What is a climber? Am I a climber? Are you?
There is a thread on NEIce.com right now asking how many climbers people think there are. In that question there is an inherent assumption about what it means to be a climber, and in the first few responses the discussion takes a hard left turn into who is really a climber. The back and forth got me thinking.
Am I a climber? I moved to North Conway a decade ago with no job, no clue how I was going to survive. I had led a handful of 5.9 rock climbs, but none of the classics on Cathedral. Grade 4 ice was within grasp, but I didn’t have a clue how to survive steep ice or mixed climb. I didn’t know how to aid climb, haul, bivy, belay off the anchor, belay a leader with a Grigri, sport climb, handjam, place a pin or do half the things I now take for granted.
But somehow I fell into a job at IME, the heart of all things climbing in the Mount Washington Valley, and began my introduction to climbing as a lifestyle choice. Since then I’ve climbed across the U.S., in Central America, South America and Europe. I’ve put up new rock climbs, new ice lines, new mixed routes, climbed alpine peaks, guided clients, soloed thousands of feet of ice in a day, onsighted 5.12 sport routes, climbed multipitch Yosemite 5.11s, fallen all over 5.13 projects, suffered my way up grade 6 ice and tied into a rope with some of the best people on this planet. So am I a climber?
A few months ago I would have said yes. I would have pegged my identity to my sport. I would have said, “I am a climber,” and my chest would have puffed out when I said it. Now I realize no, I am not a climber. I am a man. And by embracing that simple definition I climb harder.
What came with defining myself as a climber? Expectation, and through expectation I set myself up for failure. If I define myself as a 5.11 trad leader, does that mean I can lead every 5.11 trad route? What happens if I fall off a 5.10? If I call myself a grade 5 ice leader, what happens on the day I back off a grade 4? Easy — I feel disappointed. I feel like a failure. I feel like I can’t live up to my own expectations, like I am a fraud. By defining myself I set myself up for failure if I ever don’t meet that self-imposed definition.
This past May I climbed El Cap via The Nose. It was a 30th birthday present to myself. “I am a climber,” I thought, “so I should have climbed El Cap.” I had a fantastic partner and a wonderful trip, but I suffered through the climbing. The weight in my stomach only increased as we moved upwards. With every pitch my desire to be back on the ground grew. I wanted to have climbed El Cap, not to be climbing El Cap. I was climbing El Cap because I felt it was something a climber should do, not because it was the thing in that moment I wanted to be doing. My decade of climbing experience and dedication (plus an amazing partner) allowed me to reach the summit, but it was not me at my best. Why did I suffer my way through a sea of granite? Because in my mind, “a climber should have climbed El Cap.”
What happens when a climber gets injured, loses fitness or gets old? They stop climbing. They start making excuses for why they can’t do what they expect they should be able to do, what they have told their friends they can do. They stop having fun, and they stop climbing.
I have my reasons for climbing, and the truth is they aren’t about grades. They aren’t about summits, they are about the experience. They are about movement, friendship, connection and personal challenge. They are about personal growth. If I get injured it doesn’t matter, I can still find all those things in climbing. If I lose fitness it doesn’t matter, I can still find all those things in climbing. And when I get old I’ll still be able to find all those same things in climbing if I choose to.
Last year I injured tendons in both hands. I couldn’t climb at my normal level, so my projects fell by the wayside. Did I quit climbing? No. I picked up my nuts and hexes and tried to lead everything I could on only passive protection. I never climbed harder than 5.9, but I was still moving, still climbing with my best friends, still connecting and embracing the personal challenge climbing offers.
These reasons are not grade dependent, not experience dependent. A brand new leader can embrace movement too. A client getting guided can face personal challenge, which leads to personal growth. Any two partners can see the rope as a connection that does more than just arrest falls.
This is what climbing offers — a chance at growth, a chance to step outside the ordinary and embrace life. But when I considered myself a climber I stopped seeing this. I started to see climbing as something plain, regular, routine, just part of life. But it isn’t. Every step into new territory, every move above a bolt is a fantastic journey into the unknown. Nothing about it is ordinary. We are humans, men and women. We were built for flat ground. Every journey into the vertical is a space mission. Every new exploration is a window into our own souls. What holds us back? Can we face that fear? Can we meet that challenge? Can we do the impossible?
I do not call myself a climber because defining myself as such would set up boundaries, build walls. I am a man, that is all. Climbing is something I do, something I love, and yesterday I went climbing, but it does not define me. And by releasing myself from the definitions, from the expectations, I learn to float. Free of expectation I continue upward in spite of gravity, in spite of fear. Released from myself, from my own self-erected barriers, embracing the emptiness within, I float to the chains of The Mercy, to the chains of Baghdad. Releasing myself from myself got me up Standard without a rope. Shedding expectations, shedding definitions, lets us see what we can really do. I might go mixed climbing, or alpine climbing, or bouldering, or sport climbing, or aid climbing, but I will fight letting any or all of those activities define me.
And, if I can help it, nothing else will define me either. I might choose to ski, surf, write, paint, sing or love, but none of those things will change the fact that I am simply a man, a man in search of fear, in search of a shift in perspective, in search of a window into myself. Anything that will push me is welcome, so long as it gets me outside my comfort zone, outside the known. I will search everywhere I can for ways to launch. I will look without boundaries, both within myself and in the world, in search of whatever I can learn. Embrace the unknown. Grow. Launch above that screw, that bolt, that piece of gear, but realize it is only one way to reach outer space. There are others. Go find them.