Thursday, September 30, 2010

Misery really does love company

Last week as we attended Oktoberfest (or whatever the spelling is that reflects beer, brats and lots of inflatable kiddie stuff) in downtown Greeley, I ran into one of my running friends. He, like many of them, is mellow, happy and generally one of the nicer guys I've met. He is, in fact, pretty much the opposite of me. He's also one of the guys I try to emulate in my own personality, but most of the time I fail miserably.
He's also one of the few runners I know who has young children, just like me, and so I enjoy talking to him because he can actually relate to what it's like to feel as if your energy is constantly being squeezed like water out of a washcloth.
As we waited in line with my kids for their turn on the big inflatable slide, I was hoping my girls or Jayden would remain in the calm, satisfied state we were currently enjoying. They seem to have trouble holding this serene state for longer than three minutes, but nonetheless, I prayed they would keep it up.
No one, after all, enjoys dealing with a whinefest in front of your friends, and I'm as guilty as anyone about wondering what others must think of my skills as a parent. I don't lay awake at night worrying about that - I'm far too tired for that - but I do get embarrassed when my child, or children, as it usually goes, throws a fit in front of people. Especially in front of my friends. Especially in front of said friends who are typically easy-going, mellow, nice people who surely don't have the same problems with their children.
Only I was surprised, even shocked, when his boy, who was probably 6 or 7, kept whistling. It was a shrill, high-pitched call, if you will. It was annoying. It was exactly the kind of thing my kids would do, if they knew how to whistle.
"Don't you hate it," my friend said, obviously embarrassed, "when your kid is in a funk all day and you can't do anything about it?"
Um, yes, I do. That seems to happen just about every day, actually.
And then it hit me.
All parents go through what I go through.
I'm not alone.
And I'm sorry to say, it felt good to know that.
• • •
What is it about misery that makes us want others to go through it?
Well, if you're a parent, the biggest fear, other than your child getting hurt, some strange illness or maybe getting eaten by crocodiles, is fucking them up. It's easy to constantly question what you're doing as a parent. What TV show are you letting them watch? What are you feeding them? When do they go to bed? What are they wearing? What tantrums do you acknowledge, and how do you deal with them?
These days, it's much easier to question yourself, too, because of all the damn advice other parents love to offer on places like Facebook, Twitter and those hundreds of self-help Web sites, not to mention Dr. Phil and Oprah and social circles with real, live friends you talk to without typing in something on your cell phone.
It seems like parents trip over each other to talk about how perfect they are.
No one has made me question our own happy home than the twins turning 3.
3 is a hellish number. The holy trinity seems to be the only good thing associated with that number, and that's certainly true when you talk about the age of your toddlers. We hear all about the terrible twos, but that, I think, is a result of clever alliteration more than the truth. The terrible twos really aren't all that terrible. But 3? 3, my friend, sucks.
I can't remember a morning when we weren't dealing with at least one fit, probably because they can't find their Barbie or car or shoes, and if they can't find them, they're fighting over them. Or maybe it's that they want juice. Or a certain kind of cereal. Or they're just in a crappy mood and want to assert themselves, which is 93.2 percent of the time. Nighttime generally is the same way. Hush, you, on telling me they're probably tired. I know. That doesn't make the screaming any easier to take.
These tantrums are multiplied with twins, and they're even tripled, I'd say, because at least a third of their tantrums are a direct result of each other. One has a toy that the other is convinced is hers. One is wearing a blue shirt and the other one wanted to wear it. One wants to sit with Mommy while the other is forced, horrors upon horrors, to sit with Daddy.
To be blunt, I'm so, so burned out on it all, and it's by far my biggest challenge as a parent. Because not only do the tantrums make you feel constantly exhausted, they make you feel walked upon. Trampled upon, actually, like a desperate high school student in need of a date for homecoming.
I wish it weren't so, because 3 is also such a cute, cute age. It's uber cute, actually. Every day they say something that makes me laugh, and laugh hard, as cracked-corny as that sounds.
But to watch all that cuteness get warped and eventually possessed by a demon makes you want to stop it, and that means picking your battles and, many times, giving in. You don't want milk? OK, I'll get juice, because you just don't want to put up with 45 minutes of hellish screaming otherwise.
So you worry. You worry if you are raising spoiled brats. You wonder if other, more controlled, more thoughtful parents who let things roll off their backs could calmly explain why milk is important, and their 3-year-olds look at them with doe eyes and stop crying, drink their milk and then go on to become doctors and win pulitzer prizes while you picture your girls becoming, say, Paris Hilton.
At least I worry.
So maybe that's all I need is confirmation. I don't need to know I'm doing a good job. I need to know others, even the ones who seem perfect, really aren't.
Maybe that's shallow of me. But I'll worry about that in a couple years, when my girls are well past 3, and I have the energy.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Conflicted fun

