The Adventures of Hardy Grimper

Posted on: July 1, 2005


We last found our heroes in a bit of a predicament: Pops McCain had abducted Kate and Bridget, and Forrest had fallen on his lead out of the cave, bringing part of the Line from God with him. Alpha Ranger, meanwhile, had spotted Kate and Bridget in the Kings Canyon Visitor Center, and followed them out to their bivy. We now rejoin the action, without so much as a brief word from our sponsors.

Kate set a brisk pace through the effervescent hues of the aspen trees. A bead of sweat formed beneath her blonde mop, rolled through the grime on her forehead and terminated, with stinging precision, in her eyes. Absently, she reached to wipe it away, but her hand came up short, tethered as it was to a knot at her waist.

Bridget walked closely behind, connected to Kate by the rope. A thin branch hung across the trail. Arching her shoulders as she walked, she snagged the branch, felt its resistance, then shifted to release it.

A satisfying thwap followed as the branch caught Pops McCain in the mouth. "You bitch!" he cursed, spitting blood from his lip. Bridget's smirk disappeared as he yanked on the cord around her neck. "You did that on purpose!"

"Of course I did, you moron," Bridget muttered. Kate turned to discover what had raised Pops' ire this time and smiled at what she saw.

A low rumble erupting from the dome a mile away broke off the trio's argument. They turned in unison. A plume of rock dust was mushrooming from the base of the wall. A shockwave followed, tumbling a series of conifers in its wake. In the ensuing silence, a small voice carried through the dust.

"Forrest? Forrest!"

Kate and Bridget exchanged a look of horror, one Pops noted with dull satisfaction. From the gray plume, a lone falcon flew, pivoting against an unmarred corner of the sky. And deeper in the forest, unseen and unheard by bikers, birds or climbing divas, Alpha Ranger lurked, puzzling over this unlikely turn of events in his slow, cumbersome mind.

Alpha Ranger coveted authority. To him, climbers—those dirty, unkempt Bohemians—represented a blight on his vision of America, one he held in common with John Ashcroft, Rush Limbaugh and a part of the country whose moral righteousness he found secretly gratifying. It wasn't that he was against climbing per se. He'd taken the requisite courses, read the pertinent manuals and put forth a concerted effort for most of a year. Yet every time he found himself above his protection, on even the simplest terrain, his will vacillated, followed by the implosion of his tenuously inflated self-image.

The end of his climbing had come one bright fall afternoon at Potash Road near Moab. Umlaut was a sixty-foot crack climb that he prayed fell within the bounds of his abilities. He started up the climb with all the snorting enthusiasm of a three-year-old racehorse on Derby Day, a vigor he hoped his partner, a dreadlocked river chick he privately considered his date, admired. Twenty feet from the ground, however, as he grappled with the short 5.8 crux, he looked down to see her face crinkled into a scowl. In the midst of his deepening pump, he recognized that her impatience seemed to be growing in inverse correlation to her interest.

Though he had a piece at his knees, he judged it prudent to keep the runout within reason. Jamming one hand deeper into the crack, he groped for a cam from the tangle on his harness... and fumbled. He grabbed another. Wrong size. Oh shit!

Alpha Ranger's pump grew with his sense of panic. His efforts to make the too-big (too-shiny?) cam fit the too-small (too-sandy?) crack coming to naught, he struggled to clip it back to his rack. A semi roared by twenty feet away, taking a considerable toll on his already overtaxed nerves. The piece dropped from his quaking fingers toward the ground.

He moaned through parched, cracked lips as he groped for another cam. Sunlight glimmered off its untarnished blue surface. He forced it into the crack, then yarded up slack. Veins bulged in his quivering arm. With the clip almost made, another semi rumbled by, shattering what little composure he still retained. Alpha Ranger fell, and as he fell, he screamed.

Perhaps the actual distance of the fall was magnified by his terror, but his initial sense of relief at surviving the tumble was replaced by sinking dread when he looked down to see a dark stain spreading over the crotch of his green, government-issue trousers.

The ranger's scream had combined with the fallen cam to attract the attention of a man in ripped, threadbare clothes. Given the man's attire, and the week's stubble adorning his face, he might have passed for a homeless person. Yet his swagger as he approached the spectacle indicated that despite his obvious lack of familiarity with social convention, not to mention the growing bald spot poorly hid with a comb-over, he quite fancied himself. Given the recent turn of events, it was perhaps not surprising that compared to Alpha Ranger, he looked pretty good to the river chick as well.

