Grit, granite and a mossy route lead writer up Chapel Pond Slab in Keene, NY

By Cheryth Youngmann

Vermont Country contributor

This topographical map of Chapel Pond shows the sharp rise of the terrain to the northeast

I dropped through the air and screamed. 

The rope that looped through my harness pulled taut. I rested then, suspended until Ben let out some rope. We couldn’t see each other — could barely hear each other, either. He was anchored to a ledge above me and a ways to the right. The sun slipped fast toward the west, like the light was water and someone had unplugged the drain.

Photo by Ben Chuchta
The author looks relieved after ascending Chapel Pond Slab.
Photo by Ben Chuchta
Author Cheryth Youngmann, seen as a small dot down at the bottom of the rope, ascends Chapel Pond Slab.

I pressed my forehead to the granite and let the grain steady me. 

Ben had said, over and over, that I was strong enough to do these moves, that my actual body could. But I was exhausted and certain that wasn’t true. The proof was in my shaking arms and repeated failed attempts to climb up and out of this corner in the rock — the crux of Chapel Pond Slab, the six-pitch climb we were ascending. Or, in my case, attempting to ascend. 

I breathed through my nose, the kind of breath I use during yoga, and squared my shoulders. The rock was cold under my hands, and I climbed, trying to remember Ben’s movements as he led. 

I got to the last sequence I’d successfully completed and reached, with fear splintering in my gut. My fingers came off the rock, again. 

In an instant, my fear gave way to anger. I was furious with Ben for having brought me here and for having thought I could do this, furious with my scared, animal body, and furious, too, with the rock that had cooled over years into this exact, impossible formation. 

I screamed again, this time with no drop to prompt it. I screamed because I needed to — my body needed to. I looked up from where I hung, where it seemed I’d always hung. There was a wet, mossy crack above me. I didn’t think it was the route. I didn’t think it was even close, but this hadn’t stopped me from trying three times already. 

I looked at the crux again. I wedged the fingers of my right hand into the crack I wasn’t supposed to climb and heaved. I scrabbled for purchase with my toe and found it — barely. But I was moving up, and my whole consciousness narrowed to that one purpose: Get up. 

Ben pulled the rope tight with each movement I made, and I inched up the wet crack, farther than I’d ever gotten. I’ll be damned if I fall now, I thought.

Then, all at once, I saw the end of the climb above me. I hooked a forearm over the edge of the rock and heaved my upper body onto the ledge. Guttural noises I’d never made before muscled past my teeth and into the air. I sounded like a woman in labor. And maybe the whole thing looked a little like birth from where Ben stood — my body, fluid-covered and spent, emerging from the earth. 

My upper body was safe, but the problem of my shaking legs remained. I breathed a moment, feeling the coolness of the rock under my arms. I closed my eyes and called on my rage: I had a boyfriend to kill. 

Matching my right knee to my forearm in a move that could have scraped it, badly, I hauled myself onto even rock. And then, impossibly, I stood. 

Relief flooded my body. I do not mean this metaphorically. I felt something release from the base of my neck and shoot down the arc of my spine through my entire being. It turned my limbs from ache to something warm, liquid, pleasant. Unfamiliar endorphins drowned out thought. 

I was suddenly and acutely aware of the solid mass beneath me. 

The earth is under me, I thought, stupid with wonder. I padded across the open ledge to where Ben stood anchored to that same rock. I searched for the rage I’d known moments before. It was like groping for my phone in the dark, just a blind, fruitless scramble. My body could only hold so much at once.

I recognized something familiar in the chaotic mix of sensations coursing through me — gratitude. My body was glad to be alive. It hummed with that gladness.

I reached Ben. My feet touched the earth as I kissed him. 

Cheryth Youngmann ascended it as her first outdoor climb on Oct. 5, 2019. She survived the 5.5 climb, despite the dramatics.

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