It’s 4 am and the alarm isn’t due to go off for two more hours. Then, I’ll leap into action, make a quick lunch, and jump in the car to head for the mountains and a rendezvous with the love that has rocked my world. “I’m too old for this,” I think. “Roll over. Go back to sleep. Your date with Cliff will go a lot better if you’re well rested.”
And then I’m back in the middle of a dream where my heart races and I feel a surge of excitement as I catch sight of those big angular shoulders and broad back and say something ridiculous like, “I think that’s cheese in my chalk bag.” Then, trying to disguise my awkwardness, I start to tie a follow-through figure eight knot but then realize I’m not having any luck because I’m not holding a climbing rope: the thing in my hands is a garden hose and it’s leaking red paint all over my favourite climbing shoes. And at that point a rock falls from the sky and cuts my new skinny rope and I fly backwards off the crag, down, down, down toward certain death. My own gasping wakes me and, heart thudding, I lie back on the pillow trying to calm myself with slow, even breaths. Because I am in love and obsessed and every night my dreams are filled with variations on the theme of Cliff.
On the drive to see Cliff I make plans, visualize the way I will caress the stone face that awaits me, the way I will gently, but firmly, plug gear where it fits best. As the miles roll by and the grade gets steeper, I talk to myself about being brave and not letting my fears of attachment (or, failure to attach) get in the way of having the best date ever climbing to rapturous heights I could only imagine before finding this perfect partner of mine.
The signs of a love affair are everywhere: well-pawed climbing magazines cover the coffee table, my email inbox is full of ads from MEC and REI and Arcteryx and special promotions from Black Diamond and Evolv and La Sportiva. I drool over Facebook photos posted by one friend who has run away to Kalymnos, another living out of a van in Joshua Tree, yet another in Squamish. I stop on the way to the kitchen to hang from my fingerboard and count the minutes until I will see Cliff again.
Foul weather is no obstacle for our outdoorsy romance: even during the depths of winter there is evidence everywhere of where I would rather be: my ice tools and crampons dry over the heat vent in the living room, the Thermos waits on the kitchen counter to be filled with hot tea, and my thick puffy jacket is draped and at the ready by the back door. Cliff is never far from my mind, even on the coldest of days when he wears his frostiest of cloaks and tries to frighten me away with his icy glare. So fiery is my passion that sub-zero temperatures, high winds and snow flurries cannot keep me away.
In the warmer months I wrap my fingers in tape before a date with Cliff with the same careful concentration as another woman might shave her legs before meeting her paramour. Instead of lotion to smooth my skin, I carefully dust a layer of chalk over my hands before ever so gently stroking my fingertips over my sweetheart’s waiting form. Occasionally I indulge in a spritz of insect repellant behind my ears.
Lunch, a squashed sandwich or piece of bruised fruit is consumed at my true love’s feet, perched on a slab of stone, the sun tangled in the bit of pony tail that has escaped from beneath my helmet.
If a successful date is judged by how much sweating and grunting goes on before collapsing, utterly spent into bed, then a date with Cliff (or his big brother, Montagne) ranks right up there with the very best. Hanging out with (or, hanging off) Cliff leaves me no choice but to live in the moment and day after day finds me breathless and giddy, all a-quiver with the sheer joy of being alive and partnered up with the most magnificent of rock specimens in all of the great outdoors. I can’t imagine anything more delightful than lazy summer days spent playing footsie with his ledges or the moments of near rapture when I’m wrapped around his arete in a heartfelt embrace. Not quite as much fun are those times when I find myself spread-eagled and vulnerable, too scared to make the next move but unable to retreat.
And I ask you, what better way is there to spend a long evening than with Cliff’s other lovers when we rehash those shared memories – both the exhilarating and the lamentable: that overcast morning when I got my hand stuck in a dark place and thought I’d never get it out, how, when the two of us are in balance it feels like we are performing a graceful pas de deux, and that time when Cliff and I stayed out dancing so late I needed a headlamp to find my way back to the car.
Not that things are always perfect in this dizzying romance of mine. There are moments of tension, for sure – when I feel like the bottom is dropping out of my world, when I can’t trust the ground I’m (not) standing on, the way Cliff can be cold and heartless and unforgiving. There are days when I can’t stand the way he ignores my pleas for a handhold. There are times when I want to walk away because I don’t understand how it’s possible he doesn’t feel me shaking when anxiety threatens to overwhelm me. It baffles me how he can steadfastly refuse to do anything to help me get a grip. On those dark days it almost feels like Cliff is trying to shake me loose.
And yet, when I go back the next week, the next month, Cliff is there, strong and silent as always. Waiting. And when I lean up against that solid form, push my hips in close and take a moment to breathe, I feel another breath echoing my own. A whisper, calling me home.