An Awkward Silence

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.

Part One

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.

Part Deux

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.

Personal embarrassment

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.

Social situation

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.

12 Responses to An Awkward Silence

  1. thoroughly enjoyed this article! I would’ve had a hard time not speaking up to the parents making the sport of climbing a traumatic event for their kid!

    Mike February 3, 2014 at 10:02 am Reply
  2. Ok, well, I sure wasn’t there with you in Red Rocks, but I have to say that being a climbing parent is loaded with judgement on both sides. We are judged for showing up with kids at a crag at all. We are judged if we’re too lax and let the kids do whatever they want. Judged if we’re stubborn and pushy. Judged if we’re human and make a mistake one day. Looking at one day of a family’s life and deciding that the relationship is “abusive” and requires an intervention on the part of a total stranger is very, very difficult.

    I have seen some really truly epic meltdowns from kids at the crag. Before I had kids I would wonder why a parent would subject children to something they obviously hate so much. Now that I have a kid, I know that children are emotional and inconsistent. One day they are passionate and thrilled to do something, 10 minutes later its the worst thing that you could ever do to them OMG. You have to laugh and take it in stride and know that the pendulum is just as likely to swing the other direction the next day.

    On a similar note, my parents made me take ballet lessons 3 days a week until I was 15 years old or so. I HATED IT for several years. I would cry and scream and beg my parents to let me stop. Now I look back on it and I’m proud of what I accomplished as a dancer, and I’m really happy they pushed me to do things that were uncomfortable for a while but worth it in the long run.

    Kate C February 3, 2014 at 10:07 am Reply
  3. Based on your side of the “Crag Family” story, I’d be a little a little concerned. I don’t think the sport is the issue but like the type of parents. I’ve seen parents like that on the baseball field, soccer, at the climbing gym, tennis etc. In this instance, they knew they were bad parents…but what do you do? It’s not something you can go up to a stranger and say “Hey you are mentally messing up your kid, you are being a jerk”. I guess you could say that but it’s something that is talked about when you know someone.

    Being and outdoor mom and if I would have been in your position, camping near them, finding them on the trail, I would have tried to befriend them and talk them because even though I might not be able to change their bad parenting style, my presence would hopefully curtail the mental damage they were doing to their kids. Show by example how to enjoy with outdoors with my children.

    Melissa February 3, 2014 at 10:14 am Reply
  4. Fabulous conversation! I agree with the post and many of the comments. It is very risky business judging a family and the parents based on an encounter and even more so when you don’t have kids. Like Mike said, kids are incredibly fickle. As a climbing family we error on the side of not pushing our kids to much, most of them spending the majority of their time playing at the base. But occasionally we ask them to at least try. And on other occasions (a handful) our toddler has enthusiastically launched herself up the rock, only to freak out at the fourth bolt when she realizes she has to come back down. That is why we hook a rope on the back of their harness to help guide them back down… but for a few moments we are those parents that “seem” to be abusing their child, as the screams echo off the canyon walls. There are things we do to limit those experiences… but enough on that.

    What I love is the part talking about feedback. We run into a ton of know-it-all climbers, and hesitate to say anything when we see risky mistakes. We once ran into two “guides” that brought a group of about 15 father/son pairs to climb. And as one struggled up the route to set up a top rope, he was reverse clipping all over the place, and leading with the rope behind his leg. My husband couldn’t sit quietly by. But he waited till the guy was down, asked him over to our camp for a minute and explained some of the mistakes respectfully without embarrassing him in front of the group. He seemed thankful. And I know I’ll gladly invite whomever to second my routes and check my placements and tell me when they are bad. We all should invite critique.

    Alyssa (@KidProjectOrg) February 3, 2014 at 10:42 am Reply
  5. My knee-jerk reaction is “What do you have to lose by speaking up?” I have encountered similar situations before, whether it’s coming across scramblers heading upwards in a lightning storm with no shelter, extra layers or real knowledge of the dangers; belayers not paying attention (at all), or parents sending their 7-year-old 5 meters from a black bear to take a photo. I don’t go looking for people doing things incorrectly or the opportunity to critique, but I’ve never held back when there is safety on the line.

    When it comes to the parenting situation, I only have a baby at this point, so I don’t know what it’s like to parent that age. I have learned it’s easy to judge until you become a parent, and then you know how blurry the lines are. Still, if a kid was obviously being pressured into something that was clearly fulfilling only the parents’ dream, and being mean about it, I’m not sure that I could stand aside and keep my feelings to myself. I don’t think it has to be a comment like “you’re being a jerk.” Maybe more of a question, “have you considered that your daughter is frightened and may be ready for a route like that at another time?” Or simply just stand up for the girl? Or maybe even just point out the fact that there are a number of people waiting, and if the girl doesn’t want to climb, perhaps it’s time to let someone else try.

