Is this what the End of Climbing Looks Like?

Summit hole. (All rights reserved)

What would stop you from climbing? As in, what would make you retire? And would you be okay with stopping?

Stopping climbing is not like trading softball for golf in your 40s. People stop playing baseball, softball, and football at a point everyone commonly accepts, when the new “kids” joining are faster and can drink you under the table. Climbing doesn’t have the same convention because climbing is also entwined with a lifestyle who’s ethics are about being scrappy and overcoming hurdles.

Except everything comes to an end and hopefully it’s by a conclusion of our choosing. However, even for the dedicated climber, the end of climbing can be quite subtle. Now I am worried that I may have inadvertently crossed some sort of invisible threshold.

HOW LONG CAN YOU GO?

Of course, there are lots of people that climbed into old age. Fred Becky is everyone’s favorite example. Don Mellor said he never thought of himself as old, which is why he told him he even thought of becoming a schoolteacher when he was in his 70s. Gary Bloch, a man who climbed throughout his lifetime, went up El Capitan at age 81. Not too far off in age, Tom Choate summited Denali at age 78.

They are inspiring examples, but they are also outliers. Most climbers are active in their 20s and into their 30s. Then again, perhaps today more climbers are active in their teens and 20s, due to the growth of modern climbing gyms and organized climbing, which wasn’t as prevalent a 20 years ago.

I sometimes meet people that say they used to climb. Sara, a close colleague in Washington about ten years older than me, blurted out one day when they learned I liked climbing, “I used to climb at Cochise Stronghold.” We talked about how she had climber friends in college and she just tagged along. She didn’t climb back East, so it was a college thing. “But I’d love to go back,” she added.

Injury is such a fickle excuse. Sometimes it’s final and sometimes we treat it like it’s final when it’s temporal. It depends on the injury, but even losing a finger to a circular saw making homemade shims (read up on Tommy Caldwell for more on this) doesn’t stop people, they adapt. Injuries that result in a handicap seem to just present a new hurdle to overcome.

Another friend, we’ll call Kerry, had her first serious climbing injury at Earth Treks in Crystal City (that’s National Landing to those new to DC.) She tore a shoulder tendon and between surgery and recovery, she wasn’t climbing for 18 months. (Or should I say a mere 18 months?)

Health might be the real show stopper. Anything effecting energy levels and strength can sideline someone significantly. I suffer from eczema, and there was a time when the holds in the summer and the chalk was making my arms turn red and itchy. But that was brief. Cancer and other serious diseases, and their treatments, can really keep us from climbing.

The late great David Roberts stopped going to Alaska around the 1980s. He said he was often asked if he still climbed and his answer is no, or not like he used to. Roberts explained that it was too hard to stay in climber shape and too scary to climb the routes like the ones he established. He replaced the time he devoted to Alaskan pioneering to exploring the American desert southwest, and even wrote books about it.

For me, Wednesday, March 11, 2020 was the last day I visited my gym to climb because the next day, my organization felt the coronavirus was emerging as major threat and I was writing up contingency plans to on how to shutdown our nonprofit’s operations. After that I didn’t go anywhere except the office to hang a sign on the door, “We’re closed; please call or email us.” I took on an understanding attitude about everything, but privately I mourned the disruption to our community and not going to the gym to climb. I wondered: How would I fill my cup now?

FORCED CHANGE

Without work, my commute, and climbing as part of my weekly routine, how I spent my time for work, family, and to maintain health and wellness had to change. For a while I just rode my bike and took more walks, but that wasn’t anything like the physical and mental puzzle climbing offered. Eventually, I took a golf club outside and dropped a Wiffle ball on our lawn and practiced my swing. Then I made a game of going around the house in as few shots as possible.

Schnickelfritz got his two-and-a-half foot club and joined me. We had such a good time together, we did the next natural thing and visited the golf course just a couple of block away from our home. Though it was closed by law, we would play a hole or just hit a sleeve of balls as far and straight as we could down a fairway. When golf courses re-opened, they became a safe outdoor meeting place. Before I was conscious about it, golf was taking up some significant space in my life.

Golf emoji, golf happy. (All rights reserved)

It is ironic to me that golf has re-emerged in my life now. This blog was the result of some practicality. In 2010, at the cafe in Middlebury, VT I was trying to find a way to use my free time back home in DC to bring me more joy. My first idea was to play better golf. I would take lessons and play every Saturday. Except, Natalie and I shared one car, getting to the affordable courses were not convenient, we had an expensive mortgage and were planning a family. Oh, and I traveled frequently for work, so taking another five to six hours (with commute) to get a weekly round in was exorbitant. I would be sticking with the status quo of playing in golf once or twice a year when invited to fill a foursome. But writing this thing called a blog about the books and interests I had in mountaineering seemed like a smart path. This brings me joy. 

Will I climb again? I don’t see why I wouldn’t. I might become the regular golfer and the occasional climber. I will always hike and peak bag via less vertical routes, Lord willing, since they require less fitness maintenance. All I know for sure is that the space for reading and writing about climbing hasn’t been overtaken (and it has been nearly impossible to replace!)

HOW DO YOU FILL YOUR CUP?

You’ve probably heard those analogies involving a cup and how it pertains to you as a person. I don’t know how the one I am using here, in the header, and this blog post, originated. There are two I am intimately familiar with. First, Jesus prayed to His Holy Father that this cup pass from him if possible, meaning the job of being crucified, be given to someone else (then he also prayed, Your will be done, and it was.) Second, Buddhism has a story that explains how a student should come to a teacher, and if the student’s cup arrives full, everything the teacher shares will just end up on the table and floor in a wet mess.

For some reason, life coaches everywhere on the Internet use this one: You, like every person, has an inner cup that can hold all kinds of things, and they teach that you should fill it only with good things that give you joy and make you well.

Years ago, I asked Banff winning author Chris Kalman what makes a full climbing life? He saw the fallacy of my question, and politely tried to explain: “To me, there is no full climbing life, there is only a full life. And a full life is not a destination, or an end-goal, but a process and a pursuit.” Kalman knew that there were not multiple cups that made up the cup of life. It’s what you fill that one cup with and how you fill it.

Evolv Defy’s at Spooky Nook Climbing Gym. (All rights reserved)

Both Sara and Kerry had transitions placed upon them. One moved. One had an injury. Both could have been overcome, yet they embraced a different set of circumstances. Sara had a family and developed a career. She was healthy and happy. Kerry still climbed but the first thing I thought of her now when catching up through her social media pages, and seeing her at conferences just recently was the standup comic performer. Kerry will tell you that she wouldn’t have gone to the comedy clubs to make people laugh, rather than to laugh, without the change after her injury.

Sara, Kerry, and Chris all gave themselves some liberty in how they define themselves: Although they all climbed, and they called themselves climbers, they didn’t define or identify themselves solely by their climbing. I don’t think they would define themselves solely as professionals or comedians either.

Perhaps the end of climbing is all about how you are presented with the occasion and what you do next. The end would be worth mourning if it meant your death, if that was how you identified yourself. But if you have something to replace it, and it is a thing of quality, then perhaps there won’t be a hole in you, or empty space in your cup. I pray that if the end of climbing comes for you, that you have or find what you need to continue with a full cup, a full life. But please don’t stop reading about it, because that wouldn’t be life to its fullest.

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