Taking Off

Aaron shouldered his rope and gave me a pleading glance. "Come climb with us, Martin. Angela's just a beginner. She could use a little support." He added, "I once did some dental work on her," as if that explained her sudden appearance at the cliffs. The girl grinned. Her patched, faded jeans looked ready for the landfill, and her socks poked through her flimsy tennis shoes. Although Aaron later asserted that she was 24--which still made her a good fifteen years younger than either of us--she looked like a teenager: very slight, too much lipstick, and a ridiculous punk haircut. Her hair was purple, with a swath of orange.

"We're heading for North Pillar, if nobody's on it yet," Aaron said. "Come on, Mart. We could use a warm-up."

Though it sounded imposing, the Pillar was one of the easiest routes on the cliffs. Its 200 feet of quartz conglomerate were steep, but good holds abounded, as though they had been put there for neophyte climbers.

"This is scary shit," Angela said, staring up, when we reached the Pillar.

"It's easier than it looks," Aaron said, with a comforting smile. "Just 5.2. The ratings go all the way up to 5.12 these days."

I found Angela's presence unfunny and interfering. My old friend Aaron had become the perfect climbing partner for me, a vivid and happy contrast with R.J., his predecessor. R.J. was a physicist like me, a colleague at Bell labs. He was a stronger climber than Aaron, but his unrelenting ambitions began to overwhelm me. And then he unforgivably tricked me into taking a risky lead. He claimed he had done it for my own good, just to show me what I could do when I had to, but I could hardly even speak to him after that.

In the year and a half since my break with R.J., Aaron and I had been jointly sharpening our climbing skills. Almost every weekend, while our wives managed home and children, we attempted successively tougher routes. During the week Aaron was a temperate, hard-working dentist: a large, gentle man, almost as tall as I was and a good bit heavier. His soft, pale flesh overlay rigorously trained muscle--persistence had compensated for a lack of physical gifts. Aaron and I encouraged and complemented each other. Even our hardware seemed to mesh: I had a big supply of old pitons, while he stocked up on nuts and stoppers.

Aaron could have flown up the first pitch of the Pillar--he and I were solid 5.7 climbers by then. But he took it slow, issuing instructions and explanations: "Only one person climbs at a time, and only the leader takes any chances. This metal thing in the rock is a piton." Etc. He stepped up to a ledge. "See this little pine tree? You'll want to pull up on it, but don't. Move left like this and there's a bucket hold for both hands." He was always methodical, but I'd never seen him take such care with a beginner.

When Aaron called "on belay," I helped Angela with her waistloop, inhaling sweetish perfume in the process. She paused for a few puffs of what was obviously not tobacco. "Off you go," I said.

Angela moved faster than I had expected, but with great clamor and protest: "Pull that rope up! Oh God I'm gonna fall. Where do I put my fucking foot now? Aaron goddamnit help me!" Her voice rattled off the face of the cliffs.

North Pillar turned out to be Angela's only climb of the day--and I hoped of her career. But she hadn't done badly: she had made a lot of noise but she'd got up. "That's what counts," I told Aaron later, halfway up a climb of our own.

"I guess so." His voice cracked with embarrassment, and he kept taking off his glasses and adjusting their rubber tie-cord.

"Look, you've fulfilled your obligations. She won't want to try again."

"Oh my, I hope not. She just phoned me out of nowhere and said she was coming up. I hadn't seen her in three years. I hardly remembered her name. I guess I did invite her once, but I do that with lots of patients, just to make conversation before I start to drill. This is the first one that ever took me seriously."

It was late April, and the cliffs were crowded. Every year brought more climbers. But if you walked half a mile down the carriage road or simply looked for less popular routes, you could have almost any climb to yourself. Aaron had much of R.J.'s muscle without, thank God, his overbearing energy. He was a devoted family man, as I was. His dental office, where I occasionally picked him up on my way to the cliffs, was decorated with pictures of his wife and four children. The older two were in high school--Aaron was struggling to save for their college tuition. Other photos showed him on the cliffs, in red Gore-Tex jacket, inching up a thin face and leading a spectacular overhang, his rope bellying out behind him in the wind. I wonder what his patients thought of them, and of the set of weights that he trained on between appointments.

