Secret Weapons

Paul fell. The rope tightened in my hands. The hook with the extra tape on it shifted on its hold and popped like a gunshot. The two lowest hooks were ejected off the wall and slid down the rope landing in my hands.

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I clambered onto the ledge and studied the steep groove that cut a perfect line up the middle of the spire. Heavy fog obscured the upper half of the pinnacle making the spire appear as if it lacked a summit. Paul squatted on the ledge organizing the climbing gear, a cigarette dangling from his lips. The smoke merged with the gray mist that wrapped icy folds around us like a blanket.

I set my pack on the ledge and zipped up my goose-down jacket. For a moment the mist cleared and I could see the groove all the way to the north skyline of the pinnacle ending perhaps ten feet from the summit. The vertical weakness had no cracks or protection—just a nubble face. No one had ever climbed the groove.

Then I saw the deep chimney that separated us from the beginning of the climb. In order to reach the wall, one would have to literally jump across the rift.

Cold sweat chilled my fingers as I imagined leaping across the chasm. I closed my eyes and shook the image away. This was Paul’s problem not mine. He’d spotted the climb and I had come along to hold his rope, or so I told myself.

Paul crushed his cigarette out on the bottom of his rock shoe and clipped a few nuts onto his harness. He hooked the piton hammer and rock drill on either side of his waist. I didn’t see any use for the nuts or the bolting gear.

“How are you going to protect this? I don’t see any bolt stances.”

Paul reached inside his rucksack and produced a hand full of skyhooks slung with parachute chord. He spoke in a raspy voice. “Secret weapons.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me?”

Paul’s deep brown eyes said otherwise. I took the wad of hooks and inspected the metal trinkets. He’d obviously given his secret weapons some thought. Some of the hooks had been ground to sharp points while others had been beveled at odd angles. I got the feeling he already knew where each one would be placed. He must have spent hours studying this climb. “How do you plan on making them stay on the rock?”

He reached inside his pack again and brought out a roll of duct tape.

“You’re out of your mind.”

Paul lit another cigarette. “You got a better idea?” He said, annoyed.

I gazed at the wall again. “No,” I replied. “I’m glad you’re leading.” I handed the hooks back to Paul.

A moment later, with tabs of duct tape decorating his sweater and the skyhooks dangling off his harness, Paul stood poised on the edge of the slot. His cigarette jittered nervously in his mouth and rills of smoke curled around his head. “Jesus Christ,” he said. “That’s a long son-of-a-bitch.”

The blood thundered in my ears as I studied the chasm. I suddenly felt detached like I had left my own body and I was looking down at the two of us. I saw myself holding the rope that dropped from my belay device to the ledge where it piled in a few loops and then rose again to Paul’s waist. Nothing tied us to the rock. The ledge lacked any sort of anchor. No cracks, pitons, or bolts. I shuddered.

Paul launched himself across the chasm. Arms outstretched like a daddy-long-leg, fingers splayed, one foot extended—he hit the wall with a jangle and teetered. His right hand spider-walked the face searching for a hold. “Up and right,” I shouted, where I saw a yellow crystal.

He latched the jagged feldspar and rearranged his feet. “Shit.”

Paul lit another cigarette and looked down into the dark jaws of the chimney. “It’s thinner than I thought.” Then he glanced over his shoulder at me.

He didn’t say anything and didn’t have too. He knew that if he fell I’d jump off the opposite side of the ledge. I had already moved to the far side of the platform. I broke my gaze with him and looked up the wall. A few feet above him I saw a thin line of crystals. “There are crystals two, maybe three feet above you. Maybe you can stand on the yellow crystal and drill a bolt.”

He nodded. The smoke from his cigarette mixed with the fog that closed in on us again. The muffled sound of a car horn blared somewhere on the Needles Highway. A sudden wind roiled the mist and then fled through the trees.

Paul moved up.