I was asking myself what the last day of my life would be like.
I wondered Saturday morning if that day would be the day.
I never thought about death before I had kids when I went mountain climbing. I don't think that's because I never considered the possibility. I think that's because there was no real consequence if it happened.
Even after I got married, I figured Kate could find another guy. She was young, beautiful and without issues. Those women are rare. She'd be fine.
I valued my life. I wasn't cavalier about it in the least. Ten years ago, when a bunch of large rocks swept under my feet, threatened to swallow me under their granite and bashed into me, I fought for my life, flipping through the air to stop myself and walking 17 hours after I was hurt to get help from the hospital. When, four years later, I slipped and rolled toward a ledge, I desperately looked for a rock to wrap my leg around and found it.
But I knew, deep down, that if I did indeed die, I'd die doing something I loved and that it was my choice to put myself in danger to do it.
Thing is, these days, when I prepare to do something like Saturday's Little Pawnee-Pawnee traverse, I know I'm no longer making a choice for myself but for my family.
And I still don't know if it's fair.

• • •
The day looked to be another glorious one in the mountains. At least that's what said. I saw something completely different.
I saw a sullen sky that spit droplets of water on my climbing partner's windshield as she swept down the highway. Hmm. Lighting is always the biggest concern, and days like the one the clouds were predicting rarely produced lighting. But on a route like the one were planning to tackle, the rain is almost as bad because it soaks the rock, and wet rock is slick rock. If it was raining when we got to the trail, the hike would be over before it started.
But as we got higher, the sky got clearer, and by the time we reached the trailhead and parked, the sun and blue sky were pushing us to go on. In fact it looked like exactly the kind of day you need to do a long, dangerous traverse like the one that faced us.

• • •
Rules, like the one I discussed above (1. Never climb a tough route in the rain) helps salve my guilt over doing something dangerous when I've got twin 3 year-old girls, a 5-year-old boy and a haggard wife, but only some. It helps because you can convince yourself you're being smart, and when most climbers die when they're not being smart. Climbers die when they go off the route, don't stick with their plans, push their luck with the weather, forget to bring the right equipment or make a thousand other fairly easy mistakes that seem small and yet can turn really bad too quickly. It's happened this year. It happens every year.
In fact, it's easy to convince a guilty mind that EVERY death is because of some error that, of course, you would never make. But believe that and you're lying to yourself in the way addicts lie to themselves about just needing one last hit, or one last fling, or one last bet. A young guy died this year on the Maroon Bells when a rock hit him, causing him to fall. Another climber was severely hurt just this year on the very traverse we'd be attempting that day. In both those instances, no real mistakes were made by the climbers. They just got hurt, or killed, doing what they loved.

