Turning 50 may be the worst reason to try rock climbing for the first time.
BY DAVID GILBERT
Pitch No. 1: The Elevator Pitch
There they are, a thousand feet of sexless polished granite shining in the Idaho sun. And there I am, grubby and unshaven, three weeks from turning 50, standing with my 15-year-old son. I have never rock climbed—or climbed in any organized way.
In my youth, I tackled the curated boulders in Central Park with what I considered cat-like skill. I was a tremendous at scaling trees. I had read The Eiger Sanction and had even seen the movie, twice. But my father was a banker and most of our peaks and valleys lay within the pinstriped world of the Dow Jones Industrial. But I am different.
I went to college in Vermont and graduate school in Montana, and while I still live in my hometown of New York, my head is often maneuvering through strange fictional terrain. But climbing, like real climbing, with ropes and harnesses and those cool metal loopy things—carabiners? Yeah, carabiners. No, never that kind of climbing, not even in my most extravagant dreams.
“We can do this when we come back,” JP suggests, standing at the base of this glassy rock.
“It’s fun,” Sam tells us.
JP and Sam are our guides for the week in the Sawtooth Wilderness. Though I have done my outdoor time in Vermont and Montana, I haven’t been camping, like serious multi-day camping, in probably 25 years. This embarrasses me. How far removed from nature I’ve become. And since I’m a New Yorker, born and bred, I’ve hired these two young men to take Max and me on our adventure, to reintroduce me to myself.
“What do you think?” I ask Max.
Max is game for anything. Max is hungry for excitement in all forms. Max wants near- death thrills. Max and I had just done five days of rafting on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, five days of the biggest water in recent memory, five days of near-panic in the eyes of the outfitter who navigated us through rapids classless and base. But we had survived, we had laughed through gritted teeth, and Max, well Max, he wasn’t impressed. No boats flipped. No one was injured or near-drowned.
For him, the goal of safety represented the failure of imagination. Only broken bones held meaning.
“Of course,” Max says of the potential ascent.
And so we stash the climbing gear because we will be back, Super Slabs, the name sort of disappointing: it sounded like a big-haired, sequin-wearing band from the ‘70s, hard rock dressed up in gray Lycra. There was no Super Slabs Sanction. Not yet, at least.
Pitch No. 2: The First Pitch
In February, I started feeling the pinch of 50, though in all honesty turning 40 was harder. I remember being cranky for the whole year leading up to that July, the last few months unbearable, my normally staid temper swelling to the surface, my patience near zero, my eyes seeking quick judgment. I imagined myself getting into fistfights, just swinging at that annoying dude passing me on the street. I tipped cabbies poorly. I was short with my dog. If I were Ishmael, I would have taken to the sea.
But I was clueless to the cause of this aggression and depression—age seemed a dubious and rather pathetic reason for such a lousy mood—so I blamed whatever was within reach: my wife, my career, my life in this hard city. But then I turned 40 and I lightened almost instantly. Weird, I remember thinking. It was just getting older that had gotten me so down. But now the clock had restarted on a new decade.
The following 10 years proved difficult and triumphant and joyous and regretful, a bit of everything, birth and death included, and approaching the big 50 I was wary of putting my loved ones through this banal birthday crap all over again. So I planned a trip, a trip with Max. Some good old-fashioned father-son bonding. I would battle a cliché with another cliché.
“For how long?” Max asked.
“Two weeks, two and a half weeks.” “Just the two of us?”
He thought for a moment, which in teenage years encompassed the amount of time to return a text and a Snapchat. “Um, sure, I guess,” he said. “But do you think we could just go for like a weekend.”
“Yeah, like a long weekend.”
“Trust me,” I said, “We’ll have a good time.”
“But I have things to do,” Max said. Is there a better, or worse, age than 15? The exquisite awkwardness, the strange new geography, every mirror a fun house mirror showing squat bits and elongated bits, the giant feet and small hands, the general mortification of the flesh, and of your parents as well.
“And you’ll do those things, I promise,” I told him.
“A week at the most,” he said.
“Two weeks and it’s going to be a blast,” I said.
"I’m hugging rock, near tears and imagine myself becoming just another contour of the Super Slabs, people climbing over my body for years to come, hammering pitons into my skull."
Pitch No. 3: The Hollywood Pitch
After four days in the Sawtooth Mountains, hiking and camping on heavy snowpack since the winter totals had been so epic, after trudging over sun cups the size of large serving bowls, kicking in every step, sliding, sometimes glissading, often resting as every footfall was multiplied by the x number of feet beneath, after mentioning to the guides my years in Vermont, in Montana, Max rolling his eyes, after four nights sleeping on frozen ground in front of ice-covered lakes with turquoise pockets of melt, beautiful yet vaguely eerie, like ponds of the purest industrial waste, after one long night of nearby lightning strikes and intense rain and hail pummeling our tent, father and son crouched together, uncertain of fate, after all these incredible moments and spectacular views and no cellular service and games of hearts and food made delicious simply for being food, after all this, here we are, returned to the base of the Super Slabs. They seem higher and steeper than I remember. Why did I agree to this again?
“Is this going to be hard?” I ask JP and Sam, as they help us into our harnesses.
“It’s around a 5.8 climb,” JP says, as if these numbers mean anything to me.
“There are some technical bits.”
And here Mr. Vermont Montana learns that technical is just another word for difficult. This particular euphemism drains the pursuit of its struggle and sweat and instead implies cable TV setup and computer work, the mild glitch of when something goes wrong on the networks. I can see the headline now: “Man Dies from Technical Issues, Please Stand By.”
“Because I’m not in the world’s greatest shape,” I say.
JP and Sam share a quick, obvious glance, having seen me in action these last four days.
