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George Willig would have preferred having a partner climb the World Trade Center with him, and during his year of planning he had asked several people, separately, to go along: one of his best friends, Jery Hewitt, a neophyte stuntman, frequent rock-climbing partner and companion of 10 years; his 22-year-old brother Steve, with whom he had begun rock climbing four years earlier; and his girl friend Randy Zeidberg, also an accomplished climber. They all were intrigued, and they all seriously considered going along with George, but for different and personal reasons, all three eventually declined. George also asked me, and I, too, declined. But as I write this, the morning after the climb, there is very little in my life I wouldn't give to have followed George over the top of the World Trade Center.
There were two reasons I refused. First, I wasn't ready to go to jail; I couldn't commit myself that deeply. George could make that heavy commitment, and he did. He didn't actually believe he would end up in jail, at least not for long, but he considered it as a possibility, and he accepted it. For him, a jail sentence would not have been too high a price to pay in his pursuit of personal satisfaction.
Second, my inexperience would have prevented me from having the kind of confidence George had on the face of the building. It's one thing for a person to get into something over his own head, but climbing with a partner is an unbreakable bargain; if one man is in over his head, he drags the other down. I was afraid that if George, climbing above me as he would have been, got in some kind of trouble, I wouldn't have been able to help him. Conversely, my getting into trouble, which would have been a lot more likely, did not worry me; I had little fear that George would not be able to help me. The first fall I ever took while rock climbing occurred as George belayed me from a ledge. I had been stretching for a thumbnail-sized rock nub, and as my foot suddenly slipped, I knew I was going down. I fell no more than 15 feet before I reached the end of the rope with a jerk and, suspended, began to swing and bounce lightly against the face of the cliff. I remember feeling helpless for a split second, but before I had fallen very far I had relaxed, for I knew that everything would be all right; George knows what he's doing.
There is another reason—my strongest consolation at this moment—why I didn't make the climb, but it comes to me after the fact, as I dig at the demons hiding under the inexorable, haunting "if." I didn't belong up there with George. My motive for climbing the World Trade Center would not have been on George's level. His reason was pure, what climbing is meant to be. George would have gone up that building if it had been in a ghost town instead of in the heart of New York City. He would have climbed the World Trade Center even if there had been no crowds to watch him, no supporters to cheer him on, no one to ever know about the accomplishment but himself. I wouldn't have.
George and I have made a number of climbs together. I have watched with awe as he slid over rocks with what seemed to me like no effort whatsoever, the way a trickle of water flows over stones. And in a way he, too, was seeking his own level, but doing so by going in the opposite direction. I remember watching George scale a horizontal overhang of about six feet—he really did look like a human fly, as the New York Daily News called him, as he stretched one arm from the face of the cliff to the lip of the overhang, hung by his fingertips a hundred or more feet over the ground, then slowly, smoothly, gracefully pulled himself over the top.
From the beginning he was a natural climber. One week after he and Steve took lessons from a free-lance rock-climbing guide. George was leading Steve on a difficult climb, in the rain. Within six months he had made an ascent no one else ever had, a climb rated 5.10, one of the highest degrees of difficulty. Last summer, just days after he got his B.S. in Environmental Studies from St. John's University in New York, he went on a climbing trip in the High Sierras and Yosemite, where he climbed the west face of Rixon's pinnacle. Later that summer I climbed in Yosemite, but it was a disappointment not to have been there to climb with George.
I knew George would climb the World Trade Center. Late one muggy night last summer, after he and I and another friend had eaten dinner, we drove over to the World Trade Center in George's Volkswagen station wagon. We dodged security guards as George examined the window-washer runners. I knew then, as George stared at the building, that he would climb it and I would not.
But I didn't know the exact date he would go for it. I awoke Thursday morning in a motel room in Indianapolis, where I was covering Sunday's Indy 500, turned on the Today show, and like millions of other people, saw George, a speck on the edge of the second-tallest building in the world. At that time Today host Tom Brokaw didn't know who the climber was, or what he was doing there, but I knew it was George—and that he would make it to the top.