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
Teal was next. Ed belayed, I climbed alongside. She never looked back, or down for that matter. She was soon to turn four—as she told everyone—and considered herself the equal of any six-year-old. Ignoring my advice on where to put her feet and which handholds to hang on to, simply assuming her little feet inside her little tennis shoes would stay wherever she placed them, she scampered straight to the top in less than three minutes. I showed her how to throw her hands in the air like Justin, and she did it, but she didn't get it. Climbing up a cold rock face in wind that could lift her off her feet just wasn't that big a deal. On the other hand, she throws her hands in the air all the time when we put on music in the living room. She loves to dance.

There are dads who think that teaching is a one-way street. In fact, teaching is a wide, two-way street with lots of crazy traffic, with ideas and education constantly flying in both directions. Which means that if you're teaching a kid, then the kid is teaching you back.

Addi knew I had promised her I wouldn't force her, but she also knew I wouldn't leave her alone. She gave in after repeated coaxing. Ed belayed and I coached. Up on the rock her genuine fear of heights reasserted itself. She was only five feet off the ground when her legs began trembling. She tried to move up and her feet slipped and her fingernails dug desperately into the rock. She was on the verge of tears. I felt like a total shit.

"Addi, calm down." I had my hand on her back. "Look for something to put your feet on." I pointed out two small dishes in the rock.

She listened. She focused. She placed the toes of her hiking boots on the slopey concavities, and her body relaxed slightly.

"All right! See that?"

She gave me a grim smile. She kept climbing, but she didn't go all the way to the top. Down below she had told me that she would climb to the second bolt and no farther. I'd told her that when she got that high she would want to keep going. But she didn't. She wanted to come down. Still, when she got back on the ground she was beaming.

Justin agreed to tie in again only if I promised to watch over the cup of bugs he had collected. He was planning to bring them home to show his mom. But I obviously didn't understand the value of insects, so he didn't trust me: While he was climbing he kept looking down to make sure his cup o' bugs was safe.

When I asked Teal if she wanted to climb again, she lightheartedly said no. Then, seconds later, just as gaily, she said yes. She roped in and flitted up the wall and came down and went back to reorganizing my spare carabiners.

Addi, inspired by her first success, climbed to the second bolt again, but even with arguing she wouldn't go higher. She came down and went back to reading.

While Ed and I coiled the ropes, the kids ate their apples and drank from their water bottles and wiped their noses and stared out across the frigid mountains. The truck was a mile away, and we raced back, Ed and I getting them all to run to stay warm. They took several rough tumbles before we reached the truck. We piled in, I cranked up the heat, and we began grinding homeward along the rough dirt road.

Once we were back on the highway, after everyone was warm and before the knock-knock jokes started, I asked the three small climbers to tell me one thing that they'd learned. It could only be one thing, the most important thing.

They sat quietly for a moment, thinking. I expected them to say something technical about rock climbing—"Don't hug the rock" or "Don't use your knees" or "Look for footholds"—one of the maxims Ed and I had been using to teach them how to climb.

Justin was resting his head on Ed's shoulder. For a while he looked subdued, a rare state for a boy like Justin, but then he screwed up his face, his cheeks red as cherries, and shouted, "Move swiftly!"

I couldn't help but grin. I looked at Teal. She already had her answer. She threw her hands in the air and yelled, "Don't whine!"

Addi, glowing with pride, quietly said, "Try your hardest."

Ed started slapping his thighs and hooting.

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