The Knife-edge Ridge

Crossing a “knife-edge”

“If we do make it up to the top of Delirium, there’s a knife-edge ridge we’re gonna have to cross to get over to the Cemetery and then down. It’s only about 100 hundred yards long, but it’s got lots of loose rocks and big drop-offs, so watch out. If the other person on your rope falls, jump quickly to the other side of the ridge. That’ll create a counter-balance and keep both of you from getting pulled down on top of each other. Don’t waste any time thinking about it- just do it.”

Latimer chuckled silently to himself as the leader finished with the pre-climb ground school. He got a kick out of the mountain guide’s periodic and ridiculous BS. And the names of the climbs and mountains she came up with! It never failed to lighten the tone, and he’d started eagerly anticipating what she would come up with next. It was funny stuff, and he quickly learned to distinguish the facts from the fun. In his case, it had worked its magic time and again. And he’d undoubtedly been more relaxed than usual during the week’s daily mountain climbs.

Hurling yourself off a cliff on purpose is an especially good one, he thought to himself. Up until the absurd technique tall tale was uttered, he’d been particularly edgy about that day’s goal. Just thinking about the name of the mountain and the visual of the gruesome shaped peak that had etched itself in his mind had kept him from sleeping well the night before. But for the moment, the joke had released some of his tension, and he felt more at ease. He looked around at the others and figured they’d all join in on a group laugh but was startled to see not even a hint of a smile on anyone’s faces, including Megan’s (the guide). He was amazed by how straight-faced she remained. She’s really good at this, he mused to himself.

Then, he finally just cracked-up out loud. “That’s your best one, yet. Jump off the cliff to save yourself. I love it.”

He was once again prepared for crowd giggling or some sort of light-hearted response, but none came. The other clients just looked around blankly, and Megan stared at him with a burning look of seriousness in her eyes that silently convinced him the instructions were real.

“So that’s really what we do, you’re not kidding,” he asked?

“Yes,” she responded, “and you have to act fast. If it happens, there’ll be no time to think.”

Latimer’s mind suddenly went haywire. A part of him kept insisting it was all a joke. But as he looked around at the others, he continued to see nothing but serious looks that he figured were of deep focus and concern. He still couldn’t decide if it was real or a joke. Megan and the others’ faces were saying one thing, but he was hoping for something else.

After a few minutes, as the leader continued talking, his head fog began to clear. He remembered when he fell down in the lobby at the Scorpio 10 movie theater and how much that hurt. Then, he pictured himself getting slammed down on the rocks, tied to a rope, 1000 feet above the ground, and he felt like crying.

At that point, Megan wrapped up the ground school by wishing everyone good luck and telling them to be roped-up and ready to head out in 15 minutes. The “soon to be climbers” went back to their tents and gear and focused their efforts on their mission of getting ready. Latimer tried to do the same but couldn’t stay on task. He was utterly obsessed by the instruction to hurl himself off the knife-edge, to the point of being unable to think straight.

The preparations were a blurry mess to him. And then, like awakening from a dream, all of a sudden, he found himself nearing the top of Delirium, tied together with Wally. He couldn’t remember many of the details about how he got to that point. Although, he did have faint and disjointed dreamlike visions of filling up his water bottle, eating a candy bar, and untangling the climbing rope. Within a few moments of his awakening, he became hyper-aware of his surroundings and began feeling good about how far they’d already gone. But then, he saw it. An ugly, albeit magnificent ridge extended behind the peak they were climbing to a distant hump of a mountain that he realized was their exit route—the Cemetary. He felt an immediate adrenaline rush as he surveyed what he could see of the knife-edged ridge. It was jagged, narrow, and composed of a mix of rock, which included boulders of all sizes and slabs that appeared to fall straight down for hundreds of feet to the bottom of the distant valley. There was nothing around it but thin air. Even the clouds avoided the place as they hovered only overhead and above the distant Cemetary. He looked for their route across it, but all his mind could see were sharp edges and big drop-offs. He was obsessed with the possibilities of the ridge, and at that point, all of them were horrific.

With his focus on what awaited after the summit, he momentarily forgot about their more immediate route and his climbing partner. Getting to the top of Delirium was the actual objective, and managing the rope between him and Wally was critical to the moment. When the climbing rope got jammed between two boulders and stopped Wally dead in his tracks, the little guy looked back at him and glared. The incident snapped Latimer back to the moment, and he returned a facial response that said, “Sorry, I’m on it.” For the time being, he turned his attention back to their day’s climbing objective.

The climb toward the top continued, and within a short distance, the exit route thankfully disappeared behind the mountain. For the final part of the ascent, the knife-edge ridge was out of sight and out of mind, which helped keep Latimer’s attention focused on the task at hand. He was excitedly and positively overwhelmed by what he saw and felt as he took the final step up onto the summit. His sense of satisfaction at reaching the top of Delirium was almost immediately overwhelmed by the sight of the grotesque descent route, which suddenly came back into view.

