When I was six, my parents rented a camper and took a long June weekend trip to Mount Erie in Anacortes. I have a vague memory of the trip, but last year, when my world went wild, it seemed important to know exactly what had happened. Mom filled in the gaps for me.
On a Friday afternoon they parked at a little camp-ground behind a general store on the banks of Lake Erie. After a cookout we all walked up the road a quarter mile or so—there was hardly any traffic—and then turned onto a steep trail bordered by huckleberry. I sort of remembered that Mom and Dad were more affectionate than usual, kissing and holding hands and hugging. Didn’t mean any-thing to me at the time; just an impression.
We came to a bench and rested while looking down at the lake, the horse pastures, the slice of Puget Sound beyond a ridge, and the Olympic Mountains in the hazy distance. That was all fine, but when I turned around and looked up at the rock cliffs above the trail, my world changed.
“Looking for mountain goats?” Mom asked. “It’s too steep for them.”
I was absolutely awestruck by those towering walls of granite. Something about them seemed both forbidding and inviting.
That night in the camper, I dreamed about cliffs. I woke early and dressed quietly while listening to the soft snoring of my parents in the front berth. I lit out before dawn.
Despite the darkness, I found the trail easily enough. At the bench I turned toward the cliffs and bushwhacked my way to the base, getting cut by the alder sometimes. I have a vivid memory of looking up and seeing a full moon in the clear sky above the rocks.
And I started climbing.
The holds were good, even though I didn’t know any-thing about holds or three-point protection or that stuff. But climbing was natural to me. Before I knew it I was fifty feet up, then one hundred. I found a nice ledge and rested while the rising sun colored the lake a soft yellow.
Above the ledge I couldn’t find any good grips. So I decided to go down. I’d barely started when I realized it would be much harder to climb down than up. I couldn’t locate the holds with my feet. I don’t recall being afraid so much as frustrated by the new problem. I was still try-ing to figure it out an hour later, when I saw Mom and Dad running along the trail below.
“Mom,” I yelled. “I’m up here! Up here!”
They looked around, and Dad spotted me. “There he is!” he yelled, pointing at me.
“Oh, Jesus, there he is!”
“Oh!” Mom yelled, and her hands flew to her mouth.
“You okay, Jordo?” Dad asked.
“Yeah, but I can’t figure out how to get down.”
“Stay there!” they both yelled at the same time, extend-ing their hands toward me.
Mom burst into tears and Dad held her while she cried.
When she stopped crying, she started climbing. Dad got ahold of her foot before she was out of range. “Angie, honey, wait! We need to think about this. Wait!” She tried to kick him away for a second, then slowly nodded her head and hopped down.
They talked for a while. Sometimes they looked up at me, sometimes they shouted at each other. Eventually they seemed to reach an agreement.
“Jordo, you okay for a little while?” Dad asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “My butt hurts a little, but I’m okay.”
“Don’t stand up!” they both yelled.
I nodded. This was something new—my parents yell-ing a lot. They yelled a little bit, every now and then, but never this much.
I saw movement on the trail below. Mom and Dad heard the voices about the same time I did. Two guys, one tall and one short, both thin and young, rounded the switchback a few seconds later. Mom and Dad jogged over to them, pointed at me, and they all started talking. Mom said, “Rappel? He can’t rappel.”
“I’ll be controlling him from the top, you from the bottom. It won’t be rappelling, really, just lowering him,” the tall guy said.
“No, there’s a low angle. He’d be banging against the rocks all the way down.”
More talk. Finally, the tall guy started to get a rope and other stuff ready, with help from his friend.
“You still okay?” Mom asked.
“Yup,” I said. “But I’m getting hungry.” Mom laughed and Dad smiled. There was a crazy edge to Mom’s laugh, and she started crying again.
The tall guy disappeared at the base of the cliff. A few minutes later I heard breathing and movement below me, then saw his face up close. He wore glasses.
“Hi Jordan,” he said. “How you doing?”
“Good. I’m Tom, and I’m going to help you down.”
“You need to do exactly what I say.”
