Rock Climbing and My Four-Year-Old

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Since having my son four years ago, the number of days I’ve spent climbing every year has dropped precipitously-from over 100 days at one point to zero. Climbing has always been one of my favorite things to do with my husband, but these days we’ve substituted playdates and picnics in the park for mountain adventures. Not a bad trade-but still, I’ve missed climbing. Living in New York City and working a demanding job made me appreciate all the things it has to offer: the beauty, the companionship, the physical effort, the mental challenge-even the fear. Raising my son, I looked forward to a time when I could introduce him to the cliffs, once he was old enough.

The question then became, “How old is old enough to climb?” We’ve taken our son, Mason, to the indoor gym many times but it wasn’t until we saw him clamoring to climb the “mountains” in the park near our home, the boulders in Central Park where visitors often picnic, that we felt he was ready.

So, one bright sunny day in early Autumn, we rented a car, dragged the gear out of the closet, packed the pack and, after a quick stop at Zabar’s to grab some supplies for lunch, headed upstate to the Shawangunk Mountains, known as “the Gunks.” Our first pre-climb drive with our son was fun, but noticeably different from the pre-climb drives my husband and I had taken before. Instead of talking about routes to consider and plans for getting in as much climbing as possible, we did sing-a-longs and talked about the various trucks we passed on the highway.

Pulling into New Paltz was exciting. A quick stop at the climbing shop was like visiting an old friend. When we arrived at the trailhead, it was early afternoon-a far cry from the alpine starts we aimed for in the past, though seldom achieved. My husband and I, back again at our favorite cliff, now with our son, were ready to embark on our adventure. We’d given a lot of thought to how to give Mason a sense of ownership and accomplishment in our day and the first thing we did was have him pack his own pack. We let him choose a few things he wanted to carry and included a piece of group gear so that he could contribute.

Boy, did he look cute heading down the trail with his little backpack!

We had a couple of routes on our list to check out but it became clear fairly quickly that our first choice wouldn’t work. A climb called Three Pines was as gentle as we remembered, but the start had a sequence of reaches that were just too big for a little boy barely over three feet tall. We decided to head down the cliff, and soon we were dropping our packs at the base of a rarely climbed corner. The route was steep but full of holds-perfect.

There is a moment at the start of any climb when the mood shifts. The drive and the hike in can be casual and chatty, but then comes the time to get on the rock, and the climbing begins. We arranged the gear and my husband, David, started up the cliff to set the belay. After he reached the top and set the anchor, I clipped the rope to Mason’s harness, tied myself in a few feet below him, and we headed up. With my husband’s belay carefully set within eyesight up the cliff and me a few feet below him, Mason started up. He hesitated, a little scared, and balked. For a moment, I wondered whether Mason-my shy and cautious little boy-would have the courage to continue. But with some encouragement, he pushed through his fear and made his first move. Then another… and another-growing more confident as he learned to scan the rock and find the best hand and footholds. Before I knew it, we were halfway up the cliff and I was hurrying to keep up with him. By the time he got to the crux move (the hardest move on the route), he had a smile on his face. We made the belay with hugs and delight. Mason couldn’t have been happier. At the top of the cliff, we settled in to enjoy a picnic at the top of the world. It was a brilliant moment and the proud, ear-to-ear smile on my quiet boy’s face was unforgettable.

After our leisurely lunch, we had one last challenge. As climbers always remind each other, the climb is only half done when you reach the top. After double-checking the anchor, I clipped Mason and myself to the rope and we rappelled down the cliff. The first step is the hardest as you trust your anchor and step out over the edge of the cliff. Mason and I held hands as we leaned back into the rope. Once the rope had our weight, it was easy. Down we went, taking our time to enjoy the feeling of total safety on the vertical face of the mountain. At the bottom, we celebrated again, and then it was time to pack the gear and head home.

Hiking the mile or so trail back to the car is always a pleasant end to the day: passing other climbers and hikers, trading brief stories about the climbs of the day, and chatting with old friends. Our little guy is shy. He has a difficult time meeting strangers and even balks at saying “hi” to the guys who work in our building. But that day, perhaps buoyed by the confidence gained from climbing his first mountain or the feeling of kinship with his fellow climbers-or maybe just the pride of carrying his cool backpack with a couple of carabiners hanging off the webbing-he was right there with us, smiling and bantering with the people we passed. It was a big moment.

Since this first trip, we have gone climbing many times-both at the indoor gym near us and back outdoors at the Gunks-and Mason has enthusiastically embraced his newfound identity as a climber. When we’re out at the park near our home, Mason brings his little rope and gear and strategically plots the route to the top of whatever “mountain” he is climbing, no matter how big or small. And although that first trip started as a way to introduce our son to a sport we love, we’ve since seen the other benefits climbing has brought to him. Climbing has given Mason a newfound sense of confidence-the confidence that comes from overcoming your fear-of the unknown, of failure, of taking risks-and pushing yourself to try something new and then achieve. It’s also given him a greater well of resilience that has spilled over into other areas of his life-to work at things that are hard, to overcome small failures, and to relish in the challenge. For a shy little boy like Mason, these benefits have been unexpectedly meaningful and rewarding. At school, his teachers have seen him come out of his shell and become a more social and vocal member of his class. Although this is due to more than just climbing, I can’t help but believe that the confidence he’s gained through climbing has played a big part. As I think about our next outdoor adventure-this time traveling to Colorado, one of our favorite places in the world-I think about the proud smile of my son, standing next to my husband, on the top of the highest mountain in the world that day.

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