Monday, September 6, 2010

A Year In The Heart Of A Climber, for the Climbing Zine Volume 2, release date: Indian Creek Thanksgiving 2010

“Some people say that love is a losing game. You start with fire and you lose the flame. I’ll take my chances and I’ll risk it all. I’ll win your love or I’ll take the fall.”

“You’ll Accompany Me” By Bob Seger

I believe I left off last time, in the original Climbing Zine, concluding my essay by stating that women were the greatest thing on this planet. Well, women and climbing of course.

This past fall I’d just returned to the Gunnison Valley, Colorado from a climbing trip to Yosemite Valley, California. It was one of those trips that made me feel optimistic about everything. I was in good shape, for myself, with climbing it’s all about your own standards and goals; trying to measure up to another’s is a sure way to fail in the climbing path. I was also single, and a new season was about to unfold, the colorful and nostalgic autumn.

I met her on assignment for work, taking her photo as part of a story I was working on for the college. Yes, it was fall, she was dressed up nice, in one of those mountain woman Patagonia skirts that showed she belonged here in Gunnison, but also with a style in her hair and makeup that told me she came here from another place, perhaps the East Coast?

I didn’t ask her out right away, I would have appeared too eager, plus it was a work assignment, and I needed to remain professional. We casually exchanged names, but I made a mental note that when I saw her again I would try to establish a connection.

The Gunnison Valley is great because it’s small. Had I been in a city and met this beautiful, striking, young woman I would have had to get her number, or at least a full name to look her up on Facebook, taking all the romance out of the process. But this beauty would stand out in Gunnison, and I knew it was only a matter of time before I’d see her again.

It happened in the Gunnison airport, I was about to board a plane back home to Illinois, when I saw her out of the corner of my eye. I purposely walked past the boarding area to strike up a conversation; acting like I’d ran into her by accident. She was waiting to pick up a friend from New York City, and I only got a few words in before her friend got off the plane, nearly tackling her with an energetic hug. I left to board my plane to the Midwest, all the while thinking of this new woman in town who had captured my imagination.

A couple weeks later we were soon having coffee and trail running now and again. She had all the right qualities, good looking, smart, athletic and psyched on living in the mountains. Plus there was a connection, and that feeling in my gut that I simply had to pursue her. A feeling that I could not stop, but one that took a sharp turn when it was revealed, she had a boyfriend back east.

When your heart tells you that something should be pursued I believe we should listen to that, even if there will be suffering. I still wanted to pursue Lynn, but I’m not the type of guy who wants to date a girl with a boyfriend, nor would I want to date a girl with a boyfriend who would date someone else. I wrote in my journal to console myself, and poured my heart out to friends over beers. I’d known this woman for a mere few weeks, but I felt something, a strong feeling, that I simply had to pursue her.

So, where many lovers begin, to quote Common, I tried to focus on gaining her friendship. We hiked up Taylor Canyon one day, and then the following weekend I convinced her to try climbing up Hartman Rocks. She was deathly afraid of it, and only would go after I promised her she would not die.

It was late fall by now, and a stunning day in early November. One of those bluebird days that feeds optimism and exercise, and creates a high that no drug could ever compare with. Hartmans would soon be snowed in and too cold for climbing. The grueling Gunnison winter was on its way with one last glimpse of the Indian summer for us to soak in.

She trusted me enough to do a climb on the Beginners’ Slabs, shaking her way up the route, while constantly seeking reassurance that she was safe. She was. When she completed the climb and was lowered back to the ground she reflected that because the experience was so terrifying it might be the one and only time she went rock climbing.

But she said something later, sitting on a rock, watching others climb, that was enough to plant a seed in my brain that I had a chance with her….someday, “This is the best day ever.”

I found myself wanting to see more and more of Lynn. One morning we went for a run before work, even before coffee and I decided when the run was over I was going to tell her how I felt about her.

With a bumbling nervousness I started to express my thoughts and feelings. There was no reciprocation, she told me that she had a boyfriend and had to be loyal to him. For the rest of the day I thought maybe my heart would just stop beating. I was anxious and wondered to myself if I should have kept those feelings inside.

It all changed once the truth in my heart was expressed. We stopped talking on the phone, sending emails, and running. I didn’t even try to take her climbing again, it was winter anyways and we would have had to travel and camp in order to find some warm rock. On my birthday, in December she agreed to have a cup of coffee with me. She told me that she couldn’t spend time with me anymore. She had to remain faithful to her boyfriend. I walked out of the coffee shop, snow looked to be building in the clouds; it was time to settle into loneliness and winter.