I hated to miss the next climbing weekend, but my father-in-law was up from Florida to celebrate his 75th birthday. He was a tough old buzzard who had outlasted bladder cancer and both his wives. Ellen and I took him to Bernardsville, where our new home was at last ready to rise. Saturday night he drank more than was good for his inner organs, but as he said, he didn't have much left to lose. On Sunday it rained, which gave me guilty pleasure because I wasn't missing much at the cliffs. At my age, I couldn't get better much longer; just two more years, I told Ellen, and I would contentedly renounce "this crazy sport," as she had called it when I had taken her to the cliffs, years ago. ¯

Making up for missed time, I was in high gear the following weekend. "Next stop, 5.9," I shouted down to Aaron after I'd pulled past an overhang on sharp little holds. The air was fresh with pine and laurel. We quickly finished the route, clambered down the trail and started up another 5.8. It was Aaron's turn to lead. His finesse did not match his strength; halfway up, his legs started to shake. I braced myself for a fall, but it never came. "Didn't know you had it in you," I said when I joined him at the belay ledge.

He grinned. "It's amazing how these tiny holds can support a big, clumsy guy like me. Mind if I lead the next pitch? I'm feeling really good." Then he looked down. Some climbers were passing by on the carriage road, their hardware slings jangling. At the base of the cliff (and right in the fall line should we knock down any rocks) a girl was waving and calling up to us. "Oh, Mart," Aaron said in a stricken voice. "It's Angela. I didn't know anything about it this time. I swear." As I discovered back at the Staging Area, the girl was transformed: the awful punk hair had turned a rational light brown, the lips an unadorned pink. She smelled of pine trees, not of Shalimar®PREmeraude¯ or whatever it had been. The patched jeans remained, but a couple of bright new Salewa carabiners were clipped to her belt loops. With a surge of resentment, I realized she was going to be around for a long time.

Aaron stared at her as at a patient with an untimely toothache. I got away as soon as decency allowed--maybe sooner. I sat on my good luck boulder and ate my cheese and jelly sandwiches. Then I dipped a cup of water from the stream and started talking to Maury Hopkins and Rod Ross, a pair of young hotshots. Their hands were white with chalk, an adjunct that I thought disfiguring and superfluous: even in hot weather your fingers should be dry enough to grip the rock, unassisted. Maury and Rod were college dropouts--Dartmouth and New Paltz, respectively--on their way to becoming climbing bums. "We're out to Yosemite next week," Rod told me, "before it really heats up. We want to do a big wall climb, maybe The Nose. Then up to the Wind Rivers and Canada."

I felt a stab of envy. Since the birth of Laurie, our second child, I hadn't been anywhere near the big mountains.

"We'll be back," Maury said. "Everybody comes back to the cliffs eventually." They swigged their water and set off for some ferocious 5.11 or other.

I wanted to try a hard route called Moonbeam, but when I saw Angela shouldering a climbing rope, I knew my ambitions would have to wait. Aaron looked sheepish as hell; I think he even blushed. "She drove that VW all the way up from White Plains. We can't just let her sit around." ®MDUL¯We®MDNM¯? I would have tried to lead Moonbeam all the way, if I could have found a decent belayer. But no one was free; the cliffs had grown more anonymous in the ten years I had been coming there. For a moment I even considered seeking out R.J., but I ended up on Cantata, another beginner's climb, with Aaron and Angela.

This must have been at least my twentieth ascent of Cantata, but it was unlike any other. Angela had lost all her fear. She charged up the rock with foul-mouthed bravado, faster than Aaron could take in the rope. The wind blew her shirt-tails around her waist, revealing smooth, youthful flesh. She was wearing a tight new pair of climbing shoes, instead of the discolored sneakers, and she darted over a 5.4 variation that Aaron had pointedly omitted. Only a high reach made her pause. I scrambled up after her, unroped. I rarely soloed, but there was something in the girl's boldness that I needed to match.

