2001 Anne Horton Writing Award
I'm sliding at an incredible rate. My mind is reeling. I have no time to think and can not stop myself from what seems a certain death. The only clear thought in my mind is, Oh God, I'm going to die.
Earlier, as the three of us walk through the overgrown weeds we can feel the bright sun on our skin. There is a slight breeze in the air, like warm silk caressing our faces. It is late summer and we are all dressed in shirts with the sleeves cut off, shorts, and nylon running shoes with the gum soles. I'm carrying a large backpack that contains hotdogs, buns, matches, a portable tape recorder, some rock music tapes, and a small amount of wood. We all have our own canteens, which are fastened at our waists and filled with water. The sun is already making us sweat, like a cold glass of ice tea on a hot day.
I lead Scott and Dave to the face of the rock. As we stand there the limestone cliff seems very familiar to us. We have been here many times before, climbing the easier routes and walking the path at the top of this cliff. But today we are on a mission. Today we will climb straight across the face of the cliff to the other end. This would be no easy task. Especially considering the cliff is about two hundred feet across and as high as the huge old oak trees growing next to it.
Before us is a large crack in the cliff that runs for about two thirds of the way straight up starting at the ground level. The crack is about two inches wide and runs deep into the rock at an angle. As we walk along the broken rubble of rock piled at the base of the massive cliff, we examine the face of this wonder of nature looking for a good path across to the other end. The three of us decide that the best path would be to climb about halfway up using the crack on the right side of the cliff. Then we can make use of a two or three inch ledge that had formed due to a band of a harder kind of rock running the length of the cliff. Finally, we could climb up to the top by way of another crack at the other end. It was similar to the first one but did not run down to the ground. We also notice an indentation in the cliff (like a shallow cave) with a flat ledge at the bottom large enough for all of us sit on. I think this will be a good place to rest and have our lunch. The others like the idea, since the cave is halfway across the cliff.
Scott had never made his way up a crack like this before and is standing on eggshells, waiting to learn how. So I start climbing up the crack, showing him the proper technique.
Climbing a crack is one of the hardest climbs you'll ever make. First, I brush the dust out of the crack about face high. This is to insure a good hold. Then I place both hands into the crack and lean back. Next, I anchor one foot on the rock about waist high and push with that leg. After that, I lift up my other foot and place it on the wall. Now I work my feet apart until they are wider than my shoulders. Carefully, I raise one hand up above my head and brush dust out of the crack. That same hand grips the crack at that point and then the other hand moves up to join it. Finally, my feet are walked up into the waist-high position.
As I make my way up the crack, every muscle in my legs and arms screams at me like an infant with a wet diaper. Sweat is now coursing down my face and getting in my eyes. My sight is blurred as if I am in a dream. I begin to breathe very heavy and have to start deep-breathing patterns in order to take in the oxygen my taxed body needs for this task.
After reaching the ledge, 1 find that it is about as wide as my foot is long. With great pleasure and relief, I step onto the ledge. At this point, my whole body is trembling with exhaustion and I am glad to wait for the others to join me.
Scott doesn't find this method to be something he can pick up instantly and Dave has to boost him up, at first, until he gets the hang of it. As he nears the top, I can see a wild look in his eyes like that of a rabbit being chased by a fox. His shirt is dripping sweat like a leaky rainspout. Dave has better success but he too is hot and exhausted from the climb. After catching our breath and taking a few swigs of cool water, we continue on.
Following the ledge proves to be a much easier task than the former one. But after about fifty feet the ledge narrows to about three inches. This makes the process a bit harder. Now we have to flatten our bodies against the stone wall before us with only our toes gripping the narrow, dusty ledge beneath us. We keep our arms spread out wide, gripping every gritty crevice available with our fingers as if we are human spiders. Our sweat-drenched faces rub against the chalky limestone, forming muddy streaks which make us look like dirty chimney sweeps. As we make our way across the cliff, we discover parts of the ledge that have given way to time and weather. We all begin doubting the intelligence of our decision to make this climb. If only we had all of the
fancy equipment the professionals use (this would be a lot more fun and safe). But we hang in there and make it to the small cave!
