Around a year ago, my now fiancée and I traveled to Boulder for the weekend to climb and attend a friends art opening. While at the show, we had the fortune to run into a few of our friends that live in the Boulder area, two of which were about to embark on a climbing trip of unspecified length. So, as would be expected in a group of climbers, this was the center of the conversation.
At the conversation’s genesis, I remember feeling a pang of jealousy and remorse for this opportunity which I’ve long feared has passed me by, but as the conversation progressed that feeling strangely eroded. At the time, I couldn’t quite rationalize that feeling, given that this pilgrimage was something that I had dreamed of for years. I can’t recall the number of winter afternoons spent in class or at work daydreaming of the places I’d visit, the routes I would do, the memories I would make, the people I would meet. But in the end, I never made it happen.
Why is that? Am I afraid of such an adventure? Am I lazy? Has my obligation to responsibility choked off the spirit that must be freed? As I contemplated these, my eyes communicated an envious wince that may as well have been a billboard. The questions then turned to my fiancée and I. “Why wouldn’t you do the same,” we were asked. “What’s holding you in Omaha?” It was these questions, along with my standard response which involved some blithering about paying bills and having a good job, which left me with a lingering uneasiness.
A few days later, I shared this affair my friend, Lucas, and his response brought clarity to my confusion. “There’s no way to have this conversation with them and make a strong case for you. They just play by a different set of rules.” Not Plato, I admit, but there’s certainly something to its simplicity. I’m not entirely sure what he meant, but I suspect it has something to do with living in balance.
The ironic twist to this story is about a year prior, I had a similar conversation with the very artist we were there to see, but the tone was completely opposite of that in Boulder. Similar to Lucas’s response and much to my surprise, our conversation was not flavored with hints of longing or endorsement of the dirtbag lifestyle. I remember Jeremy speaking of getting enjoyment out of extended trips, but still needing to satisfy his desire to make a societal contribution. Simply stated, to put in an honest day’s work.
Many say that you have to take the good with the bad, yin and yang and all that nonsense. This is what it means to be balanced. When you have to suffer through the bad, the good is that much better. However, I’m not so certain balance is so adversarial.
Let’s consider another perception of balance. For Chris Sharma, we’re led to believe it means climbing in Spain seven days a week, gardening with Daila, and learning to chop wood. For Alex Honnold, it means traveling in his parents late-90’s Ford Econoline, free-soloing big walls, and reading until he goes cross-eyed. But, for the other 99.9% of us who can’t climb 5.15, or who don’t have sponsorships that allow us to travel the globe, our balance point probably lies somewhere a little further removed from rock climbing.
The thing is the stories of Chris Sharma and Alex Honnold, albeit incomplete, are not off base. They do have lives that on the surface seem completely devoted to climbing, but in actuality they are in part devoted to us. You see, we need fables. We need the inspiration from climbing magazines that need someone to put on their covers. That’s not to say that I view Sharma and Honnold as pawns of climbing media. That’s an insensitive, degrading, and wildly untrue assessment. On the contrary, I have an immense amount of respect for these men. Their sense of good will and service help open the world of climbing to an untold populace. Sharma, specifically his appearance in Rampage, is one of the reasons I started climbing in the first place.
My point (and this is the impetus of this article) is to emphasize the concept of purpose. To be balanced is to be self-aware and to use that awareness to serve a purpose beyond you. This is what Jeremy spoke of in our conversation.
Professional climbers have been blessed with gifts that make their jobs the ones we dream of having. There is certainly a glamorous spin put on the professional climbing lifestyle, a presupposition that their job is to have fun, and I don’t necessarily disagree. They’re certainly having fun, but their lifestyles, whether intentionally or not, serve a purpose greater than themselves. They share their gifts so that we are inspired to grow ourselves. And in turn, by growing ourselves at a personal level, we grow our respective microcosms, and in extraordinary situations the macrocosm.
I used to look at this painting done by Jeremy Collins and think, “What people at work don’t know about me! I have this hidden alter ego and someday I’ll shed my professional shell and let my true self shine. I’ll be free.” Perhaps what it’s actually saying to me is “I am both the professional and the climber. Who I am as a climber colors who I am as a professional and vice versa.” The subtleties that have permeated my climbing life are nuanced in my professional life. This symbiotic interpretation of the piece could be the more sustainable and accurate one (for me) as well. To have the first interpretation, the one of soul of a climber struggling to be released, is far too antagonistic, far too unstable, far too unbalanced.
I’d like to close with something for you to ponder as you consider whether or not to believe this diatribe. The author Steven Johnson likes to say that “Chance favors the connected mind.” By isolating ourselves within climbing, we, by definition, lose solidarity with the world. The members of the climbing community have so much to offer to the global community. Sonnie Trotter and many members of Patagonia’s climber ambassador program exemplify this mantra. Determination, fervor, intelligence, awareness, perspicacity: these qualities that all climbers share are not only useful in the climbing world, but in daily life. To devote these talents only to climbing would be selling us and the rest of the world short.
I’ve relentlessly publicized the value I place in the people I climb with, more so than the climbing itself. Not to put words in others mouths, but for that matter, many contributors on this site have a similar perspective. And one previously unmentioned quality of these people I am so fond of is the intrinsic complexity of the climbing network. I have climber friends who are engineers, artists, scientists, craftsmen, businessmen and women, and public speakers, to name a few. These are people that, without this common interest, I would have likely never met. These connections, and the infinitesimal secondary and tertiary connections beyond, open doors for us as climbers to make uniquely meaningful contributions to the world.
A wise man once told me that you have to “…understand what climbing is for.” For me climbing is for fun, to meet people, to see new places, and have adventures that I can tell my grandchildren. But I think climbing itself has a covert objective that it is realizing through us all. It is providing a gateway for us to share and develop ourselves. It is a two-way thoroughfare that allows us to give ourselves to the climbing community, receiving singular gifts in return. We can then take what we’ve been given back to our civilian lives, giving us a heightened ability to realize our goals and purposes, whatever they may be.
By realizing the importance of maintaining balance in our lives, both in and out of climbing, we allow ourselves of the chance to gain a wide breadth of experiences and to become the person that we can be. So when chance happens upon us, we are prepared to take the steps that will allow us to make the world a little better than when we arrived.