THE FIRST (NEAR) ASCENT OF HEARTBREAK HILL
Chapter the First:
Just recently, in acknowledgement of our having survived 10 years of marital co-existence (note: this tale was written in 1996), my wife and I returned to the Santa Cruz area for several days of rest and recollection, amidst the recurrent storms which have been a feature of this winter's El Niño onslaught. Following a miraculous and enjoyable day of calm sunshine along Capitola's shores, we looped back up to check out the old familiar watering holes on Pacific Garden Mall, as the rain once again descended upon the coastline. After the short drive up from Capitola, my old Porsche was starting to founder in the deluge like one of the Titantic's lifeboats (there’s a reason why they call 356s ‘bath-tub Porsches’, you know, but you knew that, didn’t you?) by the time I found a parking space, but we were soon walking the short block or so up to the Mall under Ming's battered Boxer Rebellion relic of a bamboo umbrella.
Everywhere, people in shorts and T-shirts were scurrying for shelter—whether simply amazingly casual about the chill air's bite or evidencing the usual effects of Tourist Brain Fade Syndrome (after all, it's never cold in Santa Cruz, right?--just perpetual summer, year 'round, right?), I wasn't certain. Still, it was great fun watching all the exposed blue flesh about us as we, bundled snugly into fleece and Gore-Tex, rounded the corner and came upon a Starbuck's patio courtyard (perhaps they were all part of a Celtic ‘Braveheart’ tour group…?).
The shock of seeing the sinister bland whiteness of the Starbuck's facade caught me somewhat off guard, for in the depths of my mind I had been half-expecting to encounter the familiar log-timbered, Germanic Black Forest kitsch style that characterised what used to be ‘Frizie's Biergarten Delicatessen’. However lost in ruminative anticipation as I might have been, I was completely unprepared for the sterile, dull and remarkably unimaginative decor that now existed where the landmark Biergarten used to be. It was, to my way of seeing things a sacrilege, almost as if a Santa Cruz landmark had been razed and a MacDonald's put in its place. Think of the Taj Mahal with a big, grotesque Mermaid sign hung over the entrance with the word STARBUCKS broadly emblazoned below and you have a small glimmer of what it was like.
Nevertheless, as I stood there stunned into immobile stupefaction at this blasphemy, Ming walked determinately in for coffee (however I fervently hate the monopolistic aesthetics of Starbuck's megacorporate world view, I will admit their coffee is very good and you can’t imagine how it kills me to say that: sort of like saying that great sex is worth getting AIDS) and I followed obediently, more like a lamb to the shearer than the haughty alpha wolf of my family pack out for a howl with the buds. She ordered the Qunintrupio Espresso American, while I settled for the obligatory Espresso Saint Zupery (another Santa Cruz institution nearly forgotten in the modern post-quake crush) and I planted the seat of one of my last pair of remaining Chi Pants (note: a singularly unique article of clothing originated in Santa Cruz of the late 80s that featured a comfortably gusseted crotch that allowed ‘the boys’ some breathing space) firmly on a bench and began gazing at all the edificial changes that had taken place in this street’s familiar old sanctum sanctorum of the Knowing Literati. As Ming delicately sipped her lethal brew (Sumatran Giant Rat urine?...the darkly evil liquid was probably at least as strong in terms of its pH), it wasn't long before I was slipping into a 10 year old Pacific Garden Mall fogbank (more like a recollective black hole) of recollections:
I suppose you might say it had all started after work one day, as we--the stalwart crew of the cardiac cath lab at Santa Cruz Memorial Hospital--sat in desultory array around the tables in Fritzie's Biergarten Delicatessen. It had been a rough day at the Santa Cruz Heart Institute and everyone knew that when the going got tough at the institute, the tough usually got going to Fritzie's when the day's schedule was finished. Studley, our archetypal New Age transplant from Missoula Montana had been well into his 5th Spatenbrau and the rest of us had been working on our table beer rings at the Stammtisch when Nastie, our radiographer, suddenly surprised us all with a unique proposal. He must have been truly inspired (or really wasted, since they both amount to the same thing), for he put his beer down, rose unsteadily to his feet and turning a flinty grin towards us all, uttered the fated words: "Let's climb Heartbreak Hill…"
In a heart beat I was once more seated in Fritzie's, and it was a Santa Cruz Fall, in the year 1988.....
