It Is Water Though It’s Frozen – Nakai Garcia
December 28, 2022
What is a piton? Did Noland tell me or did he show me? At some point, as I fell in love with him, he taught me that a piton was a piece of rock climbing protection you cram into the crack of a wall and bludgeon in. Every successive hit rings a tone in the metal tool, which gets higher in pitch the deeper it goes. When no further note is rung, you know it’s been beaten as far as it can go and will hold all your weight as you ascend.
Noland moved to Boulder from Seattle last winter. He’d come to search for the lost waterfall the ice climbers around here had been mythologizing. Jeff Lowe claimed he spotted it deep in the Rockies. I’d seen the same photo of it passed around a hundred times while serving their post-climb beers at Mountain Sun. It was this xeroxed-to-shit black and white photo of a thin ice runnel going up some mountain. The boys theorized it was a thousand feet. With a little more beer they’d say, “No, it’s gotta be fifteen hundred.” None of those weekend warriors ever looked for it. They didn’t have the fascination with the torture required to suffer the climb. Noland did. That’s why I’m sure he’s found it. And why he’s not just missing, but dead.
I was born and raised here in Boulder but hadn’t thought of the mountains as anything more than a reminder of where’s West. I didn’t even ski. But I understood the boys when they romanticized the brutality of climbing because I was once a swimmer. I trained for the 92 Barcelona Olympic Games with coach Kurt Ezner, the guy who was indicted for his abusive training regimen. My career ended before he got caught because I had a panic attack during my Olympic qualifier. I quit swimming after that. And, when the prospect of being an American Olympian fell down, my mother, who’d pushed the whole thing since I was a little girl, had no reason to call anymore. She’d been building a dream out of me and that dream was over when I flailed in the water. The only thing that made her proud was that I didn’t stoop to teaching swimming lessons. I wasn’t going to push this “dream” on children. I served beer instead.
I met Noland because he was on the moving crew for my new apartment in South Boulder, paid for by my mother after a tense phone call. I’d made a scene one night by trashing my awards and trophies in the community garbage. The next morning, my landlord called and said he’d like me out by the end of the week.
When the truck pulled in, Noland caught my eye immediately. It wasn’t hard. Among the tableaux of grimey, strong-fat, and waddling movers, Noland was taut, wiry, and sure-footed. He hung on the back of the truck and directed the driver into my complex, hopped off and spotted me in the window. He was about my age, late twenties, and was dark and gorgeous, but he wore this punk mullet as if to sabotage his good looks.
When he started packing my things, I tried to get him to notice me. I was staring at him while he hog-tied the legs of a tripod lamp I owned. He yanked the tape around, bit off the excess, dropped the thing, and looked up as if to see his time on a scoreboard. I said silently it was okay to look me up and down. I recognized aggressive vulnerability in him. The kind you get after years of your swim coach holding your head underwater until you get your breath-pace right. It was a caged, lavender glint of the eyes I’d seen in others like me. He was suddenly more than magnetic. He was kin.
When the movers were unloading at my new apartment, I gave Noland permission to look through the shoddily-taped box of swimming memorabilia I’d forgotten to purge.
“Swimmer, huh?” he said, inspecting a trophy with a golden figure cocked to dive.
“I used to be.”
He flipped through pictures of an album. “Is that that one coach?” I leaned in to see it. “Yes.”
He looked me up and down again but this time with honored wakefulness. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“It’s never over,” he said under his breath.
That caught me off guard, so I just wiped the window sill and looked at the dust on my hand.
“Do you climb?” he asked.
“Um, no. God no.”
He shrugged, dropped the album, and began wandering around, picking off the tartar behind his bottom teeth and wiping it on his Levi’s. If he was any less attractive, it would have been repulsive.
“Use the pin of an earring like an adult,” I said with a laugh.
He took his hand out of his mouth and reached for my ear, pulled out my own earring, and scraped his teeth with it as he kept pacing.
I saw him at Mountain Sun a few days later. To my surprise, he was already with a couple of the boys. They’d all just come down from Longs Peak. He followed them through the door and under the prayer flags my manager placed to attract climbers. Skip, their old-school, orange-haired leader, donning red gear, had his arm around Noland. That meant he was initiated. I could see, however, that Noland’s cheeks were flushed and he was wiping away tears. He wasn’t hiding it or anything. I found the nearest tray of beer and rushed over. I let Skip do the introductions.
