Chapter One One
Problem: The term given to the path a climber must follow to complete a climb correctly.
“The bouldering problem the pretty brunette climbed was rated a V6. Getting her to talk to me? Off the scale.”
—From The Friedrichs Fundamental Guide to Speaking Dirtbag
Kiley was halfway up the rock when she sank back in her harness for what had to have been the tenth time. She looked down at me and shook her head, her blond ponytail swinging side to side. “I’m sorry, Cara,” she said. “I just…”
“You hate it.”
“No!” She looked away, wrinkled her nose. “Okay. Kind of. I’m sorry.”
How could she not love this? Open Book was a classic, a route I’d handpicked because it had great holds, great movement, and just enough exposure at the finish to make it feel epic without the risk of wigging her, or Sarah, out.
“It’s okay,” I said, forcing a smile. “Now I know how Sarah felt when she made us watch The Notebook.”
Sarah looked up from her phone. “You’re both heartless, soulless monsters.”
“I think we can live with that.” Kiley looked down at me, arched one eyebrow so high it disappeared under the rim of her helmet. “Right, Cara?”
“Yeah, I’m good,” I said, shrugging.
“Monsters.” Sarah bent back over her phone. The three of us had been tight since ceramics sophomore year. Sarah and Kiley were the only people I was actually going to miss from high school. With graduation behind us, and the end of summer racing toward us, we’d made it a mission to do all the stuff we’d always said we were going to do but somehow never managed to find time for. That included suffering through Sarah’s favorite ugly-cry romance movie a few nights ago. And Kiley had made us all go to Nordstrom the week before, where I’d watched them try stuff on and pretended to consider buying a dress that I couldn’t afford, until I caved and bought a forty-dollar T-shirt that I also couldn’t afford.
Today it was my turn. It seemed impossible that I’d never managed to get them out to Mount Erie for a climb before now. They’d been stoked to finally try climbing outside, and I was giddy at sharing my favorite place with my favorite people.
The day had started out perfectly. When we parked at the summit, the sky was the hazy washed-out blue of old denim. The sun warmed my shoulders. Blue-green spruce and fir towered above, the lacy maples and alders rustled with the breeze, and patches of wild blueberry poked up around us. It was quiet, except for the sound of a boat puttering around Lake Campbell some eight hundred feet below and a few groups of climbers calling out to one another.
But from there, things flatlined. Sarah got sketched out by the narrow trail and ten-foot drop that led to the base of the climb. Kiley tripped, scraped her knees up pretty badly, and ripped a hole in a pair of hiking pants she’d just bought for the occasion. The strugglefest continued once I got them tied into their harnesses. On Sarah’s first lap, she went up about ten feet and then her foot slipped, she lost her grip and then dangled there in her harness, refusing to let me lower her, instead insisting on climbing down. Kiley’s first attempt was even rougher. She had a hard time getting off the ground and kept hangdogging on the rope while reminiscing about all the times in PE class where she failed to execute a single pull-up. Sarah had bravely tried again and made it a little farther, but after she reached for a hold and got a handful of slimy moss that hadn’t dried out since the last time it rained, she was done. And now Kiley was on the way back down after only climbing a dozen or so feet past the spot she’d tapped out before. The whole thing reminded me of when I fell hard for Doctor Who reruns and tried to get my brother to obsess with me, but he thought the show was stupid. It always kind of sucks when the people I love don’t love the things I love.
As I lowered Kiley to the ground, Sarah pointed at the GriGri I was using to belay. “What’s that called again—what you’re doing to keep us from falling?” She scrunched her face like she was trying to remember something important, as if she was trying to make up for her lack of enthusiasm for the actual climbing with curiosity about the gear. She’d already asked me why the shoes were so tight and what kind of rock we were climbing.
“Right. It looks hard.”
Now I smiled. “Not really. You just hold the rope,” I said, echoing the line my dad had used to teach me a lifetime ago.
My phone buzzed in my back pocket just as Kiley touched down and started to untie. It was a message from Jeff.
Can you open the gym tomorrow morning for me?
