Also in This Area
Also in This Style
Posted on: June 1, 2008
[Illustration] Jeremy Collins
Baby Grows Up
LATE JANUARY. I walked down a sunny street in the small mountain town of Villa de Bravo, Mexico, wearing flip-flops for the first time in months. My seven-month-old daughter, Marie, nestled against my chest. Marie kicked her bare toes and waved down to a native woman selling tablecloths on the sidewalk.
Suddenly, my husband, Will, grabbed my arm: “Watch out!” The sidewalk ended abruptly in a two-foot drop to a side street, up which sped a small taxi. When the driver saw me—a teetering gringo—he swerved, bouncing off the uneven cobblestones. “Don’t assume anything in Mexico,” Will continued as the taxi farted a plume of gritty exhaust. “Sidewalks are uneven. Things stick out, so watch your head. If it rains, it gets desperate.” He paused, looking from me to Marie and back again. “Think objective hazard,” he said.
I CONSIDER MYSELF TO BE an adept walker. After all, I’m a climber. My agility has been honed by years of technical approaches. Yet there I was on a street in Mexico, feeling off-balance and jittery. Between the constant flow of speeding vehicles and the huge unmarked holes, I felt as if I were traveling unroped over a crevassed glacier threatened by serac fall. I hadn’t felt so exposed since the time I summited Denali without my ice axe.
I had been climbing the mountain via the West Buttress, and I’d left my axe behind on Denali Pass because, as everybody knows, the West Butt is a walk-up. As I struggled across the wide Football Field at 19,500 feet, I thought, “Okay, everybody, this is not a walk. At this altitude it’s at least a hard hike.” Then, on the summit ridge, the mountain fell away steeply on both sides. For security, I hugged my arms over the crest of the ridge and frontpointed along the northern side, all the while staring down the south face, a straight shot for 9,000 feet, one slip or crampon snag away. In those moments I didn’t walk climbing’s often-fine line between risk and reward. I crawled along it like a baby. As Jack Tackle writes in this issue of his epic descent from Mt. Wake, “My mother would have bummed.”
Later that day in Mexico, having successfully survived a two-hour walk around town, I waited for Will to return from paragliding. As I sat, I read about Stolbists: an old woman soloing smoothly up the rock in strangely fashioned climbing shoes; a twelve-year-old boy falling, dying. The clock ticked. Marie squirmed in her sleep. Since we’d been in Mexico, Will had broken his collarbone; a friend had broken his ankle; someone else, his back.
I read too about Valery Babanov on the West Pillar of Jannu. Valery’s wife, Olga, had waited for him for nine days as he fought the wind, jumped clear of sliding firn, and felt the jagged cold and altitude drain his final strength until he had to down solo what he had ascended roped. Some people would say Valery has a death wish. After all, many people consider climbing to be stupid. Don’t believe it? Ride the bus in Zion Canyon as the driver slows to point out a climbing party high on Moonlight Buttress. “That’s crazy. That’s stupid,” rings out the choir as they experience Zion Canyon through a pane of glass. To them, the perceived risk of climbing is unacceptable. But Olga lovingly chastised Valery when he returned. “You’re all crazy,” she said, agreeing with the masses; then, as they embraced, she continued, “You and your mountain”—an acceptance and an admission of Valery’s passion. Climbing is part of him.
I relaxed when Will finally walked in the door. He had landed early, unwilling to risk the high winds. “I would have gone for it a few years ago,” he said. “But now. . . .” He swung Marie around the room. “Things are different.”
The next day it was my turn to fly. Nerves made me vaguely nauseated as I laid out my wing. I thought again about Stolby: a man fell to his death in front of his wife and children. Will smiled at me as I pulled back, the fabric rising and biting into the wind. Then, I turned from my family and ran.
I ran off the mountain and into another world, where the heat of the sun rises off the earth in a gust of wind. Rich blue sky. Quiet. Like climbing, paragliding takes you into the domain of the elements, a crystal place that cuts deeply into us as we pass through it, so that when we return home we shine with a simple human truth burnished by risk: actions and decisions make our lives.
A YOUNG CLIMBER FRIEND recently congratulated me on having a baby. “Climbing must seem dim in the brilliance of it,” he said. I regarded him: wind-burned face, scruffy hair, smudges of fatigue heavy under his eyes. He had just spent two days in that other world, exploring a grand new ice line. His face faded behind a vision of my first ice lead: huge snowflakes fell above narrow, cobbled walls while my partner belayed, smiling, eating a burrito. Wet ice cored through short screws, sagged and fell to the piling snow below. Water ran in my sleeves. Electric-white pain shot through my arm as I smashed my bruised knuckles again.
As monumental as childbirth was, it had left me feeling profoundly ordinary. What I had done was common, as evidenced by the 6.6 billion people on the planet. Climbing, however, is not.
When Marie was born, Will held out his index fingers, hoping she’d have a strong enough grip reflex to hold on while he picked her up. But she just wriggled her chubby little body and hiked her fat feet violently in the air.
“Look at those legs,” I consoled him. “She won’t be a sport climber, she’ll be an alpinist.”
“Oh God,” he replied. “Anything but an alpinist.” Then he shuddered and muttered, “Danger. Dangerous.”
I’ve lost enough friends in the mountains to know he’s right. And if Marie finds a passion for alpinism, I’ll be nervous. But it will be a happy kind of nervous, for I know that along the way she’ll snuggle up to the sun and trade secrets with a gusty wind. She’ll grow wise under the tutelage of an intense cold; she’ll grow rich with the rainbow that springs from the black of an afternoon thundershower. The climbing path is risky, but if she chooses to follow it, hers will be a life shaped by uncommon experiences in an all-too-common world.