A father swaps roles with his son in the wilds of New Mexico.
Praise the world to the angel, not what can’t be talked about. . . .
Tell him about things. He’ll stand amazed, just as you did
beside the ropemaker in Rome or the potter on the Nile.
— “Duino Elegies,” Rainer Marie Rilke
Tristan, my 17-year-old with brown hair beneath his blue helmet and a short, blondish-red something on his face that hoped to be a beard someday, tugged hard on the loop of rope above our heads, gave it three frustrated flicks, and tugged again.
“It’s stuck,” he said. “I’m gonna have to climb back up.”
We were in the middle of our descent of Narcolepsy Nightmare, a two-pitch sport route in the Northern Box area twenty minutes west of Socorro, New Mexico, and the spring light was sinking fast. The horizon had gone from tangerine to whitish blue to bluish black, shapes were becoming ghosts, and we didn’t have a headlamp.
“In this light?” I asked. I figured there were other, easier ways to handle this situation. And as usual on the wall, I was wrong.
“I’ll tape my cell phone to my helmet,” he said, taking a roll of tape off his harness. With all of the noisy, graceful swallows done for the evening, the cliff face was eerily quiet, and Dimitri, my 14 year old with blondish hair, my broad nose, and his mother’s placid demeanor, watched from the ground. I felt an unusual calm for someone who was often an anxious climber, someone who secretly considered everyday at the crag, no matter how big or small, another bluffing of death despite its full hand. Dramatic, I know, but I started this sport late in life after I’d lived long enough to know things can happen no matter how careful or focused or fearless we are.
* * *
An hour earlier, Tristan had proposed this route, my first multipitch, and although we started late in the afternoon, we thought we’d have plenty of light.
He quickly briefed me on protocol and commands before scampering up the first pitch using his long reach and grace on the rock, grace he often lacked while on the ground. I didn’t short rope him once. He shouted down “On belay!” and I started up, stupidly concerned about being protected by someone above instead of below me, but the opening moves were easy: small ledges, large pockets, jugs. Fifty feet up, I hit the crux, a slight overhang with thin crimps and feet, and popped off like the middle-aged, gym-dwelling hangdogger that I am.
After several falls, which proved to me that this belay system miraculously worked, more cussing, and beta from Tristan at the anchors and from Dimitri on the ground, I made it. Tristan told me where to clip in, coiled the rope into his lap like some practiced artisan on the Nile, and flipped it over into my lap as he drily explained what to do. I hid my pride and question. How’d he learn all of this without me?
“Okay. Cool,” I said. Then he unclipped from the anchor and headed up again.
I took some calming breaths to still my fear—What would happen if the bomber stainless steel bolts failed?—and looked around. My feet were firm on the solid black, red and gray rhyolite, the rope management was easier than I’d thought, and the view was amazing. I looked at the dry vein of the wash below us peppered with green here and there: fragrant sagebrush, wavy tree cholla and fearsome pancake prickly pear cactus. I took in the other side for the small canyon, whose reds, oranges and yellows were fading, and looked far off over the rolling hills to the horizon. After a couple of minutes, I decided a hanging belay at seventy-some feet was pretty cool. We soon exchanged commands again—I somehow got them all right—and I started up. Fortunately, the second pitch was easier.
[Also Read Strawberry Bluff, Forever and Ever]
On top, we gawked at the fireworks show of a New Mexico sunset, and after more drill sergeant-like instructions from Tristan, I crept close enough to the 170-foot edge—his “don’t fall on your PAS” playing over and over in my head—to clip into the anchors before following him down the rappel. By the time I reached him at the midway point, I felt good about things despite the falling light. Then the rope got stuck and darkness rose up like an indifferent maw threatening to swallow us.
* * *
Tristan finished taping the cell phone onto his helmet, tied in to the end of the rope we had, and started up. But something was different now. He was climbing much slower even though the light from his phone seemed to be enough, at least to my eyes as the guy hanging safely from the anchors.
“You alright?” I called up.
“Yeah, it’s just the shadows. They make everything wonky.”
I tried not to be afraid for him or for me, but it was unnerving to see him uncertain. That was my role.
As the dead-calm desert air we swam in quickly cooled, he climbed four bolts up and then traversed 15 feet over to where the rope was stuck. I didn’t think he’d hit me if he fell, but he might take a long swing and get hurt. I had no rescue skills. Did he? By this point, it was flat-out dark with no moon in sight. Not what I’d bargained for, but like a solid guide or a committed dad, Tristan delivered.
He called out “Rope!” and the freed end careened past my head, whomping onto the rock beside me. Like a noiseless, illuminating spider, he traversed back and down climbed, retrieving all of the quick draws instead of leaving gear on the wall. We were both quiet, focused. And then he reached the anchors and clipped himself in.
“Scary, huh?” I asked, looking for confirmation that sometimes he might feel a bit of the ebb and flow of fear I cycle through while on the wall.
“No. Just hard to see the holds.”
Of course. He was 17 and would never die.
He set to work like a determined sailor, and in minutes, he’d reconfigured the rope and prepared us for the final rappel back to earth. On arrival, I didn’t kiss the ground but I did appreciate its solidity beneath my feet.
“Good job, dad,” Dimitri said.
