Climbing with kids is always iffy. Multi-pitch climbing with kids can be asking for trouble. It isn’t guaranteed trouble, it’s just a set-up that, given the arrangement of the pieces, makes you think twice. It is important to start with low expectations and treat the whole enterprise as a sort of upward rescue.
The great thing about climbing with kids is that they bring kid foolishness, which is plain and transparent, to the climb rather than adult foolishness, which is deep and opaque. Kids aren’t going to tell you their knot is good when it isn’t. Kids may horse around on the belay ledge, but they aren’t going to unclip from the anchor so they can move around to get a better picture.
By the same token, if kids are going to freak out and freeze, it’s probably going to happen in the first twenty feet, when they realize the gravity of their situation, rather than three pitches up when their ego collapses.
When we started up the Tower with our 11 and 12-year-old boys, Mike and I had all these things in mind. Being veterans of soul-searing alpine epics and dicey retreats, we had a reasonable degree of confidence we could pull it off. Experience like ours builds an expertise in Redneck Rescue – an improvisational method of crisis management that is effective, but lacks the smoothness and consistent redundancy of a professional approach. Of course, professionals avoid crisis situations in the first place, so what do they really know.
Rowan, the older kid, had seen the method in action. He had climbed the Tower with me the year before. The way up was tough and he just squeaked by the crux pitch, but the descent was a horror show. A thunder-storm caught us and we had to descend the ropes through hail, wind and lightning. It affected his motivation for the current day, I could tell. Jack, the younger kid, had never climbed the Tower, so he had no reason to fear it.
Rowan folded at the crux pitch; Jack’s curiosity and ambition led him on into the wide crack and stemming problem. I had the opportunity to belay him on the pitch and the experience was the same as every other time I’ve belayed a kid on difficult climbing. It’s a lot like deep-sea fishing would be, if you could hear what the fish was thinking. You brace yourself, pull, reel in line, all to the sounds of desperate effort interspersed with whimpering.
On the belay ledge, once he stopped shaking, I could see a familiar light in Jack’s eyes. He’d gotten by the hardest thing he’d ever climbed and now his teeth were locked on this project. Jack was going up, but Rowan was going down. He wasn’t upset, he’d just made his decision and would not be continuing.
Splitting up the team is a core skill in Redneck Rescue. After batting the question, “OK, so what is going to happen..?” back and forth for a few rounds we completed the hand off and Mike continued to the top with Jack while I took Rowan down.
It was a long wait at the bottom while Mike and Jack finished the route. An adult would have spent the time moping and feeling impatient. Rowan spent it trying to figure out why rocks bounce. I got to watch the light change over the Belle Fourche River valley without having to think about anybody else’s emotional weirdness. I wouldn’t want to do it every day, but I like climbing with kids.