Swapping Leads

     In climbing, “swapping leads” means that the leader and the follower switch roles as they climb a multi-pitch route (“leap-frog” up the wall). When I climbed with my son the first time, we switched roles that way, and our dynamic changed, forever. 

This was my first published climbing essay. about climbing a route called Munginella, in Yosemite, with my son. It appeared in “Climb” Magazine, in the U.K. Enjoy!


Swapping Leads:

a Climb of Epic Proportions


“See that, Mom?” my son Alex shouted down to me from his belay ledge on the rock wall near Yosemite Falls.

Not only had I seen the lightning strike he pointed out, I’d noticed every one of the seven or so earlier ones. Not a big fan of electrocution, I pondered the wisdom of continuing our three-pitch climb, but Alex assured me we had plenty of time. Since he practically lives in Yosemite Valley for part of the year, I deferred to his experience — against my own better (parental) judgment.

My peripheral vision caught another flash, on the opposite side of the Valley. A storm had been slowly rolling around the Sierra peaks for over an hour, rumbling like an empty stomach.

I squinted upwards. The flake I was arguing with stood out from the wall about a foot or so at its gaping bottom. Too wide to reach around, too high to step over, too everything. I stood there and talked to myself far longer than my son had the patience for, I knew, although he never said so.

I tried again. Fell again. Another raw knuckle to ignore. The damn flake was beginning to make me doubt my meager credentials — if I couldn’t get over this little thing, I was no rock climber. I was fooling myself; I didn’t belong out here. No matter which angle I tried, which movement, the next holds were just centimeters out of reach.

Crack! Another bolt, on our side of the Valley this time.Version 2

“Come on, Mom, you got this.” His voice was a study in control. Was he trying really hard, for me, or was he always this nice to every newbie gumby climber he happened to be saddled with?

Crack! Blinding this time, right next to our climb!

In a few seconds that I have absolutely no memory of, I was over the flake and moving really fast. I was rock climbing. All it took was an act of God.

A feathery, insistent rain followed me up the rest of the pitch. At the belay ledge, as we exchanged gear for the last pitch, it tickled our faces, chilled us. I didn’t voice any of my fears about the possibilities, unwilling to make them real.

As I belayed Alex up, the rain slackened. The worst is over, I thought as I balanced on the fast-drying sandy ledge.

Did I say newbie?

As I followed him up the last pitch, the sky blackened and rain began pelting my back, drumming on my helmet. After a few holds that turned out to be less slippery than I’d feared, I thought, Okay, I’m wet, but this is easier than I expected. I can do this. No biggie.

Once I reached the top, my instinctive choice was to just curl up tight against the wall and wait it out. Then another bolt struck nearby. Alex had no trouble convincing me to try the walk-off, even though it was now a rushing river of mud.

I come from a place where summer rain is soft, inviting, a tease to the senses. This was icy whips that startled and battered. We slithered slowly down the trail, as much on our butts as our feet, grabbing whatever we could to keep from sliding off.

After a few dozen meters, I thought, I can do this. This is okay. I pictured standing on flat ground again.

Then Alex stopped. I couldn’t hear what he said over the pounding, roaring rain. He pointed ahead. The wide granite slab that the trail crossed gleamed under the rushing water that covered it. Completely. No question of getting across such a waterfall.

Dead end.

“We’ll have to rappel,” he shouted over the roar.

I couldn’t believe I’d heard him right. Was it safe to rappel in driving, freezing rain? I was too new to know. I’d just learned to rappel, had done it once. I looked straight down; definitely too far to scramble through the brush. We’d only descended about one pitch. Another loud Crack! helped make up our minds.

While Alex anchored us to a pair of rappel rings, I tried to keep my teeth from chattering too hard and to remain vertical in the rushing mud we stood in. I did try to get my harness ready, but my hands were shaking too hard to be of any use. The rest of me wasn’t good for much either. I just stood there, like a clueless toddler, as Alex attached the rope to my belay device. I vaguely remember apologizing. I knew I should have been doing something, but couldn’t get my fingers to cooperate.