My shift at the Espresso Hut started at eleven. Then it was coaching practice at the climbing gym in the afternoon before babysitting—wait, no, babysitting was tonight, wasn’t it? Three jobs was a lot, but I needed all the hours I could scrounge. So, I typed:
He texted back immediately.
Cool. I’ll be there by 10:30. Have to take Laura to dentist. You can still run practice tomorrow night, though, right?
I sent him a thumbs-up and dropped the phone in my pocket. “You ready to try it again, Sarah?”
She looked up the rock face and then back at me, twisting the end of her braid around her index finger. “Um, I’m good. Do you want to go again, Kiley?”
Kiley unclipped the helmet and passed it to me. “Nope.”
They were done? But we’d practically just gotten here. “Maybe I could set another climb for us, one you’ll like more—”
“Why don’t you teach us to do the rope-holding thingy,” Sarah said. “We can watch you climb.”
Belaying involved pulling rope through a braking device as a climber ascended and being ready to catch the climber by locking the rope off if they fell. It was pretty simple, but yeah, there was an art to mastering it. Sarah could have learned quickly enough, but I couldn’t teach her without letting Dad memories creep into the moment even more. The day was already sort of underwhelming; I didn’t want to pile on by thinking about him.
“That’s okay,” I said. “I don’t really need to climb.”
“A little.” There was never any point in pretending otherwise with Sarah. “But it’s fine. For real.” I shrugged. Luckily, I’d top roped this route—actually run the rope through the permanent anchors at the summit before tossing the rope down. I pulled at one side until the rope fed through and whipped down the twenty yards to my feet. “Besides, what if you guys had been better than me? What would I bring to this friendship then? You’re better at school and nicer and—”
Kiley shook her head and smirked. “You are such a dork.”
“Here.” I passed her the rope and she began coiling it with total concentration. Sarah started posting pics, cracking herself up as she narrated them with witty captions. I crouched down to gather the rest of the gear when my phone buzzed. Jeff again.
BTW, have you heard from your dad lately?
Okay. A little weird. Jeff knew I hadn’t heard from Dad in a while. In fact, he’d been more upset than me when Dad didn’t show up at graduation. My thumbs started keying in a reply before I changed my mind. I tucked the phone away. Dad couldn’t hijack the day if I didn’t let him.
“Look!” Kiley thrust the rope at me. “I did a climbing thing, Cara. Aren’t you proud?”
“You’re amazing.” I strapped it to the outside of the pack. She gave a little bow and started wriggling out of the harness.
Sarah looked up from her phone. “Tagged you guys in all the pics. Can I take off these shoes now?” She pointed at the rentals I’d borrowed from the gym.
“Yep. Should we go find something to eat?”
Kiley froze, eyes wide. “Out here? Like berries or mushrooms or something?”
“Um, I was sort of thinking maybe a burger?”
Kiley’s relief that I wasn’t going to make her forage was obvious. “You know a spot?”
“Yeah, me and Seth and Dad used to stop at the Net after a climb.” Used to… We hadn’t been to the Net in ages… and then I was back to thinking about Jeff’s text message, now flashing like a warning sign.
Dad’s absences always felt like snow days during the winter: kind of a break when they were happening, but I knew I’d pay for them later. More than once, we’d had to bail Dad out of various situations, usually after he’d been missing for a spell. Jeff asking now? And asking me? Probably meant something was up. Crap.
Nope. I gave my head a hard shake. I was not going to worry about this now. Whatever it was, it would keep. I crammed my gear into my pack.
Five minutes later, rounding the bend in the trail to head back up to the parking lot, we saw the climbers we’d heard earlier. They were starting up Queen of Hearts, a stout 5.10+. Beyond them, the trail hugged the rock face, which meant we’d need to pass right between the belayer and the rock. Since the guy on the route hadn’t made the first clip yet, we needed to wait until he was secure.
“The rope-holder guy is hot,” Sarah whispered behind me. He was cute. Dark hair, just a little too long, brown skin, eyelashes that outdid mine even when I actually wore mascara. A sprinkle of acne scars dimpled his cheeks, but they tipped him back from being almost too pretty to being interesting.
Just then his climber peeled off the route, groaned and swore, popping back to the ground. Now was our chance. “Hey. Just need to slip by you guys, okay?”
