The Freedom of the Hills


By Michael Zamzow

They say rock climbing is about facing death, but I’m not sure. Perhaps when I began, I would have made that claim — because it sounds cool, because the comfortable, suicidal children of the suburbs have always believed we should be thinking more about destruction. But rock climbing is fundamentally safe, with modern gear and techniques, and I don’t think about death much anymore. I think about escape.

“I miss him so much,” Ayla sputters, barely audible.

Escape to the vast, clean emptiness of the American West, the stars high above me in the cold desert sky, glistening unencumbered by the glow of the modern world. For the past six weeks I have been encamped at the bottom of a canyon with a motley assortment of vagabonds and posers, guys on a gap year before grad school and girls cooking ramen on a beer can stove bestride the tailgate of a Subaru. Three-hundred-foot red sandstone cliffs tower above us, dozens of miles of immaculate rock, hundreds of rock climbers, hidden away in the desert. Welcome to Indian Creek, as this purgatory is known, this paradise, unpretentious and not the terminus of the escape, but merely a waiting roomin which you cannot remain forever. Escape is perpetual.

“He must have been very unlucky, to have three cams rip like that. I would have thought that was impossible, especially for a guy with that much experience. There must have been…” Jordan trails off and I can no longer hear him. I have stepped away from the fire where most of my crew is hanging out (the nights are cold in the high desert in April), ostensibly to take a piss. Alone, surrounded by chest-high sage brush, I can see the stars more clearly without the blaze of the fire, and I can hear Jordan, as he talks to Ayla, alone, in his van.

My heart hurts.

She wouldn’t be talking to him if she knew what I know.

“To have one cam blow, maybe, but three, it’s impossible,” Jordan reiterates, oddly focused on this phenomenon. He is speaking about Spring Loaded Camming Devices, cams, the primary tool rock climbers use to protect themselves from falls and to anchor themselves into the stone. The most common cams consist of four quarter-circle pieces of aluminum offset along an axle perpendicular to a stem oriented in the direction of a potential fall. Cams are placed in cracks and, if the stem is weighted, the cam expands, keeping its place in the crack and supporting the force of a falling body. When placed by an experienced climber, they rarely fail.

“I know, I know,” Ayla says, stifling a sob, “but we expose ourselves to Chaos, we place ourselves at its mercy, though it has none, and we try to outsmart it, though this is impossible, and sometimes we are consumed.” She swallows. “It is neither good nor bad.”

“What will be will be,” Jordan coos.

Ayla’s boyfriend died three months ago in a climbing accident. He had been climbing alone, on a rope, in a system climbers refer to as Top Rope Soloing. He had gone to a cliff where he could walk around to the top; there, he had built an anchor using, as Jordan mentioned, three cams. He had fixed a rope to this anchor and rappelled down the cliff face. His intention had been to climb back up the cliff face, protecting himself with this rope. At some point he fell and the anchor, all three cams of it, failed.

I had known Ayla’s boyfriend, and with him, Ayla, for many years. They were regulars at Indian Creek in the spring and the fall. When I first came to the Creek, I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t know how to climb, and I didn’t own any of the gear. I met Ayla’s boyfriend while lurking around one of the trailheads and, impressed by my excitement, he invited me to join them. That was how I got started. Afterwards, I followed them to their campsite, this very one, where dozens of climbers splayed out in their tents and their vans beneath the cottonwood trees and the red sand. People came and went, climbed together, hung out, did drugs, drank beer, some fucking but not too much, then left, not to see each other again until the desert cooled in the fall or warmed in the spring. It is a dream I have yet to wake up from.

“The Creek scene is lame this year, anyways, I was thinking of taking a trip up north,” Jordan says. He is whispering, which irritates me; it means they must be very close together.

“I don’t want to go north, north is what scares me, north is where he died.”

I can hear Jordan’s smile in his voice, “oh, but you haven’t seen these mountains. This is a lot further north than that, further north than he ever went. The rock is so clean, so pure, and the mountains are so big, no one has ever climbed on them before. And this year might be our last chance, the land belongs to some Canadian Indian tribe and when they found out we were there, they threatened to close off access.”

“What if I’m not strong enough?” Her voice cracks and there is a pause. My eyes are adjusting to the moonlight and I can see the silhouette of Jordan’s van, the door pitch black and open. Then she laughs, almost a giggle, and I nearly give myself away. She says, “There I go again, focusing on my limitations. Chaos prescribes no boundaries to what we can do.”

