Off Belay

1: Roped
Will makes the first move the day he stops by my desk during his lunch break. “Cute dress,” he says, the opposite of what my boss had to say about my sleeveless lime-green and hot-pink Hawaiian muumuu. With his thick, curly beard and big, hairy hands, Will epitomizes my conception of a mountain man. The stark blueness of his eyes penetrates his wire-rim eyeglasses. He fails to mention his girlfriend in California.

Our first date, Will picks me up in his Ford Bronco for the drive to the Mt. Sherman trailhead. There are 54 mountains in the Colorado Rockies over 14,000 feet high. Will wants to climb them all, pick them off one, two, three at a time, the conquest, by his reckoning, to be completed within a couple of summers. According to the Colorado Mountain Club guidebook, Mt. Sherman (Sherman who helped win the war with his scorched-earth strategy) is the easiest 14er — a romp through the tundra, the ideal introduction to mountaineering.

I do not question Will’s choice of hiking mates, the timing of our departure. He is 10 years older, with two master’s degrees from Stanford. When he was two months old, he rode to the top of a peak overlooking Los Angeles in his father’s backpack. At age 11, he made it to the top of Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the Lower 48, on his own feet — his nausea from the altitude tempered by the view his father indicated with a sweep of his arm. In college, a summer of scrambling up the tourist-free routes of Mt. Moran and the Grand in Teton National Park secured Will’s rite of passage to manhood.

I come from more sedentary stock. My parents admired the view of Longs Peak from the front porch of our summer rental cabin in Rocky Mountain National Park. At home in Kansas City, my mother kept in shape, and her hair dry, by swimming at the country club pool in her shower cap, while my father traversed the golf course in a motorized cart, knocking off 18 holes without breaking a sweat. During tornado drills at school, I could duck and roll with the best of them, but the vertical drop from wooden seat to linoleum floor barely exceeded two feet, not enough conditioning for the psychological challenges of mountaineering.

On Mt. Sherman, Will and I are the only ones going up. Everyone else is coming down. They started hiking at daybreak; we arrived at the trailhead at noon. I manage to stay within earshot until we reach timberline and Will catches his second wind. The rougher and steeper the terrain, the more impressive his performance. Boulders that remain upright as he hops from one to the next lurch and buck me off. He gains altitude; a landslide carries me backwards in slow motion, toward the car. At this rate, Will will bag the summit before I can scramble to my feet. The wind doesn’t help; its velocity pummels me.

The wind drags a sheet of moisture in its wake and our destination is draped in grey. The ferocity of the impending storm is telegraphed with a buzz of electricity. The subsequent boom sounds like it has blown up the ridge, and the echo roars across the basin. Spared by a lightning bolt from the humiliation of failure. I did not see the elongated flicker of light that preceded the strike, but Will must have. He is running down the boulder field, the boulders rocking and rolling beneath his dancing feet. Force of will harnessing the force of gravity. The only pin left standing in the alley, wobbling and spinning without toppling over.

After that outing, we cast ourselves as Lady Emily and Lord Willard in a Gothic adventure story inspired by my English ancestry and favorite novelist in adolescence.

“Willard!” I shout whenever I lose sight of him, which is frequently.

“Emily, over here,” identifying his location with a wave of his white hat.

He tries to let down his California girlfriend gently. She wants to know why. He says I don’t mind sleeping in the back of the Bronco with the tailgate open so we can watch for shooting stars, and I keep my hysteria to myself when his unconventional route up Mt. Blanca peters out, and we have to turn around and descend the same steep, icy couloir we crawled up. Will left the rope behind.

His bouquet of roses for my birthday is a photo of Lady Emily stretched out on a hummock of Rocky Mountain sedge and arctic gentian. His Christmas card is a photo of a blue spruce decorated in a twinkling coat of fresh snow. We didn’t make that summit. We lost our traction in the steep snowdrifts.

Will makes the next move atop Mt. Elbert, the highest mountain in Colorado. Above timberline, I am still a virgin. Ours is an awkward coupling, but a coupling nonetheless. Our contractions give birth to momentary equilibrium. His physical prowess and grace; my timidity, astonishment and longing moderate during the exchange. His movements, my response, this rock under my spine, that marmot whistling for handouts, and all the other distractions dissolve with the racing clouds that carry off time, perspective and distance.