• • •
The day started out with some map reading, trying to find the best route up the mountain before we could start our climb of the ridge. Despite 200 climbing trips, this is still one of my biggest weaknesses. This time probably still took longer than it really should. It's a little tricky because the start isn't an obvious, jutting peak you can identify through any photos, and there was two alternative routes, neither one which stuck out or looked all that promising. You could either wander through a forest until you reached a grassy ridge or take a more direct route through cranky bushes and a growling boulderfield. We chose the second option.
Once we reached the ridge, it started easily enough, with some easy class 3 climbing. If you don't know, class 2 means walking off a trail, and class 3 or above means you'll need to use your hands as well as your feet. Class 4 is essentially hard class 3 climbing that's usually exposed, meaning a fall could hurt or even kill you.
I wish sometimes that I didn't love hard, class 4 routes as much as I do. But as we started into the trickiest part of the day, an exposed downclimb that many prefer to use a rope on, my voice shook a bit. I was afraid, of course, but the shaking, I have to admit, came from something.
I was pumped.

• • •
I'm not a junkie. Not really. I'm not the maniac I used to be, when I was doing 20 peaks a year, some of them difficult, even dangerous. I'd look at a weekend at home during the summer as a wasted opportunity. I climbed three peaks this year because I needed to be home more than usual this summer, and I honestly didn't miss it as much as I thought I would. Running is a good challenge for me now, and it seems to fulfill that other side of me. The side that needs some sort of adventure or goal. Maybe even a touch of pain.
But that other side needs a trip like Saturday's once a year. I still wish I didn't. But as we scampered across ledges and climbed our hearts out, I was giddy, like a teenager in love. It was just so much FUN. It's fun to get scratched by the rock and fun to have your foot graze open air and fun to be out there. Just out in the open. It's fun to accomplish a cool feat. It's fun to solve the puzzle of a route and use your whole body and be throughly exhausted. It's fun to see such beauty and rely on yourself.
And, yes, it's fun to go through something dangerous and make it through unscathed. I have felt a much deeper fear, too, now that the consequences of me getting hurt or killed is much more severe. Occasionally, that fear brings me to tears, as it did last year on what I consider to be the toughest 14er in the state.

I know if I die climbing, it's an incredibly selfish act, perhaps the most selfish act ever. It leaves my kids without a father, and even if someone else stepped in, it could scar them for life. And I'm taking a chance that that could happen. It's a small chance. I never felt like Saturday was beyond my abilities. But even a chance is also selfish. 
I have a response for the conflict. Climbing is a part of me and has been since I was 13. So how can I teach my kids how to live if I can't feel alive?
But that's an easy statement. And so it's not really an answer. It's just something I say to soothe my nerves before I throw on my backpack and head out into the wild.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Hello darkness and my old friend

