Read More: A brief interview with Abigail Mitchell
When Adam Harman and I first met, I was the better climber. You probably think I’m full of shit, but it’s true. Sure, Adam had more or less spent his childhood at the climbing gym in Purchase, but I had grown up climbing on real rock, and tough stuff, too.
We didn’t even meet at a climbing gym, or out on the rock. We met in class, Biology literally fucking 101, a ginormous lecture that he and I both attended exactly once. I was heading to a bouldering spot after class and had my climbing shoes clipped to my backpack. He was sitting in the row behind and tapped me on the shoulder.
After that we more or less lived in the Gunks. We blew most of our student loan money on gear. It’s crazy now to think back on those days—before the sponsorships and the car ads and the fiasco with Edge Bar—when it was just us two driving back and forth to the Gunks at every opportunity, spending four hours in the car for just two or three on rock.
I lasted four semesters at SUNY but Adam barely made it through two. After scraping by in math and English and repeating Biology 101 (he failed it the first time), Adam said, and I quote, “Fuck this”, and spent all the money he had on a beat up van and drove it to California.
He made it, barely, and settled into the dirt bag life in Yosemite. He lived in his van, which no longer ran, and worked odd jobs here and there in order to eat. He climbed all day every day. Every few weeks I’d get a post card. “When are you coming out here?” He’d ask. “The climbing is siiiiiiiick.”
Meanwhile I fought my way through another year at school. I passed, more or less, and even made it to Bio 201. I thought I wanted to be a doctor or some shit, which is frankly ridiculous. I spent at least triple the time climbing as I did studying.
So at the end of my sophomore year, I dropped out. I was totally broke so I spent the summer at my parents’ house and worked at a golf club. It was torture but I earned a boatload of cash, enough to buy my own beat up van and drive it to California and arrive in one piece with money to spare.
It’s difficult to describe what it feels like to arrive in Yosemite for the first time. The easiest thing would be to say it was like I’d died and gone to heaven, except that Yosemite on a good day can tell heaven to go fuck itself. Forests of pine trees and carpets of wildflowers, the air somehow both crisp and warm, without a hint of mugginess, the towering granite that seems like it needs you as much as you need it—a climber really could spend his whole life there, and some do.
Adam introduced me around and invited me to share his campsite, our vans parked nose to nose. I became his de facto partner again and we climbed all day, sometimes all night too, our headlamps lighting the way in the inky darkness. We got jobs as dishwashers at a diner in Groveland where we got a free meal at each shift. Every penny we earned went to food or gas or climbing gear.
I’m nostalgic for a lot of things about those days, not the least of which was the feeling of being Adam’s equal. That’s embarrassing to admit. Not just because it’s so untrue now but because it was so untrue then. I was and am a very good climber. But there’s a difference between a very good climber and a truly great climber, and Adam is a different thing altogether.
I mean, I’d always known Adam was talented. I’m not an idiot. But I had a head start in those early days in the Gunks—I knew all the routes and he didn’t. He caught on fast and was very strong and scarily intuitive, but I always had the tiniest edge on him.
Not so, when I got to Yosemite. I’d maintained my level of ability over the past year, maybe lost a tiny fraction thanks to a summer wasted on a golf course. Adam, however, had completely transformed. He had done all the routes, even The Nose, which he’d done twice. He was already starting to create a bit of buzz among the climbers there, even with guys like Chris Jacobs and Kurt Sewald hanging around.
I was still getting my sea legs, as it were, but he had already conquered the Valley, or so it seemed to me. He had climbed everything that could be climbed; was already talking about working some of the routes that had long since been declared unclimbable.
He started talking—and seriously, not wistfully or braggingly, like lots of climbers—about a free solo.
A little primer about climbing, in case you’re unfamiliar. Typically a climber scales a wall with a load of gear. A harness and ropes, for starters. Sometimes you also bring gizmos to jam into cracks in the rock to create an anchor; other times you clip into bolts that have been placed by climbers who came before you. Either way you’ve got protection in case you fall, but you get up via your own hands and feet or not at all.
A free solo means you don’t use any ropes. Yeah. I’m not talking using no ropes for a 30 foot climb in a gym with a padded floor. I’m talking climbing a 1,000 foot cliff in the middle of the fucking woods. No bullshit. No mulligans. You fall, you die.
