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Axe of Contrition

This Climbing Life first appeared in Alpinist 20–Summer 2007.

Snowy Range Medicine Bow Mountains from Bellevue, Colorado. [Photo] Wikipedia Commons

Snowy Range Medicine Bow Mountains from Bellevue, Colorado. [Photo] Wikipedia Commons

My son Macklin and I are high on the face now: Lake Marie glitters below and the reddish boulders of the talus field have shrunk to gravelly debris. Occasionally cars wind silently to or from Snowy Range Pass. Our friends are on the wall to the north somewhere, but we can’t see or hear them. We have the whole sparkling vertical universe all to ourselves.

“How much more, Dad?”

“Hard to say. We’re about halfway.” I’m hoping we’re a tad farther along than that.

“So, it’s easier to keep going, right? It would be hard to go down from here.”

“Exactly right.”

I pass the water bottle, and he nods in acceptance.

As I’m climbing the next pitch, dark clouds surge over the face from the west, squeezing all the blue into the distant eastern horizon. In near simultaneity the climbing intensifies: where the crack can be protected, it bulges; where the crack thins, it steepens. Worst of all, at the top of the pitch, blocks the size of ice chests balance delicately one against the other awaiting a butterfly’s passing to topple into the abyss.

In my younger years my partners and I were cavalier about objective dangers, calling them acts of God–which, misheard, were thereafter known as axe of God. God knows why it had taken so long, but suddenly I panic. I have brought my son on this climb where a block could easily drop on his head. Sure we have helmets. Aluminum foil shields against a nuclear blast. What good would they be?

Macklin requires tension. Constantly. Large raindrops splat on my helmet.

He can’t extract a wired Stopper. Ten minutes.

“Leave it!” To hell with the nut.


The blocks. The blocks. I begin to pray: Oh my God I am heartily sorry . . . for bringing my kid on a climb with loose blocks . . . for having offended Thee…. All I want is for the rope not to knock the blocks down. Is that too much to ask? I firmly resolve with the help of Thy grace to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin…. Avoid the near occasion of sin? How the hell do you do that? Stay on the couch?

If something happens to me, Macklin doesn’t have the experience to do a damned thing about it. I hope he would have the sense to anchor himself to the wall and wait for help, but I have neglected to give him any such instruction. This is so much more stupid than soloing, I can’t believe it.

Finally, he pulls up and over the edge. “Will we have to rappel?” he asks.

“No,” I say, “it’s a walk-off.” I hadn’t even told him that. My God, he trusts me completely. And the prayer? It came to me out of the ether. I hadn’t called it to mind in thirty years. Idiot. Hypocrite. “Once we top out, there’s a trail. A couple more pitches, maybe.”

I remember we didn’t bring headlamps. But: the blocks have not fallen. The rain is holding off. We even have a couple of swigs of water.

I lead up twenty-five feet on solid rock with six-inch ledges between hard moves, easier than anything on the last pitch. From here there’s a grassy ramp with a few feet of class five that looks as though it will top out.

Macklin says he will lead it.

“Go for it.” I hand him half a rack, some runners. “Put something in.”

But no, it’s easy ground; he won’t put anything in.

In minutes he’s pulled himself over the top and there he stands, arms raised in triumph against the dark clouds roiling overhead.

I scramble to join him. I hold the camera an arm’s length in front of us and we put our heads together for a portrait. Later, when I look at the photograph, the kid seems composed and serious, a little older than his actual years. His long hair is held off his face by a Japanese bandana rolled up under his helmet–the master of cool. My helmet looks borrowed and my expression, if I wasn’t here to tell you, might belie any number of emotions: happiness, drunkenness, or just relief. A jumble of lichen-covered boulders leads northward across a dark background to the true summit. In the mirrored lenses of my sunglasses, you can see my arm extended out and pointing the camera back at us. Beyond my arm, there’s nothing but blue sky to the east. I look like a fool.

“So when are we going ice climbing, dad?”

During the remaining days of the road trip, we continue climbing. Sporty stuff, no more than a single pitch. I am trying, for a while, to avoid the near occasion of sin.

–David Stevenson, Macomb, Illinois

This Climbing Life first appeared in Alpinist 20–Summer 2007.