Hair City

  I started taking all of my children rock-climbing at a very early age and have enjoyed the experiences more than I ever could have imagined.  Usually.  Upon a few occasions terror and/or minor injury was/were unwelcome companions.  Matter of fact I probably did visit both upon each repeatedly.  Has made me realize that child abuse is not as easy to define as I’d thought.  And that perhaps it is sometimes inflicted without intent.

  Early one morning many, many years ago son Andrew and I made our way to the base of a cliff overlooking the river.  As we hiked beneath its lush deciduous canopy that was yet spring green, Andrew gestured toward a broad soaring bird that we could only sporadically glimpse.

  “Look at the hawk!” he exclaimed.

  “Vulture” I corrected without really looking.

  Our goal was the Sentinel, a free standing pinnacle 120 feet tall on the river side and about half that on the other due to eons of rock fall and other organic detritus fallen from the top of the main wall thirty feet to the east.

  We first climbed the easy east face.  It is solid gray limestone with many large solution pockets, natural handholds, and fossils so that route finding is not a problem and the experience pleasant.  The fact that a discrete summit is gained makes it all the more fulfilling.

  Then in the fifth grade (I think) Andrew was strong and kinesthetically adept.  He could do the most pull ups in his class and had no problem with the tight-wire in our front yard.  Thus, it seemed to make sense to search for greater challenge.

  I remembered a climb on the west face that could be done in three pitches, had wide ledges, and great views out across the river which is over a mile wide there and dotted with islands and lots of boat traffic.  As I recalled, the climbing was all chimneys with a traverse across a wide flat ledge halfway up.  Perfect.

  At its base, I tied Andrew into a tree and began the first short pitch.  The chimney was much dirtier than I’d remembered – filthy actually.  I quickly reached the small ledge and set up a belay.

  Andrew was up in a flash ever excited and unconcerned about the dirt.  I tied him to the belay anchor and took the step right and up to begin the traverse into the main chimney.  Andrew was less than thrilled as I disappeared from view and his side of the banter grew a bit tremulous.

  Indeed, I did move more slowly than I’d anticipated.  The ledge was not wide, but rather narrow.  And difficult to protect.  If Andrew slipped, he would take quite a swing.  Oh well, I thought, I’ll get to the bolts at the base of the main chimney, bring him over, and then cruise to the top.

  Only there were no fixed anchors, the rock was rotten, and the chimney wasn’t as I’d remembered either.  It’s walls were sharp, jagged, friable and constricted to a bulge a few yards up making for tricky passage. 

  It even thought momentarily about spitting me out and thus unleash the ravages of gravity upon us both.  I corralled such thoughts and relegated them to the place the Dalai Lama sends thoughts of women.

  Andrew called several times after my slow progress wondering what every second does when the leader’s progress is slower than expected: what sort of terror might lie ahead.

  He made it across the traverse slowly calling up “Dad I’m scared”.

  “You’re doing fine Andrew” I croaked.  We both knew that the choices were few and that the difficulties, for him, had just begun.

   He started up the crack.  Up, down, up, down, up down.

   Shit.  How do you holler technical advice to a little guy you can’t see, who’s never heard the terms, and you know is fighting back fear so that he can please his dumb old man?  I gave him a bit of tension from time to time, but knew that a tight rope would not help him through the bulge.

  He came to it and began to wrestle with the crux.  A flake broke off and crashed loudly below sending a flock of starlings into the wind.  The air then filled with the sounds of utter and complete despair.  I felt like Judas.

  He did though surmount the difficulties and soon I watched his little hand slap the top of the block upon which I sat.  He clambered toward me and came into my arms.  After a bit he turned and took in the view.  Without looking at me, he asked if we had to go on.

  No way off but up.  “Soon we’ll be in the sun” I said.


  As it happened, the leading arc of the solar disc edged over the top just as I began the last pitch – cascading rays down upon us and illuminating the zillion motes of dust that theretofore had been invisible. We were like exhausted pilgrims in a nave.

  I reached the top quickly and Andrew followed smoothly with a surprising return of confidence – quiet though he did remain.  Upon the small summit platform, he sat serenely gazing toward the distant rolling hills.

  As I bent over the rappel anchors a broad shadow stroked the loose coils of rope, the surrounding rock, and my back.  I raised my eyes to watch Andrew track the winged dihedral floating just above our heads.

  We exchanged no words for many minutes until he said matter-of-factly “Dad, it is a hawk, a red tail”.

  As the raptor then rose effortlessly on a thermal up into the sun, its backlit tail feathers twitched in fine manipulation of pitch and roll and shone rust red.

   *NB As you can see below, many more adventures did ensue.  And thankfully yet another of my father’s aphorisms has held true (so far): “Son by the time you can take me on you won’t want to”…




One Response to “Hair City”

  1. andrew Says:

    I miss climbing with you, especially the cave at the climbing gym. I remember we used to run that place, going up and down the overhang wall with no feet and weights. Then going in the cave and doing laps, that was awesome.

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