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Catching Up

So I was at the gym the other day after a couple weeks off, enjoying a surprisingly successful bouldering session when one of the newer climbers asked, “How long have you been climbing?” Now my initial cynical reaction was that he was trying to size me up in some way without asking how hard I climb, but giving him the benefit of doubt and not wanting to be rude, I answered “Around twelve years.” To which he responded with an aloof and haughty tone, “Oh man, I’ve got eight years to go and I’m catching up with you.”

At first, I just chuckled and went on with my session. But the more I revisited the encounter, the more my pride got the better of me and the angrier I became. Catching up to me? Are you serious? You think because you can boulder a couple V5’s in this gym that you’re catching up to me?

I’ll tell you what. When you can boulder three or four grades harder, come talk to me and we can discuss the chasm between V5 and V8. And then come back when you’re pushing well into 5.12 on sport climbs. And then again when you can do both of those things on actual rock. Then again when you learn to lead on gear and start pulling 5.12.  And then when you can do all of those things at nearly any place you go climb, then let’s talk.

Can I offer you a cold beer bottle? Photo Credit: Lucas Marshall

But then I realized that I just was engaging in his parochial, arithmetic calculation. Let’s talk after your first epic. Or a couple days that start before dawn and end well after dark with a dozen or more pitches flanked by as many miles of hiking. Or after your first injury that puts you out for two months. I’d like to talk with you to see if you still have the fire to comeback stronger. Or after the first time you climb for so long you can’t hold a cold beer bottle without wincing. Or after the first time you come down from a route or back from a trip completely humiliated at how much you underestimated the difficulty and overestimated your own abilities. I’d like to hear your perspective after all these things.

And somewhere in there you’re going to transition out of this comfortable student life and enter the life of an adult, complete with a full time job. A job that will inevitably require a month of intense work that keeps you from climbing. Or requires you to train over your lunch break so you can prepare for you next big trip. You might even get married and have a couple kids. Then your training is pushed off until the kids go to bed. Let’s talk about how close you are to catching up then.

Patrick halfway through a dozen or more pitches flanked by as many miles of hiking.

But after a while, I had a couple revelations.  The first is that his comment embodied the hubris that comes with being a hormone-charged twenty year old, a cross many of us have borne. Yes, the comment hurt my pride and, yes, it was incredibly rude. But the audacity of both the comment and his tone conspicuously revealed his perspective as one born of immaturity.

The second revelation I found more poignant and valuable.  Although this is just rock climbing, a decreasingly fringe sport full of arbitrary rules and experiences so esoteric that they are irrelevant to non-climbers, it’s my passion. I dedicate a large part of life to it, and it is the avenue I have chosen to explore the world around me and the one within. It is my unwritten, unspoken manifesto to not spend life checking boxes, commuting, and waiting to retire. It may not carry the gravity of a Warren Harding, Sir Edmund Hillary, or Fred Beckey manifesto, but it’s something pretty close. And my place in the climbing world cannot be distilled to a single number measured in years, nor a single grade that I am able climb, of a single style, in a single obscure university climbing gym.

Thats not to say Im anyone special.  Any climber in the world can say the same thing.  That they are not defined by how hard they climb. And I recognized the fact that I may have been reading into this too much in a negative way. But for the purpose of trying to learn something from my hasty, critical reaction I offer the following. Our path is our own. As any good scientist or statistician will tell you, unless you can isolate for specific causes, it impossible to compare effects of two experiments. Comparing the two of us is like comparing Daniel Woods to Uli Steck (to whom neither I nor the young padoin bear any resemblance whatsoever). 

It’s your path to walk.

So I stopped festering over his arrogance. I swallowed my pride, realized that even my argument was irrelevant, lapsed to the original chuckle, and counted the experience as one more of those life lessons I’ve learned along my own path. And I thought about what it would be like if in eight years we were to meet, after he’s had the privilege of another decade of life lessons. I imagined we’d appreciate each others stories as peers with the perspective of our unique lives. And maybe we’d even have a few laughs about dumb punks in the gym.

splitter choss - Loved this, thanks for sharing. Ah the youth!February 24, 2014 – 12:15 pm

Ron safarik - Chris- Well written. There is an expression that “youth is wasted on the young”. It is very true. We must make sure that “life is not wasted on us”.

You have taught me much – my first multi-pitch, some of the most enjoyable plastic hold routes ever and an unwavering desire to spread the joy of our sport.February 24, 2014 – 6:56 pm

Doug - Loved it, Chris. Some quickly leave the game and the rest of us play on. After 17 years of climbing, I’m looking forward to the second half…and hopefully overtime.February 24, 2014 – 8:50 pm

Eli - You can only catch up if it’s a race. I’d like to think it’s more of a stroll through the park. Hope to see you soon buddy.- EFebruary 24, 2014 – 9:12 pm

Tyler - Thanks for posting! I spent a summer in Tahoe on the beach patrol, and was swimming before the season started to remember how to move in the water.

I’d swam competitively for 17 years, and chose to get into the less-crowded “fast” lane in the pool. There was one other man in the lane, probably mid-forties, and he felt obligated to stop his workout to tell me “Um… just so you know, this lane is reserved for the fast people, so, y’know, I might be passing you a lot.”

I laughed and told him it’d be alright, then had to fight off the urge to sprint by him to soothe my pricked ego. He wasn’t faster than me (truth be told, he was quite a bit slower than most in the medium-speed lane), and when he figured that out, he left in a huff, slamming his goggles on the deck and glaring at me. His ego got the best of him, and I felt bad, like I’d ruined his workout. I was sad for a bit – nobody likes biting into someone else’s pride. I didn’t think much of it at the time. I probably told Adam about it and moved on, but it’s interesting to think about now.

It’s strange to be so attached to our own prowess, but I think when we devote ourselves to any activity (athletic, intellectual, religious, ect), we begin to identify ourselves by that thing. Any challenge to our place within the things to which we devote ourselves is a challenge to our identities, and those can be fragile things. I like the idea that number grades or years spent, or any other measure like that is a poor distillation of our experience. It divorces our ego from the experience. That’s pretty freeing – and it allows for lots of room for our friends to join us. If your whole reason to climb is to be the best, to get as high on the performance pyramid as possible, then things get lonely pretty fast.February 25, 2014 – 3:31 pm

Chris - Folks, thanks very much for the compliments. Honestly, I’d considered keeping my egotistical moment to myself, but in the end decided that it was a story and lesson worth sharing. I’m glad I did because it gave me yet more perspective that I didn’t have before.

It’s not a race. Divorce yourself from your ego lest you waste your time in pursuit of being the best only to find yourself alone and burned out, without any purpose or desire to carry on with a sport (or whatever this is) that can teach you so much more than how to compare yourself to others.February 26, 2014 – 12:26 pm

Andrew Kuklinski - Thank you for posting this. It makes me smile because I know where you are coming from and can see myself acting and thinking in much the same way. As Tyler said, its lonely at the top unless the top isnt your goal. I climb because of the people I choose to climb with. It could be the best 5.7 mulitpitch ever or a chill day eyeing a project. All depends on the people. Hope to see you this summer climbing the next adventure!! My house and couches are always open!March 2, 2014 – 8:29 pm

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