First and Last Ascents

The rules (there are only three of them) remain the same for a lifetime, and they come from the mouths of babes


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The last time I saw Coach, his body was puffy. His chiseled face was unchanged—flat lips, deep eyes, dark hair, still handsome as the young Clint Eastwood—but he looked as if he were wearing someone else's inflated, definitionless body.

The disease had progressed that far. I was at the top of a climb with several friends and I saw him appear down at the base of the smooth granite wall, looking up. It struck me as strange to see him standing there rather than climbing.

All of us up on the ledge had once been his athletes. Coach had led us and others on the Laramie High School swim team to seven consecutive state titles. He was a man at once compassionate, taciturn, and merciless. He got us to swim till our bodies turned to lead—till our legs couldn't move and our arms couldn't come out of the water. He made the strongest swim 400, 500, 600 laps in a 25-yard pool. Some of these laps were 50-yard sprints against the clock. They were almost unbearable, and yet we did it. Coach constantly pushed us to go faster, try harder. Everybody thought this was outrageous, because everybody thought we were only training for the state meet—except Coach. He knew the meet would come and go and then we'd graduate and the trophies would disappear into boxes and what he'd helped make of us would be all that was left.

Besides commanding the swim team, he'd taught PE classes in swimming, karate (he was a black belt, naturally), and rock climbing. Karate demanded too much quiet discipline for most of us hormone-fueled jocks, and more swimming was out of the question, so we signed up for rock climbing. Every morning until the mountains were buried in snow, Coach drove the bus up to the rocks in the dark so we could be climbing by dawn and back to school by second period. In the cold mornings of late fall and early spring our fingers would become so numb we could hardly feel the rock.

That was a decade and a half earlier. Now Coach was staring up at us, squinting into the sun. It was a gorgeous Wyoming autumn afternoon: not a cloud, not a breath of wind, air crisp as kindling. We shouted down, asking him if he'd brought his rock shoes along. He shook his head but then motioned for us to lower the rope. We glanced at each other. We were at the top of Fall Wall, an infamous 5.10 route featuring holds consisting of tiny eighth-inch ledges, the kind that require precise edging with tight rock shoes. Coach was in running shoes, with no harness.

When the rope reached him he picked up the end, tied it around his waist with a bowline, looked up, and yelled, “On belay?”

In the beginning Coach had taught us how to climb without a harness—how to just wrap a rope around your waist several times, tie a knot called the bowline-on-a-coil, and go. In Wyoming in those days, the ethics of climbing was still largely descendent from mountaineering, as were the gear and technique. We climbed on ropes stiff as lariats using aluminum nuts and iron pitons for protection. Knowing your knots mattered. Route-finding mattered. A climber of conscience climbed only what he could lead in good style. No hangs, no falls, no excuses. I never saw Coach climb any other way. It was a matter of pride, of character. Today people climb harder, but not bolder.

“Belay on!” I answered.

And Coach started to climb.

The moment he touched the rock his bloated, betrayed body was transformed. It was as though he had stepped into a world without gravity. He climbed with utter silence and grace. Each movement was discrete and intentional and yet he seemed to flow up the wall, like water in reverse. Every foot placement was sure and confident and his feet stuck to the rock like glue. It didn't matter what was there: If you believe your feet will stick, they'll stick. That's what Coach used to tell us when we were halfway up a climb and our feet started slipping and we started whining.

I made my first lead with Coach. I'd only done three or four climbs when he handed me two pieces of gear and pointed up to a 5.7 off-width called Upper Slot. I put in both pieces of protection low in the climb, got about 20 feet above the second piece, and froze. Too scared to go up, incapable of climbing down, I clung there like a frightened kitten. Coach watched and waited. After a while I started to tremble and then shake. Soon fear had taken over so completely that I was shuddering. Coach yelled at me to get my head together and just finish the climb, but by this time I had already lost my head. I was puling shamelessly and fatigue was sickening me and I was losing my grip and my feet were slipping off. By the time Coach soloed up behind me, I was certain I was going to fall and die ignominiously. Standing steady as a rock ledge right under my feet, he handed up one piece of protection, a number 11 hex, and told me in a calm, stern voice to put it in and climb to the top, which I did.

