How I Learned To Stop Bitching And Love The Top-rope
I feel like I spend a lot of time writing about how bad of a climber I am. I’m not terribly thrilled about this for a couple reasons. The first is that it’s a little self-involved. The second is that being a climber is really all I have going for me and while self-deprecation can be fun, constantly telling people how badass I am not is unlikely to get me published, or employed, or laid. The third reason is that the whole urge is nothing more than an attempt to head off criticisms that I know are invalid. So what if I am not a talented athlete? Climbing is not about athleticism and if I really think that’s true then I should not feel so insecure about my own shortcomings. In other words, if I really believe what I am saying than I should not feel the need to say it so much.
For the past couple months my climbing has basically been limited to scrambling and top-roping (because back injuries suck and the head game issues that come with experiencing near-catastrophic system failure are even worse). Challenging yourself, pushing your limits, putting yourself in situations where the outcome is uncertain – these are integral parts of the climbing experience, but it is foolish to think that leading is the only way to reach them. I do think that lead climbing is more badass than top-roping, but if I am not, as was mentioned before, particularly badass, and if I am ok with that, I think it might be better to stop talking about my lack of badassery and start talking about the badassery of others.
In my short climbing career I have done far more than my fair share of awesome climbs. There is only one real reason for this, and his name is Ryan Hoover. I met Ryan at a very opportune time: I didn’t know anyone who really led rock climbs, he didn’t know anyone who really wanted to belay him while he led rock climbs. We both had read too much Mark Twight and thought that we could become punk rock alpine climbing gods by wanting it really, really bad. Now, Ryan is well on his way to alpine godhood because in addition to wanting it really, really bad, he is also really, really talented. The guy was leading 5.11 trad within a year and a half of first stepping foot in a climbing gym; he led WI6 his second ice season. I enjoy attempting climbs I’m not sure I can complete without falling, but I get my fix of pure terror pretty quickly; one or two at-my-limit leads and I’m done for the day, or at least ready to meander up some moderates. Ryan will throw himself at the hardest thing he can reasonably hope to top out from dawn until dusk, and then he’ll borrow my headlamp and run a few more laps. I’ve been on truly amazing climbs well above my pay grade all over the western united states and it’s all his fault.
The funny thing is, we really don’t even get along that well. Our relationship is predicated on the fact that almost all of our time together is spent either climbing or drinking. About a month after he taught me how to lead on gear in the basalt chosspile we affectingly call Vantage, we embarked on a three week road-trip through the southwest, spending time at Ouray, Red Rock, Joshua Tree, and then stopping by Smith Rock on our way home. Our vehicle of choice was Ryan’s aging Toyota 4Runner. It was manual and I didn’t drive stick. None of the locks actually worked from the outside but if you jimmied the key in the front passenger side door just right they would open. I never figured out how to do this. The back window would freeze about an inch down for days at a time, preventing us from using the back hatch entirely. We quickly realized that the full intersection of our musical tastes was Jack White and Bob Dylan, and we liked them for entirely different reasons. By the time we got to Smith Rock we were about ready to strangle each other. While we did resolve our issues by the time we got home (we agreed to never take the 4runner on a road trip again), the music issue has proved contentious ever since.
The real problem is that Ryan is an actual musician, as in he plays in a band and used to work at a recording studio, and while quite talkative he’s not always not the most articulate guy, so he simultaneously can’t stand the simplistic guitar work of bands like The Mountain Goats and can’t explain to me what exactly he finds so distasteful about Bruce Cockburn’s voice (he also couldn’t explain to me how to drive stick, but that’s another story). I meanwhile drive him to righteous anger with my disregard for his main musical criteria, whether a group has “soul” or not. I don’t believe in the soul. I don’t like groovy dance music. I want to listen to people who say interesting things in interesting ways. When I tried to explain this to him he said something kind of incomprehensible about it being music and how maybe I should judge it by its musical qualities and not whether I would like the lyrics if they were written in a book. Total nonsense, I know. When we are climbing together a lot we have some iteration of this argument at least once a week. We also often argue about vegetables (he likes them, I have a complex system for determining which ones are ok and which are poop) and women (he likes them, I have a complex argument for why sexual attraction is inherently objectifying and therefore unethical). It’s kind of a mystery to me how we’ve only actually got in a screaming match while on a climb once.
