Climbing's Real Risky Business

Rock and Ice Magazine Cover, 33 kb This article is a TNBlast from Rock and Ice. It is with their permission that we publish it here on UKC.

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Climbing's Real Risky Business by Jeff Jackson

I was 32 years old, a skinny dirtbag rock climber looking for a job that provided maximum unpaid time off when I took a staff position at a wilderness therapeutic camp in Lockhart, Texas with an option of working 48 hours straight. I was the rock climbing and yoga instructor. In two days, I'd log a week's worth of hours plus eight hours of overtime.

Enchanted Rock - Main Dome [Texas], 111 kb
Enchanted Rock - Main Dome [Texas]
© Smitz, Apr 2005
For five years, two days a week, I'd get the hoods up, get them fed, then load six of them in a van and go climbing at one of the many nearby limestone cliffs, or head to the granite at Enchanted Rock. Every summer ex-Marine JJ Lercad and I would take the kids to Colorado to camp and climb.

It seemed ideal. But, of course, in many ways it wasn't.

The kids were Level 5 gang-bangers and sex offenders. They bickered, cursed and fought, found and consumed psychotropic mushrooms, huffed gas, drank antifreeze, stole the van, stole candy, stole each other's stuff, stole my shoes, ran away, attacked staff, had sex with each other, had sex with the animals, had sex with their parole officers, tried to kill each other with machetes, tried to kill themselves by eating rocks, tried to kill me by setting my tent on fire, etc.

Furthermore, I had to sit through group therapy sessions in which the kids would describe in heinous, heart-wrenching detail the abuse they had endured, or meted out on others—or, usually, both endured and meted out. The sex-offenders in particular were adept at finding tender spots and verbally goading other residents or staff into “inappropriate behavior.” For instance, the time a 15-year-old resident told a staff member with an infant daughter that he was going to “do my time then come back and offend on that bitch.” In response, the staff squirted the kid with lighter fluid and threw a match on the wet spot. Inappropriate? Well, I guess that's why that guy was fired.

Almost every day some kid would act out, be put on hand-carry, pull away and be “restrained”—which was really just another word for being bulldogged by a much bigger man and having your face ground into the dirt until you were reduced to a weeping, snotty, slobbery, muddy-faced mess. Believe it or not, some kids actually needed this treatment more than the psychotropic pills we'd hand out like so many parti-colored jujubes every morning and evening. Having grown up without limits, they craved actual physical boundaries. If it involved humiliation and an occasional broken collarbone—so be it.

It was grueling, underpaid, drama-ridden, emotionally exhausting work. Staff turned over like the hour hand on an electric clock, but I stuck around since it allowed me plenty of time to pursue my own semi-legitimate, woefully unpaid passion for climbing.

And so it came to pass that after three years at the camp, I found myself standing at the edge of a 100-foot cliff between "Lamont," 17, and "Todd," 12.

Lamont was a ropey, black, 6' 4”, 200 pound, National Junior Olympic Tae Kwon Do champion who had been sentenced to two years at the camp for brutalizing a teacher with a metal folding chair. It is a strange but telling aside that Lamont's father, brothers and uncles—part of a notorious Austin crime family—were also named Lamont in a deliberate effort to confound the authorities. That Lamont was serving out his two year sentence in the summer heat of a wilderness camp rather than the air-conditioned confines of Garner Betts, the juvenile prison, owed to a kind judge taking notice of his potential for rehabilitation. Lamont was smart, athletic and thoughtful. He'd often take a break from his “wilderness therapy”—digging larine holes or manhandling cedar stumps out of the ground—and ask me about the future.

“Do they give scholarships for Tae Kwon Do, Mr. Jackson?”

“They give scholarships for just about everything, but you have to finish high school.”

“I'm studying for my GED. I take the test next month and I'm gonna ace it,” he said. (And he did).

Todd was skinny and pale, a red headed runt who carried around a little played-out devil doll. The doll had plush horns that Todd liked to chew when he was stressed. Ironically, he hadn't committed any offense, but he'd been placed at the camp by child protective services when they found him eating dog food and living on the outside balcony of an apartment complex in Lubbock.

Todd's main problem in life was his temper, which would flare at the slightest provocation, his pale face flushing redder than his hair, his little fists clenched till the knuckles turned paper white. It was an internal anger that no amount of Klonopin could quell.

That day, Lamont was holding Todd's doll over the edge of the cliff, way outside the safety zone I'd roped off, and Todd was up in his face, yelling rapid-fire obscenities in a tumult that culminated with, “Give me my mother******* devil doll you big chocolate n*****.”

I was trying to get between them, all of us right at the edge of a 100-foot drop.

Lamont's eyes grew suddenly glossy and bore out of his head. He clenched his fists and veins twined up his forearms. He reached out quick as lightning and snatched Todd with his free hand and prepared to toss him headlong into the void.

“Lamont!” I wailed. “Don't do it! Think about your future!”

Todd dangled harmlessly, practically inanimate in Lamont's grasp, the pugilistic fire that always seemed to rage behind his young, wounded eyes for once blown out.

Lamont strained, fighting his own demons. Tears sprung up in his eyes. Then he mastered himself and carefully put Todd down. Incredibly, Todd attempted to charge in again, but I scooped him up, crossed his arms in front of him and slammed him into the dirt. The four other kids stood meekly behind the rope barrier. To them it was just another narrowly avoided catastrophe among many. But Lamont was distraught.

“I almost killed him, Mr. Jackson.”

From my position on the ground, trying to control the squirming kid, I looked into his eyes and nodded.

“Let's go climbing,” I said.

The rest of the day unfolded like so many others. We set up a rappel and one by one the gang-bangers approached the edge, felt the tension rise up—the perceived risk—and then acted out those old patterns picked up from Mom, or Dad, or Grandma. They cursed me, threatened to kill me, spat at me, or just hung there catatonic. And I patiently pointed out that this kind of behavior was why they were sweating out the summer at a camp rather than being “in the free” like all their friends. I'd ask them where they were on the “offender's cycle”—planning, setting up action or acting out—and explain how problems don't get solved by yelling or fighting. Violence, verbal or physical, just doesn't work. Not ever.

“You can cuss me all day,” I'd say, “but the only way you're going to get down this cliff is by acting appropriately to solve this problem.”

Later—sitting around a campfire eating expired hot dogs we'd picked up that morning from the Austin-area Food Bank—some of them got it. They felt good about themselves. You could tell by the tired quiet that stole over the group. They stopped bickering and lounged around like normal kids.

The next day, I was invited to Lamont's group therapy session. They were talking about risk.

“Yesterday when I was climbing with Mr. J, I learned that I can choose to act appropriately,” Lamont said. “I can see now that you can solve your problems without offending.”

The therapist nodded. She thought he was talking about rappelling, but I knew better. We both glanced at Todd, sitting with his devil doll stuffed in the pocket of his over-sized, donated jeans. 

Years later, I remember that moment whenever I think about risk. It's a choice. You always choose what you risk. But sometimes, with all the odds stacked against you, it's difficult to act appropriately.

I have no idea what happened to Todd, but I do know that 10 years ago this summer, Lamont murdered an old man with a hammer and stole his welfare check. As far as I know, he's still in prison.

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