If I slipped and fell from this height, I thought, I would definitely die, and if that happened, everyone would think I did it on purpose. They’ll say, he filed his divorce papers 16 hours before he started climbing that big rock without a rope, and got high enough where he decided to just let go, to end it.
But that wasn’t why I was there. I was hanging onto red-brown sandstone a few hundred feet up the Third Flatiron because I quit drinking six-and-a-half years prior and climbing was what I did to clear my head. I had the week off work and I couldn’t sit in my tiny post-split apartment all day. That would have been unhealthy. Of course, soloing could turn out to be really unhealthy. I looked down at my feet, clad in my tiny sticky-rubber-soled climbing shoes, which looked about as tough as a pair of ballet slippers. Long as they stuck to the rock for another hundred moves or so, I would be just fine. Then I could get back onto flat ground and back to feeling like someone punched me in the stomach.
Emily and I had been together, on and off, for almost nine years, through all my problems, her problems, Christmases and rehab and counseling, the time she almost died from pneumonia from making herself throw up because she looked in the mirror and saw a fat girl, the times I went to jail or got jumped because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, again. We met at a bar, and I was an alcoholic already at 20, and she was an anorexic/bulimic sorority girl. We changed, over nine years. She lived in Omaha and western New York, and I lived in Idaho and Montana, and we got back together in Phoenix, and then moved to Denver. She was a makeup artist, an esthetician, and finally decided on graduate school for a master’s degree in social work. I worked at crappy newspapers and finally landed at a nonprofit that took inner-city kids on backpacking trips.
I wanted to climb, to get out there and see it all, snow-covered peaks, rivers that cut canyons, the moonscape of the American desert, bring it into myself and see what it made me. I asked her to go hiking, and she said she had to stay home and study, so I went climbing instead. Each conversation we had, we lost more hope for our marriage, and continued to push closer and closer toward calling it dead. She studied, and I had the best climbing year of my life, attacking routes with a sad and angry ferocity and somehow pushing past my normal fear.
We moved out of the apartment we had shared for two-and-a-half years, the longest I had lived anywhere. I broke down going through my things, not knowing what to do with photos of the two of us having what I thought were great times, photos of our wedding, gifts she had given me, notes she had written, things that you save when it’s forever and don’t have a box for when it’s suddenly not forever. And you cry because they don’t cover this part in any of the movies you’ve seen, the songs you’ve listened to or the books you’ve read.
She picked me up at the Denver airport after a backpacking trip in California with a group of inner-city teens, and after my week in the wilderness, I didn’t get a handshake or a hug at passenger pick-up. I got in the car and Emily said that the City Clerk’s office closed at 4 p.m., so we needed to hurry. All the forms for the divorce were filled out, in a yellow folder in the backseat. I tried to look at them and make sense of them, not what they did, simply how to fill them out correctly. At 3:20, we were still a mile from the City and County Building in downtown Denver, and I asked if she had brought her checkbook, knowing we needed to pay $200 in fees. Nope. We drove to my place, and I ran up the stairs to my still not-lived-in apartment, I ripped out a blank check and ran back to the car. We parked as close as we could and hurried to room 280A, getting there at 3:40 p.m.
We had failed, fucked it up, gotten all those people together, and they had all spent so much money, traveling, buying gifts, hotel rooms, and we had stood there and lied to everyone and said it was forever, that we loved each other. And we blew it. I hated myself, thinking it was my fault, even though she said it wasn’t anyone’s fault. People change, people grow apart. Worse than crying every time I was alone, I instead just felt sick to just below the point of tears, like someone was sitting on my chest when I tried to get out of bed.
She never liked climbing, which I realized was perfectly normal. We’ve spent thousands of years working to avoid risk and maximize safety and comfort; seems pretty natural to not try climbing up something you could very easily fall off of.
But after three years of sobriety, I still felt like I was treading water without a real identity, and from there I eventually pulled myself toward rock climbing. I had eliminated the only way I knew how to relate to people. I was sure every other 26-year-old in America could order a beer at a baseball game, loosen up and meet people after a few drinks, start the weekend with a couple casual after-work microbrews on Friday.
Not me. If I was awake, I was sober, 100 percent of my insecurities and neuroses bouncing around in my head at all times. No liquid courage, no beer goggles, no social lubricant.
