Learning the Ropes Could Kill You, and Other Realizations From a Sage
What’s a mentor? The author’s quest for self examination puts a disciple in harm’s way, not that it's his fault, it's the way he was brought up.
January 18, 2017
Travis “The Kid” Hackett was 50 feet up a crumbly groove, ropeless, about to fall and die. A few feet above him, “Coco” Dave Elberg clung to blobs of hardened lava keyed into a chossy cliff like rotten teeth rooted in a bad case of periodontitis. He strained down, trying to grab Travis’ shirt, hair, pack strap, anything. I was under The Kid, holding up the crumbling ledge he stood on. The ledge budged, fine dirt fell away and Travis made a noise like a Formula 1 racecar shifting into third gear.
Twenty years old at the time, with shaggy sun-bleached hair, faded-jean-colored eyes, body like a muscly Slinky, ape index of a condor. He’d “wanted to learn about first ascents, see how it’s done,” so Dave and I invited him on a scouting mission to a crag Dave had spotted on his way home from trimming coconut trees in Lahaina, Hawaii.
We’d walked for an hour, passed four big rock fins to arrive at a streaked white-and-green wall, 80 feet tall and smooth as bathtub porcelain.
Coco pointed to a groove left of the wall.
“Let’s climb this to access the top,” he’d said. “It doesn’t look too bad. I’m comfortable soloing this.”
“Me, too,” The Kid agreed.
“Hold up!” I said. “Better get your gear out—just in case.”
I’ve been new routing for 43 years and consider myself something of an expert at getting into fixes, and this dirty, vegetated, vertical slash looked particularly ticklish.
“Put on your harnesses. Take some cams,” I said.
They ignored me, so I sat down in the shade and watched Coco and The Kid charge up the groove—pulling on tufts of pili grass, kicking off huge chunks of a’a lava, black dirt rising in a cloud.
Dave said, “Just one more hard section and I think it backs off.” And then, “Oh shit, it’s even harder above. I don’t know about this.”
And then it happened—the thing I knew was going to happen.
Holds broke, death was looked in the face, egos melted. The thought occurred: I wish I wasn’t up here. Downclimbing was deemed impossible.
Have you noticed how being right is rarely satisfying? For example, 50 years ago scientists told us about the effects of climate change. Do you think scientists feel any joy now that hurricanes, floods, plagues, rains of fire, and hailstorms of fire mixed with blood are razing the earth?
No, most of the time being right is a drag.
Heaving a grumpy sigh, I got up, climbed to a stance just below The Kid and shored up the crumbling ledge with my shoulder. We watched Coco Dave make more sketchy moves, picking his way through elbow-deep hale koa bushes and digging footholds out of the igneous graupel.
“It’s just as bad up here,” he reported.
I wanted to complain, maybe say, “Yo, I knew this was going to happen.” But I also knew that if the ledge broke off, 200 pounds of 6’ 5” Kid was going to fall across me like a Sasquatch and knock us both to the distant gulch floor, and that image quieted me for about five seconds. Then I lit into The Kid.
“I told you to rope up!” I yelled. “I see a cam placement right here.”
“I’m sorry, Jefe, but I saw Dave and thought it didn’t look too bad, and I … ”
“Dude,” I said, straining to hold up the ledge. “you don’t follow Dave. Dave is a lunatic. I’ve seen him climb hundred-foot coconut trees no bigger around than coffee cans. He loves this stuff. He’s not normal. Look at him.”
Dave was listening, peering down from beneath a sun hat with the neck protector folded out, looking like a Saudi prince in a keffiyeh making an oil deal—nodding, confident. He smiled.
“It’s true,” he said. “Soloing loose rock. Being way up here about to bite it. I do love this shit.”
He scrambled higher and we followed. Eighty feet up now and there was no turning back because all the holds were breaking, disappearing, and there would be no way to reverse the climb. Safer to push on.
A hundred feet up, level with the top of the wall, Coco leapt rightwards and landed on a solid ledge. We followed and stood there panting, wiping muddy sweat out of our eyes and trying to process the adrenaline jabbing our sympathetic nervous systems like a BOSS-coffee enema.
“Next time,” I said shakily, “we rope up.”
“Honestly, I’d do it again,” Coco said.
I shouted it and they both looked at me.
“We have to rope up! Every time! Rule number one: rope up. We cannot kill The Kid. He’s only 20.”
I’m not sure why I have such an outsized sense of responsibility for The Kid. Maybe it’s because I’m a father and after investing thousands of hours dunking diapers, feeding, clothing, entertaining and educating my kids, I simply have to keep young people alive no matter what. It’s in me like an oath from a Marvel movie: With great responsibility comes great anxiety.
