I can do this, I told myself.
There were the rocks glaring down at me, coaxing, warning, daring. There was Rick behind me, no doubt wincing at my foolhardiness. We had come to the Tibetan Plateau, the land of monks, mountains, and magnificent maidens. Two Tibetan friends, Wenci and Cerrat, had taken us to this butte that housed a supposedly self-arising Buddhist monastery. The view from the summit is incredible, one of them now told me. I’ll take a picture of you at the top, shouted the other.
There was no turning back now.
I took a last energy-boosting sip from my grape juice and then felt the cliff face. Cold. I glanced upward and studied my adversary. Right in front of me the cliff was smooth, but if I could scramble up a few feet I’d reach an impression, dotted with footholds, that meandered leftward. It wouldn’t be that difficult. I leaped up and eagerly slapped my left hand forth. It landed on something mushy which squirmed in my hand and, when I tightened my grip, exploded. The slug’s remains clung to my fingers like pesky paparazzi. I inhaled deeply. Wipe. Clean. Good.
I began to climb. Left hand, right hand. Left foot, right foot. Everything was a matter of careful limb placement—a reckless step here or there and, well, Rick and the boys would have a grape-flavored mess to clean up. But for now at least, amid the deep etchings that snaked along the rock face, I was in foothold paradise. Left, right; Left, right. I could do this in my sleep.
I realized, as I climbed, that my odds of successfully getting back down this way were exactly nil—unless I were suddenly bitten by a magic spider. But that was ok, since I intended to descend by a different route after scaling this baby. Onward, ho!
Onward, that is, until I soon found myself sucking air on a slab that jutted out several inches from the rock wall. My grip was starting to slip. I exhaled and groped upward to my left for protruding boulders, leafy appendages, wriggly roots—anything that might plausibly take my weight. Nothing. I slid my right hand in the opposite direction in similar search of an accommodating notch. Nada.
My fingers slid some more. In the absence of adequate handholds, continuing upwards would no longer be an option. Downwards? Fuhgeddaboudit. I plumbed my brain for the countless climbing secrets I had picked up as a student in Scarsdale, New York. My fingers slid some more.
My tummy began to turn. I then gritted my teeth, shook off sweat like a bulldog on roid-rage, and decided it was time for Plan B.
Plan B involved another cliff face to my left, which was separated from the ledge I was on by a several foot-wide crevice. The two rock faces formed a V-taper, meeting 20 feet below. If I could somehow make it to the other side, which was pockmarked with indents and notches, I could make it to the top.
The other side was only four feet away. I picked up my left foot, steadied myself with my other three limbs, and extended it (graceful as a ballerina, no doubt) as far as I could, reaching, pushing, stretching with all my might to land it on the other side. A few inches still to go. I stretched further.
“Hey, be careful up there!” Cerrat said.
“It’s ok, I always do this.”
I never do this.
Another inch. I streeetched further. Half an inch. My tendons and muscles were screaming out for relief, but as an athlete who had honed them during hours of brutal wrestling practice, I knew they could take—
Pop! Greecckk! Srrraaaakk! Cluck-glut-cluck-glut-cluck-BZAM! Pangs of fire accompany the symphony of spasms, the crescendo of glickety-glacks and bone screeching on bone. My leg whips back like a jack-in-the-box and plants itself back on the ledge. I try to move it. My leg is lead. It is a sack of needles. I didn’t know that legs make those sounds.
“Hey, you ok? Something sounded wrong.” Rick asked from below.
I clanked and clunked my leg to a stable position. There was no way I was stretching it to the other side. I would have to jump. It was only four feet. Come on, Greg, just imagine yourself jumping across solid ground. Four feet is not far. Just remember not to look down. Ready? Good. Now bend your legs. Oww! OK, we’re all right. Four feet. Let’s try it from the top: Ready. Oh, and don’t look down. Now get set. Oww, again! Stupid leg. Set. Don’t look down. Deep breathes. Don’t look down.
Later, Rick told me I probably shouldn’t jump from cliff to cliff like that again. Wenci asked if all Americans were this risk-loving. Cerrat said that the photo he took of me at the top came out a little foggy. We all agreed that I was addicted to sailing through the air, un-roped, at high altitudes, and that this adrenaline addiction was probably unhealthy. As Rick pointed out, despite whatever rush I may have felt when I completed the jump, the whole shebang wasn’t worth the risk of grape-stained soil.
But during those seconds in the air you feel like you’ve grown angel wings. You’re heart whacks against you’re rib cage like an angry jackhammer, you’re head whiplashes as you thunder through the stratosphere, and for a feathery second you worry that you might well get lost among the stars.
And when you land, you smile and wonder whether they make adrenaline patches for people like you.