Thursday, October 21, 2010
We're climbing at the cliffs of Tieton outside of Yakima, Washington. As you've already picked up from the title. I am with a very intelligent and very pretty group of trad rad girls with names that read like a horticulturist's guide to Ireland: Heather, Lilly, Brittany, Stephanie. And myself. A weekend of camping, ropes, blue sky, dessert, rocks. And rattlesnakes.
It was late in the afternoon on Sunday, and the last climb of the day was really stumping me. Below, Heather had me on belay from a little ledge above the path. You had to boulder up a bit just to get on the ledge, and it was a very small area, only three square feet or so, just big enough two of us.
I was wholly fixated on my body pressed up against the slightly inverted wall, fingers digging onto a crack the width of three playing cards. (This is an exaggeration, but it was a difficult hold regardless.) Just one inch higher and I'd have a little more stability, but I couldn't seem to get there. Beneath me, I heard Brittany walking briskly up the trail. Then she stopped short. "Okay," she said, "Heather don't move. Melina, you're fine. And Heather, you're okay too but- oh shit- it's big-"
I smeared at the wall with a toe. The strength was quickly draining out of my arms. I had the feeling I shouldn't look down.
Then I heard Heather say in a tightly controlled voice, "Oh shit. That's big. Oh wow."
This was the 8th snake we had seen over the course of the weekend. We had become afraid to walk into the brush or off of the trail at all, which made going to the bathroom either a dangerous endeavor or a very public endeavor. Earlier that morning, Steph had taken three steps off the trail and walked smack into a snake, which tightened up and rattled so loudly we all heard it, and dropped racks of metal cams, carabiners and half eaten power bars to the dirt as we scampered away.
"Okay," said Brittany, sounding not nearly as concerned as I thought she ought to, "now it's- it's climbing up the rope." Sure enough, the smooth black snake was moving slowly up the rope, it's great head nearly on the ledge where Heather was standing. Since Heather was on belay, she couldn't move. And she wasn't getting off belay until I came down off the rock. She could have easily lowered me, but but between herself and the snake there was no room for me on the ledge. And all the books say it's bad form to lower someone on top of an unsuspecting a rattlesnake. Rattlesnakes don't appreciate surprises that way we girls do.
Stuck there as we were, this is a situation we referrer to as a real pickle.
Five days. Five days in the ICU, I thought to myself, remembering a girl who once worked for New River who was bit by a rattler in the New River Gorge. I knew of someone else who had been chomped, made it to the hospital in good time, but the ER didn't have the antivirals because 'rattlesnake bites are so rare'.
With no other idea of what to do, we treated the snake the way you treat bears in the back country. We started singing at the top of our lungs. Our voices rang out across the weird, wide open country of Eastern Washington. I directed my voice at the rock because it was too eery to watch the snake. I squeezed my eyes shut tight and wondered what we would do if Heather was bitten.
Then, I'd pick her up in my arms and- forsaking all our ropes and gear, run down the steep, unstable trail to my car. From there I'd whisk her away to the nearest hospital, talking in that soothing tone I've learned in my Doula Workshop. Your Cervix is a flower blooming. Is what I'd say.
After she was in the capable hands of the doctor, only then would I return to the cliff. It would be dark by then. I'd hike up solo, brandishing my knife. I'd collect all our gear in a pile. Then I'd find the pieces of the snake I'd sliced to death. I'd cut off the rattler and keep it as a prize.
Thankfully, the snake slithered away, and it didn't come to that.