Afterimage

Posted on: July 1, 2005


My friend Doug and I sat under a limestone overhang, passing back and forth a cup of tea. Now that the leaves had fallen and the nettles died, the Iowa forest emptied into unfamiliar spaces. Thin lines of branches turned dark against the November sun.

The crack above us was supposed to be my second trad lead, but Doug had forgotten the tricams and we didn't have the right gear. "If you ever wanted to solo something," Doug said. His voice was expressionless, but something quivered across his face. I never learned to guess what he was thinking.

I don't remember talking much, only the bright air and the edge of cold beneath it, like water flowing under new-formed, brittle ice. What I do remember has become a single image: the sunlight on the metal thermos; the limestone mottled like the shadows of leaves; the warmth of the teacup through my hands. Doug smiled, his face at once absurdly joyful and serious.

All summer long, we had been debating risk. I thought of it as an unfortunate, but unavoidable, part of climbing; Doug felt that without it climbing was meaningless. But that afternoon everything seemed translucent. The sky poured through the forest. A certainty suffused me. I forgot all the reasons not to solo: my parents, my younger sister, my friends.

Doug spotted me as I pulled up the overhang. On the first ledge, dry nettles sealed the limestone pockets.

"Hey Katie," Doug said: a single low and even tone. "I'm going to put my climbing shoes on now, ok?" I looked down. An arch of a back—a large dark blotch against the fallen leaves. He wasn't watching anymore. I had gone too far to catch.

I trembled a little as I kept climbing, and then, for the first time, my fear drew away. In the gap that opened came a sense of weightlessness. I hung for a moment at the crux, digging the mud out for Doug. I gave him a steady narration of each loose section, as though he could hear me murmuring, as though my words could become a rope between us.

At the top, I held onto a tree. My heartbeat pulsed strongly through my arms as I watched for him. Then I saw his helmet, his upturned face and pinched smile.

The philosopher George Simmel describes adventure as a moment cut off from the ordinary course of existence—one that, paradoxically, contains the totality of life. That afternoon couldn't be absorbed into the rest of the year that followed. Sometimes in the midst of my classes, its strangeness would fill me with warmth and unexpected joy.

The blinding sunlight on Doug's forehead appears sometimes as an afterimage, shining between me and the world. I don't understand why he suggested soloing, or why I agreed. Yet that afternoon holds my entire life, bright and empty as a glass jar on a windowsill.

—Katie Ives, Jackson, Wyoming

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