Hang Time

By Keith Epstein
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 17, 2001

Imagine this: Your 12-year-old daughter, your precious first-born, your not-long-ago baby, is perched 1,000 feet above an alpine meadow floor, right on the slick lip of one of the most stunning, challenging and visually domineering domes in the High Sierra.

The tower of polished granite rises almost vertically from the grassland of Yosemite's Tuolumne Meadows. Though lesser known than its geological cousin, Half Dome, Lembert Dome toys no less dramatically with the disbelieving eye and wary feet.

Yet my daughter steps backward at the very edge, nothing between her and the earth but air. Nothing for me to do but cling to the rock as I watch her go over. She disappears. The rope uncoils after her, slapping at the polished rock.

I'm supposed to trust the climbing guide, but I scrutinize his knots for flaws. He's a highly qualified Generation X-er who does zany things like scaling El Capitan while listening to grunge music. How do I know he'll take care of my daughter?

Suddenly, my plan makes no sense at all. All this, just to boost a girl's self-esteem and confidence? To combat preadolescent anxieties and fears, to teach the value in taking risks? To enrich our relationship and spend precious time together? Am I nuts? What if something happens? What if she falls? What will I say to her mother? How will I live with myself?

I don't know how many minutes pass. A century.

"Okay, Serena, stop there," the guide shouts down into the air. "You can climb. Head for the crack on your left. No! Yes, there."

At this point, I know only from our pre-climb briefing that my daughter is trying to inch her way back up the slippery west face of Lembert by hoisting herself along a nearly vertical, virtually gripless indentation as smooth as a water slide. We've been learning to climb for four days, we've just done a three-pitch ascent to get here, but we've seen nothing like this.

Another century passes. I am aging rapidly. Suddenly Serena's face appears, like a ship presumed lost but popping up on the horizon. Her face is red and sweaty. She is breathing heavily.

"How cool," she grins. "That was fun! And Daddy, it was easy!"

She unbuckles and approaches me.

"Okay," she tells me. "Now you."

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