When I Grow Up, I Want to Be a Firefighting Border Patrol Agent Dog Trainer Engineer Physical Therapist Who Sells Weed


There are some who would say that job hunting while living out of the passenger’s seat of a Subaru in the middle of the Southwest desert is not the best place to job hunt. And while they would technically be correct, this has not stopped me from conducting informational interviews with nearly everyone we’ve met along the way.

Quizzing the people I meet at climbing areas on what they do to maintain their climbing habit predates my current jobless state. However, unemployment has undeniably increased the fervor with which I ply these people with questions.

Multipitch climbing does not, for the most part, lend itself to meeting new people. In an ideal world (according to the handbook of serious climbers), if you are unimaginative enough to be on a climb popular enough to have several other parties on it, by the time your leader reaches the next belay ledge, the follower from the party ahead has already left. And vice versa for a party behind you. This allows you to maximize the illusion that you are alone on the rockface going mano-a-mano with nature.

This perfect system breaks down when the party in front is slower than the party behind. And it really breaks down when the party in front gets their rope stuck rappelling the pitch the other party is climbing. This was how we met Dan and Monica at the bottom of pitch 3 of The Nightcrawler. 

They were cruising up the climb. Dan, a slight, mustached man joined us on the ledge as we began pulling our rope. It became clear that our rope was stuck, so we chatted with him while his partner, Monica, a short haired woman with glasses followed the squeeze chimney pitch.

We complemented Dan on the speed with which he was ascending. He explained that he was training to climb Cloud Tower in another three weeks by going up every corner system he could find in the park. Cloud Tower is the climb that keeps me motivated when I start to think that trad climbing is a needlessly scary and reckless pastime. Last winter, I’d made it ten feet from the top (thanks to Dante’s ability to lead the harder pitches. I’d failed ten feet from the top because of my foolish decision to lead the last pitch which went at 5.11c, over a grade above my hardest successful trad lead at the time). While The Nightcrawler is a far cry from Cloud Tower, learning that a route I’d just led was being used as someone else’s training made me think I might one day be ready to go back and try to lead the harder pitches of Cloud Tower myself.

Small talk out of the way, I asked Dan what he did for a living that allowed him to climb in Red Rocks on a weekday in November. He explained that he was completing PT school. This magical-sounding school involved a rotation that had placed Dan and Monica in a series of locations no more than half an hour from some of the best climbing in the USA. They were currently based in Vegas. Before that, they’d been living in Bishop, and their next stop was St. George. By now, Monica had joined us. She’d studied mechanical engineering at Yale and currently works remotely, allowing her to move with Dan. While working remotely as a mechanical engineer is probably not in the cards, a PT school that necessitates living near some of the best climbing areas in the USA doesn’t sound too bad.

The next interview I conducted with the woman waiting on us at a place that advertises itself as the world’s largest weed dispensary (in case the people conducting Sarah’s background check are reading this, Sarah did not come with me on this adventure. The “us” refers to a handful of friends from New Haven). While my friends asked her about the effects of various different gummies, hard candies, and cannabis-laced beers, I asked her what the hiring process was like for her job.

It had involved the typical interview followed by a drug test. “To test if she used weed,” her husband had joked at the time. She’d then had to complete a weeklong course which educated her in the science of weed and the specific products sold in the store.

“Are you hiring?” One of my friends asked. Everyone laughed at his joke, but I had been contemplating asking the question seriously moments before. His joke brought me to my senses. While it would be great to live near Red Rocks and go climbing whenever I wasn’t selling tourists gummy bears with a one to one THC to CBD ratio, the fact remains that I’m not a huge fan of weed or customer service jobs. If those qualities didn’t render me unhirable, chances were I’d come to hate the job. On top of that, I’d be stuck living in Las Vegas.

After Vegas, Sarah and I shivered our way through Utah and into northern New Mexico. On November 27, we woke up just outside Diablo Canyon, a crag that claims to have some of the best climbing in New Mexico. It was 15 degrees when the sun hit our tent. All of my water bottles had frozen shut. Our normal routine for climbing involves making breakfast, packing for the day, and heading out in short succession. On this day, we finished getting ready and sat in the sun for another hour drinking coffee and wearing all of our warm layers. Not long after we hit the crag, a couple who looked to be in their mid 30s approached us. Matt and Amber were the only other people staying at the crag campground. We chatted briefly while Matt warmed up on my intended project for the day. They then left to try some harder routes in the nearby cave.

In the evening, as Sarah and I were making dinner, Amber approached and invited us to join them by their fire. It was another frigid night. They could have been serial killers, and we probably would have agreed. 

At the fire, we had the opportunity to find out more about what they did that allowed them to take the month of November off to climb. Amber owns a dog training company in Durango where they live. Being a business owner with a couple employees allows her to tailor the time she takes off to fit Matt’s schedule. I have a fear bordering on phobeia of dog saliva, so I quickly ruled this out. 

Matt is a firefighter for Farmington, a conservative town in northern New Mexico. His department has them on a two day on, four day off schedule. He’s able to trade shifts with friends. If he gets a single shift covered, he gets ten consecutive days off. He and Amber have made a habit of taking November off to climb and have gone to exotic climbing destinations ranging from Thailand to South Africa. On top of that, Matt gets healthcare through his job. I’ve never been particularly oriented toward making a lot of money; all I really ask out of a job is the flexibility to climb and health coverage when I’m old. Firefighting sounded perfect.

Sure, I’d probably be one of only a few women at the station (in Matt’s case there were no women working at his station) and I had a history of asthma which might not combine well with hanging around fires, but what was a little discomfort in exchange for a lifetime of climbing and healthcare? On top of that, it wasn’t like firefighters were answering calls 24/7 during shifts. Matt had seen all the latest movies and had plenty of time leftover to workout and nap. I could get a masters and finally achieve my dream of having a six pack all while collecting a paycheck.

Matt, sensing that there was more to my questions than polite interest, suggested that wildland firefighting might be an even better option for a climber looking for steady (but not too steady) employment. Wildland firefighters work from May to September or so, and make enough to live the rest of the year. Depending on the level of risk your specific branch of wildland firefighting requires (anything from preventative brush clearance to jumping out of a plane to fight fires inaccessible by roadways), you could make quite a good living. While I appreciated that Matt was trying to help, this sounded less appealing than regular firefighting for two main reasons: 1) I’d met a wildland firefighter earlier on the trip and he did not have health coverage during the part of the year when he was not working and 2) I was much more likely to die working as a wildland firefighter. Dying in the line of duty appeared nowhere on my list of job requisites.

Firefighter now ranking at the top of my list of potential jobs, we headed south toward El Paso, TX and the Carlsbad Caverns. The National Border Patrol Museum had drawn us to El Paso, a partched city at the westernmost tip of Texas. It’s a tiny museum, more like a PowerPoint you can walk through than anything else. We wandered through border patrol paraphanelia of the past century and read plaques informing us that border patrol’s original purpose had been to keep Chinese from entering the country illegally.

To the right of the exit, a large poster board read, “Interested in a career in law enforcement?” Below were pamphlets about the process and benefits of becoming a border patrol agent. “Not a desk job” it read in large font across the front. I pictured a lifetime of wearing a green uniform and sunglasses, holding a giant German Shepard, stopping cars at checkpoints across the southwest (preferably checkpoints within 60 miles of a killer climbing destination) and asking drivers if they were American citizens.

Definitely not a customer service job, but also not a job that would get me killed, hopefully. A government job, so medical benefits and a pension. The application process involved many steps: an application, a written test, a physical test, a polygraph, and then time at the border patrol academy if all went well. I could already do 20 push-ups in 60 seconds, so I figured I had this job in the bag.

I called my parents to tell them their baby was going to be serving her country as a border patrol agent.

“Yo creo que es una buena idea,” (it’s a good idea) my father said.

My mother, however, was even less enthusiastic than she’d been when I’d called earlier in the trip to tell them I was going to be a firefighter and she’d reminded me about my childhood asthma. 

“Yo creo que es una buena idea,” my father repeated. He offered no further explanation. It’s often hard to take him seriously. This is the man who used to yell “brinca” (jump) whenever my sister and I were climbing on the roof of the garage as kids.

As I compared the relative weight of my parents’ differing opinions, I continued reading about the benefits of life as a border patrol agent. Compared to firefighters, they didn’t get much time off at all!

My mom was right, I decided. Being a border patrol agent sounded pretty lame. 

As Sarah and I headed east, watching desert turn to swamp and menu items become increasingly deep fried, I remained directionless as ever. But at least I’d ruled out becoming a firefighting border patrol agent dog trainer engineer physical therapist who sells weed.

Stuck

“Come on!” I heard Sarah grunt, followed by manic scraping, the sound of the cam being bludgeoned by her nut tool (a hooked piece of metal used to remove gear stuck in the rock) and labored breathing. 

And then silence.

“Ceri, it’s stuck. I don’t think it’s coming out.”

I’d never had to leave behind a piece of gear because it was stuck and had trouble believing this was the case. Plus, chances were it was my fault if it was stuck, and I did not like what this said about my ability to place trad gear. 

Was it stuck or did it have yet to move? I wondered. If you had the right attitude, maybe nothing ever seemed stuck. And all glasses of milk were half full.

Positive thinking, however, would not change the fact that it was now 2:30 pm. Sarah had been struggling with this cam for over an hour. I was cold from lack of movement, and we were running out of daylight.

“That’s fine,” I called down to Sarah, “I can try to get it when we rappel.”

We climbed one pitch higher and assessed our situation. I wanted to continue up the next pitch of the climb which was described as “exciting.” Sarah thought we should head down given our limited daylight and the fact that our first rappel ran the length of a rope-eating crack, perfect for getting our rope stuck when we pulled it to begin the next rappel. With all the grace of someone whose ego-fueled desire to reach the top is telling her to continue, I acquiesced to Sarah’s plan.