He stepped onto the yellow crystal and tried to let go with his hands. He shifted through several positions but none of them worked. Not able to secure a bolt stance, he unclipped the first hook and hung it on something I couldn’t see. The delicate hook appeared to be balanced on nothing. He grabbed a piece of duct tape off his sweater and pasted the hook onto the wall. He patted the tape. “There,” he said, “all safe again.”

I laughed.

“Fuck you, deLannoy.”

Paul inched up the rock. Then his foot slipped. “Watch me, Pete.”

“I got you.” Meaningless words, I thought. The hook will either catch him or it won’t, and if it pops loose, he will most likely hit the ground, even if I jump off the opposite side of the ledge.

I’m not sure why I climb. I don’t understand the desire nor have I processed the terror that I have experienced. The two emotions claw at each other constantly. All I know is that my friend has moved into the jaws of the beast and he is trembling. The hooks hanging on his harness tinkled like wind chimes. “Can you place another hook?”

He readjusted his feet and let go with his left hand. I expected him to reach for another hook but instead he retrieved the cigarettes from the pocket of his shirt. He lit the new cigarette with the burning stub of the old one and shoved the pack of cigarettes back into his shirt pocket. All of this with one hand miles above the delicate hook.

“Christ, Muehl.”

He ignored me and puffed smoke into the fog. The smoking seemed to calm him and he placed another hook on the wall.

The mist broke around the spire flowing like water and washed down into the forest below rising up through the trees. Paul moved up again. He placed three more hooks.

He halted at the top of the groove under a short headwall that lead to a horizontal crack and hung his last hook. He added some extra tape. I laughed again.

“Hey, hey, hey. What’s so funny deLannoy?”

“I guess a little extra tape will help.”

“It will hold a fall.”

“Who are you trying to convince? Me or the hook?”

He didn’t answer as his fingers played above the groove searching for a hold. Just then Paul fell.

Several things happened in the fleeting instant of my inhaled breath.

The rope tightened in my hands. The hook with the extra tape on it shifted on its hold and popped like a gunshot. The two lowest hooks were ejected off the wall and slid down the rope landing in my hands.

Silence. And then I let my breath out.

The upper hook had held.

“Son-of-a-bitch,” he said. “That’s a damn good piece.”

I opened my mouth to speak but no sound came out.

“Pete. You got to give this a shot.”

“Me?”

“The pro’s good. At least climb up to this hook and take a look at the headwall.” His cigarette made the trip from one side of his mouth to the other.

I wanted no part of this. “I don’t know, Paul.”

His face fell. He looked like a dog that had just been told to lie down. “Well, lower me down and you can think about it while I rest.”

Back on the ledge Paul smoked and I stared at the climb. The rope was still looped through the top skyhook. Only three hooks remained taped to the cliff. Paul untied from the rope and pulled it down. He tried to hand me the end. “Give it a shot. It ain’t that hard up to the headwall and it’s a good hook. Held me, didn’t it?”

I nodded but refused to take the rope.

“Suit yourself then.” He set the rope down at me feet.

I gazed at the end of the rope. We called it the sharp end for a reason. In my imagination it had eyes and teeth and long slathering fangs. It wanted me to tie in and take it up the wall. It mouthed the words, PUSSY!

Sane people don’t understand why climbers do what we do. Perhaps it’s because we’re not sane. Or maybe in my case, it had to do with a deep insecurity. I needed to belong or be accepted and in Paul I’d found the father I’d always wanted. His approval meant everything to me and in the end I had risked my life for it.

I picked up the rope and tied in.

We exchanged the gear in silence. My toes were numb by the time I had laced up my boots and stood facing the wall. I launched myself across the gap aiming for a large crystal with my foot and clutched the wall with my hands. My fingers lost all sensation as I taped the first hook back on the wall. I worked my way up the groove on small crystals. Paul was right. The climbing wasn’t that hard but the absurd protection and the shear angle of the climb pushed me to the edge of panic.

