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What You Wish For – A Cautionary Climbing Tale

This piece of climbing fiction originally appeared in serial format on this blog. I have compiled the five posts that originally comprised it here, for your reading pleasure.  –The Blockhead Lord

 *   *   * 

The day started like all the others, with me getting out of bed and going to do my exercises in the living room before heading off to work at the local climbing gym. I dropped down to do my push-ups: four sets of twenty-five.

One, two, three… I puffed a breath with each rep, careful not to lock my elbows, careful to touch my chest to the ground. After fifteen, I usually start to feel the burn, but this day I didn’t. At twenty I was still as fresh as a daisy chain, so I kept on going — twenty-five, thirty-five, one-hundred and five. Somewhere in the four-hundreds I lost count and stopped. WTF, I thought.

I popped to my feet, my mind-gears churning for an explanation. I felt my triceps muscles, which were no more rock-hard and well-defined than usual. I checked my pulse (slow, if anything), and then pinched myself forcefully to check that I was, in fact, awake. Everything seemed to be in order, except for the fact that I was able to do push-ups ad infinitum. A strange development, to be sure.

Curious, I walked over to my hangboard, mounted between the living room and kitchen, and grabbed the small edges that I’d found so difficult to use just a few nights ago. My standing record for a dead hang from these flat, eighth-inch edges was six seconds. This time, the edges might as well have been a pull-up bar. I dangled from them with ease. Then I let slip one finger from each hand, starting at the pinky and moving on to the ring and index fingers, until I gripped the meager sliver of textured plastic with nothing but my two middle fingers. Then I let my right hand drop.

Let me just say that suspending one’s entire mass from a single fingertip, if you have never considered such a feat, is not normal. The average American adult male would struggle to support his bulk from a monkey bar with both hands and two dozen large helium balloons tied around his waist. Even a typical athlete has a hard time holding on to the generous grips of an artificial climbing surface. A high-level climber might be able to hang from a good “mono” pocket for a few seconds. But lightly floating from the very tip of one of my fingers was something else altogether. It was clear that I now had, let us say, special abilities.

If this strength transfers to the rock, I theorized, I might well be the best climber alive. It was a thrilling idea.

I could not immediately think of any reason I should feel so much stronger today than I did yesterday, but while plundering my pantry (my extreme strength was apparently accompanied by an extreme hunger), I came across the bottle of pills I’d ordered on the Internet and which promised “maximum strong grow Full Power.”

Power Pellets, they were called, and I’d ordered  them a few months ago on a whim. “Special herb of Chinese science direct chi to generate extra force,” the label read. “Monkey back promise.” How could I have forgotten? I’d posted some of the text to engrish.com the day I received the package in the mail.

I remembered clearly now perusing the Power Pellet website, which I’d found through a link on a European web forum. There were low-resolution images of muscular guys performing one-arm pull-ups, flag poses where they stuck out horizontally from the wall, and other party tricks. The site used large, red text on a blue background. The extreme color contrast, I recall, induced a semi-hypnotic state. What do I have to lose? I asked myself  in a monotone while clicking the “Buy Now” button and dutifully plugging in my credit card information. You want maximum strong grow Full Power, don’t you…?

I started taking Power Pellets a few days after they arrived, but had felt nothing and really thought little of them. They were just another pill in my morning regimen, which included glucosamine chondroitin; Advil; Creatine; a multivitamin pack; and St. John’s wort (because I’d been feeling a little bummed about my inability to break through the 5.14 plateau).

Now, standing at my pantry door, reading the bottle’s label, I noticed some text printed along the bottom: “Provide 7 days till total affect.” I did the math. It had been seven days since I popped my first Power Pellet.

I decided to call in sick for work. It was time to put my strength gains to the test.

 *   *   * 

Power Pellets, eh? I should write a review of these things for my blog, I thought to myself while dialing my friend Cal.

“Jeff, talk to me,” he said.

“Cal, dude. Bouldering today? The proj?” I played it cool.

“Word,” Jeff said.

“I will see you there in one hour,” I said.

“Word,” he said.

“Word,” I said.

“Word,” he said.

Click.

I sat on the couch, unconsciously mashing my rubber donut grip trainer into a putty-like pulp with my left hand and vibrating with pent-up energy. Cal and I had been working Icarus for two seasons. I’d tried the thing maybe fifty times, but never could quite link it. Cal was closer to completing its steep, powerful sequence, and I was now consumed with a perverse desire to take a proverbial piss on the problem while he watched, before telling him about the pills and their effect.

