This morning, I went bouldering before work. After I traversed a few moves, I realized that I hadn’t taken my wedding ring off.
I hopped off the wall and walked over to my clutch. I was about to drop my ring into the little change purse where I store it while I climb (the only time I take it off), but stopped for a minute.
Brad proposed to me on top of Free Blast (also known as the first 12 pitches of the Salathe Wall) on October 15, 2005. We hadn’t been dating long – just 10 months or so – and I was so shocked by his proposal that I almost fell off Heart Ledge (Free Blast ends at the base of the Heart of El Cap, which is formed by two corner systems leading to adjacent roofs).
That morning, Brad broke out a new chalk bag – one with a zippered pocket. “Sweet,” I thought. “I can put my chapstick in there.” (We weren’t taking water on the route, and in the absence of actual fluids, chapstick tricks me into feeling hydrated).
“Get out of there!” Brad shouted as I reached for the chalk bag. “What are you doing?”
“Jesus,” I thought. “Why is he so edgy?”
“I just want to put this in your pocket,” I held up the tube.
“I’ll do it,” Brad said, snatching the balm and turning his back on me to stow it safely away.
Deciding to table the weird vibe, I started walking to the base. Brad seemed fine again in no time, offering me the rack for Pine Line (YES, I know most people just solo it, but I’m not most people, thank you very much) and chatting happily about the pitches above.
Most people link the first few hundred feet of Free Blast, so when we saw a party practically camped out at the top of the first pitch, we got a little nervous.
“We’ll just pass them,” I said, trying to ease the look of concern on Brad’s face. “Of course they’ll let us – they’re moving like alpine snails.”
But when Brad got to the top of the first pitch, intending to climb through to the second, the party was reticent to let us get ahead of them.
“No, that would not be ok.” They said in broken English. “We don’t want to get stuck behind someone and get benighted.” They spoke to us like we were four-year olds who required walking-helmets and short busses.
They weren’t going to get stuck behind us, you see, because we’d just completed the first pitch (not easy) in something like an eighth of the time it took them. We were moving quickly and smoothly; they were lurching along and yelling at each other.
And then, in a most unusual display of fuck-you-itive-ness, Brad said, “I guarantee you will not get stuck behind us,” and took off up the second pitch. “Put me on belay,” he called down to me, barely breaking his stride.
“Who is this man?” I thought to myself. “This is NOT Brad-like behavior.” As I glanced up at him, I caught the glowering eye of the slow party’s belayer. He was staring at me with such disdain that I momentarily considered unclipping from the belay and simul-climbing.
He appeared to be European (which is to say, he was wearing a bandana around his neck and very colorful trousers), and I found myself worrying that Brad’s uncharacteristic brazenness would put him off Americans forever.
“Sorry,” I attempted feebly. “I don’t know what’s gotten into him; he’s not usually like this.” I was hoping the Euro-tortoise would take pity on me and stop with the stink eye already. No such luck, though, and I tried to avoid eye contact with him until Brad pulled up the spare rope and shouted, “CLIMB!”
“Good riddance,” muttered my new friend as I chalked up and willed myself to move quickly. The climbing was good; I would have enjoyed it if I hadn’t been so worried about encountering the slow party’s leader, laboring along a few feet above me.
“Excuse me,” I was a little timid when stepping over the man, who was struggling to place what appeared to be a hemp-slung hex. I braced for the verbal-assault.
“Oh, it is no problem!” He shouted, delightedly. “Your man, he tell me it is very important you move fast today!” Then he winked at me, not lecherously, but as though we shared a secret.
I had no idea what prompted his change of heart, but I appreciated it, so I just smiled, said thank you and moved on. When I got to the belay, Brad was smiling and seemed calm.
“What was that all about?” I began, wanting to figure out what he’d said to shift the leader’s perspective of our climbing past.
“I guess he just sees how much faster we are,” Brad didn’t meet my eye, but instead pulled the gear off my harness and slipped back into his shoes. “Ready?”
“Wait,” I said, grabbing for his chalk bag.
“Get off!” Brad shouted, pulling away and looking horrified.
“I just want some lip balm,” I shouted back. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
“Nothing, but just hold on!” Brad fished in the little pocket. “You can’t go around grabbing at peoples’ chalk bags whenever you want.”
He produced the tube and I put some on, staring at him, slightly unnerved. “He’s being so weird,” I thought. “Why is he so touchy about his chalk bag? What’s going on?”
The climb progressed without any more explosions, and we both had fun, climbed well and I fell in love with El Cap. It was hot, though, really hot, and by the time we got to the top of the final pitch, we were both in desperate need of water. As I climbed onto Heart Ledge, I immediately prepared to rappel.
Brad was surprised. “What are you doing? Don’t you want to hang out?”
“No, I’m super dehydrated. It’s really hot. Let’s just rap.”
“Maybe chapstick will help.”
“ No, Brad, seriously, I’m over it. Let’s just go down and get some water.”
But he hadn’t heard and was once again fishing in his chalk bag. “Here, it’ll make you feel better,” he was offering something to me.
It wasn’t a tube of lip balm, but a ring. And he had tears in his eyes. And my heart started pounding.
“What’s that?” I asked. I wanted to make sure I understood what was happening.
“It’s an engagement ring,” Brad said, walking towards me (it should be noted, at this point, that we were 1200 feet off the ground and Brad hadn’t bothered to clip into anything). “Will you marry me?”
Oh. That explains the nervousness.
And that explains why he didn’t want my grubby mitts rummaging through the pocket of his chalk bag.
It was hard to rappel while crying and laughing. And telling everyone we saw that we’d just gotten engaged. And repeatedly asking Brad, “Really? You planned this? Really? You want to marry me?” As it turns out, I'm the only person who didn't know this was coming. Our families, our friends, the slow party who let us pass them - they were all in on the surprise. I love that Brad thought it out. Planned for it. Knew how to best make it happen.
And so, this morning, in the climbing gym, what I saw wasn’t the ring with its sapphire baguettes, delicate filagree and clear round diamond. It was Brad’s face when as handed it to me, his eyes full of promise and intention.
I think my ring is beautiful, but – and I never thought I’d say this – it isn’t all that important to me. The ring itself, well, it’s just a thing. I don’t wear it because it defines me; I wear it because it reminds me of Brad, of his commitment to me, of mine to him. I think of the look on his face when he handed it to me, when he asked me to marry him.
I put it in the little change purse and kept bouldering. I felt a little stronger and a little braver. I climbed a little harder. It was nice.