In a life defined by risk, Robert Charles Lee experiences a poor and free-ranging childhood in the racist South of the 1960s. After his father dies, the family grows dysfunctional. As a result, teen-age Robert seeks sanity and solace by rock climbing solo and driving cars fast. He wins a scholarship and graduates from university, but still seeks to escape the South.
Moving to Alaska and the Western US, Robert works in a series of dangerous and brutal jobs. He meets and marries Linda, who enjoys climbing and skiing difficult mountains as much as he does. Simultaneously, Robert trains in the science of risk to become a respected professional risk scientist.
Robert shares his remarkable story as he guides the reader through a series of dangerous but rewarding doors, culminating in a vivid journey of adventure and risk.
beginning of chapter The Mountain Door
I solo climb a quartzite rock route in Hanging Rock State Park, ten stories off the deck. A light rain is falling. I have a death grip on the wet rock, and I’m forced to clean vegetation out of some of the cracks before I jam my bleeding fingers into them. My clumsy work boots don’t help. They slip on the slimy rock. Watchful buzzards circle overhead, distinguished yet repellent, like soaring undertakers. They provide motivation for taking care while climbing, but I’m good at it. I attain a state of mental flow. I’ve never felt this alive, and the door to climbing opens wide.
|When I was in junior high, Frances, my younger brother and I moved from our hometown of Granite Quarry to the larger town of Concord, North Carolina. The move was traumatic. Frances sought work and was dating a smelly, alcoholic, divorced Methodist minister who smoked. Bart rhymed with fart, so this is what we kids called him. I never understood what she saw in him, but she wasn’t of stable mind. She was looking for love in all the wrong places. She started drinking more wine, which interacted with the prescription drugs she consumed. My older siblings had skedaddled by this point, so my younger brother and I were forced from a pleasant, rural home on an acreage, to a crappy little apartment in a crappy town and crappy new schools. This didn’t help my introversion.
However, I discovered people did compelling and risky things in the mountains. I saw an ad in a magazine for an Outward Bound school featuring a dude rapping (rappelling, or sliding down a rope in a controlled fashion) down a cliff. Lo, it was in the North Carolina hills. The term rapping brings to mind the modern, energetic recitation of verse in an urban music context while hanging on a rope in the wilderness, but sadly, no. The Outward Bound ad suggested to me that risky mountain stuff was possible, and a school for it existed. I didn’t realize risk isn’t really what Outward Bound was or is about, but it piqued my interest. I lobbied my mother to go, but it cost too much, so my plan went nowhere. I saw a door worth climbing through, and resolved to take mountain adventure into my own hands.
I owned no proper clothing or gear, and the outdoor shops now peppering the physical and virtual landscapes didn’t exist. In the South, if a young man was recreating outdoors and not hunting or fishing, he was viewed as somehow hinky, but I wanted more.
I lucked out, having neighbors in our apartment complex who went hiking and backpacking in the mountains as a standalone activity. They were a young, married, hippie couple from the Northeast, where this was more acceptable. They turned me on to the few mail order camping equipment firms at the time, which was a godsend. I just mailed a check for whatever I needed, and it was delivered via the magic of the US Postal Service. The catalogs were full of compelling photos of people doing cool things in the mountains and wilderness.
I had little money, so I ordered boots and camping gear, then hit the local Army-Navy surplus store for the rest. Good, specialized, outdoor clothing wasn’t available anyway, and the surplus stuff was cheap. The Appalachians were cool and damp, so wool was advisable much of the year. I smelled like a moldy sheep while hiking, the unique Army-Navy store stink a pungent undertone.
Once I could drive, I borrowed Frances’s car on weekends and headed for the hills. If I couldn’t borrow her car, I’d hitchhike. All alone, in the ancient hardwood forests and eroded rock roots of a once great mountain range, I found self-reliance and sanity.
Frances suffered severe issues by then. For example, she screamed and beat the hell out of us with a large wooden rod when we acted up. I can still feel the accursed rod stinging my shoulders. I escaped whenever possible.
In addition to day-hiking in areas within a couple of hours’ drive from home, I went backpacking on overnight trips in wilderness areas such as Great Smokies National Park. It rains a lot in the Appalachians, and my camping gear was marginal. I was often cold and wet, but I loved it. My solo Appalachian experiences provided a solid foundation for decades of working and recreating in the mountains.
I wasn’t satisfied with hiking. I began to climb. I still had the Outward Bound rapping ad stuck in my head. I didn’t know how to use a rope and had no money for gear, so I went without. I soloed (climbed without use of a rope) easy rock routes all over the Piedmont and southern Appalachians. Many of these areas are now crowded rock-climbing venues. Although I had no idea how to climb rock properly, I was naturally good at it. It didn’t occur to me at the time, but sneakers might have made climbing easier than work or hiking boots. Sticky rubber-soled rock shoes had yet to be invented. I experienced one fall, but much later, so I must have been adept at managing climbing risk.
Why solo? I didn’t know anybody else who was interested. This was the early 1970s, and I’m sure other climbers were out and about, but I never met or saw evidence of them. The Outward Bound school was near Linville Gorge, North Carolina, where I often hiked and climbed. According to Outward Bound’s website, they climbed and rapped on Table Rock back then, but I never saw any Outward Bounders bounding outwards. I rarely saw anybody aside from tourists in parking lots.
Thank you, Robert Charles Lee and Lola’s Blog Tours
About the author
Robert Charles Lee is a retired risk scientist with over twenty-five years of academic and applied risk analysis, decision analysis, and risk management experience. He and his wife Linda have climbed hundreds of technical and non-technical mountain, rock, ice, and canyon routes, and hiked thousands of miles in several countries. Lee is also an avid musician and photographer.