The sun peeked up over the top of the ridge as we walked along the bottom of the big granite wall. The sky was cold and blue, and my breath condensed in soft white clouds. It was still cold, but with the sun up, the day would quickly grow hot.
The granite wall was enormous, a gray slab towering straight up. I had to bend backwards to see the top. At the start of the climb, a thin crack in the face slanted up and to the right. White chalk left by old climbers outlined the crack like a scar. I ran my hand across the hard, rough rock.
I cinched my harness tight around my waist and checked my protection rack. My collection of wedges, hexes, and camlocks jangled on its web loop.
The route would be two pitches to the top, with a belay point on a big ledge halfway up.
"Ready?" I asked.
She began to uncoil the rope. "OK," she said.
* * *
The first time I saw her, she was naked. It was in the gray dim light just before dawn, and I made a trip down to the river to fill my water bottles. I followed the dusty path down through the rocks and low brush. Birds in the fir trees chirped like maniacs.
I came around a bend in the trail and there she was, facing away from me, standing knee deep in the river. She stood at the edge of the heavy current, and the fast-moving water swirled and sucked around her legs. She stood firmly, looking upstream. Her light blond hair was cropped evenly at shoulder length. Her bare butt was clenched defiantly.
But it was not her nakedness that struck me hardest. It was not unusual to see naked people in the river. A few hundred feet upstream was "The Tub," a deep, still pool where long-term campers often bathed, usually _au naturel_.
Instead, what struck me hardest was her bare back. The triangular shape of her upper body. Her muscular shoulders and V-shaped torso. She _looked_ like a climber.
I stood and watched for a few moments. I could not figure out what she was doing. Could she be trying to ford the river? But the current was too deep and fast, she would never make it across. Could she be bathing? But The Tub was a much superior place to get cleaned up.
She turned her head and I think she saw me. But she did not make another move. She did not even confirm my presence. She simply turned her gaze back upstream.
I turned around and went back to my campsite.
* * *
The "climbing rope" is misnamed. A climber always climbs rock, never the rope itself. The rope serves as emergency protection, a guard against falling. The only time the rope is used is to stop disaster.
It is the lead climber's responsibility to anchor the rope during the climb up. He does this by periodically wedging various pieces of protection into cracks in the rock, and attaching the rope through carabiners and webbing.
The lead's partner, the belayer, sits on the ground with the other end of the rope. If the lead climber falls, the belayer must hold the rope fast. A belayer must be vigilant. An unprepared belayer may have the rope yanked suddenly out of her hands.
It was my job to lead. It was her responsibility to catch me in case of a fall.
Our roles set, we prepared to climb.
I tied the rope into my harness while she tied a belay line around the thick stump of an old pine. She worked her knots quickly and easily.
She sat down on the ground and wrapped the blue braided climbing rope around her hips. The loose coils lay near her left hand, the brake hand. Her other hand, the feeling hand, held the rope that came to me. She placed her dusty climbing shoes up against two big rocks on the ground, bracing herself. She pulled up the slack in the rope until it tugged at my hips.
I coated my hands with chalk from the nylon bag tied to my waist.
"On belay?" I said, a mere formality. She was ready.
She looked me dead in the eye. "Belay on," she answered.
"Climbing," I said, and I put my foot up on the rock.
"Climb," she answered.
* * *
The next time I saw her was at the Safeway in town. I was buying food for the next few days and I saw her from behind, walking down an aisle. She wore cut-off shorts and a white ribbed tank top. I would recognize her shoulders anywhere.
After I bought my food, she was standing outside the store with a plastic grocery bag dangling from each hand.
"Hello," I said.
She looked at me and nodded. Her eyes were steely and her face was deeply tanned. Her lips looked a little chapped. Her white top clung tightly to her tits, and her nipple points were clearly visible.
"I think I saw you the other day, down in the stream," I said.
"Are you staying in the campground?"
"How long are you here for?"
She shrugged. "Until we get tired of being here. I guess."
I didn't know what else to say, and I was about to turn to leave, when she spoke up. "Do you have a car?" she asked.
"Back at the campground."
"No. I rode my bicycle."
"Too bad," she said. "I could use a ride."
