Until Death Valley Do Us Part

posted Mar 31, 2010, 8:18 PM by Paul Wagner

So there we were in Death Valley, facing a fractured and towering wall of geology.  We were at a tough spot in the hike, where only a very steep ascent over some very crumbly rock would allow us to proceed.  I had worked my way most of the way up it, but M had made it clear she was NOT up for the game this time.  So I came back down and we discussed our next move.  I had to admit that it was pretty crumbly, and a slip could be fatal.  We would find other things to do. 

As we watched, a fellow hiker calmly picked his way past us up an even steeper face, climbing at times 150 feet above the canyon floor, before disappearing over the ridge and further up the canyon.  I was impressed with his skill, but not really with his common sense.  At one point he dislodged a rock high above us, and didn’t call out a warning.  That’s a  bad move in my book—I was ALWAYS taught to yell a warning to those below.  And at another point he crept down a ledge and appeared to lose his footing, only to save himself by grabbing hold of a boulder lower down.  When you are 75 feet up, that’s living a little too dangerously for me. 

Into this picture walked a young couple who were clearly having a few relationship issues.  The young woman was awed by the dexterity of the climber, and said so.  I made a non-committal reply, preferring to wait and see if the guy was able to get back down again before I became a believer.  (We met him on another trail later in the day, a charming man, and yes, he did get himself down without any problems.)

The young man started tentatively up the slope I had climbed, and I told him that I tried it, and thought it would work—but that the rock was really crumbly. He charmingly informed me with a smile that “she is much better at this stuff than I am.”  There was something in the way he said it that made me think she had spent some time on a climbing wall in a gym.  And that he wasn’t holding up his end of the bargain.

I noted that it would be better to keep a distance between climbers, so that any falling rocks wouldn’t kill his partner. And she replied to me:  “Well, that depends on the state of your matrimony, doesn’t it?”

She was funny, in a tart and clever way, but she also was not happy about something.  M said later that she might have been an English Major (an amusing note since M is an English Major herself) but a point well taken, nevertheless.   

We didn’t see any reason to let them spoil our day.  So we hiked back down the canyon until we found a side canyon that looked like fun.  We happily followed its twists and turns and started to explore, leaving the young couple to their worries.

Here again, the canyon narrowed, and a steep wall of marble presented an obstacle.  But it was one I was sure we could overcome.  M was not so sure.  She suggested that I go ahead and see what lay above, while she considered her options.  By the time I returned, she had scaled the marble, and together we explored another half-mile of the isolated canyon. 

When we returned to the dry marble waterfall, the young couple was there, clearly having words yet again.  They had both managed to climb it, and seemed to be at an impasse.  He turned to me and told me that he thought he needed a bit of food or something before he was ready to do more exploring…and I could see he was a bit shaken, from hunger, fear, or both.  And while he told me this, she started carefully climbing back down the pitch of marble, face to the rock, focusing on each move. I wanted to encourage them to explore—they had done the hard part already—and so I turned to the young man and said: “If you go just a bit further, there is a very nice…”

And here the young woman interrupted me with a forceful:  “Would you be quiet please?”  And she forced a tight little smile.

Well yes I would.  I let her climb down in peace, while he looked at me a bit sheepishly.  Once she was all the way down, I told him quietly: “There’s a very cool boulder lodged in the canyon up above.  It’s worth a trip—it looks just like the one that chased Harrison Ford in one of his movies.”

The young man nodded his head, then encouraged me to go down the marble waterfall.  In fact, he insisted that M and I both go down, before he made his attempt.  I don’t think he wanted us to watch him struggle, and I saw no reason to argue.  Nor did I see any reason to fully climb down the pitch.  The slope wasn’t vertical, and there were enough steps that I simply walked back down it, the way you would walk down a flight of stairs. 

M thought about things for a minute, then decided that she would follow the young woman’s example, and face the rock.  She climbed a bit, got stuck for a second, and asked for advice.  I gave her a little encouragement…but really, she didn’t need it.  By the time she asked what she should do next, I was able to tell her that her foot was about four inches above the bottom.  She was down. 

The young woman was glowing with praise for M:  “You showed some very strong leg muscles there!”  And so she had.  Sisterhood is clearly powerful, at least in the legs.  At this point the young woman decided to go back up again and climbed past us. As she went, I mentioned that we had lots of food with us, and would be happy to give them some of it.

“No thank you.” She replied with a controlled edge to her voice.

And so we left them. They were young, and maybe in love. They probably didn’t have enough food or water, and they were having a miserable time.

We spent the rest of the day exploring and chatting.  Clambering up and shimmying down.  We ate lunch hanging a thousand feet above a canyon, watching people like ants wandering around below. 

We were older, probably more than twice their age.  But we had food, and plenty of water.  And still in love after more than thirty years of marriage.  Then again, we’ve learned how to help each other have a good time.