XI: Ben

Copyright (c) 1997 by Ronald Bourret

We looked at the waterfall again. It fell unbroken from a long, narrow ledge twenty-five feet off the ground. On the left end of the ledge, a fin of rock jutted out a foot or two. If we could run the rope over the fin, it might keep us far enough out of the main flow of water to survive the first part of the climb. Above the ledge, the pitch looked dry.

The question was how to get the rope over the fin. It was too far to the left to simply pull the rope to the side -- it would swing back to the right as soon as anybody weighted it. And there was always the risk that the fin was sharp enough to cut the rope. We needed a rebelay, and that meant we needed a person to rig it.

"I have a dry suit beneath my caving suit," said Ben.

Not particularly inclined to argue with a volunteer, I pulled a few small hexes, a handful of carabiners, and a couple of slings out of my pack. Ben started to climb and I belayed him out of the water. His gear must have been perfectly tuned, for he bounded twenty feet up the rope like a squirrel being chased by a cat. Five feet from the top, he yelled for me to let go and completed the climb in the full force of the waterfall.

We were in luck. There was a series of cracks behind the fin. Ben set a rebelay, threw down his heavy rubber gloves, and called for the next person. I had the only other waterproof suit and agreed to belay the others to the fin, then climb last. Once we were all safely on the ledge, we would continue to the top.

Paul went first, followed by Bill. The ledge proved too small for all of us, so Paul and Bill climbed to the top of the pitch while Ben waited for me. I was too tired to climb with my pack and asked Ben to haul it, intending to carry it up the second half of the pitch. I then clipped in to the rope and climbed slowly upward. There was nothing to brace my feet against and I spun in lazy circles, legs and head alternating spells of misery under the cold water.

I reached the lip and flopped onto the ledge. Ben was sitting under a light spray of water, a smile on his face. I asked if he would take my pack to the top. No problem, he replied. I handed back his gloves, but he refused, saying I needed them more than him. Shaking my head in amazement and trying to remember what it was like to be young and fit, I continued up the rope.

Ten feet later, something was wrong. I was still climbing in a waterfall. Wasn't the upper part of the pitch supposed to be dry? Why hadn't Bill or Paul said anything? They must have gotten soaked. I leaned back to look up, but my glasses were fogged and spattered, and all I could see was a stream emptying into my face. Dropping my head back against my chest and listening to the water thump against my helmet, I continued upward, too fatigued even to be cold.

A long time later, the rock leaned back, the water slackened, and I heard voices. Paul and Bill were sitting on a ledge just above me beneath another Space Blanket, this one shiny and intact. Their rain gear had proved no match for the second half of the pitch, but a carbide sauna had quickly solved that problem and they were now chatting away, like coal miners at the end of a shift. To their left, pouring through a passage that had been dry just hours before, was a sizable stream, the source of our misery.

I trudged onto the ledge, unclipped, and yelled down to Ben that it was okay to climb. Paul poked his head out of the shelter and said that he had been as far as the Bitch Pitch. Getting out would be no problem. He waited until Ben arrived, then turned upstream with Bill to avoid a traffic jam on the last rope. Ben and I broke down the anchors and followed, relieved that it was almost over.