“Real friends are very special, but you have to be careful because sometimes you have a friend and you think they are made of rock, then suddenly you realise they're only made of sand.”I wasn't expecting the burn. No, my muscles weren't burning, nor was my skin burning. It was my shins and calves. They were scorching with pain as I scraped the flesh off bit by bit against the rock. I hear some of my friends referring to it as the "cheese grater." But I have no choice - my legs are so much thicker, and carrying a much greater burden that I have to use every inch of flesh on them in the climb - whether it be kneeling and pulling my way up, dragging the skin against the rough surface of rock, or standing up straight, allowing the razor to shred skin off. I wince with every maneuver, but there is no choice. I must go up.
- Maria Callas
By now, we're between one third to halfway up the rock. We climb section by section in a rotation - grey ropes first, red ropes second, green ropes third, purple rope last. I'm the first red rope - red stripe - so I'm the third to climb each section. Some sections go smoothly and swiftly - my climbing skills have increased since Day 1, and I'm not afraid of any of these rocks. Some I struggle with, requiring McStillin to boost me by either placing a foot or two onto an invisible foothold while I concentrate on holding my body up over a ledge or by, gawd bless him, using his hands to shove my sorry ass over a hump in the rock.
At the moment, there is a pine tree whose wiry roots have woven a nest for itself in the crease of the rock. A light purple rope with loops tied into it every few inches dangling my way, hanging off the tree. A teal mesh ladder hangs down from the tree as well, and my left foot is trying to stabilize itself. The ladder is loose - closer to a net, so my weakened ankles keep rolling from one side to the other, putting me at the risk of a sprain or worse every time I put pressure on it. Poor McStillin, whose nose, I'm quite certain, is halfway into my anus, is trying to position my foot in such a way to prevent that rolling so I can take the pressure off my forearms, now mantling this ledge.
"I think this counts as our third date, McStillin."
"Am I good to go?"
"I think so. On the count of three. 1... 2... 3..."
I stand on my left, slowly, feeling another ribbon of skin tearing off my leg and I place my right foot next to my right hand, allowing me to take my right hand and wrap it around the purple rope in between loops. In my mind, I repeat, "Happy little tree!" as I watch the pine tree ache, with roots quivering, and tiny bits of grit sliding my way. I drag my left leg up in a similar fashion, and I reach up, over several loops knowing that the rope will give a bit, and pull with every inch of my body. Little Bits stands over me, cheering me on, and I see Spare Parts pacing, in what appears to be impatience, looking over the rocks above me, his jowls taught until he retreats back to the cluster of ropes. In one move, I swing my left arm around the base of the pine tree, dislodge my left foot from the ladder, swing my right arm around the tree, and schmear my right foot while my left foot flattens against the rock. I rise, standing, and I hear some clapping.
"Yeah, Hit 'n' Run! Yeah!"
"Thank you, little tree," and I lean over and hug the tree. I toe my way to the left, then up, then to the right and join Mermaid, Hot Pink & Spare Parts. At this point, despite the slightly mirrored lenses he wore, you could see the ballet of multicolored ropes Spare Parts is choreographing in his mind as each climber, associated with yet another rope in his tangle of ropes and caribiners, makes progress up the rock. McStillin comes up next, and he tells him to go under one rope, stand over another, untwist another pair of ropes, and then help belay so he can get ready to set up the next climb.
I apologize again to my new boyfriend, McStillin (after all, I think it's safe to say that after our third date, we're exclusive), for making him have to shove his hands into the bulbous mass of my ass. He laughs, shakes his head, and says it's a pleasure. I purr and tell him I look forward to our fourth date, but I think I have to introduce him to my parents next. Lilac crests the rock next, and Spare Parts bounds down, shouting placement instructions to Lilac and McStillin. Lilac and McStillin dance around the ropes until they take their places.
I sit back, and find I'm still struggling to breathe. Could the chemo have caused this much damage to my lungs? This week, surely, has tested my aerobic threshold more than anything since last October, but this is absurd. My concern grows as I feel that rattle that my son gets when he's on the verge of a major asthma attack. Earlier in the ascent, McStillin took my backpack with his, and he's in the middle of some double-belaying - I can't ask him to give me my pack yet. Unfortunately, that means no water. I close my eyes and try and slow down my breathing - in through the nose, out through the mouth.