    These situations are always tricky, but if you’re never going to see these people again, I think it’s worth speaking up.

    Meghan J. Ward February 3, 2014 at 11:53 am Reply
  6. This isn’t restricted to climbing (it occurs in all sports), but now that more climbers are having kids, the number of climbers is greater and the fact that we have lots of people learning to climb, we will see an increase in family climbing.

    Parents get to hold the fine line about competition and improvement for their kids, but ultimately they need to NOT try to live through what their kids achieve.

    As a parent of two, I can say that I want my kids to be good at what they do but the reality is that all I can do is support what interests they have and see where it goes from there. I cannot instill my drive or desire into anyone, especially my kids. They will follow their own path and I will support them along the way.

    As for what to do about those parents who are in it for the wrong reasons, well a little confrontation never hurt anyone. They call it encouragement when they are doing it to their kids and we call it looking out for their kids futures/health! Climbing is one of those activities that you get hurt when you are not totally focused on the challenge in front of you. To go and force a kid to risk getting injured is not healthy.

    Thanks for sharing this piece : )

    rob February 3, 2014 at 1:06 pm Reply
  7. As a kid, my parents did something remarkable for me that has made me more passionate about the sports I have chosen to participate in: they left me alone. In other words, when I asked to take horseback riding lessons, they helped me by driving me to the lesson, paying for it, watching quietly (or sometimes walking around the stables), and asking me how it went when I was done. I ended up going to a National Championship when I was 11 and winning it. Same with ballet when I was a bit older- and I ended up dancing professionally for a short time until I was 22. Now I’m addicted to climbing, and they have been nothing but emotionally supportive.

    As a mom of a 3.5 year old, I want him to explore every option possible. I want him to feel like he can try any sport he likes, even if it doesn’t follow suit with what I want. Even if he wants to be a drummer in a band, or a computer geek, I will support him. That being said, I also know that kids can change their minds in a heartbeat. I don’t agree however, with forcing a child to do something to the point of crying, screaming, and begging. I don’t believe it’s healthy or fun, at all. Yes, today we might be climbing as a family, but hey, if you don’t want to climb, then hang out in the sun, read a book, relax. Isn’t that what we do as adults when we aren’t into it?

    Could I say something to the parents? I would probably have tried to befriend them and get more information. And then slip in my opinion, kindly, if possible. And, if not, then I can only walk away and hope they will eventually see the emotional damage they are doing to their child.

    With the other guy, well, he’s just dangerous. I might be more apt to say something to him than to the family. This is where I draw on tact and hope I come across ok. I think your comment to him, Derek, was totally acceptable, and true. It was as good thing he didn’t die that day. Climbing is dangerous, but rock is a much more predictable medium than ice. Ice climbing has many more inherent dangers than rock. Personally, I just think it’s somewhat poor style and ethics to go around flailing on ice when it’s over your head. Your putting your partner in a situation to where they may have to haul you out. But I would totally accept and applaud a climber flailing about on rock. Trying hard on rock seems to be a bit safer than on ice.

    Thanks for the story Derek!

    Mary February 3, 2014 at 11:09 pm Reply
  8. Thanks for the comments, everyone! Lots of ideas and philosophies to consider here. Hopefully these types of discussions will help us come together more as a community at the cliff.

    Derek February 4, 2014 at 7:46 am Reply
  9. I think the real question here is why would anyone road trip to Red Rock just to go sport climbing?

    Kevin February 4, 2014 at 4:06 pm Reply
  10. There is a parent at my climbing gym who reminds me of this story. There are two kids on the climbing team who are amazing- I would guess they are 7? or 8? And they are leading really hard routes and making them look easy. The one girl obviously loves it, and is usually climbing with the same partner, who isn’t as good as her, but seems to be very good friends with her. Then there is the boy. His Dad hangs around the whole climbing session. If the boy wants to climb with his friend, his Dad tells him he can’t,because his friend isn’t a good enough climber and won’t push him hard enough. His son isn’t ever allowed to try easy routes or do something just for fun. Every move is critiqued loudly by his father from the ground. It drives me nuts.
    He likes to do it to other people too. The other day he came up to me just as I pulled the rope on a warm-up and proceeded to lecture me for 5 minutes on how to do the first move. I tried to tell him that a) I had it down but he wouldn’t listen. Not only that, the way he was telling me to do it was with a huge dyno that I am physically not capable of doing. I think some people are just pushy, and having kids who are totally under their control just brings this out in ways they could never get away with with an adult.

    Nicole February 7, 2014 at 8:41 am Reply
  11. ahhh, more personal spray as always…

    jay brown February 18, 2014 at 12:13 pm Reply

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