Pawtuckaway’s scruffy, low-angle Lower Slabs area isn’t as big as I remember. But after two decades of climbing, this unassuming, 50-foot crag still stirs up in me a well of desire and trepidation usually reserved for big mountains or gigantic big walls. A group of kids, decked out in harnesses, helmets and tennis shoes, wait excitedly for their toprope turn below the mighty 5.5, Pete’s Tree – the same route had turned an 8-year-old me into a sobbing, trembling mess. I smile, remembering the huge tears that streamed down my cheeks as I resisted my father’s quiet encouragement.
There’s no way I could have known that day that a life of climbing lay before me, but as a teenager I stopped crying and started anticipating each day at the crag. Fifty feet of webbing, 100 feet of rope, a harness, an ATC girth-hitched to a tree, neon green Five Ten rock shoes and a few carabiners made up my prized gear kit. Pete’s Tree was now reasonable, but The Dike, Mounds, Almond Joy and Yukon Delta felt beyond me. In today’s climbing terms, I suppose I was toprope “projecting,” but at the time it was all just climbing, and I bit into it every day.
When I moved to Colorado, I couldn’t believe it: There were no bugs to swat, and the sun was always out. Even the lichen was kinder; it emblazoned the rock in inviting green instead of coating the cliffs in impenetrable grey scales. The hunger for adventure that began at the Lower Slabs still gnawed, as bloodthirsty and insatiable as Pawtuckaway’s swarms of mosquitos. I devoured all the climbing I could hold. Suffering, pushing, learning, always hungry.
All of this served me well. Nearing the summit of the unclimbed Flame Spire in Pakistan, I found myself back on Mounds, easing slowly onto each tiny granite bump, but now with the faith in my feet I once wished for. Good thing, too, as I wasn’t on toprope anymore: Instead, the rope snaked unmolested for 150 feet down to the belay. On the North Face of the Matterhorn, a rock-hard veneer of thin, black ice made my calves scream. I was alone and without a rope, but probably safer than I was on my first ice lead – 15 feet of wet ice flowing down the Lower Slabs, “protected” by one of my dad’s Chouinard Equipment pitons driven uselessly into the slush.
Twenty years on, still every bit in love with climbing, I’m back in New Hampshire to try some of Pawtuckaway’s hardest climbs. The routes that were impossible for me as a youngster hide just past the Lower Slabs, farther up amongst the trees at Devil’s Den. I hurry toward them with purpose, excited and nervous, but something slows my pace. I pause and watch the kids encourage each other. They are just starting out, and I’m two decades in, but our feelings are still very much the same; we’re all a little nervous but ready for a challenge, excited to push ourselves, disappointed when we fail, satisfied when we succeed. Whatever happens on my chosen climbs later today, or on bigger routes to come in Europe, Pakistan and beyond, climbing will always be about these simple things. I’ve climbed all over the world –but it’s the memories from this mossy, tiny rock, hidden in the woods of southern New Hampshire, that will always burn the brightest.