Motion consolidates and preserves the union, refines our teamwork. Over the course of the next three summers, Will teaches me how to defend myself in an environment so harsh, only one animal will risk the winter above timberline: the pika, a cousin of the rabbit that adapted to the climate by sacrificing its ears and tail for heat conservation. In its mad-hatter dash to collect enough haystacks to sustain it through the winter, the pika seems impervious to the hazards, such as that haphazard row of boulders resting on the ridge that reminds us of a display of decapitated heads after a public execution. We get the message and rise from our snack break.

My turn to tie into the umbilical cord, the dangling rope. I start around the corner, and the route to the top of Dallas Peak disappears into thin air, like Will did 45 minutes ago when he took the lead. Once my eyes adjust to the glare, I realize I am standing on a snowed-in ledge that leans away from the mountain, toward Blue Lake 2,000 feet below. My postholes in the snow cannot take the heat at this altitude, and the only secure route back to terra firma collapses.

The ledge looks like it will run out soon, and then what? Dump me? I break the golden rule and look into the bottomless void and pray for a search-and-rescue chopper. Maybe I can fake a sprained ankle. Except for an occasional tug on the rope and his disembodied “Off Rope!” Will hasn’t kept in touch. I shout at him to tighten the rope. The wind is blowing with deafening certainty. He can’t possibly hear me. The rope jerks to maximum tension. He must be up there somewhere, guiding the rope, protecting us both with properly positioned chocks and slings. If I slip and his backup fails, the rope in his lap might unwind in a heartbeat, wrapping him in its tentacles, and we’ll both fall off.

A bonk rattles my helmet, then another. The rocks have found the perfect target: the black X I taped to the top of my helmet for good luck. I shake off the debris. Three chocks nest on the buckle to my climbing harness. The protection Will placed on the traverse must have popped loose and slid down the rope. “Tighten!” I yell. The wind howls back. The rope doesn’t move. This time, Will can’t hear me. Maybe the weight of my body will slow the swing of the rope as it pendulums across the cliff.

At the end of the ledge looms one of those thank-God-there-is-a-chimney that consoles mountaineers with vertigo. The chimney is filled with rotten snow and loose shrapnel. Either I commit to the climb or I shriek at Will to feed me more rope for the retreat.

I flail at the first lift up until the front points of my crampons catch. Left point, right point, ice axe swinging at any mark in the rock that resembles a crack. An unorthodox technique to be sure, but I don’t give a damn because there is my reflection in the eye of Will’s 55-mm lens. I crawl past and find a seat as far from the edge as possible.

I manage a victory smile as Will wraps his arms around my shoulders for the summit portrait. Of the 100 highest peaks in Colorado, we have just climbed the toughest one. Eighty-six down. Fourteen to go. Will researches the access and the routes; I keep score with checkmarks in the margins of our list.

Our wedding takes place in an outdoor chapel overlooking Cripple Creek and its cemetery, where death is the great equalizer, and gunslingers and prostitutes are buried alongside respectable mining families. It is July and the alpine meadows are awash in red paintbrush and purple lupine. When the minister finishes his recitation and turns to me, my mind goes blank. I can’t remember my part of the agreement, even though I wrote the vows. The ring Will slips on my finger is set in agate. He purchased the polished stone at a rock shop after noting the resemblance to the color of my eyes. The necklace I string around his neck is made of leather and decorated with wooden beads. After the ceremony, a friend of my father’s says, “You looked like the hangman at an execution, Jane.”

In the required Colorado Mountaineering Club course for aspiring trip leaders, the instructor drills us in the art of tying knots, handling the rope and rappelling. The double figure eight is the most difficult knot for me to learn and remember. I have to withdraw enough rope from the coil to loop it twice into a figure eight; in such a tight embrace, the parallel knots are indistinguishable except for the seam at their junction. It takes me a half-dozen tries to trace the second loop around the first one without kinking the rope. I have to trace the pattern of the first one exactly.

My double figure eight secured, I check both locks on my carabiner gate twice, as instructed, then walk backward toward the edge, clutching the rope in my right hand.

“Let the rope flow gently through your hand as you back off the edge and lean away from the rock,” the instructor says. “Your feet will balance you.”

