I have lots of thoughts. They begin with this:

If that is where your heart is, go.
Be prepared to be lonely, hurt, scared, lost, overwhelmed. And go.
If you wander you are accepting instability. It will overwhelm you at times, and it will show you tremendous beauty.
It will remind you of the impermanence of things.
It will give you the space and the emptiness to recall all of your failures, all of your imperfections.
And in facing those you’ll find courage, remember your heart. And you’ll also drown.

It is worth it.
But the things you are seeking to escape will still be there when you return home.
Life is a balance of movement and stillness, and it is in the stillness that we recover our hearts.
But the movement is necessary. It uproots what is otherwise hidden.
So that in stillness you can consider how to move through it.

Your heart is amazing. You are looking for it, trying to learn how to remember yourself. I get that. My heart is the same. All hearts are the same. The base ingredient of this world is love. Beauty and love. But we forget. Sometimes we need to shake things up to remember.
But in truth they are there all along.
You are those things.
In movement and in stillness.
Yet it is so hard to remember.
If you need to go to remember, go.
If you feel going may offer something, go.
And when it is time for stillness again, you’ll know.

It’s already there in you. Perfect, beautiful, amazing. But sometimes we need to remind ourselves.
And sometimes we need to wander.
But there are 1,000 ways to wander.
Some mental, some physical, some emotional.
If you have been in one place for too long, perhaps geography is what needs to change.
A shift in place will not fill that space.
It will distract you for a time, an elongated moment, and then the emptiness will come screaming back.
But wandering will give you fresh eyes to see the connections you already have, the community you left behind.
It will remind you of its richness.
That is its gift.
That is why I say “Be prepared to be lonely, hurt, scared, lost, overwhelmed.”
Leaving will allow you to see what you have with fresh eyes.
But what you feel is missing is not missing.
Nothing is missing. Nothing is ever missing.

You are in this moment now because you need to be. Nothing is missing, nothing is broken. Your heart is reminding you it is up to you to create the world you love, the one that feeds you. Your seeking is about something else, something more elemental.
Movement may be part of recognizing what that thing is.
It may be an important part.
But the struggles inside you are your heart, not your place in the world. The place you are in is exactly the place you are meant to be. It is in recognizing how to move from that place that we get lost.
And in thinking there is a right way to do it.
Go or stay, you are doing what you need to do.
And stripping your heart bare—that is the key. To everything. No matter what.

Do not seek to be happy.
Seek to experience life.
Seek moments like now, where you are wondering what to do.
Those are life’s experience.
They are worth holding onto, moving within, breathing in, swallowing until they drown you, sharing.
You are worthy of sharing. Of being reckless with your heart and your choices. In whatever way fits for you, feeds you.
Love cannot hurt you. It cannot bleed, maim or kill you. It only seems to when we look to bend it to our own purpose, when we seek to control it, to force it to feed only us.
Instead, let your love feed the world. Offer service and kindness to others. That is the key. It is what feeds our hearts.

I cannot do this, what I aspire to do.
So I keep practicing.
You understand. I know you do.
The world wants us to see love as a gift, not a cage, not a binding contract. And yet we fight against the world. So it keeps reminding us.

If I sleep with you I’m going to want to keep you.
And that is OK.
It is the place I am at.
This life is about learning to let go.
So I keep learning.
But I do not start from a place of fear.
I start from a place of recognizing and accepting myself.
And gently leaning into the struggle.
Without judgement for myself.
That is love: a practice ever evolving.
You will slip and fall.
Yet that is not failure.
That is THE POINT.
It is you, you being perfectly you. It is beautiful.

We are all searching for a place to be ourselves, fully ourselves.
Most love is a box.
You are worthy of more than a box. You are worthy of everything.
Can I offer that?
Can you?
But that is what we are yearning to become, where we yearn to be, not some other place but in a space where both we and the world can be ourselves.
So we practice.
Practice however you have to.
Nothing is missing.
We are just confused about love, the world and everything in it.
When someone else hurts you, remember they are confused.
When you fuck up, remember you are confused.
Never understand anything.
Just wonder.
I wonder about you.
It feels good to be wondered about. Amazing.
That is love.

