bent in an L-shape on the lip of Castle Rock’s Saber Ledge, my legs
flailing in the dry air 120 feet off the ground. A sling dangles inches from
but I cannot move to it. Below me, my rope is pinned to the rock in an insane
cradle; it goes up the Canary route, then down, then across, then up again.
I have created enough rope drag to halt a tank in its tracks. My ample ass
hangs over the edge of the ledge; my humiliation is complete, well, almost.
Groaning, as if giving birth, I heave myself onto the ledge. A tortuous minute
or two of twisting and turning and I am safely tied in and almost upright.
But the rope is locked solid, super-glued to the rock. I pull, while at the
other end, my partner, and mentor, Ron Miller, pulls. “It won’t
move, at all!” I scream at Ron. He leans back, looks up at me, and
his silence tells me all I need to know. Soon, he yells up that he will run
back to the car and fetch a second rope. A half-hour later a climber, who
has trailed it behind him, hands over the rope. I blush and belay, while
Ron cleans my mess. When he joins me on Saber, his wisp of a grin suggests
no anger. It seems to ask, rather, “Did you learn anything?” I
want to say yes, but I’m not sure. When he does speak it is to congratulate
me on the discovery of “Static Climbing.” Ron allows that rather
than finishing Canary, we should simply continue on the easier Saber route.
In the fall he will bring me back, show me the key to the lower pitch, hand
me the second lead, and I will succeed.
I had first met Ron at a new teacher’s meeting in Snohomish. He was a longshoreman, not a teacher, but his fiancée Barb was and he tagged along. I sat across the table from Ron and wondered if he was a climber. It had nothing to do with any Kreskinesque powers. In Snohomish in the early 1970s there were so few mountain climbers, that I asked the same question of almost anyone I met. On this evening I happened to be correct. Ron had already made many first ascents in the Central Cascades, climbed in Alaska, Yosemite, and played a vital role in Everett Mountain Rescue.
Ten years later we are in the Gunks. Ron has flown out to meet me in Alfred, New York. From Corning to New Paultz Ron peppers me with anagrams, conundrums, cryptograms, analogies, riddles and wordplay from Games Magazine. My vacant stares are not acceptable answers, and he leads me, gently at first, to the answer that he almost has to mouth before I slap my forehead in understanding. By the time we reach the Hudson River I have pretty much slapped myself silly.
We arrive as the weekend hordes are leaving and, walking down the shaded carriage road, which meanders beneath the Shawangunk cliffs, Ron suggests a viciously overhanging 5.10 as our baptism of Gunk. He likes to make his first climb a 5.10er and since I am following, I don’t argue.
Ron knows exactly what he will need and strips unwanted carabiners, slings, Friends, and nuts from his rack. Before he has said, “climbing,” Ron has mapped out the terrain in his head. Although he does not have the balletic flair of some climbers, Ron moves with fluid precision. An economical and methodical climber, he doesn’t lunge. He doesn’t talk. He doesn’t panic. I lean farther and farther back to watch him unscramble the route. Near the belay ledge he is stymied. He steps up, gingerly backtracks, and repeats, and repeats, and repeats. Neither body nor voice betrays fear. The only indication that he is being challenged is an occasional woof of labored breathing, or rarer yet, a muttered “oh man.”
Only when he reaches the belay does Ron talk about the near falls and missteps. He calls down detailed instructions, but the moment my fingers wedge into the cold cracks I am doing the dance of desperation: reaching wildly for holds I hope are within my reach, forgetting that I have feet, lunging spastically, bonking my head, scraping my knees, and almost hyperventilating. With the rope taut I am able to bumble my way up to Ron on the belay ledge. Later that week I will take a 20-foot ground fall when three points of suspension are dramatically reduced to one, an undercling. In the infinity of the moment before gravity grabs me by the ankles, I see Ron between my legs and the next he’s gone and I am bouncing off a tree branch and plowing headfirst into a boulder. Standing with a mouthful of dirt, oddly unhurt, I look to Ron, whose ashen face and dropped jaw speaks volumes. Except for a gentle admonition to place more protection, he is blessedly silent. But he takes the lead.
Monday evenings, when I flop onto the Crags swayback couch to lace up my climbing shoes, Ron has usually arrived, warmed up and begun climbing. Jack Bennett may be watching and offering mock advice to Ron, quick to call out, “eehh!” if he even brushes against a hold tagged with a different color. When it is his turn to observe, Ron will provide a running commentary on Jack’s mistakes. When Jack’s wife Connie succeeds on a route, both Ron and Jack will dub it a short person’s route. I draw attention only when I completely botch a climb—turning in circles at least twice, like a cat curling into a sleeping position, in a chimney, arms and legs pretzeled, the Crags spinning.
