ROCK-CLIMBING (do I dare, do I dare?)

I met her at the bottom of the cliff—I was fed up with the valley floor and I thought I would go out to sea, but in reality I was going to scale cliffs with her.

We divided responsibilities from the start—she told stories as her passport, wove a whole magical web of films and childhood memories and personalities while I coiled ropes and gathered supplies and plotted our course. In the early stages she just sat on my shoulders and talked and caressed me—I was so happy to have her there I never thought of the weight. In fact, her presence actually seemed to lighten all the other burdens I had on my shoulders, even if she was heavier than all the others combined. I kept handing up ropes to her to hold, but if I asked her to hoist a little, or do a traverse to prepare for the next pitch, or to hold our position while I rested, she raged. The caresses stopped, the stories stopped, and she went over to other climbing parties and entertained them with her favors, leaving me suspended and exposed. But as the climb got higher and higher, and she realized that she was now over the heads of all the others, and that a mistake would precipitate a very serious accident, she began to try to learn to climb. But now the maneuvers which she was capable of learning were so basic, so much part of the equipment of the foothills, that she felt any effort was ridiculous.

As to me, I became more and more heroic in the ascent as she became more and more incompetent and more and more panicked by the height. The altitude made her anxious because it was so high, yes, but even more so because it made her conscious of the falseness of her position both with regard to me and in relation to the rest of the world. People saw her up there in the clouds, involved in this spectacular climb, and she knew that she was just along for the ride—and she felt only self-disgust and panic. I felt anxious too, but also hopeful—and when I could find a ledge on which to rest I began to breathe more freely and to look after myself. During these moments I left her to her own resources, and often she would rappel down to the valley floor for a season. Then I would hoist her back up, which required enormous effort and patience on my part, and she would appear over the edge covered in the dust of low places and smelling of scent. But above all she would be tired and listless, used up, played out—and I would be lonely and hurt. Was this really my companion of the great ascent? Was this really my partner in harness, the one upon whom I relied should ever I slip and fall? Was this my ultimate belayer?

And then I began to wonder if she would be there when I was working that next overhang, would she be attentive to my needs for security, there at the end of my rope? When I was out of sight around the edge of the next spur, did she have hold of my rope at all? Because this kind of climbing, rock-climbing at this altitude and at this pitch, cannot be done alone without extreme peril. And I’m strong, yes, but I’m not that gifted for climbing. In fact, the irony is that I would never have come so far if I didn’t have her along to bring up with me. For of course, I climb in part for her!

And then she stopped trying, stopped even pretending to try. She complained of altitude sickness, and the next thing I knew she was bleeding. I tidied up the ledge, re-established my contacts with the base-camp, confirmed our position—and waited, hovering around her, administering to her, desperately trying to meet her needs in this out of the way place. And I realized that I was becoming a stranger to her, I had climbed right out of her domain—that each time she came back up to the ledge smelling of others she was less and less with me, less and less mine.

She began to speak of the life of the valley, the marketplace, the café, the bathroom and the bedroom, and strange voices began to come up over the VHF for her when my back was turned. Still I hoped—to have come so far, it was inconceivable to me to abandon the climb! But she was descending fast in health, now huddled in our tent, cramped up with pain and raging against me for it. I had become her jailer, and this magnificent mountain had become her prison—and all she longed for was a soft young man, a boy of the schoolyard, and idle pursuits, or so it seemed to me, poised as I was on the edge of my limits. It was survival climbing now, and this influenced my understanding of everything that was happening.

She forced me to assist her final descent, and I gave her all the rope I had left to do it. I agreed that no other course of action was possible, and because she promised so vehemently to come back up in 2 or 3 months I prepared myself to wait, staked myself out on this ledge to wait. I was so high there was no going up without her, and she had taken all my rope so there was no possibility of getting back down either. I had the magnificent view for companionship, and the summit above, so rarely reached by anyone, to keep up my spirits. But I had little food and shelter, and no hope for advancement or retreat before her return. Little did that crowd of spectators down below on the valley floor realize the drama that was being played out up there on the cliff face—and no one knew that this great climber had been betrayed by his partner, abandoned in the midst of the final ascent, and that he was crying on the ledge like a baby.

But don’t feel too sorry for him, and don’t feel too condemanatory about the way he was abandoned by his partner on the ultimate climb. The real measure of his greatness was to have come so far, not just alone but with his companion on his back, and the real measure of his folly, and more than that of his actual culpability, was to have dragged a poor, ill-equipt, adolescent girl so far beyond her powers, to have given her a taste of forbidden heights and frightened her half to death.

Did she come back? If she did it would have been extraordinary, because there was no more rope joining the two of them, so it would have meant making the ascent back up to him alone, entirely by herself—which was even more than he did. Did she gain that kind of strength down there in the soft places of the valley? Maybe she did—she’s a rare one, after all. Or did she perhaps find her own kind of climb, another sort of cliff all of her own which he knew nothing about? Did she ascend it alone like an enormous scaffolding until she was at the same altitude and able to throw a line across the abyss to allow him to rescue himself—or to join him herself, depending upon how you see the end of this story? But up to this point, where it is now in the story, he’s still hanging from the cliff edge, suspended in the hammock of his sleeping bag, thrashing out in his sleep, dreaming of summits and valleys in turn, and unable to reach either, Maybe he’s healing hanging in that coccoon. Maybe he’s beginning to think less about the betrayal, to think less about the possibility of her return, to think less about his pain and the triumph of having born it even to the final rock-face. Perhaps he’s not feeling so confident about placing the flag of his being on the highest summit hand in hand with his beloved, perhaps he’s beginning to ask himself whether he even wants that anymore. Perhaps he’s starting to face the sadness and loneliness of it all, the futility of it all, the unfairness of life, the certainty of death. Perhaps he’s even starting to heal.

……………………………………………………………………Le Trait du Croisic, 1991