We set up our double rope rappel and made it down to the top of the pitch with the stuck cam. We began pulling the rope now anchored over 120 feet above. We heard a whoosh as the rope descended toward us, then a slap as it contacted the rock 20 feet above. I gave the rope a tug, expecting it to continue its downward trajectory. It didn’t budge from the crack. I gave it a flick and another tug but still nothing. Sarah made a similar attempt with similar results. I gave it a series of exasperated tugs, each one lodging the rope deeper in the crack. We then conceded that our rope was stuck (or at least had yet to move and seemed unlikely to given our current efforts). Which meant that we were also stuck.

“Let’s just cut it,” Sarah said. I shook my head. While that was the quickest way out of our predicament and the lowest risk, it would reduce Sarah’s rope to a half rope only fit for the gym.

Our other option was to lead climb back up to where it was stuck and throw it down. This would involve re-climbing the most difficult section of the route, but I was fairly confident I could do it safely and not willing to classify the rope as irretrievably stuck. My pride wouldn’t stand for it.

“Are you sure? It’s my rope. I’m fine with it.” Sarah is incredibly safety conscience, a quality I value in a climbing partner, but also a quality that constantly leaves me feeling like I’m being reckless and pushing the boundaries of what is sane.

I had Sarah put me on belay on the other end of the rope and proceeded to climb back up the crack, plugging gear to protect myself from a fall and using the gear slings as hand holds to make climbing easier. I got back up to where the rope was stuck. It had doubled over itself and caught in the crack. Beneath it lay a graveyard of abandoned rope segments, a testament to the many before us whose ropes had been eaten alive by the crack.

I threw the rope down to Sarah and was then faced with the choice of building an anchor and lowering, or climbing back down the 20 feet I’d just gone up, pulling the gear meant to protect me as I went. The first was a safer option but one that would require leaving behind a couple pieces of gear. It should not be difficult to guess which option I chose.

Lowering myself over the bulge was the scariest part. I unclipped my top cam, which would be out of reach once I lowered. My next cam was at my feet. I reminded myself that this was no different than a potential fall while lead climbing. I would fall twice the distance to the next cam. I might be bruised, but I would 100% still be alive at the end of it. 

Learning to trad climb with a modicum of confidence has been a series of finding myself in situations like this where my brain says, “oh, shit, we’re gonna die!” and I start to panic. In these moments, I have to slow my breathing and remind my brain that falling does not equate to death because, unlike Alex Honnold, I’m attached to a rope.

I jammed my fist into the crack and lowered myself on that arm until I could grab the sling of the cam below. With tentative, cautious movements, I made my way back down to the belay ledge. Sarah thanked me for the intact retrieval of her rope, noting that it was good we had turned around when we did so we could carry out Mission Impossible: Rope Retrieval in the light.

Our next discussion was how best to retrieve the stuck #3 cam. The rappel had taken us to lookers right of the cam. Getting there would require a lateral traverse of at least 25 feet. I’d then need to anchor myself with another cam to keep from penduluming across the rock face. I played out the physics in my mind, watching myself careen uncontrollably when I made a misstep on the traverse. While I very much subscribe to a no cam left behind philosophy (a product of my incredible cheapness) and while I felt personally responsible for having gotten the cam stuck, the sun was setting. The prospect of careening through darkness was unnerving and as Sarah sagely put it, “probably not worth it.”

The cam was stuck, or at least, it had yet to move until another party with superior cam unsticking skills climbed the route and claimed it as booty.

The rest of the rappel went smoothly. The sky was a deep blue green when we reached the ground, and we hiked out in the dark.


This was only the beginning of our misadventures with getting things stuck in Red Rocks. The following day, we got our rope stuck pulling it from the top of Mushroom People. The rope wrapped around a horn protruding from the rock face and would not come down no matter how hard we tugged. Later that day, we learned that we were stuck in Vegas on our cross-country road trip until Sarah could determine if they’d refill her prescription or if she needed to return to LA for blood tests. The following day, we got the rope stuck rappelling the crux pitch of The Night Crawler and had to wait for the party behind us to climb the pitch and toss the rope down. Dan and Monica of Los Angeles were very kind and did not make us feel inept for what was clearly becoming a chronic problem.

At this point, it began to feel like everything in my life was stagnating, flat-lining, stuck. Not only were we stuck in Vegas with what seemed to be a proclivity for getting everything we owned stuck in the rock, but I was also stuck in life, unable to pick a path forward. I realized I’d felt a little stuck ever since I’d graduated from college. Up until that point in my life, I’d been on a path, making steady forward progress. Post college, I’d lost that path. I remembered a discussion with a friend who was ecstatic to have graduated and said he’d never felt more free; he could do whatever he wanted, go wherever he wanted. For me, that was the problem. But perhaps, like the cam we’d left behind, I was not stuck; I just had yet to move. My sense of stagnation was a mental state and only real as long as I believed it.

I excitedly related my breakthrough to Sarah who pointed out that walking a path, while it might not equate to stagnation, was certainly not freedom. In a sense, I was never really free.

Prescription in hand, we hit the road again, heading north to the Utah high desert.

The Most Expensive Cup of Coffee in the World

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“Oh my god! Look at those mountains!”

Cady continued to flip through The Milepost. It was the fifth time I’d made this remark in the past half hour; by now it roughly translated to: “I am paying attention as I drive.”

We’d been without cell service since that morning in Smithers, BC. Sick of the music we had downloaded on our phones, we drove in silence, punctuated only by comments on the beauty of the passing landscape (mountains, lakes, and trees); laments about our lack of caribou sightings; and readings from The Milepost, a thick, annually published magazine detailing every point of interest along major highways in BC, the Yukon, and Alaska. The latter made for the bulk of our most interesting communications.

“There will be litter bins to the left in two kilometers,” Cady announced.

As promised, roughly a minute later a paved pullout and a pair of brown, bear-proof bins appeared on the horizon. I could feel my puny, underdeveloped imagination straining to stay engaged when the world around was not mediated through a smart phone.

“Jade City, population 50, is not a city but a highway community made up of one jade business,” Cady read. “…highway travelers have come to know this spot as the place to stop and buy jade. The miners in the Cassiar Mountain Range produce 1 million pounds of jade each year, and half of that is exported… ooh! They have FREE coffee!”

Cady went on to read the ad for Jade City on the opposite page, which boasted that the Cassiar Mountain Range supplies 92% of the world’s jade, a figure that resulted in much debate as, when coupled with the figure in The Milepost, it suggested that Canada consumes 46% of the world’s jade. I pictured jade villages nestled in the foothills of the Cassiar–good-natured Canadians opening heavy, all-jade front doors and stepping onto gleaming, green patios to greet neighborhood moose with a handful of maple candies. Regardless of the veracity of their jade figure, they had me at FREE coffee.

We pulled into Jade City at 5pm on the dot and jogged to the door, reasoning that if we got a foot over the threshold before 5:01, they’d be forced to hand over the coffee. Two women resembling indoor house cats greeted us as we entered. Neither seemed to be closing up the store.

“Help yourself to some coffee in the back,” the one in the Harvard Med School sweatshirt said. My vision of utopia is a society where all business establishments, no matter their purpose, offer free, expertly brewed coffee (and perhaps a baked good or two) to passing strangers regardless of their race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. I gave Harvard Med School sweatshirt the smile of someone whose wildest caffeine-laden fantasies are coming true.

The coffee was hot and not too acidic. Paper cups in hand, Cady and I wandered the store, peering at jade objects ranging from the arguably useful to the undeniably useless–jade coasters, jade pendants, jade dice, jade bears, jade earrings, things I guessed were jade paperweights but wasn’t entirely sure. Bags of slate-colored rocks which Harvard Med School sweatshirt promised were jade, and could be made to resemble jade if heated in the oven and rubbed with beeswax. The shop was not limited to selling jade, of course. They had an extensive collection of postcards advertising their store; DVDs about the trials and tribulations of jade mining; hats with what were either maple or marijuana leaves, depending on your inclination; and a tapestry detailing the lessons we all can learn from cats (the latter may not have been for sale). They had baubles and trinkets made from a dusty pink stone called rhodonite, a black stone the woman couldn’t remember the name of, and amethyst, which the woman informed us came from Uruguay.

As we continued to circle, I felt a growing compulsion to buy everything in the store. Not because I wanted it or needed it or thought anyone in my immediate family or friend circle might want or need it, but because it was there and I could. Any trinkets or baubles I bought would serve as irrefutable evidence that I had been here, stood in this exact spot, FREE cup of coffee in hand, surrounded by trees, lakes, and the snow-dusted peaks of the Cassiar. That was a feeling I very much wanted to own.

Like a star in a close binary system, I orbited the merchandise, circling ever nearer. Perhaps sensing that the end was near, the woman in the Harvard Med School sweatshirt engaged us in conversation. She asked the questions we’d come to expect from those we encountered on our journey.

“Where are you from?” the script began.

“LA and Virginia.” This was always followed by a comment on how far away those places were and the question of what had brought us to the region. In turn, we would inform the asker that we were headed to Anchorage.

“I don’t know where that is, but it sounds far away.” She was off book now. Cady and I exchanged a glance.

“It’s a city in Alaska,” I offered. “I’m headed up there to start a job.” Back on book, she asked what the job was. I replied that I’d be working as a campaign manager for a state politician.

“Sounds pretty boring. But I don’t really follow politics.” Resigned, I set my script aside and asked how long she’d been working at Jade City.

“Three days.” She planned to work in this tiny, isolated jade store for the next three months as part of her and her husband’s big, two-year adventure. They’d be back in Victoria (I kept silent about the fact that I couldn’t place this city/town/village on a map to save my life) for the winter. They’d move to Alberta next summer where her husband would work as some kind of mechanic in the oil fields (when asked where and what her husband’s current job was, she didn’t seem entirely sure). In two years time, they would buy a house in Ontario, settle down, and have kids. I marveled at the smooth, well-reasoned nature of this adventure and wondered if she’d gone to Harvard Medical School.

As I watched the woman ring up our totals, each amounting to over thirty dollars worth of jade-related merchandise, I realized that we had unwittingly purchased the world’s most expensive cups of coffee.

On the way out the door, I stopped and got a free refill, bringing the total cost of each of my cups down to roughly $15.

Squeamish


Ceri: Saturday mornings are a quiet time in the Squamish ER.

