The Extraction Series: Part 1
“Jesus Christ, this is fucked up,” said Jake. Jake was new to distilling and this was only his third extraction. He watched the scene unfold, palms sweating and heart racing faster. The climber looked tiny and insignificant on the high-definition monitor. It would have been difficult to spot anyone on the otherwise blank granite face had the climber not been wearing a bright red jacket. The climber inched his hands and feet up slowly, and Jake was anticipating the memory’s climax.
I sat with Sarah in the living room and was acting as the guide for the session. My job was to talk Sarah through the event she was trying to process and give her verbal cues so Jake could build the memory on his computer. It sounds simple, but people suffering from PTSD often lost the ability to properly communicate what happened during the event. Sarah wasn’t having trouble talking though, but I could tell it was taking a toll on her. She was gripping my hand quite hard and I could see the vein on her neck pulsing vigorously.
On Jake’s screen, the climber’s leg started shaking uncontrollably. Even from the faraway perspective, he could tell the climber was starting to lose control. The wind suddenly picked up and blew furiously in a horizontal direction. The length of rope attached to the climber made a wide curve in the face of the wind. Now it was evident how dangerous the climb was. The climber was at least thirty feet above his last piece of protection and the next spot he could place another piece was at least ten feet away.
“Holy shit, this is so run out,” Jake whispered.
As if to mirror Jake’s anxiety, the texture of the monitor’s scene became blurred and shaky. Jake knew this was because Sarah was struggling with recalling the memory now. The climber was also going in and out of focus. With painful memories, many people had trouble remembering what happened clearly. The memory would often be a storm of sensory fragments — images, sounds, and colors, all blended together into a raw montage. He was surprised at the clarity of Sarah’s recollection prior to this point, but now it was becoming less cohesive.
It was clear that the wind was an integral part of how Sarah remembered the incident. Jake had to take off his noise-canceling headphones because the sharp, cutting sounds of the wind’s howling became too loud. Perhaps it wasn’t how loud it was, but the screeching quality that shook him. He knew from personal experience how terrifying it is to climb in the middle of a windstorm.
Jake hadn’t noticed but he was squeezing his palms so tight that he was losing circulation in his fingers. He almost forgot he was supposed to be distilling the memory down to its most essential parts, so that he could rework it later.
“Fuck I can barely type right now, my hands are so sweaty,” Jake muttered to himself.
Sarah and I met in the climbing gym months ago and we became good friends through a shared admiration of each other’s abilities. She often gave me good beta on climbs I struggled with while I gave her training tips to develop her own weaknesses. I was also impressed at her willingness to climb routes again if the first time she finished it hadn’t been perfect. Most climbers strived for completion, and had a one-and-done mentality when it came to climbing.
I was surprised that we became friends since I was generally anti-social in the gym and liked to avoid other people. But Sarah was charming and gregarious, and it was hard to resist how engaging she was. During our first time climbing together, we ended up talking and climbing for hours, and it felt like we had known each other for a while.
“So how did you get into climbing?” Sarah asked.
“Oh I started before the pandemic as a way to cope with a breakup.”
“Oh my god, me too!”
“Wow really? Yeah it was more of like an escapism thing, you know? Like I don’t think I actually loved it at first, but it was a good way to kill time.”
“That’s more or less the same for me. Except I loved it right from the beginning. I mean, I still get so scared being high up but at least it forces you to be present and not think about any of the other shit in your life.”
Ok don’t fall in love dude. You need to relax.
After that time, we never arranged to climb together despite kicking it off, but whenever she saw me at the gym, she would always strike up a conversation and invite me to climb with her. It was rare to find someone I liked climbing with this much but I felt like trying to escalate the friendship would ruin it somehow. I also didn’t want to make any romantic advances either and decided to let things run their natural course. I don’t think she felt that way anyway.
For a while, I saw Sarah almost every time I went to the gym and climbed with her so much, people thought we were dating. It was only recently that I stopped seeing her for a few weeks and I just assumed she was on a climbing trip. When I saw her again much later, she looked unkempt and tired, without her usual bright smile. I didn’t say anything but I also didn’t have to.
“I know I look like shit right now. But uh, listen — can we talk?”
I was right that Sarah was on a climbing trip, but wasn’t ready for what she told me next.
I can’t fucking do this. Jake closed the laptop and went downstairs, still visibly shaken.
“What happened? Why did you stop?” I asked. Before Jake even answered, I had a feeling he wouldn’t be able to handle it.
“Dude this is too fucked up. There’s no way I could have distilled that, let alone keep watching it. I knew what we were getting into but that was too much for me man.”
Jake looked at Sarah, crestfallen and with his head down.
“I’m sorry Sarah — I wish I could help.”
I apologized to Sarah too and felt awful myself. It was a risk having Jake do the distilling and I knew it. He had experienced bad falls during trad climbing himself and had seen some near-fatal accidents. But there was nobody else I knew that could operate the software, or that I trusted enough.
I thought Jake would bounce back after a day or two, but he told me he wanted to stop distilling altogether. I guess it had fucked him up good. He said I could keep using the gear and software though, as long as he was kept in the loop about who I worked with. Finding a good distiller is so hard though. I was determined to finish the work nonetheless; it broke my heart to see Sarah depressed and it was a loss to the climbing community in general. Random people in the gym would sometimes ask me where Sarah was and I didn’t have anything to say to them.
And that was how I got back in touch with Hazel.