“Okay, Mom, you go first.”

Me? First? Did he really know what he was doing? I couldn’t get my chattering teeth to form the words, so I just followed his instructions.

He’d found a relatively empty, straight section of wall for us to lower down, secured my rope, checked my knots, done everything. He was good. All I could do was shiver as if I was going to shatter. All I could think was, My son does this all the time. Just another day at the office.

“You know what to do?” he shouted against the wind.

I nodded, grabbed the rope, turned around and stepped off. The one time I’d rappelled hadn’t prepared me for this. My feet skidded around in the mud. Each time I braked the rope, water spurted up from the sponge that the rope had become. Icy water tossed in my face did not help my concentration.

By the time Alex reached the ground beside me, the rain had stopped. Chastened, humbled and exultant, I waited for him to untie and coil the rope, and we headed back to the base where we’d left our packs sitting between a tree and the wall.

I saw red as we approached. And green, and black. Some kind of long, vivid-colored snake had curled up on the wall to dry out — right above our packs.

Neither of us knew what it was. Neither of us wanted to find out the hard way whether it was
poisonous. Alex went first, dashed between the tree and the IMG_7903 copywall, grabbed his pack on the fly and kept running. Really fast. The snake didn’t move. I followed. We stopped, breathless, and put on the packs for the walk down.

When he’s home, Alex still calls me Mom, and still follows some of my rules. But we both know who’s in charge when we go outdoors together

The Monster on my Desk

Little kids love monsters — love them, or love to hate them. When I was really little, my ‘monster’ was a huge, black-&-silver, shiny Remington Rand typewriter that lived on the tiny desk in my room.

It was definitely love at first sight. One touch, of just the right force, was enough to create the most astonishing miracles — letters, symbols, words, poems, stories — the only limit was my imagination! And my touch.

As soon as I was old enough, I started writing stories. Half the fun of creating them was getting the touch just right, hearing the authoritative clack of each metal key as it struck the platen, smelling the oil and metal and new paper, fresh out of its box.

The ribbon was the star. Everything depended on it. As I struck a key, the small cage-like metal square that held the cloth ribbon would rise like a hiccup, just a smidgen, barely visibly, and the long metal bar with a letter or symbol at the end would strike up and pound the ribbon onto the platen, around which I’d rolled a beautiful, clean sheet of paper by twisting it slowly, one click at a time, until it was placed just perfectly to receive my words.

It was magic!

Writing has never ceased to be magic. Writers don’t choose to write; it chooses them. We have no choice but to comply.

While I was still teaching, I wrote for newspapers, magazines, publishers, local, domestic and international. But as any language teacher can tell you, teaching someone to speak a foreign language is more than a full-time job. (In fact a teacher of just about anything can corroborate this.) So I never had a moment to myself. If I complained about my frenetic schedule, my mother-in-law was always quick to remind me that if I didn’t write, I’d have lots of free time!

She was right, of course — except that if you’re a writer,il_570xN.330210452 you can’t not write. A climber climbs, a runner has to run. A writer has to write. It’s not a choice

What drives you?



My Newest Language: CSL

CSL – Computer as a Second Language. Like ESL (English as a SL) but oh-so-different! It’s not my second language. I speak (and have taught) several languages — but this one is proving the most…elusive.

Normally when I learn a language, I try to surround myself with native speakers, so I can become a little kid again, learning to talk — listen, listen, listen, then repeat, babble and ask lots of questions. It’s how we all learned our native language, and the most effective way to learn a foreign language. But it doesn’t work here.

Here I sit, alone, at my keyboard, trying to learn to set up a website. I’ve tried all the forums, but usually find — after hours of searching, scrolling, guessing — that no one has ever asked my question, exactly. So I ask it. And wait. And wait. How long must one wait to get a forum reply? Days? Weeks? I’ve done both.

For a real language, I ask a question and get an immediate answer, to prove or disprove a conclusion I might have come to about what I hear around me. Now, I get no answers, and there are no native speakers around me to offer any.

