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knocking the wind out of me, and realized I had officially entered that time of life when fear of falling and injury superseded the joy of climbing.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.