Up a Cliff by
(137 Stories)

Prompted By Dangerous Deeds

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Kids just love to climb.  Go to any playground and you can see them all over the forts and jungle gyms and slides, the modern versions of trees and rocks.  Don’t you remember that feeling of exploration and challenge, the connection between fingers and toes with bark and stone?  It probably taps into some basic primate instincts.  It seems very distant now.  The last time I tried to free climb around in a rock cave, I lost my grip and fell to the ground, knocking the wind out of me, and realized I had officially entered that time of life when fear of falling and injury superseded the joy of climbing.

Halfway up, I got stuck.  I couldn’t see how to get up or down, splayed across the cliff, hanging onto tiny stone ledge finger and toe holds.

But when I was in high school, still young and strong and uninjured and less fearful, I learned how to officially rock climb, ropes and all.  It wasn’t a “thing” then.  No plastic rock walls at malls, no outdoor industrial complex.   Some people I knew from my youth group formed a Mountaineering Club at school, so I signed up, not really knowing what I was getting into.  The leader was Glen–though only a junior , he already had a heavy beard and strong arms and legs, and a confidence beyond his years.  He also had some rope experience.  We trusted him.  Maybe there was an adult associated with the club, but I have no recollection of one.  It was just Glen and the rest of the kids, learning to climb out at the Carderock cliffs by the Potomac River.

The cliffs were not so well-known in those days, and we rarely saw other climbers.  They were just tall enough for a one-pitch climb, with someone belaying from the ground above or below to catch any falls, so it actually felt pretty safe. Glen was usually the belayer and instructor, and we learned how to plan a route, find finger and toe holds, and work our way up over the top.  The next step was learning to rappel back down.  The first time I did that, it was perhaps the most terrifying thing I had ever done.  Glen assured us he had us safely on belay and loaned us his jeans jacket to cushion the rope.  We then had to lean backwards over the edge and into thin air in defiance of common sense, at as much of a perpendicular angle to the cliff as possible so we were semi-horizontal to the ground.  The rope wound around the jeans jacket and through a carabiner; we held the rope and our lives in gloved hands, letting out a bit at a time to lower ourselves to the bottom.   Once you overcame the terror and were able to relax a bit, it was like flying, gently bouncing feet against the cliff with each length of loosened rope.  Up was slow, but down was fast.  In the end, I found it was more fun to rappel down than climb up—but you still had to make the climb to earn the right to rappel.

I wasn’t a bad rock climber on those cliffs and felt pretty proud of myself;  I even splurged on a pair of special rock-climbing shoes.  When I went to college the following year, they had a climbing group and I was invited by one of their members to accompany him on a climb to the Shawangunks near New Paltz, New York.  This would be a big step—the cliffs were higher and would require a two-stage climb.  Frank would be the lead climber, then belay me as I followed.  He seemed strong and confident, and I was flattered to give it a go.

Halfway up, I got stuck.  I couldn’t see how to get up or down, splayed across the cliff, hanging onto tiny stone ledge finger and toe holds.  Where was the next move?  The ground was dizzyingly far below and the top seemed even further away.  At this point of mild panic, my mind became philosophical as I realized that I had voluntarily put myself in this ridiculous position where I could lose my life, and maybe pull Frank down too if he were not firmly situated on the cliff face above me—what the hell was I thinking?   Maybe this wasn’t what I really wanted to do.  And now what would happen?  In truth, I don’t remember what came next—I think (to my chagrin) Frank had to assist by pulling the rope taut so I could swing over to the next good hold and then guide me upwards.  I do still remember that humbling moment when I wondered if I would ever get off that cliff.

I didn’t climb after that.  Maybe Frank and I weren’t the best climbing partners, and maybe lower-risk cliff climbing would still have been fun (and safer), but life in college in 1968-69 intervened.  Then I fractured a metatarsal, which spelled the end of any serious climbing for me.  But I don’t regret learning about setting my own limits, or experiencing the satisfaction of grappling with the rock and the freedom of rappelling back to earth.


Profile photo of Khati Hendry Khati Hendry

Characterizations: been there, moving, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    My husband loves to watch documentaries about those guys who climb Everest or “Free Solo”- climbing El Capitan in Yosemite (I watch them too; they are quite remarkable, but am not the second-hand thrill seeker that he is). So I can almost understand everything you’ve described here except for your own personal experience of it.

    Reading your description brings home the moment by moment decision making, the skill involved and the sheer bravery and commitment, as well as physical strength. You bring this world to us so vividly that we feel exactly what you felt with each foothold and the freedom of the flying down with the rappel.

    Yet also that turning point when you hit your physical and mental limit and knew you couldn’t go further and were done (particularly after the broken bone). As you said at the beginning, this isn’t like today, where there are rock walls in gyms and kids train to do this. You were testing your limits with limited training and skill. You got far and enjoyed as much as you could. Thank you for the guided tour.

    Happy new year, Khati. Enjoy your freedom.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Thanks for your reflections. I watch some of those climbing films too and feel no need to be there myself. Everything in moderation works for me. And Happy New Year to you! It was great to see your comment when I know you will be taking a break, so enjoy your freedom too!