The climber turned toward us. A scrubby man-bun poked out from under his helmet, and he had one of those patchy beards that somehow still kind of worked. “Sorry you had to see that,” he joked. “This start’s killing me.”
“It looks really hard.” Sarah’s voice oozed sympathy and sweetness. Kiley didn’t try to stifle the snort, but I fought down the bubble of laughter. Sarah might as well have added, “And you boys look so strong, too.”
We tiptoed around the gear littering the trail, passing close enough to catch the scent of some sort of yummy smelling soap or shampoo off one of the guys and straight funk off the other. “The start is tricky,” I agreed. As a rule, climbers don’t share beta, or information, without being asked.
The guys glanced at each other before the climber asked. “You’ve done it?”
About forty times. The first time with Dad. And there he was again. “Yeah,” I said quickly. “We’ll get out of your way so—”
“Whoa, hold up.” The climber stepped aside. “Throw me a bone. I’ve made three different trips down here.”
Sometimes dudes tried to save face in front of female climbers. The fact that this guy didn’t was a huge point in his favor.
“You have to do a little gaston right at the start, and then match left foot to left hand. Then keep the tension as you extend up for the right grab.” My hands moved through the air in front of me as I pantomimed the opening sequence.
“Cara’s really good,” Sarah chimed in.
Great. She wasn’t flirting for herself. She was flirting for me. I bugged my eyes out at her, silently begging her to knock it off.
“You win, like, contests and stuff, right, Cara?”
She was shameless. “Comps. We call them comps.” I’d won maybe three in the last couple of years. Usually the prize was, like, a lifetime supply of chalk or a demo harness I didn’t need. Definitely not worth bragging about.
“Well, Cara.” The climber crossed his arms. “I’m not too proud to let you show me up on this if you have a second.”
A little rush of anticipation surged through me, like the day was throwing me a lifeline. Maybe teaching my friends to belay was out, but these guys knew what they were doing.
“Do it, Cara,” Kiley said. “C’mon!”
“I guess we have a minute.” I tried to sound cool. But inside, I felt like our dog when he saw a rabbit and started pulling against the leash. After that opening sequence, there was a tricky little part near the finish that was pretty sick.
“Sweet,” the belayer said. “I’m Miguel, by the way. And this is Jake.”
I pulled my harness and shoes and a sling out again while Kiley and Sarah introduced themselves. The guys were outdoor ed majors at Western, taking summer classes. Kiley and Sarah were only too happy to tell them about their own college plans.
“What about you, Cara?” Miguel asked as I tied in.
“No college for me yet,” I said, studying the route, counting the bolts embedded in the rock, a shiny breadcrumb trail to the summit. I pulled eight quickdraws—one for each bolt and two spares—and attached them to my harness. “Spot me a couple of your slings and lockers. I can build the anchor for you guys when I get up there.”
Jake handed them over. “No college, huh?”
“Cara’s taking a gap year,” Sarah said, all excited. “To Patagonia!”
“No way,” Miguel said. “Really?”
“Leaving in September.” I cinched the slings to an open gear loop. The open-ended plane ticket I’d just bought last week was the most expensive purchase I’d ever made. Between now and then, every minute I could work translated to more time there and more things I could see and do before my money ran out and I had to come home.
Miguel nodded, one eyebrow raised. “You gonna climb?”
“That’s the plan.” As I strapped on my helmet, my phone buzzed again, no doubt another message from Jeff about Dad. “Keep me loose, okay?”
Miguel readied his brake hand. “You’re the boss.”
“Belay is on.”
As soon as my fingers found the first little crimpy edges in the granite, relief and a relaxed focus settled onto me, like sinking under a warm blanket. Climbing had always been the only way I could shut out the world. The only way I could think about just one thing for one blessed second. The only choices that mattered were where to step or reach next, the only feeling that mattered was the tension in my shoulders and back. Nothing but the sound of my own movements—the gear on my harness tapping against the rock, the gates on the carabiners clicking as I attached them to the bolts, the hiss of the rope as I pulled it up and fed it through the clips—reached my brain. But it didn’t last. Soon, the shaded part of the rock gave way to the sunny portion above the tree line. I pulled through the last couple of moves and reached the bolts and chains that marked the end of the route. Using the gear the guys had given me, I built an anchor, fed the rope through, and double-checked my set. Bombproof.
