I wanna glide down over Mulholland. I wanna write her name in the sky. I’m gonna free fall out into nothin’. Gonna leave this world for a while. And I’m free, free fallin’
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, 1989.
After the fall my mind was repeating every terrifying nanosecond in livid color and surround sound. I had to pull the plug. Yeah, I got the message. I had messed up big time. But with hours, days and weeks ahead of me, I had ample opportunity to think about anything and everything about as long as I needed.
I chose to think about other falls in my life, those times of suspended reality where I was physically free falling. Why? Because they were so long ago that the terror of those moments had pretty much faded away. Another reason? I wanted to detect if there was a destructive thread in my life or was it just the usual setbacks that most people experience.
I reviewed my childhood years and nothing spectacular really stood out. I’ve always had a fascination and love for heights. I have always enjoyed being in those environments. Heights are like experiencing another dimension of earth, one that is visually stimulating and wonderfully dynamic. It wasn’t until my late twenties that a had a fall of any consequence.
During that time, I was living in southern New Mexico next to the Organ Mountains, amazing spires of hard white granite topping out at 9,012 feet. I joined the Southwest Mountaineers Club and learned technical climbing. I was matched up with another rookie, Mark Friedrich, who was a long, lanky young man with a great adventurous spirit. We were a good team and spent a lot of Saturdays in the Organs learning new skills. Once Mark graduated New Mexico State University he moved on. But I stayed with the club and had different climbing partners every weekend. There were two kinds of climbers in our club. There were the rock jocks, those who thrived on performing technique and the adrenalin of challenging the mountain. And there were a few like me. Climbing was just a mean to an end. My motivation was to get to the top of a peak to look around.
I remember one climb when we scaled Rabbit Ears, two distinctive peaks in the center of the Organs with both over 8000 feet high. Specifically, we were headed to Church Key, on outcrop of rock on the North Rabbit Ear that resembled a bottle opener from afar. The beginning of the climb is an hour-long scramble up Rabbit Ears Canyon. This eventually led the six of us to the base of North Rabbit Ear to where we could begin rock climbing with ropes. But on the way three mule deer passed us heading up the canyon like we were standing still. The slot here was quite narrow so the deer were only a few feet away. I was in awe with their size, speed and agility, leaping effortlessly from rock to rock with the grace of a ballet dancer. The deer were soon out of sight, but the distinctive sound of hoof on stone reverberated off the canyon walls. Once at the wall of North Rabbit Ear, we follow a crack up its south face, jamming fists, fingers and feet into the rock to advance upwards. Near the top, we diverted laterally out on to Church Key which provided us a convenient ledge to devour oranges, granola bars and Gatorade. During lunch, golden eagles would circle above us at the summit of North Rabbit Ear. Then one by one, they would tuck in their winds and going screaming downwards thousands of feet right past our ledge. That sound of wind on wing was so impressive, so powerful. It was for moments like this that I climbed the mountain.
In my third year, we chose to scale Saint Augustine Peak, an unassuming granite outcrop at the northern end of the Organ range. Few climbed here because parts of the route were on White Sands Missile Range and entrance was forbidden.
That didn’t bother the four of us. We just wanted the view from the top. This was a classic crack climb that followed the west face. Once on top, we could hike down the other side and hitchhike back along a road to our car. I was leading this particular day. That meant I was the first to climb, perhaps 10-20 feet depending the the crack. I would tie off securely and my partner would follow. We would progress up the face on a series of these small pitches until the summit. Leading is risky. If you fall, you will travel the distance that you climbed above your partner, plus the same distance below unless your partner reacts quick enough to pull line in during your fall.
We were two thirds up the west face when I misjudge grabbing a rock during a lead. I fell seven feet, passed my partner who stood there stunned and then seven feet more. The line snapped tight and my body was wretched to a stop. This was not a direct fall through space. While descending, I sort of bounced off of rock, trying to grab anything I could. A couple of momentary grabs slowed my speed. At rope’s end, I accessed the damage while hanging there. I had several bruises on my back and legs. I had gashed my right elbow but it was only bleeding, not broken. My partner and I had a decision to make. Does the team try to lower me down most of the peak or do we push on to the summit. We chose the latter. My partner now led and pulled me up each pitch with what strength he had. But I had to do a lot of the work myself. My elbow had stopped bleeding but I hurt all over. Eventually we made the summit and I slowly hiked down the backside. I didn’t climb again for another six months.
My next time out I had a chance to climb Sugarloaf, an amazingly beautiful peak on the east side of the Organs. Sugarloaf looks like and upside-down ice cream cone and it rises majestically to the skies at 8150 feet.
It differs in appearance than all the rest of the Organ peaks with its smooth, white stone broken up intermittently with nubs-small, oval rock protrusions. This is what we called a ‘smear’ climb. A climber needs to literally smear or move the toe of the boot left and right to create a friction to grip the stone. There are specialty climbing boots, often with sticky rubber soles just for this, but I only had crack climbing boots like many of the others that day. The climb started out fine until we reach an overhang, which took me several attempts to clear. I used sheer muscle rather than technique to get above it. Once above I had to stop and rest to get my strength back. Several of my buddies who were expert rock jocks followed and scaled it with technique and ease. At this point the incline of Sugarloaf changed from 45 degrees to perhaps 55 or 60. The goal was to step or grab from nub to nub. If that wasn’t possible smearing was used or finger gripping tiny cracks just to push upward. I was not leading but the pitches were long, 20-30 feet. One of my boots gave away on a smear and I fell again, maybe about 12 feet. But this one wasn’t bad. I sort of rolled downwards and finally stopped by grabbing a nub. I had only a few scrapes but was badly shaken. I had gotten back on the horse only to get thrown off again. I requested to repel down. Several other climbers that were having trouble with the smearing joined me. I decided to change the course of my life after Sugarloaf. I had climbed the Organs for nearly four years and witnessed incredible things. But I decided instead to join a wild band of renegade potters to learn the finer points of ceramic art.
I did not have another fall until my early 40s. In fact, it wasn’t even a fall. Hettie and I had been building our adobe home on and off for about six years. I was used to working on scaffolds five feet above the ground, standing on horizontal wood planks to work high. I had just finished some exterior plastering and the sun was going down. In fading light, I jumped off the scaffold like a hundred times before. But hitting the ground this time, something unusual happened. It was like an electric shock rippled through my frame from heels to skull. I just stood there frozen for a moment before I moved again. I had no injury or pain. Just shock. But I never jumped off of a scaffold from that moment on. Those days were over.
Once in a while on the island I head out to Slagbaai, a historic plantation house along the north coast in the national park. It’s a stunning place of pink flamingos, mustard yellow colonial architecture and shimmering blue seas. There is also a high cliff to one side where local youth jump off into the water taking their machismo and pride down with them. It reminds me of my cliff jumping days with my comrade Peter Kovaksorian at Lake George, NY in the early 1970s. I’m tempted to try again, just one more time. To feel the speed, the wind, the rush of the free fall. But I stay planted on the beach and watch, mostly satisfied with my decision to remain.