We were going to hike up a mountain, The Boy said. Not climb, hike. Or maybe that’s what I chose to hear. Certainly, The Boy is aware of my age and the limitations thereof.
He wouldn’t be trying to kill me on my birthday, would he?
Right before things went terribly awry
We woke to a beautiful day in Anchorage, a bit jet lagged, but nothing serious. The Boy was rarin’ to go; I’d never been to Alaska — his new home — and he was ready to show it off. I was excited to spend an idyllic day in nature with my husband and son; walking, talking and reconnecting after a few months of mommy withdrawals.
And that’s exactly how it started out. Between huffs and puffs, we laughed and caught up on the stories we hadn’t relayed over a long distance phone calls. Every now and then, we paused as The Boy pointed out his favorite views.
The Boy had made it to the summit of Flat Top Mountain once before with friends (his age) and was going on and on about how great the view was from the top.
It was already getting pretty darned good. As we gained altitude, Anchorage and the mudflats of Cook Inlet spread out before us and we could see the majestic peaks of the Alaska Range and Denali off in the distance.
About halfway up, I noticed that some of the older folks, along with parents with very young in tow, found good reasons to turn back. For many a scenic platform marked a reasonable stopping point, others found a stretch of trail was too steep, and some lacked the ridiculous competitiveness that doesn’t take into consideration one’s limitations.
The platforms and steep trail stretches could have given me an easy way out as well. I was already taking too many breathers-disguised-as-photo-stops – and I wasn’t fooling anyone.
But my husband, David, and I are highly competitive. Not in a let’s-do-something-incredibly-lofty kind of way, like winning a gold medal for our country. Nor are we particularly competitive with other people (unless trivia games count). It’s just with one another, in an I-dare-you-to eat something gross or do something scary way. It’s like we’re perpetually stuck in fifth grade. One of us is going to get our tongue frozen to a playground flagpole one day, just watch. All it would take is a triple-dog dare.
So the steepness wasn’t going to stop me, because there was no way I was going to listen to David nana nana boo boo me when he made it to the top and I didn’t.
My first real challenge came when the gravel started making an appearance. Gravel, steep incline, and an of-a-certain-age novice climber is not a good combo – I kept losing my footing and my bravado was quick to follow. David was unfazed, he used to climb mountains when he lived in Colorado as a teen, and he seemed right at home.
It also didn’t faze him when the terrain turned into a rock climbing wall. Me, who had never climbed a rock wall — real or at a kid’s birthday party — was shocked as hell. Surely The Boy knew that this was coming, and that I was going to freak out.
Or maybe he found it so easy for his twenty-five-year old self to scramble up, that the thought didn’t cross his mind that it would be a daunting challenge for someone (gulp) over twice his age. I stood, knees knocking, at the base of a straight-up, one-hundred-foot wall and resigned.
“I can’t do this.”
“Sure you can, Mom. We’re almost to the top and it’s so great up there. C’mon, I’ll show you exactly where to put your feet.”
There wasn’t a clear path or trail and climbers were back-tracking areas they had already attempted, asking each other for advice about the best way up.
David chose a route and headed up, The Boy holding back to give me guidance. I made it three quarters of the way before I kicked a piece of loose rock and heard it clatter down the mountain. It clattered and clattered and clattered. For a long, long time.
It occurred to me I could die (I found out later that people have died and that getting rescued off Flat Top Mountain is a fairly regular occurrence), and what I did next made the possibility greater.
Hanging on the side of a sheer wall in a very unnatural position — harkening a vertical, pigeon-toed murder-scene-chalk-outline drawing — I squeaked out a feeble call for help. There was nothing The Boy or David could do to move me. I hung there with my hair whipping around my head and my eyes shut tight until my heart stopped racing. David pointed out a semi-circle of ledge just wide enough for my butt and I made getting there my life’s work.
Please God, just let me sit for a while and figure this out.
Reaching the ledge, I sat down and commenced shaking. I sent the guys on, telling them I’d scoot down on my rear end when I felt safe enough to do so.
The incredible view from my fear ledge
After much hemming and hawing, they went on. I sat stock still until I found myself enjoying the incredible view again. Then I upside-down crab walked to the last place I felt safe. The guys were already there.
“Mom, you were twenty feet from the top – we found an easier way up for you.”
“Honey, c’mon. It’s fantastic up there. We came down to get you, we want you to see it.”
They hadn’t been reveling in their own achievements as they deserved, they were looking for a way for me to join them. How do I say no? Did I want to say no? No. I wanted to do this.
I followed The Boy up, put my feet where he put his feet. He lovingly coached me to the top. Through my panicked tears, I felt a mother/son bond I’d never felt before. My son, the man, was taking care of me.
The reward at the top was phenomenal. There was a flag and everything!
Veronica James, GypsyNester.com
Author of Going Gypsy: One Couple’s Adventure from Empty Nest to No Nest at All
YOUR TURN: Have you climbed a mountain? Wasn’t it rewarding? Tell me about a time you and your kid had a similar bonding experience.