“Noland,” Skip said, half shouting through Depeche Mode and banter. “You gotta meet Madison.”
“I know her,” he said, still wiping his tears.
“Why’s he crying?” I said.
Noland looked up at me joyfully. “I’m just having a really good day.”
“He put up a new route on the Diamond,” Skip clinched Noland’s neck like a proud father. “He’s gonna be the best goddamn ice climber in North America.”
The sweetness I saw in Noland made me want to steal him forever, but I kept cool. “Best ice climber in North America? For how long?” I said with a macabre tone. I could hear them laugh as I returned to the kitchen.
When the bar was clearing out I was disappointed because Noland didn’t come up and try some enigmatic flirtation. I only had enough energy to go home and sleep, but he didn’t even look back to acknowledge we had something. We never made eye contact. I realized that, for him, climbing must have come before women. Most of the boys climbed to get women. Athletes like Noland and the athlete I used to be, if we could rip out our sex drives, we would.
As a send-off celebration before the Ouray Ice Festival, where most of the boys competed in ice-climbing events, Skip threw these parties at his house on the Hill near CU. His parties ushered in the winter season. I’d usually go with some girls from Mountain Sun, dance, tolerate the machismo, and maybe take home a new climbing tourist. Some guys came as far as New Zealand, Austria, or France. Skip got all these great connections from the outdoor company he’d started with his wife, Frankie. His house was like the climbing embassy of the Rockies. This year, I was eager to get Noland alone.
I cut through the Patagonia-adorned crowd on the first floor and descended the wooden stairs to find him in the basement, a beer in his hand, looking at Skip’s map of the Colorado 14ers with two other guys. Down there the walls were covered in experimental equipment designs, busted hooks and tools that gripped ropes, ice picks, and stacks of Gore-Tex fabrics. They didn’t notice me as I stepped behind them. I watched Noland’s rock-busted fingers trace the map.
“That peak in the background of the photo could be Wildhorse,” he said. “If so, this face and the waterfall itself are in the gorge here.” He tapped the map, “Where else can you find that much vertical relief in the San Juans?”
“Still looking for the holy grail?” I said finally.
They looked back for a second with dead eyes and returned to the map. I said, “I heard that photo is a hoax,” and started to walk away.
“What do you mean?” they said.
“It looks like a photo of TV static. You know how easy it would be to doctor-in that ice with whiteout?”
“Take that back,” Noland said.
“You boys are so hot for the next big thing. You don’t think maybe someone faked it to watch you trample each other?”
Noland pulled out his copy of the xerox, then the other two guys did as well. One even had it in his wallet like a photo of the Madonna. They checked their copies, looked at each other, then leered at me with grimaces. “It’s not fake,” they groaned and batted me away.
I went back upstairs to get drunk and waited for Noland to do the same. This time, he found me, around 2 am on the back porch. I was breathing the subzero air and meditating on its lethal temperature flash-freezing my lungs, choking on it, and finding pleasure when my throat thawed. He came out in sweatpants, a purple fleece with socks, and Tevas.
“Who told you it was fake?” he said, leaning on the balustrade.
“Can’t remember. Besides, I’ve never even seen a mountain up close.”
“You’re just trying to piss me off.”
“What am I supposed to do with that?”
“What do you want to do with it?”
He scratched his chin. He hadn’t shaved since Long’s Peak, so I heard it. “What would you name the route?” I said. “If you got to be the first one to climb it.”
“I don’t name it before I climb it.”
“Oh, please. All of you guys have a list of crude, fear-inducing titles ready-made to glorify your climbs.”
“If this route is what we think it is, I’ll name it Shut Up And Swallow.”
I covered my mouth and blurted out laughing. I tried to wave away any interpretation of mockery, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I like it. That’s good.”
“You’ve never climbed before right?”
“Then don’t laugh,” he said with a smile.
I took a deep breath of the icy air and coughed like I’d been smoking.
“I can’t start anything with you,” he said soberly.
“I don’t remember saying I wanted to start anything.”
