Free Fall: CHAPTER ONE

Chapter 1

   Crisp September air laced with scents of pine filled my senses. I breathed deeply and scanned the soaring, jagged cliffs on the south side of Yosemite Valley. Above those peaks, the sun lightened the sky to shades of violet. From my perch five-hundred feet above the valley floor, towering ponderosa pine, incense cedar and white fir which grew to more than two hundred feet, spread out below like shag carpet. Evidence of the ongoing drought speckled that carpet with brown, visible signs of death from years of bark beetles boring holes into the trees. The insects weren’t new to California, but their populations exploded due to the lack of water and warmer temperatures than the Sierra Nevada usually experienced.

My glasses slipped. I poked them into place. Overdue for a new pair, I posted a mental sticky note to see the ophthalmologist. My temples throbbed with a hangover. Not bad, but enough to leave a steady thumping.

Again I breathed deeply, savoring the sense of cold. Beside me, Diane Spinelli sipped from her travel mug and set it aside. The sun inched higher, its rays outlining the mammoth rocks with a golden halo that stretched out and touched the tops of the trees.

I tugged the edge of my knit cap over my ears to cut back the chill. The mile and a half hike to the base of The Nose in darkness, the rugged, rock strewn trail lit only by flashlight, had been worth the trek just to see the spectacular sunrise.

“Beautiful, isn’t it Hannah?” Diane hugged her knees to her chest.

I nodded. “More coffee?”

I offered her the thermos. She shook her head. I filled my mug and used my finger to fish out a few grounds. Sipping the tepid coffee, I peered up at the granite monolith beside me, but we were still cast in shadow. My boyfriend, Quint Rydell, and his climbing buddies had begun their ascent five hours ago. By now they were likely a quarter of the way up El Capitan. Even if I could’ve spotted them, they’d be no more than tiny stick figures on a vast canvas of stone.

My palms sweat at the thought of scaling a three thousand foot granite rock with nothing more than rope and cams, spring-loaded metal devices wedged into cracks. I couldn’t get close to the edge before me without being overcome by vertigo. I hated heights. But Quint loves climbing and I love him so I tagged along whenever he invited me. This spot, on a ledge high above the valley, was worth the trip.

I’d done some research when Quint said he was a junkie for the sport. John Muir had been the first to climb Yosemite’s big walls. In 1869 Muir climbed Cathedral Peak, what is now a class four crack. Muir did it all without a rope. Today, most climbers used ropes, Quint had told me. In 1958, it took a group of men twelve days to reach El Cap’s summit. Quint and his companions intended to reach it by nightfall.

Cams and caribiners, locking devices used to attach the harness to the rope. No way, not me. They could keep their gear. I’m fine on a ledge or below with good old Mother Earth beneath my feet.

I also came with Quint because it was a relaxing break from my job as crime reporter for the Borden Gazette, a daily newspaper in a small town nestled in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

“Quint’s new book came out,” I said, referring to the enormous volume containing his photographs of the national park’s big walls, Faces of Yosemite.

“I’ll get a copy,” Diane said.

“Let me give you one,” I suggested. “They retail for fifty bucks. Ready to head back?”

“A few more minutes.” Concern creased her forehead.

Sunlight brightened the shadow over us to an ash gray. As was our routine when we accompanied Quint and Diane’s husband, Grady Spinelli, on their excursions, we often waited until the sun had fully risen.

Cold bit my cheeks. My head ached from too many beers the night before. I had hoped the coffee would ease that pain a bit, but it hadn’t. I’d have to wait until Quint returned. As required, we’d locked everything food related (and yes, he considered pain reliever close enough to food to count) in the bear-proof containers and I couldn’t remember where he’d left the key.

“You don’t have any Advil, do you?” I asked.

“Back at camp.” She continued staring across the valley. Something in her demeanor wasn’t right. I’d known her about a year now and she was normally upbeat. The lines in her forehead deepened.

“Everything okay?”

“No.” She lowered her gaze, picked at a rough spot on her nail, usually manicured to perfection.

My own were ragged from the bad habit of biting them. I turtled them into my coat sleeves. “I’m a decent listener.”

“I don’t know what it is,” she said. “Does Grady seem distant to you?”

I shrugged. “Hadn’t noticed.”

“There’s something going on at work. He won’t talk about it.”

He was one of Madera County’s supervisors, a decorated war veteran and the front-runner in November’s congressional race. As a reporter, I knew how politicians often got a bad rap. Everything they did was scrutinized, as though they were bacteria studied beneath a high-powered microscope.

She looked at me, her blue eyes moist with the anguish she felt. They’d been married fifteen years. Although I wasn’t married and wouldn’t pretend to understand how she felt, I knew she loved him deeply and therefore the pain was just as deep.

“His position requires he maintains confidentiality,” I said.

“It’s not that. I think—” She breathed deeply. Tears rolled down her cold-reddened cheeks. “I think he might be seeing someone.”

“Grady?” I scoffed and then realized my insensitivity. “Sorry, but there’s no way. He loves you. He’d never do anything to harm your relationship.”

“He’s edgy,” she said. “This morning, he almost backed out of the climb.”

“Why didn’t he?”

Pebbles and a rock the size of a quarter rained onto the ledge a few feet away. I gazed up the monolithic prow. Although I couldn’t make out individuals, I detected shapes the size of cockroaches move slowly over the cliff’s face, which had lightened to a pale shade of gray.

“The new climbers,” she said with a wistful smile. “He didn’t want to disappoint them.”

Quint and Grady often climbed together, usually by themselves. But they’d met four others who wanted to try scaling El Cap and offered to help them out. They’d planned this trip, the Nose In A Day or NIAD, for about a week. I could understand why Grady wouldn’t bail.

I touched her arm, a feeble attempt to offer comfort. I’ve never been good at the shoulder-to-cry-on routine. I’d been raised to bottle my feelings as though letting them escape would somehow brand me as weak. But over the past few years, I’ve grown to realize that emotion in the form of compassion wasn’t weakness. A touch on the arm was miles from where I’d started.

“He’ll talk when he’s ready,” I said, trying to offer reassurance.

She nodded and smiled, then peered out over the treetops. I followed her gaze just as sunlight crept around The Nose, touched my face with its warm amber hues.

Above, someone shouted—“Oh shit.”

Shock froze me, left me acutely aware of what those words meant: One of the men was in trouble. I scrambled to my feet.

Just as I looked up a man cried out, his voice thin from the distance. He leaned back, the rope he’d been secured to flapped against the stone. Then he fell.

Instinctively, I reached out the way a mother would extend her arm to protect her child upon slamming the breaks. I wanted to stop him.

“No,” I breathed, unable to speak beyond the horror that gripped me.

The body struck the mountain, bounced, struck again. He careened toward us, crashed onto the corner of the ledge with a bone-crunching slap. Pink mist bloomed in the air around him. He tumbled over and continued his hundred-mile-an-hour decent. Red rained over us.

I stared at my jeans, speckled with blood, and screamed.

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