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This article was originally published to rockandice.com in November 2019.
Two of my three greatest personal failures are directly associated with Rock and Ice magazine. The third of these failures, my choice to be a plumber, is in no way the responsibility of this or any other climbing publication. This is a story about rock climbing, writing and some plumbing. Not everyone climbs or writes, but everyone uses plumbing, so there’s a little bit of something for everyone.
I’ve wanted to be a writer for a few years longer than I’ve climbed. After climbing for ten years I’ve placed lots of nuts but never had the big ones I needed to submit any of my words. It wasn’t something I discussed with many people for a long time. It felt like a silly subject. The equivalent to an adult who hung on to the dream of being a baseball player but who showed no visible aptitude for the sport. You never meet a 30-year-old plumber at a party who says they want to be an astronaut. The obvious thing to do was to submit and allow the rejections to wash over me. I didn’t, so I didn’t talk about how I wanted to write. It wasn’t rational. So I played my cards close to my chest. I became a plumber.
I was a good plumber. For two of the three years of Plumbers Camp, my term for trade school, I was chosen as the best apprentice. The year I didn’t win there was no award, but that year, despite being on crutches and not being able to walk, I was chosen to represent the school at Skills Canada’s Trade School Olympics. This is my name for the event, not theirs. Out of 30 men in my class the one man who couldn’t walk was chosen to represent the school. In my opinion, their selection of plumbing champion better explains the caliber of my classmates than any metaphor or criticism ever could. In an email from the program coordinator he informed me that I was too old to compete. He said it was a depressing turn; I was relieved and entertained.
After four years of plumbing, my skills at the trade far exceeded any skills I could hope to acquire on the rock or with the quill. If plumbing had bouldering grades I was a V15 plumber. The Adam Ondra of pipes and turd herding. Where Ondra famously screamed to the top of climbs, I infamously swore my way through plumbing houses. I hated plumbing from the start. I hated it even more at the end. I did an apprenticeship in plumbing, but inadvertently did a post doctorate in misery. I still loved writing and rock climbing, despite them being the lesser of my skill sets.
The pipes made me miserable. Unhappiness can be the forge for creativity, or so I tried to convince myself. With this in mind I submitted an application to the John Long Writing Symposium hosted by Rock and Ice. My submission included two pieces of writing, one about an East Coast hardman climber who adopted a dog and named it after himself. His name was Pete, his dog was Petey, and I had a full-blown man crush on him. The other was an essay about my personal aspirations to climb the Nose, titled “Picking the Nose.” I will forever be a child.
After submitting my work, I headed south for my first winter climbing trip to the desert. It was also my first break from plumbing, and misery was at an all time high. My plumbing overlords had a strict program for breaking apprentices like wild horses and they were running a master class with me. All of my potential happiness hinged on my success as a climber in Red Rocks and Moab. There are books written about avoiding precisely this.
I was not successful in either of these destinations. With little multi-pitch experience, Red Rocks just scared me. With even less splitter-crack experience Moab laughed at what little was left of my fragile self. Eating a burrito in a cafe in Moab, I decided that I would quit climbing and focus my efforts on plumbing despite hating it. Moments after announcing this to my partner, my phone finally caught up to the internet. I was one of the 11 applicants accepted to the John Long Writing Symposium. I laughed at the cruelty of life and declined on the spot. Dreams were coming true with the worst possible timing.
I came home, quit writing, quit climbing, stopped reading, and lasted only another week at my job. The things I got good at were not things to be proud of: making a strong gin and tonic that filled a pint glass and heroic bong hits. Rock bottom was being explored and furnished.
I spent too much time in jogging pants. The same partner who had watched me unravel in Moab and Red Rocks told me to go back to work. He had watched me implode and brush aside the only success I had ever had with words. His argument for going back to a job I hated primarily focused on one point: I had to. He wasn’t wrong. The world didn’t care that I wasn’t good at climbing splitter cracks.
So I went back to work. And I went on to implode over and over again. The same partner always came back with a dustpan to pick up the pieces. I don’t know where I would be now if it wasn’t for him.