I had to skip the next climbing weekend--Mother's Day. When I returned, everything had changed. Angela was there, as I had feared she would be, standing by her old VW, coolly gearing up. She sported a red and black Chouinard waist harness, and a hardware sling with a selection of pins and nuts, plus a good half dozen carabiners. Though still shiny, the biners had clearly seen some use: I was sure she had been climbing with Aaron the previous weekend. For an awkward moment we stood on the carriage road--the three of us or the two of them--poised for an uncertain destination. Finally Aaron declared, "Let's go." Swallowing my outrage, and driven by curiosity, I followed.

I was shocked to see how thoroughly Angela had absorbed the codes and routines of rock climbing. The minute we had scrambled up the boulder field to the base of the climb (an intermediate route this time) she carefully uncoiled Aaron's rope, hitched up her harness and looped a tie-in around a tree. "Want some extra biners?" she asked Aaron, who was preparing to lead the first pitch. I stood slack, a spectator. Aaron prided himself on a lean hardware rack; he sometimes ran out of biners before he reached his belay stance. Now he had new gear himself, including some multi-colored sewn slings, and was absurdly over-equipped for a 5.5. He started off like a freight train, all bells and whistles. I turned away so he wouldn't catch me laughing. Angela was pulled tight against her belay loop as though a major fall were imminent. She seemed too frail for her job, but she paid out the rope and flexed her thin arms like the climbing pro she obviously intended to be. I didn't trust her technique, however, and when it came my turn to lead, I insisted that Aaron do the belaying. "I can hold you all right," Angela claimed. "Just try me."

I almost suggested she practice on somebody else. The going was easier--down to about 5.3--and my arms and feet moved automatically. I wasn't thinking about my next handhold, but about my next climb. My plans to lift Aaron and me into the realm of 5.9 rock--real stratosphere for us--seemed like dreams. If I was to get there, it would have to be with some other partner.

"You got twenty-five feet of rope left!" Angela howled up.

"I'm at the belay," I said, not loud enough.


"OFF BELAY, goddamnit. Take it easy." I had never felt so happy to reach the top. Now all I wanted was to hurry down the descent trail and find somebody else--anybody else--to climb with.

But the Staging Area was almost empty when I reached it, well ahead of Aaron and Angela. There were a couple of bikers, a few wives or girlfriends sunning themselves, and a golden retriever tethered to my boulder. Then I saw Rod Ross; he had postponed his departure for California, because of poverty and a fight with Maury: "He was getting stoned all the time. It was like he was in a goddamn trance the minute he woke up in the morning. Not the best way to climb, if you ask me."

We looked poorly matched, Rod and I--he was much stronger and younger--but we had the same immediate aspirations. I told Aaron I would be busy the rest of the afternoon. He looked not at all sorry to hear it.

Rod and I did three routes. During the first two we hardly exchanged a word--no pep talks, such as I often had with Aaron, no pauses to steady our nerves. We just kept moving, with Rod taking the toughest leads, and me doing a surprisingly confident job with the rest. I felt fresher than I had in years.

Halfway up our last climb, as though it had just occurred to him, Rod said, "Hey man, how come you aren't with the dentist today?"

"He's picked up a camp follower."

"Yeah, I noticed. Robbing the cradle."

"She's not as young as you think." Older than Rod, come to think of it. Was I a cradle-robber too, seizing the chance to climb beyond my middle-aged abilities? These three routes were the hardest I had ever done. After a good day, there is always one move you remember, with the clarity of a perfect dive or a tennis ball smacked just right. This one came twenty feet up on my next lead, where a 12-foot roof forced a move around a blocky corner to the left. It was a familiar maneuver at the cliffs, but here, uncharacteristically, the corner was virtually holdless. I would have to swing around it on a single small handhold, while smearing my feet on whatever I could find. Then--fast, before I would tire--switch hands on the hold and stretch left to the security of a vertical crack. Ordinarily I would have rehearsed the sequence half a dozen times before embarking upon it. Not today. I didn't even tell Rod to "watch me"; I just set off. My hands fell into place with a gymnast's precision, and my shoes pulled their own way up the rock. In that moment I felt that I could climb anything, that I could be anything. When I reached a breathing place I glanced down at Rod. He was staring out over the green checkered expanse of the valley, oblivious of my achievement, but I must have replayed it a hundred times in my tent that night. I was tired but not sleepy. I could feel every muscle, which reminded me both of my age and of my strength. Then came the first tappings of rain on the tent fly, promising another wet Sunday and a welcome rest.

