“First of all a good alpinist should be a good man and this is a really difficult goal to achieve, often a whole life is not enough.” – H. Barmasse
With ten days left before his wedding, my son and I took two days out of our busy lives and climbed together. It was supposed to be a whole family affair, but things happen and in the end it was the two of us, tied together on a rope, making our way up a few faces in the Icicle canyon of Leavenworth.
Outside is what we do, what we’ve always done – and because of this our experiences of climbing, hiking, skiing, punctuate our lives as markers. I can remember the first time my son Noah, then about 7, rapelled off a face in the Cascades. Halfway down he’d had enough, when we told the only way to finish was to go down. He cried all the way to the bottom, and as soon as he was off belay, scampered up and said, “again”. That was when the love began and, though our respective relationships with the outdoors have never quite synced perfectly, it’s always been a shared love.
These past few years Noah’s skills in the mountains has surpassed, by far, any level I’ve ever had. He was my guide, the one with talents enabling me to go places I’d never be able to reach without another whose abilities surpass mine. Multi-pitch, trad climbing and airy exposure are terms that mean we’re doing Fred Astair stuff, when I, alone, would only be able to pull of some sort of fox-trot. He’s been absorbed in this discipline over the past years, reading books, practicing rope management, and getting out to climb as often as possible with friends. You don’t need to know the details to know that any skill is learned only by being absorbed in it – with climbing though, there are immediate and potentially fatal consequences for doing it wrong. Everything I saw in his leadership impressed me, because the skills needed for this sport are identical to those needed for life:
1. Attention to detail– You don’t arrive at the summit without paying attention to virtually every element of the climbing experience: gear and rope management, gear placement, belay anchors, belay device, communication protocol with your partner when you can’t see each other and the wind/river noise makes hearing impossible – miss any of these and you’ll pay. He misses none of them. I watch him work, coiling the rope with precision, in contrast to my ‘stuffing it in a bag’, and ponder how easily my commitment to the big picture has sometimes overshadowed my commitment to the details needed to get there. He’ll do well in this new life he’s building because if the devil, as they say, is in the details, then the devil is doomed.
2. Extra Reserves – Leading a climb requires physical strength and endurance, psychological calm, problem solving, and decision making skills. You don’t lead a multi-pitch climb unless you lead well within your capacity, so that you have what you need to see you through anything unforeseen. Life’s like that too, and when we live with margins then we’re not ‘over the edge’ when things happen. The hardest times of my life haven’t come because of trials; they’ve come because when the trial intruded, I’d so filled my days with obligations and responsibilities that I had no reserves to see me through. In contrast, there’s a pacing to our climbing. At one point he says, “I think we should skip the final pitch on this one because if the rain blows in, it could get tricky”. The courage to say “enough”, to walk away in order to walk again tomorrow, is a quality that spills into his whole life. This too will serve him well in world that never says “enough” regarding anything: work, play, possessions, friendships, consuming. He’ll live with limits, a needed ingredient of the goal is joy.
3. Servant – The last morning of our climbing, we were attempting a climb that the guidebook said had an “airy step” at the start of the second pitch. I arrive at the top of the first pitch, standing with my son on a few square feet of rock. To start the next pitch we’ll need to step off this rock, onto a sheer vertical face about four feet away. There aren’t any obvious holds, no ledges. It’s a faith move. In this moment though, I’m a man without faith. Due to injuries and work, I’ve been away from the rock too long, and even though I know, rationally, that I’ll be safe, I freeze. “I can’t do this” I say to my son, feeling as if I’m letting him down, feeling like a weight to his ambitions.
With his arm on my shoulder, he says, “No problem dad – it’s fine either way”. His attitude and encouragement are affirming in spite of our descent, and at the bottom, we’re already talking about future climbs together because this isn’t about climbing. He’s way better than I ever was at this sport. We’re here, after all, to be together. We descend, the skilled climber and I, and I know his act of respecting the limits of his partner in an affirming way is beautiful. This lack of ego makes him a great leader and a great climber, and one week from tomorrow, a great husband.
There’s always more to climbing outings than climbing. There are steaks, cooked over the open fire, and long conversations as stars puncture the canopy that is evening sky. This too is a rich gift for me as we talk about life, faith, doubt, love, journeys, future. I’m profoundly grateful for the gift of this relationship, this friendship, and honest conversations.
I’ll stand before my son and his beautiful fiance next Saturday and share what I hope will be wisdom with them. But in a strange turn of things, Noah’s demeanor of humble confidence, strength, attention to detail, and display of egoless leadership have already preached volumes to me, enlivening my commitment to climb, and live, with strength and integrity. The student has become the teacher – and this is the greatest blessing of all
a few more pics here