I probably should’ve known how to manage the rope better and maybe even do a rescue before doing a multipitch since things can happen and those duties could fall on me. But at the time, I hadn’t thought about that and my guide, as any guide should, had infinite confidence in himself. Tristan took care of me as I took care of him for so many years, and when the situation got dicey, he took a deep breath, improvised, and got through it, much as I’d done when he put a PB&J sandwich in our VCR, tried dealing the ditch weed that grows north of our five acres in the Oklahoma countryside, or had his heart broken the first time.
And even though I fixed dinner by myself that night while he and Dimitri lay on their backs and admired the stars while trading stray teen gossip and jokes, it was clear to me we’d traded roles while on the climb.
It’s funny but not surprising that although I got my sons into climbing, they are now the experts, light years ahead of me, no relative means by which I could catch up. On outdoor trips, they put up with my amateur status and endless questions, and while I know they like that I foot the bill for food and gas, I think they also like, in some measure, hanging out and pushing me to get better.
And when I draw the line as to what they climb, what they risk, which I’m able to do less and less, they still listen, or at least pretend to.
* * *
We spent two more days in The Box, a place we’d never have gone without the purposeless intentionality of climbing, before the weather cleared to the north and we headed to Diablo Canyon, just northwest of Santa Fe off a BLM road that rides like the devil himself had rutted it.
On arrival we discovered little shade, paltry breeze, and a fair amount of trash and broken glass as the campsite doubled as a rave site on weekends. The Winter Wall cliffs faced us, impressively tall, jagged columns of basalt stacked like some jinn’s enormous coins. They were drenched in sunshine and too hot to climb, but after a cold lunch and improvised naps on sleeping pads in small islands of shade, the heat started to relent. We packed our gear, made the short approach to the rock face, which had cooled off with the coming evening, and got in enough climbing to shake our road funk. The boys ended the day with a two-pitch climb done in record time. I made sure they had headlamps.
The next day, we picked out a place called The Grotto, a 30 minute hike down the wash and up to a slot canyon that, due to its narrowness, offered shade on one side or the other most of the day. On the shadeless approach, we walked between the looming, sun-bleached black and white canyon walls like an astonished band of explorers in foreign lands and had trouble deciphering the trail that headed up.
When we finally arrived, we found plenty of climbers, more than we’d seen the entire trip. The crag rang with their belay commands, familiar banter and guttural grunts, and we soon learned that most of them were from Santa Fe, come out to climb together and attend a memorial for one of their friends, a 59-year-old seasoned climber and mother who had died in an accident at Diablo back in January. Despite the occasion, they were a gregarious bunch, asking questions of us and offering advice and even time on some of the top ropes they’d set.
At one point, Rachel, a thirty-something woman wearing a turquoise sports top, told me, “The rock here’s pretty precarious stuff. One time I was leading a route, and as I placed a quick draw, I noticed something felt loose.” She paused as her climber yelled down “Watch me!” and she echoed back “Okay!” and continued belaying without missing a beat. “So before I clipped the rope in, I gave the quick draw a tug and the whole damn thing came off: draw, hanger and bolt, and the chunk of rock it was in. That’s unusual, but it didn’t give me a lot of confidence.”
I laughed the nervous laugh of the guilty or condemned and wished this group shared a little less.
Eventually, we worked our way around the other climbers and found some good warm ups before Tristan tackled Welcome to the Jungle, a tough 5.11 set in a dihedral with plenty of loose rock, as he discovered on the way up. He took several falls but took care not to send any meteors my way. After he topped out, Dimitri yelled up that he wanted to try it on top rope. I lowered Tristan and volunteered to continue belaying.
Dimitri started strong and got 25 feet off the deck before kicking off some dust and gravel and coming off the route himself.
“You got this, D,” I said. Climbing affirmations were one of my strongest points.
He got back on and continued for five or 10 more feet before I vaguely saw something come loose near his right heel, and when the half cinder block-sized rock smashed into the soft earth about three feet to my right, the thudding, chthonic reverberations ran through me.
“Sorry!” Dimitri yelled down.
“Dimitri, you gotta yell ‘rock’ or something!” his brother chided.
“I didn’t have time.”
“Then climb more carefully!” He was really haranguing him.
I’d taken this role before, looking out for how one of them, usually Tristan, treated or behaved around the other, especially in relation to safety. “Don’t push your brother off the diving board”; “Stop playing in the candle wax”; “Look out where you’re throwing those skipping stones,” I’d admonished many times. So it was sweet and a bit ironic that I was being looked after by Tristan this time. I was more likely to blame the rock fall on bad luck than bad climbing, even as I shuddered for a second, thinking about the damage that rock could have done.
* * *
The following day, we ended up where we’d started, Winter Wall. The boys did more two-pitch climbs together, and then Tristan asked if I wanted to go to the top of Post Moderate, a 165-foot route.
“Sure, as long as we have headlamps with us,” I answered, honored and hiding the fact I was tired and still a bit wary given our first go.
The first pitch went well, but as I was hanging some 80 feet off the ground again belaying Tristan on the second pitch, I could see the Santa Fe group gathering below for the ceremony to honor their friend, who’d died at the base of a route just around the corner. Her family, including her grown son and daughter, had come out, and some of the words—“wonderful mother,” “avid climber,” “fantastic friend”—the group shared about her life eerily floated up to me through calm desert air.
Mantra-like, they evoked jinn of compassion and fear. I grieved for her family’s and community’s loss as I eyed the two anchor bolts in the rock, mused on Rachel’s anecdote, and wondered about their relative solidity in this world of ceaseless flux. Then, taking a deep breath, I envisioned us topping out, enjoying the view, and safely rapping back down. For now, I let Tristan lead on.