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'So few get to see what we're seeing'

Here is a photo of me about to ascend Tonto, a 90-foot wall that’s about a five-minute walk from the Willow Springs Picnic Area off the Red Rock Scenic Loop Drive. Tonto is rated 5.5, which, to rock climbers, means their octogenarian grandpa could do it.

I’m not scared at this point. I’ve just belayed Xavier Wasiak as he climbed all the way up and rigged the pulley-type safety system that climbers call a “top rope.” Xavier made this look slightly more difficult than walking up stairs. He’s been a climber going on 20 years.

I’ve been to the climbing gym with my husband and stepdaughter, both rock jocks, a few times. I’ve tried some walls there. But this is my first attempt in nature. Still, I’m a cyclist and yogi and all-around active person, so I figure I got this.

And I do — if you don’t count having to ask technical questions that, frankly, one should expect from a reporter in any situation — until that moment when, about halfway up the wall, I look down. I have no fear of heights, so that’s not what gets me. It’s that I’ve gone over a slight hump in the wall and can no longer see Xavier down below, holding the other end of the rope to which I’m tethered. In a flash, it occurs to me that this man I barely know holds my life in his hands. Because if I fall at this point, I figure, I could do some major damage to myself.

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It suddenly doesn’t matter than Xavier is the president of the Las Vegas Climbers Liaison Council. Or that he advocates for safety and ethics in climbing. That we have mutual friends and, by all accounts, he’s a steady, trustworthy fellow. My reporting on rock climbers has taught me that anybody can make a mistake. In 2002, climbing guide and local celebrity Randall Grandstaff fell to the ground from a route he’d done many times. He died.

I muster my yogic skills, remembering what Xavier told me: focus on your breath, take one move at a time. Leaning against the cold wall, pressing into the spots where my feet cling to the sandstone, I close my eyes and relinquish mental control of the rope. Opening them, I reach up to the next hold, my fingers squirming until they catch. I plant my right foot a few feet higher than it is, inhale and, on the exhale, heave myself upward. A few more like this, and I’m at the top of the climb, flush with the thrill of victory and eager to do it again.

On the drive home, I feel differently about Xavier — an unfamiliar feeling somewhere between affinity and friendship. I realize it’s the bond so many climbers have told me about during interviews. It’s trust. And gratitude.

“The mountains, the scary situations, they try you,” Xavier tells me. “They bring out the best in people, and sometimes the worst. So, you figure out the people you’re with. You find out if they’re good partners or not.”

And when you find good ones? “You look at the world around you and think, ‘There are so few people who get to see what we’re seeing.’”

Read more on Las Vegas rock climbing in “Stone Temple Zealots,” from the March issue of Desert Companion.

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