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On Balance

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. 

The Fable

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. 

The Professional

"The Professional" by Jeremy Collins


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 have not been given the abilities of a professional climber, but rather a combination of more civilian gifts and the ability to recognize them and use the inspiration and experience I get from climbing to cultivate them. It is important to be talented, but it is more important to know what those talents are. And above those two things, it is important to be able to find inspiration in the world; something that motivates you to become a better person than you were the day before.


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.

Patrick - Go easy on yourself, mate- this is a well crafted exposition, not a diatribe.
You have written much here with which I agree, and the theme I like best I condense as: I am a climber, but that is not the only way I choose to identify. Honestly, most of us could embrace the dirtbag lifestyle, but I think most of us would consider such a decision wildly irresponsible. Not out of fear or insecurity, but out of respect for a life more intricate, more complex. Viewed as such, responsibilities (such as work, research, family, etc.) are no longer excuses, but testaments to a life of broadened experience.February 16, 2011 – 5:44 pm

Andrew - Thank you for these words. Gives me something to think about with respect to my own life…. For me attempting and living the dirtbag lifestyle for a short while was the balance. I felt like one side of me took up too much of my mind and made little room for much else. I needed to allow the other side to take over for awhile. Sometimes life gives you the opprotunity to apply one set of skills over another then suddenly awakens a completely different set somewhere down the road. The eb and flow of life….February 16, 2011 – 8:12 pm

Adam - “It is important to be talented, but it is more important to know what those talents are.”

Chris, thanks for this article. I enjoyed it so much that I came back and read it again. You have an incredible perspective and the talent to communicate it. The idea of balance is something I struggle with more and more as I near graduating. Though I’m underpaid, the graduate student lifestyle offers a great deal of freedom – time off to climb and see family over the holidays, intellectual freedom, living in Boulder etc. I can’t put a price tag on that balance I enjoy, but know that the scales may shift as the clock ticks. Reading such an eloquent take on these same types of issues and internal dialog helps put my own situation now and moving forward in perspective.February 16, 2011 – 9:58 pm

lizzil - I really enjoyed your introspection. Something many of us struggle with –not becoming our job– not becoming defined by a label.February 17, 2011 – 2:22 pm

Chris - Thanks everyone for responding and for the kind words. You’ve brought up great additional discussion that I’ve been working around in my head. Perhaps this will end up in an epilogue…February 18, 2011 – 12:43 pm

Sara Konecky - Nice post, Chris. Lucas was right – people act upon rules. Rules they set for themselves. You set your rules, and you can also change your rules. Rules to me are just a state of mind. Andrew was able to take time off and climb and travel because he allowed himself to do so. He took away the rule that he had to work, and found balance in climbing and traveling, and I bet he doesn’t regret it.

Dirtbag is a funny word. There’s nothing wrong with being a “dirtbag” and one should not feel guilty for being one, if that’s what their heart tells them to do. There are other responsibilities that can be fulfilled while living the “dirtbag” lifestyle, besides the responsibilities of the professional life. Being kind, showing someone something new, inspiring others, being true to yourself. One has to follow their heart when making these decisions and be honest with themself about what they want. You don’t have to have strictly one or the other (dirtbag or professional), which is partly what I think you are saying above. If you play it right, you can have a nice balance of the two.

Never think that anything has passed you by. You can always make things happen if you want them to.February 26, 2011 – 1:46 pm

Thiemann - I don’t personally know the author, and I don’t wish for my comments to be construed as an attack on him or his thoughtful and well-written article. Full disclosure: I’m friends with some of this site’s posters, but my views are solely my own.

Like the article’s author, I’m a proponent of self-awareness and honesty; unfortunately, achieving the mystical notion of balance—as defined by modern society—often requires self-denial and dishonesty. For some, the so-called dirtbag lifestyle is balance; “societal contribution” is a mere artifice, imposed by convention, tradition, and excessive subservience to “acceptable” standards of behavior.

