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The Greatest Showman – Chapter 109

Chapter 109 – Free solo climbing

The scorching August sun enveloped Europe, and even the air was filled with a hazy heat as if just a moment under the scorching sun would melt everything away. But even so, it could not stop people’s enthusiasm for vacation.

As the most lively vacation season of the year, people from all over Europe began to flock to popular tourist destinations to enjoy this rare holiday. Ibiza, Corsica, Santorini, Morocco… Every sunny place has become a destination for Europeans, lying on the beach bustlingly, relaxing themselves, and letting – sunbathing, cocktails, and seawater fill every day of their vacation.

The Verdon Gorge, located in Provence in southern France, is also a famous tourist destination. It is not only home to world-renowned rosé wines, purple lavender fields that bloom in July, and the breathtaking Lake Sainte-Croix, but also the irreplaceable southern French cuisine. Germans, Britons, Swedes, and others undertake long journeys to get here, seizing the last moments of summer to revel to their heart’s content.

However, the Verdon Gorge stretches for twelve miles, with the sections of calm water teeming with noise, while the sections with rapid currents are majestic and perilous. The sound of the rushing water bursts forth like thunder under the sunlight. The deep brown cliffs are covered with continuous green vegetation, towering into the clouds, silent and still. Rocks and abysses, wilderness and desolation, green waters and rainbow reflections, blue sky and eagles… The tranquillity resembles a paradise isolated from the world. The wind carries the distant echoes from the depths of the canyon, instantly dispelling the summer heat.

“Are you okay?”

A hoarse voice echoed above the river in the canyon, soon swallowed by the raging waves. Upon closer inspection, one could see a middle-aged man with a ponytail, wearing loose shorts and he was bare-chested, revealing a muscular build. A small black pouch hung from his waist, its opening covered in white anti-slip powder. Apart from this, there was nothing else, as he hung on the steep cliff face. His hands, both relaxed and tense, as they were grasping two small protrusions. His feet rested on no support, and like an eagle, he hung in mid-air, at least thirty meters above the ground. His entire body was sustained only by the strength of his fingers.

Such a scene, just imagining it in his mind, is enough for him to break out in a cold sweat. It is hard to imagine that with just a slight lack of attention, sweaty palms, or a relaxed fingertip, he would directly fall down in a free-fall fashion and turn into a bloody corpse.

But right now, he was incredibly relaxed, smiling, and even had the leisure to chat!

“Ha. No problem.”

About fifteen meters below him, there is a small rocky outcrop, no bigger than a handkerchief. A young man was standing on the outcrop with one foot, his right hand firmly gripping a rock crevice above him. He was leaning his whole body out, and the wind roared past him. He was like an open window slamming backwards, with his back hitting the cliff face solidly. Some small pieces of rock fell down as if the support points for his hand and feet were hanging by a thread. However, he remained relaxed, looking out from the high place at the distant horizon where green and blue merged. The gloom and confusion between his eyebrows slightly eased.

Dressed in black shorts and a white T-shirt, he also had a chalk bag hanging from his waist. However, unlike the middle-aged man, he had a bright yellow climbing rope tied around his waist. But the rope did not hang down from above as one might expect, but rather extended downwards from his waist. A large coil of rope could also be seen on the ground. Clearly, this rope was not a climbing aid, but a safety measure, or perhaps a quick way to descend.

Even so, it was still enough to make one’s palms sweat and heart race.

He looked up at the middle-aged man above him on the slope. “If I told you I was contemplating life, would you believe me?”

This quip made the middle-aged man laugh out loud. “Then you’ve chosen a great place to do it. I think you have very good taste,” the man said, nodding at the young man below him. “Good luck!”

As soon as he finished speaking, the man exerted force with his hands and flipped himself upside down. As his feet touched the rock, he fumbled for a moment and found a foothold. He let go of his left hand and swung his body in a circle in the air. Just as he was about to hit the cliff, he extended his left foot as a buffer to slow his descent. Then, he smoothly reached up with his left hand and grabbed another small protrusion.

He didn’t rush to continue climbing, but instead carefully felt around to make sure his left hand was in a secure position. Only then did he adjust his breathing and begin to climb upwards, one step at a time. Like a gecko, he used no equipment or safety measures, climbing completely barehanded. He was agile and light, moving in harmony with the wind, rocks, and sky.

Renly watched in fascination, a hint of envy and admiration in his eyes.