If you’ve lived through a Gunnison winter you understand something about patience. They are long and cold. If you’re a downhill skier or snowboarder, and it snows, it can be paradise. But that bug never bit me, I always find the winter here in the Gunnison Valley to be the most difficult season to endure. Like I said before climbing typically demands travel once it starts snowing in December till the temperatures break into the 40s in mid-March. And climbing is at the heart of my existence, something I rely on heavily for health, happiness and fitness.

I eventually tried to make peace with my feelings for Lynn, even though I wanted to be with her, there was nothing I could do except wait out her long distance relationship, or just let it go.

I wrote in my journal, “There is a natural way that things happen. It would be foolish to plant a seed outdoors in the winter, silly to ski on a hill without snow. But just as I want to eat from the garden and smell the flowers, perhaps to have you I must just have to be patient and wait for the sun to come back around.”

I tried my best not to sink into the despair of the Gunnison winter, the time of year when I am the least active. I continued to run on the snowy trails nearby and tried to stay positive. A New Years climbing trip was planned to Mexico, and I escaped with friends to Boulder to at least climb in one of their fancy gyms. I had a better attitude about the winter than ever before.

I thought of Lynn less and less, not that I didn’t still desire her affection, I still did, but because I needed to move on. I still spoke with close friends about her, and my patterns of dating. I typically dated in the past when I was energetic and happy, in the months of spring, summer and fall. Sometimes the women of the summer would leave after their time ran up in the Gunnison Valley and they had to return east or south for school. Other times the natural rhythm of love would simply end once everything started freezing up. But I was slowly realizing that it was me who would freeze up and become inactive come winter.

So that winter I just tried to be active, and strive for health and fitness. The running really helped. A lunch break run when it was a mere ten degrees outside would make me feel alive and energized. I even joined the College’s cross-fit club, a new hybrid sport mixing cardio exercises with light weightlifting. My cross-fit coach was Wallace, a friend I’d met the previous fall, who also consoled me when I spoke to him about Lynn. I thought I was doing alright.

January and February passed and soon it was March, and climbing season was just around the corner. When Spring Break came around I was off to warmer climates, to southwest Utah, with the simple mission of being warm for a few days and climbing a few routes. I met up with Wallace out there, and repaid his crossfit lessons with some climbing lessons. Lynn had all but faded from my thoughts, and I figured she had probably forgotten about me as well.

On that little mini-climbing trip we sampled some sandstone sport routes near St. George, Utah. It was truly glorious to bask in the warm sun after the frigid Gunnison winter. We spent a couple days in Zion, and Wallace tried the brutal art of crack climbing for the first time. On the drive back, with the sun shining and spring on its way, I felt optimistic again.

Again, on a writing assignment I was interviewing a professor, also a good friend and was given some important news about Lynn, “Did you hear she’s leaving to go back east, and…..she broke up with her boyfriend.”

The one-two punch of the news was dramatic. I wasn’t surprised to hear she was leaving though; people come and go from the Gunnison Valley all the time. I didn’t think that this news gave me much of a chance though, till I heard from her a couple weeks later in an email, “my friend from New York City is in town…would you like to get a drink with us this week?”

It ended up being the same friend that she’s been waiting for in the airport. A small group of friends all went for a drink together after work at the local wine bar. I made sure I sat next to her, after only a short time of speaking I remembered that connection we had and I made sure that plans were made to do something that coming weekend. We planned to do a bike ride. When you’re living in the mountains of Colorado a bike ride might as well be the equivalent of living in the city and going on a first date.

On a walk, after the bike ride, she told me the story and I acted like I didn’t already know, she’d taken a job back east and broke up with her boyfriend. She was leaving, just as my chance was arriving. But in the mountains, the opportunities come and go quickly, like the chance to summit before a thunderstorm. I still had to take the chance to love this fine young woman.

The mountain way of courting (biking, running, climbing) ultimately led to being invited over for a movie, and then it was natural for romance to ensue. After that winter making love was like slipping into a hot spring away from the cold. I was completely content in the moment and never wanted it to end. Of course she made me wait just the right amount of time; men, we’re always ready and we rely on the woman to say when.

We eventually made it to the hot springs, and did those things that lovers do in the spring, while living in the mountains, simple things, yet the most important things that young people should do, just simply enjoying love and being alive. I even loved her dog, a golden retriever that she rescued, that was the cutest, sweetest dog I’d ever seen. We ran and biked with the dog out in the hills. We went to yoga together, we shared everything we could and were both high on life and love. One day I told her those elusive three words, “I love you,” something I’d never told another lover.

