Insane,” thought Mike Stencil, “absolutely insane. There is no way you'd get me up there.”
Mike was watching a climber on a rock face somewhere near Mount Lemmon, Arizona. The climber was making good progress – stopping every now and again to shake out a limb, flex his fingers, catch his breath. The rock face was hot and dry, and it was being buffeted by winds to match. Mike was conscious of that weird sound that you sometimes hear when it is hot – kind of a high-pitched buzz, that seemed to be more inside of his head than outside. It was not the really cheap vodka from the night before, either. Damn that Preston – he was always selecting the “high quality” beverages for their climbing trips.
“Absolutely insane,” he thought again. He drew his glance from the distant climber back down to his own current situation – about forty feet up a relatively simple pitch about three hundred and fifty feet away from the other climber. Insane, it appears, is a relative term.
The buzz got louder, and Mike realized it was not inside his head after all – it was one of those insects, he decided. What do you call them? Cicadas? Crickets? “Whatever the hell they are, they're annoying,” he thought. He reached back into his chalk bag and grabbed a few fingers' worth. Grab a handful of jug, switch hands, repeat. Up we go. Crimper after crimper...fingers getting raw.
The buzz subsided for a minute and Mike thought back to a night in the Twin Cities, a meal shared with friends at a Mongolian restaurant – the rice, the undercooked egg, the undercooked pork. The several days spent on the toilet. He remembered how his limbs shook and the sweats that accompanied each rather eventful trip to the commode. A nice evening in Dinky Town turned into a gift that kept on giving.
His limbs shook - “sewing machine leg,” he and Preston called it. Sweat was pouring out of his brow and evaporating, it seemed, as soon as it broke the surface. To be honest, his bowels seemed a little loose as well. Hard to distinguish, he thought, between undercooked Mongolian and climbing with a hangover in high altitude. “Up we go, Michael,” shouted Preston from below, “andale, andale!”
“Piss off, Preston,” he shouted back, “don't rush me.”
“No pro-ble-mas, amigo.”
Mike hated it when Preston tried speaking Spanish – hated it and loved it. It was rather reassuring and made him feel pleased that at least his Spanish was a hair better, but Preston tended to sprinkle Spanish into the conversation at the most inappropriate times – especially when there were groups of Mexicans within earshot.
Mike took another breather and watched as the four Mexican climbers sauntered past on the trail down below. “Hola, amigos,” he heard Preston say to them as he casually belayed him without a care in the world. Mike just shook his head.
Another couple handfuls of chalk, a few more feet up the rock face. Mike made his way slowly but steadily until suddenly he began sweating like a thief in church ('not the same way his father used to use that idiom, by the way) – he felt something like a small rodent at the back of his tongue, a strange noise rumbled inside of him from the depths of his digestive tract, and he half expected to send a jet of liquid fecal matter down his leg. Surprise, Mike. Half a dozen really cheap vodka sours that had not made it very far through the metabolizing process, along with two power bars, a banana and three cups of instant coffee came roaring out of his stomach, burning his throat on the way. The multi-colored concoction cascaded down the rock face, and as Mike lost his grip and hollered “falling” through a mouth full of vomit, he heard Preston laugh like an idiot and he felt the rope go taut. Preston had him tightly belayed while he laughed and laughed and laughed like an idiot. “Muy malo, paisano,” he shouted up through his laughter.
“That's Italian, you ass,” Mike coughed back through chunks of banana.
Half a mountain away a climber looked down at a sick fool and his climbing partner who was laughing like an idiot.
“Insane,” he thought aloud, “absolutely insane.”