Mountain Lessons

We just returned from a fantastic trip to North Carolina. It was everything I could have hoped for: rafting, hiking, climbing, and sliding down waterfalls.

At one point during this adventure, the boys did some free-climbing on a rock face on Mt. Pisgah. It started out about 5 degrees off vertical, then curved to be gentler, and had plenty of nice little edges and cracks running through it. The boys clambered up it like monkeys.

Climbing down, however, was something of a different matter.

The rock face was off a trail on the side of the mountain. Climbing up, they were focused on the rock. Once they got to the top, however, they flipped around to sit on the rock and look down. Suddenly, they weren’t seeing a rock face. They were seeing past the trail and all the way down the mountain, a drop of something like 1,500 feet.


“Three things on the rock at all times,” I called out. It’s what I’ve been telling them since they first started rock climbing. The idea is that you always have three things holding you up, either two feet and a hand or two hands and a foot. That way, if something slips, you don’t die.

Anyway, the boys know the “three things on a rock” rule as well as I do. I shouted it out more as a reminder. When you’re climbing (or doing anything else, really), the key to success is to focus on what you’re doing. You have to ignore the fact that a slip would mean a 1,500 foot tumble.

My youngest son immediately flipped around and started climbing down. The toes of his shoes found the cracks and ledges he needed, and his hands gripped sure and true. He followed the contours down without a problem.

His older brother, however, started coming down on his backside, sliding down the incline, with his feet in the cracks.

“Stop!” I shouted.

It was the closest thing I have to a command voice, but I think it cracked a little, and ended up sounding like I was super angry.

Both boys froze where they were. Even my wife jumped. The boys looked down at me, eyes wide.

“What’s wrong?” My wife said. “They’re fine.”

I ignored her. That’s something I don’t usually do, and fortunately, we both understand that the only reason I would ignore her is if something very important and very immediate is happening.

“Face the rock,” I said to my oldest.

“I’m fine,” he replied.

“Face the rock,” I repeated.

“My feet are in the cracks. I’m fine!”

“Face the rock, or I’m coming up there and getting you.”

“Da-ad, I’m fine!”

“What happens if your foot slips?”

“My hands are on the rock,” he said.

“They’re facing the wrong way. With your back to the rock, your fingers and palms are facing down. You can’t grab anything. If your feet slip, all you can do is push off the rock.”

He looked down at his feet, then at me, then at the huge drop behind me.

“I can’t catch you if you fall from there,” I said evenly. “I’ll try, but I won’t succeed. All that will happen is we’ll both be knocked off this mountain.”

I felt my wife look at me.

“Face the rock,” I repeated.

He turned his body and maneuvered the rest of the way down.

“Phew,” I said. “Great climb.”

That’s the thing I love about mountains. They bring focus and clarity.

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