There we were on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, celebrating the dawn of a new millennium on December 31, 1999. Along were some friends, including my climbing partner, all of us sloppy and jovial and bejeweled with beads. We roamed from bar to bar, guzzling frozen daiquiris. While we climbed most of the street signs and scaffolding, it was a poor substitute for the polished dolomite pockets of Wild Iowa, our home crag back in the Midwest. But this was the rare urban excursion away from rock climbing, and we were drunk.
My girlfriend and I were two years into a relationship. However, on the side, I had a mistress: climbing, which I’d discovered only weeks after we’d lit our kindling. My first job out of college was in a ginormous sports store. There, in the camping section, two videos looped. They featured men hanging upside-down in revealing tights, a heavy-metal person of unsound mind sprinting up a cliff (Dan Osman), and a brawny perversion of Bob Ross (Fred Nicole) doing one-finger pull-ups. How had these films found their way to Iowa? I ignored the customers and stared slack-jawed, my palms moist, wondering how to become a Master of Stone.
I’d soon bought Hexes I did not know how to place and an old HB Marshall belay device I did not know how to use, plus a rope more expensive than my car, and then attempted to murder myself and my friends while falling insanely in love with rock climbing. And even though we’d talked about marriage, my girlfriend quickly took up orbit as a satellite. In the beginning, she believed I was charging at windmills and released me to my frenzy; she also approved of what was happening to my body—how muscles were replacing Milwaukee’s Best beer fat. I watched Free Hueco every morning, drove the 60 miles to Wild Iowa after work (and seldom made it home for dinner), and talked about Chris Sharma way too often.
The girlfriend, bless her, pulled me aside in front of Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop Bar in New Orleans that New Year’s Eve, whispering that she had a present. She placed two Neil Young concert tickets in my callused hand. I loved Neil Young almost as much as Chris Sharma. The tickets were obviously meant for us, a romantic sojourn in Chicago, a rare weekend together. But I remained—as ever—oblivious.
I pecked her on the cheek and spun around with urgency. Revelers danced in the street and jazz echoed off the railings, and there he was, my climbing partner, chin up to slushy booze. Hailing him, I waved the tickets and screamed that OH MY GOD he just had to go see Uncle Neil with me—and we could even throw in a trip to Devil’s Lake and make a weekend of it! All these years later, I still imagine my girlfriend caught in the middle of a stolen celebration, awkwardly standing there witnessing our bro-mantic tableau. I say imagine because I was too selfish to look.
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Here’s a truth I’ve come to after frequent reproductions of the vignette above, after making girlfriends cry (I don’t like that) because I chose climbing over their needs (I do that often, and am powerless to do otherwise): The only way to succeed in both climbing and romance is to choose celibacy. In other words, to not have a relationship, living monastically and alone. (I have also considered the benefits of dating another climber of equal lunacy, wherein the damage is pinged back and forth like a final set at Wimbledon. This is a query we should investigate further.)
Hold on, I know what you’re thinking! Celibacy solves nothing: You’ll never learn to succeed in a relationship, your life balance will remain akimbo, and your ding-dong or hoo-hah will atrophy and fall off. Perhaps one more illustration is in order, then, an example of romantic desiccation so universal to the climbing addiction that you, fellow climber, may reconsider your own viability as a romantic partner.
After the New Orleans fiasco, I decided to move to Colorado—for the climbing, of course. I rented a U-Haul, saved $200, bought a case of ramen noodles, and basically kidnapped my girlfriend for the voyage to a place she surely knew held romantic ruin. But, gamely, along she came. She even bought a harness, although she rarely climbed. Once established in Denver, outside of getting a job in a climbing shop (of course) and discovering climbing gyms (uh-oh), I spent every shred of sunlight on the rock, placing gear, clipping bolts, and bouldering shirtless. I eagerly broke four ribs trying to teach myself to glissade, because I’m from Iowa and Iowans are not meant to glissade. My hair grew long and then started balding, and still I kept it long. This is how it went. I was a full-fledged climber now—a Colorado climber, a conquering hero if ever I returned to Iowa.
And then, four climber friends moved in, all stuffed into tiny bedrooms after a great deal of covert planning. I would arrive home late, after the shop and a three-hour gym session, to find my girlfriend alone in the living room, the guys having afforded her some space after smelling up the joint all day. At the time, I saw an adoring girlfriend happily watching a movie, welcoming me home. Only after our demise did I trip a psychological switch: She had been crying, and I was the cause.
Every single night the movie was Hope Floats, her very own Free Hueco; it was a 1998 romantic drama starring Harry Connick Jr. and Sandra Bullock. Bullock is rocked after her husband confesses his infidelity on a talk show. Connick Jr. is there to help pick up the pieces, eventually placing her in his pickup truck and driving off to wherever it is Harry Connick Jr. goes to seduce disconsolate women. This scene played out for a couple more years, until my girlfriend became someone else’s girlfriend while I was still her boyfriend, which I now realize was fair. After our five years of dysfunction together, her hope had floated away.
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Which brings us back to celibacy—my temporary reality post-break-up—and its many advantages. As I’ve learned, the celibate climber has all the time in the world to climb, without the heart-wrenching dysphoria depicted above. There’s literally no one to disappoint! Gone are the days of lusting after the scarcely clothed muscle puddles parading across the chalk-dusted gym mats. Never again will you wonder if you have a chance with a sensual climbing demigod (you probably don’t) because, employing the power of celibacy, it won’t even occur to you to try!
You’ll soon begin noting your freedom in amazing ways. The clubs and dive bars will no longer beckon, allowing alpine starts and headlamp bouldering sessions. You’ll no longer waste time cleaning your house to impress prospective romantic visitors and, indeed, may wonder why you need a house at all. Meanwhile, hygiene, once a courtship prerequisite, will become a diminishing echo, floating away like so much hope.
Now reborn as a being of pure thought and singular focus, you’ll begin reflecting on the necessity of interaction altogether. You may start to climb alone more, bouldering without spotters (who needs ‘em?) and free-soloing alpine moderates or even El Capitan (you could win an Oscar!). Yes, your obsession may seem upsetting to those oversexed libertines below as you run your twenty-fifth consecutive lap on the auto-belay. But their befuddlement is a merit badge you can proudly affix to your rippling chest. Imagine an existence bereft of quarrels and sad Sandra Bullock movies. A callused-finger chastity as pure and good as the finely ground chalk you swath yourself in. Celibacy is the only way. I’m going for it.
Now I just have to tell my girlfriend. She was away on a two-month climbing trip, but, boy, is she going to be surprised when she gets home!
Dave McAllister has hitched up in Denver for two decades. When not climbing or thinking about climbing, he spends his time as a freelance writer and co-host of the Thundercling Podcast (thundercling.com).