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Never a Coward

A dark, powerful piece of climbing fiction: An unnamed climber and Vietnam vet confronts his demons.

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Ain’t no sense dabbling with these jugs any more. The janitor tossed the bag of artificial holds into an army surplus storage locker and forced his grey, weather-beaten face into a closed-lip smile. He stared at the dark, irregularly-shaped blotch on his forearm.

Fucking metastatic skin cancer. He put his hand reassuringly on the Glock 9mm pistol in his pocket. Again.

A few scraggly-haired young men were battling gravity on the gym’s climbing wall. The janitor tugged at his silver ponytail, remembering he was once like them, with straining biceps and cut-off shorts that showed off his muscular thighs. It was funny to think that in the ’60s, his testosterone-fueled exuberance was legendary, like a vortex clamoring for attention from climber groupies grazing at Yosemite’s Camp 4.

Men of his generation didn’t play at being brave in the luxury of a climbing gym. They gathered under the granite domes of Tuolumne Meadows, planning multi-pitch ascents on vertical walls. In the evenings between cigarettes and beer, they cuddled with their girlfriends, wearing Tie-Dyed shirts and sharing beta from their climbs. When they weren’t listening to California bands like Steppenwolf, The Doors, or Credence on the radio, they heard news about other men their age fighting in Vietnam, more than seven thousand miles away.

In April ’68, around the time Royal Robbins soloed the Muir Wall, Khe Sanh was the deadliest battle of the war. Walter Cronkite, also known as the most famous name on television, spoke up against the fighting. People took to the streets while students protested on college campuses. Those who weren’t chasing degrees got married to avoid the draft, and many fled to Canada. The janitor, whose father fought in World War II, decided to join the Marines.

He actually looked forward to the unavoidable reality of combat.

Thinking there was no better way to prepare for battle than to rock climb, he dropped out of college and spent a year cheating death on his own terms. He was joined by a draft-dodging friend who had also spent time in the valley. They dreamed of following in the footsteps of climbing greats like Norman Clyde, Eichorn, and Harding. Packing a rack of carabiners, pitons, a hammer, and a rope, they sent routes at Stoney Point, then drove to Tahquitz and the mountains around Idyllwild. He grew tired of his friend’s trepidations. So, inspired by the way Tom Bauman rope-soloed the 3,000-foot route called the Nose on El Capitan, he chose to climb alone.

[Read Other Stories From the John Long Writing Symposium Here!]

He loved the way his forearms burned when he risked a prolonged pinch on a sandstone knob. On granite, he pulled precariously on two-finger pockets, letting his legs hang free before a stretch to the crux. Sometimes, his superhuman efforts made him groan like a prehistoric man before the invention of language. Other times, he celebrated success with chest-pounding roars and pumping fists, his muscles flared with exaggerated sexuality that seemed anything but ephemeral.

His Samson-like long hair and flowing adrenaline made him believe he was ready for war, but he confused recklessness with bravery. Whatever attitude he had would be lost in the claustrophobic jungles of the remote A Shau Valley, just thirty miles south of Khe Sanh.

The ambush occurred near a military encampment called Fire Support Base Ripcord. The sudden cacophony of deadly machine gun fire made even the toughest men wet their pants. The wounded scattered wildly with soul-piercing screams that cut through the hellish, lurid smoke. Explosions from a thunderous rain of enemy artillery shells were enough to blow out a man’s eardrums. The impact of a 7.62mm bullet from an AK-47 spun him around dizzily. A mortar blast knocked him off his feet. The soldier he’d been speaking with lay dying in the ditch next to him, his mouth open as if he were shouting.

Blood was everywhere.

One of his buddies, eviscerated and writhing like a disemboweled fish, landed with a thud on top of his chest and shoulders. After he clawed himself out from underneath his friend’s body, a switch flipped from arrogance to fear in the 20-year-old’s mind.

I can’t die like this. I’ve got to get out of here. 

Clouds of shrapnel smothered the air above his head. He retched violently, then dropped his gun in the dirt and crawled away, thrashing through the vines and deep jungle grass. He ignored his comrades-in-arms who were hopelessly setting up a defensive position using bodies, branches, and anything else to protect themselves from the onslaught. A medic found him hours after the firefight; a lone survivor burrowed deep under the torched wet earth; buried among the dead; whimpering and wounded, rolled up like a baby and howling aimlessly inside his bloodied field jacket.

The janitor wiped the sweat from the treadmills. And I thought that would be the worst of it.

He bitterly recalled the challenges of rehab and his prolonged stays in a VA Hospital. It didn’t matter that he had PTSD or was seriously wounded, or that he was spit on and called a child-killer when he got back from Vietnam. What mattered was that he survived while others hadn’t. Haunted by the specter of cowardice, he spent the rest of his life on the harshest of mountains, because no matter how reckless he could be, climbing would never feel anything like war.

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He looked at the young men on the gym’s climbing wall, wincing at the way they one-upped each other. It reminded him of the time he roped up with a stranger on the Regular Route of Yosemite’s Higher Cathedral Spire. He was weak from chronic pain, but acting strong, he took the lead. He never heard his partner’s warning about fractured rock and peeled off an easy hold during the 5.9 traverse on the second pitch. By the time the guy caught his fall, he had slammed into the rock, breaking four ribs and puncturing his left lung.

Despite the blow to his reputation, climbing gave him reasons to go on living. He also learned that both life and death were inevitably unpredictable. Maybe that’s why he didn’t like watching kids goof off on the wall, especially when they topped out fifty feet from the ground and leaned back without warning, trusting whoever was tied to the other end of their rope to hold the fall.

His fiancé rappelled off the end of hers on some worthless peak near Chamonix. He never heard her scream.

I can’t believe I let that happen.  

He slouched in a corner and buried his face in his hands. Tears welled up in his eyes. He never trusted himself with anyone after that. Traveling the world to climb more or less alone, he soloed Uganda’s Mountains of the Moon and labored through icy winters on Ben Nevis. He built a name for himself writing magazine articles, but he didn’t share his personal stories, and he never talked about his fear.

He looked around the gym to be certain no one saw him cry. Nodding graciously to the reverent head-tilt of a young stud he once coached, he emptied the trashcans, scraping his forearm, then shuffled toward the bathroom. Not everyone can be a hero, he wanted to warn the young man, thinking the fellow was old enough to abandon any delusions of immortality.

He locked the door.

I’ve been volunteering here for years, so why in hell can’t I stand people watching me clean crap from a toilet bowl.

He pulled the Glock G19 from his trousers and put the barrel against his carotid artery. He pointed the gun toward the top of his head and looked in the mirror. The blotch on his forearm was bleeding.

For some reason, he remembered crashing headfirst into a granite slab on Cerro Torre a decade ago, in the Southern ice fields of Patagonia. Although he wore a helmet, the fall broke his jaw and split his head open enough to need twenty stitches. He never heard the shower of snow that pelted him off the wall a dozen feet above his last cam.

His partner was the 20-year-old son of his friend from his climbing days in Yosemite. The boy must have wanted to protect himself from the barrage of ice suddenly pummeling him from above. He surely hugged the wall in desperation as he kept the rope from rushing through his ATC, and maybe he heard the hollow sounds of cams popping one after the other. When the rescue team arrived, the youth was dead, crushed by a block of ice. His brake hand was locked on the rope, and his steadfast belay saved the man’s life.

The loaded magazine was in the janitor’s shirt pocket. He pulled the gun away from his jaw.

Not today, he thought. Not today.

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