The Nose Job 5: Making the Best of It

Dougald MacDonald entering the crux of Desert Solitaire (5.11), Colorado National Monument. Photo by Chris Weidner

Dougald MacDonald entering the crux of Desert Solitaire (5.11), Colorado National Monument. Photo by Chris Weidner

12/3/10 - I hit the big five-oh yesterday. I've noticed that people of my vintage are reluctant to say this in plain English. "The big five-oh." "A birthday that rhymes with nifty." "The big one." Let's just say it: Yesterday was my 50th birthday. I'm 50.

All in all, it was a pleasant day. Doughnuts and (somewhat) gentle ribbing about deafness and other infirmities from my staff. Dozens of well wishes from family and friends by phone and Facebook. Dinner and a movie with my gorgeous wife.

And, really, I don't feel 50. I'm healthy, and I'm rock climbing better than I have in years. Other than mild tendonitis, I haven't had an injury that's stopped me from climbing in over a decade. I've been very lucky.

But it's a myth that 50 is the new 40. (Jim Donini lamented recently that "65 is the new 63.") Things do deteriorate. Most people put on weight as they age, clipping the equivalent of a full water bottle to their harness every few years. Many become injury-prone, an issue explored recently by my hard-luck friend Kelly Cordes in a series of posts at the Cleanest Line. Even if you escape serious injury, your skin gets thinner. (Your physical skin, that is; your metaphorical skin generally gets thicker, through accrued hard knocks.) A couple of days ago, while running laps at the Boulder Rock Club, I climbed the gym's easy hand crack as slowly and carefully as I could, executing each jam with the utmost precision, and yet I arrived at the top with a fresh gobie on the back of my left hand. That sucks. Worst of all: you lose the ability to climb or train day after day, to recover quickly from hard physical effort. Rest days—rest weeks—become essential.

All this is fresh in my mind not just because of my big birthday, but also because winter has set in here in Colorado, and with the cold and snow and the never-enough-time workload, it's been hard to get outside and climb. In the past month, I haven't ticked a single route on my Boulder Canyon crack-training list for the Nose in a day. Haven't even attempted one. I still haven't prepared a good training plan for the NIAD attempt next summer. At this point, I'm not even sure where to start.

All this should worry me, but I take a bit of comfort from the fact that there's one thing that does not weaken with age. Two things, actually, and they both grow with experience right up to the day when you stop climbing completely: skills and climbing smarts. A couple of weeks ago, the Climbing and Urban Climber staff and a few key contributors went to the Utah desert for a quick retreat and some gear testing. On Friday afternoon, I got to climb in Colorado National Monument with Chris Weidner, our senior contributing editor and shoe tester. With a post-crack-of-noon start, we raced up a fun five-pitch 5.11 in just a couple of hours. It felt great to climb a challenging route with such a good partner and to be totally comfortable doing it; I didn't feel especially strong, but I knew how to get it done. To choose the right gear and place and clean it quickly. To exchange leads efficiently. To move confidently but not hastily, making each jam and foot smear count. To manage the rappels without mishaps. It was pure pleasure to feel this sense of mastery, and days like this give me hope for the Nose in a day—and for finding satisfaction in climbing for the rest of my life, or at least as long as I can move my arms and legs.

And on those other days, when you really feel your age, you just have to laugh. With that in mind, here's my favorite birthday note from yesterday, sent by my old friend Ralph Tingey (and I mean that in the nicest possible way, Ralph), a super-keen 60-something climber:

Climbing editor Dougald MacDonald is training for an attempt on the Nose in a day next summer. Read all the Nose Job blog posts here.