The gloomy chasm below yawned like the open jaws of a monster, its jagged teeth and gullet waiting expectantly. I didn’t want the monster to feed on me. Before long I came to the last hook and clipped in. I stepped up and felt the rock on the headwall. I found a little crimp hold up and right and some star clusters on the left. But I had no intention of trying the moves and backed down to the hook. “Take me.”

Back on the ledge a sense of profound relief washed over me. The massive pressure released its grip and I wanted to sleep. I’d had enough of this dangerous piece of granite. I untied the rope and handed the sharp end back to Paul.

He gazed unblinking. “You think it will go?”

“You mean the headwall,” I asked, just to clarify the situation.

He nodded.

“Yea. But once you make the moves, there’ll be no coming back.”

The cigarette in his mouth jiggled while he rearranged his gear. He moved some soft iron ring pitons to the front of the gear sling. They were the small wafer pins about one inch long that worked well in the tight Needles seams found throughout the spires. But they were small pins designed for aid climbing and body weight applications not big wingers where it was the only piece of gear with no back-up. I trembled involuntarily.

Paul looked up and caught my gaze. “The son-of-a-bitch is gonna go.”

I shook my head. “I’m glad it’s you and not me.”

A glint of annoyance flashed in his eyes. “It’s a good route, Pete.”

“That’s not what I meant. It’s as serious as Super Pin.”

“It ain’t that hard.”

“No. But the lack of gear makes up for it.”

He stood up ready to go. I put him on belay.

He lit another cigarette and glared at me. “There ain’t no give-aways in the Needles.

And then he leapt across the gap.
Paul made quick work of the gully arriving at the last hook where he scoped the headwall. He crimped the little hold that I had found on the headwall and swung his left hand across the blank stone to the small cluster of crystals. In two more moves he’d passed the headwall and gripped the edge of the horizontal crack now several feet above the last hook.

“Can you place a pin?”

“Ohhhh,” he said, shaking. “Watch me, Pete.”

His tremors turned into a steady beat. Paul rifled the pins hanging off his harness selecting one of the small soft iron pins and stuffed it in the crack. He whacked it with his hammer.

Good pins make a high pitched ringing sound as they’re driven into the rock. This one sounded like it was being driven into a card board box. He clipped the pin and lunged for a large crystal on the north skyline of the spire and missed. He sagged. I took in the line. Adrenaline jolted me like I’d grabbed a bare wire. He threw again for the white crystal and latched it. A second later he stood on the skyline.

“Jesus Christ. That was one hell of a move.”

“Nice going!” I shouted. He looked up the north side of the spire into the clouds. His silhouette, dark against the sky like a lizard. In a second, he disappeared into the mist and a minute later he called off belay.

I quickly donned my boots and discarded my jacket but not before the rope had already gone steel tight on my waist. Following the route felt surreal, a chance to scrutinize the moves and the gear with no risk. Yet as I made the moves on the headwall, I cringed because I couldn’t separate my top rope experience from the sensation of the lead. I unclipped the pin and hesitated below the final moves.

The rope tugged impatiently. Where you at?”

“At the pin. I’ll be right there.”

As I moved into the fog the most remarkable thing happened. I pushed through the clouds into the sun and found Paul with a wide smile and one hand raised, “Can you fucking believe this?”

Spires penetrated the clouds all around us. We had climbed into another world. To the north, the summits of the Cathedral Spires floated like an island of rock. In the south, the tops of the Ten Pins pierced the clouds like the claws of some hellish beast. Broken clouds streamed in the sky and chill breezes blew here and there tugging at our clothes and tousling our hair. We huddled together and drank in the mystical world that was our Needles.

Later we returned to Paul’s cabin in Custer under the clouds and a steady drizzle. Paul squatted on a chair in front of the stove making chili and his wife, Loretta, made pea salad. The oil heater hummed in the other room.

