Rock-climbers will say that sheer strength is not the main thing, that balance and the proper use of gravity are the skills most needed for this sport, but I don’t think they are telling the truth. Serious rock-climbers increase their shirt sizes by several notches after they’ve been doing it for awhile, because of the development of the muscles on their backs.
And that’s about the extent of my knowledge on the specifics of rock-climbing, although I did do it once. It was an experience that moved me and stuck with me, although I can’t say I was changed by it (except for the flare-up of a brief and semi-serious crush on my friend George). It contained a life clue, that’s all, and I’ve been puzzling over it since.
Suffering and survival seem to be the thing for big-time rock climbers—those who climb huge mountains that are 27,000 feet high, traversing terrains of ice. There are many possible occasions for suffering on a mountain: cold, dehydration, exhaustion, frostbite, hypothermia, hypoxemia, impaired judgment, mental confusion, avalanches, and falls. But when I climbed my rock, which was possibly only 27 feet high, I wasn’t thinking about survival—survival was surely a given. And I wasn’t suffering. It was a sunny day, I’d just had lunch, and I was roped and grommeted and attached to George, there on his ledge, patiently waiting for me to pick my way up.
Which I did, for awhile, until I was about 20 feet high. Then I became obsessed with the idea of falling. My entire body quaked and sweated and my right knee began quivering uncontrollably. I was, in fact, mortally afraid of falling and this feeling of fear was so bad that I looked for the first available opportunity to get rid of it. I bolted. And fell. On purpose.
George had to haul my pathetic, soggy self up to his little ledge. I—babbling with embarrassment and relief—was no help whatsoever, my limbs stuck out straight and useless, like those of a trussed-up horse.
I recovered, and even rappelled successfully down—this, somehow, was OK. Then George made me do it all again. He again roped and grommeted me and, after climbing nimbly up himself, he stoically assumed his previous position, giving me the high sign to begin climbing. I began. And I got to the same treacherous spot and broke out in the same sweats and knee shakes and whimpers and I did it again. I fell. On purpose. I just sort of slid into oblivion.
After poor George repeated the tedious procedure of hauling me up and bringing me around; after I’d again bravely and properly stepped backwards off the ledge and lowered myself to the ground; and after we were in the car, headed for home, I felt pure shame. Strength, balance, the proper use of gravity—these had new connotations for me. I felt a psychic weakness, I was morally whipped. This was a heart thing.
K2, the two-man play written by Patrick Meyers and directed by Michael Murphy of UM’s Department of Drama/Dance, is set on a small ledge somewhere on the second-highest mountain in the world. K2 was first conquered by Sir Edmund Hillary in l953. Since then over 130 people have died on the mountain. More than 50 people have been killed by avalanches. And at least 30 have died in falls.
This might seem like plenty of dramatic material for a play. But, then again, when undertaken with competence and no willful plunging, mountain climbing is, in fact, a very slow sport. Never mind the weeks of trekking back and forth from base camp to slightly higher camp and so on, even negotiating a rock is a painstaking process. Rock-climbing, it seems to me, is less about risk than methodology. Rock-climbers are nit-pickers, fussy about detail, and they are accountants, constantly running the numbers. They often appear to be stalemated. Even when all is going as planned, it can appear that stasis is the order of the day.
How to turn this, then, into drama? Two men stuck on a ledge, way up in the air. You could look for it to be a Waiting for Godot on ice, or maybe a roped-and-grommeted My Dinner With Andre. Odd exchanges and close confidences, 27,000 feet above the sea. According to the press notes, “the cast has been working dutifully with a mountain climbing consultant to achieve an unparalleled level of reality for the climbing sequences involved” and the design team “has managed to bring the harsh setting of K2 to life on the Montana Theatre stage.”
That’s all fine but, as pointed out by Peter Stark in his prelude to Driving to Greenland, it is the very blankness of snow and ice that makes them a ready stage for meaning. (And as Harold says to Taylor near the end of the play, “Mountains are metaphors, buddy, in case you forgot.”)
Viewed in this light and from my own vantage point, what strikes me the most, the fact I most want to know more about, is that—at the play’s beginning—the men already have fallen.
K2 will be performed in The Montana Theatre in UM’s PARTV Building, Oct. 12-16 at 7:30 p.m. with a 2 p.m. matinee Saturday, Oct. 16. Tickets $12 general, $10 students and seniors. Call 243-4581.