He smiled warmly at the river chick, who smiled back. Calling off his dog—a rott/lab bitch who was sniffing enthusiastically at the ashen-faced ranger's crotch—he soloed up to the ranger's high point, where he sunk a jam he could bivy on. After a few minutes' work, he slid the stuck unit out of the crack, clipped it to a belt loop and down climbed with all the nonchalance of Scarlet O'Hara descending the plantation stairs.

"How about we go to town and get a drink?" the ranger squeaked to his hoped-for date. The dog persisted in its attentions. The river chick did as well, though their object had shifted.

She turned her head slightly toward the direction of the ranger's voice. "You go ahead," she answered. "I'll catch up later." Moving her head back in line with her fixed gaze, she said to the new arrival, "What's your dog's name?"

Alpha Ranger had been dismissed. In his soggy-bottomed trousers, he climbed into his government-green truck and closed the door. He leaned his head slightly against the steering wheel as he slipped the key into the ignition. He had been defeated. Again.

As the landscape rolled by and his urine cooled, he swore off climbing—forever. Climbers, boaters, mountain bikers: he vowed revenge on all those bums, the whole lot of them, and their reckless arrogance as well. At home, the nps headquarters, he changed his pants, then sat at his desk and began drawing up the first draft of his masterpiece, the Wilderness Installation Removal Initiative.

Wiri was dead now, thanks to the Standing Rock incident; his transfer/demotion/pending investigation confirmed it. But this: the two women—whom he recognized as the architects of his destruction—tethered to the hulking biker, that rockfall, the shouting from yonder cliffs....

Imitating the actors in Platoon, he dropped his hand to his sidearm and ran in a crouch toward the shadow of the next big tree.

Bats flickered through the settling rock dust in the cave on The Line From God. Forrest muttered incoherently, his head resting against a damp mound of guano. Hardy had winched Forrest to the rim of the cave with a hastily constructed three-to-one, then heaved him into his current position. Now, Hardy trolled the depths of his memory for recollections from his long-expired wfr course. The first stanza of the Alphabet Song kept repeating itself, childishly, in his mind. "Goddamn abc's," Hardy cursed. Then it clicked: Airway, Breathing, Circulation. Of course! Forrest's persistent moaning confirmed the first two were functioning; the blood that continued to run from a deep scalp wound verified the third was intact as well.

Considering the circumstances, Forrest looked pretty good overall. True, he had numerous head and facial lacerations, his left arm had an odd bend below the elbow, and he displayed an intermittent familiarity with consciousness, but at least he was still alive.

"First things first," Hardy said to Forrest, whose eyes seemed to focus in the direction of his friend's voice. Hardy snatched a Therm-A-Rest and a role of duct tape from his haulbag. Planting his foot firmly in Forrest's armpit, he grabbed the damaged arm and pulled. Bones cracked. "Goddamn it, Hardy!" Forrest screamed.

"That's good, man. That's good," Hardy replied. If Forrest could swear, he could belay. With the arm more or less immobilized, the bleeding more or less stopped, Forrest more or less coherent, and with more or less of a toprope from Forrest's high point, Hardy put himself on belay and placed the rope in Forrest's uninjured hand.

"Ok, Forrest. I'm climbing now, ok? You got me, right? We're going to be alright, man. You just watch me good, ok?"

Forrest's eyes had a distinctive focus this time. "Ok, Hardy," he wheezed. "I got you." His lids fluttered, and his eyes rolled back. Hardy squeezed his friend's hands around the rope. With one last quick glance at his belayer, whose head was beginning to roll back on his shoulders, Hardy tugged on the rope. The top piece seemed to be holding. There was nothing for it but to climb.

Hardy made good time as he pulled his way through the teetering flakes that formed the roof of the cave. A remote part of his mind wondered whether the pitch might go free. Reaching up, he grabbed a block, hooked his heel on a dagger of stone, cocked his body and fired. The edge was good. The rock around it was not. The block shifted; a dull thud emitted from the depths of the rotten roof. The heel hook blew, dropping Hardy onto his arms. He moaned and reset his feet. He considered the terrain above and the somewhat dubious condition of his belayer and, slouching onto a hook, resigned himself to the obvious: yes, the roof could be free climbed, but not, however, now, and not by him.

