The summers of my childhood were defined by the great, triangular car trip my family made each year to see our scattered kin. We’d leave our home in southern Virginia heading west on I-64 to my maternal grandparent’s cattle farm in Kentucky, then northeast to my other grandparents’ house on the coast of Maine, then home down I-95. On the way, we’d usually stop for a day or two in the tiny town of Pike, where my Uncle Doug lived with his family in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Doug was, and remains, an inveterate organizer of expeditions on foot: from the thirty-minute circuit-hikes he plots from every doorstep he’s ever called home, to the rare “epics,” which require not only great ambition in their intention but disaster in their execution. (To wit: the time in Morocco when Doug took me and my buddy Chris in a taxi from Marrakech to a village in the High Atlas Mountains where we could hire a donkey for the hike into a remoter village where he knew a Peace Corps Volunteer we could stay with and with whom we set out to blaze a trail up a 14,000 foot peak only to get lost in the dark and separated from each other and spend hours wandering across the mountainside before we stumbled over the trail was, in Doug’s final judgment, “almost” an epic.)
So of course, when we came to Pike on our family vacations, Doug would pick a mountain for us to climb, each one higher than the year before. The switchbacks at the base always seemed endless, but eventually the hardwoods gave way to pines, and the pines shrank imperceptibly to shoulder height, then knee, then flat along the ground. Finally we’d step onto granite. The wind blew hard above treeline, and it was always a special moment, for a boy from the Virginia Piedmont, when we threw down our packs and pulled out our fleeces and windbreakers.
Best of all was when my uncle took us climbing. I climbed a lot of trees at home, and I’d scramble up any exposed rock I could find, but I rarely got to put on a harness and try to top out on a real cliff.
So I was thrilled by the handful of times Doug set up top-ropes for us. Once he even led us on a two-pitch route up Artist Bluff. As the oldest cousin, I was given the job of climbing last and cleaning the route. With Doug belaying me from above, I removed the carabiners, nuts, and cams he’d set to protect himself as he led. I remember looking down and seeing windsurfers on Echo Lake, which seemed small enough to slip into my pocket.
The summer before my senior year of high school, I spent two weeks backpacking in Montana with Outward Bound. I easily recognized that my time above tree-line in the Beartooth-Absaroka Mountains was the happiest of my life. I knew the alpine was where I belonged.
By the time I went off to college, I saw myself as a climber at heart, like my uncle. I also saw myself as a victim. I hadn’t grown up in the mountains, and no one had been there to take me climbing on rock and ice. So I went backpacking in the gentle Blue Ridge, read books like Into Thin Air and The White Spider, and imagined writing the first great mountaineering novel. After graduation, I followed in my Doug’s footsteps and applied to the Peace Corps. They sent me to Kenya, and I spent the next two years in Kajiado, where the white grass and thorn trees of the high-altitude savanna abruptly rose into ranges of volcanic hills: Ngong, Olemolepo, Maparasha, Enkorika. Kilimanjaro was a ghostly cone, usually obscured by cloud, that appeared occasionally like a hallucination: snow fields in the sky. On a couple long, lonely Saturdays I walked to the Enkorika Hills on cattle paths that swerved off in the wrong directions and petered out unexpectedly. Once I rode toward Olemolepo because I’d spotted rocks among the trees that looked promising for bouldering. I imagined myself perfecting my craft in solitude. But I never found the boulders. I climbed Mount Elgon with some Peace Corps friends and two rangers armed with assault rifles in case of bandits and water buffalo. And I memorably bushwacked Ol Donyo Orok, on the Tanzania border, with my buddy Chris.
I even went rock climbing once, on a trip to Rwanda to see my Uncle Doug, where he was working for an NGO. He brought us to a cliff outside Kigali, and we were immediately surrounded by curious children.
I climbed Mount Kenya twice, first with my brother, and again with my girlfriend Anna. Like most hikers, we topped out on Point Lenana, at 16,000 feet still the third-highest point in Africa, but 700 feet lower than Batian, the summit spire.