The Writing Symposium is one of the great failures of my life. In the five minutes between receiving my acceptance and emailing my withdrawal, my partner asked if it wouldn’t be better to wait to see how I felt in a few days. The advice, again, wasn’t wrong; but it also wasn’t right for me. I wasn’t angry at myself ever for declining, only that I wasn’t able to capitalize on an opportunity that marked the greatest achievement I have ever had with words or climbing.
I often wonder how life could be if things had played out differently, but, in truth, I try not to. I wonder the same about plumbing. But the older I get the better I am at not picking scabs.
I did go back to climbing. This was largely due to budgetary concerns. I had sunk all of my hobby capital into climbing. All of my friends climbed. I had all the gear to climb. There was no choice but to start climbing again. My writing came back slowly as well, but my interaction with Rock and Ice held fast as my only writing submission. I stopped submitting. I kept plumbing.
Three years later I would once more dance with the devil known by the name Rock and Ice. The trip marked my first westward expedition since the Disaster in the Desert. It was the third day and the final climb was meant to be the first pitch of Exasperator, a classic Squamish crack. There was a lineup, because there always is. Despite Exasperator being only a letter grade easier, its cousin in the corner, Apron Strings, is far less busy. Apron Strings has an infamous crux with potential for a nasty fall. Critical information of which I was ill informed. But hey, don’t want to spoil the onsight… right?
Laybacking anything had never appealed to me. Apron Strings is all laybacking.
A disaster always starts with a step in the wrong direction, such as up. The party in front of us got a cam stuck. I sat with nothing to do but stare at a climb I didn’t want to do. As an inherently anxious person, who now, but not then, takes medication for anxiety, this could be seen as a precursor to failure. To add further flesh to the blender, it was getting hot. I took my shirt off, because that’s what I do when I get hot. It turns out it’s not what you do before climbing a slabby layback crack. The internet trolls helped me remember this.
The climb started well. Laybaking is repetitive, almost hypnotic. The pattern, if repeated properly, is only really limited by your ability to adhere to it and hang on. I did not successfully adhere to the pattern.
The crux of Apron Strings is thin. I’ve seen the video of Brette Harrington soloing past this exact spot and my butthole welds shut for days after watching it. At the same crux she climbs past sans rope, I made a poor assessment of the situation. It comes down to math we all do. If you are three feet above a bolt, cam or nut, and take a fall, you will fall at least six feet. I was closer to ten feet above my last cam, I did no math, and came very close to getting very fucked up.
At the crux I had the onsight jitters. I calmed myself down, knowing that I had already climbed several cracks that I could be very proud of that day. What I hadn’t done was take a good fall. I decided to make the crux move knowing I would take the fall. My way of getting the jitters out. I accepted the fall with a calm afforded only by a total misjudgment of position. Rather than getting the jitters out, I was signing up for a years subscription to Jitters Monthly.
A foot slipped, and when the hands didn’t feel the need to do the same, my body decided to do a two-second improv sketch of a barn door in the wind. I fell around the small arête into thin air. Looking up at the sky and the loose rope above me, I’d like for this to be the moment where I had some profound insight, slowing time and reflecting on all the moments in my life that brought me to that instant. Aside from the obvious uh-oh, there was no obvious profundity. Anyone with a contrary experience I assume is either a liar or better person.
I did not stick the landing. Bouncing off the slab on my back, my slide down the rock face felt more like tumbling inside a wave than any rock climbing fall ever should.
When the commotion stopped I was hanging upside down in my harness with my back against the cliff. The videographer, who I didn’t know was recording this momentous send, asked me if I was ok. As an homage to the always classic “Wayne’s World,” I summoned my best Garth impersonation to say, “I think I’d like to come down now….” No one got the joke. The impersonation was bang on, but concern for my internal organs trumped my homage.
Back on terra firma, I dusted myself off, feeling understandably shaky. Strangers congratulated me on being alive as though I should be fed through a straw after what I had gone through. When I saw the video I understood. I gasped, “Nooooooooo…” But the answer was yes.