A Canadian home makeover TV show was playing on mute on the flatscreen above the waiting area. A solitary old man sat in one of the identical blue chairs positioned in two rows facing the TV. It was unclear if he had a medical emergency or what his agenda might be. Perhaps he was waiting for someone, or perhaps he was one of those people who revel in the misfortunes of others. For him, this was something akin to catching the matinee at the local theater.

As Cady and I approached the check-in desk, we stepped around a woman who was using the early morning quiet as an opportunity to mop the floor. Behind the desk, a woman in scrubs was leaning over, explaining how to locate a file on the computer to a woman whose pedestrian clothes identified her as the one manning the desk.

Neither woman looked up as we approached, and we had not approached silently. They persisted in their file-locating conversation as Cady shifted from foot to foot, clutching her hand to her chest. The woman mopping was forced to leave a little island of unwashed floor around our feet. I gave these women the benefit of the doubt, choosing to believe that had Cady been bleeding profusely from a place visible above the counter and/or screaming in pain, they would have sprung into action with something resembling alacrity. But I wasn’t entirely confident.

Just as I was about to launch into a fit of clichéd throat clearing, the woman manning the desk looked up and asked how she could help. Cady very politely explained our trouble.

“ID card,” the woman extended her hand. We then explained that we hailed from the US of A.

“I should tell you you’ll be charged a $765 entrance fee,” she replied. This fee did not include doctor’s fees or procedure costs. We would later learn that the average emergency room visit in Canada costs $1,500.

“You could try the walk-in clinic,” she offered.

“I can call them,” said the woman in scrubs, still standing behind her.

At that moment, a person so covered in medical wires and tubes it was impossible to identify them as anything more than a mound was wheeled in on a gurney.

“I should go,” the woman in scrubs said, somewhat unnecessarily.

In the end, the woman manning the desk gave the clinic a call. We learned they would not open for another two hours. Cady stepped outside to discuss the matter with her parents. I remained in the waiting room and took a seat a few chairs to the left of the old man. A large poster read “Please clean your hands so we won’t need all these posters.”

I looked at my hands. They were covered with bruises, half-formed scabs, and a layer of dirt the same shade as JFK’s skin. The crease between thumb and index finger was zombie gray from where our very dirty rope would pass over my hands when I belayed. It felt like this poster was speaking directly to me, so I got up and washed my hands in the bathroom located to the poster’s immediate left.

Cady returned, and we made plans to head north to a walk-in clinic in Whistler, a ski town on route to Anchorage. Feeling a mixture of annoyance and regret, we returned to our campsite in Chekamus Canyon and packed up, leaving the granite walls of Squamish to continue our journey northward.


Cady: As Ceri collapsed the tent at Chekamus, I puttered around the campsite looking for items I could toss one-armed into the car. In the campground, only a few other sites showed signs of life as sport climbers crept out of their tents to greet the morning.

On the road northward, the morning’s events played on repeat in my mind.

“Hey…Ceri? I uhh….” I had gestured to my clenched hand.

“Do you want tape or superglue?” she’d asked, the way one might ask if you wanted the radio on or off.

The fastest way I could think of to explain the severity of the situation was to just show her. I’d opened my left hand while looking away and trying not to think about the deep, fleshy gash at the base of my index finger.

“Oh! Oh, wow!” She’d replied.

“I think I might need stitches.” She seemed to get it then and started throwing things in either the car or the tent in an effort to make a speedy exit. Under the rain fly, she’d placed the cast iron skillet, still warm and coated in oil, ready to receive the eggs we’d intended to cook. As she was putting away the food, she paused and asked if I wanted anything to eat.

I’d shaken my head. Something about seeing my finger cut open like a chicken fillet had left me without appetite. Ceri grabbed an apple and held it with her teeth as she’d finished shutting the trunk.

On the way to Whistler, I tried to find some consolation in excuses like “well, this was going to be our last day in Squamish anyways” and “it’s still supposed to rain this afternoon…probably?” but these were far overtaken by imagining a number of what-ifs that would have diverted us from our current predicament.

What if I had been more careful? What if we had opted for oatmeal instead of eggs and leftover burrito filling for breakfast?

I thought about the halved avocado, pit intact, now sealed in a Tupperware somewhere in the trunk, and hoped it didn’t have blood on it. I shifted my hand a bit to try and get it to stop throbbing.

Ceri: The woman behind the desk at the walk-in clinic had neon blue hair and was very attentive. When the doctor passed through, she pointed to us saying, “these are the girls from the phone call this morning.” The doctor peeled back the paper towel Cady had clamped to her wound and gave us confirmation that this was an injury they could deal with on site.

We then began the interminable wait I associate with medical emergencies as the doctor saw to patients who were on a first name basis with the blue haired woman behind the desk, the ones, I assumed, with scheduled appointments. Cady and I passed the time scrolling through social media on our respective devices.


When Cady was finally called in to a room, I asked if she wanted me to come with the way my mom does when she accompanies me to a medical appointment. I always say “yes,” afraid that if left to my own devices, I’ll forget to ask the important questions. Cady does not suffer from this same complex and declined my maternally-inspired offer.

Alone in the waiting room with thoroughly scrubbed hands, the only productive thing I could think to do was walk to the nearest coffee shop, buy myself an Americano and muffin, and call my mom.

Cady: I was led to a small room just off the waiting area, where I plopped onto the examination table and waited for the young, polo shirt wearing doctor to reappear.

He soon did, and followed his apology for the wait with a “so you had a bit of a run in with the kitchen, yeah?”

“Well, err, campground actually.” My response prompted some questions about what I was doing in BC as he checked my finger mobility and the integrity of my tendons. Having learned I was a climber, he instructed me to crimp down as he assessed the tendons at each joint and compared them to my right index finger. I squeezed my eyes shut to avoid staring at the crevasse on my finger, a habit I would continue through most of my time in that room.

The doctor apologized again for the wait as he cleaned and froze my finger. “Scheduling is hard in a walk-in clinic, you never know how long appointments will take. I always like to keep people in the loop as they wait.” Earlier, when Ceri and I were hanging out in the waiting room, he had darted in to tell the blue haired front desk woman that he’d need ten extra minutes or so to finish up with a previous patient. “This morning, we had some complex cases come in. I like complicated issues because they’re interesting, but you never know what to expect.”

I didn’t ask for an elaboration, in part from some idea of patient privacy, but mostly because I was concentrated on not feeling slightly queasy as he started stitching. But he went on to describe how between regular scheduled appointments and emergency visits, the psychiatric cases were the hardest, as patients would sometimes just say they needed someone to talk to and would refuse to divulge why.

The doctor kept up a steady stream of chatter. By the end of my visit, I had heard about everything from his cousin’s PhD in astrophysics to the wonders of the hands-free exam table lamp that meant he never got blood on the light switch.

I wondered if the doctor had these sorts of conversations with many of his patients, or whether my out-of-town-ness gave me special access to his stories of walk-in clinic life.

Five stitches later, I finally opened my eyes to assess the handiwork and snap a picture to send to my parents.


I was ushered back into the waiting room to get my receipt and a cup of water from the washroom (I had been told the tap water was high quality, as it came from an alpine lake) before wandering back outside to find Ceri, who looked pleased for having saved a dollar on parking.

Ceri: It looked like Cady’s gash was being held together by five large mosquitoes. I asked if it hurt, but she said it was just tingly as the local anesthetic wore off. Some time later as we drove between steep, snow-capped peaks, she asked if we had any ibuprofen, so I figured it had worn off.

Like Cady, I mentally retraced my steps that morning, searching for desision points that might have led to a different outcome. There’s a sense of power that comes from being able to look back and say “this is where I went wrong; if I’d done things differently, everything would be fine.” It preserves the fragile feeling that we are in control of our lives.

Periodically, we bump up against events that make this comforting illusion a bit more difficult to maintain, events where the culprit is ambiguous and possibly non-existent. Like avocado de-pitting, trad climbing is an inherently dangerous activity; even when you do everything right, you are still putting your life (or hand) at risk. And that’s really scary.

The last time I’d worried about the dangers inherent to climbing, I’d talked about the issue with a coworker who’d pointed out that I could just as easily die driving a car; I might as well die doing what I loved. That didn’t really make me feel better, but I guess there’s some truth to it. Our trip to Squamish had ended with a knife glancing off an avocado pit, but it could just as easily have ended on a gurney, under a pile of medical wires and tubes. Today we’d been unlucky, but also very lucky.

How Did We Get Here?


Ceri: Like all good climbing trips, this one began with a thud.

We’d just passed a sign that read “safety corridor, fines doubled,” when a sprightly young rabbit hopped into the path of our headlights. I had just enough time to think “is it safe to swerve?” before I heard a thud followed by a crunch. Having been raised by a superstitious mother, it was hard to shake the feeling that this was an inauspicious omen for my road trip with Cady, a reminder that in climbing and in life there are no such things as “safety corridors.”

Cady, my primary climbing partner from my time at Yale, had kindly agreed to help me drive my car from LA to Anchorage during my month off between jobs. We planned to spend roughly a week at Smith, a week at Squamish, and a week doing eight hour driving days.

When we were both at Yale, mutual friends would often mix up our names for reasons I never quite understood. Cady is several inches shorter with large, alien blue eyes and looks like a much nicer, more approachable person. Perhaps people were more perceptive than I gave them credit for and were responding to a similarity in attitude, rather than physical appearance. Aside from climbing at essentially the same level, Cady and I are both highly competitive individuals who thinly mask this quality with a ceaseless stream of self-deprecating comments. We both loath decision-making, preferring to pawn it off on others whenever possible (as one might imagine, this has led to many an impasse on our trip thus far). We both have a talent for reading road signs aloud, misinterpreting them whenever possible (“baby changing station” and the like). And we are both practicing hypocrites, prone to indignation when we perceive others to be judging us. However, this in no way prevents us from forming our own harsh opinions.

Much of our time at Smith was spent  judging others and being judged in turn. My mother is fond of saying “comparisons are odious,” and she is, of course, correct as she is in all matters. That said, some people almost seem to invite it–the people camped next to us, a mixed gender group of individuals in their 30s and 40s who seemed to enjoy wearing loud patterns and chanting over their food while in a huddle. Cady and I, apparently, also fall into this category of those who invite judgement.

