At First Light

Photo by Thad Arnold

Photo by Thad Arnold

Cody hiked up the trail that circumnavigated the basalt quarry. He hiked in the dark of the early August morning, rope and gear stowed in his backpack. The creosote steps were far apart, built too tall by city volunteers, and Cody pushed down on the tops of his knees to help his quad muscles as he lurched up the oversized staircase. The smaller trail to the top of the rock columns headed off to the right, barely distinguishable in the dark and the high grass of mid summer, but Cody took it instinctually like walking to the refrigerator in the middle of the night. He urinated against the base of a dwarf maple before putting on his harness. Then he set his anchors with opposing quickdraws, not bothering with a locking carabiner. Cody clipped the middle of his rope and flung the ends in cleanly rolled loops. He said, “Rope,” as he did so, out of habit, even though there was no one there His hands did not have the full strength of day yet but he didn't worry because it doesn't require much strength to rappel. He forced a bite of rope through his belay device, clipped it, and sat back. Opening his fist halfway, he allowed the rope to slide cleanly through his hand and the device, and he moved in the dark down the fifty-foot face with the confidence of a telephone pole repairman being lowered in a box. On the ground, Cody unclipped. Bending over, he touched the ends of his toes, stretching his hamstrings and the long muscles of his back. Then he worked his fingers, palming his hands and rolling to the end of each fingerpad. He shook his hands to loosen the tendons. Then he was warm enough. Clipping an ascender to the fixed line and chalking his hands, Cody began to climb the dual crack system on the second column He was uncomfortable at first, feeling awkward on the rock after a two month layoff, but soon he warmed and became accustomed to the finger-width cracks and the features of the black face. His feet found flares good for jamming and he moved smoothly to his anchors. He stood at the top of the columns then, his back to space, not thinking of the height or of the fall potential or of the danger. He merely changed to his belay device and rappelled once again to the ground. Then he clipped into his ascender, looking upwards, and began climbing a second time on a more difficult route. The springed teeth of his ascender dragged along the rope with opposition friction in case he fell. Climbing became effortless during his third lap and his full strength was in his forearms and hands. Cody once again considered the idea. The idea was an impulse each time he climbed here, climbed alone, when there was no one to bother him. He told himself that he was ready now, that his hands were strong and his footwork secure, that he did not need a rope. He also remembered, as an argument with himself, what she had asked: “You would never solo again, would you? Promise me?” Cody had promised, saying, “I won't. Don't worry,” but it had been a promise of force, not one given by free will, and Cody did not hold those assurances in the same regard. He had also said, “Honey, I don't really climb anymore,” though climbing had been his first love and he had believed once that he would become a great free-soloer like Croft or Gullich or Osman. Cody consoled himself by saying, “It's just a small thing, a little lie, and all husbands lie to their wives every once in a while.” Cody was jealous of his wife's one true talent, her cello playing for the Eugene Symphony, though he had talents of his own and had no need of jealousy. He had begun to lie out of this unneeded jealousy, early in the marriage, and the lies had become a habit as well. An old man had once told him that “small lies were necessary for a long-term relationship.” And Cody had chosen to believe that. So after his third rappel, Cody did not reclip himself to the rope. Chalking his hands thoroughly, he shook his head from side to side, then rolled his shoulders. Placing two of his fingers in the right-side crack, he dropped his elbow to jamb the knuckles. He smeared his left foot on the arete and stood up. It felt the same as before, no different, and he climbed to a small ledge, twenty feet up, without thinking. From there he could downclimb. Cody had done so many times. Past that point, he had to continue thirty feet to the top. Cody hesitated. He considered his next move. The memory of his promise to his wife felt empty from the ledge he stood on, as empty as the black cracks in the early morning. Cody opened and closed his hands. There was no weakness in them. He had wanted to solo the columns for many months now. And he told himself that it was ok to want. He told himself that it was ok, and that he would solo without any danger. At first light, Cody slotted his left hand, then his right, before stepping up. The chalk felt dry and the black rock cool against the backs of his fingers. He moved fluidly, as a large cat paces the ground. He did not think about his transgression but only felt the rock and the morning air and the half-light that seeped from the east side of the butte as he climbed the basalt columns with no rope. Cody was twelve. He slinked through the front yards of his neighbors' houses, following his mother along the street. His mother was high. She was talking about his father. She said, “I mean, whatever he's gonna do. Whatever…” Cody bent while crouching along a low hedge. “He's always doing these things…making me wait for him…I mean, you know. It's not like I need him…” Cody hopped over a three-foot picket fence and slowed on the grass with a skidding noise. He dropped to the ground. His mother stopped. She had heard him. Cody lay silently in the grass, next to the fence, ten feet from his mother, trying not to breath. When Cody got home he stowed his climbing gear in a plastic bin in the garage behind his scrap-wood pile. He took a new shirt from the dryer and changed while he was still in the garage, hiding his sweaty shirt underneath other clothes in the hamper, hoping it would dry before she got to it. Then he went to the shop sink and erased the white chalk and the black rope marks from his hands with warm water. Using GoJo, he scrubbed for a full minute. The gritty orange pumice soap left nothing on his hands but its own smell. Cody crept down the hallway, bare feet on carpet, until he reached the open bedroom door. His wife and baby daughter were sleeping in their queen size bed. Above the line of the down comforter, the baby's eyelids flitted with the simple nightmares of the first year's REM. Her mother's steady breathing rustled her hair like gusts coming through a grassland, and Cody could see that they were unclothed in the sheets, smooth and clean, the baby's skin pressing against her mother's full milked breasts.Peter Brown Hoffmeister climbs at The Columns in Eugene, Oregon with his wife Jennie, his only friend in the entire world Jeff, and Lee Baker (THE Underwear Model). His literary fiction won the Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship and his features have been published in Climbing, Rock and Ice, and Gripped. For his journals of an everyday dirtbag, see