It's true what they say, that your heart pounds all the way into your ears. Height is dizzying.
I'm weightless up here, as if the slightest breeze could catch me like a feather. Send me swirling off this narrow stone ledge to the ground far below. Leaves rustle beneath me. I'm higher than the trees.
The voices that connect me to the ground sound very far away.
"Move around the corner!" they call, but their words are swallowed up by the sky.
I look up at the rope, looped through an anchor somewhere above me. My life hangs by a knot. Suddenly, I'm afraid to move a muscle.
That step around the corner feels impossible.
Then I see Tommy. He scales the wall in large motions -- strong, controlled, confident. The carbon fiber of his left leg glints against the sun. Finally, he arrives at my side.
Not to talk me down. To talk me UP.
A seasoned climber, he urges me toward that corner, his prosthesis planted sturdily by my right foot. "Just look," he says at first.
I crane my neck to peer around to the left side of the rock. Shift my weight ever so slightly toward the part of my body that always feels like a cliff.
He's right. There are more holds over there, more nooks to lodge my feet and hands so I can climb higher.
Slowly, he coaches me around the bend. Not one step at a time -- one inch at a time. I stick my shoe soles into the stone. Force weight onto the balls of my feet. Reach as high and as far as I can.
Finally, I ring the cowbell. (That's what they call it anyway!)
First climb. Done.
When I get down to the ground, someone asks if I took in the view. Um, no.
Maybe next time.
I pass Mile Marker 1360 in New York's Shawangunk Mountains -- a.k.a. "The Gunks." I waited all summer to climb again with Ronnie Dickson. Here at his Amputee Climbing Clinic, he's got a huge support crew of guides and volunteers. This is way beyond the rock gym.
It's the greatest ROCK SHOW of all time.
We meet up early in the morning in the Peter's Kill area of Minnewaska State Park. Guide Doug hands out harnesses from the back of his car, fits us all with adjustable helmets and tight-laced climbing shoes.
Mary, who's driven up with me from Philly, bravely accepts her pile of gear. She swore she wouldn't climb, but with every quiver of her body, I can see her mind wavering.
|Go for it, Mary...|
|...there she goes!|
|Look at that reach!|
Kareema, Laura, Maria, Tee-Tee, and Q have bused up from Brooklyn, where they've got their own adaptive climbing club.
We climb and climb and climb some more. Everybody helps everybody.
Tommy and Mark belay me the whole day long. They teach me how to loop my rope through the harness, how to tie off the knot like a double-wound figure 8.
|Ronnie starts me off.|
With their guidance, I learn that everything is fair game. Look left, look right, look up, look down.
Any aberration in the rock's surface can give you a boost. A crevice fits your fingers. A tiny mound holds your foot. A ledge gives you a spot to rest.
The rocks have mammoth flat faces and clever names like Bunk Bed and Breakfast Table. When I find a vertical rock that looks like it's hanging on with glue, Mark tells me it's called a flake. When I descend with my thumb scraped and bleeding, Tommy tells me I'm lucky it's not a flapper. (Use your imagination for that one!)
"Mark! It's windy up here!" I yell from 40 feet up.
"Yeah! Go with it, baby!!" I can hear the groovy sway in his shoulders -- this is the guy holding my rope :)
It's afternoon, my fourth or fifth climb of the day, and I'm getting more confident. Camera ready, I perch on a ledge, snapping photos of the leafy canopy below.
But as the wind shakes the rope, my heart goes wild again. I brace my body flat against the wall to stay balanced. A tree behind me brushes its highest branches against the back of my helmet.
"Mark! The tree!!!"
"Show 'em who's boss!" he says. (Or something like that.)
Then he starts singing. Classic rock.
"Mark! Are you with me?!"
"I'm with ya!"
"Can I move over there?!"
"Wherever you want!"
"Hold me tight, I'm climbing!"
"Climb on, Spark Plug!"
We go back and forth like this the whole way up.
It's important to communicate with your belayer, but I'm guessing I'm chattier than most. What I lack in muscle, I make up for in volume. I can't help it -- it keeps me connected. And Mark and Tommy keep answering 'cause they know their words will drive me to the top.
Finally I get to a narrow foothold where I can steady myself again. I press my toes into it, like a sailor who's reached solid land.
I look left and right at the red and gold leaves swinging around me. I look up. The carabiner and top rope are just inches away. So is the summit. And beyond it, the vast, deep sky.
Then I slowly reach around with my right hand. Carefully dig the camera out of my back pocket. Aim it downward.
"Mark!" I yell for the 200th time.
Just past my chalk bag, he is a tiny green dot against the ground.
|He answers, of course. Hang Loose!|
It's one thing to talk to your belayer, but it's another to listen. Mine showed me the best seats in the house.
|At the greatest rock show of all time!|
(Country music... Yeah! Go with it, baby!)