Love everything.
Understand nothing.
Love the world. All of it.
Then you’ll see nothing is missing.
Your job is not to be perfect. Your job is to be a mess. To be confused. Lost. Drowning. Overwhelmed.
To let go of judgement. Of yourself and others.
When someone hurts you, you still love them. Love them fully. Openly. With everything. With your all.
Accept them as perfect, even when they are a mess.
The point isn’t to be happy. The point is to feel: sadness, hurt, loneliness, these are what you are searching for.

Confusing, but worth it.




13458592_1515161745176572_1345580628585994972_oHow do you let go of control?

How do I let time become an ocean, trust its buoyancy, its random eddies, breezes and currents? How do I swim with them rather than against?

On Friday I caught a plane out of Fort Lauderdale at 8 p.m. EST. I landed in San Fransisco at 11 p.m. PST with the salt of the Caribbean Ocean still in my hair. I grabbed my car, which a friend had just driven from San Diego to San Fransisco on her own adventure, and drove to another friend’s house who had sent me a note a month before after 10 years of no connection. Barely a few hours before I’d been on a diveboat with two other friends, one new-ish, one brand new, who welcomed me to join part of their roadtrip from Maine to Colorado by way of the Florida Keys. We rented a houseboat, spent mornings practicing yoga on the roof deck, paddled kayaks and paddleboards into the gulf, shared conversations and splendid silence.


Life did that. Life brings magic. It brings connection and friendship and splendid moments. It brings awe and mystery and graceful elegance. This week I got to see it, first in the burning oranges of a sunset, then in the wings of a ray, and again in the smile of old friends.

People ask me about being on the road. “You’re living the dream,” they tell me. That happens a lot.

Whose dream? I often wonder. There is an aloofness, a loneliness to endless travel. There is tremendous emptiness, moments of overwhelming quiet no amount of Facebooking, texting, singing to the radio or laughter can quench. Over miles of stretching blacktop, or waiting at airport gates, or sick in a hostel surrounded by no one you know, the inherent solitude of life comes calling. It’s possible to drown it for a time, maybe with a random conversation, a run, someone else’s warm body for a night, but it comes back. It keeps coming back.

It comes back at home too, but at home it’s possible to pretend you’re building something, that all your running in place is working towards an end, that the empty quiet is outside, has not found its way into your heart.

On the road, however, it’s different. On the road you are bouncing, caught looking for flashes of beauty and moments of connection. There is no keeping out the quiet. It floods in, and you accept the drift of time, the buoyancy of life, trust it to carry you.

And in letting go, the world reveals itself. It reveals both the loneliness, the sadness, and the light. Everything exists in one place. It is overwhelming, painful even. Unsteady. Long.

“Living the dream,” they tell me. I’m not so sure. Their idealized vision of a life unsteady forgets the costs of carefree. It is a practice of accepting constant discomfort, accepting always not knowing. Just like their lives, mine is beset by fears, only different fears. Will the money run out? Will the next opportunity show up? Will I find a place to sleep tonight? If it is all a dream, it is a confused mess of one.

But it is one brightly punctuated, one so full overfull of emotion at times I wish life was a ride I could pause. Nights can be dark and overwhelming, but they can also be stunning, technicolor, so bright it is nearly unbearable. The richness I find over and over again, the connections I make, the fascinating complexity of the world I am lucky enough to bare witness, these are the gifts of living unstrapped, allowing the ocean of the world to carry you, allowing time to sway as it will. Seldom is this existence dull. Life on the road is raw to the quick, and every step is an experience. The only choice is to let go, to release myself into the stream and see where it takes me. Anything else would leave me drowned.

And maybe that is the dream—a life of feeling, even if the feelings run dark at times and always out of control—for all those people leading some different version. I don’t know. I look at my friends homes and growing families and I see the dream there too. A piece of it, at least, an experience punctuated by beauty. The differences between us, between their lives and mine, are few, maybe none. An illusion, perhaps, a dream. The one we are all living.

For B, in Gratitude

For B, in Gratitude

10491231_958451607514258_8227570007696309004_n“Life and love are confusing things, and too many nights are spent sleepless.”