I stand on the edge of the cliff, my eyes on the hand that is supposed to control the rate of my descent, and not the bottom of the cliff, another instruction.

“Don’t rush or hold on too tight. The rope will burn. Take your time and lean back.”

I look at him for reassurance. He grins and gives me a thumbs up. “If you hug the rock, you might get tangled up in the rope, and we’ll have a hell of a time extricating you.”

On the rappel off the summit of Dallas Peak, I got carried away with excitement and went too fast and leaned too far back. I turned upside down and hung by my harness, twisting in the breeze.

“Grab the rope,” Will hollers down when he finally hears my shrieks. “Pull. Pull yourself up.”

At first I do not believe him. The rope will snap in two, or I will yank him off with me.

“Use the rope to pull yourself up. I’ve got you.” The rope jerks. He is reeling in all the slack so I won’t bounce and strain the rope with more weight than it can support.

I reach up and grab hold. The rope twitches and turns. My head and torso swing upward — a stunned hummingbird restored to flight, fluttering toward the sugar water.

Will’s chocks and slings, and my double figure-eight, hold.

The last mountain on our 100-highest-peaks list, which has no name, beckons. Snug in our tent in the trees, we prefer to wait for the sun, but we’re in a bigger hurry than it is, even though the rock won’t dry for hours.

Over his customary mountaineering attire, Will sports the tuxedo he wore to our wedding. The down tie I gave him for Christmas adds a touch of optimism. It is as blue as a Rocky Mountain sky in autumn. But once we emerge from our stand of Engelmann and blue spruce, we realize the sun may never appear today. Gray dawn yawns into infinity. We pass Conundrum Hot Springs, moisturizing ourselves in the drifting steam. Braced for the ascent, we advance on the tipping saucer of the rock-strewn tundra. Patches of skunk cabbage sag in rusted heaps, smelling of old library books. The higher we hike, the dicier the weather. Clouds swirl like wildfire smoke. Wind-whipped graupel stings our cheeks with second-degree burns. We keep climbing — our mutual peak-bagging endeavor undefeated by deteriorating weather. Will consults his compass so he can navigate in the fog, and we shout at each other so we can hear above the cacophony. The wind pastes icicles onto Will’s beard, sucks us dry and bends us into old women with arthritic spines.

We totter on, our footing insecure, propelled by our determination to complete a decade-long project. The celebration on the summit is brief. The tips of Will’s tie and the flying ruffles of the turquoise nightgown I wear over my climbing attire intertwine like the necks of courting swans. We name our nameless peak Mt. Gray because of the similarity between the rock and the weather, and the contrast with our mood.

The celebration resumes in the hot springs among friends who have backpacked in a bottle of champagne and a floating tray of gourmet delicacies for the occasion. Curried deviled eggs, cranberry goat cheese, homemade angel food cake dipped in melted Ghirardelli chocolate. Having skipped the summit bid in favor of a prolonged soak, they withhold their congratulatory greetings until we strip and plunge in. Then the cork pops and the foam spurts. We lose track of time. Night sneaks up on us in a swirling confusion of migrating steam and breath. The dreaded storm never materializes fully, more bluster than substance, as was the case during the ascent. In the shrouded moonlight, our glistening albino faces and iced eyelashes substitute for the absent stars. I wish I had Will all to myself — until midnight, when our friends have to fish us out, as helpless as newborn twins. They escort us to our campsite, propping us up the whole way so we don’t tip over or squash the tent on our arrival. They tuck me in first before shoving Will in beside me. Will falls asleep the moment his head rolls into his sleeping bag hood, his cheeks still toasty from our hot bath.

My sleep is cut short by the fullness of my bladder. I crawl out of my bag, unzip the fly, stick my head out. The sharp point of a tree stump is softened by a plump cushion of snow. Bare branches are whiskered in white. Evergreen boughs droop from the weight of a generous Epiphany offering.

On my way back from our designated latrine, I flop on my back, carving angels out of a freezing mattress. The moon has slipped out, inescapable and inexhaustible. Wide-awake now, I enter its time machine. It transports me back to the dawn of an Ice Age and the formation of a mountain range. Dizzy with vertigo, I am whisked into the future, time whirring by like hummingbird wings. In the shaded soil where my ashes were scattered, I glimpse lady’s slippers, their translated generic name, Aphrodite’s sandal, paying homage to the Greek goddess of love. The time machine rolls to a stop with a blast of cold air. A warm sleeping bag awaits me in a dry tent. I crawl back in and wait for Will to awaken from his dream.

