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June 2017 Issue
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The ghost of Captain Kronos

The author gives the thumbs up after finally completing Captain Kronos. Photo: Supplied
Christopher Tuffley recalls a tough day climbing and learns a hard lesson about labelling your poisons.

I stand at the base of the Brown Wall, looking up at the twin slanting cracks of Captain Kronos, studying the route and gathering the nerve to try leading it again. Lured to try it as a first gear lead four years ago I backed off, spent; Matt finished it and declared it more like 5.9 than 5.7, another Joshua Tree sandbag. Two years later, a better climber, I returned to try again. I got further but again found myself in over my head: reaching a point where I could find no secure purchase, I clung to the rock as long as I could then fell. My neck saved by the rope, a finger-width cam, and my belayer Magdalen, I dangled upside-down too close to the rocks below, the rope running through my crotch and hooked behind my leg on the nut-tool on my harness. Scraped and badly shaken, I quickly abandoned an attempt to finish the route, and cleaned it on rappel.

Two years later still, I am back. Rained out of Red Rocks, Michael and I have joined some friends at Joshua Tree, and I am about to try to lay the ghost of Captain Kronos to rest. Shoulder sling heavy with part of Michael’s rack, in addition to my own – taking no chances, I want to be able to stitch this climb up – I tie in and look at Michael. “On belay?”

“Belay on.”


“Climb on.”

Up through the first moves, place and clip, on. As I get higher the cracks widen, flare, and the going gets tougher. Wanting to do it cleanly I struggle on, but finally rest on the rope to gather strength. I’m above the place where I bailed on my first attempt. Higher still I reach the point of my second, precipitous retreat, and where once I clung desperately to the rock with both hands, unable to let go with either, I now simply place taped hand above taped hand in the crack, walking them up in security. Is there a climb somewhere called Jamming Skills or Hospital Bills? I reach a solid stance, place, clip, and climb on. The crux is behind me and soon I survey the Real Hidden Valley, triumphant, the ghost of Captain Kronos at rest beneath me.

On top-rope Michael makes the climb look easy. Part of me wants him to hang too, but I’m pleased when he joins me at the anchor without weighting the rope. “Nice route!” he says as he comes in sight, and again when he reaches me. “Glad I didn’t lead it though!”

Nice route? Somehow it’s not a thought that’s occurred to me. I’ll have to come back and climb it again to see if I agree. Perhaps on top-rope – I didn’t do it cleanly, but right now I don’t feel a need to clear that record. I pose for a picture at the base of the wall, helmet, sunglasses, huge rack and a big grin, one taped hand pointing to the route, the other giving a thumbs-up. Then we pack up and go back to the car to decide where to climb next.

Michael goes into the outhouse as I come out, and thirsty, I search the car for water. Pulling out one of the many juice bottles we’ve filled for five days in the desert I remove the lid, and watching the view, put it to my mouth and take a swig.

My feeling of triumph has evaporated,

leaving a dull sense of stupidity and dread

A taste fills my mouth. I stop drinking in shock. The liquid is bright green – Gatorade? Michael drinks Gatorade. No. It tastes sweet, but somehow nasty at the same time. A drink like that wouldn’t sell. No, I’m starting to think that what I drank goes in cars, not people. I dig the water bottle out of my climbing pack – I’m sure of what’s in that one – and rinse, spit, rinse, spit, rinse again, drink to dilute. Michael is still in the outhouse, taking longer than someone who wants to know what he just drank wants to wait. I knock on the door.

“Michael, what’s the green stuff in that bottle?”

Apprehension makes my voice even quieter than usual. “Hang on Chris, I’ll be out in a moment.”

The liquid is antifreeze, ready mixed with water for topping up a leaking radiator. We find the original bottle and read the label. Harmful or fatal if swallowed, it says. If ingested do not induce vomiting. Contact a poison control centre immediately. We look at each other and agree climbing is over for the day.

As we drive out of the park, Michael has me record my pulse, every thing I’ve had to eat and drink during the day, what happened, any symptoms I’m experiencing. I rip open an empty muesli bar box and write on the blank grey inside. Some of the lists are short: somehow lunch never gets the time it deserves on climbing trips, and I still feel fine. Physically, at least — my feeling of triumph has evaporated, leaving a dull sense of stupidity and dread. At the park exit there’s a long queue, and our park pass is buried somewhere among the gear in the boot of the car. Michael explains the situation to the ranger, who directs us to the hospital and waves us through. The drive passes mostly in silence.

At 3pm we reach the hospital, and once the front desk has my insurance information I’m allowed inside. Monitors are strapped, clipped, and taped to me, an IV drip is placed in my arm, and I repeat my story, hear it repeated again over the phone to the poison control centre. “No more than a mouthful. Fifty-fifty with water. 180lbs. No symptoms.” Needles are stuck in me to draw blood for tests, one going straight in – ow! – to measure blood oxygen. If anything shows up I’m to be treated with intravenous ethanol. The prospect doesn’t appeal: I don’t drink and don’t really fancy starting here and now like that, even if it is to save my life.

Time passes. I wait. Michael is allowed in; he brings my glasses, and finally I can change out of my prescription sunglasses. The blood pressure cuff clamps my arm, releases, the IV bag is changed, changed again. Michael blames himself for what’s happened. I tell him that I’m the one that drank. On the fourth try I manage to give a urine sample. The population of the emergency room turns over. Michael drives back into the park to let our friends know that we are at least both in one piece, and not stuck on a climb in the dark somewhere. I’m thirsty.

The test results finally come back. They’re normal; a long slow breath. The poison control centre wants a second round, to be sure, and there are more needles, more waiting, but it’s easier this time. Michael comes back, and eventually the second test results do too. All clear; I may go. At midnight, nine hours after arriving, we drive away from the hospital. At last I can eat and drink.

In the bright sunshine of a new day I’m the butt of many jokes. “Tuffley, if you want to start drinking, there’s better things you could try.” Everyone’s glad to see me but no one’s going to let me forget this anytime soon, even if I want to. I pose several times with the bottle, giving it the thumbs down, then relabel it with a skull and crossbones and personal testimony: ‘Poison, do not drink! Plus, it tastes bad.’

Taking our time, we pack up and head out to enjoy the day. A Walk on the Wildside, you reckon? Sure, sounds great. It’ll be a piece of cake.

– Chris won the NZ Mountain Film and Book Festival Magazine Article Award. Wilderness sponsored this award with a cash prize and publication in the magazine.