While in Smith, we devised a three group system for describing the people we encountered: climbers, people who were here to climb, and other (a mix of day hikers and trail runners). We weren’t sure how to classify ourselves. Thankfully, we had other people’s judgement to help us come to a better understanding of self.

At the end of our most ambitious day of climbing, Cady and I had just finished panting our way up the hill to reach the Smith parking lot when we heard someone shout, “Best climb of the day!” We turned to find two lanky, long-haired men sitting in the bed of a pickup truck enjoying an afternoon beer. Cady and I both made a half-hearted attempt at laughter, assuming it was a joke about the climb to the parking lot which had left us red-faced and breathless.

“No, what was your favorite climb of the day?” one of the nearly identical dudes insisted.

“Oh, uh… Monkey Space,” I said, selecting the climb I thought would most impress them.

“You guys climbed Monkey Space? The 11b? Wow!” Their tone seemed to suggest this 3-4 pitch 5.11b was a climb to which they could only aspire. However, they proceeded to describe the climb with a degree of detail only someone who has been on the route would be able to. It dawned on us that their tone was one of surprise and mild condescension rather than reverence. Regardless of where we might place ourselves, the world seemed to think we belonged in the “here to climb category” along with the manbun-sporting weekend warriors from Portland, distinguished more than anything by the pristine look of their clothes and the soft, recently-washed look of their skin.

To be fair, the two men’s surprise that we had reached the top of Monkey Space was equal to our own. That morning, Cady and I had nearly talked ourselves out of attempting the climb countless times as we poured over the route comments on Mountain Project (“scary,” “decking,” “exposed,” and “should be comfortable on-sighting 5.11” were some of the more popular phrases).


The only reason we’d made it to the base of the climb at all was because we’d promised ourselves walking to the base did not mean we actually had to climb it. Even as I began the first pitch of 5.6 trad past the 4th class scramble Cady had led, I continued to tell myself we could easily change our minds and take the more mellow 5.8 original route up the spire. It wasn’t until I was pumping out while attempting to clip the bolt at the crux on the 11a traverse pitch, looking to my right and realizing that with the amount of rope out I was looking at a 25-foot fall, that I was forced to admit we were committed.

We’d thought we were very smart in deciding to climb Monkey Space in the morning when the climb would be in the shade. The day before, we’d done a multipitch in the sun and had come to regret it. As we learned, while in the high desert 60 degrees and sunny is sweat-inducing, 60 degrees and shady can feel quite cold, especially with the wind gusting across the rock face. I was shivering in my nano puffy and could no longer feel my fingers as I locked off, reached up, and felt the quickdraw snap onto the bolt. Like the calm, collected professional that I am, I wasted no time grabbing the quickdraw by the dogbone, passing the rope through the carabiner with my free hand, and begging Cady to take. After waiting for my fingers to come throbbing back to life, I pulled through the crux sequence and finished the pitch by climbing into a cave.

Cady: After hoisting myself into the northwest cave of the Monkey Face spire, I gave Ceri my standard “props for leading this, dude,” still winded from following a pitch I would almost certainly have chickened out of had I been on the sharp end. We pulled up our second rope and the water bottle– and raisin–filled pack tied to the end of it (we were pretty sure we could eventually get up a 5.11 but were less confident in our ability to do it with a pack on) and then surveyed the cave we were now squatting in, shivering. After taking a short snack break and remembering that the only way down off this windy pinnacle was up via the one remaining pitch, Ceri and I scooted to the other side of the cave to scope out the next bit of climbing. Above the lip of the cave, a few bolts and a line of chalked holds disappeared over a bulge. My first thought was “yikes” followed immediately by “I’m glad I don’t have to lead this.”

Perhaps this thinking was my downfall. I belayed Ceri as she worked her way through the burly crux at the first few (read: only) bolts on the pitch and then fed out what seemed like miles of slack as she cruised the slab above, quickly climbing out of earshot in the ever persistent wind. Three sharp tugs on the rope let me know she had reached the anchors. Then it was my turn. Standing on tiptoe on a small boulder at the base of the climb, I realized I could barely reach the lip of the cave, much less the first bolt. Due to the lack of verbal communication options on this pitch, Ceri and I had decided the best option was for her to keep me on a tight belay. This was great when it meant I didn’t go swinging into the abyss or deck on the cave entrance every time I popped off the sharp holds, but not so great when it came to cleaning quickdraws off the route. The first draw, in particular, was several feet right of any of the holds, so as soon as I pulled onto the route and Ceri took up slack, the draw was yanked fully sideways, making it impossible to unclip.

There’s that potentially mis-attributed Einstein quote about insanity being defined as trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results. It turns out that those “different results” from my repeated sequence of lock-off, try to unclip, fall were to become increasingly pumped and frustrated, and embarrassed too when I looked down to see several hikers had stopped on the trail far below to watch my struggle. How had I gotten here?


I realized if I stayed stuck on that section much longer, Ceri might start to think something was really wrong and lower down to see if I was still alive. In an act of desperation, I clipped myself directly into the first bolt, unweighting the quickdraw enough to detach it from the rope, then miraculously reversed the process so that I was once again hanging from the rope instead of the first bolt. A few more desperate moves, and I flopped onto the low-angle slab above and looked down to see the hikers had long since wandered off, probably having assumed I would be stuck dangling on Monkey Face forever. I had never been more glad to see Ceri’s slightly concerned, frozen looking face when I tottered up the last section of the climb to join her at the top.

We booked it to the rappel anchor (after being good millenials and snapping some pictures at the summit) and made it back to the ground for a much needed 3pm lunch. As we dined on apples and leftover fried rice, Ceri and I watched a guy cruise the beginning section of Just Do It, a 5.14 test piece climb. Unlike us, this man clearly fell into the first of the categories we had made (climbers). He paused below the crux to swap shoes and shout a casual “the conditions are good today” before continuing up the climb.

Ceri and I didn’t stop shivering until we had slogged our way over Misery Ridge and back to the sunnier side of Smith, where we collapsed in the grass at the base and had a classic bout of deferred decision making about what/if to climb. We eventually wandered back over to The Dihedrals where we happened upon more humans from that first judgement category: locals who had come up from Bend and were climbing Darkness at Noon (13a) and Heinous Cling (12a).

Ceri: While I am fairly confident I can get to the top of pretty much any 5.11b if given enough time (why I ultimately felt comfortable attempting Monkey Space), 5.12s are another matter entirely. Only after watching a pair of locals roughly my parents’ age cruise up Heinous Cling did I feel confident enough to attempt the climb.

As always, I gave Cady the option of leading the climb first and hanging draws on the route.

“You can go first if you want to,” she replied, Cady-speak for “heck no!”

If I wanted to climb this route, I was going to have to make it happen. I craned my neck, taking in the climb in its entirety. A finger crack led to a first high bolt followed by a vertical wall of seemingly endless pockets. I reminded myself that Mountain Project had described this as the “easiest 12a at Smith.” How bad could it be?

4 bolts into the climb, I realized exactly how bad it could be. While the couple before me had made it look like climbing a ladder, I’d been pumping out by the time I reached the first bolt. Three bolts and several takes later, I was really starting to tire. The climb’s crux comes between the 4th and 5th bolts, which also happen to be the two bolts with the most space between them (roughly two body lengths). This means if you fall before the next bolt, you’re looking at quite a drop, but more significantly in this case, it means that if you can’t make the single hardest move on the climb, a long move off thin edges and extremely underwhelming footholds, you will have to bail and leave gear on the wall (climbs with closely spaced bolts allow the inept to skip more difficult moves by clipping the bolt above a crux and pulling on quickdraws instead of holds).

I’d fallen twice while attempting the crux, yanking Cady off the ground each time with the force of my fall. Resting again at the 4th bolt, I felt my body sag with the realization that I might not be able to do this. Even if I managed to latch the ledge above the crux, I still had another body length of climbing before I’d reach the next bolt.

How had I gotten here? My usual lack of forethought combined with a lack of respect for elders. This was one of the few times I’d ever gone on a trip without the safety net of a much stronger climbing companion. If I didn’t finish this climb, Cady might be able to climb through the crux and get to the top, but then again she might not. With this in mind, I clamped back on to the holds in front of my face, pushing down hard on the edges and slippery feet until I felt my fingers latch on the large edge above the crux.

Being an Adult

“Thank you, ma’am,” the middle-aged, suit-clad lobbyist said, nodding his head in my general direction as he exited. I held back a laugh until the office door had safely shut behind him. I’d never been called “ma’am” before. Silly man, I thought, if he’d bothered to make eye contact on his way out the door, he would have noticed the “ma’am” he was addressing was a 22-year-old child.

And yet, as I shifted from one leg to the other in my kitten heels at my standing desk, sipping coffee while trying not to smudge my lipstick, researching child marriage stats to build an argument for the anti-child marriage legislation I’m carrying, I was struck by a horrible thought. Perhaps I’d accidentally become an adult without realizing it.

The anti-child marriage bill I’m trying to get turned into law operates based on the idea that a person becomes an adult when they reach the age of majority, 18, and are granted a slew of questionably awesome legal rights (like the ability to sue or be sued, the ability to enter into legally binding, life-altering contracts, and the ability to be tried as an adult for any crimes they commit). I’m four years past this hurdle, and my mother is still saved as “Mommy” in my contacts. How on earth could someone mistake me for a grown-up?

Up until I graduated from college, I was pretty certain I wasn’t an adult. My family paid for almost everything. In my free time, I played on sports teams and binge watched TV with my friends. None of the assignments I completed for school required much initiative on my part or had any real-world impact. I could always count on someone older and wiser to tell me what to do. In stressful or upsetting situations, I called Mommy.

In the immediate aftermath of graduation, I was pretty sure I was still a kid. Not much had changed other than the fact that I now had a part-time job keeping kids alive at rock climbing birthday parties and I was living at home, which meant Mommy was only a short trip down the hall.