Cal looked like he’d just rolled out of bed when he arrived, which was probably the case. Conditions at the Turds were a little schmarmy, but we’d climbed in worse. We greeted with a fist bump and a nod and proceeded to warm up on some moderate problems around the corner. It required a genuine effort not to do one-arm pull-ups off of every hold I grabbed.

Finally, we stood before the Icarus. Like a good sport, I let Cal go first.

He hunkered down into the dirt at the base of the steep prow of schist, gripping the double undercling start and straining to get his ass off the ground. He succeeded and slapped to a credit-card edge, then hiked his foot up high onto a polished nipple, readjusted his hips, and threw for a bad pinch that marked the start of the crux. He hit the pinch and fell hard, sending a plume of chalk dust into the air.

“Sheeeeit!” he shouted. “That actually felt pretty good. This could go down, mang! I’m psyched!”

I put on a calm air as I pulled on my shoes and rustled my hands around in my chalk bag, knowing that this problem would present little challenge, given my newfound abilities. I scooched into the sit-start position, caressed the holds, and levitated through the opening moves. As I got to the pinch that Cal had fallen from, I started to feel the urge to bear down. The old me would have required serious effort to pull the move, so I turned on the juice to crank up and around the side of the arête. It was a grave tactical error.

All at once, the pinch, a dense block of schist five inches thick, shattered under the extreme compression of my thumb and fingers. I hurtled ass-first onto the pad, dust and rock fragments cascading onto my head. Where the hold had been, now nothing but jagged, useless rock remained.

“Holy shit!” Cal shouted. Running up to the rock before even looking to see if I was OK. “What the Christ just happened?”

“I, uh… it must have been hollow,” I stammered.

“Dude, it’s solid! Or at least it was solid…” he said, tapping on the arête with his knuckles and then staring down at me. Then he said, “Do you think we can glue it back together?”

I held up a gravely pile of tiny fragments.

“Dude, what?!” He said and pawed at the pieces. Then he sat down on the pad next to me and asked if I was OK. I nodded, but inside I was rattled. What just the hell just happened?

“Well,” Cal said finally, “maybe it still goes. Gotta find a new sequence.”

I didn’t know how to explain what had happened to me, so I decided to call it a day. Cal looked concerned as I packed up my stuff, but he stayed behind to climb. I drove home, gingerly grasping the steering wheel, a little nervous I might rip it from the column if any sudden maneuvers were required.

 *   *   * 

I stopped taking Power Pellets the day I literally crushed my project. I reckoned such a dramatic strength increase would come with adverse side effects. (There’s no such thing as a free chicken dinner, as my dad used to say.) On the hunt for more information, I visited the Power Pellets website. The browser ticked away, trying to load the page, but eventually returned a disheartening message: “Error 404. Page not found.” Next, I Googled the terms “Power Pellets,” “climbing,” and “pills” in various combinations, but got only Pac-Man images, a link to a declassified CIA file on ninjas, and a bunch of hits for black market Viagra knock-offs.

Dread like an oily fluid began to work its way through the creases of my brain. But, as I had not yet experienced any particular pain or discomfort, the dread did not bubble over into panic. I decided simply to steer clear of the pills and wait until everything returned to normal. How long could it be? A few days, at most …

The next, morning, I awoke to the same dread, diluted, lingering, sourceless, as if it had been mixed with my cerebrospinal fluid into a venomous concoction that tinted my perception a few shades darker. I decided to get outside and climb some sport routes with my buddy Eric, who always put me at ease. I knew those routes that once rebuffed my most eager advances would no longer challenge me, but still, what the hell else was I going to do? Alas, in my efforts to simply enjoy the fresh air and good company, I peeled several holds off the wall like strips of dead bark from a tree trunk, and even managed to mangle one of the biners on a fixed draw when I went to clip the rope too suddenly.

Entirely uninterested in the “challenges” of technical climbing, I tagged along with some friends on an alpine trip that was mostly steep postholing and some easy fifth class stuff. But here I took no exceptional pleasure, either. I was forced to move at a glacial pace so as not to leave my compatriots behind. The bracing cold made little impression on me, as if my skin had received a layer of windproof insulation, courtesy of the Power Pellets’ strange sorcery.

Standing on the snowy summit, I had to play act: Hands on knees and breathe hard, I reminded myself. Yes, now straighten up, pump your fist in the air, and shout “Woo hoo! We made it! Look at that rad view!” But even the panoramic vista seemed flat, a projection on a distant movie screen. My enthusiasm did not come easily. Essentially, I had just taken a very slow, damp hike.

