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The Fourth Peak

When he suggested we do Half Dome after I'd been climbing one year, I thought he was joking. My little beginning climber's heart leapt, but didn't he realize how out of shape I was? How soft? How fearful? How old?

All four dream peaks ascended — What better, more spectacular way to kick off my seventh decade?

I snuck a glance down at Tenaya Lake, a glassy, navy-cerulean blue, far below me at 2,500 m; stark white granite blinded me as far as I could see above. That was my universe. That’s when it hit me: I’d followed him up here without a rope.

Shouldn’t a Mom my age know better?

Four years ago, when I started climbing at the wise old age of 57, I made a list. I never called it my bucket list — depressing thought, that bucket — but I knew that someday, before my joints or lungs began to object too loudly, I would make it to the top of the four climbs that had called to me since the first time I’d read about them — Half Dome, Cathedral Peak, Matthes Crest, and this monster, Tenaya Peak.

But let’s get real – can a 60-something mom who just started climbing, and who spends her days in class or at a computer writing books, really expect to conquer peaks? That was the depressing side of climbing; I knew I was just too old and out of shape.

My heart beat a little faster, though, each time I saw one of ‘my’ peaks in a magazine, or heard climbers talk about them. And so, knowing it would probably never happen, I put them on my dream list, the four ‘mosts’: the highest, most visually outstanding, most memorable peaks in the Yosemite area — my son’s (Alex Honnold’s) playground.

Mother and son climbing 'team' (although Alex only climbs with Mom on rest days!).
Mother and son climbing ‘team’ (although Alex only climbs with Mom on rest days!).

When he suggested we do Half Dome after I’d been climbing one year, I thought he was joking. My little beginning climber’s heart leapt, but didn’t he realize how out of shape I was? How soft? How fearful? How old?

What hubris. I had never done a granite slab climb before Snake Dike, which is 10-pitches of nothing but slab and face. Never climbed on a dike. The following year, he led me up Cathedral — but not on purpose. We wound up there mainly because, watching me wheeze and puff, he was sure I’d never make it three miles farther into the back country to my day’s goal, Matthes Crest (the growing snow-clouds were a valid excuse, too).

He was probably right.

But I ticked Matthes off my list with him the following year — last summer. And for my birthday weekend this September, I found myself again in Yosemite, camping with my climbing tribe. But that weekend, my usually over-booked, over-scheduled, fast-moving son just happened to be in Yosemite, too, speaking to some group or other. Just happened to drop in on us, and stay at our campsite. And happened to be taking a rest day, so he offered to lead us all up Tenaya, the fourth, and final, peak on my list.

(It’s never been lost on me that he always leads me up my most mind-bending, exhausting, extraordinary climbs on his rest days.)

After I stopped celebrating my good fortune — how many new climbers get to follow the boldest climber in the world up a mountain, on their birthday? – my nagging little voice started to take over: What made me think I could do fourteen pitches in one day? (Half Dome was ten, and I’d gotten back to the camp at eleven-thirty that night.) What made me think these old lungs could handle all those hours of rigorous exercise, to 3,133 m, having just driven up from sea level the day before? Or these old knees, or…? Hard to pick a body part that didn’t snap, crackle or pop.

Each time I head to Yosemite from Sacramento, the waves roll over me in stomach-clenching hot flashes of doubt: I’m not a real climber; I’m just a teacher/mom who plays at climbing. I’m a fraud. Sure, I go hang out at Lover’s Leap with my friends…but they climb with me to be kind, don’t they? ‘Let’s help Alex’s mom up the wall.’ Well, yes, I did lead Deception this summer, all three pitches of it, including the “scary traverse,” as my tribe called it. I did climb that horrible, dirty 5.7 chimney climb, but that was just luck. Wasn’t it?

I think parents – especially moms, whose very bodies change with the event (swings never nauseated me before I had babies) — have to learn to doubt as their kids grow. It’s a protective instinct that allows those kids to grow up, safely. If parents just blindly said yes to everything, believed in everything, life would just be too wild. Too unpredictably dangerous. So we doubt. We worry. We protect.

That affects how older climbers – those who have kids, anyway — face the rock. We’ve learned a caution that the recipients of our cares can’t begin to understand. So Alex rolls his eyes, slows his pace — but he still guides me up to share his realm once in a while.

That evening, I just listened to everybody discuss the logistics of the next morning, and didn’t voice any of the war going on in my head. I voted, several times, for leaving the campsite at 5:30, but they decided on 7:30. We’ll never make it down by daylight! my little voice screamed. Normally, in real life, I can keep those nasty voices down to a whisper. But when it really matters, they tend to get pushy. No one else was buying it, though, and I crawled into my tent that night knowing — knowing! — that we’d be benighted, and someone (I knew who) would probably break something trying to navigate down in the dark by headlamp (I’d read all the stories about how challenging the descent was).

Birthday party with the young 'uns after our climb. Author's birthay present in foreground, her first Jet Boil, for her future camping/climbing expeditions
Birthday party with the young ‘uns after our climb. Author’s birthay present in foreground, her first Jet Boil, for her future camping/climbing expeditions

But morning sun is the great eraser of night-time fears, and off we went at 7:30 a.m. or so, full of chatter. We all followed Alex blindly, bush-whacking through forest and deer trails. Alex sets a pace that he’s unaware of; we older mortals, though, are acutely aware, as we huff and puff and stop to suck in thin air. Five of us followed him, four ‘youngsters’ and me. Last, but not least. Bringing up the rear. Huffing and puffing.