I watched Loretta stir mayonnaise into the peas and chunks of cheddar cheese and onions. When she smiled her brown eyes sparkled under the light of the single bulb that lit the kitchen. Her long dark hair was pulled into a ponytail. Paul directed me to clean off the table so we could eat.

I stacked bills and Soldier of Fortune magazines on the side of the table near the wall along with the Needles Climbers guidebook, bits of nylon slings, a 45 caliber handgun and boxes of ammo.

Loretta passed around the bowls of steaming chili and opened a bag of potato chips.

Paul squatted on his chair and spoke through a mouthful of chili. “I say we climb the Keelhaul tomorrow.”

All summer he’d been talking about climbing Keelhaul. I didn’t know anything about the route other than what I’d heard from our friends. The fact that it might be the hardest climb in the Black Hills intrigued me and frightened me at the same time. In the Hills, hard usually meant no protection and I had heard about the first ascent of Keehaul. I knew that Kevin Bein, a climber from the east coast, had pushed a long run-out on thin holds. Fingers of dread walked up my spine. “What’s the protection like?”

Paul stepped off his chair and strode over to a sewing table in the corner of the kitchen and picked up a small string looped through two pitons. He handed them to me. “Secret weapons.”

The two pins had been ground into wafers. They might have been the thickness of a dime. “Jesus Christ, Paul. What’s the point?”

“He’s crazy, Pete.” Loretta interrupted. “I worry about him.”

Paul crab walked onto his chair again. “There ain’t nothin to worry about, dear.” He spooned another mouthful of chili into his mouth.

I set the pins on the table and thought about Paul’s skyhooks earlier that day. There didn’t seem to be much difference to me. Neither option counted as good protection. I consoled my fear by telling myself that I wouldn’t have to lead the climb. “I’ll hold your rope.”
Early the next morning we made the drive to the north side of The Needles. Fog pooled in low valleys under a hot summer sky. We parked at the Grizzly Bear Trailhead and made an arduous hike through towering pines.

My legs burned and cold sweat trickled between my shoulder blades as we switch-backed up the trail between spires and cliffs. Neither of us spoke as we made our way to The Marina; a collection of spires and pinnacles first climbed and named by Herb and Jan Conn. I hated the hike because of the sweat and I knew that by the time we reached Keehaul I’d be ready for lunch and a nap and not the supreme effort required for the climb. I catalogued the food we’d brought with us and tried to ignore the stirrings of fear that simmered in the dark recesses of my mind.

The climber in me felt schizophrenic most of the time. I seemed caught between the need to be fighting my way up some mighty piece of granite and running for my life. But climbing was the only thing I had going for myself. The fear and the wanting was mine and made me stand out back home in the drab existence of northwest Chicago; where I didn’t do anything well. School seemed obscure and the politics of the social networks escaped me. Ostracized for my red hair, buck teeth and blazing temper local bullies once threw me against a fence and beat me with my own crutches. I crawled home like a slug whose soft body had been mashed into the asphalt.

Out here in the Needles my friends accepted me. They put up with my bravado and with the coward that lowered off more than my share of routes. They applauded me in the rare moments when the savage beast won and I climbed flawlessly. Most of all, Paul took me under his wing and encouraged me. We were partners for life.

We came to the corner of a switchback at the base of a steep hill blockaded above by a grey wall studded with feldspar crystals. I followed Paul up the pine needled hill and we slipped into a corridor that cut through the cliff to a gully that rose onto a ledge and Paul threw his pack down.

I stared at the spire hanging over us. It didn’t look like a boat. I turned away and rifled through my pack looking for the food.

We sat in silence. I crunched on crackers and cheese and cuts of salami. Paul smoked staring off into the woods. I watched him. He seemed distant and I noticed he squatted instead of sitting. A sign that he was back in the jungles of southeast Asia. I wondered what drove him. Did he struggle with the same demons that I did?

He glanced at me. “Well,” he said through a mouthful of smoke. “We best get on with it.”