In the morning I saw Angela emerge from Aaron's tent, her head poking through a large raincoat-like trash bag. Later he told me, at unnecessary length, that she had moved in only when the rain started--he could hardly have turned her away, could he? She had lots of new equipment, but only a light sleeping bag in all this lousy weather.

"Just don't carry the hospitality too far," I said.

"You're being ridiculous, Mart." He wiped his glasses, replaced them, wiped them again. Whatever might have happened in that tent, he looked like a guilty man. I hardly felt like climbing with him and Angela the next Saturday, even after I learned that Rod had gone to California after all. But, for me, that Saturday never came: two days before, taking my morning wind sprints with extra determination, I tripped and tumbled into a ditch. Though I didn't realize it till midday, my left ankle was badly sprained. My climbing boots would stay untouched in the basement for a long time.

Aaron stopped by to commiserate, with his wife and their two youngest children. Miriam, who occasionally filled in as a receptionist at the dental office, was a pretty, slightly overweight young woman with a pinkish-white complexion and dark, abundant hair. She greeted me as "my husband's accomplice."

"Temporarily out of commission," I said. "This sort of thing makes you feel pretty vulnerable." My swollen ankle, encased in an old cotton sock, was propped on a footstool.

"Well you'd better heal up soon. My husband's spirits sink like a stone if he can't go climbing. I don't know what he's going to do without you on Memorial Day."

I thought I knew, as I told Ellen after our visitors had left. "I don't believe that," she said. "He's the most domesticated man I've ever met. Can't you see how Miriam has him tamed? And he dotes on those kids. They were climbing all over him."

"I'm worried about him."

"How can this girl be so tempting? She sounds like an outdated hippie to me. Why are you so concerned about her, anyway?"

"I'm not concerned about her--and I don't find her tempting. I don't want to lose my partner, that's all."

My ankle stayed stubbornly swollen and tender. I was able to drive myself to the Labs, borrowing Ellen's automatic so I wouldn't have to depress the clutch, but I was still hobbling along the corridors and grabbing the banisters whenever I tried the stairs. It was mid-summer before I could walk without limping, just in time for the family vacation in Nova Scotia. I didn't return to the cliffs until Labor Day.

Aaron had not mentioned Angela, and I wondered whether she had vanished as abruptly as she had arrived that spring day. But no: she was more elaborately outfitted than ever, with a bright selection of sewn slings, a full hardware rack and even a half-empty chalkbag. She and Aaron wore blue "Go Climb a Rock" tee-shirts. She looked comical with all that gear, which must have weighed half what she did, but she seemed right at home with it. When I asked Aaron what he wanted to climb, it was Angela who answered: "Moonbeam."

"Wait a minute. I haven't been on the rocks for over three months."

"You don't have to lead," she said. "Don't worry. Shit, man, you're safe with us. Right, Ari?"

They headed down the carriage road hand in hand, elbows swinging. I snatched my rope and followed them, like a client trailing after his guides. At the start of the route, Angela led off without a word and Aaron tied in to belay. I couldn't believe it: she had started climbing less than six months ago, a scared little girl, and here she was leading a hard 5.8. Aaron clearly sensed my shock. "Take it easy, Mart. You'll see."

I would, and soon: the toughest part was twenty-five feet off the ground--a sharp overhang, with a thin, nearly vertical face above. The guidebook said that "delicacy and strength" were needed to gain the security of a flaring crack ten feet higher up. Moreover, the protection was very poor. I stationed myself beneath the fall line, just in case.