Being unable to suck in enough air is just like drowning. Having been up-ended by many powerful waves in my beach days on Long Island when I was young, I know the desperation of that feeling all too well. It’s what kept me from Matthes, the first time. It’s what almost kept me from my first marathon, a few years ago. But it was not going to keep me from my fourth final peak today, with my son. On my birthday.

So I huffed, and puffed, and waited — several times — until I could feel the oxygen beginning to work again (like on Cathedral), and followed them all up, and up. And up. Never looking down (it took me more than a third of Half Dome to get up the courage for that). The beginning of Tenaya is slabs — in fact, a lot of it is so low angle that three of our group free-soloed it all. Sean, who had only been climbing a year and a half, pulled that off. Meghan and Nick tried roping up once, but decided it wasn’t worth the trouble, and kept Sean company. I just tried not to think about them and where they were, what they were doing; I wasn’t competing with anyone but myself.

But somewhere around the second or third pitch, I snuck that peek down at the lake — and realized where we were.

Oh, shit! That’s the voice that only seems to come out when I’m on some rock, teetering, wavering, waiting for my arms or legs to stop shaking. My son has never heard that voice.

He didn’t hear it today, either; he was too far ahead. They all were. Excitement had driven them up much faster than I could go. Their focus was 14 pitches up — 12 now, or maybe 11 — but mine was a lot closer in. One misstep, and I’d roll — no, I’d bounce off every block and rocky feature I’d passed, breaking every bone I could name, and probably some I couldn’t — all the way down to the car.

Standing on the knife-edge of Matthes Crest, three months earlier, the same image had taken hold – the curse of a vivid imagination.

I finally got his attention, and three of us stopped to rope up — Alex on lead, then me, then Michelle at the end of the rope. Not wanting to stop and take the time for anchor building and gear swapping, Alex decided we would simul-climb it.

The last time I’d simul-climbed, three years ago with Alex, I didn’t realize what that meant until after I’d done it. This time I did. But when we climb outdoors, Alex is in charge — so we roped up, I tried to suck in some air, and Michelle and I tried hard not to let the rope belly out and wrap itself around some knob or sink into a crack…which it did, of course, stubbornly, over and over. She quickly learned to wrap it around herself as she climbed.

All of you real climbers out there know that Tenaya is easy climbing. It was. I noticed as I got higher that I was climbing faster than I usually do. But the last two pitches are a choice; left (easy scrambling), right (also easy), or centre — overhung 5.8. As Alex put it later, the real rock-climbing experience.

The crux, last pitch -- or the "real rock-climbing experience," as Alex referred to it
The crux, last pitch — or the “real rock-climbing experience,” as Alex referred to it

But when I got there, after 12 pitches and lots of gasping, I was beat. That moment will always be vivid, even visceral for me: I’d happily negotiated the last bit of easy crack and slab, infinitely relieved that I’d almost reached the top of such a meaningful lump of rock. I’d done my fourth, my last-of-the-decade, goal peak! I was ecstatic — then I stepped around the bulge and looked up.

Tears welled in my eyes, faster than I could mutter Oh, shit! Out it flew again, the rock language, some of which I had no idea was even in my repertoire. I knew I was in trouble.

But somewhere, even deeper, I knew I wasn’t.

Alex and I share many characteristics — bone structure, stringy hair, skinny face. Love of climbing. One trait in particular, though, comes in handy at times like this. We’re both as stubborn as we need to be.

Rock climbing has taught me the value of that. I always knew I was stubborn; my mother had told me often enough. But until now, I never realized what a good thing that can be.

Some more rock language came spilling out of me. I was exhausted, spent, used. Scared. Rough rock loomed over me, up and out and over. He could have gone around, like the three others did. The easy way. But that’s not him. Or me.

My mind flashed back to the sudden desperation of my first glimpse of Cathedral’s crazy summit blocks. I can’t do this — I remember thinking. I’m not strong enough / good enough / daring enough / all of the above. But I have a summit photo on my kitchen wall that proves otherwise.

I looked up again, squinted against the tears and the sun. This wasn’t any wilder than that, I told myself. I tried to picture the summit of Tenaya, and me standing on it. With Alex. I knew exactly where I’d put this photo.

Tenaya Peak, 10,280 ft., looming over Tenaya Lake, Tuolomne area of Yosemite National Park.
Tenaya Peak, 10,280 ft., looming over Tenaya Lake, Tuolomne area of Yosemite National Park.

I shook out my arms and hands, took as deep a breath as I could manage, eased out over the boulders that hang out in the air, stepped carefully across the little fissures and gaps. I always climb as if I were on lead, so hanging on the rope wasn’t an option. I left plenty of souvenir bits of skin as the tips of my fingers got filed down against the crystal-studded rock. But when I thought I couldn’t possibly step up high enough, I did. When I was sure I’d never make it over the next bulge, I did.

And then we were all up there, slapping high-fives and whooping and gaping at unimaginable views.

But the view that really counted was one that no one else could see. Gazing at the crazy crest of Matthes in the distance, and Cathedral’s sharp point, even the slouching silhouette of Half Dome – they were all up there with me – all I could see was the impossible. Done. Again.

I’ve summitted four times with Alex in extraordinary surroundings, incredulous each time. Does that ever become old?

Will I ever do another? I have no idea – like all the other times. But I recall distinctly hanging onto the dike that snakes up Half Dome, two years ago, absolutely certain that that was the wildest thing I’d ever do in my life!

I no longer second-guess the teacher/mom – or her son.

Dierdre Wolnick is a teacher, climber and the mother of Alex Honnold.