“Where’s it start at?”

He turned his head and pointed over his shoulder. “Up on that ledge. We’ll rack down here and leave the packs.”
We organized the gear quickly and climbed up the gully onto the ledge. The climb tracked across a low angle ramp to the opposite side of the spire and disappeared over a roof.

“I’ll be belaying you blind.”

“There ain’t no other way.”

I didn’t like it. This business was dangerous enough as it was. “What about coming at it from the other side of the spire?”

“Too steep. No pro. This is the best way.”

I tied a sling to a stunted pine tree growing on the ledge and clipped into it. At least I wouldn’t be dragged off the ledge if he fell. “On belay.”

Paul scrambled across the low angle ramp. He placed a nut in the bottom of the roof and clipped in the rope and gave me a look. “Watch me, Pete.”

I nodded. “I got you.”

He reached over the roof and in a moment disappeared above the overhang. The rope wiggled and snaked up the climb and then it stopped moving. I heard Paul mumble something and then the tap of his hammer echoed through the maze of the surrounding spires. The secret weapons, I thought. The hammering sounded hollow and didn’t last long. The rope jerked and I heard the metallic click of the caribiner closing on the rope.

“Watch me now.” He said.

“I got you!”

I felt him trembling through the rope. An image of his legs shaking flashed through my mind. His curses ricocheted between the spires. More and more rope played out. The quiver in the rope escalated into a samba. I closed my eyes and willed him upward. Please make it. The rope shook like a pogo stick on speed.

“Falling!” he shouted.

A short weightless delay and then the rope tugged on me as he hit the secret weapons. The sound of the pins exploding from the wall meshed with the metallic jangle of Paul’s gear as he fell. Loops of slack were silhouetted against the bright sky. Paul appeared with a cigarette hanging sideways from his mouth, his body tilted back like he was sitting in a recliner. Then he was gone falling down the opposite side of the spire. It felt like forever before the rope slammed me. The single piece, plugged into the bottom of the overhang had stopped him.

“Jesus Christ. That was a long mother-fucker.” Paul shouted. “Nice catch, Pete!”

I shook my head. “I think that might be the longest whipper I’ve ever caught.”

I took a few deep breaths and tried to slow my thundering heart as I belayed Paul back to the ramp. He sat smoking under the overhang inspecting his secret weapons. The mangled bits of steel had to be flattened with the hammer.

“I’ll give it another try, Pete. If I don’t make it…you can give it a shot.”

“I don’t know.” I said. “That fall looked pretty big…and what good are those pins if they don’t stay in the rock?”

“Well…at least they slow you down some.”

Small consolation I thought. “You’ll make it on your next try.”

“It’s just one move, Pete. I just needed to get my foot up a little.” Paul lit a fresh cigarette and stood up. He gave me a nod and disappeared above the roof again.

The rope fed smoothly to the place where he re-set the pins. I heard the tap of the hammer and then silence. Slowly the rope inched upward. I felt the trembles start again—a rhythmic beat in the rope. And then he cursed. Curses so vile I started to laugh. “You got it!” I shouted.

Then he fell…again.

Long coils of rope flashed darkly against the sky and then he flew down the opposite side of the spire. The impact wrenched me against the anchor as more curses split the morning calm. I thought that he might have hit something this time. All kinds of grisly images played through my mind. Unable to climb back to the belay, I lowered him to the ground on the opposite side of the spire.

I untied from the anchor and hurried down the gully. He sat with his back to the wall inspecting his left ankle. Massive swelling had already set in. Grotesque purple marbling encased the area where I should have been able to see his ankle bone.

“Get the gear,” he said. “We need to splint this son-of-a-bitch.”

