Sweat dripped down my neck and trickled down the small of my back with the physical effort in the evening sun, but a distinct lightness buoyed my spirit—it was a sense of satisfaction I hadn’t felt in a while. Tugging hand over hand to hoist the rope up through the crack my boyfriend was climbing below, I belayed him to the top of my first multi-pitch trad lead. The effervescent, fulfilled sensation settling on me felt part new, part deja vu. Was this the key to falling in love with climbing again?
Maybe I’m the only one who occasionally loses touch with the pure gold center of climbing. Who gets distracted from the very basic, magnetic aspects of the sport that call us back to the mountains again and again. I wouldn’t say I’d been falling out of love with climbing, but without realizing it, I’d started to lose focus of the deep, true reasons to try hard.
Lately I’d been into meeting friends at the gym and pushing myself to get strong and improve technique on toprope, but I was struggling on the sharp end. I thought I wanted to climb harder, but was having a difficult time motivating to push hard enough to risk falling on sport routes.
I told myself that the point of all the effort and mental tests was to increase my experience and build up to doing bigger, more awesome climbing projects in the mountains. Not necessarily difficult ones, but bigger days. More pitches in more awesome, faraway places. Taking the lead and feeling the freedom of movement in the rocky mountains I love.
But lately, clawing or body scumming my way to the bolts at the top of a sport route, or hangdogging up a tougher grade in the gym had felt … bland. Was the point of my fearful clinging at the top of that single slab pitch simply to top out on that one pitch and say I’d done it? I’d tell myself I was getting stronger, that I was building mental durability. But really, it was beginning to feel a little like a cruel game that I wasn’t sure how to win.
I’d also been practicing placing gear and building anchors, trying out leading on single pitches. The climbing itself wasn’t challenging, but it was a start on the way to freedom in the mountains. So when my boyfriend offered me the lead on The Staircase, a three-star, two-pitch 5.5 in Colorado’s Elevenmile Canyon that we’d have to climb for the guidebook he was writing, I barely hesitated.
The simple moves felt like climbing a jungle gym. Pawing and stemming my way up felt once again like it had when I was a kid, scrambling up rocks without a thought about 5.8s or 5.11s, just wanting to go up, finding my own path instead of trying to figure out the beta to follow a line of bolts. With each piece I placed, a tiny exhilaration in the back of my chest blossomed bigger. The distance grew between me and Brendan belaying below, until we could barely communicate. I was doing it—leading. Moving freely in the mountains. Finding my own way, and moving the way it felt good to me, the granite warm under my hands, the cracks eating up nuts and cams left and right.
Yes, it was easy climbing. Yes, I sewed it up, using up most of the rack. But that simple feeling of climbing without thought, without a mental battle, just moving at my own pace, light and easy, reminded me of my first days out climbing. Building the final anchor and putting Brendan on belay, I felt more relaxed and happy on the rock than I had maybe in months. Isn’t that what we ultimately want? All the grunts and psaats in the gym, all the building up mental strength. Aren’t we really working toward this: that lucid moment when body and mind work as one, and moving over rock is pure joy?