These days, I’m less certain of whether or not I still qualify as a child. I have a job as a legislative aide to an Alaska state representative and, for the first time in my life, am almost entirely self-supporting (aside from the cellphone bill my parents still pay). I no longer live at home. I use a steamer to make sure my business attire is wrinkle-free each morning. The work I do is not just reviewed by my professor, assigned a grade, and completely forgotten; the stuff I write takes the form of press releases, letters to constituents, and presentations I give to lawmakers about legislation that has the potential to affect nearly 750,000 lives. My boss, rather than my mother, gives me feedback. Despite all these stunningly mature developments, I still make time for binge watching movies and television. Last Monday, I baked an apple crumble and ate half by myself while watching “Fifty Shades of Grey” (a movie I would not technically be allowed to watch if I were not a grown-up). When I’m stressed or upset, I still call Mommy.

The other day, as I was blowdrying my hair before work, an adult ritual I now practice at least a few times a month, I noticed a new grey hair. Since the age of 14, I’ve known about a community of approximately six grey hairs that reside on the back of my head, near my left ear. Over the years, they’ve never seemed to increase in number. I wrote them off as an irregularity in pigmentation rather than a sign that I was going grey at 14. This new grey hair, however, was located just above my right ear, near the temple, which is where the Internet has informed me people start to grey first. Does showing signs of physical aging make you an adult? Probably not, but you might start getting called ma’am a lot more frequently.

There’s the saying that “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.” That’s certainly how I thought adulting worked when I was little. At a certain, very specific age that I never bothered to specify, I would become a grown-up and all the attributes of a mature person would effortlessly manifest themselves in me. I would have to give up things like my Mickey Mouse t-shirt and halloween candy, but in exchange, I would get awesome powers like wisdom, perfect balance in heels, the ability to delegate chores, and the coordination necessary to spit out toothpaste without getting it in my hair. If there is such an age, I have not yet reached it.

Perhaps a more applicable saying is the one that goes “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.” I can wear a wrinkle-free blazer and slacks and makeup to work, but I certainly don’t feel like a grown-up. I still expect those around me to know more, be more prepared, and ultimately take care of me; and am continually surprised and mildly irked when the reverse is true.

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I’m Sorry, Mom

“I’m sorry, Mom,” I muttered to myself.

“Did you say something?” my climbing partner Mico called from the belay station 20 feet to my right.

“Not really,” I shouted so I was clearly audible above the wind buffeting the cliff face. It was an uncomfortably cold day for climbing. I tightened my grip on the frigid rock I was using to hold myself on the wall as my body was racked by a shiver.

I thought back to the day before when we’d loaded up the car, and I’d said goodbye to my parents. Lately, I’d noticed that my mom’s parting words whenever I left for a climbing trip were “be safe.” Like most adjectives, the word “safe” is a relative term. One person’s safe is another person’s insane. And if safe means the absence of all risk, then few people in modern America are truly safe. Most of us get in cars. Leaving the house assumes a certain level of risk.

Where do you draw the line between what is safe and what is not? My mom never dropped me off at high school soccer games with the parting words “be safe,” even though I sprained my ankle more times than I could count playing the sport. Then again, soccer does not involve hanging from a rope several hundred feet above the ground. People don’t usually die playing soccer.

“You’re shaking your head,” Mico observed. He sounded amused.

I was shaking my head because of what lay before me. I hadn’t moved since our last exchange. I’d been taking turns resting my increasingly frozen fingers on the warm back of my neck in an effort to regain feeling. Mico says this is a temporary fix, but even if it provided little more than passing relief, I was grateful.

I’d traversed 20 feet from the belay station on moderately sized holds and was still another 10 feet below the first bolt on the climb. I had yet to find a crack or pocket in which I could place gear. We were on the third and hardest pitch of a four pitch trad climb titled “Risky Business.” Originally, I’d assumed the person who’d developed the route was a Tom Cruise fan, but now I was beginning to suspect they’d been entirely unaware of the 1983 film when they christened the route.

Back on the ground before we’d started, Mico’d volunteered to lead the first two pitches. I was initially grateful, until I realized it meant I’d be leading the 5.10c pitch, the route’s crux and, coincidentally, tied for the hardest trad lead I’d ever attempted.

“Are you sure?” Mico had asked. I think he was a little surprised by my willingness.

Of course,” I’d said, wanting to appear brave. Going into the trip, Mico’d asked if I had any climbing goals. I’d told him I wanted to climb things that would give me street cred, so I could efficiently shut down men who second guessed my climbing ability.

200 feet above the ground, I was cursing my petty, perennial desire to impress others, a desire that seemed to dictate my whole life. On a warmer day, when I could feel my fingers, face climbing on 10c-sized holds would have been a task I could accomplish with minimal effort. Though the holds were the same size as they would have been in warmer weather, they seemed to vanish beneath my numb fingertips. This, combined with the  pitch’s sparse protection, kept me immobile with fear.

I was between a rock and a hard place, a hackneyed phrase which Google seems to believe originated in the Odyssey when Odysseus had to pass between the giant whirlpool Charybdis and the cliff-dwelling monster Scylla. I choose to believe that the phrase originated with the crazy climbers who seem to enjoy working themselves into rocky hard places. I’d climbed to a point on the pitch where it would be difficult to return to the belay station (crossing the Rubicon–it’s amazing how many cliches come to mind while you’re busy losing your shit on a rock face) and was not happy about it.

Returning to the belay station would involve some down climbing. I wasn’t confident I’d be able to do the moves I’d just done in reverse without falling. Falling was a bad option, especially because of the traverse I’d just made. There was a fair amount of rope out, which meant I’d fall a ways. Additionally, because I’d moved mostly laterally from the belay station, I would not only fall but swing, penduluming into the column on top of which Mico was belaying. If I continued toward the first bolt, Mico would need to feed out more rope, so I’d risk falling even farther. Another bad option, as I’d smash into the same column but with the added force of a longer fall (sometimes I wish I’d skipped high school physics). However, I couldn’t stay where I was, trading hands on the back of my neck. My energy was slowly dissipating. Eventually, I’d be too weak to continue clinging to the holds and would end up smashing into the same column.

I’m not sure how Odysseus made his decision, but I opted to continue climbing. Another 10 feet of rope out wouldn’t kill me, I hoped. Plus, sniveling my way back to the belay ledge would be embarrassing. Caught between a rock and my ego was perhaps a more apt phrase for my situation.

I clawed my way to the first bolt on frozen talons. Clipping it, I felt my body relax. I placed a hand on the back of my neck and looked up to see where I was headed. Nowhere good. The next bolt was separated from me by another 30 feet of edgy face climbing. No cracks or pockets were visible. Why hadn’t we taken more time to read the route description? This alleged trad route was more akin to runout face climbing, and life was too short to risk falling 60 feet.

I’d alway told myself that I wasn’t one of those climbers who was in it for the adrenalin rush. I liked pulling challenging, athletic moves where if I fell, it was a clean fall. I didn’t like feeling like I was going to die. Yet recently, I’d spent more and more time trad climbing, trusting gear that would blow on me if not placed with a fair amount of precision, climbing longer routes that got me even higher above the ground, climbing runout routes where I was looking at 60 foot falls instead of 6 foot ones. Why?

It probably has something to do with the respect trad earns you in the climbing community. You’re not just a dabbler. I like the reactions I get from the people who assume I’m a gym rat and are forced recalibrate their view of me because I can lead 5.10 trad. Or maybe I like trad because it makes everything else feel easy and safe. It’s helped me overcome a fear of falling on sport climbs, and it’s given me a point of comparison for non-climbing endeavors as well. Real world things that might have seemed really hard and scary (like interacting with strangers or starting something new or expressing myself honestly) feel possible now that I have a new point of reference for what is scary and extreme.

It should have been telling that “I’m sorry, Mom” was the thought that kept coming to mind, rather than “I’m sorry, Ceri.” I hadn’t considered apologizing to myself because, though my life was the one on the line, I was satisfied with the way I was risking it. My guilt stemmed from the effect my untimely demise would have on my family.

I wished I’d been nicer to my family before I left for the trip. It’s not that I’d fought with my mom or anything like that. I’d been perfectly nice, but not especially nice. I wanted the last time I saw my family to be special, something they could discuss smiling, tears in their eyes as they sat by my bed, holding my hand, gazing into my comatose face. Next time, and there would almost certainly be a next time, I’d tell them I loved them before heading out. I might also draw up a will. My mom would definitely get my car. But who would I leave my newly purchased trad rack to?

I shivered as I was buffeted by another gust of wind. My exposed ankles had turned a mottled purple, and I could no longer feel my toes. Mico must be equally cold if not colder because he wasn’t climbing. I needed to pick up the pace so we could get off this shady, windswept rock. I took a deep breath and committed to climbing rather than thinking about possible demises. As long as I took full advantage of rest opportunities, making time to locate the hand and foot placements I’d use to reach the next rest stance, and didn’t panic, I’d be fine. Everything would be fine.

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Endless Halloween

Around 2:30am, I woke to the sound of rapid footsteps outside the tent. The forest was quiet for a moment, and then an anxious discussion began in one of the neighboring tents. Someone was sent out to investigate. My tentmates, Cady and Jacob, began speculating on the source of the noises. Cady said she’d heard something that sounded like dry rice. A freshman from the neighboring tent called out, asking if anyone else was awake and had heard the noises. She wanted to know what we should do about it. She was seeking comfort. I, charming person that I am, told her it was either a skunk, a serial killer, or a prankster from our own group. Regardless, there was little we could do.

Cady and Jacob are more softhearted and left the tent. On the picnic table in our campsite, they discovered a beer bottle, a pan filled with sautéed black rice and asparagus, and a watering can. Their description of these items made me curious enough to pry myself from my warm sleeping bag to join them. It reminded me of the riddle where there’s a naked man lying face down in sand with a straw in his hand, and you’re supposed to figure out what happened. I’ve always thought it kind of a dumb riddle since many things could have happened. The “correct” answer is only correct because the riddler says it’s so.

