But that was before I learned about my fear of heights. And that I get vertigo, and readily pass out when I am upside down.
I wanted to start out on a real mountain, not in a climbing gym. However, it was winter and I was in training at the Olympic cross-country ski course in Alberta, Canada. All the nearby mountains were many feet deep in snow. But as my ski coach pointed out, Banff National Park is considered among the world’s best ice-climbing sites.
That’s how, ten days later, I came to be hanging over a fissure in the ice, holding on for dear life, frozen by the weather (minus 20 Celsius) and fear. It was so cold that whenever my eyes watered, my lashes would freeze together. My fingers had gone past tingling to numb, and I couldn’t remember when I’d last felt my toes.
My instructor had chosen a route up a frozen waterfall. He led the way—turning titanium screws into the ice, attaching carabiners to them, feeding the rope through the protection as he ascended. When he reached a safe stopping point, he would secure himself to the ice. Then it was my turn to tie in and begin climbing on belay. Ice axe in each hand—double-headed pick and hammer in the right and pick and adze in the left, tools that I would have mistaken for butcher’s implements in any other setting—I gradually ascended the vertical column of frozen water.
As we approached the top, the ice became increasingly rotten. Setting a screw, my instructor loosened a frozen sheet, sending it crashing down the mountain and exposing a wide expanse of granite. To continue the climb, we’d have to cross over a crack (a fissure in the ice and rock) to the other side of the waterfall. Luckily, an overhang connected the two sections. But because of the conditions, we’d have to transverse the span of ice and rock on its underside.
I watched my instructor move deftly across the bottom side of the overhang. Then it was my turn. I started out confidently. Only a few moves and I’m there, I told myself. Halfway across, the Velcro flap on my vest pocket started to come loose—I heard that r-r-r-r-i-p sound when the toothy side pulls away from the fuzzy side. My camera was inside that pocket, and I didn’t want to lose the only photos of our ascent. So I paused mid-bridge to refasten my pocket flap.
What they say about “never look down” is true. One glance, and I was as frozen as the ice around me. Worse, the Velcro continued to separate. The noise grated like fingernails on a chalkboard.
Reach down and fasten the flap, my brain directed.
No way, my right hand said.
By now, my climbing instructor had joined the conversation. “Focus—you can do this. Just reach forward with your right axe.”
Despite the cold, I had broken out in a sweat. My heart pounded loudly in my ears.
R-i-p went the Velcro.
Grab the camera! said my brain.
My right hand still refused to move.
As it always does, gravity eventually prevailed. With a final tearing sound, the pocket flap opened and the camera slid out.
One thousand one, one thousand two… I got all the way to three before I heard the camera hit the bottom of the crack.
That was all it took to render the rest of me as immobile as my right hand—full deer-in-headlights mode. It was another five minutes before my instructor—resorting to hypnosis—could talk me across to the other side.
After relocating to a warmer clime, I moved on to bouldering. The pattern was always the same: I would climb about a dozen feet up a rock face—just high enough so that a fall, even cushioned by a crash pad, knocked the breath out of me and left bruises—before peeling off and starting all over again.
My skills improved, and a friend suggested I try buildering. As the name indicates, buildings are the terrain of choice, rather than rocks or cliffs. Buildering can be done with or without aids—years ago, a guy walked up the World Trade Center with suction cups strapped to his hands and feet. It’s also usually illegal, with trespassing the minimum charge.
As fate would have it, a climbing mishap left my friend in an ankle cast. Undeterred, I decided to go ahead on my own. Decked out in climbing clothes—black tights and athletic top—I set out late one afternoon for the neighborhood touted as having the most “rock-like” surfaces.
Leaving behind the orange crash pad—I didn’t want to attract attention—I parked the car and sized up my first assault: a two-story restaurant. Fingertips taped for protection, hands coated with chalk from the bag around my waist, I reached for my first hold. The building was faced with brick, and I made it to the first floor window with ease. Elated with success, I quickly descended, then walked to the next building and tried again.
Structures with rock sidings were the easiest, although ridged concrete worked well, too—I almost reached the second floor on one try. Wood shingles gave me slivers, and metal was out of the question.