  2. Wonderfully written and remembered story Khati, and of course there’s a life lesson or metaphor in there somewhere!

    My son writes songs, and one of his lyrics I love is,
    Be the tree, and be the climb.

  3. Khati:
    I wish my story had your knowledge of self-awareness I am glad I did not write about my experiences. I could not have written with such a tactile and psychological description. First, I was even more of an amateur than you, and much more unaware of the dangers.
    In high school, I trained falcons (it was mutual). I climbed cliffs to obtain the chicks or to watch the birds nesting. To prepare, I learned to climb ropes–mainly in the gym where I was a champion. In the 1950s, there was no idea at all of rock climbing. Once, alone, I lowered myself from a cliff to find it was difficult to return. Another time when I was spying on owls from a ledge, I was afraid of falling asleep during the night watch. I tied the rope around my sleeping bag so I would not slide off the edge. With a jerk on the rope, I woke up to find myself hanging halfway off the cliff with the rope tightening around my waist.
    Neither time was I “saved.” But one time on our farm I climbed a tree, tying the rope to a branch. I fell several feet to find myself beyond the reach of the tree. I screamed loud enough to get my mother’s attention. Then she screamed.
    Never climbed again.
    Except years later when I took my 10-year-old daughter to a climbing wall. I realized how stupid I was when we were both fitted with a harness and two people had ropes ready to break a slip or impossible move.
    She later climbed in British Columbia but did not like it.
    So here it is my first full tale of my escape from self-made disaster.
    In the future I have tempted fate, but with some knowledge of the need to prepare and the consequences of failure. And too embarrassed to write about it again.

    Happy New Year

    • Khati Hendry says:

      Wow Richard—you have so many stories! Falconry and spying on owls as a teen? THREE episodes of dangling by a rope (and finding a way to survive it)! You have tempted fate so many times and still lived to a ripe old age to tell about it. Write on.

  4. Suzy says:

    I love this story, Khati, with all its detail about climbing techniques and equipment. You did it long before climbing was trendy. I especially love that you went to the Shawangunk Mountains, which I happen to know. For many years my family held our family reunions at Mohonk Mountain House outside of New Paltz, right in the Shawangunks. I did some rock scrambles there, but never the kind of climbing you describe. Good for you for making it out when you were stuck, even if you don’t quite remember how. And perfectly understandable that you didn’t climb any more after that.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      That’s great that you know the Shawangunks—I recall it was a beautiful area but have never been back. Just one more spectacular part of no -city NY. And yes, this was definitely before climbing and other outdoor sports took off. I wish I could remember the name of the shoes I bought (for $40– huge for me)—some French brand that started with R—looked it up on Google and found tons of shoes of all sorts at REI—times have changed.

  5. Jim Willis says:

    Khati, you picked a funny place to get philosophical dangling from that mid-climb ledge and yet, given the circumstances, a very appropriate one. Your comment about setting limits reminds me of the last line of a Dirty Harry movie in which Eastwood utters the line, “A man’s got to know his limits,” as he watches the villain’s car explode, with the villain inside it. Risk-taking is a great way (assuming survival) to test and to know our limits. Thanks for sharing!

    • Khati Hendry says:

      I never saw the Dirty Harry movie—a rather dark take on risk! Risk taking is in the eye of the beholder, but it is what we all do growing up—learning our limits. Sometimes I look back and wonder how or why I did some of what I did, given that I am actually pretty risk-averse. For the most part, it just didn’t seem like it was that risky at the time. Some lessons are hard to learn, at our peril.

  6. I wonder if you ever climbed, at Harvard, with a student named Kevin Bynum. His name just popped into my head as I read your exciting story,. He was an avid rock climber, and for a while the Prez of the Mountaineering club. He also almost got killed in a terrible climbing fall at some point during his undergrad years. I got to know him while we washed dishes together in Adams House my freshman year (before you entered college I guess). He used to show me, step by step, the climbs he had recently accomplished, what kinds of hand holds he needed to use, etc. He even joined the Gymnastics team! For the sole reason of improving his agility and strength in rock climbing.
    Anyway, your story was enthralling. It was really a cool insight into the way your mind worked (and a testament to your good memory of what was going through your head)–the leap into philosophy in the midst of peril.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      I didn’t know Kevin—never really got into the mountaineering club in college after that first outing—but it sounds like you got a great insight into that world from him. Sorry to hear about his fall (it can indeed be a dangerous sport) and hope he has had a good long life of well-met challenges.

  7. P.S. That view of the climber from the back looks a helluva lot like you, Khati! A very well chosen image from the Web. Or is it really you? (I would believe it.)

  8. Dave Ventre says:

    A great and exciting tale! I have felt that sick feeling when you just KNOW, somehow, that you are fated to fall. Oddly I never felt it during the couple of rock-climbing expeditions I went on early in grad school. I guess the rope gives me confidence. But I’ve had a few heart-pounders while hiking or biking.

    I did experience a bad diving emergency in Lake Minnewaska up in the ‘gunks, but it happened to a dive buddy, not me; I was one of the rescuers.

    • Khati Hendry says:

      I remember your tale of diving misadventure that you survived—scarier than my moment I’m sure. I have become more careful as I have gotten older for good reason, but it is still good to get out and do what I can. Too much fun.

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