DESERT CLIMBING

Far below, creosote whispers, and porous rock sings in the dry breeze.

Up here, wind is thunder in my ears. It mercilessly shoves my body and whips around me in ever–changing, unpredictible directions. Near the summit of a massive mesa in the Mojave, I’m dwarfed by monolithic house-sized blocks, and towering vertical walls of smooth, brick-red basalt.

Halfway up a vertical chimney, I see a slight projection which could be a potential handhold. Wedging myself upward, exerting outward pressure on the walls beside me, I thank my sticky Vibram bootsoles. Cactus occupies the best handhold cracks, forcing me to contort into mindbending, bodybreaking acrobatics. As I scrabble and grope, my gloved fingertips enounter unseen prickly pear and lechuguilla spines, piercing me in defense of their territory. Pain reminds me that I am the invasive, non-native species, experiencing the desert on its own harsh terms.

Left boot edge now has purchase on a ¼-inch crack, so I stretch, reach and feel with straining fingertips for any available irregularity of rock. Right shoulder pops audibly but fingers find another crack. Must continue traversing right. Legs swing into space as I pendulum to the right over a 100-foot drop. Take this risk or remain forever stranded - geometrics and physics have committed me to it. Stomach clenches with dread. If I fall and bounce, I might survive. If I don’t bounce. . .

The wind of ages owns this ancient basalt. It blasts through the narrow canyons and jagged crags of eons, asserting its force and freedom. I again swing wildly in the wind until my left fingers discover and share the crack where right fingertips are jammed. Arms extended, shoulders dislocating, I hang over three hundred feet of space, helmet keeping my face an inch from the rock. Gale force gusts protect these high forbidden places, challenging my intrusion, buffeting me roughly as I commence another dizzying pendulum to the right. . .

On the fourth outward swing of my right leg, boot toe lightly encounters thin projection. Ah – three points of support! Now pushing with my right toe, I extend my left arm upward to find a thin crack wide enough to accept the first joints of my left fingers. It is initially a secure handhold. I test the crack and its edge fractures off, flying out on explosive winds. Right toe slips off the rock, and I twist in the wind, suspended by my right arm. Whipping my left leg out, up, and in, my calf engages an overhang. I haul myself up to the footwide ledge. It is uneven, downward-sloping, gravelly. I rotate my body into a slippery sitting position, legs dangling over the precipice. Wind blasts through the massive rock canyons and jagged crags.

I catch my breath.  Well-hydrated, but my saliva is glue behind cracked, dry lips. I am alive.

Scanning hundreds of square miles of desert, I marvel at the harsh but harmonious spectacle. The vista seems limitless – infinite and eternal. Far below, I see a rock garden of color – flowering barrel cactus, prickly pear, sage, yucca, Indian paintbrush, lechuguilla, cholla. Splashes of vivid reds, greens, grays, orange, ochre. This April sky is of the deepest cobalt blue. Viewed from my isolated ledge, the majesty of our jewel of the cosmos is awe-inspiring. Had I wings, I would simply lean forward and soar, no longer earthbound. . .

I respectfully gaze at the vertical towers above. I think that no rational human being should be climbing alone in this place. Dehydration, pain and fatigue would impair my physical capability and judgment if I were to continue up the rock face. I’m aware of my limitations, and I exist at the whim of Nature.

I’ve found the peace and solitude I sought.

Better to descend, choose an alternate route, and dream of returning another day. . .


William Walsh    5/7/09