“It always turns into something.”
“That’d be your choice.”
“You’d get me killed.”
I turned to face him with a twisted face, “Have you ever heard of ‘the ick’?”
“No.” He sipped his beer.
“You know, I can’t imagine being this high-strung is an advantage in the mountains.”
I couldn’t believe I was working that hard. Then, I realized that getting laid was the last priority for both of us, and being known was first. So of course it was this hard. After a moment, I asked where he was staying.
“Here. With Skip.”
New Order was blasting inside the house with plenty of people still dancing in the windows. “Looks like sleeping isn’t an option for you tonight. I’ll let you decide how you want to lose it. You know where my place is.”
I took a shower at home and got into my wool panties and a sweater and cranked the space heater in my room. Blue frost had spider-webbed on the windows. The tripod lamp was still wrapped up in the corner. I heard Noland’s Ranger pull into the lot, idle for a minute, then turn off. He jogged up the stairs leading to the second-story apartments. Then his surprisingly gentle knock hit my door.
We lied in bed in the dark and he put his hand over my waist and nestled his head to my thigh. He wanted to know about swimming.
“I was first at the Nationals in 90,” I told him. “What did it do for you?”
“It did everything for me. I was good at it and not a lot else, so I built myself around it.”
He leaned up and sat cross-legged. “I know some people get into something else if the first thing doesn’t work out. Like cycling. You got something else now?”
“It wasn’t about swimming. Since I was pretty good at it, you know, it was technically the path of least resistance to what I actually wanted, which was to do something my mother wouldn’t believe.”
“Your mom was tough, huh?”
“I think that would offend parents who are merely tough. But sure.”
“Yeah,” he said with that recognition I knew was in him.
We were silent for a bit before I said, “Are you just waiting for me to ask you why you climb?”
“Good. Because I’ve heard it all,” I said as I turned on my side.
“No you haven’t,” he said quickly.
“Self-Actualization. To see what you’re made of. ‘Because it’s there’?”
“That’s all bullshit.” He put his head against my chest.
I ran my long-ish nails through his hair and down the back of his neck. I already knew why he climbed—to have some agency over pain. And he knew I knew that, because he didn’t say a word as he traced the cutting scars from my teenage years that lead up my stomach. All 36 of them inflicted precisely where my one-piece suit had hidden them from my coach, my mother. I felt his calloused fingertips climb up each scar like ladder rungs.
He stayed the night, and we woke up at eleven the next morning. He ran off, as it was an aerobic day in his training schedule and he was eager to start. I thought about him all day at work. I thought about his touch. I was excited to see where we could take it, to see if I could trust him with the sort of aggression I needed with intimacy.
In the days leading up to Ouray, I saw him a few more times. We eventually started having sex, but it was surprisingly tame and a little disappointing. I felt too nervous to ask for what I wanted in the beginning, and he seemed to struggle to do his thing, too afraid to push through inhibitions. The third time we had sex, I finally told him, “Push my head down, in the blanket, push me down,” but he didn’t hear me and said, “What?” and I just spouted, “Faster,” and tried to submerge my face into the sheets myself. Before I could fade away, he finished, and the air found me again.
In those weeks, I tried to keep our topics away from climbing or swimming or pain. I think that gave him some reprieve. He was lighter with me then. I’d watch him sort through his gear while I drank chamomile in my recliner. His ritual was all about cutting out the dead weight. I saw him cut loops off his harness and unnecessary pockets in his pack. He even cut out the tags in his snow pants. Everything that he didn’t want to carry to the top, he cut away. When the ice festival finally came around, he left without saying anything. Probably to get psyched, I told myself.
I tried my best to not be a wreck the day he left. While aiding our short-staffed food preps I cut my finger. Then I carried out the trash to the restaurant dumpster and it spilled and I had to pick up the nasty scraps with numb hands. Then I slipped on the ice and bruised something in my ass. I drank tequila at the end of the day and got nothing but a sharp pain in my gut and a vice-grip headache. One of those days where gravity itself is against you.