I collected the packs and returned to Paul. We made a splint using the aluminum stays from his pack and our sweaters for padding. Then I collected the gear from the ledge, coiled the rope and repacked everything into my rucksack. We fashioned a stick for Paul to use as a crutch, and with him leaning on my shoulder, hobbled down to the trail where I spotted a long chain of horse-riders working their way down the hill.
At the front of the line rode a cowboy sporting a dirty brown Stetson and dusty chaps. A cigarette dangled from the rustler’s mouth, his hat pulled low over his eyes. His clients were awkward city types who were wearing too much deodorant. They looked as comfortable in the woods as naked people attending Sunday services in a catholic church.

Paul read my mind. “Don’t you dare, Pete?”

“You know as well as I do that we’ll have to spend the night out here if we don’t ask them for help,” I replied.

“I hate fucking horses!” Paul hissed.

“So do I,” which was the truth, but we needed help.

“I’d rather crawl outa here,” Paul whispered.

“You’re riding a fucking horse outa here and that’s that.”

Paul’s dark eyes riddled me with bullets.

I stepped into the trail and hailed the rustler.
The cowboy reigned in and stopped. He frowned. He probably thought we were looking for a free ride out of the woods. But then I saw a glint of recognition when he shifted his gaze past me to Paul.

“I know you,” he said, “you’re Paul Muehl. I’m Curtis Brooks. I was with you on that rescue last summer on Harney Peak. That ten-year-old boy. You knew exactly where to find him.”

“Sure, I remember you, Curtis. This is Pete deLannoy.” Paul nodded in my direction.

Curtis tipped his hat at me and then his eyes dropped to Paul’s splinted foot and then to my pack. Our rope was draped over the top of my rucksack.

“Seems you guys run into a little trouble,” he said, eyeing Paul’s ankle. “Horse ridin’s way safer than scaling rocks,” he chuckled. “Looks like you could use a ride.”

Curtis climbed down off his horse and tied it to a tree. Then he ordered a dude wearing a pink Izod to dismount his horse. The expression on the dudes face sagged. His belly jiggled under the rim of his shirt. I figured a little walking would be good for him.

“I paid to ride,” said the Izod.

Curtis pointed at Paul. “This man’s hurt his leg and can’t walk. And we’re going to let him ride your horse.”

“What about your horse?”

“No body rides Spit Fire but me. Lessin they got a death wish.”

Spit Fire stamped his foot.

While the Izod considered this bit of information I watched a single drop of sweat trickle down his fat cheek. He shrugged his shoulders and stepped off to the side of the trail. “I expect my money back.”

“We’ll make things right for you when we get back to the ranch.”

Curtis spit a wad of tobacco juice on the trail and led the Izod’s horse to a nearby rock and tied the horse off to a tree. We each took an arm and helped Paul get in the saddle and situate himself on the horse.

With Paul secured in the saddle the horses stepped out quickly down the trail. The pink Izod and I nearly had to run in order to keep up with them. Occasionally, Paul glanced back giving me one of his, “When I get my hands on your scrawny little neck,” looks, but I could tell from the glint in his eye he wasn’t too upset with me.
* * *
About a week after Paul took his big whipper I soloed the Fan, a bulbous spire that borders the Needles Eye parking lot. Tourists milled in the parking area and after taking a few pictures, they piled back into their cars and disappeared into the tunnel never to be seen again.

During a lull in the traffic I heard the familiar sound of Paul’s International Scout and saw his brown truck motor around one of the hairpins. The rusted hulk no longer sat evenly on its chassis and dipped towards the left front tire. Perhaps the shocks were ruined and the truck leaned that way from the weight of the driver. But it was the sound of the engine that made his vehicle distinct from others. He always drove it redlined, peddle-to-the-metal.

I quickly climbed down the Fan and jogged into the parking lot as he stopped next to the guardrail.

Paul slid out of the truck and proclaimed, “I can’t stand it anymore. I’ve got to climb.” He limped around to the back of the truck and opened the hatch.

“What about your foot?” I asked.

He dangled a funny looking pad with straps in my face. “Secret weapon.”

