I like my camouflage shorts. A lot. I don’t have to do anything except put them on. No planning, just a belt and some sort of shirt. Underwear is optional. It makes dressing a lot easier. I’ve had them for nearly 15 years and they are still holding up. A little threadbare, but still together. They have accompanied me to Mexico, California, Tijuana, Florida, down the Panhandle of Texas, to Wyoming, into various kitchens, through coal mining bath houses and into and out of various relationships. My wife occasionally raises her eyebrows over my wardrobe, which doesn’t consist of much, but she largely leaves me alone. I despise shoes almost as much as I love my shorts, but again, she leaves me be when it comes to dressing myself.
My siblings mostly share my disdain for footwear, content with bare feet or Chaco sandals, which we have somehow all unanimously agreed will work with most any outfit for any occasion that doesn’t involve a tuxedo. My Dad said just the other day that putting shoes on a Matney child is like trying to feed a walrus to a terrier. I’m not sure, exactly, what that means, but it’s pretty funny to write.
It was an impossibly blue day, that day, when I kicked off my Chaco’s in preparation for an ascent on an a previously unclimbed assault on a beautiful granite face just north of Lake Tahoe, on the California side. The kind of day when you really don’t see how anything could go wrong. The kind of day that you can only get in California, where the weather forecasters get it right most of the time. I was wearing the same pair of shorts that I have on right now when we, meaning an expert climber named Cheryl, and I started the route.
She had spent days on end flat on her back studying all the possible lines, and, for whatever reason, chose me to help her on the first ascent. I am anything but an excellent climber – strong, maybe, fearless, ok, but I am not the person that I would choose to help with a new climb. I think she was leaning on my underground experience in coal mining a bit too much. My rope skills are excellent, but why she swapped out with me on leads is beyond me. Normally I climb up to the better climber, hook up to belay and allow them to climb on ahead. That day, she was allowing me to climb all I wanted.
I crouched under the ledge with my thighs wedged against the rock and shook the tremors out of my hands. There was one more hold visible and I shook out the rope. I could hear Cheryl calling to me, but barely. I knew I was hitting the end of the belay line and hadn’t set protection in about one hundred feet. I felt the line play out a little and gambled that it was enough to stick the next hold, a great crack that would have been perfect to set up another belay station. With Lake Tahoe gleaming like a Hope Diamond on my left, I leap for that next hold. I stuck it. Perfectly. With legs dangling and my right hand in my chalk bag, I felt as if I had won the Preakness. I drew up the rope, placed it in my teeth, and starting removing static gear from my harness.
The next sensation was of wind rushing by my face. I barely had time to register that I was falling, but I was. At 32 ft/s squared, there isn’t much time to react. Yet, time seems to slow when you are that far up. I yelled at Cheryl, but she was already roping off like a western cowboy on a steer. She weighed maybe 110 pounds, me, 200 pounds. Even in the camo shorts. I pushed off the face of the granite, registering for just one split second that there was a vug of granodiorite and most likely pyrite deposits as I twisted about in an attempt to miss Cheryl.
If I’d hit her, we’d both be dead now. I would have sheared her and all her protection off the wall and that would have been the end of both of us. At 50 feet or 1,000 feet, you aren’t walking away from a fall into the trees, tangled in ropes and gear and each other. I don’t care what the movies portray; a fall from that distance is fatal.
So, I propelled my way off the face, desperate to not take her off the face with me. There was no time for movie lines, knives sawing as we looked into each other’s eyes, knowing what decision the director had made. It was just me falling and her roping in to her barely there belay point.
We ate at an unknown diner just outside of Reno, NV that night. It was the best steak and hash browns I have ever tasted. It even came with a side of cole slaw and baked beans. Besides an encounter with the cops in Pensacola, FL, that was our last adventure together. I don’t know where she is now, but I’ll bet she is still pushing her limits. Just with someone a bit more capable than me.