With the regulars, Ron is voluble, comfortable, but in a larger group, he retreats to the periphery, hesitant to join in conversation, until he is sure of the terrain. Ron hosts an annual slide show at Frank Rentko’s workshop climbing wall, dubbed the Horizontal Club, but he never shows slides of his trips. He studiously sidesteps the spotlight, but spends several days making sure everything is done perfectly, whether it is perfecting his seafood chowder, finding enough chairs, or ordering the keg from Scuttlebutts.
On the compact Crags’ routes, with marbled knobs, Day-Glo crimpers, and flugelhorned “Thank God” holds, taped red, blue, and black, I begin to observe Ron, and, more importantly, remember when he matches, when he turns his hips to the right or left, backsteps or high steps. It is a revelation, twenty-five years in the making. Although I still bump my head on holds, lunge maniacally for others and too often give up after one try, I am holding on longer, climbing within myself, thinking more than one hold ahead, and becoming less the climber’s apprentice and more Ron’s climbing peer. One night, as we leave the Crags, he tells me that I have really improved. Ron is incapable of bullshit, and I can think of no higher compliment.
One winter evening as we are driving home from the Crags, across the Everett Trestle, Ron goes silent for a second and then says, “Mac, I’ve got to tell you, I think I’m in for the fight of my life. I may have ALS.” Gut-punched and lightheaded, I whisper, “Oh, my God.” Words are what I’m good at, but suddenly words seem inconsequential and wrong. When we reach my house, I want to give him a hug, but Ron doesn’t hug guys, so I punch him lightly on the shoulder, my hand opening, and sliding uselessly down his arm. I tell him not to give up hope; if there is anything I can do; he’ll find a way; the tests were flawed…I am embarrassed by the Hallmark mush and wish simply, and horribly, to be away, away from Ron, away from death.
We don’t stop climbing, but the impending tests are not mentioned. Ron does labor a bit; there are the cramps in the feet, spasms in the calves, an inability to fight through a tough move. Those of us who know edge around the subject, afraid that uttering ALS will make it so. Ron retains his good humor and continues to badger Jack on every route.
The tests from the University of Washington confirm ALS. I call Evelyn Himple, a woman who was encouraged to climb by Ron. She is devastated and tells me that Ron’s response was a terse “I’m fucked.” I am afraid to drop by, afraid of what I will find. Instead I email him; I am such a chicken. But in my message I can tell him how much he means to me without him cutting me off. I close with a dumb joke; I know no others. A few days later his reply shows up in my inbox. He is upbeat, and, in an offhand way, thanks me for my concern and closes with a bad joke of his own. He isn’t going to give up. There are other avenues to explore, outside of traditional medicine. Over the next two years he will learn to give himself shots, hook himself up to an IV, administer and keep track of a daunting array of pills and foul-tasting liquids. He approaches his regimen much as he approaches a climb; all possibilities mapped out beforehand: syringes, tubing, IV fluid, cupcake holders filled with round pills, pink pills, gel caps, and powders arranged neatly on the rec-room pool table. There are schedules of appointments and dosages. There is little margin for error, but each day Ron follows the schedule without incident. His doctor promises that he should begin to see improvement, but inexorably the disease is robbing him of strength and mobility.
Ron continues to climb, and I am treated to a graduate level course in climbing. His left foot no longer extends (he now swings his left foot when he walks, and it slaps the ground) and he almost has to hoist it onto holds. By transferring his weight to the right, he can move his left foot onto a hold. His thumbs have become almost useless appendages, but he looks for the holds that don’t require a thumb. He reinvents himself as a climber. He is racked by periodic spasms and cramps, so he is forced to climb a route without stretching too much.
For over a year Ron climbs well—5.9s become his 5.11s—but walking across the street leaves him spent and quietly he says goodbye to the gym. His doctor says he needs to conserve his strength, but Jack, Connie and I wonder what the loss of the Crags will do to Ron. Less than a year before his death, he will return (by then someone has to tie his shoes) and struggle up a 5.7 route, sweat beading on his forehead, short gasps with almost every move. But those of us who witness his climbing then know we are seeing something rare, a mind willing an ever-increasingly useless body to move from hold to hold to the top. I am awed but my heart breaks.
