I’m old. That’s relative of course. I’m not the oldest. I’m certainly not the youngest. I found myself using the word whippersnapper recently, and without ironic intentions. I meant it. But, I digress.
I’m feeling old some days. I creak when I get out of bed, lean into my steering wheel in the car, hunch over my keyboard at work. I’m the guy in the office always rubbing his own neck or stretching in the hallways, ghostly forearms, wrists and fingers waving about above cubicle walls.
Not at the crag, though. Something miraculous happens as I hike up to the bluff, shake off my pack and take in the warm up route that leads to the day’s projects. For all the aches and pains that my daily routines bring me, the crag is my Calgon taking me far, far away.
Perhaps it is the cinching of my harness that acts as the tightening of a loose screw or two. Perhaps chalk dust seeps into my olfactory and conjures magic beyond the temporary drying of moist palms and fingers. Perhaps I am just meant to spend my weekdays climbing, my weeknights camping and only the occasional weekend sitting in a fluorescent box. The world may never know.
Whatever the case may be, the difference in my physicality is noticeable at the crag.
One weekend this past spring, I visited a bluff that was new to me in southern Wisconsin. During my first day there, I noticed a graying man nearby sending a 5.12 effortlessly. His equally gray and slightly more wrinkled climbing partner was discussing the possible sale of some stock they each held. This second man planned to liquidate, buy a motor home with the proceeds and vacation for a bit. The price and the timing, he said, were impeccable. I’m quite a number of years from having that conversation, I thought.
Months later, as I had promised myself, I revisited that bluff with fall soon approaching, though not visibly so. This time out I was leading the group, none of whom had been there before. I had previously been a tag along and did not have the trail heads quite figured out as we rambled along one trail only to backtrack to another. We eventually found our way up and stumbled upon some belayers craning their necks skyward. A gentle yet excited face came around a corner noticing our collective heads buried in our guidebook.
It was the stock holding, motor homeless man from earlier in the year. This was his home crag, we would soon find out as he pointed out all the climbs at the various grades we were hoping to do. He was waiting on some other climbers and took a walk up to the top of the bluff with a few of us while we set anchors and threw ropes, so happy and content to be in his element.
He told us the best places to sling trees, place hexes, lay the ropes… later on he pointed out an elusive foothold and insisted there was a solution pocket that needed to be found. Some in my climbing group don’t take well to unsolicited beta. His growing desire to educate us on his home turf became ever noticeable.
Eventually his partners for the day arrived and we all climbed in the same vicinity throughout the afternoon. Age was somehow brought up and he let it be known he was in his 60’s. A comment was made about his ability to send 12’s and how dialed in he had the place. He quipped that he had been climbing for the past 10 years and spent a great deal of time at this location.
My mind trailed off about that time. 10 years. The man started climbing in his 50’s and was throwing down difficult Sioux Quartzite 5.12’s for breakfast. I have a long life of climbing ahead of me. This was my realization.
I have friends ferociously building trad racks pushing me to move beyond single pitch sport leading. It is with newfound confidence that I push the comments aside. Barring some unforeseen health impediment or unrecoverable injury, I’ve got time man. Let me top rope here and there, sport lead while chasing ratings, chill in the bouldering gym without ever really taking it outside. I’ll get there.
Again, I digress. Long after I’ve eased my way into traditional climbing, free water soloing, high ball bouldering and dare I say free base soloing, I’ll likely still wake in the morning with an ache here, a pain there. I’ll wave my arms around in the air and pull my shoulders near out of socket in the name of stretching. I’ll splay out on the ground and do whatever modified version of yoga I’ve taught myself over the years. And, yes, I’ll throw down some over the counter drugs with a thermos full of coffee knowing full well the blah, blah, blah of what you think about that diet.
But I know when I hit the top of that hike, sluff off my pack and take in the day ahead, it will all fade away. I’ll be the graying older fella dancing up the bluff while some neophyte glues his nose to a book. Manners and karma dictate that I will lend a hand if needed; it’s the right thing to do, although I’ll most likely keep the beta to myself.
Let those whippersnappers figure it out for themselves.
Originally written in December 2010