Unlike Kilimanjaro, summiting Kenya requires technical climbing. Because I’d spent my life hanging out with non-climbers, my understanding of basic skills and terminology had always made me the de-facto expert on the subject. That status was important to me, I guess, because I remember being not only surprised, but mildly dismayed, when I heard that another volunteer, a guy named David Hay, had attempted to free solo Batian’s six hundred-foot face. A third of the way up he decided the conditions didn’t feel good, down-climbed, and rejoined his group in time to top out on Point Lenana.
Dave was actually my closest neighbor from our tight-knit training group, but in the year since we’d moved to our sites, I’d never visited him. He lived at a technical college in Machakos, about two hours away. I heard he was building solar cookers, and one Friday afternoon I went up to visit him.
We started drinking beer and bullshitting in his sunny, second-story apartment and didn’t stop until after midnight. I asked Dave how he learned to climb, and he told me that when he was sixteen or so he bought the equipment and provisions he thought he needed, including a full-size wood-handled axe, hiked into the mountains, and didn’t come out for a week. I learned it was typical of Dave to find a passion and throw himself into its pursuit, learning as he went. There were rumors he’d made a bundle selling software he created in high school. He’d never gone to college. Now he was about to E.T. (Peace Corps jargon: Early Termination) to pursue his twin passions: extreme climbing and attempting to digitally recreate human intelligence. That night, he described the challenge of building a system to replicate the “hardware” of neurons firing and the “software” of ideas and emotions, then he explained the difference between analog and digital music: unless you are listening to a live band or vinyl record, you are hearing sound waves chopped into bits so fine our ears bleed them together. The next day he taught me to make solar ovens out of cardboard, glue, and rolls of shiny silver drink-box linings donated by Tetrapak. It would become the project that defined my final year in Kenya.
Before we said goodbye, Dave offered to take me up Mount Rainier, which he liked to speed climb with only a Nalgene and a down jacket. For the next year or so, we exchanged occasional emails. Dave would update me on his life—working on a newspaper loading dock in Bellingham, WA, building his A.I., and pioneering a sport he called “bicycle mountaineering:”
where you go to the summit via only human power from your front door. This entails carrying all your gear in panniers or a bike trailer, and having studded bike tires for those icy winter trailheads. Mt. Baker is a pretty easy climb in the summer, but offers some interesting challenges during the winter because of its world-record snowfalls. I’ve yet to make a successful attempt this winter, although I’ve tried twice and got stormed off the first time, then just didn’t have enough time the second (it takes two days just to ride there and back).
I’d learned that among his many skills, Dave was an excellent critical reader, so I’d send him my essays and he’d email me feedback: “As always, concision is a bitch, but nevertheless important.” When I look back at those emails today, his passing references to depression leap out at me, but depression wasn’t foreign to me, and I didn’t think much of it at the time. I knew it was easy, when pursuing your passion, to get dejected.
I’d finished my service and found a job as a reporter: after years of writing poetry and journaling, I was actually writing for a living. I was stressed out and overwhelmed, turning in five stories a week, feeling a little lost in America, and questioning my future. My fallback plan, if everything fell apart, was to move to Bellingham, crash with Dave, and ask him to teach me to climb. But things never fell apart, and one day we got a mass email from Dave’s friend Katie with the subject line: please read this, this is an emergency.
It took them a few days to find Dave’s body. He’d driven up into the mountains. He left a note: “David Hay has found his way to peace. When you find my body, please use it to feed a tree. Please give my love to all the living.”
A few months later I quit my job and moved to central Georgia to study creative writing. For the next three years I barely thought about climbing. Then I moved to Minnesota and eventually settled in a big house with my fiancé Liz, her sister Summer, and a Peace Corps buddy named Erik (one of my companions on Mount Elgon) who’d washed up in Minneapolis the same time I had. Erik knew how to set top-rope belays, and that summer we started driving up to Taylors Falls to climb on the basalt cliffs overlooking the St. Croix River.
