Truth is, I won’t know the pain, or the tension, or the fear that grips him. I can’t know the exact discomfort either; my cells don’t shake the way his do. But I do know there is a safety, both in the brokenness and in beauty. I jumped ahead and scurried up that last lead, confident that while he might have felt at his worst, he was in a good place, after all. At the first ledge, thirty feet up, I looked back at him and did my best to summon the morale booster. “That shit I said about leaning into the pain experience when it takes over the beauty. You’re right there now, my friend. Sweetest spot on earth.”
“You sure about that?” he replied.
“I’m sure it doesn’t feel that way right now, but I bet if you have another look when you get up to this ledge in a little bit, give it some time, something will turn over.”
At the top of Cathedral Peak, squatted on the tabernacle block of the summit moments later, I belayed Ghazaly up that last pitch. I couldn’t see him and the wind was on it good, howling, so there was no point trying to holler down at him for a status update. Instead, as often happens on a climb, I got information solely by the rate of the rope I was taking in. I wasn’t sure if it was a drop in his glycemic panel or a case of something worse, but Ghazaly was moving slower than he had all day. And from my end of the device he seemed to be broken, at last.
When he finally came around the headwall, standing under the ultimate 30-foot block, and I got a look at his mug, the fucker had a grimace mean enough to stop a deer in its tracks. And yet, with all suffering included, he took hold of the moment anyway. One, deep, deerga-swasam later, and with hands trembling to seismic levels, he ratcheted up the last 15 feet and achieved the goddamn summit proper. A feat well earned.
“Well done, my friend,” I said with a pat on his shoulder.
“Not done yet,” he began, “but thank you.”
For a man at the summit, for all the context that brought him here, Ghazaly was surprisingly without emotion at first. In addition, he was surprisingly ready to be off the top, no sooner than he’d just arrived.
“You doing okay, man?” I asked. “Took you a while on that last pitch.”
“Yeah,” he started, “I just needed a few moments for something out there. Also, I think I’m just a little sick from this exposure. I’m not good at this part, you know.”
That much I could see. His nerves, apart from being shot on the physiological level, were frayed just from the position. I don’t know if he’s ever taken well to vertical exposure, but my hunch was that in today’s case, standing at the top of this thing was not making him feel any stronger. Hard-pressed for energy to safely exit the premises, the exposure was just that – exposing the fact that he was a frail man most days of the week, with no business taking risks like these just for kicks. I’ve been there, in my own trials, too. Sometimes, in the fragile moments of life, the outside experience can make us react with more fear.
“Look, brother, I know you aren’t too comfortable up here, but it’s still a hell of a view, even if you just keep your eyes on the horizon, eh?”
“Yeah, I think so, too. We can take it in a bit more,” he admitted. “You know what, I need to take it in more. Jesus, look at me! I’m so ready for these things to be over I don’t even look for the lessons in them. And man, it’s beautiful up here.”
Was it a turn of the wind? A protein channel opening up in a cell membrane? A surge of dopamine sent from the microbiome? God with a whisper? I have no idea. But right then and there Ghazaly had his realization. He understood the value of staying, of pausing, and of, at last accepting his brokenness.
His resting tremors were now whole-body palpitations, like sizzles out of a sauté pan, and his face was a moving target, but he kept on, saying, “I always run away from this stuff. Pain. Discomfort. But the truth is this is where I’m supposed to be, especially when I don’t feel like it. It’s what we came up here for.”
With shakiness in his voice that acknowledged a real fear experience, still ongoing, he said, “Thank you for this.”
We sat for a few more minutes until the perspective settled deeper than the pain, until the pride of being alive and the joy of participating in it came back. I even got him to forge a smile for the camera so he could keep that one and show it to the family. He looked haggard in the freeze-frame; but he looked damn good, too. It was one of those things you just need to capture. The day when he stood upright in the face of his disease and did something perfectly badass. Something perfectly audacious.
Ghazaly’s suffering did not end at the summit. In fact, it got worse, as things do, before it got any better. Walking off Cathedral, especially for someone at their breaking point, is not an easy task. Especially in his condition, at exhaustion – with Parkinson’s – forced to take big, off-balance steps down committing slabs, to make sharp turns on awkward boulders, teetering blocks, and slippery scree. Those are all high-performance mechanics that the average among us take completely for granted. With Parkinson’s, and a fear of heights, it’s a nightmare. He sputtered down hundreds of feet of third and fourth-class slab, having a terrorizing experience in place of the whimsical, freeform descent entertained by most of us. By the time he was halfway off the shoulder of the peak, his eyes had outgrown his glasses. Honestly, it felt like the scrambling off took longer than climbing up, maybe it did. But with a few resting stops staving off the moment of full breakdown, he kept at it – and may have been prouder to arrive at his pack than he had been to make it to the summit.
At the base, sometime later, Ghazaly collapsed under a branch of shade by our packs and moaned in an octave of gibberish.
“I don’t know if I can make it back, man,” he said with a shakiness. “I’m kind of scared to move, but also scared that I can’t.”
“Well, we’re in no rush,” I began. “And, we’ve got day old bahn-mi and a liter of water, buddy. Have at it.”
Unwrapped and cracked at the crust, Ghazaly gulped down the day-old baguette more than he ate it. It took him a good half hour maybe more, quietly sitting, thinking, and waiting for the macro-molecules of food and water to sink in, but he came around slowly. When the sun finally crossed over him and the shade slipped away, he got up and reset his glasses.
“I think you’re right,” he started in an apparent epiphany.
“Right?” I said surprisingly, “Right about what?”
“About staying there. About embracing things when they don’t seem to be working out. About being broken.”
“How’s that?” I asked.
“Well, you’re right that being broken is a good thing. That situation depending, we probably shouldn’t flee from it. If we would’ve just rushed off that summit, I would’ve missed a moment of truth, a truth I saw when we stayed on it. One of those realizations, that we’re connected to everything out there.”
“In ways you and I probably can’t even imagine.” I laughed.
“You know, when you are at Hajj, in Mecca, it’s kind of the same thing. There are a million people there with you, everyone wearing the same outfit, people of all nations blending into one – you lose yourself. It’s designed that way. When that happens, when you realize just how small but just how connected you really are to something way more beautiful, it’s indescribable. I think that’s the point of the spiritual game, man. It’s all about the moments that make you drop the self.”
“It always has been,” I confirmed.