The Climbing Life

Posted on: June 1, 2007

"There's never global warming when you need it." [Cartoon] Tad Welch

Occupational Therapy

I have been crushed in the last year by the deaths of two best friends. They were both doing what they loved. They both fell off cliffs. This tragic loss has made me think hard, really hard: What if doing what you love is the very thing that kills the people you love?

This has also been a time for others to reflect on my lifestyle, namely my family, my in-laws, and some lady I vaguely recognized in the grocery store, whose face resembled a ferret. My mother started quoting episodes from Accidents in North American Mountaineering. My sister basically said, "I told you so." My father-in-law demanded that his son stop this nonsense immediately. And ferret-face in the grocery store barked, "I hope this means you're going to tell your husband he can't climb anymore. He is a father, you know"—as if I hadn't just seen him wiping our son's young ass that morning.

But, in fact, they all had a point. Maybe the time had come to start telling my husband what he could and could not do; maybe I should just start puttering around the garden in my spare time. For the sake of our children. For our families. For my own fading sanity. So I did what all messed-up housewives do: I went to see a therapist.

I told her my story:+#8200;happily married. Kids. All our friends were either climbers or skiers. All we did was climb or ski. Every vacation we'd ever taken together was a climbing or skiing vacation. I had recently lost two close friends to climbing and skiing, and I was struggling.

She was very wise and immediately saw that my problem was our lifestyle. I needed new friends—nonclimbing, nonskiing friends. She recommended that I join a book club.

My new friends, the book-club wives, were very nice. They welcomed me into their group even though I was perpetually late and still in my ski clothes. To my credit, I always remembered to bring a six-pack, although I'd usually drunk half of it on the drive over. We talked about some amazing books, including every one on Oprah's list. I tried to join in the discussions, but it was difficult since I never actually read any of the books. I attempted to mask my ignorance by drinking a lot of wine, a tactic that made the meetings a lot more fun, until I started to fart and use foul language. My new friends got quite offended. I vowed to behave better the next week.

Next meeting, it was my turn to choose a book. I chose one I had read many times, the much-loved classic, Annapurna, by Maurice Herzog, an inspiring struggle of men, mountains, teamwork, hope and despair. But the ladies were stuck on the toes, or rather the snipping off of the frostbitten toes, the ultimate lack of toes. "What type of irresponsible moron would want to lose his toes just to climb a mountain?" they asked. "Yeah, what a bunch of morons," I said, chugging their wine. A couple of dirty jokes and one small booger flicked in the plant later, and I was once again getting the stink eye. Even my best behavior wasn't cutting it.

I told my therapist that the book-club thing wasn't really working out. She urged me not to give up, that making nonclimbing friends took time. What about a playgroup, she suggested, where moms and kids all get together? I agreed to try it.

The playgroups were a blast. The kids played and all of us moms talked about parenting. All the mothers agreed that it was important to give children choices. They said that they let their kids decide if they want to go to bed at 8 or 8:30, or if they want to stay inside or go outside to play. I felt relieved to know I might actually be doing something right; we also give our kids choices. When we serve them dinner each night, we tell them they can take it or they can leave it. When it is twenty below and the family is headed out skiing, we let them decide whether they want to wear two pairs of long johns or three.

The talk soon turned to vacations. The other moms had been with their husbands and kids to Cabo, Cancun, Grand Cayman, Little Cayman, Bit-O-Cayman. White sand beaches; warm, blue water; multiple umbrella drinks: it all sounded like great fun. I said that we went to Indian Creek, usually. But what is there to do there? they asked. Crack climbing, I said. Isn't it dangerous? they asked. I guess so. But what do the children do? Well, they play in the dirt while we climb, or, when we do a tower, we duct tape them to the steering wheel. Then I noticed that my son was peeing on the other children, and we had to leave.

My therapist looked worried as I related the events with the playgroup. In a hopeful tone, she suggested a pottery class. Meanwhile, I had come to my own conclusions.

After $1,500 worth of therapy and after rejection from everyone else, I know that I want to continue climbing and skiing as long as my bones will allow it. I have never considered myself a hard-core climber, but when faced with turning my back on the climbing life, I discovered that it had infiltrated my very being, like a tumor. I want to keep the friends I have, even if they are unemployed. I think my kids are cute when they are filthy. I don't mind eating burritos for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Sometimes, I put an umbrella in my beer and do a little hula dance. I think I'd get bored if I didn't have any scabs to pick at. I love my husband's strong, rough hands. I'm glad my friends just roll down the windows and laugh when I fart.

