I’ve told a lie only once in my climbing career. I’m honest to a fault—so blunt-spoken that I’ve been called an “asshole” for just saying whatever was on my mind, but that’s a different discussion. I don’t steal either. As a kid, I pilfered a tube of Smarties from a 7-11 and then felt bad for days, though I’ve since tried to atone by not always filling my Slurpee cup to the brim.
I am a righteous, virtuous person. Well, other than the time I lied…to get a free shower.
That was it: my big lie in climbing. And it wasn’t even my idea. This was Rifle in the early 1990s, high summer, the canyon a burgeoning destination but the scene still small enough that we all camped and hung together. Rest-day options in those pre-Smartphone, pre-internet days were slim. You could laze about camp reading paperbacks and swatting at flies, swim in the Rifle Gap or Harvey Gap reservoirs, bolt and clean a new route (if you considered this “rest”), walk around the canyon with a lawn chair hoping your friends fell off their projects (“sports action”), or head into town for a shower and groceries. The shower options were at a trailer park in Rifle or a KOA in Newcastle. Both cost $2—not a big deal, even on a dirtbag budget—though they were not especially clean. You got what you paid for.
For some, even this was too much money. On a rest day, a friend from the canyon, Nick* (not his real name) from Arkansas, and I went into Glenwood Springs to buy chalk at the outdoor store. There, it emerged that Nick knew the shopkeeper from Arkansas, and that Nick’s friend now lived in Glenwood. Seeing a way to save the $2 we planned to spend later on showers—money he could now put toward a whole, other block of chalk—Nick asked his friend if we might shower at his house, and his friend said sure. He just needed to call his wife, to let her know we were coming.
Grabbing my arm, Nick drew me aside, behind a rack of raincoats.
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“Hey, man, just one thing,” Nick said.
“Sure, what’s that?” I asked.
“You’ll need to pretend you’re from Arkansas,” he said.
“Yeah, my buddy’s a little particular. It’s better if he thinks you’re from Arkansas, so he doesn’t think we’re scamming showers.”
“But we are scamming showers,” I said. “Plus, I’m not from Arkansas. I’m from New Mexico. And I live in Colorado.”
“Then lie,” Nick said. “Just say you’re going to college down there or something…”
“Um, OK,” I said. “I guess—but I’ve never been to Arkansas.”
“Well, hopefully it won’t come up,” Nick said.
There at the shopkeeper’s sunny home down by the Roaring Fork River, Nick showered first while I made small talk in the living room with the man’s very pregnant wife. Her husband must have said, “Do you mind if two friends from back home stop by to grab showers?” because she immediately asked me about Arkansas—a state I didn’t know the first thing about.
“What do you do down in Arkansas?” she asked.
Ohgawd, ohshit, ohfuck. Here we go… I could feel my face flushing, sweat beading in my pits and on my brow, my breath quickening. I was not nor have I ever been a practiced liar, but here I was, on the spot. (I have such a bad poker face that, as a kid, my parents could always discern when I’d fibbed about brushing my teeth before bed—I didn’t get away with it once.) Panicking, I defaulted to the story Nick had given me, hoping whatever answer I gave would be sufficient and we could just move on.
“Oh, I go to college,” I said, straining to sound nonchalant. “Just, you know, studying stuff…”
“Oh, great,” she said, then: “Which one?”
It is here that a sociopath, compulsive liar, or good actor would have come up with a convincing reply, something surface level that then let him redirect the conversation. For example, “The University of Arkansas, but I’m only one year into my studies and I may transfer. Anyway, how long have you guys been living in Glenwood?”
But instead I just blurted out, “The big one.” Yes, that was the best I could come up with: the big one.
“Oh,” she said, her face lighting up. “You must mean the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Small world—I went there, too. I’m actually from Arkansas.”
“Yes, yes, that one,” I stuttered. “It’s a good school…”
“But why would you leave Colorado to go there?”
Recovering somewhat, I said, “Because tuition was cheaper,” though this made zero sense, because per my confabulated story I was somehow now a native Coloradan (who could have gotten more affordable in-state tuition) who’d decided to pay full out-of-state tuition in Arkansas.
The woman gave me a look, perhaps finally realizing something was off. But then she let it go. “Well, anyway, welcome,” she said. “Maybe later after you guys have both showered you can help me move this dresser, since I can’t lift heavy things.”
“No problem,” I said, happy to be back on safe ground. At age 20, I couldn’t lie for shit, but I could certainly lift a dresser.
I still recall that day with horror, the embarrassment and awkwardness of being caught in a story, a pointless one at that. I can’t imagine what that woman thought with me, a stranger, in her living room lying for some reason, and I hope I didn’t give her creepy vibes. I was no good at prevarication, and, as with so many whack-ass things people indulge in—sports fandom, automobile worship, foodie culture, gambling, dyno competitions—I didn’t see the point. Ditto for lying in climbing: It seems like way more stress, complication, and hassle than it’s worth.