When I was 13, the mountain you heard about more than any other was Longs Peak.
We were on our fifth or sixth trip to Estes Park by then, where we'd stay at the YMCA of the Rockies, and my interest in the mountains was just starting to percolate. My parents had already been bitten by the bug, though at that point it was more like a nibble.
Since we were on our fifth or sixth time on our summer vacation there from Kansas, I think, more than anything, my parents were looking for something to DO. We'd already been tourists, driving Trail Ridge Road, eating fudge in downtown Estes Park (and buying a Tee Shirt) and walking around Bear Lake in Rocky Mountain National Park, where the parking lot is so full these days that a park 'n' ride just to GET to the lake regularly fills up on the weekends, forcing cars to prowl about like sharks for an open spot.
Hey, I'm guessing we thought. What about all these mountains surrounding the Y-Camp and the little cabins where we stayed?
The YMCA offered a hiking program. You'd get a schedule at the beginning of the week, and every hike was graded just like it was a school. The pansy ones, usually attended by overweight, huffing, red-faced tourists and were usually something like looking for wildflowers, were rated F. Only a few got an A, and As were a big deal. Before the hikemasters would even let you go on an A hike, you had to pass a C hike, and even the C hikes would probably kill the red-faced tourists, or at least make them sweat out a good portion of the grease that consistently ran through their bloodstream.
Longs Peak was the ultimate A.
It's the tallest mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park. It's also an awesome site, home to an east face that will take your breath away if its 14,259 feet doesn't first. That east face is adored by rock climbers and gazed at by mountaineers like me with awe every time we see it. If there's a picture of a mountain that looks like a mountain SHOULD look like, well, this is one of them.
The thing is, the keyhole route, Longs' most popular route, doesn't even sniff the east face, and it's STILL a classic route, easily one of the best climbs in Colorado and one of its most challenging. It's 15 miles, almost 5,000 feet of elevation gain, and the last mile-and-a-half is over exposed, sometimes tricky scrambling. Most of it is above treeline, too, meaning a 2 a.m. start is not only recommended, it's mandatory.
People have figured this out, of course, and for decades, the keyhole route is probably the most popular route in Colorado. The 14ers, peaks above 14,000 feet, have become somewhat of a cult sensation in the last 15-20 years or so, and yet, Longs is still one of the most climbed peaks in Colorado and quite possibly the most climbed, despite the fact that I consider it one of the harder ones.
When my father tried it the first time, we came back from a horseback riding trip to find him wrapped in a triple-thick layer of blankets and his feet in hot water. The winds apparently were strong enough to blow him off the trail and pin him behind the rocks. When my mother tried it the first time, she made it, but fell from sheer exhaustion with a few miles to go and looked as if she'd been dragged by a mule when I found her back in the cabin.
Naturally, this made me want to try it.
Longs was so popular, the sign-up list usually filled up as soon as it was released by the YMCA staff. The hikemasters hated Longs because so many unprepared people wanted to do it to taste its glory. This mountain, after all, was the weekend warrior's Everest, a chance for desk workers and parents to get a somewhat dangerous adventure in and be back in time for Kentucky Fried Chicken and a shower. People erased names to get on the list. Others lied about their fitness and experience. Fights broke out.
All this hid the fact that Longs is, of course, a dangerous day. Usually at least one dies a year, and two have died this year, with a third death feared the very day I'm writing this. Others are hurt. It's not an amusement park ride, even if it tends to draw the same crowds.
So when my Dad and me, at 14, went down to the meeting place at midnight, we hadn't signed up for the list, but we hoped they would take pity on a father and his son on his last day in Estes Park hoping for a day together.
The hikemasters, who usually God-like graduate students or wise, older Colorado residents who tended to look at you like the way a rock star would look at a Hannah Montana fan, grumbled but allowed me to go along.
That day contributed to my love for the mountains as much as any other. I have since climbed it 16 times, and Sunday I led a group of rookies up Longs for the eighth time. We started in the dark, like always, and ended as dusk threatened to spill across the now-renovated parking lot.
It started out nasty, with a chilling wind that may have resembled what my Dad faced his first time up Longs. But the wind died down, the sun came out, and Longs, once again, welcomed me to its summit after I sacrificed a bit of blood and a lot more energy.
I'm sore today and was a little crankier this morning than usual. But that's OK. I'm showing others the way to a new passion. If they don't follow through on it, at least for one day they get to experience mine.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Summer Shocker

Well, the girls are exhausting us again, especially my wife, but me, too.
They're not sleeping well at night, and since they are 3, they have figured out that enough screaming and general crappiness in the attitude department will get them a trip to our bed, where they thrash around like weasels on black coffee.
I was thinking the other day how having small children is like having a chronic disease. It sounds really horrible to say that, given that there's not much positive about having a disease and there's PLENTY positive about having children (seriously, there is).
But when you go through a stretch like this, you're tired all the time, going to bed early, struggling in the middle of the night and spending far too much time on things that kinda suck, like tantrums, trying to get the kids to eat dinner and watching "Dora The Explorer."
Plus you don't get to leave the house very often. When you do, like my brilliant idea to go for a walk Sunday morning with the girls and their scooters, it starts well but turns into a pain-in-the-ass fest, like everything else. Whining from one twin or another gets louder and louder.
We've got  a couple more years of this, which is discouraging, to say the least. Parents insist I will miss these days. I keep insisting I won't. Rather, I miss my days in the mountains. I'm finally getting one Saturday, and I can't tell you how excited it makes me.
For one day, at least, I'll be healthy again.