In April of 1996, accompanied by my brother Chris, I got my first summit in the West-- Manly Beacon. Starting from either Zabriskie Point or Golden Canyon, it isn't much of a climb, but the narrow summit ridge and the small summit were a wonderful introduction to the glorious world west of the Mississippi as the waning daylight painted the surrounding badlands in colors I'd never seen before and distant Telescope Peak gleamed white as we sweated in temperatures still in the upper 80s. We vowed at that moment to return the next year and get up Telescope Peak, and we did, in late March of a year that favored us by featuring a Telescope Peak that was snow-free until the final summit ridge.
That following year, Chris and I climbed it again and again were dive-bombed by birds that must have been nesting there, and then I climbed it again by myself in 2008, reconnecting with my original mountaineering inspiration.
When April 2011 rolled around, we took the kids to visit my parents in North Las Vegas, where they had moved the previous year. For a family outing, I proposed a hike from Zabriskie Point to Golden Canyon, almost all downhill, leaving cars at both trailheads so that we could shuttle. Another stated objective, approved by my wife, who never would have approved it had she ever climbed Manly Beacon herself, was to take the oldest two of my children (Jack, then 6 1/2; and Caroline, then not much more than 4) up to the summit.
It was a damn good thing that two of my brothers (Chris and Mike) were with us. Without them, getting Jack and Caroline to the summit would have been simply reckless, even more reckless than someone who has been to the summit might think taking two kids their age is. What you barely blink at when alone can be something terrifying when your kids are with you, I learned.
Finally! It was such a long drive from Las Vegas to Death Valley. And then we had to wait even longer while Dad and Grandpa went off to go park a car or something. But it was really cool, especially all the lizards, and when Dad pointed out the mountain he wanted me to climb, I was excited.
It was a lot of fun hiking there. Dad called it "badlands," but I liked it even though it took forever. At least Dad and Uncle Mike were there so I had someone to go ahead with. Then when we finally got to the place where we would leave to go climb the mountain, we had to sit around and take a bunch of stupid pictures. Annoying.
But finally we started hiking up this twisty, rocky trail that Dad said was a "wash" and where water goes when it rains. I saw lots of cool rocks. Caroline was being a slowpoke, so we had to stop a lot and wait for her.
From the end of the wash accessing the climbable ridges on Manly Beacon, it is a steep hike up loose slopes to reach the north ridge leading to the summit. Alternatively, one can head directly up one of two or three ridges before the end of the wash, but I think they make better descent routes and felt they would be too steep and loose for the kids.
As it turned out, my planned way wasn't much better. It was too much for Caroline, so I had to put her on my shoulders and gain the ridge that way, which wasn't fun. Jack was with Mike and seemed to be doing fine, but right near the top, he drifted a little too far in the wrong direction and got himself into what to him was an exposed section, and it got to his head. Soon, he was afraid and paralyzed and close to breaking down. Asking Chris and Mike to watch Caroline, I worked my way over to Jack; calmed him down, reminding him that when we get scared and upset, we make mistakes; and then helped him negotiate the terrain until he had better footing and regained his confidence.
Now I know why no one likes hiking with Dad. He charges ahead and leaves everyone else behind. All of a sudden, I was by myself in a scary place where I thought I was going to fall and die. It was a good thing he came back for me. And he'd better hope I don't tell Mom. He'd better give me something good, like bubble gum, a whole bottle of Gatorade, or a BB gun.
The summit ridge on Manly Beacon consists of hard-packed dirt that doesn't provide great traction. Although it's just a walk with one or two Class 2+ spots, in places it's exposed enough to make almost anyone feel nervous, and the frequent strong gusts add to the unease. Now imagine the feeling of guiding two of your kids along while realizing at the same time that you shouldn't have taken them there.
After having been carried up to the ridge and having seen what Jack went through, Caroline was more of the mind to be carried the rest of the way, but I nixed that for two reasons: the loss of balance would have made the ridge walk dangerous, and I wanted my kids to get to the top under their own power, anyway. So I guided Caroline, holding her hand in some of the tougher spots but letting her go completely unassisted whenever I could, and Chris and Mike were there to help Jack if necessary. At the crux spot, he needed a little coaching, but otherwise he had no trouble.
Another perspective changed by the presence of my kids was that of the summit itself. It's a small summit, and someone paying more attention to composing the perfect picture than to where his feet are could easily fall to his death from anywhere except where the north ridge connects to the summit, but I'd never felt unsafe up there before, just aware that there was limited room to move and that straying more than a few feet from the relatively flat highpoint could result in an uncontrollable slide on the hard, slippery dirt for the few yards it would take to go over the edge. So it had always been with caution and respect, but not with fear, that I enjoyed the perch and the views from it.
With my kids there, however, I realized just how risky a location it was. All it would have taken was for one to wander off a few feet to look at something or pick up a rock, and it would have been a dangerous situation. So I finally exercised a bit of responsibility and, after holding each one close enough to the edge to look down but not close enough to fall, ordered them not to go past certain rocks I pointed out. It was a classic case of "Do as I say, not as I do" since my brothers and I were standing (safely) in the forbidden zone, but I couldn't take the chance of their getting much closer to the edges. After peering down the precipitous south face of the peak, I went back to the kids and spent the rest of the time with them there. Later, my parents told me they'd lingered so they could see us up there and were worried sick. I decided not to tell them about how nervous I'd been with the kids up there.
Descending the north ridge is trickier than ascending it due to the possibility of downward momentum creating a slip, so we took extra care, and when we reached one of the east-side ridges, we descended the steep, soft slopes rapidly back down to the wash and to safe ground once again.
I am very thankful that Chris and Mike were along. Guiding Jack and Caroline up there by myself would have been a terrible idea. Had I tried that, I hope I would have exercised good judgment once we reached the north ridge and called the rest of the climb off.
What a bum deal! After all that work getting to the top of that mountain, Dad pretty much wouldn't let me and Caroline move. He said it was too dangerous and that it would be easy to fall off. So we had to sit there with our feet against these stupid rocks that he said would help protect us. It's too bad I couldn't have pulled out one of those rocks and chucked it at him! I noticed it was okay for him to go over by the cliffs, though. Well, I guess that's what you get for hiking with your little sister. Dad says he's going to take me to Great Falls this spring and teach me to climb the cliffs with a rope on. And I told him I don't want Caroline to go along because she'll just whine and make it no fun. That will solve everything.
Wait, now who had to be helped out of a bad spot?
Your fault, Dad. You weren't watching me!