When Your Kid Gets Better Than You
By Michael Lanza
Some 200 feet above the shore of Tenaya Lake in Yosemite National Park, on the face of a granite cliff with a name that sets high expectations—Stately Pleasure Dome—I crouch and contort my torso and limbs to squeeze into a slender passageway barely wider than my body. Inside this claustrophobic “chimney,” as this type of formation is known in rock-climbing parlance, I start grunting and panting loudly enough for the sounds of suffering to reach my 17-year-old son, Nate, who’s belaying me at the other end of our rope, below the chimney.
“How’s it look in there?” he calls to me from the relative comfort of his spacious ledge in the warm sunshine.
“Pretty snug,” I call back with feigned calm, beads of sweat streaming off my helmeted head as I scrape, push, and claw my way upward, inch by hard-earned inch, centimeter by blood-letting centimeter.
I’m crawling up through the identifying feature of a climbing route named Hermaphrodite Flake, which literally begins a few steps from where our car sits parked beside Tioga Road, on the narrow strip of flat ground separating Stately Pleasure Dome from Tenaya Lake. Nate and I drove into Yosemite this morning, saw no other climbers on this hugely popular cliff, and decided in that instant to make Hermaphrodite Flake our first route on a planned four-day climbing trip in the park’s Tuolumne Meadows area.
I slither up the chimney behind the giant flake for about 40 feet to reach its exit hole, also just wide enough to push myself through the cramped opening—a scene that must look, to someone watching from the ground far below, like the cliff birthing a fully formed adult human. I then ascend more easily up the edge of the flake to a pair of bolts drilled into the cliff, where I can anchor myself and belay Nate up—getting my turn at listening to him grunt and pant.
“That’s the weirdest pitch I’ve ever climbed,” Nate says as he scrambles up next to me on a foot ledge. He describes how the chimney amplified my grunts and struggles—no doubt bringing stately pleasure to other climbers on the dome.
We linger for a few minutes at our little aerie high above Tenaya Lake’s waters, rippling amid colossal but immobile waves of rock domes and peaks. It’s one of the most breathtaking spots in Yosemite, and on another day, we’d find it difficult to leave this perch. But Nate and I arrived in the park just as this summer’s Ferguson wildfire, outside the park’s eastern boundary, blew up into a sufficiently large conflagration to send smoke billowing across the park. Our view consists of a ghost-like, gray landscape. We rappel to the ground.
I’ve brought Nate to a historical nexus of rock climbing in America to introduce him to multi-pitch, alpine rock climbing and help him expand his nascent lead-climbing skills.
Before the next few days are over, though, I will find myself at a point that every active parent with active, growing kids inevitably faces. And, perhaps just as inevitably for a parent reaching this crossroads in life, its arrival catches me by surprise.
Climbing Cathedral Peak
Early on our second morning in Yosemite, Nate and I stand at the base of the Southeast Buttress of Cathedral Peak, looking up at a daunting wall of gleaming, gray and cream-colored granite riddled with cracks and stacked flakes. It rises about 900 feet to the mountain’s arrowhead of a summit at nearly 11,000 feet above sea level. Vague memories pop into my head from the first time I climbed it, with a friend, when my son was almost two years old. I don’t recall it occurring to me way back then that I might return someday to climb it with him.
Two climbers in their twenties stroll over and say hi. They ask us where we intend to start climbing the Southeast Buttress; they want to avoid bottlenecking with us.
One of them looks at Nate and asks, “How old are you?” Nate responds, “Seventeen,” and the other climber simply says, “Awesome.” But I know what he’s thinking: Here’s this kid about to make one of the most-coveted rock climbs in the country, years younger than most climbers had even conceived that they would one day scale cliffs.
Ascending a wall of rock nearly a thousand feet tall is, I would imagine, a bit like eating an entire cow: You attack it in manageable bites.
We alternate leading pitches, with me starting, and both of us going about as far as our 70-meter rope allows before anchoring to the cliff and belaying the other up. With each pitch, we rise some 200 feet, give or take, watching the Yosemite wilderness slowly expand around us and the horizons creep farther into the distance. More distant mountains, more spires and serrated ridgelines come into view.
A multi-hour climb like this one reveals its magic not in how it challenges you to push yourself to harder levels of difficulty—for both of us, the climbing feels relatively easy, almost casual—but in the uniqueness of finding yourself on a soaring wall in the midst of a wilderness so stirring that it literally ignited an environmental movement.
The summit of Cathedral Peak feels like standing on a cloud.
I’ve had the good fortune of more alpine rock climbs like this one than I can probably remember. But Cathedral Peak is Nate’s first. Reliving the experience through his eyes and words, as he talks about each pitch and points out other cliffs and peaks and dreams aloud of future climbs, kind of feels like stepping back about 30 years.
I lead the last pitch to the top. Fittingly, Cathedral’s Southeast Buttress route culminates not in a bland, broad summit, but a thrilling block of stone maybe the size of a king bed, with sheer drop-offs on all sides. It feels like standing on a cloud. I wait for the moment about 20 minutes later—and six hours after we started climbing—when Nate reaches a spot just below me where we can see each other and he first spies the airy perch of Cathedral’s summit. His facial reaction gifts me with one of the visuals I’ll remember most from this trip.
Two other parties that had reached the top ahead of me have now descended off it, so for a few minutes, Nate and I have the diminutive summit of Cathedral Peak to ourselves. The smoke from the Ferguson Fire, which has moved into the Tuolumne area and retreated almost with the regularity of an ocean tide over the past few days, now mostly hovers southwest of us, choking and obscuring Yosemite Valley but only making our panorama a bit hazy. We turn to scan every horizon, looking out over the other jagged peaks of the Cathedral Range.
Then Nate suggests we have one more item of business to complete today.
Eichorn Pinnacle raises a slender, sheer stone finger about a hundred feet straight up into the air, like a freakish growth on a shoulder of Cathedral Peak. We scramble to the base of it, minutes from Cathedral’s summit. Although evening is approaching, the weather remains perfect and we have plenty of daylight remaining. Nate leads the steep and thrillingly exposed pitch to the tiny apex of Eichorn. He beams when I join him up there and tell him that, in almost 30 years of rock climbing all over the country, that was one of the best easy pitches I’ve ever climbed.
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Watching a Child Become an Adult
At his age, Nate really knows only the excitement of climbing—the sense of achievement in controlling and channeling one’s natural fears into a focus unlike anything we normally experience. I know that feeling well: It’s like erasing everything from your mind, and it’s powerfully rejuvenating.
At my age, I know all of what he gushes about and more, including climbing’s dark side.
But in Nate, I’ve witnessed a steady trajectory that gives me as much reassurance as is probably possible for a parent whose child dives into activities like rock climbing and whitewater kayaking—where the harsh truth is that not all risk factors lie within our control, and accidents can be catastrophic. In our numerous days of climbing together, especially over the past couple of years, he has plied me for all the information I can offer from almost 30 years of rock climbing. He has read instructional articles and learned all he can from the coaches of his indoor climbing team.
As with any beginner, at first, some of his gear placements were a little shaky. But he focused on improving his skills and has been receptive to my critiques. Most importantly, he’s embraced an ethic of safe, conservative decision-making.
What astonishes me has been the speed of his progress. Just two to three summers ago, he made his first lead climbs on single-pitch sport routes—clipping bolts, the safest form of lead climbing. Only last summer, he made his first traditional lead climbs, placing his own gear on crack routes of beginner difficulty. Just this past spring, he and I spent several days climbing together at Idaho’s City of Rocks, where he upped his game, leading trad routes of solidly intermediate difficulty.
Maybe that’s one of those common threads linking the parenting experience: We watch them grow physically and emotionally. We try to instill in them the lessons we believe they must absorb by the time they leave home as young adults. And during their teenage years, they achieve a rate of acceleration too fast for us to track—what you might call adolescence escape velocity.
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In some aspects of development, they suddenly rocket past us—they get better than us at something. It’s both a symbolic and a real and quantifiable advance, a representation of a kid’s leap from childhood to adulthood.
And as much as we know it’s not true—and that young person still has much to learn—it can feel like it happened overnight.
Climbing Daff Dome’s West Crack
Two pitches up a route named West Crack on Daff Dome, another backcountry cliff in Yosemite’s Tuolumne area, Nate and I stand on painfully tiny footholds of pointy rock where he built a belay anchor after leading the second pitch of this final rock climb of our Yosemite visit. I look up at the third pitch, feeling a bit uneasy in my gut.
Nate had volunteered to lead the first pitch, which he protected well with frequent gear up a long, diagonal crack—a pitch that, to me, felt harder than its guidebook rating when I followed him. At the top, he had said to me, “I was totally in the zone on that entire pitch. Nothing else in my head besides climbing it. I got to the top and looked around and remembered where we are.”
My 17-year-old rookie alpine rock climber had then led the second pitch after I failed at my attempt to lead through the steep and strenuous roof at its start. Nate solved the riddle of the roof partly by finding a critical, somewhat hidden handhold that I’d overlooked. And, again, when I followed, it felt harder to me than I’d expected.
Now, looking up at the third pitch’s thin crack splitting a nearly vertical, smooth face, I’m quietly questioning whether I have the stuff to lead it today.
That’s when the shift occurs in my mind.
There come times on the psychological and emotional journey of parenting when how we see a child takes a hairpin turn. I’m guessing it often happens when the child assumes an adult role, crossing a threshold that signals a 180-degree change in direction in the fundamental terms of the parent-child relationship.
In the dozen or so years since I first tied Nate into a climbing rope, I have been the arbiter of what was safe and appropriate for him (as well as for his sister, two years younger and also an avid climber). I have made the decisions. I have led the harder pitches, all to keep him safe.
Today, I’ve come to realize that old order in our little world has shifted. With a challenging pitch looming above us, an understanding washes over me that I no longer have to shield him. He’s the better person to lead this pitch—today, anyway.
“Do you want to lead this pitch?” I ask Nate. “Because I think you’re on your game today and I’m not.”
I can almost see the eagerness erupt from him as he says: “That’s exactly the kind of pitch I’ve been hoping to lead on this trip.”
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So he takes the rack of gear and I watch him steadily make his way up the crack, sewing it up with gear. He takes a few rests on the rope, but never falls or looks shaky. When I reach him at the top of it, I blurt out, “Oh my god! I think we just got introduced to a Tuolumne sandbag!”—a term meaning a route that seems significantly harder than its rating. He laughs and says, “Yea, they call that ‘sustained 5.7 fingers?!’”
Then I add, “I knew the day would come when you’d surpass me as a climber. I just didn’t expect that to come this week.”
Humbling? Oh, yea, it is. Recognizing symptoms of my own gradual physical decline naturally breeds a little melancholy. It feels like a sort of Rip Van Winkle experience of falling asleep at age thirty and waking up to find you’re over fifty.
But my strongest reaction is pride—and an understanding that, like so much of raising a kid, moments like this are rare and special, and the period of time we get to enjoy them is fleeting. He’s a year from departing for college and an increasingly busier life. There’s no predicting how many years I’ll continue rock climbing. Always in the back of my mind lurks a sense of time rapidly accelerating. I cling tightly to days like this.
On the vast crown of Daff Dome, which looks like it could fit a couple of football fields, Nate and I search for a fixed rappel anchor to descend. Billowing wildfire smoke rolls in, obscuring even the closest domes. We laughingly trade war stories about the surprising difficulty of West Crack.
I know dangerous. Read “Why I Endanger My Kids in the Wilderness (Even Though It Scares the Sh!t Out of Me).”
Nate still has much to learn about climbing to continue practicing it safely, well beyond hard skills like placing gear. There are skills one can only acquire through experience—as the saying goes, we gain good experience through bad experiences. He will encounter pitches so difficult to protect that they scare him and force him to stay calm and make smart judgments. He will have bad days and discover that his progress does not follow a reliably upward trajectory—there are many potholes and frost heaves along that bumpy road. He will experience the temptation to push limits beyond what’s reasonable and prudent for him and his climbing partner; and I can only hope that, when that happens, he does the right thing.
In other words, as in every aspect of his life, as a climber, he will have to continue to mature.
I’m not sure I would have predicted this reaction two decades ago, but there’s nothing bad about seeing your kid get better than you. Besides, he still can’t hike nearly as far as I can in a day, or keep up with me on a bike, or ski bumps with me. I still have that edge—for now (and my slim advantage skiing bumps may disappear by this winter with both of my kids).
But whenever my kids do surpass me physically in all of those activities, it will make me feel nothing more and nothing less than proud and pleased beyond words to see them do that.
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