Lessons in Granite The school of hard knocks, as taught on the walls of Yosemite. by Daniel Duane
(page 3 of 3)
I laughed and smiled and became even more anxious. Climbing onward, we organized gear carefully, moved with deliberation — as if in training. Like a carpenter taking perfect care of his tools, my father placed protection with an experienced hand, built good anchors, and moved quickly. The rock felt clean and frictive; holds secure, feet sticking. The sky clouded over, a few raindrops here and there, but my father actually slowed instead of hurrying, demonstrating good judgment, knowing that this was precisely the time to be careful.
And at the end of the day, both of us very tired, I sat on a tree that protruded from a steep gully, and he began leading the very last rope-length to the summit. He placed gear, he drew out rope, he took care. He was astonished by how well he'd climbed, and so was I. Moving steadily higher, he laughed out loud: "I'm not saying I'm great," he called down with a laugh, "but I'm not saying I'm too bad, either."
"What are you saying?"
"What I'm saying is that I'm doing all right.
"You're doing all right?"
"Hell, yes." He leaned back from the wall and called across the valley, "Trapped inside a dying animal!" He beat his chest and smiled in the spring wind. "What did Yeats call an aging man? ďA paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick.'
F---ing Yeats! An old man is a paltry thing!"
Eventually, he moved out of sight above me, and my attention drifted to El Capitan again, to the elegance of that monstrous wall.
And then I heard a sound of rock striking rock. I glanced up, saw nothing at first. My father said something inaudible, then shouted, "ROCK!"
Dad had done the unspeakable — he'd been careless on a rock-covered ledge — and now a chunk of stone the size of a melon was tumbling into the chute 60 feet above, falling toward me, skipping from one side of the chute to the next. It was going to brain me, and there was nowhere to hide. Then it shattered against the wall five feet above and to my left and I turned my head and threw myself to the right as a baseball-size chunk slammed into my jaw.
Twice, my father yelled my name. He couldn't see me.
I put my hand to my chin and felt wetness. The hand came away bloody.
My father called down again: "Did it hit you?"
I said that it had.
"Where?" he asked, audibly scared.
"In the face."
He began crying out in fear.
"I'm all right," I yelled back. "Just get me on belay."
"I want to climb up to the top with you."
He obeyed, and soon I was moving upwards, albeit slowly. Drops of blood fell to the rock from my chin. I felt dizzy, but I knew I had to focus. I'll never forget the look of terror on my father's face as I emerged into his view; he expected the worst. He knew a rock that size couldn't have hit my face without destroying it, or my head without causing brain damage. He assumed I'd been mistaken about being all right.
I only had a flesh wound — the meat torn open, but no serious damage — and we stood there a long time, holding each other and crying. We cried a lot. I could easily have been killed, and it would have been his fault, and that would have been the end of both our lives. But I was fine, so it wasn't.
I probably should've seen a doctor for the cut; it took almost a week to close, and I still have a scar. But my father and I hiked out to his car with no discussion of the accident, and by the time we were driving back to Berkeley, the bleeding had slowed and we'd reached an implicit agreement not to talk about it any further. I wanted to forget as badly as he did, so I just pressed a clean T-shirt into the wound and watched the foothills unfold to the Central Valley.
Later I did make a kind of psychic use of the accident, but it was never at my father's expense. I'd done much stupider things many times in the mountains, and I, too, had been lucky enough not to pay a dear price. I also didn't have years of filial resentment waiting for an outlet; I didn't need a reason to blame my father for anything.
I just needed a reason to let go of the climber I'd been, and of the fantastically happy years my father had given me. I needed a way to bow out of my father's return to climbing, and for a while, the rock-fall gave me that. How could we in good conscience get on a rope together again, after such a close call?
But the truth is, I would've bowed out of climbing anyway. And I also think I'll be back. I don't know when, exactly, but every time I visit the high country, and press my hand against Sierra granite, I feel something waiting for me, some source of strength and joy that won't go away. And if my father's still interested, when I feel ready to tie on a rope again, he'll be the first guy I call.
Daniel Duane is a frequent contributor to Sierra. Last year he wrote "Circling Back to the Sierra," a memoir (January/February), and "Wild and Whitewashed," on the Lewis and Clark expedition (November/December), and interviewed climbing legend Yvon Chouinard (March/April).