The first route Adam talked about free soloing was New Diversions. It was short and easy—rated only 5.10a—so easy, in fact, I hadn’t even done it.
“It’s a great little climb,” Adam said. “Super knobby and weird.”
“Ok, let’s do it tomorrow,” I said. I meant climb it the normal way. With ropes.
“Great day for climbing,” he announced the next day when we emerged from our respective vans. It was just after dawn and the air was cool and misty but the sky was verging on blue. We drove about twenty minutes to the trailhead and I started unloading the gear.
“Dude, I’m going to free solo,” Adam said. He had a day pack on and was looking at me strangely, almost with pity.
I paused, my hands still on the ropes. “You mean today? Like right now?”
Adam laughed. “Yeah, like right now.” He turned and began walking up the trail toward the cliff.
My heart began beating faster and I started to sweat a little. I mean, I knew plenty of climbers who had free soloed. But I’d never stood before someone, a friend, right before he set out to do one. I’d never witnessed it.
Adam was marching up the trail without looking back, so I had to jog a little to catch up.
“Have you even done this route before?” I asked when I reached him.
“Of course!” Adam’s tone was relaxed, almost jovial. Almost patronizing. “Like a dozen times,” he said.
At this point I wasn’t sure whether he was bullshitting me. When had he had time to climb New Diversions a dozen times? Not if he’d climbed all the other things he said he’d climbed.
I almost reached out to stop him, to demand he give me more details about his readiness. But who wants to be the lame-ass friend who sounds like someone’s mother, nagging about safety?
“Yeah man,” I said. “Okay.”
After about five more minutes we reached the base of the cliff. Adam turned right and walked along it, glancing up every so often at the rock looming overhead. A hundred yards or so later he stopped and dropped his pack. The sunlight slanting through the trees seemed sharper than normal somehow and I stepped into the shade.
“I’ll probably be back around ten,” he said. “Do you mind coming back?”
I’m about to witness my best friend free solo and he thinks I’m just going to peace out? “Dude, of course not,” I said.
Adam nodded. He had plopped down onto the ground and was changing into his climbing shoes. “Cool,” he said. “Thanks for the ride.” He dipped each of his hands into his chalk bag, then slapped them together, sending puffs of white chalk into the air.
I was watching him closely but he didn’t really seem aware of me. He was deliberate yet casual in his movements. I wondered if his heart was pounding as much as mine was.
After Adam had changed his shoes and chalked his hands and taken a long swig from his water bottle he finally looked at me. “Okay,” he said, beaming. “See you back at the van.”
There was a lot I could have said then, as he turned around and after only a few seconds contemplation, began to climb. I felt I should say something, but what? What would possibly be the appropriate thing to say? Should I be sincere and say, “Be safe,” or, “Stop if it doesn’t feel right”? Or I should I joke, and call out, “Been nice knowing ya”, or “Don’t mess up, dickhead!”
In the end I said nothing and the moment passed. Adam was already on the wall. I was mesmerized by his confidence, his drama-free beginning. I was also mesmerized by his climbing, which, though I’d seen it many times before as recently as yesterday, struck me as beautiful. There’s a reason they call it free climbing, I suppose, because that’s what it looked like: freedom. He moved not quickly and not slowly, but at an even, steady pace. Every transition was graceful and fluid. Pause, move, pause, move.
I wanted to be up there too! I could more or less see where the route went and at 5.10a it was well within my capabilities. But I’d be nuts to free-solo something I’d never done, and I couldn’t climb roped by myself. So on that perfect summer day I just sat there, watching my friend with an odd mix of fear and jealousy and excitement.
For the first few moves I knew that if he fell, he’d live. Several after that I thought, well, he might live. Then his body grew smaller and I knew he had passed the threshold. If he fell now, from a mistake or a bodily failing or just bad luck, he’d die.
He didn’t show any sign of noticing the threshold. He simply kept moving. […]
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Abigail Mitchell is a writer and singer living in New York. Her formal education was in music performance; her informal education consists of reading every book she can find. Mitchell sings professionally, including in the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera, and writes in her apartment in Upper Manhattan, supervised by her cat, Earl Grey.
Read More: A brief interview with Abigail Mitchell