Travels With Meaghan
by Loran Smith
Meaghan's mother was not a climber, so I decided to keep this discovery to myself. Over the next several years, however, our family logged a great number of hiking miles, and Meaghan was always drawn to the trailside rocks. Before her mother could caution her to "get down from there before you break your neck," I would leap into action and whisper, "Go for it, I'll spot you!" Her natural ability progressed rapidly, and one day, after she crimped, flagged, and drop-kneed her way to the top of a particularly nasty problem, my wife, who was watching intently, turned and stared at me, knowingly. It was no longer possible to hide the truth.
My wife and I agreed that Meaghan would have to wait until she was "big enough" to go on her first roped climb, and it wasn't until the summer of her seventh year that I recruited my brother to join us on Beginner's Route, a 1200 foot long 5.4 on the slabs of Whitehorse Ledge. The route was technically well within Meaghan's limit, and with my brother belaying me, the three of us completed the ten pitches in just under three hours. To round out the day, I set up a top rope on a nearby crack, and offered Meaghan one dollar if she could negotiate the first 5.8 section to a ledge at one-third height. It was a dollar that I was glad to lose.
The following year a climbing gym opened in a neighboring town, and we began to climb there regularly. Meaghan wore sneakers and a rented harness until we could convince her mother of her passion for climbing, and that Christmas Meaghan was rewarded with a new harness, a used pair of Scarpas, and an oversized chalk bag that allowed her tiny arm to dip almost all the way to the elbow. Months later, when the gym announced they would be hosting a JCCA competition, Meaghan and I used this as an excuse to increase the frequency of our visits. Her excitement at receiving a first place ribbon was in no way tempered by the fact that she was the only competitor in her age group.
By the age of nine, Meaghan was a regular competitor, and we spent many hours driving between venues across New England. To pass the time, our car ride pastimes often ranged from silly to serious; one minute I might find myself failing a coolness test in Teen Beat magazine, and the next answering questions that I still don't have the nerve to ask of my own parents. Meaghan made great strides throughout the competition season, climbing her age on indoor routes and working diligently toward the combined Northeast/New England regionals to be held in Wind Gap, Pennsylvania, seven hours drive away. Traveling down on a Friday, we spent the night "crashing" at the home of a relative who happened to live nearby. On Saturday, Meaghan climbed her heart out, and although she slipped early on one of the qualifying routes, she compensated with a fine effort in the finals to earn second place. She was a star, and I was a proud father, only slightly embarrassed during the awards ceremony when Meg spilled a package of M&M's onto the floor full of ground-up tires, only to pick them out one at a time and pop them into her mouth.
When the competition season was over, we turned our attention toward the great outdoors. At Rumney, after top roping a couple of 5.7's, I quietly flipped the rope over to an adjacent line. Meaghan worked her way carefully up the crimpy pitch, reached the chains, and then apologized for taking so long on such an easy climb. No apologies were necessary, I assured her, as she had just sent her first 5.10. Sandbagging, I explained to her, was a vital tool in a climber's repertoire.
Some weeks later we found ourselves walking into the North End slabs on Cathedral Ledge, a 75-foot crack climbers' playground. There we met an unruly hoard of young men hovering around a college aged woman as she struggled to advance, inch by inch, up a 5.7 layback flake. The humidity of the New Hampshire summer made her look like a contestant in a wet t-shirt contest. The group of admirers, who's brains were currently located somewhere south of their belay biners, favorably compared her climbing to Katie Brown's. Although she slipped continuously out of the crack, she eventually made the top with generous amounts of help from the rope. Meaghan waited patiently until the climb became available, then launched up the crack and floated to the top in great style.
"Is that your daughter?" asked one would-be Romeo, now looking a little foolish. I told him "No, that she was actually a mail-order bride from the former Soviet Union, a pocket-sized Russian rope gun that I had met via the internet."
As our adventures together became more and more frequent, a larger part of Meaghan’s personality was driven by her desire to climb. She remained small for her age, and although her height put her at a disadvantage on certain routes that were just too reachy, her small strong fingers would often find and utilize intermediate holds that I could barely use for my feet. She climbed like a feather that, given a breath of air from below, will spiral gracefully upward. Working diligently on improving her finish in the Junior Nationals of the year before, Meg worked tirelessly on enhancing her strength and technique prior to her twelfth birthday. As a parent/coach, I had the difficult task of helping her along, while making sure that the need to improve was hers, not mine. Following a strong performance in the New England Regionals, we soon boarded an airplane to the Junior Nationals in Portland, Oregon. Meaghan was ready.
The first qualifier, which appeared to be a 5.9, posed little problem for Meaghan as she climbed smoothly and confidently to the top. Confirming with the route judge that she had reached the finishing holds, Meg weighted the rope and instantly began "shaking out" in preparation for the second climb four minutes later. Waiting, she sipped water and tried to remain calm, as her experience told her she must. With the order to climb, she turned to face the wall and began her ascent. However, just two moves into the route, while pausing to scan the holds ahead, her foot popped and she was off. In an instant, her Nationals were over. My heart broke as I watched the tears well in Meaghan's eyes. Working my way through the crowd to meet her as she exited the gym, Meaghan was inconsolable and brushed past me. I gave her five minutes to come to terms with her grief, the longest minutes of my life, before locating her in the gym parking lot. Sweeping her up into my arms, there was little that I could do but hold her and tell her that it was all right.
With our competition now over, we moved our plans forward by two days, turning our traveling road show eastward across the Cascades toward Smith Rock. Meaghan remained strangely quiet in the back seat as we wound our way through the drizzle of the late afternoon, before finally emerging into bright sunlight at the edge of the high desert. Her spirits appeared to pick up as the miles melted away behind us, and when the unmistakable silhouette of Monkey Face came into view, she bubbled with excitement. We followed signs down dusty roads to find ourselves standing awestruck beneath the towering faces of tuff, watching them turn orange and gold in the setting sun. We set up camp in a small circle of trees, and although wiser heads may have opted to stay and rest, we impulsively grabbed our shoes and chalk bags, dashed to the nearest cliff, and bouldered on the strange rough stone until our fingertips hurt and darkness forced retreat by headlamp. Stumbling exhausted into our tent, all of Meaghan’s demons vanished away.
1 Comment Add a Comment
|Very enjoyable and touching read. My two daughters (and three sons, for that matter) can't understand the lure of the rocks. The youngest son caught my first gym lead fall and belayed me outdoors once, but he has never wanted to climb himself. I am lucky to have my 5, but you are blessed to be able to share your passion for climbing with your daughter.|