The entire group joyously squeezed together to get a group summit photo. Everyone seemed both proud and relieved to have made it to the top. He made an effort to smile and blend into the upbeat group mood but couldn’t keep the thought of what the knife-edge ridge crossing would entail out of his mind.

After a few minutes of celebration, Megan turned the attention to the descent.

“There it is,” she pointed toward the ridge and Cemetary with her eyes. “Remember, the climb’s not over till we’re safely down and back at camp. Take your time and stay focused. Get your ropes untangled and spread out,” she said in a serious tone as she turned and began walking.

The time to cross it is here, for better or worse, reasoned Latimer. The crossing would’ve begun quickly, except that the five climbing ropes were in a tangled mess. All attention was instantly turned to the 150-foot long 11-millimeter nylon ropes that connected the two climbers of each of the five climbing teams. As everyone had euphorically gathered on the summit and the various individuals moved around into position, the ropes had become tangled up. And for the moment, the connecting ropes were in a jumbled mess. While Latimer was of no help in untangling his own rope, the situation did heighten his awareness of just how small and fragile it actually was. How old is it, he wondered? How much has it been used? Have any other climbers ever jumped off a cliff with it? He had plenty of concerns, which were topped off when he recalled a disturbing scene from an old TV Western. It was the one where the good guy is hanging off a cliff and tied to his lariat. The rope begins to fray where it goes over a sharp rock edge, but he is saved at the last minute when he grabs onto a log and pulls himself up to the top. And so, he scouted the knife-edge with his eyes for any logs, but was distraught to not see any. But thankfully, his worrying mind was returned to the present when Wally yelled his name. His climbing partner was directing him to move in various ways to get themselves detached from the others, and he wasn’t following directions. While he realized he needed to focus on the task at hand, he couldn’t completely pull free of thinking about the specifics of what they were about to do regarding the crossing. But nonetheless, the rope puzzle was eventually solved, and their descent began.

As they walked toward the ridge’s start, he looked at Wally and noted the sizeable weight differential that existed between the two of them. What if he just pulled Wally over the top with him, and they both fell all the way down, he thought? Then, he began pondering the possibility of three people being tied together on a rope. What if all three jumped- wouldn’t that most assuredly create a weight imbalance? What if two people jumped off on one side and were big and the person on the other side was small?

And the pondering continued- what if he jumped and it was just Wally and him, and he was hanging 75 feet down a cliff? After all, Megan had told them the ropes were 150 feet long, and he did the arithmetic and figured out that it could possibly work out that way. But maybe not. It could be worse. What if Wally fell 10 feet and he jumped and fell 140? Wouldn’t the force and resulting weight of a longer fall be different? If only he’d been a better physics student back in high school, he lamented. His worrying continued to heighten.

And then he began thinking back to the technique he’d been taught about using a prussic knot to ascend a rope. What he most remembered about the instruction/lesson were his struggles to do it correctly, and that was when it was all fresh on his mind. And he wondered if he could do it in the heat of the moment, now that it was two weeks later. He thought through the steps for creating the loop and then attaching it to the climbing rope but got confused. He knew that it would slide up the rope in one direction when done correctly, but not the other. But what if he got it backward? He wanted to ask Megan to refresh his memory but realized that it was probably not a good time. “Doubt is not good at such times,” he recalled her saying.

Finally, it happened, and they reached the knife-edge and unceremoniously began to cross. His initial thought was the obvious realization that there wasn’t much that could fall on them from above because they were on the top of a ridge. That was one thing he didn’t have to worry about. While there were questions that remained, there was no longer time to ponder them at that point. He was careful with each of his steps and stayed attentive to managing the climbing rope to keep it snug between him and Wally and avoid getting tangled with the rocks. He considered each hand placement and was aware of the ramifications that came from each movement. His focus was entirely on the moment. The situation he’d been worrying about had come to fruition, for better or worse.

But then, seemingly in the snap of a finger, they were across. They reached the Cemetary, where he saw a trail descending a big open meadow to the valley. Especially after what they’d gone through, going down it would be a piece of cake, he ecstatically reasoned. But in the back of his mind, he wondered what those hardships were.

Huge dead tree carcasses and stumps were everywhere. He realized that they were what gave the big blob of a mountain its name and not the human death or some such thing he’d worried about. Just when he came to that realization, he tripped and fell hard onto the side of the trail. His left hand cushioned the fall, which kept his head from hitting the ground. His body was mostly saved by his hand, although his wrist was tweaked and his palm had a few small cuts. He got up and brushed himself off. After assuring the others that he was okay, he resumed walking with a renewed vigilance of the dangers that awaited.

Using Gear

Author: David Appleton

I was born and raised in Texas and currently live in the Texas Hill Country, spent some 30 years living in the smack dab middle of Colorado, and have spent a lifetime adventuring and leading others on adventures in many parts of the wild world.