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With Death at Hand, a Lifelong Climber Took a Deep Breath and Hugged His Boys

When Hawaii sent out a ballistic missile alert the author re-evaluated everything including climbing. This feature was included in "Best American Sports Writing," 2019.


This story was first published in Ascent 2018. Access to Ascent and over 3,000  features by climbing’s leading writers, plus a print subscription to Climbing,  is a member benefit. 

At about 8 o’clock on Saturday morning, January 13, I was standing in my kitchen in Makawao, Hawaii, eating a pancake and working on a haiku. I was teaching haibun—linked prose and verse—and wanted to try to write a haibun about a climb. The 17th-century Japanese master poet Matsuo Basho had written his classic travel sketches as haibun, and what is a climb if not a journey?

For inspiration, I’d been reading Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, a haibun travelogue about his years-long road trip into wild and dangerous Edo-period Japan, where travelers risked brutal cold, illness and meeting roving brigands who’d chop your arm off with samurai blades to take the gold out of your fist. Basho sold his house in 1689 and took off for two and a half years, traveling over a thousand miles and living on handouts as a Zen-influenced pilgrim. In 1694, five years after starting his northern journey, Basho died back in his home province at the age of 50.

That morning in January, I was standing, eating, looking at a haiku I’d written, holding a book and hollering at my two boys to be quiet so I could get in the right mood to tell the story behind a route that Guillermo Marun, Coco Dave Elberg and I had put up a couple years before.

The route is Sky Turtle (5.10+). A long, steep hike past ancient petroglyphs and shelter caves leads you to a room-sized hole in the mountain, the remnants of a giant gas bubble. You make five rappels out of the hole past orange, black and purple streaks that trail down the gently overhanging trachyte (a close geological relative to the syenite of Hueco Tanks.)

Foggy, green, rainbow-laced valleys rise northward toward the crest of the West Maui mountains jutting like pyramids from the Pacific Ocean, which shines like a 2,500-mile-long grow light behind you. From the halekoa tree at the base you climb back up the only crack, 100 feet of 5.9+ protected by cams up to six inches. A pitch that will keep away the riffraff. Continue up ladders of tacky finger buckets and wormlike lava flows for six more pitches, all bolted. Wandering, bulging, cutting across the big wall, they take you places where you can really feel the mana (spiritual power) all around.

Sky Turtle is a metaphor for the mystery that hovers above us all the time. Climbs can be portals into that mystery; you just have to step outside the familiar confines of habit. Or something like that. Honestly, I was having a little trouble with the metaphor.

After some stern hectoring from me, the boys quieted down, and I tried again to conjure a poetic frame of mind.

Looking for insight, I opened my book and read the introduction: “In other words, the Narrow Road to the Deep North was life itself for Basho, and he traveled through it as anyone would travel through the short span of his life here—seeking a vision of eternity in the things that are, by their own very nature, destined to perish.”

That’s the contradiction of life, I thought. Everything we love dies.

At precisely that moment my phone buzzed, and I saw on the screen a little exclamation point in a triangle.

I’d seen that before. It was a flood alert, but instead of the familiar flood warning, in a glowing light-gray box, under the heading EMERGENCY ALERT, were the all-cap words: BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

Perhaps you’re wondering: Did he really read that heart-rending line from Nobuyuki Yuasa’s intro at precisely the moment the missile alert went out? The answer to your question is: Yes.

My mind went blank. Then my guts melted. I called my boys over and hugged them tight for a long time. …

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