Crawford Notch, July 2002

Adventure Uncle has a bad reputation. He tends to plan fun-sounding activities that turn out more intense than anyone expects. A niece recalls her first long rock climb, swinging desperately onto the true horn of Traitor Horn with big air under her feet. A nephew with no head for heights can't forget the simple walk that turned into a ridge scramble in the Chugach. Fourteen relatives still talk about the Colorado hike where they post-holed through deep snow to a frozen lake, and could rest there amid cold scenery for only five minutes before lightning and hail chased them down. Adventure Uncle considered that a fine outing, but others used the word "fiasco."

Right now it is Bradley's turn. He has not heard those stories, and knows only the natural worries of an 8-year-old boy standing at the bottom of a 100-foot cliff, tied to a rope that leads up out of sight. His parents are 2,000 miles away. Brad can't wait to start climbing. At "belay on" he takes off up the face. Skills honed on a plywood wall that his parents have installed in the garage, Brad lunges and cranks on good handholds. His momentum halts at a holdless slab. The uncle, leaning over the edge, shouts advice that makes no sense. Something about magic shoes. Brad tunes out that distraction, plants one foot on the slab, spots a handhold and jumps for it. With a tight rope he sticks, and moves on.

As he reaches each runner, Brad unclips his rope. A second rope hangs down for his aunt who will climb later, and the two ropes keep getting tangled. His uncle makes suggestions that just add to the confusion; Brad examines the twists and follows his own judgment. Soon he stands below the final bulge. The ground is now far below, and Brad's rope leads straight up smooth rock. Chalk splotches mark the best handholds, but the first of these is three feet past Brad's reach, and the angle is too steep for a jump. Brad does what countless climbers have done before him, when facing an impossible crux: he grabs the rope. Feet scramble as the rope somehow levitates him until he can latch a hold and resume cranking towards the top.

On the summit, tied off to a nest of anchors, Brad takes in the view while his uncle brings up his aunt. Whenever the uncle turns around, he sees a huge grin on Bradley's face. They sit together on a granite dome under blue sky, with green mountains all around and the busy scene of Crawford Notch -- train tracks, ponds, parking lot full of tiny people -- spread out below. They have just accomplished Brad's highest rock climb, on a cliff shaped like an elephant's head. What could possibly be better?

Well, that depends on who you are. Brad has one idea: he's been promised a swim. After snacks, the three hike down and drive to a place where the Saco River flows over bedrock, carving smooth channels and deep pools. Brad jumps off rocks and lets the current sweep him around to a beach. He observes hundreds of tadpoles in shallow water, some growing miniature legs. He skips stones and heaves boulders he can barely pick up. He finds some sticks that sink, while others bob off down the rapids. So much to explore. He turns blue but denies feeling cold.

Reluctantly, after many requests, Brad leaves the water. The sun is low and hunger calls to him, more persuasively than his uncle and aunt. It seems possible that he will remember this river long after he has forgotten about the climb.

Larry Hamilton, 2002