I clap and cheer folks on as they tumble over the last ledge, regroup, and get ready for the next ascent. Little Bits, already anticipating my need for the ladder, sets it up. Mermaid & Hot Pink head up - I see Hot Pinks delicate hands and feet start to quake - she's starting to fatigue on her right side. I cheer her on, even giving her butt cheek a boost McStillin style. She and I have a lot in common, not the least of which is that we're the most recently out of treatment. Hot Pink's hair is a little bit farther behind mine in progress of regrowth, but we're both still feeling the effects of chemo. It wasn't until this trip, actually, that I'd realized I was still recovering - I mean, I knew it would take a full year for the toxins to leave my body, and that the weight gained during chemo would take a while, but this is different. I think there was a mutual empathy at the realization that our hairstyles were not lifestyle choices, but still the aftereffects of a battle thrust upon us, ready or not.
That's kind of how I was feeling on this trip at times - that there were challenges thrust upon me, ready or not. The difference was that I invited this adventure, barbs and all. I was not, however, thrilled with this breathing situation.
The next ledge was deceptively tricky. I literally held myself up by the boobs (the real testament to Dr. Nordberg's skills - would they, literally, hold up?). You see, my fingers slipped from the handholds, my feet couldn't find anything to grip, and the rope had gotten tangled and caught in a crevice in the rock. So I hung by the tatas. (Good thing they are silicone - good grip!)
"McStillin - Time for date number four!" and, without missing a beat, he was there, helping me get my feet into a place from which I could boost myself up, grabbing onto the purple knotted rope and hoisting my sorry ass over this ledge. I crawled up, yay more grated skin, and got to the next climb. There was Spare Parts, pacing, muttering, grumbling in between the rocks, but I also saw some of the other gals from another group! We were nearing the top and regrouping! Cool! They were sitting, backs against a large rock, relaxing. Sidetrack was there... Three J... and I think Snapjacks?
I don't even bother telling Spare Parts that I'm climbing at this point - he seems to know that as soon as one rope quivers, it's time to tighten the slack. Besides, I keep getting that command wrong. "Red rope climbing... er... red stripe... on belay? Oh, hell, I'm coming up, Parts!" is usually all that I ended up blurting out. This climb was easy except for the last bit. I pull myself up, must have looked a bit like Kilroy, and no one is paying attention.
"Hellooooooo? What's next?" Nothing. I shrug (at least in my head, I'm a little occupied,) and I climb over the last bit, sitting in the clearing. I look over and see Whatevs and Three J kind of meditating on this landing they found, Sidetrack bubbling as usual with Hot Pink, and I realize I'm hungry. And thirsty. McStillin comes over and I ask if, for our fifth date, he can take me out to lunch. He gets my backpack out of his and I pull out my cheese sandwich and apple and my water bottle. I scarf down the sandwich, despite the near choking I experience as I literally inhaled my food, start drinking (but it's not going down), and pull out my apple. I'm feeling good - quite good - despite the trickles of blood dripping down my legs. But that's no biggie, despite the gawks I get from the others. I tell them the truth - that I'm so used to bleeding that I don't even notice anymore. (Like, at the beginning, when Ranier insisted on putting a band-aid on the first cut. I laughed and told her it wouldn't be the last and that it wasn't worth it.)
I'm just about to have something to drink and eat my apple when we're told to get up and keep moving. We look off to the distance and we see that strange grey streaking in the sky - there's rain in the mountains. (I'd never seen anything like that before this trip. I'd seen rain clouds - heavy, dark, pregnant with rain, but I'd never seen what it looks like with the clouds birth the sheets of rain of a storm). Where there's rain, there's going to be thunder and lightning. I reluctantly close up my water bottle, of which I've had 1 or 2 swigs at the max, pack that and the remaining lunch back into my backpack and McStillin snatches it away. I do decide I am going to keep my apple, so I start eating it as we casually walk on some soft ground towards the next bit of climbing. This doesn't look too bad at all, with the exception of a short slope around a tree - there are two paths to take - one to the left and one to the right of the tree's girth. The more advanced team is going on the right, whereas Parts & Bits have laid our ropes to the left. From where I stand, the right looks easier, but I've learned to take their words for it.