It's more nerve-wracking watching hard moves than doing them yourself. Angela would either float up the rock or thrash around and peel off. Aaron looked completely relaxed, as though she could not fall, or the laws of gravity would be suspended for her if she did. She was up the easy first few feet in a flash, her feet racing after her hands. She paused to clip through an ancient piton, which she called a "worthless old sucker." She moved up on smaller holds--more slowly, but apparently still in total control. Then she was beneath the overhang, near enough to touch it if she were as tall as most of us. The only protection was a piton that looked even older than the first. Its eye was broken and it was beyond Angela's reach anyway. "Don't wear yourself out," I said. "Come down for a rest."

"I'm all right."

"Try a stopper next to the pin," Aaron said. "The smallest you've got." The trouble was that she would have to make the move first and place the protection afterwards. Already the first piton was too far down to break a fall--she would land right on top of me. She couldn't weigh a hundred pounds, but I was not looking forward to the impact. I braced myself as Angela started up. One smooth motion and a grunt--she grabbed the stopper, which she had clamped between her teeth, and thrust it into the piton crack. "Attagirl, Angie!" Aaron shouted. But as she tried to clip a biner the stopper tumbled right out, landing with a clunk by my feet. Aaron's eyes bulged, as though he had just dropped a gold inlay down a patient's throat. He froze on the belay, nearly pulling Angela off. But she got her hands above the overhang, flashed the vertical face and jammed a chock into the flaring crack above. "Piece of fucking goddamn cake," she said.

She had made quite a lead. But later, when Aaron was out of earshot, I said, "You damn near came off down there, didn't you?"

"It was kinda desperate," she admitted, with a wide, shaky grin.

"You don't have to prove anything. That isn't what climbing is about." We were sitting on Broadway, the tree-filled ledge that runs the entire length of the cliff; Angela was sorting her hardware while I belayed Aaron up the last pitch. Her hair was laced with twigs and pine needles. I felt like brushing them off. Instead I asked her what she did.

"What I do?"

"You know--for a living. Like Aaron's a dentist, I'm a physicist."

"Yeah, and I'm a waitress and a grad student and a dealer."

"A what?"

"You're so straight, Martin, you could fucking break in half. You should try something new in your life, you know that? A dealer. Just pot, nothing hard. I get $75 an ounce, if the stuff is good. A girl's gotta live, you know. I want to go to med. school some day." She turned her head, displacing a few twigs. "Shit, you look shocked out of your skin."

"Why are you climbing with Aaron?" I said.

"Because I like him. He's a terrific guy."

"I know that."

"I wonder if you really do. You don't know him as well as you think. We're a team, you know--we climbed in New Hampshire together last month."

News to me. I wondered when I would have the chance for a few private words with Aaron. Finally all I managed was a hurried, almost furtive exchange outside the Brauhaus that evening, while Angela lingered briefly talking to some college climbers. I took him by the arm. "Aaron, what's going on with you and that girl?"

"What do you mean? Angie's a natural talent. You saw her on Moonbeam."

"I saw her. Climbing ability wasn't what I meant, Aaron. We've been friends a while. Our families are friends."

"Yeah, all right. Listen, Mart, I didn't invite her up here. Well, not really. As you know. Look, there are things you can't control. Maybe you can. I can't. She's fifteen years younger than me, and it's all very temporary. There's never been anything like it before, and there won't be anything again. Miriam doesn't know, so nobody's getting hurt."

As the days grew shorter I struggled to squeeze in three or four routes by dark, climbing with whomever I could find. Rod and Maury were back, stronger than ever, and several old friends had driven all the way from Pittsburgh. For a while Angela and Aaron seemed just two of the many hundreds of visitors to the cliffs. She was gaining a little fame, however: substituting guile for muscle, she could find her way up almost anything.

One bright, crisp morning, the coolest of the season, I found Aaron at the Staging Area, arranging his hardware sling. He would unclip a biner full of wired nuts, sort them, then get to work on his formidable collection of chocks and stoppers. He must have gone through everything twice, while I pulled on my harness and stowed my day pack. "Want to do a climb, Mart?" he said in a strange, pleading voice.

"Sure. Why not? Your choice."

"Anything, Mart. Anything you want is okay with me."