The near-freezing temperature outside the tent made me realize I needed to pee. Though I’d given the freshman a callous answer, I, too, was afraid. The beer bottle and sauté pan seemed to suggest that we were dealing with a human perpetrator rather than a skunk or a figment of our imaginations. I had no idea what to make of the watering can. The porta potty stood on the edge of the dark forest. I imagined it’d be a good hiding place for the culinary killer who’d run through our campsite before vanishing. As I opened the door to the porta potty, I half expected to be chopped into little pieces by someone holding a chef’s knife. I hoped Cady and Jacob, still standing over by the picnic tables, would come to my rescue (although I wouldn’t have blamed them for running the other way). Fortunately, the porta potty was empty.

Back at the campsite, the people who’d initially gone to investigate had returned. They’d encountered Marcus, a member of the climbing team who’d come up unexpectedly that night. It was Marcus who’d run through our campsite. He’d been my year at school until he took a semester off to climb. He had a reputation for being a skilled outdoorsman, a devout outdoor climber, who looked down on gym climbing and those who favored it. I hadn’t interacted with him much while we were in school together, but I’d gotten the sense that he thought little of the way I trained for indoor competitions (if, in fact, he thought anything of me at all). I’d heard he’d had some kind of mental health episode earlier in the fall. I didn’t know if his run through our campsite had anything to do with that, or if it’d just been a poorly timed prank. I’d climbed with him the week before, and he’d been his usual competent, opinionated self, inadvertently yet efficiently invalidating my existence as a climber. Mystery somewhat solved, we all returned to our sleeping bags.

In the morning, we learned that Marcus had gotten a ride up to the campground with Genevieve, a climber who’d graduated the year before. They’d arrived around midnight. Genevieve had gone to sleep. Marcus hadn’t. He’d made food and run through our campsite, and at 5am he’d woken up Genevieve and convinced her to go hiking. We met them as they were returning around 7:30am.

A whispered conversation among those in our 15-person group who knew enough about Marcus’s situation to be apprehensive led to the decision that he would spend the day hiking instead of climbing with the rest of us. We split up for the day.

Cady and I were climbing with Spencer, a boy who greets people with the enthusiasm of a young golden retriever, and a cheeky sophomore named Ben. Ben and I have a history of being somewhat competitive with each other after he bragged in a group email about beating me at speed climbing (though we do not actually compete in the same category since he is male). Though it should have been beneath me, I was looking forward to “beating” him at outdoor climbing with the skills I’d gained over the summer.

The day was short but fun. Ben and Spencer were new to outdoor climbing and each led a 5.8. Cady attempted her hardest outdoor lead ever, and I sent my first outdoor 5.11c, though I had to squash a ladybug to achieve this feat.

Cady, Ben, and I had plans to leave Rumney that afternoon around 3:15pm along with Jacob and Max, who’d spent the day hiking. When we arrived at the parking lot, our meet up point, they were nowhere to be found. Cady received a text that there was trouble regarding Marcus. Ben and I traded back massages while Cady tried to firm up a plan with Max and Jacob. At 4:30 we learned that they’d “found” Marcus and had stopped to feed him. After a short phone call with Jacob, Cady began making calls to other members of the group, trying to rearrange cars so that six people could leave Rumney that evening. Marcus would be departing with us.

Max and Jacob finally showed up at the parking lot two hours late with Marcus in tow. While Marcus paced around restlessly, we tried to work out in low voices what to do next. It was imperative that Marcus go back. He’d missed a dose of his medication that morning and had been in bad shape when Jacob and Max found him walking on the side of the road, an impressive 40 minute drive from the trailhead where he was supposed to have been picked up.

The easiest way to get six people back to New Haven in a five-person sedan was for one person to volunteer to stay in New Hampshire an extra day.  As often happens when someone is needed to rise to the occasion, no one did. I was traveling to NYC the next morning. Cady had to meet her mom in New Haven. Jacob had work the next day, plus we were driving back in his car. Ben had a lot of homework to attend to, and Max had been feeling ill the entire trip.

After a complicated game of phone tag with the people who were still out climbing, we arranged to drive a second car back to New Haven. We just needed to collect the keys from a runner they’d sent to the base of Rumney’s Main Cliff. Feeling restless, I volunteered to fetch the keys. I was about to head out at a brisk clip when Marcus declared that he, too, wished to go. My eyes met Jacob’s. I couldn’t tell if he thought this was a bad idea, and I couldn’t think of a polite way to tell Marcus that I’d prefer he didn’t come. I could sympathize with the urge to do something rather than stand around.

While I was eager to get out of Rumney as efficiently as possible, Marcus seemed content to saunter his way to the meeting point. He complained that the climbing team takes forever to turn thought into action; “They need to double check everything with phone calls and everybody just stands around.”

I ignored this comment and asked about his day. He started talking about Blackhawk helicopters. “They’re visual illusions.” He saw one on his hike, he said. It was flying right at him, but, thinking quickly, he grabbed some sticks and started waving at it the way the people with the orange wands do on the tarmac at airports. Apparently, this motion was enough to reassure the Blackhawk, and it left him alone. It was a terrifying experience, he said.

Now I was a little terrified. Marcus was imagining communications with likely fictional helicopters, and he was my responsibility. I had no idea how to respond.

“I killed a ladybug today,” I said after a pause. I explained about crushing the bug, which had been sitting on the exact spot I needed to place my hand on the hardest part of the route, and feeling bad because I’d decided the bug’s life was worth less than sending.

Marcus did not seem to feel that these were equivalent and went back to describing the Blackhawk. I realized we’d passed the turnoff for the trail to Main Cliff. Marcus kept walking, assuring me that we’d come to another turnoff that would take us to the same place. After another minute of walking, I again tried to insist that we head back. At this point, Marcus turned off the trail entirely and started walking uphill through the trees.

“Hey, let’s stick together,” I called out. “Marcus!”

He didn’t turn around. I weakly bleated his name again with the same result. Was I supposed to put my foot down and yell at him to come back? Tell him he had to the count of three to get back to the trail or what? No TV for a month? He was an adult, after all, even though his perception seemed somewhat out of touch with reality on this day.

I called his name a third time. He would soon crest the hill and be out of sight. I realized I had a choice with only bad options. I could either go back to the turnoff, which was guaranteed to take me to the keys but might or might not lead back to Marcus, or I could stay with Marcus and follow him up a hill, which might or might not lead to the keys. Losing Marcus would be a much harder problem to rectify, so I started after him, cursing myself for not being better at putting my foot down.

The wooded hillside gave way to a boulder field. “Oh my God, we’re free soloing. Oh no! Get down. We might get hurt,” Marcus said as we climbed over the rocks. His tone didn’t sound scared. If anything, he sounded amused, as though he were mocking what he perceived to be my thoughts. Galled, I considered telling him that I’d free soloed something early that summer and this 4th class scrambling did not scare me. But why was I trying to prove myself to a guy who was imagining helicopters? I think I wanted him to respect me which, helicopter or no helicopter, he clearly did not.

We hit the trail just to the left of Main Cliff. Marcus made a beeline for the base and began clambering on the rocks. Victoria, the car key runner, texted that she was camped out on the trail to the right of Main Cliff, which meant we had to backtrack to get to her. If we’d gone up using the trail, we would have run into her on the way.

I explained to Marcus that we needed to head back down the trail to meet Victoria. He said he felt he’d been manipulated. He’d been told we were meeting in one location, and now we were switching locations on him. I tried to explain that this was not manipulation but miscommunication.

After we got the keys from Victoria, Marcus seemed content to saunter his way back to the parking lot. I tried to signal that we should pick up the pace by walking faster, but I was just leaving him behind.

“Have you seen Dr. Strangelove?” Marcus asked. I told him I had. For Marcus, the film’s relevance seemed to have something to do with his Blackhawk sighting and a sense of feeling manipulated. I worried he’d think I didn’t get it, that I was a cog in the manipulation machine, or worse, a dull conversationalist. So I grasped at the only thing he’d said that made any sense to me, the idea that life is predetermined or “manipulated.” I told him that I sometimes have that feeling, but mostly I ignore it because, even if life is manipulated, there’s not much you can do about it.

“You do that with prescription drugs?” he guessed. I told him this was not the case.

Back at the parking lot, car groups had been drawn up while we were gone. Cady, Max, and Ben would take the rental whose keys we’d just retrieved. This left Jacob, Marcus, and me in the other car. It was now 5:30pm, which meant that the three of us could be back to New Haven by 9:30pm if everything went according to plan. I had little hope that this would happen.

Jacob said we needed to swing by the campground to pick up Marcus’s medication from Genevieve. A five minute detour. No problem.

We met Genevieve and proceeded to search Marcus’s belongings. For what would have been a two-night camping trip, he’d brought four backpacks of various sizes, a bin filled with climbing equipment, a round tub filled with miscellaneous objects, a large propane tank, an enormous burner, a cooler, a bag of food including a pineapple, a sleeping bag, a water jug, and two wooden chairs (not the folding kind). Somehow, Genevieve had fit all this in her SUV. We asked Marcus where he thought we’d find his medication. He selected one of the backpacks and dumped the contents on the grass. Warm layers, a camelback, a pair of climbing shoes, and a ripe avocado tumbled out. He searched the rest of his bags in a similar fashion, dumping the contents on the ground. Each bag contained at least one ripe avocado, but his pill case was nowhere to be found. I worked to stuff the contents back into the bags while Genevieve and Jacob brainstormed about where else the pills could be. Jacob had communicated with Marcus’s parents who’d said it was imperative that he get his evening dose.

We located a case of pills, but it was not the same one Genevieve remembered from their drive up to Rumney. That one had been green. Marcus offered no helpful insights about where this case might be. We were quickly moving past twilight into full-blown night, and the sky was a deep blue-green. Marcus wandered over to the picnic table with his laptop and started playing electronic dance music. He walked in slow circles, bouncing his arms and head to the beat. His pale skin and juddery movements conjured up images of ghosts and vampires.

Jacob said we should wait for Max, who might know more about the pill situation and who we believed was going to swing by the campsite before heading back to New Haven. By 6:30pm Max still hadn’t shown up. The other climbers were back for the day and starting to make dinner. I watched with envy.