A friend sent a note the other day, and those were my words typed in solidarity with someone trying to figure it out. It had a certain ring to it, flowed in a writerly way I strive for all in all my work.

And it’s true: whether in life or in love I have no idea what I’m doing, and many nights are spent tossing. If the world overwhelms you, if it seems too bright or too fast or too complicated, I get it. I too am doing my best to hold on.

I read a book the other day by Oliver Sacks, now-deceased professor, writer and neurologist. The book was called Gratitude. It’s small, took barely an hour, four essays Sacks wrote in his final years. It chronicles turning 80, the revelation he has cancer, and his final thoughts before his death at 82. It’s short enough to read in an hour. And like any book addressing death directly, it’s powerful. A Washington Post reviewer called it Sacks’ posthumous gift.

Perhaps anything that grows so directly from death is bound to be moving, bound to contain poignant reminders our days are few, that life will not continue forever. A year ago my step-grandmother died, and the piece I wrote about her was similarly affecting.

But death is not only sad; it also a doorway, a secret entrance, the key to god and the universe and life and love and everything. It is both. It is everything. It is all of it at the same time.

How? Simple: You are already dead, so there is nothing to fear. Ever. Nothing.

How easily we forget. How easily we get distracted by work and bills and advertisements and immediate needs. But we will die. We will not escape. We are there already. Time has bent and death is upon us and every thought we have from now until it arrives is but a dream, the briefest hallucination.

Death will come, and when it does it will come fast, fully, completely. And in that moment it will feel like your life was a blink, a sneeze, a flurry of activity ended premature. There is no way to sidestep, no way to avoid that which everyone before has succumbed, which everyone we know will succumb, that which we ourselves will eventually also submit.

But there is something comforting in that. You will die, and I will die, and no matter how many people surround us in the end it will inevitably be alone. But it is a doorway everyone passes through. We all walk together to that aloneness, united in something we cannot but do by ourselves.

So we know it is coming. There is no stopping it. And we know it will happen alone. But in that truth we are united and no one is ever alone. So let go of the fear. To fear death is to expend energy that makes no change. Instead we can welcome it, look with openness and wonder as it approaches, greet its coming with a willingness to see what adventure it holds, the final and most brilliant version following a life of mini-adventures.

That switch, that walk through death’s doorway with openness and grace, makes all the difference. It transforms everything. Death is coming, but exorcised from fear it loses control of us. It becomes just another step, another dance we are lucky enough to experience. And in becoming that it allows us to let go of ourselves. Death’s inevitability becomes just one more step, one more mystery to uncover, one we can do with grace.

Because mysteries are the most amazing parts of life. Falling in love is the mystery of meeting someone new, watching the story of them unfold before you. Life is but the unfolding of your own mystery. Death is just another version, a new step in a dance we are privileged to practice. Like life, like love, it is an experience to cherish, something to be lived fully, felt fully.

And stripped of fear, stripped of the need to control every step, those moments before death arrives become brighter, richer. There is no reason for fear, no reason for regret, no reason to look back and say “I wish.” Because stripped of fear, stripped of angst and worry, we live fully. Love falls deeply, wildly, uncontrollably. Life runs reckless, perfect and free. Every moment becomes a chance to fill the space we are offered with beauty, grace, wild blasts of perfection, moments that breathe and then die just like we do. We do not look to hold onto them after they are over, because they, just like us, are temporary. And in the briefest spark burns the full essence of life.

Life, love, sleepless nights and the promise of an adventure far greater than anything our memories hold—it is all before us, within us, surrounding us completely. We cannot get away from it, the raw beauty of a world stripped clear of pretense and fear. It whispers in the wind, hides the air we breathe, courses alongside the blood in our veins. It is all that we are.

But we forget. We wander and stray. We fall into ourselves, trapped in a conversation so easily distracted.

But not to worry, Death will greet us all someday. You will be reminded. And when that time comes, I will be next to you. As will everyone.


On Science

On Science

IMG_7944-1Yesterday I woke up to a bear in the yard.

He wasn’t doing anything really, just milling about. I watched him through the window, basked in orange sunlight as he snooped. Then I packed my things to go swimming.