If you think there are no liars in climbing, I’d encourage you to think again. As a naïve teenage climber, I used to feel this way too (“Why would anyone lie about the stuff they’ve climbed?), but the longer I climbed the more I could see—and heard through the grapevine about—climbers who were not truthful. Or I got on climbs, listed in a guidebook or covered in the mags, that seemed to have never been climbed (no chalk, no boot rubber, grit and grime everywhere) or that were so far off their given grade—or were simply blank—that it seemed like no one could climb them. This isn’t arrogance on my part; I realize there are tons of climbs way beyond my ability level. But I also know that even the most difficult climbs need fucking handholds.
Because I’m not wired to lie, I have trouble relating, but I imagine most of this phenomenon has to do with insecurity and ego. Perhaps the perpetrators have enjoyed a certain status in the community based on how hard they climb, and are unwilling to let that go even as their abilities diminish or standards increase beyond what’s attainable for them. Or perhaps they have enjoyed personal or financial gain—free gear, sponsorship, income, the adulation of fellow climbers. Or perhaps they are compulsive liars and have built a house of cards based on some initial fabrication that now requires further dissembling lest the whole edifice crumble about them.
This column is not about calling anyone out. However, if you don’t believe me, I’d encourage you to dig around on the interwebs, where you’ll find plenty of examples of mistruths and exaggerations. The YouTube channel Climbers Crag has done a good job (even though they mispronounce half the climbers’ names) of compiling a four-part series on “Climbing’s MOST Controversial Routes,” many of which were originally thought not to have actually been climbed or have major asterisks. Back in 2019 before the pandemic laid bare the precarity of modern life and we were still bickering over trifles, there was some hubbub about a claimed ascent of Action Directe. There was the route in Joshua Tree, put up in 1994 and graded 5.14c, which would have made it one of the world’s hardest climbs at the time, later revealed to be about two number grades easier. And in the distant past, there was the 1959 “first ascent” of Cerro Torre, a claim so scandalous my friend Kelly Cordes took time out from his hermetic, antisocial cabin-dwelling and margarita mixology to write an entire book—The Tower—about it. These are just a few examples, among the many.
Still, I struggle to understand why any climber, ever, would lie about climbing a route. Relative to other sports like football and basketball, there is very little money in our sport, and we sure as hell aren’t curing cancer. As with my little white lie to save a paltry $2 on a shower, there is almost nothing to be gained. Perhaps it’s like that old adage about academia: “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.”
And yet, and yet, and yet…even in climbing lying is not a victimless crime. In a pursuit that, by its nature—at least when practiced outside, as it originally has been—relies entirely on self-reporting, subjective grading scales, and the honesty of its practitioners, lying does have downstream effects.
Firstly, there is the fact that lying about a cutting-edge ascent takes away from those who actually are pushing the cutting edge, obscuring the razor-thin line where the rock meets human potential. Secondly, you can get other climbers hurt, namely by setting them up—through your claimed ascent, now documented in a guidebook or online—to try unclimbed or dangerous terrain whose ascent (or “ascent”) style you haven’t been clear about. Again, pick any guidebook, and statistically, given how many people are liars, there will be routes that are either partial or total horseshit; even the world’s most diligent guidebook author can’t catch them all.
But there is a third, final reason not to lie, perhaps the most important one of all: namely that you are cheating yourself. You are essentially saying, “Yes, I did that climb,” but you don’t experience actually doing it, which is the best part of climbing: projecting and sending. Think of that “kid on Christmas morning” feeling you get when you are close to a route, and know it’s going down soon; I can think of no greater anticipation. And think of that rush of endorphins, relief, and uncut joy you get when you finally clip the chains; I can think of no greater pleasure. But when you lie, you miss this; you sidestep the process. You get to spray to a few other climbers, who probably don’t much care anyway because they are thinking about their own projects (selfish bastards!), and perhaps there’s a small dopamine hit there. But that’s about it; you’re not mainlining the good stuff. You’re smoking stems and seeds.
“Uncut footie or it didn’t happen,” seems to be the new standard, at least among boulderers, for proving an ascent. I suppose anyone with a spotty track record or who cares how they’re perceived could adhere to this, though even with Smartphones it’s not always easy to film yourself. So we’re often back to where we always were: Taking a climber’s claims at face value. At the same time, it’s good to have our bullshit meters calibrated. If it looks bogus, sounds bogus, and smells bogus it probably is bogus, just like an unwashed dirtbag cooking up some half-baked story to save $2 on a rest-day shower.
Matt Samet is a climber of 35 years, and a freelance writer and editor based in Boulder, Colorado.