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Faith in Vermont: Watching My Daughters Climb

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Posted on May 8, 2018 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



All four of our daughters love climbing, but one of them has elevated climbing to a lifestyle.

I’m not talking about “climbing” in any metaphorical sense; I’m talking about actual climbing, defined in Webster’s Ninth Collegiate Dictionary as, “to draw or pull oneself up, over, or to the top of by using hands and feet.”

My climbing daughter has always scaled whatever was available, with the goal of getting as high as possible. She began, as a toddler, with the boulders and trees that filled the yard of our house; her first word was “rock.” At two years old, she amused herself during her big sisters’ swimming lessons by climbing the trees by the town pool. It was from one of these trees that she fell that summer, thankfully from a height of only about four feet – she was on her way down – thus earning the dubious honor of being the first of our children observed for signs of concussion.

In recent years, this same daughter has climbed rocky cliffs by the Maine coast. She claimed a willow tree in our yard (named “Willowbee”), in whose branches she sits whenever she needs time alone. She once scaled the six-foot-high, spike-topped metal fence that borders the library parking lot, rather than simply using the entrance. When we visited the Brooklyn Botanic Garden on a recent trip to New York, I found it necessary to warn her beforehand that the trees there were not for climbing. The friends we were visiting understood my warning the next day, when they watched her attempt to climb every city fence we passed.

Raising this daughter has made me curious about the human impulse to climb. What ancient code in our DNA compels us to lift feet off the ground, pull up with arms, and attempt to defy gravity? Was climbing necessary to avoid predators? Did an elevated perspective improve one’s success in hunting and gathering? Were climbers valued members of society because they could keep watch from the heights and be the first to spot impending danger? 

Whatever the prehistoric purpose of climbing, nowadays it’s an increasingly unnecessary skill, like being able to write in cursive or navigate by the stars. In modern society, climbing is usually a children’s pastime – and that only if your parents aren’t too worried about concussions and broken bones. (Although I read an article recently about a man in England who was trying to reinstate tree climbing for adults: As he sat in a tree during his lunch hour, he was interrupted by the police who’d been summoned by callers alerting them of a man attempting suicide from the top of a tree.) 

So the urge to climb persists, even in adults. The problem is that trees, boulders, and cliffs are in increasingly short supply these days, or are inconveniently far from the residential and business areas where we center our lives. Thus has arisen the modern solution: the Climbing Wall, which reaches its apex in the Climbing Gym. 

Our closest climbing gym is Petra Cliffs, in Burlington. A former warehouse with 20-foot ceilings now lined by climbing walls, Petra Cliffs offers a combination of bouldering (climbing walls scaled without ropes), autobelay (in which the climber is attached to a rope, and a device automatically catches and lowers them once they let go of the wall), and belay (in which a two-sided rope connects the climber with someone on the ground who keeps the rope tight and lowers the climber.)

I first took my climbing daughter to Petra Cliffs this past summer, and it was so much fun that we’ve returned multiple times since then with the entire family. 

Our most recent visit to Petra Cliffs was in late April, during spring vacation. I took all four of our daughters, and they spent several hours happily climbing the walls. 

Each time we visit Petra Cliffs, my daughters make a little progress in their climbing ability. This time, they noticed a wall that they hadn’t attempted before – a wall that offered some intriguing new challenges. Everyone wanted to give it a try. 

This wall required belaying, which meant that I provided the counterweight for each of my daughters. The first to attempt it was our four-year-old, who climbed up a couple of feet and then called it a day.

Next came my climbing daughter, who paused several times to consider her strategy, but finally reached the top. Her older sister also made it to the top. 

Then our eldest daughter clipped onto the rope. This daughter is brave, athletic, and no slouch when it comes to climbing. Having just seen two of her younger sisters scale the wall, she began her ascent with confidence. 

About halfway up, where the wall got tricky, she faltered. She tried to find supports for her hands and feet, but nothing worked. That’s when she started to panic.

I could feel her fear vibrating down the rope. She looked all around for any solution – and then she looked down, choked up, and started shaking.

“I’m scared,” she said, her voice quavering.

“It’s okay. I’ve got you. Why don’t you just come down?” I said, trying to make my voice as calm and level as possible, while my mind was suddenly flung back to a childhood incident that I’d half forgotten.

One summer, when I was about the same age as my eldest daughter, my father and I participated in a parent-child outdoor nature program. Every week, the parents and children would do something active out in nature. But the only thing I remember now is the rock climbing.

We met at a park where sheer rocky cliffs rose above the Potomac River. We were supposed to climb those cliffs. 

I can’t recall whether we’d had any training. I can’t recall the set-up, though I believe I was hooked onto a rope that was being held by someone at the top of the cliff. But I recall exactly how I felt when I got about halfway up the cliff and couldn’t find any place to put my hands. I was stuck: Going up seemed impossible, and looking down was terrifying. Somehow I made it up and over the top – it may be that I was pulled up. I never tried climbing again after that. 

As I gently lowered my terrified daughter to the ground at Petra Cliffs, I was as sure of one thing as I’ve ever been: She needed to climb that wall again. It was vitally important that she have the chance I hadn’t: The chance to redo a scary situation. 

“I got really scared up there, Mommy,” she said.

I’m not sure what I said, exactly, but it went something like this: “I could see that you were scared. That’s a hard wall. Why don’t you climb some other walls to give yourself a break, and when you feel ready, why don’t you try this one again and see if you feel better?”

Although my daughters often push back against my advice, that’s exactly what happened: She took a break, then told me that she was ready to try the wall again. And this time, she made it all the way to the top. 

For the next several days, she told and re-told the story of how she’d mastered the difficult wall to anyone who’d listen. 

Parenting is full of frustration, pain, and exhaustion. Many nights, I go to bed certain that I’ve failed: I’ve been impatient, I’ve shouted, I’ve been too long on nagging and too short on love. 

But every once in a while, there are these tiny moments that feel huge. They happen not because I’m a particularly good parent, but because the world is full of grace. 

We are all climbing, aren’t we? Whether for the thrill of reaching the top, the challenge of figuring out the next handhold, the physical benefits, or the stunning views at the summit. It’s hard work, our muscles ache, and sometimes we can’t see the way forward and we panic.

Then, for just a moment, we get to help a child overcome a fear -- and in so doing, we too are healed.

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, assorted chickens and ducks, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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