Almost as soon as I met Ryan I realized that I had a limited time before he realized that there were better climbers out there and started climbing with them instead of with me. Our close succession of injuries has prevented this to some extent but the circle has definitely expanded. Although Ryan and I taught ourselves how to ice climb together on that first trip to Ouray, we quickly picked up a mentor, an older Armenian guy named Rafael. If you’ve been to the Seattle Vertical World gym and had a guy with an eastern European accent wearing leggings and a bandana try to traverse under you while you are climbing, chances are it was him. Although Ryan ran into him in Lillooet, the ice season ended early that year and the first time I met him was on an obligatory spring weekend at Vantage. This was the trip where Ryan let his first 5.11s (Jihad and Stems And Seeds) and I led my first 5.10 (Air Guitar). I don’t think Rafael knew what to make of me and the feeling was mutual. At the time I was very anti-crag; alpinism was what it was all about and everything else was training and/or Not Really Climbing (as if I had done any actual alpinism, the closest I had been to an alpine face was having read Starlight And Storm). Looking back I’m pretty sure Rafael thought, quite rightly, that I was full of it. He didn’t come right out and say it, like some other individuals I have climbed with, but he would just quietly, authoritatively, correct me whenever my bullshit was exceeding his tolerance.
None of this should imply, though, that Rafael is not a weird dude himself. On a Banff trip with him and Ryan the next winter we started calling him the Armenian Ice Sloth, for his extremely slow, methodical, way of leading ice climbs. I didn’t seem to matter how steep the ice was or how well the screws were, or weren’t, going it, he would just crawled up at a nearly glacial pace (pun intended). The only way we figured out to tell how hard it was going to be was by what language he was talking to himself in, somewhere around WI4+/5- he would switch from English to Russian and then at solid WI5 he would switch to Armenian. Of course we didn’t really mind, neither of us was leading WI5 at that point, but it did make for some cold belays. Things got more interesting in the hotel room, where the fact that we were both under 25 and he was over 50 became problematic. At one point he obliquely threatened to fight me over my unwashed dishes. In my defense I was still eating the food I had cooked in them.
Being that he has fun things like a wife and a career, Rafael doesn’t actually climb with us all that much, but there are a couple other guys that have become much more regular partners. I don’t actually know where Ryan met Michal and Chandler but given his propensity for being friendly to the point of aggravation with people he is climbing near, I’m willing to guess it was Index. Michal is the only person I have actually met who can legitimately claim to have climbed out the Index Town Walls. Aside from the small handful of 5.13 pitches scattered around the crag, he has sent every climb of note, which is what happens when you get started in high school and possess an unreasonable amount of psych for scary trad leads. Chandler is a little different, both from Michal and from the majority of people that I have met. He and Michal were childhood friends and they got into climbing together but about four years ago he was in a truly horrific accident and has only been climbing intensively for the last two years. He has actually become quite a strong boulderer recently but every now and again we trick him into roping up and doing something worthwhile, like last summer when I played pack mule for him and Michal while they blasted up Freedom Rider on the east face of Liberty Bell. When I first met him he was introduced to me as Channabis and the title was richly deserved. He smoked so much that you couldn’t actually discern any difference in his behavior after he lit up, although one evening he did ask me three times within fifteen minutes what climb we had done that day. He has since calmed down substantially and even quit for short periods of time, but the semi-permanent stoner aura remains – that weird combination of spaced out and deep that in anyone else would indicate a high degree of inebriation.
The difference between Michal and Chandler is one of focus. Chandler is interested in everything, our conversations range from standard climber bro talk to political debates to discussions of the existence of positive and negative energies in the universe. It’s not that Michal isn’t intelligent enough for that sort of thing, he just isn’t interested. After one time when he decided to go home in the middle of watching Before The Devil Know You’re Dead with me and Ryan because he thought it was boring, we actually had a short argument over how many things Michal is interested in. I counted five, Ryan counted three – it turned out that after climbing and women, Ryan was lumping drugs, alcohol, and food together, while I was counting them separately.
The trajectory these guys are on truly amazes me. Chandler came back from two broken ankles to recently send his first V8. Although at an age when most guys are winding down, Rafael seems to have bigger ambitions every year. Michal is set to become one of the northwest’s most promising young alpine climbers and Ryan isn’t far behind him, despite possessing less than four years of experience and having had a succession of serious injuries. I don’t want to be a remora, feeding on the scraps, leveraging old friendships into marketing opportunities, but yet I find my place in all of this exciting even if it isn’t on the sharp end. I recently watched a youtube clip of Louis C.K. talking about how he got into comedy out of shear desire to be “one of those guys” and that being initially bad at it wasn’t really an issue (if you suspect that this is false modesty look up some early Louis C.K. videos, they kind of suck). I want to lead climbs again, I want to push my limits and find out who I am, but in the end that’s not what I’m good at and it’s not how I’m going to leave my mark. I’ve admitted to my jealousy issues before but to my surprise, I have found that one of the strongest forces keeping me from walking away from climbing is my desire to remain a part of this community, no matter my lowly place within it.