Outdoors

Eli Francovich: A lesson in caution while climbing in Idaho

Charlie LaBrie, 58, climbs toward the summit of Harrison Peak in North Idaho on July 28. (Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review)
Charlie LaBrie, 58, sits atop Harrison Peak in North Idaho in July. (Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review)

At 58 years old, Charlie LaBrie is still hanging high.

I’m standing at the base of Harrison Peak, in North Idaho, while LaBrie climbs high above me. As often happens in alpine trad climbing the route is unclear, the rock dirty and the cam placements, well, interesting.

LaBrie doesn’t seem to mind. He’s moving quickly and confidently across the vertical playground. One hundred feet. Two hundred feet. Soon he’s pushing 200 feet off the deck, judging by the dwindling pile of rope at my feet.

He’s not the strongest climber around.

But after 20 years of climbing, his expertise is evident. And reassuring.

A much-maligned phenomenon in the climbing world is the lack of mentorship. In the old days, I’m told, you didn’t learn to climb at a climbing gym. Or in a class. Or on YouTube.

You learned to climb following older, more experienced climbers.

Climbers who would get you into situations over your head. And then get you out of them in one piece. Slowly pushing the boundary of what you could handle competently and safely.

Good mentorship is harder to find as the number of climbers skyrockets.

Luckily for me, I met LaBrie this year.

The value of this type of mentorship is not limited to climbing. There is something irreplaceable about spending time with people older and, one hopes, wiser than you. Most often I’ve experienced that in the outdoors, whether it’s skiing, hiking, climbing or fishing.

And in a higher-risk environment, like alpine climbing, a mentor could quite possibly save your life.

As the saying goes, “There are old climbers. And there are bold climbers. But there are no old and bold climbers.”

I was reminded of that saying climbing with LaBrie. During one 40-foot section, I couldn’t find any obvious and easy gear placements. The climbing was easy, so I ran it out. I decided not to spend the time necessary to get a piece of protection in. By the time I got to a belay tree, my last piece was out of sight, if not out of mind.

When LaBrie reached the belay, he commented on the run-outs, noting that he could have placed gear in a number of spots.

It wasn’t an indictment. He respected my ability to make decisions, but it was a lesson. One I was happy to learn.

There is a place for risk. A time and place to run it out, so to speak. LaBrie knows that and does it, when necessary.

But as a 58-year-old climber, he’s learned the value of restraint. Of calculated risk.

We finished the climb, topping out on top of Harrison Peak just as thunder and lightning rolled in from the west. We scampered off the top, watching as lightning struck less than a mile away.

And then, rather miraculously, the storm moved on and the sun returned.

We did another lap.