The article’s stated intent is to “emphasize the concept of purpose.” Another wise man, the mountaineer and philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe, once said that “climbing is as meaningless as life itself.” There is no inherent purpose to anything in life, climbing or otherwise. (I’m an avid mountain climber, by the way.) Meaning may be constructed by each individual; or they may choose to manufacture none. That’s the point—there is no point.

Balance as defined in the article is indeed adversarial, because it requires compromising your ideals and denying your instincts; the initial envy felt upon hearing about someone’s else’s extended climbing trip is your instinct; your desire to make a “societal contribution” is the artifice you’ve chosen to pursue. Rationalizing the sublimation of your instincts was then necessary to explain the disconnect between the two.

Far from being a “wildly irresponsible” choice, as one commenter put it, the dirtbag lifestyle (I actually don’t like that term) is a conscious decision to live honestly. I have many friends who are married, have children and “respectable” jobs; for some, unhappiness simmers beneath the surface, to be released during a later mid-life crisis, or simply to build up slowly in anticipation of the fabled “golden years” of retirement.

And those retirement years may never arrive. Steven Johnson is wrong; chance does not favor the connected mind. Chance is spectacularly arbitrary and egalitarian—it favors no one. A car accident, an illness, and an unlimited number of other disasters may occur. Bad things happen; suffering hits everyone from time to time. Living honestly, as much as is feasible, is the only defensible solution.

My retirement is now; I’m in the midst of a six-week road trip, living out of my car and wandering in the desert. Balanced? No. There’s no dichotomy—this is me. The professional is the dirtbag, and vice versa. And that’s just how we like it.February 26, 2011 – 9:57 pm

Carl - Wow! Being torn between striking a balance between my own desires and “serving a purpose beyond me” making that all important contribution to society. Somehow, thankfully, I missed that guilt trip.
Balance is something that I often think about however. Husband, dad, business owner, employer, friend, climber, boater, couch potato these are are the labels that apply to me, for one reason or another, that I try to balance. The struggle for me is finding the right mix and doing the right thing within my own world. It is in no way between these and my “societal contribution”.
Here’s the thing. I try and live my life in a way that, to borrow a phrase from Becka Cahall, “does no unnecessary harm” and hope that my actions and the choices I make while wearing each one of my labels does make the world a better place. But forgo what makes me giggle to punch a clock so that when standing in a circle at cocktail party I can say I have a “real job” no way. Forgo a trip to Red Rocks because my daughter will miss me and I need to answer the Red River phone and pay my mortgage, absolutely. Some will call me selfish but they’re strapped to desks so I won’t run into them anyway.February 28, 2011 – 5:15 pm

craigy - Gotta disagree with you Chris…

…I don’t need Sharma or the other 5.13/14/15 men and women who appear in the mags as any sort of inspiration…

…I actually get bored with the lush photos of glorious destinations and tectonically hard climbs – I’d much rather see frank bag his first 5.10…

..they are so far removed from me as to be practically irrevalent…

…I didn’t know who Sharma was when I first got hooked (so very literally) on climbing…

…my inspiration comes more from the people I meet at the wall or from within than from any freak bagging a 5.15…

…I will say that; IN PART; climbing is the people…

…I will also say that; IN PART; climbing is just about myself…June 20, 2011 – 5:50 pm

craigy - balance!

when related to climbing is really really simple…

…IT ISN’T some mystical philosophical goal, or the juggling of head and heart it isn’t even the time one spends upon striving to climb better and plumbing the depths of everyday life or anyhting else so complex…

…BALANCE….nothing more than being able to hold onto that shitty sloper whilst the heel hook fights to come off, your other foot it on a credit-card sized edge and your abs burn as you stretch for that glorious jug, and safety

…BALANCE…nothing more than getting three limbs on and forcing a relaxed moment as you clip in…

…BALANCE…nothing more than not losing your footing on steep approach….

