Ducking under a volume, leaning back against scant holds in order to make the most of my weight. A swivel of my hips, a crank of my calf and thigh muscles to push me up the wall, and I leap higher and catch hold of a small crimp. Again shifting weight, shuffling feet. With a dainty arch of my toe into a further hold, employing what’s called a toe hook, I again lean back against the finishing hold, lightly tapping it with both hands to indicate completion.
I drop off the rock climbing wall to find two teenagers staring at me, stunned.
“Dude, how long have you been climbing?” one of them asks.
I laugh. “About fifteen years,” I say, “How about you?”
“A couple of weeks,” the same kid answers.
“Well, you’ll be able to climb routes like this in no time,” I say. “You notice plenty of things as you go.” I continue on to explain some of the specific techniques I used to scramble up this particular route, and that the kid and his friend will no doubt master.
The first time I rock climbed, I was hungover from a bout of New Year’s Eve partying. I was sixteen years old, and my dad and I were staying with friends of friends in Arizona. The morning after the aforementioned partying, we all went to a rock climbing gym together and I tried out the sport, and everyone commented that I bore the body type naturally suited to it–much more so than the friend with whom I had been drinking, who was squat, bulky, and more naturally inclined to wrestling.
When I returned home from this trip, I kept up rock climbing with friends, buying memberships at my local gym in Santa Fe, New Mexico and going as frequently as our schedules allowed. As I later learned, this gym is one of the oldest in the United States, and its owner, who has since expanded to a larger location, remains the same person I got to know in high school.
During my climbing at this time, I was no more impressive than the teenagers who now ogle me, crudely throwing my weight up routes and relying mostly on bicep and forearm strength to attempt success. As one learns through trial and error in climbing, true skill has little to do with strength and instead comes from a mixture of balance, creatively assessing situations, precision of hand and foot placement, and other endlessly refinable techniques. Good climbing comes to resemble a sort of dance, the climber swinging, swaying, and pivoting along the wall, making ascension look graceful if not natural.
By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I had become closer to an average climber, able to scale the majority of routes in my local gym while also being challenged by the more advanced enterprises. At this point, I climbed multiple times per week, every week, intermixing the exercise with other forms of activity like running or yoga in order to attain a balanced physique. When I went to the gym, I did so with the same attitude as I believe most people carry when they lift weights; rock climbing was just something I did, almost metronomically, and an added benefit was that I came away with more muscles.
I think this was the reason that, when I was twenty-seven years old, I entered the gym one day and suddenly had no further interest in climbing. I literally walked into the gym, surveyed the room, and walked out without either scanning my membership card or saying hello to anybody. At the time, the thought of climbing in the way I had been doing held little to no appeal to me, and I sold my equipment and decided I was done with the sport.
Except that I wasn’t. Roughly two years later, during the pandemic, the thought crossed my mind that I no longer liked the way my body looked–I am naturally skinny, and can give Ichabod Crane a run for his money when not engaging in muscle-building exercise–and that rock climbing would help me build a healthier physique again. Additionally, I was curious about whether it would be possible for me to once again find joy in climbing; since the day when I walked into the gym and left, I had had a spiritual awakening, and I wondered if I might bring an entirely different attitude to the sport.
By and large, this has proved to be true. When I climb now, it is not only exercise that I enjoy because it is exciting, as it was when I first engaged with the sport as a teenager; neither is it something that I do merely because I want to build muscle, or am on a regimen, as the sport became in my mid twenties. Instead, climbing has become a mixture of the two, something that both is good for me, and I enjoy, a spiritual activity host to endless refinement and a site of play and joy with other people. For this latter reason, it has also proved reliable as a way for me to make and keep friends.
When I initially envisioned this essay, I thought I would close with something to the effect of the preceding two paragraphs, suggesting a synthesis of my former attitudes about climbing that landed me home in the present moment. That would have been convenient, except that even over the past few days I have once again been entertaining confused feelings around climbing, noticing difficulty envisioning myself engaging in the sport and, for that reason, calling my local gym to temporarily freeze my membership.
Why is this happening? Around this incursion, I notice feelings of loss and, alongside them, both frustration and denial–heralds of the aforementioned key emotion that, with age, I have learned to let go of in order to face the loss itself.
Rather than answering this question of the “why,” I will let my relationship with climbing take on the form I would ultimately like all my relationships to hold: light, yet serious, engaged in only when the feeling is both authentic and mutual. If and when I want to climb, I will do so, and when those impulses do not inspire me, I will seek other–not necessarily “greener”–pastures and forms of exercise. In cultivating this attitude of non-attachment, I believe I signal deepest respect to the sport and tradition of climbing itself: it is something I can never possess, just as it can never possess me, and only in a kind of radical freedom does each of us attain our true identity. With climbing and the many phases my relationship therewith has undergone, I receive a reminder of the wisdom and grace found in an open hand.
What has climbing given me? Gratitude for all life’s gifts, passing as they are.