Friday, March 28, 2014

Pause for a Whisper

It’s funny how memories come back. One minute you’re strolling out to the compost bin with a full bucket in your hand, and the next minute, you’re somewhere else entirely. As I walked across the lawn, with my poodle Topher following dutifully behind me, I looked up at our house. The light in the office window was on, because my wife was working at her computer. Otherwise, the house was dark, and the fading light outside made the house look somehow small, insignificant, against the darkening sky.

I was walking to the compost bin, and in my head, I heard the words “Pause for a Whisper.” Pause for a Whisper. I hadn’t thought about those words in at least ten years. The story of those four words, like the reality of those four words, had long since receded in the distance, like train cars following the engine past the vanishing point of the two parallel tracks. That train had long left, and the stories following the train had left as well. As I walked across the lawn in fading twilight, though, those words came back. Pause for a Whisper.

What was I, eighteen? I must have been. I was young enough to be filled with a strange cocktail of angst and optimism, of recklessness and hopefulness. James and I were ice climbing in Orient Bay. We had done the classic, fat, safe climb called Tempest, and we were lingering at the base. James was smoking a cigarette. We had climbed Tempest easily, and we were looking for more challenge. I spotted a line to the left, and after paging through the guidebook, we determined that the line was called Pause for a Whisper. The ice looked thick at the bottom, but it got thinner at the top. Or did it? There was enough snow on the ledges that the whole face looked white and nondescript. James suggested we climb it and he started racking up. “Why don’t we leave the ropes here?” I asked. From James’s wry smile, I could see that he agreed.

James and I had driven up to Orient Bay while we were on break from college. It must have been winter break. James had just broken up with his long-term girlfriend, and she had given the ring back. I enjoyed reminding him that he had gotten disengaged. James laughed halfheartedly at the first few times I worked it into the conversation. By the time we crossed into Canada, he wasn’t laughing anymore. He seemed only to stare at the photo of his ex-girlfriend that he had taped to the dashboard.

I didn’t happen to be experiencing any relationship upheaval, at least not any that I remember. I do remember that I was just starting to get good at climbing. I had spent a lot of time toiling on the lesser climbs, but I sensed a renewed power in my climbing. I began to see new horizons, and those vistas led to the realm of 5.13 and 5.14. But I wasn’t there yet, and looking back now, my belief in myself vastly outweighed my actual ability. I climbed on credit, realizing that if I didn’t have the strength at the base, I would eventually repay myself by the time I reached the top. I was filled with bravado, which I took to be confidence, but which I now see as youthful, na├»ve, insufferable hubris.

James and I approached the climb, leaving the ropes behind. I set up first, and my swings were just a bit harder, my kicks a bit more pronounced. I moved with rhythm up the ice, but the music started playing faster and faster, like a blue grass band reaching a crescendo. But, the ice was thick, the sky was blue, and I was young. So, so young, and I had no compost, or poodle, or wife. I had Pause for a Whisper, and James following below.

My pick hit rock. Doink. I swung again. The pick sliced through the snow like it was air. It hit rock again. Doink. I tried a different spot. Doink. Doink. Doink. Shit.

“It’s really thin up here,” I yelled back to James. James said nothing, but stared at me with a look of concern.

“I’m going to brush as much snow off as possible.” Still no reply from below. With my crampons at the top of the thick ice, and my gloved hand resting on a ledge, with the ice tool dangling impotently from my wrist, I searched with my other tool for a ledge or something, anything to support my weight. I looked down, and saw the 200 feet of the climb below me, and I saw James, moving a bit to the left, away from me.

I don’t remember the rest of it. I really don’t. I remember hooking my right arm around a spruce tree at the top of the climb, so that I could lean over and look at James. I don’t remember the solution to the problem into which my hubris had led me. But is it hubris if you don’t fail?

It was James’s turn now. I leaned over to try to encourage him. To cheer him on. He could do it. I was sure he could do it. He had to do it. There was no option. His tools searched the rock just as mine had done. He found the edges that I must have found, and he got to a stance just below the safety of my cedar tree. Just out of my reach. He just had a few more swings left and he was at the top.

His tool shook. I do remember that. His right tool was securely into the ice now, but I saw his tool shaking. Then his wrist began shaking, and the shaking moved up his arm. Next his whole arm was shaking. He looked at me. He said nothing. I said nothing. I just looked at his right ice tool, shaking, and wedged a half inch into the ice. He looked up, and said “I can’t swing Jay.”

I remember what James said as clear as I remember the name of the climb. I said nothing in response. I just looked at him. What could I say? You have to? Your whole being depends on your swinging your left tool into the ice? You can never experience heartbreak again, or sadness, or happiness, or anything if you don’t swing that damn tool into the ice. You have to my friend. I can’t be 18, and dumb, and bold, and full of shit if you don’t. Please swing James. Please.

And he did. He swung his tool, it landed into the thick ice above the rock section, and he topped out at my cedar. We met up with friends who had just climbed Tempest, and we rappelled together. “What the hell happened to you guys?” Hearing this, we embarked on the story we would tell with decreasing frequency to friends. “I can’t swing Jay” always provided a pleasing climax to the story.

Walking out to the compost bin, I can’t recall the details. Only the high points, the trite slogans we remember not from the event, but from the retelling of the event. As I walk back from the compost bin, I pause, and take in my life, now almost twenty years later. How much things change. How I’ve changed. I pause, for a whisper, and I walk into my house, and turn on the lights.