After about an hour, my fingers were pretty sore, so I decided to call it a night. I was half a block from my car when a vehicle pulled up alongside. One of the occupants shone a flashlight in my eyes.
“Everything all right, ma’am?”
Seeing the light bar on top, I realized it was a patrol car. What a nice town, I thought. The cops watch out for folks walking alone at night.
“Fine, thanks,” I said, expecting the car to drive away. Instead, it pulled over to the curb and two uniformed policemen got out.
“What’s your name?” asked the first, still shining the flashlight in my eyes.
“Twist Phelan,” I responded, squinting against the glare.
“That a real name or street name?”
Street name? “Um, my real one.”
“Mind if we see some ID?”
The part of me that is a card-carrying member of the ACLU minded a lot, but this was neither the time nor place to make a fuss. Besides, I’d left my purse locked in the trunk of my car.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t have any with me.”
“Are you out for a walk, or going somewhere in particular?”
I opted for the truth. “Actually, I was buildering.”
Scarcely had I said the words when the cop pushed me against the nearest building, his flashlight digging into my back. After ordering me to assume “the position”—palms flat against the concrete, feet spread—he frisked me, while his partner talked into his radio.
“No ID, no tools on her,” said the first cop.
I was more furious than afraid. “Illegal search and seizure … no probable cause … no warrant … ” I rattled off everything I could remember about the Fourth Amendment from law school and watching Law & Order.
“Take it easy, ma’am. We got a call about a burglar in the neighborhood,” said the second cop. “And you did just tell my partner that’s what you were doing.”
Great, I thought. Of all the cops in town, I had to get stopped by two who were hard of hearing.
“I didn’t say burglary. I said buildering.” My neck muscles were starting to cramp from looking over my shoulder, and I turned to face the two cops.
“And that would be …?” asked the second cop.
“Climbing up the outside of buildings.”
He frowned, puzzled.
“I wanted to see if I could climb up high enough to get in a window,” I added helpfully.
From the look on the first cop’s face, I knew he thought I belonged in the back of the patrol car on my way to lock-up.
My frustration got the better of my forbearance. “Oh, come on! Do I look like a burglar?”
The second cop eyeballed my black pants and shirt, my dark climbing shoes.
“Yeah, pretty much. And as far as no probable cause …”
He nodded toward the wall where my hands had been pressed moments earlier. Two perfect white handprints stood out starkly against the dark brick. Then he pointed down the block. Even though it was twilight, I could see telltale chalk marks on half a dozen buildings.
Uh-oh. I started to babble. “I’m a mystery writer, it’s research …”
The first cop rolled his eyes, but his partner surprised me.
“You’re a mystery writer? I liked The DaVinci Code.”
“Oh,” I said. “Dan Brown’s book.”
The second cop looked at me with interest. “You know him?”
“He comes to some of the meetings,” I lied, praying he wouldn’t ask me which meetings or, worse, if I could get him Mr. Brown’s autograph. I was pretty sure passing off a forged signature as genuine was at least a misdemeanor, if not a low-grade felony.
The first cop still looked skeptical. How could I convince him that I was climbing for fun and not larceny?
“Look, I can prove I’m a mystery writer,” I said. “My car’s around the corner.”
We proceeded to the car and I retrieved my wallet. Removing my driver’s license, punch card for the local rock climbing gym, and Mystery Writers of America membership card, I handed them to the first cop.
He passed my driver’s license to his partner, who proceeded to recite the information into his radio. The first cop glanced at the climbing gym card, but lingered over my MWA card. I wished the logo were something more professional-looking than a caricature of Edgar Allen Poe.
Clicking off the radio, the second cop nodded to his partner and gave me back my driver’s license. After a long moment, the first cop returned the other two cards, and I let out the breath I had been holding.
“Don’t go climbing up any more buildings,” the first cop said gruffly.
“And you better not put this in a book,” said the second cop, but he was smiling.
“I won’t,” I assured him, quickly getting behind the wheel. I wanted to leave before they asked to search my car.
How would I ever explain that copy of Sisters-in-Crime’s Breaking and Entering on my back seat?
This essay first appeared in Mystery Scene Magazine, Issue No. 93 (2006).