Twenty-five years of climbing and I have never been as scared since. For a long time I thought he had been cruel, because I thought Coach was merely trying to teach me how to rock-climb, how to be a rock climber. But most of Coach's students never became rock climbers. I'm sure he didn't expect they would. They would forget the skill but perhaps remember the will.

That autumn afternoon, Coach climbed Fall Wall as fluidly as a dancer. He did it in worn-out running shoes with a body that was no longer his. Unlike every other coach I ever had, and for that matter almost any person I've met, Coach was a man who expected more from himself than from you. When he got to the top he didn't say a word. He momentarily flashed his old Man With No Name smile.

Coach Layne Kopishka died of hemochromatosis—a disease in which there is too much iron in the blood—on July 11, 1992, just a few months after my first daughter was born. He left behind a wife, Judy, and two daughters, Shawna and Tonya. Coach was 47.

Not long ago I started trying to teach my daughters how to rock-climb. At the time, Addi was six and Teal was three.

We didn't go to the climbing gym. My girls like playing on the artificial wall, but when you're in a box with a roof rather than outside beneath the sky, surrounded by windows instead of horizons and fluorescent light instead of the sunshine, you learn very different things. We went into the mountains, to a dome of rounded pink granite named the Rat Brain, not far from Slot and Fall Wall.

There were six of us in all, if you count Meggie, our chocolate Lab: Addi and Teal, their six-year-old friend Justin, me, and my friend Ed, a philosophy professor who has more patience and compassion than I do, which is why I recruit him for all instructional adventures.

Stepping out of the truck, we were blasted by a cold wind, and everyone donned wool caps and windbreakers. We had backpacks, water bottles, apples, climbing harnesses, locking carabiners, and belay devices. Addi brought along her books, Justin brought his ratty down jacket, Teal brought her stuffed seal.

The path along the top of the beaver dam where we usually crossed the creek was flooded, so we had to search for another route across. The kids ran upstream and discovered a game trail through a meadow that leapt the creek and wove on through the willows. Above the creek we discovered a lean-to hidden in the aspens: fallen logs angled against a boulder blackened from a fire pit. Addi, Justin, and Teal wanted to stay and play, but I insisted they keep moving.

(Just a note: One of the many ridiculous maxims that have been whirling about in Dadland in recent decades is, Never push or pull your child. Let your child do exactly what she wants and she'll naturally rise to her potential. Spare me. We all push and pull our kids; the questions are how, when, and to what degree.)

On the lower slabs of rock beyond the trees, I had to hand the kids up to Ed at several difficult places, but Meggie, a rock dog who's been going into the mountains since she was three months old, used her claws like a double set of crampons, leaping and scratching her way up. A climbing buddy of mine swears he's seen Meggie do a pull-up.

This was our second outing. We'd all come to the Rat Brain a week before, and it had turned into a battlefield on which Ed and I suffered an ignoble defeat: The kids had all started whimpering, saying they didn't like rock climbing and refusing to continue. Teal had bounced back the very next day, asking when we would get to go back. (I think she just liked the name Rat Brain.) A few days later Justin left a message on my office phone machine asking to go climbing again. But Addi, an intellectual at six, would not let the rosy light of nostalgia color her harsh experience. The only way I got her to go a second time was by promising her that she didn't have to climb unless she wanted to. Hence the books stuffed into her pack alongside her harness. She could read while Justin and Teal climbed.

When we arrived at the base of the Rat Brain it was so windy the kids were getting knocked over. Teal, Justin, and Addi hid behind a boulder with their noses running. Even Ed admitted it was cold. But soon enough they got themselves occupied. Justin checked out “the bathtub”—an erosion hollow in the rock invariably filled with snowmelt—for insects. I could see none, but he of course found loads. Justin is a born naturalist. Addi sat down, got out her books, and began to read, grasping the pages tightly so they wouldn't flap. Teal started playing with the carabiners, linking them together like paper clips. None of them was the least bit interested in climbing.

Nonetheless, Ed scaled the dome of the Rat Brain and clipped in the ropes while I got each of the kids into a harness. They ignored me, moving their arms and legs automatically while continuing to play or read. I asked Justin if he wanted to go first; he said he'd rather continue plucking bugs out of the mud. I reminded him that he had called me to go climbing.

