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One Seasoned Climber's Ode to Her Vertical Lifestyle

September 01,2018 19:17

Accustomed to Utah's sandstone cracks and Colorado's world-class limestone, I surveyed the quartzite blend of western North Carolina's Pilot Mountain and traced what looked to be a decent foothold. It had been a long time since I'd climbed real rocks.


Accustomed to Utah's sandstone cracks and Colorado's world-class limestone, I surveyed the quartzite blend of western North Carolina's Pilot Mountain and traced what looked to be a decent foothold. It had been a long time since I'd climbed real rocks.
In a past life, climbing had been my reason for being, for sticking with that sales job with the flexible schedule. "Is everything OK at home?" my boss would ask when I came in with bruised knuckles—badges of honor from another weekend spent crack climbing.
On Fridays, my climbing partners and I would drive from Aspen into the Utah sunset, stopping shy of the border for Colorado-strength beer before making our way past moonlit arches. We'd pitch tents beneath bright stars, wake up, and clip bolts on routes that challenged finger, forearm, and inner strength. We never descended until dusk, our head lamps poised to meet the darkness as we poked our way down rambling switchbacks. This was my tribe, and this was my life.
At 42, I shelved that life to pursue a master's degree. My new landscape was the ocean and the flat roads of coastal North Carolina. My tribe? Peers half my age.
I tried the university climbing gym, where you can't boulder higher than a safety net, but it just made me miss those road trips to the middle of nowhere, where the best rocks tend to be. I missed making campfires with friends and poking dying embers with kindling, chalk on my hands, hair smoky from the fire.
Then a friend told me about a newly opened climbing gym boasting routes set by seasoned young climber Cody Ison. There, I met a happy band of twenty- and thirty-somethings who pushed themselves on bright plastic holds. They heckled, they cheered, and they liked getting climbing chalk everywhere.
Eventually, we set out to find some real rocks.
That first morning, Jimmy, a new climber, clipped his way up a long, steady chunk of quartzite. We all cheered when his feet touched down behind a tree about 80 feet off the ground.
Sophie started up the route but developed a bad case of "Elvis leg"—an uncontrollably shaky knee. "Tight, please!" she called from 60 feet—higher than she'd ever been. The upcoming move was daunting; she'd need to pull herself up and over the final section of rock.
Climbing an 80-foot chunk of quartzite—braving wind, sun, and zooming birds—is different from completing a 20-foot gym route. I knew Sophie's look—scared to go higher, scared to go lower. She needed to feel the rope. "Hey! Tighter!" she shouted.
Trust, I knew, was the real rope—the cord that connected climber to belayer.
But Jimmy—now back on the ground—didn't tighten. "You're supposed to climb, not hang on the rope!" His tone smacked of bravado. "I'm not going to pull you up the route."
Fifteen seasons of climbing hadn't made me a remarkable climber, but they'd made me an experienced one. Trust, I knew, was the real rope—the cord that connected climber to belayer. "Hey, Jimmy! Things always look different from the ground," I said. "If she wants to be pulled, well, then . . . time for the well-water belay." I pantomimed a bucket being hoisted up a well.
Jimmy nodded. He pulled in the slack, tightening the line. Reassured by her weight on the rope, Sophie gathered her wits, worked her way over the roof, and soon reached the anchor.
"I did it!" Her elation cascaded down Pilot Mountain, and her grin stretched all the way to the cloud-covered farmland and into Tennessee.
I knew that smile. Getting vertical shifts my perspective on the waiting world below. Removed from it, if just by 80 feet, I always see things differently. I no longer live to climb, but climbing is still what makes me feel most alive. Watching Sophie on her first real rock, I knew she felt that too.
This article appeared in the September/October 2018 edition with the headline "My Vertical Lifestyle."

Colorado,North Carolina,Pilot Mountain,Aspen,Utah

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