Sunday, June 16, 2013

My dad

Dad and I stand on the summit of Mount Whitney, August 2001
My dad took a nasty fall on the Pfeifferhorn a few days ago. Pfeifferhorn is a beautiful triangle-shaped granite peak in the Wasatch Mountains, reminiscent of the Swiss Alps — which is how it got its name. The summit ridge amounts to little more than a pile of boulders loosely stacked to a razor-sharp point, which demands sometimes precarious scrambling with exposure to big drops. A snow cornice still covered the main route, so Dad climbed around on the more rugged side of the knife ridge. At one point he lost his footing and/or hold, and went down onto a lower rock, breaking his trekking pole, exploding his hip-mounted water bottle and smacking both of his forearms. Later that day he described his injury — swelling and rampant bruising — and I couldn't help but think, "sounds like a broken arm." I appealed to my mother to see if Dad might be willing to get it checked out.

Dad on the summit ridge of the Pfeifferhorn, July 2010
"I thought the very same, and will be watching it," she wrote. "Your Dad just rolled his eyes. The swelling seems to be going down. His arms have wicked bruises. He is going hiking with Tom tomorrow so that must be where you get it."

Dad on Ch-paa-qn Mountain in Montana, August 2010
Where I get it? Like my dad, I am prone to lapses in grace and resulting blunt-force injuries, but unlike my dad I can be a huge baby about my boo-boos. I still occasionally complain about an injury I sustained on my right elbow two years ago — "My scar hurts today" ... like I'm Harry Potter or something. A decade ago, Dad climbed Mount Nebo — the highest mountain in the Wasatch — with a badly sprained ankle. We'd made big plans out the expedition — I took a day off work, and we drove down the night before to camp at the trailhead. He confided in me that he injured his ankle at work when he stood up from his desk after his leg fell asleep, and toppled over. A funny accident — I laughed. It wasn't until we were 5,000 feet up the summit ridge that he showed me the swollen black and purple mess masking his entire foot. "It doesn't even hurt that bad," he insisted. I couldn't help but wonder if Dad just didn't want to disappoint me — so much so that he was willing to limp up a mountain.

Dad and I on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, October 2011
I sometimes joke that my dad is solely responsible for hooking me into my outdoors- and endurance-focused lifestyle. Growing up, I was not even remotely an athlete and we were not necessarily an outdoorsy family. Sure, we went on vacations to Yellowstone and Arches National Parks, but beyond that I was a bookish kid who liked reading and music. When I was 12 or 13, dad made some mountaineering friends who introduced him to hiking routes in the Wasatch. A couple of years later, he started inviting me. My sisters were still too young and a few degrees more disinterested than me in hiking, but even I can't say I was enamored with the thought of lots of sweating and sore legs just to look at pretty scenery. Still, there was appeal to the idea of a day-long outing with just my dad and me, and on some level I didn't want to disappoint him, so I agreed.

Dad and I at Phantom Ranch, September 2006
I was 16 when we embarked on my first truly big adventure, Mount Timpanogos. I had just acquired my first brand new pair of leather hiking boots, which in my mind marked me as a serious hiker. Dad carried most of the snacks — Twizzlers and granola bars — allowing me to get away with just a bottle of water around my hip. We drove to the trailhead in bleary predawn dusk. The air was dusty and sweet. We climbed with the sun as my dad instituted snack breaks and blister checks; and we talked with comfortable honesty as fatigue broke down my teenage information-withholding walls. The aspen canopy opened up to a wide meadow of wildflowers, and then we ascended to a moonscape of granite. One final gasp to the peak and suddenly I could see everything — everything — surrounding my life, like a great swirling expanse a vertical mile below. Awe is what I felt, and I was forever hooked.

Dad descending Mount Juneau, June 2008
A year or so later, while I was still in high school, Dad and I encountered an older man on the summit ridge of the Pfeifferhorn. With a walking stick and a shock of white hair, he was the only other hiker we'd seen in several hours. He had chiseled tan legs and well-defined arms, but he looked ancient to me. We chatted for a minute before the subject of his age came up. "I'm 68," he informed us with a wide smile. As we continued down the mountain, Dad said to me, "I hope I'm still hiking like that when I'm in my 60s."

Beat and Dad postholing in Mount Timpanogos, November 2012
Dad turned 60 in January, and as far as I can tell, he's only getting stronger. I've had twenty years to build up my experience in the prime of my life, but I think he's still stronger than me. Three weeks ago, we attempted a climb of Twin Peaks — the mountain he once told me he ascends every other year or so to remind him how much better he has it everywhere else. Twin Peaks is a mean one, but now he approaches it with more nonchalance. On this day there was still a lot of deep snow and postholing up the steep face, to the point where we logged a 102-minute-mile that had my heart rate pegged the entire time. As we staggered back down, I thought, "This is the toughest thing I've done in a while." Tougher than running a 50K? Most certainly. Tougher than the Quicksilver 50-mile? Probably. Those types of races have distance, but they have nothing on the rugged, numb fingers, blurry-eyed gasping struggle for forward motion that some of my dad's favorite mountains have. "You know," I told my 60-year-old dad, "if you ever got the urge to run an ultramarathon, you'd probably thrive." My dad just grinned at me, because he's smarter than that.

Dad in what is perhaps his favorite place in the world — Canyonlands National Park, April 2010
Happy Father's Day, Dad. Here's to many more decades of adventure. 


  1. Love this post! I hope your dad heals up quickly.

    This is hilarious, by the way: '"My scar hurts today" ... like I'm Harry Potter or something.'

  2. Love this post, Jill. I hope your dad likes it, too.

  3. Great post, nice tribute to your dad. I only hope I inspire such love of the outdoors in my own daughters when they grow up. We did get out for a hike again today, so I am working on it. :)

  4. He really is the best Dad and you are a lot like him Jill!

  5. Love this post, and the resemblance between you and your dad. Same face!

  6. Good one. You're lucky to be able to still get out on so many great ambitious outings with your dad.

    Hope his arms heal up perfectly; falling on rock is probably the least desirable outdoor activity. Heh. It's not very forgiving.

  7. It must be so special to share your lifestyle with your Dad. I'm sure you will carry those memories with you for life. Your Dad is awesome, he's so strong minded just like you. The apple does fall far from the tree.. :-)

  8. The apple does NOT fall from the tree is what I meant.

  9. Pfeifferhorn is actually not named for the Swiss Alps--it's named for Charles Pfeiffer. The name was just changed from "Little Matterhorn." See


Feedback is always appreciated!