The next morning in my apartment I woke up early and decided to stretch and see how that felt after all these years. I sat down, put my leg out, and leaned on it, and that familiar tearing sensation spread from the back of my knee, igniting a white fire of tissue, and I saw it—the pain—side-winding like a scaled tunnel behind my eyelids. As I watched it, my bruised ass and ice-scraped fingertips faded away. I leaned up quickly and brought my knee to my chest, and I was met with eyelid-drooping pleasure in the pit of my stomach. I thought about what pleasure Noland was chasing with Shut Up And Swallow.
After the ice festival was over I went to work feeling peppy. One of the girls I work with—she draws on her eyebrows—caught me doing this dumb little foot dance. “The new guy, huh?” she said with one blocky brow arched.
The boys started trickling in slowly that evening, but Noland wasn’t with them. While taking the orders of four climbers, I asked where Skip was to hide my motives.
“His place,” said one with frozen cheeks. “Skip and the new guy are bushed. They ditched the festival and looked for the lost waterfall all weekend.”
“Did they find it?” I said, pouring their beers.
The foursome looked at each other. Then one said grimly, “Uh, Skip seems to think so, yeah. We didn’t see it though.”
“Well, that’s great right?”
“Yeah, sure,” one groaned.
I stopped pouring their mugs. “What’s the deal, boys?”
“It ain’t no waterfall ice.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“You know what verglas is, Madison?” said a guy whose head had been turned.
“It’s the stuff you scrape off your windshield in the morning. Skip and Noland said the route is a thousand feet of it. If it is the route. Either way, it’s fucking unclimbable.”
“All right, so? It’s unclimbable.”
“Noland says he wants to go for it anyway.”
“Where is he now?”
“Skip’s,” they said.
I just turned around and went back to the kitchen to be alone for a second. My brain cycled through excuses to leave work and go see him, but I decided I wasn’t close enough to him to be protective. I’d seem insane. I didn’t want to be insane. I wanted to be the one someone tried to catch when I fell, not the other way around.
I went home and found Noland waiting in my parking lot, leaning against his Ranger. He had that big, sweet smile again, but it didn’t sweep me away.
“Hey,” I said. “How long have you been here?”
“Not sure. An hour?”
“What’re you smiling about?”
“I found it.”
He shouldered his gear bag, followed me up the stairs, and tried to slap my ass, but I dodged his hand.
“Boy, do you have cerebral edema?”
As I was unlocking my door he felt me up and I elbowed him. “If you get me kicked out of here, you’re moving me for free.”
We went in, and he dropped his bag on the living room floor. Before I could take my coat off he came up behind me and wrapped a strand of climbing rope across my neck. It was pretty loose, but I wasn’t ready, so I laugh-screamed.
“Louder,” he said.
“Hey, hey, hey. Hold on.”
He pulled the rope off and hung his jaw over my shoulder, “Sorry, I got the impression you were into that.”
“Noland, yes. Sorry. I am. I’m just not thinking about fucking right now.”
“You know, the guys seemed really scared about the climb. Are you actually going to do it?”
“With Skip, right?”
“No. Not with Skip.”
I motioned myself out of his embrace and walked to the kitchen to hold onto the back of a chair, “What do you mean?”
“Why are you asking?”
“Don’t be stupid. Because I like you.”
He scratched the back of his head and squinted, “I think the stories about the route are getting a little out of hand.”
“No, I think you guys just realized the route is exactly as bad as you thought it would be.”
“Because the weekend warriors are depressed, and I’ve never seen you more excited.”
He laughed smugly, but I didn’t intend to boost his ego.
“Seriously? I’m going for it. Solo.”
I sat in the chair and put my hands together and squeezed them between my thighs. “Solo as in by yourself? Or solo as in no ropes?”
“Both. Why am I on trial here?”
“You’re not on trial. I just need to know whether or not to send you home.”
He waited with a harshly inquisitive look.
“We shouldn’t get any closer if you plan on doing this,” I said.
“I’ve soloed hard routes before.”
“Why can’t you just take Skip?”
“He can’t handle it,” he spat. “And I want to do it already. Before anyone else can get to it.”
Before anyone else can get to it. Conquest. I took my eyes away from him. I felt betrayed by the banality. My heart sank in the fear that I’d eagerly deceived myself of our “kinship.” He looked like a tourist of self-destruction. I stared out the window at the grey mist obscuring the Flatirons and said, “I thought this was about a personal relationship to pain.”