Soon enough, it's my turn. I already have my fair share of pine tree sap globules clinging to me, including a nice blob on my ass, so it's no surprise that I now have some under my breasts, where I had to wrap both arms around the stump jutting out of the side of the rock, as I climbed my way past the tree. I realized this is the closest I'd ever gotten to climbing a tree when I use that same stump as a boost up the rock. Now, I'm in familiar territory. It's an oversized rock garden - no biggie - I just have to pick which rocks to use as my steps. I hope from rock top to rock top in ascension with as little struggle as I would on a water hike at camp, going from one dry rock top to another, crossing this invisible river of mountain air.
Finally, as I reach the last wall of rock to climb over, I peer over and see Spare Parts, who is encouraging me, (I hear Little Bits also sounding surprised at my agility in this last bit), and a few more folks from other teams. This is the top. I've done it. I was elated, or at least I should have been, but once I get to the peak, something is off. I'm woozy. I'm cold. I'm coughing. I'm shaky. I'm quivering.
Which is just plain stupid. I reach into my backpack to get my 2011 LIVESTRONG Ride for the Roses pullover jacket, and in horror, I realize I left it in the van. My breathing feels so labored, but I'm not tired - yes, I worked out, but I didn't work out. It has to be the altitude - there is no other reason for this. I shake as I pull on the long-sleeved dri-fit top I threw in my pack for some protection as the cold rain starts. I'm not in a good way. I make my way down some rocks to sit, and I try and find something to eat that I find appetizing, but nothing really appeals to me. I look to my right, and I see Spare Parts setting up the rappel.
CRAP! I'd forgotten about the rappel back down! Ugh.
I see folks starting to line up. I look up to Lilac and say, "So this is how a lemming feels..." No response. Oh, dear. I've lost my funny.
A couple of people get hooked up and repel down. I'm not even sure who, because I'm distracted by Little Bits making direct eye contact with me and drawing me to him with his index finger. In true Hollywood fashion, I look around me to see who he's looking at, point at myself with a quizzical look on my face (like I didn't already know the answer), and ask, "Me?" Little Bits nods and my heart jumps out of my chest, through my throat, and into next week.
"Dead Man Walking," I say to myself in my head as I walk past these well-meaning individuals cheering me on. Two Dogs, our camp dad, is suiting up. He's supposed to go down along with me. It's a blur of flesh tones and identical shoes until I am nearly blinded by the glimmer of light beaming from Spare Part's grin. I can't tell if this is meant to be reassuring, or his sadism creeping through as he is about to spin me down another rappel. My heart has returned to its home, beating like a hummingbird's wings and I feel all the blood rush to my fingertips. I have a sudden urge to poo. I start quivering, ever so slightly, from my bowels to my chest. My hairs stand on edge.
Little Bits puts his hand gently, reassuringly, on my shoulder, and it feels as though he's Freddy Kruger digging razorblades into my flesh, as he asks if I'm ready to do this. Through a clenched jaw, I say, "Not really." He smiles - he's such a kind soul, he's trying so hard to make this easy for me - and says it's ok, that I can trust them, it's going to be great, etc. I grit my teeth harder, which I think is mistaken for a smile, and I get the sensation that all of my inner organs have just been swallowed up by a black hole and are no longer in my body. At this point, the body quake is slowly making its way through my pelvis and shoulders. My clavicle is chattering. Before I know what's happening, Spare Parts and Little Bits have me clipped into things, I'm attached to something else, and McStillin is there. I just keep looking at the rope, onto which my fingers are wrapped like wires melding into a tree they were wrapped around for too long. I hear voices, but they aren't making sense. I just see the rough, multicolored textures of the granite slabs I'm on and that are surrounding me. The sun must have come out, because things are more golden and less steely now.