I’m not much of a swimmer. I did a lap across the lake, pausing in the middle to lie on my back, float and stare upwards. I could feel my heartbeat in my ears as I let my wetsuit suspend me, limbs dangling in the water. When I exhaled I sunk. When I inhaled I rose. I watched clouds track overhead, felt the ripples as they brushed my face, then closed my eyes, floating. I stayed like that, motionless, just breathing, for what felt like hours. It may have only been a minute; I lost track of time. Then I turned into the water and aimed for the near shore.

Driving home my phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number, but I answered anyway. “Hi, this is Erik.”

On the other end was Gene Likens, the scientist who 50 years ago discovered acid rain. An ecologist and former Dartmouth College professor, his most recognized work took place at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest, a site an hour drive from where I spent my swim. Likens co-wrote a book on the forest, and I thought it might be worthy of a story. We spent 20 minutes talking. He described the surprise of discovering acid rain.

“Nobody knew there was a problem,” he said, but “the very first sample of rain we collected was very acidic,” up to 100 times the normal levels.

What got them to look at rainwater? Curiosity.

“It was purely serendipity,” he said. “So much of science is this way.”

“We didn’t set out to discover acid rain,” he said. “It was there and we ran with it.”

A quote has sat on my desktop for several years:

The beauty of science is not in the answers it provides, but in the act of questioning. And each question leads to more questions. There are no answers, only infinite questions.”

It’s not a quote from some book or from anybody famous. It’s mine, just some musings I scribbled. I jotted it down one day when it popped into my head, something I didn’t want to forget, even though I’ve now forgotten the context it came from.

But yesterday I heard echoes of it in Likens. He was not studying stream water to prove some point. He was there to learn, driven by curiosity. It was a search of wonder, devoid of ego, even though it eventually made a name for Likens.

Science is built on such wonder. It is the act of questioning, of exploration and answers so tenuous they are subject to constant revision. But through the soft passage of time, through the constant brushstrokes of curiosity, a truth emerges. What emerges is the heart, the soul of our world, something foundational. But no part is so sacred it cannot be discarded, slain. Everything is open to more questions. There is something beautiful in that.

I can’t help but wonder if religion is born from the same roots, if at one point humans looked at the majesty of the universe and couldn’t help but exclaim, “Who could have made such a beautiful thing?!” and the answer they came up with was God.

That question is a perfect one. Who could have made such a beautiful thing? What could have led to this, to this world and this life? They echo the question scientists ask today. Look into the heart of the world. Whether your launch point is science or religion it is impossible not to be overcome by wonder, by beauty and grace and the perfect harmony of things larger than ourselves. How does the Earth spin around the Sun? How did life come into being? How did so much order grow out of seemingly infinite chaos?

Those questions were with me too. They were in the bear sitting outside the window yesterday morning, in the beat of my heart in my head, in the caress of the water and the color of the sky. They are questions I asked the lake lying on prone in the water, buoyed up by a force I will never fully understand, asked the sky gazing at clouds dotting a blue so striking it felt like more water. Neither revealed their secrets, but they shared gifts just the same.

Wonder. Beauty. Grace. These are both the heart of science and the heart of religion. Indeed, they are perhaps the heart of everything. The magic of creation is captured in a piece of music, a Van Gogh painting, in Shakespeare and Hemingway. In the movie that speaks to our hearts, in the play that touches our souls, in the book that we come back to and back to. Science, religion, music, art—it is all the same. It is all one thing, different versions of the same dance.

And that dance can take place in the world, with the Earth as your partner: the perfect wave to the surfer, the long winding trail to the runner, the sweep of immaculate stone to the climber. The friend that stands opposite you in dark times. The lover who shares your bed. Creations all. Art, science, religion, beauty all. Questions, infinite questions, too big to ever contain in something so small as an answer, all.

I wrote the piece on Likens today. It will never do justice to his story. But his answers are not the point. He is a scientist; the point is always the questions.



pic-0007The two lanes wound through the city, cars streaming like a river towards the downtown. Colin banked right then left, steering from memory, pressing the gas pedal as the road began to climb. The leaves, fresh and green, rustled in the breeze. Colin pulled to a stop at a traffic light and felt the wind dance in his open window. It was cool and fresh. The light turned green. He pressed the gas.

