Talk of the Town - Cliff hanger July 08 2000

Rock climbers scale river bluffs around Atlanta

Terrell and I hang our bare feet off a jagged, 40-foot face of gray granite and watch the river through the trees. The morning sun slowly melts the mist off the water. Then Terrell ties an anchor rope around an old-growth oak and climbs down into the thick, green forest. I rappel spider-like down the granite cliff behind him, landing on a carpet of crushed pine needles. No, we're not in the north Georgia mountains. We're inside the Perimeter, rock climbing a bouldery bluff along the Chattahoochee River.

For the past five years, Terrell has been coming to this secret grove of rock and river to climb. The bluff is pockmarked with flakes and finger holds that are just as challenging as any mountain climb. And unlike indoor climbing walls, this is real rock, with spider webs and bat dung and all the shin-scraping, vein-popping, vertical hangs you could ask for.

Today, he and I are attempting a class-five climb up a steep sheet of granite. The route involves three technical moves: a burly boulder scramble at the base of the cliff, a hanging arm walk along a horizontal seam of rock and then the crux move — an all-out roof grab over the bluff's brow.

Terrell goes first. After yoga stretches and a set of finger-tip push-ups, he ties himself into the top-rope and begins climbing. He glides gracefully up the granite, swinging and pirouetting across the rock. It's a boulder ballet, and the dancer loses himself completely in the dance. Athleticism becomes art.

He ascends the cliff, popping deadpoint holds and dyno lunges. With each lunge, his hands and feet completely leave the rock for a split second, while he reaches for a golf-ball-sized chunk of granite above him. He snags it with one hand and pendulums toward the top.

He comes back down to Earth, purified and hands me the chalk bag.

"Your turn," he says.

This is my first live climb on the bluff, and I don't have any of Terrell's fluid finesse. I step awkwardly into my Swami belt — a hand-made harness fashioned out of lime-green webbing. Then I knot a few figure-eight loops into the climbing rope. Terrell is holding the other end of the rope, ready to take up slack through his belay buckle.

After calling out the safety checks, I start my climb. I pull myself up the first rock ledges but can't get past the bottom boulder. I dig my fingernails into a crack above the boulder, hang by my fingertips for a few seconds, and fall back down.

"You look like a white boy on the dance floor — all arms and no legs," Terrell laughs. "Use your whole body."

I climb clumsily back up to the boulder. This time, I kick my right heel over my head, and it catches. I focus all of my energy into my right heel, and like a lever, it lifts my body over the boulder. Terrell whoops and whistles below.

Finger-cramped and jelly-armed, I pick my way along a diagonal crimp in the rock. When I can't find a finger hold, I smear the rubber soles of my climbing shoes against the boulder. It gives just enough grip to get me onto the overhanging prow. I brace myself against the rock ledge and look out across the treetops.

I didn't think I'd make it this high. From here, I can see the river — a brown squiggly line with willow and birch bending over its banks. A heron wings across the open water and perches on a river rock.

The next two moves are the hardest, and I'll need every scrap of strength I have left. So I stall for a few more minutes atop the rock ledge. I chalk my hands — bloody and blistered from the gritty granite — and shake my arms loose. Then I study the narrow flake of rock that I'll be dangling from.

After a few false starts, I gorilla out along the flake and hang there, fingers pinched around the thin crack, legs flailing beneath me. Hand over hand, I pull myself across. I'm breathing hard and purse-lipped, like a weightlifter on his last rep of bench press.

"Breathe, baby! You've gotta get O-2!" Terrell shouts.

The golf ball of granite juts out from the boulder above me. If I can grab it, I think I'll be able to pull my body to the top of the bluff. My arms are shaking, my teeth are clenched. I'm in fourth grade P.E. class again, hanging from a chin-up bar.

"Hold on! One quick, explosive burst and you've got it!"

My fingers are starting to slip off the flake. But I'm an arm's length away from golf-ball rock. All it takes is one more move, one last gutsy grunt to the top. In the distance, I can hear the river's water dance. I take a deep breath, let go of my grip, and lunge for the rock.

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