I want to make more friends, young and old, who love all that too. I want to drink beers around the campfire, having so much fun that I don't even notice when my daughter's coat catches fire. I hope I never feel the need to tell my husband he can't climb. I want to trust in his judgment and hope for the best. I want to be the greatest parent I can, using my own seemingly unorthodox methods—and perhaps even do some good along the way.

I still cry for my two friends. I had planned on growing old with them, taking our kids into the mountains to climb and ski and laugh. They would never want me to stop. I can hear them now: "Get out there, you middle-aged sack—what are you waiting for?"

And that's just what I am going to do.

—Mrs. Betty Sender, Jackson, Wyoming

[Cartoon] Tami Knight

Light Falls

I have this recurring dream: light falls across Sam's face. It's a white light, brilliant, clear, devoid of warmth. There's no yellow to it. No hint of the sun. No comfort. Sam does not open his eyes when the light's on them; he does not move. The light's in the shape of the window and won't settle. It wanders over Sam's closed eyes and starts to move around his torso, like a slow wind. It glides, exposing the creases of his clothes, the dirt and the blood. The light's so bright and clear it makes anything not under it seem black—without any detail at all. It's almost blue. I don't have the energy to look away from the square of light or from Sam's expression, as peaceful as if he were dead. Blood and mucus cover his face, and his lips are parched and cracked. I imagine I look much the same. But I know he's not dead and that I'm not dead either.

We are riding in a helicopter and it dips and banks so the square of light slips away to reveal other things: old and graying aluminum, canvas stow bags, pipe-frame seats set in the middle of the floor, rivets. Some still retain a faint ring of olive drab paint from the aircraft's military days, though the passage of feet long ago wore off most of it. The canvas seats and the stow bags flap gently, touched by a breeze I must not be able to feel.

On the floor lies the remnants of our climbing gear. Loose pieces of hardware and axes slop around like water in a boat that needs bailing. I feel compelled to open the door and throw everything out. Then I realize again that I'm too tired to move.

Outside the window some piece of mountain appears for a second, caught in the clouds: black rock, ice and snow. It does not hold my attention. I join Sam and pass out.

There is a figure standing in the doorway. We are just about to land and the man is facing away, toward the outside and the ground. He is holding onto a bar in the roof, half blocking my view of the open door. Through his legs I can see we are moving forward and dropping at an ever-decreasing rate, in slow motion, like the onset of an illness.

When we are almost down, I turn to Sam. He is staring out the door, smiling. He does not look at me, but I follow his gaze and see grass and trees. The world explodes before me in a color I haven't seen for a lifetime. It looks soft and welcoming.

I know, then, I can wake.

—Henry Tyce, Leeds, England

Richard Branson goes big-wallin'. [Cartoon] Jamie Givens

Axe of Contrition

My son Macklin and I are high on the face now: Lake Marie glitters below and the reddish boulders of the talus field have shrunk to gravelly debris. Occasionally cars wind silently to or from Snowy Range Pass. Our friends are on the wall to the north somewhere, but we can't see or hear them. We have the whole sparkling vertical universe all to ourselves.

"How much more, Dad?"

"Hard to say. We're about halfway." I'm hoping we're a tad farther along than that.

"So, it's easier to keep going, right? It would be hard to go down from here."

"Exactly right."

I pass the water bottle, and he nods in acceptance.

As I'm climbing the next pitch, dark clouds surge over the face from the west, squeezing all the blue into the distant eastern horizon. In near simultaneity the climbing intensifies: where the crack can be protected, it bulges; where the crack thins, it steepens. Worst of all, at the top of the pitch, blocks the size of ice chests balance delicately one against the other awaiting a butterfly's passing to topple into the abyss.

In my younger years my partners and I were cavalier about objective dangers, calling them acts of God—which, misheard, were thereafter known as axe of God. God knows why it had taken so long, but suddenly I panic. I have brought my son on this climb where a block could easily drop on his head. Sure we have helmets. Aluminum foil shields against a nuclear blast. What good would they be?

Macklin requires tension. Constantly. Large raindrops splat on my helmet.