Whatever it was, I knew I’d feel just awful if anything happened to The Kid, and when I climb with him, I watch him tie his figure 8 like my dog Badger watches me eat a pork crackling—with that kind of deep concern.
We survived the approach and got the bolts into an incredible—I always think my routes are great—5.11c called Banjo Yoda. On the hike down I watched Travis loping through the watercourse, white skin almost visibly cringing in the 90-degree tropical sun. Around the bend a boulder leaned over the dry streambed like the palm side of a slapping hand.
“Check out that block!” The Kid yelled.
Twenty feet tall, sharp edges, steeper than a doctor’s bill. It really was a thing of beauty.
“Get over there so I can get a photo for DR,” I told him. “Give him some perspective.”
Travis waded through the cane grass to the base of the boulder and stood there smiling. I framed up a shot, but Travis was so tall the huge boulder looked short.
“No dude, you gotta sit down and pull on,” I said.
Still wearing his massive pack, The Kid squatted, grabbed a hold and lifted off the ground. The edge snapped, hit him in the mouth and broke off a chunk of his front tooth. He cartwheeled down the grass slope and slammed into the rocky creek bed.
“Broke da mouth,” Coco Dave said when Travis showed us his chipped tooth. “That’s what Hawaiians say when they like the grub. ‘Aw broke da mouth, brah!’”
“This is the Broke Da Mouth Boulder,” Travis said, spitting some tooth spillikins. His smile showed the jagged chip.
The Kid was naming boulders. Poor fool. I knew then that he was doomed.
July 4, 2020
“I’m so glad Travis has a mentor like you,” Marnie said.
Marnie Meuser (54) is The Kid’s mom. Tall, blonde and strong—good looking like her three sons, the twins Travis and Tommy (24) and Jimmy (26).
Tommy is a top model living in LA, recently featured in an ad campaign that included a 20-foot banner hung on the Duomo cathedral in Milan, Italy. In the Diesel Denim ad he’s dressed in sharp clothes, squatting and cracking the road with a punch like a superhero.
Marnie is a budget analyst for the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument—Palmyra, Johnston and Howard atolls, Baker and Wake Islands—as well as the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument—Nihoa, Laysan and Tern Islands.
She’s a cool mom and Travis hangs out with her all the time. They’re always camping and hiking and exploring together.
On this July 4 holiday, while the world was locked down tighter than a pickle jar, she was walking up to a cave near the summit of The Turtle to wait for us while we tried to send Travis’ first big independent project.
He was calling it Aumakua (5.12a, five pitches), which is a Hawaiian word for “spirit ancestor.” According to the scholar Mary Abigail Kawena¬‘ula¬o¬ka¬lani¬a¬hi‘iaka¬i¬ka¬poli¬o¬pele¬ka¬wahine¬‘ai¬honua¬i¬nā¬lei¬lehua¬a-pele Wiggin Pukui (known as Kawena, for obvious reasons), aumakuas manifest animals—sharks, owls, sea turtles, eels, even clouds. They often show up and save their descendants from harm.
Marnie was doing the grueling two-hour approach for fun and because she wanted to be there for Travis who’d tried the climb before with Uncle Chris Janiszewski but was shut down on the steep third pitch.
I thought about what Marnie had called me—a mentor. Was that what I was?
Odysseus entrusted two friend—Eumaeus and Mentor—with the education and upbringing of his son, Telemachus, while Odysseus was away at the Trojan War fighting to bring back “fair-armed” Helen, hottest woman in the known world, progeny of one afternoon when her mother, Leda, was raped by a giant swan named Zeus.
Odysseus’ pig keeper, Eumaeus, had a pack of dogs “savage as wild beasts” and was himself the son of a king, but Homer didn’t have much to say about Odysseus’ second choice, Mentor, just that he was a soldier grown too old to fight. While Eumaeus plays a big part in the Odyssey, Mentor almost never appears in the epic as himself. The old campaigner usually channels the goddess Athena who gives The Kid (Telemachus) to-do lists like: 1) kill all the dudes hanging around drinking your dad’s wine and hitting on your mom, and 2) go find your father and bring him home.
After each meeting with Mentor/Athena, Telemachus feels energized, stronger. His mind sharpens with vivid memories. He’s motivated to act.
That’s the etymology of the word “mentor.”
Climbing was a way to them — a physio-spiritual path to be explored wholeheartedly, monomaniacally, romantically, even recklessly.
May 7, 2017
The Kid and I had almost died, again, on our second new-routing mission a few miles up a massive, V-shaped, jungley Hawaiian valley, where fog hung around the Wiliwili trees like woolly sheep. Fat drops of cold rain blew from the windward side, over the mountaintops, and splatted on our helmets as we unpacked and geared up.