One section of the descent required a hundred-foot rap off a tangle of sun-bleached slings wrapped around a block. Fearlessly, I clipped in and hurled my rope into the void. As I approached the bottom of the rappel, I heard one of my teammates scream, “Rock! Rock!” just as a toaster-sized block hurtled down at me. A direct hit. The impact split my helmet and probably should have split my head, too, but I was unscathed by the impact.

“Whoa, you got lucky!” my friend exclaimed when she got down to the bottom of rappel and saw me fitting the two halves of my helmet back together.

“Yeah, lucky,” I said.

It wasn’t too long before the owner of the climbing gym where I worked informed me that my routes were starting to suck. And he was right. I was like a chef with no sense of taste. I was screwing holds on to the wall with little more than a guess at how good or bad they might seem to a mortal. To me, they were all jugs. Plus, he was pissed because I chronically over-tightened the holds, breaking them or fusing them to the wall so badly that chisels and hammers had to be employed. Climbing had become meaningless to me, and I found it hard to identify with the patrons.

“Doooood, did you see the huge dump Ondra just took on the Red?! 5.14d flashes, downgrades … that is some next level shit,” one excited guy excitedly exclaimed. But I could no longer feign interest. I’d fly to Kentucky to onsight everything there, but I knew it would be easy and, therefore, completely uninteresting. “Sure man,” I replied. “Whatever.”

Eventually, I was fired.

After dedicating my life to climbing for over a decade, I found that the one thing I’d always wanted had become my undoing. Limitless strength and invulnerability robbed climbing of all value. In turn, my life felt pointless, too.

Maybe it was a side effect of the Power Pellets, but I started to feel a little fatalistic. I wanted to see a doctor, but I was sure I’d just end up in a government lab getting probed. I hadn’t taken a pill in months, but my powers remained. I walked through the world with muted senses. I handled everything as if was made of glass, afraid to break objects and people alike. I holed up in my house as much as possible and read, waiting for the pills to wear off.

Finally, I decided to test my limits and maybe, if I was lucky, take care of my — what could I call it? My unwelcome gift? My affliction? My curse? — for good.

 *   *   * 

I pulled my sputtering 1989 Subaru into the Monkey Dome parking lot with nothing but rock shoes, a nearly empty bottle of Wild Turkey, and a chalk bag for my outing. I had long been in awe of the super-climbers who freed the perfect finger crack that splits the dome’s thousand-foot, gently overhanging face from base to summit like a bolt of lightning — it was out of my old league by a few clicks, but now? I couldn’t imagine it would be more than a Sunday stroll.

I shoed up, swished a cheekful of bourbon around like mouthwash and swallowed, and set off. Folded neatly on my dash was letter of resignation, so to speak, just in case it turned out I wasn’t indestructible after all.

A hundred feet up and I felt rock solid in the jams, as if my hands had sprouted Velcro hooks and the crack was all eyes. I gazed dispassionately down on the void that widened beneath my feet and cranked on, hoping to get up high enough for a full-value fall — the time for half-measures was over.

Three-fourths of the way up, I felt something odd. (The fact that I felt anything was odd, really.) Another couple of moves, and I recognized the sensation as a twang of fear. Nothing pressing, but enough that I torqued on my knuckles harder than I’d been. Then, I swear, I felt the granite give a little, as if the pressure I was generating compressed it even further than the eons of heat and geologic pressure already had. Or another possibility: my tiny, pale sliver of flesh and bones had somehow shifted the two halves of that enormous juggernaut of stone, spreading them by a few nanometers. Both ideas were so absurd, and yet I could not discount them out of hand.

As I neared the top of the climb, the crack widened. I slotted my unscathed, untaped hands deeper into its confines. The mild sense of fear lingered in my gut like the remnants of a stomach flu, and then, ever so faintly, a burning sensation ran like a shiver up and down my forearms. As I plugged away, the spark a of sensation grew, and I realized it was something I hadn’t felt since before the pills. The ache of fatigue expanded in my muscle fibers. Unsure what to make of this development, I climbed on.

Fifty feet before the summit, a pump ignited in my arms. My clothes began to crackle in the high wind. (Had it been blowing this whole time? I hadn’t noticed.) Suddenly my skin, too, was burning, as if the friction of all those thousand feet was all at once taking its toll. As I withdrew my slotted hand, a stark red smear was visible across my knuckles. Chinks were forming in my unholy armor.