Climbing worked for me. The nuances of holding onto rock features with only the friction and balance of toes and fingertips, crucial placement of the safety equipment every few moves, keeping the rope at the right tension — all these things demanded full attention. I learned to persevere through debilitating fear, when I hyperventilated and was so overcome with the likelihood of falling that both legs shook hard enough to jackhammer themselves right off the tiny footholds, but I didn’t fall because somehow I kept it together and made one more move upward. I had to leave my problems on the ground.
That kind of simplicity was appealing when I was sitting in my apartment on the one chair I kept after the split, sure I’d just made the biggest decision of my young life, but not sure it was the right one and knowing there was no way to reverse it, even though the City Clerk gave us 90 days, just to make sure.
I was up early, not hungry, too nervous, stuffing a small backpack with everything I needed: A harness, belay device, chalk bag, climbing shoes, light rope for the rappel. No helmet. No climbing partner, no rope — a helmet wasn’t going to do anything for me if I fell. It was my first ropeless climb.
I had climbed the Third Flatiron twice before, roped. It was easy, low-angle, like a thousand-foot ladder into the sky above Boulder. It was not a challenge for the typical superathlete residents of Boulder — they would leave from the Chautaqua Park trailhead, run the trail to the base of the climb, slip on their climbing shoes and race up the face, rappelling off the back and running back to the car in less than an hour. For me, though, it was serious. No matter how easy the climbing was, it could still kill anyone. One move, upsetting your balance, one foot slipping, one hand greasing off a hold, and you’re rag-dolling down the rock, and at the bottom there is no rescue, just a body recovery.
I walked quickly up the trail, breaking a light sweat in the warm early-fall air. Near the base of the rock, the trail steepened, and I wove up the switchbacks, arriving at the East Bench in just under 40 minutes. I popped off my hiking shoes, pulled my climbing shoes out of my pack, slipped them on and tried to focus.
My friend Bruce, wrestling with a heavy life decision once, had climbed all the way up a wall at a climbing gym before noticing he had never clipped himself into a self-belay. Trying to traverse across the plastic wall to a safe spot, he slipped off the wall and fell 30 feet onto the floor of the gym. He spent five days in the trauma unit of the hospital with a collapsed lung, broken ribs and a broken elbow.
I sat there at the base of the climb, the Standard East Face, and tried to get my shit together. I stood up on one foot, pulling my other foot up and resting it against the inside of my knee, brought my hands together and pointed them above my head. This will quiet things down. I focused, kept my balance for ten breaths, a yoga tree pose, then switched to the other foot.
I looked up at 1,000 feet of sandstone and took a deep breath. Boy, if I fall off this thing. Deep breath. Apparent suicide, they’ll probably say in the paper, even though I didn’t leave a note.
No one will know that it was the lowest I’d ever felt in my life since that first year after I stopped drinking. Another time in my life I hated myself, and who I am, and what I’d become, and how I got there. The divorce was my fault. All the damage from my drinking, my fault.
But I looked up at the gigantic rock, a giant sandstone skyscraper tilted into a mountain, and I thought the answer might be up there. Not at the top, as if I was going to get a message from someone or have an epiphany about my disaster of a life — but maybe somewhere in the process. I went to pull myself up the Third, to interact with it, and think nothing else besides what I needed to do to keep moving up and not fall.
“Back in 5 minutes,” a sign taped to the door at 280A said. A woman came out of the office across the hall and let us in, and we sat down at a desk with her and watched her go through our forms. Are we really killing this? A woman stuck her head through the door and asked if she had questions, could she ask them here. The woman looking at our forms said yes, come on in and have a seat. No privacy for us. The woman asked us
do you have any assets?
and there isn’t a pregnancy?
No, No, No, we said, and she labeled a couple of the forms, explained that we needed to take them to the Clerk and Recorder’s office and have a notary watch us sign them. We screwed up and signed one of them before she told us this. We walked into the hallway to look for the Clerk and Recorder’s office and Emily started to get choked up, and I said, Are you okay? Are you going to be okay?
Like I still care about you, just not enough to stay married to you, or what? I don’t want you to be sad while we’re filing our divorce papers, but I’m not a good enough man to stay married to you. I was dizzy.
She said Yeah, she was okay. I couldn’t swallow, and I knew she was about to start crying, two breaths away from a sob. Why couldn’t I make this right?
On the forms, we had to write the city where we got married. Emily’s handwriting said Springdale, Utah, and I remembered our wedding, and the couple days leading up to it, and … stop. Emily swallowed and we went into the office across the hall and told the woman there we needed someone to notarize our forms. She explained that the Clerk and Recorder’s office was down the hall.