His ultimate goal is also free solo climbing, to climb cliffs without relying on any equipment, except for a chalk bag. Of course, as a beginner, he still has a lot to learn. Free soloing is not only more dangerous and exciting than top-rope climbing, but it also places much higher demands on physical fitness, as any small mistake or mishap can be fatal.

This is only Renly’s third attempt at real free soloing. While he did not use any tools to climb upwards, he was still carrying a climbing rope, quickdraws, and carabiners with him. After free soloing to a certain point, he would use the quickdraws to clip the carabiners for protection, ensuring that if he fell by mistake, the safety measures would save his life.

Three weeks have passed since the wrap-up of “Buried”. The filming finished six days earlier than expected, with all the studio shooting completed in just eight days, after which Rodrigo is going to shoot the dubbing scenes before moving on to post-production.

During the last three days of shooting, Renly kept trying to recapture that feeling of being on the edge between control and loss of control, but he failed. He never felt it again, and that sense of losing it all pervaded the entire performance and was the foundation of his entire portrayal. However, for Renly, the filming was over, but his character was not.

He remained immersed in the world of Paul Conroy, the only difference from the movie was that he survived but things weren’t that simple. After experiencing the fear of being buried alive, the threat of the Grim Reaper’s scythe, and the trauma of being abandoned by the government and the company, even if he survived, his soul was still riddled with scars. In many cases, physical wounds can heal immediately, but emotional wounds will linger.

It was just like Eugene Sledge from “The Pacific.” What Renly was most curious about was how Eugene was able to get back to a normal life after his faith and soul had been shattered. Now, as “Paul,” he was going through all of that as well.

He had come to his senses and could distinguish between the fantasy and reality. He also understood that he was Renly, not Paul. However, the psychological trauma was deeply ingrained in his mind, as if he had actually experienced a near-death experience of being buried alive, giving him the illusion of having schizophrenia.

To make matters worse, his sleep quality still hadn’t improved much. Sleep, for him, was a more satisfying healing solution than food and dessert. But now, nightmares lingered. After the wrap-up, he had been having the same dream: he was back in that coffin, about to be buried alive. Each dream was very similar, and each time, the fear and despair did not diminish.

He knew it was called getting too deep into the character.

But he never thought that he, a traditional drama school graduate, would one day find himself in such a predicament. If his teachers knew, they would probably reprimand him for his lack of professionalism.

This was the first time he had faced such a situation, and he was completely clueless. Seeking a therapist didn’t seem like the right option, so after leaving Barcelona, Renly came to the Verdon Gorge to learn the basics and truly immerse himself in the world of free soloing.

Free soloing is a sport that challenges one’s limits, but it’s not about “finding death.” So before actually going out into the field, Renly embarked on two weeks of intensive training, covering everything from technique to conditioning, from simulations to real-world situations. Even though Renly’s physical fitness was well-suited for free soloing, his previous experience with surfing, bungee jumping, diving, mountaineering, and speed skiing had laid a solid foundation for him.

But even so, as he entered the world of real free soloing, Renly couldn’t help but feel his own insignificance.

He was now standing halfway up a cliff about 15 meters high, the equivalent of a five-story building. It took him almost twice as long as the middle-aged man, a Frenchman and a member of the club where he was learning free soloing. Today, five people from the club had come here to free solo.

Standing in mid-air, the raging gale continued to assail. Against the backdrop of a 300-meter-high cliff and the boundless horizon ahead, humanity seemed like a speck of dust; beneath his feet, the turbulent water flowed, creating white foam as it slammed fiercely against the rocks of the riverbed, sending up vast swathes of mist. Under the reflection of the sunlight, two rainbows appeared, indescribably beautiful.

But Renly knew, that amidst such beauty, danger lurked. Just a slight loosening of his fingers could mean certain death.

The surge and eruption of adrenaline made his palms sweat, leaving him parched. Thoughts of Paul, of being buried alive, of nightmares, shattered through his mind. He cast all shadows behind him, focusing every ounce of attention on his fingertips. Then, with a sudden exertion of force from his left leg against the cliff, he pivoted back like a powerful machine, raising his right hand high and gripping precisely onto the protrusion he had spotted three minutes earlier. Every muscle in his body tensed to the limit, unleashing tremendous energy.

At this moment, his mind plunged into absolute blankness. He was about to challenge his limits once again.

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