“Take!” The rope tightened up and I sank back in my harness, taking a few seconds to soak in the view. Beyond the hilly green San Juan Islands, the Olympics stood ghostly white out on the peninsula. A hawk circled and caught an updraft. The quiet and the view were all I needed, but then my phone buzzed yet again. I should have left the stupid thing on the ground.
“Ready to lower,” I called down, feeling anything but.
As I descended, Miguel paused long enough for me to collect the quickdraws I’d clipped in on the way up.
“You made that seem too easy,” Jake said when I was back on the ground.
Suddenly, I felt stupid. It probably looked like I was showing off. “Thanks for the catch,” I said as I broke the knot and loosened my harness.
“No problem,” Miguel said.
“Yeah,” Jake added, “let’s do it again some time. Give me your number? We could call you before we head down next week.”
Thankfully, I was busy wrestling off my rock shoes, so I didn’t give away my surprise. On the one hand, it was kind of nice he asked for my number. Maybe it would have been nicer if Miguel had, but still. On the other, he wouldn’t call. They never did. “Um…” I jammed my feet back into my hikers and stowed my other gear in my pack, trying to sound as apologetic as I could without making it any more awkward. “I’m working a lot. But stop by the gym in Burlington sometime? I’m there almost every day.”
Jake tilted his head to one side and smiled weakly, that universal reaction to a swing and a miss. Miguel looked down and rubbed the back of his neck—the universal reaction to my buddy got shot down and I have to be cool now so I can give him crap later. I’d seen Kiley trigger these reactions a dozen times. But she was standing behind both guys, bugging her eyes at me in disbelief. Next to her, Sarah was mouthing “GIVE HIM YOUR NUMBER!”
“Ready?” I sidestepped the rope and pulled out my phone to pretend-check the time. “We gotta hustle if we’re going to get to the… thing.”
Jeff’s message waited on the screen.
Been trying to reach him. Can’t get him to answer back.
I crammed the phone back in my pocket. “Good luck with the route,” I told the guys as I hitched my pack onto my shoulders, and moved up trail. Kiley and Sarah murmured goodbyes and followed me. A minute later, Kiley let it rip.
Sarah jumped in. “He was so cute! He’s perfect for you…” She sounded heartbroken.
“He wasn’t going to call me—”
“When they ask for your number, they want to call you.” Kiley sounded like she was explaining addition to a kindergartner.
“No, they ask to see if they can get it,” I said. “And then they don’t call. It’s basic. Besides, I can’t get into anything right now—”
“Because you’re leaving in a couple months, yeah, yeah,” Kiley finished. “But months, Cara.”
“Any free time I have, you guys are always claiming.” Just a few days ago, Kiley had been after me about how I was too busy. They didn’t get that working three jobs was the only way to finance the trip. Both Kiley’s parents were dentists. Sarah’s mom managed a bank. My dad? Well, he hadn’t helped out in years, and my mom taught middle school science while trying to scrape together enough to cover the gaps in Seth’s tuition at the U.
“Why is this such a big deal, anyway?”
Sarah’s voice went gentle. “Because the last perfectly cute guy who liked climbing who got your number—”
I stopped so fast Sarah bumped into me. My voice went louder than I meant it to. “Nope! Not everything is about… C’mon.” I bit my lip and regrouped. Today was supposed to be about us, not about guys.
“Nothing wrong with having a little fun before you go,” Kiley muttered.
I groaned and started hiking again. “Fun is maxing out every minute of summer with my best friends before they leave for Spokane.” Kiley and Sarah were rooming together at Gonzaga. They’d still be a pair, and I’d be in another hemisphere. We’d drift apart. That was inevitable, I guessed. But it wasn’t easy to think about being separate, which was why today mattered. But maybe it wasn’t easy for them, either.
“Are you guys worried I’ll be lonely without you?”
Kiley rolled her eyes. “We know you don’t do lonely, Cara.”
“Funny,” I deadpanned, as my phone buzzed in my pocket again. I ignored it. “I do, however, do peanut butter milkshakes. The Net has a killer one.”