“You can definitely handle this,” Sam says, strapping the helmet on my head. “Last week I climbed the Slabs with a dad and his two girls, 10 and 12 years old, and they killed it. They were from New York as well.”
I bet they’re from Brooklyn, I thought, but me, I’m from Manhattan.
They hand me a pair of climbing shoes, and though I’m petrified of what’s to come, these shoes make me unspeakably happy, what with their close fit and extended arch and downward pointing toe and smooth sticky sole—they’re like ballet shoes for studs. I feel ruggedly graceful. I admire how they look on my legs, their pleasing taper.
My son is staring at me.
“What?” I ask.
“Nothing,” he says.
JP and Sam give us the basics: JP will take the front, Sam the back, and JP will scurry up to the first pitch and tie in and blah, blah, blah. I literally hear nothing. Oh, I’m nodding along, but my head is wondering if my harness is tight enough and if these wonderful shoes will give me blisters. I take in snippets of the pre-climb tutorial: belay, which is perhaps the loveliest word I’ve ever heard, and anchor and carabiner and bolt. But like with most directions, I’m baffled after the first turn and simply hope I’ll find my way.
“Should we do this!” JP cheers, slinging over his shoulder this bandolier charmed with multiple pieces of shiny metal gear. Sam’s wearing one too. I am briefly jealous.
“Yes,” we say, because we are a team and we are doing this.
JP starts up the graded incline, leaning into the rock, hands helping him along but in effortless style, like he’s miming the act of climbing. Settled into his perch a hundred feet up, he calls down for Max, and Max literally sprints up this tilted face, like the natural he is, the little brat. Now it’s my turn. First step okay. Second step fine.
I enjoy the Spiderman grip of these shoes. More steps. Hands looking for ridges and holds. I can sense the potential mortal fall behind me even though Sam is still within dodgeball distance. I realize right then, on the easiest section of the Super Slabs, that I’m in over my head, even if I had once lived in Vermont and Montana. I’m a man who ascends exclusively by elevator. But I make it to JP and Max, and they smile and tell me, “Well done,” and Sam joins us with all the effort of raising a pinky while drinking tea.
“Now it gets a bit more technical,” JP says.
I am so screwed.
Pitch No. 4: The Crux Pitch
The only other time I’ve ever felt this way was in 10th grade geometry class, the feeling of no matter what, I’m never going to be able to do this. Sorry, lengths and areas and volumes are not my bag. I’m totally incapable of providing the necessary proof. I am baffled. I am doomed. I am unsolvable. Up we go. Or up they go, JP and then Max. Me? I’m hugging rock, near tears and imagine myself becoming just another contour of the Super Slabs, people climbing over my body for years to come, hammering pitons into my skull. Don’t mind me, I’m stuck forever.
My son, my sweet son, shouts down encouragement, and my mind is full of free-falling invective. Shut the fuck up. You have no fucking idea what I’m going through. I swear if you say, “You can do this,” one more time, I’m going to climb up there just so I can throw you off this super shitty slab.
JP and Sam instruct me on how to wedge my hand into that crack and look for any ledges or shelves or protrusions, and swing my leg over and reach my hand up and brace my foot. But right now I hate these two people more than I’ve ever hated two people in my life, worse than Lenny and Squiggy. I blame them for bringing me up here. I cannot believe they thought I could do this. I’m almost 50. Don’t they know that? Haven’t I made that perfectly clear? Oh, and by the way I barely went outside while I was in Vermont and Montana.
My knee is now bleeding. Fingers too. I have no dynamic motion; in fact, I am the opposite of dynamic motion. I am all fruitless gesture. I slip and feel the rope tighten and hold me, and I wonder if JP could just haul me up—he’s young, he’s strong, he got me into this mess—like if I fake a head injury, if I pretend to knock my helmet against the rock, I could go limp and he could be the hero. Win-win. Sam is right behind me. He tells me I’m doing great as he boils another pot of tea. Sam is a horrible liar. I can see my fear in his eyes, which shines back as mild amusement.
These girls, I think, can we talk about these girls, only 10 and 12? How in the hell did they do this, Sam, this shimmying up this narrow seam? But then I remember women in all forms and at all ages are stronger. Okay, how about the dad then? How did the dad manage? I scan the granite for dad tears and dad blood and dad regrets, dad humiliations, dad failures and dad jokes and dad attempts at bonding—at trying for connection during this time of tough angles and nearly impossible surfaces, this non-Euclidean world where getting from here to there is near impossible to grasp, even with ropes involved. I stare at this rock and I am haunted.
“All right, man, well done,” JP says to me.
“Awesome,” Max says, doing me the favor of not noticing my flailing.
I carefully turn and rest my back against the slab. My legs are shaking, my arms wasted. From the top of the crux pitch we can see Redfish Lake, the endpoint for our trip, where we will hop on a boat later this afternoon and head back toward Redfish Lodge, where our rental car is parked. After a few days in Sun Valley, Max and I will fly back to New York City. Max will quickly get reabsorbed into his life of texting and Snapchatting and hanging with friends and discovering the more adult boundaries of adolescence. I will turn 50. I won’t feel old but I will know that I am old.
“That was horrible,” I say.
“But you totally did it,” Sam says, smiling. I nod. In my adrenaline-fused gut I have nothing but tremendous warmth for Sam and JP, knowing soon I’ll never see them again, despite the promises of keeping in touch. We will depart. We will exchange a single pleasant email and then appropriate silence. But right now I love them. And maybe this melts into my son as well, the big and small of growing older.
And then JP ruins it.
“Only two more pitches to go.”
David Gilbert went to college in Vermont, graduate school in Montana, and otherwise has lived in New York his whole life. He has three children and has written three books, most recently & Sons from Random House. He is never rock climbing again.