“Ohhh-kaayy.” He stood up, heaved his narrow shoulders, and jiggled the rope.

I belayed while Ed soloed beside Justin, giving moral support, pointing out handholds and footholds, and demonstrating the proper body position for face climbing. Justin's gym shoes were too big and they fell off halfway up. He had to be lowered in his socks, and Ed secured the shoes on Justin's feet by wrapping them with athletic tape. After that he climbed well, if slowly, pretending to be scared but concentrating intensely. At the top he threw his arms into the cold blue sky and let out a whoop.

Teal was next. Ed belayed, I climbed alongside. She never looked back, or down for that matter. She was soon to turn four—as she told everyone—and considered herself the equal of any six-year-old. Ignoring my advice on where to put her feet and which handholds to hang on to, simply assuming her little feet inside her little tennis shoes would stay wherever she placed them, she scampered straight to the top in less than three minutes. I showed her how to throw her hands in the air like Justin, and she did it, but she didn't get it. Climbing up a cold rock face in wind that could lift her off her feet just wasn't that big a deal. On the other hand, she throws her hands in the air all the time when we put on music in the living room. She loves to dance.

There are dads who think that teaching is a one-way street. In fact, teaching is a wide, two-way street with lots of crazy traffic, with ideas and education constantly flying in both directions. Which means that if you're teaching a kid, then the kid is teaching you back.

Addi knew I had promised her I wouldn't force her, but she also knew I wouldn't leave her alone. She gave in after repeated coaxing. Ed belayed and I coached. Up on the rock her genuine fear of heights reasserted itself. She was only five feet off the ground when her legs began trembling. She tried to move up and her feet slipped and her fingernails dug desperately into the rock. She was on the verge of tears. I felt like a total shit.

“Addi, calm down.” I had my hand on her back. “Look for something to put your feet on.” I pointed out two small dishes in the rock.

She listened. She focused. She placed the toes of her hiking boots on the slopey concavities, and her body relaxed slightly.

“All right! See that?”

She gave me a grim smile. She kept climbing, but she didn't go all the way to the top. Down below she had told me that she would climb to the second bolt and no farther. I'd told her that when she got that high she would want to keep going. But she didn't. She wanted to come down. Still, when she got back on the ground she was beaming.

Justin agreed to tie in again only if I promised to watch over the cup of bugs he had collected. He was planning to bring them home to show his mom. But I obviously didn't understand the value of insects, so he didn't trust me: While he was climbing he kept looking down to make sure his cup o' bugs was safe.

When I asked Teal if she wanted to climb again, she lightheartedly said no. Then, seconds later, just as gaily, she said yes. She roped in and flitted up the wall and came down and went back to reorganizing my spare carabiners.

Addi, inspired by her first success, climbed to the second bolt again, but even with arguing she wouldn't go higher. She came down and went back to reading.

While Ed and I coiled the ropes, the kids ate their apples and drank from their water bottles and wiped their noses and stared out across the frigid mountains. The truck was a mile away, and we raced back, Ed and I getting them all to run to stay warm. They took several rough tumbles before we reached the truck. We piled in, I cranked up the heat, and we began grinding homeward along the rough dirt road.

Once we were back on the highway, after everyone was warm and before the knock-knock jokes started, I asked the three small climbers to tell me one thing that they'd learned. It could only be one thing, the most important thing.

They sat quietly for a moment, thinking. I expected them to say something technical about rock climbing—”Don't hug the rock” or “Don't use your knees” or “Look for footholds”—one of the maxims Ed and I had been using to teach them how to climb.

Justin was resting his head on Ed's shoulder. For a while he looked subdued, a rare state for a boy like Justin, but then he screwed up his face, his cheeks red as cherries, and shouted, “Move swiftly!”

I couldn't help but grin. I looked at Teal. She already had her answer. She threw her hands in the air and yelled, “Don't whine!”

Addi, glowing with pride, quietly said, “Try your hardest.”

Ed started slapping his thighs and hooting.

The next day Ed, the philosopher, told me he had gone home, written their lessons down, and taped them on his wall.

Move swiftly. Don't whine. Try your hardest.

If Coach were still alive I would have written him a letter and told him this story. But then he already knew it. So I'm writing you.

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