I looked her in the eye, and a faint smile touched her lips.
"Then how did you get here?" I asked.
She stuck up her thumb and waved it. "Hitched."
I stuffed my groceries in my bicycle panniers. I rolled my bicycle over and stood at its side. "Do you climb?" I asked.
She nodded. "Some. But nothing hard."
"Maybe we could climb sometime."
"Sure." She shifted both grocery bags into one hand. She glanced off towards the road. "Well, I need to find a ride. I got to get going."
"OK. See you."
I got up on my bike and pedaled back towards camp.
* * *
The first few moves up the rock were easy, simple finger jams, easy foot placements, and up the crack I went. I paused at a nice finger-wide ledge, placed a hex nut into the crack, and clipped the rope in. A good, bombproof placement for protection. This piece would hold a hard fall. I looked down. Her face was pure concentration, the rope securely held around her hips.
I looked up. The crack dwindled off to the right. Straight up, it looked like there was a big handhold. I tried to remember what I had read about the route. There should be a permanent bolt somewhere up there where things began to look impossible.
I twisted my hand into the crack, felt the security of rough granite against my fingers, brought my feet up, got tension in my legs, and pressed upwards.
* * *
I looked for her down at the stream every morning. But for a whole week, she was never there. I thought she had gone back to wherever she had come from.
My climbing partner then left to go back to work, and I was on my own. My first day alone I walked through the campground but found no one who was interested in climbing that day. So I practiced on the boulders around the campground and checked over my ropes and equipment.
Mid-afternoon came and it got hot. Black biting flies buzzed all around, a real nuisance. It was uncomfortably hot, and I was bored. I decided to go to the river to cool off.
And there she was again, standing in the river, water flowing around her knees. And again, she was stark naked.
For a moment, I considered turning to leave. But I did not want to leave. I wanted to stare for a moment. I wanted to look at her nakedness, her tanned, sinewy body, her pert breasts with big dark nipples, the voluptuous curve of her muscular hip. Her rounded shoulders and shapely thighs.
But I also did not want to spy. If I were intruding on a private moment, she had the right to know. Saying something would be the polite thing to do. I walked up closer to the stream. The water roared. "Hello," I called out.
She turned to look at me. She stumbled a little in the swift current but caught herself. Water splashed up to her thighs. Her whole body was deeply tanned; she apparently sunbathed nude. She had thick, blond pubic hair. She made no effort at all to cover up.
"What is it?" she yelled. I could barely hear her over the roar of the river.
"What?" She cupped her hand to her ear.
"I can't hear you!"
"I said `Nothing!'"
She scrambled towards the bank. I was embarrassed. A naked woman was fighting her way through the big rocks in the streambed for the stupidest possible reason, because I didn't want her to think I was spying on her. I wanted to turn and leave her alone, but now that she was making the effort to get out of the river, I had to stay. I shifted my weight from side to side.
She got within a few yards and was close enough to hear. "What did you say?" she said.
"Nothing. I'm sorry. I just wanted to say hello."
"Oh." She ran her fingers back through her hair. Her pectoral muscle flexed, and my gaze was drawn to her naked breast. I wished she had some clothes on.
I was so uncomfortable I wanted to run away. But I had to say something. I couldn't leave it with just a hello. "What were you doing out there?" I asked.
She shrugged. "Nothing."
"I was just going to cool off in The Tub."
"Oh. OK." She looked back out into the roaring river.
I fidgeted. I had to get out of there. "See you," I said.
"Bye," she said.
And I turned away. Turning away was a relief. I didn't like standing there talking to her while she was naked. It would be easier to get in The Tub, wash off, and soak in the cold water. And maybe think about climbing.
* * *
The rock was not completely vertical, there were frequent dents and bumps, so the climb upwards went easily. I built up some momentum, and I was soon holding onto the knob I had seen from below. There was a good crack there; I placed a big wedge, another solid piece of protection.
I looked ahead. Two parallel cracks ran up towards a permanent bolt that had been drilled into the rock. The bolt marked the start of the most difficult part of the climb. My route book described that section above the bolt as "awkward." Other climbers had called it "a bastard."
I pinched my fingers and toes into the two vertical cracks and shimmied upwards.
