Like most women in their thirties, I find small children captivating, especially children outfitted in some sort of climbing or mountain gear. My husband Jay, I suspect, hides the Baby Patagonia catalog when it arrives in the mail. So, my attention span was stretched to capacity one Saturday morning when, amid the general bustle and noise of a crowded weekend of Rumney sport climbing, a family with two young children dropped their backpacks beneath a 5.6 slab route to my right.
The youngest, I discern, is seven years old. His parents casually mention that he has recently “climbed his age.” To call this child adorable is a serious understatement. Tiny climbing shoes peek out from rolled-up baggy pants. Add blond curls and child-size reflective sunglasses, and this little guy is the perfect bad-ass California climber in miniature. His parents address him lovingly as “Mister”. Mister begs Mom and Dad to let him lead the next one. Parents agree. Was it just me, or did they exchange a hesitant glance first?
“Okay Mister. Get your helmet.”
Little Mister, now outfitted with a helmet and set of quick draws dangling to his knees, scrambles sure-footedly up the first few bolts of the slab. His figure eight knot and chalk bag look like they’ve been borrowed from a giant.
“Clipping, Kayte,” Jay calls from above, and I belatedly re-focus attention on my own climber who is already half-way up his warm up. A few minutes later, I notice whimpering and choked-off little hiccups coming from the slab.
Mister is in trouble. Instead of following the bolt line, he appears to have traversed at least fifteen feet off route along a sloping ledge. Despite soothing words from his parents and shouts of encouragement from onlookers at the base, instinct takes over, and he clings doggedly to the rock like a baby monkey clinging to his mother’s pelt. The diminutive Mister is all kid.
“Mister, I know you can down-climb this. You just need to take a deep breath.”
“Sweetie, calm down. Remember we talked about this. If you get scared, you either have to down-climb or jump off.”
“Maybe you can go up a bit more and clip the next bolt?” Dad suggests.
“I can’t,” cries Mister, now fully sobbing. Then, he looks at the sky and shouts out loud the feeling we’ve all had at some point while leading, “I can’t go up, I can’t go down…I can’t do ANYTHING!”
At this point everyone at the cliff has stopped climbing to watch. How long can those little fingers hold on? Should somebody do something? The parents continue with the soothing, sports psychology pep talk; this doesn’t look to be the first time their seven-year-old has stranded himself in this predicament. Unfortunately, Mister’s cognitive development has not yet progressed to logical risk assessment. Faced with the prospect of reversing his traverse or taking a nasty thirty-foot pendulum over a jagged, fern-covered slab, he rejects both choices. He just cries.
“Take. TAKE! Kayte, I said TAKE!” Jay is already at the anchors. Apparently he has been yelling down from up there for some time.
By the time I sheepishly lower Jay to the ground, apologizing for the least attentive belay I’ve ever given, a competent-looking climber has moved in from an adjacent route to rescue Mister. Thank heaven. He mantles onto the ledge, climbs around Mister, and reaches up to clip the next bolt for him, all the while talking soothingly and holding the trembling little body against the rock. My maternal instincts applaud this feat as impressive.
Mister, spirits restored, works his way up two more bolts of climbing but thankfully lowers off when he spots another run-out to the chains. Back on firm ground, Mister removes his helmet and sunglasses and raises his tear-streaked face to his exhausted parents.
The first words out of his mouth are: “Dad, can I try it again?”
I’ve heard a saying that the key to being a good alpinist is having a short memory. If this is the case, Mister is well on his way to the high peaks.
I’ve been thinking that, after we’ve been climbing for a long time, our expectations start to drown out the psyched little kid in all of us who just loves to climb. Mister wasn’t embarrassed that thirty people had seen him cry on a 5.6. He didn’t hang his little head, or apologize for taking too long and inconveniencing other climbers. He simply accepted the fact that this leading business scares the wits out of him. Climbing, after all, is hard. It’s supposed to be hard. It’s supposed to stretch you.
Over the years, I’ve gone through periods of time when I felt pressure not to be afraid, not to make a scene. Beat your fears, and all of that. I’ve learned that I never beat my fear, but sometimes, on my best days, I can dance with it. My best falls, when I hit the end of the rope with absolutely nothing left to give, are as valuable to me and as rare as my best sends. They come from the same place, and they require the same perfect commitment.
This season, I’ve been pursuing a younger mindset about climbing, remembering what is was like when I first started – the clean simple joy and the pure raw terror of it -- the way I embraced both poles of the sport. There is still something so cool about feeling scared and feeling desperate and doing it anyway. I’ve had enough of using the word “only” in front of a rock climb, such as “it is only 5.6,” or as one often hears at Rumney, “it is only 5.13.” Who’s having more fun, the beginner who’s over the moon about the 5.6, or the local who’s cranky because it’s humid and the 5.13 crux is slippery? Climbing was so much more fun without that, when we expected it to be a struggle.
Here are moments that might sound small, except for the great bubble of happiness that accompanies them. I made a new friend who is turning into a wonderful climbing partner. I held onto a crux hold at Rumney that I have been trying to reach for more than a year. Jay belayed me patiently at Cathedral while I spent half an hour hunting for rappel slings that were six inches up over my head in a tree. That evening when the light was pale and yellow, I leaned out over the valley from perfect handjams and knew that I was home. It feels good, climbing like a kid again.