By Dom Cioffi
Not long ago, my son had a few neighborhood friends over to hang out. For years the kids have been congregating at our home so I generally don’t pay much attention to their activities. I’m just happy when they’re within earshot and outside playing.
A little while into this particular romp, my son came inside laughing hysterically. When I inquired about what was so funny, he explained that his friend Tom was stuck up in a tree.
“What do you mean ‘stuck?’” I asked with a bit of concern.
My son then explained that some of the kids had dared Tom to climb up a tree, which he happily obliged. However, at a certain point Tom got slightly freaked out and was now having a minor anxiety attack while the other kids teetered on peeing their pants with laughter.
I quickly exited the house and sure enough, there was Tom, a good 40 feet up a tree, arms wrapped around a large limb, hanging on with every ounce of his energy.
“Tom, why don’t you work your way down,” I suggested. Tom replied that he didn’t think he could and admitted to being “kinda scared.”
The tree was a sea of limbs, which made it easy to climb, but not conducive to placing a ladder against, so I immediately discounted that approach as a rescue option. I looked down at the clothes I had on and then looked up at Tom again to see him cowering in fear. That’s the exact moment I knew I would be climbing a tree for the first time in many, many years.
My history of tree climbing was filled with countless adventures. From as far back as I can remember, I loved climbing things. We had several large maple trees in our yard and throughout our neighborhood so the options were endless. By the time I was a pre-teen I had traversed every available climbing opportunity in the general vicinity of my home.
I don’t recall ever having much anxiety, but then again, I don’t recall ever taking too many big risks. I suppose that accounted for my lack of injuries with these endeavors. The fact was, I liked to climb and did it often, but I made damn sure I didn’t try anything stupid.
Regardless of my past successes, I had a tree to climb and a kid to get safely back to earth.
I began my ascent in earnest, confident in my climbing prowess. However, just as quickly I realized that pulling up my adult frame required much more effort than it did when I was a kid. This was going to be hard work and I hadn’t even begun to approach my target.
Once I had Tom in sight I began talking to him. I could tell by his strained voice that he was not in a good mental space so I offered as many words of encouragement as I could muster.
When I finally reached Tom I could see that his eyes were totally closed and that he was in a state of absolute fear. I asked him to look at me but he refused. “I’m really embarrassed, Mr. Cioffi, but you need to get me down,” he explained.
I assured Tom that he would be fine, then carefully explained how we would both traverse our way down from this precarious treetop perch. He insisted that I carry him, but given that Tom is a bit on the pudgy side, I opted against this approach. I would help him get out of his predicament, but I definitely would not be carrying him.
After several slow and calculated maneuvers, we finally made our way down. The other kids cheered when Tom finally jumped off the last limb. I think they sensed his immense embarrassment so they were empathetic in his return.
By the time I got out of the tree, the kids were gone, already running off to their next adventure and leaving me alone to bask in my heroics. But I have to admit, I enjoyed the drama. When I got near the top of that tree, I couldn’t help but be amazed at the view and the exhilaration of being so high off the ground again. It made me miss the thrill of and excitement of my youthful climbing adventures.
This week’s feature, “Free Solo,” follows the life of Alex Honnold, one of the greatest rock climbers the world has ever known, as he attempts to traverse the wall of El Capitan’s 3,000-foot vertical face at Yosemite National Park.
I’ve been to a lot of movies over the last several decades, but I have to admit that this documentary put me more on edge than some of the best thrillers I’ve ever seen. When you witness what this man climbs without the aid of ropes or safety equipment, it sends your anxiety level skyrocketing.
The climb alone is enough to make this film a winner, but the beautiful footage added a level of immersion that totally captured the essence and intensity of his undertaking. Check this one just to appreciate what humans are capable of.
An epic “A-” for “Free Solo.”
Got a question or comment for Dom? You can email him at [email protected]