When the Grim Reaper comes knocking you better have a large bottle of rye and a fistful of chain. One hand to numb the pain the other to hold onto your miserable life long enough for the dark prince to let go of your soul.
My classmates are sheep. The five of us are learning how to rock climb. I’m rusty, but the instructor is confident that our class can lead some basic routes in Eleven Mile Canyon.
The rusty van we’re crammed in shudders to a halt at the base of Turret Dome. A four hundred foot lump of rock with a slab missing, forming a perfect upside down V.
“Sheesh, we’re going to climb that?” I say, trying to sound as sheepish as the rest of them.
Don, the player who hooked up with Mary the buxom blonde, hits me on the shoulder and patronizes me to impress the peppy little bitch. “Don’t tell me you’re scared now?”
“Donny angel!” her high pitched whine hurts my ears. “Jake’s not scared of anything. You saw him in the gym.”
Don puffed out his chest, “Sure you aren’t talking about me, babe?”
Our instructor, Mister Milo Parrish, is busy at the base of the rock organizing equipment while we goof off.
The other two, Miles and Rachel are the quietest of the bunch. They’re married and tend to stick to themselves. He’s a vice president of a bank in Aspen and she’s an accountant. Don and Mary’s occupations are even less thrilling. He sells propane and lies about his daddy’s trust fund, and she house sits for a living.
It warms me inside that one of them is going to die today.
“Jake!” Mio calls out. “You’re comfortable at five-tens, so you’re going to be following me. The rest of you, who wants to learn to lead today?”
Donny Angel acts confident and eager while Mary offers to follow him. The married couple say they’re fine with following today, and that they’ll give trad climbing a shot next trip.
Parrish looks disappointed but proceeds to explain how nuts, cams, and quick draws work. Nothing he explains is new to me, but I ask a question or two so they think I’m new to this.
“And this little device,” he pulls out a six inch piece of black metal with hooks on either side. “I call it the nut grabber.”
They laugh. I smile, but my eyes roll. Experienced climbers have heard that one about a thousand times. It’s like that stupid math joke about pies being square.
“No really, it’s called a nut tool. I wasn’t meaning to make anyone blush. Jake, you’ll be using this to remove any nuts I place on the way up.”
Mary raises her hand. The perfect school girl.
“Um… how long will this take to climb?”
He wheels around and looks up the rock. The trees whisper as a cool morning breeze blows through the branches.
“I think we’ll be done by five o’clock. Four if we’re fast.”
“And where do we eat lunch?” the husband asks.
Milo points to where the two massive cracks join, the apex of the upside down V. There’s a tiny cave up there, and the plan is to dangle from the cave with two hundred feet of air below us while we chow on the submarine sandwiches stowed in our packs.
The ascent wasn’t difficult. I followed Milo closely, and removed the cams and nuts with care. The climb was trivial, but a good break from the monotony of the gym in Salida.
I was careful to keep my distance from Donny Angel and Mary. Every time she climbed to his position he fished for a kiss. If they didn’t learn to keep their hands on the rope, and off each other, somebody was going to die.
The sun was at its highest point in the summer sky, beating down hard when I pulled myself into the cave. Milo yanked hard on the back of my harness and clipped me into the three carabiner system he’d engineered. A thin lip of rock was all I had to rest my heels on. Gravity was now our enemy.
“What do you think, Jake? Should we order pizza?”
A sedan on the dusty highway below slowed down to watch our party climb the rock. They waved from the edge of the creek as they took pictures. Milo smiled and waved back.
He took over belaying Donny Angel and Mary so I could eat. When I got a mouthful of mustard and pastrami he got chatty in his usual way.
“You have good form. Where’d you learn to climb?”
“Me? From you.”
“No, no, no,” he shook his head smiling, “I know a climber when I see one.”
Donny was dead weight on the end of the rope. He slid down a few feet, Milo caught him and shouted down the rock directing him where he could get a hand hold. With his back exposed, I drew my knife.
“A mutual friend. Climbed with you at Turkey Rock.”
With all of his belaying effort he couldn’t look back.
“This is about Jane isn’t it?” Milo wasn’t as stupid as I thought. “I never meant for her to die. I warned her—”
“Tut-tut,” I said, my knife across the anchor rope holding not only him, but Donny Angel and Mary. “When death’s involved, no warning is good enough.”
I cut the rope, but not before he clipped one of his quick draws into my harness. I gasped, and dropped my knife. He plunged the nut tool into my guts, and pulled.
When the Grim Reaper comes knocking you better have a large bottle of rye and a fistful of chain. All I had was a fistful of rope, and my hand wrapped around Milo’s throat. When he cut my harness the Reaper was two hundred feet below, arms open, waiting to catch me.