Heart Break Hill…the highest and toughest ridge on Mt. Cardiac! Just the echo of that dreaded name, hanging like a precarious snow cornice in the Autumn air of the Pacific Garden Mall, brought on a cold chill that crisply walked down my back like the tumescent memory of Betty-Jo Bioloskie's nakedly wet dancer's toes. Facing Nastie after absently downing the remainder of my beer, I tried to appear sneeringly calm as I carefully imagined righteous disdain dripping from my mustache like the drops of beer that routinely rappel off my upper lip when I drink beer.
"You, sir, are drunk," I said. "Besides that, it's never been done before-at least no one has ever been up there before and returned to tell about it--and you think we ought to go climb that wicked mother?!
I could tell from Nastie's somewhat glazed look beneath his beer goggles that this was egg-zactly what he was suggesting, in all seriousness and no thanks to the best Bavarian beer this side of Emperor Franz Ferdinand's august crypt.
"Hey, we've done some crazy things before, haven't we? Why not one more demonstration of our collective disregard for the objective hazards of stoopidfoolishness (he said the last two words together, as if they were one) before we're too old to get ourselves into any more trouble, eh?"
This last rejoinder had hit its intended target, I could see, as each of us--kicked casually back under the patio's Spatenbrau umbrellas--stiffened slightly upon hearing the words 'too old.' We were indeed growing slightly beyond the pale—all of us--and even last week Lennie had glanced at an inspiring poster of some ancestral Lynn Hill precursor doing some suggestive mantling maneuvers on a redline 5.34 route, clad only in Lycra, without even lifting a tufty eye-brow. Not even a quiver of interest in the sweaty little nipple-points under her sports bra top that stood enthusiastically out, in what was obviously a VERY chilly breeze on that wall of rock.
Shocked at the time, I had made a mental note to test Lennie's reflexes shortly thereafter but had rather quickly forgotten about my intention when Studley, sitting next to me, had dropped the 5 pound piton hammer he was playing with on my big toe. Ignoring the painful toe and quaffing another gulp of the lovely amber brew Fritz coyly refers to as 'maiden dew,' I looked quickly around the room. Studley, ace womanizer and sometime former cragsman turned golf pro, was now 41 and showing as much topside turf as a billiard ball. Next to him, Nastie, possessor of the distinctive cachet of being the only American rock-climber who could pass for OJ Simpson's twin-brother and as sturdy an FIAA weight test standard for severely stressing climbing ropes as ever existed, was also no mere child at the hoary old age of 45.
Lennie....where had Lennie gone? I looked around before spotting him sitting on the floor, beside the tattered potted Adder's Tongue Fritz kept by the door, shoes off and picking the toe jam from between his pedal digits. Lennie was still in fine shape for a 48 year old, his gnarled hands covered by a score of old, healed scars from radical jam-cracking days of yore. Too bad Lennie's brain had never fully recovered from the blow to the head he had taken from Audrey Farber's pelvic bone one wild and crazy evening, some years back at a high base camp, trying--as he explained it to us--to bring her out of some claimed hypothermic condition she had contracted on the descent from the peak they had both summited earlier.
Now there was a man who knew just about everything one could about the various techniques of warming another climber's body with his own in an emergency involving lowered core temperature....except I had long suspected that the victim, who was invariably female, had been suffering from increased core temperature rather than the other way around, judging from the steam clouds that had vented from their tent. Ah well.
And then there was Doc Hector, our resident pulmonologist cum climber, who had been the only drop-out from the famous University of Colorado Mt. Logan High Altitude Experiments of the winter of 1969. He had once managed to hook himself up to an oxygen/nitrous oxide mix of 15% 02/ balance NO2 in one of the studies and was suspected also of sneaking out for a joint every now and again (interesting effects at 15,000 feet, too--especially the spectacular visit by a winged and psychedelically aura’d Tim O'Leary, while Doc was sitting on an outcropping one time, high up on Denali) during the hypoxia tests. Permanent brain damage or merely a gentle soul of the 60s with a wireless open-line to God? At any rate, Doc Hector was our official climbing physician, as well as keeper of the Holy Tabs (Chloral Hydrate, Dexedrine and Furosemide), for use whenever they were needed. No youngster he, either, and known to slip into a semi-hypoxemic state even at sea-level, on occasion. Especially when well into his cups.
And finally there was myself, Errol Embolism, one time Weird Science Fair door prize winner and the guy voted most likely to be avoided by any half-way decent woman within visual recognition range in his graduating class of post-docs...rock climber, abysmal poet, perspiring writer of tepid mountain prose, and Denali drop-out.
