Later, B’s sister would infuse the words today is a gift, tomorrow a blessing with meaning. Earlier, he’d think of her as he set up camp, tying his shovel to a low-hanging twig, making a ground nest for himself and his camper van. He braked it in the stubble of a ferny tree’s shade and unloaded his gear. When the kids arrived, he shook hands and took note of their number: three. “Want a fourth?” he asked. “I’ve got the guidebook.” And so it was set: another climbing day in the Stronghold. A day of friends as family. A day to tell his sister about. A day to tide him over the next visit home to his parents, tucked away in their nursing home, good as dead.
* * *
Before his feet touched the ground and his body shut down, we’d not been acting as one. Apart-yet-together, we were having fun. It was a day at the crag. Like any other day. Then, each by each, we let our solitary selves go – flee to the granite dihedrals, the thorn-bent fronds of acacia, the desiccated earth, and the heat-laden air. Together, as much as nine people can unite, we became a single unit. As individuals, we barely knew each other. M had met B. B had camped with T and his friends. L knew M. K met L that day. X, Y, and Z knew no one but each other. T’s friends, Q and R, had met in Phoenix 48 hours ago. And B. B climbed, T, Q, or R on belay. B, a slight man in his sixties with straw-like, white-blond hair, reached, pinched, hung off fingertips, and trusted his toes 17, 42 or 106.5 times before he topped out at the bolted anchors. “On you,” he called down, and whether it was his voice or the telepathy of his weight that carried ninety-two feet, his belayer, T, knew to tilt the rope through the brake and lower him. His feet dangled and his shoulders slouched, relaxed. Or so it seemed. When B’s soles touched ground, he bent double, still tied with a figure eight above the belly button. For a split-second his spent posture might have communicated fatigue – a temporary condition. For less than a second, our mood might have been exultation. A send! Sixty-two years old, and sending five-ten-minuses. On top rope, but still – then:
Hips folded didn’t unfold. B didn’t stand up. Incremental, massive signs of sickness –a failure in arterial flow, a pulmonary hiccup. An airway closed. Who could know? We – K, L, M; Q and R; X, Y and poor, unprepared Z – had been committed to our routines, spinning locked carabiners to release the rope from our belay device, unhooking quickdraws from our harness loops to clip them to bolts, feeding out rope, or gazing at the Sonoran landscape, denuded of color – pale, straw grass, dry dirt, and the flat blue sky of a sun-scorched afternoon. We’d been distinct selves with different siblings and parents, our roots plowing through unalike soils toward water sources unlinked on any maps.
Climb, lead, belay, relax.
Now, antennae up, we listened to him gasp two short breaths. We paused as one, as if frozen in the horrible solitude of death. Or did we? B wheezed, those shallow last breaths, and when his body collapsed we sensed not even the faintest knocking on our pectoral walls. We could claim that we felt a ripple of unease. M paused on the ground, turning to L on lead, twenty-some feet above, and asking, “Do you want to wait for a minute?” B’s partners moved his now-prone body to a sleeping pad, took a pulse, and started chest compressions. Y, from a distance, ran to his side. X found a tarp and held up an awning to shade B and the gathering group around him. Z, young, smaller than the rest, circled, unsure what to do. Nevertheless, we did this.
We. Did. This. Fingers to wrist. Palm heels to chest. Metronome-fast, we pumped a monotonous, thirty-beat song. The best song of our lives. The one we’d belt out from summits, yodeling at the lifesaving pace if we could somehow preserve him for the EMTs we’d called. Instead of singing to the beat, we put lips to lips and breathed for him.
L flagged down a passing ATV crew. Is anyone a nurse? Any EMTs? None with training more recent than ours. They, and the world around our rocky perch, paused with us, lamenting B’s lack of breath. We could hear it whoosh, our shared air; it told us we were doing our job. Pulse? I don’t think so. No, nothing. His blood retreated. His lips and cheeks wax. Eyes absent. Past exasperation, past despair. Forty-five minutes. We stayed to our rhythm. Twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five – breathing person in position now – twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight, twenty-nine, thirty – pause. The breaths. One-one thousand, two-one thousand. Faster: One, two, three –
Come on, Bruce. You got this.
Hollow-voiced, we stopped at an unsatisfying place called lack of expertise, which arrived in the form of a local EMT. She walked up the trail bearing machinery we lacked. Her partner tossed us a protective mask. She latched B to an EKG. For a split-second, we kept going.
“Nothing,” she said. “No,” to our demands that she shock him back to life. “No. You’ve been doing CPR for forty-five minutes and there’s no pulse? No.” Expecting her to take over, we stood, bristling (denied our heroics) then disintegrated, the us that we’d been. Exhausted. One by one, we separated. L accepted the EMT’s decision. K, along with T and his friends fought with the woman, angry, cajoling her to use paddles. R fiddled with shoes and other discarded items around the body. X and Y walked away. Z, nine years old, faltered, unreadable.
“I think I might have nightmares,” he confided.
“Yes,” we said. After a string of platitudes, like he went doing what he loved, we whispered in the soft conch of his ear, “We will too.”
* * *
T took his guidebook before the police came. He would use it for good.
M took her pride and the power that comes from knowing what to do.
Q and R took the day in silence, Q with his Bible in pack and R with his own counsel.
X, Y, and Z took themselves out of the scene and returned to finish their climb.
L took stock of herself and cried.
K took nothing.
B gave himself to the earth. For receipt, a coin under the tongue; his limit the toll paid: Five. Ten. Minus.
Photo by Laurent Baig