“Hey Ceri,” Marcus called. He pulled out a little bottle of clear liquid and took a sip, smiling. It felt like he wanted me to react strongly to this, to tell him it was not okay to consume whatever that was. As I was working through a decision tree of whether or not to attempt to confiscate the material, and how uncool Marcus would think I was if I did, Jacob noticed the bottle.

“Hey, what is that?” Jacob asked evenly. Marcus grinned.

“Can I see that?” Jacob asked, extending his hand. Marcus handed it over reluctantly. Jacob questioned him, and we learned that it was some kind of liquor that Marcus had taken from someone else’s things (who remains a mystery). Jacob told a petulant Marcus that it probably wouldn’t mix well with his medication and asked me to keep an eye on Marcus while he went to call Marcus’s parents using the campground owners’ landline. What those people must have thought of us. First we’d locked ourselves out of the car and now we were experiencing yet another crisis. Marcus paced up the road that ran between campsites. I followed at a discreet distance, trying to keep him from suspecting that he was being followed or manipulated. Every now and then, he’d abruptly change direction and pace the other way.

Jacob finally succeeded in reaching Marcus’s mom. She told him which pills to substitute for Marcus’s regular dose. With that, Marcus, Jacob, and I (and a large number of Marcus’s bags and bins) piled into Jacob’s car and drove off into the night.

The ride back was long and dark. Marcus called shotgun and began playing electronic music at top volume. I was packed into the back next to his many things. I stared out the window at invisible trees and reflected on how trivial things like sending 5.11c, killing a ladybug, and forgetting your tent were compared to whatever Marcus was going through. Every now and then, I’d catch a few words of the conversation up front through the wall of music. At first, Marcus kept suggesting that we stop at Site 52, some mystical location that was supposedly nearby in New Hampshire. Jacob patiently explained that we needed to get back to New Haven.

“Every time I free solo, someone dies,” Marcus observed some minutes later. He then switched to criticizing the climbing team, saying he was going to quit. This seemed inadvisable since, without the safety net of the team, he’d likely be wandering down a rural New Hampshire road in the dark.

He expressed regret several times that we were headed back to New Haven. This, he said, was the most relaxed he’d ever felt in his entire life. He was finally figuring things out and getting done what he wanted to get done. He wanted to become a dirtbag. I wondered if this was the decision-making process that had led young men like Chris McCandless to wander into the woods without a map.

The Rand Corporation was mentioned along with the idea of creating music using static and random number generators. Jacob responded to Marcus in soothing tones. Marcus’s Blackhawk sighting came up again. Jacob had seen two Blackhawks and a military jet that day, suggesting the helicopter was not a figment of Marcus’s imagination. Jacob thought they must have been doing some kind of training exercise.

Marcus asked Jacob how he was so good at this, at staying calm in these situations. I listened intently but couldn’t hear Jacob’s response over the music. While I’d felt on the verge of exploding throughout this experience, Jacob had been unfailingly collected. In him I had yet to observe even the smallest trace of the anguish and despair I felt coursing through my body. I’d attributed this to a difference in temperament; Jacob is naturally calmer, more selfless, more mature than I am. Maybe if I’d heard his response, I would have learned some tips that would have set me on the path toward better-persondom. Then again, probably not.

“Is Halloween ever going to end?” Marcus wondered. It was October 20. I had no idea.

My mother’s brother Eric had his life shaped by mental health issues. I’ve never met him, and he’s not someone my family talks about much. There seems to be this tendency when it comes to mental health to insulate others through silence. From what I’ve gathered, he had some problems beginning in his early teens, but everything came to a head two weeks into his first year at Harvard. Eric dropped out. Since then, he’s been in and out of various facilities and prisons. He doesn’t seem to enjoy taking his medication. I reflected on what the future might hold for the Ivy League student in the car with me, who’d taught himself how to trad climb through books and practice.

In Vermont, we stopped at a McDonalds. The woman behind the counter could not locate the cappuccino option in the cash register and accidentally charged me twice for my BBQ bacon burger. Marcus played with an arcade game in the kids area while we waited for our food. My BBQ bacon burger looked nothing like the photo, but at least it tasted like something resembling food. The same could not be said for the coffee I’d ordered, which appeared to have been laced with rat poison. As we exited, Marcus observed that this was an excellent McDonalds, one he would return to in the future. He suggested we stop at the Vermont visitor’s center. Jacob reminded him that it was probably not open at 9pm.

It was my driving shift next. Marcus called shotgun after Jacob told him driving was not an option. Marcus alternated between placing phone calls to confused friends and begging to be allowed to change the music (I’d selected Graceland, my go-to crisis music, for my leg of the drive). Jacob told Marcus it was nice to let me choose the music since I was driving. I didn’t care about the music. I wanted Halloween to end. I wanted to scream, maybe rip the head off an unsuspecting stuffed animal. I wanted to be out of the car, back to the safety and relative order of New Haven where Marcus was someone else’s responsibility. I felt guilty and horrible for wishing that, for resenting what was a finite problem for me but likely a rest-of-your-life problem for Marcus.

I took a deep breath and told Jacob it was fine; Marcus could DJ if he wanted to.

White Lies

“Welcome to Vermont” read the friendly green sign on the side of the road. Cady snapped a picture so Jacob could send it to his girlfriend, Julia, a Vermont native. After two hours of driving, we’d finally reached the halfway point on our journey to Rumney, New Hampshire, a tiny town home to New England’s premier sport climbing crag. Spirits were high among the three of us in the car. We were together for the first time in five months. The weather was unseasonably warm and sunny. The famous New England fall foliage surrounded us on all sides. We were on schedule to reach the crag by 2pm and would have then next 3.5 days to climb.

The last time I’d been to Rumney, the previous May, was my second time sport climbing outside. I’d spent most of the trip panicking about taking lead falls and pumping out on 5.10s. After a summer of climbing, I was excited for a rematch with most of the routes I’d attempted the previous May and especially excited to try to send Flyin’ Hawaiian, an aesthetically stunning 5.11b. In May, I’d aided my way through the start of the climb because the bouldery beginning was too difficult and had flailed my way up the rest, hanging on the rope many times.

“I think I forgot the stove,” Jacob said in his calm, soft voice, tearing me from my Flyin’ Hawaiian daydreams.

“Are you sure it’s not in your bag?”

“It could be,” he said, politely humoring my delusion. We drove in silence for a moment.

“You packed the tent, though?”

“I thought Cady was bringing the tent.”

Neither one remembered packing a tent, each believing the other was taking care of it.

“Should we pull over?” Cady asked.

We debated the merits of resolving our Schrödinger’s tent and stove situation. On the one hand, the tent and stove were likely not in the trunk of the car. On the other hand, they could be, and we could continue to believe this until we pulled over and searched the trunk. Establishing that we were without stove and tent wouldn’t change our plans for the day; we’d still drive up to Rumney and climb. Establishing this sooner meant that we’d need to lose face sooner and ask the group of Yale climbers joining us in Rumney the following day to bring an extra tent and stove.

Neither the tent nor the stove magically appeared when we searched Jacob’s bags. Jacob apologized, saying he’d never leave packing until the hour before departure again. While Jacob was an easy target for blame, I couldn’t help but think back guiltily to that morning. I’d sat in the kitchen and chatted with Mico while Jacob packed in his room. I could have easily checked to make sure group gear made it into the trunk of the car. Throughout the planning phase of the trip, I’d taken on little responsibility, in part because I was traveling from Los Angeles, but in part out of laziness. I apologized to Jacob and Cady for being a woefully passive follower. Cady then apologized for not communicating effectively with Jacob about who was bringing the tent. At this point, we started laughing really hard. We’d thought of ourselves as experienced outdoors people, yet we’d managed to forget the two most critical pieces of camping gear. As a result, we would spend the night eating sandwich bread and sleeping outside with temperatures in the low 30s, and would have to ask people likely to make fun of us for help.

Jacob Bendicksen, the trip organizer for the Yalies coming up the next day, did not disappoint. His texts effectively conveyed his mocking disbelief through heavy use of all caps and punctuation marks.

“Please don’t tell anyone,” Cady texted in reply.

He promised he wouldn’t, and that he’d have a tent and stove for us when he arrived in New Hampshire. He texted one last LOL for good measure. I had little hope that this would remain a secret. Were the situation reversed, I would have few qualms about making it known to everyone that an outdoor orientation leader, a climbing team captain, and a girl who’d spent the summer car camping, had forgotten their tent and stove. Here was a facade of competence begging to be torn down.

At least, I consoled myself, things could only get better from here.

Entering Enfield, Cady noticed the first scarecrow outside a car dealership. Someone had mounted it on a motorcycle. Though we saw no people as we drove, every business in the small New Hampshire town had between 1 and 3 scarecrows on their front lawn. Scarecrows dressed as cowboys, scarecrows pushing baby carriages, scarecrow mailmen, scarecrow clowns. A solitary scarecrow in a field is quaint and picturesque. An entire town that seems to be populated by scarecrows rather than people is frightening. As we passed the sign on the edge of town that read “Come Back Soon,” we breathed a collective sign of relief. A moment longer in that place and the next people driving through town might have seen a trio of rock climber scarecrows belaying each other up a tree.

After an enjoyable half-day of climbing, we made our way to Mountain Pines, the private campground by the river notorious for its complete lack of cell service. Someone had the brilliant idea of buying firewood so we could heat up food. Twice we tried dousing logs with white gas in order to start a fire, and twice we were left with slightly charred logs once the gas had burned off. It dawned on us that white gas might not be a substitute for kindling. Cady and I doused a pile of twigs and leaves in white gas and had just succeeded in lighting our first log when Jacob approached.

“I think I locked the keys in the trunk,” he said. There was a moment of silence as we processed this information.

“You’re joking,” I said, getting ready to laugh. Jacob has a mischievous sense of humor, and his delivery had been unnaturally calm given the information he’d just imparted. Plus, there was no way we could forget the stove and tent, and get locked out of the car on the same day. This sort of thing does not happen to intelligent, competent people with good moral character.

“I’m not joking,” he said sadly.

“Yes, you are,” I said, unwilling to be fooled.

“The keys are in the trunk.” It was unlikely he would go on this long with a prank I was refusing to fall for. I remembered with horror that I was the one who, worried about the car battery, had asked Jacob to close the trunk.

