This story originally appeared in the Novemeber 2015 issue of our print edition.
“How can you stand it?!” That’s what people ask me most often, usually in an anguished, commiserating tone, when they see one of my son’s videos or hear him speak. How can I, his mother, watch these things?
Yesterday, in the Berkeley, California gym with Alex, I led a 5.10a. Jugs all the way. Felt great, like home. Both hands comfortably deep in buckets, right foot firmly planted on another jug, I leaned left and pulled up some rope. But instead of clipping cleanly, I suddenly found myself airborne.
“What the—” I was furious! Everything had been so solid—until I was flying through the air. Must not be as solid as I thought.
When I fall climbing, I always assume it’s my fault. I started climbing when I was 58. Things are pretty much set by that age. You know you’re responsible for everything you do. The fall took my breath away, just for a moment. I got back on and climbed up to where it had happened, shaking a bit from the surprise. I know everyone falls. If you don’t, you’re not trying hard enough. But a 10a? And it felt so solid! I found the same comforting, huge jugs for my hands, placed my right foot firmly, more carefully, on the bigger jug, leaned left—
This time, as I felt air beneath my foot, I saw that the jug I’d put all my weight on had spun. And in that millisecond, nanosecond, that scintilla of a second, all the questions people have asked me about my son gripped me by the heart and squeezed the remaining breath out of me. In that micro-instant, my little 10a was El Sendero Luminoso. And I had just plunged to my death—through no fault of my own.
I’d been solid. I’d done everything right. I was solid.
And then I was dead.
But I wasn’t. As I saw the hold spin and realized I was flying off, the slo-mo frame flashed past my widened eyes: foothold breaks, son plunges (through no fault of his own) 2,000 feet to his death—and my disengaged brain screamed “No!” and squeezed my fingers shut in an anti-death grip that wrenched both shoulders and kept me on the wall.
“How can you stand it?”
It wasn’t me I saw flying through the air. And the wall wasn’t 40 feet high, but thousands. This scenario has played a million times in my head. My body knows what to do—what he would do. So my hands took over, held on as if both our lives depended on it.
The lines blur when I climb with Alex. He and I are one, a unit, as we were for nine months so long ago. He probably won’t see it that way for decades, but such is youth.
I should have just taken the fall. But in my head, where climbing really happens, falling was not an option. Not on a big wall.
Imagination can be a terrible thing. Without it, I’d be leading far harder climbs, but I never would’ve dreamed up the adventures I’ve had, with and without Alex. Without it, my friend who fell on a free solo this summer would still be around to laugh and climb with me, but we never would have met. Without it, my son wouldn’t be on the cover of National Geographic. Would he be really alive, the way he is now? Or would he be biding time, like so many of us? Dying takes many forms. So does living. The hard part is recognizing them.
Alex, bless him, has always had the foresight, the understanding or consideration, never to tell me about his climbs before they happen. As Alex explained in an interview, no one but the climber can evaluate the risk of a climb. The consequence of free soloing is clearly evident—John Long said it succinctly in the “60 Minutes” video about Alex: “You fall, you die.” But the risk depends on many different factors: weather, humidity, the climber’s condition both physical and mental, the state of the rock, the distractions on site, and more. We can’t judge. Only the climber can.
That’s where trust comes in. Eventually, parents have to trust their children’s judgment, whether about money, job, child care, homes, or so many of the things life throws at us. Climbing is Alex’s job. And I trust his judgment.