“Whoa, cowgirl! What’s the rush?” The teasing voice carried up the rope. She looked down at the man belaying her. Shaggy hair was barely contained by a tie-dyed bandanna. His lean face was tanned behind a few days beard. He smiled and she caught a glimpse of white teeth before he reassured her “I gotcha.”
Well duh! she thought. You’re on belay. “Thanks!” she hollered back. Don’t know why I’m climbing with a stranger. Dumb. But he’d done everything right, and the folks at the climbing gym had said they would make good partners. They’d been right so far.
She wiped the blood oozing from her fingers onto her shorts and turned to the face. Securing her toes, she stretched again for a tiny ledge. Her ankles popped as she caught it, easing fingertips over the edge. She could feel every knuckle strain. Finally it felt secure and she lifted her right foot, sliding it up slowly, seeking a hold. There! Turning her toes outward, the soft instep caught as much as possible. Her calf tightened as she slowly shifted weight, tension running up through the knee and into the thigh. She increased the pressure, rising to the right, pulling with fingertips and the ball of her right foot. Her left foot came free and she began, too early, to tap around for a toehold. Suddenly the dust of the ledge above gave way and -- tearing her fingernails to the quick -- she slid down until once again the rope caught her.
“Ah fuck it.” She was quieter this time – disappointed. Leaning backwards she shouted “I’m not gonna make it.”
“That’s cool. You coming down?”
Duh! “Yeah.” She found her original holds and shouted “Climbing.”
“Climb on.” The rope immediately slackened, giving her just room to begin moving down. He really was a good belay – just right with the rope, always attentive. Annalee slowly scrambled down. At the bottom she faced him and they exchanged a quick “off belay” “belay off” before she removed her helmet and unclipped her harness. Still looking down she thanked him again. “I’m really glad you do that.”
“What? Catch you?” his tease was gentle. She looked up into a smile and returned it.
“Well, that too. But I mean saying ‘belay off’ and ‘off belay’ when it’s totally obvious.”
He shrugged. “It’s the right thing to do.”
They busied themselves for a few moments rearranging gear and coiling ropes. When everything was just right she yawned and asked, “You ready?”
“I’d like to, if you can stay awake.”
“Might need an anchor, but yeah, I can hold you. Remember, it was your idea to meet at dawn.” She allowed herself to be a little sassy. He could handle it. He started laughing as they worked together to fasten an anchor rope around a nearby rock outcrop. When it was secured Annalee unscrewed the lid of her bottle and gulped down some water before taking a couple bites of gorp.
“Need a break?” he asked as he returned his own bottle to the gearbag.
“Nah, just a little thirsty. We’re good.” She smiled again at him, admiring. He was built for climbing, long and slim with deceptively lean muscles. He pulled off the wrap that held shaggy locks out of his eyes and buckled on a helmet.
“On belay.” He stared directly at her as he spoke. The words were suddenly seductive, challenging.
“Belay on,” she responded in kind, then blinked several times as he turned quickly away from her to the rock face behind him.
“Climb on.” He reached, pulled, and suddenly she was watching a vertical dance as he wove his way steadily up the face. Annalee was astonished at how quickly she had to slide the rope through the brake, feeling him move through the quivering live rope. He climbed with such grace she almost became mesmerized and only a sense of responsibility kept her from gawking. All too soon he was at the top.
“Wow!” she shouted up. He turned and grinned down, pleased at having impressed her.
“Think you can bring me back?”
He planted his feet and leaned back, away from the wall. “Ready to lower!”
“Lowering!” Annalee did a couple of stuttersteps forward as she took his full weight, but the anchor held fast, and he easily walked backward down the wall as she fed rope through the descender. Soon he was next to her. He walked close, facing her, and quietly said “off belay.”
She found herself leaning in as she replied “belay off.” Her heart pounded. It was a wrench when he turned away to unhook and remove his helmet.
After a quick consult they decided it would still be cool enough for one more ascent after breakfast. They coiled the ropes and gave the gear a quick once over before settling down to eat. They’d brought pretty much the same things: yogurt and apples, peanut butter and bananas. She shared a Danish carefully wrapped in foil as a special treat. Afterward they both smelled of cinnamon and vanilla icing, and she imagined how his lips would taste. They chatted, comparing notes on climbs they’d done before and mutual acquaintances at the climbing gym.
