“I’m swimming across” she says, with a half giggle (head turned back towards me), emerald eyes reflecting back Tenaya blue, shoulders wood brown from a month of Californian sun, turned back towards the narrow beach, back towards the tourists in their shallows, back towards me – shivering in ice-box cold Tenaya Lake – still only at my knees.
“It’s freezing!” I shout sensibly – grown-up-like (kill joy), without a giggle – the distance too cold to bridge for a whisper.
She pulls her comedy face, half frowning, half ‘mock’ pity, as a goose-bump wind slips down from Tenaya Peak.
“You’ll freeze! Your arms will stop working!” I mumble-shout, unsure as the words skip over – thinking about something I read once in a book about sea survival – thinking about how even the strongest swimmers can become immobile in super cold water.
She throws back my concern with another mock frown: “Do you really think so?”
“You’ll drown,” I say. “It’s really deep in the middle, it’ll be even colder there” I add, while knowing she’s right to mock me. From the moment I met her I knew she was way too hard for her own good – too bold – the type of woman who’s trouble, for all the right reasons.
“No I won’t” she says, her words making me feel soft – and justifiably so – a worrier, that if she can swim in the Irish Sea in February, arms and legs beetroot purple when she towels dry, that she’d be a match for any Tuolumne lake, no matter how cold. But then I look left and right and see no one else venturing in more than waist deep from the thin shoreline, and consider that they probably never had.
She waits, head turned back for me, waiting for me to come.
I move a little closer and she begins to come back, closing the gap with strong don’t splash me! paces, caring me, makes me hesitate, as if she has plans to wrap her arms around me and pull me in, pull me out into the deep, because she knows best, because it would be funny. To drown me for a joke.
“I’m scared,” I whimper, stopping and wrapping my arms back around my own shoulders, pretending to be a child while backing off, feeling the water stinging me already (still only up to my thighs), so cold when all I want is hot sand and the warmth of a towel. The words ‘balls deep’ pop into my head as my scrotum darts inside, giving them new meaning.
“Well I’m swimming across” she says, stopping, turning away again, to the other side of the lake, to a slab that slips down into the far shore, a good 600 metres to swim across its dark heart. And so I stand and watch – unable to stop her – as she wades further in without hesitation, the muscles along her sides in rhythm with every step, moving like an animal, feet dancing on the bottom, her body weighty and dense with the movement, as if anything is possible, as if her limbs could wrestle with the monster she might find out there.
Ritchie Patterson once said that when I walked I looked like a man who couldn’t be killed, that I was unbreakable. It was something that sounded cool and stuck in my head at the time – a little rabbit’s foot when times were tough – like a prayer: “I’m unbreakable, I’m unbreakable – Ritchie told me so.” I never actually understood what people meant when they said “he’s like a tenement block” or “built like a brick shit house”, I just thought they meant I was fat. I never really understood until this year, until watching Johnny Dawes walking around, a bit out of shape but street-fighter sharp, gypsy tough, not to be pushed.
Now when I watch her move I see it too, and I wonder if this appearance comes from a kind of animal confidence that some people have, that there is no questioning the body’s physical capacity to deliver, no physical doubt whatsoever.
With only the lightest flourish (and no hint of hesitation), she dives, her black hair swallowed by endless blue, and she is off … fearless.
Again, I stand and worry, I worry that she may not make it. I look back at the kids on the beach; I wonder if the water is so cold due to the glacial melt; I wonder who I’d call if she never came back and about all the hassle (and about telling her mum). “Selfish bitch” I mumble to myself, only half joking, half cross, totally in awe of her toughness.
When we’d first got together I’d gone down to the sea with her, her ‘towel carrier’, but it was the Mediterranean that time. I’d only known her a short while and was still pretending to be a real man – after all, that’s what all woman really want, even if they say they’re happy enough with boys. I said I’d go in, even though I hate swimming, hate the water (especially cold water), something I put down to being washed into the sea on boxing day in 1975, caught by a wave in a game of chicken on a boat ramp on a stormy day. I lost the game but was saved by my dad.
On that trip to the Med, the water was still winter cold and I’d stripped down to my shorts but only gone thigh deep before I found myself fixed to the spot, realising no woman (even her) was worth another inch. I could live with the shame, as I watched her plough on in, as well-dressed French dog walkers in fur coats looked on in concerned surprise.
