Hissing, strained breath through teeth in my ear. Roaring water. Dark wet rock slips in and out of view in the thick cone of light emanating from my headlamp. The bright red vinyl under us is slick with water as we grit our teeth and pull harder. We are barely moving as we paddle against the current towards the rocks that threaten to slip away. Inch by inch we claw our way up the eddy towards them. I can hear my teammates yelling and cheering us on from shore as sweat drips through our vision. I steal a glance at Collin paddling across from me. His jaw is set in determination as we breath, sweat, heave in unison. The raft surges forward with each stroke as we creep closer to the rocks
-For my grandfather
The river is a healing place. I swirl gently, revolving slowly around the eddy of calm water in which I float. The water: it is dark green, and much too deep to see the bottom. Abrasive walls form the sides of what feels like an expansive well. Directly above and below my eddy rapids are churning relentlessly, endlessly. The water here is in limbo.
They call it the Highway Effect, that trick of spatial perception that grants your ego a louder voice than your survival instinct when observing a rapid from above. Or from the road, or the top of the canyon wall, in our case. We mill around in multicoloured splash jackets, helmets, and PFD's peering through the shrubbery growing in tufts along the edge of the canyon. There is it, thundering along below us with humble and unashamed indifference. Sabertooth. Brows knitted, some trace a mental line through the rapid. Others stand around in small cliques, eyes wide, asking if this is a joke with hushed incredulity. The instructors and assistants stand around trying to maintain a stoic and serious demeanor while observing us. But I can see the mischief in a stolen glance, the corner of a lip curling into a smile that is quickly shunted back into stony obedience. It's the same spark of mischief that used to flare up behind my eyes when I would suggest that amputation was the only solution to a farcically minor injury when kids would come to me for attention more than first aid when I worked as a lifeguard.
Whumph, clack. The dull thudding rhythm churns along. Whumph, clack. Like a pulse in the storm. Whumph, clack. I lift a ski and bring it forward in the deep powder. Whumph, clack. The graupel slashes at the hood of my jacket, digging its cold fingers into my hair, and into my ears. It crackles against the fabric of my jacket and begs for attention. It stings my face lightly where neither my goggles, hood, not beard cover my skin. I see flashes of dark in the light. Submerged in a sea of white I see flashes of tracks in the snow from other skiers, from rifts in the ice. But they're not real. I keep moving my feet along with unfaltering cadence, and blink rapidly to clear my eyes. To see what? Perhaps it is quiet here, in my mind. The wind hurls snow along the surface into vortexes. But still, it is quiet. My skis whumph and clack along mechanically and with only my passing supervision. Why is it quiet? Why does methodical physical exertion bring such meditative mental peace? And why does a snowstorm swirling around me lend such acute clarity to my senses?
It's dark as I stick my head outside, wishing I didn't have to leave my warm down cocoon just yet. My breath condenses in the air around me, illuminated by my headlamp. It's a little before five, although hardened alpinists would scoff at this "alpine start" for how late it is. I stretch my neck and look up at the stars, patches of them visible through low hanging clouds. Around me people are beginning to stir, moaning softly in protest to the hour as base camp awakens. Summit day.
White. And wind. I squint my eyes against the large wet snowflakes that slam into them, and try to make out the far edge of the lake. It's not possible with this kind of visibility. I un-shoulder my pack and pull out my down jacket, trying not to let the damp snow pile up inside my bag. I slip the down on under my rain jacket and pull out my compass, brushing the snow off the dial as I take the reading. The pass should be on the far side of this small alpine lake, according to my route plan and map. At least I really, really hope that it is.
The ground is a long way down. It's not all that hot out here, but I can feel my hand slipping off the hold as I sweat, mostly from panic. The route is called Mea Culpa, and it's a 30 meter-ish pitch that zigzags up a spire of fractured rock deep in the heart of the Skaha bluffs climbing area. My waist is bent over the overhang I'm trying to conquer, one hand clinging to the underside, one hand over top. To finish the move I must reach up with my lower hand, stick it in a crack, and execute a hand jam: something I've only ever heard about but never done. I'm still sweating, and still panicking slightly. I cast a quick glance down at the ground, some 20 meters below me. My belayer gives me a yell of encouragement. I'm starting to get the shakes, feeling my muscles involuntarily tremble as my grip weakens. I pull my head into a crack in the rock, close my eyes and take a deep breath... and another as I pull myself together. I take my lower hand off the rock, and snake it back into my chalk bag on my harness. I feel my sweaty hand suck up the powdery chalk and turn it into a tacky layer covering my skin. I reach upwards and stick my hand deep into the crack in the rock, pushing up with my knuckles and down with my fingertips and the heel of my hand. I take a couple quick breaths and wing away from the safety of the rock, pulling myself up as I go, and letting out an involuntary yell as I reach for the next hold.
"Don't go near him, he's dangerous!" They're waving me away from him as I walk into the clearing, past where he is chained up to the tree. I look at them incredulously, he doesn't look dangerous, he just looks tired. And sad.
"Hey boss, BOSS!" I feel a small hand grab my wrist, unpleasant fingernails digging into my skin. The petulant claw-like grip belongs to a short greasy looking kid who is probably only a couple years younger than me, but looks about 14. "Watchew want, eh BOSS?" he looks up at me with a slight glint in his dark eyes, a predatorial smile stretched across his wide toad-like features.
I can't seem to breathe, or at least I can't seem to catch my breath no matter how much air my lungs suck in. My bowels are aching and my legs are on fire, and we trudge upwards. My head is throbbing in time with my pulse which rages in my eardrums like a sadistic marching chant. Breathe in, breathe out. Forcefully. Rhythmically. Consciously. Dust swirls around our boots and sticks to the inside of my nose and makes my mouth dry and chalky. Volcanic dust; it is black and dark grey and sandy but it is not sand.