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Mark Wilber, Kevin Esfahani, & Evan Belknap

(l. to r.) Mark Wilber, Kevin Esfahani, and Evan Belknap climb The Needle

 Needle Climb

Climbing the sixth pitch of “The Needle” in the Sandia Mountains

Stuck on the Needle

—Evan A. Belknap

From a limestone band at the top of the Sandia mountains, two of my friends and I stare down on the lights of Albuquerque. It is ten o clock at night, July in New Mexico. The evening monsoon rains have come and gone for the day, leaving a sky full of stars. Down below, closer now, is a saddle between the Needle and our camp for the night. The Needle, that pyramid-shaped goliath in the mountains, just south of the Shield, looms in the dark, silhouetted in front of the infinite suburbia that is Rio Rancho. We can see the world from here, but I am back to remembering.

One year ago, almost to the day, was the last time we attempted the climb. The Southwest Ridge, first climbed by David Hammack in 1956 (the father of my first climbing mentor, Davito Hammack) is known as one of the longest climbs in the Sandias—1,300 feet of vertical climbing—and is infamous for loose rock, sections of gearless climbing, a heinous, cats claw infested approach to the base, and the site of many a few tragedies and epics.

Last time, Kevin and I (one of the fellers at my side) set off despite the forecast of rain in the evening. We were to get an early start and get off the top before the rain and lightning got serious. Five hours and six pitches up (one “pitch” is a 60-meter rope length for all those wondering) and rain, cold and heavy, starts to fall from the sky. Lightning so close the hairs on your neck stiffen and stab. I am tied to a tiny piñon, belaying Kevin through the rain, and praying to a god I didn’t believe in until that moment. I suppose that’s how it works. We bailed.

Tonight we sip rum and stare and think about how this time we will be more prepared. We are stronger now. Smarter now. Hairier now. But the forecast is eerily familiar. Rain at three o clock. This is basically our style (food is better when hungry, water juicier when thirsty, blankets cozier when shivering, the good is great when the bad is terrible) but what is to come exceeds the consequential realm of even our most stupid adventures. Unfortunately, we don’t know that yet.

In the morning we are up early, bushwhacking, bleeding, laughing, and crawling through the spines. The whole way we holler to the bears we can’t see but know are up there. We follow their tunnels through the brush and try not to step in their steaming black piles.

Soon we are at the base of our climb, and I am off as soon as Kevin puts me on belay. The rock is clean and fluid. Much better than the hike. No mud, no stumbling or tearing through weeds. Less loose rock. No bears. We race up the first few pitches, me, leading them all and then belaying Kevin and Mark simultaneously, each on a different rope. We are beautiful and awesome like waxed weasels stuffed into a cannon and pointed at the sky, like severed warriors, climbing the steps to heaven. We are rocketized gazelles, vertical ballerinas, industrial burl factories, etcetera.

Suddenly, we are six pitches up, back to where we had to bail off one year ago. I am sitting in that same nook, tied to the same tree, and peanut butter and jelly has never tasted so good. The sky is overcast, but the clouds look thin, friendly, just keeping the summer sun off our shoulders. We joke about how horrified we were then and how we promised never to do it again. To take more care. Heed the weather gods.

We are happy to press on, and after lunch I am off again, trying to figure out where to go next in this lichen-covered sea of rock. If only we can get a little further, I think, we can decide about the weather and either push for the summit, or head around the side and back home to warm beds and spicy food.

It seems to be about three—we don’t know because watches are for sissies—but it’s not raining. In fact, the sun is shining through the clouds in the distance. Out there by Mount Taylor, bluebirds bask in the sunlight. We can see what we think is the top, and frankly, there is no way in hell that we are going home without seeing what kind of flowers grow on top this time of year. The weather will hold.

Another couple hundred feet up, I feel a cold drop on my forehead, a soft tightening on my stomach, and a clap of lighting that curdles the juice in my mouth. I am perched under the only tree on a ledge, belaying Kevin and Mark through black, freezing rain, cursing myself. I hear Kevin yell from below—a long, low moan. This sort of humor seems to do it for us most of the time, but there are moments when you are just simply cold and scared, alone on a crumbling ledge, wondering if there is a lightning bolt meant just for you. We’ll laugh about it later I tell myself and tighten my shoulders to keep from shivering and close my eyes, belaying, as the rain drips from my chin to my chest, and down toward my bare feet.

We three pack into a shallow cave a thousand feet off the ground and wait, still 300 feet below the top. I hate lightning more than anything. You have more of a chance of winning the lottery than getting struck by lightning, but I doubt that is true for me. Kevin keeps yelling to the rain gods to spare us, and it keeps us laughing. Laughing because we don’t want to cry. There is more lightning, close, and in my heart, just for a moment, I am low and lonesome. I know that sooner or later I’m going to have to head up into the sky at the end of a wet rope, playing the lottery. I’m going to have to get us the hell off this rock, and our time is growing thin.

There is a break in the weather, and I am off, climbing faster, and with less fear of falling than I have in all my life. I practically sprint for the top, plugging gear into the rock only when quick and easy. My eyes dart to dark clouds every few seconds—praying again. Pulling up the ropes, belaying my best friends, and running again upwards. I get to the top in better weather. The sun is setting, and I think about how beautiful New Mexico is before my ultimate thought of ‘Oh shit’ sets in.

At the top we celebrate briefly—hugs and high-fives—and then we are racing for the descent gully in the last bit of light. Davito’s words replay in my head from five years prior when he and I summited the same rock. “There are ghosts up here,” he said. Not all climbers of the Needle have survived. I think he knew most of them. Suddenly, I could feel them there, watching us. The sun was gone, and my two friends and I stared down into a black abyss, no idea of how far it went down. The freezing wind whipped our faces.

I am the only one with a headlight. Our jackets are down at the saddle. I have a phone with about twenty seconds worth of life. We have just climbed for about fifteen hours straight, and to top it all off, we are out of food and water. “Guys,” Mark says, “let’s talk about this for a minute.”

We resolve ourselves to the facts: it’s going to be a long, long night. We head away from the cliff’s edge up onto the top, trying to seek solace from the wind. Kevin finds a lighter, and Mark and I start building a shelter of logs and pine bows. Soon, we are laughing again. We pack into our shelter, tight together, ants crawling up our legs and across our faces, and we pass our celebratory flask back and forth. It is not good on an empty stomach and a parched throat, and after a pass or two, we give it up. After an hour or so of cold cuddling, Kevin groans and goes to make a fire. “We tried,” he says.

Mark and I, sick of shivering, follow him shortly after. We wrap ourselves in our thin rain ponchos, our ropes, our ropebags, our backpacks, find flat rocks to use as pillows, and we count the hours until the sun comes up. Albuquerque glows to the South and West. It seems odd to me that we could be in so much trouble in the presence of so many people.

Eventually the sun comes up. When we get to the ground at around five or five-thirty in the morning (no watch…) we all hear strange voices echoing around the canyon. People cheering, chanting. We exchange odd looks and get hiking, running on fumes, hardly sure what is real anymore. On the road, we find the first diner and stop. We drink coffee and eat huevos rancheros with carne adovada on the side and try to convince ourselves that these are the things you remember. These are the important things. In the end, we’ll call it a good thing. A great thing. We tell ourselves that though we’ll never do it again, next time we’ll be more prepared. Next time we’ll be stronger, smarter, and hairier still.

   

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