My toes, peering out through holes in my blasted shoes, came to life and joined in the conflagration as I smashed and twisted them into the crack. My strength and imperviousness, for months a prophylactic against the joy and pain of climbing, was melting away and leaving me exposed in this wild spot, suspended from a vanishing fissure midway between Earth and the heavens, sickle-winged terns slicing the air beneath me.

This overwhelming rush of sensation… I felt naked and alone on the moon, a vibrating mass of muscle, blood, and nerves. My elation at regaining my sense of feeling, both physically and psychologically, was whelmed over by numbing waves of terror.

Nearly a thousand feet off the deck and shocked at my sudden transformation, I struggled to accept the choice that lay before me: finish the climb or die.

 *   *   * 

Raw and battered, I called on my deepest will to live. I crammed my hands into the crack, now painfully rough and terribly slick at the same time. I pulled at the dark crevice as a sailor thrown into the raging sea clings to a lifeline.

As I approached the booming flake that marked the end of the final pitch, my foot pinged off an edge. My left fist, slotted like a chockstone into a constriction, momentarily held my weight. Pumped into a near catatonic state, my face flush, my adrenal glands cranking at full capacity, I twisted back towards the wall and swam up towards the jugs of the flake, finally grasping one that seemed impossibly far away. I groaned and pulled myself into a more solid stance and then stopped to regroup, breathing deep, ragged breaths.

Eyes shut, I sought my center, a way to come back into myself and just climb these last moves. My right leg was bouncing; I looked at it and willed it to stop. It slowly settled, and I knew that could control myself at least that much. This climbing is easy, I comforted myself. You’re almost there. I waited till the thud of my pulse slowed and became more regular and let that be my pacer. Inhale — two, three, four / exhale — two, three, four. I began to climb again.

Every move was difficult. My muscles were like old dishrags wrung of all their stretch and absorbency. Sweat cascaded into my eyes and down my arms onto my hands, making them slippery. I dipped for chalk between every move and plugged away, towards a memory of my old life, so simple and routine, so safe and full of possibility.

As I approached the top of the wall, I felt a new sensation washing coolly over the burn of fatigue and the vertigo of fear — it was the elation of success. Those pills had taken me out into the deep end, so far over my head that my only option was to throw myself at the challenge with abandon or give up and fall. And I had met that challenge. Or so it seemed.

As I rounded a bulge to the final slab atop of Monkey Dome, I felt I had realized the meaning of life — something about not playing it safe. Then I looked up to the slab ahead and fear once again gripped my nerves.

Hidden from below, I now saw another eighty feet of climbing on slightly inclined, featureless stone. The blank ramp was chalkless and holdless and stretched on like the  no man’s land between enemy lines. To my left twenty feet, another jug flake ran the ramp to the top, but there was no way to get to it. To my right, a difficult traverse petered out into uncertainty. There was, clearly, no retreat below. I hung close to the rock, trying not to give in to despair or panic, trying to discern the safest course of action. They all seemed equally bleak.

I pressed my face against the stone, cool in the morning shade, just as the sun whelmed up over the summit and cast delicate shadows onto the granite ripples of the slab above. In that new light, I could almost make out a line of edges leading to the top. I re-centered one last time and pulled up onto the slab, from which there was no turning back.

Moving in slow motion, each step and reach was calculated to present the least risk possible. I moved in belabored inches towards the top, a distant dream. A tiny lizard, low and pale green, with a marking on its back that for all the world appeared to me as a yin-yang, whiptailed down to my hand and paused. It made a few push-up motions and twitched its head three times before skittering, undaunted by the angle of the stone. All I could do was breathe until the slightest light of confidence flickered in my mind  – my cue to  make another move.

Pause, breathe, repeat. The goal loomed nearer, almost within reach…

Then…

a tiny sound from below and my left foot skidded. Some precious pebble in the grand wall had given way under my weight and with it so went my footing.

My left side dropped and I lurched rightward to rebalance over my other foot but it was too late my body had been thrown out of alignment and the tiny ripples of rock my ephemeral bastions of friction offered no margin for such error my right foot exceeded the limit of its purchase and began to skid down the granite plane my fingers raking the world began to accelerate out of control and into something else where acceptance is the onlyoption where one does not fight but simply waits with eyesopened or closed asifthere’s evensuchathing as openedorclosed onesimplywaitstoebecaughtortowakeuportodie…

I waited…time did not pass I passed time…I wait…