I walked back up onto the rocks (trying to look manly) and put my clothes back on and waited, and waited, and waited some more. I couldn’t see her anywhere, not behind the rocks our out in the sea, just an empty ocean. Fuck! I thought, she must have drowned … what a shame, I quite liked her. It didn’t seem worth making a fuss, especially not going for any heroics (jumping in etc.), after all, I’d read it was the last resort in the aforementioned sea survival book; but then she appeared, out of the sun-dappled water, corpse cold. I soon found out she quite liked it.
And so now I stand again, watching her head slowly move away, thinking how strange it is to be the worried one for a change – the one left behind – worried that someone you love will set off somewhere and not come back to you. Is this how it feels? I wondered, her head now pinhead small, arms ploughing through the water now, while I stand alone on the shore.
I need to interject here with an admission: this is not a story about me, but about her. Ed Douglas – a man who has dissected me better than anyone – recently told me: “You are a constant source of fascination to yourself. It worked for Proust, so own it, don’t deny it.” Ever since then his words have stuck. Every time I write I know it’s true, that in a lifetime of obsessions, climbing, writing, films, people, I was my greatest obsession of all. Why isn’t this a blog about other people? I guess it is for you, the reader, but I’m sure you’ll get bored. Maybe that’s why I go away and do crazy stuff – seek out the ‘tough’ – not because it gives me things to talk about, but because it helps to further illuminate myself, stops me getting bored with me. But then, as Werner Herzog writes, “who likes a fully lit room with no dark corners?”
Yet again, and here’s another admission that comes to me as I write (which is why I write as much as I do, why I’m the subject), all my life, which has been by and large happier than most and free of any real tragedy so far, I have always been shadowed by a sense of impending calamity which colours everything. If I was to put my pig-farmer psychiatrist’s hat on, I’d say it’s borne from poverty early in life, from events beyond my control, where even as a child I was aware how exposed I was. Perhaps that’s why I climb such scary things, how I can deal with it, because I’ve found ways to deal with the low hum of fear all these years. On a big wall or alpine face there is always the danger, but it’s a danger you can deal with – come to terms with – and so even in the most terrible of places, that sense of impending doom retreats. You go from the notion of this is great, but what comes next? to who cares about what comes next? This is great. Yes, you can deal with the steep, but not with the flat (a very common malady). But with her, from the moment I sat beside her and asked if she’d ever had a broken heart in a Dublin pub, I knew she had something, something I’d only found when close to dying on walls and glaciers and faces. Something I needed and wanted, something she gave, but now I was scared I’d lose if she didn’t come back.
And so (and to my surprise) I pushed on into the deep: hip deep – chest deep – shoulder deep – then just deep deep. The water stunning … stunned I was actually going after her. I swam for a second then stopped (unable to breathe) and just waited, waited to either begin breathing again, or not. My breath came back, just a bit, and I swam on – breast stroke – the only stroke I had.
I moved slowly (the water now black) and tried to focus on something other than the cold; I made up a heroic story to focus on instead. I imagined I was swimming at the North Pole, in an open lead, setting a new world record, Discovery Channel camera men in a safety boat close by. They’d no doubt ask why I was using breaststroke over the more traditional hard man front crawl, to which I’d say “keeps the hair dry, vital for sub-zero swimming” (with ‘Bear Grylls’ intensity). But I realised this was just making me feel colder.
Her head had now disappeared completely, the far shore no nearer, the distance to shore behind me unknown, too scared to stop and look. I tried to think about hot things, everything I could think about: fire, lava, the sun, apple pie heated in a microwave for eight minutes. I thought about the Grand Slam bomb, the largest bomb of the Second World War, the ‘earthquake bomb’ (made in Sheffield), how they heated up the high explosives in kettles in order to pack them in, how it took a month to cool.
The wind picked up, small waves splashing me in the face, into my mouth. I felt a slight panic, but lifted my head up and spat it out, looking for her as I did. She was nowhere to be seen. The shore was still no closer.
I thought about the Hoover Dam, how when they built it they had to feed in water pipes filled with ice cold water to cool over three million cubic metres; that if left uncooled it would still be warm a 125 years later. I imaged myself now, not out here in the cold dark water, but down in the depths of the dam, like some entombed immortal waiting a million years to be freed by the erosion of time. Entombed but nice and warm.
I thought about the bronze bull used by the Greeks and Romans, a hollow bull into which a victim would be placed with a fire lit underneath, with a kind of metal trumpet inside designed to change their screams into the sound of a bull. I imagined I was Perillos, the sculptor who made the first bull for the tyrant Phalaris, how he boasted at the sound a man would make when being roasted alive, which so disgusted the Phalaris, he asked Perillos to climb inside and demonstrate, only to lock him in and light a fire; Perillos, the first victim of his machine. I tried to imagine that the cold I felt was not cold at all, but the rising heat, I tried to imagine what it would have been like inside – terrible – but also distracting.
