After hiking four hours and climbing up more than 3,400 feet, I stood with a mere 10 feet of rope in my hands. Above me, my father clung to the side of the spire only a few feet from the top.
Looking back at the rope, I shouted up at him, “You have only got a few feet left, Dad.”
“What!” he shouted back with a coarseness to his breath after laboring up the crack with several pounds of gear strapped to his harness.
“What should I do?” he yelled down.
“I don’t know,” I said.
Hiking the Superstition Mountains’ most famous landmark — Weaver’s Needle — also known through history as Sombrero Peak, Finger of God, Statue Mountain, Picacho Peak and Needle Rock, put both my stamina and relationship with my father to the test.
Whatever you call it, climbing that precipitous peak requires bravado and a bit of luck.
Throughout my life, I have called on this luck a few times. You see, my father is my frequent climbing partner and he has underestimated the difficulty of most of our endeavors.
While he goes full speed ahead, I trail behind in his dust.
Hiking Weaver’s Needle in mid-February was no different.
It’s not that he doesn’t plan, he just doesn’t take into account the last few miles — usually the most difficult miles of the trek.
From turning around 400 feet below the top of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park to running out of water on more trails than I can remember, we always find ourselves high on some mountain without enough liquid or time to get down.
On this climb, we didn’t have enough of either. Plus, we found out mid-ascent that we were a few feet short on rope.
The last thing you want to hear when hanging from a crag 150 feet off the ground is that you only have 10 feet of rope to make it 15 feet to safety.
Luckily, this time Dad hung from the slippery column of rock and my boyfriend belayed from below. And more luckily, my boyfriend climbed up a few feet to give him the extra rope he needed to make it to the top of the first pitch.
Despite our many hiccups and near mishaps, I have learned more hiking alongside my father than any other time we have spent together.
While Dad may miscalculate the hike, he never stops believing I will make it. Although unsaid, my dad’s belief in my ability, even as a small child, to conquer any mountain, has unknowingly carried me through life.
Now that I’m grown, our relationship has changed. Like all relationships that flex and twist over time, ours has strained but never broken. I realize I no longer need my dad to lead the way; I can conquer those mountains on my own.
At the tender age of 10, I remember him strapping me into a harness for the first time, affixing a rope, tugging at the knot and telling me to turn around, hold on tight and rappel down Mt. Lemmon’s Practice Rock. Peering over the steep edge as he shouted not to let go of my right hand or I would surely fall, I wussed out. I absolutely refused to step over that ledge.
Somewhere along the way, however, I got over my fear and learned to trust my dad. Every Tuesday, my brothers and I went climbing with him at the local, climbing gym and I eventually climbed up Practice Rock and confidently rappelled down.
As my father grew older, my oldest brother took up the climbing lead and we managed to climb on Mt. Lemmon once or twice a year.
But when he got a family, those times grew fewer.
When I finally got a boyfriend who also climbed, I think Dad thought someone else would take over the ropes. Hiking Weaver’s Needle was the first time we would put this theory to the test.
But Weaver’s Needle had other plans.
After unloading from our vehicles at the chilly and extra early hour of 8:30 a.m., my father led the charge to the base of the needle.
After several solid hours of hiking, we made it to the saddle, about halfway to the base. My dad, not surprisingly, remarked that he hadn’t thought it would take us this long.
The Peralta Trail, while not difficult, is steep. At the 3,766-foot-high Fremont Saddle, 2.25 miles from the trailhead, we got our first glimpse of the Needle. Stretching out behind it in the distance was the Beeline Highway — a few shiny dots zooming down the roadway.
While those people looked at the peak from the comfort of the their vehicles, I was finally within reach of it.
For more than a century, explorers and Native Americans have lived and traversed the area around the Supes. The Spanish first called the area the Mountains of Foam for its series of volcanic peaks. For years, people have searched in vain, sometimes giving their lives, to find the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine.
According to myth, a German prospector on his deathbed said the mine lay in the shadow of Weaver’s Needle, but no one has ever found the mine or the gold.
In 1853, the peak was formally named Weaver’s Needle in honor of pioneer explorer Pauline Weaver who had carved his name into the rock.
Of course, I didn’t know or care about any of this as I huffed along the trail, a heavy pack holding me back.
After another hour of hiking downhill into East Boulder Canyon, we passed Pinyon Camp (a good overnight camping spot) and made it to the base trail leading up to the spire. From there, we scrambled over a steep face of rock rubble before reaching the first pitch.
Standing at the base of the volcanic plug, I was in awe of the structure and that we had made it this far.
We had left a herd of Boy Scouts and hikers at the saddle and were the only ones attempting the climb.
We heard the needle was a popular climb spot, so where were the climbers? Maybe they were attempting the climbs that surround Weaver’s Needle including Zonerland, the Labyrinth, Land of Nod or the Fortress.
After laying out our gear, my father looked to my boyfriend to take the lead and begin the climb. The lead is always the most dangerous part of the climb because the person is setting their own protection. If they fall, they tumble down to their last point of protection. This can be dozens of feet.
To my father’s amazement, my boyfriend stared back and said he had never led a climb before.
I could almost see the air being knocked out my father.
Since I had never led a climb before, it was up to him.
Grumbling, he layered equipment onto his harness — adding some 10 to 20 pounds of stoppers, nuts, quick draws and runners.
It had been years since he had led a climb and at that moment, I knew he needed my encouragement.
After a slow start, my dad made it up the west chimney, eventually climbing up a crack to a large choke stone. Just before reaching the top, in a tight, dangerous spot, we realized he had only a few feet of rope left, not enough to make it to the top. Since he could not climb down easily, my boyfriend unclipped himself from his belay protection and climbed up several ledges.
With enough rope, my dad climbed underneath the choke stone and we followed up behind him. After making it past the second, smaller pitch we were more than halfway up the needle.
Without water (of course we had forgotten it at our bags), we struggled to catch our breath. Sitting precariously on several boulders, our feet knocked loose gravel, which fell to the valley floor far below.
At that moment, my boyfriend’s fear of heights resurfaced and he clung to the rocks with a death grip.
Although we were safe, we sat on a platform not more than 15 feet across and the sun was beginning to set.
We only had a 40-foot pitch to go, but my boyfriend wasn’t having any of it.
At that moment, my dad did something unexpected. Where he would normally push on, ignoring our requests to retreat, he stopped and looked at me. Recalling a book he just read on Ernest Shackleton’s quest to the Antarctic a hundred years ago, my father said we must look out for the team and go down.
Standing just short of the peak with my dad six hours after we had started our journey, I was dumfounded. But after looking down at my boyfriend’s frantic eyes, I began the decent. Luckily, I was not scared. The height, the loose rock and dehydration — it didn’t faze me. Although we might have made a few miscalculations, I was mentally prepared. All those imperfect journeys had given me the confidence to handle the worst.
As we prepared to rappel down, I volunteered to lead. This was the first time, we learned, my boyfriend had ever rappelled.
Where I had refused to step over that ledge 16 years ago, this time I hitched the rope to my harness, grabbed the rope with my right hand and lowered down without a peep.
When we had all safely made it off Weaver’s Needle, we rushed to cover the four miles back to the trailhead.
The sun was setting fast and we were tired. Luckily, just moments before the sky went dark, we arrived at our vehicles.
Although I hadn’t realized it, my father had given me enough courage to handle all of life’s ledges