Usually the rain stays on the north side of the 5,000-foot peaks, but that day it crept across the crest. The drops got bigger and wetter. The wind blew hard and cold and Travis shivered in his T-shirt and board shorts. His lips were blue.
I was fine, of course, because I’d remembered my rain jacket.
A couple hours later, we had a new route—The Syllabus, a 13a slab—and it was raining harder. I stood at the base of another line, geared up, ready to do the Lord’s work.
“What do you think?” I asked.
“Well,” Travis said. “You know about Hawaiian flash floods, right? These valleys are so narrow, and it rains so hard above, and sometimes you don’t even know it’s raining up there. Pu’u Kukui is, like, the 10th wettest place on earth.”
[Note: Pu’u Kukui, the 5,788-foot summit somewhere in the mists above us that day, is actually the ninth-wettest place on earth, receiving up to 700 inches of rain annually.]
“So … dude,” Travis went on. “I don’t know. Could be fine or there could be a huge wave of water 30 feet tall coming down this gulch at any second. What do you think?”
I thought—as I always do—about the guys who’d taught me to climb down in Texas and Oklahoma in the 1980s—DR and Jack Mileski. What would they have done?
They never skipped a climbing day—it didn’t matter if it was raining or snowing or tornadoes were ripping through a mobile-home park 200 yards away. They showed up, shot a couple of 5-Hour caffeine boosters and tried as hard as they possibly could to send whatever tendon-wrecking project they’d bolted the weekend before—horrible, tiny-pocket, tweaky limestone routes that they jumped on with no warm-up, full-bore, every single go with no excuses.
If they were hurt, they climbed hurt. If they were sad, they climbed sad. If they weren’t motivated, they drank more coffee. If they had no money, they volunteered for a drug study.
Climbing was a way to them—a physio-spiritual path to be explored wholeheartedly, monomaniacally, romantically, even recklessly like the time they decided to eat baking soda to counteract lactic acid and “never get pumped.” Lactic acid and baking soda do react. The combination produces CO2 and uncontrollable diarrhea.
These were the guys who taught me the ropes.
“I say we go for it,” I said.
An hour later I was placing the last piece and the rain was slicing horizontal, drumming the rock like the piss stream of a well-hydrated Polynesian demigod. Travis huddled in the gulch.
“We better get out of here!” he yelled.
I looked down and saw the water flowing over his shoes, rising to his ankles, then to mid-shin.
“Go!” I screamed. “Go!”
But when I got down, he was still there, standing shin deep in the swirling brown water, worried about me, I suppose. I unclipped, shouldered the pack and ran.
The wash built around my legs as I bolted down valley, sliding through bottlenecks with water at my chest. When the gulch finally opened, I scrambled up the side of a hill and waited for The Kid. He appeared a while later, wet and cold, but laughing.
“You ran like a rabbit, Uncle Jefe,” he said. “Are you part jackrabbit?”
May 7, 2017
I suppose there’s a lesson in that anecdote, but I refuse to tease it out. I’d rather write about the third time I went new-routing with The Kid and, again, almost died.
We were wandering up the Double Bridge canyon on the east side of the island looking for boulders when we came to a pour-off that cliffed us out. Spying a way to climb through, I pulled onto a rock platform and entered a cave where I discovered a hole in the roof—perfectly round, 10 feet across. Sunlight shone through it.
A few moves got me to the lip of the hole, where I mantled and found myself in another room. I walked down the gulch and looked back at the overhanging, 20-foot, polished, columnar headwall. Five-star bouldering!
If they were hurt, they climbed hurt. If they were sad, they climbed sad. If they weren’t motivated, they drank more coffee.If they had no money, they volunteered for a drug study.
Five stars, that is, if you overlooked the landing—a 20-degree slope worn slicker than a salamander booger by millions of flash floods. I pictured the storm surge rushing through the gulch like a waterlogged freight train, smashing into the polished wall, building into a deep eddy that rotated and flushed through the hole. Just like you would if you fell, I thought. Flushed like a …
Travis mantled up and I saw him assessing the fall zone.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“I think we’ll be fine.”
Travis stood at the edge of the hole, feet placed on two smooth but incut rock lumps, ready to grab me before I tobogganed into the pit and broke myself into pieces.
I studied the angles, gave The Kid a couple of spotting pointers, and pulled on. The first couple of moves went O.K., but I got crossed up at the lip and popped off. When I hit the pad, I lurched sideways instead of straight down, landed in a different snot-slick runnel and skidded toward a different drop—a much bigger, 40-foot death fall.