As the car climbed, Colin saw smoke. It was billowing skyward from something over the crest of the hill. With every turn of the tires the horizon sank, revealing more smoke whirling in the breeze, dark against the blue sky.
The wheels turned, the car climbed, and Colin looked. The horizon dropped. What was burning? He couldn’t see.

Then the flames were there, dancing over the pavement skyline, red and yellow among the bricks. The fire strained for the sky, leaping and jumping. One more revolution and Colin would see what was burning. The car crested the hill at a stoplight—red—and Colin pushed the brake pedal. Across the street, standing on the sidewalk next to the intersection, stood a man engulfed in flames, burning.

His eyes were closed, Colin could see that. And his face was taut. His teeth glistened through a grimace. He held his arms out from his sides at an angle, both hands balled into fists. He seemed to be dancing, hopping from one foot to the other, red flames licking their way up his body.

His clothes were not yet burned away. They seemed to breathe fire all around him, drawing it down his shoulders, along his legs, up into his hair. A soft breeze fanned the flames like a flag and left the leaves shuddering in the trees behind him.

Colin sat at the light, both hands on the wheel. A woman in the next lane was also staring. A man and a woman were walking together on the sidewalk, laughing, unaware of the man and his flames.

Colin’s gaze returned to the man, still caught doing his strange shuffle. His clothes were melting, fusing into his skin. His lips were burning away from his teeth. The man opened his eyes—Colin couldn’t tell their color beneath the flames—and scanned around him through a veil of fire.

And then he stopped, his eyes on Colin. Through the intersection, the windshield, the glare of the traffic light, the red of the flames, the man’s eyes locked on Colin’s, even as the fire ate his eyelids.

And Colin stared back. They were transfixed—the burning man shuffling from foot to foot, Colin with his hands on the steering wheel, eyes locked across the divide. Colin could feel the sweat on his back, beaded and cool, something the man would never feel again. He held the man’s gaze and watched as the tissues around his eyes charred and turned black. He was unable to look away.

The light turned. Green. Colin rolled forward, still transfixed, still unable to turn. The burning man followed him as he passed.

Colin crossed the intersection, pulling the wheel to the left and glided into an open space. He leapt out of the drivers seat. The burning man had lost control of his muscles and fallen to the ground. From either side people ran towards the charred body. One was carrying a fire extinguisher, bright and red.



Yesterday I quit climbing.

It was 5:30 p.m. and growing dark. I was standing in my living room, naked from the waist up, a pile of outdoor clothes draped on the arm of the couch beside me. I had been waiting for this moment all day, for work to end so I could go climbing in Crawford Notch, but now that the moment had arrived I was faltering. “Should I go?” I thought, wearing nothing but blue Capilene tights. “Do I really want to? Or am I just going climbing because climbing is what I do?” Would my plan leave me smiling and satisfied, or would I just wind up wishing I was back at home? I didn’t know, so I just stood there in my long underwear watching the sky grow darker.

I tied into a rope for the first time at 17, and ever since I’ve poured myself into my passion. I’ve spent weekends, vacations and thousands of dollar on climbing. Now I can just describe it as what I do. It’s intricately linked to my closest relationships, my work and where I choose to live. It’s how I meet people, what I talk about with friends, how I relax, what social occasions are centered around, the focus of the organizations I donate to and how I volunteer my time. It has become more than a passion — it has become life.

And yet I quit.

I stood in my living room yesterday, lost in my head, naked, exposed, and I didn’t want to go climbing. “No,” I thought, pulling off my Capilene, “I’m not going. It isn’t me, not today. I’m not a climber. I’m just not.”

It wasn’t the first time I’d quit. I quit the day before too. I had plans to go to Tohko on Sunday with Scott, but after two days out at Ice Fest I was tired. I got home and didn’t feel it. “Not today,” I thought as I sat down to read. “I’m not climbing. Not now. Not today.”

It feels good to quit, to reject the passion that in many ways has come to define me. It feels good to put it down, to let it rest, to let the pressures and expectations that built up around it dissolve. Will I send my project? Who knows. Probably not, because I quit. And that’s OK. After weeks and months of doing nothing but climbing, I just walked out the door.

