Mandi paws at the rock above her, searching for holds within cracks and bulges of black-streaked gneiss. Standing at the base of the cliff, I keep the toprope tight. She needs to trust the big crystal, I think. The high right foothold where her toe now rests at knee height. She needs to stand up, and then the horizontal crack will be within easy reach. But she won’t trust the high step until her fingers find at least an illusion of security.
My wife didn’t start climbing until she moved to Colorado from Ohio at age twenty-three. She loves to tell how she laughed when a salesperson at an outdoor gear store asked if she was interested in backpacking equipment; she couldn’t imagine herself ever doing such a thing. Now she’s eager to shoulder a pack for multiday trips. By the time I met her in 2009, she already knew the basics of rock climbing, though she has never been inclined to memorize sequences of moves or to analyze why one method works better than another. Instead, she’s happiest when she can immerse herself in the mountains–scampering along knobby ridges high above tree line, past the occasional herd of mountain goats; topping out on a canyon rim after a long day of brushy crack and slab climbing up a sunbaked wall; or wandering through pale stone mazes in the desert, where we might spend more time looking for routes than climbing them.
She doesn’t like to attempt technically difficult moves again and again only for the sake of clipping bolt anchors partway up a cliff and then shuffling down the line to repeat the process. Even on toprope, she prefers not to fall. Most often, she will retreat onto the rope long before her strength fails or she loses her balance. This control is one reason why I trust her ability to be safe when she leads.
In contrast, I’m often curious to explore where my point of failure lies–balancing on the tip of a big toe ever so delicately, mustering all the power I have and pushing aside my fear as I spring upward for a distant hold. Sometimes, in such borderline moments, I careen back toward the earth, hoping my protection holds. But when I finally latch onto the small, flat edge, I feel a sense of grace that is nearly impossible for me to experience in any other circumstance, a moment that seems suspended between rock and air, body and mind, gravity and flight.
At the same time, I’ve learned that my enthusiasm can be a detriment. My impulse, ever since I was a kid, has been to try to offer guidance–“grab that hold! No, not that one, that one!” My dad was a track coach. I remember how annoyed I would get when I couldn’t enjoy one ski run without having someone shout criticisms about my technique across the slope. “Stop!” I occasionally yelled back. It’s harder to succeed if you’re not having fun. Mandi has more fun when I don’t give advice unless she asks for it.
Now, her left leg jitters as she balances with her right foot on the high crystal; her left elbow slowly rises outward as her arm fatigues. If she would just stand up on her right foot, I think, she would be on her way to the top. I bite my lip, aware that I’d disrupt her experience. Besides, beta from a taller person doesn’t always translate well for a shorter one, and Mandi is rightfully dubious about my “solutions.” Sometimes she climbs with such confidence and aggression that I wonder where this strange spirit came from and where it goes to hide at other times. I want to encourage her; I want her to realize the ability she has. My words usually come out wrong.
While staying vigilant at the belay, I focus on the silence of the pine trees that comb the mountain breeze, the smell of the air and the exquisite stillness that envelops the alpine cliff, broken only by the chatter of a squirrel. Then I hear a skitter of shoe rubber and a grunt. I look up to see Mandi standing tall to reach the crack. She is learning a faith in herself after all.
Everything in nature has a language of patterns: seasons, weather, rivers, flora, fauna, ice, rock, people. Learning this language, I realize, gives a climber more trust before making a committing step. Just as she knows that Douglas fir trees tend to grow most densely on northern aspects in the Rocky Mountains, she comprehends that north-facing cliffs are most likely to collect moss and dirt. With attentiveness and practice, she develops an intuitive understanding of how all the elements in nature flow together: where a crack will open wide enough for her fingers to slip inside; where to find the bluest ice in the shadows of mountainsides on warm spring days; how to locate that point of perfect confluence between the unfolding topography of an alpine rock face and the shifting emotions of two partners.
The interpretation of these patterns is all very much like a dance that can be demonstrated but never taught directly. It is how Mandi and I first met at a wedding; the connection was made before either of us said a word to each other.
So often in nature, the old saying is true–the less you talk, the more you learn.
–Derek Franz, Carbondale, Colorado