“First, I want you to move about four inches to your right. Just a little bit, got it?”
I nodded and moved, and heard Mom gasp.
“Good job, Jordan. Now I’m going to sit down next to you.”
He stepped and turned and was sitting next to me a second later. Our legs touched.
“That’s a pretty good climb you did,” he said. “Always remember it’s harder to climb down, in a lot of places.”
“Yeah, it is.”
He worked for a while with a rope and metal things that he carried. “Got the bolt in, but I don’t like it enough to rappel,” he said to the three faces below. “I’ll down-climb with him.”
He told me we were going to play slow motion. “Move like you’re under water, Jordan. Real slow. I want you to get this harness on. Just do as I say.”
I nodded, and a few minutes later I had the harness on. Sort of. It was way too big, even with the straps adjusted as tight as they would go.
“Gravity will keep you in the harness, Jordan … Shit, you probably don’t know what gravity is … Uh, sorry I said shit.”
“It’s okay, Dad ’n Mom say that sometimes, then say sorry, too.”
He smiled. “This is the tricky, part, pal. I’m going to clip your harness to my harness. I’ll need your help. Let’s think about this … Okay, I’m going to put a carabiner on your harness. Let me show you how these things work.”
His finger pushed against one side of the carabiner it clicked open. He did it a few times. Then he put it through the loop on the front of his harness and screwed it shut. “See that? Do you think you can do that?”
“Good. Watch a couple more times. Now, you’re going to hook the ’biner through the loop in your harness and the back of my harness … Think you can do that?”
“All right. I could do it, but I’d be off balance and fumbling around. It will be safer if you do it.” He reached around his back and showed me where to clip onto his harness. “I’ll check it when you’re done. So Jordan, I’m going to turn a little to the left, and you do the same. Here’s the carabiner. Go for it.”
“Okay.” We turned and I clipped it onto my loop and his harness belt. I noticed that he held my leg with his right hand. Then he reached back, tested everything, and spun the carabiner gate shut. “Good job, Jordan, you’re a natural. So now I’m going to climb down. I need you to relax and hold on to my waist. Don’t touch my arms, shoulders, or neck, okay?”
“Okay, let’s go.”
He snorted a little laugh. “On belay?”
“Belay on,” his friend called.
Then Tom quickly turned toward the cliff, and I was hanging in space. I heard Mom gasp again. He stopped when he had his hands on the ledge. “How you doing, Jordan?”
“Thataboy. Stay cool.”
He climbed down a few more feet. The rope on our right went up as we went down. I saw some metal things the rope went through sometimes. He moved slowly, and sometimes stopped to talk to his partner below.
“I know there’s a hold around here somewhere, Jor-dan, but I’m having trouble finding it. Stay cool, buddy.”
He felt all around with his fingers. I remembered that from that angle, I could look through the right lens of his glasses and see distorted gray rock.
“Found a little one,” he said, loud enough that I knew he was talking to his friend.
“Gonna go for it. You ready?”
“Got you, Tom.”
We dropped suddenly—he’d taken a big step, but we didn’t fall. I saw his right arm extended over to a small rock, the muscles in his forearm knotted with tension. He was breathing harder. The moment passed, and he descended the next twenty feet smoothly.
Hands were grabbing me and Mom was crying. They got me out of the harness, and then she started shaking me. “Don’t you ever do that again! Ever! You scared us, Jordan! First we thought you drowned in the lake. Then your father remembered how you looked at the cliff, and we came up here. Don’t you EVER do that again!” Then she hugged me. Then she started shaking me and yelling again.
Tom and his friend were watching silently. Over Mom’s shoulder I saw Tom sort of smiling, and he winked at me. Dad shook their hands and Mom hugged them both. Dad tried to give them money, insisted, but they refused and said they were glad to help.
Dad came over and hugged me when Mom was done shaking me. Quietly, he said,
“I don’t want you to climb anything when you’re alone, Jordo.”
“I NEVER want you climbing ANYTHING again,” Mom said. And she gave Dad the evil eye.
“Okay,” I said, mostly because they were so freaked out.