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Eric G. Müller

The Climb

“Let’s climb it.”

We were lying on a massive bolder, sunbathing at the bottom of Tonquani Gorge—a deep and narrow cleft that cut through the rugged Magaliesburg Mountains, an hour north of Johannesburg. It was midday and we were in our undies, enjoying the sun while it lasted, after a swim in one of the chilly rock pools. Soon the shadows would start moving in. I’d been eying the approximately two-hundred foot vertical cliff for a while, thinking it would be a cinch to climb.

A few weeks ago we’d come here with the Wits Mountaineering Club and climbed with ropes and things. We’d both found it ridiculous having to use all the climbing gear for such easy climbs on the upper end of the gorge. Of course, the idea was to get us used to handling the climbing equipment—bolts and hangers, belay and rappel devices, biners, harnesses, anchor slings, and whatever other accessories were demonstrated.

Pierre looked up at the craggy sandstone cliff, squinted and said, “Okay, why not?” We got up, naked as we were, except for our briefs, and not without some bravado—“we don’t need no fancy climbing stuff!”—started climbing, using only our bare hands and feet. We made swift progress. There were plenty of ruts and furrows for us to make steady headway.

Soon, however, I began to tire and wanted to rest my arms and legs—not so easy when you’re hanging on a vertical cliff. I slowed down, remembering that climbers need to pace themselves. Then I made the silly mistake of looking down. The boulder we’d sunbathed on so insouciantly just a short while ago looked surprisingly small. We must have been anywhere between fifty and seventy five feet up. Fear walloped my breath away and my blood drained from my face. I could feel a dead-weight pulling me down. Looking up I saw how far I still had to climb. Instantaneously I thought of jumping, but I’d never survive; or of pushing myself off the cliff wall to land in the rock pool. The chances of making it were slim, at best; and severe injuries a certainty.

I tried climbing down, but after a tentative attempt I saw the absolute futility of that naïve notion. Not only my knees, but my whole body turned to jelly—an apt cliché. It was a miracle I was even able to hold onto the cliff at all. I marveled at the mysterious force. It seemed like my willpower had a mind of its own, taking charge while I was dissolving. I looked in wonder at my hands and fingers clasping the rock so tightly. What made them do that? What if they’d just let go without my consent? My mind was bubbling over.

“Pierre.” He was about two yards to the right of me.


“I can’t go on.” I felt like a wimp, confessing my dilemma.

“Really! Well, guess what?”

“What?” I was expecting him to poke fun at me.

“Nor can I!”

“Oh shit!”

We clung against the wall in silence. Hapless! But really there was only one thing to do—climb to the top. We couldn’t help each other. We were utterly on our own—two almost naked people stuck on a cliff face. Suddenly the idea of ropes, harnesses, bolts, and hangers seemed very appealing. We didn’t even have a thread to hang on. It seemed absurd to think how quickly and close-up death had suddenly come. I pictured myself falling—felt it in every sweaty pore. Images of parents and friends shot through my mind. Would my entire life rise up like a tapestry in the moment of dropping? I began to think of my childhood, the places I’d lived, people I’d met, things I’d done. Random images welled up, distracting me—it’s already happening...I’m already seeing my past flit by...must breathe deep...

To gain strength I leaned my head against the sun-drenched cliff, hugged it with my entire body. It was no longer a foe to conquer, but a friend to love. I stayed still like that till my breathing had stabilized itself and my thoughts had regained their focus. I told myself: slowly does it, must advance slowly, one movement at a time...must pause in between...must never look down...

So I started to climb, and out of the corner of my eyes I saw Pierre do the same. We didn’t speak another word. We heard each other pant, merging with the sound of the cicadas below us and the far-off bark of baboons. Blood thumped through my temples. Time was sucked into the all encompassing moment. My senses were on high alert. My fingers and feet felt the contours of each rock, testing it for its strength. Upwards, inch for inch, foot for foot, we climbed, in intimate contact with the cliff. When I did dare to look up I saw we only had a couple of yards to go. It wouldn’t do to lose focus now, not now, right before the end. The sun was shining down hard on us. But it was the sun at the top of the gorge.

Pierre made it up first. He gave me his strong hand and pulled me to safety. Without a word we both crawled a few feet away from the edge and fell down flat, giving way to gravity at last. We’d made it. I was elated with relief. I’d been given a new lease on life—after almost succumbing to hubris. I was eighteen at the time, and in that supine moment I swore that I'd never again treat life as lightly as I had treated that cliff-face at Tonquani Gorge, South Africa.

©2010 by Eric G. Müller

Eric G. Müller was born in Durban, South Africa, and studied literature and history at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. After a few years working at a variety of jobs, playing and performing music, and traveling around Europe, he attended Emerson College in Sussex, England and the Waldorf Institute in Witten-Annen, Germany, where he specialized in music education. Together with his family he moved to Eugene, Oregon, where he taught for eight years. Currently he is living in upstate New York, teaching music, drama, English literature, and creative writing. His novel, Rites of Rock (Adonis 2005) is a fast-moving and riveting saga that examines the phenomenon of rock music. In Coffee on the Piano for You, Müller presents old and new poetry written mostly while traveling or drinking coffee. His second novel, Meet Me at the Met, (Plain View Press, 2010) is an in-depth account of a man who endeavors to come to terms with himself and the world at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Articles, short stories, and poetry have appeared in various journals and magazines. For more information see his Web site.

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