The Face Of Fear – A True Story
By Terry Angela Cook
A route for climbing, the rock wall of a mountain, is referred to as a “face.” I was a climber. Those eight years or so that I did technical climbing were exhilarating years, testing years, breathless years—but not fearless ones.
I was living in Spokane, Washington in the Sixties. Washington State is home to The Mountain Boys School. Unfortunately, I was not a part of this school—in the 60s, boys were in boys’ groups and girls were in girls’ groups. However, my destined path overcame that 60s hurdle: two of the Mountain Boys’ instructors were good friends of mine, teaching me to climb in spite of my gender.
There is a face in central Washington that is particularly challenging. It is close to the highway and I passed it occasionally on my way to Seattle. My climbing friends and I talked about it many times as my next challenge, and I was itchin’ to climb.
A few weeks later, it was on this 1000’ wall that I first knew panic. I had climbed other mountains that were higher, in Canada even a “Fourteener” (climbing lingo for a 14,000’ mountain) but none as steep. The difference is that a mountain is the total mass, and faces are walls on that mass. That Fourteener was a trek all right, and we were even hit by a small avalanche— but it was a walk in the park compared to this piece of granite. It left me breathless.
Straight up and down it is, with overhangs. When climbing, I need to know that face intimately. I talk to climbers who have been on it. I study route maps. I memorize. The morning of the climb, I stand in front of the face and rework the routes in my mind. The dazzling pyrite spots in the rock, the small vegetation courageously holding its own in an inch of soil; these I will see with every move, with every breath.
Granite is treacherous, especially when wet. Climbing on granite when dry, plays on your nerves; climbing on granite when wet calls up your courage. Fortunately, the day we gathered there for my inaugural assault was beautiful blue skies, and little wind. The granite was dry.
Howard, one of my technical climbing teachers, is my partner today. I’ve climbed with others; I much prefer Howard as a partner, both because he is my teacher, and because of his steady and confident personality. Plus he’s a darn good climber.
I’m a novice and this is certainly no free climb. As my partner, Howard and I are roped together from when the first (Howard) steps up, to when the second (me) is completely and wholly over the top and “Off belay. Howard will go ahead of me and will keep me on belay. He’s my mainstay, my solidarity, my safety net, my savior; should I slip or fall his ropes will stop me.
“Are you ready?” says Howard, putting his fist against my upper arm. My heart races.
“Ready as I’ll ever be.” I grin back. We rope up and Howard begins the climb. I check my harness, helmet, all the clanging paraphernalia around my torso and thighs; I chalk up my hands, place my fingers on small ledges at a comfortable height above my head, rest my left foot easily. When I see Howard about 20’ above me, he places a piton, seats the rope in a carabiner on it, rests, and hollers “On belay!” There’s my cue; I take a deep breath then lift, pushing up easily with my thighs.
In the beginning it seems my eyes are doing most of the work, scanning every inch for the next hold. It’s important to hold my weight with the strength of my feet and leg muscles, not with my fingers. Yet I must pull with my fingers. Carefully I move one hand, grabbing a “hold” with fingertips, moving one knee or foot to a small one inch ledge, pushing up with thigh muscles. With my nose just inches from the rock, I’m searching for a place to move the next hand, as though it is not my own, but a tool. Higher.
Don’t look down. Study the face. Study the sequence of the holds and ledges; remember the route on the map. H-o-l-d by h-o-l-d. Jam. Move. Pull. Lift. Now breathe. I see a small beetle near my shoulder. He and I are nearly 800’ above the ground. He certainly could get out of any jams up here a helluva lot easier than I could. (With hindsight, was this the thought that did me in?)
Look up towards the sky; now just a hundred feet more. Howard is going over the top! He made it! Uh oh. A knot in the pit of my stomach. Breathe. Acid rising into my throat. I barely notice Howard making soft, supportive calls to me. How long have I been paralyzed here? “You can do it.” “A little to the left.” “Use your legs.” I’m frozen. Nothing will move. I can’t speak.
My mind is possessed. Howard looks like a curious version of the Cheshire Cat grinning down at me. My face, my neck, my hands, the back of my knees are cold and clammy. When I think about moving my hand or foot, I grit my teeth and swallow a muffled scream. Purple and green blotches of light explode in front of my eyes. I’m gonna be sick! No I can’t. I just want to go down. No I can’t. I must go up. I can’t! I can’t!
I’m tired—really, really tired. Don’t go there. Maybe a drink of water. I don’t want to let my hand go to grab the canteen. J-u-s-t move! Howard is calling again. I manage to move a hand, a foot and I’m now on a ledge a little wider than three inches. How long has it been? I can’t think about time; I can’t think about down or up. I can only think about R hand, L hand, R foot, L foot.
Look at the face, at the holds. Jam. Lift. I’m crawling again, ever so slowly. Tears of fear running down my face and neck are mingling with the sweat. Howard sounds closer now. I’m afraid to look up. My hands are scratched and stinging. Jam that foot. Burning thigh muscles about to give out. Lift. And then…there’s a guiding hand grabbing my wrist! Look up; the final ledge just barely above my head! A curious juxtaposition of joy and fear, chills and shivers ripple over me. Blue sky. I’m gasping.
Careful; I’m still on belay. I hoist my knee up over the ledge. I’m on flat ground! Howard has backed off about 10’ to stay the ropes and to give me room. I roll over on my back and stare at the sky: a dreamy, movie-like collage of clouds, sun and sky.
Exhilaration bursts through exhaustion. Relief. Wonder and awe! The Face and the Fear conquered, as ephemeral as the clouds floating above.