Every climber has experienced a truly unforgettable moment. For some, it’s tagging that tree after climbing the Nose. For others, it’s the vast bulk of Denali filling the windshield of the de Havilland Otter. For yet others still, it’s that first splitter at Indian Creek, that first wide crack at Vedauwoo, or that first roof at the Shawangunks.
Not all climbers will share these exact memories, but there are some key moments that define almost every climbing career. Whether you’re a climber from Southern California or from Northern Vietnam, these will probably be familiar, and they probably changed the way you do business. They’re rites of passage, and when newer climbers pass through those same gates, you’ll grin knowingly, nod your head and say “Shit, man, we’ve all been there!”
1. Your first real rock climb
These days, just about every climber gets started indoors, and the transition from gym to crag is a big deal. When you tentatively emerge from the womb of the climbing gym, the possibilities of ascending ACTUAL ROCKS are infinite and exhilarating. There you are with your laminated lead card still attached to your harness, squinting and blinking in the unfamiliar sunlight, craning your neck ever upward under a vast sea of stone…
…but where are the holds?
On closer inspection, you see them—occasionally chalked, but devoid of color, tape, or any visual aid that would denote a route. This is concerning, and your consternation only deepens as you pull on. What follows is a desperate pumpfest during which you grasp ineffectively at every possible (and impossible) hold, ignore your footwork, and mutter phrases like “Is this one on?” and “5.9, my ass.”
Now, I realize that several crusty veterans are about to flood the comments section with hardcore tales from the pre-gym era—how the closest they’ve ever come to touching plywood was hammering home-slung timber chocks into cracks, how much of the Earth’s granite was still cooling in subterranean caverns when they started climbing, how their favorite Triceratop died of exhaustion during a regular 16-day approach. Sure, not every climbing career began with a heady gym to crag transition, but the impertinent youths whose did would agree—we’ve all been there.
2. Your first super-ugly-upside-down-leg-behind-the-rope whipper
You’re inching left on a sketchy traverse when your belayer blasts you with an unsolicited beta spray.
“Watch that rope, dude. It’s behind your leg.”
“I got this,” you reply.
But you don’t got this, and when your foot pops and that tenuous crimp unlatches, you fall. The rope catches mid-calf and suddenly you’re upside-down and giving the wall the old “Glasgow Kiss”—a headbutt, in other words. Wear a helmet, kids. After righting yourself and lowering to the ground, it’s not entirely clear what hurts more: that throbbing, rope-shaped welt fused with tiny purple and yellow fibers or your pride.
Nope, it’s definitely your pride, but you can salve your damaged ego with the knowledge that almost every climber suffers the indignity of a super-ugly-upside-down-leg-behind-the-rope whipper at some point. Most will only suffer it once, because this hard-knock lesson improves rope management which makes for better, safer lead climbing. Don’t feel too bad, you’re not alone in making this rookie mistake. We’ve all been there.
3. Your first potentially fatal near-miss
It might happen on that 5.9 you’ve climbed more times than you’ve had hot dinners, or perhaps on the tail end of a 12-hour minor epic. Either way, as you prepare to lower or rappel, you notice that something is not quite right. Scratch that—it’s horrifically wrong. You’re not clipped in properly, and had you have weighted the system, you’d have taken the Big Ride.
The first rule of the potentially fatal near-miss is you never tell your partner. The second rule of the potentially fatal near-miss is YOU NEVER TELL YOUR PARTNER. The third rule of the potentially fatal near-miss is you must berate yourself mercilessly for this error for a period lasting anywhere up to 2 weeks. The fourth rule of the potentially fatal near-miss is you must take this chance to make a serious review of your systems. The experience should form a powerful lesson—almost as powerful as the gastro-intestinal evacuations that occurred after the bad taco you ate in El Potrero Chico.
Complacency and fatigue are often factors, but the true reason for serious human error is this: Your systems suck. Maybe you’re weren’t applying best practice, or maybe you’re not consistent enough with those that you do use. A smart (or sufficiently chastened) climber will embrace this opportunity to analyze, criticize, and ultimately improve techniques, because although we’ve all been there, it’s not somewhere we wish to return.
4. Your first time placing gear
There comes a time in a climber’s life when they must place a piece of traditional protection, either by design or by default. Then comes a sudden realization, a piercing moment when it becomes clear that one’s entire being is committed to the inner workings of a spring-loaded camming device or the security of an asymmetrical hunk of aluminum. Eyes glaze over, total recall of high school physics occurs, Rainman-esque calculations of friction coefficients and force vectors take place…
This moment is polarizing. It alternately fills climbers with invigoration, or with an existential dread so profound it would make Friedrich Nietzsche look like the Dalai Lama. Climbers then find themselves in one of two camps—either “newly minted trad climber” or “fuck that, never again.” And whichever camp you find yourself in, you’ll probably come to regard the other as having serious and incurable mental deficiencies. But no matter which side of the fence you end up on, we’ve all been there.
5. Your first climbing injury
What was that? Oh, nothing. Just your A2 pulley disintegrating, along with your dreams of onsighting The Widowmaker (VI 5.14a X A4 M10ish) at HardBastard Canyon this year. Worse still, it happened in the gym. Oh, the humanity.
Your first climbing injury comes with two realizations. The first is that your immediate future is going to look a lot different from how you envisaged it five minutes ago. The second is that you’re not invincible. Everybody thinks it can’t happen to them, until it does.
The recovery period for a finger injury is horrifically tedious—six ponderous months of pulling ever so gently on holds that are no smaller than the West Buttress of Denali. Afterward, you won’t be able to tear the skin off a custard, but you’ll be a gun at warming up, an ace at stretches, and an absolute legend at taking rest days. But here’s an idea… why not buck the trend and start doing these BEFORE you get injured? We’ve all been there, but if we can prevent it from happening, why do we all wait until it’s too late?
6. Your first real climbing partner
Belayers are a dime a dozen, but a real climbing partner is a true gift. But what makes a real partner?
A real partner is just as stoked as you are, if not more so. They don’t say things like “why” and “how much.” They say things like “hell yes” and “let’s do this.” They can spoon you in a bivvy cave without it getting overly weird. They will empty your piss bottle on the understanding that you’ll return the favor sometime. They will lend you that No. 6 without a moment’s hesitation. They really, really want to see you crush that pitch.
Put simply, a real climbing partner is someone you would follow to the ends of the earth, and regularly do. A real climbing partner can turn a bad climb into a good one, a good climb into a great one, and a great climb into a life-changing experience. Forming deep and genuine connections is one of the finest aspects of the sport, and if there is one thing I truly hope, it’s that we’ve all been there.