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We stood silent, unmoving.
“What?” he quickly blurted with razor-sharp irritation and his head tilted to the side as if he might die if he were forced to say it again.
We answered in a cacophonous unison.
“Hey, we just came by to check the place out!”
“Wanted to see what’s goin’ on”
“Should we pay you now, or what?”
“How ya doin?”
He quickly nodded his head with an equal amount of irritation, snapped around, and sat back down to join a group of climbers who were eating bread and sipping wine. As days passed we came to learn that this man was a legend, the big cheese, the primary developer who had bolted and climbed just about every route in Siurana over the past twenty years, not too mention various trips around the world, including one of the first and fastest ascents of Venezuala’s Angel Fall, a 3,000 foot stone giant.
And he wanted nothing to do with another group of loud, ignorant Americans looking to flash his latest test-pieces.
As the week passed, and the majority of climber’s traveled home to start work again, company for Mr.Checky began to dwindle; in fact, we were pretty much the only one’s left. Mr.Checky is not the man’s name, but that is what we came to call him amongst ourselves because it is the name of one of his first ascents, a 5.14 (one bitch of a route) done supposedly around the second or third try, so we figured it was only right to name him after it.
Unfortunetely, his indifference towards us did not reside with a lack of company. He still stared through us like glass, answered with grunts or jumbled moans, and quipped with squinting eyes “You…want…another?” whenever we asked for an additional baguette in the morning. Yes, the four of us would like another piece of bread unless of course we would be offending Ghandi. And we would also like more oil, McDonalds, scattered war in the Middle East, and a thirteen-year old cowboy for a president. Thank you.
Until one night changed everything.
I was wasted of course, running my mouth and sputtering irrational vulgarities like any red-blooded, college student should. Mr. Checky sat cross-legged in the back corner, reading some Spanish Guapo Conquistadoro climbing magazine. Me, Kurt, Neil, and Vasya giggled as we huddled around one of the hardwood tables, buzzing off of whatever mixture of beer, Vino, and Dry Gin turned in our stomachs. It was just us and Mr. Checky. The stage was set.
I stumbled to the serving counter. Thinking that no one had taken any notice, I started talking to myself.
“Mr. Checky, I need two beers, pronto! I’m splashin’ the pot. Look, I’m splashin’ the pot baby!” I cheered as I threw a few euros down on top of a bunch of dimes and nickels.
Toni had been close to winning the World Cup multiple times, but decided to end his pursuit in search of a purer form of climbing. Because of his unyielding dedication and immeasurable depth of perseverance, twenty years later Siurana has over nine-hundred sport climbing routes and forty-five areas. In 1988, Toni put up the first 8a in Siurana, and bolted hundreds of routes, not only in his home crag, but in twenty other countries across Europe.
The sheer magnitude of the climbing region makes it impossible for crowding. In fact, most days we only saw one pair of climbers. One. Can you imagine going to Rumney on a sixty degree day, no clouds and sunny, and seeing one or two climbers? Me either.
In either case, Toni basically built the entire camping ground, refugio, and irrigation systems with his bare hands. Along with the help of his family and friends, who eventually followed him to Siurana, the campsite now has six bungalows and over thirty potential camping spots. As Siurana’s popularity grew, so did Toni’s revenue, increasing supplies and sustainability. The serving cabin has a plasma flat screen now and he started with an FM radio.
Our conversation eventually evolved into the young generation of climbers versus the old. He emphasized that many professional climber’s in Europe, like the young Ramon Julian, train eight hours a day, leaving little time for any thought outside of climbing itself. For this exact reason, Toni says that many young climber’s today “who climb and that’s all” have “big muscle, small brain”. From what I understood from his broken English, he expressed the idea that some of the most talented young guns in the world are getting stronger and stronger while their minds grow weaker. School is unimportant or virtually non-existent. Climbing becomes elitist and revolves around success and failure; winning and losing. This is not wrong, but merely a different way of life that seems to be characteristic of some, but not all, over-trained teenagers seemingly oblivious to perspective and any sort of humility.
“Mr. Checky”. Photo by Kurt Oian
This idea forced Toni to raise the critical question he said he once faced as we all someday will or already have. “After many years, you’re still climbing. One day you think, why I still climbing?”
The answer to this question is different for everyone, but its most essential meaning is derived from the origin and primary reason of why one starts climbing, from the very moment you chose to lace up your shoes for the first time or clip your first bolt. Exciting. New. Adventure. Doubt. Challenge. Building muscles for cute girls.
“Because it was fun” he whispered.
Reflecting. Mr. Checky was probably off getting us more drinks. Photo by Kurt Oian
Toni and the rest of us spoke about the progression of the sport, about how physical limits of the human body are being pushed and extended everyday. At this point in rock climbing, each new year could mean a whole new dimension of possibilities. The grade 5.10 was once a landmark and now 5.14 is nearly average for the seasoned climber. We spoke of these grades, what they meant and how they effect one’s motivation and drive to climb hard. But what Toni eventually made us all remember was that these systems of measurement come dangerously close to suffocating the inherent purity of climbing; that even though grades will perpetually change with time the most basic component, the genuine love of the sport, will not. After all of our quibbling and misunderstandings over the past few weeks, we eventually learned that Toni had no real problem with us, merely a desire to find someone who would listen and understand. He reminded us that climbing is not about the pressure and confinement of a grading system. It’s not about winning and gaining an elite position over other climbers. Instead, he reminded us that climbing is about traveling and meeting new people unified under a common interest, learning about the depths of oneself and using that insight to push through personal limitations. Climbing is all about what you want it to be since years from now no one is going to care whether or not you won the 2007 World Cup or sent Papas Fritas 5.16c.
We all kept drinking, discussing what all climbers have been over many times before. After all the idealistic, zen-buddhism, brave and honerous sweet talk about how “climbing is the soul’s canvas to the spiritual world” crap was over, we were back where we had started.
It’s all about the grades baby! Or is it?