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
In the beginning Coach had taught us how to climb without a harness—how to just wrap a rope around your waist several times, tie a knot called the bowline-on-a-coil, and go. In Wyoming in those days, the ethics of climbing was still largely descendent from mountaineering, as were the gear and technique. We climbed on ropes stiff as lariats using aluminum nuts and iron pitons for protection. Knowing your knots mattered. Route-finding mattered. A climber of conscience climbed only what he could lead in good style. No hangs, no falls, no excuses. I never saw Coach climb any other way. It was a matter of pride, of character. Today people climb harder, but not bolder.

"Belay on!" I answered.

And Coach started to climb.

The moment he touched the rock his bloated, betrayed body was transformed. It was as though he had stepped into a world without gravity. He climbed with utter silence and grace. Each movement was discrete and intentional and yet he seemed to flow up the wall, like water in reverse. Every foot placement was sure and confident and his feet stuck to the rock like glue. It didn't matter what was there: If you believe your feet will stick, they'll stick. That's what Coach used to tell us when we were halfway up a climb and our feet started slipping and we started whining.

I made my first lead with Coach. I'd only done three or four climbs when he handed me two pieces of gear and pointed up to a 5.7 off-width called Upper Slot. I put in both pieces of protection low in the climb, got about 20 feet above the second piece, and froze. Too scared to go up, incapable of climbing down, I clung there like a frightened kitten. Coach watched and waited. After a while I started to tremble and then shake. Soon fear had taken over so completely that I was shuddering. Coach yelled at me to get my head together and just finish the climb, but by this time I had already lost my head. I was puling shamelessly and fatigue was sickening me and I was losing my grip and my feet were slipping off. By the time Coach soloed up behind me, I was certain I was going to fall and die ignominiously. Standing steady as a rock ledge right under my feet, he handed up one piece of protection, a number 11 hex, and told me in a calm, stern voice to put it in and climb to the top, which I did.

Twenty-five years of climbing and I have never been as scared since. For a long time I thought he had been cruel, because I thought Coach was merely trying to teach me how to rock-climb, how to be a rock climber. But most of Coach's students never became rock climbers. I'm sure he didn't expect they would. They would forget the skill but perhaps remember the will.

That autumn afternoon, Coach climbed Fall Wall as fluidly as a dancer. He did it in worn-out running shoes with a body that was no longer his. Unlike every other coach I ever had, and for that matter almost any person I've met, Coach was a man who expected more from himself than from you. When he got to the top he didn't say a word. He momentarily flashed his old Man With No Name smile.

Coach Layne Kopishka died of hemochromatosis—a disease in which there is too much iron in the blood—on July 11, 1992, just a few months after my first daughter was born. He left behind a wife, Judy, and two daughters, Shawna and Tonya. Coach was 47.

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