Lots of books offer insights… Indecipherable, mind-numbing books, for someone who has no computer inclinations. And, of course, there are forums…which have proven more frustrating than helpful.

I guess that’s the price for wanting to do it myself. When I became an independent publisher, I talked with other indies and got answers. When I wanted to start conducting an orchestra, I mined the expertise of my father-in-law, who had played in one for years and who had taught music. Answers — real, human answers — were always abundant.

But now, most of my questions go un-answered, sometimes for weeks, sometimes forever. Most of the time, I don’t know what things are called, which makes it impossible to phrase the question right.

A couple months before I left on a climbing trip to Greece, I found a website where I could learn some more Greek (I had learned some as a kid). Every evening, I conjugated verbs, copied vocabulary, memorized grammatical forms. But the most important, the most effective teaching tools were the conversations I listened to and watched. I could stop, re-play again and again, watch other people saying the same things…. But in this new endeavor, CSL, I can’t stop someone who just said something to ask them to repeat, or to explain. I’m on my own.

So even though learning languages has always been one of the biggest delights in my life, this one, CSL, will never find a place on my list of favorites! I’ve learned some of the basics, enough to do this thing you’re reading now, but I’ll never be a ‘native speaker.’ In terms of life’s pleasures, it will always rank right up there with going to the dentist.

So if you see something here that could be prettier, or more functional, or clearer, please let me know…but when you do, please tell me what it’s called and how to fix it!

Not just climbing

Last time, I wrote about starting to climb late in life. At 58, I started going to the climbing gym. Alone, I’d wander around looking for odd-numbered groups of climbers, and I’d timidly offer, “Need a belay?” And some of them did! Thus began a very eclectic collection of new friends — and a new life.

But there’s more to life than climbing, so this blog isn’t about climbing — it’s about life. The reading here will be eclectic. And it won’t be chronological, either. Life — or at least what’s important in life — never is. DSCN2648 copy – Version 2

My life has caromed from one passion to another, and another. Foreign languages have always been a major influence — French began at age 2, Italian at about 4 or 5, Greek at 6. All the ‘old’ people in my family when I was a kid spoke only Polish. My university degrees are all in languages.

Music entered my life at the start, in many forms, and through all the ups and downs of life, my piano has often been my main solace. That will always be true, I think. (Do you use a musical instrument to stay sane? If not, what’s your key?) Other instruments got added to the mix over the years. Conducting an orchestra filled a great chunk of my life for years, too, and I miss that enormously. So I guess it’ll appear here, too.

DSCN1829 copyAs will traveling, and running, and painting….Probably others, too. It’s been a wild ride so far, and I hope you’ll enjoy coming along on the journey — and add your own voice and your own experience to the adventure!

Why Wait? — Starting at 58 (or even later)


First, one of my favorite quotes:

“There is a sweetness in surrendering to something you will never be good at, and still finding pleasure in doing it.”  — Sue Bender, “Everyday Sacred

I love that one because it kind of sums me up. I love trying stuff — so I do a lot of things, and will probably never be an expert at any of them. But, oh, the sweetness! The pleasure! Thanks, Sue. 🙂

When I was 57, during the Christmas holidays, my son, a rock climber, was home with an injured arm. He couldn’t climb. That was my chance!

For months, I’d been seeing little articles in magazines and newspapers, small mentions of things he’d been doing ‘out there,’ wherever it was he went when he “went climbing.” I didn’t know what that meant. I wanted to find out.

So I asked him to take me to Pipeworks, the indoor rock-climbing gym where he trains when he’s home (Sacramento, CA). I figured I’d learn the vocabulary (highly specialized — I never knew what he was talking about!), find out how to tie some knots, maybe try climbing a half a wall and I’d go home happy, with some more understanding of what my son did all the time.

Not exactly how it played out.

We did go to the gym that afternoon, back in December of 2008, and he showed me how to tie in (complicated, at first), how to belay (terrifying!), and taught me some of the vocabulary (still learning). But then things changed.