* * *
I stripped naked and lowered myself down into the cool river water. The initial contact with the water was shocking, and it tightened my skin. But I slowly grew accustomed. It felt good to be out of the heat.
I gave myself a soap-less wash, using my flat hands to rub the grime and dust that had built up on my skin. Afterwards, my skin felt cool, clean and responsive.
I soaked shoulder-deep and felt good for a few moments. I tried to peek downstream, but I could not see her, an accumulation of stones blocked my line of sight. Which was just as well. I closed my eyes and relaxed and thought about nothing.
I concentrated on my heartbeat, the sound of it, the slow thumping. I thought I might even doze off, but I heard the scramble of feet on rocks. I opened my eyes and she was standing there on the rocky bank. My position gave me an angle up between her legs, at the wild tangle of blond pubic hair and an exciting glimpse of a fold of skin there.
"Can I join you?" she asked.
I took a nervous breath and sat up straight. "Sure."
She stepped down into the water. Like a sex-starved teenager, I peeked at her bare breasts with their stiff nipples. She sank down slowly until her chin touched the water. She blew air out and the surface of the water rippled under her breath.
She settled back against the bank and closed her eyes. She let out a long, easy sigh.
If the water had not been cold, I am sure I would have had an erection.
When I get nervous, I have a tendency to babble. I could not stop myself from saying something. "Are you here with someone?" I asked.
She opened her eyes and looked at me. Her eyes were light gray and her pupils were tiny. "Yes. My boyfriend."
"Is he a climber too?"
"How come you aren't climbing with him?"
She shrugged. "He has his buddies. They're stronger climbers than I am."
"Then what do you do all day?"
She did not say anything.
"How hard of a climb can you do?"
She shrugged again. "I'm good with my feet. But the climbs here, they take too much upper body strength." She raised her arm up out of the water, and the muscle of her shoulder tensed.
* * *
The tips of my fingers found a tiny crack, the rough rock tore at my calluses, my arms throbbed, and I could not find a spot for my foot. Everything I put down on, I slipped off. It was not working, so I stepped around, rearranged myself until I had both feet securely against the rock, but then I was pointed in the wrong direction, and my arms really ached and I had scraped the skin off both my thumb and forefinger. And there was nowhere obvious to go. I had maneuvered my way into a bind.
I could try to drop back and regroup, but I did not know if my arms would hold up. I could see a horizontal crack straight up from me, but I could not judge its size from below. And it was a long lunge. And I had no recent protection placed, and nowhere to put any now. I had clipped into the bolt below, but that was a long way down.
If I fell, how far would I go before the bolt caught me? And could she hold a hard fall?
I saw nowhere else to go. My leg began to bounce up and down like a sewing machine. I could not hold the position much longer.
I made up my mind to go for it. I did not even weigh the risk completely, and before I knew it, I drove myself upwards as hard as I could, a full leap. There was a moment where I felt suspended in air, no pressure on my hands or feet, and I was unsure of whether I was rising or falling. And when my fingertips found the crack, I felt that wonderful surge of excitement in my chest. I grabbed with my fingers and tapped every bit of strength I had and clawed into the rock.
I swung side to side for a second, dragging my toes against the rock, until I finally settled motionless, hanging by three fingers on each hand. My forearms felt stiff, but I was out of immediate trouble. The crack was bigger and deeper than it had looked from below, nearly an inch of space to hold. I got a good hold with one hand, rechalked and got a good secure grip.
I pulled myself up and got my toes into the crack. My heart pounded in my ears. My whole body trembled.
* * *
"I think I do OK on a lot of climbs. Especially ones that aren't so popular. And I've done some mountaineering and glacier travel. But I haven't done much technical rock climbing. I'm kind of new to this."
"I would think you would do well."
"I hate this place. All the silly overhangs. It's all a test of upper body strength. You don't need technique. You need raw muscle strength."
It was true. Many of the climbs were famous for their overhang moves.
She slipped down into the water until her head was completely submerged. Then back up she came, and she wiped her hands across her face, flicking the water away and slicking her hair back. I couldn't help but notice the contraction of her biceps and her deltoids. And the flex of her pectorals, and then I caught myself again staring at her breasts through the water.
