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."
As she put it later, "My dad positively freaked."
I hate admitting this, especially in print. But the fact is, as much as I wanted my daughter to learn to push beyond traditional expectations, a fear of failure and a clinginess to comfortable limits, I discovered some limits and fears of my own.
Sure, I could be philosophical and say that our rock climbing -- under (and above) the expert eyes and reliable equipment of the famed Yosemite Mountaineering School -- illustrates how having children ends up teaching parents a thing or two. Or I could boast about the mind- and body-stretching adventures I've had on other mountains. But that doesn't change the fact that as I hovered on the same granite edge from which my preteen boldly stepped, I, well, just kept hovering. Positively freaking.
There's something about standing at a right angle into space, one's spine parallel to the ground one-fifth of a mile away, that erases all the intellectual schooling of four days of climbing lessons in the safety of harnesses and backup systems, tried-and-true knots and carabiners. I knew how to rappel, I just didn't want to die.
"Go on, Daddy," my daughter shouted. "Your fear is illogical."
"A logical fear would be if it was a thin rope or your harness wasn't any good. Or the belayer was mad at you about something."
"Thanks, that helps."
"Daddy, just do it. You'll be proud of yourself when you do."
She'd been learning well.
"Daddy, please go already! It's really no different than the climbing gym. A cinch."
I did not find it a cinch, and I probably would not have gone over if not for my responsibility. So the role model went down slowly, awkwardly, incorrectly, unfashionably, pointlessly refusing to let go of the rope. Nor did I find ascending the water cracks "easy." I slipped numerous times, proving that the ropes did work. I skinned my knees, chafed my elbows, had a throbbing headache. Finally I returned to the ledge of relatively level rock, collapsing with relief.
"Daddy," my daughter asked, "do I have the suntan cream on too thick on my nose?"
Nearly everybody's worried about girls, it seems. Especially their parents. All around us are the warning signs -- from teachers, from counselors, from researchers, from authors of books such as "Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls." From our own experiences with them in our homes and schools comes the evidence: It's not easy being young and female.
Studies suggest that starting in the middle grades, girls suffer declines in self-confidence and academic achievement. They grow doubtful of their physical abilities and start disliking the way they look. Many conform to outdated stereotypes that limit expectations for themselves. As with some of her bright classmates, Serena's grades were faltering slightly, she was holding back socially, and doubting her abilities in math and on the pitching mound. She was not saying much about starting a new school.
There's enough blame to go around, but I knew that fathers in particular get a bad rap, often deservedly, and sometimes 20 years later on a therapist's couch. I was determined not to be yet another distant, indictable dad. And somehow serving as her softball coach, homework helper and involved father on a day-to-day basis seemed insufficient to meet the central challenge. And, anyway, we needed extended "special time" -- just us, doing something we both enjoyed.
I looked around for programs, and found none. There are plenty of trips out there for parents with adolescents -- hiking trips, biking trips, rafting trips. And an abundance of organized vacations for parents with younger children. Even grandparents have their own special class of opportunities with organizations such as Elderhostel. But when it came to the neediest, most neglected dyad -- fathers and preteen daughters -- I could find nothing.
Serena loved indoor climbing gyms, so I started scouting around for trips to climb in mountains rather than inside gyms or converted warehouses. Away.com listed several, but they were for teenagers. I got excited when hearing about a trip to West Virginia's New River Gorge, sponsored by the local chapter of a wonderful organization of women climbers called Sheclimbs (Motto: "Putting women on the rocks"). But its trip, it turned out, was only for a weekend, and only for mothers and daughters.
So I designed the trip myself. Five intensive days of instruction by guides at the mountaineering school in Yosemite National Park -- trainers and training ground of many of the world's top climbers.
Some of Earth's most exceptional grandeur surrounded us -- walls of jagged peaks and rounded rock domes encircling the largest subalpine meadow in the Sierra, a carpet of beaked sedges, tufted hair grass and red grass, wild flowers and stands of lodgepole pines. When John Muir first eyed the meadow in 1869, he called it "the most spacious and delightful high pleasure-ground I have yet seen." Even when standing at 8,600 feet, "the surrounding mountains are so much higher one feels protected, as if in a grand hall."
Each morning, we wandered to the walls of that hall from the campground to the nearby headquarters of the climbing school. Then we'd ascend the Dome of the Day. Geologists get excited at Tuolomne because there are more granite domes than anywhere in the world -- stunning examples of exfoliation and the scouring of rock by glacial ice. Big chunks of rock peeled off like layers of onion and the ice polished the domes treacherously smooth.
For climbers, the domes are among the most exciting challenges anywhere for mind and body. We started on Daff Dome, then went to Puppy Dome, which despite its inexplicable name is not for wimps. We learned new techniques and unlearned climbing gym habits. We rappelled, we belayed each other. We learned to tie new knots, to use belay anchors, nuts, runners. We learned hand and hold combinations, and some jam-crack techniques, and how to climb a crack into which your feet fit only sideways and your fingers only partially. We learned to climb with only the minutest of footings.
We also received lessons on fear. Guide Mark Joliff set down the gear beside Daff Dome, grabbed a stick and drew a circle in the pine needles and dust, explaining that the circle represented a person's "realm of possibility."
"It's big for kids like you," he said to Serena. "But as life goes on, people make choices that limit them. Fear sets in. By the time you're an adult you think of all the things you can't do -- and half of them are untrue. Like this." He etched a smaller circle.
