The last time I climbed, I fell.
It happened just past the second dam at Horsetooth Reservoir outside Fort Collins near a rock that has been tagged in graffiti — lines about angry things, confessions of love, sayings about politics and police. It is where the high school kids go to smoke cigarettes and pot and drink beer after dark.
The fall was slow and not overly dramatic. I had simply slipped on the flat surface, bouldering 4 feet up the rock wall, and hit the ground feet first, then tumbled to my back. It only affected me in the way that heights do.
Heights are like oceans to me. They are big and consuming, and in the spaces between sky and ground — or water and ocean floor — it feels unknown.
On this most recent climbing outing we were standing in front of Tunnel Six on U.S. 6 along Clear Creek, west of Golden. The sun had pitched itself over the clouds as I stared at the cliff walls with question. Kevin, an avid climber who seems to embody all that is Colorado and understands my fear of heights, asked me: “Don’t you think this would be a good fear to get over?”
He is tall and has hands like a piano player. We’ve known each other since we were 14 years old. I told him I agreed and that I’d climb. My girlfriend, Caprice, roommate Livvy and our other childhood friend Nic had all come to climb this wall. The mellow dose of watermelon tincture I had dropped earlier was there to settle the fear inside me. Sober, experienced climbers Kevin and Nic were there to help me. We ate pickles from a jar and drank mineral water, and we took turns putting our hands into a bag of potato chips.
Kevin was right. Fear can come from any angle, but most generally it sneaks into the things that aren’t practiced.
Kevin went first. I watched, lying on a blanket next to the river’s bend at the foot of the cliff. One leg tossed over the other, my eyes going from the clouds to Kevin as he floated over the rock.
Climbing is like a dance: It is easy to tell who is more comfortable, calm, by how they move up the face with rhythm, gently touching edges, bringing legs over hips, extending elbows to knees and pressing upward. When Kevin came back down he gave me pointers. He fitted me into a harness. Tied me to the rope, secured the knots and told me to focus on getting my legs up and follow the route he took. At first I was frigid and stale at the foot of the cliff. But once I got moving, I stopped thinking as Kevin worked as my belay.
Below, my friends cheered and giggled at how the harness addressed my thighs, the way it crept up my stomach and pulled at my shorts. My girlfriend whistled. After getting to the first ledge some 15 feet up, I stopped to look at the landscape. The river was bumbling past, its waves violent and cold and thrashing.
It felt good to be away from the city and stoned on a mountain top.
The rope and harness allowed me some freedom. If I did slip, I would be caught. My faith in Kevin manning the rope and the small dose of tincture I had ingested earlier cooled me down. There was no one to impress up there. By the time I got down to the mountain floor I had sweated through my shirt. Kevin offered me a post-climb pickle, and everyone said I had gone further than they’d expected. There was a softness in the air, a respect for my lackluster climb, an understanding that I had done what I had come to do.
But in just a short amount of time all that we felt dissipated.
At first glance it looked like an abandoned life vest in the river. Then I noticed the helmet, and then the arms splayed in front of the body. It was a boater. There was a commotion. I don’t know where it came from. I unbuckled my harness and let it drop. Livvy had begun to climb and was standing on the wall’s first ridge. She froze. Kevin couldn’t help either, working as her belay, both tied to the canyon wall.
Caprice, Nic and I took off at a dead sprint. It was one of those thoughtless sprints, the ones where your adrenaline is the wick and your legs go off like a bomb.
The water was traveling so fast that I could barely keep up. I could tell it was a man — beneath the yellow helmet there was short brown hair. As I ran after him I no longer felt high. I was no longer scared of climbing. I watched the body tumble through the waves like a fallen tree limb, face down. I ran next to the rocks, close at the river’s edge.
When Nic caught up to me he grabbed me by the shoulder and, with his mouth hanging down in dread, he said: “Whatever you do, don’t go in there after him.”
The water was too fast.
Caprice held her hands to her face and watched as we ran downstream. I told her to call 911. I stopped running. I could have kept sprinting. It was hard to digest the realization: There was nothing I could do.
The police told us that there had been multiple calls. The man, who we later discovered had been rafting with his wife and daughter, had fallen out miles upriver and died that day. I walked back to the cliff where Kevin had helped Livvy down off the wall. Everyone was silent. There was a fog of disbelief around us. One minute we are climbing, eating pickles, fighting a fear of heights, while the next we are chasing a body downriver. There wasn’t really anything to say. We helped Kevin pack up the gear as helicopters flew over us — sirens screamed down the canyon roads.
On the walk back to the car we watched the river for something else. I looked at how the sunlight shone off the brown and white waves. This wasn’t how I’d imagined an afternoon of climbing. I remember thinking about all the things I would have done so that man wouldn’t have drowned. It was as though the risks I was imagining could manifest into saving a life.
We stopped at a bend in the river and took turns washing the climbing rope’s blue dye off our hands, Kevin mentioned something to me, but the waves were too loud for me to hear.