Grasping at Draws: Defining Climber

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This story originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of our print edition.

The author as a real climber on one of his first multi-pitches in Oklahoma.

The author as a real climber on one of his first multi-pitches in Oklahoma.

As a youthful climber, and by this I mean in my impressionable college years, my enthusiasm for everything vertical was unbridled. It poured out of every orifice in my face and oozed from the gobies I proudly covered with tape when I went to class.

“What’s all that tape on your fingers for?” a bright young philosophy student would question tenuously, side-eyed, as if she didn’t really want the answer.

“Oh, I’m a climber,” I would respond, pregnant with the expectation of awestruck admiration. As if the once-hidden capabilities of these very hands, bruised and bleeding, became apparent all at once in a flash of strong men, stone workers, and masons building shelters and carving statues. The Pietà with my oversized forearms clutching a chisel and hammer and a pile of climbing gear in the corner.

I wore my scars and unnecessary bandages like a Mexican general. I put climbing stickers on every thing I owned. I carried climbing mags with me everywhere, reading them cover to cover from the plushy chairs at Starbucks, eyes darting just over the top, waiting like a lion in tall grass to pounce on anyone whose gaze lingered a second too long on the cover image. Hopefully some of you readers are clutching this issue in that same manner.

Climbing became everything to me. It was all I could talk about and all I could think about. The time I spent pursuing vertical pleasures increased as my social interactions with all non-climbers decreased. I even got a job at a local gear shop just so I could fondle new cams and thumb through guidebooks for money. I was a terrible employee—you can ask my bosses—but my charisma was infectious, and no one could stay mad at me no matter how many times I showed up late.

Looking back it’s actually disturbing how quickly I wrapped up my entire identity in climbing. A slew of running injuries had sidelined me from my university’s track team and given me the opportunity to get a glimpse of climbing. One minute a D1 athlete on a nearly full-ride scholarship, the next a manpri-wearing amateur with accessory cord bracelets and carabiner keychains. I was like that guy who changes his hobbies and entire look in accord with each new love interest. Nick Hornby’s Rob Gordon said, “I felt like one of those people who suddenly shave their heads and said they’d always been punks.”

I was a climber. I wanted, no, I needed you to understand that. Now, I wonder about it. I guess that was a dozen years ago. It was before my first internship and a summer in Rifle that revealed how inexperienced and weak I truly was. It was before my first desk job that unfairly forced the majority of my climbing experiences indoors. It was before I moved away from all my climbing partners and stopped climbing outside almost altogether. The last being an embarrassing fact I haven’t quite come to terms with, but has given me pause in assessing my own street cred.

Our identity as a thing is this strange source of pride. What we call ourselves is who we are, a notion I once believed wholly and fervently, but I wonder now if I’m more interested in others’ appraisal of me, separate from my exposition. Owning a DSLR doesn’t make you a photographer any more than owning a MacBook Air makes you a writer any more than owning some glue-ins makes you a route developer. Or does it?

Every Tuesday and Thursday, I wake up at 6 a.m., head to Peet’s for a cup of coffee, then drive over to the Planet Granite gym. Sometimes I Snapchat the empty bouldering area, prideful in my ability to avoid human contact. Sometimes I meet up with my photographer friend Kaare, whose newborn has given him the ability to rise early and climb on a rope with me. Sometimes I head in over the weekend and get a short session while my wife-to-be goes to yoga or does some kind of thing with weights and those bouncy workout balls. Unlike my former self, weekends aren’t wall-to-wall trips to any of the incredible climbing areas surrounding the Bay Area where I live. I have gym friends who go to Bishop every weekend. These days I’m the gym rat my former self hated, criticized, and considered a mere poser.

How could some kid, whose only highballs are over 18 inches of padding and the maximum span between bolts the same length as they are tall, possibly understand what a real climber is? It’s a position marked by rigid respect and allegiance to the old guard. The men and women who defined climbing as rambunctious and harrowing. Feats of strength in both body and mind gave life to films and pages of magazines, where now half the fixation is on plastic performance and hard single moves. Posers! You’ll never understand what we’ve learned from Harding, Robbins, Caldwell, Bachar, Hill, not to mention Eckstein, and a million other names of REAL climbers. The fear I learned to manage outside on real rock now goes unchecked in me. My climbing seems merely a vain pursuit. Jug topouts and waist management.

Fully committed to being a climber with less than a month of climbing under his alpine bod belt.

Fully committed to being a climber with less than a month of climbing under his alpine bod belt.

So what does that make me? A former climber? A relic whose occasional gains and accomplishments are such that they can’t even be ticked publicly on Mountain Project? Can I still call myself a climber? I probably spend more time running each week. Maybe I’m a runner now? Does who I want to be matter as much as who I actually am?

As I am won't to do, contemplation swirled around my head while I swirled whiskey around a glass. I drink, therefore I am a drinker. I run, therefore I am a runner. I write, therefore I am a writer. I climb mostly in the gym, therefore I’m a gym climber. Being honest about who you are is at once more accurate and more potent.

To borrow a phrase from the bird-faced Ted Cruz, climbers have a tenuous relationship with the truth. We spend more time posturing about what kind of climbers we are, and worrying about what kind of climbers others are, than we do actually climbing. Hop on Instagram and take a stroll through the comments of some of the more prominent climbing figures. Check out any number of online forums. We’re absorbed in defining ourselves, and more often, other people.

Quick straw poll: Who’s the real climber? Yvon Chouinard or Sierra Blair-Coyle? Lynn Hill or Paul Robinson? Courtney Woods or Sasha DiGiulian? Colin Haley or Kai Lightner? Me or Emily Harrington? You or Alex Honnold?

My point, if I can find it wandering around here somewhere, is that if you (like me) found yourself immediately with a strong opinion one way or another, then you (like me) are on the wrong side of progress. If you spent more than five seconds in debate with yourself, including questions like “Aren’t they both?” and “Who freaking cares?”, then kudos for being on the right side of progress.

Worst part is, despite our ability to categorize climbers, we have a startlingly short attention span in terms of honest self-appraisal. It’s like weirdly vain morals that produce so much anger and pointed rhetoric online and over beers that the actual climbing (the awesome part) takes a backseat to pulling others down in our sad little trench. Perhaps I’m generalizing, but after sifting through months of negativity, unproductive name-calling, ego-driven sub-Tweeting, and pedantic reviews of open letters and blog posts that only want to accomplish some modicum of equality, fairness, and respectful treatment, it appears that the thing that makes each one of us part of the same tribe isn’t connecting us at all.

Climbing is inextricably subjective. It’s why we have so much fun discussing good and bad beta, ascent styles, redpointing, onsight vs. flash, grades, shoes, and a million other parts of our sport. But as climbing grows and finds more eyes peering in our direction, I hope what rises to the top is less scene and more community. Less finger pointing and more crimping. Less pulling others down and more giving them a leg up.