"Okay: Intemperance, then. I feel lucky today. I've never led the second pitch."

I got up it: a series of inside corners topped by a committing overhang that damn near defeated me. Even after I had brought Aaron up to my belay, I felt the adrenalin surge that had propelled me past the final obstacle. "Where's Angela?" I said.

"Oh, she's around." His voice was studiously casual. "With Maury, I think. He promised to take her on a 5.9."

Wherever she was the rest of that day, it wasn't with Aaron and me. We kept moving, but once he forgot to remove one of my chocks after unclipping--he had to descend fifty feet to retrieve it. He nearly left his tie-in sling on top of a climb, and his rope handling was distracted, to say the least.

We had supper in the Brauhaus, at one of the tables around the bar--the only section permitted to climbers, whom Franz, the owner, carefully segregated from his respectable patrons. Aaron turned voluble. "David's getting braces, you know. He's almost eleven. It's incredible how fast they grow up, Mart. I can't do the work myself, so I sent him to Salzmann, over in Ridgewood. The best damn orthodontist in North Jersey. Thank God he's giving me a professional discount. The poor kid inherited my teeth instead of Miriam's." I learned more about Aaron's children, and their dental health, in that half hour than I had in all the years I had known him. But halfway through a description of little Sarah's gums, Aaron's eyes flicked to the door behind me. As soon as I could, I looked around: the biggest table in the place had been filled by a bunch of young climbers, including Rod, Maury, and Angela. They were starting a pitcher of beer. For the rest of the meal Aaron's talk accelerated, like a record playing at the wrong speed; he hardly picked at his sauerbraten. On the drive back to the campground I asked no questions. They were all answered for me the next morning, when I saw Angela crawl out of Maury's tent, yawn, and fire up his small propane stove. Her sleeping bag was draped over her shoulders.

Aaron looked red-eyed, but was full of energy. "I want to do Triple Overhang," he announced.

"Get serious, Aaron--that's 5.10."

"I know what it's rated. I can do it."

"Then it's your funeral. Who do you want for pallbarers?"

The venture seemed pretty crazy, but if there was any 5.10 Aaron could handle, this was it. The name told it all: three consecutive roofs, increasingly difficult. Aaron chinned himself 50 times a day on a doorsill. But I had seen Rod Ross nearly peel off that third overhang, and I was sure it would be too much for Aaron.

I'll say this for him: he got up the first two 'hangs not just quickly but well. No wasted moves. He was as smooth as I'd seen him, placing his feet carefully, saving his muscles for last. There were lots of holds, but the angle was fantastic: I had to tip my head way back to check his progress. The protection was fine; what was missing was any place to rest. Aaron was poised beneath the final overhang, feet high, arms out like a gorilla. It was the right position, but not for long. Even gorillas get tired. He hoisted himself up a couple of tentative times; then he shouted "Okay!", seized a hold above the overhang, cranked himself up, and fell. It was a dramatic little tumble, but harmless. The rock was too steep for him to hit anything, and I stopped him easily after less than ten feet. Letting loose a volley of curses, he pulled himself back up to his piton. "Mart, that hold was fucking slippery!" He chalked up his hands and repeated the maneuver, including the fall. "Take it easy," I told him. He was breathing like a steam engine. "I was two inches away," he said. "Two fucking inches." Without pausing, he launched himself up once more. Every muscle seemed ready to burst as his left hand sought that key hold. Two inches, one... with a cry of fury he was off again, plummeting those now familiar ten feet. "I almost had it!" he roared. He made four more ferocious lunges, with successively earlier falls. The spectacle attracted a small crowd on the carriage road below. Finally I had to lower him like an exhausted whale and, with difficulty, retrieve the hardware myself. I took a quick, harrowing look at that final overhang, amazed that Aaron had come so close. Chastened and silent, he followed me up an easy escape route a hundred feet to the right.

Along the trail he started muttering, but said nothing to me until after lunch. "I never should have tried it," he admitted, miserably.

"Come on. It was very gutsy of you. You got a lot higher than I ever thought you could."

