I lay in my bivy sack, my mind slowly rising toward wakefulness. My body feels heavy and tired; my hands are stiff and sore. I open my eyes, crusty with sweat-salt and sandstone crumbs. Squint to focus on the sky above me and get my bearings. It isn't even dimly light out yet. The maritime breeze is an unwelcome harbinger on a desert big wall. No stars visible, overcast maybe, hard to discern. It is either very late or very early. Raindrops begin to fall lightly on my sack and I look across the valley to see headlamps bobbing in blackness where daylight would reveal other vertical walls. Climbing parties retreating off their routes. Maybe that�s the smart thing, but the forecast was so good, it couldn't be too serious, just a short-lived squall.
I strain to hear my husband�s breathing above the gurgling Virgin River, which flows nearly a thousand feet below the bivouac ledge. He�s usually up early, stirring around, checking the weather, preparing whatever needs doing to make us a faster, stronger team. I sigh in contentment, taking the silence as a sign that it�s not yet time to wake and let myself drift back toward the darkness. The fog bank of my unconscious lifts, it�s still dark out. I try to sense the rain; it�s gone. I adjust my body against my tie in point and wish that I could be comfortable on this narrow, sloping ledge. A portaledge would be such a luxury right now�a little sleep would do me wonders. I had to shuttle my gear in two trips across the river as it was, more weight was not an option; I promise myself that I�ll be sleeping like a Princess at the end of another day.
A sudden, stabbing realization smacks me between the eyes. I am alone on this wall. In a split second I have traversed from restful grogginess to a full blown�monsters under my bed--anxiety. I sit up to shake it off. It�ll be light soon; things are always better in the light. Time to get a move on anyhow. I try to remember my motivation for this endeavor. I can�t recall much beyond joking that I had P.M.S., which is not even vaguely amusing at present.
I think of him. He would be asleep now, on an actual mattress. Resting comfortably for a day of sport climbing at limestone crags over an hour away from me with a dear friend of ours. They would be pulling down, trading hard efforts, with great belays, relaxing between tries, enjoying some good-natured ribbing. Chuckling in the sunshine while I struggle in what is beginning to dawn malicious gray ether. It seems like a bad idea not choosing to be with them and I wonder how it is I have not come to this clarity sooner.
Looking down through the roiling mist I notice a tiny figure in a pullout across the river. I had begun from that very spot, hundreds of feet, and a hard day and a half ago. It is a man shaped speck holding a black dot that with not much imagination could be binoculars pointed up toward me. I wave. The speck waves back. My heart leaps, it is my honey checking on me�not just an apparition. A soggy sensation creeps into my chest and I wish that either of us was where the other is now. I have never been so lonesome.
It begins to rain in earnest. There is no chance of communication at this great distance so I motion my arm downward�I�m rapping down. I turn away from him to begin my work, knowing he�ll understand. When I turn back my speck is gone and I wonder if he really was there at all, and what advice he might have sent me if we could have shared some empathic corridor.
The thought of giving up so much hard work without a summit is despairing. While I dig out my rain gear I take a breath and remind myself that it is within my power to broaden my awareness and get off this mental hamster wheel. But it�s a short-lived reprieve before I am sucked back toward the noisy vortex of my thoughts.
It�s decision time. The clock is ticking. This rock becomes pure shit when wet. You�re tired enough to do something stupid, watch it. You�re close enough to the top to have summit fever, watch that. Finish it. It�s so close. You�ve already done the hard part. Get off this wall, that�s the smart thing. Take your time, figure it out.
I jug up to my high point and rig the anchors into something suitable for rappel. The rain lets up, falls furiously, and then lets up again. I�m set to descend now, but I can�t help looking up at the sky. The weather is inscrutable from this north wall; the clouds are funneling up from the southwest.
I measure time and effort estimates, up versus down. I weigh the unknowns of continuing: a rumor of a mandatory hook move that other climber told me about, I have no hook, no plan to get past it until I see it. What about that nasty chimney at the top Free climbing it dry is grim, what will it be wet How wet is too wet for this sandstone No lightning yet, but who could say what's in store Don�t I hear voices from hikers in the distance up on top of the rim Would they be there if the weather forecast was truly dangerous. That must be a good sign. The irony is not lost on me, and I have to laugh out loud. A crazy woman alone does this.
"Hey! How�s it going" A man�s voice off to my left calls out to me from under a green bivy fly. How nice to hear a voice. How welcome. I noticed them on their route when I was scoping out my line from the valley days before, they are doing something much more difficult than my climb. "Okay!" I am smiling like a village idiot, but he can�t possibly make out my face, as I can�t see his. " I�m thinking of going down in this rain." I answer him in what we both recognize as a question. What I�m clearly missing is someone with whom I can talk it over�anyone. "You don�t think it�ll get better" there is a lilt in his voice right toward the end that resonated inside me. It's sprinkling now, he sticks his head back inside the refuge of his portaledge. I do the math again. And know that it was my fear that mounted the campaign to go down, not the facts. I turn back to my anchors and change my set up from rapping to hauling. Upward.
Leading, rapping, cleaning, and hauling and repeating--the soloist�s rhythm�repeated pitch after pitch and finally, I stand on top. The rain has stopped and the ground is only damp as the sun shines down on me. It is early afternoon. I take off my bandolier of equipment and my harness. They have burdened me for so many hours that I want to slam them to the ground and yell, "Get off me!!". I cannot, instead I lay them down gently. They have kept me safe through hours of toil, as they will again.
I had imagined that standing on top, I�d feel accomplished, cocky, and wildly successful. Instead I feel deeply humbled, grateful, and simply fortunate. I feel peace like I have rarely known before, I feel lucky to be in this world, to be part of its mystery, and to breathe this breath. I smile broadly with tears filling my eyes, tilt my head back and breathe air deeply into my lungs. And then I expel: "YEAH!" across the canyon. And then it is quiet again.