“Exactly! The world is yours for the taking!”

“I was thinking of going to Nicaragua and doing this grief management retreat. Afterwards I might bum around and spend some time on my painting. It’s so cheap down there, I could go and live and not have to worry about anything for months and months. I need some new scenery. Ever since his death, I’ve been tracing old routines, repainting places we both found beautiful, but I haven’t regained my vibrancy, I just continue to fade.”

“You don’t want to be sad anymore.”

“I don’t.”

I would be happy to go to Nicaragua! My Spanish isn’t even half bad. I have never been intimidated by foreign countries, though I heard that maybe Nicaragua is at war, or consumed by the drug cartels, but I have always been a savvy guy. I have a degree in International Relations. I didn’t want to go to college, but my parents made me.

“Maybe what I really need is a new challenge, a new adventure.”

I lie back in the sand and stare at the sky. The world is still and beautiful. If I don’t drink too much tonight I will go climbing in the morning, I will test myself against some of the prettiest rock in the world. I can hear the laughter of my friends around the fire, I can hear the voice of the girl I love, barely now, from the open door of Jordan’s van. Yes, I have been in love with Ayla since the day I met her. She doesn’t know, I would never have done that to them, her boyfriend was a good friend to me. Though, when I realized he had died, I thought about the spring, and if Ayla would come to the Creek alone, just so I could see her and make sure she was doing alright.

I didn’t expect Jordan. No, he shouldn’t be here.

“Yes, I think I need a new adventure.”

Jordan laughs. “Good, I’m glad to hear that. But just because I’m encouraging you, that doesn’t mean it will be easy. We’re going where no person has gone before and we’re going to do it in the best style.” Climbers are obsessed with style, which relates in large part to a thing climbers call ethics. Climbing ethics refer to the appropriate techniques used to ascend a piece of stone. Traditionally, if a rock climb can be protected using removable gear, such as cams, then no permanent gear, such as bolts, can be placed. There are many other ethical considerations, but none that we will get into here. Unfortunately, in recent years, with the influx of so many new people, there has been a moral decay in the world of climbing, and now people place permanent bolts in the rock whenever they please. Style is what remains when ethics have eroded; style is constraining oneself where others do not. As a heuristic, the more dangerous the climb, the better the style.

As much as I hate him, Jordan does climb in the best of styles. In the world of climbing, there is nothing more impressive than the ground up, on-sight, all-gear ascent of a large, difficult face. This means that you start at the base of a cliff, a cliff that has never been climbed before, and you climb to the top, leaving nothing permanent behind you, the rock unchanged by your conquest. The problem with this style of climbing is it is very risky, and given that most high quality lines around the world have already been done, the remaining unclimbed lines are very dangerous. This is what he is inviting Ayla to do.

I hear the unmistakable sounds of an incipient act I do not wish to be privy to. If she only knew, if she only knew. I wander back toward the party around the fire. I need a drink.

“Yo, Ben, what you up to?” Joe slurs as soon as he sees me.

“Went to take a piss.”

“Some piss.”

“I saw Jordan and Ayla.”

“Oh ya? They going at it again?”

I snort and crack a beer. I sit down in a ragged five-dollar camp chair and accept a passed bag of wine. I take a slug and give it a slap. I say, “Again?”

A dozen ruddy faces exchange knowing glances in the gloaming. I feel a sense of unreality, like I’m trapped at the center of a beer commercial. Joe speaks, “Oh ya, Jordan’s been pining for years. Why else you think a climber like that would be hanging out with a bunch of weak bums like us?”

I grin. “Speak for yourself.”

Sarah pinches my bicep and laughs. I blush, I’ve been self-conscious about my scrawny arms since I was a little kid. She says, “big strong man,” in a comical voice and everybody laughs. I laugh too but I’m angry.

Brandon says, “Hey Ben, you ever send Love Is All?” In climbing, “to send” means to ascend a section of rock using nothing but your hands and your feet. You may have a rope for protection but, in theory, you don’t need it.

“Hell no, I gave up on it last season.Have you?” I hiss. I don’t want to be the kind of guy that hisses so I add, “It’s so hard, man, why, you working it?”

“All month, my dude, but I don’t think I’m any closer. You wanna go up together, tomorrow?”

Sarah whispers something to the girl next to her and they giggle. I don’t know this other girl’s name, nor do I believe I have seen her before, but this is normal when camping in the Creek. Sarah says, “I hear Jordan used to warm up on Love Is All when he was projecting Where There’s a Will.”

