Friday, January 27, 2012


Baldy is one of the highest points between the Rockies and
the Alps. Death Crevice is on the opposite side of this image.
(We once climbed down the steep front face of Baldy; we
have never climbed up from that side.)
A few nights ago I put in a DVD and settled in to watch “127 Hours,” a true-life saga that – like everyone who sees it – I already knew the ending of: Canyoneer Aron Ralston, trapped by the untimely slippage of a boulder while exploring a red rock crevice in Utah, is driven to free himself by amputating his own right arm.

As the movie progressed, I became more and more tense until, just as Ralston came to the full realization of his predicament, I had to turn it off. I stopped watching not so much because I dreaded the anatomical gore that was to come, but because an existential, organic tingle started to radiate through my body – a kind of physical memory – reminding me of the cliffs and crevices of my youth, and of the various boulders that hung lodged in them, who knows how precariously.  And it’s not that I remembered how frightened I was in those situations – but that I, in fact, was having the time of my life. Like Ralston.

I was never the taut, conditioned, or skillful rock-climber depicted in the film, but I am ever grateful for the fact that, from the time I was twelve years old, when my family moved to the Black Hills, I have had rocks to climb. My cinematic cold feet were caused by the sixty-five-year-old me looking back on the literally carefree exploits of the twelve- and seventeen- and twenty-year-old me and… well, sort of watching a movie of myself descending into a crevice.

Which is not to say that those days are behind me. “Carefree” has perhaps been replaced by “careful,” (and “decrepit?”), but there are still rocks in my life – and even crevices. Like Death Crevice.

Baldy Mountain, a grand granite dome in the middle of the Black Hills, is laced with crevices. When you’re nineteen or twenty, as Jeff and I were then, you’ve got to try them all. You just plunge in and see where they lead – at least Jeff does, and so here I come, too. The final, upper reach of Baldy's summit -- after an initial approach up more gradual flanks -- thrusts almost straight up out of a grassy, alpine-like valley floor. We looked up the sheer but slightly rounded wall and spotted a ledge about forty feet up that was interrupted by a vertical crevice continuing up toward the top of the dome. To get to the crevice we had to get to the ledge; to get to the ledge we took a short running leap from the valley floor and used momentum and a few scattered, knobby holds, and the soles of our tennis shoes (we hadn’t yet discovered the wonder of Vibram), to scramble up the forty feet of granite. At least Jeff did – so here I come, too. The ledge was so narrow that the shallow crevice we leaned into felt like safe harbor. It was just deep enough, and angled enough, that it was a pretty easy knee-and-toe ascent to its upper reaches, where it opened onto an intersection with another crevice – actually a gap where one slab of mountain leaned against another – criss-crossing at a right angle. To continue upward (always upward!), it was necessary to leap or step across this gap and throw ourselves into the waiting maw of another crevice which continued up – now steeper and deeper – on the other side. A crevice we knew not the ending of.

Now, dear reader, you can join me in my imaginative remembering of this venture.  Go to the nearest wall and stand about four or five feet away from it. Keeping your feet together, lean toward the wall with your outstretched arms. When you make contact, step across the intervening space with one foot, then bring the other over. Then do the exercise again, this time, when you are leaning across the space with your hands against the wall, look down at the carpet and imagine that instead it is blue sky. You will likely come to two conclusions: One, this step is no big deal; two, if you don’t successfully make this easy step you could – you just could – plummet to your death.  Thus was born, in our breathless, adrenaline-fueled excitement, the name “Death Crevice.” The first time we leaned across, no doubt in mid-step, one of us probably said, “You know, a guy could die here.” I’m surprised that our sophomoric wit didn’t come up with “Theoretical Death Crevice.”

Jeff, emerging from Death Crevice, 1992
The crevice we entered on the other side of the gap is probably the most fun and just-challenging-enough climb of the dozens that Jeff and I have taken together over the years: the perfect dimensions for shouldering in some places, spanning from one’s back to the  tips of ones toes in others. Although once one was jammed in the crevice a fall wouldn’t mean death, you would get pretty banged up as you slid down, stopping just short of that blue-sky opening at the bottom. (Death Crevice has been known to dislocate joints.) It’s always fun, and that initial step-across-nothing is always a thrill.

To our delight, Death Crevice opened onto one more ledge, one more (easier) crevice, and the top of Baldy! Since that initial ascent, we have led many friends up Death Crevice. We've climbed it with our wives and kids. I look forward to doing it again soon. Well, let me clarify: Jeff takes them up Death Crevice, I volunteer to lead others up another one of our discoveries, a route we have named “Life Affirming Crevice.” No 127 Hours in there.
(What made me shudder at watching the movie was not recalling my climbs with Jeff – it was recalling the few times when, like the film’s hero, I tried it alone.)

