I have been climbing rock and ice for nine years now and am no stranger to the euphoric sensation of summiting.
During my time I have pulled over the lip of some pretty amazing climbs and have had more than a few moments of exalted pride standing at the final anchor atop a challenging route. But these all pale in comparison to the pride that swells in my heart when I think about the route I topped out on this past Saturday, the Northwest Ridge of the Foehn Wall in the Tumbler Ridge UNESCO Global Geopark.
The source of my pride is not my own accomplishments, but rather that of my climbing partner, my four year-old son Liam, on his first ever fifth class climb. With my wife Sarah and youngest son Ari belaying, Liam and I tied in together, sharing a rope for the first time.
Eager to start, Liam couldn’t even wait for a photo before starting to pull up on the rock, naturally finding hand and footholds like he was born into climbing. Which he was.
I climbed beside him, over him at times, mostly there for moral support and to point out the more obscure holds. Occasionally he reached out to grab my arm or the rope, but he quickly corrected himself once I reminded him to climb the rock and not me. There were moments of true fear, recognizable by the increasingly high pitch of his voice and the quickness of his breath. There was even a moment or two when he said he didn’t want to go on, that he was too scared. I told him of a technique I use myself when faced with the same self-doubt: stop and think. Breathe deep. Look at your next short term goal. Can you do it, can you get there? Of course you can. Another breath, and set off again.
And he did. I could sense the budding of that focus, the climbers’ calm, inside him.
Halfway up the climb, below a steep crack, was a small shallow cave in which only a small child could fit. He crawled inside to explore, and his eyes lit up when I told him he was probably the first person to ever be inside that cave (I certainly couldn’t fit!). Afterwards he climbed the crack with confidence, grabbing its edges for holds where my larger hands could only jam for purchase.
Above, a blank slab and a tricky traverse left brought us to the final flakes leading to the summit. Barely wide enough for me to squeeze between, Liam stemmed his way between two large flakes. To him the exposure must have been extreme. Legs spread out on different pieces of rock, with nothing in front or behind him and four body-lengths of air below him, his breath shook and his voice sounded like he had sucked on a helium balloon. But he did it. We pulled up over onto the summit and clipped in directly to the anchors, 30 m above the ground below. We sat there in the sun, catching breath and calming nerves, gazing out to the snow-capped mountains and sharing this perfect moment.
We hugged tightly, and I could see my pride reflected back at me in his eyes. He knew he had just done something incredible. He had put himself out there, faced his fears, and accomplished something through his own skill, strength, and mental fortitude. In that moment, he was, and forever is, a Climber.