It doesn’t take long to fall into habits, and climbing is an easy one to fall into. When you climb every weekend, every vacation and every free moment it can be difficult to determine whether you are climbing today out of passion or simply because you climb. For me at some point the climbing flips from being a passion to being work. “It is the weekend again. Where are we climbing?” The desire to tick the next project, to push to through the next grade, takes over, and when it does the passion is gone. But I keep climbing because I know nothing else. What meaning does it bring at that point? What value? None. The feelings climbing can elicit are gone, and yet I stick to it. It’s become a habit, just what I do.

When that happens, I quit. I walk away. I put down my gear, fuck it, and do something else. I did it yesterday. I pulled of my Capeline, did some Googling, and instead went to a yoga class. It felt fantastic. I spent an hour and a half trying not to fall over. Every pose was taxing. I embraced sucking at something, free from any self-imposed pressure to perform. It felt the way climbing felt that first day. It felt the way it felt when I quit this summer — instead of tying in I went surfing, and I spent hours just trying to stand up. Ego stayed home during those sessions — I couldn’t afford its critique.

Quitting is liberating. It is freeing. It takes the thing that you allow to define you and puts it back in its place. Climbing isn’t life, it is an activity. It is a way to spend time, no more, no less. It can be fun or it can be miserable, depending on the day, but it is neither good nor bad. And when it starts to feel overwhelming, like it has become a job rather than a passion, the best thing I can do is quit.

And so yesterday I did just that. I quit. I walked away. I said fuck it, and in rejecting climbing I found freedom. It was in every yoga pose — the same feeling discovered 14 years ago, that first day I tied into a rope — the wonder of movement, the high of self-awareness, the intense connection between mind, body and breath. Instead of searching for that feeling in climbing like a heroin addict seeking another fix I looked somewhere else. And there it was. I found it. All that because I quit.

I’ve quit so many times before. I spent a year barely climbing once, and three years off the ice. I went on sailing and bicycling trips, spent weekends camping and watching movies, blew money on cameras, concerts and plays. I’ve quit countless times since too, and each time I discover how much I truly love my other passions. Quitting has allowed me to I train and compete in a triathlon, and it afforded me a stint in Iraq and Kuwait reporting for public radio. Quitting has given me much more than it ever took away.

Quitting has also let me discover, once I finally tie back in, how much I love climbing. The quitting helps me see my passion within a proper context, as one passion among many, all of which are rewarding and expand my perspective. Embracing the quit and the subsequent resurrection refills my passion. It allows the beauty of what climbing offers wash over me. It helps me grow.

Passion are meant to support us, to engage us and push us to new heights and levels of understand about ourselves, but if they come to define us they do the opposite — they make us contract. They can help us seek our own self-imposed boundaries, or they can form the foundation for those same walls. Climbing runs that risk for me. It is in so much of my life it can easily box me in if I sit back and let it. But in quitting I reject that mold and embrace the growth. Quitting allows me to look around with clear eyes and see all the other things I am missing.

It also gives me a chance to recommit. Every time I quit I get to rediscover the wonder climbing brought me that first day. Quitting reinvigorates my passion. Yesterday I decided I would not climbing. I quit, and rejecting climbing as a definition. I won’t go again, I told myself, until the drive comes from a place of passion, a place of love, a place of growth and willingness to accept the unknown. If the thought of climbing provokes a question about to whether I want to be there, whether or not I was making the right decision, I wasn’t going. Climbing should provoke feelings of elation, I reasoned, not exhaustion, so I quit. I just walked away.

Then today I got up and packed my bag for the rock gym. I’ll be there tonight, back on the wall, back among friends. My quit has run its course. My willingness to walk was the ingredient necessary to see my passion with fresh eyes again. After years of pitched battles (within myself always), it now takes just days to be ready again (except for those times it takes weeks or months). Today I’m back to climbing out of love rather than obligation. Quitting kicked the habit, and it no longer rules me. I cannot deny I my passion, but through quitting I let it re-bloom into a passion, a love, of my choosing. If it were any other way I’d have to quit.

What is a Climber?

What is a Climber?

What is a climber? Am I a climber? Are you?

There is a thread on 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.