“Why do you climb?”
And here we go again, I thought. The same tired conversation rehashed among every circle of climbers on the planet, from the gym to the campfire to the online message board. Opting out of this one, I sank back into the torn seat of the struggling Volkswagen Jetta and allowed my gaze to follow the glowing white line on the road. The distant horizon lay shrouded in the blackness of the post-climbing nighttime. With my head cocked uncomfortably on my shoulder, facing the window, buried in the seat, I half-listened out of my exposed ear. I allowed my intimate focus on the luminescent streak painted on the ground hurtling past me to lull my drowsing body into a fitful doze.
In the back seat, Camille shifted, leaning forward ever-so-slightly, adopting the posture of one unable to hear over the din of a not-quite-well-maintained car barreling down the interstate at speeds well in excess of the posted limits. I could feel her posturing directly behind me as her entire body indicated her desire for a pithy response to an otherwise superficial question. I sensed Sam’s eyes tracing over me from the driver’s seat, assessing my mood.
The question was directed at no one in particular. Since no one in particular was answering, and there were but three of us in the car, my vocal forfeiture left Sam alone to tend to the curious, eager Camille and her inquiry.
“I climb because the rest of my life is too easy,” Sam stated simply.
Intrigued, I imagine having cocked an eyebrow to myself at this comment. In reality, I am quite certain the only indication that my interest was piqued was in my continued wakefulness.
Silence, again, briefly. Camille graciously posed the mandatory follow-up question:
“What do you mean, Sam?”
“I mean that my life is too easy,” he repeated. “Look at how we live today. We have everything just laid out for us. There’s nothing left to survival anymore. I guarantee that if I spent all my time trying to find food and water, and building shelter, and fending off wild animals, and all that stuff, I wouldn’t bother to go climbing. Not only would I not have the time, I wouldn’t want to. It would be too dangerous and I would have plenty of other stuff to keep me busy. I wouldn’t need to go climbing.”
Need? I thought. Maybe this conversation is going somewhere. Perhaps we really will discover my friend’s intrinsic motivation to climb.
I realized it was my turn. Sam’s statement demanded some kind of response. Our recently-concluded day marked Camille’s second climbing experience, hence her question. This left me to address Sam’s assertion that climbing reintroduced the challenge of primal struggle into his life. He addressed me:
I turned slightly toward the center of the car, rotating my left shoulder a hair, raising my head so my chin stubble no longer snagged the fibers on the collar of my t-shirt. “Hmm…?” I intoned in the voice of one speaking from a world of dreams. With that I returned to my former repose.
Choosing not to vocalize a response, I felt simultaneously that I agreed with Sam on some level while rejecting the entire conversation on principle. The jackass in me was coming to light. Only a true climbing snob would ignore this overplayed discussion that was likely a first-time experience for all others involved. My willful disinterest highlighted my unjustified contempt for what I considered banal. At the moment, though, my concerns were rather limited—sleep, and perhaps food.
The conversation soon turned to a discussion of the relative merits of internet pornography, masturbation, feminism, women’s rights, prostitution, and a host of candid disclosures about individual and collective human sexuality.
* * *
Fast-forward nine months. This was Sam’s final semester as an undergraduate and my final semester in my master’s program. In precisely seven days classes would resume for the spring, signifying the beginning of the end. We intended to fill five of those days with climbing. In a place like Alabama where the five-year snowfall total was two inches, climbing was a fairly reasonable expectation if the January weather cooperated. Unfortunately, the weather pissed on us instead.
Mercifully, it did not piss on us in the way characteristic of actual urine. This was instead much colder. Nothing is so demoralizing as rain with an ambient air temperature of 34 degrees Fahrenheit. The subsequent decision to bail out was a much simpler one than if the temperature had been favorable enough to somehow make palatable the idea of waiting for the rock to dry.
Sam had recently returned from a semester at the National Outdoor Leadership School, where the fires of his unquenchable motivation were further stoked to truly begin his career as a trad climber in earnest. I could not have been more thrilled with this turn of events. Since moving to the state of Alabama, I had met precisely six climbers who knew how to place gear. Three of these individuals climbed predominantly on a top rope, I personally taught two of them how to place gear (one of whom was Sam), and the remaining individual had recently skipped town. In other words, Sam would be featuring prominently as a potential partner in my immediate future.
As we drove home from our first official overnight trip together, Sam renewed our long-extinguished conversation without warning.
“I want to tell you that I realized something since I’ve been gone on the course: I was wrong. I don’t climb because my life is too easy. I climb because my life is too hard. Climbing is how I get away and relax. It helps me focus, because I can’t not focus when I’m climbing. I need that sometimes.”
Again, I did not have a response.
* * *
I can state with absolutely no reservation that Sam is a bad-ass. Within one year of beginning his climbing career, Sam was sending 5.11 sport lines, leading moderate trad, and placing in the open division of bouldering competitions. More to the point: when Sam first began his venture into trad climbing, he built his own rack. He literally built it.
I was met with wonder when I watched as Sam’s rack emerged from the depths of his pack the first time. He had a pile of hand-tied shoulder slings and an assortment of nuts made in the old-school way—by hand, in his basement. He had purchased a selection of machine nuts, smoothed off the interior threads, and slung them with 5mm cord. Even more to my amazement, he proceeded to place the aforementioned nuts in the rock and clip his slings to them with booty carabiners. And then, both impressed and dismayed, I watched as he climbed above them.
Something had to be done about this. While I respected Sam’s do-it-yourself attitude, I was a bit concerned about what his do-it-himself style could do-to-himself if and when he fell. With some reluctance I dug through my trunk of aging gear, consulting with my wife about particularly sentimental items, attempting to recall the origins of each piece (if we even knew). By the end of the process, I had assembled a Franken-rack of used but usable gear. After stripping off all of the questionable soft goods, the perfect hand-me-down beginner rack was ready. The conglomeration included a set of solid-stem forged friends of dubious origin, the largest and smallest tricams, half a set of nuts in roughly every other size, three random hexes, a couple lockers that still mostly worked, and a handful of carabiners with the word “Chouinard” stamped on the side. Confident that I would, if forced, climb above and maybe even fall on each and every piece of gear in the collection, I presented Sam with the fruits of my labor.
Only later, right before leaving for his NOLS course, would Sam stop by to thank me.
“I want you to know that the rack you gave me is more than just a rack. It represents so much stuff, man. I can just look at something and try to climb it. With this, I can climb anything—I can do anything. It’s freedom. Thanks.”
Once again, I did not have an answer for Sam.
* * *
In a few months time, Sam and I will be driving across the country to Indian Creek, Utah, for nine days. In the meantime, our training sessions have been devoted to jamming our hands into a wooden crack trainer to the point of bleeding in preparation for the anticipated sandstone splitters. Looking at the backs of my hands as I write this, it is difficult for me to justify my obsession. Shaking hands is downright painful at the moment.
I informed Sam that I would be taping up my hands for future training sessions. While we are both generally opposed to the practice (mostly due to laziness on my part), I informed him my ego was big enough to take the hit if it prevented my recently acquired flesh wounds from growing ever larger. After a few good-natured jabs at my expense, he said, “I may be scrappy and strong, but you’re wiser. It’s a good partnership.”
I certainly agree that it is a good partnership. But I wonder who is actually wiser.