Never Look Back

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Chapter 20

The highway had been blasted through the Canadian Shield, shattering Precambrian rock as old as the Earth itself. Blasting carved out deep rock chutes whose walls were laced with cracks and fissures. Those scarred and furrowed granite and bedrock walls bordered the asphalt highway like ancient castle battlements that had withstood cannon and siege. In less extreme instances, giant boulders weighing thousands of tons rested on slopes of crushed stone, anchored by gravity only so long as the scree beneath did not shift. Great metal nets battened down the more hazardous segments where jagged boulders bulged the high-tensile mesh, straining to break free of the long steel rods that pinned the metal mesh to the ground.

Following a forty-five-minute highway trip with thirty additional minutes on a creole-soaked gravel road, we turned onto a gravel road that was not much more than a western wagon trail that snaked and swerved over and around hill and valley. We crested a steep section. At the hill’s pinnacle, the road steeply dropped out of sight beneath us. Miles of forest spread out beyond the ability of our eyes to capture. The enduring vastness made me feel small and insignificant. And then the car plummeted, forcing us to swallow our stomachs back down during a moment of weightlessness. Loose gravel ricocheted off the car’s undercarriage as we dipped into a valley, flew along a short flat stretch, navigated an S-turn and leaned into another hard climb.

A tight curve waited at the next crest. The nature of the steep curve meant that we entered it blindly. I hugged the soft gravel shoulder. Branches and leaves scraped along the passenger side. I felt relieved that we had not met a vehicle travelling in the opposite direction, and if we had, I prayed they likewise hugged their shoulder. We dropped into the next depression to begin anew.

Our rollercoaster trip ended at Vesper Lake’s southeast shore. An elliptical bowl measuring over half of a mile wide, couched by old-growth forest that merged into the foothills of a nearby mountain, cradled Vesper Lake’s crystal waters. To the south, the land sloped into a gulch that never hosted sunlight before high noon. Dappled pockets of crisp January snow hid out in cool June shadow. Above us, the sun rode towards mid-morning.

Light breezes ruffled the lake’s surface and cooled the skin. Two small beaches let visitors land canoes: one on this side of the lake, and another sandy lip pursed itself on the far side. A scattering of rotted logs blackened its white sand. A stone’s throw from the far beach, a granite wall laced with quartz jutted majestically skyward. It rose out of the bowl like the backdrop of an amphitheatre. That noble granite precipice stood four hundred feet above the lake to lord over its placid waters. The eastern face refracted sunlight where it bounced off prism and crystal. Rusty brown veins of corroded iron ore streaked the southeast side like oxidized tears. They marred blue-black granite skin, shedding immortal igneous grief at having once been molten rock evicted from its Earthy womb.

Curling around the car’s taillights, twin dust clouds swirled concentric funnels like the jet wash from a fighter aircraft. We braked at the edge of the gravel road before it turned into sandy tufted grass close to the beach. Trailing dust funnels engulfed our vehicle. A light breeze lifted and brushed them clear, dispersing and thinning red clay particles.

Having popped the trunk open, I said, “If you gotta go, don’t squat too low.”

“Why?”

“Poison ivy. Worse than chickenpox.”

“Sure, I am it was me who brought lunch. Unless you want to starve, you’ll show me what to avoid. What’s in the bag?”

“Climbing gear.” I lifted the Kevlar Scout canoe from the roof rack. “Grab the duffel bag, please.”

“I can help with the canoe.”

“No worries. It’s more awkward than heavy. Get the paddles and the duffel bag.”

Odera shook my blue nylon duffel bag by its loopy straps. It jingled and jangled.

“What’s in here? It weighs a ton.”

“Rope, pitons, a hammer, karabiners and a few other odds and ends.”

The canoe hit the lake with a soft splash.

“Kara-what?”

“Karabiner. Spring-loaded D-clips that connect safety harness and diaper.”

“What’s a diaper? I know you’re old, but you don’t need Depends, yet,” she grinned, reminding me I was a few years her senior.

“A high-tensile nylon band that traditionally goes around your bum and hips. Most people use a full harness, but these weigh less.”

When she removed her T-shirt, the top half of a one-piece, blue turquoise swimsuit accentuated everything feminine. The taste of her lips and the memory of how warm and pliable she had felt in my arms at the Watchtower returned.

“Where did you learn to climb?”

“Have I never told you about ranger camp?”

“It would be easier to floss a crocodile than to get you to volunteer anything.”

“I learned mountain climbing, basket rescue and other forest survival and rescue skills at a junior ranger camp.”

“Isn’t climbing alone dangerous?”

“It’s not recommended but I’m not freestyling. The water will catch me if I bungle. Unless something freakish happens and I break free from the summit zone.” I traded runners for hard rubber climbing shoes. “I’ll use a safety line and tie off at regular intervals. No worries.”