Ron and I begin watching movies on a weekly basis. Walking down the stairs to his rec room has become a climb in itself. And he begins asking for help. A hand around his shoulder is as close as I will ever get to giving him a hug. I wish there was some way to infuse some of my energy into his body.
One evening when I come over for a visit, he recounts a harrowing tale. He had returned from the clinic only to find himself locked out. Walking to the sliding rec-room doors he fell on his back. He could not get up. As Ron tells the story I am reminded of other climbing stories. Ron liked to mime every move of a climb, his hands reaching out and grabbing imaginary holds, each hold punctuated by a soft “thwuck” sound, to indicate “solid.” Lying in the grass, Ron said he knew that if he failed to get up he might die of exposure—it was raining—and so he reached his right hand to the latticework around his hot tub and “thwuck” he nailed it, and then the same with his left. He locked off with the right and pulled himself up. It is a classic Ron story, but it also points out his weakness and vulnerability.
Over three summers I leave for the east coast, and each summer I expect to hear that Ron has died. I am hesitant to email, but the first two summers I return to find him struggling but upbeat. I know he has had his moments of despair and on occasion he hints as much to me—He saves those raw, emotional moments for a very few people. For his friends and relatives, he seeks to make them, us, feel better about his condition. He does not lose his sense of humor or his sometimes brusque frankness. One evening, shortly before his last slide show, I tell him my show this year is going to be great (I have no great trips, so I specialize in broad, sophomoric humor). Ron looks at me and says, “Good, because last year your show wasn’t that good.” Strangely, it feels good to be the object of Ron’s candid assessment, at least after I have licked my wounds.
In August of 2003 when I return from New England, I find Ron in a wheel chair and on oxygen. There is little of the optimism of past summers. We watch a few movies together, and my choices tend toward mindless silliness and scantily clad women. Rare moments of humor leaven the sense of the end of things.
A week before his death Cliff Leight and I sit at Ron’s dining room table and Cliff talks of a few climbs at Index. He asks Ron about one of them. He seems foggy at first, but then he begins to recall the climb and the hands began to move, but there are no “thwucks.” He apologizes for the story, but Cliff and I are happy to see him back on rock again.
Just before he goes into the hospital I visit. He is watching a University of Washington football game. Every few minutes he nods off. A neighbor has made a batch of his seafood stew and his wife Barb is getting it ready. Although drowsy, he wants to know in what order the sour cream and other ingredients have been added. He is sure something is amiss. He has Barb print off a copy of the recipe and sure enough, there has been a mistake. Ron doesn’t miss a thing. Barb, who a few months before suffered a detached retina, tousles his hair and lovingly gives him what for, the sort of comment that couples who have been married for 30 years make, full of love and comfortableness. For a moment Ron’s condition is forgotten and it is lovely. I leave then.
In less than a week friends and relatives are gathered around his hospital bed, and he sees us, he raises his head and he tries to talk, but he wears an oxygen mask, and we can’t hear, we can only guess, and we’ll never know. That night, at home, I collapse, anguished wails and sobs, and my wife rocks me in her arms, my daughters watch helplessly, and I cannot stop. I know he was saying goodbye, and I wasn’t ready. And the next morning Ron is gone, his last night spent with his wife, his dogs, his mother and brothers.
A month later 150 friends, family and co-workers gather at Cascade Crags to say goodbye to Ron. His climbing mentor, Kenn Carpenter, is there, along with old climbing partner, Ben Guydelkon. There are old Everett Mountaineers, members of Everett Mountain Rescue, Bellingham buddies Bob Kandiko and Karen Neubauer, and a contingent from the docks, burly men, who quietly took a shift for Ron each month after he was unable to so that he wouldn’t lose his health insurance. And there are those of us who followed Ron into the mountains and came back climbers: Rich Carlstad, Dave Hutchinson, Monte Tuengel, Cliff Leight, Frank Rentko, Dan Waters, and me. He would have cringed at such a public display of affection, and couldn’t hug us, but he would have stunned us with some act of generosity, yes he would.
Today, a T-shirt hangs from the rafters at the Crags, bearing Ron’s name and membership number. I see it every Monday when I come to climb. One evening, as I disappear into the cushions of another sagging sofa, it comes to me that for his last three years, I had become Ron’s student once again, as he taught me how to die. And, as with climbing, it is a lesson I am absorbing slowly, one move at a time.
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