It wasn’t working.
I could feel I was slowly losing control of my hands, my feet were dead, all heat withdrawing into my core. Again I felt a twinge of panic, that now I must be half way, too far to swim back, too far to shout for help. I was scared about getting too tired, or getting cramp – unsure if people would even know if such things really did happen. I’d not swum more than half the length of a swimming pool for years (and doubted my fitness a little); I was depending on survival fitness – the fear of drowning giving me the edge to make it across – ‘sink or swim’ as they say.
I thought about my mate Espen Fadnes, how he’d untaken months of cold water tank testing when at university, how he’d learnt that if he stayed still in the tank and let the cold creep down his arms and legs until all that was left was the embers of life in his core, he could stay in longer than anyone else. A few years later he landed in the winter waters of the sea in Norway when a base jump from a hotel went awry. Unable to climb out he knew that he’d succumb to the almost sub-zero water if he tried to find an exit, and so just floated there until some passers-by spotted him and hung down a ladder. When he climbed out he was so cold he could only grab the ladder’s rungs with his bent arms.
I looked up again.
There she was, pulling herself out of the water, onto the slab about 200 metres away. She looked tired. Fuck – if she’s tired!
I picked up the pace.
She sat with her knees up shivering, a huge surprised smile on her face as I splash the last few metres, until my hands dragged over the hot sandy granite. “Polar Bear, are you OK?” she asked, as I pawed at the rock, arms utterly dead, legs unable to push me up. “I don’t think I’ve got it in me to get out of the water” I gasped, reaching out a pathetic hand.
She didn’t move.
“Sure you can” (all she offered).
And of course I could … and I did.
We lay there on the slab, hoping the weak sun would warm us up back up, bring us back to life. She was shivering while I was just frozen, and I would have cuddled her (for my benefit more than hers), but knew she’d be corpse cold – how she liked it – so I didn’t. She could take it. I lifted my head and looked back over the water, the sun about to dip down behind the mountains. Soon it would be even colder than before, without even the sun to warm my head.
On the far shore I could see Ella and Ewen lighting a fire for our return – illegal of course, in the national park – but a nice thought none-the-less.
“Fuck – how am I going to get back?” I asked out loud, looking left and right, wondering if I could bushwhack back sans shoes.
“Well I’m swimming back” she said, “you can do what you want … well, after I’ve warmed up a bit more”.
I laid back down and moved closer, until our dead cold skin touched. I thought how much she meant to me already, how much I needed her, then felt the edges of it, that sense of impending doom, the doom of love, that it will leave you or you will destroy it if it stays too long, not real but just a symptom of how my mind seemed to work. How could she be strong enough to take me on? I wondered, then thought how this had started at my worst, me at death’s door, and every day she had closed that door a little more. Most relationships start as an act, or man or woman, or whatever, where we put on our best show, the act of being who the other wants you to be, then slowly – toothpaste on the sink, socks with sandals, tempers lost and tears – you show your real side. You let down your guard. I realised that from the start I only had the energy to be me (mostly), the last man standing you’d want on any team. But she had picked me.
I wrapped my little finger around hers.
She slipped down into the black water, looking as dubious in her return as I had at the start, giving a shiver as it swallowed up her brown shoulders, smoke now raising up from the far shore, no doubt soon to draw in the Feds.
“You coming?” she asked as I sat there, toes at the water’s edge, arms wrapped around my knees, rocking.
I looked down into her green eyes, startling – her smile, honest – just happy; I watched her hand rise up and reach out, not to pull me in, but to take me with her.
“Will you wait for me?” I asked.
“Sure Polar Bear” she said, that mock concerned frown appearing for just a moment, before fading away as she saw I was genuinely afraid. “Of course I will.”
Like I said before, I hate the water and hate the cold. I’m a wimp really. I am forever in fear of some calamity befalling me. But with her I don’t feel it. With her, with Vanessa, I just feel everything will work out.
And so I slip back into the water and we swim back to the far shore together.
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Andrew Kirkpatrick is a British mountaineer, author, motivational speaker and monologist. He is best known as a big wall climber, having scaled Yosemite's El Capitan 30+ times, including five solo ascents, and two one day ascents, as well as climbing in Patagonia, Africa, Alaska, Antarctica and the Alps.Follow @ Instagram