2: Solo
I name my house Bijou, for the street outside my bay window in Colorado Springs. Bijou is French for finely crafted ornamentation of a delicate nature. Will bought this house and renovated it for a rental unit. Once my name replaces his on the title and I start paying the bills and redecorating, I will call the house Jane’s house. This is the first house I have ever owned. It was ordered from a Sears catalogue, and the pre-cut lumber was shipped by rail. The front porch tilts, fingerprints disfigure the wallpaper along the door jams, and the siding is pockmarked from exposure and age. For a house that was built before statehood, it has weathered the storms rather well.

After the divorce, Will kept Ruxton House, our Victorian home in Manitou Springs. He paid for it and he renovated it.

We split the topo maps 50-50. I spread them out on the carpet in my upstairs study, tantalizing and torturing myself with possibilities. Six-hundred-and-thirty-eight mountains in Colorado over 13,000 feet high, each one a monument to someone’s version of history. It would take several lifetimes to do them all. I would climb them all in this lifetime, if my body could tolerate the punishment. I want to leave my mark, scrawl my signature on a scrap of paper and add it to the collection in the summit registers. I want to possess these mountains as they possess me. I want to know everything about them — the density and condition of their forests; the scent and variety of their flowers; the angle, age and condition of their rock; the size of their summits. I rank them by altitude — the highest ones first. One hundred-and-fifty highest. Two hundred highest. The tricentennials. I will conquer them all in that order. I was the first woman to climb the 100 highest peaks of Colorado; mathematical precision reduces the enormity of the rest of the task. I group the mountains on my list in logical, achievable categories, recording each triumph, like a bird watcher, in my notebook with the date and initials of my companions. The solos with my dog are signified with his nickname spelled backwards: God.

I climb for the exercise, burning off bad memories as if they were Christmas calories, transforming grief into muscle. “What’s the rush? Are you training for an ultra-marathon or something?” my friend asks when I return to camp an hour after he does. He turned back at timberline, exhausted by the pace I set.

I climb for the thrill of it, scaring myself shitless on more than one occasion. But my body is up to it — legs of granite, heart and lungs a 200-horsepower engine that propels me upward at 1,800 vertical feet per hour. Sixty-five heart beats per second, 3,600 per hour. On the trail, my body has a weight to it. My footsteps land lightly, but my feet feel rooted. Every step a declaration of intimacy with the grass, the rock, the soil. The tapping of my hiking poles synchronizing with each inhalation and exhalation. My breath distilled into the clarity of light.

Mummy Mountain, Rocky Mountain National Park: I glance back at the dilated, bruised clouds and pick up the pace as I scramble up the last 200 feet of the summit block, beating the lightning-charged hailstorm to the top by 10 minutes. The ridge I pick out as a logical shortcut to camp proves correct, and I outrun the storm’s southward progression in my direction. Back at camp, I am welcomed by a Boy Scout troop leader who covets my spot for his party of 10. I’m happy to comply, confident I can beat nightfall and make it out in time for a sanitary dining experience. No pine needles in the teacup. A steam-cleaned fork. A USDA-certified source of protein on the porcelain plate. I don’t want to break my dinner date with my parents, who have rented a condo in Estes Park for the week. They think I am hiking with a friend.

How do I explain that, even though I am alone for the first time in my life, I am not as alone as they would assume? That I feel safer in the mountains on my own than I do among strangers in the city? That this is my rite of passage. I earned it; I paid for it, the scar tissue on my legs and in my heart, a map of the interior topography of my life. Maps can be revised.

Ophir Pass, San Juans, early August: A coyote shows me the truest of seven false summits. Head cocked back, nose sniffing for a meal, he eyes me warily and lopes off the other side of the ridge, exposing the summit cairn next to where he sat.

Pole Creek Mountain, San Juans, late August: Eight miles up Lost Creek, I find a safe place to cross, where the elk have flattened and narrowed the bank with their habitual crossings. Their hoof prints in the mud provide stirrups for the leap to the other side. I land without falling backward into the water. Several hundred feet below the summit, another set of elk prints guides me through a cliff band without incident. I will reach the top before the lightning storm and return to camp by lunchtime.

Uncompaghre Wilderness, mid-September: The whoosh of a low-flying hawk awakens me from a late-afternoon nap in a basin beneath Mount Silver. It is three hours back to camp and the sun will set in two. The persistent bark of a coyote encourages me to keep moving. She is safeguarding her pups, leading me away from the den, toward my car.

Culebra Range, early October: A trail of fresh bear scat through the forest issues a challenge. I hustle along at warp speed, even though I know it is not a grizzly. The last one in Colorado was shot in 1976.

“You love the mountains more than you will love any man,” my mother says, and, although her comment rankles, I am beginning to suspect she is right.

The conversation with the architect I met at Wild Oats comes to a halt when he looks down at my bandaged feet in the post-op sandals. He says he’s running late for his doctor’s appointment and he’ll have to skip the coffee refill. We hadn’t gotten to my mountaineering resume yet, or the bunion surgery.

The tenured professor agrees to meet at my favorite Mexican restaurant in Denver. At this stage of the game, I insist on rendezvous sites that cannot be traced to my house. He orders chips with hot salsa, and after the waitress delivers the order, he says, “I reserved a room for you at the motel across the street.”

“Even the coyotes don’t do it that quick.”

“Oh, no, that’s not what I meant. I thought you’d be too tired to drive home tonight. It’s a long drive in the dark, isn’t it?” he asks, ignoring the Dos Equis with squeezed lime that the waitress left on his placemat.

“I’m not driving home tonight. I’m camping out in the mountains.” The chef put too many jalapeños in the salsa, and I’m on my third glass of ice water.

“It’s May. There will be snow up there. You’re alone.”

“My tent and sleeping bag are in my trunk.” I look at his watch (mine disappeared in a ravine) and excuse myself before the waitress brings the dessert. “Got to pitch that tent before dark.” I do not tell him about my trophy collection, which is probably bigger than his.

San Luis, Tijeras, Blanca and Pico Asilado, hidden away in a back valley, like the name suggests, with enough exposure to skip my customary meditation on the summit. Cyclone, Cirrus and Oso, where a member of the Hayden survey of 1874 encountered a grizzly and lived to write about it. Heisspitz, Heisshorn and Little Matterhorn, as if the Colorado Rockies were an extension of the Swiss Alps. Engineer, Galena, Eureka, Gold Dust, Crystal, Treasurevault, Lucky Strike, which isn’t how I felt about it a century after the bust as I detoured around one collapsed mine shaft after another, hauling my mutt by the collar to keep him out of the arsenic-tainted water. Conundrum, Comanche and that pragmatic compromiser, Ouray, who died before the forced march to the reservation. Nathaniel Meeker, self-righteous Indian agent whose murder precipitated the banishment, Kit Carson and Ulysses S. Grant scattered across three ranges on opposite ends of the state, while Arapaho and Navajo share a ragged ridge in the humiliating wake of the conquest. The Ts, the Vs, the Ss, the numbered and nameless peaks, my preference. A name transfers ownership. I wouldn’t mind a Susan B. Anthony Peak. She toured Colorado in 1877 on behalf of the suffragette movement. Of all the mountains in my trophy collection, only a handful bear a woman’s name. My favorite: Silverheels, the nickname of an anonymous prostitute, who, after nursing the miners of Fairplay through a smallpox epidemic, contracted the disease herself, covered her ruined face with a veil and vanished.

I climb Silverheels twice: once before the divorce, a second time with women friends who are also adjusting to changed circumstances. On the way down, when the terrain switches from talus to turf, we strip off our jackets and wrap them around our hips. Then we leap into the air and land on our sides and roll down the mountainside like a spilled sack of potatoes. We come to a stop in a bed of alpine forget-me-nots and moss campion cushions, unharmed. Kathleen unbuttons her shirt. Judy clasps her hand to her mouth in a futile attempt to suppress a giggle. I rip off my clothes and they follow suit, a pack of alpha females intoxicated by their collective strength.