At the counter, the woman said we needed to cross out our signature, re-sign it in front of her, and sign the other forms. It was $220, she said, and we needed to make copies of all the forms. There was a copy machine behind us, and I started to make copies while Emily ripped staples out of the forms, saying it would be faster if we sent them all through at once. I argued, but Jesus Christ, can we just get through this, the last thing we ever do together, so we sent them all through at once, re-stapled them and turned around and gave them to the lady. I wrote out the check to Denver District Court and we watched her stamp everything.
A bike messenger waited behind us and I was sure I heard him say, “You gotta be kidding me,” and I was ready to send him through the glass door if that was what he said. Happiest day of your life, you get a best man and as many groomsmen as you want. She gets a maid of honor and a bunch of pretty bridesmaids. That’s the beginning. When it ends, you get this hollow government hall, and this fucking asshole bike messenger behind me talking shit. I gritted my teeth.
In 15 minutes, we ended it. We had spent years together and months planning a ceremony to solidify it, and it was all over. We cashed our deposit check from the apartment, signing both our names on it, enough to pay the divorce fees and a little extra.
An hour later, we sat next to each other on a bench in Cheesman Park, crying and talking about how much we cared about each other. I didn’t care if all the joggers and cyclists in this park saw me crying. I couldn’t stop it. The only thing worse than something you love dying, is knowing that you killed it by neglect, and that’s why it died.
I hugged her goodbye in front of my apartment, and she said she’d call when she was ready to talk again, when the door had closed on our relationship. It would be the first time in nine years that the door would be all the way shut.
She drove off and I walked the steps to my apartment with lead feet. Just kill me. I have done so much damage.
I chalked up. I stepped one foot onto the stone, smearing a stance, grabbing a hand hold, then the next one. Pay attention. I moved left out onto the enormous east face, as wide as a football field. I traversed, and the exposure opened up underneath me. I could now fall a couple hundred feet, rolling into a bag of blood and broken bones onto the talus below. I stepped up, keeping three points of contact at all times.
Only a couple people I knew could make sense of this. I was turning to this, climbing, when I needed something to take me away. I remembered that in my bed last night, unable to sleep, I thought about going somewhere and drinking. A bar, for a few beers, hell, a park bench and a bottle of cheap red wine, whatever. Six-and-a-half years of sobriety, gone, with a bottle to my lips somewhere. But the crushing feeling of failure, gone, too. It was just for a second, for a flash, that I considered it as a serious option. Then it disappeared.
In 20 minutes, I was halfway up the face, out of breath. I stopped and took a few breaths, looking back behind me for the first time. The city was beneath me, and I was slowly leaving it on the ground, where all my problems were. I turned back, kept climbing up, and then I stopped. I was in a strange spot, where the handholds are far apart, and I’d have to step high to grab the next one, only leaving one foot and a few fingers on the rock. I halfway went for it, and then I slowly lowered myself back down. Not the time to take risks. I made two moves to the right, then up, then back left to my line. All secure moves.
Just like that, I was on top of The Third, standing on the summit no bigger than a living room, no more rock to climb up. The first time I climbed it, it took us hours to get to this spot. I pulled my skinny rope out of my pack, put on my harness, and zipped down the three rappels down the west face to the ground.
On the walk back to the car, I realized I didn’t really enjoy the climbing, up there all by myself. Too risky, no one to share the views with, talk about the moves, the rock, life. My first ropeless solo climb ever, but my last as well, maybe.
I had gone to a few therapy appointments when Emily and I were deciding to get divorced. My therapist had recommended I do some sort of ritual to give closure to my relationship with Emily — burning some clothes, cutting off my hair, something like that. I looked back up at The Third, towering above Chautauqua Park, wondering if I got closure up there. I still felt terrible, and I would for over a year. But for certain, when it got tough, really low, I looked here for answers, and not in a bottle, and that was a different type of closure.
The day on The Third was the day I started to forget all my memories with a person I loved. I told her I’d love her forever in front of all those people, and forever just ended. The next part, the part when I wasn’t in love anymore, this part was alone.
Brendan Leonard is a long-time MG contributor currently living on the road in a van. His blog, Semi-Rad, can be found at mountaingazette.com. More of his writing can be found at www.semi-rad.com.