Even getting to the cave is a small challenge. From the ledge we have to climb up about ten feet to reach it. But once we are there, we are elated at what we have just done and even excited about finishing the climb. I open up my backpack and take out the firewood and matches. Dave wants to build the fire so I hand that job over to him while I get out the hotdogs. Scott digs into the backpack and pulls out the tape recorder and tapes. Soon, we have the whole cliff alive with music and the wonderful smell of burning hickory wood in the air. One small problem though, we forgot to bring sticks to cook the hotdogs on! I lay on my back, looking up the face of the cliff, and notice a small tree growing above us. Climbing up with my pocketknife between my teeth, I cut the small tree and drop it down to Scott. After climbing back down, I strip off the bark and small branches and line up all three hotdogs on the stick like trophies for a job well done.
We don't want to leave that small cave. It is like the tree house we never had. It is all ours and nobody can come to take it from us. From that spot we can see a view of the Rock River over the smaller trees. Above us we can hear the sounds of people in Sinnissippi Park. But they will never know we are here. We are tired but very happy. Unfortunately, we know we can't stay here forever and, eventually, we continue on.
Back on the ledge, our progress is basically the same as before until we come to a spot where an outcrop of rock sticks straight out from the cliff like a finger pointing the way to the river. Beneath this outcrop the ledge had crumbled and fallen away. The only way we can pass this spot is to climb up to the level of the outcrop, work our way around it, and climb back down to the ledge on the other side.
After the three of us pass that obstacle, we continue on the ledge to the other crack. This crack is smaller, only one-third the size of the first one, but we all look at it with the enthusiasm of a trip to the dentist. We all make that climb with our muscles aflame with pain and the flesh of our arms twitching with the strain of exhaustion.
Upon reaching the top, we congratulate ourselves, vowing never to make that climb again. We start walking down the path at the top (which is worn from years of use). Our legs feel like butter left out on the kitchen counter too long. I stop and turn to say something to the guys. When I do, my foot catches the loose gravel at the side of the path and I go over the edge.
I can hear Dave shout "Jerry!" but I am already out of sight. I find myself sliding fast (at about a sixty-degree angle) and can't stop myself. My mind is exploding with the urgency of an emergency room doctor. Everything around me is a blur and I can't find a handhold. Out of natural reaction, I look toward my feet and see a small, stunted tree
(about six inches high but an inch thick) rushing up toward me. Desperately, I reach down and grab it. As I slide past the small tree I let my arm extend up over my head. By the grace of God, it stops me! I hang there with my arm above me. My chest is laying on the last part of the incline, and the rest of my body is dangling out in the open air. I can feel my eyes dilating from fear. Because my arms are already tired from climbing, I can't pull myself up. All around me is nothing but loose gravel. I can hear my friends yelling my name, but fear had closed my throat tight as a native drum. I carefully peer over the edge and see another ledge (about four inches wide) three feet below me. I only have one choice. I have to drop to that ledge. Saying a silent prayer, I flatten myself out and let go of my only security, the small tree. As I helplessly slide down, I push my toes inward against the cliff and, incredibly, they catch the ledge. For just a slight second, my body feels as though it will teeter outward, pulling my upper body away from the cliff. But I quickly recover and cling to the wall like a newborn to its mother. Adrenaline is now rushing through my body like an electric current. My head is swimming with emotion. I make my way to a spot that I can climb up and work my way back to the top.
As I run down the trail, I can hear the frantic voices of my friends. When I emerge from the trail into their line of sight (I am bleeding everywhere), they simultaneously yell out "Jerry!" Rushing forward, they greet me with excitement and say that they thought I was dead. I look at the both of them and say, "I thought so too. Let's get out of here."