The persistent groaning from below conspired with the steady uptake of rope to neutralize the growing dread Hardy felt as he approached Forrest's high point. At last, after grabbing a sling and pulling through the roof in a cascade of rubble, Hardy looked up.

In the mixed blessing that is the Sierra the best cracks are often found hundreds, if not thousands, of feet off the ground. What lay above was just such an example. Splitting the bulging headwall was a single crack, an inch and a half of utterly parallel overhanging bliss that would put the best of Indian Creek to shame.

The alpine forest spilled out in waves beneath Hardy's feet. He considered his position, reassessed the crack and the four or five pieces on his rack that might conceivably fit, thought, briefly, about the likelihood that he and Forrest would die in the next day or two anyway at the hands of a deranged biker, and took a deep breath.

"Forrest," he called, over the screech of the circling peregrine. "Hey, Forrest!"

"What?" came the response, reassuring in its surprisingly lucidity. Again Hardy considered the magnetic splendor of the crack. He swallowed hard. "Heads up here, Forrest," he called out. "I'm gonna show you my balls!"

Abandoning his aiders, Hardy ratcheted his digits into the off-fingers-sized crack. He pulled, stepped up a leg and torqued the toe of his shoe into its confines. He reached higher, and his fingers found a comforting familiarity he remembered from the Valley, from the Lightning Bolt cracks, from a thousand climbs of his past. As his last piece faded below him, a small voice questioned the wisdom of leaving his aiders behind. But Hardy was beyond all that now.

Two thousand feet below and half a mile away, Pops McCain was questioning the wisdom of his endeavors as well. Each jarring step sent fresh darts of pain through the fever of his infected cuts. He breathed in labored gasps as the sweat built beneath his thick leathers. At last, unable to take another step, he yanked the rope tethering him to his two guides/hostages and collapsed in a fit of racking coughs.

Bridget's eyes cut from Kate to Pops and back to Kate, who made a slight shake of her head. Not yet.

They had been making a circuitous bushwhack through the steep, wooded undergrowth that surrounded the great dome. Kate's plan was simple: get Pops utterly lost, walk him into the ground, then bludgeon him with whatever she could find. She would resolve the problem of her tied hands when she came to it. But that was before the rockfall.

Now, standing amidst the sea of naked granite on the backside of the great dome, she motioned with her head to a boulder a hundred yards away. Bridget looked, and immediately saw the poorly concealed uniform crouching behind it. Alpha Ranger. She recognized him from the Standing Rock accident; his bald orb caught the light, despite his obvious efforts to hide. "Now what?" she thought. Her anxiety and fear merged with her frustration into a sudden incomprehensible jumble of exasperated rage. Weren't rangers supposed to help? But wasn't this the same ranger who had nearly shot them when they were last in a bind? This was getting fucking ridiculous.

Pops' coughing fit faded into jagged breathing. He staggered to his feet. "Come on," he croaked, jerking on the rope. "Get going." Kate led off, and Bridget fell in behind her. The team continued its slow, tortured way through the boulderfield, accompanied now by their green shadow.

Hardy's breathing came in shallow inhalations normally associated with maternity wards and the realm of the truly desperate. The long, unencumbered arc of the rope, swinging ever so gently in the slight morning breeze, ran down, down, down to a green sling sixty, seventy, eighty feet below. Oh man!

Hardy chalked up and considered his situation. To fall here was, quite simply, to die. No force on earth could keep him from the jagged protrusions of the slab 170 feet below. A sudden sense of amused detachment filled him. He was, in essence, free soloing the hardest pitch he'd ever led in his life.

Had he lost his mind? Was this sense of detachment an indication that the events of the last few weeks had loosened his grasp on reality completely? A good question. But the answer was no. Far beyond a place of rational thought, Hardy understood in a new way that the fear of death was his greatest peril, not the physical challenge of the climb. In letting go of his fear, he embraced what was, after all, inevitable. And in that embrace he was, for the first time in his life, free.

Hardy drew another gulp of the crisp Sierra air and stacked his fingers into the crack. There was no doubt, no hesitation, no thought. A move; two moves; another. At last, his chin emerged onto a small ledge. With a mantle, he was standing; with five strong blows of his hammer on a pin, he was safe. Looking over the ledge, he cried out, "Forrest!" He tried to wipe the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand, and as the drops mixed with dust and chalk, he blinked up at the sky. Between his eyelids, its color flashed a dazzling blue, as bright as any he'd seen. "Hey, Forrest! I'm off!"

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