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
Not long ago I started trying to teach my daughters how to rock-climb. At the time, Addi was six and Teal was three.

We didn't go to the climbing gym. My girls like playing on the artificial wall, but when you're in a box with a roof rather than outside beneath the sky, surrounded by windows instead of horizons and fluorescent light instead of the sunshine, you learn very different things. We went into the mountains, to a dome of rounded pink granite named the Rat Brain, not far from Slot and Fall Wall.

There were six of us in all, if you count Meggie, our chocolate Lab: Addi and Teal, their six-year-old friend Justin, me, and my friend Ed, a philosophy professor who has more patience and compassion than I do, which is why I recruit him for all instructional adventures.

Stepping out of the truck, we were blasted by a cold wind, and everyone donned wool caps and windbreakers. We had backpacks, water bottles, apples, climbing harnesses, locking carabiners, and belay devices. Addi brought along her books, Justin brought his ratty down jacket, Teal brought her stuffed seal.

The path along the top of the beaver dam where we usually crossed the creek was flooded, so we had to search for another route across. The kids ran upstream and discovered a game trail through a meadow that leapt the creek and wove on through the willows. Above the creek we discovered a lean-to hidden in the aspens: fallen logs angled against a boulder blackened from a fire pit. Addi, Justin, and Teal wanted to stay and play, but I insisted they keep moving.

(Just a note: One of the many ridiculous maxims that have been whirling about in Dadland in recent decades is, Never push or pull your child. Let your child do exactly what she wants and she'll naturally rise to her potential. Spare me. We all push and pull our kids; the questions are how, when, and to what degree.)

On the lower slabs of rock beyond the trees, I had to hand the kids up to Ed at several difficult places, but Meggie, a rock dog who's been going into the mountains since she was three months old, used her claws like a double set of crampons, leaping and scratching her way up. A climbing buddy of mine swears he's seen Meggie do a pull-up.

This was our second outing. We'd all come to the Rat Brain a week before, and it had turned into a battlefield on which Ed and I suffered an ignoble defeat: The kids had all started whimpering, saying they didn't like rock climbing and refusing to continue. Teal had bounced back the very next day, asking when we would get to go back. (I think she just liked the name Rat Brain.) A few days later Justin left a message on my office phone machine asking to go climbing again. But Addi, an intellectual at six, would not let the rosy light of nostalgia color her harsh experience. The only way I got her to go a second time was by promising her that she didn't have to climb unless she wanted to. Hence the books stuffed into her pack alongside her harness. She could read while Justin and Teal climbed.

When we arrived at the base of the Rat Brain it was so windy the kids were getting knocked over. Teal, Justin, and Addi hid behind a boulder with their noses running. Even Ed admitted it was cold. But soon enough they got themselves occupied. Justin checked out "the bathtub"—an erosion hollow in the rock invariably filled with snowmelt—for insects. I could see none, but he of course found loads. Justin is a born naturalist. Addi sat down, got out her books, and began to read, grasping the pages tightly so they wouldn't flap. Teal started playing with the carabiners, linking them together like paper clips. None of them was the least bit interested in climbing.

Nonetheless, Ed scaled the dome of the Rat Brain and clipped in the ropes while I got each of the kids into a harness. They ignored me, moving their arms and legs automatically while continuing to play or read. I asked Justin if he wanted to go first; he said he'd rather continue plucking bugs out of the mud. I reminded him that he had called me to go climbing.

"Ohhh-kaayy." He stood up, heaved his narrow shoulders, and jiggled the rope.

I belayed while Ed soloed beside Justin, giving moral support, pointing out handholds and footholds, and demonstrating the proper body position for face climbing. Justin's gym shoes were too big and they fell off halfway up. He had to be lowered in his socks, and Ed secured the shoes on Justin's feet by wrapping them with athletic tape. After that he climbed well, if slowly, pretending to be scared but concentrating intensely. At the top he threw his arms into the cold blue sky and let out a whoop.

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