Nobody Cares How Hard You Climb (And Neither Should You)
Is anyone else having a hard time keeping track of what qualifies as a significant ascent these days? 5.12 is a sport climb in Boulder Canyon. 5.13 is that shirtless bro at the gym. 5.14 is that bro’s ten-year-old whipper-snapper. Even 5.15a is losing its clout. 16 years ago, there was only one person in the world who had climbed it. Now, how many people can even count who has surmounted that increasingly crowded pinnacle? Seriously. I bet it’s close to 100. And while being one of that 100 certainly puts one in a a very very small percentage of climbers, it’s still too crowded for Legend status. When I hear that so and so climbed such and such, I find myself asking, increasingly, “who cares?”
Ah, but turn the lens inward, too… I’ll admit it: I’m guilty of caring too much about how hard I climb. I’ve certainly sprayed all over the internet about grades and personal achievements, even though I’ve barely even eked out 5.13a (which is pretty pedestrian for someone who has climbed for 16 years, IMO). So why do I bother? Why do you bother? Why do any of us bother?
I often hear or read climbers grasping for ways to legitimize climbing as a way to spend massive amounts of free time while the world goes to hell in a handbasket. To me, the “it makes me happy and that’s what life is for” line of logic is pretty thin, verging on narcissism, or at least hedonism. Personally, I think there’s more to life, and more to climbing.
I used to have a soccer coach who was fond of telling me “you play how you practice.” I guess I’m indoctrinated, but I think that’s true. If we practice climbing in such a way that we are constantly pushing ourselves to try harder, to come up with creative solutions to challenging problems, to build character, to overcome difficulties, and to keep calm when faced with serious risk or consequences for one misstep, that practice informs how we play at Real Life (where all the same values apply).
Fortunately, there are no consequences for breaking with your climbing ethics. Nobody will jail you, break up with you, or disown you as a friend or child for stepping on that bolt. That said, and perhaps because of that fact, if you do cheat in climbing it’ll eat you up inside. It’s just so obvious that the only person you are cheating is yourself, that I think relatively few climbers will ever do it. Now extend that metaphor to life at large. What if our politicians played the way climbers practice?
At its best, climbing is a crucible for experience, a melting pot for ethics, a microcosm for how you act in the real world. As such, I would suggest that what’s far more important than how hard you climb is how hard you try. And on that note, let’s not forget that if you never fall, you’re not trying that hard! Falling, then, is an inextricable part of succeeding in the goal of trying hard! So you can stop beating yourself up for falling on your proj for the umpteenth time, while you’re at it.
Even for those climbers out there who are really pushing the limits, I would recommend considering the example set by the legendary climbers of past generation. The most memorable climbers, the ones who ascend the greatest mountain – the mountain of legend status – do so not on their climbing achievements alone. They are remembered for their story-telling, or their ascetism, or their fascinating personalities, or their drive, or their bravery, or — as seems to increasingly be the case — their efforts to use their celebrity to improve the sport, their community, or even the world. Toss folks like the recently deceased Royal Robbins and Doug Tompkins in that latter group, for sure. If your obit contains nothing more than “So and so, XXXX – XXXX, climbed 5.XX,” people who read it are going to return to that same haunting question from earlier in this article: “who cares?”
Trying to achieve Legend status through physical prowess alone would be like training for 5.15 by doing dead lifts at Gold’s Gym. You might get really strong, but you’re exercising the wrong muscle.
Whether you want to be a legendary climber, or just a good one, it’s not the forearms you need to train: It’s the heart.