“What are you talking about?”
“What do you mean, ‘what am I talking about?’ The climbing, Noland. The fucking suffering up there. You know? Don’t you do it to have some fucking, uh, uh, sense of control?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I stood up, “For fuck’s sake. We have Stockholm Syndrome for life. I thought we both saw that. Am I wrong?”
He shook his head with an incredulous smile and looked all around my apartment like I had fired a gun in the ceiling, “You’ve lost me.”
“Don’t act like I’m fucking crazy. Life, Noland. There’s more pain than pleasure here. That should be obvious. If it weren’t for rose-tinted glasses on our hindsight, no one would be deluded into thinking this is a good deal. We get that, right? People like you climb, and people like me—”
“People like you assume too much about people like me.”
He nodded his head as though he’d figured me out. “I get that you’re going through some rebuilding. I do. But don’t project that onto me.”
“It just… It kind of sounds like this whole climb for you is, like, a legacy thing? Like conquest? There are so many guys already doing it for that.”
“I don’t need to sit here and pull it apart for you, man.”
“Well, actually, yes, you do. I’m not a blow-up doll. Unfortunately, there’s a neocortex up here.” I tapped my skull.
“So, what are we doing?”
“You tell me.”
He dragged his hand back and forth between his chest and me. “We had something going on here, and I thought it was good.”
“Yeah, I know. I want it to keep going, Noland. As long as it’s good.”
“This is why I didn’t want to start anything with you in the goddamn first place.”
“I don’t have the conditioning right now to lose somebody I like this much. So I don’t want to like you any more than I do.”
He put his hands on his hips and shook his head. I saw his knuckles and they were black, and the skin was torn off the bones, and the backs of his hands were purple from smashing his tools into the ice. I blinked furiously and wiped my hands down my face in frustration.
“So,” I said with an irritated chuckle, “And I just want to know. You’re saying—with all the pain involved—you’re not getting anything deeper than taking the virginity of this stupid fucking ice climb? Is that what you’re saying?”
“I must be stupid,” he said, “I really thought love would—you now, I don’t know what the fuck I thought.” Whatever vulnerability he was willing to deal with retracted inside him and suddenly there was a stranger in my apartment.
“Love is just another way to mortify the flesh,” I said.
He turned around and threw his rope back in his bag, “I’m just going to live in my truck and climb until I fall. Everything else is shame.” He headed for the door.
“What a fucking loser,” I said.
He slammed the door.
I went to the window and saw him toss his bag in the back of his truck and drive off. What did he mean by shame just then? Everything outside his purpose of choice was a waste of calories. Anything that didn’t feed him should be cut away. Like me.
I’d once held the extremist’s wet blade. What was my shame when I was swimming? What kept me from clawing the hand that held my head beneath the surface? There was a wedding ring on my coach’s finger. Did his wife defend his method? Did she consider it her religion to phrase it “pushing” instead of “abusing?” It was one parent, a mother, who went to the police to end the torture. After nearly a decade. After dozens of boys and girls cried and shook and begged their mothers to stop forcing them to learn how to swim. This one mother, she didn’t have the same faith the others did—the same conditioning—required to sacrifice her child for greatness. My mother rolled her eyes and gagged at the TV with a martini in hand as she testified. I never told my mother that I was one of those kids, and she never asked. It didn’t matter. I didn’t feed her anymore, that’s why she cut me away. I didn’t want that to be the meaning of strength. But it was.
The next day my need for closure made me drive to Skip’s. He and his wife Frankie were inside, faxing a stack of receipts. Skip had his reading glasses on as he flipped through paperwork, his hair a mess. Frankie, with her brown, rolled bangs and pink blush, stood at the kitchen counter, cutting off a cube of butter and sliding it into Skip’s coffee.
“How are you, Madison? Coffee?” Frankie said.
“I’m good, thanks. Skip?” I said sheepishly. “Can I steal you when you get a minute?”
“Hey, Maddy. Steal me now, I got a call in twenty.”