"It was a stupid thing to do." Now on our way to an easier climb at the remote, uncrowded end of the cliffs, we kicked aside the brittle leaves that blew across the road. "What really gets me," Aaron said, "is that I had it that second time. I should have jumped my foot up--that's all it would have taken."

"It's a 5.10, Aaron, for God's sake. We had no business being on it. We're not a couple of kids anymore."

"I wish we were," he said bitterly. "I wish I'd started when I was fourteen. I wish I wasn't a middle-aged dentist."

"Don't be ridiculous, Aaron. You never talk like this."

"Maury could have made that move. Angela too," he added in a voice full of pain.

The phone jolted Ellen and me out of our sleep. "Oh God, something's wrong," she wailed as she grabbed the receiver: "it's Daddy." But it was Aaron. I stumbled up to the extension phone in my attic study, half tripping over a computer cable. "What's the matter? It's the middle of the night."

"I know, Mart. I'm sorry. This has never happened to me before. I can't sleep. I don't know what to do."

"Okay, calm down. Have you talked to Miriam?"

"Miriam is a wonderful woman."

"You haven't been drinking, Aaron?"

"No, no, of course not. I did smoke a little of Angie's marijuana. Just to help me sleep, Mart--been doing that a bit lately. I've got to talk to you. I thought I'd be all right, that it wouldn't make any difference, but I can't bear it."

"Aaron, she's just a child. Forget about her."

"I lost her."

"For God's sake, she's not a wallet or a pair of glasses that you misplaced. You knew it had to end. She's been with Maury, right?"

"Yes, yes, but I don't blame her. He's a stronger climber than I am. She told me about it very nicely. But it feels so strange--like we were just getting started, and now it's over. It's so terribly incomplete. Haven't you ever felt this way?"

"Aaron, she treated you badly, all right? Get angry, for God's sake--blow off some steam and get on with your life. You have Miriam, the kids, your practice. You're climbing better than ever."

"Don't say anything against her, Mart. Please. She was never nasty or anything. We're still friends. She just had to move on."

By the time we finished talking, it was 3 a.m., plus, and I was the one who couldn't sleep. I slid in beside Ellen and slipped an arm beneath her nightgown. She responded with something between a sigh and a grunt. We shared everything except climbing, but I didn't want to tell her about Aaron's call; when she asked in the morning, I said it had been a colleague with a technical problem. Only half a lie.

Aaron had ended our phone conversation by saying how much better he felt, but he had still sounded cracked-voiced and miserable. So I was relieved to find him at the cliffs the next Saturday, looking almost cheerful. His face had something like its familiar gentle grin, and on the rocks he resembled his old, happier self. We stayed with reasonable 5.7's. I was reminded of how smoothly Aaron moved, for a man of his bulk, and of how far he had progressed, over the years, through sheer determination. It was early November now. We had to pause every twenty feet or so to breathe the circulation back into our hands. He didn't say a word about Angela until dinner at an Italian restaurant in town, where we had gone to escape the Brauhaus crowd. After several glasses of wine he told me that he had started seeing a psychologist. "Just once a week. Nothing major. He's helped me get this Angela thing in perspective. He says it was something I had to do--I shouldn't feel bad about it, but I should put it behind me."

"Sounds good to me." I meant the last part. I wondered whether Aaron had been observing Angela's progress. She had started climbing with a group of women who called themselves the Rock Bitches.

"I was infatuated with her for a while. You know what that word means? 'Possessed with an extravagantly foolish passion.' I looked it up in the big Oxford dictionary. The definition fit me pretty well, didn't it? I can't believe how important she seemed to me." He shook his head ruefully, speared another piece of veal parmigiana and poured us some more wine.

"Well, I'm glad to have you back. For a time there, you seemed to be off in some other country."

"I guess I did." He drifted away for a moment, his glance sliding upwards. "I'm getting better now. It's like recuperating from surgery. The pain fades, and you come out stronger than you were before. I really think the experience has helped me. Now I can get on with my life." He tilted his head a little, as though monitoring his own explanation.