The real question, Joliff went on, is determining which fears are real and which are fake. The real ones -- fear of heights, for instance -- are there for a reason. "But by learning how to use the equipment, one can go over a cliff, something that's outside your comfort zone. And guess what? That circle will grow." In fact, he pointed out, rock climbing is one of the safest thrill sports because of more than 100 years of technique and technology.
By day's end, we're convinced -- and Serena's jockeying for more difficult routes.
"Daddy, I want to try a 5.12 now. Can I?"
"So, you're bonding with your dad?" Sean Leary asks Serena as we start the second pitch up Lembert.
"He can take it," Serena replies, winking at me.
What I soon discover is that Leary and my preteen have started up their own dialogue; Dad is becoming extraneous. Leary is closer to her age, and Serena clearly thinks he's pretty cool. He and Serena have been talking about how much he likes climbing, how he prefers it to socializing. "I'm not a people person, either," she tells him. "I like nature." Dad is beginning to realize his time for exfoliation is fast approaching.
"Second pitch" means the second leg of an ascent. On climbs such as Lembert, the rope is simply not long enough to make it all the way to the top, so you take it in sections. The guide goes ahead, fixes devices to cracks in the rocks, then belays as the next person clambers up.
We reach a point where we have to crawl around the bottom of an overhanging rock face, with nothing but a narrow crack to wedge our feet and hands in.
"This is majorly scary," Serena groans as she hand-jams her way along. Falcons and hawks soar past us. Well below, hikers look like ants.
"You can do it," Leary shouts from his perch.
"I know," my daughter replies.
At that moment, I know she can, too.
Later, after it's all over and we're on solid -- horizontal -- ground again and Leary is stashing the gear, Serena tells me she was never really worried. "You know why? Because I was on a rope and I had an experienced belayer. Also" -- her voice drops to a conspiratorial whisper -- "because I checked his knot before I went down."
"The only time I'm scared is when you're belaying me." She checks my frown. "Just kidding."
"So, are you saying this was fun?"
"Oh yeah, a lot more fun than, say, an 'N Sync concert. That's fun but not thrilling. And you know what? With something like this you take a risk, but if you do everything right you learn you're safe. So you know you'll be okay but you also feel like you're taking a risk."
The next day, she's telling me how she's looking forward to her new school and how hard she's going to try on the subjects that are more difficult for her. "I'm going to tell everybody about what I did this summer. How many other kids do you think do this? How many even can?"
Then she asks me if we can go climbing again, and what I think the "dating age" should be.
I answer the first question. But there are some cliffs I'm just not ready to go over yet.
Keith Epstein is the author of the Travel section's RelationTrips column.
To reach Tuolumne Meadows, take Highway 41 north from Fresno, then Highway 120 east, which turns into Tioga Pass Road, which usually opens in late spring -- a 39-mile drive through forests, meadows and lakes. Updated 24-hour road and weather conditions: 209-372-0200. Entrance fee: $20 per vehicle, good for seven days.
WHERE TO STAY: Tuolumne Meadows tends to be less crowded than Yosemite Valley, which during the summer has all the hubbub of a busy city. More than 4 million people visit the national park each year, most of them heading for the famous valley rather than the subalpine meadow on Tioga Pass Road. There are several campsites nearby and one 314-site campground along a river near the meadows.
From the Tuolumne Meadows family campground ($18 a night), Lembert Dome is an easy walk away, and children love paddling in the river. Camping reservations can be made at 800-436-7275 or through the National Park Service Web site, www.nps.gov/yose/pphtml/camping.html. Reservations can be hard to nab, but on most weekdays, even in the summer, you can get a good spot by lining up in the early morning.
Lodging options are more limited and include canvas tent cabins and central dining areas at Tuolumne Meadows Lodge. Hard to get -- but worth trying -- are bunk-style tent cabins known as High Sierra Camps, which cost $48 per night for two adults. Call 559-252-4848 or use the reservation system at www.yosemitepark.com/html/accom_reservation.html.
MOUNTAIN CLIMBING: If you're experienced but want a good guide, try Falcon's "Rock Climbing Tuolumne Meadows," by Don Reid and Chris Falkenstein ($20; available at 800-582-2665, www.falconoutdoors.com). Whether you're a beginner or more advanced, there are many area climbing schools; the best known is Yosemite Mountaineering School (209-372-8344, www.yosemitemountaineering.com). Group climbing lessons for three to six people run about $90 each; advanced classes, including self-rescue, cost about $100 each, with discounts for multiday packages. I paid $400 for five days with a guide, lessons and equipment for two. Private guided climbs also are available.
OTHER ACTIVITIES: Excellent trails crisscross the area. One is the Pacific Crest Trail, which extends from Tuolumne Meadows to Lyell Canyon. There's a gorgeous hike to the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, which can also be done on horseback. Or, wander the nearby meadows, especially under a full summer moon. A drive to the east takes you to 9,945-foot Tioga Pass (highest in the Sierras) and eventually into the Nevada desert -- that is, unless you're hardy enough to ascend 13,053-foot Mount Dana. There's a stunning panorama of the Sierra crest and salty Mono Lake. Getting around without a car is less convenient but entirely possible; a shuttle bus runs throughout Yosemite.
CAVEATS: In three words, bears and mosquitoes. Snow mosquitoes pester campers in late June and July. As for bears, there were 654 "incidents" in Yosemite last year, resulting in $126,192 in property damage, such as car trunks being pried open by hungry bears.
INFORMATION: For links on Yosemite, try www.yosemite.com. The National Park Service has an online guide at www.nps.gov/yose/yguide.htm. For general visitor info at Yosemite: 209-372-0200 or www.nps.gov/yose. Tuolumne Meadows Visitor Center: 209-372-0263.
-- Keith Epstein