Alan Liere: Aspiring to lesser challenges

My fifth grade science book said rocks came in three major groups – igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic. For me, rocks came in four basic groups – throwing rocks, skipping rocks, gravel and rocks for climbing. Throwing and skipping rocks were for pure entertainment or even competition, and gravel was for picking out of your knees. It was the Whale Rock that most intrigued me; however, it was in the climbing category.

What fun it was to scramble over that big piece of granite that pushed through the ground like a whale’s back a short walking distance from my home in north Spokane! It was only 20 feet high and 60 feet long, but sometimes I’d pack a lunch and take it up there and eat my peanut butter and jelly sandwich while squatting like the last of the Mohicans, watching the dreaded wagon trains snake westward.

Friends sometimes went with me to the Whale Rock, but as we grew older, the gentle slope and anemic elevation no longer challenged them. They wanted to climb a steeper, higher basalt outcropping in the same piece of forest. One day, I reluctantly agreed to meet my friends at the basalt outcropping. By plan we each carried the most rudimentary mountain climbing gear – namely gloves and tennis shoes. I included a backpack for my PB&J.

My friends and I began climbing vertically hand over hand, but I was tentative and afraid. They were a considerable distance above me when, at 10-feet, I ran out of hand-holds, foot-holds and desire. This was so much different than the large, gentle curve of the Whale Rock where my feet were always in contact with granite.

“Don’t look down, don’t look down,” my friends told me as they inched ever higher, climbing hand over hand, but I couldn’t help but look down – that’s where the ground was. How could I find a soft spot to land if I didn’t look down? A fuzzy, fleeting memory: I was on a ladder trying to pick the peaches at the top of the big tree in my grandmother’s backyard. Here, as then, it wasn’t the elevation as much as the fact there wasn’t much to hold on to that amplified my panic.

My voice breaking, I called out to my friends, “Why are we doing this?”

For a moment, I thought I had asked a legitimate question, as my friend, Jeff, paused briefly and looked down at me. “Because it’s here,” he answered at last, unknowingly paraphrasing George Mallory, a famous English mountain climber from a long-ago era (who, incidentally, died mountain climbing).

Jeff’s revelation was exactly what I needed to hear. “Because it’s here? Because it’s here?” For such a nebulous reason I was dangling terrified 10 feet above terra firma with my skeletal configuration in jeopardy? The Whale Rock was also here – just a short distance away with its gentle slopes and friendly, smooth granite. I dropped to the ground, and limped home, equally relieved and embarrassed.

From then on, I climbed the Whale Rock alone. Before two years had passed, it had been incorporated into the landscaping of a gated community just inside the city limits. Jeff and my other friends continued to climb, seeking more challenging rocks in Dishman Hills, Minnehaha and around Tum Tum. Jeff eventually became a genuine mountain climber of some note. To be truthful, though, I was never even a bit envious.

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