Do I have a death wish? Quite the contrary. I just want to feel alive again. I nearly lost my own life 10 years ago and I lost Laura nearly four years ago. And so life is very precious to me. I want to feel my own essence, my own being very intensely. And so in the last couple of years I’ve done some exhilarating physical things – a two-mile-high hang-glide, micro-light flying with the World Speed Champ, snorkeling and Snuba-diving in Hawaii (two years ago I wouldn’t even put my head under water) and last week I climbed 220 feet up a sheer cliff face in the Catskills. I think that was probably the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done and I am still not quite sure how I did it.
I signed up on a whim. In my head I pictured a sort of lean-to cliff, which I would scramble up with the assistance of some big foot holds, a rope and a guide pushing me up from behind. So imagine my surprise when Alain Kline who is ranked 200 among the top climbers in the world, took me to the foot of the Skytop Ridge in the Shawangunks. I looked up and up and up. ‘This is where a lot of the world’s top climbers like to climb,’ he said as I gulped. Wearing some shoes that seemed to be tiny sticky gloves on my feet, I learned how to perch one toe on top of a tiny granular crystal and then swing my other leg up over my head to find another minute crystal to perch on. I felt like a cross between ballerina Sylvie Guillem doing the vertical splits and Spider Woman as I tried to glom my body onto the side of the mountain.
I’ve never had so little physical contact with the world (except when flying). Mostly I was standing on one foot on tip toe, while resting the finger tips of one hand in a tiny crevice big enough for a single ant and feeling around with my other finger tips and toes for even higher places to cling to. ‘You can grow an inch or two doing this,’ Alain encouraged. After a couple of 100 foot ascents, I was allowed onto the final vertical climb to the top. ‘This will be easy.’ Alain assured me. But half way up, I was ready to give up. ‘I don’t think I can do this,’ I wailed. ‘Wedge your back in the crack and walk your feet up over your head,’ Alain encouraged. It sounded nonsensical, like ‘pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time’. But somehow Alain talked me up, and up. Ten feet from the summit, I developed ‘Elvis legs’ (climber-speak for the shakes). ‘I don’t think I can go any further,’ I said. Again Alain barked down instructions. ‘Press down harder with your feet.’ And somehow it worked and with one foot flat against the cliff face, and my hands in a ledge way over my head, I hauled myself over. Oh and how good it felt. Alain high fived me. ‘You were great.’ And then I absailed down, bouncing off the rocks like a sack of old potatoes, until I got reacquainted with the ground. The next day a massage therapist said; ‘You’ve got bruises everywhere’. I grinned proudly. And a chunk of my thumb is still attached somewhere to the rock face – a bit like the flag on top of Everest.