…BALANCE…nothing more than managing to find the solid spot outside your tent for your stove so you can brew up a cuppa as the sun rises at the crag…June 25, 2011 – 3:48 pm

Adam - I’m glad you’re so sure, Craigy.

For those of us who find balance through climbing in more than just the literal sense I say thank you to Chris for an insightful, thought provoking article. I’m glad to see that after several months this piece is still inspiring feedback. I’ve found that is one of the truest marks of art – the ability to not only convey complex ideas, but to motivate inquiry. Not everyone will or even should see it your way. Some may not even be capable.June 26, 2011 – 10:40 pm

Tyler - Interesting thoughts, Craigy. I agree with some points – I have seen slideshows from pro climbers that had cool photos, but I couldn’t quite identify with the routes they were on. I’ve seen a slideshow from Jim Erickson, and I can relate to being fifteen feet above a nut you don’t trust, and imagine what an onsight 5.10 first ascent might be like.

However, I think balance is quite a bit more complicated than you make it to be. Yeah, physical balance is part of sticking a hold, finding a stance, or avoiding falling over during a hike. But I don’t think that’s the kind of balance this article is discussing. It seems like you’re looking at balance as it relates to climbing without considering how climbing is part of the balance of life. If you climb, even if it’s not a major pursuit of yours, then climbing is part of the equation that balances who you are and what you do. If a person takes the time to read a climbing blog, then climbing is likely a large enough part of his or her life to warrant a little introspection.June 27, 2011 – 4:46 pm

Sara Konecky - As for professional climbers and their purpose, I don’t believe that they climb for us. We may get something out of their climbing (articles, photos, inspiration, etc.) but this is more about making money and a living for themselves and the companies that sponsor them. I climb for myself; not to inspire others. If anyone tells me that they climb for others, I will have trouble believing them. If my climbing does something positive for someone along the way, I would be thrilled, but not nearly as thrilled as I am with my own milestones and improvements.

Perhaps what Craigy is saying (and this goes for me, too) is that climbing is a bit more simple for him. He, like me, seems to really enjoy it, and I try to leave it at that. My relationship with climbing is not broken, so I don’t try to fix it, question it, etc. I love climbing, so I climb. Yes, climbing is a deep emotional experience for me at times. But, I don’t question where it fits in my life or how. I just know that it does. I don’t think it is wrong or damaging to question it. I simply prefer not to. I like to keep climbing somewhat separate in my mind from other areas of my life (work, relationships, etc.) to keep it untarnished. It’s a passion (for me), a religion for some, and a hobby for others.August 17, 2011 – 1:25 pm

sarah - This was a very well written and great article. I’m at the point in life where I would be embarrassed to call myself a climber compared to everyone here. I’m in the middle of the childbearing years is my life and have two very little ones. My last time out climbing, I was top roping a juggy 5.7 at 6weeks pregnant. I haven’t climbed since, but will be climbing again for the first time since birth in a week. What is funny is, I used to love climbing before I had kids, but after I had them I was in love with climbing. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed with envy that I can’t be all adventure hippie living out of a van….and sometimes I am mortified when I’m at the crags weighing a good 50lbs more than anyone there, with a baby in the dirt and a toddler running around….but them I get on that rock and everything is perfect.
Climbing doesn’t threaten balance for me, it creates it. Puts my head back on straight.

Practically speaking, there is no way I can climb with the frequency I would like….that’s just not where I am. For those of you in the dirtbag phase of life, enjoy it. It will never come again. But that’s not a bad thing at all. I may miss those days, but I wouldn’t trade them for the ones I have now.

Anyways, I will stop rambling. This post made me realize that even if I was climbing 5.10s5.11s I would still have the same issues with fitting climbing into my real life.September 23, 2011 – 9:45 pm

sarah - Sorry for the typos. I’m nursing and typing on my phone. Talented I know.September 23, 2011 – 9:47 pm

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