Aaron was getting so much better that we kept climbing past the first snowfalls. He continued his "recuperation"; he still talked about Angela, but always in the past tense, which is where I thought she belonged. She was out of sight now, as though in hibernation. Each weekend Aaron and I had to add a layer of clothing. We finally called a halt in early December--the holidays were coming up, and the temperatures on the cliffs were more than my fingers could take.

To my surprise, Aaron and his entire family attended our Christmas Day party. We had routinely invited them for years, but just as a formality, since they observed only Hanukkah. Miriam looked bewildered by the tinsel and the poinsettia, but Aaron and the children threw themselves into the frolic. Aaron was like an outsized boy, especially after he had been at the eggnog a while. His cheeks were almost as red as his bright turtleneck. He spun around the dining room like a 180-pound top. Later he danced, clumsily but energetically, with Miriam and Ellen. He was the last to leave, with Miriam tugging at the sleeve of his down coat.

Aaron phoned me two days later, from the office. "I hope we didn't overstay our welcome."

"Don't apologize for having a good time."

"I won't. The party really cheered me up. It gave me an idea, too. How about a quick trip to the cliffs New Year's Day? We'll have the place to ourselves."

"With good reason."

"Just think about it, Mart. Just think about it. The days have been warming up. This could be our last chance till spring."

"Aaron, you're getting crazier every day. But it would be a novel way to start the year--let me talk to Ellen about it. And do make some sensible Resolutions."

Aaron was not at the Staging Area that brisk New Year's Day. Nobody was. I did a few wind sprints to warm up, then looked at the bulletin board: the usual offers to sell hardware, the pleas for climbing partners (sometimes explicitly female), reports of lost equipment. Then I saw a fresh scrap of paper tacked right in the middle: Martin--am soloing Brimstone. Ari.

Brimstone! That was hard enough in warm weather. It culminated in a huge roof, which I assumed Aaron would have the sense to avoid by the simple alternate to the right; but even easy soloing seemed foolhardy in such conditions. I set off down the road, anxious about where his exuberance had led him. "Aaron," I shouted, "what the hell are you doing up there, you crazy man?" There was no response, and no sign of him on the rock. With the leaves off the trees, the whole route was visible. He must have completed it already. I shouted a few more times, then started back to the Staging Area. I'm not sure what made me stop--perhaps some notion that Aaron was playing a trick on me, lurking like a mischievous child in the tumbled boulders leading up to the cliff. I started up to look, calling his name, waiting for him to jump out. Then I saw him lying beneath the climb. "Cut it out, Aaron," I told him. "You're too old for these games." He was in an impossible position. One leg was tucked under him, the other thrust out in a weird V. Blood was still flowing from an enormous head wound. Amazingly, his glasses were still attached.

I rolled him over and for ten terrible, exhausting minutes tried my CPR. When I had no breath left, I gave up. After climbing for ten years, I had never seen anything worse than my own sprained ankle. I couldn't believe how unanswerable Aaron's injuries were.

I had to rouse the ranger from his home outside town and notify the state police. It was noon before a dark blue pick-up truck, with a lumpy, blanketed shape in back, could make its way slowly back down the carriage road and onto the highway. When I phoned Miriam she cried for what felt like hours, and I could find nothing to console her.

There was a service, with a rabbi and a box of spare yarmulkes. I took one, but it only made me feel more exposed and vulnerable. Angela, I learned later, had left for California with another young woman--the next season they made the first all-female ascent of one of the big wall routes in Yosemite. She sent some flowers to Aaron's home. The chamber was full of his friends and patients. Several spoke of his weekend recreation, in reverent, mystified tones. "It is hard to see the hand of God in so terrible an accident," one man said, falteringly. "Yet we know it is there." I did nothing to disturb this comfortable interpretation of Aaron's catastrophe. But it had been obvious to me, from the distance of his body from the cliff, that he must have taken a running leap from the top. I wondered whether this was what he had in mind the day he phoned me from the office, or whether it had occurred to him only as he looked out over the valley and saw his life spread before him. I like to think that he had completed the climb, the hard way over the brim, before he took off.

From The Best of Ascent, Sierra Club, 1993

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