“You wanna go to Boulder Canyon tomorrow morning before work… check out that cliff above Vampire Wall?” asked my co-worker, Matt, on Monday. “Sure,” I said. “Great. I’ll see you at 7,” he concluded. “We can carpool.” I felt a twang of regret about my decision as the sibilant sounds of the word “seven” rolled off Matt’s tongue. But since the cliff in question was a possibly undeveloped chunk of granite, and we had the chance of putting up some new routes with our name on them, I counted it worth a morning slog. Plus, how many souls with full-time jobs get to go new-routing before clocking in, and with the boss, no less.
Speaking of jobs, I have often referred to mine, Senior Editor of Climbing, as “The most wanted job in the climbing industry that nobody actually wants.” Of course, there are many, complex layers of sarcasm and nuance in this statement (as in most statements I make), the most obvious of which is that it’s a dream job. And you’d hate it. A certain, very Eastern mindset (I’m talking Far East here, people, not Long-Island east or eastern Colorado) is required to do this job without being crippled by stress and frustration.
Many of the imagined benefits are, at least in part, present: I do get to try out all the newest gear (though much of it has to be returned, often right when I’m getting used to its feel — the iPod Touch we called in for one issue is a great example of the Tantalus’ torture I have to endure). And of course I have the pleasure of talking with, socializing with, even climbing with the people we put in the mags, some of whom I idolized as a budding young climber. (But then again, do I really get to know them? Usually our acquaintance is brief, and progresses little beyond small talk and niceties.) And then there’s the climbing. Many folks assume that the employees of a magazine called Climbing would get to climb, and all the time. While we do have occasional “office climbing days,” much more often than not we sit at our desks from 8 a.m. till 8 p.m., typing till our wrists ache and scratching red pencils down to their nubs on our contributors’ work. (Sometimes a CD of brilliant photos will come in, shot in a country where the women roam topless and tan, and the average body fat percentage is naturally low due to the local diet of papaya, fresh fish, and rice… and where rum costs a dollar a bottle. The climbers in the shots are framed against white sand beaches, wearing nothing but bathing suits under their harnesses and grinning as they clutch juggy flowstone stalactites. Ah, it’s almost enough to make your forget you’re in the office — but not quite.) But on those rare days when we do get out — and sometimes it’s only for a sweet moment — things don’t always go as expected.
Which brings us back to 7:15 am on Tuesday, at the Boulder Canyon pull-off. Staring up the hill to the wall we were to “check out,” it was immediately clear that the approach was going to suck. To begin, we made a quick Tyrolean over the rushing river. We then followed a nice, steep trail to the popular crag called Avalon, walking by all the moderate, fun, unoccupied routes and then promptly off any reasonable human throughway. Next, came the Congo bushwhacking: we raked our arms and legs through thorny tangles and, at one point, encountered a class 4 section requiring a mantle on a loose tree trunk with mossy rock slabs for foot holds.
After at least half an hour, we reached the uber-crag-to-be. “It’s like the incredible shrinking crag,” proclaimed Matt, flatly. And indeed it was a fair bit shorter than it appeared from the road. Strange, as I had believed that objects generally seemed to grow larger as they occupied more of one’s field of view. “And there’re bolts,” said Matt. Of course there were. One meager line of winkers winked their way up the stumpy cliff — three bolts and a bolted anchor before a big horizontal break. A second, cracked-block headwall rose above the break, but it was uninspiring. On the ground an old hose used for ice farming lay in a faded blue-green tangle. No great discovery had we made. We contemplated going town via another route, but the prospect of coming back up the steep gully that entailed if it cliffed out was too much to bear. We retreated.
Numerous red ants attacked me on the way back to the car, their little pincers stinging my wrists and ankles, adding to the thorny-vine pricks. “Rock!” I shouted as on the final scree slope I dislodged a football-sized stone, nearly bowling Matt over from behind. We recrossed the river and hobbled to the car, finally ready for the peace and quite of a day behind the desk.
Here’s where my Eastern philosophy comes in. Like a cool-sounding job or a morning out of the office, so many things we think we want are really mixed blessings. Such is the nature of life. Here in ‘Merica, we say “The grass is always greener on the other side.” (I’ve also heard “I make plans, and God laughs”… but then again, “Every time you masturbate, God kills a kitten,” and “Every time you eat a steak, a hippy looses his hackysack into the sewer,” so who the hell knows what to believe, anyway.) There’s an old Chinese tale with a slightly different angle on things — I’ll paraphrase from memory here:
One day, a farmer’s prize horse broke through the fence and escaped. “Oh no!” the farmer exclaimed. “That was my most valuable horse. I’m so poor; now what will I do?” The other villagers talked about what bad luck the farmer had. Two days later, the horse returned, bringing with it a dozen beautiful wild horses. The farmer rejoiced, seeing his stock multiplied twelve fold, and the villages all commented on what amazing luck the farmer had. A week or so later, the farmer’s son was bucked off one of the wild horses while trying to tame it, breaking his leg. Again, the farmer lamented his terrible luck, seeing that his eldest son was crippled, and the villagers shook their heads in pity. Not long after that, while the son was still in bed, men from the government came, saying a war had begun and they’d need his eldest son to fight. When they saw the son’s leg, though, they left, and the farmer’s family stayed together…
The story continues like this, but you get the picture. So perhaps the lesson is something like: be careful what you wish for. A day spent skipping work at the crag could be disastrous; and a day in the office could lead to a breakthrough moment. You really never know. With this in mind, you can find adventure and possibility in any situation. This is how I endure the paradoxical blessings/damnation of “the most wanted job in the climbing industry that nobody actually wants.”