As long as you’re not hurting anyone, you’re generally free to climb however you like. Freedom is an ethos woven into our ropes, braiding back through history. This includes the freedom to be an idiot, perhaps an idiot who is despised or mocked by the community, but free nonetheless.
That’s why I kept mum on two recent occasions.
I had a premonition of trouble last Thanksgiving when my group encountered a California family at an overhanging crag called the Trophy in Red Rocks, Las Vegas. The family included a teenage girl, an eight-year-old girl and a little boy. The mom and dad scampered up to the base of the steep sport routes with their kids and dropped their ropes.
“We want her to send 5.13 before she turns 9,” the mom told me about the 8-year-old girl.
The way she phrased it said everything about the girl’s relationship to climbing. The girl never appeared to be very interested in climbing hard that day, preferring to play games with her brother instead. She was not enthusiastic about trying the bulging 5.12b, which had a dyno at the fourth bolt, and she didn’t watch the other climbers on it for any beta, but her parents prodded her onto the sharp end. On her first try, she panicked and sobbed at the second bolt, where the jugs were farther apart.
“The bolt is above you, you’re essentially on toprope! Just try. You’re on toprope!” the dad barked.
“I want to come down,” the girl pleaded until dad lowered her briskly and chastised her as if she had knocked over an antique vase.
My three companions are all teachers. They gave each other glances that expressed disapproval of the parenting. The scene was cringe worthy but it was about to get worse.
After being told she needed to try harder, the girl got back on the looming route and panicked again at the second bolt while others and myself waited to try the line. Again, she asked to come back down but her dad wouldn’t lower her until she put in more effort. With more goading, the girl made it to the third bolt, where she was stymied at the dyno. She whined and flailed for a while, demanding to be lowered until her dad gave in, almost dropping her to the ground in frustration.
Meanwhile, the little brother succeeded on a 5.9 nearby.
“We’re going to take him to Circus Circus later because he tried,” the parents told the girl.
“But I want to go to Circus Circus!” she bawled.
“Well, then try harder,” mom said.
Gag. Another round of steaming glances confirmed a mutual disgust among the rest of us.
Some quiet time passed and I was belaying my girlfriend at a different cliff when a blood-curdling scream split the canyon.
“I’M SCARED! MOM! I DON’T WANT TO GO DOWN! I WANT TO GO UUUUP!”
I turned around and saw the little girl death gripped on two crimpers above the fifth bolt at the lip of the overhang. The chain draw dangled at her feet. She was too scared to drop onto it and unable to try the next move. It was one of the most impressive displays of endurance I’ve ever seen – she literally hung there for a solid 10 minutes or so, screaming.
“I WANT TO GO UP! I DON’T WANT TO GO DOWN!”
Her parents laughed.
“Honey, just drop onto the chain,” mom said. “But don’t grab it.”
“PLEASE! I want to grab the chain! I want to grab the chain! Please let me grab the chain!”
The cries crashed over the sandstone wash like falling boulders. None of us knew how to react.
“Yeah, we’re bad parents,” dad joked.
I wanted to say, “Yes, you are a bad dad,” but all I could do was ask him where they planned to climb the next day so we could avoid him. Even then, he kept turning up wherever we went. At the trailhead the next day, who was there? And when our friends went back to Red Rocks for Christmas break, who camped next to them? Still, nothing was said.
I found myself zip-lipped again a couple weeks ago while ice climbing a WI 5 in Redstone called The Drool. My partner and I were toproping the mixed line next to it when a couple yo-bros strolled up. The first one wore a flat-brimmed baseball cap cocked to the side and the reflection of his sunglasses glared back at us. He had a laid back, I-know-everything tone, but he was humble about his ability. He planned to hike around and set a toprope on the ice. Then his buddy came up. The 6-foot-6, shaggy blond-haired guy had even less ice climbing experience, yet he wanted to lead the vertical drip.
“No way I’m leading that,” Sunglasses said, giving his mentee an implied caution. Blond Dude was undeterred, however. I was tempted to advise him against it as well. Instead I shrugged and turned away.
Blond Dude proceeded to ask lots of questions while racking up.
“I think you’ll know soon after you start if you got it or not,” Sunglasses said.
Using borrowed tools, Blond Dude made slow progress up the first 10 feet. His line up the ice was on a peg-board donkey trail that offered secure hooking, which should have spared his energy. His size 13 boots kicked all over the ice, as much sideways as up, and he struggled to place screws above his head. I was sure he would realize that he wasn’t ready for the lead and back off, but I was wrong.
He was about halfway up and I was climbing directly across from him when I heard panicked breathing.
“Oh dear God, please hold!” he huffed, dropping about 15 inches onto the umbilical cords of his leashless tools.
“That guy was huge!” my partner said later. “I’m not sure those umbilical cords are made to withstand a shock load like that. It’s a good thing they did, or it could have been bad.”
While resting on the umbilicals, Blond Dude placed some more screws.
“How hard is this?” he asked me.
“In the guidebook, it’s a WI 5,” I said.
“Whoa,” he said brightening. “I’ve never even led a four before!”
“In these conditions, with all the footsteps chopped out, it is more like a four,” I said. I didn’t want him to get on a real WI 5 thinking he had experience.
At that point, I was sure Blondie would back off, since he was just getting to the crux and it would be easy to lower off and hike to the top … Nope. With small, weak little swings, he labored the rest of the way up for 30 minutes.
“Sorry I took so long,” he said when we met at the anchor.
“That’s OK.” I said, adding something like, “good job not dying.”
It felt a little mean, but I wanted him to think twice next time. I wondered if it might have been better to help him before he left the ground.
It’s tough to know when to speak up. Some people might be too quick to tell strangers how to climb, and those are the type of people the climbing community generally doesn’t like – the self-righteous know-it-alls who don’t know much.
When I was 12 years old, I did one of my first leads up a 5.5 crack at a toprope crag outside Boulder. A concerned, more experienced climber soloed my line to check out the gear placements, which were worthless, and he gave me a public critique. I bristled with resentment in the moment, but ultimately his advice echoed through my career: I placed cams and stoppers more carefully and built every anchor as though an instructor were watching over my shoulder.
Most of all in those days I wanted to be accepted by the climbers around me, which was why I dove into leading before I was ready; I dreamed of the day when I would cast off from the ground, set free with knowledge and ability. Thankfully, I lived long enough to see that day, and still I crave that freedom evermore.
As for cases like the dad and his daughter, that comes down to social sensibility. How often do we watch abusive behavior and not say anything? History shows it is too often. Perhaps if one of us had defended the young girl’s interests with a tactful remark, she might grow up with a better sense of boundaries and self worth, even if dad never understands what he’s doing. I wish I could have that one back, and I kind of hope that man reads this.
Sure, you’re generally free to climb (and live) how you will. And the rest of us are also free to tell you our opinions, hopefully in a respectful manner.
What do you say?
Derek Franz lives in Carbondale, Colo. He started climbing 20 years ago and made so many mistakes he is lucky to be here. This column appears the first Monday of every month at SplitterChoss.com.