The gismo was covered in black rubber and resembled an elaborate kneepad.

“What’s that for?” I had already guessed, but I wanted to hear him say it.

“It’s for my knee,” he said.

“Your knee’s not hurt.”

Paul grabbed his rucksack. “You’ll see. Let’s climb Every Which Way But Loose.” He hobbled off towards the beginning of the climb and called over his shoulder. “I’ve got it all worked out.”

Paul waited patiently while I booted up and organized the gear. Then he put me on belay and I led the route. It only took me a few minutes to reach the top of the spire. I set the belay and hung over the edge of the cliff so I could see what he was doing.

I watched him install the pad on his left knee. It was ingenious the way it fit. I imagined him sitting at his sewing machine preparing the pad. He must have made a scale drawing and cut out a pattern and then spent a few hours sewing the whole thing together.

With the pad in place he stood up, leaned against a tree, and tied his lame foot behind him. He reminded me of a one legged sailor with a wooden leg.
“Jesus Christ.” I laughed.

“Hey, hey, what’s so funny?”

“You can’t be serious about climbing this thing with one leg and a knee!”

“Put me on you fucker and we’ll see about it.”

“You’re on.” I replied, still laughing.

He bunny hopped to the base of the climb.

Paul started up the initial flakes and ledges. He pasted the knee on the rock, set both his hands, and then moved his right foot up. Pasted the knee, set the hands, moved his right foot. I’d never seen anything like it.

“Does Loretta know you’re up here?”

Instead of answering me he flipped me off.

I laughed. I laughed so hard I cried.

“Jesus Christ,” echoed up from below and I could see Paul was laughing too. “You’ve got to quit that deLannoy or I’m going to fall off this son-of-a-bitch.”

Paul pasted his way up to a small ledge at the beginning of the crux—a delicate traverse to the left before moving up a wide swath of crystals.

I prepared myself for the inevitable fall. I just didn’t see how he could eek his way across the nipple studded face with one leg. It seemed to me the equivalent of a ballet on a high wire carrying a tray of crystal champagne glasses in one hand and while hanging on with the other. But first he had to have a cigarette. I watched him puff white clouds of smoke into the afternoon breeze. The acrid smell of tobacco hung heavy in the air. He smoked the damn thing right down to the filter.

Reaching out as far as he could, he gripped a finger-bucket and hopped his rubberized knee onto the wall. Then he inched his right foot onto a hold and hopped his knee again.

“Watch me now. I’m going for it.”

At this point Paul had brought his knee with the pastie as far left as it could go. He resembled a gymnast in the midst of an iron cross. The only way he could move was by letting go with his right hand. For a moment he hesitated and then he let go. He immediately pivoted on his knee like a door caught in the wind. His good leg stretched away from the cliff, his right arm waving in a perfect pirouette.

“Ohhhhh shhhhit.” He whispered.

I took in the rope a little. “I got you!”

It almost seemed like the world held its breath. The trees stilled. Even the highway seemed suddenly silent.

And then his body slowly rotated back to the wall. His right foot skittered onto a crystal and he matched his hands. “Now that was a move,” he said.

“Way to go,” I shouted.

A few minutes later he reached the anchor and I knew we were back in the game.

“What’s next?” I asked.

“Super Pin.” He said with a grin.

“You’ve got to be kidding me, Muehl.”

I leaned against the warm granite and lifted my face to the sky. White clouds sailed like ships above the spires and I could hear the steady stream of cars below us on the Needles Highway. There was no where else I wanted to be and no one else in the world that I wanted to be with. We were living the life that only climbers know.

Post Script: The story is based on true events. The name of the rustler was changed because I can’t remember what his name was.

Dedication: This story is dedicated to Paul Muehl who died of cancer in the late 1990’s. He was one of the greatest Needles climbers that has ever lived.

Feature Photo: Mike Engle Collection. Mike Engle climbing Moonstone in the Rushmore Needles.

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