I grimace. I had never considered myself attracted to Sarah, but this annoys me. Joe whistles, “The Will? That’s the hardest climb in the Creek!”

I stand up and grunt, but not loud enough for anyone to hear me, “I’m going to take a piss.” This time for real, I had not actually done so while eavesdropping on Ayla.

I walk off into the desert, the opposite direction from Jordan’s van. I think

I see a star shoot across the sky in the corner of my vision, but maybe not. I stop and look at the plae from which it must have fallen but no other star comes. This uncertainty frustrates me.

As I’m pissing, I hear footsteps behind me. Brandon. He says, “I get it, dude, I don’t like Jordan either.”

I don’t know why he has followed me, I barely know the kid. He’s one of those guys who just graduated college the previous year, something reasonable, computer science, maybe, and has a job or grad school or something lined up. He’s just out here playing the game. Five years from now he’ll be putting a down payment on a house and I’ll still be here, urinating in these wide open spaces.

“He’s not a good guy,” says Brandon.“Oh well, I don’t expect he’ll hang around here long. Anyway, if you really want to return to Love is All I would be stoked! It’s been my dream to climb that thing since forever and I’m sure you could get it if you put in the effort. I’ve seen you climb and you’re way stronger than me.”

I laugh. “Thanks man.” It’s true. I am fairly strong. But the thing about climbing is, no matter how strong you are, there is always someone inconceivably stronger. Even Jordan looks like a pansy compared to the world’s best. Climbs in the United States are graded and enumerated on a scale with over thirty steps. The number of steps between my hardest send and the hardest climb in the world is greater than the steps between me and a children’s birthday party in the gym.

Brandon comes up beside me and pisses in the same bush I just finished watering. I appreciate the camaraderie of the gesture. Another star bolts across the sky straight in front of us and my whole evening brightens, just to know that the glimpse I caught earlier was real. I tell Brandon, though I shouldn’t, “I think I’m in love with Ayla.”

He doesn’t laugh and for a moment he feels like my best friend. He says, “I can see how that would happen.”

The moon is a spectral crescent. The cliff line all around us stands clear against the egg-speckled eternity of the Milky Way, the sky swollen with stars. I feel invulnerable. I say, “I just love how big it is out here.”

Brandon breathes, “Limitless.”

“Unbounded, unconstrained.”

“That’s what I love about climbing, the way it makes you feel.”

“Hell yeah, climbing makes me feel…” And I think about telling him the story, how three months ago I followed Ayla and her boyfriend northward because she’d told me they’d be ice climbing in Canada in January. I don’t know why I didn’t tell her I was coming, I have her number, but I feared that if she found out I was sleeping in a tent in the middle of a Canadian winter while they stayed warm in their van that she would, I don’t know, pity me or something, and I couldn’t have that. Besides, I thought it would be better to just sort of, you know, run into her at the cliff.

But it was a record warm January in Alberta and the ice wasn’t good for climbing. Ayla had an injured finger so her boyfriend went out to climb some rock alone.

That is where I saw him.

That is where I saw them both.

I had been climbing there every single day, as it was the only suitable place in the area for Top Rope Soloing, and I was alone. So on the day I saw them I was at the end of the cliff, on an obscure piece of rock, because I had already climbed the more popular routes. I was topping out my second climb of the day when I saw Ayla’s boyfriend building an anchor on top of an area classic. I watched him rappel out of sight.

Then a second figure appeared. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I believe it was Jordan. Who else could have done what he was about to do?

This figure (perhaps Jordan, it must have been Jordan! He’s been pining after Ayla for years!) walked over to Ayla’s boyfriend’s anchor, not even looking around, certain no one else was climbing there in the middle of winter. Without hesitation, the cams were released, the anchor making a soft ping as it clattered over the cliff edge. From where I crouched, the thud was shockingly loud, the body shattering on the rocks.

I tell Brandon, “Climbing makes me feel like I can do anything.”

“Not everyone’s so lucky,” Brandon says. He lifts his beer and pours a slug into the sand, “always a tragedy when a climber dies.”

I tilt my head back and smile. “This is the game we play.” I imagine the day I tell her, when I reveal to her what Jordan has done. “But you’re right, we are lucky.”

“For what?”

I cast my arms out to the wide, wide West, “for this, my man, for our freedom.”


Michael Zamzow is a rock climber and itinerant waiter living, for the time being, in Flagstaff, Arizona.





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