Monday, January 2, 2012


…I have been made free
by the tide’s pendulum truth
that the heart that is low now
will be at the full tomorrow.
                                     ~R.S. Thomas

All of man’s problems come from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone.
                                                                                          ~Blaise Pascal

In the movie Topsy-Turvy – a depiction of the Victorian-era partnership of Gilbert and Sullivan –  there is a scene in which Gilbert has just had a recently-invented telephone installed in his home. His elderly father objects to it as an intrusion, complaining, “Why should I have a gadget that allows a stranger to set off a bell in my home whenever he feels like it!” I can’t think of a better summary introduction to the world of noise that ensued. With the invention of the radio at approximately the same time, our grandparents’, parents’, and now our generation have not only been present at the creation, but have observed the steady marginalization of quiet and solitude over the last hundred years. Quietness has, almost literally, been pushed to the edges of our existence.

Although the increasing number of noisy gadgets in our lives (including mine) should perhaps give us pause, my intention here is not to rail against them, but to offer a modest proposal for how to live with them in such a way that we experience a life of balance, benefiting from both the technology that we have come to require and the solitude that we, actually, need.

The proposal I have in mind is the Sabbath, or, more exactly, the idea of the Sabbath. While I am a proponent of the biblical Sabbath pattern of six days of work and one of rest, I am speaking here more of the micro- and macro-Sabbaths that flow from this principle.  (The Sabbath principle is one of those things about which it can be said, “It’s not true because it’s in the Bible; it’s in the Bible because it’s true.”) Sabbath means a number of things, but at its heart it primarily means “rhythm” and “rest.” It is “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” It is why workaholism should be confessed and treated, not bragged about. It is why, when the boss bragged, “I don’t need a vacation,” one of his employees whispered, “He doesn’t think he needs a vacation but everyone else thinks he needs a vacation!” It is why Jesus said to the exhausted disciples, “Come away by yourselves to a quiet place.”

And it is why we need quiet after the noise of TV and cellphones, and darkness after the screenlight of iPads and Androids. It is rhythm, Sabbath rhythm. And it is rest – not, in this case, idle snoozing (although studies have shown that the afternoon nap is more productive, even in a business sense, than the afternoon coffee break), but the break from routine. Putting away the pale-lit device and talking across the table to a friend. Walking around the block. Sitting in church without texting.

If the irritating jingly bell represented the new intrusion of technology for W.S. Gilbert’s father, I suppose the icon for our current distractions is the familiar scene of two people talking, at least one of them bobbing his head nervously up and down, constantly checking the tiny screen that can’t be turned off – ever.

The always-on screen is a good modern representation of what the Bible calls the sin of failing to enter into one’s Sabbath rest. The non-sabbatical, always-on life – whether that of work or technology – is, like all sin, “not just bad – it’s bad for you.”*

The noise of devices and the glare of screens affects our brains, our relationships, and our attention. (Brain development needs down-time.) Everybody gets nervous if they see a driver heading toward them with a cell phone in hand, but the same everybody thinks that they are the exception who can handle it themselves. It is not just that the seventeen-year-old pickup truck driver – who killed a grandmother, mother, and daughter because he was texting – needed a sabbatical break from the screen; his victims needed him to take one, too. So much for the libertarian freedom of the cell phone.

The original sin was the sin of self-centeredness. (“I don’t need God, I can be God!”) It is still what all sin is. Our devices become like Eden’s talking snake, enticing us, “You can do it – and that, too, and that, too…, whatever you want…, these iThings are extensions of you! Why would you turn them off?”  And, to switch literary references, a picture of the Queen dancing in her iron shoes comes to mind. Dancing to death.

I am a user of these devices. Whenever I switch them off and sit quietly in a room or stare out a window or walk iPhone-free, the first thought I have is how good it feels. The second is how rarely I do this.

I was going to say that the margins to which quiet has been pushed are out in the woods – in the mountains – and that you can seek solitude in a backpacker's tent or a remote cabin. But that’s not really true, is it? If you approach all but the remotest cabin in the darkness you will see the soft blue glow of an iPad emanating from the picturesque windows. The real Sabbath – and the real Sabbath rhythm – is produced by an on-off switch (wherever you are), and by the solitude or conversation that follows.

When we read the most profound of the Bible’s many creation accounts – the one in the first chapter of Genesis – we see that the Crown of Creation is not humankind. It is not even God. It is the Sabbath.

This New York Times essay by Pico Iyer (the source of the Blaise Pascal quote, above) is a very insightful and even inspiring treatment of this topic.

*"Sin" is kind of a loaded word for some; think "brokenness," or anything that works agains the fullness of life.