* * *
I made it the rest of the way to the big ledge without incident. There were several big cracks around, perfect for belay anchors. I dropped my protection rack, set several strong anchors, tied myself in, and sat down.
Now it was her turn to climb. From the ledge I could see most of the route below, so I could watch her. I pulled up the slack in the rope.
Her high voice filtered up. "On belay!"
"Belay on!" I yelled back. I set myself to handle the rope.
"Climbing!" she yelled.
* * *
I shook out of my staring stupor. I caught her eye, and she smiled at me. Was she flirting? I am sure I blushed.
The urge to say something overtook me. "Why don't you come climbing with me?" I said. "My climbing partner is gone, I could use another partner."
"I've never done a lead. Don't you want to climb with someone you can split the leads with?"
"You don't know how to place protection?"
"I've never done it before."
"That's OK. I can do all the leads."
"And I can't do hard climbs."
"I'm sure you can do _some_ hard climbs."
"I don't want to slow you down."
"If you don't climb with me, I'll just have to go bouldering around the campsite."
"I could go bouldering with you."
"Wouldn't you rather do some real climbs?"
"I know the boulders around here pretty well." She suddenly stood up and got out of the water. Again, I was aware of her nakedness and I blushed. "Come on," she said, "I'll show you something."
I hesitated. She stood at the bank and looked down at me. Her tanned body dripped cold river water. I did not have an erection, but I was afraid I might get one. I took a deep breath and stood up.
She grabbed our towels and took off downstream. She hopped from rock to rock, her arms out for balance, a towel in each hand, her bare butt flexing.
She was lovely. I took another deep breath. There was no one else around. I left my clothes behind and took off after her.
* * *
She climbed like a dancer, limberly and with rhythm, using her legs and feet to get out of trouble. She could raise her foot to shoulder height and still get leverage to push up. At the most difficult point, the part where I struggled hardest, she found a foothold I had not seen, and made the finger ledge in two separate moves.
She moved evenly upwards, pausing only to remove the protection. When she reached the ledge, she was winded and her shoulders and thighs bulged.
"That was great," I said.
She sucked in air. "Thanks."
"I didn't see that foothold down there."
"Do you want to rest for a minute?"
The ledge at the halfway point was big enough for a crowd of people. We drank water and ate bananas. We rested in direct morning sun, and it was already getting hot.
The second pitch was supposed to be easier. There was a spectacular overhang near the top with a shoulder-width crack through it. I scouted the route while she rested.
I figured out the approximate path to take, and just as I turned back to face her, she pulled her shirt up over her head. Underneath she was naked. Her whole upper body was wet with sweat. She used her shirt to mop her face and chest.
"You're not very shy, are you?" I said.
"Hmm," she grinned. "Do you mind?"
"I didn't think so." She looked down at her own breasts, and wiped her shirt across them. "I'm not uptight about it. I don't have the kind of tits men ogle."
* * *
We walked downstream until we reached a big boulder. The boulder was about ten feet high with a nice crack running up one face. It was a nice example of a layback move, an elementary technique, but one beginners have a hard time with.
I had never seen this boulder before. It never occurred to me to look for bouldering exercises down by the river. The crack was not coated with the usual accumulation of climber chalk, so I was not the only one who was unaware of its existence.
"Spot me," she said.
She hooked her fingers into the crack and stepped her bare feet up on the vertical surface of the rock. In a layback, you use your legs to push your body _away_ from the rock, and you use your arms to counter-balance the outward force. When done right, the inward force from your arms exactly matches the outward force from your legs.
I stood under her, looking up at her bare back and bottom, and she quickly scooted right on up the crack to the top. Her technique was flawless.
"Throw me the towels."
I tossed up the towels and clawed my way into the crack. It was a nice exercise, but I felt funny doing it naked. I had never tried to climb barefoot before, and my penis felt awkward swinging freely between my legs. Still, it took only a few seconds to join her on top.
The rock was flat on top, with just enough room for two people to lie down. She had the towels spread out. She sat with her legs curled under her, her hip thrust to the side. Her skin was already dry, and sweat beaded on her forehead and cheeks. She patted the towel. "Lie down with me."