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This story originally appeared in the December 2015 issue of our print edition.
After returning from a trip to learn big wall climbing in Zion last year, my heart didn’t seem to be in it anymore. I had what you might call a lull in stoke.
While my friend Ethan led a block of pitches on Lunar Ecstasy (5.10 C2) on Moonlight Buttress, I worried about my last leads, the final two pitches, and felt a cloud of dread creeping up underneath me, seeming to fill the 600 feet of air between me and the ground.
For a few months after that, I wasn’t climbing because I wanted to, but because I felt like I should. The voice in my head said: “You’ll get out of shape! You should be climbing harder. You’ve been doing this for years now. You’re a climber. What else are you? Come on.” And then another voice said something that made sense: “Maybe it’s time for a break from all this.”
My few weeks off turned into months. I didn’t swing an ice tool once last winter. I took multi-day trips on my mountain bike and went down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, once, twice, three times. My friend Sagar texted me, “Rock climbing? Let’s go rock climbing.” I told him, “Thanks, but I’m waiting for the stoke to come back on its own.”
The stoke didn’t come. I wondered what happened to the guy I’d been the past eight years, frantically digging through Mountain Project for the next thing, leafing through guidebooks, the guy who never wanted to climb indoors but started going to the climbing gym anyway. A lot.
Sagar kept at me, until finally one day in June, I said OK, let’s do something. You lead. Tow me up something. We did Star Wars in Eldorado Canyon, two pitches, 5.8. Following Sagar, I jammed my way up the V-slot with zero anxiety. From the belay ledge halfway up the Lower Peanuts Wall, we couldn’t see any other climbers—most people stay off the walls during hot weekday afternoons in June. I sat and fed out rope while Sagar finished the second pitch, remembering what a strange place Eldo is. It really doesn’t look like much if you see photographs of the whole thing, just some blocky red walls sweeping up to the sky, not even that big or majestic, really. If you pointed out a route you climbed to a non-climber, they might not even understand it, or see the line. But when you’re there, sitting in the middle of it, in places only climbers go? It’s magical. Complicated, unpredictable, intimidating sometimes. I loved it, I dreaded it, I never did most of the classic climbs. I didn’t think I wanted to, but yeah, I did want to. It scared the shit out of me at times, and other times it pushed me to do things I thought I couldn’t do. I never once approached a climb there thinking, “This will be a fun, straightforward, easy day.” I suppose it was kind of like my entire life in climbing. To paraphrase the “Mayor of Long Beach,” Jason “Woody” Wood: I don’t like it, but I love it.
Never once, from the start of my life as a climber, did I approach climbing like it was what it should be: play. I never toproped anything I thought I should be able to lead, never took a lap on something before tying into the sharp end, never let a stronger friend just take me up a climb without feeling like I should lead half the pitches.
A college kid slammed into a ledge right next to me on Castleton Tower a couple years ago, and it was the first time I’d seen anyone deck and what happened when they did, and it pulled everything into sharp focus for me: If you’re not careful, you can get really fucked up doing this. I thought of the hundred times I pulled desperate moves above gear, hoping it went well, and how it usually did, and how I never really got strong, and how climbing would have been way more fun and less scary if I did. I never just went to the crag for a day with the attitude of maybe leading a few climbs, maybe toproping everything, or maybe taking photos and eating potato chips all day if I “wasn’t feeling it.” But maybe I should have.
So this year, I asked myself something deep: What’s the point of the whole thing? I always thought climbing was teaching me to deal with fear. Sometimes it did, sometimes it just showed me that I could get past the crippling paralysis caused by fear, and do what needed to be done to get up and over something so we could make it home again. And of course, since most of us only climb a couple days a week at the most, you take those lessons and apply them to your life, which is a good thing. But the more I think about it, for me, the point is to explore the mountains, to really get into them, not just look up at them from a trail at the bottom of a valley.
Later in the summer, I had a conversation with an outdoor industry client about “ers” vs. “ings”—the idea that most people may not see themselves as “climbers” or “skiers” or whatever it is they do in the outdoors—they just go climbing or skiing. I thought about that, and for a long time, I believed it was really important for me to be an “er,” or more specifically, a “climber.” And maybe climbers have periods of their lives where they climb a little less. Maybe not.
If not, that’s OK—I can just go climbing. But I might need a friend to lead the hard pitches.
Brendan Leonard lives in relentless pursuit of 5.fun and writes at semi-rad.com. His new book, Sixty Meters to Anywhere, is available now at amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, other bookstores, and at semi-rad.com/books. Watch the trailer: