Lessons in Granite The school of hard knocks, as taught on the walls of Yosemite. by Daniel Duane
The way I remember it, my father and I were at the Yosemite Grocery Store, shopping for our traditional rock-climbing tacos — a ceremonial repast we hadn't shared in more than a year. I was already eating tortilla chips, walking the aisles with bag in hand, and we were trying to settle on a first climb for the next morning. Shouldn't it be something short? Shouldn't my father, after all this time away and such a hard year of work, and after letting himself get so out of shape, ease back slowly? Yeah, sure, perhaps.
Or perhaps not. Maybe a man on the comeback trail should start boldly, with something inspiring. He truly was a natural athlete, after all, and past comebacks had been pretty sudden — he'd always been able to drop everything, drive to the mountains, and muster whatever it took. So how about the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral Rock? Sure, we both knew that such a long climb could be exhausting, and that the East Buttress terminates at a ledge covered with loose rocks.
There'd been more than a few injuries and fatalities over the years, when those rocks had been dislodged by an errant foot or rope and come tumbling down the climbing route. But we'd both done the climb more than once, and such a long day, on familiar terrain, with a great view of El Capitan — what a great way to be together! How better to rescue what we were both so scared of losing — the rare closeness we'd once had as climbing partners.
After paying the cashier, and walking into the still heat of a Yosemite summer night — the dry smells of pine and wood smoke — we simply agreed on the standard East Buttress precaution: We'd wake up in the wee hours, make sure we were the first party to the base, and if anyone beat us there, we'd pick another destination, so we didn't risk getting killed by the mistakes of others.
I recall a vague sense of dread, but I don't think it had anything to do with our choice of climb. It had more to do with a coming change I could just barely feel. Five years earlier, my father had taught me everything he knew about ropes and carabiners and chocks and all the rest; he'd even taught me the joy of Sierra granite and blue skies, the immense freedom of a long day's scramble.
For him, climbing had been a kind of dream life, an escape from work and pressure and his own sadnesses and into a world of high adventure. He'd given that escape to me, but because I was a young man with a lot of time on my hands, it had become more than an escape: It had become the first great obsession of my life, the means by which I'd started figuring out who I was. And he'd happily come along for the ride — several summers running, we'd been each other's best climbing partner.
It was almost a picture of good father-son fortune. One weekend after another, we'd spent all those hours laughing and talking in the car, and cooking our tacos, and sleeping under the stars, and scrambling up cliffs. But over the last couple of years, while I'd climbed harder and harder, my father had stopped. Work, self-doubt, wondering if he'd be able to afford retirement — I don't really know what took him down, or why he stayed down so long. I doubt I ever will. But I do know that we missed each other.
I was busy fulfilling the dream he'd taught me to have — climbing El Capitan — and he was struggling with things I probably won't understand until I get to that age myself. And now, 25 years old and with El Capitan behind me, I'd started graduate school, I'd moved to a beach town, and I wasn't even sure how climbing fit in. But if I was no longer a climber, if Yosemite wasn't at the very center of my life, who exactly was I?
Such a mundane question, and it only mattered that weekend because my father was at last mustering the will to crawl out of the hole he'd been in, and climbing was the obvious way to do it. He wanted to come charging back, seize the man he'd once been, and restore all the optimism and confidence he'd once taken home from every trip to the mountains. I wanted that for him, too, but I was also afraid of something I couldn't name.
On our weekend trips, we rarely slept in Camp Four, the storied Yosemite climbers' campground, because you had to spend hours in line for a site, and because my father had a secret sleeping spot in the woods that had never failed us. So we cooked on the tailgate of the truck, and melted cheese on our tortillas, and watched the stars shine over the black shadowed mass of Half Dome. A ranger ambled by, perhaps walking to his cabin at the end of his shift; we imagined his days to have the serenity of a gardener in Westchester County, and we reckoned we'd love his job and the excuse to drift among these trees year after year, free of obligation, taking lunch on some silent boulder in the forest.
Even this conversation was an attempt to revive old patterns, old pleasures, projecting our shared fantasy: how this guy had gone to some Ivy League school, rowed first oar on the varsity heavyweight boat, got accepted to a big law school, and then just bailed (the rejection of caste being essential to the form). "Somehow," Dad mused, "his ex-wife's parents had always known there was something peculiar about dear Ted.
"'Like the time,'" he continued, mimicking the complaining remembrance of an ex-mother-in-law, "'He just walked off for three days during a family trip to Yellowstone. We thought he'd been killed by a grizzly or deserted our daughter. But he'd just seen fit to visit a rather remote lake. No explanation!'" He never quite apologized, either, Dad and I figured, only spending the year breathing deeply and looking up at the jag of sky that Yosemite Valley describes.
I remember my father's deep chuckles and satisfied breathing. Maybe he really could rescue himself this way. And although something was amiss in my own heart, and although this blarney about the ranger made me half-panicked with anxiety even as it made me laugh, I was happy to share a fun night with my father. I love his banter. I just wasn't sure it meant the same thing to him that it meant to me.
After a youth of radical politics, he'd become a successful lawyer and reliable family man; I was a much more marginal character, and I'd already burned much of my best youthful energy in the wilderness. Which is perhaps why I reacted the way I did to the last thing my father said before we drove off to sleep. A group of young climbers had gathered around a nearby pickup: a portly Frenchman who had ropes fixed on El Capitan's monstrous Dawn Wall, a Californian whose partner had failed to show, and two aspiring young Colorado longhairs, here hoping to join the search-and-rescue team.
"These boys will never be happier than they are now," Dad said wistfully, as he started our truck's engine. "Their lives can never be finer than this: freedom, anticipation, beautifully young and strong and free. They don't have to be anywhere else, nobody's telling them they got to come home. Emerson was right, the Golden Age is now. You know what I mean?"