Things were incredible, my confidence was at an all time high, and I had everything in life I wanted. I gave little thought that soon, when summer started rolling, in mid-July that she would be leaving back to the east coast.

We were intoxicated on that loving feeling, but we still talked about her departure now and again. Since we liked each other so much, and I’d never felt the way I did about anyone, I thought she might be the one. I held the thought of continuing our relationship after she left as an option. For a brief sweet period of time I could not even consider being with another woman. Perhaps my single mountain man days of loneliness were coming to an end.

Adventures led us to try out more climbing together. She really trusted me now and it showed when we went climbing. A natural athlete, once she surrendered to trusting her belayer and the equipment she excelled. She liked climbing, and that made me like her more.

One day we were talking about Yosemite Valley, and I told her all about the place. We looked at schedules to see if we could fit in a trip there before she left. She had a wedding in Boulder in June. We could go to the wedding and then bust out to Yosemite for a week. Perfect right?

We left Gunnison for Boulder in her vehicle on a Thursday afternoon so we could check into the hotel. The employees of the hotel were oh-so fake friendly, I don’t know why things like that bother me, but they do. Give me real friendliness or nothing, I say. But when you’re throwing down some cash to stay in a place things like fake-friendliness come along with it. Or maybe it’s just one of the downsides of Boulder, a place where I usually enjoy myself.

We walked the streets of downtown Boulder, had dinner and drank at a local bar. The next day we ran at the Flatirons, and then checked into yet another hotel for the wedding evening. We ran around town getting nice clothes for the wedding. She dressed me. My only wedding attire I owned was a pink tie that was dumpster dived.

The wedding was a disaster for us. All the other couples were married and kept inquiring about our situation, “Are you moving to the east coast? Are you getting married soon?”

The event brought out the reality of our situation, we had two more weeks together and that was it. If I couldn’t survive one night as her date for a wedding, there was no way I could survive the long distance Colorado-East Coast relationship. That night in the hotel I told her I didn’t think we would be together once she left Colorado. She cried, I felt guilty. It was a sad night in Boulder.

We went to Yosemite anyways. The drive was long, and we tried to talk it out. That first night we stayed in Salt Lake City with a good friend I consider a sister. She’d just broken up with her boyfriend and poured her heart to us over beers and dinner. We didn’t bother telling her we’d just broken up. Sometimes there isn’t time for everyone to share their feelings.

We arrived to Yosemite and agreed to make the most of the situation. Upon arrival I learned that the friend I was staying with had just broken up with his girlfriend as well.

She got her first taste of climbing on Yosemite granite, but there an air of unhappiness between us. We started to argue when left alone. I told her I needed space. It was agreed she would spend a night nearby with a friend from Gunnison who was working for the park service. We would meet up the following day and regroup.

That night after we arrived back at my friend’s house there was a pile of my clothes and belongings in the house, with a note from Lynn saying I needed to call her. When I did she was in tears. She told me she needed to go home. I stood outside in the meadow in back of the house, the sun was setting. It was the brightest orange I’d ever seen. She asked if I wanted to go back with her. We’d only been in Yosemite for three days, and I’d yet to climb anything serious. I decided to stay. She drove 16 hours straight back to Gunnison. I was in Yosemite with Scott, a friend who had just broken up with his girlfriend as well. It was a sad situation, but I figured I was where I was supposed to be at that juncture in life, with good company, and a perfect place to reflect on what had just happened.

We’d made plans to climb Stoner’s Highway, a ten-pitch 5.10 that goes up the middle of the Middle Cathedral, right across from the monolith, 3,300 foot El Capitan. I figured that it would be just a regular outing on the rock that would pose only minor difficulties given the 5.10 rating, and the fact that I’ve been climbing at the grade for ten years.

We jokingly dubbed ourselves, “Team Breakup” while hiking up the trail to the wall. I was more than eager to do some longer climbing; we’d been festering around the short, one-pitch, well travelled climbs for the last few days and I had the itch to get a few hundred feet off the ground. With a game of rock, paper, scissors it was decided that I would start out with the leading, an easy, but loose and crumbly pitch led us up to the beginning of the more difficult climbing.

I’ve always found that when space is gained into the vertical, above the ground, my head space becomes different as well. Reflection is natural when looking around you in the vertical world, and in nature. That day my thoughts were with Lynn; they were thoughts of guilt, I’d led her all the way out to Yosemite to realize that my own selfishness was at the heart of the journey. I wanted to experience being up high on the walls, and she was a beginner and we were broken up. How did everything happen so fast?

