Tale of a Cliffside Whale

Posted on: June 7, 2008

Naomi Judd

If I was not a climber, I would not see the things that I have seen. If I don’t continue to climb, I will surely miss future sights, sounds, and perspectives. Climbing in Alaska leaves my fingertips aching and the sights I see leave my soul aching for more. Sometimes a rope is all that is needed to connect to another world.

Southeast Alaska isn’t known for great dry rock but when it does allow its seaside cliffs a few days sun, an astounding combination is in order. The accessibility of nearby glaciers in Juneau has led my partner Tim and I to swing an ax more often than to place a cam but that hasn’t stopped us from accumulating a rack to lead on rock. The skies had not unleashed a drop of rain for seven days. In an area that only receives an average of 30 sunny days a year we literally jumped on the rock.

The Sea Cliffs aren’t huge, in fact none of the routes on the grey igneous rock are more than one pitch but the ocean laps at the steep shoreline of jumbled black boulders just 15 feet behind the base of the climb Tim started up. The shiny colored cams and nuts jangled from one side of his harness and his ten pound film camera hung under one shoulder. 30 feet up he anchored himself to the wall and continued to belay me up from below planning to shoot some photographs.

I tied into the rope and pulled my hair back. To feel warm rock on my fingertips was enough to keep me smiling all week. After navigating the first few difficult holds and separating myself from the rocks below by about 20 feet I came to a precious foothold two inches deep. While reaching for the next nub of rock far above, an enormous exhalation sprayed forth from the water below and behind me. I would have fallen had it not been for that foothold. I clung to the rock while whipping my head around to see the head of a humpback whale, lunging vertically out of the water.

My body seemed to float as part of the air next to the cliff, my mind disconnected, but my fingers pinched the sharp hold until they were white. I heard Tim’s camera shutter clicking wildly. We both shouted expletives that began with “holy” and I quickly glanced back toward the rock to better position myself.

I squinted into the reflective water. The enormous shiny body of the whale lunged again a moment later and then as playful as a golden retriever asking for his belly to be scratched, rolled over, waving an eight-foot-long flipper. I could nearly feel the spray of its breath. Its body slowly turned, spiraling little curls of blue water around it. The white underside of the flipper dipped back into the water and then its tale flukes briefly popped up. As if waving hello, it looked at us up on the cliff from its side. It appeared just as curious about our four limbs and cliff-clinging forms as we were about its beautiful and mysterious nautical life.

“Only in Alaska,” I muttered. Only here would I find myself clinging to the side of a cliff while a whale jumps for a view at me just several yards away. My neck ached from twisting it around owl-like for more than ten minutes, my shoulders burned from hanging onto that hold. The Chiklat range rested across the channel, their peaks catching the pink and yellow rays of the setting sun at 6,000 feet. I didn’t pay much attention to my muscles.

Our timing could not have been better but more than anything our interaction with the whale had been one of a kind. Being a climber is in part about seeing things from unusual perspectives. Had we not been on the wall the whale might not have seen us in the first place.

The whale came up for air several more times, its powerful lungs releasing moist air more than ten feet high. Tim belayed me down. My mind was not on the rock anymore. The climb was one of the shortest I had done but by far the most magnificent. We collected the rope and sat on the boulders watching the humpback rise for air every few minutes as it swam northwest into the glowing sky reflected in the rippling channel.

Tim coiled the blue rope. It held all the words we didn’t have when the two unlikely species of climber and whale came to meet.