“What do you think about that line?” he pointed to a route thirty feet to the right of where they’d ascended – at least, where he’d ascended – an hour before.
“I dunno.” She was embarrassed to admit that she might not be up to it. Of course, she’d had breakfast and the rock no longer sheltered slippery pockets of dew. But the new climb was definitely harder, maybe a 5.15. It was at the very outer edge of her abilities.
“Come on. You can do it. I’ll go first so you can see the holds.”
Annalee laughed. “Yeah, like my little t-rex arms could reach your holds!”
He made a face, then pushed again. They debated for a while, Annalee feeling increasingly uncomfortable.
“Look,” he said, exasperated, “they put us together because you said you wanted to get better. This will help you get better. And it will be a nice change of pace for me.”
Annalee was stung by the condescension that slipped into his voice. “Okay. Okay! I’ll give it a try. But you saw how I did over here. And I’m gonna be slow.” The explanations bubbled up defensively. She really didn’t want to do this. “How about I belay you, and I’ll try another time?”
“C’mon.” He locked eyes again and she flushed. “You did great the first try. You were probably just hungry. Like you said – it was my idea to come out before dawn.”
She found herself wanting to impress him. “Yeah. You’re right. I’m just. Well. It’s a tough route. I’m not sure I can make it.”
“You can.” He leaned forward, touching his forehead to hers. “Annalee, you can do this.”
“Okay. If you say so. But I probably won’t make. And if by noon I'm blubbering like a baby, I'll be screaming your name and begging you to save me.”
“You promise?” he teased, then relented. “Nothing to worry about, cowgirl. I gotcha.” He smiled radiantly and suddenly grasped her hand. Turning it over, he looked at her raw fingers and scraped knuckles. “You’re a good sport, you know that?” Then he kissed the back of her hand, tickling it with his beard. Her breath hitched. He sprang up and began setting up.
“Okay, okay. Left hand up and a little to the right.” His voice held her up as she reached for the next hold. She gripped and tried to relax. She’d been on the rock for almost two hours, slipping and trying again, slipping and trying again, prodded back each time by the desire to please him. “Right hand straight up about a foot.” Reach, pull, step, lift, stretch. She no longer wanted to get to the anchor.
“What’s wrong, cowgirl?”
“I’m tired. I’m not gonna make it. I need to come down. Take!”
“You can do it. Just try.”
“I AM trying!” Tears of frustration leaked into her voice. “TAKE!” She held her breath, waiting for him to tighten the slack. To take her weight.
“No. I’m not going to help you give up.”
“No. I’m really disappointed in you, Annalee.”
She held fast with her right hand and pulled the left off the rock to stretch out a cramp. Her center shifted and both legs started shuddering. Typewriters. That’s what her mother had called it when that happened. She leaned in again, resting her knees against the rock and slowly stretching out one leg at a time.
“I’m really sorry. But I’m getting cramps and my legs won’t hold me much longer.” Annalee wiped the sweat from where it was collecting in her eyebrows, leaving a bloody chalk line across her forehead. “Please? Take?”
The rope, instead of drawing upward, slipped down past her shoulder.
Annalee tried to turn, but she was stretched too far, spread-eagled against a granite cliff forty-five feet above the forest.
“Adam?” The weight of the rope was pulling it down faster and faster until it sang in her ear.
“I’ll try, Adam. Please! Take? Please? I’ll do my best!”
The fused plastic end of the rope whipped against her cheek, leaving a stinging welt. She automatically slapped her hand to the injury with a gasp, then clutched at the rock when the mass of the rope tugged at her middle, drawing her backwards. Drawing her down.
“Help me! Please Adam, help me!”
The blood on her fingers made them slippery. Annalee gingerly wiped them on her shirt, working her way through a rotation of stretching, fighting the exhaustion and trembling. She reached for handholds, waved her toe against the wall seeking toe holds, imagined climbing blindly down. She was lost. She waited, but knew. She was lost.