The meditation and reflection of hanging on the wall is gained through climbing. This day the climbing demanded some serious focus, much more than I had anticipated. After my first mellow lead, it was Scott’s turn on the sharp end of the rope. I watched him climb 25 feet to my left, with no gear off the belay. Had he fallen, he would have violently come swinging back my way. So falling wasn’t an option. Scott brilliantly completed the sequence, secured more gear, and then climbed another run-out section. He arrived at the belay, and then I cleaned the pitch, and soon it was my turn for a run-out lead.

Scott had set the tone with his incredible, delicate, climbing, and I was determined to emulate his style. I climbed up off the belay about five feet, clipped a piton, a relic from the 70s, all rusted, a ‘maybe’ piece of protection (pro), as in if you fall maybe it will hold. Then I climbed 20 feet out to the left, heading for a crack system. At this point I was on a small perch, contemplating my fall with the toes of my feet on some good footholds, my hands on some decent holds as well, eyeing the next moves to get to where I could place some pro in a crack that would hold a fall. It’s at this point in the climbing where complete focus is necessary. I zoned in to the moment, delicately stepped up eyeing a handhold, leaned into it, and stepped up to where I could place some gear. I was safe and again, and climbed up a decently protected crack system to the next belay.

Stoner’s Highway demanded this type of dangerous, delicate, in-the-moment, type of climbing, pitch after pitch. Scott seemed to get the most difficult pitches, with 30 and even 40 foot run-outs on 5.10 climbing. He told me he didn’t think he could have done the moves if he hadn’t just broken up with his girlfriend, and was in the state of mind he was. I don’t think my breakup figured in to my risk taking. I just wanted to be up climbing on the wall with a friend, and reflect.

We made it up to the ninth pitch, and it was my turn to lead. The first bolt was a good 20 feet up above the belay, and I couldn’t confidently reach it. I climbed back down to Scott, and he went up. He felt the same about the risk, it was too much. We rappelled back to the ground.

I wanted to climb more with Scott, but he was scheduled to go up and climb El Capitan in a couple days and needed to prepare for a four day climb. I was bummed because he was the perfect partner for the situation, but alas Team Breakup was only destined for one climb.

I spent a few more days in Yosemite Valley, and got my fix, managing to do some somewhat difficult multi-pitch climbing, sorting my thoughts out up on the wall, up above the more complex horizontal world. I arranged a ride back; Tory, one of my best friends was moving back to Gunnison after three plus years in Los Angeles. He welcomed the company, and he also listened to me about Lynn. A good listener, who is also a good friend, is invaluable. He told me about his struggles with women and relationships too; all of our struggles as humans are similar.

Back in Gunnison Lynn was set to leave in a week. I met up with her for coffee the morning I returned from California. She shared with me just how upset she truly was about my selfishness in Yosemite. I felt sad. I tried my best to listen and not be defensive. In relationships I don’t know if it’s better to be heartbroken or the heartbreaker.

A week passed and we didn’t see each other. Finally it was her last night in town.

We had a few items of each other’s and agreed to exchange them at her house, and say goodbye. It was raining when I rode my bike over there. Her dog was the first thing I saw in the porch. A dog that had been previously abused, she was confused by all the boxes packed up. It was sad. Moving is a confusing thing.

We said goodbye and wished each other well. As we hugged I looked over her shoulder to see a pile of climbing gear, since we’d parted in Yosemite two weeks ago she’d purchased a rope, and more equipment. She had the bug. At least I gave her something, I thought, the love for climbing.

It’s been a couple months now. It’s fall again. We exchange emails about our lives, she’s found places to climb in the East, and she’s leading now. Again, I feel confident about life, and optimistic. I’ve finally experienced being in love; it only took 31 years. Once you’ve loved, life is different. For all of my dating life I wondered if I would ever truly love, and feel confident enough to share that, now I know that’s possible.

As I finish this, my life is in boxes, preparing for a move, down south to Durango, a warmer Colorado mountain town. We climbers, more often than not, live transient lifestyles. We know that life is temporary, change is the only constant. What is there to hold onto to believe in?

One truth for me still stands out; something a wise climber-friend said to me, “women are the greatest thing on this planet.”

Well, women and climbing, of course.

This piece is featured in my first book, Climbing Out of Bed, a collection of 25 climbing and mountain town stories. 

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