the ice. He tells me that in 1996 Mike O’Donnell and Ron Zacharias climbed a previous incarnation of the line. Although Mike was more experienced, he offered the lead to Ron. Perhaps Mike intended to be polite, or perhaps he just wanted to see if Ron would take the bait. Ron climbed confidently until just short of the belay, when the real possibility of a fall to his death sunk in. The ice up high, so thin and glassy, demanded skills he hadn’t yet developed, but with Mike’s encouragement he worked though the crux. They called their route Quid No Pro. Ron quit climbing shortly thereafter. Quid No Pro never formed up as a full ice route again. The hanging ice in that yellow fault line hasn’t been climbed since our ascent. For now, it has regressed back into the dark mine shaft high on the mountainside. Perhaps it’s waiting for the right person to return.
For some climbers, seeking such experiences is a way beyond the artificial monotony of their existence, a conduit to fear and pain—and to the beauty that comes with it. For others, it’s a way to practice finding moments of security in an uncertain, precarious life.
May 2015, The Road
I have always struggled to define the word “love.” What it meant in the beginning and what it means now are hard to compare. It’s like what climbing means after twenty years—it’s no longer something we do for recreation; it’s our life. A rope tied between us. Lisa says she was afraid she’d lose me if she couldn’t climb. I tell her that I’m still here. To help pay our medical bills and to focus on what’s important to us, we’ve sold our houses and moved into a small RV. We don’t know where we’re going, but with our house on wheels, we’re always home. Lisa’s health has improved since we’ve left Salt Lake City. Her frame is filling out with muscle; the brain fog is occurring less. Zane has graduated from high school. He’s now on his own.
Parts of us, in many ways, have never left Ouray. We tell ourselves that we’ve learned to see the light through the darkness of that twilit valley floor. I still feel sometimes as if I’m perched on that icicle above Rotary Park. Exchanging weary, bare-handed blows with the brittle surface, knowing that everything hangs in a delicate balance. There’s blood on the ice at times: my blood, her blood, our blood. We’re afraid sometimes, but we keep moving up, no matter what’s in front of us. Quid No Pro: a life without protection.
—Jason Nelson, American Southwest