Yeah. We were quite a crew of reprobates, as anyone could see, had they but dared to set foot in Fritzie's while the crew were unwinding after a hard day at Aorta Central. Tried, true and tested, all of us, we had pulled many a patient’s shit out of the prospective cardiac bypass surgical list’s toilet. And now Nastie was suggesting one last crazy adventure on the Mountain of Doom before we all became candidates for the Ronald Reagan Memorial Oldtimer's Disease Home for Forgetful Climbers.
Climb Mt. Cardiac, ascend Heartbreak Hill?! It was a sobering thought, unfortunately, and that's just exactly what no one wanted at that particular moment. As if in unison, we all glared en mass (most of us who could still glare, that is--a few of the crew simply drooled in a disconcerting manner) at Nastie and settled back into exercising our biceps with lifting reps of Fritzie's cast pig-iron, one-liter steinkrugs. No more was said that day about this disturbing thought. For my part, after the startling thought had passed (and a few of us had passed OUT), I remember only having stuporously straddled my Yamaha 550 Seca crotch rocket (after about 6 Spatenbraus) and making it safely home, via Highway 1, to my beach house at Sunset State Beach (alive, thank you God!)…
Several days later, however, Linda Loma, the devastatingly fit, culturally chilled-out and ultra social darling of the Santa Cruz older-than-40-but-you'd-never-know-it-club, happened to stop by the hospital. Linda was a medical journalist—a ‘staph writer’, as we snickeringly referred to such journalist types who specialised in health news topics--for the Santa Cruz Senile, the city's oldest newspaper. She was also a climber (aside from the fact that she had a GREAT set of personal peaks), and as a newspaper person, no stranger to the roaring controversy that the battle between Santa Cruz Memorial Hospital’s Heart Institute and Franciscan Medical Center’s counterpart had grown into.
Today, Linda was at the hospital on business, searching for old wounds to reopen in her never ending efforts to titillate the public by revealing the latest excesses of modern high-tech medical flimm-flamm. I was, at that particular moment, in no mood for Linda, or even for feeding her medical flimm-flamm gathering apparatus, having just heard from my surfing bud that he had smashed up my classic vintage Hobie longboard on the rocks at the foot of Steamer Lane, and suggested a bit bluntly that she take her perky pulchritude off to the halls of Franciscan Med Center. Linda, however, would not be put off so easily and soon her true purpose in dropping by became known.
"Errol" she began, unctuously thrusting those gorgeous twin globes of hemispherical flesh in my direction, "I heard you guys are planning to climb Mt. Cardiac. Is this for real? Is it true ? What's up?"
I could see it was going to do no good at all to try to put Linda off, ace reporter and sensual little news-ferret that she was, so I leveled with her.
"Where'd you hear that, Linda?...yeah, it's true , I guess. Lemme see, umm, I guess the Eastern Wall of the Southeast West Ridge of the Northwest Face that’s still unclimbed…Heartbreak Hill so…ummm...that would be where we're headed."
Suddenly Pandora's box was yawning open again, after having only widened a tiny crack at Fritzie’s earlier in the week. Damn. There would soon be hell to pay and doubtless another prospective hypothermia victim for Lennie to ‘revive’. What a selfless and heroic letch Lennie was! I could already hear, in my mind, the small gasps and throaty groans of yet another gorgeous ‘victim’ reviving under his courageous efforts to warm her frozen body with his own hot flesh. What a guy!
"Errol....I want to go. You know I can do it. I can climb A9 5.13 VII with my eyes shut. Lynn Hill’s a member of MY fan club. Errol...I need this to complete my '20 Mediocre Summits and 1 Sub oceanic Seamount' list. This is an opportunity to finally culminate my years of climbing work, plus it's something unique to talk about at margarita parties at the ‘Crows Nest.’”
Linda definitely had the bit between her teeth on this idea and there were enough of them revealed by her dazzling & toothy smile to make any fully grown potential paramour (and that included half of the Santa Cruz male population) anxious when she was in fully ardent cry.
I finally managed to get rid of Linda, when the geyser-like spurt of a post-cath patient's femoral artery puncture site suddenly indicated a need for further pressure, but later on I scared up Nastie and vented on him for having spread his great idea around beyond the protective limits of our Fritzie's faithful crew cohort. The cat, as it were, was now out of the bag and we now faced the necessity of actually having to carry through on this wild idea to scale Mt. Cardiac and ascend Heartbreak Hill. As Linda Loma herself had once memorably uttered after a particularly proteinaceous encounter with Nastie’s legendary reproductive apparatus: “G*U*L*P!”
