The Stiltskin Shuffle
Rincon 5.4, Eldorado Canyon, Co.
This was a whole new concept to me; one armed and mostly one legged rock climbing. I was feeling along the wall of a dark cave here not knowing what to expect of my body.
The little bouldering I had attempted seemed contrived in the extreme - a bizarre series of strenuous one arm pull-ups and hops with my foot up the rock. It bore no resemblance to what climbing a boulder used to entail.
In fact that act of bouldering was so alien to me now that I doubted whether rock climbing was for me anymore.
Limp and leaning heavily on my stick I sweated up to the Wind Tower in Eldorado Canyon, Colorado. The approach to the climb itself was a steep winding path, which terminated in a shuffle along a narrow ledge.
Pausing repeatedly, looking up, I had to take care not to topple backwards, so confusing to my senses was this landscape, which once I would have pranced up with inborn content.
Rincon, although a lowly 5.4, seemed dizzyingly high and imposing and I felt daunted. What was I about to get myself into?
“Hey Cris-Ann, that looks really very steep,” I raised my voice up to her as she drifted over the rock as light as a piece of silk caught in the updraught.
“Yeah, but ya know there’s buckets all over here.”
From where I was sitting the rock face appeared practically smooth so this information was well received. I was supposed to be resuming my climbing career on a forty-five degree slab not an imposing near vertical wall, but - one may say strangely - I was quite calm.
I was expecting my post serious injury mind to be freaking out. You know, “I can’t do this. Your going to die,” that sort of thing.
But being without the emotional sack of fear that one drags up to the start of his/her first climb is of great benefit: I’d been through all that twenty years ago.
Dieckhoff lowered Cris-Ann down and tied me in with a bowline. He asked me to check the knot but I declined.
So, with a rope above me and complete trust in Cris-Ann’s belay building skills my climber’s mind reassured me, “You WILL be safe.”
I was used to fluid graceful movement, like a water trickle that had decided to disobey Isaac Newton (though some of my mates would disagree), not this Stiltskin Shuffle. This scraping and scrapping with the rock was interspersed with long, maybe ten minute, pauses whereby I would be at sea on a ledge no bigger than a cigarette packet that had been jettisoned overboard.
Forearm pumping… My forearm… My forearm looking like a bag full of worms! After seven years I could not believe how good that felt… That burning sensation… The red-hot forearm nonchalantly gripped in a pair of tongs and slammed onto the blacksmith’s anvil… The swollen appendage then agonisingly tempered with blows of the hammer and the arteries achingly extruded.
But the transport experienced belied the fact that my body was about to part company with the rock if it didn’t come up with something very soon.
As my other, spastic arm fought to push me from the rock I was unable to release my fist-like grip from it’s precarious hold, because to do that would be to fall from the face.
The knowledge of complete safety brought no salve to my conscience. I clung to the rock; a worn old jumper that would not - could not be disrobed from it.
For several years I didn’t want anything to do with rock climbing. I thought I had quit the rock; But the bud of begrudging casual interest - to throw away climbing would be to throw away many close friends - slowly transformed into a hungry rose which had to be sated. It had been almost seven years since my accident and I was famished. If this was to be my first climb then I was going to give it my all.
Side stepping the outside edge of my left shoe onto a high foothold I powered up on a single thigh made strong by all the mountain hiking I had done these past four years. Aiding me in this manoeuvre was the finger hold my four left digits were crimped onto, and pulling down on, directly in front of my face.
My one useable arm, having to do the work of two arms in daily life over the years, has also seen an increase in strength, as have my fingers and thumb.
Once the leg was straight, and ever so delicately, I let go of the hold now at my waist. Reaching up in a fan like motion I contemplated how students are taught to observe the ‘three points of contact’ rule at all times; and here I was with my one lonely toe.
My fingers discovered a long, deep sloping ripple, as rough as coarse sandpaper. Blindly massaging the rock in an attempt at finding the comfiest spot the fingers settled down to a night slouching in front of the telly.
My right leg then realised it’s turn for action had come. Whilst stabbing at the rock repeatedly with my toe I was mithered by the, “Eee, eee, eee, eee,” of Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho shower scene score.
Eventually, with elephantine precision, the limb found its ripple and the foot stayed. Leg shaking like a pneumatic hammer I stood up.
I wouldn’t say this system worked well for me, but it was the only way I could use my new body. So with the rock face always to my left and mugging it with violent kicks I found I was actually climbing.
Reading the rock became much more important than it had been in the past. Sure, I was used to studying the rock around me but not a whole four metres above my head. The precise layout of the holds was as important as the shape of each individual layaway, edge, crack. Was it a sloper or incut? a two centimetre hold or three? the sort of decisions a climber normally has to make, but I was finding a need to force these judgements much further in advance.
The bare knuckle fight with the rough sandstone - more the texture of granite - was leaving a trail of skin and blood behind.
I made a mental note, “Must wear a leather gardening glove next time.”
Being a couple of stone heavier than my pre-injury days the single shoulder, having to do all the work, was feeling it (the day after the climb it was in bits).
But I was loving this. Kilimanjaro was profoundly challenging and brought me back into the circle, the fold of humanity that only exists when you are in close proximity with other like-minded people. But rock climbing was what had always given my life meaning; whether it be in a luminous green gritstone quarry or on the sun-drenched granite of El Capitan. It was impossible to shake off twenty years of tactile memory it would seem.
Dieckhoff soloed up an adjacent route and hung by one arm above me pointing to, “A great bucket here,” or, “A killer pocket there.”
And before I knew it, an hour after leaving the sanctuary of the ledge, and sweating in the glare, here I was at the belay.
There were whoops of delight for me from below.
A cool, “Good work,” from Steve Quinlan, and even a delayed, “Right on,” from my eighteen month old daughter!
There was still a lot to learn about my new (and unlike washing powder) unproved body and many novel techniques to be mastered. After all I was moving into uncharted territory.
Now normally I would shed a tear after such an emotional event but there was too much excitement within me.
Rock climbing would have a place in my life again, only to climb slabs sure, where I would always be in balance, but there are plenty of those - Lliwedd on Snowdon and Idwal Slabs in the Ogwen Valley. The Cioch block on the Isle of Skye and the Rannoch Wall on The Buchaille. I would be able to achieve endless routes on the gritstone edges of Derbyshire. And then there are the international climbing grounds such as Yosemite in California and Handeg in Switzerland.
Six years ago when I sold my eight point eights, big wall rack, skis, plastic boots and desert rack of Friends I thought that climbing rock would be forever out of the question… But I must have suspected something as I couldn’t part with one piece of equipment; my first nut, an original MOAC on rope.
I have realised for some time that I am not going to wring much more movement out of my arm or leg. Correct the brain never stops healing but does get less plastic and therefore slower and slower.
Now I am approaching the end of the road as far as getting better goes and must adapt to what I’ve got (something I have been doing for the past few years).
This doesn’t discourage me one bit and all the striving has not been in vain: it has permitted me to have new adventures such as pedal boating, fishing and caving and allowed me to walk again, write again, cycle again, dance again…
…And now climb again.