The Opportunist

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I’m not a boulderer. I mean, sure, I dabble. But I haven’t called myself a boulderer since the last time I moved to Colorado – getting on close to ten years ago. A lot has changed since then. I found sport climbing, trad climbing, alpine climbing, and international expeditions to establish new routes. Bouldering, somewhere along the way, became the last of my priorities.

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But there’s something to be said for making the best of what’s around. It was in that spirit that, when I moved back to Fort Collins recently, I decided to get my hands on some crash pads. With Horsetooth Reservoir right there – just a ten minute drive from my doorstep – it would be totally plausible to get in a good session even after a long day’s work. Horsetooth – though long-past its heyday and no longer regarded as a premiere destination – is pretty darn good for what it is. By comparison, to get up to the sport climbing in the Poudre, or the trad climbing in Vedauwoo, would require an extra hour of driving and walking. Not as plausible when the clock starts ticking at six o’clock, and stops at nine (then eight… then seven… then six…) when the sun sets.

Couldn’t I simply wait for the weekend, and then go wherever I choose? Yes, of course, that’s an option. But I’ve come to find through years of trial and error that my mental and emotional stability suffers when I go a full five days without climbing. I don’t mean to suggest I go full-schizo; but I get moody, grumpy, dejected. You could call it an addiction, you could call it meditation. Whatever you call it, I simply need to climb. So getting that fix throughout the week is rather important to me.

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Of course, now that I’m back in the groove and bouldering regularly, I’m remembering how much I loved it! There’s something so special about pulling challenging moves without the encumbrance of rope and rack. It’s free, liberating, and just as zen as it was back when John Gill – the father of bouldering – developed this area in the late 1960s.

That’s right – 1960s! At a time when I’m starting to have doubts about the cognitive capacity of my fellow Americans, punting off Gill’s Pinch Overhang (V5+, 1968) helps restore a little bit of my basic faith in humanity. I try to conceive of those moves in stiff lugsoled hiking boots, 16 years before I was born, and fail. It is utterly incomprehensible to me. Gill still stands as an idol to worship, a visionary to emulate, an intimation at what a human might be.

To return to Horsetooth is, in many ways, to return to the past. It’s not just the specter of Gill’s ghost hanging around (he’s not dead, by the way… still climbing out there in Colorado somewhere). It’s also a return, for me, to an era when nothing was off-limits, when no type of climbing was better than another, when climbing itself appeared before me as a blank canvas.

Time gives us experience, experience gives us preconceptions, and preconceptions give us prejudice. Back when I started climbing I gravitated to bouldering because of its puzzle-like nature, and mental challenges. But as time went on, bouldering faded away for me against the stark adrenaline, and sheer intensity, of climbing hard trad and topping out enormous walls. I scoffed at bouldering, squinted a dubious eye at anyone wearing a beanie, imagined myself (perhaps) to be more highly evolved than the average “knuckle-dragger” – as the trad climbing intelligentsia tends to call them.

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Now I am a knuckle-dragger, too. And it feels good. It feels nice. I like imagining some crusty old trad climber like myself looking at me with these big foam pads, thinking, “what a chump.” I like it because he’s probably about to embark on the hour drive up to Vedauwoo; or maybe he’s going to head down to Boulder to solo the flatirons (whoopteydo), or maybe he’s just putting off his dreams til the weekend.

Me, I’m just climbing. Unencumbered, unfettered, free as John Gill to try anything I can imagine. And regardless of how high I go – I take that as a small victory… for me.

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