Susan E.B. Schwartz - Reader Blog 2

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Rhinestone Climber

Does anyone ever feel this way besides me?

There I was a few weeks ago at the elegant, black tie annual dinner of the American Alpine Club NY Section, seated next to the guest of honor, Conrad Anker and just a dinner roll toss from Jenni Lowe-Anker. On my other side was Duncan, who entertained me with stories of climbing trips around the world and the last time he ice climbed at Ouray. Behind me were my friends Steve and Marcia Wunsch. (If Steve’s name doesn’t ring a bell: In 1974, he put up the hardest climb in the world, Supercrack, proclaimed at the time the world’s first 5.13.)

And there I was. A faux rhinestone climber in the midst of bona fide Tiffany diamond climbers.

Over the fennel soup, I tried to think of what to chat with Conrad about. I felt pretentious asking Conrad about his climbs. Besides, I bet he gets asked twenty times a day: Do you have any expeditions coming up?Are you going back to Everest soon?

I didn’t spend my childhood on a ranch breaking horses and roaming in the great outdoors. I grew up in a small apartment outside New York City, a bookworm who spent her childhood in the library or playing chess. My parents’ idea of enjoying the great outdoors was watching the TV show, “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” in an air-conditioned living room.

I discovered sports in college, afterwards moving to Manhattan for my corporate career and becoming a scuba instructor and a shipwreck divemaster. Along the way, thankfully, I discovered climbing.

At that point, I hadn’t even hiked and didn’t even own a backpack. The first several times I went to the Gunks, I stuffed my harness, shoes and lunch into my book bag from junior high school.

In the universe of bona fide Tiffany climbing – the one in which Conrad and Jenni inhabit – I’m not even a speck on the outermost region of the cosmic climbing map. My climbing exists in a different parallel universe – the one inhabited on weekends and retrofitted into job or family life. I’ve spent my corporate week vacation at crags across the U.S. but never had the cash, time or talent for extended road trips or attempting remote peaks.

In this parallel universe of moderate climbing, I’m perfectly adequate. When I lead I place bomber pro (too much of it); when I follow, I’m tough, good natured and determined (certainly nice traits in a second).

But next to Jenni and Conrad I felt like a faux rhinestone climber. (Not that, I hasten to add, they were anything but gracious.) Then I recalled this insight from Nick Clinch, who in 1958 led the only American team to make a first ascent of an 8,000 meter peak.

In A Walk in the Sky, Nick Clinch’s beguiling account of climbing Gasherbrun I, Nick wrote, “Even mountaineers who know that the only thing extraordinary about themselves or their friends is the desire to climb mountains tend to regard more famous climbers as being different and upon meeting such celebrities are surprised to discover that they too are just human beings.”

In whichever universe of climbing we inhabit, we are all bona fide climbers. That’s part of the wonderful and terrible nature of climbing. It’s as easy to die on a 5.4 as on a 5.14. Gravity doesn’t distinguish between the weekend climber and the hardcore. And gravity doesn’t cut us moderate climbers any slack and wave us by with only moderate injuries if we slam into a ledge at the Gunks or rappel off the end of our rope after an afternoon of climbing moderate grades.

One sobering reminder: Before Conrad and Jenni’s presentation, the AAC NY Section Head, Philip Erard, gave a tribute to long time Gunks climber, Bill Eldridge, who had died only a few weeks before on a moderate climb in the Gunks.

If the stakes are the same, so too are the potential rewards. It all depends on our individual needs, whether we find our climbing fulfillment at our local crag or on a big wall or big mountain.

So I’ll continue to enjoy my bona fide moderate climbing…while continuing to enjoy hearing about the amazing climbing that takes place in that separate, parallel climbing universe by the likes of Conrad and Jenni.

Now if I can only think of better dinner conversation for the next time I’m seated next to them at dinner.


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