Weekdays I work to pay the bills, to convince myself I am capable of taking care of myself. During back-to-back integrated marketing meetings, while team lead Tim recites the messages, I confine my perambulations to pictographs in my notebook: half-circles for solo walk-ups, Aztec pyramids with red dots to indicate the route of the sacrificial victim, an anthropomorphic figure with an eagle head, human torso and coneflowers for hands. I stifle the howl in my throat, which could be misinterpreted as the wailing of self-imposed singlehood or the mating call of coyote woman.

I climb until the vision in my left eye clouds over, and I stumble into my ophthalmologist’s office, complaining of the sunlight in my eyes when I drive, and he schedules cataract surgery. I climb until the joints in my big toes dislocate and the podiatrist orders me to take three months off to recover from the bunion surgery. I’ll climb until my heart skips one too many beats, and they find me beside the trail, belly up, my richtus grin a cautionary tale for parties who ignore the electrical power of a high-altitude storm.

I wear out two sets of tires on my Honda Civic, not counting blown and shredded ones, and a U-joint, leave the bumper behind at a creek crossing in the San Juan Mountains; and the 100,000 marker on the odometer resets to zero, restarting the journey.

Fifteen to 20 peaks a summer, and I lose my way only once without sacrificing the summit, my sense of direction restored with a careful examination of the topo map. I can feel the tingle of electricity on my scalp in time to dodge an incoming lightning strike and find a summit in the fog, but lose my car in the grocery store parking lot. The orienteering course offered by the Colorado Mountain Club does nothing to minimize my disorientation in town. I am dyslexic with street signs, especially in my former neighborhood in Manitou Springs. Mountain Meadow? Deer Path? Elk Park? The names do not compute with the Kentucky bluegrass lawns and domestic cats sunning themselves in the living room windows.

After a lengthy absence, I test my orienteering skills in Manitou Springs. I park my car with the Texans in the public lot near the Penny Arcade and walk the crooked, hilly streets for hours on end, until my stamina gives out. I start out at dusk, when most of the tourists have already packed it in for the night. The camera around my neck identifies me as a stranger.

I walk up Ruxton Avenue until I reach the staircase to the house where I lived with my husband for 15 years. The rusted gate has separated from its upper hinge, and it won’t open without a hoist and shove. The steps are covered in piles of dead leaves. I take a deep breath. There are 76 steps, and they are steep. The leaves crackle as I begin the ascent.

The slap, slap, slap of running sneakers on asphalt stops me in my tracks and I spin around. There she is — my successor, the Nordic goddess, perpetual youth. Copper-toned skin glistening with sweat, bared leg muscles taut and rippling, twin greyhounds trotting along on her right and left, eyeing the street riffraff ahead. I know it is she because Will has boasted of the dogs’ racing pedigree. She races by in skin-tight, sky-blue Nike polyester, the greyhounds in lock-step. She must have been doing laps, training for the Pikes Peak marathon. Will runs it every August.

I retrace my route on Ruxton Avenue, pausing to admire the Mexican and Indian imports in the window of Casual Comforts before turning onto Manitou Boulevard. Patsy’s popcorn stand is open for business but no customers are lined up at the order window. I cross the footbridge and stroll down the alley, into the Penny Arcade. It takes me nearly 20 minutes to find Zambini, the Fortune Teller. Between the throngs of tattooed, spike-haired teens and the rat-a-tat of their “Star Wars” dogfights, I am completely disoriented. But, after asking the night manager for directions three times, I finally find Zambini in a dusty, dimly lit corner of the antique room. I drop a quarter into the slot, and wait for the turbaned head to fix me in its red-eyed stare.

I must have been his first customer in years. His voice warbles as if swimming from the bottom of a fish tank. “Look into my crystal ball,” he commands.

He holds the ball in his hands. Then his gut clanks, and a card pops out of the metallic slit in his shirt pocket. He orders me to take it.

“Your lucky color is green.” He got that one half-right. I have hazel eyes. In the sunlight, flecks of green speckle the brown irises. Several blind dates have been complimentary. They say my eyes are my best feature.

I fritter away a wallet full of quarters until the fortune I am seeking finally slides out of his pocket. “Unlucky in love? Your luck will change but only if you stop looking in the usual places.”

Jane Koerner is creative nonfiction and journalism instructor and former magazine editor with several hundred published articles to her credit. She lives in Logan, Utah.