I hear Little Bits tell me to walk backwards. I take a step back. It's a decent step - a good 4 inches. I think he wraps an arm around my shoulder - I'm not sure - as now all of my skin is as numb as the tissue now enveloping the silicone implants - I can feel a semblance of pressure, but not much else. More words of encouragement, now coming from all directions, but I can't really tell which direction I'm in. McStillin's face comes into focus, and just behind his is Spare Parts, who, for the first time since I've met him, shows a bit of concern - the cockiness has fallen away. I feel a spin coming on as something starts dropping onto my lips, my chest, and sounds come out of my mouth that I can't recognize. The saltiness tells me that I'm now crying, and I don't know what I'm saying - I'm deafened by the silent spin I feel. My feet - I focus on my feet, which feel like they are filled with lead, and all I can manage to do as I near the edge is shuffle backwards 1 inch.... half an inch... maybe a quarter inch... are they moving at all? Have my feet melded into the rock? Voices are getting louder, and I just get more and more confused.
"NO!" Did I just shout that? "I can't! I can't! I can't do it!"
Who the hell said that? It must have been me, because now there are shadows coming around me, telling me I can, that it won't be so bad... and that's when the burning from the black hole of my bowel starts to surge upwards. There's a rush of nothing good. I feel like I'm going to choke. I don't know if I'm crying or screaming or silent, but all I know is that the next thing I'm off the ledge, with Snapjacks by my side, the monkey, which had been attached to my harness all day, in my hand, shaking.
My brain is still in slow motion, processing what happened moments prior to me being back in the clearing - I just now hear Little Bits say, "If you promise to go the next time it's your turn, we'll let you get off now." I think I said that I would. Shit. What was I thinking? Oh my G-d, I did - I promised him - I looked him in the eye... oh no... I scramble to get up as I start to cough and cough. I can't breathe and I start to heave. Snapjacks holds me as I throw up invisible rivers of fire, phlegm, apple, my sandwich, and water in between a few rocks and some bushes.
I need to lie down. I am having the most horrible out-of-body experience I've had. I can't make sense of where I am or what's happening.
Things start to come into focus a bit more. I'm lying down, sideways, on a rock. It's not comfortable. Snapjacks is off to the side. The guides are by the ledge. I feel the sun on my face. I feel like I've been punched in the gut by The Thing over and over and over again. I think I'm still breathing, but it hurts when I do.
I can't remember if I get up on my own or at the prompting of someone else, but I manage to stand. When I become aware of what's still ahead of me, the heaving begins again. I'm then reminded of my promise. Snapjacks offers to go down with me, and I shake my head. She can't handle this.
I overhear voices... "panic... threw up... not good... only way... " and I don't like any way those words and phrases can be pieced together. My head feels like it weighs 500 pounds. Little Bits tells me it's time, and like the bobble head that I feel like, I start to walk over. Spare Parts now has his sunglasses off, and I can see in his eyes his dry humor is nowhere in sight - he's got his game face on. This is serious. Little Bits light eyes are glistening, and his brow is furrowed in thought. Two Dogs isn't there - he must have gone down before me.
I have McStillin on one side and Little Bits on the other, and I become aware of ropes connecting the three of us. That fine line between reality and fantasy blurs again and I think someone explains they are both going with me - one in front, one in back. I don't remember the purpose. Spare Parts is belaying us down. I think I'm nodding in response to something, but I'm not sure. Everything goes numb again. I start walking backwards. At least I think I am.
And then there's a tug at my back. Like someone is pulling my underwear towards them. I scream - I don't even know what. Another tug, and now I am nothing but a giant reflex. I plant my feet, drop my weight, and lean forward as hard as I can. There's more tugging, and I lunge for a hole at the tips of my toes. I dig my fingertips as deeply as I can and pull. More tugging and yanking. I'm screaming, "NO!" at the top of my lungs.
Wait. What the fuck was that? I'm holding onto this rock, but my finger tips begin to slip. I leap forward, chest first, at another rock, and I am able to wrap my arms around it completely, almost locking my fingers together. There's another strong pull from the back. Men's voices are shouting.