First and Last Ascents

The rules (there are only three of them) remain the same for a lifetime, and they come from the mouths of babes

Dec 1, 1999
Outside Magazine

The last time I saw Coach, his body was puffy. His chiseled face was unchanged—flat lips, deep eyes, dark hair, still handsome as the young Clint Eastwood—but he looked as if he were wearing someone else's inflated, definitionless body.

The disease had progressed that far. I was at the top of a climb with several friends and I saw him appear down at the base of the smooth granite wall, looking up. It struck me as strange to see him standing there rather than climbing.

All of us up on the ledge had once been his athletes. Coach had led us and others on the Laramie High School swim team to seven consecutive state titles. He was a man at once compassionate, taciturn, and merciless. He got us to swim till our bodies turned to lead—till our legs couldn't move and our arms couldn't come out of the water. He made the strongest swim 400, 500, 600 laps in a 25-yard pool. Some of these laps were 50-yard sprints against the clock. They were almost unbearable, and yet we did it. Coach constantly pushed us to go faster, try harder. Everybody thought this was outrageous, because everybody thought we were only training for the state meet—except Coach. He knew the meet would come and go and then we'd graduate and the trophies would disappear into boxes and what he'd helped make of us would be all that was left.

Besides commanding the swim team, he'd taught PE classes in swimming, karate (he was a black belt, naturally), and rock climbing. Karate demanded too much quiet discipline for most of us hormone-fueled jocks, and more swimming was out of the question, so we signed up for rock climbing. Every morning until the mountains were buried in snow, Coach drove the bus up to the rocks in the dark so we could be climbing by dawn and back to school by second period. In the cold mornings of late fall and early spring our fingers would become so numb we could hardly feel the rock.

That was a decade and a half earlier. Now Coach was staring up at us, squinting into the sun. It was a gorgeous Wyoming autumn afternoon: not a cloud, not a breath of wind, air crisp as kindling. We shouted down, asking him if he'd brought his rock shoes along. He shook his head but then motioned for us to lower the rope. We glanced at each other. We were at the top of Fall Wall, an infamous 5.10 route featuring holds consisting of tiny eighth-inch ledges, the kind that require precise edging with tight rock shoes. Coach was in running shoes, with no harness.

When the rope reached him he picked up the end, tied it around his waist with a bowline, looked up, and yelled, "On belay?"


More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Open a World of Adventure

Our Dispatch email delivers the stories you can’t afford to miss.

Thank you!