The Bohemian Life of a Climber

Thin Man sent me a link to a rock climber’s tale about her initiation into rock climbing.  As I read the pertinent sections related to her climbing experience, I find my palms beginning to sweat and a knot of envy forming somewhere behind my sternum.  Here was a lady who did what I had always dreamt of doing, if only I had the courage to let go off the solid security of a paying job that offered the certainty of a roof over my head and food on my table.  To add to my envy, not only does she travel around the world and climb, but she is also an excellent writer crafting her words with wit to paint vivid pictures of her adventures. 

The second of January was the day of my initiation to the sport of rock climbing. I remember specifically because I was scheduled for the morning climb on the first but when I showed up fifteen minutes early (somewhat heroically, I thought, as I had celebrated the dawning of the new year downing buckets of vodka and Red Bull and dancing on the beach) the Thai guys from the climbing school were all too grimly hungover to do anything but laze red-eyed in the hammocks drooping from the wooden beams on the porch and told me to come back the next day. As I recall, in my last clear memory of Wee from the previous evening (I had met some of the boys from the climbing school the day before) he had an enormous spliff dangling from his lip and a bottle of Jack Daniels in each hand from which he was alternating swigs, so if that was indicative of the level of revelry perhaps I would be better off not being 25 meters above the ground with a still-wasted climbing guide shouting whiskey-muddled instructions from below.

The next day I went out for a half day top-roping course with a (presumably sober) instructor named Sol and a few other climbing hopefuls. Inwardly I was bitterly cursing my flip flop that had disloyally broken the day before as we hiked over the RAZOR sharp rocks that low tide reveals on the way to Eagle Wall, the crag where we would be climbing that day. We arrived at a tiny jewel of a beach which we crossed into the dense jungle forming its lush backdrop. The crag itself was easily accessible from here from a thickly rooted dirt pathway aided with a rope thoughtfully placed though of dubious reliability.

We had two climbs, one graded a 5 and to its right a long and beautiful 6A called “Spiderman”. The exact details of the rest of the day after my hands and toes (clad in my borrowed, unfamiliar, and uncomfortably restrictive footwear) made that first contact with that mesmerizing limestone are irrelevant. After that first injection of the adrenaline-releasing exquisite high where you are clinging with precarious balance to a rock face high above the ground, and there is no map laid out to trace your tentative steps, and you are trusting your body weight on a foothold the size of a non-genetically modified peanut, and you are willing the moisture forming on your palms to evaporate because you are not yet fully aware of the presence of a little drawstring bag of chalk hanging at your waist for the express purpose of combating said symptom, and your muscles are strained to capacity, and a little rivulet of blood is making its way down your left shin, and there is no other place to go but UP…in the words of the Flaming Lips “suddenly everything has changed”…

…In that same spirit of enchantment, in the giddy heights of discovery, I climbed my very first rock in Tonsai. Again I had many choices laid out in the crevices and intricate indentations of the limestone I gripped, only this time the destination was a set point, a tangible ring-shaped goal that begged to be tapped in triumph. Here was a turning point, a solid threshold to reach demanding not only my attention but the utmost physical and psychological determination. Every sport-related cliché gained relevance: wanting something so desperately “you could taste it”, “adrenaline junky”, the word “addiction” assuming new and oddly positive associations. I would find my mind wandering at breakfast during the interminable wait for a bowl of porridge (my God, what were they DOING back there, sowing the oats?) contemplating whether there might be a handhold further to the right I had overlooked in the crux of a particular route and I would wake in the middle of the night to find my fists sweatily clenched and my feet pressing soft craters in the sheets, struggling, even in my dream state, to reach that elusive pinnacle.

Those six weeks in Tonsai were a special time in my life. I did some more climbing in Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand and in Vang Vieng, Laos and spent some time in Cambodia before returning to Mykonos, and the climbing was lovely and peaceful, absent of the throngs of climbers in cue for popular routes, classes of beginners, and the odd chubby German tourist clicking voyeuristic shots in the Ibiza-reminiscent resort of Railey Beach adjacent to Tonsai, but nothing could compare to the splendour of the Krabi limestone…

…Five days later I had a stuffed backpack once again, the climbing shoes and chalk bag were still clipped to the outside of the rucksack, the carabiner grown sticky with with moisture and the gathering sad dust of disuse, and I was on a plane to England. Since arriving here three weeks ago I have formulated and discarded several plans, and even now as I sit in the Botanical Gardens in Sheffield in the Peak District of England I find myself pulled in several different directions still, all seemingly equidistant. I have not only donned my climbing shoes again with a resurgence of my initiatory enthusiasm to learn the delicate art of trad climbing here in the pretty rolling hillsides of the English Midlands, with the same sense of renewal and a startling ripple of inspiration like a pebble dropped in a still lake I have finally picked up my long discarded notebook and pen, perhaps metaphorically recovered from that same corner of my bedroom in Mykonos where my climbing gear was gathering dust. Both activities open a valve for me to allow release, both challenge the very aspects of my being I strive most to improve, and both occasionally cause my hands to cramp in exhaustion. Even as I continue my gypsy-tinged vagrancy, I have grasped something even more solid than the intriguing English gritstone, and that something is self, and it is what serves to keep us grounded however high we may ascend.

I remain uncertain of which direction my path will meander next, but when I look up at those gorgeous routes etched in multi-layered stone stretching up to the mercurial English sky, rarely following a straight-line sequence themselves, I am sure of one thing. Wherever I may be in this world, and whatever magnets of the north, south, east, or west poles exert the most powerful pull on me, there is one direction in which I will be perpetually drawn, and that direction is UP. 

I find myself reflecting upon her words as if they were the alternate reality of what I might have been had my life taken a slightly different path.  And then I recall myself to the present day and remember the reason why I stay firmly grounded and responsible:

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Yes, I might envy her for the experiences she has had and for her writing prowess, but no, I don’t regret taking the path I choose.  One of the things I really like about climbing is that, unlike some other sports, age doesn’t necessarily affect your ability to excel in the sport.  For some sports, hitting thirty marks the beginning of the end, but for rock climbing, it isn’t so.  So while I might be out of the count at this present time, I suspect I’ll be back to the sport with a new climbing partner who is currently in training on the jungle gym.

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