Because a top-rope is anchored above you and the belayer is taking up slack as you go, you don’t actually fall when you’re top-roping. Rope-stretch might let you bounce a few feet, but unless you’re off route, you end up hanging about where you’d been clinging to the rock face a moment before. Once you learn to think of the rope and anchor as an integral part of the experience, top-roping can feel like a physical challenge that just happens to take place a few dozen feet off the ground.
One day, Erik suggested we drive to Red Wing to climb at the old quarry on a hill overlooking town. Red Wing is set up for sport climbing: instead of setting an anchor at the top, you run your rope through carabiners you clip into bolts pre-drilled into the cliff. Except when you reach up to make your next clip, you are always climbing above your last anchor. If you’ve climbed ten feet past it, you’ll fall twenty.
On that first evening at Red Wing, Erik and I found the easiest open route in the guidebook, a 5.8., I think. I’d never led before, but didn’t find it too difficult; I just held the rock more tightly than usual. It was an easier route than the ones we’d been top-roping, and shorter. Still, the veins were standing out on my forearms by the time I reached a small ledge below the final bolts. I needed to make just one more move. But no matter where I felt with my hands, I couldn’t find a hold I trusted. And no matter where I shuffled my feet, the rock felt slick and sloppy. Minutes passed as I experimented with different combinations, half-hoisting myself up then letting myself down.
I’ve always admired climbers for their ability to control their thoughts and emotions to concentrate on the task at hand. For lack of evidence to the contrary, this focus was a faculty I’d always assumed I possessed. But on my first lead climb, as the minutes passed and my heels shook, I started picturing the rope, eight feet of it, hanging from my harness to my last clip. It only infected the fringes of my thoughts at first, but it steadily flooded my consciousness until finally I was immobilized. Unfortunately, even staying where I was required strength. Eventually I reached a tipping point: my desire not to fall became acceptance. Then I fell. I had time to think, “Now I’m going to find out what a lead fall is like.” Then I had time to realize that at some point shuffling on the ledge I’d stepped under my rope and was going to get flipped when it went taut. Then the world looped and I tucked my chin into my chest as my back slammed into the rock.
I quickly realized I was okay, righted myself, said something to Erik, and spent anywhere from thirty seconds to ten minutes letting my chemistry subside from haywire to a state resembling normalcy. Erik lowered me. I waited a few minutes, then tried the route again, tingling with adrenaline. I fell again in the same place, though less dramatically. On the third try, I got it. We drove home in the dusk. I remember the farmland of Wisconsin, how utterly relaxed I felt, how good it was to be in my body, alive, at ease. When we came back to Red Wing a week later, I never got more than five feet off the ground. Winter came; Erik moved to Japan; I didn’t climb for a year. When a climbing gym opened in my neighborhood, I bought a pass. For the first time ever, I was climbing on a regular basis.
I went alone, so I took up bouldering: short, difficult routes, usually overhung, that did not require any protection except a pad to fall on. One day a guy walked up to me, said his name was Jim, and asked if I wanted a climbing partner. We’ve been meeting up once a week or so ever since. Usually we boulder a little, then I ask, “So you want to do some leading?” Jim will always break into a grin and say, “I was hoping you’d say that.”
This winter our schedules were out of sync, so I got in the habit of bouldering again. In February, we reconnected, and, of course I asked Jim if he wanted to do some leading. I was ready for a change of pace. But I had a frustrating day. The footholds didn’t feel trustworthy, so I made sure to grip the wall hard at all times. I tested every handhold to find the optimal fit and reviewed every possible option before making a commitment. When I reached up to make a clip, I rushed my motions and pictured how much farther I’d fall with that few feet of extra rope in my hand. Apparently, I’d lost strength over the winter. My stamina was shot. By the time I was halfway up the first route, I was calling “Take” down to Jim at every clip so I could hang on my rope and rest. I finally finished the first climb. But Jim had to lower me on the next three.