Travis could do nothing but watch as I slid, scrabbling and kicking to the very edge before coming to a halt. His moon eyes must’ve mirrored my own.
“We’ll call this cave the Toilet Bowl,” he said.
I could go on about nearly killing myself or The Kid. There was the time I fell onto a tree branch and slammed my balls so hard I passed out. When I came to, still hanging on the rope, Travis was yelling, “Jefe, Jefe, oh my God, please come back!”
As a mentor I’d given myself the task of safeguarding The Kid, but again and again I’d led him to the edge of the great toilet bowl where one of us would nearly get flushed. I was no better than Coco Dave, exactly like DR and Jack.
July 4, 2020
We bid Marnie adieu near the summit of The Turtle, scrambled to the edge of the cliff and Travis pointed out the line of Aumakua. Lava blobs and huecos slashed back and forth in a colossal Z. Travis indicated a beehive the looker’s left of the fourth pitch anchors. Black specks percolated 100 feet below like fizz off the top of a Coke.
“Those bees look pretty active,” I said. “What do you think?”
“I think we’re good,” Travis said with no hesitation.
We rapped and climbed the first two pitches—waterpockets and horns, both 5.10, wandering leftwards to where the headwall bellied. The rock was polished by runoff and cooked to a cinnamon-stick burnish.
The Kid threw himself at the crux—a lurch from an incipient layback into an awkward untergraben—why use English when the German word is both better and funnier?—strained, popped off and lowered to the belay.
Without resting, he set off again, pulled the crux, but stalled 10 feet from the anchor, and switched out hands on a glossy pig back until his legs quivered and he whipped 30 feet.
Back at the belay Travis was upset.
“Damn, Jefe. I thought I had it in me. Maybe I’m not good enough? Maybe I need to train more?”
Frank Herbert once famously wrote that fear is the mind-killer, but I think he got it-wrong. Doubt is the killer. There can be no fear until you doubt.
That day—Independence Day 2020—six months into the pandemic, pretty much the entire human race was in some state of doubt. Am I going to get sick? Will my family be all right? Will we lose our jobs? Who can I trust? What’s going to happen? Worry strummed the world’s nerves like God’s hands playing Somewhere Over the Rainbow on a ukulele.
When you’re caught in doubt, you can’t move. You can’t think. You can’t act, and, more importantly, you can’t send your projects.
The American buddha Joseph Goldstein suggested that people should open to the feelings of doubt and fear even if they’re unpleasant. “Oh, worry feels like this. Anxiety feels like this. Fear feels like this. Simply see them as thoughts and emotions arising and passing away in the open space of mind,” he suggests in a podcast that people like me listen to when we’re scared. It sounds like good advice until you try to do it and realize you’re too worried to pay attention to your fear. And bringing attention to his doubt wasn’t going to help Travis send Aumakua.
Out of nowhere I remembered another podcast—I’ve been listening to a lot of them lately—and I said, “Check this out, Kid. Breathe in to the count of three like this.” I pulled a breath through my nose—one, two, three. “Then exhale to five”—one, two, three, four, five.
The Kid was following along, and we did five breath cycles together. As he chalked up, I explained how lengthening the exhalation balances the carbon dioxide/oxygen ratio resulting in better oxygen uptake.
I have no idea whether any of that is true. I might be getting my podcasts mixed up. But after The Kid cooled out and breathed for a time, he unclipped from the anchor and powered through the crux. His legs were solid while he shook out on the pig back. He looked down and shot me a shaka. Dead calm, he sent the rest of the route.
Did my breathing lesson help Travis send his proj? I like to think it did. And does that make me his mentor despite my somewhat checkered safety record? I’d say, yes, I am.
These days mentorship is a hip idea, especially with businesses that want to use the concept to make more money. There are entire websites with rules and contracts that define and codify the mentor–mentee relationship. When I googled “mentor– mentee relationship” I got 16,200,000 hits. The top hit described it as “a beautiful orchestration built on trust.”
I don’t know about that. Jack and DR never orchestrated anything except when they conspired to steal my routes, and I only ever half trusted them. (I haven’t trusted DR since he set up a belay on a tree that pulled out—but I still climb with him. He’s my mentor.)
There’s a difference between a mentor and an aumakua. An aumakua is a protector—like a mom—but a mentor is something else. In The Odyssey, Mentor removed Telemachus’ doubt and sent him into the rain of bloody hail, where he claimed his kingdom.
“Today is a climbing day,” Athena whispered through Mentor. “No matter how bad it looks, we go.”
Jeff Jackson is the At Large Editor at Rock and Ice.