For more tales from Canon Cliff, check out the Mountain Profile and “Two Frosts” in Issue 21. –Ed.
We’d both wanted to do it. We lay there on the ground, shivering in the night air as much from fear as from the cold.
“I wish I had more body fat,” moaned Susan, “I wish I had more body fat.”
“Could be worse,” I replied, “at least it’s not raining.”
Susan–my friend and climbing partner–a wealthy, blond haired, blue eyed, 50-year-old mother of three with the face of a 30-year-old and the body of a gal a decade younger, didn’t normally profess a desire for zaftig proportions, but tonight was different. The sky had turned from a deep periwinkle to blackness so vast and impenetrable that angels quaked with trepidation. Clouds were forming, gray and wispy, like the hair in an old man’s ear.
Susan has four homes. We decided that, being the closest to New Hampshire, her house in Connecticut would be the best jumping off point. She sent her chauffeur, Marcus, into the Manhattan to fetch me and my gear. The drive through the New York suburbs was an adventure in itself. Marcus makes ample use of the shoulder for passing and is one of those people who’s realized that stop lights timed for 35 mph and also timed for 70.
As we scrambled over the talus at the base of New Hampshire’s Cannon Cliff, the sun rose behind us rendering the eastern horizon a backdrop of vermilion and canary. We used both hands and feet to pick our way over the boulders, slick with a patina of frost and ranging in size from microwave oven to sport utility vehicle. The approach was tedious, the anxiety level rising. We were alone. If something went wrong, rescue was many painful hours away.
Time passed and we reached base of our quarry: Moby Grape–a 1000-foot alpine classic on perfect East Coast granite. I led the first pitch, a 180-foot splitter crack the width of a grapefruit; hand and fist jams serving to keep me on the rock. Thin, delicate climbing shoes–perfect for smearing on Gunks Conglomerate–were ill-suited to jamming granite cracks. To minimize my agony I moved quickly, placing sparse protection. Anchoring at the top of the pitch, I brought Susan up.
We swapped gear and, being the stronger climber, she led the next and remaining seven pitches through the Triangle Roof, the Finger of Fate (a massive, detached sharks fin hanging precariously from the cliff), several pitches of face and chimney climbing and onto the summit. Topping out, we sat at the cliff edge, silent, staring into the gloaming; relaxed; torpid.
As Apollo’s chariot clocked out for the day, the wind screamed over the ridge-line. I was wearing a Capaline pullover, and thin nylon pants. Susan, a tad better prepared, was clad in a windproof shell and pants. Shivering from the cold, we coiled the ropes and changed our shoes. It was a moonless night and even with our headlamps it was as dark and black as a lawyer’s soul.
“Walk North along the cliff edge to an old helicopter pad,” I shouted over the wind, reading the instructions for the descent, “then turn east, past some impenetrable brush and gain the descent trail.”
We picked our way along the top of the cliff, being careful not to walk off the edge. Often during times of mortal stress, the mind wanders; mine to a trip many years ago to Europe. I was lucky enough to spend a few weeks one summer hiking through the Swiss Alps with an irascible Scotsman named Jimmy. At every nook, cranny and overhang Jimmy would growl: “Aye, thars a good bivy.”
Following the directions (which turned out to be wrong), Susan and I passed each of the landmarks and continued toward what we thought was the descent trail, passing a deep gouge along the way. Dead ending at the cliffs’ edge, we shined our headlamps into the void, revealing–a void. The wind was a hard slap in the face. We were dressed for mid-August, but with conditions more like mid-October we were quickly becoming hypothermic.
“We have to get some shelter or we’re completely stuffed,” I shouted.
Like Obi Wan of the Highlands, Jimmy’s voice echoed in my head: “Thars a good bivy,” he whispered.
“We’re staying here; we bivy,” I shouted over the wind, pointing to the grave-like trench we’d passed earlier.
We carefully stacked the ropes to provide insulation from the cold ground, crawled inside large, plastic mattress bags I carry for situations such as this (Aye, thars a good Boy Scout) and bedded down for the night. Despite her affluence (including a shoe closet so vast the boxes require their own mug shots), Susan’s tripe was as solid as the granite upon which we laid. She calmly phoned Damian, her butler, and instructed him to inform Vincent, her chef, not to expect us for dinner.
We both slept fitfully. The combination of cold night air and our warm bodies caused condensation to form on the inside of the bags, rendering us as cold and dank as a witch’s kiss. The wind howled above us but we were as safe and snug as the circumstances allowed.
I was deep in the velvet womb of slumber when a cold fluid dripping on my face awakened me. I opened my eyes and water was pouring off the side of the trench and onto my head.
“Susan,” I said, voice shaking, “it’s raining.”
“Oh God,” she replied, “We are so ….”
As I lay there cold, wet and shivering, I thought of my beautiful wife and daughter back in New York and how warm and comfortable they were; how my final hours could be spent suffering or engaged in the pleasures of a woman who had spent her single years in New York City in the 1970s and, more likely than not, knew how to work the gear, even cold, wet and inside a plastic bag. Such thoughts, both pure and profane, somehow kept me sane.
By sunrise the rain had transitioned from downpour to drizzle. We got up, packed up and headed back along the trail. As we approached the helicopter pad–our last waypoint–it became clear where we had gone wrong. Major rockfall a few weeks prior had obliterated both New Hampshire’s “Old Man” feature on Cannon Cliff as well as the top of the descent trail. Had we continued, at least one of us would have taken the express route to the talus below.
We stopped at a nearby diner on the drive back from the cliff. Despite the questionable quality of the fare, we ate like prisoners.
“Not exactly what you’re used too,” I said, pointing to the eggs, the consistency of brain matter, and the slab of carbonized bread. “And last night wouldn’t be mistaken for the Bellagio.”
“Yeah,” she replied, smiling, “but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”