I feel the wind pick up. Forget it. Forget the voice of my belayer, encouraging from above the rock’s craggy roof.
Only twenty feet or so higher, he’s hanging at the belay station. Waiting. For me.
But I’m not here. I couldn’t tell you the last time I ate or showered, or name my favorite band or beer. I couldn’t even give you my full name or date of birth or ethnicity. I forgot all that.
I am the sun hot against the slip of skin exposed at my neck.
Breathing, I place my hands up, touching gray rock. It’s warm and solid, ready for me.
Now, I am my hands and my feet. I am the breath surging into my ribcage. Muscles only, not organs. Not brain. No thought.
Sharp. The fingers of my left hand dig into the small crimp above me, twisting my stance to the right. More breath. Let it go. How can I haul my body weight up on this one arm? Tendons protest. The bones moan their deep, insistent dissent.
My right leg leaps out and up and hooks the hold, level with my reaching left hand. I’m hanging now, as if on a child’s jungle gym. Hanging above a ninety foot vertical drop. The hold is smooth granite, with bits of crystal quartz pressing their jagged pyramids into my thigh.
Forget that you fell last time. Tumbled from this perch with only wind in your ears to catch you. For that second, you were flying. And then the rope at your harness caught and you ricocheted back and found the wall of rock, comforting, indomitable. Nearly cracked your skull.
Go. If you stop too long now, you’ll fall again. Go, damn you.
The adrenaline sickness from a moment ago slowly passes. My gut dispels the ghost of it. Climbing.
I grunt and move. Left hand on the crimp, the barest outcropping ledge of rock, forcing my weight perpendicular, using the torque supplied by my thigh on what should have been a heel hook, if I were taller—to move upward.
“Yeah! Nice,” my belayer shouts from above. I can’t not make it. This is a multi-pitch climb. I have to finish it. I have to pull this roof. New sweat breaks. There’s a hold above my right hand, just out of reach. If I fall again, this heel hook will rip into my thigh. Blood on rock. It won’t be the first time. “Get it, Lora! You got this!”
I spit breath and tears, yelling, “Shut the fuck up!”
I don’t have the mental capacity to listen and be buoyed by the sound of his voice. I have barely enough strength to drown out the internal clamoring of my own paralyzing fear. Of falling again. Of failing. Of breaking down completely.
I forget his words.
The wind has dropped a few degrees. Rain is coming. Rain. While clinging to the face of this rock. Suddenly even good holds will slide out from under fingers. Shoes won’t stick. Chalk will soup and stew, useless at the bottom of my chalk bag.
Fucking move, won’t you!
I am breath. I am muscle. I am sinew. I am fingers, crawling, reaching, right-handed fingers craving, creeping, clawing for the hold just out of reach. The pressure on my left hand is agonizing, a stabbing pain at the joint of my wrist. I am only pain.
My right fingers find a crimp, barely the diameter of a quarter, the width of a playing card. Good enough. Three points of contact.
I lean to center.
Now to stay upright. My core constricts around the breath in my diaphragm. Balance transfers to my leg, weight transfers to the hand above me. Enough to bring my left foot up. Enough to match foot to thigh. Enough to stand.
My breath doesn’t stay in my lungs.
He’s calling congratulations, but I hear none of it. I hear my sobs now, driven by all that fear suppressed until this moment. Now I feel it like icy pinpricks, giant waves of them. It’s all I can do to keep moving. Can’t freeze up.
Blood tickles the back of my knee. I barely feel it.
One hand above the next. Balance and breath. But I’m choking back tears. That he has me on belay from above doesn’t factor in. “Goddammit. Oh God. I can’t—”
“You’ve got it, just breathe. Breathe and feel your pulse.”
My pulse is a mountain lion leaping at my throat. My right hand comes loose. No. I’m slipping. I can’t pull this roof again. If I fall, it’s over. I can’t do it! I will move, or I’ll freeze and be stuck on this mountain forever. That is my reality.
I grunt low in my throat where my heart is crushing my windpipe. I am my hands and my throbbing feet. I am the sound of my curses and the sticky hot chug of my breath. I am climbing.