If there had been a time to panic and turn ugly, it would have been in that moment. It was roughly 7:45pm and completely dark. We were cold, hungry, separated from all the gear and food we’d remembered to bring, and in the middle of nowhere without cell reception. Cady and Jacob remained calm and good humored throughout the ordeal. I endeavored to follow their example. Jacob borrowed the landline from the owner of the campground, a middle-aged man with a large handlebar mustache, and was able to call for roadside assistance.

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Cady kept the fire going (this and the fact that we were all wearing our warmest layers were the only things we had going for us). I ran messages back and forth between Cady and Jacob, and tried my best to keep the mood light by making dumb jokes.

Sometime between 9 and 9:30pm, as we huddled around the fire for warmth, a massive truck pulled into the campground. From the truck emerged a man wearing a Rumney Fire Department t-shirt. There was something strange about the way he moved, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. Though he was in a t-shirt, he seemed unfazed by the cold. He had the skinniest arms I’d ever seen on an adult human being. He introduced himself as Rick but did not offer to shake hands. He took stock of the situation and pulled a tool kit from his truck. It was then I noticed his hands. They were curved towards his forearms like hooks. He could move his fingers but seemed unable to straighten his wrists. He twisted his body into strange positions to compensate for these frozen hooks.

“Is your tent inside?” Rick asked as he worked. We nodded, unwilling to reveal the true depths of our idiocy.

“I’ll try to make it quick, then.” He inserted a piece of rubber that looked much like a doorstop into the top of the driver’s door and pounded it in with the back of his hand. This created a gap through which he passed a hooked piece of wire.

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Rick warned us not to go “ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh, ooh” while he was unlocking the car. Apparently, some people turn their misfortune into a spectator sport, and this distracts Rick from his work. We watched quietly, and after a few attempts, Rick succeeded in using the wire to pull the handle on the inside of the door, unlocking the car. While the car alarm went off, Jacob popped the trunk, retrieved the keys, and silenced the car.

We thanked Rick and offered him a date from the bag of snack foods we’d pulled from the trunk. He’d never had one before. Examining his date closely, he observed that it looked like a bug. Despite its cockroach-like exterior, Rick thoroughly enjoyed the date.

“I’ll have to pick these up next time I’m at the store,” he said through a mouthful.

Cady and I roasted ours in the fire until the exteriors caramelized. We termed this delicacy “hot dates.” While we ate, Rick told us about the difficulty of unlocking a Tesla. The doorstop/wire method doesn’t work because the car is completely electronic. You need to call the company and have them unlock it remotely. Rick was once called to unlock a Tesla even though his presence was entirely unnecessary. The only thing he could do was keep the car owner company while they phoned Tesla customer service.

“You must be glad to get the tent out of the car,” Rick said as he climbed into his truck. We smiled and nodded, but his parting words made me wonder if he suspected the truth. I could just picture Rick, the next time he went to unlock a car, telling the story of the three kids, who’d not only locked themselves out of their car but had also forgotten every piece of camping equipment it was possible to forget.

Our lie was unnecessary, of course. We’d done it to save face in the eyes of a passing stranger. Though we’d had essentially nothing to lose, we’d done it without hesitation. We didn’t want him to get the wrong impression and think we were incompetent. There’s a fine line between behaving as though you’re incompetent and actually being incompetent, and we were not ready to admit to having crossed that line.

Once Rick’s truck had driven safely out of sight, we pulled our sleeping bags from the car and set them side-by-side on the ground. I slept in all my layers and curled into the blob that was Cady in her sleeping bag for added warmth. In the morning, I woke to the sound of Jacob hissing at a skunk and waited for the sun to melt the frost from my sleeping bag.

October 10: The Art of Winning

“Did I win?” the ten-year-old boy asked as I lowered him from a climb. Baron, a sandy haired kid with a bowl cut, was my charge for an hour-long private belay session and had just finished flailing his way up a 5.7 route. I had no idea how to answer this question which was asked without a trace of irony or self-mockery.

“Uh, yes?” My eyes involuntarily darted to his mother, who was reclining on the padded floor behind us, watching her son’s every move.

I’d been about to start my own workout when Von, the gym employee who wears a button down shirt, waistcoat, bow tie, and dress shoes without fail (the gym uniform is a black t-shirt with the gym name in white letters across the front), asked if I’d be willing to do a private.

“He’s climbed outside before. He’s very advanced,” Baron’s mother informed me within seconds of our introduction. I nodded politely. I have yet to find a West LA parent who inderestimates his or her kid’s climbing ability.

“When he was four, we wanted to take him outside. The guy who was guiding us wouldn’t work with kids that young. We begged him to take Baron. He said he’d do it, but don’t expect to get your money back if he cries. Afterwards, he was amazed and said he’d never seen a kid that young climb that high.”

“Wow,” I said, nodding.

“We went to that wall they used in the movie Planet of the Apes.” Though I hadn’t seen the movie, this was one of the few walls in the LA area I’d been to, so I nodded again.

After trying on 6 different pairs of shoes (we started with size 5, his alleged shoe size, and worked our way up to 7.5), Baron and I headed over to the slab wall. It’s a slightly less than vertical wall (the opposite of an overhang), which means that the climber does more of the work with his legs. This is the wall we start most beginners on. I asked Baron which route he wanted to climb.

“Which one’s the hardest?” He asked. I indicated a 5.11b consisting of tiny red crimps and credit card feet. This, of course, was the climb Baron wanted to do.

Baron’s feet never left the ground. Eventually, I suggested we try a different route, an orange 5.8 on the same section of wall, estimating that this was near the upper limit of what he’d be able to climb.

“Which one’s the second hardest?” he asked.

“He’s stubborn,” his mom called out from where she was observing. It sounded like this was a point of pride for her.

Baron proceeded to fall off the dark blue 5.10b repeatedly. Eventually, he decided he’d climb the 5.10b with the help of an unlimited number of additional holds from other routes. He wanted to know if this still counted as climbing 5.10b. I told him it did not.

I finally got Baron to try a 5.7, which he completed with some effort. We then moved to an overhung wall. I suggested a green 5.9, but yet again, he wanted to know which climb was the hardest. I indicated a 5.11c and prayed he wouldn’t try it. Showing some sense of his own limitations, Baron selected a 5.10a instead. After failing to get beyond the first move, he agreed to switch to the green 5.9.

Baron was clearly athletic and not afraid of heights, but his technique was poor. His lack of footwork and tendency to pull with his arms meant he tired fast on the overhung 5.9. As he alternated between climbing and resting, I tried to offer tips about using his feet and balancing his weight. My success was limited. His mom came up next to us and began telling him specifically where to move his hands and feet, offering suggestions every time he seemed to hesitate.

“Mom, I’m resting,” Baron said, clearly annoyed.

“He’s so stubborn,” his mom repeated, winking at me.

“He’s strong,” I said, uncertain whether I was allowed to agree that her son was stubborn or if that was a privilege reserved for parents.

“Oh yes. He’s got legs like his daddy, strong like oak trees. And crazy upper body strength. He gets that from his dad too.” I nodded, trying to remember if I’d ever heard the phrase “strong like an oak” used outside of books and movies.

“But he’s got my agility,” she added with a conspiratorial grin. I would not have pegged this woman as agile, but judging by her tone and expression, having her agility was a good thing.

“Wow, that’s a lucky combination,” I said. Baron’s mom returned to directing her son’s every move. I considered explaining to her that she was stunting his ability to develop the problem-solving skills necessary for climbing. What will Baron do when he has to try to figure out how to get up a wall without his mom?

“Am I good?” Baron asked when I lowered him from the climb.

“Yes. Of course!” I said after only a slight pause. “Most people your age can’t climb just one color.” This seemed to satisfy him. I wondered what would’ve have happened if I’d said “no.” Would he have quit climbing on the spot? Does he only enjoy the sport because he thinks he’s good at it? What happens when he gets more into it and reads about a dude named Alex Honnold? 

In 6th grade, my math teacher told our class that there was always going to be someone out there who was smarter, faster, stronger, better in every category than we were, and that was life; we had to deal with it. At the time, I’d struggled to wrap my head around this idea. What was the point of existing if someone else could do what you were doing only better?

When I first started rock climbing at the age of 9, I’d enjoyed being good for my age and the praise I’d received, but did little to ensure steady improvement. Eventually, someone came along who was younger and better. I stopped climbing when I entered high school so I’d have more time to pursue other sports, sports for which I still received praise. When I got to levels where I no longer received praise for those sports, I quit them as well. It took a two year stint as the worst player on Yale’s varsity softball team to realize I was selecting my “passions” based on what I was good at rather than what I actually enjoyed. I guess this is more or less the future I imagine for Baron unless his mentality changes (or he becomes the next Alex Honnold).

I’m still not sure I have an answer to what the point of existing is if someone else can do what you’re doing better, but I do know that it’s not a productive line of thought. I’ve interpreted it as license to do what makes you happy.

On her son’s last climb of the session, Baron’s mom resumed her narrative of their time at Planet of the Apes wall.

“He’s fearless; he climbed 600 feet in the air, and it didn’t scare him.” The Planet of the Apes wall is a top rope wall. A standard rope is at most 70 meters, which means on a top rope route, the climber isn’t getting more than 35 meters off the ground, 115 feet. I realized then that I was being incredibly petty. We all live with our own delusions (though they might seem reasonable enough to us). What did I care if Baron’s mom thought her son had been 60, 600, or 6,000 feet off the ground? My job was to make sure the kid had a good time climbing.

I lowered Baron for the last time. Back on the ground he turned to me. “Did I struggle less than other kids on that climb?”

I’m pretty sure this was the moment where I was supposed to give him a speech about how climbing is about competing with yourself, striving to be the best that you can be, etc., etc. But I’m also pretty sure any impassioned speech I could have given, no matter how poignant and filled with introspection, would have gone in one ear and out the other as it would have for me at that age. To this day, I’m not sure I fully subscribe to the “you’re only competing against yourself” philosophy. It’s the intellectually and morally superior philosophy, but if I’m being honest with myself, I only ever use it as a crutch in situations where I know I’m not going to win.