I’ve always felt women have a special Spidey sense when it comes to their men, so why should climbers be any different? This much was proven on a perfect autumn day in September 2006 at the Gunks, during a tragicomedy on a three-pitch Trapps 5.8.
I was climbing with my friend “Marina” and her boyfriend of seven years, “Alex,” both Russians and PhD students at Columbia. Alex, tall and lanky with curly black hair and a three-day growth of stubble, looked every bit the grad student. Marina, a dark-eyed beauty researching quantitative finance, belied the nerdy stereotype of mathematical wizards. Although a trusted partner, on this day she was sullen, staring at the ground on the approach.
We strung together the first two pitches of Glypnod, reaching the Grand Traverse ledge in 140 feet. I was to lead the 70-foot crux pitch above, through the massive overhang. “Once I’m up top, you won’t be able to hear me,” I told my partners. “I’ll tug the rope to let you know you when to climb.” I brought Alex up without a problem, and then he set up to belay Marina, tugging the cord to give her the green light. After a few minutes, he pulled in a quick 10 feet of slack…then the rope went tight. Marina was likely at the roof. Figuring the crux might take her a while, I scouted our descent.
Half an hour later, the sky was a deep periwinkle, it was getting cold, and there was no sign of Marina. Surmising she’d worn herself out working the roof, I rigged a pulley system to help her over the crux. As Alex and I hauled, the rope came taut as a banjo string, but still no Marina.
I rapped in to help, but instead of finding Marina pinned against the roof as I’d feared I instead found her sitting on the GT Ledge, practically in tears. A small tree she’d anchored herself to bent at a 30-degree angle from the tension of the rope above.
“Didn’t you get the signal?” I asked.
“Yeah, I got it,” she said, her voice quavering, “but I did not know who had me on belay.”
Because Alex couldn’t hear us, the only way Marina could free herself was to cut the anchor slings around the tree. I tossed her a knife and urged, for expediency’s sake, that she pull on gear to bypass the crux roof.
Marina extricated herself and started up now in complete dark as Alex reeled in slack. She moved at a snail’s pace, still gripped by her odd, near-paralytic fear; I'd spent many a day with Marina, and this baffling behavior was not like her. Still, I shone my headlamp at her feet, to help locate the footholds. About 15 off the ledge, she began to scream, “I don’t want to die!” Then she just stopped and hung, wailing and thrashing chirping crickets the only witnesses to our odd tableau.
“Alex has you on, Marina,” I said soothingly. “You’re not going to die.”
“No, no, no I do not trust him,” she said, sobbing. “He cannot belay me. Oh, God, no!”
We went on like this for some minutes, but she wasn’t having any of it. This gal had survived Communism nothing I could say was going to persuade her. I batmanned up, explained the situation to a surprisingly unperturbed Alex, and then rapped back to Marina again. Alex had lowered her; she’d calmed down, untied, and was safely re-anchored to the small tree. Twenty minutes later, Alex joined us, and we picked our way 100 feet across scary, chossy terrain to a fixed rap anchor. Once safely back on the ground, we were all smiles.
“I envy you guys,” I said. “I have a long drive home. You get to go back to your tent and make monkey love.”
“Monkey love?” asked Marina.
“When we do it like monkeys,” replied Alex, smirking.
Marina’s face fell. “You’re disgusting,” she hissed.
Trust, that invisible fabric that binds relationships, is never more important than when climbing like a rope, it’s a strong bond when whole, yet all too easily rent by the razor of doubt. Marina obviously intuited that the trust between her and Alex had, like a cagey old cord rubbing over a sharp edge, gone dangerously “fuzzy.” In spring the following year, Marina sent me an email confirming as much. She had caught Alex in-flagrante, she announced, and decided that three was a good number only for climbing.