We went to the downstairs living room. His woven couch was covered in rainbow serapes. Big blue Nepali mountains checkered the wall. A hundred-year-old mountaineering axe was displayed over the fireplace. We sat down, and Skip rested his arms on his knees. I felt his time ticking away like this was an interview, one shot to make an impression or something.
“This about Noland?” he said.
“How’d you guess?”
“Everyone saw it happening,” he said with a compassionate smile.
“Did he leave?”
“If you haven’t seen him, then yeah.”
“Skip, can he do it?”
Skip looked at the carpet. There were ash stains there and he toed at them with his socked foot. “We actually attempted to onsite the damn thing.”
“Sorry, I mean we tried to climb it right then and there. Truth be told, I felt like I was ten years younger doing something like that with him. But, uh, we managed three and a half pitches before I said I couldn’t go any further. And he was the one leading.” He turned over his palms like we do to feel the rain. “It was just too much. Too steep, too exposed. Bad ice. And Noland was pissed, Maddy. He was ready to do the whole thing come storm or death. He kept trying to reassure me. I finally just had to say, ‘No, I can’t get killed for you,’ you know? For his dream. I’ve got too many things at this altitude that keep me from doing crazy shit like that.”
I looked away.
“He’s just one of those guys where… It’s a full-blown addiction. Every time it’s gotta be bigger, right? Higher, harder, whatever. It’s a frightening way to live, in my opinion. And it’s sad. Having something to prove that can only be proved in the most dangerous places on Earth. He doesn’t have fun up there. And that’s not why I climb.”
“People were saying it’s unclimbable. I mean he sees that, right, Skip?”
“I don’t know. He’s strong. But there’s no point in climbing a route like that.”
I looked at that mountain axe from a bygone era. In the slope of its head, the taper of its handle, and its very point—I saw will and will alone. Every feature of its design screamed take me there.
“There’s a Noland every few years, Madison. Trust me. People get into climbing for all sorts of reasons. Some are foolish, some are a little darker.”
I began to anticipate that he might patronize me with a lesson about men and mountains. “I didn’t mean to bug you,” I said. I drummed my thighs to initiate my exit.
He put his hand on my shoulder, “I’m sure he’ll get spooked like we all do and want to come down to a fireplace for some hot cocoa and good friends.”
I got that choking tickle in my throat that comes before tears you don’t want to fall because I knew Skip had felt that loneliness at some point in the wilderness, and I didn’t believe Noland would.
Skip got up and pointed his thumb over his shoulder to tell me he should get back to work, and I swallowed down my tears.
After a week of waiting for Noland to come walking into Mountain Sun, I began to drive myself insane with his silhouette in my head. I didn’t want to hunt for someone who knew me, who really knew me. I didn’t want to feel so desperate to be known that I assumed someone’s character like I did with him. And I wanted to tell him I was sorry for that.
After the second week of his no-show, the boys started talking about Noland as if he were a part of the lost waterfall itself. He was pulled into the myth. No longer a person, but a tool for their on-going pissing match. Skip never fanned the flames of a search either. I overheard him say one night, “Anyone going alone to such a dangerous place is on their own through and through. Search & Rescue isn’t your personal hotline.”
I visualized his reappearance again and again. I wanted to know I was enough to keep someone around no matter what was at stake. I wanted to hear him say that finding me, a woman who could really see him, was more important than climbing lifeless ice. Eventually, I needed stronger distractions than work, booze, and small talk.
I went to the North Boulder Rec Center on my day off and stood before the indoor swimming pool in my ill-fitting, one-piece swimsuit. There was no one else there and the floor-to-ceiling windows were covered in fog as it was 10 degrees outside.
I looked at the water rippling. Shut Up Or Swallow would melt in the spring, I thought. Would Noland be found by wandering hikers, left bare and broken by the will that drove him? Water. I realized I was going to submerge myself in the medium Noland climbed when it was cold, hard and stuck to the side of a mountain. For the love of God, get my mind away from him. Ok, water. Water was the medium. Pain was the tool. Fine, I had the means. What was my end? Was I just looking for an end as an excuse to have the pain? What ends did I have all these years beyond making myself a piton for others? What’s my end? To hear the ringing and find its apogee. I shook out my feet and stretched my lungs. I took a breath by my will alone. Then I dove into the water and swam until I heard myself ringing.