He can't extract a wired Stopper. Ten minutes.

"Leave it!" To hell with the nut.


The blocks. The blocks. I begin to pray: Oh my God I am heartily sorry . . . for bringing my kid on a climb with loose blocks . . . for having offended Thee.... All I want is for the rope not to knock the blocks down. Is that too much to ask? I firmly resolve with the help of Thy grace to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin.... Avoid the near occasion of sin? How the hell do you do that? Stay on the couch?

If something happens to me, Macklin doesn't have the experience to do a damned thing about it. I hope he would have the sense to anchor himself to the wall and wait for help, but I have neglected to give him any such instruction. This is so much more stupid than soloing, I can't believe it.

Finally, he pulls up and over the edge. "Will we have to rappel?" he asks.

"No," I say, "it's a walk-off." I hadn't even told him that. My God, he trusts me completely. And the prayer? It came to me out of the ether. I hadn't called it to mind in thirty years. Idiot. Hypocrite. "Once we top out, there's a trail. A couple more pitches, maybe."

I remember we didn't bring headlamps. But: the blocks have not fallen. The rain is holding off. We even have a couple of swigs of water.

I lead up twenty-five feet on solid rock with six-inch ledges between hard moves, easier than anything on the last pitch. From here there's a grassy ramp with a few feet of class five that looks as though it will top out.

Macklin says he will lead it.

"Go for it." I hand him half a rack, some runners. "Put something in."

But no, it's easy ground; he won't put anything in.

In minutes he's pulled himself over the top and there he stands, arms raised in triumph against the dark clouds roiling overhead.

I scramble to join him. I hold the camera an arm's length in front of us and we put our heads together for a portrait. Later, when I look at the photograph, the kid seems composed and serious, a little older than his actual years. His long hair is held off his face by a Japanese bandana rolled up under his helmet—the master of cool. My helmet looks borrowed and my expression, if I wasn't here to tell you, might belie any number of emotions: happiness, drunkenness, or just relief. A jumble of lichen-covered boulders leads northward across a dark background to the true summit. In the mirrored lenses of my sunglasses, you can see my arm extended out and pointing the camera back at us. Beyond my arm, there's nothing but blue sky to the east. I look like a fool.

"So when are we going ice climbing, dad?"

During the remaining days of the road trip, we continue climbing. Sporty stuff, no more than a single pitch. I am trying, for a while, to avoid the near occasion of sin.

—David Stevenson, Macomb, Illinois


"Back in my day, before we had sticky rubber/spring-loaded cams/Gore-Tex/plastic boots/ sponsorship/portaledges/sat phones/helicopter rescues..., then climbing was truly pure and glorious." In mountaineering, as in all human affairs, each successive generation of Old Farts passes on the temptation to pontificate.

I intend here, nonetheless, to succumb to that temptation and declare that climbing, in all its games, from bouldering to big-range expeditioneering, has entered, if not its death throes, an irreversible Age of Decadence. Having climbed, never mind at what dwindling levels of competence, for the last forty-six years, I feel I have paid my dues as a mountaineering Old Fart and earned the right to sound off.

"Tonight's special is burned snow with a particulate of glacial till." [Cartoon] Jerry King

My first inklings of this state of affairs came in the late 1970s or early '80s, as I read the letters-to-the-editor sections of Climbing and Rock + Ice. A decade or more earlier, a typical epistle to such a mag read, "Loved your article about Devils Lake. How can I find other folks who'd like to share a rope there?" Now it was, "Can't believe you wasted space on Harley Handjob's so-called 'new routes.' Around here, he's famous for rap-bolting lines better men have led with gear, and for hang-dogging the crap out of Up Yours. By the way, no way is his Orgone Box 5.11. Hard 5.9, max."

At the time, I didn't fully comprehend just how precious a thing a rock jock's "project" might be. But in 1982, as I researched an article on Hugh Herr's miraculous comeback from a double-leg amputation, I climbed past the eighteen-year-old's current project several hundred feet up Cathedral Ledge in New Hampshire—and stared, incredulous. That grungy, sixty-foot wrinkle in the granite that went nowhere? That was worth Hugh wasting weeks of all-out effort to free?