I was asked repeatedly if I wanted to go to the hospital. All I really wanted was a Clif Bar, so I ate a Clif Bar.
As I was sitting at the base eating, a Japanese family walked behind me and shrieked. I was curious, so I had a bystander snap a picture of my back. It was a crime scene. My back looked like it had been used to make a very messy jam sandwich without any bread.
That was day three of nine during my second trip west. At the end of the trip I waited in line patiently to climb Exasperator. It was the final climb of the trip, and the most terrifying week of my life. Based on anecdotal evidence, I would do best to stay out of the West.
I came home, went back to work as a plumber, submitted the short video clip to Rock and Ice, and returned to life.
For the first time, plumbing was tolerable. There was no adrenaline, laybacking or slabs involved with home drainage systems. I didn’t enjoy it, but there was a period of less dread knowing that work was a slightly safer place than the cliff. Ironically, this was the least miserable period of my entire plumbing apprenticeship.
My brains were not in a good way, though. Whatever dread I had felt for a day’s plumbing had been surgically grafted onto my life as a climber. I felt dread before, during and after a climb. I was convinced I was going to die. I kept climbing as a means of convincing myself otherwise.
Weeks later there was a response from the lucky human in charge of the Weekend Whipper at Rock and Ice. He was thrilled I was alive, apologized for the delay, and informed me that I made the cut.
I wrote earlier that I had never had anything published. That’s a lie I realize only now. Through quotation my writing has been published on the Rock and Ice website. Excerpts of the email I had sent along with the video had been used. Reading the article that paraphrased my narration of the video, I wish I had said something more profound than, “Blew it so hard,” and “Unfortunately the video cuts out because my friend selfishly thought I was real hurt.” It was a missed opportunity.
For a day an image of me climbing, or falling, was above Chris Sharma’s mug on the Rock and Ice web page. “Squamish Cheese Grater” was their title, not mine, although it was better than mine. Initially I was proud. The internet did not applaud my accomplishment.
There were hundreds of comments on the Rock and Ice Facebook page. It became a part-time job keeping up with the fresh ridicule. For every supportive comment there were 75 comments that ranged from, “What an idiot!” to “What was he thinking not wearing a shirt?” In fairness to the shirt comments, I should have been wearing one.
The trolling flowed. A few comments hurt, but for the most part I revelled in it. If you’re in the right mood, infamy isn’t so bad.
“Squamish Cheese Grater” won fifth place in the Top Ten Weekend Whippers for that year. I was disappointed. I am biased, but I should have ranked higher; maybe not top spot, but higher. This is a decision best left to unbiased professionals though. There was no commemorative mug or t-shirt for my “achievement.” Sometimes life just isn’t fair.
It’s now 2019. I’ve quit plumbing, continued climbing and written all sorts of things no one has ever read, in much the same way the late recording artist Prince has a vault of unreleased music. I don’t do things that make me unhappy (or worse, miserable), so I climb and I write.
A large part of my plumbing career was about proving to myself that I wouldn’t quit, seeing it through. In the process, I ended up temporarily giving up on those pursuits that I was actually passionate about. I spent five years of my life doing a plumbing apprenticeship to prove I wasn’t a quitter. To celebrate the accomplishment, I quit.
I still carry physical scars as well, but worse still is the damage from my flirtation with the John Long Writing Symposium. My testicles shrivel at even the easiest layback move, and maybe that’s a permanent part of my luggage now. They’ve earned the right to do so. Fortunately, laybacking isn’t a daily ritual. But writing is. There is hardly a day I don’t consider the symposium I never attended.
I’ve been living in Squamish for six months now, and I decided to take visiting friend him to the ultra classic Exasperator. Hiking with my head down I was at the base of Apron Strings before I knew it. I cowered and hissed at the climb as though it were the sun and I were a vampire. It was funny because I made it funny. Not all failures are a joke, but it is worth a little leg work to make some of them so.