Westport Column: A story about rock climbing

Posted:  Wednesday, February 14, 2018 - 7:00am

Dear friends and neighbors,

Change of venue: Nita Greenleaf’s Community Supper will be held this Saturday, Feb. 17, from 4:30-6 pm in the Old Town Hall. Ten dollars for adults and eight dollars for kids under age eight will get you a tantalizing meal of roast pork and stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, string beans and apple sauce, coffee and tea and dessert. Shake off the winter doldrums and join folks for some food and conversation this weekend.

In honor of Valentine’s Day I decided to share a story with you that I recently wrote for my weekly memoir class. It’s called “A Love Story (sort of).”

I enjoy the great outdoors, but had lots to learn about New England after moving here from the Midwest in my twenties. In 1986 I discovered one way to do so was through the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), which offered a spring rock climbing program in the Boston area for five weekends. I had always liked climbing the silo on the family farm, and once had had fun using a rope to descend a rock face with friends. Since I didn’t know much about mountains, it seemed like a good way to make their acquaintance.

The Boston Chapter of the AMC has successfully offered an extremely popular volunteer led outdoor climbing program for over forty years. Anyone who is eighteen or older can sign up to learn a different skill each weekend while trying to scale local rock outcroppings in the Quincy Quarries. Students learn to tie a variety of knots, to belay (protect the leader from falling with a securely anchored partner holding a rope to which she is attached), to rappel (descend a rope in a controlled manner), to prusik (ascend a fixed rope with slings knotted a special way), and to top-rope (practice climbing safely with an anchored rope). If a student shows proficiency after five weekends, she or he is invited to the official Beginners’ Climbing Weekend at the Shawangunk Cliffs (or Gunks, for short) in New Paltz, New York. There students are matched with one or two experienced leaders who will guide them up a two hundred foot cliff for the first time. It’s a natural high!

Although I have not climbed in years, climbers are some of my closest friends. There is something to be said for having to trust another person with your life. Furthermore, most climbers share a similar value system. Rather than appearances and all the trappings of life, climbers care about special places in nature. They will go to inordinate lengths to spend time there despite dirt, critters, bad weather, and natural hazards. Climbers care about each other and returning home safely each day. They like to tell stories and laugh over pizza and beer. Climbers are down to earth people—my kind of folks.

You must be wondering if there is really a love story in here. There is, but you can’t rush things on a cliff. One of the reasons that the program works so well is that it matches leaders with belayers, people who will safely feed out the rope in case of a fall. As a strong, proficient female belayer, I had many opportunities to climb with Jeff, Matt, Steve, Carl, Ricky, Lou, Bob, Fred, Bill and Dick. That first weekend at the Gunks I easily surmounted many climbs, though I was too scared to look down past my feet.

One particular climb I will always remember was named “Moonlight.” The first pitch (rope-length) was a hundred thirty feet of relatively easy climbing up an inside corner to a large ledge. But on the second pitch my leader disappeared around a corner, and my mind blanked. I suddenly forgot everything I had learned, and wondered how the fire department could possibly rescue me here! I started to hyperventilate and was near tears. After a long time I decided it would be easier to go up than down. I promised that if I got off this cliff alive, I wouldn’t climb again. I took a deep breath and oh-so slowly stretched my body around the bulge over the airy nothingness. I couldn’t really see, but finally felt a tiny protrusion on which I could step. Weighting it took all my courage. I had to trust myself and my leader. If I fell, the guy at the other end of the rope was there to catch me. So I reached out, made the scary step, and was relieved to find a straightforward easy climb the rest of the way to the top. I was ecstatic, as was my leader. His name was Dick, and one day I decided to marry him.

Dick and I went on to do a lot of scary climbs in New England, West Virginia, Idaho, and Nevada. Eventually Dick introduced me to another level of fear through mountaineering in Wyoming’s Tetons and Switzerland’s Alps. Most climbers make promises on the rock that they don’t keep. But the scariest promise I ever made was to spend my life with that guy at the other end of the rope. It’s not easy. Weather and dirt and injuries are obstacles to overcome. But we share a similar value system, and we catch each other when we fall.

Do you have a story to share? Contact your newshound pat-dick@midcoast.com.