ROCK CLIMBING: Mastering Basic Skills, 2nd Ed.


My Life at the Limit

By Topher Donahue

We were sitting at the base of the Nautilus, a rock formation known for prickly off-width cracks in Wyoming’s Vedauwoo, when Sylvia Luebben asked me if I would consider writing a new edition of her late husband Craig Luebben’s Rock Climbing: Mastering Basic Skills.

A kaleidoscope of thoughts went through my mind as I considered her offer. I was honored that she would ask me. I was sad to think that Craig wasn’t alive to do it himself. I was intimidated by the undertaking of trying to update an award-winning book.

As I sat there below the Nautilus, one of Craig’s favorite rocks, his daughter Giulia was climbing a tricky 5.9, and my kids were playing around on the rock slabs at the base. Climbing is very much alive in our families, and while I’ve mostly stepped away from big alpine climbing because it takes me away from the family too much, I go rock climbing a few times each week. Some people go to the gym, ride a bike, or do yoga. I climb.

I pondered the accident that had killed Craig, an ice wall collapse in the North Cascades. It was the kind of accident that could happen while walking under the icy eaves of a house or driving on a mountain road during avalanche season. There is one big difference: our culture accepts the risk of walking around the yard and driving on wintery roads.

A couple of weeks later I told Sylvia I would like to take on the new edition. My inspiration was partly his family’s steadfast belief in the beauty of climbing; partly the friendship that had taken Craig and me up the first one-day winter ascent of the Diamond and numerous first ascents in the Utah desert, as well as to China and Canada on ice-climbing adventures; and partly a shared passion for showing others how fun it is to climb safe and strong.

I’ve been asked numerous times how I could continue climbing after losing a friend to the sport, and I’m sure people wonder how Craig’s wife and daughter continue to climb after losing Craig. It’s a good question--one I don’t entirely know how to answer--but the best I can do to explain is say that life is risky. Some people avoid nearly all risk. Some of them have high blood pressure. Some have strained relationships with their risk-taking children. Some look back from old age with regrets about the things they didn’t do when they were young.

To people like Craig and me, risk is part of life; it’s how you manage the risk that matters. Modern rock climbing’s equipment and the use of attentive technique make it quite likely you could climb a hundred days a year for an entire lifetime and never have a serious accident.

In the end, that’s why I’ve poured my heart and soul into this new edition: Craig and I dedicated our lives to sharing the valuable methodology of calculated risk-taking. For much of our society, voluntary risk is a contradiction. For us, being bold while staying safe, teaching while learning, and taking risks while avoiding danger all make perfect sense. Those who have tied into a rope and discovered the beauty of climbing tend to agree.

I’ve climbed with many partners, including some who are paraplegic, strong, weak, blind, obese, old, young, athletic, timid, or fearless--and nearly every one of them found climbing to be one of the most rewarding experiences of their lives.

Perhaps my mountain guide father, Mike Donahue, put it best: “Life is not found by avoiding the doing; life is a mountain to be climbed.”

© 2014 by Topher Donahue

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