Paul Andersen: Fair Game

Paul Andersen
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

The mantle has been passed from father to son, a mantle in the form of a rope. In one day, I went from revered patriarch to beginner rock jock. My 17-year-old son was my teacher, and I gave my all to scoring a passing grade from the boy I used to sling around in a backpack. What I learned on day one is appreciation for the father/son bonding agent of white-knuckle fear – and the trust that goes with it.

My first lesson took us “up the Pass” last week to a popular slab of granite where Aspen’s real social climbing occurs. This is a place to hang with the bro-buddies while on belay at a bolted route with a top rope anchor within earshot of the Roaring Fork River. Here I planned to claw my way up a perilous pitch before the crag-conscious cognoscenti.

No one was on hand to witness my maiden climb on this drizzly day, which was to my ultimate relief. It was even more to my son’s relief, since my antique attire is so embarrassingly old school that I might as well be draped in prehistoric animal skins. I had no climbing shoes, those foot crunching slippers that bind one’s feet like a geisha’s, so I had to wear my dusty, old trail shoes. My shorts were not of the proper style or cut, so I was spared derision from fashion-conscious cling meisters whose natty garb is actually expertly tailored to appear casually thrown together.

Tait led me up a trail through a verdant forest of pines. We crossed a boulder field and arrived at a sloping slab that had humiliation written all over it. “Where’s the easy route?” I asked. “This is it,” smiled Tait, enjoying my grimace. “Fear not, venerable Father Figure,” he chided. “You’ll be on a rope!”

Unfortunately, being on a rope conjures for me the grim death image of Saddam Hussein. And while I have entertained visions of dangling from a sheer escarpment with Eiger Sanction bravado, those visions have occurred in dreams from which I awake screaming like a baby.

Before I knew it, Tait had fastened a harness around me, which felt like being diapered in cordura. Then he taught me the art of the belay so he could climb first and set the route. “Just hold the rope with this hand and pay it out with this one,” he instructed. “Try not to forget which hand is which…if you can grasp the concept, Old One.”

Soon, Tait was straddled overhead, his climbing shoes stuck on the merest of bumps, while his hands expertly sought the slightest handholds. Yeah, this will be easy, I thought, realizing that I am 3.5 times older than my lithe and agile son, who moved spider-like above me, climbing with effortless grace. He clipped draws on the bolts as he went and methodically reached the top anchor, from which he rappelled down and landed – ta-da! – at the base. “Your turn, Old-Timer!” he said with a malicious smirk.

Within seconds Tait had me tied onto the belay and had snugged up the rope. I moved into position, readied myself, then gave the command: “Pull!” Tait shook his head. “This isn’t skeet shooting, Aged Relic. It’s time for you to climb and prove yourself a man.”

Just when I needed a jerk on the end of the line I had a jerk on the end of the line – and this jerk was telling me to man up. Slowly, steadily, and with total focus, I worked my way up the route in my best imitation of Yvon Chouinard. Aged, though not infirm, I made it almost to the top before rappelling down.

“Good job, Dad!” coached Tait, accentuating his compliment with a fist bump. This sealed the deal and made me as proud of myself as I am of my son, whose climbing skills shone as he ascended a second time with athletic mastery to retrieve the draws he had left at the top as a safety.

Not bad for a first attempt, I told myself, grateful for my audience of one. Now that I have my personal instructor, I aspire to do more social climbing in Aspen.