It hit me then that the young climbers of the day (no knock on Hugh, whom I've always admired) were what the Greeks called epigoni: the born-too-late, the hangers-on. It's not that every range has been climbed out, every crag defaced with lines and variations only three feet apart. But it's hard to reimagine just how unknown and daunting the Himalaya must have been in 1950, as the French team under Maurice Herzog toiled its way up Annapurna, with not a single 8000-meter peak yet ascended. Or to recapture the mystique that hovered about Warren Harding, bolting his way through the night up the last pitch on the Nose in 1958; or the commitment of John Gill, going for it on the Thimble in 1961, soloing 5.12 before 5.12 existed, with dismemberment and possibly death by guardrail awaiting his slightest slip.

There are still, to be sure, magnificent challenges left for climbers—among the great ranges, for example, the Donini-Kennedy-Lowe-Lowe attempt on Latok I in Pakistan, first tried in 1978 and still unclimbed after twenty attempts. Or the northwest face of Devils Thumb on the Alaska-Canada border, a route so dangerous that one aspirant said, "If anybody succeeds, it'll just be a failed suicide attempt."

But by 2007, nearly all the hardest mountains in the world have been climbed. Every ridge and face in the Alps or the American Rockies has been knocked off. Choppers called in by sat phones routinely pluck hapless fuckups from bivouac ledges where they would have died a generation before. Eager sixteen-year-olds tackling the hardest lines at local crags no longer even need guidebooks: they just follow the dotted line of chalk smears.

It's irrelevant that climbing is now more popular than ever. Other fields of human endeavor have surged in popularity even as their decadent practitioners began to wallow in self-parody. The golden age of Western exploration was the mountain-man era, roughly from 1804 to 1840. But the Wild West reached its all-time vogue between 1890 and 1910, when Buffalo Bill Cody turned it into a traveling vaudeville show and Geronimo rode in a Model T, selling toy bows and arrows as souvenirs.

Nor am I claiming that all terrestrial exploration has gone sour. Consider the counterexample of caving—a form of exploration that is just entering its golden age. The Everest of grottos—the indisputably deepest cave in the world—has yet to be discovered. (There are no helicopter rescues inside caves.) In my experience, when two cavers bump into each other, they're apt to head for a bar to share enthusiastic tales. Nowadays, when a climber spots a rival at a local cliff, he's more likely to say, "Who's that fucking poseur over there on my route?"

Of course the crag rats of the 1980s didn't invent invidious sniping. On the summit of the Matterhorn in 1865, Whymper rolled rocks down toward poor Carrel, to gloat spectacularly over his defeat. And of course the decadence of mountaineering has been announced before. In the 1930s, the Alpine Club fogies under Colonel Strutt loudly decried the Germans and Austrians attempting the Eiger Nordwand, "He who first succeeds may rest assured that he has accomplished the most imbecile variant since mountaineering began." Today we revere the authors of that "variant"—Heckmair, Vorg, Kasparek and Harrer—as visionary pioneers.

But it's not all plus ca change... not every exploratory fashion goes endlessly in and out of vogue: some slide through decadence into extinction. The Wild West is gone forever, and the Last Blue Mountain is receding in the distance.

I would guess that Tom Patey was the first among us to see decadence rearing its smarmy head in the 1960s, and to sense that from now on the only honest way to write about climbing was as satire: "Onward, Christian Bonington, of the A.C.G./ If you name the mountain, he will name the fee." As Patey proved, decadence can produce a rich literature. For myself, I'd far rather read Suetonius's salacious gossip about debauched emperors, mired in Rome's decline, than Julius Caesar's solemn self-congratulation about conquering All Gaul in the empire's salad days. I'd rather read the blithe whimsy of Patey's A Short Walk with Whillans than the stolid plod of Sir John Hunt's The Ascent of Everest.

So climb on, ye epigoni, as you squabble over whether it's 13c or d, and bitch on, ye pundits, over Dean Potter on Delicate Arch, over Tomaz Humar on Nanga Parbat, over who left David Sharp to die on Everest. Climbing's still as much fun as ever, as I rediscover each time I drag my weary bones up a 5.8 at the Gunks or Red Rocks. But fun is a different thing from transcendent glory. Sorry, Monsieur Herzog, about the famous last line of your book: by 2007, there ain't a hell of a lot of other Annapurnas left in the lives of men.

—David Roberts, Cambridge, Massachusetts

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