Have you ever had one of those dreams when you fall from a roof, or a tree, or anything higher than your comfort level, only to suddenly wake up just before you hit the ground? You’d think that someone like me would have them all the time, but I never have. I have never had a fear of heights. Ever since I was old enough to walk, I was climbing everything in sight. I built my first multi-level tree house by the age of nine. In high school, I got suspended for a week for climbing the face of our school building. As I looked up at the domed bell tower more than four stories high, the nineteenth century architecture complete with two huge stone gargoyles with their mouths open in an eternal roar of power three stories up, I immediately saw the best climbing route to take just as a pool shark looks at a fresh break and instantly knows which balls to hit and in which order to clear the table. I knew in that moment that the climb would have to be made. The bell in that tower had been silent for more than a century, but I could hear it calling my name as clearly as a passionate lover whispering in my ear.
I eventually graduated to jagged cliff walls and sheer mountain sides by the time I got out of college. That was just two years ago. Now I use all the proper equipment and take all the necessary precautions and have developed a better respect for the dangers of my hobby, but the thrill of reaching the top, meeting and defeating the challenge of the climb, has never diminished.
Yesterday, I took on such a challenge once again. The mountain is called Satan’s Tooth. Once you get to the top of most mountains, as sharp as that point may look from its foothills, there is usually enough room to build a house or two, or even a small village. At the peak of Satan’s Tooth, however, high above the tree line where the air is noticeably sweeter tasting to the lips and very pleasantly welcomed into the lungs, the rock stretches towards the sky, culminating in a true peak with little more than three square feet of surface to park yourself on and get a magnificent panoramic view of the world that few others will ever get the opportunity to see.
The climb had been tough for a day and a half. The higher I was getting, the more rock walls there were to climb using the ropes and hooks with less and less hiking between. I was exhausted and sore from the long climb, yet still feeling as alive as I ever had, ready to handle anything the mountain decided to throw at me. The wind pulled at my back pack as I scaled the north wall, nearing the base of the tooth itself. A light drizzle began to fall making the smoother surfaces of the rock a little slick like a polished stone. My adrenaline was pumping through my body as strongly as the blood through my veins. The grand prize was getting so close.
It is daylight longer into the evening when near the top of the world. I found a ledge to rest on after mastering yet another two-hundred foot slab of rock. Looking out over the seemingly endless miles of rolling hills and valleys below me, I could see that I still had two or three hours of sunlight left. If I was going to get to the top of the tooth and down again to a ledge large enough to set up a tent before dark, I knew I couldn’t rest for long. Looking up at the peak of the tooth from where I stood, it didn’t look any higher than the dome of that bell tower sitting atop my old high school. I decided I could make it up and back with about an hour to spare.
I carefully got to my feet again, the ledge I’d been resting on being no wider than a book shelf, and prepared for the final stage of the two-day journey to the top. Taking a deep breath, I found a small cavity in the base of the tooth about a foot above my head and hammered in a safety rod, threaded my rope through its eye, and pulled myself up a few feet in my rope seat while looking for another cavity to help me reach my goal.
My other option had been to simply be patient, something I’d never really been very good at. I had plenty of supplies to make the trip a day longer than I had originally mapped out. I could have staked out a good spot for the night and hoped for drier weather in the morning. But how much is there to do on a three foot mountain top two miles above sea level? Once I got there, I would rest a few minutes, take in the miraculous vista for a few more minutes, and then I’d start back down. I’ve never seen the sense in putting off until tomorrow what can be accomplished today. So I climbed.
At least I thought I did. That’s where I seem to begin to get a little fuzzy on the events that transpired. I found a second crack for my safety rods, and then a third and a fourth. In less than half of an hour, I was almost two-thirds of the way up the tooth when the clouds suddenly turned darker and the rain started picking up its intensity. My climbing gloves still supplied me with the usual firm grip on wet stone but the drops of rain started spitting out of the sky harder, stinging my face like tiny needles pricking at my exposed cheeks.
I had just hammered in a new rod, tested it with a healthy tug, and started to wipe some rain from my face with the back of my left, gloved hand when a sudden gust of wind hit me by surprise and swung me sideways to my right, smashing my elbow into the face of the rock. Although I wasn’t laughing as Mother Nature tried to push me off her monument, I must have jammed my funny bone because my right wrist and a few fingers suddenly went numb. The problem was that those same fingers had been the ones hanging on to the rope. Even as I started to fall, I didn’t panic. This was exactly why I’d been taking the time to hammer all these rods into the rock. If one falls out, the next one will grab me.
Having lost my hold on the rope, I swung blindly for five, long seconds that felt like five minutes. Time seemed to slow to a crawl. I hung upside down with the rope tied to my waist. I felt another rod come loose and I fell a few more feet before being jerked to an abrupt stop as the next rod did its job and held fast.
I felt a little disoriented because I wasn’t supposed to be upside down. That wasn’t how I had tied myself in so I must have gotten the ropes a little twisted up in my legs as I had fallen. I tried to spin around so I could see the rope that was holding me up, so that I could get a hold of it and pull myself upright, get a new rod in the tooth and catch my breath before continuing on. Of course, the thought of going back the way I had come, going down instead of up, never crossed my mind.
I found the rope by feel. I couldn’t see it yet. The rain was still pelting down in my face, stinging my eyes. I couldn’t open them more than a split second at a time to gain my bearings and then attempt to reach out trying to find the rope. My fingers finally found it wrapped around my left leg, then around my waist, the right shoulder, and back to the waist where it was tied. As I was tracing it to my waist to try to pull my leg free so I could swing right side up instead of upside down, I realized that the rope had been pressed up against my knife which had been tied to my belt.
That was when the first touch of panic began. I tugged frantically at the rope, trying to get it away from the jagged edge of my cutting knife. Because I couldn’t see what I was doing with the rain pelting my face, I only succeeded in pulling the rope harder against the knife. A moment later I was falling.
So have you ever had one of those dreams? I never had, at least not until now, at least not that I remember. I must be dreaming. Time seems to have slowed. I try to force myself awake. It can’t be real. But I am no longer sure of anything at this point…except that I am still falling.