Lead climbing is the closest I’ve come to what I’d idolized since I was a kid: transcending my emotions while using my mind and body to solve a magnificent puzzle, to attain the hormonal rush of topping out. I think that’s why it took me longer than it should have to notice that I really didn’t look forward to lead climbing. In fact, I dreaded it.
The next time I met up with Jim and asked, “So you want to do some leading?” I was relieved when he said no; he’d lifted that morning and just felt like top-roping. We found a slightly tricky 5.10a in a chimney. I belayed Jim and was surprised to see he had a little trouble with it. We’d started out climbing at about the same level, but he was a natural athlete with great coordination and extraordinary strength and was now a much better climber than me. I was sure I’d struggle. But I found myself moving quickly and confidently. When I wasn’t sure about the next hold I just went for it. It was always more positive than I expected. I trusted my feet and held lightly with my hands, even when I was only standing on a tiny chip. Near the end of the route, I was tempted to call “Take” and have a breather. Instead I kept moving up and topped out easily, even faster than Jim had. And that’s how the rest of the day went.
For the next week, I enjoyed an afterglow of relief and pride that I’d climbed aggressively and embraced risk. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized this feeling didn’t reflect reality. It may have felt more risky to trust myself and trust the holds and just go for it, but when I climbed quickly and with confidence I was much more likely to top out without falling.
I started thinking about fear.
I knew I felt a surge of healthy fear when I led a climb, but now I realized how profoundly it had warped my thinking: what I’d thought to be objective features of the world—the limits of my strength, the quality of a hold—had only been projections of my fear. When I was top-roping, I trusted my instincts, my strength, and the strength of the rock; I acted decisively and moved in flow: exactly what I’d need to do if I was ever truly at risk. Yet when I was lead climbing above my anchor, these were exactly the things I was afraid to do.
Fear tells you: Don’t trust yourself. Don’t trust the world. Stay where you are. Bail out. It tells you that if you keep climbing, there’s a risk you’ll fall. But it doesn’t tell you that if you stay where you are, you’re sure to. I have a book called The Self-Coached Climber that begins with a lesson in physics: unless you are flat on your back, you’re using energy to counter gravity. Climbing is just an extension of the same shifts in balance we use to stand, lean, reach, walk, and run. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that on our backs is where our most negative emotions tend to put us. Some people have it stronger than others, but we all have a force inside that pulls downward. Depression is as stable as man on his back, as predictable as flat ground, as easy to cling to as a big granite jug.
I can see with hindsight that when I was teaching myself to write, happiness was really my only subject. I wrote poems about finding happiness water-skiing, on the sidewalk, at the sandwich shop, in Central Park, and, of course, “on a rocky mountain ridge at dawn.” In Kenya I spent hours at my kitchen table analyzing each day’s solitary events and working out complex formulas of happiness and human consciousness:
February 9, 2005
Got out of bed by 9 a.m. to walk to market. On back road to town, listening to the Boss, thought back to conversation with Dave two days ago, sent him an SMS: “hey dave, do you think its accurate to say that our minds are digital, processing an analog world?” I had visions of a novel, trying to get at the interaction of our minds and our reality and the warpings and revelations that occur. It would begin with a quote from the RZA: “You niggas is analog, my shit is digital”…
I wrote Dave’s reply in the margin: “I would suggest that the DNA encoding which dictates our brain’s structure is digital, but storage of memories and process of consciousness is analog.”
Dave and I both believed in our intelligence. We believed happiness was analog, stable, something we could figure out. Happiness was a place, and once we found it, we’d never have to leave. I looked up to Dave because he had the courage to go out and search for it. While I imagined being a climber and pitied myself for having no one around to teach me, Dave bought an unnecessary axe and an inadequate sleeping bag and hiked into the mountains alone. At the end of my weekend in Machakos, on the last day, unbelievably, I ever saw him, Dave took me out to lunch then “gave me a push” as Kenyans say, to the main road. On the way, I finally asked him how he dealt with fear when he was free-soloing. He told me that when he started to panic, he imagined the sound of a carabiner clicking shut.