Reluctantly enough, it seemed, everyone pulled together and planning began for this last great hoohaa adventure before Franciscan Medical Center finally managed to throttle the regulatory pahootie out of our SCHI operations. After all, who knew where the present battle would end up? Although Santa Cruz Memorial Hospital had its parent organisation in Los Angeles behind it, Franciscan had the full support of the whole damn Roman Catholic Church behind it, and worse yet, that holy dominatrix of ritual dogma, Sister Lulu Overunder was their CEO!
We might all find ourselves out of work shortly, as the winds of the medical war being waged for market share heated up the whole community. Life in Santa Cruz, after all, had become near paradisiacal for most of us at the Santa Cruz Heart Institute and we were loathe to relinquish our firm grip on the hedonistic pleasures of Santa Cruz living.
Each of us had a lovely little picturesquely scenic hideaway to retreat to at the end of each day. My own was a four room cabin out at Sunset State Beach, perched up on a sand dune within the Park's confines, and one of about only two dozen such homes thus privileged to have been built there before the State declared that spectacular ocean-side setting a park.
The others of us who had been brought in to staff the heart institute had also found similar great digs. And then, we all had Fritzie's Biergarten to retire to, regularly seeking the great and all-consoling mental miasma that good German beer produces when the day's OR stress level required post-op respite.
Fritzie's was certainly a unique, if controversial, part of the Pacific Garden Mall. With its queer little Bavarian decorations and cement wall-enclosed patio, wrought-iron fence, three week old and petrified ‘Fresh Deviled Eggs’, and its daily crowd of assorted street people squatting on the patio, it was both the scourge of proper Santa Cruz society and the soulful refuge of preference for homeless people, as well as a small group of us more conventionally propertied, post-Bohemian groupies who loved the sheer anachronistic ambience of the place.
At Fritzie's we could all come together, hoist our steinkrugs filled with golden Spatenbrau and sit back after work each day, observing the never-ending, fascinating parade of visual delights that never failed to throng the Mall. When closing time came, us regular Stammgasts ('regular customers', after the German term) would sit at the Stammtisch (literally 'regular customers table'), by this time quite well lubricated with Fritzie’s Maiden Dew, and fold forth for another hour or two at least before departing for home.
Thinking back on my own daily departure for Sunset State Beach from Fritzie's, part of the route of which was by Highway 101, today gives me a cold chill, for I was in the habit of daily riding my Yamaha Seca 550 motorcycle near the speed of sound while thus pickled. I recall numerous occasions while speeding along on that highway in the growing dusk of being near fixated by the blurr of the passing strips of yellow lane-divider I kept crossing over. Not a healthy habit to indulge in for those who plan on avoiding organ-donor status! Of course that was 10 years ago and today I am a bit more careful in observing the legal proprieties--as well as the safety ones (I keep the speed down a shade below Mach 0.85).
At any rate, we had decided to climb Mt. Cardiac and climb we would. For all we knew, it would be the first and last ascent of this landmark ridge made by anyone, the crowning achievement of a lifetime of slovenly, half-assed mountaineering, interspersed by moments of truly sublime climbing mediocrity. Things at that point, after all, had been starting to look a bit grim for the Santa Cruz Heart Institute in its battle against Sister Lulu Overunder and her henchmen at the Franciscan Medical Center.
It was probably just as well that we have one great last, collective, orgasmic fling on the rocks before the asshole of our bucholic Santa Cruz lifestyle slammed shut! Additionally, there was probably no time to spare if the climb were to be made before winter set in.
(To be continued….someday)
[Note: This tale was begun on a beer coaster, one afternoon after Steamer Lane had closed out and the Santa Cruz Heart Institute Irregulars had all gathered at Heinz Biergarten in Pacific garden mall. This is also where it ended, thanks to half a dozen Spatenbraus. Perhaps it will continue afresh, one of these days, although shortly after this first chapter was scribbled, Dominican Santa Cruz Medical Center did indeed succeed in closing out the Santa Cruz Heart Institute. It’s now all part of the fabulous history of that Golden Era in California’s original ‘Surf City’! Here’s to you, Sister Julie!]
PS: Dominican Santa Cruz Medical Center’s infamous Dominatrix of Severe Mercy (Sister Julie) recently retired (2004), having had what to her was probably the infinitely satisfying fulfillment of having successfully ended our bucolic Santa Cruz idylls.