An Age-Old Question.

It’s a curious thing to me, this climbing business.  We go to a rock, we wrap things on our waists that cost us way too much money, we cram our feet into shoes that normal people would consider much too small, and tie into a thin piece of nylon which some smelly dirtbag is passing through a small piece of aluminum (which also cost too much) attached to their own expensive harness.  This hippy will act as a counterweight in the event that you, the foolish climber, are found sailing through the air in what would in any other circumstance be a fatal plunge.  We strain our bodies, we crush our fingers in the narrowest constrictions we can find, place as much of our bodyweight in as little of our toes as possible, clip said thin pieces of nylon to pieces of equipment which may or may not eject from the rock during a fall, slice our fingertips on razor-sharp chips, we scream, yell, cry, moan, and routinely find ourselves in dangerous and outrageous situations.  These factors come hand-in-hand with the ever-present sensation of absolute and utter terror.

Greg Collard the very instant he realized he was taking a good whip. Clipping a bolt, his foot blew and he ended up taking a decent 25-footer.
Greg Collard an instant after blowing it while clipping a bolt, resulting in a descent 25-or so-footer.

Terror is imminent.  Any passionate climber would be wrong if they tell you they have never had moments where, even if for a half a second, they truly believed they were about to die.  It can be crippling at times, and often leads to injury-causing decision-making.  The art of controlling fear is one which the climber never ceases to practice.  Although some have laid claim to an incredible ability to deal with fear, none shall ever become absolute masters.  Climbers will always feel fear.  Which makes me wonder why we’ll still chalk-up and mutter “climbing” to our belayer despite the fact that we are terrified.

Anyone who has ever climbed on rocks knows of the pains associated with the sport.  That one bomber hand jam may also serve as a pinch on some nerve in the back of your hand, and your entire arm will begin to burn.  Your toes scream from their confinement about the level of abuse stemming from standing on a micro-flake while clipping a bolt above your head, your back is sore, your arms are sore, and your legs are sore.  Your fingers ache from cranking on a crimp, the back of your hands get torn to ribbons from dancing in a powerful hand crack, and your forearms do their best to explode as you violently flail them in an attempt to cure yourself of boner arms.  Rock climbing will never occur without some level of self-abuse.

Greg Collard at the very onset of a decent 25-footer.
Blood bath and beyond at the Freaks with Greg Collard.

So what the hell?  Why the hell would we filthy humans routinely seek ways to torment ourselves in such crazy and irrational ways?  Why do we spend hours daydreaming of our hands stuffed in some unspeakably huge face surrounded by nothing but stone and swirling air?  There are no trophies, no huge hats to signify our presence in the realm of the absurd like some WWII Vet, and every climber can attest to the lack of monetary reward.  Our families think we’re insane, and tourists and hikers watch us like some rare species doing the strange dance they do.  It would seem that we have come to identify ourselves through this social isolation.

Fingerlocks look just as great as they feel.
Finger locks feel just as good as they look.

Yet, there is something more, in the midst of all this physical suffering and emotional turmoil.  There is a feeling, one which can only be felt to be understood, we as climbers get while performing our art.  There are times we reach our absolute limit.  We feel our grip gradually becoming loose.  We look to the next hold, which seems absolutely impossible to grab.  Our leg starts to shake.  Our fingers begin to open up as we move our hips sideways to prepare the rest of our body for one last desperate lunge before the unavoidable fall.  Our entire being is present and in the moment.  Our eyes are open and fixed on where we need our hand to go.  Letting out a yell, our failing fingers release their death-grip from their purchase, and the hand darts through the air.  The hand finds the next hold with a loud slap.  It sticks.  We move our feet up one at a time and straighten our arms to find the proper rest.  We switch arms numerous times here, shaking out our fatigued hands in preperation for the next series of mental battles we are about to face.  There is peace at this moment.  We focus on our breath and our heart rate begins to slow.  We feel each and every muscle and command them all to relax.  We feel light.  We close our eyes and focus on feeling more than seeing.  You can feel your friends below you, watchful and hopeful for all the moves to come together.  Our eyes open once again, and around is a scene of pure beauty and serenity only the mountains can provide.  We are alive.

Hunter feeling the zen on Space Invaders one beautiful summer day.
Hunter feeling the Zen on Space Invaders .12a one beautiful summer day.

When we once again arrive on Earth, our bodies are shaking, our breathing is heavy, and the rush of endorphins causes us to be giddy and happy.  Our hands are in pain once again, and our knee is bleeding from some unknown contact with the rock.  Above us, the rope silently dangles and sways between the pieces of gear which are still stuck in the small features of the rock.  We’re laughing with our friends about the struggles of the route,  and we give our belayer a high-five.  The high lasts for hours.  No longer are we focused on the pain and anguish we felt just moments earlier, it doesn’t even exist.  We think clearly, and we feel every part of our meaty bodies.  Our breathing slows once again, and our heart rate slowly drops; allowing each and every breath to be more and more efficient.  Our fatigued hands struggle to untie the knot on our harness, and our fingertips wince as we crack open a well-deserved, lukewarm PBR.  A round of high-fives is in order, and as you take your shoes off, you realize you haven’t stopped smiling.  Or sweating.

When your life is held in someone else’s hands,  you become pretty close friends rather quickly.  Most climbers that you come in contact with are the weirdest, most interesting people you will ever meet.  Conversations between climbers produce the weirdest substance, and often-times leave people pondering and laughing for quite some time.  Very deep friendships emerge, and stories of glory and pain are always brought up over beers during the routine black-out sessions.  The support and comradery of climbing partners leads to friendships that last a lifetime.  Climbers will always have an instant connection; there’s an energy that gives them both confidence in each other, and many of these matches often lead to both doing great things.

Flyin 'em high after putting the alcove swing back up.
Flyin ’em high after putting the alcove swing back up.

With these realizations in mind, I still struggle to answer that age-old question of why?  Why do I climb?  Why do I do this to myself?  Why do I seek out those moments where I question my own sanity and life-choices that led me to where I am?  Why do we commit ourselves to lifestyles with no real path toward a future society would prefer?  Why do we take so much pleasure in finding the most difficult way to the top of a rock?  I wish I knew.  I honestly wish that I could just regurgitate some solid answer every time people ask me why I climb, but I can’t even come close .  This is not a phase.  I will never stop climbing and I don’t know why.  Maybe one day this answer will come to me, and I can stop racking my brain over something that may never come.  Maybe one day an epiphany will release some enzymes in my brain and I will be come the wisest of all climbers.  But until that day comes, you can find me at the crag, smoking and joking while seeking wisdom through this brutal form of self-inhialation.  Cheers!

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