The Last Climb by Dan Woll


dan woll further north of highway 8

He produced a flat piece of metal and an odd looking tool and a hammer. He slid the Slim Jim down alongside the window into the door, there was a snap, and the door lock popped up. He opened the door and looked at the ignition setup.

Do you care what it looks like if I get ‘er running? “

I was desperate. He took out the pointed tool and prepared to get medieval on my car. I asked, “What’s that?”

A dent puller”

He inserted the sharp point into the ignition slot and whanged it as hard as he could with the hammer. It drove in an inch. Then he went around to the passenger side, wedged his two-hundred-fifty pounds in to the little car, put his feet up against the door frame and pulled. POP! Out came the ignition cylinder leaving a yawning hole in the side of the steering column. He said, “You got a screwdriver?” It was a climbing trip, not Home Improvement. No screwdrivers. I did have a toothbrush. He stuck it into the hole, stepped on the clutch, turned the bristles, and the little yellow car roared to life. The rest of the gang gathered around. A guy handed me a beer and said, “If you get locked out again, you’ll have to go to a dentist, not a locksmith.” One of the miracles of my marriage is that Beth did not divorce me when she saw the toothbrush in the steering column of her brand new car. That’s the way that car rolled for the rest of its life.

The next day, Al proposed a hike. We drove out of the Valley and up into the high country above the Tenaya Canyon to hike up a dramatic peak called Cloud’s Rest. The Tenaya Canyon is a beautiful gorge split by the Merced River. An hour into the hike, my blues dissipated. Al picked up the pace and I followed. Soon we were dog trotting—about as fast as one can go through the manzanita and endless granite terrain without spraining an ankle. Coming out of a valley, we jogged up the gradually sloping giant dome that was Cloud’s Rest. We ran over the 10,000 foot peak and descended toward some waterfalls.

I heard shouts from a small cliff nearby. The source of the revelry was hidden by rocks and bushes. We pushed through the manzanita in time to see a body rocketing down a granite waterchute. We had found one of John Muir’s famous slides. The high country in Yosemite features giant rock domes. Over the eons, water finds its way down these faces and carves out a smooth water course in the hard granite. We were looking at a cataract bubbling over a rock cliff and flowing down a long roller coaster shaped slide. The river was twenty yards wide. What we had heard and seen was back country explorers who had scrambled across top of the stream, sat down and let go, hoping for the best. They went fast and at the bottom there was a lip and a ten foot drop sending the sliders airborne into an icy deep pool. The thought of a proctology operation administered by a rock protrusion was unsettling but our hippie friends seemed to be sliding without incident. I inched my way across a ledge at the top of the waterfall until the rushing water knocked me off my feet. I kept my feet pointed down as I picked up speed. Before I knew it I was at the lip and sailing out into mid air. A few hikers “hoo-hahed!” and I splashed into the glacier fed pool. We did it a couple of times, then headed back to the poor little Opel.

Jogging out the last few miles, I was carefree, my climbing frustrations and fears behind. I had had my best day in the mountains, running for hours in the high peaks and sliding down granite water courses. All that fun and I was never higher than ten feet off the ground. The angst of the toothbrush in the Opel, the defeat on the Cookie, the argument on the Stovelegs Crack, the bloody cornflakes were all in the past. The only memories that remained were good ones.

I remembered hanging in slings on ledges high above the Valley floor watching the moon walk its way across the night sky, lighting up the white granite faces of the surrounding peaks. The feeling of drinking four quarts of water out of a mountain creek after having gone without any water for a day and a half. Falling and feeling the catch of the rope and realizing that nothing was hurt and that I had the strength to go up and do it again. The first cup of early morning hot coffee to ward off the cold dew on my rain jacket while I prepared for the day’s climb. These are the images and memories I cherish.

I was leaving my climbing dreams behind to write but also to run and hike and bike in the wild—moving into a new world of enjoyment in the wild places, honoring the past while looking forward to new adventures in the wilderness. A little less adrenaline and fear and little more wonder and love.

I have a friend who was addicted to smoking. In her forties she quit. I don’t know if she was kidding but she said she did it by promising herself that when she reaches 80 and it is almost all yesterdays and not many tomorrows, she will smoke again. Maybe that’s how it will be for me with climbing.

This excerpt is from Further, but also check out Dan’s novel North of Highway 8.

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