Bethesda might not seem a promising base from which to launch a father-son mountaineering partnership. In these parts, “summit” is more apt to refer to international diplomacy than geography, and most of us don’t know a crampon from a croissant. But bear with me. When Shannon, my 12-year-old, expressed an interest in climbing high peaks back in the fall of 2001, I had no idea where to turn. I was no rock rat. At 64, gentle hikes were my speed, and the flatter the terrain the better. I wasn’t thinking about hanging out over a cliff. “Can’t help you there, son,” I said, instantly dispelling his dreams of Everest. Then I remembered seeing rock climbers at Carderock during family dog walks on the Billy Goat Trail by the Potomac River. We scouted the scene, and soon we were hitched to ropes, grabbing for hand-holds on some of the easier routes on the Carderock Big Wall with the help of a local instructor. We bought harnesses, helmets, rope and rock shoes tight enough to make a ballerina wince. After just a few sessions, Shannon was getting up some rated climbs, showing patience and tenacity beyond his years.
I found it as difficult as any sport I’d ever tackled. It’s a “committing” activity, as climbers say, one that requires mustering the willpower to move a foot perched on the edge of a pinkie-sized nubbin of mica to a “ledge” the width of a nickel. I’ll probably always be the climbing equivalent of a golfing duffer struggling to break 100.
My technical weakness hardly mattered, though, for our excursions to Carderock were the beginning of something that took us far and wide over the next three years and set the stage for some shared experiences that not many dads and sons get to have. “Could we go ice climbing?” Shannon asked me as fall turned into winter and the rock at the Big Wall began to feel cold to the hands. Well, we’d taken it this far; why not? That February, we were in New Hampshire, doing an overnight winter trip to the summit of Mount Washington, learning the rudiments of ice anchors and ice axes and ascending nearly vertical frozen waterfalls at places such as Frankenstein Cliffs, legendary among Eastern climbers.
We’ve since climbed Mount Adams in Washington State, the Grand Teton in Wyoming and just this June we took a crack at an alp near Chamonix, France, the holy city of alpinism. You might call these shared experiences on rock, ice and snow “extreme bonding,” involving a kid on the cusp of manhood and a man at the threshold of old age. As we pursued these high adventures, we’ve known that our time for doing them together was limited by my age and Shannon’s growing ambition to go higher.
In June, near the top of the Dent du Geant (the Giant’s Tooth), under Mont Blanc, our guide wisely called a halt to our climb. I was shivering uncontrollably despite four layers of warm clothes, and the nausea from the altitude at 13,000 feet—they call it “Alpine stomach”—was taking its toll.
Shannon, of course, was unfazed, but I sensed his disappointment that we were turning back. He didn’t say a word, though, and mixed with my own sense of physical humiliation, I felt immense pride that Shannon uncomplainingly put my needs above his personal goals that day.
I knew that our days of going for high peaks together were nearly over, but he comforted me later. “Dad, we can still go ice climbing,” he said.
In our travels, our respect for Carderock and its climbers only grew. Before our Teton climb, we did a day of instruction with Laura, a no-nonsense young woman. Strong, confident and outdoorsy, we thought she had “Western woman” written all over her, until she confided she’d grown up in Bethesda, attended Pyle Middle School and cut her teeth top roping at Carderock.
A couple of days later, we met Greg Collins, one of America’s famed technical rock climbers. It turned out he, too, had climbed at Carderock, and it wasn’t long before he was reminiscing about Jeff and other regulars who practice their moves and patiently tutor every enthusiastic neophyte who comes along.
We always go back to Carderock, and not just because of the technical challenges. It’s everything the competitive, ego-driven world a few miles away is not. Climbing instills humility, a quality not much in evidence along K Street. And also, it seems to me, generosity. Skilled climbers such as Jeff, Pierre, Eric and Bryan take as much satisfaction from a duffer like me sticking a toehold as they do when they pull off a “dyno” move of their own.
It’s a place of private triumphs and bonds that one doesn’t speak of much. And dare I say it? It also seems touched by some spiritual quality.
Sometimes I just stand apart, watching the climbers on the rock, listening to the rustling leaves and the faint sounds of the river. It’s what climbing is all about, and you don’t have to travel to K2 to find it.