“Put this on for me?” She handed me a bottle of sunscreen lotion. “Back of my neck as well, please.”

She lifted her braid out of the way. Arms crossed over her chest, she slid swimsuit straps off her shoulders. Cold lotion evoked a little shiver. Her skin was warm and smooth to the touch. Conversation stopped. Flowery perfume mingled with Coppertone lotion. Before I lingered with a third application, I returned the bottle and then held the canoe steady. Seating herself at the bow, Odera threw a leg over a canoe runnel and coated it from the bottom of the ankle to the top of the thigh in UV lotion.

“You’ll be safe?” she asked as I pushed off and jumped in.

“There’s more chance of me getting hit by a bus.”

A tiny whirlpool followed the cedar blade through its first stroke. A totally different whirlpool of desire pulled at my discipline to think of us as separate and distinct. That ship had sailed. I fought that truth anyway.

“How long will it take you to reach the top?”

“Hard to tell,” I noted, admiring how the sun’s rays bathed in her hair, how her braid swung like a metronome across her back as she paddled. “Two, maybe three hours up and back.”

“What’s the attraction?”

“Because it’s there, and breaching the summit, but rappelling is my true joy. I love the feeling of jumping out into space. Three hours up; fifteen seconds down.”

“Would you teach me to climb, or am I too fat for your ropes?”

It required a moment to re-orient my thoughts, to reconsider her physique. Odera had not been particularly active prior to returning to Canada, but over the course of the last year that had all changed. Now, health and vigour radiated from her in waves. If she started a stamina routine specifically designed to strengthen muscles and to grow a few more, I didn’t see a problem. Feistiness and courage were assets she had in abundance.

“Are you afraid of heights?”

“Not really.”

“We can mix an indoor climbing wall with guide rope climbs up the backside of a few slopes. Say, a 2500-metre guided ropewalk up a beginner incline to start with. Graduation will be your first all-nighter in a bat bag.”

“A what?”

“A sleeping bag clipped to the side of a mountain.”

“Seriously?”

“It’s nerve-racking, at first, but then you forget you’re hanging in the air with nothing below but pain. I’ll hook one up five feet from the ground.” I eased us up to the wall. “Spend a night in a bat bag and most other climbing fears evaporate.”

“You are serious.”

“Yup.” I dug into the duffel bag and pulled out a clinking and clanking utility belt. “Climbing is a delicate act to balance flexibility against strength. It pits your talents against yourself. There’s never a loser.” I slung two coils of rope bandolier style across my chest. “You can’t appreciate the rewards until you try it. Give me six months to build up your tendons and muscles and you’ll become Catwoman.”

“Don’t get all gung-ho on me. I’m not sure if I can even do a guided rope climb, but I’d like to try if you think I won’t slow you down too much.”

“It’s not a race. The only competition is between you and the mountain. One never knows what one can do when one doesn’t know what one can’t do.”

“Where do you want me to wait?”

“Anywhere but beneath me. I could crush you if I fell, and who knows what rocks or equipment might drop. There’s nothing you can do but call for help if I get stuck. You brought your cell, right?”

“No bars in no-man’s-land.”

“If you want to watch, paddle over to the beach. I’m going up the northeast face. You’ll have a clear view, or you can paddle around and watch from the water.”

The canoe rocked as I pulled myself up onto the wall.

“Did you bring a bat bag?” I looked back. “Don’t get stuck or I may be forced to return tomorrow. Not sure if I want to drive all the way out of here just to come all the way back on the same day.”

“Go on, get out of here,” I instructed, enjoying her swooping bathing suit from my vantage point.

“You’re only fifteen feet up.” Noting my eyes, she said, “Shouldn’t you be concentrating in the other direction?”

“I’m serious, Mansbridge. Don’t wait there,” I repeated, acknowledging the warm way she had begun to look at me while realizing it was mutual. “If I drop something heavy, it will punch a hole in the canoe.”

“Fine. By the way, cute climbing shorts. Can I post a picture of you in tights on my Facebook page? You couldn’t hide a quarter in those things. Say cheesy!” She laughed as I raised my middle finger. Two more camera phone clicks memorialized the day. “Have you been practicing being warm and accommodating in the mirror again?”

That threat regarding a Facebook posting was an empty one. The fact that I trusted her, rather than suspected she’d actually post pictures, said more to me than anything else did. Rather than reply, I turned my attention to the wall. Odera would linger all day if I did not concede the last word. I removed a piton from my belt and pounded it into a fissure. Banging metal muffled Odera’s voice. Using an anchor when I was fifteen feet above the lake was unnecessary, especially since an ascent path to the summit had already been laid out by a previous climber, but loud hammering brought peace of mind. I justified the addition of the piton as my intent to map out a more challenging route, which symbolized and paralleled my feelings surrounding my relationship with Odera, and with Facebook. It’s getting complicated.

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