My stomach has always insisted on tying itself into knots when I’m up high in some exposed place, looking over the edge. Knowing that, I knew that climbing wasn’t for me. Too afraid of heights, as most people say.

But that day, after he’d taught me some of ‘the ropes,’ I tied in, checked our knots, stepped up to the artificial climbing wall, grabbed a handhold, and started upwards.

Seven years later, I’m still climbing!


DSCN8698 copy copy – Version 2

Since then, I’ve had life-altering adventures on mountains, walls, ledges, crags, fjords…the kinds of adventures I never could have imagined, before. Rock climbing has changed my life in so many ways that I really envy those who start younger. I started when I was in what the French call my “third age.” Past middle age. I find that it’s hard to build the required muscle mass, at this age. I work pretty hard at it, but I still can’t do a push-up or a pull-up. But then, I’ve seen interviewed climbers say that you don’t ever have to do that, up on the rock wall. So there’s hope.

Ah, the “sweetness,”: the “pleasure”!. . .

But climbing is only part of my life. Stay tuned for more in our next visit.

Why blog?

This morning, as I was doing my usual training run of about three miles through neighborhood streets, I passed two women walking two small dogs. They were intent on their task and never raised their heads as I passed. I greeted them with my usual cheery “Good morning!” but they didn’t seem to hear me.

Off I went, intent on my own task, down to Walnut Avenue and around the smaller blocks to head back toward home, when I passed them again.

One of the women, the smaller one with a large mop of dark hair, was also heading back — but this time she was jogging. That was clearly something new for her. She ran irregularly, head down, hair flopping, bent over the way I feel when I’m gasping for air at high elevation.

“Good morning!” I sent another greeting from my side of the small street to hers.

Her head bobbed up instantly and a broad smile lit her face.

“You inspired me!” she shouted, and ran on past, still smiling.


I smiled all the way home.

When I left for my run this morning, I felt anything but inspiring. The climb I’d done with my son, Alex, in Yosemite the previous weekend had left me drained, exhausted, feeling feeble all week (he can exhaust anybody!). I’d dragged myself off to class, dragged home, done nothing but cope. I napped, I ate copiously and gradually my energy came back. Today’s run was the test. Were my reserves refilled enough to fuel a run?

And then, unbeknownst to me, I passed a woman ready to be inspired. Maybe jogging or running had never occurred to her. Maybe she was overwhelmed with chores and never had time. Maybe she’d been told all her life, “you’re not the athletic type.” Maybe she was at a pivotal point in her life where she needed an outlet of some kind, something physical, someone to show her she could. Lots of maybe’s. That’s the thing about inspiring; we never know who, out there, is ready. Who will see what we do, or say, or write and be at the right crossroads in their lives for it to matter.

We never know.

That’s a great reason to write a blog! You just never know who might need the words you see fit to share. Or who might just enjoy them, or need to be uplifted or who might need a laugh or a cry. You just never know.

For some, I may be the least inspirational, most humdrum person on the planet. I don’t in any way mean to suggest that what I do or write here inherently deserves your time.

But for that one person out there who needs to read this, or see it, or think about it — for her, or him, or them, I will continue to write.

As my daughter, Stasia Honnold (the should-be-famous blogger), said in her blog as she weighed the pro’s and con’s of blogging:

Is this blog simply part of a carefully-crafted image? I’m not sure I or anyone can ever get away from image-creation — it may just be what we do — but I sure don’t want image creation to be the first and foremost goal. As cheesy as it may sound, I really do want us to talk to each other. To learn from each other. To enrich each other’s experience. And maybe I miss the mark a lot, but I really see blogs or even the internet in general as a great potential tool for that — as long as we actively keep the focus on sharing and listening, not posturing and proselytizing.

(Read more at: http://www.carfreerambles.org)

So those are the goals here — to talk to each other, to learn from each other. And maybe, if we’re lucky, to enrich each other’s experience. I can’t think of a better, loftier goal!

So enjoy! And if it’s just too dull for you, then you should go read Stasia’s blog. She probably does it much better than I do. 🙂