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first person

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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

“Rock!” Dad’s voice boomed into the empty air.

I looked up. It’s like hearing the word “duck” and then looking around for the object you’re supposed to be ducking. A baseball-sized rock hurtled toward me. I slammed my torso and cheek against the rockface.

I was 16 when Dad first took me multi-pitch rock climbing. We had climbed shorter 20- to 30-feet tall cliffs with ropes tied topside around trees or large boulders – kid stuff. I was ready for the big climb.

I’d been climbing things for years. As a kid, I scrambled up anything and everything: fences, trees, the roof of a neighbourhood school. Dad scaled the Matterhorn during a trip to Europe when I was five. His dad, my Dedja, was a mountain climber, too. If they could do it, then so could I. It wasn’t so much the act of rock climbing that I enjoyed as the idea of myself as a rock climber, as someone adventurous and capable.

On a sunny day while camping, we left my mom and two younger sisters at the campsite and hiked to the base of an easy climb up Mount Edith in Banff, Alta. Dad went first. Slowly and methodically, he climbed half a dozen feet and hammered steel pitons into pre-existing cracks in the rockface to use as anchors. He clipped the top end of the rope into locking carabiners attached to the pitons while I belayed him from the bottom end. Tethered together by trust and a red rope, I followed him up. I pulled those same pitons back out. A dozen or so carabiners and pitons swung from my harness clinking against one another like a wind chime.

We reached the top and Dad took a summit shot of me backdropped by the Rockies. Classic Canadiana, denim-clad head-to-toe, standing on top of the world. I felt invincible.

Rappelling down the opposite side of the mountain was different. My stomach clenched. Halfway down the steep cliff face, there was an outcropping of rock. Six inches across and two deep. Rappelling was the quickest way down, but we didn’t have enough rope to lower us to the ground.

“We’ll use this.” Dad held up another rope left behind by other climbers. The rope was a washed-out grey, bleached by the sun and rain.

“Seriously?” I tried to arch a single eyebrow like my mother. Unfortunately, my eyebrows work in unison, so instead of looking skeptical, I looked surprised.

“It’ll be fine.”

He tied off the ropes and over the edge I went. My heart thumped so hard against my rib cage it hurt. I wished I was back at the campsite making ghost gum out of marshmallows with my little sisters.

I stopped halfway down the cliff at the outcropping and balanced on the ball of my left foot. My leg started to cramp. My fingers grew cold.

Which is when he yelled, “Rock!” And the fist-sized stone punched my hand. A sharp pain shot through my thumb and wrist and up my arm. I was too shocked to react. I was pretty sure my thumb was broken.

I also thought I was one wrong step away from falling.

The short, punctuated gasps of me trying to suck in more air filled my ears. I kept my eyes on the wall of limestone two inches from my face, on the red rope tethering me to my father just out of sight high above. I looked everywhere but down.

By the time Dad rappelled down beside me, I was so cold, tired and scared that I only answered him in monosyllables.

“Are you okay? Were you hit?”

“Yeah,” I flexed my hand. It hurt, but I could make a fist. It wasn’t broken, just badly bruised.

“You can sit down.”


“Lean back, let the harness take your weight.” He pushed himself off the rockface and sat back with his legs reclining in mid-air. He wiggled; the harness held.

“Oh.” I was too relieved to feel stupid and sat back in my harness. My left leg stopped shaking.

We rappelled the rest of the way down. My legs collapsed underneath me when my feet touched the ground, and I was grateful for the solidness. My fingers were stiff and I fumbled with the knots until Dad untied them for me. It was dark by the time we stumbled down the trail. I lost count of how many times we both fell, tripping over our feet in exhaustion.

When Dad gets tired, he gets chatty. When I get tired, I stop talking. We’ve been on some hairy hikes, which consisted of him talking for hours about our family, books, movies, work, other hikes we’ve been on or will go on. Meanwhile, I stared at my hiking boots and focused on planting one foot in front of the other. That day, the sun was setting and it was getting harder to see the trail.

He tried to cheer me up. “As soon as we get back, what’s the one thing you’d like to have?”

“A tampon.” I wasn’t in the mood to cheer him up. We hiked the rest of the way in silence.

Out of the inky black, a flashlight shone in the distance. Dad sighed. “That’ll be your mother.”

She appeared around the bend and threw her arms around me. I collapsed into her. I don’t remember what she said, but she must have been worried if she left my two sisters, aged 11 and 13, by themselves at the campsite at night to come looking for us. We were hours later than we estimated and in the pre-cell phone age, we had no way of contacting her.

My family went on more mountain adventures. I puked seven times on a backpacking trip in Kananaskis, Alta. My mom shattered her knee downhill skiing Nakiska, Alta. There were moments of fear, of doubt, but I trusted Dad. I knew we’d make it home, maybe bone-tired, dirty or wet, but we’d be okay. I suppose you could call it blind trust, but it wasn’t really. Dad never let me down. He was always there, steady and unhurried.

Every adventure became the stuff of legend at family dinners. Every hike that went wrong, or weather that turned, or injury we sustained added to the tale. It’s been years since I’ve had a mountain adventure worth memorializing. My hikes turned into pram-pushing sidewalk strolls, and the only thing I climb up and down now are the stairs in my house, but my kids are growing. One day soon, they’ll reach an age where I can take them somewhere that pushes the limits of what they imagine they’re capable of. And on that day, we’ll add another story to the family canon.

T.L. Tomljanovic lives in Langley, B.C.

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