In this life, if we’re lucky, we will have many friends and many different types of friends, but there are some people whose friendship seems to transcend the dulling effects of distance and time. These are the friends you can see after 10 years separation and pick up some unfinished conversation as you’d been in the other room, not on opposite sides of the country. Climbing is this way for me.
I started climbing when I was 12. I’ll be 35 this year. Sometime over the past decade, I came to see climbing as a form of relationship, with phases and cycles: we grow closer, we drift apart. Once I stopped climbing for more than a year. My life wasn’t bad without it, just different, but it felt so good when I came back to it. I was out of shape and my skin was thin and frail and my toes balked at the torque and squeeze of my Five Tens, but after a few routes I sighed out loud. Damn, I’ve missed this, I thought, looking up into the copper cone of autumn light slanting over the crag.
At various times in my life I’ve played tennis and basketball (poorly), played lacrosse, mountain biked, skateboarded, rollerbladed (don’t judge), snowboarded, and played the guitar. I’ve let every one of these hobbies die, and not because they weren’t fun as hell. But when I got injured, or busy, or something else distracted me, I never felt that gravitational pull the way I have with climbing. Every once in a while I’ll pick up a ball or a board and dork around and it feels great, but I know I probably won’t stick with it.
The climber/climbing relationship is like any other — it can be healthy or not so healthy. Some people use climbing to fill a void. Some have co-dependent relationships with climbing — it’s their obsession and their sense of self-worth. Some people start climbing for one reason and end up doing it for another. Most of us climb for several reasons at once, as professional climber Emily Harrington explained with refreshing honesty in a recent blog post.
For me, climbing has been a means of focusing my attention and energy, of achieving the flow state, of staying fit, of exploring my fears and my limits, of creating a sense of self, of connecting with other people. Heck, most of my jobs have been in some way climbing related.
But when I was young, climbing and I had a needier relationship. The gym and the crags were comfort zones where I could retreat from other issues in my life and feel in control of at least one thing. Back then, failure or success on the wall meant a lot to me — probably too much. Now I sail on a more even keel. If I don’t climb for a few weeks or even a few months, I don’t get upset (although my wife can attest that I grow a little antsy). Like one of those enduring friendships, I know climbing will be there when I return.
Like the poet Yeat’s symbolic spiral staircase, I’ve come back around to the same spot with climbing many times over, but every time my perspective has changed, my view grown larger to encompass more of the landscape.
It can be scary to step away from something that matters so much to you. But over the years I’ve learned that, if the right kind of connection is there, we can almost always come back. We can slip back into the climb midway, as if we’d never stopped.