My Uncle Doug is also a writer. In an essay a few years ago, he used the metaphor of “running the rope out” beyond your last anchor to meditate on the risks of climbing. He described some accidents and epics from his “glory years:” like skipping a clip and falling twenty feet onto a ledge in the White Mountains, and a winter ascent of the North-East Buttress of Ben Nevis, a trip so nerve-wracking he forgot to take any photos after the second pitch. Doug has thousands of slides stored at his house in Pike, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s the only climb he’s ever failed to photo-doc.
But that’s not to say that there’s no document. It’s in photos like this:
and every other photo of Doug with his wife, his boys, his brothers, his nephews, his friends in New Hampshire, Rwanda, Morocco, Burkina, and Ukraine, all of the photos that might not exist if he hadn’t decided on Ben Nevis that he had crossed a line.
On rock and ice, my uncle found the happiness most of us spend our lives seeking, and instead of staying in that place for as long as he could, he chose to keep moving, in the faith that raising his young family could be more epic than any climb. Over the next two decades, Doug brought up my two cousins with my Aunt Marte, represented North Haverhill as a State Representative, and worked as a grant writer for a nonprofit. When Ben and Luke were in their teens, Doug got the itch to go overseas again. This is how I ended up climbing with him in Rwanda on the cliff where the children gathered to watch, a scene much like the one he describes at the end of his essay, after a variation on a familiar route left him eighty-feet above a single, sketchy piece of protection.
When I think about Doug, almost sixty by then, run way out beyond his last anchor, or Dave, climbing with no protection but the imaginary sound of a carabiner clicking shut, I have to acknowledge, finally, that I’m not like them. Dave Hay was the bravest person I’ve ever met. But you don’t have to bike to a mountain to create risk, or run the rope out to experience fear. The fact is, we are all beyond our anchor, way beyond. Most of us are living in a state of fear so pervasive we can’t see that it is warping our most fundamental assumptions about the nature of the world. We all have something we could do that would make us happier than we are now. And we all have really great reasons why we can’t do it. And very few of us will ever even try to figure out which of these reasons are real, and which are just projections of our fear. We’ll live out our lives convinced that the next hold was definitely too sketchy,the risk was obviously too great. For some reason we are terrified of recognizing that we are so much safer than we dare to believe.
I saw myself as a climber because I was afraid to see myself as a writer. And when I confront that, I recognize fear’s great lie: that I’m safer if I just stay where I am. Happiness isn’t a big jug, or even a sketchy crimp. It’s not even the solid ground. Happiness is the balance it takes to stay off our backs. And the best way to balance is to keep moving. Giving up the known risks of high-altitude mountaineering for the uncertain responsibilities of raising a family was surely one of the most terrifying moves my uncle ever had to make. The imaginary click of Dave’s carabiner was truer than anything fear ever whispered.
That’s what I keep in mind now that it’s May and I’m climbing at Red Wing again. And it’s what I tell myself when I have to make big choices about love, work, money. It’s what I tell myself when the thought of writing one more story that may never be published gives me a cold shiver. It’s what I tell myself when the idea of having to keep telling this to myself for the rest of my life gives me the feeling I had on that ledge, when fear whispered, “It’s too much; you don’t have the strength; just let go,” and I believed it. It’s what Doug told himself on that rock face in Rwanda: go up, maintain concentration, and step lightly with confidence.
It’s the reason he can tell the end of his story himself: After what seemed like much more time than it surely was, I reached the eucalyptus trees and the crowd of waiting children.
John Teschner’s stories and essays have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Florida Review and other journals. He is completing a collection of linked stories and beginning his first novel. He lives in Minneapolis.